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Sanday, Orkney, September 8th - 13th (1 Viewer)

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Another installment from our annual trip up to Orkney looking for rare birds. Two of us did a short version, arriving midweek and doing 5 days. Others are doing a week long trip, so there will be about 10 days coverage all together, from 8th to 18th. I'll be covering the first 5 days in most detail, but will post here with what the rest of the team get over the second part.

Wednesday September 8th

After a long day’s travelling from Aberdeen we finally hit the Orkney leg of the journey with the first of two ferry crossings - this one from Gills Bay to St Margarets Hope, on South Ronaldsay. The sea was flat calm, which makes for a nice crossing, but meant there wasn’t an awful lot happening, bird wise. A few great skuas were milling about, and there were singles of puffin and red-throated diver, and a distant ringtail hen harrier drifted between two unidentified bits of land. The undoubted highlight would have been the dolphin that I briefly saw, had I seen enough to identify it. It was most likely a Risso’s dolphin, but one that got away, unfortunately.

After a quick dash across Orkney mainland we made our next ferry journey, from Kirkwall to Sanday. Again, it was a quiet crossing. Black guillemots seemed particularly numerous, and there were plenty of shags, fulmars, and greylag geese knocking about. We arrived at Sanday with about an hours daylight to spare, and honoured a time old tradition by making our first stop at Stove - a really good bit of migrant cover in the far south of the island. We think it picks up birds as they make there way cross country, most of them having made landfall at the other end of Sanday. It seemed pretty migrant free, although there were plenty of swallows about, and stonechat appear to have bred. We were a few trips in before we’d even noted stonechat on Sanday, so to find they had bred here (and elsewhere on the island too) was nice.

We then made our way to our accommodation, noting hen harrier, short-eared owl and common Sanday corvids - raven and hooded crow en route.
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Thursday September 9th

The first of many grey, drizzly days….

In the morning I’d planned to walk out to Tresness, but my friend suggested that we take a look at a favourite muddy pool that was sort of on the way, before we did anything else. This proved to be a really good idea, as although at first glance the pool seemed only to hold a redshank and a handful of snipe (everywhere on Sanday has a handful of snipe), some movement among the vegetation soon turned out to be a pectoral sandpiper. Not a bad start to the birding proper.

It was nice to get a decent bird under the belt so early on, which energised me for the long walk out to Tresness. The journey out to this potentially migranty headland, with its very good looking pool at the end, takes you along the edge of a large tidal bay, which can make for a very bird filled walk. I didn’t see a single migrant at all, but the pool looked epic. There were redshank everywhere, along with a few knot and black-tailed godwits, four ruff, and, creeping around at the back of the pool, another pectoral sandpiper! It was joined by a water rail, and a total of 9 herons (migrants here) made for a very enjoyable scene. By swinging my scope through 180 degrees, I could see a few seabirds passing, and in ten minutes I’d noted a couple of manx and a single sooty shearwater, and a single great northern diver.

I could have stayed for longer to work the weedy fields but to get back in time for lunch, and to be in a decent position as the tide rose on my way back, I headed back around the Cata Sand. The incoming tide concentrated the waders nicely at the east end of the bay and I was able to count 542 bar-tailed godwits, 67 grey plover, roughly 200 dunlin and smaller numbers of knot, sanderling, ringed plover, curlew and redshank. A hen harrier drifted through, putting everything up, but I’d satisfied myself there was nothing rare to be had, so headed in for lunch.

After lunch, a quick stop at Roos loch revealed a greenshank (fewer records than pec sand over the years!) before we hit the east end. I was going to walk the North Loch loop, taking in the fields, shorelines, gardens and various water bodies. Migrants were thin on the ground, but pied flycatcher, blackcap and siskin suggested that there were birds to be found, and spurred me on to keep going. However I completely failed to see the common rosefinch that my friend had found at the gallery during the morning. North loch had decent numbers of mute swan, and a small group of black-tailed godwit at the south end, and the surrounding fields had groups of golden plover, and the odd ruff here and there. In spite of what felt like a lack of migrants, we decided that couple of pectoral sandpipers, and a rosefinch was not a bad start between the two of us.
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Friday September 10th

As it was raining first thing, we jumped into the car and checked out a few spots that didn’t require much of a walk while we waited for the rain to ease off. The large tidal flats of the little sea had 250 or so dunlin, and a nice count of 78 black-tailed godwits. From there we went to the Bea loch, where we picked up little grebe (a hard bird to get on Sanday usually), along with a few tufted duck and a sedge warbler calling in the waterside vegetation.

Once it had got a little nicer, we headed out east again. I walked the area down towards Start Point, a lovely network of fields, walls, ditches and the odd willow that can be really fun to bird when migrants are arriving. Today wasn’t to be one of those days unfortunately, but I really enjoyed a ten minute ‘bins only’ seawatch, with 8 sooty shearwater and a fine pomarine skua heading past. Behind me, a short-eared owl quartered over the grassland and two pintail, our first of the trip, flew over, to a constant soundtrack of golden plover, greylag geese and meadow pipits on the move overhead. Very birdy, and very nice.

I enjoyed the seawatching so much that I came back out to do some more, this time with a scope. The weather had other plans for me though, with the visibility dropping so much as to render seawatching a little pointless. During my brief view I had another sooty go past, and a couple of great northern diver were lingering offshore.

The change of plans, and the visibiltiy closing in, had me looking for migrants again and this time with a little more success, with a sudden flurry of action around one house including both pied and spotted flycatchers, and a male blackcap. Further up the track towards north loch, song thrush and a handful of willow warblers were new in, and I eventually made it up to the gallery, where the common rosefinch had been seen the day before. A few more willow warbler were notched up, before the rosefinch eventually showed very nicely, perching on the edge of a sycamore, at least until the moment just before I’d got the camera onto it! As a nice bonus, lumbering out of a rosa bush came a barred warbler, the first of several that we’d encounter on this trip. Another good day, with the feeling of a small number of migrants arriving. My friend had had a nice selection including redstart, whinchat and garden warbler, so we were happy that there would be birds to see the following morning.
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Saturday September 11th

Another grey start, another trip to the east end. This time things start very nicely with a new barred warbler, along with a couple of song thrush at my first stop. walking the usual route towards the gallery produced a couple of willow warbler, and the gallery itself seemed to be alive with birds. A very showy lesser whitethroat was the first to give itself up, quickly followed by three willow warbler, and the barred warbler and rosefinch from the day before also put in appearances. I hadn’t had a chance to get much further when heavy rain set in, making birding pretty much impossible, and also pretty unpleasant. We spent the rest of the day birding from the car where we could, and also catching up with the rest of the team, who had arrived in the morning and were scattered about, trying to bird from the car in order to keep dry. Needless to say, we didn’t find very much over the rest of the day…
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Sunday September 12th

The winds and overnight rain clearing before dawn left us with high hopes for the morning. Yet again, I set out east, with a plan to bird the shore along the east end of Sanday. This can be good for waders, and the patches of thistles and the like can often hold migrants. They didn’t hold any migrants today however, and they weren’t as sheltered as I thought they were going to be, so after a short while I popped over the top of the dunes, straight into a big patch of Ragwort.

As soon as I started walking through, a persistent ‘dzik………dzik…….dzik’ call came from the depths of the weedy cover. I knew it had to be an Arctic warbler, but I’d need more than the call - especially as rather annoyingly, I’d put my sound recording kit away not long before, due to a rain shower. I very slowly crept towards where I thought the bird was, but failed to see it before if flew up out of the ragwort and away into another weedy field. I made my way over there but after 5 minutes of creeping about, I was worried I’d lost it, so I called my friend who was a little way away, as a bit of extra help.

He hurried over and parked at the nearest house, jumped out of the car and called to ask where I was. While I was telling him, he cut me off mid sentence as the bird had popped up onto a fence next to him! It dashed off into a sycamore where he managed to reel off a handful of pictures, before it cleared off once more. This bird was clearly not hanging around! I arrived on the scene shortly after and we tried, but failed to second guess where the bird would have gone. A review of the pics very fortunately showed a nice Arctic warbler, which would definitely have been one that got away, had it not been for my friends (and therefore my…) good fortune.

We gave it plenty more time in the area, and added both of the local barred warblers to the day list, as well as a new pied flycatcher, and a peregrine overhead. We also stopped on the way back at a spot where the local ranger had had a barred and a wood warbler the previous day. No sign of the phyllis but another barred warbler for the day was the icing on the cake.

In the afternoon I decided to take it a little easier, heading out on foot from the house to have a look at Lady village, and the pools and lagoons at Cleat. I was very much in ‘have a nice walk’ mode but still enjoyed peregrine, merlin and two hen harrier around the village, and a chiffchaff in one of the gardens. Out at Cleat, the muddy pools were quiet, as was the lagoon - possibly something to do with the two short-eared owls that were quartering overhead. I headed back towards Lady (a garden warbler popped up en route) and spent a very pleasant half hour or so chatting with the ex-ranger, while enjoying the sunshine, and yet another barred warbler in his garden. This was the sixth different barred on the island (and there were to be others later in the week as well) - quite a special week for this species!
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
Monday September 13th

Our final day. We head east again, and this time make the most of the tidal window to head over to Start point, which had been cut off to us up until now (in decent daylight, at least). I had the intention of seawatching, and was joined by another visiting birder who’d travelled up from Cornwall. Virtually the first thing i saw was a small pod of Risso’s dolphin, and all together we had 32 sooty shearwaters past in an hour, with a handful of manxies, singles of Arctic and great skua, and plenty of auks on the move too. What’s great about seawatching here is how close the birds pass by - especially the sooties - with some just 100 yards offshore.

Start island is also a great place to be in a fall, and has a rare looking loch that can be chock full of wildfowl. It’s a special place and such a shame that it’s not always accessible.

We left the island before the tide came up, and began our usual rooting around for migrants. we hadn’t done too much when we got a message from one of the other guys, who’d found a secretive acrocephalus at Tofts Ness. He thought it looked good for a marsh warbler, but was struggling to nail it as it was virtually impossible to see other than when it was in flight. This sounded like a fun challenge, so we headed on up and picked up another team mate en route.

When we got there, we were met with a big old ragwort bed, and an acro that didn’t want to be seen. That said, even in flight it was striking enough, being pale and sandy above, with almost yellowy tones below. We were keen not to push it around too much of course, and a quick review of the camera after a lucky break revealed a suite of structural features that supported the ID as marsh warbler. Another good bird under the belt, and a good bit of work from the finder.

After lunch, I had a stroll along the beach at the east end (again), enjoying the sanderlings, dunlin, and other waders, and noting a couple of willow warblers feeding in the beachside thistles. It was, unfortunately, soon time to go, and we made our way down to the ferry via a few final stops. They were all dead!

Looking back on our few days, we reckoned we'd done pretty well, but had been lucky with birds arriving during our stay. The rest of the gang looked to have a few quiet days on their hands before things potentially pick up again at the end of the week. Fingers crossed!
 

Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
So, in summary, over the 5 days we were there (as a team of either 2 or 7) between us we notched up:

1 Arctic warbler
1 Marsh warbler
6 Barred warbler
5 common rosefinch
3 Pectoral sandpiper
1 Wryneck

With a supporting cast of sooty shearwater, pomarine skua, a good scattering of 'common' migrants, Slavonian grebe, and of course all of the regular Orkney goodies.
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
A really enjoyable read. Just had my first Arctic Warbler of the autumn this morning - calling invisibly, but as you say highly distinctively, near the bus stop next to my block - Slightly different habitat! - Glad you were able to confirm it.

Cheers
Mike
 

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Mark Lew1s

My real name is Mark Lewis
So, in summary, over the 5 days we were there (as a team of either 2 or 7) between us we notched up:

1 Arctic warbler
1 Marsh warbler
6 Barred warbler
5 common rosefinch
3 Pectoral sandpiper
1 Wryneck

With a supporting cast of sooty shearwater, pomarine skua, a good scattering of 'common' migrants, Slavonian grebe, and of course all of the regular Orkney goodies.
I’m addition, over the rest of the week:

1 American golden plover
4 buff-breasted sandpiper
1 probably new pec sand
1 new barred warbler

And some real quality to underline that - red-necked grebe, quail, long-eared owl, little stint, wood warbler. Not bad for 10 days work. Expect more over the next week with a couple of other visiting birders on the island.
 

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