Orkney - June 2015 - Edd Cottell

Seabirds and Owls

Orkney is a fantastic place for wildlife and is home to three of my favourite birds.  The elegant Arctic Tern, the majestic Hen Harrier, and my number one, the wonderful Short Eared Owl.  The rich farmland, moorland, coast, and lack of ground predators make it a haven for birds.

One of the things I enjoy most about Orkney is the superb natural orchestra of the fields and meadows.  Go for a walk, get on the bike, or roll down the windows and turn off the engine and listen to the Curlews, Oystercatchers, Redshanks, Lapwings, Skylarks, and Meadow Pipits, it really is beautiful.

We stayed at Skesquoy cottage in Birsay moors, which proved very good for Hen Harrier and Shorted Eared Owl the previous year.  Most of the week was very windy, which made hunting for the Owls difficult.  We didn't see many owls at all, but Hen Harriers were showing very well.  It was mostly the males out hunting as the females were likely on eggs or tending the young.  As the winds died down, the owls started to show more and more, and by the last day we were getting 10+ sightings!  And not just distance sightings, proper fill the frame sightings.  It was a real treat to watch them hunting at such close quarters.

With the high gusting winds, it seemed like a good idea to visit the cliffs at Marwick head to see the seabird colony.  In Summer it is home to upto 25,000 seabirds and it is an impressive sight to stand on the top and look down, or in this case, lie down and look over the edge for fear of being blown off by the strong winds!  The colony stretches for about a mile from Marwick to the Brough of Birsay and has many birds including Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Great Skua, and Arctic Skua.  I'm going to go off on a bit of tangent here as there was a story in the news about people getting their fill of wildlife from TV programs alone which was very sad to hear.  Chris Packham rightly stated that these programs are there to instigate and not satisfy, and I completely agree.  I honestly get bored with with many of these programs, sure the photography is excellent, but they can never be a substitute for the real thing.  What TV programs can never do is give you a sense of being there.  Take these cliffs for example, standing on top looking down I could feel the buffeting wind, I could smell the guano rising on the updraft, I could hear the birds chattering and calling all around me, and I could feel the grandeur of the cliffs.  These can never be experienced on a TV program.

I couldn't resist another trip to Skipi Geo to see the Arctic Terns.  On a clear evening, the sun sets behind the colony and you can watch the Terns fly around elegantly in all their transluecent splendour.  The Arctic Tern is beautifully streamlined, has deep red coloured beak and feet, has a  black cap and white and silvery coloured wings, and when the light shines through their feathers, you can see how this makes my top five.  It's hard to beat the experience of watching Arctic Terns, especially at sunet.  The way they fly with such agility, skillfully hover above their partner to pass them fish, and how they erupt from the ground to ferociously defend the colony from marauding invaders such as Bonxies.

If you love birds and want good close encounters or if you want a peaceful place to connect with the natural world, Orkney is the perfect place.

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