Sunday, February 10, 2019

Orkney Continued: Marwick Head

Hands-down the best single site we birded in Europe was Marwick Head RSPB in Orkney. Located in the northwest of Orkney’s mainland, the place was a dream-come-true, even if we missed out on some highly desired birds. The landscape is simply breathtaking, and the birds weren’t bad either. (You can see our last blog post from Orkney here). 






The parking lot abuts a little rocky inlet where we had a group of Common Eiders feeding along the near shore. Eider faces are so damn weird. This little group of juveniles were moving and shaking, moving their little feet, probably stirring up some grub, and then dunking their heads underneath to claim their prizes. They were really fun to watch.










While enjoying these funky-faced ducks, we enjoyed the White Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Eurasian Curlews, and Eurasian Oystercatchers that danced around on the rocks. Making our way onto the main trail, a Stonechat found himself perfectly at home atop some stones.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

Meadow Pipit

Stonechat on stones!

The barbed wire makes this Stonechat look so tough

Stonechat

Stonechat

We followed the footpath that led uphill to the vantage where you can overlook (in the right season) the colonies of seabirds nesting in the cliff face. On the way up, we saw a couple of old familiar faces – Northern Wheatears (which we saw in France two summers ago), and flying Northern Gannets.

Razorbill on the trail sign, but unfortunately we didn't see any real ones

A spectacular view!

Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear

Northern Gannets

Northern Gannets

The trail brought us under the flightpath for a hundred or so Northern Fulmars zipping close overhead. So close, in fact, that we had a tough time keeping them in focus (a blessing and a curse, as Adrian Monk would say). With our main telephoto lens still suffering from internal moisture due to the incessant rain we had in Edinburgh the previous day, I had a hell of a time (even more so than usual) taking pics of the flying Fulmars. However, my frustration was about to take a turn as we started to descend the cliff.

Maureen amongst the dozens of Northern Fulmars flying above




Nick taking pics of Northern Fulmars

Northern Fulmar slicing through the air

Northern Fulmar belly shot

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

The highlight of our time with these tubenoses (peak beak? the culmination of culmen nation?) was finding two individuals resting close by to one another, and close to us, where they proceeded to chat and make faces at each other for several minutes. We wondered whether it might be possible to tell male vs. female since the bills on these two are so dramatically different, but probably not: Birds of North America says, “Bill variable; yellowish to bluish gray…” so it may not be related to sex.







In that moment, all we could do is bask in this epic encounter, observing behavior at its finest with these beautiful birds. We had never got to really appreciate Northern Fulmars to this extent until right then. What could look like just another gull in passing to a novice or someone not really paying attention is actually quite an elegant looking seabird, who is also pretty darn cute.







At the same time we had to keep our eyes out for Great Skuas, which passed by much less frequently. And judging by the photos, a Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua, as Europeans call them) or two also slipped through. Oh, by the way, Orkney has some fun names they have come up for birds. Parasitic Jaeger is called Skooitie Allan, Northern Fulmars are called Mallimacks, and Great Skuas are called Bonxies! Adorable. 

A big chunky Great Skua

Great Skua

Great Skua

Parasitic Jaeger/Arctic Skua

We can’t imagine what this place is like in peak season – as it was, we could barely contain ourselves amid the swarm of activity all around us. A pair of small finches, called Twites, made for a nice farewell present on our way out, although they made it that much more difficult to leave. 

Twite

Common Redshank

Great Cormorants and gulls

One happy gal

One happy guy

An unplanned stop when we originally started planning our UK adventure turned out to be our overall best birding spot! We even fit in a bit of history and culture on this trip, checking out the Neolithic sites, standing stones, and Viking relics, including the St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Thanks again to Kate and her family for inviting us and welcoming us into their home and showing us around this truly spectacular place.


A little church

Us and Standing Stones

Standing Stones
Neolithic site

Neolithic site


St. Magnus Cathedral

Viking statue in St. Magnus Cathedral

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