TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Orkney

Saturday 29 May - Saturday 5 June 2004


Leader:
Robin Noble

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.

Robin Noble,

August 2004.

Species Lists

BIRDS

Red-throated Diver

Black-throated Diver (non-breeding)

Little Grebe

Fulmar

Gannet

Cormorant

Shag

Grey Heron

Mute Swan

Greylag Goose

Shelduck

Wigeon

Teal

Garganey - a drake at the Loons on 30 May was an excellent record for Orkney.

Mallard

Shoveler

Tufted Duck

Eider

Red-breasted Merganser

Hen Harrier

Kestrel

Peregrine

Pheasant

Red-legged Partridge

Guinea Fowl (obviously domestic, but on road!)

Moorhen

Coot

Oystercatcher

Lapwing

Ringed Plover

Curlew

Whimbrel

Redshank

Common Sandpiper

Turnstone

Snipe

Sanderling

Dunlin

Great Skua

Arctic Skua

Common Gull

Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Black-headed Gull

Kittiwake

Sandwich Tern

Common Tern

Arctic Tern

Guillemot

Razorbill

Black Guillemot

Puffin

Rock Dove

Wood Pigeon

Collared Dove

Short-eared Owl

Skylark

Swallow

Pied Wagtail

Meadow Pipit

Rock Pipit

Wren

Blackbird

Song Thrush

Robin

Stonechat

Wheatear

Sedge Warbler

Willow Warbler

Jackdaw

Rook

Hooded Crow

Raven

Starling

Reed Bunting

Chaffinch

House Sparrow

Queries: Little Stint, Corncrake, Merlin

MAMMALS:

Common Seal

Grey Seal

Orkney Vole (seen by Tony, aided by a cat)

Brown Hare

Rabbit

BUTTERFLIES:

Green-veined White

Small Tortoiseshell

THE COMMON FLOWERS (not comprehensive)

Thrift

Sea Campion

Silverweed

Primrose

Red Campion

Spring Squill

Bird's foot Trefoil

Tormentil

Heath Spotted Orchid

Scurvy Grass

Marsh Marigold

Crowberry

Bogbean

Ragged Robin

Cuckoo Flower/Ladies' Smock

Chickweed

Sea Milkwort

Butterwort

Lousewort

Milkwort

Mountain Everlasting

Cowslip

Northern Marsh Orchid

Wild Pansy

Wild Thyme

Eyebright(s)

Ladies' Mantle

Creeping Willow

Violet Water Mint

Yellow Iris

Cotton Grass

Water Forget-me-not

Water Avens

Spearmint

Pink Purslane/Claytonia

Blaeberry

Roseroot

Heath Bedstraw

Sundew, Common and Oblong-leaved

Horsetail

Red Goosefoot

Bitter Vetch

Yellow Vetchling

Heath Speedwell

Red Clover


© The Travelling Naturalist 2004