Monday 8 August 2011

A bit more Northern Isles birding

It's now several weeks since our Orkney holiday, but you're going to have to put up with a few more posts yet. At least until the dragonfly season threatens to pick up!

One of the great things about visiting North Ronaldsay in late Spring/early Summer, is the sheer amount of birdlife on tap. As soon as we stuck our noses out of the door of the Obs, we were immersed in a feathered assemblage, all hell bent on raising their families.

This female Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe, was looking for insects to feed her growing brood. The calls from the island's Wheatear population, a collection of whistles and clicks, followed us everywhere we went.

Whilst the Gannet, Morus bassanus, does not breed on North Ron, a constant stream of birds from nearby colonies feed in the waters surrounding the island. I was neither skilful enough or lucky enough to capture a photo of their steep diagonal dives for fish, but this bird flew by at low altitude and at a leisurely pace, allowing even a duffer like me the chance of a picture.

There are several colonies of Black Guillemot, Cepphus grylle, around the coast, with their simple but stylish plumage. By sitting quietly and patiently in an appropriate spot, we were able to gain some fantastic views of these Tysties, as they are known in the Northern Isles.

Down by the pier, we were fortunate to glimpse a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, Mergus serrator. This is the male in eclipse plumage, not as spectacular as earlier in the breeding season, but my first confirmed sighting of a blokey Merg, so I was happy.

One evening, this little bird was the cause of quite a bit of excitement at the Obs. Not that you would think so, to look at it. There we were, with our fellow guests, enjoying a postprandial cup of tea in the lounge/bar, when a breathless member of staff burst through the double doors. I should explain that the Bird Observatory staff are, on the whole, a calm and unflappable bunch, so to see one fired up on adrenalin was quite interesting in itself.

It transpired that a warbler netted at one of their ringing sites, was not what it had at first seemed, and ripples of excitement spread out through the island birding fraternity towards the assembled tea and coffee drinkers in the lounge. Only the Admiral and I seemed to react to the words "Blyth's Reed Warbler", the Admiral because he knew what it was and me because I knew I didn't! We grabbed our cameras, jumped in the hire car and, for the one and only time in the week, hit 5th gear, as we sped the short distance up the island in the tracks of the Obs Land Rover.

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Acrocephalus dumetorum, is a rare bird in the UK. It normally only travels as far west as Finland in Summer, but this was North Ron's second of the year, as happily related in their blog for the day and their weekly round-up of Obs life. As mentioned above, I would not have known this wee bird from a standard Reed Warbler Version 1.0, but the staff took the time to explain which features led them to be able to identify it as a Blyth's. There was much talk of the longer pale supercilium (eye stripe, to you and me) and short primary projection (wings not as big), but the most fascinating thing of all wasn't the warbler. It was the staff. Here they were, doing the thing that floated their boats, being up close and personal with rare birds and adding to our collective ornithological knowledge with their meticulous data logging and recording. It was a real joy to see them in their natural habitat, chucking birding buzz words around with ever-so-slightly-controlled abandon. Thanks, guys, for cherishing my inner geek.

In contrast, over on Westray the following week, I managed to photograph a common bird that I've seen on countless occasions but have struggled to approach close enough to garner a decent image.

The Hooded Crow, Corvus corone corvix, is a different race of the species that also boasts the Carrion Crow, and it is found in North and East Europe. There is an unofficial border between the two races in the UK, roughly along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, Hoodies to the north, Carrion to the south. They are wary birds, so I considered myself fortunate to stumble across this  individual along the cliff tops at Castle o' Burrian, when I was actually trying to photograph a Curlew. 

Serendipitous, indeed.


holdingmoments said...

A real paradise Graeme.
Lovely shot of the Wheatear, and congratulations on the Blyth's Reed Warbler.

Martin said...

I didn't realise the dividing line between Carrion and Hoodies was so far north. I used to take them for granted in Oban and there is always a smile on my face the first time i see one on a trip :)

Imperfect and Tense said...

Thanks, Keith. Sadly I cannot claim any credit for the BRW!

Martin, the line is very blurry, but yes, it is a great indicator that you're on a journey north.