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A Report from

Western Isles, May 24th – June 6th, 2008,

Gordon McAdam

After a successful long weekend on Islay at the end February this year  - despite some fairly awful weather – and a glorious long weekend on Mull in April we were looking forward to visiting the Western Isles.

Prior to going to Islay and Mull we were already considering the possibility of another trip to India in early 2009 but after the Mull trip, (marred only by failing to manage to meet up with Nige, Nick and John – 3 Lincolnshire birders we had met in Goa in November 2007), we began to think that further birding trips within Scotland, eg Orkney or Shetlands, might become a good alternative - and the Western Isles reinforced that thought!  BUT, come the British winter, although it barely deserves the title now, no doubt thoughts of the Himalayas will, once again, come to the fore.

Anyway, getting back on track.  Trip timing was a compromise on the fact we were camping – ie, didn't want to be too early so as to avoid poor weather but still hoping to pick up on a few migrants and experiencing the breeding birds.

As it happened we needn't have worried about the weather as it was absolutely glorious – it rained from mid-day to 8pm on the first Wednesday, which apparently was the first in 7 weeks, with some overnight rain on 2 other occasions.  Everyone we met was totally unprepared, equipped as they were with wet weather and cold weather gear.

We left Irvine around 8.30am on Saturday 24th May heading for Ullapool to catch the Stornoway ferry.  A pre-planned stop at Loch of the  Lowes provided a pleasant comfort stop with a good selection of woodland birds, the Ospreys and 3 Great Crested Grebes.

We arrived in Ullapool in good time to fill up on the excellent fish and chips before embarking.  The ferry trip itself didn't produce many birds with only a few rafts of Guillemots, a few Razorbills, a Puffin and a single Red Throated Diver while we were within the confines of Loch Broom.  As we got into open water we began to pick up Fulmars and Kittiwakes, a few Great Black-backed Gulls and a single Bonxie heading back in towards Loch Broom.  And so it continued until about ¾ and hour out of Stornoway when we got 2 more Bonxies headed east and a line of distant unidentified Skuas beating North into the wind.  Approaching closer to Stornoway Black Guillemots and Arctic Terns became evident.

Once ashore we set-off straight away for the campsite close to Cnip (NB101361). £5 per night for a tent with a shower block (50p for the showers).  Stunning location and a variety of habitat available.

We spent 5 nights there with trips to the Butt of Lewis, Tiumpain Head, the moorland in the interior of Lewis and the general Uig area. These trips were relative unproductive.  At the Butt there were,relatively few, Fulmars, Kittiwakes,Gannets,Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Shags, Rock Pipits and Wheatears – the latter to become very familiar on the Uists.  Tiumpain Head only added a few Bonxies and Ravens to the list.  Loch Stiapavat (NB529642), a known spot for rares, only provided half a dozen Tufties and dozen or so Mallard.

The run up to the Butt did produce the first Hooded Crow along with a couple of Swallows and a Curlew – none of which were seen often here or the Uists.  On the return 2 Mute Swans were seen flying over the Loch Drollovat (NB475608). Taking the A857 across to Stornoway and then, from Stornoway, the unclassified road to Breascleit (NB218355) gave only a distant and brief view of a Golden Eagle.  Hardly surprising I don't suppose given the vastness of the peatlands and the low numbers of the “speciality” birds such as Greenshanks.  However, as we dropped off the moorland a small lochan turned up a small colony of breeding Black-headed gulls, and also had a brood of Teal along with Redshank and Dunlin. Futher down the road a pair of Golden Plover were being harassed by Lapwing, and a Grey Heron – a first for the trip.

A trip around the “campsite island” turned-up numerous Ringed Plover, a few pair of Lapwings, lots of Skylarks, Meadow pipits, Wheatears, Starlings, Rock Doves,3 pairs of Common Sandpiper, Black Guillemots. Willow Warbler, Robin, 3 cuckoos, 3 Stonechats, a pair of Whinchats, Peregrine, Blackbird, Red Throated Divers, Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Common Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Gannets, Eiders, Red Breasted Mergansers, Arctic Terns, Raven, Sedge Warblers, House Sparrows, Shags and Cormorants – the benefits of birding by bike or foot!!!

It was too early for the Machair to be in full bloom but it was nonetheless well carpeted with a variety of flowers – mainly Daisy and Birdsfoot Trefoil.  Also there were plenty of Green-veined Whites and Large Red Damselflies to add to the 4 Spotted Chasers seen on the moorland between Stornoway and Breacleit.

On the Sunday night a Golden Eagle carrying prey and 2 Buzzards were seen over the ridge behind the campsite.

Elsewhere in the Uig area, Mangersta Point (NB004334) provided the usual sea/shoreline suspects but it was interesting to see 5 Wigeon flying south and a Ringed Plover flying north along with more Common Seals and a pod of 5 Dolphins.  The surrounding moorland had breeding Golden Plovers ans Dunlin. On a more contentious note – there was a large, winter plumage, diver close in-shore (no description submitted yet so this might not stand the test) which, on the basis of the bill, may have been(was?) a White-billed Diver. 

We called in at Arbroil Beach (NB037319) and got our first Corn Crake – calling but not seen – along with Collared Dove and Song Thrush.  A walk over the moor at Loch Stacsabat (NB064310) didn't give up any hill or moorland birds but the water to the north of the weir had 12 Goosanders and a Common Sandpiper.

The road to Eisgein (NB328119) gave up only a single Buzzard, a few Mipits, a pair of Ravens and the odd Hoodie – then the rain came on.  We spent the late afternoon/early evening at the campsite luring Common Gulls and House Sparrows to cheese! However, when the rain stopped at about 8pm we went to spend a while scanning the bay as we were leaving the next morning.  Eight Sanderlings, 1 in almost full breeding plumage, had arrived and fed along the surf-line for almost 40 minutes before heading off North Eastwards.  Along with them on the beach were 15 Ringed Plovers, and 2 Oystercatchers; 20 Black Guillemots, 19 Razorbills, 1 Guillemot, 1 Red Throated Drive on the water and a female Sparrowhawk flew in off the water followed by a calling Greenshank north.  We fell asleep that night to the sound of drumming Snipe on the marsh behind the site.

Before we left on Thursday morning, 15 Arctic Terns a Great Northern Diver and a Black-throated Diver, both winter plumage, were seen in the bay  with a solitary Sanderling on shore.

As the day brightened up we packed up camp and set off for Leverburgh to catch the ferry to Berneray en-route to the next campsite on Benbecula.  On the journey we had our first Kestrel and 2 fly-past Merlins.  At Tarbert we also got our first Greenfinches along with 2 singing Blackbirds and a singing Robin.  -  The scenery is stunning and could feature on any list of must-see places.

The short ferry journey had all the usual suspects but, in addition, some great views of Arctic Skuas  - at one point 2 of them plus a Bonxie appeared to trying to drown a Gannet – a few non-birders also enjoyed the spectacle. (We had already seen a Bonxie attacking a Razorrbill on the surface in the bay at the campsite – it missed the first time and gave up).

The journey through North Uist to the campsite at Liniclate (NF779500) was memorable for the contrast in scenery from Lewis/Harris and the numbers of Redshanks in the classic RSPB members magazine pose – ie, perched on top of a fence post.

As we pitched the tent Skylarks could be heard singing all over the placed, Mipits “seep seep'd” all around and there was a constant cacophony of scolding Redshanks and Oystercatchers whilst calling Lapwings rose and fell over the machair and a Wheatear  “serenaded” us from the roof of the toilet block.

After settling in we set off in search of suitable Corn Crake habitat.  Not far up towards one of the townships we found a large marshy area (well it would have been had there been any rain) with a large expanse of Iris bed.  We waited from 10pm to 11pm but heard nothing but walking back to campsite the first of several Short-eared Owls to be seen flew over.

The next morning was spent visiting a number of sites on the Uists and Benbecula.  A good deal of effort was put into staying in one place being patient rather than chasing around looking for stuff.

We had several sessions on the Committee Road  and over the piece we  saw 2 Hen Harrier food exchanges, 1 Merlin food exchange, a pair  of adult Golden Eagles. Two 2nd winter/sub-adult Golden Eagles, Short Eared Owl, Buzzards, and a Sparrowhawk.  At the raptor watchpoint there was an interesting Stonechat with very pale plumage and a Golden Plover which looked much more “northern” than any of the others we came across.  This site turned up as many interesting human characters as it did birds.

The first Otter sighting was at the point of Balranald.  Strange grunting/growling noises heard behind a low rocky promontory accompanied by odd behavior by a pair of Turnstones – calling and jumping up and down - alerted us to something happening.  All of a sudden an Otter appeared  on the rocks and went charging along them and up off over moor – brief but nonetheless top action! We visited Balranald twice seeing a couple of singing Corn Buntings but nothing else that wasn't seen elsewhere although that didn't detract from a few hours pleasant birding around the reserve in glorious sunshine and beautiful coastline.  The weather was useless for sea-watching although approximately 200 Shearwaters passed south away off-shore – most in a bunch of about 180.  Aside from these a couple of Arctic Skuas cut over the point going north.  The lochan at the point was an excellent place for eating the 'sannies' whilst watching summer plumage Turnstones and Arctic Terns courting.

Further Otter sightings were had on the road to Peter's Port (NF840467) where one swam past about 10m from us, and again at North Loch Eynort (NF790283).  At the latter we had a sighting of a single Otter hunting then later a pair moving in towards the head of the loch. We had previously gone on an Otter walk with the RSPB at Loch Langais (NF841649) to view a known Otter territory.    Two and a half hours produced a fly-over Peregrine and a Herring Gull almost demolishing a complete brood of Shelducks. 

Which brings me to the issue of patience. As the guided Otter walk involved a small payment we got the impression that a number of punters were less than satisfied and a few left before “the end”.  The latter (those leaving early) was an attitude we came across quite a few times.  Particularly whilst trying to see raptors.  If something didn't show itself within 20 minutes/half an hour that was that then!

Loch  Eynort is a good site.  The woodland on the north side was full of Redpoll along with Goldcrests, andWillow Warblers. Although we didn't see either Golden or White-tailed Eagles it is possible to view a distant eyrie and others we met had seen both species.  Note: by all accounts its been a disastrous breeding season for White-tailed Eagle.  As far as I could ascertain only 1 pair out of 9 had managed to hatch eggs this year – one theory was the increased level of jet and helicopter flights in the area.  Less clear about the Golden Eagles but the pair between Malacleit and Scolpaig that the RSPB “use” for the guided Eagle watches had failed.

On our first morning I was up with lark and out along the beach at the campsite.  As on every morning – with a bit of a lull during the day before hotting up again just before sunset -  the Redshanks, Oyster catchers and Lapwings were making themselves heard.  The beach held lots of Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, a smattering of Sanderling (we had about 40 the previous evening just up the road at the jetty and I hadn't realised so many would, like the birds on Lewis a week earlier, still be showing so much non-breeding plumage), a Greenshank and 2 Whimbrel.  As I walked along the path on the edge of the dunes a Dunlin sprang from beneath my feet giving the broken wing display – I quickly moved on.

Also seen along the beach in the area of the campsite were up to 16 Shelducks of which 2 pairs had broods of 12 and 10 (when seen! - see earlier at Loch Langais!)

The campsite and Liniclate is ideal for the lazy birder.  Just along the road is a loch, un-named on the OS maps, but widely known as Coot Loch (NF767510).  This loch has held a number of rarities in the past but we “only” had a brilliant drake Garganey and a drake Scaup.  Also present were 5 Gadwall, 16 Shoveler (including 1 with a brood of 4), breeding Coot. Little Grebes, Mallards

(b10, b10, b6, b4, b2), 16 Tufties, a pair of Mute Swans with 5 young.  Grey Heron were often present and there was a constant coming and going of Greylags, Redshanks, Oyster Catchers, Lapwings, Dunlins, Ringed Plovers, Black-headed Gulls, Common Gulls and Arctic Terns,(only saw a few Common Terns the whole time).

The site is also convenient for Corn Crakes and we eventually got sightings of them (not great) and is close to a Red-necked Phalarope site.  We, along with 4 other birders, had a reasonably good viewing of a male.  Several other people reported seeing 2 females and an RSPB person who was there to study the Phalaropes use of the marsh said he too had only seen females.  We also went to   

Loch Thallan (NF740220) to check out reports of up to 5 Phalaropes with no luck but were recompensed with great views of an adult Golden Eagle soaring over the machair.  Tuffties had bred on the loch and we added Reed Bunting to the trip list with a possible singing Reed Warbler (but I'll say no more about that as my experience of the species is very limited)

We visited a few other places spending some time looking for Black Throated Divers but didn't manage to find any.  That included Loch Druidibeg (NF789381) where we got a pair of Stonechats with a brood of 3 and close-ups of several Golden Plovers.

Unlike most other holidays we didn't finish up a day or 2 before the end with that 'end of holiday' feeling as the 5 hour+ ferry journey from Lochboisdale to Oban was like another day out – with all sorts of possibilities to anticipate.

As it turned out the birding was none too exciting with a few Bonxies, some decent views of close in Puffins, the odd Manxie and half a dozen Stormies as we passed Rum. (Add to that a possible one that will have to remain a “what if”? - myself and another birder from Sheffield were pretty sure we had a couple of LittleAuks.  His mate reckoned they were juvenile Guillemots whilst agreeing it was a bit early.  Ah well, that's what happens when you steam on past on a largish ship).

Luckily the dolphins made up for everything.  Three separate pods seen, the last closest to the ship and the largest – we estimated 10+.  What a brilliant show they put on, running  alongside and across the stern, coming right out of the water clearly showing their markings.  Less spectacular, but no less stunning, was the Basking Shark which we passed as we looked over the stern – fabulous sight as the angle meant we could almost peer into its huge mouth as it filtered plankton.

Hunters of 'rares' might choose an earlier week or 2 – certainly we just missed 2 separate Snowy Owls (both pushed off by over-eager photographers, according to many) although while we were there a Golden Oriole, an American Wigeon and a Red breasted Flycatcher were all seen.

All in all a fabulous 2 weeks.  Certainly not a twitchers delight and nothing that difficult to get (distance aside – and a possible White-billed Diver).  But, and I reckon its a big but – experiencing the birds in the manner you are able to do so on the islands is a huge plus.

The numbers of breeding waders escorting you through their territories to be picked up by the next pair, of whatever species, is in itself a great experience.  The same happens with the Wheatears.  Also, the chance of 2 species of Eagles, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Merlins and Short-eared Owls and Arctic Skuas,  not to mention Otters, turning up almost anywhere just adds to the beauty of birding in a fascinating landscape.

A bit remiss perhaps but we did not spend any time at Loch Bi at the north end of South Uist although each time we passed we were astounded by the number of swans present – literally hundreds.


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