Robin Sutton’s Bird List ( will open up in Excel ) Orkney 2014 List
What a difference a week makes – glorious weather for the first couple of days of our second Orkney trip. The Pentland Firth was like a millpond for our ferry crossing yesterday, and there are quite a few ‘glowing’ faces after being out in the sun all day today.
There were wader chicks everywhere at the Loons RSPB reserve, but star of the show was a beautiful black-tailed godwit in full brick red breeding plumage. A few pairs nest on the reserve.
Despite a severe decline (about 50% over the last decade) in seabird numbers breeding on Orkney, Marwick Head was still an impressive sight, and we had excellent views of puffin, guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake and fulmar. A herring gull stole and made short work of a razorbill egg.
The Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, was our first archaeological site of the week, with Pictish and Norse remains.
Returning over the causeway from Brough of Birsay
Our luck is holding, good weather again today.
A real treat for the botanists this morning as we explored the cliff top at Yesnaby – Scottish primrose, adder’s tongue fern, creeping willow, buck’s horn plantain, sea milkwort and crowberry. Plenty of birds as well – puffin, black guillemot, fulmar, eider, Arctic and great skua, kittiwake, Arctic tern, rock dove, wheatear, rock and meadow pipit, snipe, redshank, lapwing, ringed plover and oystercatcher.
The afternoon was spent visiting the World Heritage sites that make up the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ – Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.
A very special day, rounded off with an excellent meal at The Standing Stones Hotel.
Overlooking Yesnaby Castle
Ring of Brodgar
Stones of Stenness
Stones of Stenness
Tuesday 3rd June
Could this be the best picnic spot in the world? That was the thought as we sat with the cackling and wheeling fulmars looking out over the Old Man of Hoy. Our botanists literally had a field day, searching out the various bearberries and willows. We all enjoyed watching the menacing bonxies and a family of ravens, and some eventually managed to see a well camouflaged mountain hare.
As ever, the Dwarfie Stane was impressive, but perhaps even it was overshadowed by an amazing funnel cloud moving across the hillside opposite. We sent photos to the Met Office website, and by Wednesday morning they had responded confirming our cloud ID skills and saying what a good example it was. The wonders of modern technology.
Returning to Orkney Mainland by ferry, we had absolutely stunning views of a great northern diver in full summer plumage. For quite a few of the group this was a bird they really wanted to see, and I have never had better views than this – they must be pleased.
After our evening meal we had a very successful otter watching expedition. Robin had found a family, female and two well grown cubs, which were using a drainage pipe as a holt, and we were there in time to watch them emerge and spend a considerable time fishing the tidal lagoon. Again, with a line of telescopes set up, everyone had great views. There was also a corncrake calling away in the field behind.
A very successful day.
Robin found it .. Alpine Bearberry
An atmospheric St John’s Head
Bonxie at work – predated fulmar eggs
Fulmar and Sea pinks
Funnel Cloud at Hoy
Funnel Cloud at Hoy
Oak eggar moth caterpillar
Photographing the old man
Scrabster ferry passing the Hoy
Scrabster ferry passing the Hoy
The Dwarfie Stane
Great place for a lunch
Taking a break
Wednesday 4th June
A wet day today, but that didn’t stop us.
We beat the coach tours to the Italian Chapel, and, as with the first group a couple of weeks back, marvelled at what the PoWs had achieved. It is hard to believe that the statue of St George slaying the dragon is made of concrete and barbed wire.
Stopping to look at the Churchill Barriers, we found a long-tailed duck asleep amidst a group of loafing eiders. It took quite a while to identify it, mainly because its head was tucked away under a wing, and it had no intention of waking up, not even for a second. When we returned and had another look several hours later, it was still asleep – though it had turned around. Several of the party were convinced we had ‘planted’ a stuffed bird!
Eddie entertained us by donning his bargain rain cape every time we stopped, over the top of his gortex jacket of course. We all thought he was crazy, till he took it off, shook the water off it, and sat there in the bus in a perfectly dry jacket. We were all sopping wet, and quickly steamed the windows up.
We found the oyster plant still in flower on our South Ronaldsay beach, and spent quite a while lying on the sand to photograph it. With the weather improving, a brief stop to view Windwick Bay ended up being considerably longer than planned when we spotted a peregrine falcon flying offshore, shortly joined by his mate. Robin and I are experienced peregrine watchers, having guarded a nest site many years ago, so we kept watching the pair until they flew in to a cliff, giving away the location of their eyrie. When we trained our powerful telescopes on the cliff, we could see both adult birds and a couple of youngsters. Now I have to say that the cliff was a long way off, and several of the group did have difficulty seeing the birds, even down the telescopes. At least everyone had seen them flying, so, especially after the ‘stuffed’ duck episode, they did believe us!
The final visit of the afternoon was to the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’, where the Simison sisters, whose late father Ronnie discovered the tomb, again gave a comprehensive introduction to the Stone and Bronze Ages on Orkney. The visitor centre and exhibitions are a revelation – you actually get to handle the artefacts found when the sites were excavated. Visiting the ‘burnt mound’ and the tomb itself, we were saddened to learn that since our visit 2 weeks ago, someone had attempted to steal one of the skulls displayed in a side chamber(see photo in first Orkney trip report), setting off a minor collapse in the process. The skulls have now been removed, but hopefully will be replaced when repairs are complete. Disappointing, but the tomb still has the mystical and spiritual atmosphere that so many people experience when they enter.
Eddie, the Caped Crusader, escapes from the Tombe of the Eag
Marsh Orchid and horsetails
St George and the Dragon
Thursday 5th June
On the way out in the morning we stopped off at the RSPB Loons reserve again, and picked out a small group of pink-footed geese, late travelling north perhaps. After quite a while searching, we eventually found a pair of hen harrier flying over the moors in Dirkadale, another RSPB site.
After visiting Dounby Click Mill, a stroll along the beautiful Sands of Evie brought us to the Broch of Gurness and lunch. Before visiting the broch itself, we had time to watch an absolute feeding frenzy of seabirds out in Eynhallow Sound. We noticed that the male Arctic terns were courtship feeding the females on the shore below us, and mating was still taking place. We thought this very late, and would have expected the birds to have chicks by now. Hopefully they will still have time to raise the chicks before heading off on their staggering migration to wintering grounds in the Antarctic; Arctic terns have the longest migration of any animal, and must see more daylight in a year than any other animal. With a lifespan of 20+ years, they certainly clock up the air miles! A few Arctic skua were harassing the terns for their fish (skuas are kleptoparasites), and a very lazy common seal stayed on its rock until washed off by the rising tide.
As ever, the broch set the imagination going as to what life was like here 2500 years ago, and just who had the power to build such structures? Perhaps an even better question is who had the skill to build them? I wonder who first came up with the design.
Just along from the Broch is an area of very young rock, aeolianite, which is very rich in plants, so we spent a while there searching out orchids, pansies and cowslips. Robin also introduced us to identifying plants by smell and taste, an interesting concept. I’m not sure some of the flavours will catch on though!
A few hours were spent exploring the impressive buildings in Kirkwall – St Magnus Cathedral (our only Viking cathedral), The Bishop’s Palace, the Earl’s Palace and Tesco’s. Yes, that’s right, Tesco’s. We should have known some people couldn’t be trusted on their own.
The evening was spent back out at Marwick Bay watching the otter family and listening to the corncrake.
Dounby Click Mill
Exhibition at the Broch of Gurness
Contemplating the Broch
Group at Broch of Gurness
The Broch of Gurness
Interior St Magnus Cathedral
Interior, The Broch
Interpretation board, Aeolianite
Panoramic Broch of Gurness
The Oracle Speaks
Botany by smell
St Magnus Cathedral door
St Magnus Cathedral interior
St Magnus Cathedral window
Tombstone , St Magnus Cathedral
The Bishops place , Kirkwall
The Earl’s place, Kirkwall
Friday 6th June
Trying to ignore the sad fact that it was yet another birthday for me, we headed off, via Rendall Doocot, to take the Rousay ferry from Tingwall. There were plenty of birds to see from the ferry, with excellent views of great and Arctic skuas, but the big talking point was a very small bird on the sea seen by a few lucky people. Sue and Kevin thought they knew what it was, Eddie didn’t – but, after consulting the bird book, they all agreed it was a phalarope, almost certainly a red-necked.
The Westness Heritage Walk linked a whole string of archaeological treasures within a short distance, 5500 years in less than 2 miles! We moved from Neolithic tomb to Iron Age broch to Pictish burials to Viking Hall to C18th farmstead to Victorian estate house. Mind boggling.
A little wetland area on the walk proved very good for birds (including teal, gadwall and garganey) and plants.
We all watched for the phalarope from the return ferry, but no luck. Plenty of other birds though, including hundreds of greylags with young.
Common Seals Midhowe
Corn Drying Kiln
Flock of Graylags
Lunch at Midhowe
Onboard the Rousay Ferry
Squab, Rendall Doocot
Taversoe Tuick cairn
Saturday 7th June
The end of the course, but not before another seabird cruise on the Pentland Ferry. Plenty of auks, kittiwake, gannet, fulmar and skuas, especially as we passed close to the islands of Stroma and Swona.