Western Isles 2021

Mark Finn
September 26th-October 2nd

This was our annual tour to the Western Isles in late September. The islands lived up to their reputation with winds and rain throughout the week which affected smaller birds in particular. The group did very well in observing birds of prey with seven species on one day alone and a steady stream of migrant geese and ducks. On Lewis we were rewarded with views of two North American vagrants notably Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Yellowlegs both of which showed well.
I am sure the following report and birdlist will bring back happy memories of an enjoyable trip and company.

September 26th: Black Isle, Ullapool, Stornoway, Sound of Harris, Benbecula
Daily 35 New 35 Running 35
Weather: Frequent rain showers and cloud on an S wind 12C

The tour started from the Black Isle and then to Inverness. Due to ferry disruptions I had to make plans to travel across to Stornoway and down the spine of the island to Leverburgh and a ferry across the Sound of Harris. At Ullapool harbour an adult White-tailed Eagle showed well above the ferry before flying off into nearby mountains. On the harbour environs various gulls including a late Lesser Black-backed. The crossing to Stornoway went smoothly with rough waters around the middle section. Birds observed during the crossing included European Storm Petrel, Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common and Black Guillemots, Razorbill, European Shag and Great Cormorant. On arrival at Stornoway a late lunch before going south to Harris in dreadful weather conditions. The ferry to Berneray was running and it offered us sightings of Great Northern, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, rafts of Common Eiders, three species of auks, Red-breasted Merganser and many gannets and kittiwakes. Checked in at our hotel in Benbecula and had an enjoyable evening meal.

September 27th: Benbecula, Ardavachar, Ford Terrace, The Range, Loch Bee, Stoneybridge, Ormcleit, Rubha Aird a’Mhuile, South Glendale
Daily 61 New 36 Running 71
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a WSW wind 12C

I decided to head towards South Uist this morning with a stop at the Co-op to pick up supplies. From the car park a party of Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Buzzard and Pied Wagtail. Ardavachar and its sandy beaches dotted with strands of seaweed produced a range of waders including Ringed Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Eurasian Oystercatcher. Also present were several Barn Swallows and a fly-by male Hen Harrier. In the bay Red-throated Divers and Common Eiders were present along with Northern Gannets in good numbers. Next on the agenda was Ford Terrace a notable spot for waders at low tide, before arriving a Common Snipe came in off the sea and a mixed party of European Linnet and Twite perched on field fences. The sandy areas and mud of Ford Terrace attracted Grey Plover, Common Knot, Dunlin and a hunting female Merlin. A visit to The Range was made although it produced little apart from Northern Lapwings. On exiting this MOD property a stop next to Loch Bee proved to be productive with high numbers of Mute Swan, Eurasian Wigeon and among the latter Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler. In the grassy areas we located Greylag Geese and Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Further on Black-tailed Godwit and Common Redshank fed in a muddy area and were joined by a pair of White-tailed Eagles sitting on two prominent rocks – great views. In the Stoneybridge and Ormcleit areas we added Eurasian Kestrel, Common Stonechat and a pair of Peregrine Falcons hunting Rock Doves. Rubha Aird a’Mhuile added little of note apart from another Peregrine and the commoner waders. The last stop at South Glendale added Common Blackbird, Song Thrush, Common Stonechat, Eurasian Wren and best of all a low level Golden Eagle. In the bay a large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers and a solitary Greenshank.

September 28th: Milton, Barra including Eoligarry, North Bay, Castle Bay
Daily 47 New 2 Running 73
Weather: Mixed with showers and sunny spells on a W wind 11C

This morning the group headed south towards Eriskay and the ferry crossing to Barra the southernmost of the islands. On the way a short diversion to Milton a rather run down and dilapidated farming area with a loch and traditional farming land. On the loch we located a pair of Little Grebes, Mute Swan, Tufted Duck and Mallard. No sign of any scarce species so I headed to the ferry terminal and the crossing to Barra. The sea was choppy in parts as we located Red-throated Diver, Great Cormorant, European Shag and groups of Northern Gannets. On landing in Barra I went towards the airport and the extensive mudflats where Pale-bellied Brent Geese, European Herring, Common and Black-headed Gulls, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew were observed. At the end of the road a Common Snipe was flushed. On the road and adjacent fence-lines Common Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Meadow Pipit, Common Linnet and Twite. Next was a stop at the woodland near North Bay which added Goldcrest and European Robin in the mature trees. Lunch was taken on the golf club road with views into the North Atlantic Ocean bordered by rocks and sandy beaches. A passage of Pale-bellied Brent Geese was notable offshore. On the beach Pied and White Wagtails and recently arrived Meadow Pipits the latter two species almost certainly from Iceland. Our final area was the lightly wooded habitat in Castlebay the main settlement of Barra. Today was not exceptional as the group only recorded European Robin, Common Blackbird and the endemic race of Eurasian Wren. The return ferry crossing had similar birds to the morning but before arrival an adult Golden Eagle and hunting Common Kestrel. A return to Milton added nothing of note so I headed back to base.

September 29th: Coot Loch, Stinky Bay, Baleshare, Loch Sandary, Balranald, Grenitote, Berneray, Committee Road
Daily 57 New 5 Running 78
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and rain. WSW wind 12C

Today the first stop was Coot Loch on Benbecula where we located Little Grebe, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler plus several migrating Barn Swallows. Further along the road Stinky Bay was quiet for birds with the commoner waders feeding on the shore or in the seaweed strands. It was time to head towards North Uist with its range of habitats and the machir at Baleshare. En route two Merlins were seen numbers of Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Common Snipe and unusually Ruddy Turnstones feeding in a grass field. Loch Sandary was next on the agenda which attracts several species with today’s sightings of Whooper Swan, Mallard, Eurasian Teal and a pair of hunting Hen Harriers. On entering the RSPB Reserve of Balranald a Corn Bunting showed on a fencepost giving its distinctive call. Lunch was taken with views towards the abandoned Monarch Islands and a steady stream of Northern Gannets. I decided to visit the mudflats of Grenitote where flocks of Barnacle and Pale-bellied Brent Geese were resting on the sand. A diversion to Berneray added a Tundra Bean Goose among the Greylag flocks. The day ended at Committee Road where we had amazing views of up to three Golden Eagles which were drifting around with at least forty Northern Ravens.

September 30th: Benbecula, Sound of Harris, Northton, Luskentyre, Eisgen
Daily 44 New 4 Running 82
Weather: Heavy rain showers on a W wind 9C

After checking out I made the journey to Committee Road in search of owls, despite searching none were located on this visit. The ferry across the Sound of Harris went smoothly despite the poor weather conditions. Bird sightings were similar to a few days ago with the addition of more Great Northern Divers. On arriving in Harris the first stop was at Northton a small village with lots of trees, cover and gardens. The weather made birding difficult although Goldcrest, Common Chaffinch and Common Blackbird were located in cover. The bay at Northton held a few waders including Black-tailed Godwits. Our next stop was Luskentyre and its beautiful beaches running along the Sound of Taransay. The rain stopped for a short period as Red-throated Diver, Horned Grebe, Common Scoter, Common Guillemot and Razorbill were seen from the beach. A weather front rolled in delivering heavy rain as we walked back towards the van. On exiting the area a party of Whooper Swans were noted. The last birding was the valley at Eisgen where a well vegetated area is located at the end of the road. No eagle sightings today with birds being kept low by weather. In the willow scrub the common species were seen along with Common Stonechat. Later we travelled up to Stornoway for our last two nights on the islands.

October 1st: Mealabost, Butt of Lewis, Loch Stiapabhat, Skigersta, Bragar
Daily 51 New 10 Running 92
Weather: Cloudy with afternoon rain on a SW wind 9C

Today I headed towards Mealabost a community close to the airport with habitat of a freshwater loch and adjacent seas split by the road. On arrival the seaward side was calm allowing us to study Red-throated and Great Northern Divers at close range, Common Eider, first winter Arctic Tern and Rock Pipit. On the loch recently arrived birds included Whooper Swan, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Long-tailed Duck,  Tufted Duck and a first winter Ring-necked Duck (the first of five today). The fields attracted Black-tailed Godwits of the Icelandic race. In around the suburbs of Stornoway the group added Collared Dove, Common Woodpigeon, Eurasian Jackdaw and Song Thrush. It was time to travel to the Butt of Lewis a remote and windswept area of Lewis. Offshore large numbers of passing Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Common Guillemot and Razorbill. On the closely cropped grass at least two Northern Wheatears, Rock and Meadow Pipits and parties of Rock Doves. Loch Stiapabhat is always reliable and today was no exception with at least four Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Yellowlegs being of note. Also present were Little Grebe, Common Coot, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Wigeon and the more widespread ducks and gulls. Lunch was taken at Skigersta followed by a visit to Bragar. The weather closed in mid-afternoon making birding almost impossible so I headed back to Stornoway and investigated the harbour areas for birds.

October 2nd: Butt of Lewis, Bragar, Lews Castle, Stornoway to Ullapool Ferry
Daily 47 New 6 Final 98
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and showers on a SSE wind 9C

First thing I went back towards the Butt of Lewis to check for a few birds which were reported from yesterday. Nothing of note to report today except Northern Wheatears near the lighthouse. I went back to Bragar where we located several late Barn Swallows feeding around a stand of trees. The gardens at Bragar held the Hebridean race of Song Thrush, calling Dunnock, Goldcrest, Common Blackbird and Eurasian Wren. Next was Lews Castle in Stornoway which has extensive stands of woodland the largest tract on the islands. Near the car park European Blue Tit and Eurasian Treecreeper were added to the list. I checked in at the ferry office for the crossing back to Ullapool. Birds were patchy on the crossing with views of European Storm Petrels, Great Skua, Manx Shearwater and a winter-plumaged Atlantic Puffin. Arrived in Ullapool and travelled to Inverness where the tour concluded.

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