TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Outer Hebrides

12 - 18 June 2000


Leaders:
Jamie McMillan

Diary

Monday 12th June

Gales were forecast as we gathered in Oban amidst heavy showers. It was not going to be easy to watch birds on the crossing, but as we reached the Sound of Mull a White-tailed Eagle appeared cruising low along the shoreline. It was a full adult with a superb white tail and pale head, and was being mobbed by gangs of the local gulls.

Further up the sound you could tell it was going to be windy when the waterfalls off the cliffs started blowing vertically upwards! We continued on past Ardnamurchan Point where we found many Manx Shearwaters and rougher seas, but it was only when we got out into the Minch and passed by the lee of Coll with the winds strengthening to 7 to 8 that we really began to get rocked.

As we had left Oban the skipper had said that the crossing was going to be 'not good but not that bad either'. He was wrong. As we travelled on it became absolutely atrocious: glasses were flying around in the bar and café, and people were looking extremely green. Most of them were lying down and I think I was the only one that saw the odd Bonxie and two excellent views of Common Dolphins just off the bow.

The England/Portugal football match kept some people's minds off the worst of it, which came just off Barra. It was later reported that another ship was in distress out here and that on the Atlantic side 60 to 70 ft waves were reported. When we arrived in Lochboisdale we subsequently learnt that we had sailed through the worst June storm since records began in 1871, and in fact we only arrived half an hour late.

Tuesday 13th June

The strong winds were continuing in the morning. We were to later learn that 80-mph gusts had been recorded in Stornoway. We started off trying to peer through wet mini-bus windows at birds on the machair. The rain cleared and we headed straight for Balranald R.S.P.B. reserve. The weather seemed just right for a bit of sea-watching, so we walked out to Aird An Rhunair. It was a tough walk as the sand was blowing off the dunes into our eyes. However we got a good impression of the machair with lots of waders and the few Corn Buntings belonging to the relict population, as well as the abundance of Skylarks.

Out at the point Gannets were coming very close in, and in fact as we sat there they were passing right over our heads. There was a fantastically impressive sea and huge waves to watch, but very little else.

We headed back for lunch and heard the visitor centre Corncrake calling, but failed to see it. We walked up past the cemetery (where birdwatchers are banned !) to view the reserve where we saw distant views of the adult White-winged Black Tern that had been there for a few days, and managed to get it perching in the same field of view as a Whooper Swan. However, driving back along the road, we had excellent flight views of this immaculate tern in full sunshine.

We then drove to Berneray via the new causeway and had a look at the derelict white houses with their breeding Hebridean Wrens, then for a contrast had a look at the restored Youth Hostel. We then drove back in sunshine via Lochmaddy, stopping for a nice Wheatear feeding chicks just by the road.

At Lochmaddy there was no sign of our St. Kilda group on the 'Ocean Bounty'. We learnt later that they had run for cover and were somewhere on the eastern side of Skye.

Wednesday 14th June

Just after breakfast we were getting into the mini-bus a male Linnet perched by the car park briefly. This is quite a rare bird on the Outer Hebrides and has established a very small breeding population recently. We had a look round the local Lochs, especially 'Coot Loch' which is good for wildfowl (and Coot!) and then drove south on the main road where we saw a superb male Hen Harrier. We watched as it caught a Meadow Pipit and landed with it, starting to pluck its prey. We continued on to South Uist where yet another Hen Harrier was seen, this time a ringtail, before continuing onto Loch Druidibeg. This is famous for Greylag Geese, and there were plenty of these about including some with young.

We continued onto the plantation where I was astonished to hear a Lesser Whitethroat singing. This is an exceedingly rare bird on the Outer Hebrides with sometimes no spring records at all. It was sunny and warm and we saw several small birds like Greenfinch that we had not seen up to now. We continued along to Loch Skipport where we had our first excellent views of Twite and had a nice walk down to the ruined pier.

Continuing south we headed back via Loch Druidibeg where we saw a House Martin fly across the road: this is another local rarity. We were heading out to another sea-watching point for lunch, via Howbeg where we found an interesting looking loch with three pairs of Teal. We then stopped along the shore to have a look at one of the remarkably long sandy beaches here; there were plenty of young Eider and Shelduck. We had lunch at Rubha Ardvule at the end of a bumpy road. There was still an interesting sea passage here including some more close Gannets, distant Manx Shearwater (which we do not always see from the land) and divers including a Great Northern Diver flying overhead, and a Bonxie also close heading north.

We continued onto visit Bill Neill, a local artist who always gives us a friendly welcome, especially as I usually buy one of his pictures! His garden had orchids in the lawn and many butterflies including Green-veined White and at least one Small Tortoiseshell. We admired his flowering Queen-of-the-Night Cactus and his superb landscape watercolours. We continued back visiting the new Kildonan Café & Museum and all important loos (lottery-funded!) and continued to Archie's Plantation. This seems to grow better every year and there are always new birds; this time a Dunnock was singing away.

Thursday, 15th June

We started off near the hotel at the famous Stinky Bay, where we had our first Curlew of the trip, and just as we were about to leave a fine Iceland Gull passed closed to us. It was a nice white 2nd-summer bird. We continued on to Grimnish where we had heard a Corncrake and again got very close to it but could not get a view. One of the local farmers stopped and chatted and allowed us to walk up to one of the lochs on the other side of the road, where we saw our first Moorhen and another Whooper Swan.

We then had a walk out over the moor on Benbecula; we had nice views of a pair of Hen Harrier which were displaying, including the male passing food to the female as well as some distant Black-throated Divers.

We then continued on to North Uist. We started at the Langass Plantation where we saw Redpoll and walked up to the stone circle amidst lovely scenery. Then onto Lochmaddy Moor where we had close views of a pair of Red-throated Diver with a chick, and had a nice warm sunny lunch. This was going to be our spot for Arctic Skua and more raptors but all these failed to appear.

After lunch we continued on down the old road and stopped for fine views of a male Golden Plover standing guard on a tussock with three youngsters around. We tried another part of Lochmaddy Moor for a walk which was very pleasant but almost completely birdless.

Later in the afternoon we headed over the Committee Road where we immediately saw a Short-eared Owl mobbing a ring-tailed Hen Harrier. This aerial display continued for at least quarter of an hour with the Hen Harrier persistently intruding on the Short-eared Owl's territory.

We tried for Corncrakes without success around Balemore where last year's group had seen them and then went up to the viewpoint at Cletraval. There is a fantastic view of St. Kilda from the road up there and great views over the islands but no sign of any raptors that we were looking for. We felt very sorry for Phil and the Ocean Bounty group not making it across in the last few days as the weather looked perfect now.

Finally we ended up at Balranald, the White-winged Black Tern looking very fine again in the evening sunshine. By the visitor centre the Corncrake was sounding away nicely, and persistence eventually paid off with excellent close views of the male calling and another bird, presumably the female, skulking away in the cover. Another superb day with excellent weather.

Friday, 16th June

The wind had turned south-easterly overnight. After a productive start at our local loch we then headed south, first calling in at Lochboisdale. This was a good place for Otters in years past as they used to be seen around the fish tanks. However the tanks had been moved further up the loch -is nothing sacred?

We then went onto Loch Hallam, normally a good place for wildfowl but on this occasion very empty, and then headed to South Lochboisdale, which is a good place to see white houses. Encouragingly this year a few are being renovated. One we looked into four years ago with its furniture intact was now completely gutted, though.

We headed to the southern tip of South Uist where it was very blowy and had lunch. We then headed to Ludag and looked across to Eriskay, and the start of the new causeway. Join us in June 2002 for the Whisky Galore trip!

It was starting to warm up and the wind was turning south as we headed back for Archie's and found several people staring at the loch, including a couple who we knew from our hotel. They pointed to no less than four Otters just below us! Two were asleep on a rock but two were playing about and giving fantastic views in telescopes. A walk here produced only Buzzard and Kestrel for our raptor list.

We then headed back to Loch Druidebeg again trying for raptors and had a lovely walk in warm sunshine, probably the warmest I have ever known it in the Outer Hebrides,but again failed to see any eagles.

Finally we finished at Ardvacher Point where we had plenty of terns and Gannets to look at. We got back to find the wedding dinner in full swing. I recall the time five years ago when a wedding party kept us all awake all night and we had to step over semi-conscious wedding guests on our way to the early morning birding. However this year the party was relatively subdued and we all had a good quiet night.

Saturday, 17th June

We awoke to rain. Sadly there was to be no breakfast walk today. It was raining and misty as we moved up to the east coast and tried to find places to watch from the mini-bus. At Loch Eynort I was just about to turn round when I noticed a superb summer plumaged Great Northern Diver, which we all admired despite the poor light conditions.

The weather was really closing in as we headed up to North Uist. We stopped off at a site I did not know, Loch Paible, which is supposed to be excellent for waders. There were plenty of Redshank here; this definitely has great potential being one of the nearest estuaries in this part of the world to North America.

At Balranald there were few birds to see as it was windy and wet although a couple told us we had just missed a Corncrake running across the road with its chick. Looking for some shelter we headed back to Langass where Redpolls were seen well as well as a male Chaffinch. Our walk up the hill was sadly curtailed by mist coming down. Another new site next : Carinish Marshes. This is a superb area for breeding waders, including our best views of displaying Snipe, and then we finished by going up the Uiskevagh Road where there was not sign of the hopeful raptors or Arctic Skua but had nice views of several Red-breasted Merganser, one with very small chicks.

Sunday, 18th June

We left the hotel at 7 o' clock to catch our ferry and, in a case of déja vu, saw a Short-eared Owl in exactly the same place as I had seen one four years ago by the roadside on South Uist, which gave us our best views of this bird so far.

The return crossing was much more comfortable than the outward. In fact we were on fairly smooth seas in excellent conditions for sea watching. We must have seen about twenty Storm Petrels in the company of Bryan Bland and a Sunbird group before sailing through impressive rafts of over a hundred Manx Shearwater. We must have seen well over a thousand of these birds altogether.

Thanks to all the group for their very good company and good cheer in all weathers.

Jamie McMillan

Dorchester, July 2000

SPECIES NOTES

BIRDS

Red-throated Diver: Excellent views of breeding birds on Lochmaddy Moor. Pair also Loch Eynort.

Black-throated Diver: One past Rubha Ardvule on 14th; one distantly on Benbecula, 15th.

Great Northern Diver: One S past. Rubha Ardvule, 14th. Superb breeding-plumaged bird at Loch Eport, 17th

Little Grebe: Seen Balranald , including with young on 17th. Also "Coot" Loch, Benbecula.

Fulmar: Recorded daily.

Manx Shearwater: 3-4 off Rubha Ardvule on 14th were an unusual sighting (on our trips anyway) from land. As usual we had excellent views of birds alongside the ferry - too rough to count on the way out, but over 1000 on the return.

Storm Petrel: At least 20 on the return ferry crossing.

Gannet: Recorded 4 days in small numbers. Several flew right over our heads at Aird an Rhunair on 13th.

Cormorant: Recorded daily.

Shag: Recorded 3 days.

Grey Heron: This common breeding bird was recorded daily around the rocky coasts and lochs.

Mute Swan: Very common breeding bird with many family parties seen.

Whooper Swan: Two summering birds. One Balranald, 13th; one Grimnish on 15th.

Greylag Goose: Very common breeding bird. Many family parties seen of this wild goose.

Shelduck: Common breeding bird. Many family parties seen.

Wigeon: A pair on Grimnish lochs, Benbecula seen on 13th and 15 th.

Teal: Relatively widespread this year. 3 pairs near Howmore, South Uist on 14th ; 3 near Southlochboisdale on 16th ; and a pair Carinish, 17th.

Mallard: Recorded daily.

Shoveler: Recorded daily on the machair lochs.

Tufted Duck: Common breeding bird.

Eider: Common breeding bird around coast. Many crèches with attending females as well as many groups consisting almost entirely of male birds.

Common Scoter: A male flew N off Rubha Ardvule, 13th.

Red-breasted Merganser: Recorded daily in small numbers. Family group seen at Uiskevaugh.

White-tailed Eagle: Superb views of one flying low along the shore in the Sound of Mull.One on a distant hill on South Uist.

Hen Harrier: Some excellent sightings. A male seen to catch a Meadow Pipit right by the minibus on Benbecula, 14th, with a female near Druidibeg. A pair displaying on Benbecula, 15th, with another two on North Uist.

Buzzard: Noted 3 days.

Common Kestrel : 2 sightings on S. Uist, one on Benbecula.

Corncrake: All eventually had very close views of a crekking bird at Balranald on 15th, and brief views of another, presumably the female, creeping close by. We heard them in lots of places

Moorhen : One at Grimnish, and another at Balranald.

Coot: Only recorded from "Coot Loch" Benbecula.

Oystercatcher: Extremely common and vocal breeding bird.

Golden Plover: We all enjoyed excellent views of these birds in their moorland breeding habitat on North Uist.

Lapwing: Abundant breeding bird.

Ringed Plover: Abundant breeding bird on the machair.

Snipe: As usual one of the highlights of the trip was watching the display flight of this common breeding bird.

Bar-tailed Godwit: Two on the mudflats at Malacleit.

Whimbrel: 7 at Rubha Ardvule on 14 th.

Curlew: Noted on 3 days.

Redshank: Very common and vocal breeding bird.

Common Sandpiper: Seen most days in small numbers around the rocky shores of their breeding lochs.

Turnstone: 10 Aird an Runair, North Uist on 13 th. One Howbeg on 14 th.

Dunlin: Many birds seen in full breeding plumage.

Red-necked Phalarope: Good views, from the minibus, of two birds at their traditional site. Courtship and mating seen on 16th.

Great Skua: Seen on both outward and return crossings. Also one past Rubha Ardvule, 13th.

Arctic Skua: Strangely absent this year - only seen on the crossings.

Common Gull: The "common" gull of the islands. Often seen harassing breeding waders.

Great Black-backed Gull: Recorded daily in small numbers.

Iceland Gull: A fine white 2nd summer bird flew past us at Stinky Bay on 15th.

Herring Gull: Recorded daily.

Lesser Black-backed Gull: The least common of the breeding gulls.

Black-headed Gull: Common breeding bird.

Kittiwake: Seen on both crossings. Two past Rubha Ardvule, 13th

White-winged (Black) Tern: Star-rarity of the trip, this immaculate bird in full breeding plumage was seen flying over a roadside loch at Balranald on 13th and 15th.

Common Tern: Common breeding bird.

Arctic Tern: Very common breeding bird.

Little Tern: Seemingly more widespread this year. Noted on 4 days.

Guillemot: Very common on both crossings. Two past Rubha Ardvule, 13th

Razorbill: Common on both crossings.

Black Guillemot: Displaying birds at close quarters in Oban harbour. Seen well on both crossings.

Puffin: Few seen on both crossings.

Rock Dove: This truly wild pigeon recorded on most days.

Collared Dove: Several in Lochboisdale. One on moorland near Loch Eport, 17th.

Cuckoo: Noted 3 days.

Short-eared Owl: Superb views of a bird defending territory against a marauding Hen Harrier on the Committee Road, 15th. One en route to ferry, South Uist, 18th.

Skylark: Delightfully common and of course vocal.

Swallow: One Orniclate, 14th; one Balranald 15th with 2 there 17th.

House Martin : One over Loch Druidibeg on 14th was most unusual on the isles.

Meadow Pipit: Abundant breeding bird.

Rock Pipit: The Hebridean race is common around rocky shores.

Pied Wagtail: Recorded daily in small numbers.

Wren: The "enormous" Hebridean race was heard daily and seen well on occasions, usually in its favoured moorland habitat, and sometimes inside the ruined white houses.

Dunnock : Noted, amazingly, on 4 days, with birds at "Archies Garden", Loch Eynort, and Langass Plantation.

Robin: Seen at Langass and Loch Druidibeg Plantations and "Archies Garden", Loch Eynort.

Stonechat: Fairly common breeding bird.

Wheatear: Common breeding bird.

Blackbird: Recorded daily.

Song Thrush: The large and distinctly marked Hebridean race was recorded on 4 days.

Sedge Warbler: One at Bornishon 14 th, with another at Loch hallam, 16th.

Lesser Whitethroat: The 'find' of the trip, one was singing at Loch Druidibeg Plantation on 14th, but didn't appear to be there on 16th. Only occasionally recorded in spring here.

Willow Warbler: Recorded in "Archies Garden" , Loch Druidibeg and Langass Plantations.

Hooded Crow: One at Langass.

Raven: Recorded daily in small numbers.

Starling: The distinctive dark zetlandicus race is very common.

House Sparrow: Recorded daily.

Chaffinch: A male at Langass.

Greenfinch: Seen at "Archies Garden", Loch Druidibeg and Langass Plantations.

Redpoll: Numerous at Langass Plantation.

Twite: Recorded on four days in small numbers.

Linnet: A male in the hotel car park on 14th was surprising, but apparently these have nested on Benbecula in recent years

Reed Bunting: Four Aird an Rhunair, 13th, with males at Langass and Carinish.

Corn Bunting: Birds from the relict population on North Uist gave excellent views.

MAMMALS

Common Dolphin: Two on outward crossing.

Common Seal: Seen at Berneray and Loch Eynort.

Grey Seal: Seen most days and on both crossings.

Red Deer: Herds seen on two occasions.

Otter: Two pairs gave prolonged views in the sea loch at Archies on 16th.

Rabbit: Very common.

Hedgehog : Corpses seen on South Uist and Benbecula. Worryingly, this species seems to be spreading


© The Travelling Naturalist 2000