Fringe Box



Birdwatcher’s Diary No.281 A visit to the Orkney Islands

Published on: 13 Jun, 2023
Updated on: 13 Jun, 2023

By Malcolm Fincham

Once again, and with much gratitude to my birdwatching pals, I was on the road for another adventure.

This time a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the Orkney’s.

With arrangements made and fine weather in the forecast, there was a feeling of magic in the air, as I ventured north in the company of Dougal, Ross, and Ross’s nature-loving 14-year-old son, Max.

Angel of the North.

The first major reference point as we headed northward, was the Angel of the North sculpture looming over us as we past it.

We were passing through ‘Geordie land’. An affectionate name used to describe the North East region of England in and around the city of Newcastle upon Tyne and the town of Gateshead.

Bringing to the forefront of my thoughts their famous band Lindisfarne, I hummed a few of their folk-rock songs, as we continued on through. Most prominent, being No Time To Lose.  “Up on the motorway, Scotland’s not far, see what we can find”.

Highland landscape.

As the ever flourishing, mountainous landscapes of bonnie Scotland heightened, our first stop was Loch of the Lowes, near Dunkeld, in Perthshire.

Probably most famous for its annual breeding ospreys. One named ‘Lady’ being the best remembered, having thought to have lived over 28 years, producing many clutches of young in her long tenure there.


While several pairs of goldeneye ducks added to our ‘trip’ list.

Hooded crow.

Continuing our journey, hooded crows became more readily seen, as the hills continued to encroached on the skyline, as we traveled north through the Highlands of Scotland.

Eider ducks.

On our arrival to the northern-most coastal areas, we saw our first eider ducks.

Red-throated diver.

While also getting to see my first red-throated divers of the year, now in summer plumage.

Sandwich tern.

Just out beyond the coastline, a few sandwich terns could also be seen.

Having boarded the ferry and having set sail, allowed us some pelagic views as we crossed the sea in the direction of the Orkney islands, thus adding a few more seabirds to our ‘trip list’.


A few fulmars flew about the ship as it rocked gently on the calm waters.


While a number of gannets flew close by allowing a few photos as they passed.


Also adding kittiwakes to my sightings.


Small clusters of guillemots flew low over the water, passing in varied directions.


And a few razorbills added to my ‘record’ shots.

Puffin, previously photographed.

I was also able to add a few puffins to my year’s sightings though too distant to photograph as a few past, low over the waves.

The Old Man of Hoy.

The welcoming sight of The Old Man of Hoy rock suggested we were soon to arrive on the Orkney Isles.

Black guillemots.

As we entered the harbour, black guillemots could be added to our lists.

Orkney’s arrival.

The weather remained settled, although overcast for the most part. Keen breezes kept temperatures in the low ‘teens’ centigrade throughout most of the week. Dry weather gave us plenty of opportunities to crack-on with our quest.

View from our place of residence.

Our accommodation was pleasantly situated, looking out on a small loch, close to the sea.

Greylag geese in flight.

On it were a gaggle of ‘greylags’. A few of many seen during our stay on the island.

Tufted duck.

A small raft of tufted ducks were also present.

Mute swans with cygnets.

And a pair of mute swans that graced the water, now already tending to a group of nine cygnets. 

Red-breasted mergansers.

Also viewed on the Lochan were a pair of red-breasted mergansers.

Arctic tern.

As well as a handful of Arctic terns that fished there.

Churchill Barriers, Scapa Flow.

Close to where we stayed were the Churchill Barriers, built across Scarpa Flow during the Second World War by Italian prisoners of war. They were built on the orders of Winston Churchill, constructed of permanent causeways, with roadways laid on top.

Italian chapel.

Still standing and kept in pristine condition is also a chapel they constructed.

Italian chapel.

This I found was well worthy of a visit.

Great northern diver.

Just off the first of the barriers, and a delight to see, was a ‘summer plumage’ great northern diver allowing us good views as well as a few reasonable photos.

Risso’s dolphin.

One of the biggest treats of my visit was to see, at close quarters, a Risso’s dolphin.  Noting its stocky girth, bulbous head and discernible beak, unlike any other dolphin I had seen before.

Ross, taking photos.

There was always, of course, a risk that Ross, pictured beyond the signpost, might get some better photos than I could! Which inevitably he often did.

Little terns in flight.

A surprise for us to see while driving across the fourth barrier were several little terns in flight. Later learning that Orkney has the UK’s most northerly colony which migrate thousands of miles each year to breed there.

Staying well outside the restricted area, I counted a colony of more than 20 birds.

Arctic skua.

As we traversed the island, Arctic skuas could be occasionally be seen in flight.

Great skua (Bonxie).

Great skuas could also be viewed. In northern parts of Britain they are often referred to as ‘Bonxies’. they are well known to be the ‘highwaymen’ of the gull world, robbing other gulls of their food and known to kill them in their pursuit.


Across the moorlands curlews were of common sight.

Short-eared owl.

We also had the pleasure of at least three decent sightings of short-eared owls.

Hen harrier – ringtail.

Not persecuted as they are around grouse moorlands on the mainland of the UK, hen harriers could often be viewed. The females are known as ‘ringtails’ due to their distinctive tail banding.

Male hen harrier.

While the beautiful males, (of which I had a personal affection in photographing) are a ghostly blue-grey with a white rump and black wing tips.


Adding to our sightings and photos while on the island were a few wheatears.


While oystercatchers were abundant there.


Skylarks were also present and often heard in song.


While the guttural ‘cronking’ sounds of ravens could be heard.

Rock dove.

Wild rock doves were also present in good number.These are ancestors of our feral town pigeons and live in very different settings, on northern rocky coasts and islands, than their urban cousins.

Greater scaups.

On one of the lochs I was able to pick out a pair of greater scaup.

Common tern.

Arctic terns were abundant, with very few similar looking common terns seen during our stay.

Common terns, are slightly larger overall than Arctic terns, with a longer bill, with black tip, longer legs. The Arctic tern has a rounder head with a steeper forehead.

Ringed plover.

Ringed plovers were also commonly sighted.

Ancient stones on Orkney.

Lots of ancient stone circles littered the landscape, taking one back to past lives that once lived and worked the land there.

Ancient barbecue, perhaps?

Even spotting ‘with a wry-smile’ what may have been an ancient barbecue?


A few orchids had started to appear.

Daffodils and bluebells.

And along the roadsides, surprisingly, daffodils and bluebells were still out in flower.

Bumble bee.

While a few interesting bee species were starting to pollinate the wild flowers.


I also had my first opportunity of seeing an orca in the wild.

Despite it being about three miles out to sea, even getting a record shot of its distinctive sail-fin, though better views could be obtained through a ‘scope’.

Grey seal.

Among their food menu, plenty of grey seals could be observed, at least, the wise ones that could be viewed close to the shoreline.

Fulmar nesting.

While at numerous points along the cliff edges fulmars nested.


And shags gathered.

Unfortunate for us, in what seemed to be a blink of an eye, our visit had come to an end.

Long before we had the opportunity to digest all the wonderful sightings we had consumed during our stay, we were back in the harbour, once again watching the guillemots.

Bridled gullimot.

A few black guillemots (also referred to as tysties. in Scotland) were also present. And even a bridled guillemot.


As well a copiousness amount of swallows.

Old Man of Hoy in late evening sunshine.

This time The Old Man of Hoy was more distant to view and iridescently lit by the setting sun.

Cairngorms National Park.

Fortunately, our holiday was not yet at an end. With much thanks we had prearranged a few days stay at Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park on our return journey.

And with some assistance from Steve, an old friend, now a wildlife safari guide in the area, we were able to add…

Slavonian grebe, with young.

Slavonian grebes in summer plumage, now with two chicks on a small lochan.

Black throated diver.

On another loch within the Cairngorms National Park we also added black-throated divers.

Common sandpiper.

As well as a common sandpiper along the water’s edge.

While in ‘local’ secluded gladed silver-birch woodland areas, we added:

Pied flycatcher.

Pied flycatchers.

Spotted flycatcher.

Numerous spotted flycatchers.

Wood warbler.

And several wood warblers.




And treecreepers to our ‘trip-list’.

Osprey, nest in the Cairngorms National Park.

As well as their locally nesting osprey.

A pleasant surprise, having only seen them just once before while visiting Aviemore well over a decade ago, was to see and photograph a small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly.

Although this butterfly remains widespread and locally abundant in most parts of Scotland and Wales, it has severely declined in England.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary, wings closed.

At least three could be viewed in the small area of vegetation, with one even closing its wings to allow me a few photos of its beautiful underwing.

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