Welcome to Birdland
If Orkney ever needed a new name, Birdland would be very fitting. We have 12 RSPB reserves here, and of course the birds know no boundaries – they don’t stick to reserves but crisscross our skies continually. Orkney really is the land of birds.
Low flying swans at Stenness Loch, Orkney. Photo: Nick Card
Peaceful and spectacular
Six of the reserves are scattered across our outlying islands: Egilsay, Hoy, Papa Westray, Rousay, Shapinsay and Westray. The others are in various parts of the Mainland, within easy reach of most of Orkney’s population. Which is great, even if you’re not a keen birdwatcher. The reserves are in some of the most peaceful and beautiful parts of the island.
Birsay Moor in the northwest of the Mainland, and Cottasgarth and Rendall Moss in the northeast, are heathery moorland particularly good for seeing birds of prey, such as merlins, kestrels, and hen harriers.
Marwick on the Atlantic coast is defined by spectacular cliffs thronged with thousands of skraiking guillemots, razorbills, and fulmars. It’s also one of the best places in Orkney to see puffins, from late April onwards. If you’re lucky you can spot them flying out empty-beaked, then reappearing 10 minutes later with a neat row of tiny sand-eels lined up for feeding their precious chick back in the family burrow.
Hobbister has cliffs too, facing south across Scapa Flow. They’re lower and less spectacular than Marwick’s, but still popular with guillemots and kittiwakes. There’s moorland here as well, so keep an eye out for short eared owls and hen harriers. Down near the cliff edge there’s a quite unexpected picnic table and bench. Someone must have dropped it into this remote location by helicopter! A great spot for a sandwich and refreshment.
Talking of refreshments, whisky lovers should note that Hobbister is where Highland Park distillery cuts its peat, which adds so much to the final aroma of Orkney’s most famous dram.
The Birdland necklet is inspired by Orkney's ornithology.
Wonderful walks and wild swimming
Keep walking west and you’ll find one of Orkney’s most beautiful beaches, Waulkmill. A deep U-shaped beach carved into the Orphir hills, at low tide the sand stretches for half a mile towards the Flow. Ideal dog walking territory. When the tide’s in, it’s a popular spot for wild swimming especially towards the end of a summer’s day, as the sun heats up the sand, which in turn imparts some warmth to the shallow water.
The Loons is a couple of miles inland from Skara Brae in the West Mainland. The largest area of wetland in Orkney, this is the place to find water birds such as wigeons and pintails, summer waders like black-tailed godwits, and white-fronted geese, which arrive from Greenland every autumn.
A favourite feature here is the Listening Wall. A large, curved wall facing the wetland, it gathers together any sound the birds make, and bounces it back, amplified, to the visitor sitting in front of it. The effect is almost uncanny – and very beautiful.
Finally, the reserve closest to Ola Gorie’s heart is the one in the heart of Neolithic Orkney at Brodgar. Ola lived at Brodgar for many years and would often step out her back door to take the circular walk through the bird reserve: along the shore of Stenness Loch, past the magnificent Ring of Brodgar stone circle, then back home via the grassy path bordering the road. It’s not just residents who can take this walk – all are welcome – it’s just that you’ll have to use one of the public car parks as your starting point.
A short eared owl at Brodgar, Orkney. Photo: Nick Card
Inspired by nature
Whether it’s a still, icy winter morning, when ducks and swans throng the loch, or a summer’s day with temperatures rising, flowers peeking out of the verges, and curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers filling the air with their calls, Brodgar is always a great walk. Down by the lochside, herons can be seen stalking for fish (the loch is full of trout). If you’re really lucky, you might see some of the loch’s resident otters while you’re there. Early morning tends to be the best time for them.
When visiting Brodgar in the spring, watch out for hares boxing or chasing each other in nearby fields. The start of the warmer days is also signalled by the skylarks that start unfurling their glorious ribbons of song high above the standing stones. By contrast, autumn brings skeins of migrating geese overhead with their calls like the creaking of rusty hinges.
Over the years, Ola has drawn inspiration from specific bird species in her designs. Puffin and Robin are two of our most popular wildlife collections, for instance. But the Birdland collection is different. It doesn’t celebrate any particular bird, but rather Orkney generally: the land of birds. In her designs, the graceful birds in flight are set against the reeds of a lochside, or beautiful mother-of-pearl clouds.
Some fly free in a clear Orkney sky…welcome to Birdland!
Oystercatchers take flight on a snowy spring day. Photo: Nick Card
- The photos used to illustrate this blog all come from in or near the RSPB Brodgar reserve, and were taken by Nick Card, director of the ongoing excavation at the Ness of Brodgar. For every photo used we are donating to the Ness of Brodgar Trust, as we do for every piece of Ness of Brodgar jewellery we sell. As well as overseeing one of the most important archaeological digs in the world, Nick is a brilliant wildlife photographer – and has the good fortune to have the RSPB Brodgar reserve on his doorstep.