19 - 26 June 1999

Jamie McMillan , Robin Noble

Trip diary

June 19:

The group arrived in the foulest of weather, at a number of locations and times. Robin and Jamie kept on passing each other and leaving messages for each other, but eventually the whole group was safely gathered in the Barony Hotel, enjoying the first of many memorable meals.

June 20:

If yesterday was winter, this was perhaps spring; it started grey, cool, blustery at times, with mercifully few showers, "mercifully" because they were heavy. We visited the far end of Birsay Bay, with few birds, but some fascinating rocks which some admired and some did not enjoy, and then set off on the long easy slope up on to Marwick Head.

What was remarkable here were the flowers, mostly spring flowers in fact, buttercups, thrift, squill, kidney vetch, bird's foot trefoil, dog violets, sea campion, with some of the first northern marsh orchids. The regular flypast, mostly as ever from north to south, soon began, with Fulmars, Kittiwakes, small squadrons of auks, and the first of many skuas, with the Bonxies in the majority. At "Fulmar Corner", beautifully hung with scurvy-grass, Puffins obliged with good views. The blustery wind was very strong on the projecting part of the cliff from where the best views are got, and although we enjoyed close views of some birds on the updraughts, we retreated to the shelter of the Kitchener Memorial where we had lunch in the sun, watching the flypast of countless seabirds.

Most of us then carried on down to the Bay, where we watched Lapwing and Redshank in a boggy patch, while a brief but violent shower passed over us. Most of us returned to the buses by the same route, while Jeremy has a closer look at the local agriculture. We then all visited the little village of the Earl's Palace, and after sorties into the loos and local shop, Robin then led a quick inspection of the Palace ruins, proving that despite its initially daunting appearance, it was once an elegant quadrangular mansion. Our last stop of the day was the RSPB Hide at the The Loons, where wonderful flowers included ragged robin and marsh marigolds, as well as more orchids. Appearances on the various pools included some 25 Greylag Geese, perhaps 40 Wigeon, families of Coot and Shoveler. On the way back to the Barony, we saw Brown Hare and a Linnet close to Boardhouse Loch.

June 21:

Still only just spring weather, cold much of the day apart from at the Hide by the mysteriously non-functioning aerogenerators, when it rained heavily on us as we entered and left ! We went along the Hillside road (a remarkable group of six "Mad March" Hares to the right, and two superb Short-eared Owls to the left !) over the hill to the Evie shore, along which we walked for a while, with good views of Ringed plover and Dunlin, and a few Common and Sandwich Terns. After a quick look around the "wildflower corner", with eyebrights, field pansies and wild thyme, Robin then led us through the extensive ruins of the Broch of Gurness. A trip uphill to the Hide at Lowrie's Water produced excellent views of Red-throated Diver (and convinced some people that they really have red throats - reddish brown, if you must !), and on the way down, Jeremy very swiftly and skilfully went to the rescue of a sheep on its back, which had been wounded and was still menaced by a Greater Black- backed Gull.

After an excellent sighting of a male Hen Harrier on the road up to Lyde, we headed inland to Harray and the immensely impressive archaeological sites of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. This last was enlivened by views of Twite and Goldeneye, made unpleasant by more mud than Robin had seen there in 20 years, and rendered slightly hilarious by the antics and poses of one or two individuals (not, of course, of our party), who were celebrating midsummer in their own odd fashion. We just went home to yet another good meal.

June 22

The day improved to brilliantly light and clear, with a cold air from the North-east. We went to Rousay; once again over the Hillside Road, once again with owls en route. On the crossing from Tingwall, we saw Guillemots, Tysties and flying Red-throated Divers. We drove most of the circuit around the island, stopping at the highest point for amazing views of the islands, and with the naked eye, managed to see the bulk of the south end of Shetland Mainland, (rising over the north end of Eday), which must be at least 70 miles away ?

We halted at the rich waters of Wasbister Loch, where there were Tufted Duck, Coot, and Sedge Warbler, and a lovely wet meadow full of ragged robin and cotton grass. Past the cleared township of Quendale, we left the minibus by the road, and trooped down to the shore at Midhowe, where the vast tomb, dating from 3500 BC, was, as ever, both atmospheric and imposing, and where we had lunch in the sun under the neighbouring broch, and views of sunbathing seals.

After this, Jamie went back to retrieve the minibus, and Robin led the group through a whole range of archaeological sites, with the sun flooding over the Sound of Eynhallow beside us. Having rejoined the bus at Westness, where the blood-drop emlets grows, we drove on the friendly little, two-storied tomb of Taversoe Tuick, and the dense plantation around the neglected Trumland House. Here we heard Robin and Chaffinch, saw Willow Warbler clearly, and admired the lush growth of Montia sibirica under the trees, and the ladies' mantle in the old garden.

There followed, variously, tea in the tearoom, visits to the excellent Orientation Centre, the crossing to Tingwall, and a return via the Loch of Swannay (Greylag families and a Red-throated Diver), and the nearby impressive dairy farm. A beautiful, but freezing evening walk by the Whalebone, produced a wonderful sunset, and must argument about the famous "Green Flash".

June 23

Cold, clear, beautiful. In the morning we visited the Island Capital of Kirkwall, and Robin led us around the beautiful Cathedral of St. Magnus (where an exciting rehearsal of a Maxwell Davies piece - appropriately named "Ferry to Hoy" - was going on), and the ruins of the Bishop's and Earl's Palaces. We paused briefly at St. Mary's Loch, then had lunch on the beach at the Third Churchill Barrier, with fishing Arctic Terns. Echnaloch produced a Bonxie/Wigeon drama, after which we returned to the Italian Chapel, and Robin told the story of Scapa Flow and the building of the lovely Chapel.

Graemesall Loch was quiet; a few Coot, and a Swallow flew past. We continued out to Deerness, where the Gloup was also quiet, but impressive, and we saw Atlantic Seals and Fulmars close up. Being quite a long way from home, and unable to go further east without swimming, we headed back via Cuween Hill Chambered Tomb, with its exciting crawl into the small but surprisingly cosy dark chamber, and, outside, Geoff spotted a flock of Starlings alarmed by a ring-tail Hen Harrier. Home via the Loch o' Banks, with Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Teal in the sun.

June 24

Warmer. In the morning we went to Yesnaby, with its rock scenery, including the famous Castle, its unexcavated archaeology, and above all perhaps its nesting Arctic Skuas; we had splendid views and a close encounter ! We also saw a nest of these wonderful birds. In addition, there were a couple of Golden Plover flying, some Ringed Plovers and super Tysties on the cliff. Flowers on the dry heathland included mountain everlasting and milkwort, with butterwort in the boggy patches. We crossed a fence to a corner where in previous years there has been a large and excitable colony of Arctic Terns, and where this year there were very few, and here we found two Primula scotica in bloom (well done Eileen !) , with lots more to come, and, equally lovely, grass of parnassus.

From here we went, via the Birsay loos, to the Brough. Having crossed the causeway, we headed straight across the island to a station on the cliff which gave us superb, close-up views of Kittiwake and Guillemot, (both with chicks), Razorbill, and some Puffins which seemed very keen on rock-climbing ! With wider views over the ocean and Marwick Head, we had lunch in the sun, and later visited the corner of the island which gives excellent views of a Shag on its nest-with one young bird visible in this case.

Robin later interpreted the Pictish and Viking archaeology as well as he could against a background of half a dozen strimmers in somewhat overkeen action. (Jamie was by now audibly spitting brimstone & blood about the botanical vandalism of the thrift and trefoil here !)

In the afternoon, we almost had the famous Stone-Age village of Skara Brae to ourselves, despite the excellent weather, and some folk had the afternoon tea they craved, in the splendiferous new visitor centre ! A return visit to the Loons gave us young Tufted Duck and Shoveler, Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler, in addition to all the waders and gulls. A lovely day.

June 25

Cool in the sea-breeze, at times hot out of it. We went to Hoy; via the ferry from Houton to Lyness from which a few saw a porpoise, and most of us, divers. The colours and views were gorgeous, and we made stops to view and to listen, on the way through to the wonderful bay of Rackwick. (There were Wrens and Robins in the plantation, and a northern eggar and common blue).

The high path to the Old Man of Hoy gave us countless Bonxies, and a little exercise - much needed after all the wonderful food of the week), and two distant Red-throated Divers on a small loch. We had lunch above the great cliffs, with the incomparable view of the stack, made even more fearsome by the view we had of a climber on it, and simply revelled in the day and the fantastic scenery. On the way we made a quick sortie to the Dwarfie Stone, wondered at its making, and photographed Jamie, several times, as he emerged from it.

The ferry took us back to Orphir, through which we drove, en route home stopping at the big wetland of Kirbister which produced lost of curlew music and not much more. A final and splendid meal in the Barony, a few drinks, a fine and well-received speech by Jeremy, and that, sadly, was the end of a wonderful week.

Robin Noble

July 1999

Jamie's addendum :

Phew, no mention there of my habit of having butter & sugar on my porridge, but I think I should add that the freshly caught Brown Trout we had at breakfast one day were the very best I've had in my life !

Species List


Red-throated Diver Seen on several inland lochs, with best views from the Lowrie's Water Hide. Also seen fishing in Eynhallow Sound and across to Hoy. Nice to see and hear pairs on the loch by the hotel on several occasions.

Fulmar Noted widely each day.

Gannet A few seen from Marwick Head, and one from the Brough of Birsay.

Cormorant More numerous than in previous years. Seen on 5 days, max 10 at Birsay on 21st.

Shag Widespread - noted daily.

Grey Heron Not a common bird on Orkney. We were lucky to see an imm. on the Loons on 20th. Also 3 on Hoy (where they breed) on 25th.

Mute Swan Small numbers on many waters, with most (30+) on Loch Harray.

Greylag Goose Seemingly more numerous - at least 25 on Loons, 20 on Loch Hundland, with a few on Rousay.

Shelduck Several seen each day around the coasts.

Wigeon Much more numerous this year - seen on 4 days, with at least 40 on Loons.

Teal Singles at the Loons, and 4 on Loch of Banks.

Mallard Common; noted each day on Mainland.

Shoveler Female with 6 or 7 young seen at The Loons, 20th & 24th.

Tufted Duck Noted 4 days. Flocks of 20 + at Harray and Wasbister, 11 on the Quarry pool, and seen at the Loons with young.

Eider Very common around the coast, with young seen.

Goldeneye Single on Loch Harray, 21st

Red-breasted Merganser Noted sparsely around the coast and on the loch by the hotel. Seen 4 days.

Hen Harrier Fine male at Lyde, 21st. Ringtail at Cuween, 23rd. A superb male flying through the hotel garden on 26th was seen by the leaders as they were packing !

Pheasant Pairs seen Hillside Road and Orphir (with young).

Moorhen Noted on Loons and Rousay.

Coot On the eutrophic lochs on 5 days.

Oystercatcher A common breeding bird, seen daily - chicks seen on several days.

Golden Plover Two seen at Yesnaby.

Ringed Plover 6 seen on the beach at Birsay and Evie, with 2 at Yesnaby.

Lapwing A common breeding species - chicks seen.

Snipe Seen Lowrie's Water Hide, Loons, and on Hoy.

Curlew An amazingly abundant breeding species here. Seeing Curlew so constantly and so well amongst the farmland was a memorable feature of the week. Chicks seen towards the end of the week.

Redshank Seen each day - a fairly common breeding bird of most marshes here.

Common Sandpiper One Swannay, 22nd

Dunlin Six at Evie beach on 21st.

Great Skua Bonxies were also much in evidence along the cliffs and on their moorland breeding grounds.

Arctic Skua One of the greatest treats to a southern birdwatcher visiting these islands must be the numbers of skuas here. Hearing them call and watching them display was another memorable experience.

Common Gull Noted most days, with breeding colonies.

Great Black-backed Gull Noted each day. One seen attacking a sheep (which Jeremy rescued !) at Lowries Water.

Herring Gull Noted each day.

Lesser Black-backed Gull Noted most days.

Black-headed Gull Noted each day, with several breeding colonies on the marshes.

Kittiwake Widespread along the cliffs.

Sandwich Tern 4 seen, at Gurness, Eynhallow, and the Italian Chapel.

Common Tern Pairs at Gurness and Houton.

Arctic Tern Abundant; noted each day. The colony at Yesnaby now deserted, however. Most on Rousay, where 40+ seen

Guillemot Abundant on cliffs.

Razorbill Seen in lesser numbers, but nevertheless seen very well, especially at Marwick Head and the Brough of Birsay.

Black Guillemot Tysties seen along sheltered parts of the coast on 5 days.

Puffin Seen at the main cliffs in small numbers. Excellent views of wind-hovering and rock-climbing individuals !

Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon Noted each day, with several flocks of wild-type birds.

Wood Pigeon Noted in the plantations on Rousay and Mainland.

Collared Dove More widespread this year - seen in Kirkwall as usual, but also at Skaill and Orphir.

Short-eared Owl Wonderful views of two at Hundland on 22nd, three on 23rd, with another at Orphir on 25th.

Common Swift The excellent weather and south-easterlies produced a few of these, with one around the hotel on 24th, and two on 26th just before departure.

Skylark Noted most days.

Swallow Seen daily.

Meadow Pipit Noted daily on the moors and marshes.

Rock Pipit Seen especially around the quays on 4 days

Pied Wagtail Widespread in small numbers; noted daily.

Wren Noted sparsely 4 days, often in walls near farms.

Robin Seen at Trumland and at Rackwick plantations.

Stonechat One at Rackwick.

Wheatear Noted 4 days on the moors and dunes.

Blackbird Widespread; noted most days.

Sedge Warbler Surprisingly widespread, with birds singing at the Loons, Wasbister, Trumland and Loch of Banks.

Willow Warbler Two at Trumland House, with another two or three at Rackwick, Hoy.

Jackdaw Seen on three days at Marwick Head, Rendall and Kirkwall area.

Rook Seen five days in South Mainland, Evie, Hillside Road. Usually in flocks of 50+ in recently mown fields.

Hooded Crow Widespread; noted each day.

Raven Seen along the coast on 5 days.

Starling Widespread and common; noted each day.

House Sparrow Widespread and common; noted each day.

Chaffinch Several seen in the plantations at Trumland and Rackwick

Linnet Seen close to the hotel on 3 days, and on Rousay.

Twite An excellent run of records, with sightings of up to six on five days, on Mainland, Rousay and Hoy, usually in heathery areas.

Reed Bunting Individuals seen three days; at Harray, Hundland, and the Loons.


Hedgehog One corpse seen,

Common Shrew One in Broch of Gurness.


Brown Hare Seen on five days. Remarkable group of six chasing round field at Hundland, 21st

Brown Rat One seen Rousay.

Orkney Vole Numerous runs seen, and one individual glimpsed at the Loons.

Harbour Porpoise Two seen from ferry to Hoy, 25th.

Common Seal Numerous along many shores. Often seen hauled out on small islands .

Grey Seal Seemingly not quite as numerous as Common Seal.

Butterflies & Moths

Large white - seen on four days

Green-veined white - seen on four days

Common blue - One on Hoy, 25th

Northern eggar moth - Several on Hoy


A few of the more distinctive plants seen

Creeping Willow - Salix repens

Pink Purslane - Montia sibirica

Sea Rocket - Cakile maritima

Common Sundew - Drosera rotundifolia

Parnassus Grass - Parnassia palustris

Purging Flax - Linum catharticum

Wild Pansy - Viola tricolor

Crowberry - Empetrum nigrum

Sea Milkwort - Glaux maritima

Bogbean - Menyanthes trifoliata

Heath Bedstraw - Galium saxatile

Small Bugloss - Anchusa arvensis

Monkey Flower -Mimulus guttatus

Blood - drop Emlets - Mimulus luteus

Germander Speedwell - Veronica chamaedrys

Mountain Everlasting -Antennaria dioica

Heath Spotted Orchid - Dactylorhiza maculata

Frog Orchid - Coeloglossum viride

Northern Marsh Orchid - Dactylorhiza purpurella

Spring squill - Scilla verna

Kidney vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria

Lesser Yellow Trefoil - Trifolium dubium

Bird's Foot Trefoil - Lotus corniculatus

Magellan's Ragwort - Senecio smithii

Thrift - Armeria maritima

Scurvy Grass - Cochlearia officinalis

Scotch Lovage - Ligusticum scoticum

Ragged Robin - Lychnis flos-cuculi

Marsh Marigold - Caltha palustris

Bell heather - Erica cinerea

Butterwort - Pinguicula vulgaris

Marsh Cinquefoil - Potentilla palustris

Wild Thyme - Thymus drucei

Eyebright - Euphrasia sp.

Sea Mayweed - Tripleurospermum maritimum

Brooklime -Veronica beccabunga

Bog Cotton - Eriophorum sp.

© The Travelling Naturalist 1999

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