Birding on North Ronaldsay, Orkney

Over the last few years we have used the October break to get away for a bit of birding and hopefully find some new rarer migrant birds. That has taken us south to Norfolk the last few years (and outside the scope of this blog) but this year we headed North, took the ferry across the Pentland Firth and then a short flight to the remote and wild island of North Ronaldsay.

Before we had even arrived on North Ronaldsay we had seen a few nice birds. A sub-adult Gannet flying past the ferry as we approached the harbour at St Margaret’s Hope. Two Black Guillemots, transitioning to winter plumage, scurrying to get away from the boat taking off as we approached. A single Great Northern Diver, still majestic in its summer plumage, seen from the Churchill Barriers as we drove north.

Once we had arrived on North Ronaldsay and settled into our accommodation at the north end of the Island – we were staying in one of the lighthouse cottages – we went out for a walk. It was wild and very windy but, for the time-being, dry. There were lots of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Lapwing feeding on the grassland and around the small pools around the lighthouse.

Our accommodation was close to a sea-watching hide and we spent some time looking out to sea with our scopes. Most common were the many Kittiwakes and Common Gulls, Fulmars and Gannets (see photos below).

We also saw some rarer birds including Manx Shearwaters, Arctic Skua, Great Northern and Red-Throated Divers. However the highlight for me was seeing several Sooty Shearwaters over the week as this was a life tick for me. We would see them in the distance, often scope only views, but clearly told by their dark colouring and fast, long shearing action. We even had one view of a possible Great Shearwater which have been remarkably numerous this year. After some internal wrestling, I didn’t count this so still need it for my life list.

When leaving the hide we were approached by some of the (im)famous North Ronaldsay rams. One of them actually charged us on several occasions and we had to quickly grab it by the horns to stop it inflicting an injury and hold on to it to walk away whilst it calmed down. From the safety of the hide we were able to watch them charging each other presumably to see who got mating rights with the females.

The next day we walked along the rocky shore were we saw large numbers of Turnstone, a Ringed Plover with a Bar-Tailed Godwit, a statuette Grey Heron, a Cormorant and Shag on the rocks and flying past, a couple of Rock Pipits and a Redshank (all photographed below).

We heard on the Bird Observatory‘s WhatsApp group that someone had seen three Arctic Redpolls (Horneman’s) fairly nearby. This would be a new bird for me so we set off in the direction where they had been seen. Long before we reached the area, a bird took off in front of us and my more experienced companion called out that this was indeed an Arctic Redpoll. Fortunately it landed on a wire and then fed in some nearby grasses enabling good views and a few photos. The Arctic Redpoll is larger than the common Lesser Redpoll and much lighter in colour with a frosty appearance (white fringes to feathers). For now this is a separate species but they may get lumped together in the near future.

The next day we heard that a Red-Necked Phalarope had been spotted on a small lochan at the south end of the island. We picked up some hire bikes and pedalling into the wind and rain we stopped and took shelter by the beach near the main ferry pier. Several Purple Sandpipers were feeding amongst the seaweed. This is a dumpy almost pigeon like wader with short legs and slightly down curved bill.

Slightly further down the beach several Sanderling were feeding. I love these birds scurrying in and out to feed between the waves. Much lighter than the Dunlin they appear an almost pure white underneath.

On occasion a particularly large wave would come in and all the birds would take off together. On one occasion I was so focused on taking photos that I forgot to watch my own feet and wet socks followed.

Turnstone, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper and Hooded Crow

As the rain took a break we headed over to the hide looking over Gretchen Lochan. Initially there was no sign of any Red-Necked Phalarope but soon enough I spotted the tiny wader floating on the waves. This was a life tick for me so I was delighted. It had a small needle like bill, slim body and distinctive eye patch. These birds breed on Shetland in Summer but this bird was in winter plumage. A great find.

After cycling back we got another message to say that a Little Stint had been seen at the lochan only a few hundred meters from our accommodation so I quickly cycled over and was afforded great views of this tiny but charismatic wader.

Looking further up the Lochan I also spotted some new ducks. We had already seen Mallards, Teal, Wigeon and Gadwall on the island. But here were also were Pintail and Shoveler with their giant (shovel like) bills.

I also spotted a couple of Whooper Swans at the far side of the Lochan which were feeding before taking off and heading south.

Throughout the week we were seeing lots of Snipe at times dozens would take off in front of you and tower away. Most were the Common Snipe which is larger (than Jack Snipe), and takes off from further away. We did however see one Jack Snipe which we had to practically stand on for it to flush. We would see Common Snipe all over the island, by the water and if we looked carefully hunkered down in wet grass (both photographed below).

When the news came out that the mega vagrant Great Snipe had been spotted nearby we again jumped on our bikes. This was by far the biggest find of the week and we were keen to get a view ourselves. We arrived to find every birder on the island (20-30 in total) had descended to the same location and within half an hour we were rewarded with good views as the bird took off and flew to a nearby scrub. We actually found the same bird the following day and had further views. I didn’t get a good photo and it was enough to add this bird to my life list and indeed the only life tick for the week for my more experienced friend.

Before finding the Great Snipe a second time we also saw a fairly late Northern Wheatear posing in the field

We were never far from Rabbits on the island and had to be careful not to turn an ankle over in their holes when constantly scanning for birds.

Greylags Geese were also near ubiquitous but we did also see a small flock of Barnacle Geese coming in off the sea. And also two Pink Footed Geese grazing in a field (both photographed below).

The bird of the week for me in many ways however was the Snow Bunting. We saw a few of these on the first day but before long we were noticing them everywhere. This is a bird you can see on the high Cairngorms in summer (where it breeds) but also along the coasts during winter and migration season. I have seen it in both but never in the numbers we saw this week. Here was a Snow Bunting peaking out from behind a wall, or posing on top of another feeding around the lichen, or here was a flock of 80-90 lifting from behind a wall and drifting across the field like its own slow moving snow flurry.

On another occasion, taking a coffee and cake from the Bird Observatory, we spotted a female Hen Harrier told by its white ringed tail (white rump). I rushed outside to fire off a few photos and then the quartering bird put up a flock of Snow Buntings.

We did see a few marine mammals from the island. Sadly we just missed a small pod of Orcas but we did see Risso’s Dolphins on a couple of occasions, albeit too distant to photograph. This is the most common dolphin this far north. Closer were the many Grey Seals both in the water and hauled out on the rocks (see photos below).

Another characteristic bird we saw in reasonable numbers throughout the week was the Brambling, pictured here atop a wall.

Towards the end of our week however the numbers appeared to build significantly and again from the observatory we saw a flock of about 250 birds, mostly Linnets but with about 20 or so Brambling among them. The flock would take off and fly around in a large murmuration before landing on the crop in the field and feeding. Then they would lift again and settle on the nearby fence.

When such a large flock scatters it is worth looking around for a raptor and it was one of these occurrences which led us to spot Britain’s smallest bird of prey, the Merlin. This bird is a small falcon which moves very fast and can take birds in flight. These are the first photos I have ever taken of a Merlin so I was pleased to get them.

A few other year ticks for me this week were Ruff, Glaucous Gull, Grey Phalarope, and Pied Flycatcher. But my last major bird of the week was also a life tick for me. A Turtle Dove had been seen a couple of times on the Island but I had not been fortunate enough to find it. Again over Coffee in the Observatory, trying to get out of the wind and rain, I saw a small dove take off from the field with the characteristic white tail pattern. I called it to those who were with me and then headed out to get a quick (but very poor and distant) photo of it sat looking away from me on the wall.

In many ways North Ronaldsay in October is a fairly hard-core birding location. The accommodation options are limited if you cannot get into the Observatory (it was full when we tried to book) and our cottage didn’t have working heating! The weather is windy (almost always), and wet (much of the time). But it was rewarding to see some rare birds and also some rare-ish birds in quite good numbers. By the end of the week I had seen 81 species of birds and added 5 life ticks (Arctic Redpoll, Sooty Shearwater, Red-Necked Phalarope, Great Snipe and Turtle Dove) and a further 9 year ticks to my tally.

Full list of sightings on eBird here.

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