Land up in the Hills of Orkney

(Just another) Tim’s Bird afternoon

Class: Saturday 1st March 2014 Sandwick 13:30 – 17:30

Weather: light southerly wind – a bit fresher later on – sun all afternoon.

We had a near perfect St David’s day – possibly some folk in Orkney didn’t. Ahead of us to the north was a very impressive anvil of Cumulonimbus and a hint of a rainbow (or was it daytime Aurora?) Perhaps the rain was falling over the sea, but I think the west side Westray may have been fractionally damp. We visited four Sandwick lochs – each of them provided us with something memorable. Funny how thing change over six days – last Sunday we couldn’t move for Skylarks; today following the same route we didn’t see a sausage (although we heard one spluttering in to life as we assembled at the community centre).

It was a day of hints of spring. Three rather obvious hints occurred at the Loch of Clumly. At Strathborg our day had started rather inauspiciously with David’s four tabby cats – that sighting seemed to engender more excitement than most, but I quickly brought it down to earth by requesting us all to look at a Pinkfooted Goose/Bean Goose that was grazing between Greylags somewhere closer to North America than Strathborg. We followed the recently manured track to Clumly passing the first of our spring hints – two Colt’s-foot (feet) in flower – pushing up through the scalpings. The second spring hint was the finding of Shelducks on field pools – at this time of the year they are establishing their territories and frequently can be found on these flooded winter pools. The third spring hint was Ian’s finding of two Lesser Black-backed Gulls – newly arrived from south and even from this distance showing their smart brown black coast and yellow legs. Clumly was a new experience for many and it turned up trumps – we had Wigeon, Goldeneyes, Tufted Ducks, four Shelducks, 20 Redshanks, Lapwings, Oystercatchers and Curlews plus Rosie’s male Hen Harrier, Ian’s female Hen Harrier, a surprisingly inland Rock Pipit, a high flying Red-throated Diver and arguably the bird of the day an American Green-winged Teal. This bird, with its vertical white line (as opposed to the horizontal white line of the European Teal) consorted with our Teal and frequently showed off its most distinctive difference. So that’s another one for the list and comes almost a year since our last ‘yank’ (as they are called in the trade), the American Wigeon we saw in Finstown.

With a spring in our step we headed downhill for the Loch of Skaill. Here there were more treats. Most obvious were the Whooper Swans scattered across the loch. Skaill has become, in the last five years, the most reliable place to see Whoopers, and this is our third visit in those five years. As we arrived a Snipe exploded from a cover and a Grey Heron lumbered out of the lochside vegetation. Goldeneyes were displaying and keeping the Whoopers company. At Strathborg we had scanned the fields for geese – we were looking principally for Skaill Barnacle Geese. At West Aith, we located a few of them – there were 16 feeding with Greylags low on the hill slopes and looking as dapper as they always look.

It was difficult leaving the Loch of Skaill, but instead of following the shore we headed inland to the Mill Dam of Rango. The overview from the top of the Hestwall road indicated that there was much to be seen on the loch and in the surrounding fields. We glimpsed 22 Shelducks, two Gadwall and a drake Pintail – all of which we saw with much more clarity once we were down among the rough grassland. Rango was also home to all the waders and wildfowl you would expect at this time of year, including another Grey Heron, and at times is home to the more unexpected – a few years ago there two Avocets gracing the shallows.

From Rango we headed for the last of today’s lochs, Harray. The light was beginning to darken and the southerly breeze was beginning to pick up. Despite that we managed some rather splendid telescope views of five Fieldfares in the Rango trees (another sign of spring – Redwings and Fieldfares heading back to Scandinavia and northern Russia after a winter ranging around western Europe). While watching the Fieldfares we were also treated to the rather comical sight of 200 Coots running on water. Turning down to the loch we found shelter behind the steading and gazed out on increasingly choppy Harray waters full of Mute Swans, Wigeon, Coot, a few Tufted ducks and a distant group of Scaup. And that was St David’s day in Sandwick.

Next meeting:

Saturday 22nd March – meet at 14.00

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