Autumn wildlife-watching in Orkney

The autumn months can be amongst the best to experience wild Orkney and everything it has to offer.

The islands are the perfect destination for wildlife-watching at this time of year. Nature lovers can also take in our spectacular scenery and seascapes over the coming weeks, fully embracing the elements!

So, what should you look out for during an autumn break in Orkney? We’ve picked five of our favourites.

Grey seals

Grey seal pups can be seen on the shore throughout Orkney this autumn - image by Adam Hough
Grey seal pups can be seen on the shore throughout Orkney this autumn - image by Adam Hough

Orkney’s grey seal population give birth to their pups at this time of year, gathering in colonies called ‘rookeries’ on safe and secluded beaches around the islands. The early weeks of November usually bring the greatest activity, with hundreds of seals on shorelines, but pups can be born all the way through to mid-December. Sanday, Stronsay and South Ronaldsay are excellent places to see rookeries – just make sure you keep your distance and don’t disturb them. The fantastic Sanday Seal Cam is back this year too, so you can keep an eye on proceedings from the comfort (and warmth) of your own home! The Sanday Ranger also runs regular seal pup walks - check out the official website for more details.

Migrating birds

Barnacle geese in Orkney - image by Raymond Besant
Barnacle geese in Orkney - image by Raymond Besant

It’s worth keeping your eyes on the sky during the autumn months in Orkney. The islands are on the flight path for migrating birds and there have been some stunning sightings over the years. Redwings, bramblings and flocks of waders are often present, as well as Slavonian grebes, barnacle geese, waxwings and even whooper swans. Orkney has 13 RSPB reserves that offer perfect locations and hides to spot some of our passing populations. There’s also the famous North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory too, an absolute hot-spot for migrating birds.

Mountain hares

Mountain hare in Hoy, Orkney - image by Linda Heath
Mountain hare in Hoy, Orkney - image by Linda Heath

There is only one place in Orkney to see these snow-white hares. Our high island of Hoy is home to these characters, with their brown coats beginning to turn white from around now, before their transformation is complete come the New Year. We don’t get much snow in Orkney so these hares can often be easy to spot. Take the ferry across to Hoy and head for Rackwick, or walk through the glen from Moaness, to see them for yourself.

Hen-harriers

Hen-harrier in the sky above Orkney - image by Raymond Besant
Hen-harrier in the sky above Orkney - image by Raymond Besant

Orkney is home to healthy numbers of these incredible birds of prey, which can be seen coming together to roost at dusk at this time of year. RSPB reserves like Cottascarth in Rendall and at Durkadale in Birsay are excellent places to see those beautiful birds. They seem to drop like dead weights into the sanctuary of the moorland, with more and more birds visible as the autumn turns to winter.

Northern Lights

The Northern Lights over Orkney's east mainland - image by Premysl Fojtu
The Northern Lights over Orkney's east mainland - image by Premysl Fojtu

Ok, this isn’t strictly a wildlife attraction, but it’s certainly a highlight of living at 59 degrees north at this time of year! The Aurora Borealis, or the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ as they’re known locally, come alive as the darker nights arrive. The phenomenon is caused by solar wind from the sun colliding with magnetic particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. For us on terra firma, that means beautiful displays of lights flickering across the night sky. You can see displays with the naked eye, but a camera really helps bring the shows to life – check out our guide to getting the most from your Northern Lights experience.

Experience Orkney in autumn with our ‘See you at the Weekend’ promotion. Visit our website to explore a wide range of enticing offers, including some fantastic accommodation and touring deals, as well as inspiring itinerary ideas and films to help you make the most of your stay.

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