Surveying raptors generally involves being out at dawn or dusk and spending long stints sat in the heather on a hill, or other vantage point. It’s cold work, and a lack of feeling in fingers or toes is highly likely, but then there’s nothing quite like watching a ghostly male hen harrier float over the heather, a short-eared owl patrolling the rough ground with its head down or a merlin whizz past. However, it has been a year of mixed fortunes for raptors on our local RSPB reserves.

Hen harrier on heather – Christine Hall

Hen harriers have had a relatively poor year across Orkney, with fewer territories occupied than usual across both Orkney Mainland Moors reserves, and our Trumland reserve on Rousay. The number of chicks successfully leaving each nest was also lower across Mainland reserves and on Hoy. 

Merlin - Eric Meek

Although no Merlins bred on Orkney Mainland Moors reserves this year, they did breed successfully on Hoy and at Trumland, producing at least seven young, in total. 

Short-eared owl - Christine Hall

Short-eared owls were seen at Hobbister for the first time in many years. There were also territories at Trumland, but only one chick is known to have fledged across the Orkney reserves.

White-tailed eagle - Martin lever 

Amid this mixed year for our birds of prey, it was wonderful to see the white-tailed eagles on our Hoy reserve successfully fledge two chicks, the first of their species for at least 145 years, and a hopeful start for these magnificent birds re-claiming their old haunts around Orkney.


Orkney’s reserves are a fantastic place for wading birds, filled with the calls of displaying curlew and lapwing, it’s a sure sign of spring. We are lucky on Orkney to support high densities of several wading birds, including curlew and lapwing, but also snipe, redshank and oystercatchers. As many of our waders are struggling in the UK, monitoring the numbers on our reserves is especially important.

Mill Dam - Becky Austin

Survey and monitoring is a firm favourite of the wardens in Orkney, and the lowland wader surveys are especially enjoyable. It’s essential to do the surveys in good weather, so they are only undertaken on the most beautiful of mornings. Then on arriving at your survey area you are met with the calls of curlew, lapwing, redshank and oystercatcher, all offset to the drumming of snipe. You take a steady walk along the transect recording all species you hear and see, which demonstrate behaviour indicative of breeding. If there’s a better way to spend a morning, I’m yet to discover it. So, what did the surveys tell us?

Curlew - Christine Hall

Overall in 2018, curlew had a good year in comparison to 2017. The Loons had a total of 38 pairs recorded on surveys: an increase from 30 last year. There were small increases at Mill Dam, Loch of Banks and Onziebust, but a small dip in the numbers at Brodgar.

Lapwing - Christine Hall

Lapwing, on the other hand, seemed to struggle at the Loons and Loch of Banks, with numbers dropping from 45 in 2017 to 34 in 2018. It wasn’t all bad news for lapwing though: they had a great year at Mill Dam.

  Snipe chick - Christine Hall

Overall, the population of waders across many of our wetland reserves in Orkney are stable, and are even increasing in some areas. We will continue working to protect these areas, and seek out opportunities across our reserves to provide the best habitat we can for waders.

An update on the seabird monitoring results will follow over the next couple of weeks.