Birds take flight on the shore of Rousay
Birds take flight on the shore of Rousay

There are six major groups of birds that make Orkney such a wonderful place for birdwatchers. These are seabirds, passerines, divers, waterfowl, raptors and owls, and wading birds. Please consult the map below to get a better idea of where to find the locations mentioned. See also our gazetteer of Orkney Countryside attractions >>


The most numerous group by far. The sea cliffs of Orkney are a haven for seabirds, with some of the largest colonies in the UK.  The largest colony is at Noup Cliffs RSPB reserve on Westray. Most common species are fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, and razorbills. Black guillemots can be found at Holm of Papay and Lyness, on Hoy.

Also on Hoy are the great skua, with over a quarter of the UK population making the moors of Hoy their home. A large colony of arctic terns can be found on Papa Westray. And last but not least, the puffin can be found at Castle of Burrian on Westray, RSPB Copinsay, Marwick Head, and off the Deerness peninsula on South Ronaldsay.


For the uninitiated, the term 'passerines' means perching birds. As the name suggests, this type of bird is common in woodland habitat, which is short supply on Orkney. The most common species here are blackbirds, hrush, chaffinches, linnet, and, in moorland areas, the skylark and meadow pipit. Also to be found are stonechat and wheatear. There are large jackdaw colonies at Costa Head, and rooks can be seen in numbers at Woodwick and Binscarth on Mainland.


The main bird in this category is the red-throated diver, otherwise known as rain geese. Best site to find rain geese is at RSPB Burgar Hill.


Waterfowl heaven; that's one way to describe Orkney. Geese and swans abound, and the islands afre home to over a dozen species of ducks. Here you will find pochard, shelduck, teal, merganser, and more uncommon species like pintail and garganey.

Raptors and owls

The most common raptor in Orkney is the hen harrier, while merlins, peregrines, kestrel, buzzards, and sparrowhawks are also present. The short-eared owl is also common.

Wading birds

This is one of the most numerous groups of birds in Orkney. Eleven different species of waders make the islands their home, from plovers to curlew, redshank, oystercatchers, lapwing, snipe, whimbrel, black-tailed godwit, and dumlin. The best place to watch waders are at the RSPB reserves of The Loons on Mainland and Mill Dam on Shapinsay.

Orkney map

And a little calendar showing the best times to view different types of birds:

The Birdwatcher's Year in Orkney

wintering species
breeding species 

I would like to acknowledge the wonderful series of visitor pamphlets published by Visit Orkney in the preparation of this brief guide to birdwatching in Orkney.

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