Observations on Some Birds in the Mainland of Orkney: Part 2

By John G. H. Marwick published in Orcadian Papers 1905

Taking a general survey of bird life from my own neighbourhood (Rendall) from March to October I have observed many well known birds, and from October to March we meet with an occasional visitor such as the robin, fieldfare, redwing, greenfinch, and several others. During summer and autumn the starling, blackbird, thrush, sparrow, linnet, wheatear, wagtail, and bunting are more or less in evidence.

The lapwing, seagull, plover and many more will also be seen or at least heard and in the gloaming the ‘whirr’ of the snipe, the ‘whapp’ of the curlew the ‘come home’ of the grouse, the croak of the heron, the ‘crek-crek’ of the corncrake, the wigeon, wild duck, red shank, lapwing, and many more joining in the chorus, go to cheer the heart of the lonely traveller on a country road.

[Martins, swifts and swallows] are rare although in some years ago a pair or two had nests under the eaves of the parish church in Birsay. The lapwing (green plover, teeack, peewit) is our most common bird of passage. Its eggs are much sought after as delicacies, and the flavour of its flesh is not to be despised. They come here about the end of February and leave in October, although I have seen the occasional straggler about Christmas – probably one that had been prevented from migrating by some wound. I have noticed that a wounded lapwing is not allowed to associate with the flock but is practically henpecked until it takes its departure. Herein lies a lesson for all sportsmen to kill whatever they fire at and not to shoot at senseless ranges where perhaps half a dozen birds who are afterwards castaways get a pellet or two each and fly away seemingly unhurt, but are in future despised by their mates.

In Spring and Autumn one may say the lapwing is shy whereas in May and June it is a bold and fearless bird, defying the attacks of gulls and hawks.It will even come within a few feet of a dog or a boy with a defiant whirr, in fact I have heard that it has been known to strike a boy on the head. What a lesson in motherly affection this beautiful bird affords us. This is also noticeable in its different cry after losing its eggs or young. Last year I took note of a few nests in Rendall. I found 298 eggs, and so far as I was able to discover 170 birds were actually hatched many of which would of course have fallen victims to gulls and some to the weather.

I may add here that robbing the nests was at one time quite common but has not been prevalent in Rendall district for at least two years. I have been shown two nests with five eggs; this is very uncommon, and I have heard of one with six. I got a cream coloured lapwing in Birsay a number of years ago. This is not very common and may be attributed to the same class of freaks of nature as white rooks, white starlings etc.

The common snipe stays with us more or less all the year but I am inclined to believe that many come here in October.


Flickr: CORNCRAKE!!! Author Rachel Davies

It is a common belief in Orkney that the land rail or corn crake stays with us during the winter hiding in dykes and other places. It is said that one was found in a peat stack in Hoy and another in a bag of wool in the district of Marwick in Birsay.

Both these cases are authenticated but do not prove that the bird does not migrate. It is a custom in Orkney to spread wool in the grass after washing it. Probably the bird had got disabled and was hurriedly packed into the bag and was not found till the wool was taken out in the winter or perhaps late autumn for the purpose of carding.

The Rev Gilbert White maintained that the hirundines stayed in Britain in a benumbed state during winter but on employing some men to explore various shrubs and cavities they failed to find any. As, however, swallows are not often seen in Orkney this question need not be discussed. It is now almost a certainty that the hirundines migrate. The cuckoo cannot be called an Orkney bird but it has been heard, and probably seen at Muddiesdale, Binscarth, Berstane, Blubersdale and at other places in Orkney.

Next week more from Observations of Some Birds on the Orkney Mainland


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