The Zoologist/4th series, vol 4 (1900)/Issue 704/Birds seen in a part of Orkney, Ticehurst

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Some Remarks on the Birds seen in the South-east Part of the Mainland of Orkney in October  (1900) 
by Norman Frederic Ticehurst


By N.F. Ticehurst, M.A., F.Z.S., &c.

Having last year to take my holiday somewhat later than usual, I took advantage of a pressing invitation to spend a fortnight with some friends in the parish of St. Mary's Holm, in the south-east part of the mainland of Orkney, for purposes of sport and natural history. As this part of the British Isles was to me quite new ground, and being somewhat out of the way, an account of the birds met with there may perhaps be of interest to those readers of 'The Zoologist' who are also unacquainted with that part of the world. Of course the first fortnight in October is not altogether a favourable time for observing birdlife, the weather being anything but settled; and, again, the autumn migrants have hardly begun to arrive, while the summer birds have for the most part left. Three facts, I think, strike one who comes here for the first time from the south, viz. the very few passerine birds seen; the number of species, and the quantity, of Waders, Gulls, and Wildfowl; and the tameness of almost all the birds. The last fact, I think, is accounted for by the careful preservation by the large landowners, under the Wild Birds Protection Acts, and the comparatively small number of people who shoot. In fact, the Gulls, &c, have increased so much of late years that the people are beginning to complain.

The ground for the most part is low and undulating, the higher parts being all moorland, the low ground being either grass or under cultivation; the crops grown being principally oats, potatoes, and roots. The coast is mostly low and rocky, rising to twenty or forty feet in places, with here and there a sandy or gravelly bay where a small burn enters the sea. At the south-eastern extremity is the rather higher point of Roseness, the cliffs of the east coast gradually rising in height from here, till they reach their highest point in the fine cliffs of Galtic. The east coast is practically open to the North Sea, the only island beyond it being Coppinshay, which is several miles away.

To the south are the two small islands of Lambholm and Glimsholm,—the former only of which is inhabited,—separated from the mainland by a sound of about a mile in width, through which the tide ebbs and flows at a rate of six or seven knots. Beyond these two is a rather larger and higher island, which almost shuts the great island of South Ronaldshay from view. On a fine clear day the Pentland Skerries can be seen away to the south-east, and to the south-west some of the fine tops of the Caithness mountains are visible. On the north and north-west the near view is shut in by the rolling moorland of the mainland itself, the tops of the Harray hills and Orphir in the west mainland only being seen; while to the west the fine tops of Hoy are visible in the distance, when they are not wreathed in cloud and mist, which seems to be their usual condition at this time of the year.

Blackbird (Turdus merula).—Several young birds were seen about the garden at Groemeshall, probably the members of a brood reared there, as none were seen elsewhere.

Redwing (Turdus iliacus).—A single bird was seen feeding among the rocks along the shore on Oct. 16th, and several others were noticed later on the same day on the moorland; they seemed to have just arrived, and to have come with the Jack-Snipes. Wind S.E.; north-west gales the two previous days.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris).—One single bird was seen flying over on Oct. 14th, but the main flocks had not arrived by the 18th. They are said to come with the Woodcocks.

Pied Wagtail (Motacilla lugubris).—A pair of these birds had taken up their abode about the farm-buildings at Grœmeshall, and were always to be seen there or along the loch-side; no others were observed.

Meadow-Pipit (Anthus pratensis).—Fairly common in the oat-stubbles, and small flocks of eight or ten were seen several times on the moors.

Rock Pipit (Anthus obscurus).—These birds appeared to be more numerous than the preceding; they were always to be seen along the shore, coming right up to the houses, but not penetrating far inland.

House-Sparrow (Passer domesticus).—Common about the houses and in the oat-stubbles near the farms; not going far from human habitations, and nowhere in large flocks.

Twite (Linota flavirostris).—Small flocks of five to twelve were seen every day feeding on the stubbles, while occasionally a few were observed on the heather. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the note of this bird to distinguish it from that of the Linnet, but the slimness and greater comparative length of tail were conspicuous points of difference, while, with the glasses, the yellow beak could be made out. They were always very restless, and not nearly so tame as most of the other birds.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis).—A single bird of this species was seen on the moors on Oct. 10th; the main flocks had not arrived by the 18th.

Sky-Lark (Alauda arvensis).—Not very numerous; a few were generally to be seen in the grassy meadows, and around the edges of the loch; they seemed to prefer places that were somewhat wet and boggy to the drier parts of the meadows. A few were also seen on the "brakes" (pieces of enclosed moorland not yet cultivated), but none were noticed on the moorland itself.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).—Every evening a vast flock of some thousands assembled at sunset on the few small trees in the garden at Grœmeshall, quite blackening the almost bare branches. At the same time the ridges of the roofs and "crowsteps" of the gables would be similarly occupied, while a ring of birds were seated round the edge of every chimney-pot. A little later on, and apparently by signal, they would all rise in a great cloud, and go off to roost on the reeds in the loch. During the day there were comparatively few to be seen; one or two small flocks were always feeding round the loch edge, and a few were constantly about the farm-buildings, but where the vast numbers that assembled at evening came from was a mystery. The tameness of those about the house was absurd; when disturbed from the chicken-run they would fly on to the wall, and sit chattering within six or eight feet of one. The majority of the birds were immature, in a plumage that I had not noticed before, the head and neck being a dull russet-brown, while the rest of the body was in the speckled glossy plumage.

Jackdaw (Corvus monecula).—A large colony inhabited the cliffs of Galtic at the east end of the island, feeding in the adjacent fields during the day, and returning to roost on the cliffs at sundown.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus).—A few single birds were seen feeding in the meadows, and a few with the Jackdaws at Galtic. I was told that they breed here in the sea-cliffs, which seems probable, as there are practically no trees of any size in the island.

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix).—A few pairs were seen about the shore and loch from time to time, but they were by no means numerous, and at the most I never saw more than three pairs in a day.

Peregrine (Falco peregrinus).—One bird was seen to leave the cliffs at Galtic on Oct. 6th; it was raining and misty at the time, and we lost sight of it out at sea. I could not find out definitely whether these birds bred in those particular cliffs or not, but was shown a very beautiful and deeply marked clutch taken on Hoy in 1897.

Merlin (Falco æsalon).—A Merlin was seen pursuing a flock of Starlings over the Grœmeshall loch on Oct. 4th, but, so long as we were able to watch it, was not successful in striking one; when it stooped they immediately bunched together, and twisted to one side. On Oct. 14th, when after Golden Plover, a Merlin appeared, and successfully struck down one of them, not thirty yards from where we were standing. On putting it up, it carried its prey off to a neighbouring stubble, and began to devour it there, the Plover weighing it down so much on its way that it was unable to rise more than a yard from the ground. One or two other birds were seen.

Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus).—Only four birds were seen altogether, two of which were adult males.

Common Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo).—Quite a rare bird; one was put up from the shore on Oct. 14th, and one flew over the boat on Oct. 12th while we were fishing in the bay at St. Mary's Holm.

Shag (Phalacrocorax graculus).—Very numerous, adult and immature birds being in almost equal numbers. Every morning, about 7.30, large numbers were fishing in the sound, forming in the distance a thick black line on the water. By 8.30 the majority had left the water, and were digesting their meal and preening their feathers on the rocky point at the east end of the opposite island of Lambholm, which for the rest of the day would be black with them. Some were always to be seen close in shore, diving and fishing in quite shallow water, and allowing a near approach. On the cliffs at Galtic large numbers were sitting on the whitewashed ledges, from which the nests had already been blown away. On approaching in a boat we came close to them before they threw themselves from the ledges, and, flying close over our heads, flopped into the water within a few yards of us, there to dive away out of reach of the boat. On Oct. 14th the sound was black with Shags, all busy fishing over an area of several acres; they were coming and going all the morning from this particular area, and probably there was an unusually large shoal of Sillocks (yearling Coalfish) there; several thousand Shags must have been fishing at once. The natives are complaining that the supply of fish is falling off since the Wild Birds Protection Act came into force.

Common Heron (Ardea cinerea).—One or two were seen every day in the rocky pools along the shore at low tide.

Brent Goose (Bernicla brenta).—Three Brent Geese were put up from a sheltered cove on Oct. 13th, while a north-west gale, which had lasted all the 12th, was still at its height. No Geese had been seen passing over this year up to Oct. 18th.

Wild Duck (Anas boscas).—A few pairs inhabited the loch at Grœmeshall, spending most of their time in the thick reeds, and flying out to sea when disturbed. On Oct. 13th, during the gale, a pair was seen in a sheltered pool on the shore.

Wigeon (Mareca penelope).—Not identified with certainty, but a pair of birds put up at dusk from a milldam on Oct. 16th were nearly certainly of this species.

Pochard (Fuligula ferina).—Several small flocks were often seen off the reeds in the Grœmeshall loch.

Tufted Duck (Fuligula cristata).—One Tufted drake was identified with certainty on the Grœmeshall loch on Oct. 9th, and eight other birds with it were almost certainly immature birds of the same species.

Scaup (Fuligula marila).—A pair of Scaup were on the loch at St. Mary's Holm the whole time I was there; they were very tame, and I frequently watched them through the glasses sleeping on the water not twenty yards away. The drake had not yet attained full plumage, being still brown on the back, and with the white forehead, though its head and neck were nearly black.

Eider (Somateria mollissima).—The Eider was by far the commonest Duck. Single pairs and small flocks of eight to fifteen could be seen at any time among the rocks busily feeding, and they were often noticed fighting and chasing one another, when some choice morsel was secured by one of them. So tame were they that when one went out on to the rocks close to them they only swam off a few yards into deeper water. All the drakes but one seen were fully adult birds in winter plumage, the exception being in partial eclipse, though evidently fast getting his full winter dress.

Common Scoter (Œdemia nigra).—One pair only was seen off St. Mary's Holm on Oct. 4th.

Velvet Scoter (Œdemia fusca).—Not seen on the mainland, but five birds of this species rose in front of the steamer on Oct. 18th, off Hoxa, in South Ronaldshay.

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator).—Two birds of this species were seen in the sound off Grœmeshall on Oct. 6th, three more farther east on Oct. 13th, and four more in the bay at St. Mary's Holm on Oct. 17th, near which place there was a nest this year. All were in the immature plumage, and, though I went quite close to them on the 13th and 17th, I could see no signs of any dark feathers coming on the necks of any.

Rock-Dove (Columba livia).—The Rock-Doves breed in considerable numbers in the caves at the east end of the mainland, and, though they are said to be less numerous than they were twenty years ago, there does not appear to be much danger of their extermination, the coast being very exposed, and quite unapproachable except in a flat calm, and even then they are by no means easy to shoot. The majority seemed to be pure bred birds, but it is evident that the tame birds interbreed with them in the caves, and the wild birds are said to visit the dovecots in the winter. One bird seen was nearly white, while another had many brown feathers in the wings and scapulars; and two others had white heads. At this time of the year they feed almost entirely on the stubbles, returning to the cliffs as soon as their crops are full.

Red Grouse (Lagopus scoticus).—There are a very fair number of Grouse in the east mainland, and owing to efficient protection they are on the increase. Bags of fifteen to twenty-five brace are made over dogs in the early part of the season. Later on they become wilder, and after rough weather such as prevailed during the second week in October they pack, and are then practically unapproachable; the old cocks, which generally remain solitary, are very difficult to get near at any time, running in front of the dogs for hundreds of yards. At this time of the year, when the crops are being got in, the birds are mostly to be found on the fringe of the moor, not more than a hundred yards from the cultivated land, on to which they move at night to feed.

Moor-hen (Gallinula chloropus).—Only one was seen, viz. on the Grœmeshall loch on Oct. 3rd.

Coot (Fulica atra).—A flock of twenty to twenty-five Coots live on the loch at Grœmeshall, nesting in the reeds, and apparently staying there all the year round. One pair was seen on the loch at St. Mary's Holm.

Golden Plover (Charadrius pluvialis).—Several flocks of from twenty to more than a hundred and fifty individuals were always to be found at particular places. At high water they were generally to be seen in the "parks" (meadows enclosed by stone walls), for certain of which they had a special predilection. At low water two or three special places on the ebb were sure finds for them, where they were almost invisible when standing still, so well did their golden plumage harmonise with the yellow seaweed and rocks. Several times I have crawled up to a particular piece of ebb, and carefully examined every part of it with glasses, without seeing anything, till presently a bird would stretch up a wing, and then suddenly some fifty or sixty birds would become visible. In calm weather they were remarkably tame, allowing a near approach in the open, if one did not walk directly at them; but in a gale of wind they were much wilder and very uneasy, continually flying up and settling again at some other spot for apparently no reason at all. At night the flocks appeared to split up, the birds going off in twos and threes to the "parks." Round the margin of the loch they associated with the Green Plover, and to a smaller degree with the Gulls.

Lapwing (Vanellus vulgaris).—Very common; they are never shot at, and are consequently very tame.

Ringed Plover (Ægialitis hiaticula).—These delightful little birds were extremely numerous, and very tame. They were always to be seen feeding along the ebb in lots of a few individuals up to quite large flocks, very often associating with the Turnstones and Golden Plover. Had the weather been more propitious some very good photographs might have been obtained, as they never thought of flying away till one approached to within about four or five yards of them.

Turnstone (Strepsilas interpres).—Also very common, and almost as tame as the preceding. In the first week of October only ones and twos were seen, generally with a few Ringed Plover; but as the month drew on they increased in numbers, and flocks of twenty or more individuals were quite common. They seem to be very active little birds, and there is no prettier sight than to have four or five of them within a few yards of you, busily turning over the seaweed, and literally throwing the pebbles about in their search for food. Several birds were seen with a few chestnut feathers on the shoulders, but most of them seemed to be immature.

Oystercatcher (Hæmatopus ostralegus).—Common, in single pairs and small flocks, associating only with the Curlew, and almost as wild and wary as they; whereas all the smaller shore birds were to be found close in shore, the Oystercatchers always kept well out on the rocks, where the sea was breaking, the spray often flying right over them. I noticed that they always stood head to wind.

Common Snipe (Gallinago cœlestis).—Very common on the moors, and, up till Oct. 10th, round the loch also, where large bags are sometimes made. After that date there were continuous gales from the north-west, with rain, and the birds all left the loch-side, probably passing on south, the numbers on the moors perhaps decreasing slightly about the same time; but this is difficult to say.

Jack-Snipe (Gallinago gallinula).—A solitary specimen was seen by the Grœmeshall loch on Oct. 9th, and two others on the moors on Oct. 16th. It is probable that on this latter date there had been a small migration of these birds, for the dog picked up one which was too exhausted to fly; the Redwings also were first noticed on that day. The wind had been blowing a gale from the north-west for the two previous days, and had shifted that morning to the south-west.

Redshank (Totanus calidris).—I have never before, except in the breeding season, seen Redshanks so tame as they were here. My previous experience of the Redshank as a shore bird had been that he was one of the wariest, not only keeping well out of harm's way himself, but letting every other bird know when there was any danger near. True, here they did fly off shrieking, and making a great noise if you came on them suddenly round a corner or over a rock; but if you approached quietly, or sat down and kept still, they took hardly any more notice of you than the Ring Plover. They went about almost entirely in single pairs, and kept pretty much to themselves.

Curlew (Numenius arquata).—I suppose it is partly its innate wariness, and partly the fact that it is the only shore bird, besides the Golden Plover, that anyone up here thinks of shooting, that causes the Curlew to be just as wild as anywhere else. I never saw more than about fifteen together, and they were always well out on the edge of the tide, with a sentinel posted on the highest piece of rock. Once or twice a small flock was seen on the meadow-land, but always well out of shot of the nearest stone wall or other cover. It is only by lying up in their line of flight and trusting to luck that a shot can be got at all.

Gulls (Larinæ).—The great feature of the bird-life of this part of the British Isles is of course found in the Gulls; they are present everywhere, along the shore, by the loch-side, in the "parks," on the stubbles, on the dust-heaps, the house-roofs, and even on the chimney-pots; in fact, except perhaps in the middle of the moor, you cannot get away from them. The flocks were always mixed, consisting for the most part of Common and Herring Gulls, with a fair sprinkling of Kittiwakes and Black-headed Gulls, and either one or two pairs of Lesser Black-backs. Of the latter I never saw more than two or three pairs along the shore, and of Great Black-backs, I do not think there is more than one pair in this particular part of the coast. The Gulls were always absolutely fearless, and you could walk up to within a few yards of them before they rose. Two, an immature Lesser Black-back and an adult Black-headed, had taken possession of a particular dust-bin, and they were to be seen there all day and every day, standing on an adjacent wall, or sitting asleep in the field a few yards off. Every morning, directly it was light, some twenty Black-headed Gulls came on to the lawn in front of the house, and were very busy for an hour and a half picking up worms; I never saw any other species there. In the evening large flocks used to assemble on the loch from the fields, and, after staying there a few minutes, fly off to sea for the night.

It was a very pretty sight watching the Kittiwakes fishing; on some days the sound was full of them. They reminded me very much of the Terns in their methods. A strong north-west wind was blowing, and the Kittiwakes would be swooping and wheeling about; when now and then one would mount to about twenty feet, and turn head to wind; then, after remaining stationary on outspread wings for a second, would drop like a stone on to its prey, sending the water up all round it, and completely disappearing for a couple of seconds in the spray; then, after about half a minute, it would rise again, and resume its wheeling flight.

On Oct. 5th I saw a Little Gull on a rock by the shore, and on the next day two more pairs. On the 8th I saw ten together, at the same place as I saw the one on the 5th. They were evidently on migration, as I did not see them again, and they were not so tame as the other Gulls. They were all in the adult winter plumage.

Richardson's Skua (Stercorarius crepidatus).—I twice watched a pair of Arctic Skuas harrying the Kittiwakes, in the sound between Lambholm and the mainland. When hunting they always seem to work in pairs, one bird dashing at the Gull while the other hovers near to pick up the fish as soon as it is dropped. Both pairs belonged to the dark form. A single bird I saw on the 13th, close in shore, was very dark, with a somewhat lighter patch on each wing; in the dull light it looked quite black.

Common Guillemot (Uria troile).—It is curious that I never once saw the Common Guillemot off the south-east mainland, whereas a few miles farther west in Scapa flow, and from there south to South Ronaldshay, they were very common.

Black Guillemot (Uria grylle).—Very numerous in the sound between Lambholm and the mainland, where they could always be seen, if it was calm enough, floating with the tide east or west, according to whether it was ebbing or flowing. A good many were also seen off the east coast. They were all in the speckled black and white plumage, no wholly black ones being seen. The stomachs of the two examined contained the remains of small crabs.

Slavonian Grebe? (Podicipes auritus).—Two Grebes were seen on the loch at St. Mary's Holm on Oct. 15th; they were too large for Dabchicks, and so were probably of this species. They did not come near enough the shore to enable me to see the shape of the bill.

Little Grebe (Podicipes fluviatilis).—There were two pairs of these birds on the loch at St. Mary's Holm.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

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