2011 - A Big Year on North Ronaldsay

Richard Else

In late January 2011, I arrived on North Ronaldsay to begin my first season at the bird observatory. Almost incessant gales and hail storms for the next four weeks gave me plenty of time to browse past Orkney Bird Reports and previous years’ census logs, familiarising myself with the island’s birdlife and what to expect from the year ahead. It soon became apparent that I would be among an especially strong team of Assistant Wardens: long-time AW Paul Brown was already present, Rael Butcher would soon be back for his fourth season at the obs, and Mark Warren was arriving in March, like me, for his first year on North Ron.


With four pairs of eyes, all experienced in bird observatory work, providing a significantly greater level of birding coverage than most previous years, the prospects for 2011 looked excellent. I am always on the lookout for little side-projects, personal challenges to obsess over for a while, and the goal of setting a ‘big year’ occurred to me early in the year. Obviously, luck would determine what birds visited the island, but effort, enthusiasm and perseverance might tip the odds in our favour: you can’t influence which birds will turn up, but you can maximise your chances of finding those that do. A quick check through the records revealed that 215, the total number of species recorded during the observatory’s impressive 2003 season, was the magic number to beat – the all-time record. If we could even come close to the array of species in that year, which included no fewer than 20 different warblers and 9 buntings, we were in for a good time.


Once the whole team was settled in and regular census began, our 2011 list began to grow steadily, accelerating as the spring progressed and most of the dependable regular migrants, the basic foundations of a successful year-list, were safely secured. To build a truly imposing list, though, it is the irregular, non-dependable extras, those species that aren’t seen every year, that make the important difference. Rarities obviously help a lot, and White-billed Diver, Green-winged Teal, Black Kite, Goshawk, Subalpine Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Nightingale in the first half of the year were all very useful additions. But, as well as rarities, there are many other oddities – local scarcities, birds of less than annual occurrence, the wholly unexpected – which make a crucial contribution to such a listing attempt. Such helpful bonus birds in spring included Great Tit in March, Stock Dove, White-tailed Eagle, Black-throated Diver and Tree Sparrow in April, Turtle Dove, Marsh Harrier, Red-necked Phalarope and Scaup in May, and Shore Lark and Little Tern in June.
From left to right: Little Tern, Shore Lark and Great Tit

By summer, it was clear that we were doing quite well. Brilliantly well, in fact. A few excellent July birds, including Pacific Golden Plover, White-winged Black Tern and Roseate Tern, put our list at a very healthy 186 species – and we still had the autumn to come! At one point we even drew up a list of more than 20 other species we thought were guaranteed to occur in the second half of the year. If we really could bank on all of these, we would only need to find ten additional birds – the record was virtually in the bag already! I hadn’t actually worked it out at the time but, incredibly, by the end of July we were ahead of the 2003 benchmark by 14 species.


August had some decent arrivals of common species, but a comparative dearth of the rare, scarce and unexpected meant a meagre four additions to the list all month. A good September was needed. The year-listing bar set in 2003 attained its elevated stature through an amazing run of uncommon species in September; a similarly fruitful month for us would take our 2011 challenge beyond the horizons of even our soaring optimism.


September 2011 was truly fantastic, and brought several of the year’s best rarities. A Fea’s Petrel on the first day of the month was followed onto the list by Lesser Kestrel, Pallid Harrier, Buff-bellied Pipit (actually two Buff-bellied Pipits, but the second one counts for nothing in this game!) and Tawny Pipit, as well as Balearic Shearwater, American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Short-toed Lark, Richard’s Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, Yellow-browed Warbler and Ortolan Bunting – incredible. But, after such a spectacular month of birding, it was hard to believe that we had only added 14 species to our tally. It was even harder to believe that we had actually fallen behind 2003!


At this point, our concerted efforts at intensive list cultivation had yielded a rich harvest of 204 species; another 12 were needed. Could October deliver? A Pechora Pipit was an excellent start, and Woodlark, Grey Phalarope and Goosander soon followed, the latter one of those great bonus birds that helps pad out a good year-list.  A Fea’s Petrel was (from a year-listing perspective) sadly nugatory by this time; Little Auk was much more helpful, and Velvet Scoter was an excellent bonus! We were back in the lead and Olive-backed Pipit, Great Grey Shrike and Long-tailed Skua put us within sight of the goal. A Siberian Stonechat on the 25th took us to 215, the taxonomic committees promoting the taxon to species rank just in time for it to qualify on the list (I anxiously checked to make sure the 2003 list hadn’t just gained an ‘armchair tick’ courtesy of the same taxonomic split. It hadn’t). We had just equalled the all-time best year.


Mark phoned me up exultantly on October the 27th: “We’ve done it! There’s a Firecrest at Sangar!” The 2003 record had finally toppled. A similar phone call later the same day brought news of a Dusky Warbler, sealing our victory beyond doubt, extending the lead by a clear and boldly superciliumed head .


The previous record broken by late October, there still remained time for us to push the bar a little higher, although we were rapidly arriving at the thin end of the listing year. I was lucky enough to find a Baird’s Sandpiper on the 29th, taking our list to 218, and Paul added a Desert Wheatear – November’s only, and the year’s final, addition to the list – a few days later.

FFrom left to right: Dusky Warbler, Baird's Sandpiper and Desert Wheatear a top quality trio to cap a wonderful list of species.
Our tally of 219 species was pegged back a notch by the rarity committee, who couldn’t accept the Red-throated Pipit on my brief flight views, leaving our grand total at a still-impressive 218 species. The progression of our successful record attempt, in comparison with the 2003 benchmark, is represented in graphical form below.

From the chart, we can see that the route to year-list glory can take more than one path. Our road to the vertiginous heights of 218 species took a steady ascent, with consistently strong progress in the spring and early summer followed by an equally productive September / October period. The August lull was the only real slow spell until November, when additions to the list became inevitably very thin on the ground. In contrast, 2003 was actually a fairly average year, hoisted high above the plateaux of big year mediocrity only by a quite incredible September.


Another interesting difference is the species composition of the two years. Our 17 species of warbler, for example, was well-beaten by 2003’s total of 20, and we only had five buntings to 2003’s nine. On the other hand, we managed an exceptional 13 different raptors to 2003’s paltry eight, and our haul of eight pipits was much better than just four in 2003. The question all this raises for future years, and future observatory wardening teams, is just how high can the bar go? How many species could feasibly occur, and be found and identified, on this small island in a single year? 225? 230? What if our 2011 September had equalled that of 2003; what if a good year for warblers and buntings happened to coincide with a good year for raptors and pipits; if there was one more full-time warden to survey the island each day, what then?


I am writing this in July 2012. The NRBO year-list is almost neck and neck with 2011 at this halfway point. The big year challenge is in our sights once again.