The RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is the largest single landowner in Orkney; the importance of the archipelago from an ornithological point of view cannot be over-emphasized. The most numerous ternery in Britain; the most densely populated sea cliff in NW Europe and the world's largest Great Black Backed Gull colony, introduce an island group unrivalled in photographic, archaeological and avifaunal interest.
Everywhere in the islands keep a lookout for the Short-eared Owl that is present at a density unique in Britain; on my last visit in 2001 I saw short-eared owl on every day of my ten-day holiday.
The prime birding sites on the Mainland are set out in the section following this introduction.
Hoy is the most rugged of Orkney islands boasts many tern colonies, the Moss of the Whitestanes in Rackwick Bay and Melberry dunes to the far south. Drive leisurely along the magic road to Rackwick, surely the loveliest bay in Britain, looking out for Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls. Park in the village and take the 3-hour trek to the Old Man of Hoy, which will have been seen from the ferry. En route you will see, and feel if unprepared, both Arctic and Great Skuas, Alpine Hares may be seen in the rock debris of the hillsides and seabird colonies will greet you around the spectacular stack of the Old Man.
If feeling energetic and have the time, walk from the car park at Heldale Water to the coast and continue north. Here in the vast unpopulated wilderness that is SW Hoy you will come across the World's most numerous Great Black Back colony. The size of these birds is very impressive in close up – I have found complete adult rabbit skulls in their pellets!
If only 2 or 3 days are available then Marwick Head and Hoy must take precedence. If, however, a lengthier stay – and the hospitality of the islanders is second to none – is a possibility, then a pilgrimage to the greatest bird city in Britain is a must. At the height of the season upwards of a quarter of a million seabirds populate a little more than a kilometre of bedded sandstone cliffs. Noup Head on the isle of Westray is the scene; take the road to the lighthouse (sadly, all automatic now) but park off-road by the loch on your left just about half a mile from the Light. Walk directly, Skuas permitting, to the cliff to your right: soon the noise of the wind (Orkney is oceanic – it is rarely still) becomes punctuated by birdcalls, at the same time your nose will lead you in the right direction. I can write nothing, no words will prepare you for the spectacle awaiting you as you near the cliff top…
Should you be as lucky as I was on my first visit, as the evening sun goes down, around Mid-Summer that is 2300 hrs, you might glimpse a pod of Orca travelling south.
From Pierowall a ferry will whisk you gently to Papa (Westray); in a day you can walk from the terminal in the south to the North Hill where a vast ternery can be viewed on the high ground; a sad monument to the last Great Auk killed in Britain along the cliff, and a great variety of shorebirds can be seen. The treasure of Papay is, however, the unexpected ubiquity of the Black Guillemot that surely has its British headquarters here.
North Ronaldsay is the most remote of the Orcades, has a bird observatory with trapping facilities and attracts as many rarities as the legendary Fair Isle. The island boasts spectacular beaches and dinky seaweed-eating sheep of a most primitive breed.
Known more for its wonderful Neolithic archaeology than its natural history, Rousay offers both in abundance. Walking the well marked track to the hilly interior from Gue the largest lochs on the isle can be reached; here, on the Rousay plateau, Muckle and Peerie Water can be viewed in their delightful isolation. On Peerie Water I was surprised at the confiding nature of a pair of Redthroated Divers, on the larger loch waders were present in numbers as well as the recently colonised Greylags. On your circuit of the island take time to drive/walk around the Loch of Wasbister taking special notice of any swans seen.
Mainland - Marwick Head
Marwick Head is on the North West Coast of the largest island, Mainland. Guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes. Peregrine and Great Black Backs find easy pickings here; excellent photo opportunities for those with a head for heights.
Mainland - Burgar Hill & Birsay Moors
Take the rough road up to the wind farm – beware of running over Oystercatchers who insist on nesting on the track – keep your eyes open for the lovely buoyant flight of the Hen Harrier which frequent these hills. From the hide you will see the Red throated Divers breeding on Lowrie's Water and a visiting flock of Golden Plover if you are lucky.
Mainland - Deerness & the Gloup
At Deerness & the Gloup on the extreme eastern coast of Mainland there is a splendid circular walk, which allows close views and photo chances of nesting auks. Many eider ducks will be visible as well.
Mainland - The islets of the Churchill Barriers
From Deerness drive south along the Churchill Barriers enclosing Scapa Flow. Several Little Tern colonies can be found among the historic debris of WWI.
Rousay - Peerie Water & Muckle Water
North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory
NRBO was established in 1987 to study and record the migrant birds that pass through Orkney's most northerly island each year. The number and variety of birds that arrive here on migration in Spring and Autumn can be spectacular, and North Ronaldsay is well-known as one of the best birdwatching sites in the country. The observatory also provides a variety of comfortable accommodation, including guest house, hostel and camping area, and a shop with groceries and other goods for visitors to the island. The occasional trip visits this remote outcrop including an annual island cruise. Despite the short time ashore scarce migrants are often recorded and there was even a Trumpeter Finch one late spring day.
Regular visitor to the isles for 30 years
Fairholm, Finstown, Orkney, KW17 2EQ
01856 761317 or 07879 000399
Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
Mike Madders & Julia Welstead Paperback - 332 pages (2002) Christopher Helm
ISBN: 071365693XBuy this book from NHBS.com
RJ Berry Poyser 2000
ISBN: 0856611042Buy this book from NHBS.com
Islands of Birds - A Guide to Orkney Birds
Erik Meek 44 pages, colour photos. RSPB Orkney
ISBN: 129487Buy this book from NHBS.com
Guides & Tour Operators
A combination of wildlife and ancient history…
Orkney Island Wildlife Holidays
We’re delighted to be working in partnership with the Birdwatching & Wildlife Club of the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey and offer two new Scottish Highlands & Orkney Islands Tours in 2015 starting on 9 & 30 May 2015.…
CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.
2003 [06 June] - 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…
2007 [09 September] - Mark Finn
…Passerines were generally thin on the ground although we recorded Bluethroat, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Whitethroat, Icterine and Yellow-browed Warblers, Common Rosefinch and the Greenland race of Common Redpoll. The final day on Mainland Orkney added several species to the list including Great Northern Divers, Velvet Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks…
2010 [06 June] -Mark E P Hows
…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…
Scottish Ornithologists Club - Orkney Branch
Secretary: Colin Corse, Garrisdale, Lynnpark Road, Kirkwall, Orkney, KW15 1SL, Tel 01856 874484
North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory
Established in 1987, the observatory's main purpose is to monitor the migrations through, and populations on, the island. This is accomplished by census and is complemented by a bird ringing program. It also provides comfortable, inexpensive accommodation for visitors to the island, and special opportunities for visitors with an interest in birds and natural history.
Warden: Alison Duncan, Twingness, North Ronaldsay, Orkney KW17 2BE. 01857 633200 firstname.lastname@example.org Also see the BLOG
Birsay Moors RSPB
In the summer, hen harriers, short-eared owls and Arctic skuas nest on the moorland…
Hear the bubbling curlews and drumming snipe in the summer, along with lapwings, dunlins, redshanks and oystercatchers. Wildfowl also abound on this small, but beautiful, reserve. Shovelers, teals, wigeons, mallards and gadwalls breed nearby and many more species can be seen from the shores of the surrounding lochs…
Cottascarth and Rendall Moss RSPB
Cottascarth and Rendall are wonderful places to see hen harriers, merlins and short-eared owls. Rendall Moss has one of the highest densities of breeding curlews in Europe…
The cliffs of the reserve are home to a huge colony of breeding seabirds, including fulmars, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes…
Hen harriers, short-eared owls and red-throated divers breed on the moorland. On the coast, look out for red-breasted mergansers and black guillemots…
Great skuas breed on the moor, along with red grouse, dunlins and golden plovers. Seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, breed on the cliffs…
Mill Dam RSPB, Shapinsay
In winter, whooper swans can often be seen on the reserve, along with greylag geese. In the summer, pintails breed on the marsh with other ducks including wigeons and shovelers…
North Hill RSPB, Papa Westray
The low cliffs are home to breeding seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. On the hill, a large colony of arctic terns nests close to arctic skuas, eiders, ringed plovers and oystercatchers…
Noup Cliffs RSPB
These isolated cliffs have one of the UK's largest seabird colonies. More than 44,500 guillemots and 12,700 pairs of kittiwakes breed, along with razorbills and fulmars…
Onziebust RSPB, Egilsay
Our management of the reserve creates ideal conditions for corncrakes when they arrive from Africa in the spring…
Trumland RSPB, Rousay
Red-throated divers, merlins and hen harriers all breed on the heather moorland of this reserve…
Dafi’s Orkney Birding
I hope you enjoy reading my blog. These are just every day tales of birding and related Orkney stuff. With a bit of luck I hope to give a bit of a glimpse into life in the northern isles, I am not what you might call an expert birder. Truth be told I am not even a very good birder. I am lucky enough to live in a great place with great people and great birds tho…
Orkney's 70 islands are internationally renowned for their excellent bird-watching, but the sheer number of birds which the islands support makes it one of the premier all-season British destinations. The RSPB owns leases or manages over 8,000 hectares of land in Orkney, in the interests of protecting important breeding grounds and conserving habitat.
The Orkney Hen Harrier Scheme
From April 2003 some fields in the West Mainland will be growing grass as usual, but this grass will not be eaten by sheep or cattle. Instead, as the grass grows matures and withers, voles will be moving in to make their intricate tunnels and birds will find cover for their nests. Some of these voles and small birds will fall prey to hunting Hen Harriers and other raptors. This is all part of the Orkney Hen Harrier Scheme - SNH's new initiative to restore the fortunes of the local Hen Harrier population…
Photographers & Artists
Artist - Tim Wootton
Born and raised in a small rural village in South Yorkshire. Graduated with a Ba(hons) in 1986. Shortlisted for the Young European Bird Artist of the Year, 1991…