Trip Reports ______________________________________________________
This was our second tour to the Western Isles in May visiting North and South Uist, Benbecula, Lewis and Harris. Many highlands occurred during the week including the first Red-necked Phalaropes of the spring and Whooper Swans with cygnets one of the few places where they breed in Britain. The iris beds held good numbers of Corncrakes although poor weather made them less vocal than normal. On the coast the northward bound passage of wading birds was starting to tail off a little with Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover being the commonest birds. For many of us the stunning Icelandic race of Black-tailed Godwit was a wonderful experience. Lingering winter birds included a first year Glaucous Gull on Benbecula and several Great Northern Divers off the coast. Passerines as usual were thin on the ground although we connected with scarce species for the islands notably Common Chiffchaff, Greater Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher and Blackcap. Due to unfavourable wind conditions the expected skua passage did not happen this year.
May 23rd: Black Isle, Skye, Uig, Lochmaddy, Coot Loch, Benbecula.
Weather: Overcast with westerly winds 17 C.
We set off from Cygnus House for the ferry terminal at Uig on the Isle of Skye. The journey went smoothly and we arrived ahead of schedule to catch the ferry to Lochmaddy on North Uist. In the harbour at Uig, Black Guillemots, Common Eider, Great Black-backed, Common and Herring Gulls. The crossing to Lochmaddy produced Great Northern Diver, Northern Fulmar, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Black-legged Kittiwakes near the coast. Halfway across I noted a pod of Common Dolphins breaching the surface and heading out into the Atlantic Ocean. On arrival on North Uist we headed straight to Coot Loch on Benbecula which regularly holds wildfowl. On arrival Greylag Geese, Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Common Moorhen, Common Coot and Little Grebe. Nearby a visit to the coast added migratory Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and a fly-by Great Skua. Our last stop of the day at an inland lochan was notable for a female Red-necked Phalarope which literally dropped into the water in front of us. Exceptional views of this beautiful and rare breeding bird of the islands. Headed to base on Benbecula for the first of our three nights.
May 24th: Carnan, Coot Loch, Baile Sear, Aird an Runair, Loch Sanndaraigh, Committee Road, Berneray.
Weather: Cloudy with cool north winds 11 C.
The weather had literally turned around overnight to a cool airstream from the High Arctic. I decided to visit Carnan first before heading into North Uist. By the supermarket we added Arctic Tern, Common Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eiders feeding in the slow-moving channels. At Carnan the commoner waders were present along with a party of Whimbrel. A short stop at Coot Loch produced a Northern Shoveler. At the fish factory on North Uist, gutting was in operation, which attracted many gulls including a first year Glaucous Gull. Along the road Common Ravens were noted before turning off to Baile Sear. The grass fields here held European Golden Plovers and Northern Lapwings. Balranald was next on the agenda with the first pool holding a pair of Whooper Swans with at least six well-grown cygnets. After passing the information centre I drove up to Aird an Runair a noted seawatching site and migrant haunt in late May. In the bay Great Northern Divers, on the beach migrant waders including two parties of Bar-tailed Godwits. The agricultural fields attracted both Twite and Eurasian Linnets and singing Corn Buntings the latter having their last stronghold in Scotland at Balranald. On our return we managed to see three Corncrakes one of which was in flight, always a tricky bird to see well. A brief visit to Loch Sanndaraigh produced summer-plumaged Black-tailed Godwits, Whooper Swans and a nice selection of waders including Ruddy Turnstone. Committee Road is always good for raptors and today was no exception despite the strong winds. In a short time we were watching a male Hen Harrier hunting the moors which eventually mobbed an adult Golden Eagle using the same area. High above us a male Merlin soared over the valley to disappear into a conifer plantation. We ended the day by driving to Berneray to try and find the reported Black Stork, despite a lot of searching we were unsuccessful on this occasion.
May 25th: The Range, Tobha Mor, Rubh Aird Mhicheil, Loch Sgioport, Sound of Eriksay, Rubha Aird a Mhuile, Loch Aineort.
Weather: Cloudy with some sunny spells northwest wind 11 C.
We started the day with a visit to The Range which is owned by the Military of Defence. A few birds were present on the extensive grasses here including Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Nearby, on Loch Bi we noted higher than average numbers of non-breeding Mute Swans. Visits to Tobha Mor and Rubh Aird Mhicheil proceed nothing of note so I pressed on towards Loch Sgioport. Having been here just ten days ago we easily found a pair of Black-throated Divers feeding and resting near an inaccessible island. At the end of the road a male Eurasian Kestrel showed well plus a Common Cuckoo being pursued by Meadow Pipits. Next on the agenda was the Sound of Eriksay which was rather birdless due to the winds on this occasion. I headed inland to visit a series of lochans en route to Rubha Aird a Mhuile. The first of these held drake Eurasian Wigeon, Black-tailed Godwits, Sedge Warblers and Pied Wagtails. On arriving at Rubha Aird a Mhuile the beach area had hundreds of Sanderlings in breeding plumage. A walk to the point was enjoyable as we watched a light passage of Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmars and Red-breasted Mergansers. The remainder of the day was spent exploring the relatively sheltered area of Loch Aineort. Around the car park we noted some of the more localised species of the islands – European Robin, Common Chaffinch and Winter Wren the latter being an island endemic subspecies. In the first section of gardens a Spotted Flycatcher was observed. At the stone benches we stopped an sat for around 90 minutes waiting for birds to appear. In the loch Red-throated Divers gave their far-carrying and eerie calls whilst Black Guillemots and Arctic Terns fished nearby. Finally a pair of Golden Eagles appeared over a ridge offering good views they eventually dropped down to a distant ledge where they fed a well grown eaglet. Returned to base for our final night on Benbecula.
May 26th: Loch Sanndaraigh, Sound of Harris, Losgaintir, Pairc, Mealabost, Stornoway.
Weather: Cloudy with a cool west-northwest wind 12 C.
Checked out at Benbecula and headed north making a short stop at Loch Sanndaraigh. Before leaving we were treated to views of Short-eared Owls hunting the grassland outside the hotel. On arriving at the loch we observed an increase in Whooper Swans and Black-tailed Godwits. Also present was a male Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian teal, Tufted Duck, Common and Arctic Terns and a female Hen Harrier hunting over the reedbeds. The ferry departed on time from Berneray to Leverburgh in Harris with birding from the rear deck. Earlier we had seen European Stonechat and Eurasian Curlew in the northern most parts of North Uist. The ferry offered us good views of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Northern Gannets, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Common and Black Guillemots, Razorbill, Arctic Terns and a dark phase Arctic Skua sitting on a low grassy island. Once on Harris I headed towards the beautiful and remote beaches of Losgaintir opposite the island of Taransay. The birds here were thin on the ground despite a party of European Golden Plovers calling and flying overhead. After lunch I headed north again and turned east into the sparsely population and remote region of Pairc. We checked the cliffs for eagles and falcons and came away with a pair of nesting House Martins instead a very rare breeding bird of the islands. Near the junction another stop produced Greenshank and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Our last stop was at Mealabost near Stornoway. To my dismay the main loch was heavily disturbed by fishermen. On checking the sea I eventually found a party of Long-tailed Ducks in breeding plumage among the commoner auks and gulls. Checked in at the Crown Hotel in Stornoway for the final two nights of the trip.
May 27th: Loch Stiapabhal, Butt of Lewis, Bragar, Sgiogarstaigh, Bearnaraigh, Mangarstadh.
Weather: Showers with a brisk northwest wind 11 C.
A later start this morning as we left Stornoway for the rugged north coast of Lewis. Eurasian Jackdaw and Rook noted before leaving town – very localised species of the islands. First stop was Loch Stiapabhal where we located two Barnacle Geese and the commoner swans and ducks. At the Butt of Lewis the usual seabirds were common offshore plus a pair of pale phase Arctic Skuas. Our interest then turned to the closely cropped grasses near the football ground. Literally hundreds of European Golden Plovers, Dunlin and Ringed Plovers feeding furiously before their final migration north to Iceland. In Port Nis itself, a Greater Whitethroat singing from a telegraph wire another unusual bird of the islands. A short stop at Sgiogarstaigh added Rock Pipit and Winter Wren. Afterwards we headed west and stopped at Bragar for a picnic lunch. The cemetery walls here were attractive to Northern Wheatears and Twite, in the bay a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers and two Great Northern Divers. In the afternoon visits to Bearnaraigh and Mangarstadh two remote regions dotted with crofts and indented with firth. After a lot of searching in both areas we found nothing of note apart from a lone Pink-footed Goose.
May 28th: Mealabost, Tiumpan Head, Stornoway Castle, The Minch, Ullapool, Black Isle.
Weather: Frequent showers and a west wind 8 C.
A return to Mealabost produced similar birds to yesterday with seven Long-tailed Ducks on the loch. A general exploration around Tiumpan Head followed with a harbour area holding displaying Rock Pipits and a late White Wagtail. In another area opposite two offshore island we studied Northern Fulmars, Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and marauding Great Skuas. Just inland a marshy area had at least three Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits. The weather was worsening as the day progressed and I decided to visit the wooded grounds of Stornoway Castle. This is about the only wooded area on the islands with mature trees and overgrown areas of what was once a truly great estate. On arrival we located several species – Woodpigeon, Common Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Goldcrest, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch and Common Cuckoo. Checked in for the Ullapool ferry and the crossing of The Minch. Seabirds were patchy but included high numbers of Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills. Once again the winds were not in our favour as we entered Loch Broom and Ullapool where the tour concluded.
This was a custom made tour for the East Grinstead RSPB Group from West Sussex including visits to areas of Ross-shire and the remote Western Isles. The tour was a great success recording 131 species in total including a few scarce species – Slavonian Grebe, American Wigeon, White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Corncrake, Eurasian Dotterel. In addition to this we witnessed a marked passage of waders heading northwards to their summer breeding grounds.
May 8th: Lochussie, Strathconon, Strathpeffer, Cromarty, Udale Bay.
Weather: Sunny with a cool north wind 15 C.
After picking up at the airport we headed towards Inverness and over the Kessock Bridge to Lochussie a small loch near Contin. The birch woods here are excellent for birds where we quickly located Willow Warbler, Tree Pipit, Common Whitethroat, Great and Blue Tits, Dunnock, Common Redpoll and Yellowhammer. The waters of Lochussie held Tufted Duck, Mallard and nesting Mute Swans. Lunch taken followed by a short diversion to Strathconon for Wood Warblers, which duly obliged singing and displaying from an old birch tree. At Strathpeffer the lochans held Slavonian and Little Grebes, Common Coot, Common Moorhen, Common Cuckoo and Eurasian Siskins. Time was pressing a little as we entered Cromarty where the firth had a bonus in the form of a male Velvet Scoter and lingering Long-tailed Ducks in breeding plumage.
May 9th: Black Isle, Skye, Uig, Lochmaddy, Greinetobht, The Range.
Weather: Sunny with a cool northwest wind 14 C.
Today we had to split into two groups due to flight space and schedules to and from Kirkwall Airport. The main party departed at 0910 for Kirkwall with Jock and me staying on North Ronaldsay until late afternoon. I started with a walk towards Holland House and a brief look into Gretchen Loch. The latter held similar species to the last few days. On arrival at the lighthouse area we promptly found a female Merlin coming in off the sea. Northern Wheatears (Greenland races) were also conspicuous travelling in small groups and perching regularly on fences and stone walls. We checked Westness again without success although a different Hen Harrier was a welcome sight. Shortly after 1515 hours we called it a day and travelled back to the observatory. We met up with Roy and Kirkwall Airport where the remainder of the group had a great days birding. Loch of Harray produced numerous water birds including Slavonian Grebe and Common Pochard. Visits were made to the Ring of Brodgar and another broch nearby. After dropping David off at the airport we drove down towards the Churchill Barriers a good area to scan from into the many secluded water areas of mainland Orkney. Great Northern Diver and Velvet Scoter were two species of note. Time was getting on a bit although Long-tailed Ducks were seen near Kirkwall Harbour. After dropping Steve and Norma off at the airport we visited Loch of Tankarness which was packed full with dabbling ducks and Greylag Geese.
May 9th: Black Isle, Skye, Uig, Lochmaddy, Greinetobht, The Range.
Weather: Sunny with a cool northwest wind 14 C.
At 0900 hours we left Cygnus House for the road journey to Uig on Skye. In and around the gardens the commoner species plus Northern Wheatear and the first Common Whitethroats of the spring. Beyond Achnasheen a stop was made next to a shallow loch and adjacent trees with old ruined farm buildings. To my surprise a Redwing was singing his heart out from the top of a leafless tree. Also present was Mistle and Song Thrushes and singing Common Chiffchaff and Sedge Warbler. Towards Lochcarron another stop was made for a colony of Sand Martins excavating holes in a sandy bank next to the road. The turning to Kyle of Lochalsh takes you along a spectacular road with many inclines and dips. In the first field a selection of gulls including a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls a summer visitor to these parts. At Kyle a small islet attracted several Black Guillemots, Great Cormorant and European Shags. The Skye Bridge was crossed as we ventured across sky under clear blue skies an uncommon sight on this extremely wet island. Uig was reached where the check-in went smoothly and lunch taken by the pier. The crossing over to Lochmaddy in North Uist usually attracts a few birds with Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Common and Black Guillemots and Razorbills all being observed. On entering Lochmaddy Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake and Arctic Terns were added to the list. On arrival at the port I headed towards the small community of Greinetobht which has a spectacular vista of beaches and turquoise waters. The beach here was excellent for waders with Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Sanderling and Red Knot being recorded. A telephone call from Steve alerted us to a party of Eurasian Dotterel on The Range a military area on South Uist. On arrival we duly observed these beautiful birds resting on the grass fields. Earlier we had seen several Whimbrels feeding in a grass field and Rock Pigeons feeding on the machir. The highlight for many was the sight of a male Hen Harrier quartering the ground for prey. Arrived at our hotel on Benbecula at 1845 a tired but contented group of birders.
May 10th: Coot Loch, Stinky Bay, Baile Mor, Loch Sanndaraigh, Aird un Runair, Committee Road.
Weather: Overcast with rain and hail showers 7c with a brisk northerly wind.
The weather was dominating birding today as the strong northerly winds continued combined with a mix of rain and hail showers. Our first stop at Coot Loch added scarce breeding birds notably Northern Shoveler and Gadwall. Other species present included Lesser Black-backed, Black-headed and Common Gulls, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot and Little Grebe. Next on the agenda was Stinky Bay although most of the rotting seaweed had appeared to have been washed away by winter storms. The beach was alive with hundreds of migrating waders – Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Common Redshanks being the most numerous species. Also present were a few Northern Wheatears and White Wagtails heading north to Iceland and beyond. We passed over the causeway into North Uist and headed to Baile Mor an extensive area of grazed grassland and machir the latter a unique habitat of the Western Isles. The only species of note were a few European Golden Plovers and a party of Twite near the last farmstead. Our journey took us further north with a female Merlin hunting Meadow Pipits near Loch Sanndaraigh. On the loch Mute and Whooper Swans, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Ducks, and on the loch edge Black-tailed Godwits of the race Icelandica. Late morning saw us head into the RSPB Reserve of Balranald and the excellent birding site at Aird un Runair. The latter was excellent as always with Great Northern Diver, Northern Gannet, Razorbill, Arctic Skua and Arctic Terns offshore. On the shoreline similar waders to earlier in the day but in higher numbers. Lunch taken by the sea followed by a visit to Committee Road a noted spot for raptors. On arrival we quickly located a pair of Hen Harriers and a Short-eared Owl mobbing a Common Buzzard. The weather worsened again as a return visit to Aird un Runair was made. On this visit we added Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Corn Buntings the latter being a declining species of the islands and Scotland. The journey back to base was remarkable for the number of Short-eared Owls with at least six being seen hunting and resting on fence posts.
May 11th: The Range, Loch Bi, Aird a Mhachair, Carnan, Rubha Aird a Mhuile, Loch Aineort, Loch Sgioport.
Weather: Sunny with cool north winds 7 C.
After breakfast we set off for The Range as an adult American Golden Plover had been reported early morning. On arrival we could not find the bird as the main flock had moved further away. Despite this setback close views of the four dotterel feeding on the close-cropped grasses with summer plumage Dunlin. Returned to the major road and set off towards Aird a Mhachair an area of crofts and sandy beaches littered with seaweed. I stopped next to an iris bed where we had long and extended views of a calling Corncrake. On the beach hundreds of the commoner waders, and offshore Great Northern Divers and Arctic Terns. Carnan was next on the agenda a large sandy inlet bordered by machir and small rocky islands. Migrant waders were here in large numbers including Grey Plover and Red Knot. We then headed south crossing Loch Bi before stopping again as Ian had spotted a Golden Eagle near the road. Fantastic views of two first-year birds hunting and flying together at close range. On an adjacent lochan our first Eurasian Wigeon of the tour plus Red-breasted Merganser and Eurasian Teal. We turned down towards the sea again to Rubha Aird a Mhuile a noted sea-watching spot (mainly in autumn). On the beach many waders and resting groups of Common Eiders. Of note here was Sand Martins attempting to excavate nest holes in a sandy bank. Offshore a single Great Skua was observed. Afterwards we headed inland to Loch Aineort which was sheltered from the biting winds. In and around the car park some birds which are extremely local on the southern islands – Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, Common Redpoll and European Robin. In the loch a pair of calling Red-throated Divers and a single Black Guillemot. The group walked along the narrow path adding the local race of Northern Wren and a singing Dunnock. We ended the day by visiting Loch Sgioport a rather picturesque area of South Uist. On the lochan views of Black-throated Diver. At the end of the road distant views of snow-clad Ben Nevis and hunting Eurasian Kestrel. Back to base after another excellent day despite the cool winds.
May 12th: Benbecula, Aird an Runair, Sound of Harris, Losgaintir, Pairc, Mealabost, Stornoway
Weather: Sunny with cool southwest winds 10c.
Today we were on the road by 8am with our first birding stop at Aird an Runair in the hope of picking up a few new birds. On arrival a Corncrake was heard giving its distinctive calls from an iris bed. On the beach the commoner migrant waders were observed along with small numbers of Purple Sandpipers in breeding plumage. Offshore a movement of seabirds included Arctic and Pomarine Skua, Northern Gannet and Razorbill. At 1030 we boarded the ferry to cross The Sound of Harris to Leverburgh. Birding is always good on this short crossing with abundant Great Northern Divers being a major highlight. Other birds of note included Red-throated Divers, Northern Gannets, Common Eider, Common and Black Guiillemots, Razorbill and Arctic Terns. On arrival in Harris the road took us pass some spectacular scenery with beaches, mountains and clear blue skies to the village of Losgaintir. A walk down to The Sound of Taransay was enjoyable in bright sunshine. In the sound a few birds were seen including many divers and auks plus migrant Common Sandpipers. A picnic lunch taken in the car park followed by a visit to Pairc a huge area of moors, cliffs and coast south of Stornoway. At Pairc a pair of juvenile White-tailed Eagles showed well above a cliff before disappearing from view. The day ended at Mealabost near Stornoway a habitat of beaches, grassland and a freshwater lake. The latter held Tufted and Long-tailed Ducks in summer plumage. Headed back into town for the first of our two nights in Lewis.
May 13th: Loch Stiapabhal, Butt of Lewis, Sgiogarstaigh, Loch Mor Bharabhais, Mangorstadh
Weather: Overcast with frequent showers and a strong southerly wind 13 C
Today was dominated by the weather with strong winds and at times heavy rain showers. First stop was Loch Stiapabhal in the extreme northwest Lewis a loch enclosed by grasslands and close to the North Atlantic Ocean. From an elevated position we managed to locate a male American Wigeon and his mate (better views later in the morning), Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Whooper and Mute Swans and a drake Northern Shoveler. I decided to visit the hide where hopefully the wind would not affect the birding so much. Up to two Corncrakes were heard in the meadow in front of us. Other species of note included Black-tailed Godwit, Barnacle Geese, Eurasian Curlew and a Little Grebe. Returned to the van and made the short journey up to the Butt of Lewis. The lighthouse wall here sheltered us from the strong winds. Offshore birds included Manx Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common and Black Guillemots, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Great Skua. We headed towards Sgiogarstaigh an area of deep water close to the Butt of Lewis. Similar birds here with the addition of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers and four Whimbrel. At 1400 hours we headed back to Stornoway via Loch Mor Bharabhais which had little of note apart from hundreds of Dunlin. The rest of the day was spent exploring the rough and dramatic scenery of West Lewis along the road to Mangorstadh. On the outward journey two Common Sandpipers singing and displaying along a river. Eventually we reached the settlement of Mangorstadh set among dramatic mountains, coast and crofts. Several species of gull were noted along with a single Pink-footed Goose but no sign of the Snowy Owl reported from two days ago. The weather started to worsen as we headed back to Stornoway. A highland of the return journey was up to four Golden Eagles observed along the road.
May 14th: Stornoway, Ullapool, Dingwall, Redcastle, Inverness, Inverness Airport
Weather: Sunny with southerly winds 15c
An early departure was necessary as the ferry departs from the islands at 0700 hours. On board we had a hearty breakfast before commencing on a sea-watch across The Minch. The usual seabirds were present in reasonable numbers with Great and Arctic Skuas being in high numbers on the entrance to Ullapool. From Ullapool we headed east towards the county town of Dingwall where we embarked on a short walk towards the River Conon. The bushes and scrub held Willow and Sedge Warblers and Common Whitethroats. On the mud lingering Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Common Sandpipers. Returned to the van and travelled to Redcastle for lunch on the Beauly Firth. Not too much hear apart from a pair of Black-tailed Godwits. Our final birding spot was literally in the middle of Inverness where we added White-throated Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Goosander and Blackcap to the trip list. Another great birding tour concluded at Inverness Airport for flights south.
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