Bird News for North Hill and Noup Cliffs – July/August 2012

The breeding season is now officially over, for the seabirds anyway, so I can officially reveal that most of the seabird species that breed on the North Hill RSPB reserve on Papa Westray and on the Noup Cliffs RSPB reserve on Westray have had a relatively good season!

Despite returning to Papay and Westray in relatively good numbers, Arctic Terns have had yet another terrible breeding season on both islands. Many of the pairs nesting on these islands managed to hatch out some small chicks this year, but due to weather conditions, predation and a lack of food, sadly, most of these chicks did not make it to more than about a week old. Two fledged (flying) young were seen on Papa Westray at the end of July, and about five or so have been seen on Westray – very low numbers when you consider the number of pairs nesting, 365 pairs on Papay alone!

Guillemots and Razorbills had a relatively good season this year, as both species managed to fledge chicks from both the North Hill reserve on Papa Westray, and the Noup Cliffs reserve on Westray. It is very good to see Guillemots and Razorbills fledging chicks this year, as the past few years have been disastrous, with almost no chicks fledging at all. This year’s youngsters have all now left the cliffs and are now well on their way to adulthood. Both of these species spend their winter out at sea. They leave the cliffs at the end of July and go out to sea with their parents to learn to fish and fly and won’t return to land to breed until they are four years old, but the adults will return next year in April to breed. Puffins also leave their breeding areas at the end of July to spend their winters in massive groups called ‘rafts’, floating out on the Atlantic and the North Sea, and won’t be back now until April, so don’t expect to see any if you visit over winter! May – July is the best time to view all of our nesting seabirds, but autumn and winter are best for seeing migrating birds.

The Kittiwakes over on Noup Cliffs reserve, Westray have also had a surprisingly good breeding season this year, with about a quarter of nests fledging young! This is still very low numbers in comparison to other areas around the UK, as anyone who watched the BBC’s Summerwatch programme will know, but it is very good for seabird sites in Orkney to be fledging this number of chicks! Kittiwakes stay on the cliffs for a little while longer than the auks do, but by mid-August all of the adults and juveniles had left dry land for a winter out at sea – these birds are true sea-gulls! Shags generally do quite well, and often manage to raise plenty of chicks to fledging, and this year has been no exception. Most of the nests along the Fowl Craig cliffs on the North Hill reserve, and those in Ramni Geo on the Noup Cliffs reserve have managed to raise quite a few youngsters! These can still be seen hanging around on low rocks along the shore line, and often congregate in large groups with adults and last year’s youngsters, and will stay around for a while yet, so keep your eyes peeled!

The number of Gannets nesting at the RSPB’s Noup Cliffs reserve on Westray increased again this year to 623 nests, which have produced a grand total of 473 chicks, meaning that three-quarters of all nests were successful in raising young this year! Gannets are very hardy birds and often show high levels of breeding success, but this is a particularly high number fledged, even for them! The Gannets will be around on the cliffs until about the end of September, so you can still see them for a while yet! Noup Cliffs and its Gannets are now famous as well, after being filmed for the BBC’s Summerwatch programme, aired in early August.

Fulmars have had a mixed season this year. Fulmars are also a very hardy species, and are usually very successful at raising chicks, as they defend themselves by spitting fishy, smelly oil at anything that gets too close to them, warding off any potential predators and ensuring that many young make it to flying. This is the case on Noup Cliffs, where many Fulmar chicks can still be seen on the cliffs and in Ramni Geo, slowly changing from balls of fluff to fully-feathered youngsters. However, they have done quite badly on the North Hill reserve on Papay this year, with evidence of both eggs and chicks being predated, which is possibly due to the addition of a pair of breeding Ravens on the cliffs this year. However, Fulmars are very resilient birds, and can live for 60 years, so one year of poor breeding success is nothing to worry too much on. Black Guillemots appear to have done well this year, and several adults can still be seen on the crossing from Westray to Papay, so keep an eye out if you’re on the Golden Mariana!

Both the Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas have managed to raise young this year. The Great Skuas (or Bonxies as they are known here) always seem to do quite well, and this year is no exception, with several fledged juveniles still present on the North Hill reserve. The Arctic Skuas have been declining in numbers since the mid-1990s, but have had a relatively good season, with four chicks fledged – an increase on just one fledged chick last year!

The eight different wader species that breed on the North Hill reserve (Oystercatcher, Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Snipe and Dunlin), seem to have done well this year, with young chicks seen earlier in the year. The eight species of passerine that breed on the North Hill reserve have also done well again this year, and small flocks of Twite and House Sparrows can be seen flying about the island in feeding parties, and the Starlings can be seen gathering together in one large group to roost in the evenings.

August is a good month for bird migration, as species begin to leave their breeding sites and travel to their wintering sites in Europe or even as far as Africa. Sanderling, Dunlin, Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Bar-tailed Godwits and Black-tailed Godwits are all gathering along the beaches, coastlines and inland water sources rich in food at this time of year, with flocks often including many birds in their juvenile plumage, as well as adults in both summer and winter plumages, so autumn is the perfect time to brush up on your wader identification skills! The Loch of Swartmill on Westray has proven to be a particularly good site for migrating waders, with flocks of 300+ Dunlin seen in July and August, as well as Greenshanks, Green Sandpipers, and a wide variety of the commoner waders such as Curlew and Redshank. At this time of year, you often get migrating birds blown off-course by strong winds, so anything could turn up, as proven by the presence of a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (which breeds in Siberia) on Westray in July! So remember to keep your eyes peeled at all times, and report any interesting bird (and other wildlife) sightings to the RSPB or to the OrkBird Yahoo group.

The Scottish Primrose is now nearing the end of its flowering season, so please don’t be surprised if you don’t see any on your visit to the known colonies on Westray at Aikerness and on Papay on the North Hill reserve. However, the heather is now in full bloom, as are several other flowers, such as Devil’s-bit Scabious.

For any more information about the RSPB reserves on Westray (Noup Cliffs) or Papa Westray (North Hill), please contact the main office in Stromness on 01856 850176, as the Warden for these reserves will not be available overwinter. You can also keep up to date with what’s going on at all of our Orkney reserves by visiting the RSPB blog at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/placestovisit/orkney/b/orkney-blog/default.aspx.

Or by visiting RSPB Orkney’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/RspbOrkney

Hopefully we will see this increase in numbers of fledged chicks continue again next year, but we shall have to wait and see… Tune in next year for more information!