Dec 31, 2009

Eclipse on hogmanay

An eclipse on the blue moon of the new year.....bring my best goat and the big knife dear...

This must surely be a portent of better things to come.


Dec 29, 2009

Dec 24, 2009

A chilly and merry christmas to one and all

The winter freeze seems to have hit every one in the UK and across Europe. Last night there were temperatures plunging to -17 in the highlands….its all a bit chilly for my tastes!!

Fortunately Orkney is escaping not so bad. We have had a covering of snow that has lasted for a few days now and although the day time temperature has hovered around 0 degrees there is little evidence of thawing. We have I suppose the benign influence of the Atlantic and north sea air flow to thank although the influence seems less benign when the gales have been from the north west for weeks on end.

We have to be great full for small mercies though and the worst of the weather seems to have bypassed us. With a bit of luck the snow covering will last for a couple of days yet and all the kids country wide will enjoy the delight of snow on Christmas.

So its Christmas eve and I don’t know if I will post again before the big day(well maybe a few photos hehe) but if I don’t then a happy festive break to you all…enjoy…now where’s that Christmas cake…

Dec 22, 2009


It’s the first minutes of the solstice. At last the daylight will start to grow in length. It’s the real time of celebration for me and although I do look forwards to Friday it’s the passing of the shortest day that’s the big marker of the depths of winter.

Happiness and light to you all.

Dec 20, 2009

A toutch of the white stuff

With the snow falling over the continent and the bulk of the UK it seems we are getting off lightly up here. Two days of light intermittent snow has left a thin white covering across the isles. Last night the wettish ground crusted over with an icy glaze that gradually penetrated deeper and deeper as the night drew on. The met office posted severe weather warnings for snow fall. It failed to happen overnight but the warning extends across today. So far the first couple of hours of light has brought a sustained if light and dusty snow fall. The direction has come about over night so instead of east blown weather it is now coming from WWE almost a complete turnaround.

Several days of snow now loom on the horizon. I cant really see this extending its way to Christmas but you never know your luck. Fingers crossed for a white Christmas. I have to go now and sort out fresh water for the garden birds.

Happy sledging

Dec 17, 2009

Cocks n hens

From the kitchen door

Its chilly cold up here now and I am not getting out that much. I was out west Saturday but failed miserably to connect with tims class on Sunday. That was a bit of a miss but that’s how it go’s. At the moment gallivanting about the isles is a bit of a luxury expense so I am having to console my self by standing at the back door and looking out. Its meagre pickings most of the time as you may imagine.

We look to the east with the heather covered Harray hills and the Lyde valley about two miles distant. Between us and the heather are fields of mostly grass for grazing and silage and a few cereal fields. We have the usual suspects taking advantage of the landscape. There are small flocks of greylags here and there with bigger waders waiting to be picked up by the scope. The parish starling flock is often visible feeding on the ground or balling up and settling on telephone cables in their nervous fashion. When one of the regular raptors crosses the air space it soon becomes evident just how many birds are on the ground as flocks of startled birds take to the air, with lapwings, oyks, curlews, skulking ducks and occasionally golden plover and more often about.

Closer in and the pickings become thinner. The sparrows have been increasing in number with things topping out at around fifty at the moment. One interesting sparrow happening to day was a sparrow on a concrete fence strainer. As I watched it was rolling its gaze upwards. It must have been attracted to the small hatch of flies hovering above it in the watery sunshine. With out warning it started to jump up and catch the flies out of the air. It carried on with this feeding behaviour for a few minutes until distracted by another sparrow crossing her bows carrying an unfeasibly large piece of bread and was off.

Greenfinches seem more abundant at the moment, I suppose its being driven on by the increasingly colder weather. A few resident blackbirds and a complaining wren kinda complete the residents list. These residents often struggle for the kitchen scraps when the larger interlopers arrive for food. Common gull and blackheaded get pushed aside by the herring gulls and greater blackbacks. Hoodie crows work together to claim food before fighting amongst them selves for the lions share. Ravens have been coming down as well. At the moment they are reinforcing the pair bonds with lots of ariel displays and raucous calls. As soon as the solstice is by the will feel the sap rising and be off to claim their ancestral nesting grounds and begin refurbishment….the first breeders of the coming spring.

The best birds of the day have been a pair of Hoodies that gave good views of iridescence in the sunlight whilst waiting to pounce on a couple of slices of loaf, a few redwings that passed over with their thin short calls and a few twite one of which gave a nice view on the fence wire before dropping in to the rank grass beyond to join this companions in foraging for food.

Ahh five minutes at the back door.

Dec 12, 2009

The bird report for last month from the RSPB.



The largest concentration of Great Northern Divers was of 22 in Echnaloch Bay on 8th but on several dates early in the month, up to 12 per day were watched moving into Scapa Flow from the west. Echnaloch Bay also held the biggest gathering of Slavonian Grebes, 27 on 8th while up to six Black-throated Divers were in Orphir Bay on 28th/29th. Little Grebes were noted in a couple of less usual localities on 29th with three in the Choin, Marwick and one off the Holms of Stromness.

A Sooty Shearwater passed Marwick Head on 11th and a very late Manx Shearwater was seen from the same locality on 28th. Some big gatherings of Shags were noted with some 500 in Hoy Sound on 29th, 300 in Widewall Bay on 8th and 265 in Deer Sound on the same date. Up to 18 Grey Herons gathered in Widewall Bay during the month and 14 at Graemeshall Loch on 30th.

130 Whooper Swans were on North Loch, Sanday on 8th while 38 were at Vasa Loch from 7th to 13th and there were lots of other reports of up to 20. Black Swans are always escapes from captivity in Britain and one has lived on the Harray Loch for many years. However, a new bird was seen on Westray on 4th, and presumably the same individual at the Tankerness Loch and on Shapinsay on 7th.

The November Greylag Goose census revealed a total of 60519 present in the islands with 29234 in the West Mainland and 12321 in the East Mainland. During the census, 863 Pink-footed Geese were recorded of which 714 were in the East Mainland. The wintering flock of Greenland White-fronted Geese in Birsay were late in arriving, the first being 22 on 11th. Numbers built up to 49 by 22nd but then, on 23rd, about 60 were seen flying north past Marwick Head, perhaps the remainder of our usual flock; a single bird was on Stronsay on 16th. Up to four Eurasian White-fronted Geese frequented North Ronaldsay during the month while one was Redland, Stromness on 5th; others of indeterminate race were at Marwick on 15th and Westray (two) on 15th. Six Taiga Bean Geese were found near Birsay School on 4th/5th and were seen again on 21st. The Barnacle Goose flock on South Walls had built up to 1060 by late October; elsewhere up to 37 were seen at the Loch of Skaill and 13 on Sanday. Single Pale-bellied Brent Geese were seen near Stromness on 15th and on Stronsay next day while six Dark-bellied Brent Geese were near the Brough of Birsay on 15th. A Red-breasted Goose, a species that would be new to Orkney, was reported near Kirkwall on 12th but despite thorough searches, could not be relocated.

Small numbers of Shelducks returning from their moult migration were noted in five typical localities, the largest gathering being 12 in Widewall Bay on 25th. Amongst the large numbers of Wigeon, a hybrid Eurasian x American Wigeon was found at Mill Dam, Shapinsay on 4th. 298 Teal on the Harray Loch on 24th was a good count as were counts of 76 Gadwall and 55 Pintail on Sanday’s North Loch on 8th. 197 Scaup were on the Stenness Loch on 23rd and 942 Pochard were on the Harray Loch on 24th with 312 were at their other favourite resort, the Boardhouse Loch, on 27th. The only Velvet Scoters reported were 10 off Rerwick Head on 18th. Up to five Common Scoter were seen in Widewall Bay and a single bird on the Stenness Loch on 23rd was unusual. Single drake Goosanders were at the Ayre Loch, St. Mary’s on 22nd and on Loch of Bosquoy on 24th.

Reports of one-two Buzzards came from the Rendall-Firth area, from Widewall/Hoxa, from Birsay and, more unusually, from Sanday. The Durkadale Hen Harrier roost held at least 14 birds on 16th while five were still utilising the North Ronaldsay site on 22nd. Sparrowhawks were conspicuous with no fewer than four being seen at Binscarth on 5th. There were two reports of Hobbies in late October, one at Marwick on 24th and one on Rousay on 31st while, a large falcon, possibly a dark-phase Gyr Falcon hurtled over Deerness on 15th.

474 Coot were on the Harray Loch on 24th while Water Rails were reported from nine localities including birds that wandered into a house in Stromness on 8th and in Herston on 10th! There were many reports of big flocks of Golden Plovers with 2500 on Burray, 2000 on Shapinsay, Sanday and in Swannay and 1830 on Stronsay with many more flocks of up to 1000. However, the only Grey Plovers were one at Birsay on 7th and singles on North Ronaldsay on 12th and 18th. 350 Sanderlings were at Scuthvie, Sanday on 14th and 260 Purple Sandpipers at Newark Bay, Deerness on 22nd with four other reports of 60-145. 36 Knot were in Widewall Bay on 20th and 25 were at Mill Sand on 22nd and single Ruffs at Loch of Banks on 4th and Mill Sand on 29th. At least 600 Snipe were on Sanday on 8th, other good counts including up to 208 on North Ronaldsay and 125 on Birsay Beach. Three Jack Snipe were at Garson, Stromness on 3rd, two still being there on 29th while singles were noted in three other localities. North Ronaldsay reported peak counts of 11 Woodcocks on 1st and 7th while up to five were seen in Rendall and one-two at 14 other sites. 410 Bar-tailed Godwits were at Cata Sand, Sanday on 7th and 340 at Lama Ness on the same island next day; 160 were at Oddie, Stronsay on 16th. Black-tailed Godwits were, however, typically scarce with just seven on North Ronaldsay on 4th and one at Marwick on 11th. The biggest Curlew flock was one of 1077 in Widewall Bay on 20th while the Burray Whimbrel was seen again on 7th.

A late Bonxie was seen off Marwick and Black Craig on 7th and an early Iceland Gull on Shapinsay on 15th. Little Gull movements are something of a mystery but one was on North Ronaldsay on 5th, one on Shapinsay on 15th and two in Orphir Bay on 29th. An enormous gathering of 8000 Common Gulls on the Stenness Loch on 29th is probably an Orkney record. Sandwich Terns have wintered occasionally in the past and two at Evie Sands on 29th may be contemplating doing just that. Up to three Little Auks were noted off North Ronaldsay on three dates and four in Scapa Flow on 11th while one was found dead in a Stromness garden on 13th.

A Barn Owl was reported from Rennibister on 21st and was apparently of the pale-breasted race as all recent records have been. Three Long-eared Owls were at Lettan, Sanday on 12th and one-two on North Ronaldsay until 17th but the only other reports were of one at Herston 8th - 24th and one at Langskaill, Tankerness on 15th. The bird of the month, if confirmed by the British Birds Rarities Committee, was undoubtedly the Little Swift seen briefly off Marwick Head on 16th. This mainly African species would be new to Orkney although there are two Shetland records and November is a typical month for the species to occur.

North Ronaldsay’s Woodlark remained until 7th while a Short-toed Lark was also there from 1st - 4th. A very late Swallow was at Burwick on 8th. Some Rock Pipits once again performed their strange mini-migration to winter in the West Mainland hills, four being found on Enyass Hill, Rendall (130 metres) on 28th. Most Pied Wagtails left the islands for the winter, only six being reported during the month and being outnumbered by Grey Wagtails of which there were up to three in Finstown and singles in five other localities. A most unusual visitor to North Ronaldsay on 15th was a Dipper; this individual was of the black-bellied race and therefore almost certainly of Continental origin.

Robins became somewhat less conspicuous than in October but there were still 20 on North Ronaldsay on 7th where a Black Redstart was noted 2nd - 7th and a Wheatear on 2nd and 4th. A Bluethroat was a very good find at Echnaloch, Burray on 8th. Scandinavian thrushes were still in evidence with up to 124 Redwings, 172 Fieldfares and 109 Blackbirds on North Ronaldsay early in the month and smaller numbers elsewhere although 150 Redwings were at The Shunan on 21st; a Ring Ouzel was also on North Ronaldsay on 1st.

Blackcaps were widespread in small numbers with up to five on North Ronaldsay and one-three at ten other sites. Similarly, there were up to five Chiffchaffs on North Ronaldsay and one-two at ten other localities, several being reported as being of ‘eastern origin’. The Dusky Warbler was apparently still present on Stronsay as late as 6th.

A Great Grey Shrike must have made a splendid sight at Blackhamar, Rousay on 16th while the Rose-coloured Starling remained in Balfour Village until 4th and a very unusual find in Willow Road, Kirkwall on 30th was a Treecreeper. Two Jackdaws were migrants on North Ronaldsay on several dates while one at Tirlot, Westray was identified as being of the Scandinavian race, because of its white collar. 75 Hooded Crows came into the Langskaill roost in Tankerness on 15th and a single Carrion Crow was at Lyness on 11th.

Up to 25 Chaffinches gathered in the Finstown area during the month while up to five Bramblings were seen there with one-two at three other sites. 100 Greenfinches at Firth School on 7th was the largest flock recorded. An influx of Goldfinches brought up to seven to Hoy, up to six to Finstown and one-two to five other locations. Up to 15 Siskins were in Rendall early in the month but the only others were five in Harray on 7th and singles in Finstown on 8th and 22nd. The Firth School bird crop attracted up to 150 Linnets while 100 were also seen at Dale. Redpolls caused a lot of head-scratching as folk tried to sort out the various species and races. Up to ten in Rendall were mostly Greenland/Iceland Redpolls birds but when trapped, three had the measurements of Lesser Redpolls while two showed the characters of Mealy Redpolls! Elsewhere, up to six were seen in Finstown, one-two on North Ronaldsay and singles at Durkadale and St.Margaret’s Hope. The Dale, Costa Twite flock outstripped all others with 600 present on 11th and 26th; 400 were at Ocklester, Holm on 30th, 310 on Egilsay on 4th and 200 at Aikerness, Evie on 29th while North Ronaldsay retained its flock with a peak of 90 on 4th. 10 Crossbills passed through Rendall on 1st while a single bird was in the White Glen Plantation, Hoy on 9th and 11th.

Some good Snow Bunting flocks were reported with 200 in Deerness and on Sanday, 150 at Howe Brae, Stromness, up to 132 on North Ronaldsay and 110 at Sandwick, South Ronaldsay. A Lapland Bunting that flew over the latter locality on 16th was the only report of this species and a good record anywhere away from North Ronaldsay. 90 Reed Buntings were at Dale, Costa on 11th and 40 at Firth School on 8th while a single Yellowhammer was on North Ronaldsay on 7th.

Eric Meek

Dec 11, 2009

Dec 8, 2009

Dec 6, 2009

Nice one in the garden

I was just leaving about two to day when a Merlin came low overhead from behind, putting put up a small ball of Starlings it banked to the right and dived through them with out luck. Exiting the panicing flock to the left it headed towards next doors raising up and diving in to her shrubs before heading off towards the standing stone on the top of the hill. A nice winter tick for the garden list.

Dec 4, 2009

Back (again)

After several attempts to get this blog back on track I think I am finally getting there this time. I would like to thank all those that are looking in on a regular basis, I ken fine there’s not been a lot going on but hopefully I will be adding new content as I go along. After my wee sojourn in the hospital my return to Orkney was over whelmed by the need to go to London where sad family stuff held me for a month or so. All the places that I would have been delighted to get to like Barnes and the Kent marshes held no interest for me over the weeks. I did manage to get out a couple of mornings (more to save my sanity than to be birding for birdings sake) Right next to the flats I was in is the city farm of Mudchute that is flanked by Millwall park There are allotments a café and stables, large animal enclosures and a bridal path that sort of circles the farm.
The first walk about had very tame crows hanging around the feet as I was looking in to bushes at fleeting movements, Quite a contrast to the Hoodies here. The usual suspects were about with Blue tits, Great tits and Green finches aplenty. Wrens and Robins clicked away and a flock of long tailed tits flitted about ahead of me as I slowly moved along the over hung bridal way. Surprisingly there were no house sparrows to be seen at all. I did however get a lifer at Mudchute. As I was moving through the tall tree line that edges the park my attention was taken by some raucous birds screeching away. I new before I had seen them what they were…sort off. A look in to the top branches soon produced Parakeets. There were a dozen of more green parakeets with a pale breasts and orange beaks. They were highly mobile and didn’t hang about for long. I was to see more over the coming days and once they flew past the fifth floor window of the flat…all a bit surreal really.
There have been a few explanations about how these birds got established. My favourite is they are all descendants of a pair released by pop god (to my misses) Marc Bolan. Whatever the truth they are well and truly established in the English capital. One fella that was visiting had walked through a roost on the east side of Greenwich park that had a couple of thousand birds in it. A very noisy experience and one that’s not so rare. Roosts of ten thousand or more are well established in some areas. I was well pleased at the find anyway.
With me not feeling fit enough to ride down to London and time being important I jumped the plane and bish bash bosh I was down in the blink of an eye. The return was to be by train and an enjoyable experience it was to be. I had seen fieldfares and whooper swans before the midlands and the miles swiftly fell under the wheels. As we progressed north the recent heavy rains and flooding were more and more evident. At one point several small deer bounded away from the track side across a stubble field displaying striking white arses as they went. Newcastle and beyond the train is on the east coast proper. Here I see my first Curlew swiftly followed by several Lapwings. Running into Edinburgh in the late afternoon is cracking, the suns getting low throwing a golden light over the landscape. There is also the felling of warmth and security that the familiarity of the landscape brings when you know that you have reached home. Those warm feelings were to prove some what elusive 13 hours later as I climbed out of a taxi and on to an all to familiar freezing Waverly station for the 6.30 to Stirling and Thurso. The only bum note of the trip was about to unfold tho. As I boarded the train I saw a notice that there were no reserved seats on the train. I wandered down to my allocated seat and some bloke was in it. Fair enough the one behind was empty so I would take it. I swung my sandwich bag up to the rack and the flask went with a right bash, thinking I didn’t like the sound of that I hefted the big carryall I had with me. Next thing I know the bloke in front is saying my bag I dripping on him. Grabbing it down the flask of coffee is draining in to the bag, I rescue the sandwiches and bin the rest in the litter bin. I apologise tho the fella in my seat and he starts on at me “ its still dripping doon on me an that eh “ Tired, cold and unamused at the prospect of paying two quid a cup for coffee all day I look him in the eyes with my meanest disposition and say..SO…bugger me he raises his hands….oooer…and puts up his hood. I take my seat in a casual manner all the while thinking phew I thought I was about to get thrown off the train for fighting there, not to mention getting the crap beat out of me by some muppet half my age. Who needs coffee in the morning if you can get a healthy dose of adrenalin.
Stirling was just a wee way up the line and we all changed there in the cold first light of day. Edinburgh had been cold but now the air was altogether sharper. Moving inexorably north the early light revealed waterlogged fields, rivers in spate and flood plains awash. In places I saw flocks of thrushes moving across the fields, a couple of good geese flocks that were to far away to know what they were. We were a bit past Perth when close in and low a Red Kite flew across a field beside the track. This was a real thrill. It was large and it was very close for those fleeting moments. I had only seen them from the distance and then not kent what they were until I got to the computer that night. This was defiantly my best bird of the journey. The highlands were coming into there own now. The hills were well snow capped and simply glowing in the morning sun. After a month in the east end it was as if my vision had turned from monochrome to colour. The stunning warm tones of brown through to red and shades of winter green against the blue of the sky stood out in such a way that I cant describe. Its not just digested by the brain but it warms the heart and blood with its beauty. (chokes back tear). About this time the first Buzzard appears looking well at home moving across the rugged landscape. I knocked out a few photos as we went along which I will post after this for a look. Soon enough Inverness came and went and the last stage was underway. The train windows were well smeared but I wasn’t going to let this stop me taking photos. This is the slowest rail journey in the UK in places it is endlessly up hill and slow. It is also the most indirect route possible for getting to a town that is due north. The reason for this is the rail way was originally built largely through private subscription. The only people with the finances and interest to be building a railway across the desolation of northern Scotland were of course the big land owners of the big estates who took the opportunity of bringing in the guns and exporting their wool hence the train meanders around the country with the aplomb of a rabbit that’s been eating rum soaked raisins. I managed to keep the eyes open all the way to Invergorden where I managed a couple of snaps of the rigs that are layed up there. Arising tide was pushing in the waders, all to far to really identify bu8t they had the reassuring appearance of Redshanks. Two more Buzzards were ticked and a Raven brightened things. I was falling more and more in to my book and dozing. I awoke to the pleasing sight of Dornoch station disappearing on departure. The town is Scotland equivalent of Kalamazoo, Michigan USA. I returned to the realms of morphious with the thought that I could let the miles pass peacefully. Outside though the country was well changed the mountains had receded and the vast expanse of Caithness and Sutherlands flow country spread before us. I must admit I awoke from my dozing a couple of times although all I did was take a couple of photos and settle down again. Soon enough I was awoken at Thurso station where the rails end. God how I wish for faster trains!! A brief taxi ride along to Scrabster and the ferry terminal saw me standing with a view of home…well I would have had a view if it had not been for the rain blowing about the car park…super. There was little else to do but wait. I amused my self for a while counting gulls, that was until I decided their calls were just mocking me for having nothing better to do. Darkness fell and the Pentalina arrived to spirit us away in to the pitching rolling world of dark night. The last birds I was to see on the journey were the gulls following the boat as I pressed face to the windows and gazed in to the all encompassing dark. Bright shapes that seem to glow white in the night came and went like spirits or ghosts as they were illuminated by the ships lights. All this melancholia was to be left behind with the lights of Stromness.
Looking down the pier I could see Joe Doyle waiting to give me a lift home. In no time we were tied up along side. A quick queue and we were all ashore on the solid ground of home. With a quick whit like? No bad, I was off. I had started at 11 the previous day and it was now 21.00….trains…I kinda remember why I don’t choose to use them any more, I do enjoy them but the last half takes ages. Never mind it was good to get home.

Oct 26, 2009

I thought this blog was going to get back on track, things were looking good. We had just had the Sandhill crane and I was starting to shoot about again and enjoy birding. The Red eyed vireo had me dancing with glee. October was started with all the promise that best month of the year brings. The day after the Vireo it was to all end for me. I was waiting for a squall to pass after lunch before heading off to work. As the loch disappeared in to the grey curtain of rain I felt a little woozy. Almost immediately I was aware of this my vision split in two. I stood and blinked like an idiot trying to clear it but nothing happened except for a throb of pain deep behind the eye. Oooer feeling like I was going to go down and being alone indoors I shot off next door where a car was summoned to whisk me in to the doctors. Rushed in, in increasing pain the afternoon passed in a blur from doctors into hospital. Next morning it’s on to an ambulance flight to Aberdeen. Nice to get a plane to your self but I would have preferred it under other circumstances really. So a week lying around on uncomfortable beds, my brain suitably irradiated with lots of cross sectioning x-rays and two separate lumber punctures (they were such a laugh) There seemed to be no damage from the wee stroke so I was sent home. All in all the hospital was clean, all the staff were superb, but the shop was expensive and the birds crap. I slipped away for a skulk about the grounds a couple of times and managed starlings and shite hawks. The one bright spot were three carrion crows so I managed a quick tick. With the staff fed up of jabbing me with needles and requests for bed baths I was returned home to get on with things.
It was raining when I made it back on to island terra firma but the downpour has only stopped to draw breath a couple of times since. Not that its making much difference to me as I am confined to barracks with orders to sit on my arse and chill…no running around and no excitement. I hadn’t counted on the weather being such an adversary in things tho. We have now had ten days of wet, sometimes very wet weather. During the breaks good birds have been popping up all over and I am stuck looking out the windows…great!. Its not been that bad though Fieldfare fell to the garden list. On Sunday afternoon in the lee of a pampas grass I spied a blackbird. On closer inspection it had a scaly appearance and a pronounced if subdued white bib evenly spread. This made my heart leap! Cos it looked like a female ring ouzel and if such would be only my second . The misty drizzle was blowing across the lawn but the window was reasonably clear of rain the more I looked the more convinced I was and it wasn’t one of the flocks of blackbirds that have flooded in from the continent over these last few days. So its photo next of course but the obvious thing to do is as usual the wrong one and even with the camera on and the scope set ready opening the front door is enough to send the bird from its shelter and away into the squalls. Great bird for the garden list and pleased to have it but I will have to live with loosing the opportunity to get the photo.
Today I was off to Kirkwall and then to Stromness a look. The tide was well up and the fields had a lot of activity going on. The calm dry weather that moved in over night has let all the birds that are about have the opportunity to feed. Big crowds of all the usual subjects made for some spectacular flock feeding. Looking across the lochs the air was full of birds coming, going and wheeling about. In Stromness at the top of Hellihole I saw my first Yellow browed warbler of the autumn so I was once more pleased with the day. On the return home I stood at the end of the drive and scoped out the fields below the house. Whilst there was no great numbers of birds near the house the loch was a delight. The surface was turning to glass and in this state it reveals exactly the numbers of ducks and geese exposing them with nowhere to hide on the smooth surface. Duck numbers have started to rise but the main influx is yet to arrive. As I stood there I was aware of a shuffling in the stunted sycamore beside me. I turn only my head slowly and in my vision is a Goldcrest…what a delight and yet another first for the garden list. Minute after minute passes, it’s a single bird and it moves flitting and probing, working its way around the branches. It keeps its acrobatic display going and ignoring me. A couple of cars pass and I remain comfortable and still. The wee bird stops still as the cars pass but promptly resumes feeding unflustered. Another car sounds up the hill and with out thinking I turn my face towards the sound…bad move. As I rotate it back I can see the business end of the Goldcrest pointed at me with an angry expression on its face. Now some may say that’s a bit of an anthropomorphic sort of thing to think but if you could have seen the expression when it had sussed out I was there and some sort of potential threat it was defiantly anger and aggression, the stare from those eyes for these moments bore in to my leaky brain. It seemed for a brief yet endless time we were connected and the whole size of the bird expanded to greater than the sum of its parts as it stared into my face. With a flutter it was gone and I was alone.
Och well you have to grab your fun where you can get it with the quiet life and it’s the little things that keep you going!!

Oct 15, 2009

Its been a quiet week for me as I have been stuck inside not really getting out. It looks like its set to continue for the rest of the month…Ahh the ironies of life. Best birds of note at the house have been a pair of Barnacle geese roosting in with a flock of Pink feet the middle of last week. I had a Carrion crow in Aberdeen the other day so it’s a year tick. There’s been days of rain here yet it is mild and still tonight. Below the house the air is a raucous noise of thousands of Greylags roosting and grazing. There were a few hundred Pinks and Laggs this after noon along with relatively small flocks of Lapwing Curlew Golden plover. Tonight is a different story. The flocks are right up to the fence at the bottom of the gardens and the noise has been really something at times. Im looking forwards to a good look through the bushes around the houses here the morns morning tho. There’s been a lot about and you never know your luck eh!

Sep 27, 2009

The suckier side of birding.

What a manic day. My early start didn’t happen and im cursing myself for it now. I managed to get to the Gloup a little before eight I think. My spirits were high as I approached. The road gets narrower as you get there and the flocks of small birds were all over with lots of activity in the air. The car park had one car in it and two birders on the Gloup path. Seeing they were heading back I waited at the head of the path to see what was occurring. It was to be crap news tho, this was Dave and Stuart returning from their first light check. They had been spending all this time looking for the bird. The area where the bird had roosted had been heavily trampled down to only twenty feet from the spot. The ground had been clean when every one left last night. Two cars were there over night but gone when the lads arrived. Draw what conclusions you want..i ken what I think. If I had the reg numbers I would have spent my time tracking them down rather than half the day looking for the cuckoo….altho probably not.
The cuckoo blown out I head off to Burwick to meet the boat . Sitting about the car park I get the cannon out to get a few snaps. Once again it insisted that the batteries are flat. Spinning them over usually does the job however even changing them for fresh wont get it going….what a pain. The boat disgorges a sea of twitchers dressed in olive drab clothing and matching pallor. The bloke im looking for I have met before but cant see. I sit till every one is boarding busses. No one says hello and I am the only biker there…another bummer.
Still never mind. With this its back to the town for the bike run to the Stromness bike show and a hang out with the bikes for a while. Its blues weekend there as well so its going to be a good day in strombo. The lure of the birds is to strong tho so I head off after an hour, get a coffee and a sarnie before heading out to search for the Cuckoo. It was to prove a long afternoon starting at the Wideford burn, Tankerness, Deerness and as big a swath of the east coast as I could manage. In the end I cut my losses and headed off to Winnic to look for the Crane. Fortunately there was a nice parking place with the bird conveniently located in the adjoining field. There were a good few folks about in various places enjoying the views. The bird was a good distance off with the angle of the sun doing us no favours. The wing was dropping and the air warming. The skys had broken to show an increasing amount of blue. My mood was lightning by the minute. Moving down the road speaking to some folks as I go every one is friendly and enjoying the views. Speaking to Barry and Rebecca and watching the field a Hen harrier quarters the ditch right behind the Crane. Amazingly the bird is completely unfussed with this and ignores it with a wary eye. More surprising still is the goose that is grazing beside it. Ordinarily it would be up and away with this threat but it seems there is safety in numbers…even if that number is two!! I met the furthest travled twitchers here with one young lad that had made it non-stop from south Devon. Like I said at the time ..outstanding effort!!!..i did wonder if his name was Joe Ray.
Having used up the vantage points below it I move off and go to Hestly for a look from the garden. There are several folks here and the view is surprisingly good. Looking over my shoulder back to the house its obvious you could sit inside and view this mega from the comfort of your own soft seat…..that is if you wernt in Spain…ouch bad luck Andy.
The midgies are starting to bite so I head back to the bike but not before I have a yarn to yet another birder this time about bikes. It makes a nice change and a good note to end on before a nice run home. The birding day ended better than it started that’s for sure.

Sep 25, 2009


Things are going fucking brilliant up here this week. There was a black browed albatross seen from the Pentalina north of Stroma just sitting on the water. A Yellow billed cuckoo was found by Gerry Cannon and posted up on Orkbird this afternoon. Its out in Deerness near the Gloup…just follow the Deerness road till the absolute end and your there. Deerness is doing well at the moment with two American Golden plovers showing well in the same area. I cant resist this and will be off to the gloup at first light. I was speaking to Tim Dean tonight and he was telling me that these cuckoos are pretty delicate and this one might not last all that long which is a sad though. Saying that tho Paul Higson has reported that it was feeding and alert before it went to roost so fingers crossed.
There was a Grey Phalarope at the first barrier flow side so with the constant fresh westerly we are having there’s a chance of more. In these conditions there is always a chance of Little Auks sheltering in the same area mostly further out tho. Echna is also worth a good look
. I intend to go for the Crane again the morn after Deerness and with a bit of luck it will still be about. The wind should remain fresh and from the west. If this is the case hopefully the bird will remain. It is a long way east of where it should be and while it may find that confusing I am pretty sure it will realise how far north it is. As it may winter in the southern united states or Mexico I am sure it will feel the need to head south once the gales finally break and it gets a chance to come about….enjoy it while you can…..stay in miss out.

Sep 23, 2009

Sandhill crane...refreshes the place other birds cannot reach

It had been pourin like the flood on and off al day. On the met office weather site I was watching a break in the clouds coming in towards the afternoon so I saddled up and took my chance. On arriving in at5 the bottom end of the south parish I spoke to a couple of birders who both told me it had been about an hour ago and had been flighty, they pointed me towards Liddle loch tho. I know the place fairly well having fished and walked it for thirty odd years. It is cris crossed by tracks and rights of way. The first place I stopped to scan over the loch and fields beside it produced the Crane. Its in preening with a small flock of Blackbacks…right enough I am a lucky dog and this dog was about to have his day (for a change)
I took the road up to Banks and parked up by the café. You could scope the bird from there but I thought I would get closer.
Below me half a mile away down on the shore other birders were getting a good view sheltered behind some stone dyke. I made my way down to the cliffs and then the shore. Using the slope of the storm beach for cover I made my way along to the dykes and joined the small throng. Although the bird was a bit off and the wind was whistling about a bit I managed to get a fine view and a few snaps. At times it was settled right down and at others it was preening away. It showed a lot of character though and strutted about a couple of times pushing away through the gulls.
All too soon it was up and away whether it was the two birders approaching from the other side of the loch, or the flight of ducks that came in at that time I don’t ken. I did see two Bonxies cross the space and they didn’t put it up tho.
Never mind once its gone its gone. What did impress me was once it was away dozens of birders stood up and exposed them self’s (not literally) I could see a few from my spot but they emerged from ditches and folds in the ground. They were every where along the shore side. Quite a sight for Orkney where you are often unlikely to see another scope all day.
I haven’t been out birding for ages and quite gotten out of the way of it. I am glad to say I feel quite refreshed and keen again…I might even get this blog back on line again....mega

Aug 8, 2009

Midgie season begins

The first midgies of the year emerged last night displaying their usual blood lust.

Cant say i have missed them!!

Aug 5, 2009


South Birsay cliffs

On Sunday I had a wander up the cliffs that lie south of Birsay bay. There had been a report on Orkney forum of puffins being ashore here and giving good views. I thought it was a good idea to have a look see and check it out. It was an afternoon visit and not the best time to be out looking for puffins but you have to take your chances when you have the time…plus there was no motogp this weekend!!
Parking at the graveyard I walk down the single track road the short distance to the shore path proper. The roadside verge is deep with butterburr on one side and clipped short on the other. The short side does produce a flower I didn’t know so that’s always a bonus for the day. I photographed it and moved on. To the right are the links with the totally denuded sand dunes and grazing cattle. Below this exposed by the low tide Birsay bay stretches on beyond Mount Misery to the village with the Causeway liked headland of The Brough of Birsay completing the view. I had thought to be looking for Sanderling here but the state of the tide has spread what birds that are here over to large a distance, add in to that a couple of dog walkers and the cliffs seem like the best idea.
With people below me there’s not much happening along the shore as I head south. The path is grassy and smooth with walking and makes for easy going which is fine with me. The shore is fairly low here as the path leads on towards the high cliffs that are a bit less than a mile distant. It is maybe twenty years since I walked up here but one feature I look for is a long cave below a deep gash in the rocks. There is a gap in the rocks running down the shallow flat slope of rocks. Its twenty feet deep drop to the water and the crack is about 2 to 3 foot wide. It opens out as it reaches the sea. Not a place to be walking for the unwary! In the winter storms and tides huge waves rollup funnelled in to the cave only to explode outward again with the force of an express train. Its one of the most spectacular places to see bad weather on the west side. I came across it in a big storm by accident. The whole thing is very dramatic and I nearly pooped my pants….great stuff.
Beyond this the cliffs start to rise and the shear faces of the high cliffs loom. The track is a mixture of rough grazing and maritime heath. The maritime heath land plants are all well represented although most have now gone over. I am beginning to get a bit puffed now and can definatly feel the prickle of sweat on the brow and small of the back. This is soon joined by the feeling of softly falling rain. Realising the cliff top is disappearing in grey goo I head for the cliff edge where an out crop will shelter me for a moment. So now stuck hunkered down looking north I have a chance to watch the seemingly endless passage of Kittiwakes, We are less than a mile from Marwick head here and that is a major strong hold for them so these will be birds returning with food. Amongst them are a few of the first fledglings to be flying though and it’s a good feeling to be standing watching the first Orkney bred birds for ages to be taking to the air. Amongst all this are the inevitable Bonxies all heading south as well, returning with food too the big colonies on the south of Hoy. There was an occasional Arctic Skua and a one point two adult and a second year Gannet set about an Arctic Skua and drove it out to sea with a concentrated attack. Maybe they all recognised it from a previous encounter…who could blame them.
A last push had me below the final rise and here the cliff became a lot more interesting for instead of the bare vertical faces of a little further up the cliff face is split with a basalt dyke or intrusion here (I am not that good with geology) however there are some scree slopes with a good covering of vegetation and bare mud. All in all its pretty fair looking Puffin territory and must be the place told of on the forum. Getting to a safe edge for a view over the bottom of the cliff is a patchwork of white splash from roosting and nesting Shags. Above them are nests and full grown Kittiwakes on the point of fledging then further up are isolated Razorbills. Taking the top most tiers are the young Fulmars. The time has come when the parents are away for long spells and the chicks although yet to develop their feathers proper are big enough to look after them self’s if provoked. Carefully scanning the scene unsurprisingly I can see no sign of Puffins on the cliff face. The seemingly endless passing of kittiwakes and Bonxies continues unabated with in this there are fulmars and to a lesser degree Gannets. Eider Ducks scurry about on the surface along with some of the Shags. Moving higher up reveals little on the impressively shear cliffs beyond but the view back is splendid, Two Black Cormorants are revealed but fly off when the big eye of the scope fixes on them. I have a pleasing time watching the comings and goings of daily life in the avian world. A brief moment of excitement occurs with the arrival of a young Peregrine that swoops in low over the cliff top and land on an outcrop in one swift move. I have a good view for a minute before switching on the camera and moving to the scope. A moment of struggle to find the spot reveals the bird has flown whilst I have been flaffing about. Oh well never mind. A look out over the sea before I head back finds me a raft of nine Puffins just off shore I am delighted with this and make a note to return for a look here next spring. I have to head back but before I go I have a look at the Broch car park from this splendid isolation. I have met only four walkers on this side of the bay but there are fifty four cars in sight and folk all over the shore. Its quite a contrast. The walk back is a retrace of my steps so I wont bore you with the details suffice to say its all down hill and very pleasant. A cracking little walk. I look forwards to doing it again.

Aug 3, 2009

Jul 30, 2009

A few Curlews

This is a flock of Curlew above Lochside, Harray. Put on display courtsy of the Royal Air Force. The flock numbered six of seven hundred strong and are spilling out of each side of the photo. The second is a digiscoped shot of them returning to ground

Jul 29, 2009

Quiet times on Hobbister

The quiet times are well and truly upon us now. Birds have disappeared from view in a lot of places. To day we took the last RSPB walk around Hobbister for this season. We were struggling to show the breadth of species today. This is as true for the flowers now as well as birds. Meadow sweet is in its abundance now across the hills and undisturbed places. Hobbister had the honey sent in the air as it rushed up Vam towards us. Along the track Meadow pipits were in their usual abundance with the last of the broods being fed now. Raptors as well put in a poor showing with only a pair of Kestrels putting in an appearance. The Hen Harriers and Short eared owls were particularly conspicuous in there absence. Red throated divers appeared briefly calling at a good altitude and disappearing out in to the flow. It was to prove the only view of divers to day. It’s a frustrating thing to walk down the track knowing fine your not far from Reed bunting Stonechat, Willow warblers and Wrens yet nothing will come from cover and show them selves for more than a passing fleeting glance. It was a similar thing with the red grouse, Two heads appeared in the middle distance and bobbed about giving tentative glances. One bird did rise and put on a brief flight for us later on so we managed to tick one speciality at least. The cliff top return leg was to be hampered with an unfortunate on shore breeze consequently we had almost no birds on the water. A Black Guillemot dodged about for us and some growing Fulmar chicks added the aww factor. It was hard enough spotting but poor Allan had to do the running commentary on the desolate Sean before us. We had Bonxies, Arctic and Common Terns, Shags, Lesser and Greater blackbacked gulls .The pair of Kestrels swung around and put on another show for us as we made our way back. We were fortunate to get a good amount of Twite today tho and there were birds all over the Hobbister paths. We hoped the folks enjoyed themselves but it was slim pickings today.

Jul 27, 2009

Jul 19, 2009

A day out with the RSPB...its not all birds!

Its funny the range of things you can get involved with volunteering for the RSPB. Over seven days I have helped out with two guided walks, some goose ringing. And on Thursday a day surveying flowers. Last week volunteers were asked if they wanted to go to the North Hill reserve on the island of Pappa Westray…which will be referred to as Pappy from now on..To help in the annual survey of the Primula Scotica colony on Foul Craig. I was all up for it even with an extra early start for the Westray boat. A dozen or more of us (I never counted) gathered on the pier and embarked with the ferry only to sail strait in to thick fog that was to last the whole crossing.The sea was smooth as glass as we sailed along in a bubble of visibility. Gannets and auks quietly moved through out field of vision whilst cries of herring gulls and terns betrayed their presence deeper in the murk. All to soon we were at Westray with me missing the only fin to be see that day!!

A small buss with the cheeriest driver in the isles whisked us to the village pier where we boarded the Golden Mariana for the short crossing to Pappy.

Heading from the pier the mists were rolling back up the hill sides. The sun now powered through soaking us and the village in warm light. A perfect summer Sean.
Reaching the Pappy pier we are soon ashore and being introduced to Lorna the Pappy warden. Pleasantries done we are whisked away to the north end of the small island where we are to count. Its my first visit to Pappy and the more I see of it the more I would like to get out and explore it….never mind another day.

It was a short walk to Foul Crag area of the North Hill reserve. Its on this expanse of maritime heath land that the Pimuls Scotica thrive. We discard our bags with their redundant extra clothing and water proofs and head off to inspect Primula samples so we are sure to recognise what we are looking for. With the recognition sorted we have a quick cuppa and fortified by first of an unending line of home baked cake we are off to work..
The area to be surveyed is marked out in a series of meter wide lanes. We thank these two apiece and work from end to end until we meet. The recording goes like this… plants with out flowers, Plants with flowers, plants with seeds, and seedlings. We are soon all moving along on hands and knees looking hard and finding little. It seems the dispersal of the plants can be described as particularly abundant locally. Soon enough some worked their way in to a large patch and the counting began in earnest.
With each lane finished we waited for the last one whilst eating more excellent cake. The grid done we walk it over to the next bit and re peg it. A quick check of its position and its on with the counting.

Layers of clothes begin to come off as we work. A warm sun and the faintest of sea breezes cause a passing round of the sun block and insect repellent. The short growing maritime heath land exudes warm air from its micro climate as we squash it on out hands and knees. There is a wealth of diversity in the heath land with sedges, grasses. Plantains, Crowberries and roe berries(I think) and all manner of flowering plants. The crowning glory of it all being the rare beautiful and diminutive Primula Scotica . We crash on doing grid after grid. With conversations going on all over interposed with the occasional friendly banter the day soon passes and before we know it we are breaking for dinner. At this point I find I have forgotten my piece box in the fridge at home. I feel a right div compounded by my earlier divines in forgetting to put an money in my pockets this morning. Some one took pity on me and shared a roll so I had that(thanks) and some more delicious cake. And was as they say repeat.. I keep mentioning the delicious cake and that’s because the offer of all the cake you could eat was a sweetener in the original email we received. Lorna had been even better than here word and we were faced with a mountain of her tasty home bakes. They were appreciated by all!! So lunch was enjoyed in the company of Arctic Skuas Bonxies and low flying Arctic Terns returning to their colony with food. It was all to pleasant to endure so we moved back to recording. The day continued and the weather never faltered. With more grids completed we eventually arrived at the finishing point. A job well done. The total sheets were collected for later collation and we quickly cleared away all evidence of our presence there. Timings couldn’t have been better and we were met by our transport as we left the reserve, good buys said we were off for the boat to Westray and after a short journey in the company of the cheeriest driver in the isles we on the ferry to Kirkwall. It was a superb journey home if like me you like smooth water I even managed to scrounge a couple of quid and had a bacon sarnie to break the journey. All in all it was a really pleasant day and we had found just under 8500 plants i here. Well worth it.

This was just another day volunteering with the RSPB each day you help out may be different it may be the same but they are all worth while. If you are not a member why not join! If you are a member why not volunteer all sorts of help is needed at various times and you don’t need to be some sort of expert birder to participate…Think about it you could be out there enjoying it as well!!

Jul 15, 2009

First frog

We had a nice night to night with a trip out to Yesnaby to view my first ever frog orchids. There was a report on orkney wild life forum that they were about north of the scrambling track. It took a moment to start finding them but there were hundereds about. A nicely indestinct wee plant and a new orchid for me!

Jul 13, 2009

Whats about.

Crossbills continue to be seen. Theres been a Franklin's gull at Howes Wick Holm...The Great White Egret is still showing well at Greameshall Loch and there was a Rednecked Phalorope at Eves Loch Derrness but may well be gone now. The Red necked Greeb has reapeared on Bosquoy Loch Harray and was reported last night. Its still there tonight and below is a shonky wee film of it.

Jul 12, 2009

Terns at Skipi Geo

After year on year failure of the breeding sea birds it’s a huge delight to see things happening around the isles. These Arctic Terns with their young are out at Skipi Geo Birsay. The two small rock stacks are covered in youngsters. The air is full of birds coming and going. Food at the moment does not seem to be an issue and this scene is being repeated in colonies all over the isles. The first hatched birds are already filling their wings and taking furtively to the air whilst other birds still sit on eggs or are feeding spotty new hatched youngsters. It may seem common place a tern colony but if you haven’t seen them with young in numbers for years then it has a fresh delight that is hard to explain….rockin…

Jul 11, 2009

An evening ringing geese.

For quite a few years now Orkney has seen a rise in the numbers of over summering Greylag geese. From what was once a matter of dozens became hundreds have now become thousands. They cause concern to farmers and birders alike. Delicate crops are at risk where they congregate and they take up space to nest, probably at the cost to the smaller birds that would have used the ground themselves. In order to understand the movements of the summer population around the isles and further afield a programme of ringing and collaring has been going on. It started last year with a hundred odd birds caught collared and released. This years catch was last night and I was lucky enough to get asked if I wanted to go and give a hand out…..well I didn’t need to be asked twice.
We met up at Kirbister farm museum car park at 6.30. There were seven of us. four members of the ringing group and three RSPB volunteers not forgetting Allan’s young son who was to more than pull his weight. The plan is quite simple. We are to drive a short distance to a field that runs down to the loch. Here about three hundred Greylags are gathered. In one corner of the field a corral of chicken wire has been prepared. The birds walk in to the corner of the field and follow along the blocked fence to enter the corral, close the gate and bingo.

The land rover enters the field and drops us off one by one to herd the moulting birds towards the loch and in to the corral. They might not be able to fly but they can certainly run. As soon as they see the motor they are off towards the safety of the water nipping on we are dropped off one by one to try and herd them towards the trap in the corner. A large part of the flock goes smoothly in whilst the others move through the meadowsweet that covers the shore and onto the loch with discordant complaints filling the evening air. The plan has worked almost to well with the pen full. The pros quickly set about reducing the catch to a workable number. With the birds now enclosed it is important to stop them damaging their self’s. The biggest danger is crush injuries as they crowd to one side or another. To alleviate this four of us took a side each and stood at the wire. Here our presence close to the wire helped by a little physical intervention helped keep the flock circulating. With the flock quietened down and milling about stage two began.
Two small holding pens made from one ton manure sacks guyed up bamboo were erected along with a large holding pen created by rolling Hessian sacking around a fence post frame, this is stapled on and pegged down around the base. Experienced hands had this all up in minutes. Next step was to separate the adults and young. Allan stepped in and quickly caught the darker billed adults passing them out to be held in Hessian sacks where they would calmly rest before ringing. Methodically working through them the sacks and small holding pens were soon full of the adults. We kept the diminishing flock moving and not climbing over each other. Next the goslings were grabbed and passed over to the big holding pen where they would be out of sight of us working behind the Hessian barrier and so be in a some what less stressful environment. With this done its time for phase three.

One at a time each adult bird is brought out first sexed then passed across for its collar. One man holds it whilst another sets the collar and glues it shut. It is then selotaped shut to keep it in place whilst the glue goes off. The collar is designed to last for five years. With it on it receives its leg ring and both id numbers are recorded. The last thing that happens is it is then passed to me and I walk to the fence to release it where it quickly leg’s it to the safety of the loch. The whole operation moves along at a pace with experienced hands keeping up a smooth flow. It takes an age but we are down to the last dozen or so adults these we put into the big holding pen once they are rung. Now the goslings get their turn. They are removed to the small holding pens to be sexed, rung and recorded. This done they are returned to the big pen. Filling the small pens over and over again eventually the whole mob is rung. With this all done and the birds calmed down its time for the release.

The adults we retained will keep the young and inexperienced flock together as they cross the loch. This is a dangerous route for the young birds to try alone as death can fall from the skies in the guise of the surrounding Bonxies that predate the flightless flock on a day to day basis here. We remove the chicken wire along the fence line whilst keeping the flock away from the sides of their pen. With their escape route open the Hessian wall is dropped and the rush for the water is on. With in a moment the flock is madly paddling for the far bank and the calls of their friends guiding them across.
We take a second to watch them move off, This is the last time I will see so many rung geese together. In the coming month’s the returning winter population will swallow up this hundred and eighty or so birds. Hopefully every sighting of a collar will be reported but they are not that easy to find in the endless thousands of winter birds. But that’s all part of the fun as well!!. Feeling a job well done and dive in to the dismantling. The pens come down and are packed away the ringers repack their kit in big boxes and with in fifteen minutes we are loaded up and off We started at seven and it is nearly twelve and dusk….job done.

Jul 9, 2009

Leucistic Greylag goose.

I was out to give a hand ringing the localy breeding Greylags last night and one of the birds we had in the corral was this White greylag. Its amazing that it has made it this far!!. With all the bonxies about you would have thought it would have made an ideal target but against all the odds here it is. This is one goose that you wont need to read the collar of to record this winter!!

Jul 8, 2009

News from the cliffs

It seems that my life of late has involved walking up and down Marwick Head. It’s not so bad tho as at the moment we have auks and kittiwakes all sitting on eggs and young. The cliffs are sparsely populated but the undeniable fact is that there is some amount of successful breeding going on. To put it in a historical perspective as you probably know for the last six or seven years the breeding sea bird population has been struggling with in a group decline. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins and all the terns have been having a hard time. The last couple of years have been little short of disasters with almost no young of any species raised.
Last year it was excruciating to watch. For weeks the weather was dry with no rain. The gulls colonised their grounds inland and started to lay but as the weather warmed and the fields dried their food source also began to dry up so within a matter of weeks the colonies one by one fell over and were deserted with what chicks that were hatched starved to death. As the fields and hillsides started to fill with aimless flocks of hungry gulls the news started to come in that Tern colony all over were starting to fail. This was due to there being no food. This time it was the sea that was the problem. Once again it was the sand eels that had disappeared. With in a couple of weeks virtually every single Tern colony had deserted what young there were had starved. All around Arctic and Common terns seemed to be loafing about scratching out a living and waiting until it was time to go. The last surviving group was out on the north western corner of the mainland at Skipi Geo. Here they probably clung on fishing Sile but as the sile moved away they were doomed and inevitably over they went. Things now got even grimmer. All around the coast the cliff birds were struggling but now the end had come. On the high cliffs along Orkneys west coast what few auks had young lost them. All the kittiwakes now quickly lost what few young they had leading to the desertion of the cliffs. Many moved inland to haunt strange places that you would never think to see them in better times. A strange and haunting emptiness hung over the whole place as birds loafed about waiting for their trigger to head away for the winter. Birders and locals alike walked around with heavy hearts. It was a truly terrible time.

So what’s been going on to cause it all?

Speculation and theories abound for the disappearance of the sand eel population but the most popular one certainly seems to involve the sea temperature. It works like this… In the winter there are good stocks of sand eels around us but as spring progresses the warm current that flows past us is getting progressively warmer as the years go by. The arrival of the warmer water deters the natural blooms of plankton that occur at this time of year. The sand eels rely on this bloom for their food at this time. As the colder water is pushed away their food goes with it, the fish migrate following the food. The waters empty of untold of thousands of tons of sand eel leaving little more than a desert behind them. The birds can only fly so far to follow the food so there is only one possible outcome.

This year is different tho. There is food about and things are moving along. All this is bucking the well established trend and no one really knows quite why. There’s an idea that the extended cold weather this winter has chilled the seas enough that the water reaching us is measurably cooler allowing the plankton to bloom. Consequently the sand eels have stayed put to provide the desperately needed food source. It’s a simple and elegant answer to a huge question. I don’t know if its right but it sounds good to me. What I do know is that there are birds on young all over. Whilst they may look sparse across the cliffs at least they are on young. Now all we have to do is cross our fingers because the toughest bit is yet to come. Looking today there were more Bonxies than I had ever seen ambushing returning auks, add to this the herring gulls, blackbacks and ravens taking advantage of the thinly spread numbers. Their next problem comes from this predation. With the ledges poorly occupied the cohesiveness off the colony is really put to the test. Its easier for a predator to get amongst the birds and take eggs or young if there is no fence of sharp bills to fend them off. So now it’s a matter of surviving this war of attrition until fledging. Fingers crossed we are going to have crop of young sea birds this year The cliffs look ok and smell even better. The Tern colonies are looking strong. The food just needs to hold out for a little while longer. I don’t really know how well the numbers compare to the good years but I suppose its not a lot more than ten percent or so. Its not huge but after year on year wipe outs it’s a glimmer of hope and success…

There is good news from Orkney…its not great news but it is good.

Jul 3, 2009

RSPB monthly bird report


JUNE 2009

Small numbers of Great Northern Divers remained in Orkney waters all month, maxima being five off North Ronaldsay on 23rd and off Egilsay on 29th. A surprise visitor was a summer-plumaged Red-necked Grebe on the Loch of Bosquoy on 12th. An even bigger surprise was the sighting of an albatross, probably a Black-browed Albatross, off Noup Head, Westray on 1st. A bird of this species has been in the St.Kilda – Sula Sgeir area for several years now and this may well have been the same individual. Up to 10 Manx Shearwaters were noted off North Ronaldsay on several dates whilst a flock of 60 moved from Swona into Scapa Flow on 13th. The recently established Gannet colony on the Noup, Westray this year has 499 apparently occupied nests, a major increase on the 2008 figure of 345. Grey Herons began moving back into the county during the month, the largest gathering being six at Burwick on 15th. A Purple Heron was reported at Herston on 20th, which, if confirmed, will be the first record for many years. A Little Egret was at Graemeshall Loch on 5th/6th.

Two Whooper Swans remained on North Ronaldsay all month and one was at Loch of Banks on 12th. A Pink-footed Goose was another unseasonal visitor to Rendall on 6th. Three broods of Wigeon were reported from Echnaloch, Burray on 22nd, making this loch important for this species not just in local but also in national terms. A drake American Wigeon was at Graemeshall Loch on 21st and 27th/28th. Lingering winter visitors included two Long-tailed Ducks on Echnaloch on 12th and a Goldeneye in Echnaloch Bay on 20th. Moulting drake Eiders gathered into substantial flocks of 400 off Thieves’ Holm on 4th and 250 off Flotta on 23rd. Similarly, there were 40 drake Red-breasted Mergansers in Evie Bay on 11th while a Common Scoter was off North Ronaldsay on 13th.

Quail were heard calling on North Ronaldsay on 22nd and 26th (two) and at the Tomb of the Eagles on 29th. Water Rails rarely reveal themselves but one swam (!) across part of Graemeshall Loch on 27th and two were in front of The Loons hide on 30th.

It was a good month for more unusual birds of prey with a Honey Buzzard on Stronsay on 23rd, an Osprey over North Ronaldsay on 16th, Marsh Harriers at Graemeshall Loch on 9th and at The Loons on 14th and a Hobby on Burray on 2nd.

The maximum count of Knot on North Ronaldsay was 55 on 6th and of Sanderling in the same locality, 36 on 2nd; other Sanderling flocks included 14 at Newark Bay, South Ronaldsay on 11th and 19 at Bu Sands, Burray on 19th. Little Stints were seen on North Ronaldsay on 2nd, 13th and 15th with three Curlew Sandpipers there in the same period. Single Purple Sandpipers were on the same island on 11th and 26th. A Pectoral Sandpiper was found on Westray’s Swartmill Loch on 14th, one being seen in Holm at about the same time. A Ruff was at Lairo Water, Shapinsay on 27th. Black-tailed Godwits showed signs of migration with up to 16 at The Loons and up to six at three other sites. The biggest Bar-tailed Godwit gathering was of 32 in Bay of Lopness, Sanday on 18th. Whimbrel also began their return movements with up to three on North Ronaldsay and one at Hestily, South Ronaldsay on 27th. A Greenshank was on North Ronaldsay on 25th and 27th and a migrant Common Sandpiper there on 18th. A Red-necked Phalarope gave folk a treat at The Shunan on 17th/18th others being seen on North Ronaldsay on 16th, 27th and 28th (two).

One-two Glaucous Gulls were seen in the Bay of Skaill area mid-month with others on Westray, Papay and at The Loons at about the same time. Two Little Terns were seen on North Ronaldsay on 9th. The famous Puffin site at Westrays Castle o’ Burrian held 750 birds on 15th.

Up to 11 migrant Wood Pigeons were on North Ronaldsay with a peak on 8th. Small numbers of Collared Doves also passed through as did a Turtle Dove on 3rd and 5th, another being seen at Hoxa on 2nd. A Nightjar was seen on North Ronaldsay on 11th, the second record of this rare visitor there this spring. Cuckoos remained quite conspicuous with two in Rendall on 9th and singles there and at six other localities mainly before 10th. A pair of Short-eared Owls was found breeding on Flotta during the month, perhaps the first breeding record for that island that doesn’t hold the owls’ main prey item, Orkney Voles. Single Long-eared Owls were seen in Orphir and in Rendall 4th-8th. Up to five Swifts were noted on North Ronaldsay with one-three at four other localities.

Grey Wagtails reared a first brood and appear to be having a second at The Willows, Kirkwall while breeding was also proved in Orphir and thought likely in Stenness; single migrants passed through North Ronaldsay on 4th and 22nd. Marsh Warblers were recorded on North Ronaldsay on 8th and 23rd while one in Stenness on 16th was a welcome addition to the writer’s garden list! An Icterine Warbler was on North Ronaldsay on 2nd and Lesser Whitethroats there on 2nd/3rd and 10th with another singing in Rendall on 4th. Rendall also had a singing Garden Warbler on 9th, others being seen on North Ronaldsay on 2nd and 13th-15th. Single Blackcaps were also noted there on 5th and 9th. Up to four Chiffchaffs were seen on North Ronaldsay with singles also on Papay and at three Mainland locations. Spotted Flycatchers were seen in Rendall on three dates 17th-26th and on North Ronaldsay on 19th.

A cock Red-backed Shrike was a surprise find on the Hoy moors near Rackwick on 1st. A report of a small colony of Tree Sparrows in North Walls is intriguing and is being investigated; the species hasn’t bred in Orkney for 40 years other than the single bird that hybridised with House Sparrows on North Ronaldsay. Siskins were few - one was on North Ronaldsay on 3rd and one-two in Rendall 7th-16th. A Common Redpoll was on North Ronaldsay on 8th following a Scarlet Rosefinch there on 1st.

The most exciting event of the month, however, was the irruption of Crossbills that became evident in the final few days. Three were in Stenness on 14th then 30 in Rendall and 16 in Hoy on 22nd. The main arrival occurred from 27th with up to 70 in Finstown and at Hestily, South Ronaldsay, 35 in the Stenness Hills, 30 in Kirkwall’s George Street and on North Ronaldsay and up to 20 in several other localities. If any corpses are found could folk please let me know as analysis of the feathers may give us clues as to the origins of these birds.

Eric Meek

Crosbill feeding on thrift.

Jul 1, 2009

Here are a couple of interesting plants from the weekend the first Roseroot. I found this on the cliff face whilst descending to the foot of the Old man of Hoy. I got an ID from a member on bird forum as I had no idea what it was and its not in my wee Collins field guide. Turns out its quite an interesting plant with lots of medical and practical uses Here is a bit of blurb I found….

A medicinal herb first studied by the Russians decades ago. Roseroot is only the second North American herb after Ginseng to be recognized as an Adaptogen, an herb with the ability to restore the body and mind after physical and mental exertion and stress. Its rose-scented roots contain unique compounds that are thought to account for the adaptogenic properties. Research also shows the roots improve learning and memory and act as a tonic. In folkloric medicine, the leaves were used like aloe to treat cuts and burns. and the Eskimos used a decoction of the flowers for stomach and intestinal discomfort and for TB. Traditionally used in Tibetan medicine for nourishing the lung and treating lung conditions such as hemoptysis, coughs, pneumonia. For chronic stress, depression, immune depletion from overwork or excessive exercise, altitude sickness, and fatigue. For muscle spasms, and sciatica, muscle strains, and sprains, as liniment or in bath. Internally moves blood, emmenagogue. Not pleasant tasting. Herb of Grace. Can cause photosensitivity.

The second is a nice example of a Sundew this is one of two types of carnivorous plants that occur over the isles. These Sundews are often found in sphagnum moss bogs. The insects are trapped on the sticky globules where they rot away and are digested….lovely..


Jun 30, 2009

Just back from Hoy and there will be a little report to follow at some point,sufice to say that i had a good time and met a load of nice folks along the way.

There was a report from Kas of orcas heading east in the firth below hoy last night about ten.

There is also a Crossbill irruption going on with flocks of these splendid seed eaters appearing almost anywhere at the moment...good hunting.

Jun 26, 2009

God its hot!! I am off to hoy to fish at the foot of the old man and do the high cliffs. Its to nice to work and the OH dont finish work till tues so the hell with this!! Im offski....laters folks

Jun 24, 2009

Positive signs from the cliffs

Well it’s the 24th and there is finally some good news going about with our sea birds. The gull colonies are producing young gulls and the first of these are taking to the air. Terns are on young in many places. Last night and today we saw Guillemot chicks and lots more Kittiwake young(my best birthday pressie). The RSPB walk was led by Eric Meek today and we were up to Marwick head. Although sparsely populated it was all happening with birds on eggs and young. Bonxies and Arctic’s light and dark all attacking returning birds. Puffins were very evident today as well. Eric brought out the interesting idea that the cold winter might have caused a lag in the time it takes the sea to warm. This being the case it could be why there are still sand eels about when in previous years they had gone by now. Whatever the reason I am just glad they are still here and hope they stay for a few more weeks so we can get some sort of success from the breeding sea birds this year.

Jun 23, 2009

Tus night.

I had a very pleasant evenings walk with Tims class tonight. We did the Swartland drovers track to the decca station and on to the Merkister hotel before finishing below the old mill. All the usual suspects were well represented with an added abundance of Sedge warblers. This bird below has to be the star though. This is a Common Sandpiper. Common enough for many folks but for us it’s a rare breeder with only a handful of pairs across the county. This one is a female the give away sign is the patch where she has been plucking her feathers for the nestlings. Nice bird in the setting sun.