Orkney: The wildlife

One of the main reasons I went to Orkney was to see the wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. I heard a long time ago how the Northern Isles are pretty spectacular for birdlife and they truly are; with the breeding season well underway, the sheer quantity of birds is simply breathtaking.

The greatest spectacle is all around as you travel through the islands in the early summer. The quantity of breeding waders is like nothing I have seen anyway else in the UK. It seems as if every field has its own resident pair of curlew and their calls ring out constantly. I loved going to sleep and waking up to those spiritful cries and, for me, there are fewer more evocative sounds of wild Britain. There are other waders, however, with oystercatchers seemingly as plentiful, constantly in a state of alarm or sheer panic, and redshanks, golden plover and lapwing are in good numbers too. I also saw some migrants still on their way north including lovely summer plumage dunlin, black-tailed godwit and sanderling.

The other big spectacle are the seabird cliffs, of which there are many and on a number of the islands. One my first day I had a good walk around Mull Head Nature Reserve on the north-east corner of the Deerness Peninsula. All along the coastal cliffs there are good numbers of guillemots (common and black), razorbills, fulmar and shags. I thought I heard the calls of kittiwakes there too but I believe their numbers reduced significantly at this site. This was also where I had my first head-to-head meeting with bonxies; the infamous harassing great skuas.

Out on Westray are the greatest seabird cliffs in the archipelago, at the RSPB’s Noup Head reserve. The huge towering cliffs have all the birds listed above but it is also Orkney’s only gannetry. This was the first gannetry I’ve seen and I spent a lovely lunchtime watching these iconic birds noisily come and go beneath me.

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One really interesting observation was the location of fulmar nests on some of the more remote locations. I’m used to seeing fulmar, like those on my favourite island, Ramsey, nesting high up on cliffs. On Sanday, however, I found them nesting at the back of beaches under the first tussocks of grass beyond the sand; surely a sign of the lack of predators and human interference.

I also spent a while at a puffin colony on Westray trying to get some shots of these most-photogenic of birds and I wasn’t disappointed…

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Elsewhere away from the cliffs there are good chances of seeing terns, and I had views, and close passes, of both arctic and little terns. There are arctic terns in a number of spots in Orkney but little terns can only be found breeding by the fourth Churchill Barrier between Barray and North Ronaldsay. This was the first time I’ve seen these lovely little birds but I made sure I didn’t approach too close to their small breeding colony.

I was also hoping to see a few birds of prey and I took two great memories from Orkney and both came from within a few hundred metres of each other on the southern island of Hoy. I had my first ever (albeit distant) view of a white-tailed eagle chick on a nest, which also happened to be the first to hatch in Orkney in over 140 years. Just a short distance away as I was walking down the public road back to the foot ferry at Moaness, I saw a pair of hen harrier mobbing a bonxie. As the intruder moved away, the male harrier spotted me and came over to check me out and move me on as I continued on my way. Normally, getting this close to a pair of hen harriers would be seen as interfering with them but there was little I could do given this was the only road in northern Hoy and there were plenty of other pedestrians and cyclists using that route.

Over the course of my stay on Orkney, I recorded 71 species of bird, which isn’t a bad total. This included a number of other northern specialities including red-throated diver, hooded crow, eider, twite and arctic skua. The relative of the bonxie, arctic skuas are a slimmer and more falcon-like bird and much less of a general menace, in fact they’re rather a nice looking bird.

I wasn’t expecting to see great numbers of hirundines but I saw good numbers of swallow and sand martin, as well as the unrelated swift. I don’t recall ever seeing so many sand martins and came across two nice sized colonies in beach-side sand walls.

There is, however, a sad element of a visit to Orkney and that is concerned with the changes in seabird populations. Only the week before I was reading in a national newspaper how numbers of many seabird species have plummeted over recent decades in the islands all around Scotland, probably as a result of losses in their food supply through over-fishing and climate change. It might be that my visit to Orkney was a last chance to see large numbers of cliff-nesting seabirds as, if their numbers continue to decline, there may not be many left when I next manage a visit to this lovely bird-rich group of islands.

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On my first day, I had an evening tour with Tim Dean, a local expert on all things Orkney wildlife including birds and plants. This really set me up for the week and he told me of some great locations to go looking for wildlife. He also introduced me to the only mammal I saw on the trip, a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Unfortunately, it had been washed up on the beach at Marwick Bay and had been deceased for quite a while. I have to say that Tim was one of the best local wildlife guides I’ve had a trip with in the UK and he really put in great effort before and during the trip to ensure I saw what I wanted. His contact details can be found here and I would certainly recommend him.

Orkney: The green and pleasant islands

For the latest trip in my exploration of the Scottish islands I traveled up to the far north and beyond, to visit the intriguing archipelago of Orkney. After my numerous trips to the west coast islands, it was somewhat of a surprise just how different Orkney is to the often impressively bleak and majestic Outer Hebrides. The islands are primarily comprised of low, green rolling pastureland with only a few higher hills topped with heather moorland and no mountains to speak of with the exception of those on the Island of Hoy. The only real ruggedness comes in the form of the high rocky cliffs that occur frequently along the coastlines. There are very few trees and most fields are enclosed by wire fences rather than hedges, giving the landscape a feel of endless views and huge skies. Under the clear blue skies and bright warm sun I frequently experienced over the course of the week, it was a little paradise of the north.

More like the Hebrides, there are plenty of fine beaches, particularly if you venture on to some of the smaller islands. Sanday has some stunningly nice beaches along its coast and others have a fair selection to choose from too. In addition to Mainland, I visited Westray, Sanday and Hoy, all of which have their own landscapes and feel. As well as those beaches, Sanday is quite flat while Westray is similar to Mainland with rolling green pastures but some of the most spectacular cliffs, while Hoy has the highest hills and is mostly moorland. They were all worth a day trip while the small inter-island ferries gave opportunities to see some of the other islands as I passed on my way to and from those I visited.

The built environment of Orkney also has some jewels, the most lovely of which is Stromness. I certainly didn’t expect to find such an exquisite little harbour town of narrow winding streets, open squares and gaps providing views out to the sea and the islands beyond. I could have spent many more hours wandering happily around.

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Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands, is a little more businesslike in places but also has a few gems and nice pedestrian streets. The Highland Park Distillery is probably the best presented whisky distillery I’ve visited and is worth going to for the buildings alone along although I did make a purchase in the shop too (would have been wrong not to!). The town also has all the facilities you would expect in a much larger town elsewhere in Scotland with a good range of shops and supermarkets. It also has a feeling of prosperity in places with a very impressive looking new school and an equally impressive hospital under construction.

Getting around is easy with quiet but well maintained roads, a central airport and plenty of choices of ferry route from the Scottish mainland. I chose to travel on the Scrabster to Stromness route on Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe. I was impressed with this little ship; it was immaculately presented and loading and unloading were quick and efficient. I should have taken my bike with me too as it appears to be a very easy place to cycle – maybe next time!

Overall, the pleasant nature of Orkney, good range of facilities and the ease of getting around, stops the islands, well at least the main island, from feeling remote and certainly less so than the likes of Harris or the Uists. There’s so much to Orkney that it will take more than this post to cover it and certainly much more than one visit.

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