Saturday 20 August 2016

Two Weeks on North Ronaldsay, Orkney

Two weeks on North Ronaldsay, Orkney, here are the highlights of each day:-

Saturday 6th August Ferry Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay

Leaving the superb Bed & Breakfast, Hildeval, in Kirkwall, caught the 9:00am ferry. 

A gentleman walked with me to the ferry terminal, Steve, saying that he had met a person biking and birding in the Lake District, on the Shap road back in 2010. “That was me,” I said. We quickly told of remembered details of that encounter and told of what we had both been doing since.

With barely a ripple on the sea and almost no cloud or wind, the ferry crossing was a delight. Birds seen included over fifty black guillemot, twenty or so puffins, eight arctic skuas, five bonxies (great skuas) and numerous arctic terns, fulmars, gulls, gannets and shags. The only cetacean seen was a single harbour porpoise.
Arriving at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, thrilled to find that Sam Perfect and George Gay were both still there, having stayed on as assistant wardens for another year. Sam and George are two superb young birders with phenomenal knowledge and commitment to birding, part of the new 'let's find our own rarities' generation. As with the members of the Next generation Birders, Sam and George give an old cynic hope for the future.
With them were a number of young girls; Erin and Bryony from Cheltenham, Larissa from Canada and Ellen. Then there was Heather, the daughter of the wardens, Alison and Kevin and finally Laura, Alison's niece.

Sunday 7th August A walk along the whole of the west and north west coastline of the island, seawatch with George, Erin and Bryony and run back to the Observatory.

Reacquainting myself with the island and the famous seaweed-eating sheep, walked the rocky coastline counting all birds seen.
These included no less than 177 black guillemots, 15 bonxies, 15 arctic skuas, four of which were pale phase birds, 27 purple sandpipers and vomit chucking fulmar chicks. The latter were tucked in against the high dry stone wall that surrounds the island keeping the sheep on the coast. The first chick I came across unexpectedly as the rocky, Rousay flagstone coast was the centre of my attention. 

The shock of being so close to a large yet unobtrusive chick that immediately started trying to spit the evil oily gunge at me had me looking out for others to avoid disturbing them. I didn't want them wasting their food on me.
Seawatching gave a new bird for the Green Year list; sooty shearwaters, 8 of them, bird number 272.
Other birds seen included 9 storm petrels, 14 manx shearwaters and 2 arctic skuas. A lone greenshank was by a rockpool nearby.
A report came in of a leach's petrel in the bay back at the Bird Observatory four miles away. I ran/walked as fast as I could but it had gone when I got there.

Monday 8th August Walk to North End and Seawatch.

Tremendous gale, 50-60 miles per hour north westerly, cloudy.

What a storm! Seawatch as the tallest waves I have ever seen created wall after wall of pounding surf and cappuccino froth on the rocks.
Fulmars and gannets were passing in good numbers, 2 arctic skuas with one pale phase, the other dark and a couple of bonxies did likewise. A strange sight were 4 greylag riding the waves.

Tuesday 9th August strong NNW sunny intervals & showers

Morning spent clearing the first part of the beach of plastic and the afternoon seawatching from the hide at the north end of the island;
one hour of which gave:-
kittiwake 167
gannet 216
fulmar 343
arctic tern 179
manx shearwaters 2
sooty shearwaters 4
guillemot 3
puffin 4
auk sp. 2
bonxie 2
arctic skua 3 (all dark phase)
storm petrel 1

Wednesday 10th August light NW sunny intervals & showers

Invited to participate in the surveying of the island's birds. Now the island is divided into six sections, A to F and the assistant wardens take turns covering each one, counting every bird seen. One person does a seawatch.

Section B – south east corner of island. Along Nouster Bay beach to Burrian Broch, to Brides Loch and back to the Observatory via dykes, iris beds, ruined crofts and fields.
38 bird species seen. 128 seals, common and grey.

Thursday 11th August light SE, cloudy, misty, mild.

Section E – centre of island to north coast, including Ancun Loch and Garso Wick, a large bay with good wader numbers.

42 bird species, including a strange redpoll, whimbrel and a snipe drumming.

Early evening spent seawatching with Gavin, the son of the wardens and a superb birder. Gavin is also a bird ringer and last year, having set the mist nets up in Holland House garden, found a veery!
In two hours we had 4 sooties, 2 arctic skuas and a single bonxie.

Friday 12th August strong W low cloud, dry

Section F – North east of the island icludes Garso and Bewan Lochs, the area around the lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on land in the UK, and various fields, dykes and coastline.

Around 700 arctic terns were roosting at Bewan with an attendant 7 arctic skuas. A grey heron was new, as was a little grebe on Garso.

Sunday 14th August light W low cloud, showers

A prolonged 5 hour seawatch from 6:30am, an overnight petrel trapping session.

Fulmar 1730
gannet 419
arctic tern 132
black guillemot 6
puffin 22
auk sp. 37
storm petrel 14
bonxie 10
arctic skua 4
kittiwake 197
manx shearwater 10
sooty shearwater 38
shag 2
great black backed gull 21

Petrel ringing with Gavin, Erin and George. Mist nets are set up along the coastline edge near to the Bird Observatory and speakers send out petrel calls into the darkness. Birds attracted and caught are measured ringed and carefully released.

leach's petrel 1 (Green Year tick to take me to 273)
storm petrels 44

Monday 15th August light to fresh S/SE very sunny, clear.

Seawatch for two hours in the morning, able to see fair isle from the hide. Section A surveyed in the afternoon for four hours.

Seawatch highlights – 5 sooties, 2 manx, 2 stormies.

Section A – the south west corner of the island including Holland House gardens, the Old Kirk graveyards and the Bird Observatory. Gretchen Loch has a bird hide and there's rocky coastline and many dykes and fields to cover.

Willow warbler and chiff chaff in the garden at Holland House, which by the way is the large home of the island's laird. Sedge warblers were back at the observatory.

Tuesday 16th August light S/SE very sunny and clear.

Seawatch in late (!) morning with Larissa. Very calm sea and few birds in a two hour watch:-
114 fulmar, 41 gannet, 1 sooty shearwater, 2 black guillemot, 2 puffin, 3 auk sp. 5 bonxie, 9 cormorant, 2 shag, 16 arctic tern, 1 herring gull, 1 great black backed gull

Section D – mostly the west coast and inland fields and dykes. Also a few croft gardens.

Talked with Lotti who was born on the island and at 77 years young has lived here for nearly all of her life.
Highlight of the census was 3 willow warblers in Lotti's garden.

Wednesday 17th August fresh SE very warm and sunny

Visited Cruesbeck in section B, a large iris bed with a deep ditch full of the same and a small area of marshy water out of which came 21 snipe, a ruff and 2 redshank.
At Ancun later on I saw a very strange hirundine that I can only think of as a hybrid between swallow and house martin. As it came towards me I saw a pure white throat and thought, house martin. When it hawked in front of me I was shocked to find swallow like tail streamers and no white rump. Strange bird.

Thursday 18th August light SE very sunny and warm

Early morning ringing in Holland House garden with Erin, Gavin and George. A twite was caught as were two willow warblers and a female pied flycatcher. Migrants are coming!

A filming and interview with Richard, Cameron and Ian from BBC Scotland's The Adventure Show takes a few hours. This will be broadcast around Christmas. Lunch with them afterwards was wonderful with all of us contributing anecdotes and stories. We were joined at the table by the well known photographer, Keith Allardyce who has written books about beachcombing.

Section E – highlights included a curlew sandpiper, two whimbrel and a willow warbler.

Friday 19th August fresh S/SE high cloud rolled away to give a sunny afternoon, warm until evening the strong E and cold!

Holland House – unringed willow warbler

Old Kirk graveyards – black redstart, willow warbler, two wheatear

Section F – highlights included a female merlin, two willow warbler and four sand martins.

An evening on the beach for the birthday BBQ to celebrate Gavin's 19th birthday. 

Wednesday 17 August 2016

North Ronaldsay, Orkney

Wednesday 17th August

OK, guess which twit left his laptop charger at Insh Marshes RSPB reserve? Thanks to the RSPB staff who posted it on for me. Brilliant of you and much appreciated.
So without a charger I haven't been update you and so much has happened since those Aberdeen days.

I am now on North Ronaldsay, the most north-easterly of the Orkney Islands, staying in the hostel at the superb North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.
I arrived on August the sixth. It seems so long now since that mill pond flat sea and clear blue sky enjoyed whilst taking the ferry from Kirkwall.

Two days later, after having walked the west coastline on Sunday, and after having added sooty shearwater to the year list to take that to 272, the sea at the northern end was a battering ram of the highest waves I have ever seen which created a cappuccino froth on the rocks in front of the seawatching hide. The hide was rocking as sixty mile an hour westerly winds whipped the sea into a frenzy.

No two days are the same, the wind abated yet stayed from the west. I started to do census work. Now the island is divided into six sections, A to F to facilitate a survey to be carried out of all the birds present on each day. The island is very flat with pasture for cows and many dry stone walls. Each sector has some sort of lake, except D. There are iris beds and crofters gardens. Crops are lacking with just one small area devoted to a small potato crop.
Then there is the coastline, rock with layered mud/sandstone and herds of the famous seaweed eating sheep.

There is a rosta of all the Bird Observatory staff so that they alternate which sections they cover.
Speaking of the staff, what a wonderful bunch of enthusiastic young people. George and Sam were here last year and it was great to see them again, both very knowledgeable and eager to find birds. With them are Erin and Bryony from Cheltenham, Larissa from Canada and Ellen. Gavin, the son of the Wardens Alison and Kevin, also does a sector. He also carries out bird trapping duties with mist nets and Heligoland traps.
Speaking of mist nets I have to mention an early morning petrel trapping session with Erin, George and Gavin. Forty four storm petrels were caught and at 1:45am Erin shouted over to me, “start to celebrate.” She had just taken a Leaches petrel out of the mist net. Bird number 273.
Overall it has been a week of seals, sheep and seawatching with most days being windy.
Migration is yet to kick off yet yesterday showed signs that it may be just about to do so.
Whilst carrying out my survey of sector D I went to the front door of a croft to ask whether I could look in the garden. The delightful lady, Lotti, said no problem and after a natter about how the island population is declining rapidly I found three willow warblers in the fushcia and sykamore.

So with winds from the south-east and more cloud and even rain forecast for the weekend, hopes are high that the year list will be added to soon. Target for August is ten of which I have four so far.
We have made a sweepstake of possibles at the Bird Obs. Each participant as two birds from a list of sixteen. Have a look at the list and make your prediction over which ones will be UTB (under the belt – that is ticked) by the end of the month:-
great shearwater
pomarine skua
barred warbler
white-rumped sandpiper
wood warbler
marsh warbler
citrine wagtail
sabine's gull
ortolan bunting
common rosefinch
buff-breasted sandpiper
icterine warbler
honey buzzard
American golden plover
Booted warbler

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