Sunday, July 11, 2004

Day eight of my Shetland & Orkney trip for Speyside Wildlife with fellow guide Ray Nowicki. 

Guests: Liz, Chris, Joan, June, Daphne & David , Mary & John , Margaret & Terry.  
Overcast and windy seems to be the weather pattern for Orkney. After breakfast, we head southwards across Mainland and at Tuskerbister stop to view the moorland area. Over the next 45 minutes, two plus Short-eared Owls put on a five-star performance. Once bird in particular likes to hunt around an old ruin, landing frequently to despatch its prey head first down its wide mouth. Chris is enthralled by this bird and stays glued to a scope watching its every move. A female Hen Harrier joins us and it too hunts the open area right in front of us before delivering an item of prey to a fledged youngster on the opposite hillside. Fantastic! A nearby hovering Kestrel is our first for the trip!
We move on, but within a mile, and alongside the Loch of Kirbister, we are stopped in our tracks by another hunting Short-eared Owl right by the road. It's making its way towards us, so we pull off and wait for it to flap lazily, effortlessly past us. As it gets level with us it stares right at us! Eye to eye with a Shortie at 50ft is pretty cool!
The loch itself holds only a handful of Greylag Geese so we move on to Waulkmill Bay. A couple of young Stonechats give us the run around but several eventually see them, but parking up for the loos, the bay below us dotted with birds. Tystie, Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, and . . . a Black-throated Diver! Wow! A summer-plumaged bird actively fishing. So its all out, scopes up and watch away. What a corker!

A spanking, if a little distant, Black-throated Diver
We pass through Hobbister RSPB reserve, adding another female Hen Harrier and a Kestrel to the days total and on to Scapa. It's out of the vans again to check the beach, where Ray soon picks up a lone Bar-tailed Godwit and four Sandwich Terns sat on the beach.
We lunch at the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, and crossing the other Churchill Barriers we head for South Ronaldsay clocking up another couple of Short-eared Owls.
Our main destination is the Tomb of the Eagles. On arrival we are given a brilliant introductory talk during which we get to touch some of the excavated artifacts (over 4000 years old!). We learn how tough life was for Neolithic man before going down to see the tomb itself. En route to the tomb, we stop off at the Bronze Age house also found on the site and are told about how Bronze Age man cooked meat by placing hot stones into a ground vat of water.
At the Tomb of the Eagles, we take it in turns to enter the tomb along the low and narrow passage on a trolley! It's an ingenious way to get people in to the tomb, and soon half of us are inside this breathtaking chamber. The tomb is stalled with three chambers. After excarnation (using the local White-tailed Eagles), the skeletal remains were placed on the tomb floor. They would later be ‘tidied’ with the skulls places in one of the three chambers, and the remaining larger bones in the other two. The claws of eagles were used as totems with the burial. One skull chamber has been left with some of the original skulls inside which certainly adds to the atmosphere.
We walk back to the car park along the coast enjoying the auks and cliff-nesting Rock Doves.
After money is spent in the gift shop, we are off back northwards. We pick up a House Martin as we pass back through Scapa, but as we approach Maeshowe, one of the finds of the day drifts past us – a male Hen Harrier. Stunning! It drifts off westwards across the hillside opposite our hotel! We wonder if we’ll see him again?
We again arrive back at the hotel in good time for people to unwind and have a drink before dinner. No single table as requested, so Steve and Ray take things into their own hands and soon, a single table spans the far end of the dining room! As the group arrives for dinner there are disapproving looks from the hotel staff at Steve and Ray’s handiwork, but much appreciation and words of thanks from the group.

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