Stray Ptarmigan stuns Orkney birders


Orkney birders were left shocked on 7 February by news of the archipelago's first modern record of Ptarmigan.

The bird, a female, was discovered near the summit of Ward Hill on Hoy by local photographer Graham Campbell, who was out searching for Mountain Hares.

Ptarmigan hasn't been recorded in Orkney for almost 200 years. Historically, the species bred in the archipelago but, according to The Orkney Book of Birds, was last seen there in approximately 1831.

The closest breeding Ptarmigan to Orkney are some 70 km away in Caithness.

The Ptarmigan at Ward Hill on Hoy, Orkney, 7 February 2023 (Graham Campbell).

While British-breeding Ptarmigan are not known for their movements, more northerly populations of this species will readily travel long distances. For example, Greenland-breeding Ptarmigan are known to periodically irrupt. This recently happened in September 2021, when a flock of 15-20 Ptarmigan showed up on the northern Iceland island of Grímsey and several others were discovered in northern Iceland or on boats. The birds, already in all-white plumage in September, were thought to be of the subspecies macruros, which breeds on the east Greenlandic coast. To reach Iceland, these birds have to undertake a sea crossing of at least 300 km.