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.


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.



Leach's Petrel with Storm-petrel behind it


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.


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


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

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