Category Archives: common skate

Birding By Bus Around Orkney’s West Mainland

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Birding By Bus passengers at Skaill Loch on a wet day
Hello? Remember me? Sorry for the long silence after the Christmas blog. Between several illnesses and a trip to California I’m afraid it all went a bit quiet here for awhile.

As I write this, the sun is shining between bursts of heavy snow showers. Last week here in Orkney we had spectacular warm, sunny weather and spent a happy Sunday afternoon in short sleeves, planting trees.

But the most recent Sunday was altogether more cold and wet, and we spent it riding around in a minibus for the RSPB Birding By Bus annual outing. Despite the damp and chill, we had a very nice morning out and were lucky enough to see quite a lot of interesting birds.

We began at the Ring of Brodgar car park where lapwing, curlew and snipe were displaying. It was a bit too windy to hear the snipe drumming, a noise created when they dive and the air thrums through their outspread tail feathers.

Moving on from there we headed for Skaill Loch, near the neolithic site of Skara Brae, where we had some lovely views of wintering whooper swans, goldeneye and tufted ducks, a pair of Slavonian grebes and some rare visiting glaucous and Icelandic gulls (which actually breed in Greenland).

Whooper swans on Skaill Loch

Not much was visible further on at Skaill Beach, though I was delighted to see four long-tailed ducks, a species which I’d only seen come across once before. For some reason the sight of ducks on the sea still seems strange to me.

Graham and I had been at Skaill Beach two days before when we had a brisk, refreshing walk and, in the tangles of seaweed and wrack above the tideline, found a remarkable number of common skate egg cases – fourteen in all! It’s lovely to see so many as Orkney is one of the last remaining strongholds for this rare skate.

Common skate egg cases found on Skaill Beach
The minibus continued to head north and we piled out at Marwick Bay. Aside from some turnstone and a red-headed merganser that I managed to miss, there wasn’t much about. But someone in the group picked up a small skate egg case, which I later identified as a spotted skate from my egg case chart (yes, I do have such a thing).

Inland from Marwick we stopped at the Loons Hide, one of my favourite places to see birds. And what a selection awaited us! Examples of every species of dabbling duck (as opposed to diving ducks like the long-tails) that breed in Orkney were there – shoveler and teal with their dazzling colours, smart-looking wigeon, the pretty but slightly drab gadwall, and a few omnipresent mallards. But best of all, my favourite was there, the stunningly beautiful pintail. There were a pair, swimming with the other ducks.

A mixture of ducks – wigeon, pintail, mallard and gadwall

Mute swan, the Loons
Displaying lapwing

My favourite – the lovely drake pintail
 We sat and ate our lunch with the soundtrack of wildly displaying lapwings, squeaking and diving away outside, as we watched the ducks, greylag geese and a dabchick, or little grebe.
Short-eared owl hunting

Moving on we headed up over the Birsay Moors where a sharp-eyed tourist spotted a handful of hen harriers, and we were treated to five different sightings of short-eared owls! 

These owls are very easy to notice as they are diurnal, which means they hunt during the day. A pair of ravens made an appearance, with one of them doing its tumbling display.
 All in all, a good day out, despite the weather being less than perfect. 
I enjoyed trying out my new toy, bought with birthday money – a zoom lens for my Canon DSLR. Some of these photos might look a bit fuzzy but it’s because, even with the zoom, I still had to crop them to get the birds to where you could see them well. Perhaps someday I’ll have one of those enormous lenses you need a stand for but this one should suit me well, especially living in a place as picturesque as Orkney.

Thanks to Eric Meek, who was performing his last official duty before retiring as the RSPB’s main man in Orkney, and to Dick Matson, of the Orkney Field Club and RSPB Local Group Committee, for providing the excellent commentary. Looking forward to next year’s trip already!

To learn more skate egg case identification as well as the skates and rays that can be found around the shores of the UK, go to www.eggcase.org.

You can also visit the SharkTrust’s website at www.sharktrust.org 

or the Orkney Skate Trust, who are studying the Common Skate, at www.orkneyskatetrust.org.

Kathie Touin

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