Trollope's Bird Notes
August 2017
From the Benenden Magazine

Read the July 2017 notes by clicking here

My annual trip to Scotland took me to the Orkneys this year, a place new to me. We caught the ferry from Gill’s Bay near Thirsk and almost at once the action started. A Great Skua was attacking a large gull, and as there didn’t seem to be much difference in size, I think it was a Herring Gull.

The Skua appeared to get hold of a wing of the gull and they then twirled rapidly down, hitting the water with a great splash. It was difficult to see who had the upper hand in the tussle in the water as the ferry by this time had reached cruising speed and all I could see was an odd wing flap and lots of turmoil. I suspect the Skua will have been the winner.

The trip across Scapa Flow was exciting, with lots of seabirds flying back and forth and a good number of Puffin amongst the Guillemots and Razorbills. Our first trip was to the famous Marwick Head colony on the north-west coast of Mainland (the name of the largest island in the archipelago and also the site of the Kitchener memorial, where Lord Kitchener died when HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine with the loss of over 700 men in WW1).

Marwick Head is one of the largest breeding seabird colonies in the islands. There were row upon row of Guillemots huddled together with absolutely no gap in between. Although quite a large bird it has the smallest nesting territory of any, at just two square inches!

The Razorbills (their French name is ‘le petit pingouin’) on the other hand avoid the overcrowded ledges, preferring discreet cavities in the cliff face. There were a few Kittiwakes in the colony, who, and unlike the auks, build a gravity-defying nest. It was good to see them nesting because during the last few years they have suffered following the drop in the number of sandeels. I suspect there would have many more nests a few years back. Disappointingly there were not many Puffins nesting, just a few at the north end of the colony where they were able to excavate a hollow in the steep cliff face.

Orkney is practically the only UK stronghold for the much-debated Hen Harrier. This bird was pretty common in the 19th century but with the growing activity of egg collecting and species collecting by the Victorians, Orkney was reduced to two pairs by 1914. Thankfully, owing to some enlightened Orkney naturalists, the population has recovered to some 85 pairs. Their recovery is also very much due to there being no grouse shooting in the islands.

The RSPB has built a large comfortable hide in its Cottisgarth reserve, overlooking one of the main breeding territories. On reaching the hide, some movement was seen almost immediately, but it was a while before I picked out the bird quartering the heather looking for voles. It was a female Hen Harrier brilliantly camouflaged against the heathery, scree-filled background. The Orkney Vole is quite a lot larger than our Field or Bank Vole and makes a good meal for both the Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl. There is also a good supply of wader chicks as well as Skylarks and Meadow Pipits for both the owl and harrier.

Digressing from birds for a while, Orkney is famous for its Neolithic history and we visited Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village unearthed from its dune grave by a huge storm in 1852.

The age of the village is brought home to the visitor by the path from the visitor centre to the site, along which key historical events are posted on a time scale beginning with the Battle of Hastings in AD 1066, followed by the Birth Of Christ, Solomon’s temple BC 497, The Pharoahs BC 1500, Building of The Pyramids BC 2700 and eventually you arrive at Skara Brae, BC 3000!

As the buildings were constructed of stone they have been remarkably well preserved. Opposite to the entrance to each house there is a stone dresser, with a fireplace in the middle and bedrooms off the main room with vertical slabs marking where the beds would have been. To me it seemed more comfortable than some of the crofters’ cottages of a mere 150 years ago!

Orkney also has its Stonehenge, the Ring of Brodgar, of about the same period but predating its more famous English counterpart. Although there is much to see and the archaeologists have discovered so much, they still do not know what language was used.

A little way down the west coast from Skara Brae, the cliffs and coastline afford the most amazing scenery, with stacks 100 feet high perched on eroded supports that defy gravity. These make very good nesting sites for seabirds, and Fulmars in particular took advantage. Just inland is one of the largest Arctic Tern colonies, which of course attracted various predatory birds including the Great and Arctic Skuas.

The rarer Arctic Skua is built very differently from the large gull-like Great Skua, being much more streamlined, with long, falcon-like, swept-back wings making it much more agile in the air. It would harass the poor Arctic Terns to give up their latest meal after a fishing trip, in aerial battles that were so enthralling to watch, with the twisting and turning and nose-diving by both birds.

The Arctic Skua is relatively unused to human contact and I was able to approach a resting bird and admire it at close quarters, with fine views of its dark-capped head contrasting with a light yellow neck and pale breast.

Charles Trollope

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