Friday 30 December 2011


The snow fall of yesterday had frozen this morn. Looking out from the kitchen we're white but its all green the other side of the Harray Loch.

Various jobs to do today but I did find time to go gull hunting. The sea was still mighty at Skaill and Marwick.

 There were two Whoopers by the road at Skara Brae.

 I managed to locate two 1st CY Glaucous. The first one was at Marwick and it then followed me down the coast, unless there are two with the same missing secondary, where it found a friend.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Winter seawatch

Point of Buckquoy is not a bad seawatch place, a bit low and the Brough does force some birds out but sitting in the car means that concentration is better. In a strong wind it can act like a trap, especially for petrels, although the danger is that birds will cut across the fields behind the car park.

Today the wind was not so high and there were Fulmars and Kitts passing at about 2km + and gulls close in and behind me. It was a toss up, look for the close in Ivory Gull or scan with the scope for the Wanderer. I kind of compromised and was lucky to get on to a mid range Sooty which showed well, bit late mate! The Fulmars were shifting at about 2000+ / hour and there were a good few Kitts. The close in gull passage was predominantly of Common Gulls but there were about 100 GB-bGulls in the hour as well as 60 Herring Gulls, loads will have gone behind me as well. Other bonus birds were one Little Auk and two Blue Fulmars. There was also three Red-throated Divers and a few Eider. Other things included a Grey Plover and Snow Buntings were heard.

I had a look at Marwick where there were a few gulls.

Then on to Skaill where was a nice 1cy Glaucous Gull, loads of waders and gulls and a Merlin.

Back at the ranch we had woken to the sound of Whooper Swans. The Tree Sparrow was present, a Grey Heron flew by and a female Hen Harrier was hunting most of the day. Louise found three Shorties between the stables and home. There are still Redwings about and at roost time there were three or four with the Blackbirds (17) and another 15 down at the Shunan. The Greenfinch record was shattered with an epic 47 at the feeders.

Monday 26 December 2011

Iceland Gull

Amidst the mighty waves a white-winged gull approached the Brough of Birsay car park from the east this morning. Unfortunately, instead of sailing past 20 metres from my position it cut inland across the fields and headed for Marwick. Subsequent searching failed to reveal it. No doubt it was a 1cy with its rusty tones on upper wing coverts body and tail. At first I thought it looked huge, but it was a predominantly white bird against a grey background and thus bound to look big. The arm and especially the hand were long, the wings looked elegant, slender for a bird of this size, and the flight was graceful. The under body showed no sign of the dark grey tones that a Glaucous Gull might sport. It was too far away to see any detail on the bill, but would the characteristic and distinct Glaucous bill pattern of a 1cy have been discernible at that range (about 600metres or so).

My new found caution with this species pair left me initially to hum and ha. The buffeting of the breeze (ha, ha), the distance and the brevity of the view didn't help but it had to be an Iceland Gull.

We then contemplated a walk and I went around the back of the car to hold the door whilst Louise got the waterproofs out. Open door, Louise flails as waterproofs get out all on their own and head rapidly in a gangly, airwalk towards the ocean. Subsequent good fielding by Louise recovered two pairs and slightly mad wave dodging on the beach below the cliff captured the last unruly legs.

I've slowly been reading The Sound Approach since I borrowed a copy (thanks JB) and then was given it last summer. It took me a while to locate my old CD Walkman, ideal for listening as you read. (No don't try putting all the files on your iPod, totally hopeless - shuffle Floyd, Lupe, Kate, Golden Plover, The Stones, Willow Tit etc.) For Christmas Louise bought me Birding from the Hip. Now I've never been a fan of Birdwatch magazine so I was entirely ignorant of Anthony McGeehan's articles in that publication. This is just such a good read, and listen. The use of the CDs to make a kind of birders' Radio 4 is brilliant. This is the best book about birders and birding, and our obsession's impact on our nearest and dearest that you'll read; highly recommended.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Christmas morning

How is it that I'm blogging on such a morn?

Presents are opened, and more of that in a peedie minute. The usual awakening was delayed until six, a bit of a triumph that; having been banned from waking us until seven, offspring delayed the usual rousing until quite a reasonable hour. However, Louise is still in a sleep deprived state as eldest was too excited to sleep until around two or so and insisted on Louise sharing the spare room bed whilst she wriggled, talked etc, etc. Cooking, cooking is pretty much done, yesterday as the south-westerly blew and the rain deluged. So why not birding?

The picture makes it look better than it really is, its barely light at eleven.

And then it blew a hooley. Managed to prevent the garage doors disappearing into the distance, hadn't noticed that the last storm had damaged the hinges a well as the bolt, one is bent and knackered. Anyway emergency repairs done. Tree Sparrow on the feeders, Sparrowhawk under them, but no small body so it must have missed its prey. The breeze has eased a bit now, its possible to walk in the garden rather than just get blown about...

Saturday 10 December 2011

Garden birds

The neeps field next door

Mooched about the garden today, cold and calm, following the storm on Thursday evening. Our only damage was a broken bolt on the garage door which the wind had got behind and forced open, bending the bolt as it went, fortunately I found this soon after it had happened and recovered the door and wedged it shut.

Sorting out, and finding the feeders was a job for this morn. They are all now back in place.

33 Greenfinch is a record I think, 12 Chaffinch is also a high number and there are still fair numbers of Blackbirds about, 18. The Tree Sparrow remains.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Seawatching (quite well)

 Sea on Saturday at Point of Buckquoy, Birsay

The wind was up so I went for an hour's watch at Birsay on Saturday at midday, a 1cy Glaucous Gull was a fair reward. There were three Red-throated Divers west as well. Kittiwakes were moving through a bit with a trickle but I didn't see a single Fulmar.

View from the garden, yeserday p.m, calm before the hooley

It really blew last night, up to Storm Force 11 (yes the greenhouse was still there this morn).JB and I had seen the forecast so arranged to meet at Pt of Buckquoy at 8 or so. It was quite entertaining, I missed the best bird, a Pom, somehow it evaded me but 8 Blue Fulmars and 18 Red-throated Divers was a fair reward. In the first hour there were 124 Kittiwakes, nearly all adults (10 juv) and just 37 Fulmar. In the second hour there were about 50 Kittiwakes and 3000 Fulmars, all west. Also one each of GND, LtD, RbM, Wigeon, and two Common Scoter.

Back at the ranch the moving of horse poo was the task but there were also 18 Fieldfare over south, a few Redwings, 15 Blackbirds, 2 Robins, 6 Chaffinch, 2 reed Buntings, 100 Teal, a Sproghawk and a Kestrel. The Tree Sparrow is still present.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Lost keys found

Yeserday I went to Costa to try to see the putative Hume's Warbler but without much luck. However, there were a lot of Twite there, maybe 300 or so. Dick talked to me about bird crop and apple feeders, so we now have Waxwing bait hung securely out of reach of the fruit guzzling Blackbird hordes.

 Fodder Beet and Barley are the main food stuff here

 Twite, not especially enjoying the Sproghawk's attentions

 Good use for a fat ball feeder, there's now one of these in our garden, sans the Blackcap though

There was a large fall of Blackbirds yesterday with flocks in the fields, probably 35 around home and  The Shunan. Thrush numbers were buoyant today with about 300 Fieldfare and 200 redwing around The Shunan.

The worst part of today was the car key catastrophe, though. Taking the mischievous hound to Marwick Bay she decided to misbehave outrageously which required emergency lead application. Back at the car after half an hour or so, no keys. When I'd pulled the lead out of the pocket the car keys and come along too. Were they on the hound's collar? Nope! So to add to the lack of peaceful swift hunting, we were now locked out 10 miles from home, no mobile signal and anyway Louise amd Mollie were away in Kirkwall doing horsey stuff. Once we were both able to search, no other people around for the hound to molest, we scoured pathway and beach. Eventually, down near the tideline Ellen felt something strange underfoot, car keys! Phew.

We elected to have a quiet afternoon at home and as further track repairs are pressing we trudged down the hill. A close encounter with a Peregrine was rather startling. The Lapwings were up and eventually I got onto the Peregrine coming my way at head height, straight my way like a bullet..Through the bins I didn't realise just how close it got until I heard the "Whoosh!" of its wings as it pulled up and arced back south. Next up were excellent views of two Shorties which ended up having a spat. Then a Merlin went across the fields after the thrushes, no doubt why there was all this activity in the first place. It did that Merlin accelerator thing that they do when hunting, upping the pace as they close in with high power wing beats, I didn't see if it was successful but it caused considerable panic.

 Track repairers

One of the two Shorties, notice the diagnostic underwing pattern

We sat in the garden having tea at dusk watching the Rooks and a few Jackdaws heading off past our roost to other trees somewhere. They hang around the trees for much of the day but at the moment they are not roosting here.

Other birds today were a Brambling, eight or so Chaffinch and the Tree Sparrow. Ellen and I finally got around to concreting the feeder pole in place so it will no longer need various lumps of wood driven into the ground to prop it up, hopefully.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Harray and Scapa

At home this morning I nearly trod on a Woodcock that was hiding in the back bushes. There were plenty of Chaffinch, probably 12 and at least 7 Reed Buntings. A Brambling was heard to call. Fieldfares trickled SE with a 10, a 3 and a 42 and there were a fair few Redwing about, fewer Blackbirds today though. A Sparrowhawk did the drop from the sky trick, I was down the track repairing a hole or two and noticed the Starlings do their protective flock thing, above and behind them a Sparrowhawk was homing in on the trees, she got there and just folded her wings and dropped, levellling out just a foot above the ground to go for the spuggies. A male and a female Hen Harrier came through the garden and just beyond early afternoon. The Tree Sparrow is still here. On The Shunan there were Teal and Wigeon and a good few Lapwings around the periphery.

Scapa Bay from the  pier yesterday morning - the white building to the left is the Scapa distillery, origin of my favourite (but rather expensive) malt.

Scapa this afternoon was stuffed with gulls, many, many more than yesterday morning. I managed to get pretty good views of problem bird number two (the lower pix yesterday). Looks to me like a very pale 1cy Iceland Gull, quite a large one so maybe that's why the legs looked long. No sign of the other bird unfortunately.

Bonus bird was a Great-crested Grebe which I found on the edge of the gull scrum. This is quite an uncommon bird on Orkney, I think this will be just the third record this year. An Orkney tick for me.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Those gulls again, with pix

 Photos courtesy Morris Rendall
Photos courtesy Morris Rendall

This is the bird that it has been argued is a 2CY Iceland Gull. To my eye it looks more like a Glaucous except that the eye looks far too big. Any opinion would be welcomed.

Photos courtesy Gerry Cannon
 Photos courtesy Gerry Cannon
Photos courtesy Gerry Cannon

It was originally argued that this bird was not an Iceland Gull but might be a leucistic Herring Gull. General opinion now is that it is indeed an Iceland Gull but it continues to pose some interesting questions. The bill colour and dark eye would lead to the conclusion it is 1stCY but the plumage looks much more like 2nd CY. From Olsen and Larsson I found that 2CY Kumlien's can have an all dark bill. Could this bird be a 2nd CY Kumlien's, albiet a very pale one? The tibia and overall leg length looks long to my eye, is this a problem?

Here are a couple more pictures.

 Photos courtesy Morris Rendall
Photos courtesy Morris Rendall

Any opinions will be very gratefully received, some reasons for any ID would be handy, thanks.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Gull ID - aaaagggghhhhh, help!

Strange things are happening in gull world. Back in October I was rather chuffed to find three different white-winged gulls in four days. I was happy with their ID, it was pretty much an auto-pilot job to be honest, maybe that's the trouble. I got pix of two of them and another observer saw one of them as well. But now .... I'm struggling for my sanity. Perhaps its a hang-over from all the shannanigans with the wheatear.

A careful look at my photos of the Tesco Corner Iceland of 22nd October leads me to realise I mis-aged it, bill colour is the reliable factor, so despite its whiteness it has to be a first winter.

Have a look on Orkbird at these two pix. Here's the first one - click - This one can't be as labelled can it? That's just got to be hyperboreus.

But then there's this one - click - that's not right either, is it? Legs are too long, especially the tibia, bill is too long, head and body shape is wonky. It has been suggested that this one is a leucistic Herring Gull, I'm not sure and I'd like to see it in the flesh but I'd be surprised if it is an Iceland Gull.

Please post your ideas in the comments ....

Extra - here's a bit more on the gulls, I'm changing my mind again....


I'll make comments in amongst your text about this second gull, -A-

--- In, "Martin" wrote:

> The bill shape speaks of Iceland, a bit less robust than Herring with an even
curve down to the tip. Quite unlike the sharp drop to the tip of Glaucous and
also lacking the length and parallel-sided (chisel) build of that species.

- A - I disagree with some of this analysis. There is a need to be wary because
of the angle the shot is taken at. Bill shape looks good for Glaucous to my eye,
it may fit some Iceland Gulls though. However bill length looks better for
Iceland, that could be a product of the angle though.

> Colour of the basal 2/3rds of the bill being bluey/grey is not a Glaucous
feature at any age., it would show pinky/fleshy bill tones around this age.

- A - But that colour doesn't really fit Iceland too well either. In Glaucous
the brightness of the pink fades from first year (I do agree this is a 2nd CY).
Colour could be a product of water on the bill, gunk on the bill or photographic
aberration... If its real I think its more problematic for Glaucous than Iceland
but its still problematic.

> The image where the head is concealed shows a very long forewing from bend to
tip, seems better for Iceland.

- A - I completely disagree, wing shape, both the breadth of the hand and the
arm and length look better for Glaucous but caution again... angle of shot.

> Into the realms of the subjective, the head shape and facial expression have a
slight benign quality rather than the angular shape and scowling glare of

- A - Disagree, looks like it would murder your granny - better for Glaucous.
However, for me the eye is too big in proportion to the bill and head for
Glaucous, much more like Iceland.

> So sorry again Alastair, not denying this one yet.

- A - I also don't like the body shape for Iceland, it looks too heavy and big
chested, but maybe its just had a heavy meal.

I will go down there and try and look for this bird when I can, maybe Saturday.
As I said I really don't like id just from photos because I know I'm **** at it.
I think this bird is problematic from the two pictures.

> Back in the winter of 1982-83 Orkney experienced an amazing influx of Iceland
Gulls. Both Kirkwall and Stromness harbours held double figures of birds; they
were everywhere. Eric and I spent a great many hours sifting through these,
armed only with the topical writings of the late Peter Grant, the Poyser 'Gull
Identification'. This remains a standard reference today. What became obvious
that winter was the myth that Iceland Gulls are the most effeminate looking of
large gull species was starting to unravel. We found plenty of very large
Icelands and even one corpse which had biometrics indicating either a huge
Iceland or a tiny Glaucous.

- A - I learnt a lot of my birding with Peter (Dungeness). Actually when he
wrote the book he hadn't seen that many Iceland Gulls if I remember correctly.
I've even got a picture published in the book (and its not even blurry, 1st CY
Med). But Olsen and Larsson is the business, to be somewhat disloyal, (as long
as you have the corrected reprint).

> That was a long while ago but I carried those memories with me during 15
summers working in the high Arctic and especially when in Greenland. I visited
the east coast more often and here found rather few mostly our slightly built
familiar winter visitors which I called the 'Jessies'. I had to wait until the
summer of 2006 to get into West Greenland and here they were, lots of them, the
'Bruisers'. One of the highlights of my life was sitting in my boat just off
Iqqaluit, West Greenland, throwing fish to a flock of 300 Icelands, great muckle
brutes all. This anecdote suggests to me that the Jessies and the Bruisers come
from different shores of Greenland. My own homespun guess is that the British
Isles is within the routine wintering range of Jessies but not Bruisers. They
only reach us after severe weather (as in 82-83) and as part of a noticeable
influx. Now, of course I know this is back-of-a-fag-packet research but it seems
to work most of the time.

-A- Never been there and never seen any Icelands that look like that. I have
looked at a lot of pix though. Also if Western Greenland Icelands are bigger why
aren't kumlieni bigger?

Anyway, maybe I was hasty, but to suggest this 2nd bird is "undeniably Iceland"
is a touch forward in my view. It could be Glaucous, and brief discussions I've
had with others suggest that there is a body of opinion that thinks that may
well be the case. I like some of your argument, my opinion (for what its worth)
is currently "possibly Iceland". Other opinion, with reasoning, would be very

As for the first bird I think there are still issues and I need to see it, the
tibia was well long for Iceland. It's very pale to have a black bill. There is a
suggestion that it is more likely a pale kumlieni and I'm still not 100% on it
being a 1st CY, some 2nd CY kumlieni apparently have black bills, I'm not really
happy to identify this bird until I've seen it. I would value other opinions.

I do find all this stuff fascinating and educative, thanks to both Morris and
Gerry for getting the pix and to Martin for stirring it up.


Sunday 6 November 2011

Goose count day

That's a lot of geese. In the end I counted 5,825 Greylags and about 80 Pink-feet. Loch of Tankerness was a bit of a challenge though.

During the day I came across a very nice drake Surf Scoter with 23 Velvets and 9 Commons; 37 Great Northerns, 7 Red-throated Divers, 10 Slavonian Grebes, a duck Goosander and a Snow Bunting or two. I heard a Coal Tit and maybe heard a Blue Tit too but they proved elusive in the conifers.

There were a few hundred Fieldfare around but the bright clear weather has encouraged many to push off south

Saturday 5 November 2011

Snow Buntings

I wandered out fairly early on a beautiful still, sunny day. A male Merlin was terrorising The Shunan amd environs. I elected not to go OBP hunting near the airport as it was clear last night.... Probably the reason that despite the initial warmth the moth trap was devoid of moths, although a Small Tortoiseshell was on the wing around midday. Walking back up from searching through the 250 odd Teal for a more interesting duck two Snow Buntings flew over heading south, a new species for the tetrad for me and only 100m short of being a garden tick.

Plenty of thrushes around today with Fieldfare and Redwing around home and Fieldfare being especially evident on Hillside Rd when we drove over to Evie mid afternoon. At Evie there were two Great Northern Divers and a Velvet Scoter. Plenty of gulls but I couldn't weedle an interesting one out of the roost. Waders included three Purps and a single Sanderling.

Other species in and around the garden today were Brambling, probably 8 or so round and about, Reed Bunting, perhaps 6, Robin, 4, Chaffinch, 4, Blackbird perhaps 20. Most frustrating was the brief view of a chat which paused in full view against the light momentarily, it may have been Black Red or even something much more exciting but unfortunately it didn't show again.

Tomorrow is goose count day so I'm off to the East Mainland, it will be a whole day job.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Even more Desert Wheatear stuff

Folk were obviously far too polite. Nobody mentioned I was so, so wrong about ageing the bird....
Birds like this are very educative, I now know about wheatear moult. The following is my latest Orkbird post. Posts on here on previous days were also just cut and paste jobs. I did miss out a bit of a disagreement - but it added nothing to the argument.

According to Lewington / Alstrom Desert Wheatear cannot be reliably aged in the field except in early juvenile plumage. So is there any reason (e.g. moult) why our bird couldn't be an adult female? Probably from the pix it may be possible to see..."primaries more worn"; not especially helpful, I thought they looked quite fresh with those neat tips but other opinion would be handy (that would make it an adult)..."a moult contrast can often be seen among the greater coverts" Anyone note anything there? My edition of Svensson doesn't help.

What about the race of our bird? Jonsson mentions three races of which atrogularis of Central Asia is the darkest. Few Scottish records have been assigned to subspecies although Forrester and Andrews suggest that an Eastern origin is most likely for our autumn birds. When I finally signed up to Bird Forum to read the discussion there yesterday there was a suggestion that the rump colour, and therefore maybe the overall colouration, might be caused by reasons other than race, it might be erythritic.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Desert Wheatear again

I went back and had another look at the bird this afternoon. There are now many more photographs available to view as well (on Orkbird).

Here's an update on my thinking re this bird.

Age: pale edges to the primary and greater coverts, to the 2aries and pale tips to the primaries lead me to a bird in its first calendar year.

Sex: this afternoon I noted a brownish tinge to the ear coverts, in all three species that would make it a female.

I made comments about the bird’s structure yesterday which I won’t repeat but they point to Desert Wheatear. Additionally, I noted today the constant tail wagging which is a feature of Desert Wheatear but I don’t know if the other two species do this to the same degree (Northern Wheatear for example does not). The bird often has a rather supine as opposed to upright posture.

The tail pattern seems to be the feature that is causing most confusion and leading to identifications other than Desert Wheatear. However, my view would be that Lee is entirely correct because:
The extent of black on the tail from the tip up towards the base is consistent with Desert Wheatear and not consistent with Red-tailed which, according to the photos I’ve looked at does not have black extending so far up the tail as the bird we have, it would be about 50% less for that species from photos. Red-rumped Wheatear would not be eliminated on this feature however (but it is eliminated on a host of other plumage features, e.g. rufous brown crown) (Mullarney et al)
Red-tailed Wheatear should have a Northern Wheatear like T of black in the tail but our bird does not have that feature. I think that T should be formed by black extending further up the two central tail feathers, 6 and 7 (I’m numbering from left to right) (Svensson). Our bird appears to have some additional black extending up the edges of tail feathers 5 and 8 in particular. Our bird also appears to have dark centres to two of the central upper tail coverts. I believe these features are combining to give an impression of a T which does not actually exist.

I do agree that this bird is unlike typical Desert Wheatears, it is rather drab and grey and is not so contrasting in its plumage but to my eye I can’t see any reason for it to be anything else. I would reiterate that I am no expert and I’m making these judgements on available reliable references and a fairly brief review of easily available photographs as well as the few hours I’ve spent in the field examining the beast.

I’ll be very happy to be proven incorrect but none of the reasons put forward to this point have convinced me to change my opinion. Convince away….

And on to other things...
Thanks to the heads up from AL I headed to Langskaill later this afternoon. First bird I saw was a Yellow- browed but that was not the quarry. The give away call could be heard softly. A Chiffchaff showed and showed, then a Goldcrest. Eventually after 15 minutes of perseverence, joy, Long-tailed Tit!

Then a nip to Scapa and two Little Auks in the fading light; lots of gulls there as well.

Back at the ranch today there were still many Blackbirds, 30 or so; at least two Robins, five Reed Buntings and a few Brambling and Chaffinch.

Desert Wheatear

There has been some debate about this bird. I've had a look at the photos of Red-tailed/Persian and Red-rumped on BirdGuides and pictures of Desert on the same website. I only have field experience of
Desert previously.

When I arrived (late as I'd been out of range looking at pipits at Palace) I was told the bird was most likely not Desert and might well be Red-tailed, this was all rather exciting but when I finally settled down to look at the bird carefully and photograph it I got some excellent views and some fair pix (surprise surprise).

Jonsonn's Birds of Europe and the Collins Guide appear to disagree about the tail pattern of Red-tailed / Persian ( xanthoprymna). Photographs support the tail pattern illustrated in the Collins Guide, which would rule this species out. Anyway it has a heavy bill and looks big headed and short-tailed, different proportions to our bird.

Red-rumped Wheatear (moesta) has a similar tail pattern to Desert. However, this species also has a heavy bill. I can't find any pix of juvs but it would seem that the species has a grey back, an extensive pale throat and a rich brown crown.

Our bird has a weak bill. It also has a small head and a proportionally longtail. The legs are also thin in proportion to the body. There are photographs on Birdguides of a Desert Wheatear in Lincs in Nov 2008 that are very similar to our bird, especially when photographed in poor light. The rump shows a very similar colour to our bird when viewed from behind.

I'm surprised at this conclusion as the bird looked so different from the Desert Wheatears I've seen in the past and the illustrations in the field guides, I would always have expected a pale bird with contrast between the body and the wings however Jonsson mentions race atrogularis as being darker on the body. Everything else seems to fit, if there is an extension of the black into the centre of the upper tail I couldn't see that in the field and would a small extension be significant in any case?

I haven't had time to look at BWP or search BBi but I can't see any reason to doubt this bird is anything other than Desert, I'll be happy to be persuaded though...