Orcadian Odyssey - May 28th - June 6th 2010

Published by Mark Hows (mark AT hows.org.uk)


See more images and video at Mark's site


This was a relaxed holiday in the most part in which we did lots of touristy things. Our major target was the common (orkney) vole and and hopefully the bearded seal which was still present. Photo targets were hen harrier and short eared owl and the king eider on the way up, but we wanted to see all the specialities. We stayed at a chalet in Sandwick near the Bay of Skail called Netherstove and travelled via ferry from Gills Bay to St Margrets Hope with Pentland Ferries, the weather was ok very very windy but some sunshine and just a little rain on Hoy. Our day trip to Hoy was with Orkney Ferries.

Hen Harrier
Hen Harrier © Mark Hows

Hen Harrier
Hen Harrier © Mark Hows

Friday 28th May

We arrived at the Ythan estuary early morning and quickly located the long staying king eider amongst the resident eiders. The waders were a little further away and harder to see in the strong wind. No sign of the broad billed sandpiper but we did find a little stint and a pectoral sandpiper. We headed to Speyside but as is tradition on recent Scotland trips the car decided to play up, a trip to Vauxhall was about as useful as getting a five year old to guess the problem and would have been 50 pound cheaper! It would have to be driven in limp mode for the rest of the trip! We limped to Loch Garten RSPB where the Ospreys were in residence despite the torrential rain and hail, siskins were everywhere and two red squirrels squabbled over the nut feeder. No sign of any crested tits so we tried the boat of Garten and immediately found a family which showed amazingly well. We had a couple of other stops for goldeneye and the cairngorm reindeer before heading north to Wick for the night, with a brown rat and at least 4 roe deer on the way, on arrival the chip shop was shut so a Chinese takeaway was the order of the day before some well needed sleep.

King Eider
King Eider © Mark Hows

Saturday 29th May

After a monster Scottish breakfast we headed to Gills bay for the ferry to Orkney. The journey produced no cetaceans but we did connect with great northern divers, a black throated diver and a long tailed duck amongst the commoner species. On our arrival we headed up the hill for the red rumped swallow but just missed it so popped to Finstown but the bearded seal which was not present either, but 7 common seals were. After checking in at our accommodation we headed out to explore, first stop and just down the road was the Loons RSPB reserve. A lone whooper swan was with a group of mute swans, wigeon and shoveler were also of note here. On to Birgar hill where from the hide we saw a couple of distant hen harriers and a merlin. The stars were a couple of red throated divers showing very well. We headed back to Finstown with a nice hen harrier over the car. No sign of the bearded seal so onto a fulmar colony nearby for some close photos before heading to Kirkwall for some shopping. We got some fish and chips then headed to a loch side spot to eat them, we were interrupted by a short eared owl which showed incredibly well. A quick look at the stone circles and then a quick look at the loons reserve before an early night. But I did set a couple of traps before hitting the sack.

Sunday 30th May

First stop was Marwick head, it was a little blowy but the sun was shining, we had cracking views of meadow pipits and wheatears on the way up. As we reached the cliffs we could smell the residents, the cliffs were inhabited by large numbers of guillemots including plenty of bridled, along with razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars. A few shag and puffins were also present, a couple of bonxies patrolled the cliffs looking for an easy lunch as did a lone artic skua which kept following a similar route around the colony allowing for good photo opportunities. A quick look at Yensaby for Scottish primrose was disappointing we found several but not in flower. A quick look at Finstown but no seals so we had a drive round the southern part of east mainland without much luck either. So we headed to Hobbister RSPB where we encountered a short eared owl which showed down to a few feet giving absolutely amazing views. Another quick look unsuccessfully at Finstown before we headed to Stromness for a haggis supper, we popped into the loons again and in the evening sun we had an unexpected find a Great yellow bumblebee , the first few were just being reported. Pleased with the day we headed back to our accommodation to set a few more small mammal traps for those voles, which were absent from this mornings checks.

Monday 31st May

Nothing in my traps this morning either which was a bit troubling, after breakfast we took a drive round the moors with nothing of note, so we headed to Finstown, I narrowly avoided running over my first Orkney vole on the way. On arrival in Finstown a quick check of the old slipway revealed one seal, but it was 'Finn' (unimaginatively named after Fintown) the bearded seal and it was showing well, we had our fill before heading to South Ronaldsay where we met Paul Higson at his house, but could not locate the elusive red rumped swallow. A nice selection of bumblebees was present and another cracking short eared owl Paul was most accomodating and even provided a kind gift of half a dozen fresh eggs (which were very nice). We headed off for some touristy things until late afternoon, and after an ice cream stop we explored Burray. First we had a nice summer plumaged dunlin and a family of shelduck in amongst the grey seals on the beach. We searched for quite a while before finding a couple of moss carder bees feeding on some birds foot trefoil. During the walk back we finally caught up with some little terns and eventually the red rumped swallow on South Ronaldsay. After some shopping in Kirkwall it was back to Finstown where the bearded seal was still present. A quick look at Birsay beach but the reported curlew sandpiper had gone and only ringed plovers and a sanderling remained. A brief stop at the Loons where we finally connected with the pintail and her ducklings, but nothing else new and we called it a night.

Tuesday 1st June

A very early start as we had to get to the ferry to Hoy. I had a few small mammal traps set overnight but only one was trapped, it contained a wood mouse not the hoped for Orkney vole. The ferry crossing of scapa flow was very windy so not many birds about, a few bonxies an an artic skua of note but there would be more of those to come. A brief stop on Flotta to drop off some passengers gave us a black rabbit not far from the shore. On Hoy the weather was not great blowy and gloomy a little drizzly. Artic skuas were quickly seen and bonxies were everywhere. We drove to Rackwick and took a walk to the old man of Hoy encountering plenty of twite and a few wheatear on the way. Bonxies were easily found and were quite approachable allowing great photos despite the poor light. A mountain hare crossed the path in front of us posing for a couple of photos as we approached the breathtaking old man of Hoy. I wandered back along the edge of the bonxie colony for more photos and in the process fell into a bog, fortunately I had spare shoes and socks in the car but the walk back was a little wet till then. Our first stonechat of the trip was at the edge of the village as we left. A walk to the historic tomb Dwarfie Stane gave us a peregrine chasing gulls away from the cliffs and the sun came out as well. We checked out the old piers in Lyness which had plenty of nesting birds and black guillemots in particular. Time for an ice cream in the visitor centre and a look round before the ferry back. This is where the Scotland car curse took hold as I started the car it made a loud and bad noise from the engine, I got the few yards to the ferry queue and popped the bonnet, I could get it back to the mainland but that would be it. Back on the mainland calls to the AA and to cancel our trip to North Ronaldsay the following day were made. The car was taken to a garage in Stromness we got a taxi back to our accommodation, what a day! Unhappy with the lack of catches in my small mammal traps I moved them, I have been looking round all the places we have visited and found vole signs in many places, so where we are staying was not optimum, so still on the farm I searched for some better habitat and some vole signs and placed 17 traps out and hoped (well I was now getting desperate).

Wednesday 2nd June

I checked the traps even before a cup of tea first thing but nothing had been caught and now with only three night left I was getting concerned that I would not catch a vole. After a cup of tea we got the taxi to the garage and picked the hire car so we were mobile again and spent most of the day catching up on the touristy things before popping back to our accommodation for a late lunch. I checked the traps while lunch was being prepared the fourth trap was tripped, it was occupied but I had to get back to the accommodation where the equipment was before I was certain. Indeed it was an Orkney vole. I let it feed in the tank during lunch then we took it back for a few photos before release. The rest of the day was touristy but we did have a cracking male hen harrier over the road on the way back to the accommodation. We popped to Stromness for food and noticed a large corvid roost behind the co-op which was quite impressive as we were incredibly close to them.

Thursday 3rd June

After a lazy start we headed to Cottascarth in search of photogenic hen harriers which we had seen well but not photographed. We had glorious sunshine if a little breezy but the walk to the hide was very enjoyable buzzing with meadow pipits and twite. We were greeted by news of a female crossbill in a tree, on arrival it was still present and showed very well. We had a stonechat and a distant male hen harrier from the hide but little else, the calling cuckoo evaded our gaze. We had lunch on nearby Birgar hill watching some ringed plovers at close range. A leisurely look from the hide gave good views of the red throated divers and wigeon with ducklings in amongst the hoards of greylag geese, but no raptors. We changed our focus to touristy things and visited the nearby Broch of Gurness avoiding a herd of cows on the way. From the car park we watched arctic terns feeding each other and displaying while grey seals bobbed just offshore. A couple of families of eider passes by as we ate ice cream in the glorious sunshine a true summers day. We headed off continuing our quest a family of curlew were photogenic on the way to Durkdale RSPB. Here we quickly had a female hen harrier and I got a few pics, I was just musing that a male would have been better as one came by and showed very nicely. We had a little drive round in search of the crane, that had been seen recently but no sign although we did find another black rabbit. The last stop was the Loons RSPB which was very enjoyable but produced nothing of note.

Friday 4th June

After an early breakfast of local bacon and eggs we headed up to the Brough of Birsay which is only accessible via a causeway at low tide. The usual seabirds were nesting on the cliffs fending off three ravens and a couple of bonxies. Puffins were harder to find but we did find them sat mostly on the sea but did catch up with one resting on a cliff. A quick stop for a cup of tea when we got the call to pick up the car, the bill was large my flexible friend almost reached breaking point! And they could do nothing about the engine management fault so we would have to crawl back home. We popped in to see Tim Wootton at his gallery for a chat and to purchase a piece of his excellent artwork (although a modest piece due to the recent car bill). We headed east to Deerness part of the mainland we had not yet explored. On the way we stopped at Finstown where Finn the bearded seal was hauled out. At the Gloup we encountered an unringed cape barren goose which I named 'Archie' (google the Gloup!) feeding in a field, a ship assisted mega or escape, anyway I shan't be writing up a description anytime soon. We visited a few sites on east mainland seeing much of the usual resident species before popping to Minehowe where we had another cracking short eared owl. The Churchill barriers produced nothing so I had a quick look around Burray a couple of dunlin and loads of grey seals the highlight. After some food in Finstown we tried for the corncrake that Tim had given me gen on but the strong winds made it impossible to hear anything so we headed back, the bearded seal had gone from the causeway in Finstown.

Cape Barren Goose
Cape Barren Goose © Mark Hows

Saturday 5th June

A leisurely start after more bacon and eggs, we had time for a quick look at a couple of sites on the way to the ferry, we added pochard to the list but no sign of 'Finn' as we passed. The ferry was jam-packed with cars and there was quite a standby queue, they rammed a few extra on and we headed off. Several car owners had set their alarms! and several were quite annoying. The journey was calm but produced nothing of real note. The drive to Channonry point was also uneventful apart from an Ice cream stop. Our arrival at Channonry point was timed to perfection, soon after arrival the bottle nosed dolphins arrived, about half a dozen including a calf and we took some time watching them before dragging ourselves away. Loch Ruthven was our first stop where we quickly found a couple of Slavonian grebes. Over the Farr road the weather started to deteriorate and we saw very little. The Findhorn valley was a little more productive with about 1000 red deer, a couple of feral goats, several common sandpipers and the ever reliable dipper was there despite the now torrential rain. After a quick haggis supper in Aviemore we headed south, well sort of - south Wales.

Sunday 6th June

Bleary eyed we arrived at the Blorenge a place I have visited several times so I knew the lie of the land and we quickly joined the small group of assembled birders to be greeted with the good news of the continued presence of the Marmora's warbler. Within a few minutes we had good views perched up singing and flight views and we picked up a whinchat as well. Several red kites were seen on the way home to finish the trip.

Birds - 123 species

Mute Swan
Whooper Swan
Pink-footed Goose
Greylag Goose
Tufted Duck
King Eider
Long-tailed Duck
Common Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Red Grouse
Red-legged Partridge
Red-throated Diver
Black-throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
Little Grebe
Slavonian Grebe
Manx Shearwater
Grey Heron
Red Kite
Hen Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon
Water Rail
Ringed Plover
Little Stint
Pectoral Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Great Skua
Artic Skua
Black-headed Gull
Little Gull
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
Little Tern
Common Tern
Artic Tern
Sandwich Tern
Black Guilemot
Rock Dove
Collared Dove
Short eared Owl
Green Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Sand Martin
House Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Grey Wagtail
Pied Wagtail
Sing thrush
Mistle Thrush
Sedge Warbler
Marmora's Warbler
Willow Warbler
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Crested Tit
Coal Tit
Carrion Crow
Hooded Crow
House Sparrow
Common Crossbill
Reed Bunting
Corn Bunting

Mammals - 16 species

Roe Deer
Red Deer
Mountain Hare
Brown Hare
Orkney Vole
Brown rat
Wood Mouse
Common Seal
Grey Seal
Bearded Seal
Red Squirrel
Grey Squirrel
Feral Goat
Bottle Nosed Dolphin

Others - 9 species

Small Tortoiseshell
Red Admiral
Green Veined White
Large White
Northern Marsh Orchid
Great Yellow Bumblebee
Common Carder Bee
Moss Carder Bee
Northern White Tailed Bumblebee