In the summer of 2015 we had the chance to head North and visit Orkney for the first time. We both really loved this trip and can definitely see why so many twitchers visit- the place is full of birds!
Home to 13 RSPB reserves of varying habitats across the 70 islands there is an incredible variety of bird life to see at anytime of year from the Sea Eagles nesting on the Isle of Hoy to the Puffins tucked against the sea cliffs.
During our long weekend we spent most of our time looking for Puffins. Having never seen them before we were both really keen to see these brightly coloured summer visitors. From our online searching it seemed Marwick Head was the best chance of seeing Puffins on the mainland so part of our first full day was spent at this beautiful reserve scanning for bright orange feet.
It took us a while to see our first puffin and it was actually another birdwatcher who pointed them out to us on the sea cliffs.
We took far too many pictures whilst watching these guys in amongst the colonies of Razorbills, Guillemots and Fulmars.
Marwick Head is rather picturesque, on top is the Kitchener Memorial, a tribute to Lord Kitchener who was lost when his vessel H.M.S Hampshire sank nearby in June 1916.
It is beautiful and only adds to the view.
On the way back to our rental cottage we passed a hide at The Loons in Birsay and thought we should check it out. Looking over the wetlands of the Loch Isbister we were pleased to see..
Lapwings are in decline due to agriculture intensification, reducing suitable habitat and a high mortality rate of chicks (only 25% – 40% make it to fledging) across the UK so seeing this guy was pretty cool!
The little cottage we booked Peedie Harray’s was right next to Loch Harray and every morning there were hordes of Oystercatchers and Curlews outside the windows feeding in the fields opposite.
We slept well that night looking forward to our trip to Hoy. We had originally planned to go over to Hoy early but the spaces on the car ferry leaving from Stromness at 6:45 am and 8:45 am were fully booked so we had to take the space at 11am. The Journey itself took about 45 minutes and the last car ferry back to the mainland was at 4pm this meant that we wouldn’t be able to take the 3 hour round trip walk to see the old man of Hoy, the biggest sea stack in the UK and all the sea cliff dwelling birds which was frustrating but we thought we could spend more time looking for white-tailed sea eagles!
On the boat over we again kept our eyes peeled for whales (ever hopeful!). Once we were off the boat we set off up to Rackwick Bay, keeping our eyes on the sky for a pair of large birds. We didn’t see any on the way up but we did stop at the Dwarfie Stane (a huge carved neolithic slab of stone).
Once at the bay we got out and had a good walk up the beach, taking in the view. Still no sea eagles.
We slowly made our way back to the car ferry dock at Lyness. On the way back in the distance we could make out a massive bird above what looked like a fish farm. They were too far to properly identify never mind photograph but we believe it may have been the Sea Eagle we hoped to see.
Once we got back on the mainland we ended up at the Eddie Balfour hide at Cottascarth to hopefully see some Hen Harrier’s which would make up for the lack of Sea Eagles. These birds of prey are commonly persecuted in mainland UK so much so that Orkney is home to a quarter of the UK’s population and they are thankfully protected on the island which has allowed them to successfully reproduce so much so they now have 20 breeding pairs!
The Hen Harrier hide is a short walk from the car park through a field of sheep. The hide itself is ideal for sitting in waiting on the birds to turn up with huge clear windows and beautifully decorated inside. It would have been perfect, had we seen any Hen Harriers. We waited for an hour or so before calling it quits and making our way back to the car but we did stop to take pictures of some peedie lambs.
Just before we got back to where the car was parked we think we saw the female Harrier! Typical.
We did eventually get our chance to see the Old Man of Hoy;
whilst walking around the Bay of Skaill where we also saw our first Ringed Plovers of the trip speeding across the rocky ground with lighting fast feet!
We were so infatuated with the Puffins that before flying back home we squeezed in a trip to the Brough of Birsay a tiny uninhabited island just off the mainland which is only accessible by foot during low tide over a causeway.
The Brough was well worth a visit as it got us a lot closer to the puffins as well other nesting seabirds. Between March and April Puffins return to sea cliffs all around Orkney as well as other parts of the UK where they will remain until August.
Fulmars just have the prettiest little faces! In June they are nesting and it was lovely to watch them together.
Remember to keep the tide times in mind for your return walk over the causeway!
On our final day in Orkney we also visited the Broch of Gurness, the waters around this section of coast were a stunning azure blue:
As we were looking around the Broch (an Iron age village) we caught a seal watching us!
But it quickly became bashful when we got the camera out..
When we first ventured to Orkney we were novices of wildlife watching and there is so much we would do differently if we returned!
So, how can you be more successful than us?
- Take the ferry from the Scottish mainland rather fly for the chance to see Orca and other cetaceans in the Pentland Firth!
- There are many locations in Orkney where it is possible to watch Otters- we heard about it later on the Orkney Wildlife Facebook page.
- Stake out the Hen harrier hide early for the best chances to watch these stunning birds.
- Although the mainland is an excellent place to start, visit some of the offshore islands such as Sanday, Westray or Hoy. Book ferries to the other Isles in advance so you get the best sailing times.
The Earl’s Palace in Birsay
As well as birds and wildlife there is lots of history to explore on Orkney. Our first taste of it was the Italian Chapel;
Built by Italian POW’s during the Second World War, The Italian Chapel is on the island of Lambholm; linked to the Orkney mainland by the Churchill Barriers. We crossed the barriers to reach South Ronaldsay where we headed to something completely different, the Tomb of the Eagles. It’s an ancient neolithic tomb which you can crawl inside and look around. Here humans were found to be buried alongside white-tailed sea eagles believed to be part of some ritual carried out on the island for many generations.
The walk from the visitor centre to the tomb along the cliffs offers some view great views but we didn’t see too much wildlife bar oyster catchers which are everywhere.
Inside the tomb is pretty dark so you likely wont get any great pictures and there is a lot of structural support in place but the history of the site is really quite interesting.
The Ring of Brodgar is made up of 27 standing stones and was built roughly in 2000 BC! It is one of the islands most famous neolithic sites along with Skara Brae and Maeshowe which are a huge part of Orkney’s history and identity. It was incredible to walk around trying to think of reasons why the ring might have been built thousands of years ago while appreciating the views of the Loch of Stenness.
We stayed at the Ring for a long time and also took time to visit the Standing Stones of Stenness not far from Brodgar.
We did explore some more of Orkney’s neolithic sites. We started by heading to Scara Brae, an incredibly well preserved neolithic village which was built over 5000 years ago.
It’s incredible to see the stone walls and inside features of the various houses that were built before the Egyptian Pyramids!
One last place we’d recommend is The Merkister Hotel, we stopped for coffee, as the views and location are just so nice. All in all Orkney is a pretty amazing place with lots of low-lying agricultural fields dotted by wetlands and surrounded by a stunning coastline.
Kirsten & Elliot