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Wilson's Storm-petrel Dave Jones

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 Scotland 


Orkney Islands

Ferry to Orkney Islands
Scapa Flow
Stone Age Ruins
RSPB Nature Reserve
Hoy
The Dwarfie Tomb
Great Skua on Hoy

Shetland Islands

Night Ferry
Sumburgh Head
Hermaness NNR
Mousa Island

Shetlandgtskuafly.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Skua in the Orkney Islands photographed by Emmalee Tarry with a point and shoot camera from cliff.

 

Ferry to Orkney Islands
My tour of Scotland was rather uneventful bird wise with the exception of more Fulmars on the Isle of Skye. I turned in my rental car in Aberdeen and made my way back to Inverness by train. Early the next morning, I took a bus to John O`Grotes on the northern tip of mainland Scotland. From here you can take a day time ferry to the Orkney Islands. There is also an expensive night ferry from Aberdeen to the Orkney.

Throughout the hour trip I saw Fulmars, Arctic Terns, Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots(Common Murres ). The highlight was an Arctic Skua ( Parasitic Jaeger ) and my first Great Skua both chasing the same tern. The size comparison was marked. I was most impressed with the broad wings and short tail of the Skua compared with the much smaller Jaeger's narrow wings and longer tail. Flying together the birds are remarkably distinct.

My main reason for going to the Orkney Islands was to see a Great Skua. Already that wish was fulfilled, but much more was to come. The Orkney Islands were a delightful surprise both for birds, history, and archeology all of which are of interest to me . I think if I could only visit one European destination it would be the Orkney Islands..

World Wars I and II History at Scapa Flow
The ferry docks on a small island on the eastern side of Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow was the home port of the British North Atlantic Fleet in both World War I and II. On the trip from the dock to the town of Kirkwell you pass over the Churchill Barriers built by POWs during WW II to block the south east entrances to Scapa Flow. Under the Geneva Convention, POWs are not supposed to work on war time projects. Churchill got around this by building the barriers as causeways connecting the islands. Today that is their only function. The Italian POWs built a small chapel out of scrap materials and it stands today beautifully decorated by one of the prisoners.

Before the barriers were built the British sunk ships in the shallow channels to prevent submarines from sneaking into the harbor from the east. They didn't work and a German submarine made it into the harbor and sunk a ship with tremendous loss of life. Incredibly the wreck is very close to shore. It is still on the bottom and the grave of some 800 souls. Scuba diving and tourism of the wreck are not allowed. (The US does not allow recreational activities on the sunken Arizona in Pearl Harbor as it is the final resting place of some 300 men.There is however a memorial built over the Arizona as it rests on the bottom.)

The most interesting war event happened at the end of WW I when as part of the armistice agreement the German fleet was interned in Scapa Flow in November of 1918. The ships were to be divided among the victors. Negotiations dragged on throughout the winter and the German sailors manning the ships were bored, cold, under supplied and mutinous. Finally on June 21 when most of the British Navy were at sea, the German commander ordered all the ships sunk by opening valves to let in the sea water. There was nothing the British could do but watch as 94 ships settled to the bottom of the flow. Now not only were the victors deprived of the war booty, but the flow was littered with sunken ships. Some were salvaged for scrap metal. A few including the Dresden remain on the bottom where they now entertain scuba drivers.

I took a trip on a boat with an underwater robotic television camera to see the Dresden still on the bottom in 110 feet of water. There is also a small war museum on the island of Hoy which we visited. I had 3 Great Skuas flying that day. See photo above.

Stone Age Ruins
I rented a car in Kirkwell and stayed at the youth hostel there for 3 days. One day was spent exploring the absolutely incredible archeological sites on the main island.


The most impressive site is Skara Brae a stone age village excavated after parts of the village were uncovered by a big storm. It is believed to have been inhabited from around 3100 BC.

The picture shows the inside of a recostructed dwelling. It was circular with a fire place in the center and a hole in the ceiling for smoke.  Shelves are called dressers and the structure on the left is believed to be a bed.  Notice cooking vessels on the floor.

 

Stone Age dwelling Scara Brae

Other archeological sites include the Standing Stones of Stenness which is a small version of Stonehenge. Maes Howe a passage tomb with graffiti left by later Vikings who used it for shelter. The Ring of Bogar another henge, a less well preserved stone age village. The Ring of Bogar another henge, a less well preserved stone age village. While visiting these sites I also saw birds: Knots, Redshank, Whimbrel.

RSPB
The largest landowner on the Orkneys is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Well this isn't all that big a deal because the rest of the island is owned by small family farmers. There are several refuges on the islands. I visited one called The Loons where I met a bird guide who said June is the best month for birds. I was there in late July. At the blind I had Coots, Reed Bunting, Moorhen, Mallard, Greylag Goose, Lapwing, Oystercatcher.

The Island of Hoy
The island of Hoy is a short car ferry ride from the main island where the large city of Kirkwall is located. I know that there are Great Skuas flying around Scappa Flow. Where is the breeding colony? I take my rental car on the ferry and go in search.

The Dwarfie Tomb
I had a very poor map of Hoy which showed the colony of Great Skua near the Rock of Hoy. On the drive you pass this large glacial erratic boulder which stone age man carved out as a tomb. It is a short walk across a peat bog from the road.

This picture shows the entrance and the protective stone which once closed the entrance. Inside is a large hollow chamber carved out with stone tools. Must have been made for a most important person. It is a most remarkable site.

At the end of the road, I started hiking up a winding path still in search of the Rock of Hoy.  Along this path I saw Scottish Crossbills which have a much larger bill than any crossbills I have seen.

The path seemed endless and all uphill.  I gave up and went in search of a second colony on the map.

Dwarfie Tomb Hoy Orkney Islands

Great Skua Colony
I went back out to the main road and continued to the other entry into the reserve. Here I had to park and walk in to a small lake. There were several Great Skuas flying overhead. Finally I saw this one perched on a small rise. I began taking pictures while advancing slowly. I was allowed to get quite close before he flew. This was the outskirts of a small colony,.

Great Skua on Hoy

Night Ferry to Shetland Islands
You can take a ferry to the Shetland Islands from either Aberdeen, Scotland or the Orkney Islands. Unfortunately both leave in the evening and sail all night so there is no chance for seabirds. The ferry is a huge boat with elevators, staterooms, gambling and dining rooms. The ferry leaves from the Orkney Islands at 11:45 PM. I paid extra to have a bunk in a shared dormitory for 4 women with a full bath.
The ferry docked in Lerwick and I treated myself to a taxi to the hostel which turned out to be one of the best hostels in all of Europe. It would have be best to arrange for the rental cars ahead of time as I was lucky to get one on both the Orkneys and the Shetlands. It was the first week of August and while late in the season for seabird colonies, it is the height of the tourist season in the Shetlands.

Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve
Like the Orkneys, the Shetlands are a group of several islands connected by car ferries. Sumburgh Head is on the main island with the city of Lerwick. It is possible to base yourself in Lerwick and drive to some of the islands. Ferry schedules will limit the time you have on the more remote islands. There are also other hostels at which you can stay on the other islands.

At a small quarry on the road up to the reserve parking lot there was a small colony of Fulmars nesting on the rock cliffs. They had large fluffy chicks with huge bills. First time I have ever seen Fulmar chicks.

From the parking lot there is a sea lookout. I see many Great Skuas, a single Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger) and Fulmars. You can walk up to the lighthouse and sit at several places looking at the cliffs. There are nesting Fulmars, Puffins, Guillemots. I observed two Fulmars at close range with glistening drops of salt water on their bills. Fulmars are not gulls, but tubenoses with glands for filtering salt water.

Below the reserve is Jarlshof a site occupied by humans for 4000 years. Excavation has uncovered evidence for occupation by both Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures. Later the Vikings occupied the site and eventually medieval farmers settled here and built their dwellings on top of the ruins. I spent several hours touring the site and the small museum. There are probably as many ancient sites in the Shetlands as in the Orkneys, but less time and money has been spent on excavations and developing the sites for tourism. Across the road a second site is still being excavated and you can tour it and watch the archeologists at work. Excavating such sites is tedious, muddy work.

Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Unst

Highlight of the Shetlands for a birder is the National Nature Reserve of Hermaness. To reach Unst Island you first take a ferry to the island of Yell, drive the length of the island and then take the ferry to Unst. The reserve is on the far north end of the island and the roads are narrow and not well signposted. I was able to follow the signs to the reserve, but trying to get back to the ferry was very frustrating since there were no signs. Try to remember your turns for the way out or better yet make notes as there are several turns. You should see the Shetland Ponies in pastures along the way. It is a beautiful and enjoyable drive with almost no traffic. Of course that means when you get lost there is no one to ask for directions. On reaching the reserve go first to the last parking lot and climb the steep trail to the Visitors Center. Here you will find toilets and a small museum. Then go back to the first parking lot for the trail to the Puffin cliff.

After a steep start, the trail to the Puffin cliffs is a relatively flat, sometimes muddy path and boardwalk across a peat bog.

The bog was formed by 7,000 years of accumulated vegetation and is an experience in itself. The trail is about 3 KM long and ends at the cliffs where even in early August you can see Puffins.

Shetland moor
Great Skua Hermaness Unst Shetland Islands Great Skua Hermaness Unst Shetland Islands
Shetland Islands Great Skua 5 in picture Shetland Great Skua display threat

 

About half way to the cliffs, I enter the area of the Great Skua colony. Skuas stand on little rises and watch my progress. Here a Great Skua raises its wings in an aggressive display because I am too close. It is hard to believe that with a point and shoot camera I took this picture with 5 Great Skuas.
Most human traffic on the path is headed for the cliffs to see the Puffins so few people linger along the way. The Skuas seem adjusted to the traffic. I stayed on the path, but stopped to watch the birds and to take pictures with my small camera.I saw one big chick chasing its parents. The nesting season is nearly over and the parents seemed to be ignoring the chicks pleas.

Eventually I walked to the cliffs and looked out over a beautiful sea. The cliffs were busy with Puffins sitting and flying, but by now I have seen many Puffins and looking down on them from atop the cliff was not the best view. T


Fifty percent of the world population of Great Skua live in the Shetland Islands. They feed on Sand Eels, fishing waste, Kittiwakes, and Puffins. Great Skua establish their colonies near the cliff colonies of Kittiwakes and Puffins. Preying on the ever popular Puffins does not endear the skuas to the average observer here to see the Puffins.Unst may just be the best place in the world to observe the Great Skua. Access to the colony is easy. There are good places to stay and there is other birding as well. I had wonderful looks at Red-throated Loon with babies on the way back. to the ferry. That may be why I missed one of the turns.
I copied these statistics on the Great Skua from a display in the Visitor Center.
1831 3 pairs
1920 80
2001  650
Other Birds at Hermanness Statistics from my notes taken in the museum at Hermanness.
Gannets12,000 pairs
Fulmars14,000
Puffins
Guillemots 20,000
Razorbills1,000
Kittiwake1,000
Shags400

Mousa Island
Mousa is a small island just off the coast of the main island and an easy drive from Lerwick. There is an interesting broch in which the British Storm-petrel nests. One of the big disappointments of the entire trip was that I did not really experience the European or British Storm-petrel. I did see them from the ferry from Shetland to Norway, but it was a huge boat and I was looking down at them from 5 or 6 stories of boat. They looked liked Wilson’s Storm-petrel because I could not see the under wing, but I did not see the feet trailing the tail.

There is a boat trip to Mousa. From May to July there is an evening boat that leaves at 11 PM and returns at 1 AM. With a torch (flashlight) you walk to the broch to see the Storm-petrels entering and leaving their nests. After the first of July it stays light much longer and the night trip does not go.
On August 3, I went on a day trip which left at 12:30 in the afternoon and returned at 5 PM. We walked to the broch which is an Iron Age structure unique to Scotland. A broch is a short double walled tower with a staircase between the walls. Archeologist are not quite sure why they were built or what they were for. I climbed to the top and on the way up heard one of the Storm-petrels making a soft purring noise within the wall. That was my European Storm-petrel experience to date since I never saw one at sea.  On my next ferry trip from the Shetlands to Norway I did see numerous Storm-petrels which I assume were European Storm-petrels from the top deck of a very large boat.

I walked the path around the island seeing: 3 Great Skuas chasing a tern, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Arctic Skua, Arctic Terns, Guillemots, Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Grey and Common Seals, Rock Pipet, Carrion Crow, Wheatear


Three days was not enough for the Shetlands. You should allow at least five days and it is really worth a week. If I were to go again I would spend several nights at the hostel on Unst and I would come in June.

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