Saturday, July 10, 2004

Day seven of my Shetland & Orkney trip for Speyside Wildlife with fellow guide Ray Nowicki.
Guests: Liz, Chris, Joan, June, Daphne & David , Mary & John, Margaret & Terry.  
“Happy Birthday Steve!” was the chorus at breakfast, as the group gave Steve a warm birthday greeting and a lovely card of his favourite Orcadian archaeological site – the Ring of Brodgar.
After breakfast we headed for a winding drive across country to Tingwall, taking in some of the standing stones to get our bearings. Just past Brodgar, Steve tells his car to look out for owls, and as if pre-ordered, a Short-eared Owl lifts from the lochside grass and begins to float around the open grass fields. What a start! And only minutes later we are watching a female Hen Harrier quartering fields near Dounby. This is great!
We arrive at Tingwall and board the ferry – backwards! Our vehicles are boarded first and we have much fun watching others nervously reverse on to the ferry. “Just how much room does a small car need?”. We stay in our cars for the crossing, watching the less than wave-dynamic front of the ferry slopping against the sea and water rushing under its ramp onto the car deck! We pass close to Wyre Skerries which is covering in lounging seals – masses of them.
We dock at the pier on Rousay and pay a visit to the heritage centre by the quay. This is a great centre covering many aspects of the island’s history and wildlife.
We make our anti-clockwise way round the island, passing under the dominating Knitchen Hill. The island is lush and green with wooded areas here and there. The hillsides are heather-covered and dark at a distance, but glow purple with small flowers on closer inspection.  

We head up to Ervadale on the east side of the island and take a track westwards in to the interior. We pass a mown field which has a round central area still standing, Steve explains that this is one method used to protect nesting Corncrakes, a handful of which still occur on Orkney. We find a suitable spot overlooking the Suso Burn and west up to the Goukheads (Orcadian for Snipe). There are Skylarks and Meadow Pipits all around us.

A couple of Pheasants pick around the fields but the real interest starts when Steve finds the first of two family parties of Red Grouse on the nearby heather moor. Ravens bounce around the moor, often sharing the old and crumbling buildings dotted all over with Hoodies and Rock Doves. Oystercathcers decorate fence posts – lines of them in places.

A female Hen Harrier is glimpsed in the distance before a Short-eared Owl begins a grand performance. It starts of distantly and disappears before returning much closer. At one point it is pursued by Common Gulls which drive it closer to us and we can see its orange eyes. “I’m happy,” comments Chris. “I just wanted to see their little faces,” she adds. Just after the owl is lost, John asks Steve to look at a speck above the hill opposite “Peregrine!”. Although distant, we all get on to it but they can hardly be called great views. Shame.
After lunch we venture up to the Wasbister in the north of the island. The fields are green, have grass or barley, and the cut fields (for silage) are stuffed with birds. Hundreds of Oystercatchers, Rock Doves, Lapwings, gulls and Starlings – it’s a beautiful wildscape. At the loch we come across another one of those flocks of freshwater bathing Kittiwakes – like butterflies dancing over the loch. A pair of Mute Swans have cygnets and a sleeping swan draws “that isn’t a Mute” from John. And he is right. It lifts its head and it’s a Whooper! Well done John!
We then switch to archaeology with a visit to Mid Howe. Here is a burial chamber to impress. The 4000 year old tomb now lives within a modern building to protect this important treasure form the elements. The 23m long tomb is divided into 12 compartments known as stalls by dividing stones up to 2.5m tall. When excavated in the 1930s (when the building was put up around it), human bones were found along with pottery artefacts.

It’s a truly awe-inspiring place, and visitors view it from both ground level by the tomb’s entrance, and along an overhead gantry which allows us to look right in to the tomb (which is roofless). The overhead gantry also allows those clumsy enough to drop things onto the ancient tomb! Oh dear. Whose is that hat? “Is that my hat?” shrieks Chris. I’m afraid it is! A slight feeling of horror grips the group before the funny side kicks in and “prehistoric man wore bobblehat” headlines emerging. But how are we going to get it out? We can hardly stomp across a 4000 year old structure to rescue a hat. Nor could we leave it.

Terry grabs Margaret’s walking pole and extending it to full length, leans off the gantry to flick the hat, expertly, off the top of the wall to where it can be safely retrieved later. Phew! Whilst we are at it, we relieve the tomb of a couple of items of litter using the spike on the pole. Good show chaps!
Next to the tomb is an unrelated Iron Age broch. This is another fascinating Neolithic site showing the amazingly advanced building of 3-5000 years ago. The inside of the broch is sub-divided into working, living, sleeping and storage areas, demonstrating an advanced cultural structure and social definition of the different facets of life at the time.
Catching our breath after the hike back up the hill to the cars, Ray spots a Peregrine taking a Starling. We all get good views as the Peg heads along the coastline and out of view, presumably to a nest where the Starling will be despatched to its young.
We make our way to Trumland Wood where from the road we listen to the trees in the hope of adding some woodland birds to the trip list. A couple of Robins (new bird!) tick from below the undergrowth, and one bird is glimpsed. A Wren dances around the shadows by the stream.
Arriving back at the quay we find a noisy, bustling place. It’s been the annual Rousay Island Boat Race and there are people and all sorts of floating craft everywhere! Some grab a cold drink to quench the thirst in the warm sun before we reverse back on to the ferry for our transfer back to the Mainland.
We arrive back at the hotel an hour and half ahead of dinner, so there is plenty of time to relax, grab a drink at the bar before going in to eat. Unfortunately, our request for one table has been ignored and we eat at three separate tables. Maybe tomorrow!

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