The Outer Hebrides covers an area approaching 300,000 hectares, including more than 6,000 lochs and lochans and over 1,300 streams. The islands comprise just over one percent of Britain’s land area but almost 16 percent of its standing water. All down the western side of the southern Isles is a fertile low-lying grassy plain known as the machair, with a profusion of wildflowers in the summer. Over 70 percent of the land is in crofting tenure and therefore farmed at low intensity. On the eastern side of the islands lie most of the hills, with the highest being just over 600 metres. Harris is generally much rockier than the southern isles; the hills rising to almost eight hundred metres at Clisham. There is little machair and away from the western fringe the landscape is dominated by heather, bog and loch. At Stornoway can be found the only significant area of old woodland in the Outer Hebrides.
For the general naturalist visits in the spring and summer are the most rewarding and offer the best chance of connecting with corncrake. The islands hold almost half of the UK breeding population and the best time for seeing one is in the few weeks after they arrive and before the vegetation gets too tall. Before this, whooper swan and geese (Greenland white-fronted, pink-footed, barnacle and brent) are often encountered on their northbound migration. Red-throated and black-throated divers arrive at breeding sites, and for several years there have been breeding pairs of whooper swan. White-billed diver appears to be a regular spring migrant, at least off the island of Lewis. Breeding wildfowl include wigeon and shoveler. Golden eagle, hen harrier, merlin and short-eared owl are often encountered. Some 25 pairs of white-tailed eagle now breed on the islands.
Wader passage can be spectacular along the shore and on the machair of the southern isles, including hundreds, possibly thousands, of ringed plover and dunlin. For the dedicated skua watcher the headland of Aird an Rùnair at RSPB Balranald is the place to witness the well documented passage of pomarine and long-tailed skuas as they head north to their breeding grounds. If the winds are sufficiently strong there is also the chance of Leach’s petrel or red-necked phalarope.
Many species that are in decline on the mainland, such as lapwing and skylark, are still plentiful, as are starling and house sparrow. Twite are widespread and the southern isles still support a healthy population of corn bunting. Hebridean races of song thrush and dunnock should be looked for as well as the Scottish subspecies of linnet.
Winter birding can be worthwhile with good numbers of wildfowl and waders, and occasionally Iceland and glaucous gulls and snow bunting. Outlying islands support important colonies of seabirds (some among the largest in Britain) including storm and Leach’s petrels, gannet and puffin. With the profusion of good habitat, anything can appear anywhere, especially during passage periods. Autumn can usually be relied upon to bring a scattering of North American waders.
Join Ed in the Outer Hebrides on one of our birdwatching tours.