James Silvey, RSPB Scotland's Nature Recovery Officer, has this fantastic new travel blog about the wonderful wildlife sights of Orkney.

Orkney: Where to go and what to see

This June I was lucky enough to visit the Northern Isles of Orkney with the aim of carrying out a spring survey for the rare great yellow bumble bee. 

This species has seen a dramatic decline in the UK in recent years with just a handful of areas (including Orkney) still boasting a population of these fantastic insects. 

Unfortunately due to the late spring of 2015 my searches for great yellow bumble bees (a late flying species at the best of times) were in vain. So rather than write a blog detailing species I didn’t see, I thought it may be better to write a travel blog of species I did, and also let you know some of the best places to go in Orkney to see some of the islands most iconic species.

Scottish Primrose: An endemic species to Scotland and, as a friend of mine described it “a wee cracker”. For anyone interested in plants this is a must see and for others this could be the plant that gets you hooked on botany for life. 

The species prefers short vegetation so is often found in areas with quite heavy grazing, or cliff top sites where the constant wind and salt spray help to suppress plants that would otherwise shade the primrose out. Yesnaby on the mainland’s west coast is a great place to see Scottish primrose and a short walk from the car park can yield hundreds of tiny, yet perfectly formed, plants.

The plant flowers twice a year, first in May and then again in July - although this second showing is never as prolific as the first. A top tip at Yesnaby is to search back from the cliffs in the small earth hollows where the plants gain some shelter from the brutal autumn and winter weather.


Whales and dolphins: The waters around Orkney are rich in whales and dolphins (cetaceans) and sightings of risso’s dolphin, minke whale and harbour porpoise are not uncommon. However the star of the show on anyone’s must see list is the Orca. Like any cetacean watching there is a good measure of luck involved in seeing orcas however, timing your trip with calm sea conditions and choosing a good vantage point will dramatically improve your chances. Top spots for whale watching include, Yesnaby, Marwick Head and Brough of Birsay.

Great yellow bumble bee: The peak time for seeing this rare species is July-August when workers and the next generation of queens and males are on the wing. 

Walk the RSPB Scotland track around the Ring of Brodgar for a chance of seeing one feeding on the abundant wildflowers in the area. Look for a large yellow bee with a black stripe across the back linking the wings, if you see this, you’ve spotted a great yellow.

Hen harriers: Orkney is famous for its hen harriers with sightings almost guaranteed if you’re in the right place at the right time of year.


I saw hen harriers and short eared owls every time I drove along the A966 on the eastern side of the west-mainland. However, if you prefer watching their sky dancing antics from the comfort of a hide then head to the RSPB Scotland hide at Cottascarth for some fantastic views in the spring.

I’ve deliberately kept all my recommend sites to the Orkney mainland but to visit Orkney and not visit the other islands would be a real disservice. So I’d also recommend a visit to Hoy for white tailed sea eagles, a walk through the native woodland at Berriedale with mountain hares on the hill tops, Shapinsay for great yellows and Papa Westray for the aerial displays of great and Arctic skuas in May, as well as a Scottish primrose spectacle you’ll never forget.