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A Report from

Skye, 14th-28th May 2011.,

Colin Holter.

14.05.2011 -  28.05.2011, staying at Otterburn, Lower Breakish, Broadford.

Whilst not primarily a birding trip, my binoculars & notebook are never far away when on holiday, & my wife Janet is a more than competent birder. We didn’t go out of our way to seek birds, I just noted down what we came across on our travels around the island.  We had hoped to do a number of walks up into the Cuillin, but the weather was so dire for much of the time, that we hardly set foot in the hills. We enjoyed many wet & windy coastal walks, observing the wildlife wherever the weather allowed & probably visited parts of the island that we might not have, had the weather been more suitable for hillwalking.

Principle daily highlights:

14.05.2011:  Arrived, late PM at self catering cottage, Otterburn, overlooking Ob Breakish & the Ardnish peninsula, thereafter relaxing after 2 days driving up from Sussex. Sunshine & showers. Sedge Warbler singing on into darkness in willows at side of garden, nice sound to go to sleep by!

15.05.2011:  Walked from cottage, along footpath from Breakish to the road end of Waterloo, & out along the Ardnish peninsula. Showers & grey skies. Counted c.8 pairs of Wheatears along the north side of the peninsula, lots of Meadow pipits & Skylarks singing. As the tide pushed in, c.30 Ringed Plovers & a similar number of Dunlin (many beautifully summer plumaged, & calling, that evocative, grating sound that we seldom here at home in the south of England.) 1(f) Eider off the point, & further out, 1 near summer pl. Great Northern Diver.  3 Bar Tailed Godwits, with curlews, oystercatchers, occasional redshanks.  Out near the point, we nearly trod on a Common Gulls nest, a lovely, sparse cup of grass, with 3 drab mottled olive eggs, checking later from a distance, a parent bird soon returned to the nest.  As we returned to near  Waterloo road end, we were treated to another much closer G.N. Diver in complete summer garb – splendid stuff! Then, whilst searching the sea for the divers re-appearance after a dive, a Great Skua flew past heading into Broadford Bay, I followed it past the new pier, until I lost it against the buildings of Broadford. We returned to the cottage, pleased with our walk, as the evening turned greyer & wetter.

16.05.2011: Grey, damp, & murky morning. Sedge warbler singing from various perches around garden. A Wheatear(f) visited the lawned garden, a couple of times. We drove over towards Torrin, going down to Camas Malag, but having to abort a walk along the boulder foreshore, because of the unremitting torrential rain & treacherously slippery boulders, a few Ringed Plovers on the beautiful pebbly beach.  We drove round the head of Loch Slapin, to Kilmarie, where we parked by the river mouth, and enjoyed numbers of Swallows, with lesser numbers of House & Sand Martins. Good views of a number of Common Sandpipers here, blissfully sheltered from the strong westerly wind. We walked through the woodland, & round the headland to the well preserved Dun Ringill, noting a Black Guillemot on the sea, & 6 Gannets out over the middle of the loch. A Kestrel over the hillside here.  Drove over to the lower car park at Elgol, instantly finding a Twite in the car park, which I wasn’t expecting. The Cuillin veiled in black cloud, looked fantastically dramatic, (in several visits to Elgol over the years, I don’t think we’ve ever seen the whole of the Cuillin ridge free of cloud!) but no matter, I always enjoy visiting Elgol.  We had a slow drive back round Loch Slapin, as a heavy shower lessened to mere drizzle, stopping here & there, & soaking up the gloriously wild ambience of the place, a Snipe was vocalising, & drumming over the west side of the loch, with Common Sandpipers  & Wheatears seemingly everywhere.  Superb haddock & chips supper from the chip shop in Broadford, eaten in the car overlooking Broadford Bay, with a LBB gull in close attendance, & late sunshine picking out Pabbay, cloud shrouding the mainland beyond.

17.05.2011: Grey start with some broken cloud, rain & wind forecast for later. Took advantage of the lull to drive up to the Storr, parking in the busy carpark, & quickly climbing up through the forest, to the Sanctuary & the astounding rock architecture. A bit of sun, but mostly grey, with distant views to the mainland, from Quinag & Ben Mor Coigach far away to the north, round to Beinn Ghobhlach & An Teallach, the Torridon hills, Kintail, & round to the Red hills in the south, the Black Cuillin shrouded. The cloud spreading up the Trottenish ridge to overtake us, & preclude any attempt to get to the top of the Storr. We descended in persistent drizzle/rain, with the pinnacles & buttresses now wreathed atmospherically & dramatically in cloud. Birdwise, Wheatears & Meadow Pipits in abundance, Ravens too.  The rain meant a retreat to Portree, rather than continuing up to Staffin as we hoped, not really clearing away until c.22:00h when, from the cottage we briefly enjoyed a bit of a sunset behind Beinn na Caillich & Glamaig, beyond Ardnish.

18.05.2011:  We woke to a grim morning with a gale force westerly driving prolonged very heavy showers. With the rain tending towards the persistent, we drove west over towards Dunvegan, hoping to escape the “rain shadow” of the mountains on the east of the island.....We passed through Dunvegan, & on up the minor road towards the “Coral” beaches at Claigan, in spectacularly changeable weather, heavy squally showers, then sun until the next shower. Good numbers of seals (?Common, I think) on the rocks. Buffeted by really strong winds, we walked to the headland beyond the beautiful white beaches. 3 or 4 Black Guillemots, along with Gannets offshore, numerous Wheatears, a Rock Pipit, & many more Meadow Pipits. Swallows & Sand Martins in profusion, zipping around on the wind. Watched a Sedge Warbler & a Willow Warbler singing in the bushes around the sheltered busy car park.  Later, on the way back, we drove over the moorland, & down to revisit a favourite place on previous visits. The delectable short walk past Talisker House , & down to Talisker Bay. Sunshine & showers driven in straight off the sea on the very brisk wind. We were stopped in our tracks at the rough meadows, just past the house, by the sound of a Corncrake calling, as usual no sighting, but thrilled to hear one unexpectedly. After a while we continued to the beach, where we found 4 Twite at the back of the beach. Despite the really strong wind, these little birds completely at home, managing to fly up & land on a single strand wire fence with consummate accuracy, in a wind that we were having difficulty standing upright in!  Fantastic low sunlight on Preshal Mor, with a rainbow arcing over the top of the hill as we walked back & 2 Corncrakes (!) now calling simultaneously from the same field, pleased both birds calling together, otherwise  we’d have never known there were 2 birds there! More rainbows on the drive back to Sligachan & dinner in the pub.  Another enjoyable day despite the weather.

19.05.2011:  More wind & rain in night, but brightening during the morning. We drove down beyond Armadale, to walk to the Point of Sleat. The best day of the holiday so far (would prove to be best of the holiday!).  Mercifully a little less windy, though still fresh, with many white horses out on the sea. Gannets & Manx Shearwaters seen from the Point. One small party of Razorbills, & the only Wren of the trip heard just behind the point!. 2 Twite, seals, & a single Kittiwake flying adjacent to a group of Shearwaters offshore. Another Great Northern Diver just offshore from the little bay by the isthmus. On the way back, we drove along the Tarskavaig to Ord road, stopping at Tarskavaig Bay, Oystercatchers, Common Sandpiper, Ringed Plovers on the beach.  Gannets offshore, along with yet another Great Northern Diver (this time a ?non breeding bird in winter plumage). Unfortunately, the weather closing in again, so we failed to see the famous view of BlaBheinn & the Cuillin from here.

20.05.2011: Yet another windy rainy night, with lots of weather blowing in & out this morning. Huge black skies at times. The plan was to drive up to the top of Trotternish, but we got sidetracked as we passed Sligachan, by a fairly extensive fall of snow on a relatively cloud free (but grey) Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Bhasteir, & Bruach na Frithe (this was to be one of our few views of the Cuillin tops during the holiday). So on a whim, we shelved thoughts of Trotternish, & carried on to Dunvegan where we had lunch. Sunshine with blatters of black showers on the very strong wind.  We carried on to Neist Point, where predictably, the wind from the Outer Isles was astonishing, but with good spells of sunshine between the dark squalls of rain.  Gannets fishing unbelievably close to the cliffs, Manx Shearwaters further out. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, a single Great Skua marauding the headland (always love to see Bonxies, in my mind one of the archetypal  birds of the north). Meanwhile, many Wheatears, Meadow Pipits & Skylarks sang on & above the turf & rocks. This was really great, only a short (but fairly strenuous) walk, fabulous scenery, great birds, wonderful changing light, really exhilarating! We drove back to a good dinner in the Hebridean Hotel in Broadford, very pleased to have have had such a great day in at times fairly ferocious weather.

21.05.2011: The halfway point of our holiday, & still waiting for a good day to get up into the hills.....after another really wet & windy night, a grey, very windy & often wet morning, with low cloud obliterating the mountains entirely. Spent the morning at the cottage writing postcards, then visiting galleries, etc. in Broadford. Interesting to watch many swallows & a few martins using the shelter of the roadside trees the forage for insects, zipping along at low levels, at great speed, only veering off at the last minute to avoid collisions with passing cars, so fast & agile on the wing. Returned to the cottage for lunch, then drove down the Sleat peninsula to visit some more galleries. Still raining sideways! Afterwards back to cottage & watched the shoreline from lounge window.  2 Whimbrel were a pleasing find, particularly with a handy Curlew alongside. A Siskin(m) visited the garden, briefly. The rain belatedly abated to mere greyness around 21:00h.

22.05.2011:  Woke to the sound of wind, chirping House Sparrows, distant Curlew, & the yapping of Common gulls, but no rain. Patches of blue sky, & splashes of sun! But, windy...close your eyes & listen to the landscape!  We drove to Trotternish, as the weather again sadly deteriorated, parking the car at Duntulm in diabolically filthy & windy weather. Pointless to try & walk anywhere, we carried on round to Uig, where with the car rocking in the very strong wind, we spotted 2 Diver sp. out in the bay, but unable to id, or relocate them once they dived.   With a few patches of sky being ripped clear we headed back to Duntulm, & parked the car by the castle. We donned overtrousers, GoreTex jackets etc, & walked to the castle & down across the beach, past the hotel, & out across limestone pavements, & shoreline to the headland of Rubha Hunish. Buffeted by wind, & strafed by brief but ferocious squalls of rain, we enjoyed brief spells of sun in between, with views of stunning clarity, animated with fast moving cloud shadows, & ever changing skies. We saw close range Gannets, a brief view of Skua sp. harassing a Gannet, but lost it as it departed across the moorland, not a great view in the midst of a squall, jizz suggested it wasn’t a Bonxie, too small, but hard to tell through rain splattered bins! Also Shags, Fulmars & Black Guillemots. Not really conducive to birding, though the transient light was a photographers dream (if you were quick enough), the Shiant Islands looking particularly grand from up on the headland.  Driving back later, we stopped for dinner at the Sligachan Hotel, & read the mountain forecast for tomorrow;  “gusts of around 100mph on the tops, with 60-70mph at sea level, severe buffeting, at times will experience difficulty standing, let alone walking, accompanied by heavy rain or snow.”  Super.....

23.05.2011:  They were right!! We were just thankful we were tucked away in a nice, secure, beautifully appointed cottage, & not camping (as we have often done in the past)!  However, through it all the Sedge Warbler in the garden kept on singing (even at 03:30h in the morning). Drove into Broadford, but car being rocked around, not pleasant. Visited 3 Herons gallery near Broadford Hospital, & enjoyed Ken Bryans evocative photographs, a nice chat & the profusion of Siskins & other finches on his kitchen window bird table!   Returned to cottage, & brief power cut. Lit fire & watched the tide fall beyond the window, listened to the wind, & finished reading my book. Possibly the worst whole day of bad weather we have ever experienced in over 30 years of holidays in western Scotland (or anywhere else, for that matter). The Sparrows out in the garden in their element though, no higher than the daisies in the grass, they seemed to cope comfortably with the wind & rain.  The rain finally abated around 22:00h, & the sun set pink, through a small gap rent in the grey cloud.

24.05.2011:  After the demonic climatics of yesterday, this morning was brighter & mercifully less windy with more broken cloud. Beginning to feel that we’re running out of opportunities for this holiday. We drove round Loch Slapin, & parked the car in the layby by the Camasunary track, just beyond Kilmarie. Amid grey cloud & blaters of rain, we walked to the incomparable Camasunary, with glimpses of the Cuillin & the sun. On the beach we watched 4 Shelduck, assorted gulls, oystercatchers, lots of Ringed Plovers, & a few Dunlin as the tide fell. After soaking up the ambience of this really special wild place, we walked back over the moorland, hearing a couple of Golden Plovers, but not seeing them. Popped down to Elgol, the Cuilin veiled with rain, some cloud down, but  we watched the view change for a while in the strong wind, before driving slowly back round Loch Slapin, which was paradoxically, remarkably calm & restful. Bla Bheinn & Clach Glas backed by black cloud, with shafts of sunlight pouring opaquely across their corries. Stop, switch off the engine, wind the window down & listen.....oystercatchers & gulls, distant quacking (R.B.Mergs or mallards the only possible culprits in view). A pair of Common Sandpipers flying in & displaying briefly. Wheatears. The distant sound of water falling heavily on rock. Gorgeous.   Back at Breakish, rain falling, but in contrast to recently, softly & vertically, a pleasant “soft” evening. Common gulls, oystercatchers. A heron, a motionless, monochrome  tower of feathers, & a dagger of a  beak, a shade of warm yellow or 2 lighter than the sea tangle at its feet. As the light fades prematurely, I want to be everywhere on the island at once, to experience this soft gentle evening

25.05.2011:  We set an alarm, this morning, to walk along to Ashaig beach, at low tide, along the foreshore from the front of the cottage.  Very grey, but practically still, with soft rain coming on.....lovely, peaceful.  5 or 6 Curlews, a few Ringed Plovers (or Ringed Plumbers as my youngest son used to call them when he was little), plentiful Common Sandpipers, 1 summer pl. Dunlin, usual assortment of gulls, a grey seal hauling out on a skerry, 2-3 more seals already hauled out. I counted 5 Sedge warblers singing between our cottage & the point (beyond the small lagoon), along with more numerous Willow Warblers.  The Red hills (grey this morning), slowly diminishing in outline as the rain comes on harder. Back to the house for cooked breakfast.  Rain continuing, so we drove to Kylerhea otter haven hide, blissfully still, but with steady drenching , gentle rain. Splendid new hide, since our last visit, some years ago. c.60 seals in evidence (mostly Common, I think), with some Greys. Lots of moaning, splashing & hauling out. On a couple of occasions even porpoising clean out of the water, many more typically “bottling” & idling though.  Herring, LBB, GBB, & Common gulls on view. Maybe 20 or so Gannets patrolling & fishing the narrows.  We’ve been lucky enough to see a number of otters, over the years, on Mull & around Loch Torridon on the mainland, but had never seen one on Skye......until I noticed a wake of something which was decidedly not a seal, swimming along the far shore of the narrows,  I was pleased I’d brought telescope & tripod along, as a big otter emerged from the water to  remain atop a rock for several minutes, (thank heavens for the calm conditions, any ‘chop’ on the water would have rendered it invisible). Eventually it slid languidly back into the water, only to soon re-emerge onto a rock a little farther along with a huge crab in its mouth. It remained in full (though admittedly fairly distant) view for 30-35 minutes whilst it consumed its meal, jaws working wide & hard in crushing the crab shell. We just watched in awe, & were  even able to give a couple from Kent (the only other occupants of the hide) their first sighting of a wild otter through our scope.....everybody well chuffed!  At length, he (for its size surely indicated a dog otter) slid back into the water & was gone behind rocks & a tangle of kelp, leaving a couple of Herring gulls, which had been in close attendance, to squabble over the remains of the crab.  We had been in the hide for nearly 3hours! Still raining!   We stopped in Kyleakin later, noting a reeling Grasshopper Warbler (through the open car window) on the seaward side between Lusa & the bridge roundabout as we drove along. We  walked around the village, which feels a bit bereft without the ferry of former times. Walking back to the car via  An-t-Ob, an inlet at the back of the village, we encountered upwards of a dozen fairly noisy herons at the waters edge & in the adjacent trees, what I presume must be a heronry.   Eventually back at Lower Breakish, the tide slowly emptying Ob Breakish again, we had a couple of Common Sandpipers , Redshank, & Ringed Plovers through the lounge window. It had rained all day & was still raining, but we didn’t care, we’d had a great day!

26.05.2011:  The wind is back this morning, from the north now, & with it more rain & clag. Mooched about shopping , more gallery visiting (Janet paints, so has more than a passing interest). Then, late afternoon, returned to Talisker Bay, arriving around 17:40h, with low water at c.21:00h. Rain, drizzle & some sublime transient bursts of sunlight. No Corncrakes evident in the rough meadows alongside the path tonight, but there were more sheep in this area than last time. We carried on to the beach where we were delighted to find c.12 Twite, we forded the river across the beach, (wellies & walking poles needed),  and revelled in the wild atmosphere of this place, on the beach of black & white swirled sand, were 3 Dunlin, & 4 Ringed plovers, allowing us to approach very close, oystercatchers & gulls were a bit more aloof. 2 Terns were some way offshore, but had to go down as “Commic” because they were just too distant – these were the only terns we saw all trip – which I found slightly surprising.  The walk back failed again to produce any audible evidence of Corncrakes. We had spent nearly 3 hours over this short walk, soaking up the ambience before our return to home & normality, the day after tomorrow.  Driving back past the veiled Black & Red Cuillin at Sligachan, we stopped briefly to scan over the R.Sligachan estuary, which revealed 2 Goosanders on the river, whilst there were a small party of Red Breasted Mergansers just to the east, on the loch. It was after 22:00h by the time we got back to the cottage.

27.05.2011: Our last day on Skye this visit. A greyish morning but not incredibly windy.  A drive over to Torrin, rewarded us with a fairly still Loch Slapin,  a sentinel heron on the shoreline, & abundant Wheatears round the shoreline. I’d love to know what the summer populations of all these common migrants are on the Island, must run in to 10s of thousands.  We pressed on to Elgol, last chance for that astonishing view of the Cuillin, although grey we could make out 80% of the ridge. As it was around low water, we were able to walk along under the cliffs, enjoying the chaotic geology, particularly the limestone with grykes & fissures, & the famous, much photographed “honeycombed” rock. Childrens voices mingled with the sound of the sea, as playtime came & went at the school, which sits right at the back of the beach. There were the ubiquitous wheatears, & swallows, along with Rock pipits here.  Afterwards, we once again drove down to Kilmarie, parking by the river mouth & enjoying a car bound picnic (persistent light rain) & the blissful quiet feel of the place, along with singing chaffinches, swallows, blackbirds, robins, goldfinches & common sandpipers.  In strengthening wind & rain, we returned to the cottage to pack for our journey home tomorrow.  Another excellent fish & chip supper from the chip shop in Broadford was followed by a wet & windy evening, but the Sedge Warbler outside was still singing, just as he was when we arrived 2 weeks ago.

28.05.2011: We decided to forego a planned overnight stop near Carlisle, & drove home to Sussex in one go, sharing the driving, & with plentiful stops. There were two brief ornithological highlights to come though. Firstly, the Grasshopper Warbler was again reeling by the road as we approached the bridge roundabout. And secondly, we had been disappointed, though not surprised, given the weather, to not see either Golden or White Tailed Sea Eagles whilst on the Island. As Janet took first stint driving, & we headed up Glen Shiel & past Cluanie, a large raptor rose from the moorland away to our right, & flew up a little distance behind the car as we passed. Janet missed seeing it completely, but I saw enough of the huge, long, deep set wings & white carpal patches, & then just a glimpse of a superb pale golden head,  to know this was no Buzzard, but an immature Golden Eagle. I’ve never seen one this close to a road before, but there was fairly extensive low cloud, & a fresh dusting of snow on the intermittently visible high tops, which may have contributed to the bird being this low. We had also just passed a deer carcase on the roadside, & whilst Golden Eagles are, I think not famed for feeding off carrion, I just wonder whether the aforementioned, the fact this was an imm. & possibly relatively inexperienced bird, & the poor weather of the last 2 weeks, may have contributed to its showing an interest in carrion?? The road was also fairly quiet, it being relatively early in the morning. Whatever brought it there, I was very glad to have been lucky enough to be passing as it flew by. After a long drive we arrived home in Sussex around 22:40h having driven c.650 miles from Skye. Despite the weather, I know from previous experience we were just incredibly unlucky to have endured so much wind & wet this time. It just makes me more determined to return again & balance the books!

Species list for birds identified on Skye , 14.05.2011 – 28.05.2011.

Greylag Goose
Common Shelduck
Red Breasted Merganser
Gt. Northern Diver
Little Grebe
Manx Shearwater
Grey Heron
Common Buzzard
Ringed Plover
Golden Plover
Bar Tailed Godwit
Common Redshank
Common Sandpiper
Great Skua
Common Gull
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Herring Gull
Gt. Black Backed Gull
(Commic) Tern
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Sand Martin
House Martin
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Pied Wagtail
Song Thrush
Grasshopper Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Whitethroat            
Willow Warbler
Coal Tit
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Carrion Crow
Hooded Crow
House Sparrow

75 species identified.


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