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Orkney in High Summer - July

Wildlife, history and culture throughout Orkney - visit Hoy, North Ronaldsay, Westray, Kirkwall, Mainland, Burray and all the key archaeological sites!

2024 Dates
  • 20 Jul - 27 Jul 2024
Duration8 Days
2024 Price
£2145 pp
£185 single supplement. Deposit £300
2025 Dates
  • 19 Jul - 26 Jul 2025
Duration8 Days
2025 Price
£2195 pp
£185 single supplement. Deposit £300
Max Group Size7 per guide

We will be exploring mainland Orkney and a good selection of the most iconic and wildlife rich islands. Offering fantastic birding, some superb cultural experiences and archaeology – there is something for everyone on this trip! There will be the opportunity to encounter seabirds and cetaceans, perhaps including Orca as we take the sea crossing across the Pentland Firth. We take in some of the spectacular scenery on mainland Orkney, visiting Hoy and Westray before flying in an 8-seater islander plane to the small island of North Ronaldsay. Here we hope to join the observatory team with Storm Petrel ringing studies - a unique experience not to be missed!

Birding will be varied on this relaxed paced holiday. There are many fantastic RSPB reserves throughout the isles, and we will visit several on this trip, as well as using our mobile minibus hide to explore moorlands. We hope to see raptors including Hen Harrier, Merlin, Short-eared Owl and if lucky the recently returned White-tailed Eagles. Waders will feature as they begin to move south, and we will visit the famous seabird colonies on Westray and Hoy. Red-throated Diver breeds, and it is a good time of year to look for cetaceans, with Common and Grey Seal, Otter and endemic Orkney Vole possible too. 

We also visit some of the finest prehistoric archaeological sites in Britain during our stay. The 5000-year-old settlement of Skara Brae is a must-see, and we will go to Maes Howe, Scapa Flow, the Italian Chapel, the 6-metre high Standing Stones of Stenness and the iconic Ring of Brodgar and if time allows perhaps the Ness of Brodgar site (the latter is only usually open to the public in July and August) too. This is a great summer holiday to the archipelago, offering fantastic variety with time to explore historical sites, for photography, botany as well as fabulous birdwatching.

Outline Itinerary

Day 1: Saturday – Nethy Bridge to Orkney
Transfer from Heatherlea to Mainland Orkney. We’ll travel north with our eyes peeled for Ravens and there’s also the chance of birds of prey. Thurso is our first destination where we take the ferry journey across the Pentland Firth looking out for seabirds and cetaceans. This is also a good chance to encounter Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel feeding at sea. We should pass close by the cliffs of Hoy with the famous sea stack 'The Old Man of Hoy'. Once we arrive in Orkney the rest of the day will be spent visiting local sites with a planned stop at the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, enroute to our night’s accommodation.

Day 2, 3 & 4: Sunday, Monday & Tuesday – Mainland to North Ronaldsay
After breakfast we transfer to Kirkwall Airport for our flight to the far-flung outpost of North Ronaldsay, a Heatherlea favourite, explored on this holiday for the first time during the breeding season. The short flight 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 will get settled in at the comfortable Bird Observatory and enjoy dinner, with the opportunity to perhaps join the Observatory staff in a bird ringing demonstration that evening, with one of our top targets being a nocturnal ringing session for Storm Petrels.

Our daily birding schedule will be dictated by the weather, as will our nocturnal efforts with the Storm Petrels. We work closely with the Observatory staff day and night to maximize our time on the island. Prime time for Storm Petrel ringing efforts, the late July/early August period is always the most prolific with nightly catches of over 100 birds a possibility, with a good chance of also attracting the scarcer, larger Leach’s Petrel. Netting sessions are wholly weather dependent and as this is a focus of the trip we plan to attend (with the option to sit out of course) as often as we can. On busy nights we may be asked to join in and may also have the chance to handle the birds as they are released. This is such a unique trip, and these fantastic little birds are such an enigma, making this an unforgettable experience. There’s something mythical about Storm Petrels. How do these tiny, “Swallows of the sea” survive at sea in such inclement weathers? How far do they travel? And how do these partners for life find each other after a winter spent apart. We’re hoping to answer some of these questions with the help of the dedicated and skilled Observatory staff.

And there’s so much more on to see on this tiny island. We will of course be flexible with late breakfast an option for those up late with the Petrels. Black Guillemots, Fulmars and Arctic Terns will all still be nesting on the island and the return migration of waders in particular will be well underway. The island is mainly flat with good roads and access to most of the coastal ‘hotspots’ and beaches. At this time of year, Golden Plovers gather on North Ronaldsay to molt and huge numbers can be found in the fields. As a result, it’s the best place in the whole country for finding the rare Pacific Golden Plover and with a dozen records in the Observatories history we will try hard to find one. There will also be large numbers of birds on the beaches with Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit and Turnstone especially numerous. Other species such as Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint can also occur and Red-necked Phalaropes are regular too. There’s also wildfowl, gulls while breeding land birds such as Wheatears, Linnets and Twite also feature and it can be a good time of year for irrupting Crossbills. The island is well placed for sea-watching and there is also the annual build-up of Arctic Terns at this time of year to search through for something rarer. Roseate Tern have been unearthed in 3 of the last 4 years, while other recent rarity highlights have included Balearic, Great and Cory’s Shearwater, Spoonbill, Lesser Yellowlegs, several Pectoral Sandpipers, a summering Grey Phalarope in 2014, White-winged Black Tern and Two-barred Crossbill - on North Ronaldsay anything is possible!

There will also be the option to visit and take a guided tour of the Island Lighthouse and/or the wool mill or spend a few hours unearthing North Ronaldsay’s fascinating history at the exhibition. Flexibility is important with this trip and after a busy night of Petrel ringing it is not a problem if you’d prefer to sit out planned activities to relax on the mile long, golden beach just outside the front door or admire the unique feeding and habits of the 3000 odd seaweed eating sheep. There’s also a well-stocked bar, complete with a whisky menu and a variety of local ales at the Observatory with a social atmosphere second to none - be sure to try the local mutton.

Day 5 – West Mainland
After an early breakfast, we make our return flight to the Orkney Mainland. Our first full day in Mainland Orkney will be a relaxing one and a gentle introduction to the quality birding and historical sites the area has to offer. We’ll be hoping to find raptors on the moors as we travel, with Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Merlin targets and if we’re lucky some late breeding Red-throated Divers too. Key cultural and historical sites will be amazing World Heritage Sites of Skara Brae and Maes Howe, which we will enjoy at a leisurely pace. We’ll be checking the coastline hotspots for waders, with plenty time to visit Yesnaby, Broch of Gurness and Birsay Moors which are also great birding spots with lochs full of wildfowl. If time allows, we will also try to fit in some of the lesser-known historical sites, including some of the exciting new excavations. Some other highlights might include the Brough of Birsay or perhaps Marwick Head featuring. We may also take the chance to visit a site for Scottish Primrose, now in their second flowering of the summer. 

Day 6 - Westray
Today we take the day trip to Westray, enjoying the scenic ferry ride past Stronsay, Eday and Egilsay. In these sheltered waters we often find fledged seabirds, with Black Guillemot and Arctic Tern in good numbers. Once on Westray we head up to Noup Head RSPB reserve, a bustling seabird colony, mostly comprised of Gannets, Kittiwakes and Fulmar. This is also one of the best cetacean watching points of Orkney, and we may see Minke Whale, Basking Shark, dolphins or maybe even a pod of Orca if conditions allow! A few Puffin may still be present and there are any number of coastal bays and tidal lagoons which can be checked. Large numbers of waders will be on the move with Knot, Sanderling, Ringed and Golden Plover all expected - our 2018 group even found a Pectoral Sandpiper among 1000 Dunlin, so anything is possible! Depending on group interest we may look at several of the historical sites and the quaint museum, or alternatively explore the various beaches and coastal walks, birdwatching and botanising as we go. We return in the late afternoon to Kirkwall, completing a wonderful day out on the locally named ‘Queen o’ the Isles’.

Day 7 - Hoy
Today we head across to rugged Hoy, which differs markedly from the rest of low-lying and fertile Orkney. If weather and group ability allow, we will head to the north, and starting at Rackwick Bay, aim to take the 5-mile return walk to the cliffs at St John’s Head, overlooking the iconic Old Man of Hoy Sea stack, seeing numerous Great Skua as we go. We will also try to see White-tailed Eagle, which has only recently returned to the island to breed (after a 100-year absence). Other raptors are possible including Hen Harrier and Merlin and if the weather is looking poor, we will head towards the south, with historical sites including the Martello Tower and Scapa Flow Museum.

Day 8- Ferry to Mainland Scotland and drive home
Today we make our return ferry crossing to the mainland, allowing us one last chance of cetaceans and seabirds. We arrive back at Gills Bay around lunchtime. Once back on the mainland, we head south, with some birding stops on our way! The holiday ends on our return to Nethy Bridge in the early evening, at approximately 5pm.

This holiday can be combined with:

Eagles, Divers and Dotterel, Highlands and Wester RossHighlands and Outer Hebrides, Birds and Mammals with Muck and Eigg

Shetland Wildlife in Summer

Please note: all itineraries are given as a guide only. Actual holiday content may vary according to the judgement of your guide, and elements beyond our control (eg weather).

Expect a wide variation in weather conditions, which can be wild and unpredictable, with temperatures perhaps averaging around 16 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 waterproof walking boots or shoes, fully waterproof clothing and a small rucksack. Hat and gloves are essential for exposed coastal locations and ferry crossings. There will be moderate (3 to 8 mile) walks every day, often over rough, uneven or soft ground with several stiles to climb over.

 What's included in your 'Orkney in High Summer' holiday price

• Four nights comfortable en-suite hotel accommodation on mainland Orkney. We choose hotels from our personally inspected shortlist, where birders are welcome and the hospitality is special. Three 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 till 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. We offer a courtesy drop off to Aviemore rail links on the morning of departure.
• Return flight from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay.
• Guidance from a professional Group Leader.

What's not included in your 'Orkney in High Summer' 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.
• Transfers from rail links in Aviemore on arrival.
• Insurance, drinks and other items of a personal nature.

Other birdwatching holidays in Orkney Isles


Heatherlea is THE company for top quality birding holidays in Scotland, chosen by more and more birders each year. Relax and enjoy first-rate birding with Scotland’s best guiding team, as we do all the planning! Our fully inclusive guided holidays concentrate on the real experience, and we take time to ensure that each of our guests enjoys everything we do. Above all, we make it our business to show key wildlife to you.

These popular holidays are carefully designed to explore the beautiful and wildlife-rich Scottish islands and far west coast. Many itineraries are unique, designed to give you the best of island wildlife at the best time of year. All are run at a leisurely pace, though we might move a little faster when rare migrants and vagrants are in our sights!

  • We have been organising birding and wildlife holidays for over 30 seasons, and have a highly experienced and capable team. We also offer a telephone and email service outside normal office hours.
  • This holiday has a maximum ratio of 7 clients per guide, putting the emphasis on personal service, and helping you get the best possible experience.
  • Heatherlea are Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’ This is the highest available grading, classified as ‘exceptional’ by visitScotland.
  • Single guests are never expected or invited to share.
  • Our holidays often include things which others might invite you to pay yourself, for instance packed lunch and tips to hotels.
  • Heatherlea hold full Tour Operator Insurance for your added protection.
  • Heatherlea is a limited company, registered in Scotland. We are also registered to pay VAT, which is included in your holiday price as quoted on this page.
  • Once your holiday is confirmed in writing by us, we promise not to surcharge the price for any reason.

Enjoy an excellent birding and wildlife holiday with Heatherlea.
Mainland Scotland’s FIRST ‘5-Star Wildlife Experience!’

Visit Scotland - 5 star Wildlife Experience

Visit Scotland

Tour Details

About Heatherlea Holidays

Contact Information

The Mountview Hotel, Nethybridge,
PH25 3EB Scotland

T: +44(0)1479 821248