A beautiful Snowy Owl has been making the Orkney island of Eday its home for the last couple of weeks, attracting a great deal of attention from locals and visitors.
A number of keen birdwatchers and photographers have been travelling to the island to catch a glimpse of this rare visitor over the past few days, including local wildlife cameraman Raymond Besant. We asked him to share his experiences of heading north on the ferry, hoping to encounter Eday's enigmatic guest.
I’ve never been much of a twitcher, someone who is prepared to travel long distances in order to tick a bird off their ‘list’. I’d much rather see a Hen harrier ﬂoating over one of Orkney’s moorland ridges than an LBJ (Little Brown Job) skulking in a gorse bush! When a Snowy Owl was spotted on Westray in late November though I thought to myself that would be a cool bird to see.
Snowy Owls turn up only occasionally in Orkney, the last one prior to the Westray bird was found on Rousay in the summer of 2013 and one in Holm in 2009. Most rarities only hang around for a day or two so when I heard that one was still on Eday a week after it appeared I thought it was time to try and see it.
Life conspires to get in the way of your plans however. A small car accident, a north isles ferry winter re-ﬁt schedule and picking up my daughter from school meant pushing my plans into the following week - would it still be there in four days time?
Social media posts conﬁrmed it was still there and remarkably still in the same area, a shallow valley of moorland and ﬁelds just north of the post ofﬁce. I was on 2nd standby for the ferry, sitting in line for the early boat. Then I was told that I could get the car to Sanday but not the last leg to Eday. So I parked the car and stuffed as much kit as I could into my camera bag. Running back to the ferry I could hear that familiar noise telling you the bow door is coming down, sure enough as I turned the corner the ramp was nearly up.
“Aye beuy, you’re cutting it a bit ﬁne the day!” Never folk to see you stuck the Orkney Ferries staff lowered the ramp and let me on. Sitting in the passenger lounge were others heading to see the owl, now referred to by the islanders as ‘Snowy’. Christine Hall from the RSPB and Gerry Cannon were both armed with their cameras and headed in the same direction.
As rain battered the ferry windows I thought to myself, “what if it’s not there?”- with no car and lots of heavy kit it was going to be a long day if it had moved on. A short taxi ride to the post ofﬁce had seen the clouds clear and blue sky on the horizon. As we walked up the road, a resident stopped and conﬁrmed she had seen it earlier this morning. This is as good as it gets, a recent sighting in a very speciﬁc location, but after ten minutes of scanning with binoculars and no white owl I started to get that sinking feeling. As a wildlife cameraman I’m often the receiver of the line “you should have been here yesterday”.
Gerry headed up the road, I headed down the road and Christine stayed put! Within 5 minutes we spotted him at the same time, hunkered down in the grass just over a little ridge. Sometimes when you look for something you think you’re not looking in the right place or not looking hard enough. But there he was - big, very white and very obviously a Snowy Owl!
We took a few pictures and then he took off.
His wingspan is longer than that of a Hen harrier - with dense feathering around the feet and a bulky body he has the look of a big powerful bird. In what seems like just a few seconds his powerful wingbeats and effortless ﬂight had taken him two ﬁelds away to sit next to some wooden pallets. A local Hoodie crow gave this intruder the once over before losing interest.
Snowy Owls nest in the Arctic tundra of northern Alaska, Canada and Eurasia, hunting its favourite prey, the Lemming. In winter they venture further south, but it’s hard to say where this bird came from, perhaps Scandinavia.
He keeps her distance so ﬁlming is tricky, but with the light softening to a wonderful golden colour he returns to sit on a dyke. He gives us some great views of as he twists and turns his head, the bright yellow eyes no doubt on the lookout for Eday’s Orkney Voles. I managed to capture just enough of him to make this short film of such a special visitor.
If he has plenty to eat perhaps he’ll stay a while longer. Get to that ferry in plenty of time and head out to catch a glimpse of this white beauty from the frozen north before he heads back home, you won’t be disappointed.