Western Isles 2018

Mark Finn
September 16th-22nd

Our annual foray to the Western Isles was dominated by strong wind conditions and rain on a few days which made birding something of a challenge. This resulted in a lower than expected range of birds especially the passerines and unusual vagrants which use the islands. Highlights included above average numbers of White-tailed Eagle, several Hen Harriers and a notable passage of Merlins. Waders occurred in good numbers along the coast of North Uist and Benbecula. In Lewis and Harris birds were scarce although a second winter Mediterranean Gull and late Arctic Terns were welcome additions to the list.
Our next tours to the islands are next May and September in 2019

September 16th: Black Isle, Waterloo, North Skye
Daily 51 New 51 Running 51
Weather: Cloudy with a W wind 14C

After picking up clients from various locations in Inverness I headed towards Fort William and then westwards towards the Isle of Skye. Our first birding stop was at Waterloo which is an area of Broadford Bay. The high tide attracted several species including Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal, a single Greater Scaup and on grass-covered hillocks Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone and Dunlin. Offshore a buoy attracted Great Cormorant and European Shag and a female Merlin coming in off the sea. It was time to head towards Uig and the ferry towards the islands. On arrival I was informed that the ferry had to be rescheduled to a later time which involved a change on the days birding. I decided to visit an area of North Skye where the croft areas held reasonable numbers of finches including Twite, European Linnet and European Goldfinch. A stint of seawatching at Sgeir Lang was productive for Manx Shearwaters, European Storm Petrel, Northern Gannet, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, Black-legged Kittiwake and Great Skuas. The road towards Portree is very scenic with several places to stop. At 1900 hours I headed back to Uig for the ferry to Lochmaddy and eventually to our base on Benbecula.

September 17th: Benbecula, Loch Bee, Ardivachar, Ford Terrace, Coot Loch, Baleshare, Loch Sandary, Balranald, Grenitote, Bernaray
Daily 55 New 18 Running 69
Weather: Persistent rain showers on a SW wind 13C

Today proved to be very challenging as the weather was poor and rain was a major factor. I headed south towards Loch Bee which held Mute Swan, Greylag Goose and the commoner duck species. The Range was closed due to military manoeuvres so a visit to Ardivachar was in order an area of coastal beaches. On the way an inlet of Loch Bee held Goosander, Eurasian Wigeon and Mallard. On the sandy bays a host of waders which included high numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Common Redshank and Ruddy Turnstone the latter turning over seaweed. Offshore Great Cormorant, European Shag and Common Eiders. A drive alongside Ford Terrace added more waders including several Grey Plovers still in breeding plumage. Back on Benbecula a short stop at Coot Loch added Little Grebe, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Common Moorhen. Further along the road a late Lesser Black-backed Gull was located with Great Black-backed Gulls. It was time to head into North Uist via a series of causeways. First on the list was the machir at Baleshare where the group located flocks of Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Rock Pigeon and passerines of which Twite, European Linnet and Meadow Pipit were numerous. Loch Sandary held a few ducks so I headed towards a rather windswept and wet Balranald. The fields held substantial numbers of birds plus many groups of migrant Black-tailed Godwits from Iceland. From a vantage point looking towards the Monarch Islands the sea held little apart from passing Northern Gannets and brief views of a male Merlin dashing along the beach. Further checks at Balranald eventually revealed a pair of Whooper Swans. The weather was getting worse as I drove to Grenitote. The extensive mud and sand flats, fields and pools held a wide range of the commoner birds. After searching through the various flocks we found Common Greenshank, Common Knot and a fine female Merlin perched on a post. Returned to base after a very wet day in the field and the prospect of poor weather again tomorrow.

September 18th: South Glendale, Smerclate, Ardvule, Loch Ainort, Committee Road, Grenitote, Griminis, Balranald
Daily 61 New 10 Running 79
Weather: Rather mixed with sunshine and showers on a N wind turning S pm 14C

This morning I headed south towards the hamlet of South Glendale a series of houses with gardens and scrub. A walk along the road added the endemic subspecies of European Robin, Dunnock, Song Thrush and Eurasian Wren. In the narrow channel towards the island of Eriskay sightings of Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Eider. The pools at Smerclate had Mallard, Tufted Duck and Grey Heron. It was time to head north and visit the peninsula at Ardvule a prime spot in the autumn months for movement of seabirds. On this occasion Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant and European Shag were common along with dozens of waders feeding along the shoreline. I decided to have lunch at Loch Ainort where a Goldcrest was singing in the trees, an invasion of midges led us to leave and try another area. I decided to try the Committee Road which proved to be good with close views of an adult Golden Eagle and a superb White-tailed Eagle perched in a pine tree. A revisit to Grenitote added a hunting Peregrine Falcon and flocks of European Golden Plovers on the grass fields. The group ended the day by visiting Griminis and Balranald with the latter having a juvenile Hen Harrier and a migrant Willow Warbler perched on a wire fence. A very good days birding on the edge of Western Europe.

September 19th: Ardvule, Eriskay, Loch Ainort, Loch Druidibeg
Daily 54 New 6 Running 85
Weather: Rather mixed with rain and strong winds from the SW 11C

Today proved to be a challenging one with Storm Ali being the centre of attention. I decided to head towards South Uist and Ardvule for a seawatching session. Nothing of note apart from a passage of Northern Gannets. Down to Eriskay which is the departure point for Barra which we were due to visit today, high winds and heavy seas meant the service was cancelled in the afternoon a wise decision not to go. A seawatch towards Barra was interesting for large groups of European Shags, a migrant Pomarine Skua and a Great Northern Diver. Lunch was taken at Loch Ainort where Common Chaffinch was added to the list. Back to Ardvule for another seawatch with Great Northern Divers, a single Northern Fulmar (blue phase bird), Arctic Skua, Common Guillemot and a Northern Wheatear located by Mike. The last stop was Loch Druidibeg where Linda found a male Hen Harrier hunting by the road and a family of Common Stonechats feeding in a garden with Barn Swallows.

September 20th: Benbecula, North Uist, Sound of Harris, Northton, Luskentyre, Eisgein
Daily 53 New 5 Running 90
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a W wind 11C

Checked out of the hotel in Benbecula and headed north with stops at Stinky Bay and Benbecula without adding any new species for the tour. Thankfully the ferry across to Harris was operational and we set off at the correct time. The crossing produced sightings of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Northern Gannet, Black and Common Guillemots and Common Eiders in various stages of plumage stages. I filled up with fuel in Harris and headed towards the community of Northton where the mud flats held Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Oystercatcher and a male Hen Harrier crossing the road. It was Linda's birthday so cakes and coffee were in order at the Temple Restaurant. Afterwards an immature White-tailed Eagle was observed along the roadside being mobbed by Common Ravens. Lunch was taken at Luskentyre a picturesque location overlooking the abandoned island of Taransay. In the new cemetery a pair of Northern Wheatears, Meadow Pipit, White and Pied Wagtails. From the beach great views of an adult White-tailed Eagle feeding on a dead sheep with Common Ravens and Hooded Crows in attendance. In the sound itself Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Common Scoter and Common Guillemots. Our final stop was the road leading towards the isolated outpost of Eisgein. At the end of the road fantastic views of White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Common Stonechat and overhead skeins of Pink-footed Geese. A great end to the day’s birding.

September 21st: Mealabost, Butt of Lewis, Skigersta, Loch Stiapabhat
Daily 65 New 7 Running 97
Weather: Sunny spells on a NW wind 14C

Our final full day’s birding in the Western Isles started with skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying high over Stornoway. The first birding stop was at Mealabost near the airport which has a habitat of a freshwater lochan and the adjacent sea. On the sea the group located Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Arctic and Common Terns, Common and Black Guillemots and the commoner waders. The loch attracted Red-breasted Mergansers and Tufted Ducks. It was time to head towards the Butt of Lewis the most NW point of Europe and one of the windiest locations in the United Kingdom. A seawatch from the butt added hundreds of Northern Gannets, Northern Fulmar, Black-legged Kittiwake, Great Skua, Common Guillemot and Razorbill. A short diversion to the village and pier of Skigersta added a second winter Mediterranean Gull a rare species on the islands. Back towards Loch Stiapabhat where the open waters attracted Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon, Mute and Whooper Swans. In the flooded grass feeding Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and Ruddy Turnstones. The day ended at the village of Bragar where a walk added little of note, on exiting the area a White-tailed Eagle showed well in flight above a croft a fitting end to the day.

September 22nd: Mealabost, Tiumpian Head, Bayble Bay, Tolsta, Stornoway to Ullapool Ferry
Daily 59 New 0 Final 97
Weather: Mixed with showers and sunny spells on a NW wind 11C

The strong winds had abated overnight to leave a dull but cloudy start. Our first stop at Mealabost had similar birds to yesterday morning plus a group of Great Northern and Red-throated Divers offshore. I decided to visit Tiumpian Head where the pools held Little Grebe, Tufted Duck and Whooper Swans. Nearby at Bayble Bay a surprise find was a group of Black-throated Divers numbering fourteen in total offshore. A diversion to Tolsta provided the group with stunning scenery and views across The Minch. Back in Stornoway the van developed a fuel problem which had to be fixed, thankfully this did not take long as we headed to the ferry port. The sailing to Stornoway allowed us views of thousands of Common Guillemots, Razorbill, Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and a few Great and Arctic Skuas and a lone Manx Shearwater. Mammals included a pod of Common Dolphins and a single Minke Whale. Arrived in Ullapool on time where we proceeded to Inverness and the conclusion of a successful trip.

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