Thursday, 17 June 2021

At home at Loch of Swannay

I'm not sure if Orkney has a "county bird", but if it's not the fulmar then I'll be requiring a good explanation of why not. Fulmars are everywhere on Orkney, even nesting on the ground on North Ronaldsay (see previous post) and there are even places where they nest on inland freshwater lochs. 

We're staying for 10 nights in a house on the shores of one such loch, Loch of Swannay and the amount of birdlife here is just amazing. From dawn until dusk (currently around 03:30 to 23:00, though it never seems to go truly dark) we are surrounded by the calls of breeding waders. Curlews are the most predominant and seemingly all around the house, their bubbling song is with us constantly and they are permanently accompanied by the calls of at least one or more of redshank, oystercatcher, lapwing or common sandpiper.

Photo: Curlew.

Photo: Redshank.

On the loch greylag geese are the most numerous species, with up to 150 birds accompanied by goslings. Two discrete populations of greylag occur in Orkney with many thousands of Icelandic greylags joining the resident British greylags in winter. The population of British greylags on the islands has rocketed in recent years and currently stands at over 20,000 birds and they now apparently cause significant damage to crops to the extent that they can be legally shot. British greylags are genuinely wild birds and are not the same as the feral birds which breed further south in England.
Photo: Greylags.

Other birds which I see regularly on the loch are red-throated divers, red-breasted mergansers, mallard and mute swans, plus the occasional teal. These are joined by bonxies which often drop in to bathe in the fresh water, and being the opportunists they are, they are not adverse to picking off the odd gosling or any other vulnerable looking bird in the area. Arctic skuas also visit the loch, but I haven't seen any bathing, they are usually flying over the adjacent moorland, harrying the waders. I'm not sure if any skuas breed on this moorland but there are certainly plenty in the area. Arctic terns are also occasionally present in small groups.
Photo: Arctic skua.

Photo: Arctic skua.

Photo: Bonxie.

Photo: Arctic tern.

The house is on the edge of the moors and if I turn my attention away from the loch itself and the immediate vicinity of the house, I regularly see hunting hen harriers and short-eared owls from the kitchen window. Both species breed at the back of the house and because of this the female harrier is usually sitting and it is therefore the spectacular male which I most often see. On one occasion whilst making the packed lunch I watched the male fly back to the nest at speed carrying prey which the female flew up to take from him. The male then briefly sat at the nest whilst the female flew off for five minutes before returning and taking over again. Meanwhile at least one short-eared owl quarters the moor in it's hunt for prey, and if I break off for a moment from writing this post I can see an owl now flying in the distance. Small moorland birds include singing skylarks and meadow pipits, with a cuckoo heard on several occasions.

The hide.

In the midst of all of this typically moorland birdlife, it is quite an odd experience to have a fulmar glide past. They breed on a small cliff at the northern end of the loch. It is only a mile from the sea, but even so it seems very odd to me that birds which I am so used to seeing on towering sea cliffs should nest in such a situation.
Photo: Fulmar.

Tea-leaved willow Salix phylicifolia is abundant on the banks of loch of Swannay.

Our accommodation.

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