Positioned at the far north-east of the Orkney islands, North Ronaldsay is a well-known rarity hot-spot. Last year , I was lucky enough to spend my second consecutive autumn season working at the bird observatory on the island. 'North Ron' has a notorious reputation for rare vagrants – this is the main reason I knew about the island and why decided to visit in the first place. It averages at least one mega vagrant every year; in 2019, Mourning Dove and Siberian Rubythroat were recorded, for example, and in May 2017 Britain’s first Red-winged Blackbird pitched up on the island.
However, almost every year it is overshadowed by the birding results on Fair Isle, which can be seen clearly from North Ronaldsay's shores 50 km to the north-east. I experienced this in my first season in autumn 2019. It's not a competition, of course, but they smashed us in terms of rarity totals. However, reflecting on this after I left and talking to people who have visited each island, I realised that their similar size and relative remoteness must mean that both should get comparable numbers of rare vagrants.
The open, flat landscape of North Ronaldsay can be seen here, along with an expansive iris bed around a small loch (Dante Shepherd).
It simply comes down to the fact that birds are much harder to find on North Ronaldsay, with its huge areas of iris beds, waist-high thistle fields, meadows full of angry cows, countless run-down crofts and mile upon mile of stone dyke, barbed wire and electric fences. Although I've never been myself, I understand the best habitat for migrants on Fair Isle is on the cliffs and in a small area of gardens and crofts in the south; the rest of the island is basically moorland. Finding birds there is always going to be easier due to these differences in habitat, but knowing birds are out there to be found creates a belief which is needed when birding the tough terrain of North Ronaldsay.
Work it hard
I had worked the island quite intensely in 2019, but in hindsight not hard enough nor in the right way. Finding birds was more difficult than I expected. However, I felt confident when travelling up in 2020 that if I worked harder and smarter – and also kept belief – I would find more. Luck and weather were also going to be huge factors, but I told myself I was going to have a good time on such a magical island whatever happened …
Having hardly been birding during lockdown in my hometown of London, it was a bit surreal when I first arrived on North Ronaldsay in early July. I got off to a good start, finding a showy Red-necked Phalarope on the first day. All the breeding Arctic Terns, Black Guillemots and waders, along with the big seas, long daylight hours and nice weather made for a nice change from the walls of my basement bedroom back home.
One of the first birds the author found when he arrived in July was this showy Red-necked Phalarope (Dante Shepherd).
It took me basically the entire month of July, but eventually I refamiliarised myself with the island, discovering favourite spots in excluded areas and daydreaming of what I might find in them in the following months. In mid-July I came across a flock of 13 Long-tailed Skuas which lingered for weeks. No fewer than 11 of these were first-summer birds. Such a large number of immature Long-tailed Skuas lingering in Britain is unheard of and watching these birds for several hours each day was one of my most enjoyable parts of the late summer.
One of the highlights of the early part of the season on the island was the presence of as many as 13 Long-tailed Skuas in with the local Arctic Skuas (Dante Shepherd).
The first juvenile Willow Warbler in early August marked the beginning of the autumn in my mind and the point at which I started to work the island more intensely. Several periods of easterlies during August brought the classic early Northern Isles scarcities over from Scandinavia: several Red-backed Shrikes and Barred Warblers, as well as a Common Rosefinch and a Wryneck, were enjoyable finds. Two Melodious Warblers were unexpected, as this southern European species is very rare in Scotland. With sought-after Northern Isles specialties such as Greenish Warbler being found on nearby islands, I felt something rarer than Melodious Warbler would turn up soon.
By this point I was fully hooked into the habitual life of long birding days and was rewarded with a mega and first 'BB rarity' of the season towards the end of the month: an adult female Turkestan Shrike. A new species for North Ronaldsay and one that was not on my radar in strong north-westerly winds, but that's just the way it goes most of the time with bird finding – one very rarely finds what they are out looking for and, even though the weather is important, it's always worth going out regardless of the conditions. This was one of the key aspects to bird finding I started to realise as time went by during the autumn.
The island's first Turkestan Shrike was an unexpected discovery during north-westerly winds in late August (Dante Shepherd).
Britain's earliest-ever Yellow-browed Warbler was found on the last day of August. My excitement was building but there was still at least a month until peak vagrant time and who knows what the weather would be doing then; in several recent autumns during the late September-early October period, westerlies have dominated on North Ronaldsay.
Throughout my time on the island, I always made the effort to check through the many flocks of breeding and migrant birds. Since July I had been rewarded with a handful of Curlew Sandpipers and a Roseate Tern, but there was something better in store for me on 8 September. Among a flock of Ringed Plover, I picked out a much smaller plover, which had white above the gape, a thin breastband and a faint yellow eyering: all features strongly suggestive of Semipalmated Plover.
Photos later revealed a palmation and, even though there is still some debate if the bird can be proven beyond doubt (it never called), the general consensus is that it was indeed a Semipalmated. This would-be first for the island was the obvious highlight of several American waders which turned up on westerlies in September, including Baird's Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpipers.
This putative Semipalmated Plover was discovered in a flock of its Ringed congeners (Dante Shepherd).
North Ronaldsay offers good seawatching if the conditions are right. During prolonged periods of strong north-westerlies in the autumn, seabirds in the north-east Atlantic are pushed into the North Sea. When these winds turn slack or to the east birds make their way back, passing the northern point of the island. On 10 September I was enjoying hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters when a Great Shearwater flew through my 'scope: a rare bird in Scotland and a nice season's seawatching highlight for me.
A few days later, on 15 September, the winds were stemming from the south, which isn't classic for arrivals of land migrants, but it had been raining at dawn and there was the odd Blackcap about. In the early afternoon I flushed a Locustella which quickly transpired to be a Lanceolated Warbler – one of my most-wanted finds! It again showed that weather isn't always king and anything can turn up at any time.
Lanceolated Warbler was one of Dante's most-wanted finds, and he finally scored when he discovered this bird in September (Dante Shepherd).
I had now found three BB rarities; it was only mid-September and there hadn't been any proper easterlies since mid-August. What was going on?! On 18th I added a fourth: the first Red-throated Pipit on the island since 1999. This was one of my more rewarding finds because, if I hadn't made a last-minute decision to check one more iris bed at the end of an eight-hour day, I'd never have flushed it.
Yellow-browed Warblers numbers were building by this point and the first Little Buntings were turning up, too. My excitement levels were properly escalating, especially looking at the easterlies that were forecast for the end of September and early October. The late September period was really enjoyable, with common and scarce passerine migrants accumulating in good numbers – warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and chats could be found in every iris bed, along each stone dyke and in and around all the rundown crofts. Fair Isle scored a White's Thrush during this period and I knew the days ahead could be incredible, with a huge high-pressure system over Siberia and easterlies coming straight our way.
As anticipated, October started ridiculously and we scored our own White's Thrush when one was trapped and ringed on the opening morning of the month. What an amazing bird to see, though I wished I could have watched it in the field. That same afternoon I found my second Red-throated Pipit of the autumn and my good birding mate Jamie Partridge found a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler in Shetland. Other rare Siberian vagrants had been found elsewhere in the Northern Isles – things were kicking off and I was pumped up. This was the period I had been waiting for: perfect weather at the peak time of the year. Was my persistence going to pay off with a Siberian mega vagrant? I thought it probably wouldn't, but I had belief.
Encounters with species such as Red-breasted Flycatcher were commonplace during the spells of easterlies (Dante Shepherd).
It had rained in the early hours of the morning of 2 October and with the wind still blasting from the east, anticipation was high. There were lots of visiting birders on the island and as I was on breakfast duty, every other birder had already headed out long before I'd finished clearing up the kitchen. The weather had cleared to an almost pure blue sky by the time I had finished and I decided I would check the middle part of the island first – this area doesn't feel as rare as other areas but I knew it had good potential and probably hadn't been checked by anyone else.
I'd only been out for two hours or so when, just before midday, the movement of a bird flying low beside a distant croft caught my eye. I could make out that it was medium-sized, probably a thrush, but it was a brief view while looking into the sun. However, it landed on a gate beside the croft and I lifted my bins. Sitting there was an Eyebrowed Thrush!
It was pretty distant and I could only make out the head and flanks as most of the bird was a silhouette, but I knew exactly what I was looking at. It was one of those species I used to look at in the Collins Bird Guide when I was younger thinking 'can you imagine finding one of them'. Well, I just had and it was crazy! After initially vanishing for a stressful 15 or so minutes it was relocated for all the birders on the island to enjoy. Finding this bird was by far the pinnacle of my season and I knew it at the time; there was no way it could get any better than this.
This Eyebrowed Thrush was Dante's blockbuster find of the autumn on North Ronaldsay (Dante Shepherd).
In the following two weeks I came across two Rustic Buntings, a further two Red-throated Pipits, singles of Greater Short-toed Lark and Pallas's Warbler, as well as other scarcities. During this period other birders on the island unearthed two great birds which I really enjoyed watching: a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler and an American Buff-bellied Pipit. What an autumn for the island.
However, throughout this time I was starting to feel a little burned out as each day went on. I had gradually lost some of the motivation to go outside that I had so religiously in July, August and September. It's bizarre what one bird, the Eyebrowed Thrush, can do to you mentally, but when you hit that peak after such effort it can take a while to get back to those levels.
Before I knew it, the days were getting shorter and the weather worse. October turned to November; it wasn't long until I would be leaving. Crazily enough on the way back home George Gay and I found a Eurasian Crag Martin on Kirkwall high street on the Orkney mainland – an unexpected but great way to end such an amazing autumn.
It's simple: the more birders there are on North Ronaldsay, the more rare birds will be found there. It's scary to think what must get missed on most days when just a handful of us from the observatory are looking. Looking back at last autumn while writing this locked up again in London, I can say they were definitely some of the best months in my life. I put everything into birding and was rewarded. You might think from reading the above that I was seeing good birds every day, but that wasn’t the case. It's hard work out there and it's easy to get demoralised, but the rewards make it worthwhile. I cannot recommend North Ronaldsay enough to anyone with an interest in migration and vagrancy – and I look forward to seeing some of you up there soon!
- This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue of Birdwatch magazine.