Wednesday, 27 January 2016

An update from Germany! (15th December-27th January)

For the last month I’ve been staying with relatives in Germany, first visiting my sister in Berlin for a few days before moving on to Munster briefly to visit my aunt then on to Pantenburg (Rheinland-Pfalz) for a family reunion over Christmas at my grandma’s.

Whilst visiting my sister I managed to fit in some birding but besides that, the Christmas markets and lazing around in the flat meant there was little time left to explore some of the surrounding lakes as I had hoped.  A walk through the Tiergarten park was fairly productive with some frosty Treecreepers (ssp. macrodactyla were very educational) as were the euopea spp. of Long-tailed Tit. In fact, there were even one or two Northern Long-tailed Tits within the tit flocks.  However, the majority of the group comprised intermediate birds with a variable trace of dark nape stripes leading between the mantle and over the crown towards the eye (mostly falling short of the eye though).


Northern Long-tailed Tit

intermediate Long-tailed Tit

Continental Treecreeper ssp. macrodactyla

A showy Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Hawfinch were an added bonus and the sight of Tree Sparrows in the inner city was also quite amusing.  Further trips included two visits to Adlershof in order to track down some Crested Larks reported in the area.  Although the area included a lot of suitable habitat I only managed to get two brief views of a lark sp. flying away from me, I’ll simply have to keep searching whenever the opportunity arises again.  Other birds of note included a Black Redstart, Lesser Redpolls, Siskins, and a male Yellowhammer.  This bird too was rather educational as it had orange submoustachial stripes connected at the base of the chin.  I remember reading about eastern birds sporting such features so was intrigued to see that it was possible to encounter such birds as far west on the continent as Berlin.

Adlershof, Berlin

My sister and I also went for a walk around Flakensee, a large lake near Erkner.  Although it was dusk by the time we arrived we came across a Mink at the water’s edge, a Goosander, numerous Coot, Mallard and a few Mute Swans. The walk along the lake edge was also punctuated by the occasional felled tree, the work of Beavers! Other noteworthy birds whilst I was in Berlin include a pair of Mandarins in the small park opposite my sisters flat, a flock of 19 Ravens and numerous Treecreepers (including several potential Short-toed Treecreepers which didn’t provide suitable views for confirmation).

My sister and I then took the coach to Munster on the 20th December to visit my aunt Marianne. The low-lying town has a very flat topography which has made it the most popular town in Germany to commute by bike with additional thanks to its numerous cycle paths.  It was therefore easy to head out for a mornings birding to the local nature reserve, Die Riesel Felder just a short 15 minute ride away.  The following morning I was there at dawn but decided to walk instead and was fortunate enough to see Red Squirrels in the woodland, numerous Marsh Tits (they seemed to be the commonest tit species in the area), and shortly before arriving at the reserve I noticed a group of 7 White Storks wandering around a stubble field together with the escape African Bald Ibis, Egyptian Geese, and some Greylags.  The reserve was even more productive with large areas of reedbed and small water bodies and a large muddy surface.  These hosted 4 Great White Egrets, 100’s Eurasian White-fronted Geese, Lapwing, Shoveler, Teal, Pintail, Mallard, Gadwall and a Red-crested Pochard. A quick look at ornitho.de the previous evening gave me the heads up that there was a MARSH SANDPIPER on the on the reserve.  This proved surprisingly easy to find and became my first German rarity!  A Great Grey Shrike, Yellow-legged Gulls and a few potential distant Caspian Gulls were also present.  Latter visits produced a single flock of 400+ Eurasian White-fronted Geese and 8 White Storks (6 of which were darvic ringed, including one with additional colour rings on the left leg (blue over yellow) all above the tarsus joint).  A distant large mammal on the far side of a pond (presumably a Coypu) at the water’s edge knawing on some vegetation was a surprise too.  Other perambulations about Munster produced Hawfinches, calling Bullfinch (unfortunately didn’t get to see it to check for Northern Bullfinch) and more Long-tailed Tits (all spp. europea with no Northerns or intermediates).

African Bald Ibis

Great White Egret

Marsh Sandpiper


White Storks





Eurasian White-fronted Geese







The third location of my trip was Pantenburg for a family reunion over Christmas.  Highlights from 23rd-31st December included numerous Crested Tits and Marsh Tits in the local woodland, great views of a Black Woodpecker at the Sportplatz along with a couple other calling birds, up to 200 Yellowhammer along the Feldweg, together with dozens of Tree Sparrows and the odd Hawfinch.  I was lucky enough to flush a Woodcock from the side of the woodland path despite a hunt going on the previous day in the same area.  Most surprising of all was a flock of 113 Cranes flying NE over the village on the 28th December (first heard whilst inside my grandma’s house).  Goshawks, an additional speciality, were seen over the Sportplatz on the 27th Dec and one from the Feldweg on the 31st Dec.  Other species of note included Continental Coal Tits (a target species which I hoped to study a little more closely whilst in Germany), Willow Tit, a ringed Kestrel, Red Squirrels and 3 Hares inside the woodland which bolted away across the leaf litter.  6 Golden Plover and 23 Lapwing were also seen from the Feltweg on the 31st.

Pantenburg woodland near the Sportplatz

Continental Chaffinch


sunset viewed from the Altenberghutte

Cranes over Pantengurg

Brambling on the Feltweg

Cranes over Trier

Bullfinch looking a little bit like a Northern

The New Year started gradually, despite not yearlisting it was nicenote my first bird of the year, a Hawfinch flying over on my way up the road to see my cousins.  Later highlights over the early part of January included 1-2 Goshawks seen from the Altenberghutte chasing Woodpigeons in the far south of the valley, 76 Cranes (including 12 juvs) pitched down in the stubble field by the Feldweg (latter heard calling over the village as they dispersed), Short-toed Treecreepers, Willow Tits and 1-2 Middle Spotted Woodpeckers only meters from my grandmas front door.

As always, a trip to Sangweiher (the nearest nature reserve with a decent water body) was on the cards.  The opportunity arose on the 8th Jan, with a bike sorted I cycled up the Fahrradweg (an old train line converted to a bridle way).  Shortly before arriving at the reserve were 2 Great White Egrets wandering around the damp meadows.  Shortly after turning off the bridle way a small flock of 10-15 Bullfinches flew up from the side of the track. These were carefully scrutinised and revealed that almost all seemed to be Continental birds, however, an obliging female did stand out considerably in displaying some subtle Northern Bullfinch characteristics.  Being noticeably larger than the accompanying Bullfinches the mantle was several shades paler, as was the breast and belly.  The upperparts also lacked the deeper brown tones of the other females and similarly lacked the rich dirty brown underside, replaced with a pale pastel grey with a hint of purple.  The lozenge mark on the undertail was not apparent but the wing bar was cleaner white and seemed to have a trace of a serrated upper edge.  I only managed to grab a distant photo of it but the impression of a noticeably paler washed out bird amongst the classic continental birds was surprisingly striking.

Bullfinch, an individual with a white lozenge mark on the undertail

Other birds of note included 3 Cranes (2 adults, 1 juv) on the far side of the reserve before flying south, 2 Willow Tits and good numbers of Teal and Mallard.

A Brambling along the Feldweg amongst the large flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammers was a minor target species followed by a second stunning adult male near the end of the month.

Further Cranes were heard in dense fog on the 9th January (Pantenburg), 2 adults flew through on the 10th (also Pantenburg), a flock of 38 went west over Trier on the 11th, 56+ were seen distantly flying south over Manderscheid on the 13th, 3 went east over Pantenburg on the 14th and a flock was heard passing over the east end of Pantenburg on the 19th in the dark.  Numerous Black Woodpeckers were seen in the surrounding woodlands including two active nests found.  Display calls were heard on one occasion on the 20th January.

A second visit to Sangweiher on the 22nd January was rather different to the first.  The water body was totally frozen over so the only wildfowl were 9 Teal and a few flyover Mallards near the sewage works.  There were 30 Bullifnches in the area including a flock of 17 showing many Northern Bullfinch characteristics.  Several females had clear lozenge marks on the undertail (one a bold drop shaped mark overlapping onto two webs).  They were noticeably larger built with pastel toned underparts.  One male nearly had the full set of features, clear white lozenge on the undertail, cold pink chest, pale blue/grey upperparts and white serrated GCs.  Another male even had some traces of pink feathering in the crown.

Other highlights included Willow Tit and 2 Foxes at the neighbouring nature reserve (Mürmes).

On the 25th January I drove on to Aachen to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins the Schmitz-Kerpen family.  A few wanderings to the local parkland produced numerous Hawfinches and on a walk through the woodland near Buir to see the derelict motorway about to be sacrificed to the expansion of a coal mine the only bird encountered in the woodland was a single Middle-spotted Woodpecker.

Post-North Ron Doldrums (20th November-14th December)

The journey back from North Ron involved a brief flight to Kirkwall (the Peedie Sea produced Long-tailed Ducks and a Black Swan) followed by an overnight stay before continuing the following morning with Kevin and Alison in their camper-van to South Ronaldsay where we took the ferry to Gills Bay.    A brief stop at John O' Groats was followed by a long journey south to Inverness and then finishing the journey by coach to London.  The ferry crossing produced a couple noteworthy birds including Great Northern Divers, 2 Bonxies, Puffin, Black Guillemots and Long-tailed Ducks.

I'd barely recovered from the journey but decided that a visit to Staines Res the day after I got back from Scotland (21st November) wouldn't hurt. Reward in the form of 3 Scaup, large numbers of Tufted Duck, Mallard, Pochard, Wigeon, lesser numbers of Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler and Goldeneye.

Employing the North Ron birding style on my patch by walking as many hedrows as possible and zig-zagging across the fields was well worth the effort Ephraim and I invested. The patch produced numerous Goldcrests, Redwings, Fieldfares, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds erupting around us as we walked the periphery of the fields. Despite the mild winter, the technique paid dividends with the highlight being my first patch Woodcock bursting from cover and making a bid for freedom over the nearest tall hedge. Yellowhammers were also present around much of the farmland along with lesser numbers of Bullfinches, the occasional Little Owl and other wildlife in the form of a Red Admiral and Fox.

A second visit to Staines Res and Moor with Ephraim produced a total of 7 Water Pipits along the banks of the River Colne, a Jack Snipe, 2 Cetti’s Warblers, Stonechats and flyover Siskins.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

North Ron (30th August-19th November)

Here's an attempt at rounding up three months worth of sightings into one blog post from the latter part of my volunteer experience on North Ron.

Twingness sunset

The 30th August heralded an impressive passage of over 395+ Swifts (the highest day record for the island!)

A second batch of Barred Warblers arrived in early September and a seawatch on 1st produced a pod of 4 Risso's Dolphins and a trickle of Sooty Shearwwaters.  Another highlight materialised at a rather unexpected time.  I was in the bar lounge at the time serving a guest when I noticed a warbler working it's way along the fence from the window.  As most of the Willow Warblers had moved on by now I thought it would be worth scrutinising this one a little more closely.  As the bird flitted closer I could just about make out the faint wing bar, it was a GREENISH WARBLER!  In a mad rush I dashed around the obs scooping together whoever I could before frantically trying to relocate the bird once I'd grabbed my bins and camera.  Fortunately it was only a matter of a few minutes before it was relocated in T4 where it was promptly trapped and ringed!

Arctic Terns



Wheatear fledgling

Ruff

A couple Barred Warblers surfaced around the early part of the month assisted by the NE winds followed by another surge of Wheatear passage and seabirds.  A CITRINE WAGTAIL on the 6th added additional spice to the day along with the remaining Greenish Warbler.  The 7th brought with it a potential Arctic Peregrine which shot past George, Mark and I at Holland (further notes and photos on the NRBO website).  Other notable species for the early part of the month included the lingering Wood Sandpipers, Little Stints, Lesser Whitethroats (including a likely blythi trapped at Holland), Pied Flycatchers, Spotted Flycatchers, a few Rosefinches, Wood Warblers and juv Marsh Harriers touring the island.  A spectacular year for Yellow-browed Warblers was had at NRBO with birds arriving from early/mid-September, soon becoming one of the commonest phyloscs on the island!  A small number of Snow Buntings began to arrive throughout the month leading to an impressive climax as over 700+ in a single day.  The odd Wryneck also cropped up through the month but moved on quickly due to the total absence of suitable food.

Kestrel

Offshore, Red-throated Diver numbers began to build up along with some Great Northern Divers.  Long-tailed Ducks also increased with over 35+ riding the swell with the Eiders and Wigeon.  A couple juv Merlins were nice additions to the daily census as were Whinchats and Siberian Chiffchaff, PintailJack Snipe and good numbers of commoner wildfowl.  Mark produced yet another good find on the 22nd in the form of a BLYTH'S REED WARBLER skulking through the Senness dock field before trapping and ringing it.

The 25th September hosted one of the most awesome experiences I've had, a frantic dash up to Westness with George, Johny and Espen to meet an elated Mark who'd just encountered yesterday's harrier found by the Heatherlea birding group, it was a stunning male NORTHERN HARRIER!!!  A good portion of our time was then spent dashing around the island in land rovers trying to keep up with it.  We were treated to excellent views but best of all was seeing it glide past me at Brides before pursuing a flock of Snow Buntings!  It treated us by remaining on the island and was still present after my departure in late November.  Other highlights included our first Lapland Buntings of the autumn, occasional flyover Tree Pipits and a Richard's Pipit.  Some other entertaining sightings included the annual Pink-footed Goose, Barnacle Goose and Whooper Swan passage, a great spectacle to behold and another treasured experience.  A Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Slavonian Grebe on the 1st October began the month nicely.  Seawatching produced plenty of auks, Sooty Shearwaters, a few Pomarine Skuas, Bonxies, Arctic Skuas and Harbour Porpoises.  October also marked the beginning of the owl passage with NRBOs best year yet for Short-eared Owls with some fields containing a dozen birds!  Long-eared Owls were also encountered on many days with the occasional bird also trapped at Holland or at the obs.  Additional scarcities arriving on the island included a Bluethroat and Little Bunting.  A frustrating census on the 7th yielded 2 Grasshopper Warblers (neither of them were the hoped for rare).  The last two months of my stay involved being swamped with Snipe with up to a hundred being flushed from a single loch or damp field.  Woodcock also built up in number with birds bursting up at my feet from behind dykes or tussock grass inflicting a rather sudden dose of shock and adrenalin.  These arrived alongside a large fall of winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings streaming overhead, flocks of Blackbirds, a few Ring Ouzels and commoner passerine migrants bursting up from under rocks every step of the way, it was incredible!  Northerly winds brought with them a few Glaucous Gulls, an Iceland Gull and a large fall of Goldcrests which smothered the west cliffs and the rest of the dykes along my census route.  Bramblings also arrived in early October along with a Redstart (potentially of the eastern race samamiscus), a few Great Grey Shrikes and a TEMMINCK'S STINT at Trola before relocating to Bewan and Gretchen the following day.

With numbers building steadily and netting at Holland becoming particularly busy we found ourselves processing many Goldcrests and Redwings (including many coburni).  It was in the midst of this that Mark phoned with the discovery of an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT which was promptly twitched before returning to help the others at nets again.  Yet another great pipit find by Mark the following day.  This time a PECHORA!  I was at the northern end of the island and had just started walking Quoy Banks when the call came through, the bike ride back to Hooking was a mad rush and I got a few smirks from the other volunteers for arriving red in the face and totally sweating but it was worth it!  Only flight views were had to start with but Espen and I persisted and eventually caught up with the bird showing reasonably well on the deck.  A Firecrest the following day was on a par with Pechora for being the 5th island record but wasn't quite as exciting having been spoilt with them as a garden bird in Cornwall.

Goldcrest

Purple Sandpipers (including one with a darkish breast)

The 18th yielded something truly special, a HUMPBACK WHALE!  A special encounter shared with many islanders and visitors as we watched it cruise past, arching its back and occasionally raising its fluke out of the water to begin a deeper dive.  Nearing the latter part of the month, seawatching was given another bought of attention.  This rewarded us with yet more Pomarine Skuas, a few late Storm Petrels and our first Little Auks, which began appearing more regularly and in greater number as November loomed up.  As winter slowly dawned upon the island the last of the winter thrushes moved through, leaving the stragglers and less fit individuals behind (including many wounded or tailless birds to make the journey at their own peril).  Amongst the late autumn surprises was a redhead Smew at Bewan, good numbers of Pintail, occasional Goldeneye, daily Hen Harriers and a Stonechat.

Mark, George, Espen and I took two days off for a quick trip to Papa Westray from 29th-30th October and were fortunate enough to successfully twitch the CHESTNUT BUNTING on it's last day!  The following day was spent birding the rest of the island, tallying up a few Woodcocks (including a bird that nearly collided with my face after the others inadvertently flushed it, this triggered off quite a lot of laughter!).  Great Northern Divers were on the move and other birds of note included Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Guillemots, a Siberian Chiffchaff, Hen Harrier, Peregrine and a small flock of Snow Buntings were a few highlights.

Back on North Ron, the educational autumn continued with in the hand views of Yellowhammer, Great Grey Shrike and a great deal more commoner migrants.  My final month on the island was equally exciting as the rest with seawatching producing a few Black-throated Divers and a surprise Velvet Scoter quite a few more Little Auks, Pomarine Skuas and Sooty Shearwaters and I managed to get some experience of a variety of "Blue" Fulmar shades.  I was also very keen to scrutinise the Woodcocks which we trapped with many happy hours spent trawling the obs bookshelves and internet with Mark in our attempts to understand what was going on with the birds we'd been trapping.  Perhaps one of my favourite moments to round off my time on North Ron was the discovery of an Icelandic Snow Bunting on the East Links (followed by a few other individuals later in the month).  Having read the Garner winter challenge series and indulging in some further reading I finally had a chance to put what I'd learnt into practice.  Despite a substantial decrease in their presence from the many hundred that had graced the island earlier in the year I thought my chances had all but vanished.  As a result I spent a good two hours scrutinising the bird, only the presence of some islanders with JCBs collecting gravel from the beach suppressed my anxiety to burst out into a dance out of sheer joy!

Snow Buntings

nivalis Snow Bunting

November also brought a Pale-bellied Brent Goose to the island, Mealy Redpoll, my first Greenfinch of the year, a couple dozen wintering Twite, a distant flock of White-fronted Geese and a drake Green-winged Teal.  And so my time on North Ronaldsay came to a close all that is left is a massive thank you to the staff and volunteers who made my time on the island a massive eduction, enjoyable, fulfilling and a valuable experience.  Thank you Alison Duncan, Kevin Woodbridge, Mark Warren, Fleur Warren, Gavin Woodbridge, Stephen Rutt, George Gay, Pete Butler, Espen Quinto-Ashman, Johny Scragg and everyone else who I met on the island.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

North Ron (23rd July-29th August)

Sigh... yet another long gap between blog posts and it will be particularly hard to catch up on what I've seen in the last month as it has been absolutely hectic birding here on North Ron.  Seawatching attempts yielded 2 Sooty Shearwaters, numerous Storm Petrels and a couple Manx Shearwaters whilst Arctic Terns numbered into their thousands.  Another Leach's Petrel was trapped and ringed on the 27th alongside many more Storm Petrels.  Nearing the end of the month the island began to feel the mid-summer lull in bird activity with only a few Redpoll, Black GuillemotsArctic Skuas and Bonxies to entertain us.  

With the onset of August, activity gradually began to increase again with a few Ruff and Golden Plovers arriving (many still in their stunning summer plumage).  Hundreds of Knot and Sanderling also began moving through the island alongside TurnstoneDunlin, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper and a few Green Sandpipers.  I can hardly contain myself with the excitement at the sight of relatively common waders in their summer plumage so watching hundreds of each on a daily basis is an awesome spectacle to behold and appreciate.

A few Spotted Flycatchers featured along the way adding a spur of excitement to some otherwise quiet census routes.  A Spotted Redshank on Gretchen was a good bird for the island followed by a surprisingly early Fieldfare on the 8th August and a Goldcrest on the 13th.  We were all quite fortunate to get a second stab at connecting with a BEE-EATER which Gavin found flying over the obs before heading to Holland House were all the obs team gauged themselves on its lush colours.

An AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER, found by Stephen mid-month kick started our efforts in preparation for our first wave of common migrants which soon followed the fresh easterly wind. The plover remained for several days and I encountered it on a few occasions, at times alerting itself with it's triple pipping call as it flew over with other Golden Plover.  I also finally connected with my first island Short-eared Owl whilst doing the nets at Holland House.


American Golden Plover


One of my personal highlights was chancing upon a MARSH WARBLER on the 15th whilst heading back to the obs one day to start my shift.  By pure chance I happened to see it perched out in the open on the perimeter fence of Beranha before it realised it didn't like the attention so became a lot more skulking.  Thankfully, proper confirmation came when Kevin, Stephen, George, Alex and I returned with a net.  It was trapped surprisingly quickly but despite taking several biometrics for separating Marsh and Reed the Walinder method failed at assigning the bird to either species.  Using the formula A-(BxC)=? where A=bill to skull, B=tarsus width and C=bill width at base of nostril.  We measured 15.5mm, 2.1mm and 3.4mm for each respectively.  This produced a value of 8.36.  According to Svensons, only six out of 959 fell in the range 8.0-8.5 whilst values between 4.5-8.0 would have confirmed A. palustris and a value between 8.5-12.5 would settle the debate on A. scirpaceus.  It seems this bird was a rare example of one that doesn't assign itself using this formula.  However, dividing the bill to skull measurement by the wing length (68mm) produced a result of 4.39 which is well in the range of Marsh (4.16-4.86) and well outside that for Reed (3.67-4.21).  Bios aside, we were all confident in agreeing that the subtleties in upperpart colouration, fairly pale primary tips, yellowish tarsus and bright feet as well as the general jizz suited Marsh over Reed.

The odd Peregrine has also appeared on the island, often flushing entire wader flocks making census a particularly challenging task not to mention the difficulty of sorting out numbers at log in the evening.  A Marsh Harrier also arrived on the island a little later in the month, producing some mayhem around the lochs as it would often flushed many of the increasing number of wildfowl including TealWigeonGadwallTufted DuckShoveler and Mallard.

Our first proper fall of passerine migrants occurred around the 17th onwards and lasted for over a week with Willow Warbler numbers topping triple figures.  Wheatears have also been trickling through as have a couple dozen Pied FlycatchersWhinchat and lesser numbers of Redstart and Wood Warbler.  I've also been fortunate enough to have found a few Icterine WarblersBarred Warblers and Wrynecks as well as getting to see a few of the former two and one of the latter in the hand.  Helping with the ringing also gave me the opportunity to ring an Icterine Warbler and Barred Warbler for myself after having seen so many in the field for the last few days it was a great treat to observe them at such close quarters.  A trapped Whinchat was a bonus bird to see in the hand.  An influx of lepidoptera has also not gone unnoticed with Painted Ladys and Red Admirals featuring heavily on most days alongside some rewarding moth trapping nights.

Mark Warren (the assistant warden) treated us all to another great find, this time a GREENISH WARBLER at Stennabreck on the 19th which took a fair long time to finally track down but after a few hours of our combined efforts the obs team were able to appreciate some good views and get the chance to take some pictures.

The 20th brought with it yet more good migrants but more of the same with the exception of a Wood Sandpiper which flew overhead calling, I saw a further three on the Post Office Flash on later dates.

BOOTED WARBLER, yet another brilliant bird, found by Johny on his first day on the island took several hours of booting around multiple thistle fields before it gave itself up to the last remaining observers.  It proceeded to show fairly well until dusk, gifting us all with a lot of smiles as additional reward for our hard efforts.  That afternoon a very happy small group of the obs team were watching Icterine WarblerBarred Warbler and Booted Warbler in the same field!



Booted Warbler

By late August several Icterine Warblers and the odd Barred Warbler were still about alongside a more recent arrival of Lesser Whitethroats.  A Garganey also appeared again amongst the Teal only to be flushed yet again by the 2 Marsh Harriers now frequenting the island.  A juvenile Red-backed Shrike on the 25th was my first for the autumn.


Wryneck

Icterine Warbler

Yet another flurry of activity occurred on the 29th when none other than Gary Prescott (the biking birder) walked into the obs!  It was great to get the opportunity to catch up with his adventures since I last met him down in Falmouth where I show him the King Eider on patch.  No sooner had he walked in, Mark phoned.  He'd just found another Greenish Warbler!  Five minutes on the bike and we were watching it hopping around on the wires providing us with some point blank views at close range in the open!  What a way to round up the month.  And we still have two more days of August left, anything can happen!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

North Ronaldsay!! (11th-22nd July)

Well...  It's been a long week and a great deal has happened since I left home for my volunteer placement on North Ronaldsay up in Orkney.  The first leg of my journey took place on the 11th July, leaving London by megabus and arriving in the evening at Aberdeen following a long day on the road.  The following day was spent walking through town to the River Don to find the stream on which a Harlequin Duck had set up residence several months ago.  It had long since moved on but a female Goosander with 4 young were nice to see.  Approaching the beach yielded greater rewards with c.6 Bottlenose Dolphins tumbling over one another, 1 Red-throated Diver flew south whilst Eiders, Sandwich Terns, Kittiwakes and Guillemots were all present in high numbers.  I left Aberdeen by boat at 5pm for the crossing to Kirkwall where I was scheduled to overnight before completing the final stretch of my journey the following morning.  40 Goosander at the entrance of Aberdeen harbour, 1 Storm-petrel, Common Terns, dozens of Puffins, 2 Manx Shearwaters, 8 Bonxies, 1 dark Arctic Skua and a couple Guillemot jumplings with their parents were the highlights of the crossing.  A Common Dolphin also surfaced briefly alongside the ferry.

I finally arrived on North Ron on the 13th after a 15 min plane ride to be greeted by a beaming Kevin Woodbridge who kindly drove me down the road with the land rover to the obs.  The last week has been a massive blur of action starting with a dark Arctic Skua shooting past the land rover as we were pulling out of the airport.  Arctic Terns are everywhere and although I am taking part in a daily bird census I wont bore you with the day-to-day detailed counts.  Nevertheless, a few highlights from the week include daily counts of ever present Bonxies in the region of half a dozen along with lesser numbers of Arctic Skuas.

Kirkwall from the air

my first view of North Ronaldsay

The near total absence of trees leaves only the sheep dykes as shelter.  However, some species still seem to hang on.  Twite, for instance, have featured on nearly every day with singles appearing at random and small flocks being an occasional treat.  Soon after arriving, Gavin Woodbridge kindly invited Molly, Stephen and myself to ring a brood of Meadow Pipits he'd located down the road, a pleasant start of what was to be a week packed with ringing of all kinds.

Twite


Being abused, mobbed, dive bombed, pecked, shouted at, vomited on and being shat on isn't many people's dream but it seems to suit me well as ringing the Arctic Tern chicks from some of the colonies involve just that and it was nothing short of enjoyable.  Besides the tern's harsh behaviour, Kevin, Alison, Heather, Gavin, Stephen, George, Peter and I all joined in on the hunt for newly fledged chicks to ring, something which proved to be both very educational and enjoyable.

Arctic Tern

It takes a while to become accustomed to the fact there are hundreds of Black Guillemots lined up on the dykes around the island squeaking to one another with their unusually high pitched calls.  If there were sailing boats present I'd probably be mistaking it for wind blowing through the rigging!

Black Guillemot

Learning the names of the various lochs and crofts is also a challenge but I feel as if it's gradually coming to me.  Over the last week the team focus for us volunteers has been to count, record and log all the bird and butterfly species we encounter, paying particular attention to any evidence of fledged young.  Wheatear have been particularly prominent amongst the ground nesters with juvenile birds outnumbering the adults.  Young Meadow Pipits are also on the wing, Skylarks are foraging around the cut grass fields collecting food for young and Eiders are lingering in a lot of the bays with their ducklings.  2 pairs of Ravens are also on the island but unfortunately they have suffered repeated losses at attempted breeding due to purposeful human destruction by those trying to protect their sheep.

The shift northwards has also meant I'm privileged enough to see my first ever wild Rock Doves!  Other birds of note include 3 Purple Sandpipers at Green Skerry and the summering Whooper Swan which I've encountered on a regular basis spending the day feeding, sleeping and commuting between various lochs.  On 14th July, whilst approaching the west side of the airfield, I accidentally flushed up a very dark duck sp.  On brief views I was confident it was too dark for Mallard but the white borders to the dark speculum opposed my initial impression of Black Duck.  Fortunately, I grabbed a few photographs which seem to suggest a mixture of Black Duck and Mallard features.  Whilst I haven't concluded anything from my brief views and rubbish photos I was struck by the solid dark tone of the whole body (including upper and underparts), uniform dirty yellow bill and pale underwing contrasting strongly with the dark upperwing.  The speculum didn't show up as blue but instead a very deep purple/brown similar to the rest of the wing.  A thin white border to the speculum was noted though.  Responses from other birders have suggested a hybrid but given the unlikelihood I've decided to let it pass as probably being a darker than usual Mallard.

duck sp.


Rock Dove

As the week has drawn on Mealy Redpoll numbers have increased steadily and reaching a dozen birds or more at peak.  Several Arctic Skuas are also about (mostly dark morphs) but I've encountered the occasional pale morph near the southern end of the island.  I've also spent three evenings petrel ringing, on the 14-15th, 15-16th and 19-20th.  48 Storm-petrels were trapped on the first night (ringing 47 and retrapping a control from Norway) along with a Leach's Petrel!  12 Storm-petrels were trapped and ringed on the second and 114 Storm-petrels were trapped on the third night (including three retraps) along with a second Leach's Petrel.  I also saw 5 Storm-petrels on a short seawatch of Westness on the 18th along with Puffin, Arctic Skuas, the usual Bonxies and the lingering Black Tern which I first saw the same morning after several days of absence.  On my return to the obs I accidentally flushed a burst of colour from the dyke beside me.  It didn't take more than a glance through bins to confirm it was a stunning BEE-EATER!  I scrambled for my scope, camera and phone and just about managed to get a few distant record shots as it landed on the fence before it left in the direction of the East Links.

Bee-eater

Storm-petrel

Leach's Petrel with Storm-petrel behind it

Storm-petrel

Leach's Petrel

partially leucistic Storm-petrel

A short seawatch on the 19th July produced 20 Storm-petrels around dusk in 30 mins and I encountered my first island Hedgehog on the cycle back to the obs.

Hedgehog

A text from Gavin on the 20th with a suspected Pectoral Sandpiper had me running back to the obs to collect a bike before heading north again towards East Links.  I suspected the ID wasn't yet clinched so went through the extra effort of running the last stretch.  Fortunately, the bird was still present when I found Gavin and George who were both still watching it.  I must admit I was a little sceptical of the ID so remained for a good long while taking notes and sketches.  Rather alarmingly I also observed what appeared to be a fully white rump on the few times I saw it in flight, the legs were black and the stance and very grey colouration encouraged me to take some detailed sketches as I had a feeling they'd come in use later on when I'd scrutinise the books in the evening.  Sure enough, on my return, I confirmed my suspicions and voiced my opinion to the other volunteers thinking we'd made a mess up and it was in fact a WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER.  However, the others seemed rather set on sticking with Pec Sand so I left it be.  I stayed up late comparing photos and got up around 4am the following morning to double check pics and head back out into the field with the ambition of clinching the white rump.  However, on arriving at the Links there was no sign of the bird or any of the Ringed Plovers with which it had shared its stay.  Sure enough, on returning to the obs and checking the news services others on the internet had concluded that it was indeed a WRSand.  And that sums up our massive cock up of a misID!

White-rumped Sandpiper



The 21st was an improvement from the failure the day before as we all jammed in on a stunning Honey Buzzard which came drifting along the main road north through the island.  Stephen first reported it flying over Holland House but as I was in a dead spot for phone signal I only received the call and text later that day!  Fortunately, the terns, gulls and Starlings did a good job and alerted me to its presence.  Thankfully, I was able to call news through to the others who intercepted it again over Tor Ness where I could just about make it out being continually mobbed by a huge mass of birds, including an Arctic Skua!

The week was broken up nicely with the ringing of a couple Black Guillemot chicks and a single Ringed Plover chick alongside all the other previously mentioned species.  I've also been privileged to observe "drumming" Snipe for the first time as it's currently occurring all over the island throughout the day.

Stephen with a Black Guillemot chick

Ringed Plover chick

"drumming" Snipe

Curlew

Non-bird highlights included a Hummingbird Hawkmoth seen on two dates at Holland House, a few Large Whites, a Red Admiral, the resident Common Seals and Grey Seals (all in abundance lingering offshore and on the rocky outcrops).  About five different jellyfish species were off the pier but I still haven't got around to identifying them.

Common Seal

unIDed jellyfish



dead Bonxie



dead Arctic Tern found amongst the colony

sunset on the island