These beautiful archipelagos in Scotland's far north have always been synonymous with history and nature. They are places of open skies, empty beaches and rugged coastlines that enjoy almost twenty-four hour daylight during the summer months. Due to their strategic positions, these islands have been settled since before the Neolithic period, with many important archaeological sites dotting the landscape. Due to the lack of trees and use of durable stone for building, it is believed that there are on average, three archaeological sites per square mile on Orkney alone. We aim to explore many iconic sites including Skara Brae; a Neolithic village uncovered unexpectedly in a storm back in 1850.
Both island groups are a birder’s paradise and are often rated as THE best places to birdwatch in the whole of Britain. This title is well deserved with plenty to see, especially in spring and fall. June and July are the best months to visit when the many seabird colonies are busiest with activity. 21 of the 24 true British seabirds nest on the islands with important populations that include Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, Arctic Tern, Great Skua, Black-legged Kittiwake, Parasitic Jaeger and both European and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. The island’s interior moorlands and wetlands are equally good and support Merlin, Red-throated Loon, Whimbrel, European Golden-plover, Red-necked Phalarope, Common Greenshank, Eurasian Wigeon, Short-eared Owl, and in the cultivated areas, the secretive Corncrake.
Another area we’ll focus on are the marine mammals, as diversity and observation rate in the region is high. Species seen regularly around the islands include European Otter, Orca, Minke Whale, White-beaked and Risso’s Dolphins, plus Short-beaked Common Dolphin and Pilot Whale. Diversity that makes a watch from a headland or two an exciting prospect even in bad weather.
We have chosen the first two weeks in June in order to combine the breeding specialties with the best chance of encountering overshooting migrants and rarities that regularly include Bluethroat, Wryneck, red-backed Shrike, Common Rosefinch, Marsh and Icterine Warbler, Golden Oriole, and Ortolan Bunting. High pressure combined with anticyclonic conditions are best, so as to cause northbound migrants to drift westwards towards the islands. The rarities discovered during this period are legendary with Red-footed Falcon, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-throated Pipit, Rustic Bunting, Thrush Nightingale, Great Reed, Subalpine and Greenish Warblers all making it onto the island’s long bird list.
It is with a spirit of adventure we start our trip in Aberdeen with an evening ferry journey to Kirkwall on Orkney. We aim to visit many of the historic sites in the three full day’s allocation, with priority given to Skara Brae, Maes Howe, St Magnus Cathedral, The Standing Stones of Stenness and The Ring of Brodgar. Avian specialties we will search for include Corncrake, Twite, Hen Harrier as well as seabirds and cetaceans. We will be based in the charming historic city of Kirkwall during our stay on Orkney, and it is from here that we commence our onward ferry journey to Shetland.
It is from Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, that we start our second and longer leg of the trip. Once landing, we initially journey south to visit the southern mainland for seabirds and migrants, but quickly head back north to Lerwick, and the islands of Bressay, Noss, Yell, Fetlar and finally Unst, the most northerly island in Britain. Seabirds and passage migrants/vagrants will be the focus of this tour, but also the many cetaceans and other mammals encountered around the islands. Highlights will include a night time visit to Mousa Broch and its famous colony of European Storm- petrels, the boat trip around Bressay and Noss for the incredible seabird colonies and the rare privilege to visit Fetlar for a taste of some sub-arctic species such as breeding Whimbrel, Red-necked Phalarope and Parasitic Jaeger.
This is a wonderful opportunity to venture to Scotland’s far north, a small piece of land on the edge of the wider Arctic. The wildlife, history and culture of this region are not to be missed.