Sunday, 17 July 2011

One good tern...

Returning to our holiday theme, one of the attractions of Orkney in early Summer is the sheer quantity of breeding waders and seabirds, despite the decline in numbers of some species. The reduction in food supply, principally sand eels, has meant that many seabirds have not bred successfully for several years in a row. Whilst they do tend to be long-lived and so can try again another year, no species can withstand repeated failures on the scales seen in recent times without there being a major concern over the viability of the population to recover. 

There are several colonies of Arctic Terns on North Ronaldsay, which, due to the low-lying nature of the island, are in pastures or behind the beaches. However, the wardens at the Bird Observatory told us that the week before our visit, heavy rain over several days put paid to eggs and chicks alike, resulting in a total failure of the species to produce any young on North Ronaldsay for 2011. This was also true of other ground-nesting birds, where a few day's poor weather wiped out a whole generation.

Ironically, during our stay on the island, the weather was mainly warm and dry by Orcadian standards, which at least meant we could spend time watching these gorgeous birds.

The above shot was taken at the golf course, a splendid nine hole arrangement behind Linklet Bay. When I say'splendid', I mean for bird watching, as the presence of grazing sheep and the inevitable product of their endeavours would make for an interesting round of the game.

We regularly visited this spot, as it was terrain that Our Lass could negotiate without too much swearing trouble and another sojourn resulted in the surprising sighting of a pair of Little Terns. You may recall, dear reader, that on the Tense Towers team trip to Norfolk at the end of May, we had the good fortune to see a large breeding colony of these birds at Winterton dunes. And you may also remember that I did not take my camera with me on that morning. Suffice it to say, though I was now in the company of Cameron Binns, I couldn't manage other than a record shot of either of the birds as they flew along the shore and over the golf course.

The following week, we moved to another island, via a 15 minute flight to Papa Westray and then a 30 minute ferry crossing to Westray itself. Whilst we were out looking for Puffins at Castle o' Burrian, I spotted a tern sat on a rock at the far side of the bay of Rack Wick. It was too distant to be sure what it was, but I did know it wasn't an Arctic or a Common or a Little one. The Admiral came to my rescue, identifying it as a Sandwich Tern, but before we could think moving closer for a better view, an Arctic Skua harassed it into flying away. My disappointment was tempered by the fact that this was a new species for me, as my sandwiches don't normally attract the attention of piratical skuas.

A few days later, the Admiral and I were walking along the west coast path, enjoying views over the sea to Rousay and the gloriously sunny weather. A bird shot passed that wasn't the normal Fulmar or Great Black-backed Gull or Arctic Tern. This time we were close enough to hear its call, which was very different to those I already knew. Another Sandwich Tern! It made several  trips back and forth along the coast, allowing an opportunity to at least capture some sort of image.

Wishing to share these fantastic birds with other nature lovers, we contacted Graham Maben from Westraak, the local wildlife tour operator, who told us that half a dozen pairs do come to the island each year. Graham was soon able to return the favour, but that, as they say, is a story for another day.

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