Apr 30, 2009

The first RSPB walk of the season

I was out today for the first of this season’s guided walks with the RSPB. Last year I went as a volunteer and enjoyed it immensely, so much so that I have volunteered again this year and intend to try and fit one walk a week in to my own guiding schedule. It shouldn’t be too hard as I only intend to be guiding a couple of days a week. Hopefully guiding for a couple of days will not sour me to going birding which is what I think would happen if I was trying to make money out of it as a full time job…anyway watch this space and we will see what happens.
The first walk had a sparse attendance but I don’t think it was overly publicised and the islands like the cliffs seem a little short of visitors at the moment. It makes for a good group when the numbers are small though and if you add to that I am only assisting a warden so its not me that has to do the majority of the spiel its quite a relaxing day for me. Meeting up in the Marwick bay car park we were all greeted with a freshening wind blowing up from the south east. This was at our backs as we spied out the bay before us. We moved down the slope of the shore to gain some respite from the wind and the members of the group got to grips with using the scopes. One of the things I enjoy about helping folks see birds is seeing the enjoyment they get from the scopes extra range. After years of shaky 10x bins to see a steady image at 20x or 30x seldom fails to impress.
The Choin was well exposed but the tide was starting to rise. Before us Green headed Eiders, Oystercatchers, Redshank, Common, Blackheaded, Blackbacked and Herring gull soon fell to the scopes. Linnet, Wheatear, Rock Pipits and Pied wagtails were soon sorted out. In the fields behind us the sound of piping Oystercatchers and displaying Lapwings carried along on the blustery wind. Swallows have been returning strongly over the last week and we had our share today as they hunted insects over the tide line weed. Turnstones were down in the ware feeding. Their moult to summer plumage is almost complete with the gorgeous Rufus plumage showing well. Once this transformation is finished they will be off heading for Iceland Greenland and as far as the Canadian coast for this years breeding effort. Moving off along the bay towards the path for the high cliffs we stop to have a look over the wet ground behind the bay. Here the fields cover is growing well, Corncrakes will be back here imminently so fingers crossed. Here around a pool we get to see the common waders, Shellduck, displaying, Redshank and Lapwing and yet more Wheatear, Linnets and Wagtails. The Wagtails are checked for whites. The strong easterly winds these last couple of weeks seem to have brought quite an influx of European wagtails to British shores and we are getting our share!! A flock of Black Tailed Godwits in summer plumage are a colourful treat as we move off.
Walking along the track to the rise has little in the way of birds but the flora was set on making an appearance with Scurvy Grass and Spring Squill breaking out. We reminisced about playing soldiers with Ribwort Plantain. It was like Orkney conkers where you had to chop off the head turn about….simple days!! From the corner up to Choldertoo the view out to sea shows a couple of rafts of gulls with some gannets fishing around them. Inshore the first of the Bonxies are beginning to patrol the shore. Whilst Razorbills and kittywakes come and go from the face we shelter in the lea of Choldertoo and enjoy fine views of Fulmar and Razorbill sitting meters away on the opposite rock face. All to soon it’s onwards and upwards in the push for the top. The wind is howling as it is pushed up the slope behind us but at least it’s a three quarters tail wind so steadily we get there. Taking refuge in sheltered spots the highest faces of Marwick head are before us. What a difference it makes to get out of the wind. The air around us is alive with Fulmars and wheeling Kittywakes, Bonxies and Blackbacks The cliffs themselves were starkly empty. There were a good contingent of Razorbills and a covering of Kittywakes but barely a single Guillemot anywhere. But this is the way it go’s at this time of year. There have been thousands here a week back and when I was up the other day there was a good smattering but not today. The birds had moved off enmass to feed some where over the horizon and it might be days before they drift back. Its disappointing but its just the way of it. There was plenty of entertainment to be had though, Ravens came and went from their nest and Jackdaws squabbled and displayed. Rock Pipits flitted around. A pair of solitary Puffins roosted below the scree slope bringing a promise of more to come. Of all the gannets we saw there were only two immature birds the rest were adults and most of them seemed to be actively fishing with an occasional Skua showing an interest also bringing a promise of more to come.! The oddest bird we had up top was a single Siskin passing to the south. All to soon though it was time to head off back. The cliffs might have been light on bird numbers but it was nice and active which always makes for good entertainment.
We took the memorial path back to the road and along to the bay. As we were heading into a 65- 70 mph wind it was a wee bit bird less but we had good views across the pools on the way back.
So that was that the first one of the year by. The wind was mean in places but if your going outside here in the wind swept isles then you have to take it as you find it, if you do then you can find it as we did today…Pretty damn good.

Apr 29, 2009

Its been a brilliant day to day. I was out to Cottasgarth and had 2 SEO’s fighting 2 m hen harriers fighting. A f harrier sky danced three times in front of me. I found a new harrier nest site. Then on leaving I had a fleeting glance of a possible ringed ouzel. That would be a lifer for me. Tonight I saw my first common tern of the year and the first sandwich terns on the ground. Better still we saw sand martins investigating nest sites. These sweet wee birds are some of our rarest breeding birds in the isles and a treat to watch flying over our heads. When I returned and put on the computer I find from orkbird that the world and his dog had been out to see a snowy owl that had been showing really well (Well located and posted there Kieth H).( There is a rough legged buzzard and a sea eagle out there somewhere as well) I really don’t mind to much that I missed it as I count my blessings. It makes tomorrow an interesting prospect…Life is ok in the isles.

Apr 24, 2009

Kack counting

This was the 400+ Golden Plover i reported on orkbird to night but looking at this it was more like 600...oops

A Gadwall tonight at Swartland.

Apr 20, 2009

Recon in the Stenness hills

I had an interesting day yesterday. A mate of mine who is a teacher asked for a hand to sus out a walking route for a group of pupils in the summertime. He had chosen Russa Dale to the land slip and on to the summit of mid hill then back down. All this is on my stomping grounds from last year so I had a not to bad idea of the ground. After a quick word with Eric Meek at the RSPB to clear the proposed route through what is a sensitive area we were set to go.
4 of us met up at happy valley next day and after quick introductions we headed through Happy valley and across the fields to the Russa Dale track. Leaving the trees of happy valley and following the burn the contrast between the wooded valley and the bare gully and burn that runs into it is stark and impressive. The work that Edwin has put in in his lifetime to create such a fine wood land is inspirational…a fantastic legacy. Moving up the track along side The Russa Dale burn Wrens are singing in the plantation. I hear that the plantation will suffer some disturbance this summer when archaeologists will be digging a chambered tomb buried below the heather.
The track enters the heather proper and we move along the deep gully edge stopping to look down for birds. Wrens are in evidence as are one or two Stonechats and Blackbirds but little else. The willow and alder are just in the first throws of bursting out so all still looks a little bare. In a couple of weeks the place will be a lot more alive with all the little birds like Willow Warblers drawn in to claim their place for the years breeding efforts. A quick look in to the quarry whilst we were there helps the blokes to sus what they may find. The Ravens nest on the highest face has young in it and are only three days old (I was informed) Hopefully they wont be disturbed and abandoned this year!! The water here is home to a good number of black Darter dragon flies that are a delight to watch on a summers day..Skirting the water we leave the quarry and are faced with the next big stage of the walk, The assent to the top of South Rusky Hill. In the hills it is best to avoid walking the up valleys and stick to the hill faces, ridges and tops. This way there is less chance of disturbing nesting raptors. We follow the heavily over grown track beside the firing range warning flag pole. This takes us about 150 yards in to a point where we turn to face the hill. From here we turn to head strait up. It’s a daunting task, while not to steep it is heavy going as we pick our way up wards. Tackled in small stages its quite surmountable tho. After ten minutes we stop for a breather and a look back from where we have come. Russa Dale is laid out before us with a view clear all the way to the bay of Skail..beutifull. With our breath back we move upwards again gaining more altitude, After another 10 minutes we stop again the lads are feeling the effort now and we start to remove layers an scoop back a drink. I find an owl pellet and dismantle it to find it was once a vole. Looking around we find small rush grasses in bloom(must check names) And a latrine used by Red Grouse along with brown mottled feathers with a white band on the tips…a dead give away. Soon enough its onwards and upwards. The last push to the top takes us over a large bed of Wood Rush. This plant is a legacy of Orkneys wooded past and as is evident in a lot of places. Here the trees have long gone yet the flora of the woodland floor still remains. The soft walking across the Wood Rush and the levelling out of the hill as we near the brow is a welcome relief. Meadow pipits are much in evidence all around. They are still settling in and moving around in loose groups. These will be new arrivals that have wintered in the Med, southern Spain and North Africa. They will be establishing breeding territories over the coming days and weeks.
Our next objective is to see the remains of a large landslide that carried away thousands of tons of peat to the valley floor below. This happened about three years ago after a massif fall of rain. Kirkwall flooded that week end and land slips happened across the county. The ground is now stable but its broken appearance makes for a strange looking landscape. The teachers can do a good piece on the processes involved and you can tell they are just itching to teach!!
The view here is cracking With Kirbister Loch and Waulkmill stretching before us. Looking to the lower slopes down in the valley this is where the birds decide to show off for us. Far below there are two Harriers and as we watch two more are located all quartering the same small patch of heather 2 male and 2 female. There is quite a kafuffle as a pair of Kestrels enter the mix. The ring tails take exception and an active dispute ensues. The smaller Kestrels soon move away some what out gunned.
We turn back up hill now and move on to the summit of Mid Hill to enjoy our lunch and a well earned sit down. The view is absolutely stunning. Mid Hill is well named as it seems to be right in the middle of every thing. The view from here is a panoramic 360 with most of Orkney visible. It’s a stunning vista…probably one of our finest. A Short Eared Owl passes over to give a bit of birding spice. I was surprised to find lots of creeping willow growing across the tops here. I found some toadstools as well which I must check out.
With lunch done its time to move. We plot a line back to the summit of South Rusky hill and from there we begin our descend The descend is easier going than climbing and we make steady progress to the lower levels. Our attention is taken once again by a Hen Harrier. This one is in a dispute with a Raven. They go at it hammer and tongs with the Hen Harrier gaining the upper hand. Eventually the Raven lands on a fence stab and refuses to move again. The Harrier soon looses interest in the stationary bird and moves off.
Leaving the heather and back on the peat track it’s a matter of retracing our tracks back to happy valley. The track is bare at the moment but by June when the lads will be taking their pupils up here this will be one of the most impressive wild flower sights in Orkney With a valley full of bird song.
Its been a good walk to day but June should bring a stunning contrast in the fauna and flora to be seen.

Apr 19, 2009

Just been out setting up a moth trap i have just made up and there is a Snipe drumming...kick ass!!!

Apr 17, 2009

A raft of Eiders feeding on a raft of bladder wrack...Winnick

The weather to day was cold and fresh easterly but with high skys and little chance of a fall of migrants. Yet undaunted I made my way to Burwick at the most southerly point of the mainland….ok so I know its actually St Margaret’s hope but so what!! It was freezing ant the journey probably had more to do with the new bike than the slim chance of a passing migrant. Burwick had sweet fa just a good flock of Linnets. A spin to Hestly woods found a bit of a work party going on so I bypassed that and went to the shore at winnick. Hear I found another Wheatear that possibly had just come off the sea. That was to be my lucky bird for the day tho and I saw nothing after it..lol..I had a walk down below the cliffs and took some pictures before heading off home. A crap days birding saved by biking!...god bless motor bikes!
A wee mosey out west yesterday managed to turn up a few birds in what were really very poor conditions to bring down migrants. All told I had a flock of Meadow pipits that were noisy and mobile and over twenty five strong... Skail loch was a bit wind swept but I had fine views of Slavonian grebes in there splendid and splendid is the word, summer plumage. The beach had a golden lab two collies and a bitsa, needless to say there were bugger all birds. Marwick bay started with great promise with a Male Wheatear on the dyke right beside me as I took my helmet off. The beach had a poor smattering of the usual subjects but no white winged gulls. The walk to the cliffs certainly had a few common migrants about tho with Mippits and wagtails a plenty. The field besides the track and the rocks at the geos held another four Wheatears in m/f pairs. Marwick head really held only Fulmars and roosting Kittiwakes. The Kitty wakes all streamed off the faces at one point. I don’t know what spooked them but they circled a couple of times and mostly settled back. Lower ledges held one or two razor bills but no Guillemots at all. A look out to sea soon revealed small numbers of guillies sitting in lines, maybe a few hundred in all. I did manage three Puffins tho these circled and landed out of sight below me some where. Jackdaws were very evident and the pair of ravens were about. The usual few gannets wheeled and dived as they do. There was no sign of Artics or Bonxies. They are starting to get sporadically reported now and there’s a report of birds settling on nesting territories so its all starting to heat up despite the cold!! That was about that I had another three Wheatears on the road back but little else of note.

Apr 9, 2009


Yesterday there were three small flocks of Golden Plover heading north between Dounby and the Harray hall. This morning there is a huge flock below the Stonyhill rd and the Harray loch.

We had a Wren gathering food in the Regosa yesterday.

Apr 8, 2009


There is no denying that the internet is a fantastic tool. The ability to find information and to interact with people over distances in real times has changed the way we see the world. Orkney has not been immune from the revolution I am pleased to say. Over the past couple of years we have seen the rise of the local specialist sights for those interested in the flora and fauna of the isles. There has been a veritable explosion of web sites like the yahoo members groups of orkbird and orkbotany. They act as an information exchange for their members. Becoming a member of such groups is highly advantageous as you are part of a network supplying each other with up to the minute sightings and locations. Trouble is space is limited to explore the chosen subject. Personal web sites are appearing but the nature of a private site kind of excludes interaction for the most part. The community forum, Orkneys Premier Forum has nature and wildlife sections on it and has proved to be popular with contributors. These interactive forums have seemed a good way forward to me. This takes me on to the point of my post because it seems that the next big step forward has been taken with the birth of the new forum called ORKNEYNATURE. This has been set up as an interactive forum to cover all aspects of Orkneys natural history. Whilst it is still brand new the potential for interesting exchanges of information and its use as an information resource look fantastic. The Western isles and Shetland are all ready served by outstanding natural history sites and it looks as if Orkney is on the fast track to catch up. This is an exciting development for Orkney and information technology. If you have any interest in the wild life and outdoors then stop by and have a look, every one is welcome whatever your level of interest or depth of knowledge. This site needs folks to contribute to grow and succeed. Why not drop in and enjoy yourselves with a contribution or two…its going to grow big and benefit every one!!


Do nothing birding

Still stuck indoors as I am with out transport I have been keeping myself amused with some long distance scanning of the hill sides and heather tops I can see from the back door. I don’t have a huge vista before me but it runs to about three and a half miles of hill side that’s about two or so miles away to the east. With the scope zoomed up to twenty or so my first scan produced Ravens scraping and a Hen harrier. I picked up the Harrier as it was exposed on the sky line. Following the tiny bird it moved down the hill and across the heather. It now took some concentration but I managed to follow it for a while. My next attempt produced a ring tail and a mile later a male hunting some rough grass land on lower slopes. An attempt the next day found a Short eared owl. This proved very interesting as it moved south. Approaching the Lyde valley it began to gain altitude at an astonishing rate and it rose and rose upwards it was soon becoming a speck as it very slowly crossed the valley. Excitedly I thought I was about to see A SEO make a display from height with all the wing clapping and diving that entails. I quickly grabbed my camera with the thought that I could get a bit of film…a bad choice cos search as I might I just couldn’t reacquire the bird. This reminds me of the old adage a bird in the hand!!.The next quick scan a while latter produced a Male hunting over the Lyde road and views of very nice Peregrine moving along on the prowl. Its wet and misty to day so I might have a look later if things improve. It’s a kinda do nothing see every thing birding that’s happening here at the moment…a zen and the art of bird watching phase I suspect.

Apr 6, 2009

I was out a spin about the west mainland this afternoon but nothing was where i wanted it to be. It was one of those half hearted sort of affairs where the wind allways seems to be in the face and the birds disappearing over the horizon. I did manage a few shakey shots of a nice Pintailed drake and a shot of the almost iconic Tuffted drake. Still no bike on the road yet....the morn may be better...

Apr 4, 2009

Grey days


It seems that spring is rushing towards us at breakneck speed. Sadly I am stuck with out transport patiently waiting to get back on the road(day14). All week the weather has been more favourable, pouring rains turned to drizzle and fog punctuated by spells of clear warm stuff that lasted for a day at a time. The constant west/north west air flows moved more southerly for a while. All good for us as the first of the migrants are starting to get called. I had a bonxie the other day and we had a lesser black backed gull. There have been Chiffchaffs in Kirkwall. Out here in the west mainland Pinkfeet going over at altitude yesterday.
The ring necked duck is still present on North Ron. Over the last few days North Ron blog has reported a couple of Swallows,16 Wheatears, Chiffchaff, Siskin, Wood Pigeon and a golden plover flock that numbered 230. I must go over Deerness way and have a look for some ,they should be in their summer plumage and looking stunning now!.
On shap a male Ruddy duck has appeared on Milldam and 450 Pinkfeet in one flock might have been a record. There was a Hawfinch on Deerness giving good views on feeders yesterday(pisser not having transport) Tim had three Grey wagtails on the Willow burn in the Middle of Kirkwall. Around the house we are still surrounded by grazing Greylags and Widgeon. It can’t last much longer!

Apr 3, 2009

Great news for Fair Isle bird obbs

It looks like good fortune follows good fortune today for the Fair Isle bird observatory with the brilliant news that the Scottish government as part of its announcement of £67m of grants it has just handed out FIBO will receive nearly £2m. This on top of the £400’000 announced from the HIE should have the place rebuilt in no time….brilliant news for the island and birding.