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..