Saturday, 11 January 2014

NRBO is now on Facebook and Twitter!!!

NRBO now has its own Facebook and Twitter pages-we will be updating here regularly with all aspects of life at the Observatory instead of the Obs life blog. Click on the icons on the right of the page for all the latest news.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Simon - A new face!

Hi, this is my first Obs Life blog entry as I’m a new addition to the wardening team here this year; I come fresh from spending all last year in Broome, Western Australia, I’ve noticed a slight temperature change since being here but I’ve spent a few seasons working on Shetland and Fair Isle in the past so I soon reacclimatised!   In an unplanned coincidence Ric, AW here for the last couple of years, has moved down-under to take over my old job in Broome, perhaps not a big surprise given the small, incestuous Bird Observatory world!
My home last year - pretty much identical to Nouster Bay!
My first few weeks here have been filled with a wide variety of jobs, largely concerned with getting the Observatory ready for the upcoming season, I've helped paint most of the walls in the hostel, cleaned lots of things, made repairs and small adaptations to the Helgoland traps near the Observatory, put mist nets up in anticipation for the vegetation to grow up and generally got my head round the running of the Obs including the bar, kitchen, rooms etc and my role in amongst it all.
Another major job resulting from the severe storms over the winter months has been to make a start on rebuilding large portions of the sheep dyke round the island which has been washed away.   We’ve just started a section near Gretchen Loch as it’s close to the Obs, provides good cover for migrants during an easterly blow and allows folks to reach the hide overlooking the Loch without disturbing the birds before getting inside.   Good progress has been made with Mark and myself having several afternoon sessions while lately we’ve been joined by roving dyke-builder extraordinaire Dougie who has speeded up the process no end!

Unsurprisingly I’ve also been carrying out the daily bird census of the island, exploring my way round, getting to know all the promising looking dykes, ditches and clumps of vegetation where migrants will turn up through the season but the trickiest part has been trying to learn the names of the crofts, fields and sections of the coast – I’m slowly getting there but it will be a long process!   I’ve also carried out several mist-netting sessions at Holland House with the definite highlight being a cracking Long-eared Owl while a Curlew was certainly a surprise catch in amongst the Sycamores in the garden!
I write this with the famous North Ronaldsay Panto looming large on the horizon (Saturday night!), I’ve been told it’s a huge gala-like event with a lively dance afterwards to get involved with – although I have to bear in mind, the last time I was dancing in the Northern Isles I ended up breaking my foot in three places, although that was to Blondie and not Scottish country dancing…….perhaps I should be more worried thinking about it!

The result of the last time I danced in the Northern Isles!


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Mark-A 'big' surprise

A quiet month really since we last updated... NOT!!! You’ll have done well not to have heard about North Ronaldsay recently, something to do with a Walrus...? But just in-case you’ve been practising being an Ostrich with your head in the sand for the last couple of weeks, I’ll tell the tale again about how the world went mad for North Ronaldsay!

Our news, quite literally made the National news at the beginning of March when I stumbled upon that lump of blubber on the beach at Bridesness. With a bit of help from the World Wide Web, within an hour our phone was ringing to call centre levels, the blog page was receiving more hits than in a Boxing match and I found myself needing an agent to handle all the subsequent interviews and photo requests. For the next week the whole country, in fact the whole world (we even had a call from Japanese TV) wanted to know about Waldo, our Walrus superstar. There were too many to mention but highlights for me were a chat with Zoe Ball on the Radio 2 Breakfast show and the fantastic page 3 spread in the Daily Record. The publicity has been fantastic for the Observatory but thankfully the media frenzy has subsided a little, although we are still getting requests for pictures and quotes daily.

The picture which made the BBC Breakfast news and among others the Times newspaper. He's not a circus Walrus...honest.

So... onto some other news and some of the ‘proper’ work we’ve been up to. Birding is always a bit slow at the start of year, but I’ve been trying to get out for at least a few hours each day-if only for a walk around the block with Fleur and Pumpkin. It’s been freezing cold the vast majority of the time, with what has seemed like a constant northerly airstream. There’s not been much, with ‘white-winged’ Gulls virtually absent but I have managed to dig out the first wintering records of Stock Dove, Velvet Scoter and flock of Black-tailed Godwits, all of which have kept me going. Oh yeah-and a Walrus!!! Nearly 100 Twite have been trapped and ringed at the baited whoosh net site but the first Wheatears and Chiffchaffs still seem a long way off yet and even further so today as we’ve had our first settling Snow.

The view from the bedroom window this morning-we can't see the Wheatears for all the Snow!

We’ve mentioned recently the demise of the sheep dyke, and although I haven’t actually built any wall I spent a week with a few Islanders fencing off the area which was brought down at Gretchen. I’m not a fan of fencing but needs must-soon we’ll be rebuilding the punds before the sheep are taken in at the beginning of April. Luckily most of my work of late has been of the indoor variety, although I have had to replace or repair a couple of shed doors damaged during some rough stuff in February. The bird report is all but finished with Alison doing the final proof reading this week. Everything is as it should, printer tests have been completed and the final printing of our 107 page, second annual report is due to start next week. There’s been a bit of painting and general repairs to guest areas but the major project which I’ve just finished has been the assembling of the display of the birds of North Ronaldsay posters we designed last year. They look good and will prove a great help for guests to identify some of our commoner species during visits to the Observatory.

The new information display in the Observatory Shop

We’ve had a few such guests with Fleur kept busy when virtually every builder or water board operative descending on us during the only calm, windless week of the period. With Easter looming, tourists will soon also be arriving and bookings are coming in fast. There’s also the traditional pantomime coming up with Alison and I again featuring, although the audience will no doubt be disappointed that I’m not repeating my fan dance this year! We don’t seem very good yet and with several cast members away and missing practises, our performance of Little Red Riding Hood may not be ‘alright on the night’.

Simon is due to arrive next week and along with Alison and I we plan to begin daily census again. There’s easterlies forecast but it’s probably a bit early for too many migrants to arrive, but you never know, and there's always White-billed Divers and King Eiders to look for. If winter persists then hopefully the increased coverage will turn up one of these...

One farmers attempt to scare the Geese off his fields should work if he manages to attract breeding Gyr Falcons to the Island!

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Fleur-winter, a wedding and windy weather!

Well it’s finally time for the blog update!! I know many of you have been enquiring as to why it hasn’t been updated for so long and we can but apologise. Having had a busy season and with the boys and I whizzing off here and there, there never seemed to be enough time. But now we are back and it is at the top of my list – so here we go!
As many of you might have known Mark and myself were getting married at Christmas this year and I am pleased to report we managed to do that successfully! The weather was pretty awful in Cornwall on the run up to the wedding but everybody managed to get there and we had the most amazing day- even the rain went on strike for most of it!! Kevin, Alison, Heather, Gavin and the dogs all made the long journey down from North Ronaldsay to join us and helped teach the Cornish folk some proper Scottish dancing although several people did get a little over enthusiastic and almost caused fatalities, but ‘Dance-master’ Kevin soon had it all going smoothly. Heather’s amazing fiddle playing brought a touch of the islands to Cornwall and it was beautiful. Also I must add that our lovely Rael ( and of course my gorgeous husband Mark) scrubbed up pretty well for the occasion and did the Bird Obs proud- in fact I expect many of you barely recognise them without torn clothing, eau d’ Fulmar and binoculars!!

The new Mr and Mrs Warren and Rael doing his best catalogue pose!
After the wedding we were lucky enough to visit Cuba on honeymoon (Mark and Myself – not Rael!) and we had the most amazing trip. There was even time to have a look at some of the native bird species- much to Mark’s delight I even spotted some myself. (I think this bird watching business is starting to rub off on me!) We saw Hummingbirds, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Palm and Cape May Warblers (the latter seemed to have a penchant for butter and mayonnaise) and my highlight a Giant Lizard Cuckoo! And so my fate as a birding WAG was sealed it would seem!
The Giant Lizard Cuckoo -We initially thought this was a monkey from the amount of noise it was making crashing about in the trees. Unlikely to turn up on North Ron-apparently they're not the greatest fliers of the world!
The Cape May Warbler-This cheeky little chap was obviously onto a good thing as he discovered the butter bowl and on the buffet – he kept diving in for a mouthful every few minutes.
Now we are back to North Ronaldsay and there was a bit of a surprise on our return. Apparently Cornwall wasn’t the only place over the winter to have a heavy dose of rain and wind! North Ronaldsay took a huge battering and as a result we are now missing 3-4 miles of our sheep dyke.  Most of the damage was to the east side of the island until the week we returned when we saw firsthand how powerful the sea really is. In the space of an hour one afternoon the whole of the wall around Gretchen Loch was demolished by the waves sweeping into the bay-you could have gone surfing on the Loch! Surprisingly there was one survivor – Gretchen Bird Hide! Against all odds it survived with no damage to it. For any visitors returning to us this year, you will be in for a bit of a shock as you wander about the island. The wall is going to be re built but the estimated time frame for this is unknown at the moment-it may well be years!

Gretchen during the storm

Part of the (former) eastern dyke near Bewan
And now to finish up on Obs news! There have been a few changes at the Obs this year as Ric has opted for a change of scene and headed over to sunnier climes in Australia! (You can’t really blame him after the weather here this winter!) He is doing a placement over in Broom Bird Observatory for a year – quite a change from North Ron as apparently so far in the kitchen he has had to remove a Python, Brown Goshawk and an Australian Giant Centipede! Rael too has decided on a change investigating opportunities abroad and plans to spend a bit more time at Spurn this year. I’m sure we will still see plenty of him although he will not be a regular fixture here this season. So that means we will be getting some new staff due to start in March. We will introduce you to them in the next blog update. Exciting and busy times ahead for all of us here on North Ronaldsay so we really will keep you updated a little bit better this year!

Sunday, 1 April 2012


Spring is here! The first (exceptionally early) Swallow and Sand Martins have been seen and we're all gearing up for a busy season of visitors and hopefully an equally busy season for birds. The “to do list” we put together at the beginning of the winter has been added to almost as rapidly as jobs have been completed and ticked off, but we're getting there!

Firstly, an update on our last update. The eagerly anticipated (by us anyway) first North Ronaldsay annual bird report is in the final stages of its development. Weeks of proof reading, checking data and editing is all but finished. The materials have arrived and we just await one more article and it’s printing time. So don’t be expecting much bird news this spring as Ric, Rael and I will be locking ourselves in the office arguing with the printer until it’s done. It’s been a larger task than we initially anticipated but hopefully we’ve done the groundwork so our successors will find producing the 20th NRBO report in years to come somewhat easier. Also this month the transformation of the old flagstone room into a combined shop and visitor information display is progressing, albeit slowly, and we hope to open this new area to guests in a few weeks' time. There still seems to be an endless amount of paperwork coming out of Alison’s office, but at least after two hours of struggling, a hole in the wall and a box of wine gums later, the giant sofa has found itself a new home at the Old Manse.  The new clothing range and stock has been ordered and includes NRBO Hoodies for the first time, and as I write this Ric is working out ‘Photoshop’ and beginning to design some of our new display boards. Tied in with this is the re-invention of the dog-porch. Our two sheepdogs Rhinay and Pot have moved over to Lurand with Kevin and Alison, so the former dog porch has had a lick of paint, all the old un-wanted Jackets, wellies and waterproofs sent to the charity shop and has now become a boot porch and cloakroom for our guests' outdoor belongings.

Also in the last month we’ve all gone a bit ‘green fingers’ crazy - It must be all these Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall programs on the TV at the moment. The unexpected warm weather has prompted us to get our vegetable patch rotavated early, weeded and our newly sown parsnips, carrots, turnips, onions and everyone’s favourite, the potatoes, await the virtually guaranteed April showers and sunshine. Fleur has also joined in, though she’s opted for the much more sensible flat kitchen as her growing space. And with the wide variety of fruit and vegetables she’s planted, even watermelons may soon be appearing on the menu!

Rotavating the vegetable patch. I may have said this before, but there’ll be a Pine Bunting in there this time next week!

The list of jobs we’ve ticked off is endless and far too many to mention them all, especially with Martha here all month helping out. The Hostel has been fully re-painted ready for the new season as has the bar and corridor. Rael and I finished replacing the fabric on the chairs and with better weather we’ve been able to get on with some outside jobs. The fence and heligoland traps have been given coats of wood-seal and creosote respectively and we’ve planted more fuscia, rhubarb and black-current about the Observatory, mainly in the vicinity of the new heligoland traps. We’ve also transferred a trailer load of irises from Ancum to a field at the Observatory, with the aim that one day we’ll have an annoyingly un-birdable area just like Bridesness on our doorstep in the not too distant future.

Transferring Irises from Ancum

Vistors over the last month included two gentlemen from the Highland and Islands Fire Brigade, over to present Kevin with a commemorative axe to mark his retirement from the Islands Fire Service. After almost thirty years of service most of the brigade were present to honour this achievement and it was of course good reason for a few drinks and a go on Ric’s err.. unicycle?

Kevin's new axe will come in handy once all our trees will have grown to forest proportions by next year!

The new fire vehicle has a few health and safety issues to be resolved before it can attend plane duty!

It would seem panto season is also upon us once again on the Island, and yes I have once again been tempted to cross-dress for the occasion. The grand performance of ‘Swanney Loch’ will take place in a week’s time. It seems that everybody, not just me, is playing the opposite sex, with Alison becoming somewhat typecast as the courageous hero for the umpteenth year in succession. I however, have the role of the evil sorcerer's less than beautiful daughter. The audience had better have their earplugs at the ready for when I sing, and they may require councilling after I’ve performed an interesting fan dance - previously performed by one Dita Von Teese! I have a feeling Fleur in particular may suffer lasting trauma!

Finding emarginations and taking biometrics on these wings has proved a little tricky!

Until next time, I have panto lines to learn...

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Ric: back for 2012

Although I spent more than a couple of months away from the obs during the winter, it was nice to get back again in mid February to help the others get the place ready for the fast-approaching start of the new season.

Before I could get back to work, there was some furniture rearrangement to be done. I spent my first year here with three extra, unused beds, numerous superfluous mattresses and several sets of unneeded lockers taking up most of the space in my bedroom, but my abode for 2012 was soon rearranged, and now contains a more appropriate bed:person ratio and a new wardrobe. The many dusty old boxes of crockery that spent the last year stashed away untouched beneath the redundant bunks have been removed, along with the two large boxes of fireworks, the compendium of adult drinking games and the fossilised vomit stain left on the wall behind the beds by one of the room's long-previous occupants (not me!).

The staff office also got a bit of an overhaul. A new computer desk was brought in to replace the one with the bent leg, and we tidied everything else up enough to move a couple of proper chairs into the room. The daily log will certainly be conducted in a higher degree of spacious comfort from now on.

The new office set-up.

There are, as usual, many small tasks to keep us busy, but we also have two current, larger projects that we are working on. The first of these is the transformation of the old staff room into a combined shop and visitor information display. We have already started by beginning to clear the room, burning as much of the many years’ worth of accumulated birders’ clutter that we can bear to be rid of, and appropriating the furniture and any genuinely useful odds and ends in other parts of the building – although a new home has yet to be agreed on for Mark’s Girls Aloud poster. Eventually, the space created will contain displays about the work of the observatory and the wildlife of the island, as well as exhibiting merchandise and supplies in a convenient way for the guests to browse.

Our other big project is the production of NRBO’s first ever bird report. Our annual bird records have always been summarised in the Orkney Bird Report, which presents them in the context of the whole archipelago; but we are in the process of creating our own, additional, report for 2011, documenting just our own sightings and activities. Most of the text is already written and edited, but the labours of home-publishing are beginning to become apparent. Mark and I spent a whole afternoon pitting our combined wits against a stubborn and temperamental printer that inexplicably stopped working at random and inappropriate moments, in an attempt to produce a complete prototype copy. Eventually, after much frustration and a lot of trial and error, we succeeded in getting each page not only printed, but printed the right way up, at the right size, on the right type of paper and in the right order. Johannes Gutenberg probably printed his first bible more quickly than we did our first report, but we seem to be getting the hang of it and hope to have saleable copies available soon.

 The prototype copy of the first NRBO annual report: front and back views.

Other activities in the last week or so have included some maintenance of the Heligoland traps, fixing and updating the website, punding the sheep, repunding the sheep after they escaped, and the Sisyphean task of refilling all the potholes in the track to the observatory. And, of course, we are always looking out for any migrant birds that might begin to appear as we get closer to the start of spring. We are aiming to break the island year-list record for the second successive year, and, with a full team of wardens in place for the whole season again, we think we stand every chance – especially as 2012 has one more day of bird-finding potential than 2011 did.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Rael: Glad to be back

Illness related fatigue meant an early exit for me last season, consequently missing a large chunk of an outstanding birding year on North Ronaldsay to take a’ time-out’ ,or my interpretation of such at Spurn Point, occasionally Hull Royal Infirmary before heading home for a 3 month spell in the gym, my preparation for an early return to North Ronaldsay, with intension of completing or at least starting the practical jobs in and around The Observatory before spring gets underway and guests arrive…. And here I am, mid February, enjoying myself.
Of course the first few days were spent logging what birds were present, and we have since made a good compromise between birding and what most readers will consider, ‘proper’ work. Either birding in the morning and working in the afternoon/evening, or working all day with the Whoosh Net set catching Twite as and when we could. An added bonus to this early arrival was that it coincided with the current influx of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls into the Northern Isles; a maximum of 42 individuals casually logged in January alone. 
Wader Nets at Brides' Loch
Whoosh Net for Twite
Firstly the eyesore that was the burning pit and compost heap has now been neatly fenced, recycling the wood from the once strawberry patch, and all large stone taken from the Burning Pit used to tidy stone dyking by The Observatory and the rest taken to Funny Park to heighten and therefore sheep-proof the outer dyke, with hopes of bringing this field back into rotation with the surrounding the 34 acre croft land in the near future.
Dyke repairs and Burning Pit/Compost Heap before & after

Decorating was our next mission, with the re-painting of all Guest House rooms and also my own room, giving Mark and Fleur some space and the chance to sort the flat which had been my luxury accommodation for the previous few weeks. I know have a walk along the corridor and stairs between my room and the bathroom, which is fine – in summer! Although in fairness, despite lots of rain plus the usual strong winds it’s been surprisingly mild so far, a statement Fleur may dispute.

Before continuing my post, after a 13 year spell at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, I must mention now former assistant Paul Brown, who left the island recently, his loss will impact The Observatory and Islanders alike, not to mention bar sales! His discovery of a Siberian Blue Robin in October 2001 is surely never to be forgotten.

Continuing with the decorating, Paul’s departure left another room to be painted and consequently a re-jig of the layout of the rooms; this becoming the new staff room, only to be re-decorated by Pumpkin days later…don’t ask! Having a small porch for boots and outdoor clothing adjoining meant the previous, larger boot room would become the guest boot room. The former larger, darker and much colder staff room known as the Flagstone Room, is now our indoor focus, along with re-covering all the dining chairs, and will soon be utilized more effectively. Next on the agenda is clearing the conservatory of furniture and de-cluttering the assistant warden’s office whilst Alison hopefully begins the mammoth task of sorting hers.

New Staff Room
As I mentioned earlier we have put a few hours aside for playing, the dead seal we set up with a whoosh-net making a few Heligoland trap alterations, and sooner than we anticipated  trapped the Glaucous Gull that had been feeding on it for weeks, but we’ve still much work to be done such as preparing the storm battered polytunnel, but with the arrival fellow assistant Ric, and last year’s volunteer Martha this morning, the extra effort should get things progressing faster and we begin our routine daily census.

Whoosh Net for Glaucous Gull
Glaucous Gull