With five months of my Small Year having flown by (sometimes quite literally), it seemed that I had already surfed the crests of the three predictable waves: the initial surge of resident species added to a blank list; the overwintering birds which ebbed and flowed around Orkney; and, more recently, the invigoratingly fresh splash of Summer visitors arriving to breed.
The indications were that, even before the halfway point of the year, I had seen the vast majority of species which would be available to me. Without giving too much away, this was indeed so. However, more happily, I was yet to discover that most of the small number of significant finds for the year were still to come!
In fact, this began to happen almost immediately, in bizarre circumstances, when I was very definitely not birdwatching. At the beginning of June, as is customary, I took Our Lass out for a meal to celebrate her birthday. We had chosen the Skerries Bistro as the venue for a long lunch, to be followed by a wander along the clifftops of South Ronaldsay. A haar had limited our views of the Pentland Firth during lunch, but as we left the bistro and made our way along the coastal path, the sun managed to burn through the fog and give us splendid vistas to all points of the compass. However, we were just as happy looking at the wild flowers and insects adjacent to the path, so it was some time before my attention was taken by a white shape at the edge of a lochan about two hundred metres away. Without any binoculars or a long-lensed camera (Our Lass's birthday, remember!), I couldn't be sure what it was. It had to be a bird, a quite large bird, but it was more upright than prone. Not a swan, then. Egret, maybe? After pinging a message out on social media, in case others might want to know about it, I received a reply back to say that it was a Spoonbill, and had been present for a week. Result!
A week later, on a different set of cliffs, our ears were assailed by the onomatopoeic calls of Kittiwake, as we pottered along the coastline from Birsay to Marwick in the company of some good friends. Around mid-June, I was astonished to pick up the call of a Quail in the field over the road, and then even better, a Hobby was seen for several days, hunting over the rooftops of the barns of the neighbouring farm. Towards the end of the month, we journeyed south, to the edge of the Abernethy Forest, for a holiday. This was principally a dragonfly trip (and the hot weather certainly helped in that regard), but, of course, I couldn't help noticing the occasional feathered thing. A walk near Tomintoul brought several Spotted Flycatchers and a Grey Wagtail, then an evening constitutional at Loch Garten was accompanied by a serenading Willow Warbler, before a quick check of a lochan at Boat of Garten served up a Little Grebe. Inevitably, on the last day of the holiday, I was dragged to the Osprey hide at RSPB Garten, but only after I'd found a White-faced Darter on a nearby bog pool.
July was quite a lean month, perhaps in part due to it being a time when bird populations are quite static, but mainly because it was peak dragon season and I was otherwise engaged. On a non-dragonflying day trip to Westray, showing the island to friends, I did hear a Corncrake whilst we were exploring the ruins of Noltland Castle. We were so surprised by this, I had to check that it wasn't the RSPB using a tape lure to tempt the birds into suitable flag bed habitat.
Into August, and walks on local beaches brought me Red-throated Diver (here all year, but I hadn't positively caught up with one until now), Sanderling and Black-tailed Godwit. An Odonata trip to Hoy also benefited from the same valley we were exploring being home to the recently-fledged White-tailed Eagle chicks.
Speaking of eagles, colleague Eagle-eyed M was beginning to wonder about my work trips to Shetland...
And a few weeks later, again, when I found some potentially good dragonfly habitat...
As the Autumn began, I was fortunate to be outside on the day when a calling Whimbrel flew over the house, which was a moment to savour and a nice addition to my garden list! Midway through September, we had booked a week in Perth and Kinross, at the Bamff Estate. The hope for the holiday was to watch Beavers (which we did) and dragons (which we also did). But the biggest surprise was the amount and variety of fungi to be seen. Happily, I finally managed to see a Jay, a scant 251 days into my Small Year, and the holiday also brought me Treecreeper, Water Rail and Red-legged Partridge.
By October, most of the Summer breeding migrants were gone, although there would still be species transiting through Orkney from further north. However, first there was the not insignificant matter of a Winter visitor I had failed to positively identify in the first three months of the year, a Redwing, and fortunately, a work trip to Stenness sorted that out. And then it was my birthday, and the now legendary (at least in Tense Towers) sighting made from the corridor between the bathroom and the bedrooms.
X marks the spot of where I was standing when I glanced across our bedroom, through the window, across the lawn, over the wall, to a fence post on the other side of the road.
With a male Ring Ouzel sat on it! I don't think my feet touched the floor for days afterwards, as I was on such a high. The month ended with an equally thrilling encounter with a small flock of Waxwings in a tree of the garden adjacent to the property where I was working in Kirkwall. November, however, was a zero month, with no new species added.
And so to December. My favourite set of gate and fence posts came up trumps again on the 2nd, when the Meadow Pipit I was watching (from the lounge window) spooked another bird to fly up from the ground. It wasn't another Meadow Pipit, it was a Black Redstart. Oh my days!
On the 16th, a walk with the Orkney Field Club through varied habitat on the north coast of Scapa Flow delivered a few Slavonian Grebe out to sea, and then a bonus Woodcock, flushed from the base of a hedgerow as we sauntered by. My final new species of the year, was seen whilst visiting Graemsay on the 20th, a sleek male Pintail just offshore from the rocks of Sandside beach.
So, that's what I did see. How about what I didn't? On our journeys to mainland UK, I had missed Barn Owl, Kingfisher, Nuthatch and Green Woodpecker. On Orkney, unforgivably, I didn't positively ID a Common Tern at any point through Spring and Summer. But those few species aside, I was happy with my meagre haul. The only species which could possibly be argued to have been twitched during the year, was the Osprey, but we had been staying within 2 kilometres of the nest site, so I think that would be harsh to deny. All told I encountered 139 species in 2018 without any special effort. This is actually six species higher than my poorest year of the past five years, and only 3 species lower than my best.
I think that I can say, when it comes to nature-watching, I'm am content to rely on serendipity and paying attention to what's around me at any given moment.
That's my approach too, and whenever I do go out on a specific hunt I return feeling unsettled by it, even if I've seen the thing I went to see. Somehow it feels like cheating. Let things come when they want to, I say. Cracking list of things seen.
I enjoyed the red cross in your photo and your text exchanges made me smile, imagining what non-birding folk would make of it- a coded exchange or nonsense words?!
'Unsettled', yes, that's a good description of the feeling. There were two species which I didn't include in the list: a Black Kite seen whilst driving to the airport (there was some doubt as to its provenance); and a bird heard but not seen in Hoy, which may have been a Crossbill, the one that got away!
Blimey! Two impressive creatures!
Rules is rules :o(
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