Jan 25, 2009

A wet day at Marwick

It was a cool and wet morning that held little promise of drying up. Today was the monthly birding class with Tim Dean and we were due to meet up at the Bay of Skail at ten an hour hence. The rain was rattling off the house roof in a repetitive heavy then light sort of fashion. Each time it eased you could feel your hopes rise to be washed away by yet another increasing shower. Biting the bullet I fired up the bike and headed out in to the morning weather.
We all met up at the Bay of Skail car park. Surprisingly the rain had turned to a mild drizzle yet would not cease. Over the next ten minutes the class gathered and so did the clouds. The only folks that seemed unperturbed were the crowd of surfers that were changing into wet suits and waxing their boards before heading out in to the freezing cold breakers of the Atlantic….my respect to them and rather them than me. With an increasing patter of rain it was decided to take half the cars to the Marwick Head Kitchener memorial foot path and half the cars to the hide at the Loons. From here we could do a five mile semi circular walk taking in the fisherman’s huts and Marwick bay.
Arriving at the Loons hide you have a view over a large expanse of wetland with immediately in front of you a pool backed by reed beds. We soon settle down to spy out the ground but there was not a whole hell of a lot to see in the rain. There were Widgeon and Mallard on the rough ground at the side of the pool and a good few Teal on the banks. Away in the distance grazing in a field there are a puckle of Greylag geese. These we regard with interest as this is the main feeding area for the main flock of Greenland white fronted geese that frequent Orkney. They however seem to dislike being on the hillside here in easterly winds. Its disappointing but what you gona do. Some interest was generated by Lapwings passing over and a Heron rising and landing a couple of times in increasingly shorter distances from the hide. This gave the opportunity for some seriously good close up views from the scopes. You would think I would have goton some good photos but try as I might its just impossible in the hide as it is built on boggy ground so the slightest movement has the whole place rocking like a ship at sea. With little else to see we head off on foot via the roads to Marwick.
Over the past few weeks numbers of Lapwing and Curlew seem to have risen dramatically across the county and they were certainly an obvious presence in the fields today. The fields in this area of the west mainland are hooching with Greylag and today is no exception. Amongst all of these Greylags there is a single Bean goose and Tim’s well trained eye soon has it picked out for every one. This one is from the Russian population. It is smaller than the Greylags and I must admit if I had found it I would have put it down as a Pinkfoot. The bird is feeding in with a small flock of Greylag and thankfully shows little willingness to take to the air. We all get fine views through the scopes as the flock feeds along side a horde of Curlew and Lapwing. Other interest is provided by a flock of Golden Plover that descend in as one to land and feed in an elongated flock. They rise and land a couple of times giving fine views for the binoculars. Moving off our attention is caught by a single wee bird that lands on the verge twenty yards from us and promptly disappears. It is a Rock Pipit. This is a proper winter sighting. We are quarter of a mile from the sea and it is only at this time of year you will catch them off the shore. By spring and for the rest of the year they seldom move more than a few meters from the shore line.
Moving down to the shore of Marwick bay the sea is providing dramatic effects with sizable waves breaking in huge long tubes on the rocky division of the Choin. Away along the shore above where the burn runs into the sea is the bird we have come to see. Feeding on the carcass of a washed up seal is a magnificent Glaucous gull. One would be a note worthy event but there are three, one on the seal and two bathing in the outfall of the burn. They are all first year birds and little fazed by our presence. We move down the rocky storm front of the shore in the hope of getting out of the wind. Things improve with the wind and we have fine views but the rain is falling steadily so all glauced up we turn and head to the fisherman’s huts to have a well earned cup of coffee and a roll. The fisherman’s huts date back to an earlier age when the farmers of the parrish would also fish to supplement their meagre livings. The huts are rude shelters built into the cliff faces and would provided shelter and storage for their boats and gear away from the ravages of the Atlantic winter. It is often said as a description of the different topography between Shetland and Orkney that Shetlanders were fishermen that farmed and Orcadians were farmers that fished..its very true.
Lunch was enjoyed (in the rain) with a view out of this narrow bay. Before us the waves rolled in and crashed on the rocky outcrops. Shags deftly fished just beyond the crashing surf. They were about in large numbers and accompanied by rafts of Dunters(Eider ducks). In the air three Gannets circled taking the occasional dive for fish. These were all mature birds looking vividly white in the grey wet light. A herring gull with a fish was briefly mobbed by young Blackbacks. Another bird of interest was a Kittiwake that wheeled about looking for the chance of a meal. Whilst we watched another two joined it. All three were first year birds and it’s a chinch they didn’t originate from here. It is a bit far north for them at this time of year but you do see them from time to time, Tim was telling us that there are first year birds over in the Kirkwall marina at the moment as well. As we pack up to move off a flight of Purple Sandpipers cross the bay(more of an inlet really) to land just out of sight on the southern point.
We walk back the half mile to Marwick bay to have a passing look at the Glaucs once again. Earlier in the week there had been five together, a record for Orkney I think. This time we manage to see four in the bay. It is a thrilling sight, I have only ever seen single birds and this is a real treat. It’s a proper taste of the arctic. All the birds are first year birds and probably never seen humans until now. I pull my camera out of my pocket to find it sitting in water. The paper towel in my old camera bag is a soggy mess so I about give up on didgiscoping for the day(but I will return!) With that we head off to the cars at the Kitchener memorial foot path. Little else is to be seen in the steady drip of rain. It was a short and damp session today but well worth the effort. My new Opticron stay on cover has proved its worth despite my reservations and I have a new bird on my life list….worth getting damp for!!

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