TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Saturday 29 May - Saturday 5 June 2004
To save some repetition in what follows, it is worth remarking that a few things stayed pretty constant during this trip; the food at the Barony was really good, the weather was generally pretty grey and unremarkable (but not always!), and the group was wonderful. As for the birds.........
Sunday May 30th
We started in thick mist, with a splendid view of a Short-eared Owl outside the hotel - it was difficult to think of a better beginning. We eventually went down to Skippiegeo, and walked to the whale-bone, past the wee stacks where there ought to have been a whole crowd of aggressive terns, instead of the four Arctics we did see. Then past the village by the ruins of the Earls' Palace, to the causeway and on to the tidal island of the Brough, with the mist beginning to rise, and the sun to shine. There were Eider duck and Shags, some of the latter on the cliffs and close enough for us to see the beauty of their plumage and the brilliant colour of the eye. Further on, we had a close-up of Kittiwakes and Guillemots on their ledges; by now it was becoming clear that these birds were not having a good year - quite a few of the Kittiwakes were just sitting about on unfinished nests, and there were certainly fewer birds altogether than usual. In some compensation, though, there were Gannets diving.
We visited the complex archaeological site, with its Pictish and Viking remains, and then had lunch in the sun: Orkney was beginning to look truly beautiful. After lunch, we went up to the bigger cliffs of Marwick Head, and stopped at the northern viewpoint, where, eventually, we saw one Puffin - good views, thank heavens! Later on, we went to Marwick Bay itself, and strolled along the low shore to the Fishermen's Huts at Sand Geo. The light was brilliant, and so were the flowers, especially the spring squill. The final stop, before the mist rolled back in, was at The Loons, which gave us quite a lot: Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Coot, and a drake Garganey, with gulls and waders in the middle- and background.
Monday, May 31st
The mist was higher this morning, and the Short-eared Owl came even closer to the hotel! We set off slowly up the Hillside Road, constantly listening to Curlew piping, and stopping to look for harriers; I think it was here that the Reed Bunting at half-a-mile distance emerged as a theme that was to become familiar through the week. Eventually we did find a female Hen Harrier, and then we turned back up into the mist to the hide at Lowrie's Water, amidst faint, looming windmills, (or aerogenerators if you prefer). Here we had splendid views of Red-throated Divers, as well as Wigeon, and there were Ringed Plovers on the gravel.
Around then to Gurness, where the flowers included cowslips and orchids, and we had lunch with a great crowd of Red-breasted Mergansers on the water close by. After visiting the splendid and extensive ruins of the broch with all its surrounding settlement and ramparts, we went back up the Hillside Road and over to Click Mill, where a male Hen Harrier appeared, and eventually, two females. From here we went to Yesnaby, with its wonderful rock scenery, and flowers which included milkwort, lousewort, and extraordinarily beautiful butterwort. Interestingly, there were far fewer Arctic Skuas than usual, although we did see a few, and not many more Bonxies. The mist did not rise properly until we got back to base.
Tuesday, June 1st
In damper grey, we set off, went up the Lyde Road, where there was another owl, thence to Cuween Hill Chambered Tomb, into which, as ever, the group happily and bithely crawled; I think everyone found its almost unrestored interior to be fascinating and evocative. The much grander tomb of Maes Howe came next, and we had lunch at Stenness; lots of Mute Swans on the lochs, as always. We walked round the Ring of Brodgar, and then headed for Skara Brae, which we managed to see without great crowds. There were small waders at the end of Skaill Bay, then we did a sweep round via a very grey Kirbister, which was quiet apart from Curlew and Snipe, to Orphir, with the Round Church and Saga Centre. Finally, we went to a special event at the Hall of Clestrain, once the home of arctic explorer, John Rae, and where those who would admit to even having heard of Big Brother could meet one of the winners - (who actually did seem to be a very nice person!). Back, lateish, to the good food of the Barony, after quite a busy day. (Variety is, of course, a keynote of the Travelling Naturalist, along with good food and Reed Buntings at half-a-mile!)
Wednesday, June 2nd
We had to go to Hoy today, and the weather co-operated. It was cold and grey on the ferry from Houton, from which we saw a number of Puffins. As we got to Lyness, the day was improving, and it just got better and better. There were two splendid red-throats on a wee, roadside lochan, but a lorry came up behind us and we had to move on. The colours were getting more and more remarkable. We stopped to cross to the Dwarfie Stane, marvelling at the task of hollowing it out from the massive boulder, when, as last year, a Peregrine called repeatedly, then, this time, sailed wonderfully out into view. Eventually, we reached Rackwick, full of flowers and sunshine, and for a while we wandered at will. The tide was lower than Robin had ever seen it, and the sweep of sand gave good views of the great, red cliffs of sandstone, well vegetated with lots of roseroot, and home to lots of Rock Pipits.
We pottered back to the ferry, and thence home through a shining Mainland, to get the superb sunset we had all been dreaming of. (We had, incidentally, by now acquired some sort of cabaret act in the form of three not-quite-as-ancient-as-we-at-first-thought fishermen, who were in really good form this evening; loud references to "My Nanny always said......" caused at least one of us to choke on her supper!
Thursday, 3rd June
Well, today Orkney looked really horrible, (for a while, anyway). In the morning we went to Kirkwall, visted the splendours of St. Magnus, (staying as long inside as possible), and the ruins of the Bishops' and Earls' Palaces (staying outside as briefly as possible).
We lunched, not surprisingly, in the minibus, but, with the gloom lifting slightly, set off towards the south, crossing the Churchill Barriers, (with, possibly, a Merlin passing by?) to the lovely Italian Chapel. We went next to Hoxa and the gallery of beautiful tapestries, and faint views over the extent of Scapa Flow, before returning to Kirkwall, and thence to Waulkmill Bay, where there were Kestrels. We stopped again in Kirbister, and after a while really had to work hard to decide what we were looking at; no, this time it wasn't the Reed Bunting a mile away, it was two somethings skulking on the far side of the valley, between the long grass and the heather, from which they occasionally craned their fairly long necks-paler in front, we decided, but the wind was blowing the telescope about, and we never got a good view. We managed to decide that they weren't Red Grouse, and they weren't Pheasant, might they have been Partridge, (which seem to have more patterning in the plumage than these did) or just possibly, Corncrake? We discussed it endlessly, and could never make up our minds, although the likely diagnosis still seems to be Corncrake.
Friday, June 4th
We went to Rousay; the day didn't look very special, but became reasonable enough, and we did the highlight of the day, the walk along the shore from Midhowe to Westness in dry conditions; lunch on the rocks was really quite pleasant. The archaeology, especially the superb tomb of Midhowe, is really the feature of this walk, and there were fewer seals than normal, but the birds once again gave us something to think of, as a group of wee waders landed just in front of us. They were not Sanderling, which we had seen a few days before, and they lacked the clockwork-toy characteristics; but seemed to be about that size and colour; we eventually settled on Little Stint; whatever they were, they were mostly grey, presumably a small flock of non-breeders? A Whimbrel obligingly called for us, as well.
Thinking it over that night at the hotel, it was clear that despite the fact that some birds, especially the seabirds, were obviously doing very badly, we had seen what is perhaps a record number of species for this trip, 78 being the maximum, not counting the two debatable ones. There had been some real oddities, like Guineafowl and Red-legged Partridge, and things like Twite had eluded us, but we had had superb views of Short-eared Owls, a few Hen Harriers, and one of us had seen a Reed Bunting five miles away. Oh, and we'd had a really good time, too! Thanks to all.
Black-throated Diver (non-breeding)
Garganey - a drake at the Loons on 30 May was an excellent record for Orkney.
Guinea Fowl (obviously domestic, but on road!)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Queries: Little Stint, Corncrake, Merlin
Orkney Vole (seen by Tony, aided by a cat)
THE COMMON FLOWERS (not comprehensive)
Bird's foot Trefoil
Heath Spotted Orchid
Cuckoo Flower/Ladies' Smock
Northern Marsh Orchid
Violet Water Mint
Sundew, Common and Oblong-leaved