Recent Rare Bird Sightings on Stronsay

By John Holloway, Stronsay’s Ornithologist

Many thanks to The Stronsay Limpet for permission to share this article

Ever since a now-deceased friend of mine spent several months birdwatching from a deckchair in his back garden in my ‘home town’ of Gillingham, Kent in the 1970s (partly due to illness it has to be said), it has become quite clear that ornithologists must miss many interesting species flying directly overhead!

He had some great sightings during that period! We know this from the number of sightings of birds by other people here on Stronsay which have probably flown right over OUR heads – even though we do have the habit of ‘looking up’ occasionally rather than ‘looking down’ towards ground level where most interesting species lurk! !

I have often thought about undertaking the same ‘deckchair’ task (or torture?) here on Stronsay but have always quickly dismissed the idea……until…… the current restrictions to our movements due to the coronavirus. Perhaps this is the year to put the plan into motion. I will report back on progress as to weather household chores and ’deckchair birding’ can mix!

March was a very quiet month but there were more encouraging signs that the spread and numbers of formerly regular breeding species was increasing. An early Pied Wagtail on 1st March was a sign that Spring was on the way and a Jack Snipe was seen on a few occasions in our drive here at Castle. On one occasion it began ‘bouncing’ up and down – a habit peculiar to this species in the UK – an action that is believed to be the bird’s attempt to attract worms etc towards the surface in soft earth.

Jack Snipe Stronsay Limpet

Jack Snipe caught in the headlights in the Reserve drive (Note much shorter bill than Common Snipe)

A flock of 20 or so Long-tailed Ducks took up residence in Mill Bay and there were increased numbers of Red-throated and Great Northern Divers in late Winter – a sign that the salmon farm venture may actually attract birds rather than reduce their numbers.

Similarly, there was again an increase in birds at the Waterworks, where the regularly nesting species have all returned in similar numbers to those present before the alterations were made. There were just a few species of migrant ‘land-bird’ seen during the period – one each of Wood Pigeon, Chiffchaff, and Siskin.

A Slavonian Grebe in breeding plumage was in the sea off the Reserve for a short time on 4th April – a typical date for this very uncommon visitor – and another indication that Spring was on the way was a party of 50 or so Linnets near the South School on 4th.

Two Wood Pigeons (a rare sight indeed here!) were seen together in Ant and Clare’s garden at Gesty Dishes in early April during which time there were two records of Goldcrest there.

With time for birdwatching other than on our own land curtailed we have not been able to keep up with Spring migration, but all the signs have been encouraging, with very few Greylag Geese (the Matpow now almost back to former glory!) and noticeably higher numbers of several duck species in particular. At least 11 Shelduck have been seen and good numbers of Mallard, Teal and even Tufted Duck, the latter on the Matpow Loch.

The first Wheatear was seen by Leah at Airy on 12th April, when Skylarks were becoming more vocal and waders were beginning to move northwards. During the last two weeks, small parties of Curlew could be seen – and heard – flying north-eastwards over Mill Bay – heading straight for Fair Isle (and beyond). The first Great Skua (Bonxie) was seen by Ant on 19th, the same day as both Merlin and Sparrowhawk were seen here at Castle.

9 Shelduck were on the Matpow Loch in late April and two regularly visited the new ‘pond’ between Castle and Linkshouse.

In complete contrast a Blackcap was seen by Sheila in the garden at Helmsley. A very ‘dark’ brown Chiffchaff was picked up exhausted in the porch at Airy on 20th and a similar bird spent a few days in the Castle garden around the same time.

chiffchaff Stronsay Limpet

Chiffchaff picked up exhausted in the porch at Airy and quickly released back into the garden. Photo credit: Hazel Shearer

There was a very interesting occurrence on 21st when a group of ‘crows’ descended into the large tree at the end of the Castle garden and began calling and ‘squabbling’. Some of the calls sounded unfamiliar and I suspected they may be Rooks – very rare here in recent years. The birds suddenly vacated the tree en masse and headed off towards the Meikle Water and into the sun – still squabbling and calling incessantly.

It was a real puzzle but at the time it seemed most likely that most of the birds would be Rooks (very colonial at this time of year). Try as we might, it was impossible to ascertain the features of any of the 10 or so birds as they flew off directly away from us. Suddenly the ‘penny dropped’ – Kath and Norman (ex-Dale farm) had often spoken about the flocks of Rooks which regularly flew out to Stronsay from Mainland Orkney at certain times of year many years ago – and went back to Mainland the same day! Perhaps we were witnessing the revival of an old tradition. Rooks are very numerous indeed on mainland Orkney!

Another interesting arrival on 21st was what was almost certainly a Lapland Bunting picked up exhausted (probably chased by a Merlin!) by Diane at Tullementan.

During the last few days there have been a few arrivals of Summer visitors including Chiffchaffs, Swallows, Sedge Warbler, and Sand Martin. No doubt there are plenty more to come!

With our own birdwatching severely curtailed for the foreseeable future we would appreciate any calls regarding bird sightings – not necessarily rarities – in order to keep the contents of our monthly Limpet article as interesting as possible.
Thanks again for all the calls. John & Sue

Whooper Swans Stronsay LImpet

Whooper Swans at the Blan Loch shortly before leaving for the breeding grounds in Iceland

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