One afternoon last week, I had the opportunity to accompany a colleague on a wildlife survey. So far, so normal. The difference was that it was in a habitat I don't routinely frequent, looking for species which I often struggle to ID, and what else, oh yes, they were dead. Welcome to the UK beached bird survey, a long-running project aimed at calculating the seabird losses due to chronic oil spills in the North Sea and beyond.
This project has been running for nearly 3 decades, although the first such surveys were carried out in the 1920s. In recent times, Orkney has been more regularly monitored (monthly) than elsewhere (annually), due to the presence of the oil terminal on the island of Flotta, ship-to-ship transfers in Scapa Flow and the general proximity of the oil fields in the North Sea. Here's a link to a report of last year's survey.
I met up with Beached Bird Survey regular, Eagle-eyed M, who explained the methodology of the survey, what sorts of things we would be looking for, what else we might see and, quite importantly, wasn't it lovely weather?
The first beach to be surveyed (in effect a saunter along the high tide line, looking at the accumulated sea weed) was in Orphir Bay. We tracked west than east, to cover the shoreline either side of the burn mouth by the footbridge.
I was reassured early on that we were unlikely to find many dead birds, as coastal pollution has reduced considerably in recent decades, and we have not had any huge storms in the previous few weeks. If I was listening carefully, I recall that the survey is carried out in the days around a full moon, ensuring that there has been some very high tides, presumably to keep the target area as small as possible.
It is probably fairly obvious that looking for dead things is nowhere near as joyful an experience as looking for live things. I have to admit, it is also very easy to become happily distracted by all the living things that are flying about (birds and insects) as well as feeling despair at all the marine litter washed up on the shore. We made mental notes to return at some point to tackle all the plastic detritus (plenty of beach cleans in the pipeline for the Spring).
Offshore, we could hear male Long-tailed Ducks calling, busily trying to impress the ladies. Eiders, too, were whoo-oo-ing in their attempts to whoo (sorry!). And then, be still my beating heart, a Great Northern Diver called, that haunting sound so redolent of any soundtrack of wild northern places.
The west side of the bay was clear of avian death, but we found a deceased Great Black-backed Gull as soon as we ventured to the east. A complete carcass, no oil, nor any obvious signs of the cause of its demise. At the most easterly point of the bay, there was a dead Shag (I couldn't have ID'd it from a Cormorant, but I wasn't the expert here). Again, no obvious reason for its passing.
The second survey area was the eastern and northern part of Waulkmill Bay.
Taking the steep steps down the side of the cliff, we emerged onto the sandy beach and tracked anti-clockwise around the bay. Above us on the steep heather-clad cliff, several Stonechats were flitting to and fro, whilst a couple of Wrens sang from cover. Halfway along the strand line on the northern side of the bay, M spotted four small birds which had flown over our heads and had landed on the shingle in front of us. Initially, I couldn't see them, so perfectly camouflaged were they. Eventually, though, a little movement gave them away... Snow Buntings!
And, even more happily, there were no dead birds to record at Waulkmill. Just a few small flocks of very much alive waders, Redshank and Oystercatcher, foraging along the tide line.