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Post Info TOPIC: Orkney

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On leaving Eday in January after a fabulous trip to see the Snowy Owl I made a mental decision to return in either Spring or Autumn to sample the islands bird life in another season. Things got in the way of a Spring trip so Autumn was arranged. After sorting out accomodation with Anne again at Roadside the same logistics ( minus the 0100 start in winter) were used and on Monday 1st October I rode up the hill from the harbour and got set up at Annes place. The weather prior to my arrival and the forecast for the coming few days was abysmal with gale force North Westerly and Westerly winds and heavy rain. I had set my mind on coming so would be another case of what you see is what you get.

There were certainly fewer birds around in general than in winter but my main aim was to try to track down a few migrants of my own. Eday ( its actually pronounced Eedee) is not positioned as well as some of the other more well watched islands and as such gets fewer records of passing rarities though I am sure there will be plenty given the right weather.( There had been a Hoopoe in a garden close by Annes for 4 days just before I arrived but departed on Saturday) . 3 Hen Harrier, at least 4 Merlin, 4 Common Buzzard, 2 Sparrowhawk, a few Twite , a couple of full summer plumaged Great Northern Divers, 2 Red-throated Diver, Arctic Skua,6 Bonxie, plenty of Gannets, Water Rail again, a family party of 5 Stonechat and 2 Otters were the main things of note seen over the first few days of the trip. The gales made birding pretty impossible at times. I am normally up for a bit of a challenge when riding my bike but it just was not safe or possible to ride it so I was a little restricted, particularly on Tuesday.

Wednesdays forecast in the morning was showing a drop in the wind and rain till about dinner time so after another amazing Breakfast at Annes I rode slowly North to see what I could track down. There had to be migrants around somewhere... As I cycled past the Airstrip I saw Melissa who I had met in January and she beckoned me over....

" He's back..." she exclaimed..

" Who is " I replied, having not a the faintest idea what she was referring to..

" The Snowy Owl... He is back in the same place as he was last Winter.. I saw him this morning driving to the shop"..

I was absolutely gobsmacked.. It had obviously crossed my mind to ask about the Owl but nobody had seen it since around Febuary though there had been occasional references to it being seen around Red Head and an entry referring to that in the sightings log at the Mill Loch hide..I had checked on Monday and seen nothing so pretty much wrote it off....until now..

I thanked Melissa for telling me, got back on the bike and put the hammer down... riding like a fool again my legs and lungs exploding to get over the Hill of Bomo to see if he was there.

As I freewheeled gasping for breath down the hill to his usual ditch I saw him, perched exactly where he was in January.. I just could not believe my luck. He had returned today after being away from the ditch for 6 months and I was here to witness it.. As I said in Januarys trip report its one of those moments that may not mean much to other folk but it does to you. The word majestic does not do the bird justice.. Its simply magnificent and I felt privileged again to be sat watching him alone on the trackside.(I had invested in a camera this time and managed a few photos which were a tad better than last winters phone scoped ones.)

Its a fabulous bird and as I said in January, I hope it finds a mate and if it does I'm sure there will be plenty of folk who will be prepared to watch over them..

-- Edited by rob archer on Thursday 4th of October 2018 03:47:19 PM

-- Edited by rob archer on Thursday 4th of October 2018 03:50:07 PM

-- Edited by rob archer on Thursday 4th of October 2018 04:06:09 PM


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Thanks for that Simon ...kind words ..thought I'd tell a bit of a story about the bird and the trip and the pro's and con's of a winter trip up north ..


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I think this is the best post I've ever read on the forum, what a great story. Good for you Rob.


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I would imagine most of us have had a Bird they most wanted to see at some time or other. A Bird that's been Number 1 on their wanted list..

Mine was a Snowy Owl.

I remember as a child reading about Britains first ever recorded breeding Snowy Owl's on Fetlar, discovered by Bobby Tulloch on Stakkeberg in 1967. ( around the same time that Albert Ross took up residence on Hermaness). I can still recall looking at my AA Book of British Birds and thinking how magnificent the Snowy Owl looked and the distribution map showing one tiny dot on the east of Shetland. It was a Bird I wanted to see. ( When backpacking the coastline of Fetlar a few years ago I insisted we made a detour to Stakkeberg to pay hommage to their nest site!) I have been abroad in the right places at the right time and should have seen one but never did.. I had made plans to see the Ben Macdui bird in 2014 but the weather and work scuttled that. When one turned up on Eday, Orkney in early 2017 it appeared to be staying faithfull to a regular site on the Island and was seen and photographed by many local's and visitors alike. The bird, believed to be an immature Male at the time, made several visits to the adjacent islands, being seen on Westray, Papa Westray and also on North Ronoldsay. I contacted Alison and North Ronaldsay to see if she or any of the Obs staff knew the Owl was still about on Eday.. She had not heard anything regarding the bird, " no birders on the Island" being the possible reason.

Then on 20th December 2017 another sighting was made public, again on Eday.. The Snowy Owl was back..and this time I was making the effort. There were no further sightings recorded after this date but my mind was set to have a try to find it, plus Eday was the only one of the main Orkney Islands I had not previously visited so that was another good excuse to try .

I would normally get the train up to Aberdeen with the bike and pack and panniers but my travel up date had to be Sunday 21st January and getting the train to Aberdeen just was not an option on a Sunday regarding timings and pricing, so it had to be the car. This was effected by the BBC warning of huge dump of snow over the Southern Uplands and North Pennines on the Sunday morning so a 0100 start was made driving north. The obligatory Costa at Annandale Water, 2 hour kip at Hamilton Services and Bacon Banjo at Tesco in Dundee got me to the NCP by Aberdeen Dockyard with plenty of time for the 1700 Northlink Ferry to Kirkwall. With a few hours to pass before the ferry a walk around the docks was planned. Aberdeen Dockyard is an excellent spot for Glaucous Gull and I have seen them here regularly going north but not this time. Along the groyns at the Harbour mouth every rock and exposed piece of woodwork seemed to have a Purple Sandpiper on it. Probably 50+.. A few Black Guillemot were floating motionless out to sea and Turnstones and a single Sanderling along the beach. It was Cold. Very cold, so much so that large areas of the sea by the Coastguard Lookout at the ferry mouth was frozen. Not a regular occurance in the UK.!

The ferry crossing to Kirkwall and up to Lerwick in spring or Summer is a fantastic journey and lots can be seen off the upper decks but a winter crossing is a different story. I made do with a bottle of Orkney's finest ale, Corncrake.. not to be missed..

Kirkwall was just as icy as I rode off the ferry at 2300.. I wasn't really expecting Orkney to be quite as icy due to its maritime location but I was wrong. The short ride to Kirkwall was a hazardous one, at this time of night and -3 the roads were lethal. Luckily its only a short ride to Town. The Pickaquoy Campsite ( now Orkney Caravan Park) is shut till March so a few hours in The Peedie Hostel saw me refreshed and ready riding the bike to the Harbour for the early ferry to Eday. To my surprise as I rode towards the ferry slipping and sliding I noticed another chap riding there too. I was not expecting that, at 0630 on a freezing January morning in the pitch black two idiots on bikes. I chatted to Steve, who was on his way to Stronsay for a days work inspecting a local business. I told him where I was going and why I was going, to track down a Snowy Owl on Eday. He then hit me with a bit of a crippler.. " There was a Snowy Owl written up as seen at The Gloup yesterday" The Gloup is a smart coastal reserve on the Deerness side of Mainland and perfectly feasable the Owl was there.. Until he mentioned it was recorded as fishing for Sand Eels.?? That gave me confidence that it probably was not a Snowy Owl and a bogus record.

The winter Orkney ferries do a round of the Islands and as it drew into Whitehall, Stronsay it was getting light. 5 Long-tailed Duck were in the Harbour along with a single Great northern Diver and numerous Tysties all in varying degrees of plumage moult. Fulmars were everywhere and Oystercatchers and Redshanks calling from all angles. A Rock Pipit was sat on the dock wall and Hooded Crows and 2 Raven on The Fish Mart Hostel roof. Stronsay is a fantastic island for birds. John Holloway pretty much put this island on the map regarding birds to be seen here. It was another island ideally placed to receive plenty of migrants but no one to record them. He moved here and set up The Castle Bird Reserve and his list of recorded rarities is impressive. North Ronoldsay has a team of staff covering all of this small island everyday through Spring to Autumn and has fantastic facilities at the Observatory.. John has done a similar thing but with just a few visiting friends and his wife. Sanday, the next island, is different again, with beautiful stretches of coastline. Blue seas and pure white beaches it is very very flat. Come the Autumn a regular group of chaps " The Ladyboys" arrive and usually find some superb birds. ( They are not actually Ladyboys, they just stay by the Community Shop in Lady, the main village on the Island).

And finally to Eday. A totally different island altogether than the others. Much hillier with a spine of heather clad hills running the length of the island. I was keen to get onto the Island. as soon as I rode off I noticed 2 Great northern Divers away by the Salmon nets, hundreds of Wigeon amongst the seaweed and Fulmar everywhere. After leaving the harbour and chatting to James, who works at the Salmon farm, my 1st Glaucous Gull flew over our heads. He asked why I was here and casually told me " Its where its been all the time, up by the ditch past the Shop. It was there last week".. Wow..! Things were looking promising. He was certain it was still here and had not really gone anywhere. That certainly put a spring in my pedals as I rode up the hill towards the Islands only place to stay ( apart from the SYHA which was closed) The Roadside B&B. A beautiful male Hen Harrier cruised past on farmland towards the coast and every field was loaded with Greylag's, Lapwings and Curlew. Starlings, Hooded Crows, Golden Plover and Common Gull's were feeding amongst the wet cropped farmland. There were also a couple of Black-headed Gulls amongst them, not so common up here.

Roadside is run by Ann Cant and its a fantastic place to stay.. Indeed, for me it was the only place. Bed Breakfast plus a superb home cooked evening meal for 40 a night was just superb.. Her food is just the best and no matter how many calories I burnt off walking and riding during the day it would have been outweighed by her fantastic food.

Ann and her son Marcus knew all about the Snowy Owl, though did not realise it was still on the island. Indeed they had not actually been to see it.. As a birder, making the effort to come all the way from Ramsbottom it seemed weird that anybody actually living on the island would not make the effort to see it? Everyone to their own I guess.

Later that day, on visiting the islands only Community Shop and chatting to Ivor, an Orcadian who has lived here all his life, he told me the Owl had been around but not seen for a good while.. In his opinion it had not even left.. He has seen it many times since it was first recorded and reckoned if I took a walk out to Red Head at the Northern tip I could find it. I took a short walk from the shop about 400metres north and had a look along the ditch and heather clad fields to the east where it had made its home but no trace. There cannot be many places in the world you could drive to and see a Snowy Owl from your car window on your way to work.! Maura in the shop was extremely helpful telling me all about the bird and where it was usually seen.

Eday is a beautiful island and I spent Tuesday walking the coastline across from the top of Ward Hill to Sandybanks and up to the Sands of Doomy, London Bay, Eday Bay and back round to Greentoft Bay. The weather was not the best, mainly wet, wild and windy but typical Orkney weather so what you see is what you get..3 separate Hen Harriers during the day all by the coastal rough ground and 4 Common Buzzards were the highlight of the day. Rock Pipits were everywhere and the occasional Meadow Pipit along with a small flock of Redwings at Sandybanks and 15 Fieldfare at Sands of Mussetter.6 Shoveler and good numbers of Teal and Mallard by the Airstrip Pools. There are plenty of places for migrants around the island with low trees and bushes and a smart plantation towards Red Head, but nobody on the island to record and find things. Its got great potential. Wednesday was another wet and windy day with storm force winds forcast and ferries cancelled. I had no intention of looking for the Owl while the weather was like this so spent the day on the bike and walking in the Mill Loch area..another 2 Glaucous Gull and a single Iceland Gull were seen on the Loch along with 4 Goldeneye and a pair of Red-breasted Merganser and occcasional Eider. Walking around towards Calf Sound I found a pair of Stonechat on Gorse by Cusbay and flushed a Jack Snipe and 2 Woodcock on Vinquoy Hill. A Kestrel by Carrick House and a female Merlin near Carrick Farm made a great tally of Birds of Prey on the Island for Orkney in winter. Walking back towards the Shop I heard a Water Rail calling and saw it amongst wet rushes as it ran between a clearing. I knew that the weather was set fair for Thursday/Friday and that was my only chance to try to see the Snowy Owl..

Thursday dawned exactly as forecast, clear, calm and blue skies.. It was as if it was apologising for the past few days of storm..As I was sat having another of Ann's superb Porridge breakfasts the phone rang... it was Maura at the Community Shop ... " Can you tell Rob, the Snowy Owl's back on his rock".. What a way to finish my breakfast..!!

I sorted kit and was on the bike in minutes.. I do a lot of hard Road Cycling, I always have. I rode to Glasgow in October from my house in 16 hours.. a tough day out but the 3 mile sprint to the Community Shop to see the Owl ( if it was still there) left my legs in a far worse state than arriving at the Clyde in Glasgow.!!

As I freewheeled down the road from the Hill of Bomo to the Owls regular haunt, I saw it.. There it was. A superb, pure white massive lump of feathers hunkered down in a ditch about 100 metres from the road. It was just one of those moments I'm sure we have all had in our lives. They dont mean much to other people but it does to you. My first ever Snowy Owl..I had wanted to see one for nearly 50 years. I set the mini Nikon scope up and snapped a couple of rubbish Samsung photo's off but it was all about the view of such a magnificent bird and not the photograph for me.. It was stunningly beautiful. Yellow eyes occasionally squinting and blinking in the sunlight and looking quite settled. After a short while ,( and ringing Craig Bell to tell him I'd found it), the bird climbed out of the ditch and flew across towards a fence post. Its size in flight reminded me of a Glaucous Gull or a Little Egret.. It was huge . It again sat in the sunlight barely moving and I sat by the roadside for hours watching it. I saw it again later in the day in the same area and sat in awe of such a beautiful bird.

Friday again was a fine day but the Owl was not there. The trip was at an end and the long journey back was beginning on the 1700 ferry back to Kirkwall..

Was it worth it? It most certainly was. A truly magnificent bird in magnificent surrounding in the wilds of Scotland where it should be.

I hope it finds a mate.

-- Edited by rob archer on Tuesday 6th of February 2018 02:27:23 PM

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