/ Scotland2016

Weds - Hen Harrier is the new Curlew

Oh well not quite, but bear with me dear reader.It's raining again, not heavy and not enough to stop us going out. Or it wouldn't be on its own, but in combination with the hoolie blowing wind it is going to be pretty unpleasant out there. No more housekeeping to do, so let's go for a drive.First stop the Orkney Brewery. We're out of beer in the van so where better to refill stocks than the brewery itself. Answer - Tescos who sell most of their beer cheaper than the brewery itself (and also sell the Orkney Wine cheaper than I paid at the winery shop on Monday). Still the brewery do have a few bottles we've not seen before including heavily discounted end of line Christmas ale. We are now restocked! A few miles up the road is the new Swannay brewery, whose beer we've drank draught in town and have seen an interesting bottle range in one of  Kirkwall's delicatessens. This time the brewery is bound to be cheaper. Nope, it doesn't have a shop!Oh well, we were passing anyway on our way to the Brough of Birsay, which is a tiny island walkable by causeway at low tide. Some Viking archaeology and probably the best place to find puffin. We get there, the tides out, but the rain is steady and the wind relentless. Some other time, maybe.So we decide on trying to find the RSPB hide in the moorland where there is a chance of spotting hen harriers. It's remote, very remote, down a single track lane, without passing places, through a muddy farmyard (mind the cow blocking the gateway) and on to a small car park. Then a half mile walk across soggy moorland to a very nice, modern hide. 15 minutes elapse and nothing other than Oystercatcher, Curlew, Greylag Geese, and LBJs (little brown jobbies, too fast and flitty to be identified). Then there he is, distant and needing binoculars but the unmistakable white and black wingtips of a male hen harrier. Our first ever sighting. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”  He comes lower down the hilltop and closer, a good few minutes display, then soars off into the distance. Wonderful. But it gets better, just a few minutes later we catch a glimpse of something large coming down close to the hill line and then landing. After a few seconds of trying to identify the landing site with the binoculars, I spot her, the larger, brown female, just standing by a clump of peat, some goodly distance away. Here's the male again, he comes down and practically buzzes the female. She ignores him so off he disappears, up and over the hill. Now she rises, slowly, majestically taking the air, soaring on that strong breeze, letting it carry her up and along the hill. She twists our way, teasing, promising to come nearer and then back into the wind and in a couple of wingbeats makes the hill top and disappears behind it. That's all folks!Back to the car park, open the door, and what's that suddenly appeared directly overhead, another male hen harrier. Fantastic. Back up the lane, avoid some Dutch birdwatchers who we manage to squeeze past in the width of the farmyard. Back to the main road, still single track but with passing places this time. A quarter mile down and there's another female hen harrier just up above the road. Hmm I said "Fantastic" when we spotted the 2nd male, I'm running out of superlatives. So I say to Liz, what we need now is a Short-eared owl to round this off nicely. No more than 20 second pass and Liz exclaims "there! Sitting on a rock". Now the gods of ornithology were smiling on us this afternoon, I was driving directly past a passing place. Emergency stop, binoculars out and there's the owl 40m away, sat placidly on a rock outcrop. We stare at each other for 4 or 5 seconds and it flaps gently a few metres further away behind a protective screen of peat and heather. My closest ever encounter, he is incredibly detailed with binoculars at that short distance. It doesn't get better than this!Oh yes it does! Another quarter mile on and a small brook cascades into the roadside verge. A couple of Oystercatcher and LBJs but then a flash of chestnut and grey. A Kestrel, no it's a bit small and that twisty flight, it must be a Merlin! Habitat's right and they are more common here than Kestrel I believe. What a great hour for birds and 3 good 'uns from the car.On to Stromness where parking was a nightmare so we gave it a miss and went instead to Yesnaby cliffs. A nice walk along the clifftop to a rocky head that in a few millennia will be a tiny island. Grass topped cliffs, perfect for puffin, and today's going to be the day. Sadly not, we'd overreached into the basket of ornithological bounteousness - lots of burrows that screamed "puffin" but the birds themselves were absent. Still a beautiful walk and a nice view of the Old Man Of Hoy as the backdrop.

Back to the van and then something totally different, swimming. The leisure centre with full size pool is adjacent to the campsite and we had a couple of free swim vouchers so whilst others effortlessly crawled or breast-stroked kilometres up and down the pool, Liz and I kept the lifeguards' attention with the half splash, half flounder strokes of poor swimmers. Still it meant we got a nice, hot shower.