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


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.


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.


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.

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