Orkney Islands with stops in Lothian and Northumberland 2-6 December 2019

Annual leave at the tail end of the year and a clear week with no commitments paved the way to hook up with Jubs in Kinross, we had hastily put together a plan to head up to the Orkney Islands to have a look about and have a go at seeing the first winter male Steller’s Eider that had been around for a month or so.

Up and about for 4am and on the road by 5am made sure I reached the Northumberland coast for my first birding stop at Cheswick Sands. I wanted to have a look for the Black Scoter that had returned to this area. The first birds after leaving the car were two Snow Buntings that flew about over the dunes.

A good vantage point from the dunes allowed me to scan the numerous birds on the sea, it was pretty rough out there but scopework revealed many Red-throated Divers, a couple of Great Northern Diver, a Long-tailed Duck, Eiders, 700+ Common and 7 Velvet Scoter plus Slavonian Grebes, Razorbills, Guillemots, Shags and a Great Crested Grebe. What appeared to be a scallop dredging boat came into the bay and drove the scoter flocks away so I didn’t have a chance to find the Black Scoter. I had a really good couple hours at this site, scanning a winter sea was exactly why I wanted to be here.

My next stop was at Fisherrow, near Edinburgh but it was getting dark as I arrived, Velvet Scoters, Eiders and a high tide wader roost were the highlights. An unwelome traffic obstructed drive across to the Forth bridge and then on to Milnathort where I met up with Jubs. We had a brew, a meal and decided to book a hostel room in Inverness to break up the journey. We set off so that we would arrive late evening allowing us to rest up from midnight and get going again at 0500am.

Our ferry was booked for 0845am, we arrived in Thurso with time to get some early morning bakes and tea from a supermarket before boarding the ferry in the car. With a daylight we stayed out on deck to scan the sea. Black Guillemots, Gannets and numerous Fulmars were logged as well as the Old Many of Hoy (sandstone rock stack). Conditions were not too good, very overcast and raining but we did appreciate the sunrise this far North.

Soon after docking we set off to explore Mainland Orkney with numerous stops on the East side of Scapa Flow especially scanning from the Churchill Barriers. It was great to see so many Red and Great Northern Divers, Razorbill and Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Slavonian Grebes, Eiders, Shags, Red-breasted Mergansers and especially the magnificent Long-tailed Ducks. One freshwater pool held a 1w male Greater Scaup along with Tufted Ducks and dabblers. A few Stonechats were also seen. Small flocks of Greylag Geese were regularly encountered.

We finished up at Scapa Pier prior to a short internal flight to Papa Westray (Papay) which turned out to be a rather scenic sunset flight. On arrival we were surprised to be met by one of the residents who ran the hostel, she kindly picked up our bags to drop off at the hostel and drove us the short distance to St Boniface Kirk where we had 30 minutes until darkness to have a stab at seeing the Steller’s.

We couldn’t locate it as the sun set but had good views of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls plus a few Eiders before giving up until the next day. A walk back to the hostel followed, our bags were waiting for us in the room and we had the whole hostel to ourselves. A couple of the islanders we re-stocking the adjacent community shop but they were expecting us and had already kindly arranged to open it so we could purchase provisions.

We settled in to watch a film, cook a meal and relax with a couple of beers. A comfortable night in the excellent hostel and next morning a good breakfast set us up for a full day on the island, we set off up the coast stopping at the the antiquities along the way. We turned up plenty of birds including Glaucous Gull, numerous Great Northern Divers and Purple Sandpipers. The Steller’s Eider gave itself up at around 2pm as it fed in the surf but took flight and flew close in past my sheltered vantage point. We followed it on a hunch thinking it must have joined the Wigeon flock on the sea. We relocated it settled on a small loch in the company of Tufted Ducks, we had good views of this rare Arctic visitor and whilst we were watching it a Hen Harrier dropped in to roost.

The school bus arrived to drop some kids off on the far side of the loch and this spooked the wildfowl, the ducks flew off onto the sea and we couldn’t relocate the little Eider, the conditions were pretty horrendous, strong winds and lashing hail and rain set in so we gave up, walking back in the dark torrential rain then set in. For the second time on this day an islander stopped to offer us lift back to the hostel despite us being dripping wet. Lovely people.

Another relaxing night at the hostel with a few beers and a bottle of prosecco to celebrate a good day out and up early the next day to pack up and catch our flight back to Mainland Orkney. We then had most of the day to continue birding with much of it spent looking for the local Orcas and visit the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness, a decent tea room for a shot of coffee and then a short drive to overlook a beach at high tide where we scanned the gull flocks finding a 1st winter Icleand and a good 1st winter Kumlien’s Gull candidate. With the light failing we headed off to catch the slightly delayed ferry back to the mainland.

A night drive back to Kinross where I stayed over at Jubs’s place then up and out early to Musselburgh the next morning to scan from the coast paths gave brilliant views of Velvet Scoters and many other sea duck species including a rather distant drake Surf Scoter. A drive further south back to Northumberland for another stop at Cheswick Sands resulted in more sea-duck, divers, auks and grebes including the Black Scoter but this was also distant. At 2pm I decided to wrap it up and set off for the long drive home.

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