A SANDHILL CRANE made landfall on South Ronaldsay (Orkney) on or about 12 October 2009 following a fast-tracking deep depression from the Atlantic which deposited a host of Nearctic birds in Northern Scotland including 3 BLUE-WINGED TEALS, an assortment of waders involving six species and a BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER.
The bird had been reported in the area by local residents as a ''crane'' and upon investigation of the report, local birder Paul Higson relocated the bird mid-afternoon on 22 September. It was feeding in a field just north of Liddle Loch at the extreme southern end of South Ronaldsay and after a double-take and a quick call to Chris Batty at RBA, Paul realised that he was watching Britain's third-ever SANDHILL CRANE Grus canadensis. The news went 'national' within minutes and being the first to grace the country since September 1991, twitchers from up and down the country were making plans for the gruelling trek north.
Half an hour into watching the bird, a ringtail Hen Harrier flew by and disturbed it, and it flew strongly west re-alighting in a stubble field 400m west of the loch. It remained there until evening and then flew to the neighbouring reedbed by the loch at ND 454 834 to roost. Paul was able to get some record shots (previously published) and over the next couple of hours, 20 or so Orkney birders came and went, utterly delighted and satisfied by this wayward bird.
Throughout the afternoon of observation, the bird favoured two areas - 1) a stubble field viewable only from the cottage ''Murray'' on the B9041 accessed along the Tomb of the Eagles road and visible from the first house on the right as you reach the ascent of the hill looking SE to the beacon on the Skerry and 2) a stubble field on the left hand side of the rough track west from the sharp left-hand bend at the bottom of the hill further along the same road as mentioned above.
At dawn the following morning, the bird flew from the loch and landed in the same general area of stubble fields a mile east of the Burwick Ferry Terminal. Overnight had seen some 60 or so birders drive to John O'Groats, the majority of which either boarding the foot passenger ferry or bringing their car via the Gills Ferry-St Margaret's Hope route. The bird remained present and by midday, a total of 63 twitchers had connected including Paul Chapman, Alan Amery, Julian Thomas, Alan Lewis, Peter Hutchins, Chris Batty, Stuart Piner, Anthony Brydges, Richard Bonser, Clive Johnson, Pete Davis, Stuart Elsom, John Archer, John Bernard Bell, Simon Cox, Steve Nuttall, Garry Bagnell, Lee Gregory, Adrian Kettle, Craig Holden, Richard Bayldon, Andy Clifton, Geoff Clewes, Matt Mulvey and Richard Baatsen. Jim Lawrence and Duncan Coates arrived via Luton/Aberdeen/Kirkwall flights having parted with over 500 notes and the celebrations continued on the way back. At dusk, the crane once again roosted in reeds on Liddel Loch.
Paul Higson was once again present at dawn on Thursday 23 September and very kindly provided RBA with an early update. This time, due to the continuing strong westerly winds, the bird flew further north and landed in a field being spread with silage. Large numbers of gulls also congregated in the field, the crane being visible at range from the isolated farmsteads at Flaws. A further 43 observers were visiting today including Alan Stewart and myself, Lol Carman, Bob Chalkley, Cliff Tack, Graham Ekins, Peter Walsh, Chris Lansdell, Glenn Collier, Mick Case, Tom Tams and Joe Dobinson. Most of us utilised the John O'Groats-Burwick ferry at £28 return but were unprepared for the walk of three and a quarter miles the other side. In what seemed like an age, I arrived just west of Flaws to find two observers in the fields, despite the fact that Paul and other islanders had made it clear to refrain from doing so, so as to not disturb the crane. As it was, no sooner had I latched on to its position and started to give directions to the few birders that had kept up with me, the two lads flushed it and it flew strongly eastwards being mobbed by gulls. I was fuming, particularly as the majority of the group had failed to get on to it. It had disappeared over the brow of the valley and despite searching frantically, it was not immediately obvious. A very kind local resident Jonny Thomson (grass cutter at the neighbouring golf course) offered to drive me around in an attempt to search previous fields where the crane had fed in recent days and we set forth leaving the others to continue scanning the valley. As it was, the bird had relocated the mile or two further east to Windwick and was visible distantly from the Flaws hamlet. It was feeding in short grass not far from the Windwick village and after driving around, the bird flew up and landed at the side of the ditch at the sound of the commotion caused. It then fed in this area for the rest of the day enabling all of those present satisfactory views. The fields were also attracting large numbers of Icelandic Greylag and Pink-footed Geese and in some ways the crane felt safer in their close company. The near gale force wind continued all day, the bird roosting again on Liddle Loch at dusk.
It was the same pattern on Friday 25 September when a further 35 birders visited including Paul Whiteman, Adrian Webb, Bob Bullock, Gary Pullan, Tony Forster, Ian Brittain, Richard Preston, Paul Riley, Chris Galvin, Steve Keightley, James Hanlon, James Hunter, Andrew Lawson and John Benham. The bird flew from its roost and returned once more to the large stubble field at Windwick where it showed well until late morning. It then flew south and relocated in another field near Liddle Loch and could be viewed from along the track running along the burn to ND 448 868. It stayed here all afternoon before roosting at the loch.
A further 170 birders made the long pilgrimage north over the weekend of 26-27 September including John Lees, Rob Lambert, James Walsh, Simon Eaves, David Ousey, Hugh Pulsford, Mike Robinson, Tom Lowe, Michael Hoit, Dan Brown, the year-listing Craig family, Lee Woods, Martin Palmer, Dave Ball, Dougie Barr and Alan Clewes. Fortunately, none was disappointed and the Sandhill Crane showed well still favouring the stubble and ploughed fields NE of Flaws.
The weather improved vastly on 28 September, with the wind direction switching to a much cooler Northwest. The bird became much more restless, flying on several occasions, but to the relief of another 27 observers, stayed put all day and again roosted on Liddle Loch at dusk. Temperatures plummeted overnight and by day on Tuesday 29 September (reaching just 10 degrees C) and although it flew to its much favoured field at Windwick at dawn, it had relocated to just NW of Liddle Loch by 0925. At 1012 hours, Lancashire birder Pete Marsh was on the phone exclaiming that the bird was flying SSE out to sea and was approaching the Pentland Firth - it was finally going after spending two weeks on the archipelago.
Tom Lowe and Dan Brown were in the Wick area after staying overnight in the hope of getting better views of an UPLAND SANDPIPER that they had stumbled on just prior to dark 4.5 miles NNW of Wick. They had failed to relocate the Nearctic wader by 0922 but on hearing news of the flying Sandhill intercepted it as it flew at fairly low level parallel to the southbound A9 at Sarclet, 3 miles south of Wick. It was averaging some 37 miles per hour and was migrating SSE with a light NW tailwind. They continued to keep on the bird as it tracked its way southwards - observing it as it passed over Latheronwheel at 1115, circling high over Dunbeath at 1135, over Helmsdale at 1155 and then finally over the Brora ridge at 1216. It was then lost as it veered inland just west of Brora (Sutherland) at 1225, two hours after it had initially taken flight. It was not seen again all day and sadly those that had opted to take their cars on to Orkney today all failed to reach South Ronaldsay in time before it departed.
During its stay, several observers obtained an excellent selection of photographs of the bird, particularly Adrian Webb and Steve Nuttall (see these published above). Although similar in size to Common Crane, it differed mainly from that species in its extensive bright red crown, white in the lower face and extensive rusty patches in the grey plumage, liberally scattered from the neck-sides to the mantle and throughout the wing-coverts. The overall plumage was grey with longish dark legs.
The bird was an adult but soliciting expert advice from North America resulted in the following comments. Peter Pyle suggested that it was at least two years old, based on the extent of red skin showing on the crown. First-winters are still entirely feathered in the head at this time and do not show the red colouring. The brown colouring in the plumage is staining and feather oxidation and is not part of the original feather pigmentation. The amount of staining is highly variable within adults. Juvenile feathers have distinct buff tips and some juvenile primaries, secondaries and wing-coverts can be retained for up to two body moults.
Meanwhile, Mike Boyd of Vancouver, British Columbia, stated ''The images of the bird all show bright red bare skin above the eye which is only present in adults (from second fall onwards). The rust-coloured wing-coverts and neck patches are 'rust stains' acquired from the iron present in the mud and which the crane will utilise in preening the plumage. Individual birds can be aged up until their fourth year but this is based on detailed analysis of the upperwing feather patterning''
PREVIOUS RECORDS AND DISCUSSION
Sandhill Cranes breed in North America and eastern Siberia. The northern populations winter further south in the United States and Mexico. There have been three previous records in Britain and Ireland and a further Western Palearctic occurrence of a female at Akrabergi, Faeroe Islands, on 14 October 1980 (see Birding World 4: 355).
1) The first record involved a bird at Galley Head (County Cork) from 11-14 September 1905 when it was shot (Irish Naturalist 16: 209-211; British Birds 1: 90; 65: 427; Hutchinson 1989)
2) A first-summer was on Fair Isle, Shetland, on 26-27 April 1981. It departed to the NE mid-morning (British Birds 75: 498; 76: 105-109, plate 43; 80: 533; Scottish Bird Report 1981: 26; Ibis 126: 422)
3) An apparent first-summer was present in the Exnaboe area, Sumburgh, Shetland, from 17-25 September 1991 and was fully documented in Birding World 4: 322-323 and Evans, Rare Birds in Britain 1991: 56). It eventually departed Shetland at midday on 27 September when it was seen to fly off high out to sea to the southeast (see also British Birds 85: 105, 522, plate 40). What was presumably the Shetland bird relocating was at Lauwersoog, Friesland, in the Netherlands from 28-30 September 1991 (Dutch Birding 15: 1-6).