Orkney Island Explorer - June
This new holiday is a wide-ranging exploration of Orkney, our first dedicated trip to these fabulous islands. The focus is on birding, but scenery and archaeology are important too, as we visit some of the outlying islands by ferry and plane to complete a great experience. Target birds breeding on the moors and wetlands include Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Black-tailed Godwit, Twite, and a wide range of seabirds, waders and wildfowl. Anything can turn up on North Ronaldsay, and offshore we have a good chance of Otter, Minke Whale and other cetaceans.
NEW! Because of strong demand we have added a second departure, from Mon 17 June - Mon 24 June. The itinerary is identical on both dates, so come and join us! This second date is already booking.
On mainland Orkney, Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl will be settling to breed, and Peregrine and Merlin hunt along the meadow fringes. Eight species of duck, including locally uncommon Shoveler and Pintail. A number of waders, include breeding Black-tailed Godwit and Snipe, and Water Rail, and Greylag Goose can be found on inland pools. We visit seabird cliffs, and see waders, divers and ducks inland, as well as Mountain Hare, Common and Grey Seal and Otter.
On Mainland we visit Marwick, Brough Head and RSPB reserves, as well as using our mobile minibus hide as we explore moorlands. A key feature of this thorough exploration of the Orkneys will be island hopping, and we visit Westray, Rousay and Hoy, three very different islands which hold seabirds, waders and more. The final part of our holiday will be a two night visit to North Ronaldsay, where we explore the island to find passage migrants, and enjoy the unique feel of this enchanting small island. Your ‘Piperair’ flight to the island may be a highlight of the trip!
We also visit some of the finest prehistoric archaeological sites in Britain during our stay. The settlement of Skara Brae is a must-see, and we also visit Maes Howe, Scapa Flow, the Churchill barriers, the Tomb of the Eagles, the 6-metre high Standing Stones of Stenness and the 5000-year-old Ring of Brodgar, amongst other interesting sites. Travel by minibus from and returning to Nethy Bridge is included.
The holiday will be run at a relaxed pace, with time for exploring historical sites, photography and botany as well as fabulous birdwatching in a spectacular setting! There will be short to moderate (1 to 5 mile) walks every day, often over rough, uneven or soft ground with several stiles to climb over. Weather can be wild and unpredictable, but temperatures will average around 15 degrees Celsius.
Sat 8 June / Mon 17 June
We depart Nethy Bridge in the morning, aiming to be on Orkney by mid-afternoon. Depending on recent sightings a couple of stops will be made on the way up, perhaps at Golspie and St John’s Pool. We take the ferry across the Pentland Firth, which offers us great views of the north coast of the Mainland and of Orkney as we arrive. These waters have a strong tidal current and offer rich fishing for birds and cetaceans alike. We can expect to see auks, Gannet, gulls, tern and perhaps a few Great Skua during the ferry journey. On arrival we will time to visit the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar before we transfer to our hotel and settle in.
Sun 9 June / Tues 18 June West Mainland
Our first day is a gentle introduction to all that is great about Orkney in summer. We take a scenic drive down quiet lanes, using our bus as a mobile hide to get intimate views of waders and their chicks, and with luck Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owls on the moorland fringe. Taking in the RSPB reserves of Birsay Moors, The Loons and Marwick Head we will build up a healthy species list of breeding birds, and hope to see rare breeders including Black-tailed Godwit, Pintail and Whooper Swan amongst the abundant common waders and wildfowl. At Marwick Head we will walk up to the Kitchener Memorial above the spectacular seabird colony where we will encounter good numbers of auks. If the tides allow, we will also take a walk around Brough Head looking at seabirds which should include confiding Puffins.
Mon 10 June / Wed 19 June Westray
The ferries allow us about six hours on Westray, with a 75 minute crossing each way. We take our minibus onboard to ensure we have sufficient time to take leisurely coastal walks at either end of the island. Westray is seldom visited by birders or indeed visitors to Orkney, but we will show you all the avian delights of this undiscovered gem! Westray is the best place in Orkney to catch up with Corncrake, and it has also has a healthy breeding population of waders and seabirds. At Noup Head in the north-west we take in the Gannetry (the only accessible colony on the islands), and other seabirds in a clifftop walk. This section of coast is one of the best for cetaceans in all Orkney, and we hope we get calm conditions to scan for Minke Whale, Dolphins and Porpoise, and perhaps something truly special, like a passing pod of Orca. If weather conditions allow, a four-mile circular walk around the RSPB reserve is recommended. Our other possible excursion will be a shorter walk at the Castle O’Burrian in the south-east corner where we hope to encounter Puffins.
Tues 11 June / Thurs 20 June Hoy
Today we visit the rugged island of Hoy, which has a totally different feel to the rest of Orkney. Taking the minibus on the ferry across Scapa Flow, we have around six hours on Hoy, which gives us lots of options. If the weather allows, a walk out to the infamous seastack The Old Man of Hoy is well worth doing, providing stunning views of the spectacular seacliffs of St John’s Head too. Wildlife on the way might include nesting Dunlin and Red Grouse and will definitely include Great Skua which may well provide us with a closer than desired view if we stray too close to one of the nests! The walk is five miles return and is the longest of the week, with a climb from Rackwick Bay of 300 ft (c.100m). We shall also explore the Rackwick Valley and admire the glacial features of this stunning landscape. We hope to add to our raptor sightings too, as these sheltered valleys hold several pairs of Hen Harrier and Merlin. A curiosity in the valley is the 5000 year old archaeological remains of the Dwarfie Stane which the brave can clamber into! If time allows we will take a look at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Lyness, close to or ferry point, which mainly focuses on the importance of the Scapa Flow throughout the two World Wars.
Wed 12 June / Fri 21 June Rousay and West Mainland
Today we take the short ferry hop as foot passengers over to Rousay. The second hilliest island after Hoy, its slopes are dominated by thick heather which is the perfect home for nesting raptors. On Rousay we visit Trumland RSPB Reserve, where we take a slow walk around the three-mile trail. The reserve here is home to Golden Plover, Merlin and Hen Harrier, with breeding terns and skuas on the maritime heath. For the archaeologists amongst us, there will be the option of a walk along to Taversoe Tuick, an unusual two-storied cairn. We will leave Rousay when we feel satisfied, and finish the day on the mainland near the Broch of Gurness near Evie where we will overlook the Eynhallow Sound, looking for Black Guillemot, Red-breasted Merganser and perhaps a late-staying Great Northern Diver. There will be time to look round the Broch itself if desired.
Thurs 13 and Fri 14 June / Sat 22 and Sun 23 June Mainland and North Ronaldsay
The morning will be spent visiting historical sites across Mainland, with unforgettable visits to Maes Howe chambered cairn and Skara Brae, two of the finest archaeological sites in NW Europe. In the afternoon we head out to the far-flung outpost of North Ronaldsay, a Heatherlea favourite, explored on this holiday for the first time during the breeding season. We search for late spring migrants, which at this time in previous years have included Paddyfield Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Citrine Wagtail and Common Rosefinch amongst commoner passage birds. With suitable weather, we should see Observatory staff ringing migrants and breeding birds. June has proved to be fruitful in terms of Orca sightings, so we will keep our eyes on the sea too! With the curiosity of the sheep dyke that encircles 90% of the coastline, keeping the sheep outside on the seaweed (too much grass is toxic to this rare breed!), and several historical buildings and ruins, North Ronaldsay really has something for everyone. To reach North Ronaldsay, we shall take an exhilarating short flight from Kirkwall, which gives us a stunning view of all Orkney. Almost flat, with the highest point being just 20 metres above sea-level, the island lends itself to great walking around the coast or along the good roads. We stay here for two nights in the comfortable Observatory, returning to mainland Orkney on Saturday.
Sat 15 June / Mon 24 June
Today we make our return flight to the mainland and head south, leaving Orkney late morning, having spent our final hours taking in the Italian Chapel (decorated with scrap materials by Italian prisoners of war in WW2), the Churchill Barriers (causeways linking the islands) and the Tomb of the Eagles (5000 year old chambered cairn). Our Orkney saga ends by taking the ferry across the Pentland Firth for one last chance of cetaceans and seabirds. Once back on the mainland, we head south, stopping at one of the pretty seaboard villages of Sutherland on the way. A visit to Loch Fleet NNR and an Osprey nest (if active) will ensure a great end to our adventure. The holiday ends on our return to Nethy Bridge in the late afternoon.
Expect a wide variation in weather conditions, which can be wild and unpredictable, with temperatures perhaps averaging around 15 degrees Celsius. Sunshine, rain and strong winds are all possible, and you will probably experience a bit of everything. Biting insects are possible, but not expected as a major problem. Please bring walking boots or shoes, weatherproof clothing and a small rucksack. The holiday will be run at a relaxed pace, with time for exploring historical sites, photography and botany as well as fabulous birdwatching in a spectacular setting! There will be short to moderate (1 to 5 mile) walks every day, often over rough, uneven or soft ground with several stiles to climb over.
What's included in your Orkney Islands Adventure holiday price
•Five nights comfortable en-suite hotel accommodation. We choose hotels from our personally inspected shortlist, where birders are welcome and the hospitality is special. Two nights en-suite accommodation at North Ronaldsay Observatory. Guests are never expected to share. Full details with your joining pack. All rooms are en-suite.
•Full Scottish breakfast and dinner from Saturday evening til Saturday morning, packed lunch daily.
•All transfers by comfortable minibus. All ferries and other boat trips. Drivers can leave vehicles safely parked at The Mountview Hotel.
•Return flight from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay.
•Guidance from a professional Group Leader.
What's not included in your Orkney Islands Adventure holiday price
•Extra night in Nethybridge area at beginning and end of holiday. This can be arranged for you if requested at time of holiday booking. Price £45 per person B&B.
•Transfers from/to rail links in Aviemore.
•Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.