Thursday, 7 January 2016

My time on North Ron - by Espen Quinto Ashman & George Gay

My Time on North Ron: George Gay, 21, Somerset
"I arrived on North Ron on April 22nd, it was a long journey, taking the best part of a day. When I arrived I was greeted by Alison off the plane, she drove me straight up to the Obs to meet Kevin, Mark, Fleur and the two girls Sara and Molly. They were the first volunteers I saw in my spell, both lovely girls and both in the early stages of their birding lives!
The first week was spent getting used the census routes and finding my own way around, I think the main highlight was a Tree Pipit, a bird I wasn't overly familiar with so seeing one perched on a wall was useful!

I'll skip ahead slightly now to the 1st May, it was my first time on the top end of the island, census area F. I was about halfway through the route coming up the loch inside of the sea wall at Bewan, I could see three wading birds feeding on a mud spit, the first two clearly Dunlin the third was different, I crept closer and got stunning views of what I could of thought was a calidris type Sandpiper, I had a fair idea of what the bird was before I phoned Mark, he told me to be cautious and describe it to him as if I had no idea what it was, my description was enough for him to decide it was worthy of a look, so when he rolled up with everybody from the Obs I started to panic and doubt myself a bit! Thankfully my hunch was correct and the bird stuck about, it was my first lone find and a lifer too!. White-rumped Sandpiper!
Forward in time now to the 30th May, myself and Steve are in our room, Steve was on holiday in Hungary when I arrived but was back on the island now, I'm sat in bed having just woken up and I can hear these loud rushing footsteps coming up the stairs, I say to Steve.
“Is that Mark? Why's  he's coming to our door?”
With that a highly flustered Mark bursts through the bedroom door shouting and waving like a mad man!

“Gav’s caught a Cathurus Thrush at Holland, he's not sure what it is! Get up!”
Me and Steve were out of bed and in the car before Mark had left the room, we got to Holland and the bird was presented to us, me and Steve in awe of what was being shown to us! A Veery! The girls didn't really grasp the significance of the bird we were looking at until it was explained it was only the 11th record for Britain. It was the highlight of the Spring.
Other Spring highlights included a long staying Male Rustic Bunting, a stunning OBP, a self-found Woodchat Shrike (3rd Island Record), Long-tailed Skua passage that defied logic (they passed 12ft over heads!)  and other Spring migrants like Corncrake, Bluethroats etc.
Not a bad Spring.
I left the island in late June for a holiday to America and return again at the back end of July, the faces I knew had left apart from Steve and Sam Perfect had arrived along Pete, there where things to see once I got back, the breeding birds had bred and we had chicks to rings in the form of Arctic Terns, Black-headed and Common Gulls, we had done most the waders in early June but a few remained and best of all the Tystie (Black Guillemot) chicks. We managed a record number of Tysties this spring, also on the ringing front we had Storm Petrels to ring, an amazing experience and if any of you get a chance to do it then I suggest it! With the Stormies we also caught a few Leach’s and that's a real treat!

With the ringing done the birds started to move back towards Africa and early Autumnal influxes of Wrynecks,  Icterine and Barred Warblers arrived, bringing the hope of that far Eastern mega bird but it never really arrived! Things seemed to slow down, we had a few exciting birds, like a possible Arctic Peregrine that I photographed on the 7th September, Steve found an American Goldie in horrible weather conditions that hung around for at least a week, we had a second WRS and plenty of other good passage migrants, the highlight of our Autumn came in late September and continued to be a highlight until I left. A phone call from Mark to me while I was sat in the Obs with Sam and maybe Johnny (I can't remember sorry!) sparked a wild and now in hindsight unneeded panic, Mark said he thought he had a Northern Harrier, if you ever get the chance to bird with Mark Warren do it, it's a privilege! I think is as good as I've got! So a mad dash and some potentially wreck less driving later we got to Mark, and eventually the bird, what a screamer it was, a sub-adult Male Northern Harrier, it stole the show for weeks and rightly so! I'm sure you've all seen pictures of it and now it's been split its all the sweeter! In October we joined in with the Yellow-browse passage that sweeper the UK breaking the island record, I can't remember the total but going out census and getting into double figures was easy, the same happened with Short-eared Owls in November!
It would be wrong to mention our excursion to nearby Papa Westray for a potential 1st Britain if accepted, the Chestnut Bunting was a fantastic bird showing stupidly well but it overshot us by about 20 miles and that sort of hurts!

 My time on North Ronaldsay was rounded off by a truly unexpected event, while ringing at Holland House I got a text from Mark about a large Cetacean, not thinking much of it and bring up to our armpits it's Redwings we blew it off, only for Mark to text again to say it was a probable Humpback, so me and Alison rushed down the pier, and lone and behold every 1-2 minutes a ridged back would appear and an all to familiar panic ensued, we now had to get everyone on it! So several Land Rover trips later everyone got to see what was and still is one the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

My time on the island was amazing, the people, the wildlife and the birds. Best of all, I get to do it all over again in March!"

My Time on North Ron: Espen Quinto-Ashman, 18, Herefordshire
"This autumn saw me travelling up to the most northerly Isle in the Orkney Archipelago to help out as part of the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory team. The Island was split into 6 different areas: A,B,C,D,E and F, and the Obs team rotated around censusing one area each, every day. The first few days I spent getting my bearings, as the island is bigger than I had imagined and there are lots of place names to learn! Once I had an idea of this I was put on the rota and birded one area of the island each day for the rest of my stay. I was also required to do shifts in the observatory which included doing various jobs in the kitchen, the guest house and shop. The volunteers took turns at going ringing when the conditions were suitable and we caught a brilliant array of species during the course of the autumn!
Birding highlights in my first week included a huge fall of Yellow-browed Warbler consisting of 31 birds (an Island day record, which I got to ring 3 of!), and a Red-breasted Flycatcher became my 300th species in Britain! A Blyth’s Reed Warbler was found in the dock field at Senness and was trapped and ringed to confirm ID, a Common Buzzard was only the 2nd on the island this year, but a Honey Buzzard would’ve been much more appreciated… A big influx of Snow Bunting was also apparent. 

Red-breasted Flycatcher
Blyth’s Reed Wabrler

Week 2 started with a bang as a stonking adult male Northern Harrier was found late morning on 25th, census was abandoned and a stampede to the north end ensued, luckily it was still in the area and gave a close flyby so we could check the id features- it was spot on! The bird then went on to stay all autumn giving great views to all and is still present now (17th November)! The 25th also produced the first significant movement of Pink-footed Goose of the autumn with 418  going south throughout the day. 3 Barred Warbler were present on the 28th, one of which I flushed whilst cycling past one of the Heligoland traps and nearly caught it there! Several Lapland Buntings were also now present on the Isle.

Northern Harrier!

Week 3 started fairly quietly, although two Buff-breasted Sandpiper were the first on the island for two years. Hopes were high for the end of the week with an easterly gale forecast, on the 4th a Storm Petrel was found on the pier which George very kindly let me ring! On the 5th the easterlies started blowing, these produced a few migrants, the best of which being a Little Bunting I found on the rocks on the north coast, the day record of Barnacle Goose was also broken with 375 going south. The birding was tough on the 6th with high winds and rain but the 7th produced two more goodies in the form of a Bluethroat and another Little Bunting, two Grasshopper Warblers were also found although we couldn’t help feeling a little disheartened that they weren’t something rarer!

Little Bunting
Yellow-browed Warbler
The highlight on the 8th was the Aurora  which put on a phenomenal display! It’s the first time I’ve seen it and it didn’t disappoint! That day we also caught two Ring Ouzel in Holland Gardens, a lovely ringing tick. The next few days’ highlights were a Temminck’s Stint and an interesting Redstart with prominent white wing panels- a characteristic of the eastern race samamisicus, this went on to stay for the next few days. 


A duo of rare pipits: Olive-backed Pipit and Pechora Pipit on the 12th and 13th respectively were more than welcome, who doesn’t love a good pipit! Also of interest was the wing of a swift sp. found at the lighthouse, we’re still awaiting confirmation of ID although it looks most likely a common. The island’s 5th Firecrest was also found on the 14th among the large numbers of Goldcrest which had been present over the week.
Watching a Pechora Pipit
Aurora Borealis
The highlights of the next week were undeniably the cetaceans with two lifers for me in as many days, an Orca on the 17th and a Humpback Whale on the 18th, wow wow wow! Other highlights were a Richard’s Pipit and having in-the-hand views of a Long-eared Owl!

white wing-panelled Redstart

migrant Goldcrest

Humpback Whale

A Glaucous Gull on a short seawatch on the 24th provided some interest but it was all about the 28th! A very impressive fall took place with minimum totals including 2525 Fieldfare, 1114 Redwing, 124 Blackbird, 81 Song Thrush, 1 Ring Ouzel, 22 Brambling, 13 Woodcock, 5 Long-eared Owl and best of all 22 Short-eared Owl including two separate ‘flocks’ of 10, doubling the previous day record! A day that will remain one of my most memorable days’ birding ever!
The 29th is another day that will remain lodged in my memory, in the morning 927 Blackbird were recorded, it was a bizarre experience seeing actual flocks of Blackbird just like the flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare! The Short-eared Owl day record was broken again with 24 counted! Also present were 2 Great-grey Shrike. In the afternoon the team hopped on a plane and we were soon watching Papa Westray’s 1w male Chestnut Bunting, the next day was spent birding Papay and in the afternoon we flew back to North Ron. The highlights of the rest of my last week were a showy Glaucous Gull, several Pomarine Skua and Little Auk, the latter of which I consistently failed to catch up with! I also got to ring a Great-grey Shrike in Holland Gardens which was a privilege- what a bird!

Richard’s Pipit

migrant Short-eared Owl

Chestnut Bunting on Papa Westray

North Ronaldsay was a brilliant experience with some fantastic birds and wildlife; I would recommend a visit to any birder! I’d like to thank the BTO for this grant which helped significantly to finance my trip! I’d also like to thank Kevin and Alison for the opportunity and the observatory staff and volunteers for making it so enjoyable! I’ll be back!"

1W Glaucous Gull