North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Here in Orkney we are fortunate to have a comprehensive, quality weekly newspaper – unlike many places in the UK. It is The Orcadian, published every Thursday, and required reading if you live here.

This week The Orcadian published, on 10 April 2014, a short article I had written reporting the RSPB Orkney Local Group spring meeting, a talk by Alison Duncan about the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

North Ronaldsay is the most northerly of the Orkney islands, and I urge you to visit if you get the chance.

Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)
Bluethroat at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (photo: Kevin Woodbridge)

Here is my article:

The vital work of North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in monitoring and recording bird movement was the subject of the Spring Meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group.

Introducing the event at the St Magnus Centre, Kirkwall, Local Group Chairman Dick Matson described the observatory as a “fantastic resource”.

He welcomed Alison Duncan, Warden at the observatory for more than 25 years, who took the audience through a wonderful, colourful and sometimes surprising year in the island’s birdlife. Typically, 200 species are recorded in a year.

North Ronaldsay is one of a network of observatories around the UK, and is also part of The Bird Observatories Council.

The island, four miles long and up to two miles wide, attracts many migrating birds looking to make landfall for rest and food.

Alison described how the observatory, established in 1987, counts all birds over the whole island, not just rarities, to build up a picture of long-term monitoring. The island is divided into six zones in order to collect data.

Birds are also caught in traps and nets to allow for ringing and further research.

North Ronaldsay’s habitat includes croft land, grassland and scattered homes with small gardens, each with one or two bushes which prove attractive to birds, and the laird’s house with its large garden which is a magnet for them.

Wild flower crop is planted to encourage birds – it is particularly good for twite – and other cover such as New Zealand flax is grown. Willow cuttings and even old wooden pallets are used to create more shelter.

There are several areas of wetland on North Ronaldsay which is great for wildfowl such as shoveler, pintail and gadwall.

The geese population is increasing, like elsewhere in Orkney. But Arctic terns, once one of the most common breeding birds on the island, are now in decline as are corncrakes. 

Another problem is feral cats which predate tystie (black guillemot) chicks.

The observatory also looks out for other wildlife including moths and butterflies, and sea life such as grey and common seals or basking sharks. Orcas are sometimes seen in large groups and, famously, a walrus visited the island in 2013.

Among the birds which might be seen on North Ronaldsay at different times of the year are white-tailed eagle, great tit, hawfinch, sparrowhawk, bluethroat, golden oriole, red-backed shrike, spoonbill, cuckoo, pied flycatcher, Arctic warbler, nightjar, yellow-browed warbler, lesser kestrel, great spotted woodpecker (which often work on fence posts), grey phalarope, firecrest, Iceland gull and, just recently, a glossy ibis.

Alison said everyone from bird experts to beginners comes to North Ronaldsay where they can take advantage of the accommodation provided at the observatory – guest house, hostel and camping. Many visitors come to see the North Ronaldsay sheep grazing on the seaweed on the foreshore.

At the end of the meeting a vote of thanks to Alison Duncan was proposed by Jim Williams.

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory publishes its own bird report, and has a blog and Facebook and Twitter presence. For more information, go to the website:

+ The meeting was also told by RSPB Local Group Chairman Dick Matson that £460 had recently been donated to the work of the RSPB in Orkney. This money, from collections and raffles, was in addition to £1672.33 that the Local Group raised bag collecting last year at Tesco and Co-op in Kirkwall.

To find out more

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Wikipedia: North Ronaldsay

The Bird Observatories Council

The Orcadian

Discover Orkney


Greylag goose (image: Flickr/nottsexminer)
Greylag goose (image: Flickr/nottsexminer)

The gunmen came today
We thought they’d gone
But they’re back
The gunmen

This was the beginning, in my head, of a poem. It was inspired, if that is the right word, by a shooting party staying near our home who were targeting geese in the surrounding fields and elsewhere in Orkney.

Somehow I couldn’t make the poem work. Perhaps it was a bit melodramatic for the subject matter, after all, we did not face gunmen ourselves in our home or school like some people in this world.

But the poem fragment stuck in my mind and got me thinking…

The shooting party were around through the autumn. Just before Christmas they disappeared and I was disappointed to see them back in January. Why?

Call me an English southern city softie but I don’t like to see geese blasted from the sky from our window, as happened one day.

The gun folk staying near us were carrying out a perfectly legal activity. But what is the satisfaction gained from killing an animal for sport? What about the possibility of geese being accidentally wounded but not found? Or rare and protected birds shot accidentally?

The shooting party were after greylag geese whose numbers have rocketed in Orkney in recent years. A count in August 2012, before migrants arrived from Iceland, found there were almost 21,500 resident in Orkney.

For the farmers the geese are a nuisance because they damage and eat crops. I have some sympathy for this view and the RSPB was one of the partners in a cull this summer. One of my Twitter friends, a farmer, would like, as I understand it, the law changed to allow more shooting to take place.

And having shooting parties visit Orkney provides a useful boost to the tourism industry, particularly to accommodation providers, many of them farmers, at an otherwise quiet time of year.

But, I can hear those of you who know me shouting, “you are a meat-eater!” Yes, I am, and though I am not about to give up meat I have increasing empathy for friends who are vegetarian or even vegan.

I tell myself that the meat I eat is, mostly, from animals who lived a good life followed by a humane death.

In that respect we are lucky in Orkney. There is a ready supply in butcher’s and village shops of locally-grown beef, and other meat – which also means we can be confident of avoiding horse-meat.

And when shopping I try to avoid buying meat, chicken for example, that is so cheap it makes you wonder how the animal spent its life.

There is a fascinating and enlightening blog on this subject entitled Ploverha, written by a couple who live on the Orkney island of Eday. They rear pigs which have a great life – but it is not a cheap way to produce food.

However, I’m not ready for a diet of just vegetables, so I will continue to eat meat.

And thankfully, the season for shooting ducks and geese ended on 31 January so peace has broken out around us – in more ways than one, because today, as I write, it is a calm and sunny day in our part of Orkney.

To find out more

Ploverha, Eday

RSPB: Greylag goose

British Association for Shooting & Conservation: Quarry species and shooting seasons