Saturday - Nethy Bridge to Orkney
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 Loch Fleet NNR. 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 take time to visit the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar before we transfer to our hotel and settle in.
Sunday - 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.
Monday - 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 ciff-top walk on this RSPB reserve is highly recommended. Another excursion will be a shorter walk at the Castle O’Burrian in the south-east corner where we hope to encounter Puffins and Twite!
Tuesday - 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 cliffs above 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 Red Grouse and Mountain Hare 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 botany here is good too, with several orchids and other restricted range species. The walk is five miles return and is the longest of the week, with an altitudinal 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. In the last few years the return of the White-tailed Eagles (the first in over 100 years) was noted on Hoy, with luck we may see them over the valley. A curiosity in the valley is the 5000 year old archaeological remains of the rock-cut tomb called the Dwarfie Stane which the nimble can clamber into. If time allows we will take a look at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Lyness, close to our ferry point, which mainly focuses on the strategic importance of the Scapa Flow throughout the two World Wars.
Wednesday - Rousay and West Mainland
Today we take the short ferry hop over to Rousay. The second hilliest island after Hoy, its slopes are dominated by thick heather which is the perfect home for nesting raptors. For the archaeologists amongst us, there will be a visit to Taversoe Tuick, an unusual two-storied cairn, and of course the superb Midhowe Cairn and Broch. We will leave Rousay in the afternoon, 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 and village site itself too.
Thursday & Friday - 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, Nightjar, 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.
Saturday - North Ronaldsay to Orkney Mainland, ferry to Mainland Scotland and drive home
Today we make our return flight to the Orkney Mainland and head south, leaving Orkney late afternoon, having spent our final hours taking in the isles of Burray and South Ronaldsay, with famous sites being the Italian Chapel (decorated with scrap materials by Italian prisoners of war in WW2) and the Churchill Barriers (causeways linking the islands). 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, and depending on our ferry time, we may stop at one of the pretty seaboard villages of Sutherland on the way back for a fish and chip supper. The holiday ends on our return to Nethy Bridge in the early / late evening, depending on ferry times.
This holiday can be combined with:
High Season across the Highlands, Highlands and Orkney,