Orkney - May 2014 - Edd Cottell

Orkney - Land of Owls and Harriers

Day 1

Orkney is new ground for me.  I'd read that it was a haven for coastal and moorland birds.  The ferry over gave a flavour of this as we were treated with views of Puffins, Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Eiderducks, Great Skuas, and Common Terns.

On the drive to the cottage, I got the feeling that there is something very right about this place.  The fertile farmland was home to so many Oystercatcher, Curlew, Lapwing, Starling, Meadow Pipit, and Skylarks; such enchanting sounds.

Arriving at the cottage, we met the eccentric owner who was a very keen naturalist.  He advised us to check out RSPB's Cottascarth moorland reserve, and what a call it was!  20 minutes in and a Merlin came rolling into the amphitheatre, and as it exited the other side, two female Hen Harrier appeared and quartered the heather below.  Just when it couldn't get any better, a Short Eared Owl took to the air, and showed it's mastery of flight, taking full advantage of the head wind to glide effortlessly over the ground.  The shorty is my favourite bird, with it's stunning mottled plumage, buoyant flight, and almost feline like face with those big amber eyes.

The icing of the cake came when we heard the 'coo-cuu' sound.  I opened the door of the door as quietly as possible and saw a grey bird perched on a post, with wings drooped and tail cocked; a Cuckoo.  Endlessly mobbed by Pipits, he flew into the nearest tree, where his mate joined him.  What a treat.

Day 2

I opened the door this morning to the chattering song of a Sedge Warbler who had taken up residence in some nearby infant woodland.  We headed West along the Hillside road to Birsay Moors.  The fields were full of Greylag Geese, Oystercatcher, Curlew, and Hares, with Twite flitting from the verges to the fences.

Birsay Moors didn't disappoint.  Soon after arriving, we spotted a male Hen Harrier quartering the hillside.  Captivated by the Harrier, a mottled brown blur passed through the binoculars.  I looked down to a see a Short Eared Owl a stones throw from the car!  10 minutes later, a second Shorty turned up, and the aerial tangle began.  When the dispute fizzled out, the owls went their separate ways.

After lunch, we visited the Brough of Birsay, which gave dramatic views of Marwick head, with rough seas and spray reaching inland.  Along the coastal path is the Arctic Tern colony at Skipa Geo.  They are such elegant birds to watch, almost looking like an origami creation in flight, with their clean lines and angular shape.  It was fantastic to watch them, as they displayed and courted over the Thrift covered rocks.  Further round, Shags were bringing in nesting material, Puffins made passes into the coves, and Skuas patrolled the coast in search of an easy meal.

On our way back, we stopped at Birsay Moors again.  Half an hour in, we wandered if our luck had run out.  Not yet!  Over the undulations of the moors emerged a beautiful male Hen Harrier.  It is fabulous to get such great views of this magnificent birds, and all from the seat of the car.  As the light faded, we drove back to the cottage, and two more Shorties were seen on the way; what a special place this is.

Day 3

A misty start to the day.  The RSPB's reserve at Hobbister offers a mixture of coastal and moorland habitats.  Stepping out of the car, a Cuckoo made a low pass over the heather.  Meadow Pipits and Stonechats flitted from heather tops.  Looking over the cliffs, we saw Fulmars nesting on the face, marauding Skuas gliding effortlessly using the updraft, a Kestrel, and a distant view of a pair of Black Throated Diver.

As we left the reserve, the sun started to shine through, and on the drive to the Bridge of Waithe, a male Hen Harrier was hunting next to the road.  Waithe is a peaceful place where the Loch of Stenness meets the Bay of Ireland.  Not much action on the water; a pair of Red Breasted Mergansers, Mute Swans, and a Grey Seal.

Back to Birsay Moors, and in the two hours there, we had yet more stunning views of a Short Eared Owl, a male Hen Harrier, and a pair of Linnet taking a breather on the fence.  A short drive down the road to the Loons, which is a wetlands reserve, we saw Shoveler, Gadwall, and Water Rail.  The highlight was a Snipe performing it's display flight, rising steeply, before falling with a drumming sound as the air passes over it's stiff tail feathers, almost sounding like a Didgeridoo.

With the sun shining, and the forecast looking poor for the rest of the week, it was back to watch the Arctic Terns as the sun set.  The light was gorgeous, with the golden colour radiating through the translucent feathers of the Terns.  Its times like these that make all the travel, waiting, and miserable  rain soaked days worth while.

Day 4

The view from the cottage was bleak, with visibility down to a couple of hundred metres.  We headed to Echnaloch Bay, which has a small pull in next to the Churchill barrier that is close to the water.  Through the mist we had fuzzy views of Red Breasted Merganser, Tufted Duck, Dunlin, and Turnstone.

Another afternoon at Birsay Moors proved fruitful again.  We had distant views of a Short Eared Owl as it quartered the edge of the moors.  The highlight of the day came when looking through the binoculars, a male Hen Harrier floated over the heather, shortly followed by the female.  It was an amazing sight to see both sexes side by side, the female as brown as he heather below, the male a silver grey.  With the high winds, they came into view as quickly as they left.  Half an hour later, the male Harrier returned, quartering the moors right next to the road.  He gradually made his way up the road, directly toward the car.  I though this was the chance to get a close shot of a Harrier.  40m, 30m, 20m, my heart was pounding.  A few more metres and he would be in clear view through the side window of the car and into the viewfinder of the camera.  Alas, it was not to be, and with a flick of the wing, the wind took him away.  Stunning views, but the elusive picture still awaits.

Returning over the moorland hill road to Evie, these dark coloured birds were chasing each other with astonishing speed and agility.  Driving closer, there were Great Skuas.  Having previously seen them leisurely gliding along cliff tops, it was strange to see them like this, but I gained new appreciation for how they able to chase other sea birds, like the agile Arctic Tern, for their catch.

Day 5

Another wet start to the day, but a male Hen Harrier hunting the moors in full view of the cottage made for a cracking start!  Off to the wetland reserve at the Loons where Pochard and Little Grebe were showing well.  With the rain still hammering down, we drove to Marwick head to see what was about.  Shelduck and Eiderduck seemed right at home on the rough waters, and a flock of Starling had taken shelter under a rocky overhang.  As the weather cleared, it was back to Birsay Moors.  Again, it didn't disappoint.  The resident Short Eared Owl gave wonderful close views and so did a Hen Harrier.  It shouldn't be this easy to see these amazing birds regularly and so close, but with the abundance of heather moorland and steady population of Orkney Voles, I can see why.  The day was rounded off nicely, as another Shorty was perched on a fence post next to the road on the drive back.  What a place this is!

Day 6

Spent the morning at the Cottascarth reserve and it was all about pairs.  A male Hen Harrier brought in a Vole and passed it mid air to the female.  Whilst a male Short Eared Owl was out hunting, a female briefly took off from the ground and perched up, before returning to the heather below.  The other owl then brought in a Vole to the same area, presumably their nest.  Intertwined with this, was a pair of Cuckoos being constantly mobbed by Pipits and a pair of Stonechat flitting between the heather.

Just when it couldn't get any better, the female Hen Harrier flew in from behind the hide, and proceeded to quarter around it.  Fantastic to get such great views of this awesome bird of prey, and what a thrill to look one in the eye!  As the action died down, we headed off down the hill, when we looked up to see a funny looking seagull.  As it came closer, we realised it was a Osprey!  Perhaps a young bird that had overshot mainland Scotland on it's return from Africa, but a lovely surprise none the less.

Off to Burgar Hill for lunch and a hope of seeing the Red Throated Divers.  The RSPB hide was missing, awaiting replacement, so we parked up in the car park underneath a wind turbine.  The car park is behind an earth bank which shields the lochen from view.  Red Throated Divers are Shedule 1 birds which are highly sensitive to disturbance, and it is illegal, and in my view morally wrong, to disturb them.  For those reasons, we stayed in the car, although there had been reports of people walking over the bank to have a peek.  Think on folks, it is just not worth it.  I had a brief glimpse of a Diver as it left the lochen and flew down to Tingwall Bay for food.  A beautiful bird.

The resident Short Eared Owl and Harrier made an appearance at Birsay Moors; I'll never get tired of seeing them.  Unfortunately, Orkney Council began road repairs, and they soon vacated.

Heading South to Yesnaby, a short walk to the headland gave a view of the Old Man of Hoy, albeit a misty one.  As the rain ramped up, it was back to the Brough of Birsay to watch the crashing waves.  Sat in the car, a small white bird landed next to us, it was a Snow Bunting.  I managed to grab a quick shot through the window before it flew off.  Nature is full of surprises!

Day 7

The last day on the island and what a drizzly start it was.  The weather eventually let up so we went to Cottascarth to get our fix of owls and harriers.  The male Short Eared Owl was out hunting the moors, looking hardy in the strong wind and rain.  The pair of Hen Harriers entered the amphitheatre from the lowlands and perched on the heather.  Four Cuckoos were all present.

We headed to Birsay Moors for lunch, hoping for an owl or a harrier, but after half an hour, nothing was showing.  I know what you are thinking, 30 minutes is no time at all to wait, but it turned out to be a great decision.  A few hundred metres up the hill road, a Short Eared Owl erupted from the ground and then perched right next to the road.  The camera was prepped and ready.  The car edged forwards, level with the owl.  A few shots through the window for the record.  It still hadn't flown.  And the final hurdle, the electric window.  It had never sounded so loud!  Success, with the window down, my heart pounding,  and the owl still perched, I had a precious few seconds to get a portrait shot.  What a perfect way to say farewell to the land of owls and harriers with an unforgettable close encounter with my favourite bird!

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