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Sanday, autumn 2023 (1 Viewer)

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
As another year goes by, another Sanday trip report come along, but perhaps it’s worth starting wit a bit of pre-Sanday before we get down to the nitty gritty. Due to jobs, children, locations, travel arrangements, and other things that can get in the way of birding, we (6 of us, mostly staying for most of the week) arrived about as separately as would be possible. Some made it over to Orkney on the 29th, and on to Sanday early on the 30th. Personally, I made it up to Kirkwall on the morning of the 30th, and eventually arrived onto Sanday the evening, just in time to hear what I’d missed out on. Luckily on the island it was not all that much, but we’d done quite well between us birding on the way up. Top prize went to the American golden plover found on South Ronaldsay on the 29th, and other notable birds were redstart, spotted flycatcher, grey phalarope on Orkney mainland, and a Sabine’s gull from Brimm’s Ness, on the other side of the Pentland Firth. Not quite Orkney, but you’d have been able to see it in the background, so it feels like it deserves a mention!

I met up with the Sabine’s finder in Kirkwall and we birded a few areas locally with no success. Then we returned to the big smoke for essentials such as an ice-cream, and some more sensible goods from the supermarket, and while parked up at the local Tesco we had a look at the Peedie Sea. Here, among the commoner things, an adult Mediterranean gull was a really nice surprise. We had our first on Sanday last year, and although it’s increasing on the northern isles, there are still probably only a couple of records per year on Orkney.

After that, we were on the ferry to Sanday, via Stronsay, hundreds of black guillemots, and the odd red-throated and great northern diver. By 6 pm we were off the boat, and looking into the gloomy bushes at Stove, trying to see the common rosefinch that the others had found on arrival earlier. It was too dark, but the early team had also notched up the long-staying long-billed dowitcher, 2 yellow-browed warblers, and a yellow wagtail (another really good bird for Orkney), as well as some lovely Sanday staples such as barnacle geese, hen harrier, short-eared owl, merlin, waders and wildfowl. We were back in the thick of it for another week.

Our house was near Lady (hence the name Ladyboys). right in the middle of the island. Most of our birding was to be concentrated around the east end of the island, and around the various lochs and wadery bits that make Sanday such a great option for an autumn week. Our main aim is to find rare eastern passerines (although don't tell that to the Swainson's thrush that turned up in 2014...), but with so much wader and wildfowl interest, Sanday can also deliver a great range of rare birds when the weather is not conducive to eastern arrivals.
October 1st

Start point is at the far east end of Sanday, and if you want to go there you need to wait for the tide to drop. When this happens, you’ve got a 2-ish hour window to get out there and fill your boots. Any dithering, and your boots get filled, if you know what I mean. Low tide was early in the morning and as two of the team fancied Start, I found myself tagging along with the intention of seawatching from the hut at the landward side of the crossing. So, I found myself attempting to seawatch in the dark for the first wee while, with rain and wind not helping either. Still, I managed a few things once the sun came up. I guess sooty shearwaters were most notable, and a puffin was the only one of the trip.

After this, I walked around the Lopness area, a headland on the south side of the far east of Sanday. It must be pretty epic when there are birds arriving, but today, it struggled to live up to it’s potential. A stonechat here, a redpoll there, a great northern diver overhead, and a really nice count of 140 black-tailed godwits was all I had to show for my effort. Then I headed round to the North Loch loop, and immediately started to see a bit more. It was obvious there hadn’t been any sort of arrival but the gardens along the road here have held on to a few migrants since whenever it was they had arrived. A couple more redpoll, a handful of Blackcap, some robins and best of all, a yellow-browed warbler flitted among the wind-blown willows, and in the surrounding area, 23 barnacle geese fed, a sparrowhawk tazzed a flock of golden plover, and the coot count on Loch of Rhummie totalled a very respectable 20 birds. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch, which we did via Cleat, so the rest of us could mop up the long-billed dowitcher. Lo and behold there it was, looking pretty miffed about whatever life choice had seen it ending up in wet, windy Sanday rather than whatever warmer, drier place it was supposed to have gone to.

In the afternoon I had a look around Lady (the only ‘village’ on the island) in much nicer, drier conditions. Here there were goldcrest, chiffchaff, blackcap and garden warbler, as well as an unseen lesser whitethroat tacking away in the doctor’s garden. From here I shuffled on towards Bressigarth, where I made my way through a field and got comfortable on the corner of Cata sand, a great spot to sit and watch waders at close quarters on a rising tide. There was nothing special here among the 220 or so dunlin, with smaller numbers of grey plover and bar-tailed godwit making up the scene, backed by a 300 strong flock of wigeon further out. A couple of twite called overhead, and a hen harrier danced past at short range. No rares (for me), no matter. A lovely day’s birding. However, one of the others did considerably better, than the rest of us, finding a pallid harrier!
October 2nd

I spent the morning doing another old favourite route. Having been dropped off in Lady I walked over Overbister to the Little Sea, and then made my way back home through the middle of the island. It was all very nice ‘northern isles but no rares’ birding. There were pink-footed geese on the move, and 11 twite put on a lovely display at Overbister, until a hen harrier came through and scattered the lot. The Little Sea had another group of grounded Pink-feet, as well as the usual grey plovers, bar-tailed godwits, and a couple of late Sandwich terns. Here, chaos was caused by a merlin dashing over the mudflats (do merlin ever do anything other than dash?). At over-the-water the pools were very quiet, apart from a female gadwall - a species we don’t get every year on Sanday, and a count of 9 grey herons here was pretty good as well. The sun was out, there wasn’t all that much wind, and the birding was lovely, even if it wasn’t dripping with the eastern migrants that we’re always hoping for. While the sun continued to shine, I headed towards Otterswick, where I spent a very pleasant 30 mins scoping over the bay. A hen harrier hunted the shore at the back, scattering roosting waders as it went (including 3 ruff). 27 grey plover clung on to the last bit of exposed rock in the bay, and a kestrel stared over the scene from a nearby fencepost. Geese moved overhead and red-breasted mergansers gathered on the sea. No rares, no problem….

After a hasty cheese toasty and a less hasty cup of coffee and a cake, it was back out to the east end. Here. I did another of my favourite Sanday things - I had a fairly long sit at the concrete buildings at the south end of North Loch, scoping over the water, counting the wildfowl and generally taking in a very birdy place. In the fields there were new-in whooper swans and about 40 barnacle geese, with feeding black-tailed godwits and ruff scattered among them, Out on the water, numbers were low (most of the wigeon appeared to be on Roos Loch this year), but there was still pintail, goldeneye, gadwall and shoveler among the wigeon and teal. It was here I got my first real good bird. A yellow wagtail (most likely the same bird as the one that one of the other guys had heard the day before, a couple of kms away) flew over calling, and proceeded to land in the field with all the geese and swans in it! I’d have loved to have a closer look at it on the ground, but I’d seen enough and I’m not sure all those tired whoopers would have understood!

I looped around North Loch after this, but by this point the wind had picked up and the rain had set in — a theme that would remain for pretty much the rest of the week. I had a robin at Tofts, and then a couple of bits of real Sanday quality in the form of a goldfinch and a carrion crow at the gallery. Further down the road, the yellow-browed warbler was still present, along with a couple of blackcaps. The goldfinch had also followed me down the road, as it suddenly popped up on the edge of the Salties garden. The wind and the rain had got the better of me though, so it was back to the house to dry out and warm up. With beer.

Others managed great views of the pallid harrier at various points round the island, the long-billed dowitcher remained in the same place, and a different yellow-browed warbler, and both snow and lapland bunting made it onto the list of team highlights.
October 3rd

Through sheer luck, one of our gang had happened upon the pallid harrier the previous evening, and had seen it go to roost. So, no prizes for guessing where we all were at first light. From the safety of the road a fair way back, we all enjoyed nice views of this really cool visitor as it left its roost and harried off over the brow of a hill. Wind and rain aside, an excellent way to start the day.

It was to be a quiet day for me, effort wise. I had the task of cooking in the afternoon, which meant a slightly shorter stint in the field, and my preference for the morning was to start with a seawatch. Nothing like a good sit down, waiting for the birds to come to you. The wind was really strong and seawatching was tough however, so after an hour or so with nothing more than a few skeins of pink-footed goose and a late Arctic tern, I decided to sit on the ‘seat’ on the other side of the hut at neuks and scan the bay for divers and hopefully, grebes. Other than a few redthroats there was not a lot doing, but things suddenly took a turn to the more interesting. At a distance of about 3 km, what was obviously a small egret species came in off from the east, and landed on the shore some way up the Sanday coast towards Tofts Ness. Most likely a little egret, but at that range I couldn’t be sure - and any egret is very rare in Orkney. There was a nagging doubt in my mind making me think cattle egret though - when it landed on the rocks, it lifted its head on quite a short and thick neck (not like the long snakey neck of a little egret) but there was just so much distance involved to know if I should read anything into that. So, I marched up from Neuks, arranged a pick-up from Tofts farm, and covered the 8 km or so that it would take me to get around the coast and nail the identification of this bird. I mean, it was an egret - refinding it was inevitable, right? Not so - it had completely vanished and my stomp had very little else to show for it other than a sparrowhawk.

After lunch, i did my thing in the kitchen and then headed off to meet the others for a trip back to the harrier roost. I sat there for 2 hours, while a procession of hen harriers (or maybe some of the same hen harriers twice) came through. 8 times, female type birds drifted through the site from east to west, before making their way over the hill and out of site. A handsome male did the same thing - but was no sign of the pallid harrier at all. We left at about 6:15, only to hear from the other car that it came in at 6:30. Never mind, we’d all seen it already, and we’d also enjoyed a woodpigeon bombing over the site - a really good bird for Sanday. The final bird of the day was also a biggie. We’d had two previous records of Jackdaw on Sanday in something like 16 visits - a single bird, and 3 birds together. That made the group of 47 that flew past us all the more surprising, and dare I say it, exciting! Context is everything…

Post script - it makes no difference regarding advancing what I saw beyond 'small egret spp', but a cattle egret, one of the first (if not the first) bird recorded alive on Orkney, turned up on the mainland about 5 days after this. Pretty gutted that I couldn't relocate the bird!
October 4th

This was going to be our chance to find something good, we thought. The rain had stopped, and the wind had dwindled down to nothing. I started my morning at Cleat, enjoying lovely views of the long-billed dowitcher as it fed on its favoured pool. I’d been very dismissive of it first time around, but spending some time with it this morning, running around with its outsized bill stuck on the front of its dumpy frame, I really enjoyed it. It struck a pretty comical figure, and one I would have happily chuckled at if I hadn’t had so much respect for the journey it had made.

I then headed back towards Lady, where the bushes were still and the birds were easy to pick out, for a change. There were a surprising number of birds to see, considering we didn’t think much had arrived recently. The yellow-browed warbler had found a yellow-browed friend, and there were at least 4 blackcaps doing the rounds. A garden warbler showed briefly in the garden at Nearhouse, but the best bird was the lesser whitethroat that I’d heard calling earlier in the week. It was a lovely pale, light brown tone, so an eastern bird for sure. I’d love to have had better, longer views of it but it was very elusive and it only came to the surface once, for about half a second. A merlin dashed (again) through Lady and a hen harrier passed as I headed back towards the house. The final throes of the morning were spent looking at the bay at Otterswick, in front of our rented house. Here, 23 jackdaw and 2 carrion crow were a surprise among the starlings and hoodies, and the local kestrel watched on from a nearby fencepost.

In the afternoon, in spite of the fact that it was going to be horrible, I decided to walk out to Tresness, another of my favourite routes on the island. To put it bluntly, it was dead. On my way out, the walk around Cata Sand was enlivened by a beautiful leucistic wheatear, all golden and white. I also found a fire-blackened vertebrae from a pilot whale, a reminder of the Faeroes style ‘grinds’ that used to happen there in a bygone era.

The pool at the end though, one of the rarest looking bits of water on a very wet island, was dead. I sat with my back to it, and the rain, to seawatch for a little while, before swinging the scope around and scanning over the pool. ‘If I’m going to find something, I need to do it in time for the others to get out here’, I thought. That sounded like vain hope after the first two scans, with not much more than a couple of shoveler and a handful of snipe to show for it. On the next scan though, things changed up a little. Creeping round in the horsetails at the back of the pool, just a yard or so from where I’d found a pectoral sandpiper a couple of years ago, were a couple of small waders. One was a dunlin, but the other…. well, it wasn’t. It was a touch smaller, and greyer, with a gleaming white belly. it had short dark legs and a short bill, and although discerning any detail was tough through the rain, it had, for a small wader, quite the supercilium. Other than that, it was pretty plain. ‘I need to see your rump’ I mumbled to both myself and the bird, to which it duly obliged, by flying off with its dunlin chum, There, as it went, was a clear, obvious white rump. As i’d suspected, it was a white-rumped sandpiper, and suddenly, all the wind, rain, and kilometres (of which I’d accrued over 80 by this stage of the week) were worth it. I’d like to say I sprang lightly back around the Cata sand, but it was definitely still a trudge, where I was picked up and taken back to the house, where I toasted my new American friend with a nice cold beer. Much better.

In addition, others had the pallid harrier again (I was getting very good at not seeing the pallid harrier while I was out and about), and a barred warbler was new in. Little stint and a few snow bunting also made the highlights.
October 5th

My penultimate day, and one which started with relatively clear skies and light winds. We’d love SE winds and rain all of the time, but a pretty close second is a nice still day where you can find birds and not have to wipe your binocular lenses after every time you check that the bird in the bush is just a linnet (it’s pretty much always just a linnet…).

I was heading to a largely linnet free zone in the morning. The waders that use the pool at Tresness will also feed on the Cata Sand and the Little Sea when the tide is right. On the Little Sea, the tide pushes them up towards the road and you can take shelter between the houses and fill your boots with scopeful close ups. I figured it would be my best bet at re-finding the white-dumped sandpiper.

First, I passed by the airstrip and the gardens at Ladybank. Redwings and a redpoll went over, suggesting an arrival of sorts, and two jackdaws did the same. Not so rare any more…. On the Little Sea, there were dunlins galore but unfortunately no sign of the white-rumped sand. I very much made do with a curlew sandpiper feeding about 10 metres away from me. A big flock of wigeon fed in the background, and there was the usual hotchpotch of grey plover and bar tailed godwit as well.

I started to head homeward via the Bea Loch, where whooper swans honked but little else did anything, and then passed through the gardens at Newbiggings, where a willow warbler was a bit of a surprise, and more redwings passed over.

One steaming bowl of last nights leftovers later, I was on the road out east again for another wet and windy walk around North Loch. A greenshank fed in the north corner, and a whopping 136 ringed plovers roosted in the same corner. Out on the water, duck numbers had built somewhat. Pintail were up to 75, and tufted ducks up to 81. The odd gadwall and goldeneye were dotted about and in the fields behind the loch, 26 whoopers and 40 barnacle geese grazed. On the loop back to the car, redwing was about the only passerine of note and I have to say, with aching feet and wet everything else, I was pretty glad to get back into the car and head back for a brandy coffee…

Others had the dowitcher and the pallid harrier, a different curlew sandpiper, and the first brambling of the week.
October 6th

My last day, and a day for taking shelter. In the morning, when the wind was at it’s strongest, we opted to seawatch from behind one of the big ‘ammo dumps’ on the Lopness headland. These are now used for much more friendly things such as storing bales of hay, growing migranty looking patches of nettles, and keeping the wind off people who don’t really think seawatching will deliver, but can’t think of anything better to do. It was pretty quiet, inevitably, with the wind not coming from a great direction - still, sooty shearwaters are not to be sniffed at, and an Arctic tern and great northern diver added interest.

After giving up on this, we jumped into a car and decided to bird a few of the lochs. North loch had the usual whooper swan and barnacle goose combo, and the wind had meant that many of the ducks had congregated at the north end, meaning we could all scan through them with bins from the car. 4 Gadwall among the pintail and wigeon was about as noteworthy as it gets.

From there we checked a few more places. No sign of the dowitcher at Cleat, so we went up to Roos loch. This was where the vast majority of the islands wigeon had congregated (I think someone counted 700 there earlier in the week), and we considered that they were probably due a grilling.

It paid off almost instantly, with a bunch of us pretty much independently getting on to a very pale and grey looking bird (although hat tip to the guy that got there first, of course). We liked the look of this for an eclipse drake american wigeon from the off. Cold, grey head with dark eye patch, large head with full nape, plenty of black at the gape, longer tail than the rest - it looked really good. However, we really wanted to see the axilaries to be sure. Would the little devil flap it’s wings? Not once. However, we realised the birds were not going anywhere, so we planned to come back after lunch.

After lunch we were quickly back onto the bird (it really did stand out) and waited with it for an hour or so, before if suddenly reared up and flapped, revealing lovely, crisp, white axiliaries and underwing coverts! Three birders cheered in unison, confirming our third American wigeon on Sanday (or, feasibly, the same one three times…) but by far the most interesting to identify.

And from there, it was time to take me to the boat. Not much else to report for me, but one of the guys had an American golden plover at the east end, and all of a sudden a decent week list was starting to look very respectable indeed.
October 7th, and the wash-up

As so often happens when someone leaves Sanday early, the weather turned for the better and there were migrants in. Fieldfares were arriving, but by far the best bird was an eastern (Siberian/Amur) stonechat. The third BB rarity of the week, although long billed dowitcher is of much lower value than most of the other good birds because we didn’t find it.

So. We had the whole place to ourselves (6 birders), and for the best part of the week, the conditions were far from what we’d been hoping for. Still, between us we managed Eastern Stonechat, Pallid harrier, White-rumped sandpiper, American wigeon, American golden plover, Barred warbler, 3 (i think) common rosefinch, 4 yellow-browed warbler (in a year when there are not that many about), eastern lesser whitethroat, yellow wagtail, an unidentifiable egret spp, snow and lapland buntings, a mega jackdaw flock, and soooo much more. I’m still surprised at how little attention Orkney gets from those looking to find their own birds… This was all within the context of a weeks list of 120 species - 119 of which were found by ourselves.

But to put that list into context - there were 6 of us (for the first 4 days at least) and between us we must have covered 700 km looking for birds while we were there. Someone once said that ‘finding rare birds in Shetland is as easy as putting on a hat’. Looking at that list above, you might think the same about Orkney - and it certainly is easier than on the mainland - but none of us saw all of those birds, and most days, most of us found nothing to write home about! If you can put the effort in, and have that sprinkling of luck, Orkney can be a very special place to find rare birds….

Would you see as many rare birds as a week on Shetland? Almost certainly not - but that would involve a lot of twitching, a lot of driving, and in some part, measuring the success of your week based on how successful others had been at finding stuff. Give me blisters, the odd great bird and the odd decent find, on an island we get all to ourselves, any (and every) autumn...

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