The Orkney Islands are one of the most remote and scenic parts of Scotland, and the small island of North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island that visitors can see. This remote island makes it a particular favourite for migrant birds to stop by as the seasons change, and it is an excellent place for birders who love to birdwatch.
The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, in particular, welcomes anyone with a passion for birds to come and enjoy the island’s wide variety of exciting and unique birds. At the observatory, you can photograph the migrant birds that stop at the island, see the mist nets used to catch and tag the birds, and even stay as guests at the observatory’s lodgings.
This island has a lot to see, from breeding birds, seals, and even seaweed-eating sheep! It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the country to see if you have time to do so. And while North Ronaldsay is a fair distance from the Scottish Mainland, its remoteness makes it a desirable destination for birders who want to enjoy watching birds in solitude.
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North Ronaldsay is one of Scotland’s most sparsely populated places, with only about 60 permanent residents living on the island. The lack of people makes this one of the best places for breeding birds to stop as they migrate away from the colder climates of the world.
North Ronaldsay is one of the most minor islands out of the far-flung Orkney Isles, measuring about 690 hectares. This condensed area makes birdwatching a treat, as the migrant birds don’t have as much space as they would on the Scottish Mainland. This means you can expect to see a wide variety of diverse species without having to travel very far.
The North Ronaldsay is truly one of the best places to enjoy birdwatching, especially with the breadth of knowledge that the workers at the observatory are equipped with. The observatory was established in 1987 and has grown to be one of 19 bird observatories that track and monitor the migratory patterns of birds around the British coastline.
Details to Know
It may be scary to consider visiting a remote island in Scotland, especially if it’s your first time coming to the country. Thankfully North Ronaldsay is accustomed to visitors and has a blossoming tourist season during the summer months. Adventurous and avid birders are often the primary demographic of the island’s tourists, and the North Ronaldsay Observatory is one of the biggest attractions they can look forward to.
The North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory sits at the island’s southern end, about a 5-minute drive from the North Ronaldsay Airport (although almost all destinations are within a 10 – 15 minute drive).
The island is small and accessible for all to traverse, although it’s always advised to respect the private property of farms and homes. No bird is worth annoying the locals!
How to Get There
The biggest obstacle to many is reaching the island of North Ronaldsay. It would be best to reach the Orkney Isles mainland before you first organise passage to North Ronaldsay. You can reach the Mainland by hopping on a ferry from Thurso, which will take you to Strumness.
From there, you’ll either need to take a ferry or a plane to North Ronaldsay. There are daily flights to North Ronaldsay from Kirkwall, which are quick and short. If you want to save on travel costs, you can also catch a ferry to the island but these only travel once a week.
Best Time to Visit
The keen birder will love visiting the island of North Ronaldsay year-round. However, it’s highly recommended that you come in either spring or autumn.
Birds regularly migrate to the island during the spring, but May is a perfect time to come and enjoy the sights. May is also the best to see the birds in their smartest plumage, which offers the best photos if you’re a budding bird photographer.
During the autumn season, September is the best time to visit. The island’s other animals are also more present during the autumn months, like the aforementioned seaweed-eating sheep.
Top Birds to Look Out For
The wide variety of bird life that passes through North Ronaldsay can never be understated, but here are the top birds to look out for and the best ways to identify them.
Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea)
You’ll certainly hear the wealth of Arctic Terns that shelter on the rocky beach cliffs of North Ronaldsay before you see them. These birds are recognisable thanks to their small red beak and legs and distinctive black spot on the top of their head, which contrasts against the white body.
The Arctic Tern is known for its long migratory journey, travelling from the Arctic to the Antarctic to enjoy warm weather every year. While their noisy calls aren’t welcoming, they are an excellent spot for avid birders.
Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus)
These bright red birds are a welcome contrast to the grey, white, and blackbirds you’ll see in North Ronaldsay. Known for their stubby red beak and colourful red feathers, these birds are one to look out for while on the hunt.
Common Rosefinch rarely pass through North Ronaldsay, but consider yourself lucky if you spot them!
Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)
Within the abundant Holland House Gardens, there live smaller finds that will make the day of any birder who visits. Holland House is an epicentre of adorable finches, nightingales, warblers, and thrushes. There’s a lot to keep an eye out for, especially the Thrush Nightingale.
Their grey/brown back appearance makes this bird easy to miss, but they are easy to hear with a diverse set of chirps as their call – extremely melodic!
Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer)
The Great Northern Diver is one of the largest UK divers, easy to spot with their larger size and sharp beak. They are an amber rating on the UK’s conservation list and are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Their summer plumage is easily identifiable, with a green head and neck, long black beak and a mottled grey and white overpart. Their first winter plumage is more mundane, replacing the green head with a soft chestnut brown.
Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
Continuing the trend of large birds, the Greylag Goose is the giant and bulkiest wild geese native to the UK and Europe. They are the wild ancestor of most domestic geese, so they’re easy to spot! Just look out for their bright orange bill, red legs, and mottled brown, black, and white colours.
These geese are relatively easy to spot during the winter months, so keep an eye out while visiting from October til February! They can often be spotted at Nether Linnay, a distinctive coastline of North Ronaldsay.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many accommodation options to choose from while staying on the North Ronaldsay islands. If you’re keen to get as much birdwatching done as possible on your visit, then it’s recommended that you stay at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory accommodation.
Everything you need is available, including an en-suite guest house, self-catering and hostel accommodation. There’s even an area for camping if you want to take an especially adventurous step while on the island. It really is a perfect place in North Ronaldsay.
The observatory offers a small shop and meals for their self-catering guests, giving you all the delicious food you need to fuel a busy day of birdwatching. And visitors can enjoy a wee dram from the observatory’s licensed bar once the day is over! We recommend booking ahead of time as availability can be scarce.
Otherwise, the Holland House is another excellent place to stop by. A short flight back to Kirkwall is possible on most days if you want to spend more time on the Mainland after you’ve covered most things to do on the island. Feel free to check out our other accommodation options for the Scottish Isles.
Things to Do Nearby
If the birdwatching is sparse, guests can look forward to seeing the other attractions the island offers. Common seals and sheep are some other wildlife you can see lounging and grazing alongside the shore – North Ronaldsay sheep are famed for having seaweed as part of their daily diet!
The Holland House and New Kirk are also notable attractions, with a fascinating history intertwined with the region. North Ronaldsay Island also has two great lighthouses on its coasts, from which you can see Fair Isle and even Fitful Head on Shetland if the day is apparent. The New Lighthouse is a great location to stop by with your friends and enjoy a quiet moment appreciating the stunning beaches and the northern reaches of the North Sea. Here are some more suggestions for things to do nearby.