Sunday 20 January 2019

Small Year, Part 3

May was a time of renewed enthusiasm for the project, with Spring migrants appearing for the breeding season. These species helped achieve the second highest monthly total of the year, with only a few resident species in the mix, and two thirds of the birds being seen in Orkney. The exceptions were those species seen on a trip to a wedding near Edinburgh, although one of these was also seen subsequently in Orkney.

The beginning of May saw me on the rooftop of a low building on the island of Papa Westray. This was a working day and my mission was to refit several satellite dishes into place following the completion of an extension to a property. The main logistical problem was that all the scaffolding had been removed, and the fact that it was impossible for me to bring an aluminium ladder to site on Loganair's small aircraft. But the Papay community saved the day and I was able to borrow a ladder which was just long enough for me to raise my game. Once safely ensconced on the roof, the dish alignment procedure was going well, when I became aware of bird calls not far above my head. Armed only with a 13mm spanner, rather than a pair of binoculars, I could only ID the birds as being terns, but I did notice that there was a constant stream of them appearing over the top of the hill behind me, whizzing over my head and making a beeline for a field not too far away. I had initially worried that I was causing them some concern and that they were mobbing me, but I soon realised that I just happened to be on their flight path from wherever they were feeding. Later, at ground level, chatting with a local wildlife expert, I was shown the field in question, which contained an impressively large, for Orkney, colony of Sandwich Terns.

The following day, whilst driving past Kirkwall airport, I was fortunate to spot a Short-eared Owl, which was sat on a fence post by the roadside. Although some of these birds do overwinter in Orkney, this was the first one I'd seen for the year, and sadly, I wasn't to see many more. The jury is still out as to the possible causes for this, but there are concerns that their primary prey item, the Orkney Vole, is being extirpated by Stoats. No voles will likely lead to no owls.

Later that week, on a trip to visit friends in West Mainland, one of the quintessential aural experiences of the Spring migration burst into our ears with the distant call of a Cuckoo. You could almost sense all the local Meadow Pipits cringing in a collective "Here we go again!" as they considered the annual prospect of brood/nest parasitism.

The following Saturday saw a few more migrants popping up on my list, Arctic and Little Terns, as told at the time here. These were quickly followed by Sedge Warbler and Sand Martin whilst out looking for early damselflies at Inganess. The week also brought Lesser Black-backed Gull and House Martin. A mini-cruise organised for the Orkney Nature Festival fortuitously delivered a few Puffins swimming in the sea at the base of the cliffs of St John's Head in Hoy.

Just before our trip south, and also in Hoy, I was carrying out a survey at a site near Sandy Loch. With half an hour to spare before I needed to be heading back for the ferry, I walked up to the loch to see if there were any dragons or damsels to be seen on the adjacent pools. Sadly, there were not, but I did see a Common Sandpiper, with its distinctive three note call which had been burnt into my psyche from bird watching as a youngster on the banks of the River Wear as it flowed through agricultural land in County Durham.

And so to our trip to Dalhousie for a niece's wedding. Our first pitstop of the journey was at Helmsdale, where a few moments' perusal of the garden of a tea shop brought a Blackcap and... praise the Lord... a Bullfinch, the species I'd missed on the 1st of January! Then, in Tain, whilst walking along the main street, we were enterTained (sorry!) by a small, but welcome, horde of Swifts. There may have been rapture.

We weren't in a hurry on this journey and had purchased a picnic to be consumed near Loch Garten, whilst looking for White-faced Darter dragonflies. The odes certainly didn't disappoint, and we also clocked a Tree Pipit, singing from the top of a nearby pine tree.

The wedding weekend was a lovely occasion, only requiring the slightest of enhancements with the calls of Tawny Owl and Great Spotted Woodpecker!

To end the month, back in Orkney, I was dropping off my van for a service in Stromness and walking into town to be picked up by Our Lass, when the distinctive call of a Whitethroat reached me from an area of scrubby vegetation. This was another sound from my childhood, walking along between pastures bounded by high hedgerows, and the rasping song of this perky warbler.

May saw me break through the 100 species barrier but, although I didn't yet know it, I had already experienced the four best scoring months of the year. The remaining seven months would bring further opportunities, admittedly, with Scottish holiday weeks in Summer and Autumn, the Autumn migration and Winter arrivals in Orkney. They would also bring another 'nul points' month. But what would I see? And would it be quantity or quality?

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