Land up in the Hills of Orkney

Echnaloch- Burray

We met at Echnaloch Bay car park, Burray around 10am.


The morning weather was sunny and fresh, south easterly force 4. We moved from the cars a few yards to the west to gain the shelter found on the north side of Echna mill (a starkly exposed refurbished drystane holiday cottage) which was very welcome. From the barbecue patio we could observe in relative peace the treasures that Echnaloch Bay frequently stores up.

Six or seven handsome Velvet Scoters were located, two of them, looking as dark and round as Christmas puddings, were sufficiently near so that we could see their strongly orange bills and white eye spot. The white wing patches, which are obvious in flight, can often remain totally hidden when the bird is at rest, but may be glimpsed when the bird prepares to dive.

Amongst the Velvet Scoters, small parties of very striking Long-tailed Ducks (or Old Squaw) bobbed. Whether it is summer or winter, their plumage is breathtaking. Some young males can look very like females, but, if there is a hint of pink on the bill, then it’s always a male.

Less conspicuous in the Echnaloch Bay waves were Slavonian Grebes. There were at least 12 of them off shore, all in their rather subdued winter of plumage of black and white. The most distinctive features about them in winter are their small size, black and white/grey overall appearance, black caps and pointed bills. It’s hard to believe that they turn into the black, chestnut and gold jewels of their breeding season.

The sunlight also picked out a further group of 12 grebes on the Newhouse shore, three Red-breasted Mergansers, a ginger headed Eider, and a much diving winter plumaged Black Guillemot. A brace of muscular Mute Swans powered towards us, exciting both visually and aurally, flying a few yards overhead.

In addition, the Hallam’s telescope focused on a diver a long way out to sea which displayed all the characteristics of a White-billed Diver, a species which occurs in Orkney only very, very rarely.

The weak autumn sun highlighted a long white bill and a head that was held at an upward tilt. These features became even more apparent when this bird was seen alongside a Great Northern Diver which had a dark bill, a shorter bill and a level head profile. The pity was that the birds were as far away as they were but Tim was 99.9% sure that it was White-billed Diver.

During August, a White-billed Diver frequented Kirk Sound in Holm, only a few miles from Echnaloch Bay, so it could well have been the same bird. Everything was going fine until we started walking! Before putting one foot in front of another, Echnaloch Bay had done us proud.

Churchill Barriers

barriers arial

We then divided the cars, leaving half at Echnaloch and taking the others to No 4 barrier car park.

We felt the full force of the breeze and offshore, on the east side, a group of Eiders and two Long-tailed Ducks rode the rollers while in the waters of a much calmer Water Sound was a dazzling male long-tailed Duck and two more Eiders.

Two sparring female/young male Kestrels appeared from the cliff face. By the side of the outflow of the Burn of Sutherland, four Ringed Plovers, four Turnstones and one Oystercatcher roosted. Within the burn (really just a boggy dribble) a tiny Stonechat hopped from fence post to fence post. Even with such a strong wind blowing, it was able to find enough shelter to capture flying insects. After some discussion we decided to return to Echnaloch via the East coast of Burray, rather than the more protected west side. We set off toward Ness Point. The wind was still gusting force 4/5 but it was still dry.

Our plan was to head east in search of small migrants that had made landfall during this southeasterly wind. This took us out to Ness Point, a pretty bleak spot across a very weet field. As usual Tim strode out ahead and I fell 50-100 yards to the rear while negotiating the boggy bits.

Two weeks previously, on a similar wind, the geos of Burray had swarmed with Goldcrests and Robins - according to our fearless leader. A similar scene today was hoped for. It didn’t quite go to plan though. We saw very little along the length Ness road; a few Redwings and Fieldfares, a tantalizing view of a Sparrowhawk, a handful of Snipe and at Southfield quarry, two Mallards, a Moorhen, a vanishing Little Grebe and 12 pigeons or Rock Doves to give them a fancy title. At Little Ness, a few Redshanks, and a Golden Plover consorted with a group of Lapwings. Two Grey Herons, recent arrivals from the Baltic, took to the air on our approach.

Ness Point is one of the lowest trig points in the UK, as a matter of very little interest.


We had a well earned lunch, on the beach out of the wind, just beyond Ness point, taken in the company of 30 Common Seals and 16 Purple Sandpipers who continually talked to us about the impending rain. They were right.


We followed the low cliff path, with the wind and rain at our backs and saw nothing, either of small migrant birds or of anything much else. The bird highlights were few, probably more low to low/medium lights: a smattering of Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and five Grey Herons.

The dune stacks at Bu Sands held a party of 20 Teal and scores of Snipe, most of which swirled over our heads. In the company of a club-footed juvenile Pied Wagtail.

We observed with concern the latest Bu Sands excavations. This beautiful place has become a sand quarry and together with the natural world considerable damage is being done archaeologically. The hugely evocative and still present plaque for “Campo 34″ was noted at the nearby farm before we trudged miserably up Whitebeam avenue with grounded Redwings in pasture to the north.

According to Tim an easing of the weather conditions at the south end of Echna Loch witnessed two little Grebes, surprisingly easy to see. A Merlin dashed across the fields towards Burray garage. On the west side of the loch, we looked at two species of diving duck: Tufted Ducks and Pochards. A Song Thrush sat motionless on a fence post at Echna View and a bedraggled group of birdwatchers arrived back at Echnaloch Bay car park as did a party of eight southbound Snow Buntings - but by then some of us didn’t really care, especially yours truly !

This was a more onerous and less successful trip than our previous outing, although we still saw more than 33 species they were often at a distance or through rain sprayed binoculars, so all in all the return home to dry clothes and a cup of Tea was welcome.

White-billed Diver


The White-billed Diver is best described as being like a massive Great Northern Diver with a ‘parsnip’ for a bill, with the pointed end of the parsnip sticking upwards. The bill of a Great Northern Diver can sometimes look pale, but never completely horn-coloured even along its upper edge, or culmen and the Great Northern holds its bill horizontally, not pointing upwards.

In winter and immature plumages, White-billed Divers are generally paler than Great Northerns and have blotchy markings on the face and neck. The suggestion of a half-collar around the neck is similar to that on a Great Northern but the dark ear-patch in an otherwise pale face is a good distinguishing feature.

Winters around Arctic coasts where a few birds may stay in summer.A rare, annual vagrant - usually to Shetland and northern Scotland. There have been 242 birds in Britain and Ireland up until the end of 2003.

White-billed Divers normally breed in Arctic Siberia and Canada, rather than Europe but a few birds regularly summer around the northeast coast of Norway. Ekkeroy Island in Varanger Fjord is a good place from which to get close views but they are more reliably seen at longer range by sea-watching from nearby Hamningberg.

In winter they are found in small numbers along the Norwegian coasts with double-figure counts in several areas eg. 30 around the islands off Trondheimsfjord. Probably 50-100 or so pairs breed within Europe, all of these being in Russia. There is also a wintering population of 100-200 birds in the North Sea.

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