Highland Diary

Returning to Orkney

It was interesting to see how much had changed since we last visited the Orkney Isles in 2005. The roads are certainly a lot busier now, particularly around the neolithic sites of Skara Brae and Brodgar. Bird numbers too have changed. I don’t recall seeing any feral Greylag geese during our last visit. Now there must be thousands resident, with many of the pairs having large broods of goslings in tow. The number of breeding waders compared to those on the Scottish mainland appear to be holding up well, particularly so the Curlews and Redshank in the southern isles. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for some of the seabirds. There were quite obvious declines in auks and kittiwakes in places like Mull Head. The decline in cliff nesting seabirds has had a knock on effect on the skua population. Arctic Skuas, once a common sight, were no longer to be seen at several colonies where we had found them in 2005. Great skuas on the other hand were on patrol everywhere. However many were travelling in pairs, probably a indication that they too were mostly none-breeders. Like the Arctic Skuas they were no longer nesting on moors where we had found them in the past. Arctic Tern colonies however appeared unchanged. Those on a small sea stack close to a footpath were quite tolerant of human presence nearby only taking off in a ‘fright’ when dog walkers passed by.

We spent a couple of days on the island of Hoy, a place that we had never visited before. The towering sandstone sea cliffs on its western side, once a familiar sight far away on the horizon when seen from north Sutherland, were no less impressive close to. The wet heath moorland covering the higher parts of the island was more akin to north Sutherland than to the grass dominated Orkney mainland. The presence of breeding Greenshank and Red-throated divers were reminders of the Sutherland flows. Hen Harriers remain the most frequently encountered bird of prey on both mainland Orkney and Hoy.

Mainland Orkney and the Southern Isles