Western Isles 2020

Mark Finn
September 27-October 3

This was our annual visit to the Western Isles which has recently seen an upsurge in birders wanting to locate rare migrants. On the occasion the weather was generally good with a westerly airflow both from the SW and NW. A good selection of the commoner species was made plus early winter visitors originating from Iceland, Greenland and NE Canada. Highlights included a juvenile Woodchat Shrike on Lewis and Yellow-browed Warbler at Northdon the first of many in an influx into the island group. Birds of prey were excellent with a notable migration of Merlins and good numbers of White-tailed and Golden Eagles. Unusual birds saw included Little Egret, Lesser Yellowlegs, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Glaucous Gull and Pomarine Skua.

September 27th: Black Isle, Skye including Waterloo and Broadford Bay, Uig to Lochmaddy Ferry, Grenitote, North Uist, Benbecula
Daily 50 New 50 Running 50
Weather: Cloudy with NW winds 3-11C

After leaving the Black Isle our journey westwards to the Isle of Skye and the first birding spot at Waterloo. On arrival a scan of the grassy areas and exposed mud attracted Common Redshank, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and several late Barn Swallows. On the ocean the flat sea allowed us to easily observe Red-throated Divers, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Common Eider, Razorbill and the commoner gull species. It was time to head towards Portree and onto the ferry terminus at Uig. The exposed mud attracted Rock Pipit whilst the adjacent hills held a single Golden Eagle and Common Buzzards. The ferry left on time for Lochmaddy which is on North Uist. Seawatching produced a good range of birds including Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Great and Pomarine Skuas, Common and Black Guillemots in winter plumage. The ferry docked at Lochmaddy and I took the back road towards the hamlet of Grenintote. From the car park a careful scan yielded views of Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Red Knot, Eurasian Skylark and migrating Meadow Pipits. The journey south to Benbecula was excellent for sightings of an adult White-tailed Eagle, a male Merlin and flocks of Northern Lapwing and European Golden Plovers. Checked in at the hotel for the next four nights.

September 28th: Benbecula, South Glendale, Rubha Aird A’Mhuile, Loch Eynort, The Range, Ardavachar, Ford Terrace, Coot Loch
Daily 66 New 30 Running 80
Weather: Rather mixed with cloud and rain showers on a WNW wind 12C

Early morning rain and cloud eased as I headed south towards the hamlet of South Glendale. A walk along the road which passes several gardens and adjacent moorland produced sightings of Goldcrest, Common Blackbird, and the endemic island races of Song Thrush, Dunnock and Eurasian Wren. Bunches of thistle heads attracted Common Redpoll, European Greenfinch and European Goldfinch. A diversion along the coast added Northern Wheatear and a Common Snipe flying in off the sea. It was time to head north towards Rubha Aird A’Mhuile an area of machair and lochs adjoining the North Atlantic Ocean. On the fields a congregation of Greylag Geese and two Pink-footed Geese a rare migrant to the islands. A bonus was a juvenile White-tailed Eagle sitting on the ground with Hooded Crows for company it was then joined by an adult bird both flying towards the mountains. The fields had good numbers of Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Eurasian Linnet and a few Twite. On the seaweed strewn beaches a variety of waders of which Ringed Plover was particularly common. Lunch was taken at Loch Eynort with little in the trees apart from Goldcrest and Dunnock. Next on the agenda was The Range a large expanse of grassland dotted with military equipment used for testing purposes. The usual birds were present with the addition of Buff-breasted Sandpiper and a Ruff. I retraced the journey towards Ardavachar with flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone on the beach all of which were disturbed by a Peregrine Falcon. Ford Terrace is an excellent place at low tide for waders and today added Grey and Ringed Plovers, Red Knot and Dunlin to the list and a party of Pale-bellied Brent Geese. The best bird and star of the show was a juvenile Merlin perched on a fencepost which allowed great views before flying towards us at great speed. The final stop was at Coot Loch where Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Common Coot and Common Moorhen were added to the day list. The last bird was a female Hen Harrier working the grassland a fitting end to an excellent days birding in the Uists.

September 29th: Benbecula, Stinky Bay, Baleshare, Loch Sandaray, Loch Paible, Balranald, Grenitote, Berneray, Committee Road, Loch Mor
Daily 54 New 4 Running 84

After breakfast I headed north with the first stop at Stinky Bay which gets its name from vast amounts of rotting seaweed washed up on the beach. Good numbers of the commoner waders plus a close Red-throated Diver and a raft of Common Eiders offshore. Next on the agenda was Baleshare which is accessed by a causeway. The grass fields held European Golden Plovers and Northern Lapwings, Rock Dove and several groups of Twite and European Linnets. Loch Sandaray is close by where the first Whooper Swans of the trip were recorded along with Tufted Duck, Common Teal, Mallard, Eurasian Wigeon and a late Northern Wheatear. Loch Paible was next on the agenda where a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs showed well feeding in grass and along the muddy shore edge. Balranald is a reserve of the RSPB which overlooks the Monarch Islands which were deserted over 50 years ago. The wind conditions were strong making birding difficult at times. The beach held many wading birds including Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone, near the campsite a pair of Corn Buntings perched on wires. After lunch a return visit to Grenitote with similar birds to two days ago plus Grey Plovers and a hunting female Hen Harrier. En route to Berneray a Little Egret was found by Ainslie a welcome addition to the list. Berneray held little in the way of birds so a visit to Committee Road was made where at least two Hen Harriers were located plus a Common Kestrel. I ended the day at Loch Mor where the group located Little Grebe, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon and Common Snipe.

September 30th: Benbecula, Eriskay, South Uist, Barra, Vatersay
Daily 61 New 2 Running 86
Weather: Early cloud giving way to sunny spells on a WSW wind 12C

An earlier breakfast today as a day trip to Barra was planned the most southerly of the islands. A check of the wetlands produced nothing of note so the group headed to the causeway connecting South Uist with Eriksay. This produced sightings of Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Red-breasted Merganser and a single Common Greenshank. Ainslie then located a Common Otter which was hunting for food off the causeway. The ferry to Barra was on time and on landing I headed to the northern area past the world famous ‘beach’ airport. The bushes and fields around the Catholic Church held Northern Wheatear, Song Thrush, Goldcrest and Twite. The area around North Bay has several patches of fragmented woodland which attracted Eurasian Wren, European Robin, European Greenfinch and Common Blackbird. Lunch was taken on the coast past the golf club with two juvenile White-tailed Eagles for company over the cliff face. The beach held the commoner waders and gulls. Castlebay is the main town on Barra and the area around the Co-op is known as a migration and rarity hotspot, today it was very quiet so we moved on towards the island of Vatersay. The waters here were calm and we added Black-throated Diver, Common Eider and Common Guillemot to the day list. It was time to return towards the ferry terminal where the highlight was a female Merlin just offshore and several Rock Pipits on the picnic tables. The ferry back to Eriskay had a first year Golden Eagle near the dock and on the way home a fine White-tailed Eagle on a hillside a fitting end to the day.

October 1st: Benbecula, Harris Ferry, Northton, Luskentyre, Eisken, Mealabost
Daily 60 New 5 Running 91
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells, showers and cloud on a NW wind 10C

After checking out of the hotel I headed north towards the ferry terminus on Berneray. The only bird of note was a female Hen Harrier hunting the moorland near Solas. The ferry left on time although we were restricted to the car deck due to the virus. The crossing had good numbers of Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Northern Gannet, European Shag, Common Eider, Razorbill and Black Guillemot. On landing in Leverburgh our journey took us towards the village of Northton which overlooks a shallow sandy bay whilst the street has overgrown gardens and trees. In the bay we located Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, Herring and Common Gulls. A walk along the street was productive for Common Redpoll, Yellow-browed Warbler and Eurasian Treecreeper two latter two being scarce autumn migrants to the islands. Time was getting on as I entered the car park at Luskentyre which is justly famous for its sandy beaches and vistas. Around the car park several flocks of Twite and in the rocky hillside at least two Merlins hunting small birds. A walk to the beach and a scan towards the uninhabited island of Taransay proved to be excellent. Careful scanning of the sea revealed Slavonian Grebe, high numbers of Red-throated Divers, Common Scoter, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Razorbill and Common Guillemot. Overhead a skein of Pink-footed Geese calling and flying towards the mainland. Back towards the main road and a diversion towards Eisken a remote estate south of Stornoway. At the end of the road trees held Blue Tits a localised species. The weather closed in but this did not prevent us from seeing a pair of Golden Eagles above the cliffs. On entering Stornoway a check of the lochan at Mealabost added little apart from Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon so I headed to base for the last two nights on the islands.

October 2nd: Stornoway, Butt of Lewis, Loch Stipabhat, Skigesta, Bragar, Loch Tiumpian
Daily 55 New 6 Running 97
Weather: Rain showers and sunny spells on a SW wind 11C

This morning rain greeted us at dawn before clearing later in the morning. On the outskirts of town Woodpigeons were added to the list. Our journey took us towards the Buff of Lewis the most northwesterly point of Europe. A short seawatch was dominated by large numbers of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes and a few Northern Fulmars the latter species being highly pelagic during the autumn and winter months. The wind was strong making birding difficult so I dropped down to the hide at Loch Stipabhat. Near the boardwalk a Jack Snipe was flushed from cover before dropping down a few meters from us. The hide was a welcome refuge from the elements with sightings of Little and Slavonian Grebe, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, various gulls and on the fields Northern Lapwing and European Golden Plovers. A visible highlight was watching large groups of Common Snipe dropping into the wet areas of the marsh. Back to the butt and a party of Barnacle Geese heading towards the coast of Sutherland which could be clearly seen in the distance. A diversion to Skigesta added a few migrant Redwings. Windy conditions altered my plans so I headed towards the village of Bargas for lunch. A walk around the village gardens added little of note so a visit to the coast and cemetery was made. The beach area held Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwit. The best was to come when Steve located a first winter Woodchat Shrike hunting along the stone walls and grave stones for prey. Excellent views of this scarce visitor from Europe. We ended the day by visiting a few sites north of Stornoway before returning to base for the last night.

October 3rd: Buff of Lewis, Loch Stipabhat, Bragar, Mealabost, Ullapool Ferry
Daily 55 New 4 Final 101
Weather: Cloudy with afternoon rain on a SW wind 10C

Our last day on the islands with a visit to the Butt of Lewis where a late Northern Wheatear was feeding on the grass slopes. Another visit to the hide at Loch Stipabhat had similar birds to yesterday with addition of a male Hen Harrier, Common Moorhen and a solitary Barnacle Goose with the Greylag flock. I had time to revisit the cemetery at Bragar where the juvenile Woodchat Shrike was still present plus a first winter Glaucous Gull feeding on the whale carcass, and a Willow Warbler in the long grasses. Back to Stornoway and onto Mealabost where the calm waters of the sea allowed excellent views as the group located Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebe and a group of four Long-tailed Ducks on the pool. The ferry left on time and headed over The Minch towards Ullapool in Wester Ross. This proved to be good for Great and Pomarine Skuas, Common and Black Guillemots, Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and pods of North Atlantic White-sided Dolphins and Harbour Porpoise. The ferry docked on time at Ullapool and I made the journey back to Inverness and the Black Isle where the tour concluded.

Harbour Porpoise (from the Uig and Ullapool ferries)
North Atlantic White-sided Dolphin (as above sometimes in large groups)
North Atlantic Grey Seal (widespread in coastal waters throughout)
Harbour Seal (small numbers around Benbecula and South Uist)
Common Rabbit
Brown Hare
Red Deer (mostly on North Uist)

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