A different format for the blog entry this time… Here’s an article I wrote on behalf of the RSPB Orkney Local Group for The Orcadian, Orkney’s weekly newspaper. It was published on 11 January, 2018 (thank you, guys). I have added some links to the RSPB’s work and activities at the bottom of the article.
Highlights – and some of the challenges – of RSPB Scotland’s year in Orkney were outlined at the charity’s Orkney Local Group AGM.
Orkney Manager Sarah Sankey told members about a detailed programme of monitoring, surveys, land management and conservation work undertaken including a survey of all 21 square kilometres of RSPB land at Birsay Moors to provide baseline data for the future. Reserves staff are also studying to see how some of the Birsay Moors habitat can be restored.
Also during 2017:
Additional funding allowed for three contract staff, plus additional sabbatical staff, to survey breeding waders on 90 sites across Orkney. This will help determine the impact of stoats and their removal. The data is still being sorted so there are no results to share yet.
A third year of monitoring great yellow bumblebees was completed and, for example, more than 100 were counted on Copinsay.
The Hoy white-tailed eagles proved a disappointment, the pair were on their territory in February but by March had gone. However, three white-tailed eagles were seen hanging around over Hoy through the year and the RSPB Eaglewatch went ahead to help visitors and locals engage with these majestic birds.
The RSPB’s Outdoor Learning Officer Lindsey Taylor visited 50 schools in the year, engaging with more than 1,000 schoolchildren.
Members were given a presentation about the RSPB’s work on its Onziebust reserve, Egilsay, by Project Officer Mike Partridge and Egilsay Warden Christine Hall.
The management of the farm has been taken in-house with the aim of improving habitats for species including curlews, corncrakes and great yellow bumblebees. The infrastructure of the farm is being improved and it is planned to host wildlife-friendly agricultural training events there.
This is a five-year programme and RSPB Scotland has secured grant funding from RSPB central funds (50%); the Scottish Government and EU Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme; Highlands & Islands Enterprise; and Coastal Communities Fund (Big Lottery Fund).
The RSPB purchased 271 hectares of land on Egilsay between 1996 and 2002 (55% of the island). The island once supported a small population of breeding corncrakes, but has not had a calling male since 2014.
However, among the birds recorded on the Onziebust reserve in 2017 were: 42 pairs of curlew; 28 displaying male snipe; 45 pairs of lapwing; 50 pairs of redshank; and 63 pairs of oystercatcher.
The meeting also enjoyed presentations on: the Orkney Native Wildlife Project in which RSPB Scotland is working with Scottish Natural Heritage to eradicate stoats – a public consultation is under way (see The Orcadian of 30 November and 14 December); conservation in Poland, compared to the UK; and satellite-tagged hen harrier chicks which are providing new information on the birds’ behaviour.
Local Group Chairman Dick Matson praised the wide variety of work undertaken by volunteers for RSPB Scotland in Orkney and highlighted some of the events organised by the local group including boat trips into the Gloup, viewing Harrier Sky Dancing and spotting migrant birds in Sanday.
The Orkney Local Group committee was re-elected at the AGM on 23 November: Dick Matson (Chairman), Pauline Wilson (Secretary), Graham Brown (Treasurer), Grace Currie, Kathie Brown, Shirley Tolley and Robert Wilson.
Greetings. I am conscious that my target of one blog a month – to be increased to two if possible – has been missed. Badly. By a long way. Nowhere near. Anyway, I will not weary you with excuses.
This month I plan to write about my latest Arizona experiences but, first, an article I wrote for Orkney’s excellent local newspaper, The Orcadian. The article was published on Thursday 10 December under the headline “An evening focused on the birdlife on Shetland”.
For those not lucky enough to live in Orkney, or who somehow missed the article, I reproduce it here. It is about the annual general meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group. I should declare an interest – I am a committee member, and the Treasurer.
After the business part of the meeting we had a fascinating talk about Shetland, hence the headline on this blog.
RSPB Orkney Local Group annual general meeting
Volunteers’ efforts to support the RSPB were highlighted at the Orkney Local Group’s annual general meeting in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall.
Chairman Dick Matson, in his report, spoke of the volunteers’ work which includes fund-raising, meeting holidaymakers on the Hamnavoe ferry, recruiting new members, maintaining bird hides, reserves work parties, seabird monitoring, beached bird surveys and talking to visitors about Hoy’s nesting sea eagles.
Mr Matson said of the volunteers, who include RSPB staff helping in their own time: “Your contribution is highly valued. The work of the RSPB is more successful because of volunteers.”
The year’s fund-raising included a bag-packing day in Kirkwall’s Tesco, which made more than £650, and the sale of RSPB pin badges.
Among the events organised by the Local Group were boat trips to Deerness Gloup, and to view puffins around Copinsay, which had proved particularly popular.
The existing Local Group committee was nominated and re-elected at the meeting. They are: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Brown; and Shirley Tolley.
The meeting, on Thursday 19 November, heard a report about the RSPB’s work in Orkney in the past year, read on behalf of Manager Sarah Sankey, who was unable to attend.
This included, through the Enjoy Wild Orkney project, the completion of new viewing structures at Cottascarth, Loons and Birsay Moors – “if you haven’t been, please do go” – as well as new brown signs to direct people to reserves, waymarkers, trail guides, new panels and internal interpretation.
There was also a new leaflet guide to RSPB Orkney reserves published, films made, new webcams – the red throated diver cam was really popular – and reserves projects including new pools at the Loons and work at Loch of Banks to give better control of water levels.
One of the key events during the year was the white-tailed eagle pair breeding on Hoy. The RSPB manned an eagle watch, with huge contributions from volunteers, and engaged with more than 1,000 people, many of them local. Although these were young birds that failed, it is hoped they will be successful next year.
After the AGM members heard a talk entitled Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland by Pete Ellis, RSPB Northern Isles Manager, who is based at Sumburgh Head.
He said he had lived almost 32 years in Shetland, which has a mix of habitats but very little of it green. All land mammals have been introduced to Shetland by people. There are more than 430 bird species, of which about 70 breed in Shetland, and seven RSPB reserves – most of these managed but not owned by the RSPB.
A number of the Shetland bird species described in the talk have seen declining numbers in recent years, including great skua (bonxie), Arctic skua, Arctic tern, razorbill, kittiwake, redshank and lapwing, perhaps the fastest declining wader in Shetland.
Mr Ellis said the bird we should be most concerned about in population terms was the curlew and the RSPB was trying to create a project in Orkney and Shetland to help them before it is too late.
At Shetland’s Loch of Spiggie highlights include long-tailed duck roosting on the loch and massive wintering flocks of Scandinavian herring gull.
Shetland has had up to five pallid harriers during the autumn. During the 1960s and early 1970s there were breeding snowy owls until the adult male died. Otters are relatively easy to see in Shetland. But there are no voles – and no resident short-eared owls or hen harriers.
The islands have more than 90 per cent of the UK population of whimbrel, though they started to decline in numbers 10 years ago, and about one-third of the UK population of red-throated divers.
Mr Ellis said he was astonished the red-necked phalarope did not nest in Orkney, unlike Shetland. The RSPB works to help this extraordinary bird. The female is bigger and brighter, and does the courting, the males incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. It was assumed the Shetland population flew to the Arabian Sea in the autumn but research with small data logging devices attached to the birds has discovered they go to the Pacific Ocean.
The RSPB base in Shetland is at Sumburgh Head, where there is also a visitor centre. Mr Ellis said he had “the best office in the RSPB” with a “fantastic view” of the sea, rocks, birds and, sometimes, passing whales.
Most tourists want to see puffins and they are more accessible than in Orkney, although becoming more unpredictable. Puffins are difficult to monitor but Fair Isle has seen a 50% decline in the last 30 years.
Other birds to be seen in Shetland include the Shetland wren – there is also a Fair Isle wren – and the most common migrant on some days in the autumn can be the yellow-browed warbler which comes from East Siberia. From mid-September to mid-October Shetland can have 300 birders at a time looking for migrants.
This is a reproduction of my article which appeared in The Orcadian of 4 December 2014. The Orcadian is Orkney’s weekly newspaper and a must-buy for residents. You can also subscribe online:http://www.orcadian.co.uk/
The RSPB’s Orkney Local Group looked backwards and forwards when members met for their annual general meeting at St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall.
The group received written congratulations on its 30th anniversary from both Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of the RSPB, and Stuart Housden, Director, RSPB Scotland.
And the members heard a talk about the exciting developments for the charity in the county in 2015.
Mr Housden wrote: “Thank you for continuing to champion wildlife and the work of RSPB Scotland in Orkney. The local group has been inspiring support for some three decades now.”
His letter said the group had raised more than £14,000 in the past four years alone through activities including pin badges, supermarket bag-packing and collections.
Local Group Chairman Dick Matson told the AGM the group aims to assist RSPB staff by volunteering, as well as fund-raising for the charity, engaging with people, and organising events to allow visitors and residents to see wildlife.
Sarah Sankey, Manager of the RSPB in Orkney, spoke on “What’s New With RSPB Orkney” at the meeting on Tuesday 18 November.
She began by introducing recent additions to the Orkney staff of the RSPB: Alison Nimmo, Community Engagement Officer; Alison Phillip, Conservation Officer; and Kaye Thomas, Egilsay Warden. She also announced that Inga Seator, the 2014 Corncrake Officer, would return to work on proposals for a wader birds conservation project.
Sarah then outlined some of the work that has been possible because of the RSPB’s three-year Enjoy Wild Orkney (EWO) project, part-funded through the European Regional Development Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund. EWO is managed by Julian Branscombe and concludes in March 2015.
Developments include opening up the pools at the Loons and lowering the water levels at Loch of Banks in order to improve the habitat for waders, and to protect hen harrier roosts. New signs and panels are being installed to help people find the RSPB’s reserves, and to explain what they can see, along with benches, way markers and donation cairns.
New structures being created thanks to EWO are the grass-roofed Eddie Balfour Hide at Cottascarth, which will also have an indoor teaching space, and improved car parking; a listening wall to amplify the natural sound for visitors to the Loons reserve; and a replacement hide at Burgar Hill.
Murals are being created by Anne Bignall for the Cottascarth, Loons and Burgar Hill hides.
Shortly a smartphone app will be available giving information on top wildlife-watching spots in Orkney and species to look out for.
Meanwhile webcams have proved popular – a seal cam on Copinsay allows folk to remotely watch the seal colony and the pups; and one at Hobbister in the summer gave views of the red-throated divers.
Sarah also discussed the species priorities for the RSPB in Orkney – waders, seabirds, hen harriers, corncrakes, Scottish primrose and the great yellow bumblebee.
Among the examples she gave of the importance of this work: Orkney has the highest recorded density of breeding curlew in the world; Orkney is a stronghold for hen harriers, which face persecution elsewhere in the UK; Orkney is a core area for corncrakes, despite our relatively small population of this elusive bird; and Orkney has seen a huge decline in seabird numbers.
+ The AGM re-elected the Local Group Committee: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Touin Brown; and Shirley Tolley (replacing Julie Rickards who has stood down).
+ Keep up with the work of the RSPB in Orkney via www.facebook.com/rspborkney and find out more about the RSPB Orkney Local Group by contacting Chairman Dick Matson on 01856 751426.
Well, here we are with just a fortnight until December 21st, the shortest day of the year – a strange description really, we mean of course the shortest daylight of the year. All being well, December 21st will be 24-hours in duration like all other days.
Here in Orkney our hours of daylight do get pretty short, especially in gloomy weather such as we have experienced here latterly. I recently read the autobiography of the late Jo Grimond, former Orkney and Shetland MP, and Leader of the then Liberal Party. He accurately described our overcast days being as if the sky is on the roof of the house.
Such days remind me of the title of an atmospheric play I saw many years ago in King’s Lynn – a town I left in 1982. Called Days Here So Dark, the play was about a Scottish island community in the dark days of winter. A quick bit of internet research tells me it was actually set in the Hebrides, and written by Terry Johnson.
Currently in Orkney it is only just getting light enough to take our dog Roscoe for his morning walk after eight o’clock. And his afternoon run in the field needs to be completed by four o’clock.
But come the 21st and we know the Orkney days will start to stretch out again, perhaps slowly at first but soon quickly – because by the summer we will get to a point where it doesn’t get properly dark at night. So our Orkney daylight is like a concertina being smartly squeezed in and out again.
This is one of the rhythms of life which I notice much more living here than I did in London. Yes, of course, I would spot markers such as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, and, depending on your interest, the beginning of the football season or the start of the BBC Proms.
But there seem to be more rhythms and markers here in Orkney. Perhaps being semi-retired gives me more time to notice, and living in a rural environment also helps.
When we moved to Orkney we arrived, without realising it at the time, on St Magnus Day, April 16th. This is a key point in the local calendar. St Magnus is Orkney’s patron saint and our cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated to him, as is the much smaller St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, just a short drive from our house. People here still feel an attachment to Magnus, 900 years after he died.
My wife, Kathie Touin, and I are thrilled that we accidentally arrived on St Magnus Day, it feels like a good omen. We like to go to the St Magnus Day service at the kirk, though this year we missed it due to visiting family in Arizona.
Orkney retains strong links with our Scandinavian neighbours. Remember, Orkney was ruled by Norway until the 15th century. Hence, another marker in our local calendar is Norway Constitution Day, celebrated on May 17th with a parade in Kirkwall and a service in the cathedral.
There are many natural rhythms in Orkney. Recently the farmers have been putting the cattle into their winter quarters. Sometimes we can hear them in the nearby barn – our Orcadian neighbour describes it as the kye (cattle) bogling, a wonderful word. Come the spring, the cattle will be outside again – and sometimes staring from the field through our kitchen window. I wonder what they think of us?
Orkney – being a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland, placed between the Atlantic and the North Sea – is also a good place to see migrant birds, particularly in the more northerly of our islands which can be the first landfall they reach.
And it’s not just birds. Recently one lucky person in a boat, off the Orkney island of Papa Westray, saw two humpback whales on migration…
But even near our home, in West Mainland, Orkney, we get to see different birds come and go, if not rarities – and certainly not whales.
For example, in the summer we watch great skuas, or bonxies as they are known locally, cruising past, with their white wing-markings looking like insignia on fighter aircraft – very appropriate for such an aggressive bird. Now they are wintering in Africa.
In the spring we see curlew, lapwing and oyster catchers gathering to nest. Down at the nearby coast we can watch Arctic terns, which have the longest migration of all birds – in the winter they can be found in the Antarctic, not the Arctic.
In the autumn many migrant geese come to Orkney and they are joined by groups of men with guns – not my favourite aspect of Orkney, to be honest, nor for Roscoe who dislikes the gun noise. Roscoe also dislikes the fireworks that mark November the 5th – and nowadays the surrounding weekends – here as elsewhere in Britain.
But I’ve jumped ahead – winding backwards, Orkney is fortunate to have a series of festivals through the summer months to cater for most, if not all, tastes. These include the Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival, the St Magnus International Festival (arts), Orkney International Science Festival and Orkney Blues Festival. All markers through our year.
In July comes Stromness Shopping Week, with games, music and events in Orkney’s second town Stromness – though residents would argue it is the first town, Kirkwall being a city and somehow not so good anyway. The week finishes with the Shopping Week Parade, which sees large floats, sometimes in tandem, towed through the narrow streets of the town by tractors. The float themes are sometimes in questionable taste but always funny. I wrote about the 2011 parade on Kathie’s blog, before I launched my own…
Every August on a Saturday is one of the biggest events in the calendar – the Orkney County Show. This is a big social occasion, as well as a chance to view the livestock, the newest agricultural equipment, the trade stands and the fantastic local crafts and produce on sale.
In fact, we have several agricultural shows around Orkney leading up to the County. Here in our patch we have the West Mainland Show in Dounby, always held on the Thursday before the County. I think I prefer this – it is our local event (we can see the showground from our house) and this year we had glorious sunny weather.
Then on the day after the County Show it is the Orkney Vintage Club’s Rally, held at the Auction Mart site in Kirkwall. You are guaranteed a wonderful line-up of old cars and vehicles – and if that’s not your sort of thing, there’s always the car boot sale, the refreshments and the friendly folk.
Recently, November 8th in fact, Kathie and I went to the old school here in Quoyloo – a kind of village hall – to join in the annual celebration of Harvest Home. I don’t know how far back these events go but they are a great opportunity to meet neighbours and make new friends over a meal, some drinks and some dancing to live music. Full credit to the voluntary committee members who make it happen. Sadly, many villages no longer have a harvest home event due to lack of support.
For the last couple of years our village’s harvest home has fallen on the same day as the Christmas Charities Bazaar, held in Kirkwall Town Hall and organised by Voluntary Action Orkney. This is also becoming a marker in our calendar as both Kathie and I are involved with the RSPB stall through being committee members of the charity’s Orkney Local Group.
Soon Christmas itself will have arrived. But wait, before that we – being a part-American family – have to fit in Thanksgiving. It falls on the fourth Thursday of November. We cook a large turkey and, naturally, eat variations on turkey meals for several days. So does the dog.
After Christmas the year is rounded off, and the new year begun, back at the old school in Quoyloo with a Hogmanay party.
Finally I should say that it is not always overcast here during the winter. When the skies are clear we get beautiful sunny days and at night spectacular displays of stars, just by stepping out of our front door. We look at the planets, the Milky Way, we’ve seen shooting stars, satellites, the International Space Station – it’s fabulous. Sometimes we can see the Northern Lights.
And it’s odd to think that in the long summer days, when it doesn’t get dark here at night, the celestial rhythms and patterns are still all out there – it’s just that we can’t see them.
One of the big UK environmental controversies of 2013 was the badger cull in parts of England. But there was no fuss here in Orkney – we do not have badgers.
Orcadian wildlife is very different to what we experienced when we lived in England and many of our visitors, while delighted with what they see, are surprised to discover what is not here.
For new readers to this blog, Orkney is made up of about 70 islands situated off the north coast of Scotland – beyond Land’s End but before you get to the UK’s last outpost, Shetland. We are not in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland as some imagine.
I should also say that I am passionate about the natural world, and I work for the RSPB as a volunteer and occasional part-timer, but I am not an expert. So if you are an expert you might want to read a different blog to this one. And, for clarity, I do not write on behalf of the RSPB.
Orkney is rightly celebrated for its wildlife and visitors come here to see, amongst others, grey seals, harbour (or common) seals, puffins, great skuas, hen harriers and wide open scenery with no trees.
But what do we not have? As I said, no badgers. And no deer, or foxes. We don’t even have squirrels, grey or red.
Our biggest wild mammals on land are hedgehogs (a fairly recent introduction), rats (sorry), and various mice and voles. We also have some stoats, a very recent introduction, and because of the danger to Orkney’s ground-nesting birds they are trapped where possible.
Of these land mammals the most celebrated is the Orkney vole which, we are now told, originated in Belgium – though long before the land there was known as Belgium. These lovely little critters, found nowhere else in the UK, probably arrived with early farmers or traders more than 5,000 years ago.
If you move into the seas around Orkney there are some bigger, in fact, much bigger, mammals. As well as seals you might be lucky enough to see dolphins, porpoises, or, for the really lucky, whales – of which perhaps the most regularly seen are orcas, or killer whales.
When we lived in London we, of course, did not see whales. They were not common in Ealing.
But we regularly saw foxes, sometimes quite close by in the street as we staggered back from an evening in the pub and the Indian restaurant. Once I was woken in the early hours by a commotion outside – it was a group of fox cubs chasing a large empty plastic bottle down the street and under the parked cars.
One of the most familiar birds in England is the magpie. Despite the 21st century gloss that we wear, many people are still very superstitious of these birds. Folk also wrongly blame them for a decline in song birds. I always thought magpies stunning in appearance and very clever. I love them. But magpies are so rare in Orkney that if one is seen it is worthy of note. Now when we visit England it is exciting to see these sharp-suited black-and-white characters.
Another regular bird in Ealing, and gradually spreading out from south-east England, is the ring-necked parakeet. These Indian migrants have colonised large areas of London. My wife Kathie Touin and I loved to see them. In fact, when we were watching the Antiques Roadshow from Richmond Park on TV recently, Kathie realised the noises in the background were ring-necked parakeets.
Instead here in Orkney we regularly see, depending on the time of year, great skuas, hen harriers, lapwings, short-eared owls, hooded crows, curlew, eider ducks and fulmars, to name just a few. And there are many other beautiful, exciting species to be found if you have a little time and patience.
We have large numbers of greylag geese – in fact, Orkney now has so large a resident population of these birds that in the past two summers there has been a cull to reduce numbers because of the damage they can cause.
Our visitors are also surprised to discover there are trees in Orkney. We do not have large numbers of trees, certainly no forests, but there are some significant if small woods. I understand Orkney was once covered in trees but, once man had largely removed them, it was not easy for them to grow back.
In the small field we own next to our house we have a number of trees planted by the previous owners to which we have added more. Many are very small, the wind stops them growing quickly, and some varieties do better than others, but I guess we have perhaps 40 or 50 trees. I must count them.
Given good health I hope to see these trees grow to a reasonable size in my life-time but planting trees is very much a commitment to other people’s futures. I wonder if we can phrase our will in a way that will stop the field becoming a housing site, placed as it is between our house and a new one being built on the other side?