Busy summer for Bird Observatory Busy summer for Bird Observatory

Busy summer for Bird Observatory

We've been hearing all about life during the summer months at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney.


Summer is a busy time right across Orkney, and that’s certainly the case in North Ronaldsay over the coming weeks.

The island community is getting ready to welcome visitors as part of its inaugural North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival, aimed at raising awareness of its unique seaweed-eating sheep.

But the summer months on Orkney’s most remote island are also dominated by the abundant and varied birdlife, with much of the activity centred on the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

We’ve been given an inside look at life at the Observatory by volunteer Assistant Warden, George Gay, who is spending his second season with NRBO.


July sees our local breeding birds begin to hatch, or in some cases even get close to fledging the nest. Our attention is moved away from our daily census duties and onto ringing the chicks once they are of a suitable size. For the most part this involves visiting colonies throughout the island. Our main colonised breeders are the tysties (black guillemots), fulmars and arctic terns. We also have passerines breeding on the island in the shape of blackbirds, starlings, house sparrows, hooded crows and ravens, just to mention a few.

The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory - image by Paul Tomkins/Visit Scotland

Half the fun of ringing these young birds is actually finding them! The terns nest in large colonies, usually on rocks or in shingle banks. Walking through the colony has its own hazards, as you may have seen when BBC Springwatch visited the Farne Islands earlier this year. If you didn’t see it, let’s just say they are very protective of their eggs, nests and chicks! The terns dive bomb any potential predators, often hitting them (in this case, us!) with tips of their bills. It’s quite painful - and that’s coming from personal experience!

The tysties nest in burrows or on rocks with suitable space for nesting. Finding the burrow is the easy bit, it’s getting the chicks out that presents a problem - they like to run around these burrows just out of reach, and when you finally do get one, you’re greeted with whatever it’s been eating that day!

A tystie (black guillemot) in North Ronaldsay - image by North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory

Our other method for trapping birds is the use of mist nets, a fine mesh held up between two poles. The nets are used mainly to catch passerines in the gardens at Holland House and give us a good idea of what’s hanging around in the gardens, out of sight.

The use of mist nets requires a licence acquired through ringing birds with a trainer. The gardens, being the only spot of dense vegetation on the island, have turned up many a rare bird when the winds prevail from the right direction.

The main idea behind the ringing of birds is to build up a picture of their migration patterns and where they’ve been along the way. In North Ronaldsay we get a few ringed birds from Scandinavia and they make up the bulk of our foreign recoveries, despite these being few and far between.

A female bluethroat - one of the rarer visitors to North Ronaldsay

These recoveries start to build a pattern. Not many birds are re-caught, but from the data collected over the past 100 years or so, we’ve built bigger pictures on certain species and their migratory habits. Even if we catch a bird from Norway and it’s never caught again, we still know that it has crossed the North Sea on its migration and that’s pretty amazing! For more information on ringing visit the BTO website.

Apart from ringing we also conduct a daily census, recording and logging everything we see and hear in our census areas. The island gets split up into six zones lettered A to F and each census takes around three hours or more to complete. Its main purpose is to just get an idea of what is around and get numbers of breeding birds together.

Doing the census also gives us the opportunity to see something really special. In spring we expect things like pied and spotted flycatcher, redstarts, whitethroats, chiffchaffs and many other common passage migrants, but it’s what we don’t expect that excites us the most, the rarer birds like the red-backed shrikes, marsh warblers and bluethroats. This year we were lucky enough to have a stone curlew visit the island, only the second time it has occurred in North Ronaldsay since our records began.

A red-necked phalarope in North Ronaldsay

The Observatory staff are pretty well integrated into the small island community here. We all help round up the sheep during the punding season and with the shearing in the summer. We also attend most of the social events, including the harvest home and the annual panto.

With an island of its size the community plays a big part. We are running the first sheep festival at the end of July to help re-build parts of sheep dyke that have succumbed to our wild weather, which should be very exciting - hard work during the day and music and food in the evenings! ‘Ewe’re’ all welcome to come along – find out more here.

I’m originally from Somerset so my journey to North Ronaldsay often takes a couple of days, but it’s all worth it in the end. The island is a magnificent haven for birds and other wildlife that calls it home. I would recommend a visit here for anyone, even people from the Orkney mainland. If the birds aren’t showing off then there’s always the native sheep, the wild and beautiful landscape, lighthouse tours, beaches and much more to keep you busy.

Failing that there’s always the Observatory cafe!


Visit the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory website for information on the work carried out there. You can also follow the Observatory on Twitter.

Find out more about North Ronaldsay with our dedicated page and via the Visit Orkney website.