The majority of human visitors visit Orkney during the warmer months, but we have thousands of birds coming here each winter from the colder north to enjoy the rich feeding in the grasslands and especially around the coastline and inshore waters. Rebecca and I live out on Egilsay, wardening the Onziebust and Trumland (Rousay) reserves and one of the great pleasures are the survey walks we carry out each month. The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and volunteers cover the whole of the UK coastline and large inland waters each winter month. The results provide accurate national and local trends in the numbers of birds wintering here.
Last Friday was a great day for the March count, bright and sunny but with a dramatic sky bringing wild bursts of sleet showers every half hour or so. Only about 4 °C, with snow lying on the island hills surrounding us reflected in the unusually calm sea, I headed to the north of the island with Oscar, our little Jack Russell and Rebecca south. Maeness beach was as stunning as ever in the sun, transparent turquoise blue sea giving an incongruously tropical draw as the mottled bulk of a bull grey seal casually passed, head emerged and gazed up at us, looking as if he’d seen Oscar before.
However, it was another mammal which was now taking more notice of us, the Lama! We were entering his territory and he wasn’t happy, 7ft tall at the head, trotting rapidly towards us. Oscar wanted to defend me, I calmed him and he now looked unsure, If we stood still wouldn’t the lama just stop? No. Only 50 ft away he had Oscar in his sights and we ran, a commotion of geese and curlews flushing before us. But he was faster, I felt silly, as if in a Benny Hill sketch, stopped and shouted at the beast, he stopped. He wasn’t sure now and we briskly walked north to continue the count.
The sky was now dark, grey with a storm coming as the calm began to blow, the land and sea still lit by sunrays. Turnstones and redshanks flew past calling as waves washed them from rocky protrusions and the light accentuated their colours. The hail came from the west, pelting the ground as its increasing din reached us. We sheltered on the beach below a sand dune and scanned the birdlife, how would they react?
The hailstones were medium-sized, 3mm, and wouldn’t injure a bird, as larger ones can. They pattered and spashed the sea, 40 turnstones roosting on rocks, feet of brilliant orange, pulled their heads in and closed their eyes, and the rafts of ducks, wigeon, mallard and teal, took no notice. There was power behind the storm, the wind drove the hail at 45° and a great-backed gull took flight. Was he taking advantage of the blizzard? Powering towards the ducks he swept over their lines, flushing, looking for the weak. Come on teal, get up before he gets to you, they did, the gull passed over and the storm blew out.
Sun reappeared, 200 purple sandpipers, more turnstones and redshanks took flight. A jack merlin dashed past so close I thought I heard it swoosh, blue-grey back and rufous chest alternating as it twisted, chasing a rock pipit I had seen only 40 feet away. The pipit dived into a rock crevice, and merlin swept along the beach. How do they turn and twist so fast.
On warmer days lapwings have begun their display, curlews bubble and skylarks sing, Spring is coming, but it’s hard to beat a dramatic winter's day in Orkney.
Join the RSPB Warden on Friday 1st April,2011 (whatever the weather) at The Loons Hide to view wildfowl, waders and perhaps some birds of prey. The warden will be available to show people birds, help with identification, provide optical advice, answer general enquiries and indeed point you in the direction of other good bird watching areas on Orkney.
Time: 9:30am until 12:30pm Meet: The Loons Hide off the B-class road between Twatt & Marwick (HY247243). For further information/bookings: RSPB Stromness Office - (01856) 850176
The next RSPB event will be at our Burgar Hill Hide in the Birsay Moors the star of the show here is the breeding Red-throated Divers (a real Orkney speciality). Also viewable will be a variety of other wildfowl including wigeon aswell as breeding waders and the occasional hunting raptor.
Date: 8th April, 2011 Time: 9:30am until 12:30pm Meet: Burgar Hill Hide off the A966, north of Evie, follow the sign posts to hide which over looks Lowrie’s Water, Birsay (HY345257)