Land up in the Hills of Orkney

Finstown to Harray Lochside

We met at 10 am at the Harray Lochside viewpoint, a well sign posted stop on the summer tourist trail.


Six out of 10 of us turned up. The weather was very dull and a wee bit damp with a cool easterly wind. Cloud cover was very low, but according to our Seer like leader, lifting.

From the Lochside viewpoint we watched a couple of Red-throated Divers off Ling Holm in the early stages of their 2006 breeding season. Even at this range it was possible to differentiate between the sexes - the male being appreciably bigger than the female. Discerning ears picked up a couple of Loon wails.

In the nearer waters were a collection of Tufted Ducks and a handful of Coots (Snysen) while further out was a substantial Wigeon flock.

The previous day had seen torrential rain with a bitterly cold wind, so my optimism was not so well placed. It had rained in Orkney for the best part of 24 hours. Saturday was a total washout and to make matters worse, we’d lost an hour (British Summer time started today) However our mystic leader’s crystal ball had predicted a drying wind and a dry Orkney after 10.00 - and that’s how it turned out, by 16.00 we all felt so much the better for our Sunday hike.

We left half the cars at the viewpoint car park and took the others to the main public Finstown car park very conveniently placed for me of course, just over the Heddle Hill from my hoose.

Finstown is unique in Orkney villages being very well protected from the South and West by the Heddle Hill, given protection from the North by the Rendall Hills and from the East by the Ouse and Bay of Firth. Consequently it is one of the few places outside Kirkwall with full grown and fully formed trees.

As it is well populated the combined effects of house gardens, trees, bird feeders and common public spaces has created a micro-environment very attractive to over wintering Little Brown Jobs, or LBJ’s as they are known.

The carpark is right on the shore side of the Ouse, home to Jane Glue’s impressive new Shorelines gallery, and location of the regular friday Peedie Chippie, the best and usefully mobile Fish and Chips in Orkney.

Out in the bay was a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers and three Fulmars while a Kestrel gave the Starlings a run for their money. Striking inland through the cemetery we passed via the headstones of famous Orcadian artist Stanley Cursiter and former Liberal leader politico Jo and wife Laura Grimond.

We spent the first 90 minutes pottering about the back lanes on the Heddle Hill, specifically at one particular house that has been made very bird friendly by the owner, the garden at Va’haavn. Initially the feathered inhabitants were hard to see - we heard lots of wheezing Greenfinches and rattling Chaffinches, but they certainly weren’t obliging.

Thankfully the finches heard our grumbles and all-of-a-sudden put on a riveting display that involved at least 50 Greenfinches, ten Chaffinches and at least two Bramblings (one male, one female). Added to this was the large number of Collared Doves that have made Finstown their home. Behind the kirk, four Redwings scuttled in the grass.

We crossed the road and made our way to the shore of the Ouse which was remarkably quiet with just a handful of Wigeon, four Mute Swans and two Redshanks.


Up on the main road four Redwings lurked in a tree. We moved from here to the entrance gate to Binscarth woods, part of the Binscarth estate owned by the Islands largest land owner, Major Macrae, the closest thing we have in Orkney to a Laird. The woods are open to the public and are a 20 acre mature full grown woodland.

A substantial flock of Woodpigeons lifted from the trees as the Rooks were absorbed in nest building. A Kestrel was seen beating east over Cuffie Hill. As we made our way towards the burn, the high and thin contact notes of a Goldcrest or Goldcrests could be heard.

There were no Grey Wagtails or Dippers on the Binscarth burn but we heard our first Skylark of the season. Half way through the woods we paused for a watering and lunch stop.


We made a detour to the quarray garden which is sometimes home to long eared owls, very rare in Orkney. We bumped into the Laird exercising his spaniels and passed the time with the custodian of this lovely place. The owls were not in residence so we carried on, passed varoius unexplored bronze age barrows and left the woods overlooking Wasdale loch.


On our way to the loch we passed a Robin sheltering on the lee side of the path. A couple of Blackbirds and a Song Thrush threw themselves into the gorse bushes underneath Howe Harper cairn and a flock of Woodpigeons were fossicking in a damp field. Overhead a Cormorant flew high over the Finstown gap.

On the loch edge, six Teal puttered about, while on the far side were at least 20 Wigeon. A small knot of Tufted Ducks mingled with the Wigeon and our third Red-throated Diver of the day was settled at the north end of the loch.

In the air a Pied Wagtail rattled towards us. On the side of the loch, we lunched on what was left over from our previous watering stop in the woods and witnessed Red-throated Divers at pretty close quarters and a single drake Pochard. Common Gulls and Lapwings harried a female Hen Harrier as it wheeled over the nearby fields.

Near the Slap of setter by my request we telescoped the beautiful waterfall at Syradale and watched a pair of Tufted Ducks, half a dozen Coots and nesting Black-headed Gulls.

At the potentially beautiful but pitifully polluted and generally trashed Stedding, the embarrassment known as Refuge, 30 Fieldfares were on their way to summer in Scandinavia. Near Rosebank, six Teal hugged the water’s edge.

We moved up the track to the Harray/Birsay Road, a fast and busy Orcadian arterial route and walked 50 meters up it to the north where we left this main road and crossed over to the Harray Lochside.

An ancient droving peat track led us through the heart of Grimeston - our first bird was a brief view of a Short-eared Owl. Bubbling Curlews were all around and Greylag Geese, previously absent, suddenly put in a much more obvious appearance. Huge brooding Ravens cronked from the derelict building at Dale, and we were improved by our leader who pointed out the rare alkaline fen and its black bog rush, a designated SSSI, that we had just stumbled through.

A couple of Snipe exploded from beneath our feet and we found the only Meadow Pipit of the day.

At last we came across a few summer migrants - the Dewar gulls - the first was bathing but the rest of them were showing off their bright yellow feet and legs - four spanking Lesser Black-backed Gulls. At Quoyer another bullish Raven barked his annoyance at us and just beyond, five Golden Plovers, some of them in summer plumage were jewels in a field of docken sticks.

Thanks to the new Land Management Contracts, a newly created path took us across the fields and back to Lochside viewpoint, where we spied the two Red-throated Divers from the morning plus a third. We returned to the vehicles and I gave Tim a lift back to his car at Finstown. The following day I was lucky enough to see a somewhat rare glaucous gull, or rather lucky enough to recognise it, at Skaill Bay, but that is another tale.

Collared Doves, AKA Pigeons in disguise

Everywhere we went in Finstown we saw Collared Doves. They are closely associated with human habitations, especially where grain is available - and because of all the feeding stations in Finstown gardens, grain is always available.

These doves are now a familiar sight and sound in Orkney’s villages. In some areas of Britain, their appetite for grain and their monotonous cooing have resulted in their being regarded as pests, and treated accordingly.

Yet it was only in 1955, that the first Collared Doves nested in Britain. The colonisation of Britain and Ireland has been one of the most dramatic events witnessed by present-day ornithologists, but is just one stage in an even more dramatic range-extension northwestwards across Europe.

Until about 1930, these doves were restricted in Europe to Turkey and parts of the Balkans (Albania, Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia). They reached Hungary in 1932, Czechoslovakia in 1936, Austria in 1938, Germany in 1943, the Netherlands in 1947, Denmark in 1948, Sweden and Switzerland in 1949, France in 1950, and Belgium and Norway in 1952 - thus spreading over 1000 miles in less than 20 years. Early in the 1970s the species even bred in the Faeroes and Iceland.

In Orkney, the first Collared Dove was recorded in St Margaret’s Hope on 23rd July 1962, seven years after they had first nested in Britain. In 1963, a partly built nest was found in Balfour Castle Woods and there were sightings from Kirkwall, Binscarth Wood and Rousay in the autumn.

In the following year, 1964, a nest with seven eggs was found in Binscarth Wood. Since these early days, Collared Doves have continued to expand their nesting range in Orkney and nesting pairs can be found, albeit in small numbers, throughout all the inhabited islands.

Many of Orkney’s Collared Dove strongholds support at least 20 birds; however Finstown remains the pre-eminent locality and in late January 2003, the Heddle Road trees held a record 92 roosting birds.

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