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A Report from

The Orkneys, 24th May to 1st June 2003,

Chris Hall

The panorama of the Loch of Harray, backed by the high hills of Hoy and scattered with over 100 Mute Swans, was the daily tranquil setting for our exploration of the Orkney mainland and neighbouring islands. The meadows here at this exciting time are bursting with life, a reminder of what the countryside should be like in spring. Buttercups and Ladies Smock dance in the breeze and the air is filled with the songs of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits. Everywhere there are piping Oystercatchers, yodelling Redshanks, displaying Lapwings with their swooping "Pee-wit pee-wit" song and gliding Curlews with an evocative bubbling display.

Marwick Head and adjacent rocky shore gave an excellent introduction to the birds of Orkney. Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Turnstones in smart tortoiseshell breeding plumage foraged among the shoreline seaweed, with Rock Pipit and Wheatear dashing energetically around the clifftops, stacked with layer upon layer of Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, interspersed with occasional Razorbills, Puffins and Rock Doves. Out to sea, were the first of many Shags, Gannets, Arctic Terns and both Arctic and Great Skuas, making 38 species in one afternoon.

Next day we turned to the moorland at Cottascarth, and were soon watching Raven and Stonechat, with Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers hunting low over the heather while lively Brown Hares raced around the adjacent rough pasture. Moving on, we visited Rendall Dovecot and scanned the shore. Aptly named Seal Skerry was covered in basking Common Seals, a sight we became frequently familiar with. Closer in we found our one and only Whimbrel, while a Sandwich Tern seemed an appropriate signal for a picnic lunch on the shore.

Crossing Birsay Moors, we found Greylag Geese and Kestrel but no Merlin. After a visit to the remarkable stone age village of Skara Brae, the birding continued with a full scope view of a posing Sedge Warbler followed by a Snipe performing an aerial drum solo, which seemed to go on and on as if powered by Duracell batteries.

With an early start for the ferry to Hoy, we soon spotted Red-breasted Merganser. Crossing Scapa Flow, we inspected the flotillas of handsome Eider drakes and admired lovely little Black Guillemots, close enough to see their bright red feet in the clear water. Once ashore on Hoy, a small roadside pool produced unsurpassable views of a pair of stunning Red-throated Divers. Passing through magnificent wild moorland scenery, we arrived at picturesque Rackwick Bay, starting point for our walk to the Old Man of Hoy. Among the rustic stone crofts of Rackwick, we enjoyed close views of Twite, with their pink flushed rumps. Along this coastal path, the slopes of heather are dotted with Spring Squill and thousands of Common Spotted Orchids. Here we studied the varied feather detail and devilish hooked beaks of the Great Skuas as well as scoping Mountain Hares, with short ears and thick hoary coats, still with fair amounts of last winter's white on their feet and underbellies. At the Old Man, brilliant sunshine highlighted the lemon yellow of Primroses, which carpeted the slopes below the high cliffs. Also on Hoy we visited the Dwarfie Stone, unique in Britain as a tomb cut into a solid stone block, and then the Scapa Flow Heritage Centre, which tells the story of the region's naval history. Back on the 'mainland', we concluded a full day with a guided tour of the ancient Maes Howe burial chamber, inscribed much later with Viking grafitti, and a walk around the Ring of Brodgar standing stones, plus a Scaup in the scope!

Another early start for the ferry to Egilsay, so by 8am en route, we had Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl hunting simultaneously in our bins. The crossing to Egilsay produced Grey Seals and the first of several superb Great Northern Divers, lingering on their way back to Iceland. On arrival on the Egilsay jetty we were met by about a dozen inquisitive Common Seals and the island's RSPB warden who told us what to look out for even though there were no Corncrakes this year. The meadows were awash with the rich yellow of Kingcups, making a beautiful stage for the songs of Skylarks and Curlews. Walking to the far side of the island, we scoped another Great Northern Diver and then returned to the jetty via the old Viking church of Saint Magnus with its unusual round stone tower. Although we had good weather all week, our day on Egilsay was particularly fine and so the wait for the return ferry by the gently lapping water in glorious sunshine was most relaxing.

Back on the 'mainland', the newly mown hay meadows were packed with hundreds of Rooks, Common, Black-headed, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A visit to the hide on Birgar Hill produced five Red-throated Divers and some of the very few Wigeon which actually nest in Britain. To prove the point, one mother had five little fluffy ducklings following her around the pool. Another visit to Birsay Moors revealed a hen Hen Harrier flying repeatedly back and forth at quite close range, carrying an occasional stick as if nest building, followed by a pair of beautifully marked Golden Plover, also at close range. This proved to be one of the star sightings for several members of the party.

Next day on Birsay again, we watched a Short-eared Owl give us a sideways glance of its 'cattie face' as it flew by. Further on, a short walk produced another two pairs of these pale brown owls hunting the moors. Crossing to Rousay, with another Great Northern Diver, we visited Midhowe, where a massive stone age burial chamber and adjacent iron age broch occupy a wonderful seashore setting. After a pub lunch, a walk on the moorland of the Trumland reserve in search of number 70, eventually yielded nice views of a pair of Red Grouse.

If it's Thursday it must be Westray, so we left the Merkister and headed for the east coast of Orkney around Mull Head. Here we compared Rock and Meadow Pipits, admired more Eiders and looked down on a Shags nest with two downy chicks. After lunch we crossed the Churchill Barriers to visit the amazing chapel built by Italian POW's, and then from Kirkwall, the ferry took us to Westray. Scanning from the upper deck, Alison spotted "dolphins", but their erect tall dorsal fins towering above the swell were far too large for this. It was a pod of six or so Killer Whales, revealing a paler grey patch behind each dorsal fin, and an occasional white patch on the flank. To add to the excitement we also had great views of yet another Great Northern, barely thirty yards from the boat. Once on Westray, we checked in to the Cleaton House Hotel, an absolute gem of a place with real character and incredible meals.

Another day, another island, this time Papa Westray. Small enough to explore on foot, we spent all day walking from one end to the other and back again. Though we missed one of our targets, the elusive Corncrake, we found our other one, the rare and very pretty little Scottish Primrose. On the cliffs of the North Hill reserve, the Shags, Guillemots and Razorbills were so close, one felt able to almost reach down and stroke them. Further on, the maritime heathland was alive with Arctic Terns, Great and Arctic Skuas, all engaged in dramatic aerial dogfights. On the walk back to the jetty, we visited the twelfth century kirk of Saint Boniface and the Knap of Howar, which at 5,500 years old, is the oldest known human settlement in northern Europe. After a ten mile walk, we still managed to pack in a stop for tea and biscuits, while Ursula even found time to buy a souvenir polo shirt decorated with Scottish Primroses, most impressive.

Alas our last full day in the Orkneys. Still on Westray, we were reluctant to leave Cleaton House. Pauline even tried to hide inside as we almost drove off without her. Up at Noup Head, a very stiff wind adds atmosphere to this dramatic place. The air is filled with the sounds and smells of the birds. The cliffs are jam packed with seabirds, especially Kittiwakes and Guillemots, and yet out to sea, as far as the eye can see, up and down the coast, there are thousands more, bobbing on the swell or sailing high and low on the strong wind. Standing on the cliff top, a constant stream of Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns float in off the sea and pass close by. There are birds everywhere one looks. In fact it seems like a blizzard. This was a truly awesome spectacle.

A lone migrant White Wagtail added half a tick to our list, which concluded with a single well camouflaged Purple Sandpiper, making 72.5 species, and a lot of memorable highlights.

Christopher & Alison Hall,


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