TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Outer Hebrides

Monday 9 - Sunday 15 June 2003


Leaders:
Phil Read

PROGRAMME AND WEATHER

Monday 9 June: Cloudy, rain p.m. Wind light becoming strong SE'ly.

Max temp PS 14 C

We all gathered on Oban quay for our seven-hour crossing to the Outer Hebrides. We were blessed with fine weather for the start of the voyage but this steadily deteriorated during the afternoon and the last few hours were both windy and wet. As always on this crossing there was plenty to see with the large flocks of Manx Shearwaters alongside the ferry one of the highlights. The calm conditions at the start encouraged "fin watching" and we were rewarded with a pod of very active Common Dolphin, which everyone enjoyed, and a very close, but very brief, Long-finned Pilot Whale which only a few very lucky enough to see.

Tuesday 10 June: Rain then fine. Wind fresh SE'ly. Max temp PS 16 C

We set off to North Uist in rather windy and wet conditions. Our main aim was to visit the RSPB Reserve at Balranald which is undoubtedly one of the easiest places to see the elusive Corn Crake. Unfortunately although hearing them at close distance they remained elusive in the long vegetation and windy weather. After a pleasant walk to set off to visit one of our favourite moorland roads on North Uist. As soon as we had arrived Ailsa pointed out a large bird of prey. A fine Osprey was a nice surprise and gave us prolonged views. Breeding Curlew seemed to be everywhere and a female Hen Harrier flew past the minibus.

An after dinner trip to the eastern side of Benbecula was an outstanding success with stunning views of a pair of Golden Eagles and a wonderful pair of Otters, playing as only Otters can, all within twenty minutes.

Wednesday 11 June: Partly cloudy. Wind fresh SW'ly. Max temp PS 14 C

We headed south stopping first to explore the area around Loch Druidibeg. Three Golden Eagle were rather distant but a male Merlin almost hit the bus. The small areas of trees here gave our first selection of passerines including singing Willow Warbler. Moving over to the west coast we all enjoyed prolonged and at times extremely close views of a fine male Hen Harrier successfully catching voles. After lunch overlooking one of the many splendid white beaches we visited one of our favourite east coasts lochs. "Archies Garden" provided an excellent variety of passerines including Redpoll which seems to have colonised here in recent years. Birds of prey were rather hard to find and we only managed rather frustratingly distant views of two White-tailed Eagle.

Thursday 12 June: Bright then rain. Wind SW'ly strong. Max temp PS 15 C

Each morning the early risers amongst us went for a short walk to the shore near the hotel. This was the most successful morning with a variety of waders including Grey Plover and Greenshank whilst an Arctic Skua flew overhead.

We visited North Uist again, this time mixing some archaeology with birdwatching and enjoying the stunning panoramic views. Two Arctic Skuas flew close overhead as we visited the chambered cairn at Langass and as usual the Red-throated Divers were a delight to see on their tiny breeding lochs on Lochmaddy Moor.

After a comfort/shopping break in the civilisation of Lochmaddy we headed north. We soon had to stop however as a huge female White-tailed Eagle flew along the road towards and eventually over the minibus. If that wasn't exciting enough she was then seen off by a Golden Eagle protecting his territory on a nearby hill.

Despite the rather wet conditions we paid our annual visit to the delightful "island" of Berneray before returning south, seeing three separate Hen Harriers on the way.

Friday 13 June : Bright then cloudy. Wind SW'ly moderate. Max temp PS 15 C

Before heading to the far south of South Uist we stopped at Ardivachar point on the west coast where despite the cold wind and very smelly beach we enjoyed a fine variety of waders.

Hiding amongst seventy migrating Bar-tailed Godwit were a few Sanderling and a Knot. We stopped at the southern end of South Uist to view the Sound of Barra. A pair of Black-throated Divers were the best of the birds but the botanists amongst us were impressed by the beauty and variety of the orchids, particularly the marsh/spotted hybrids.

As has become traditional we visited another of the islands which has recently been linked by a causeway. Eriskay provided us with a wealth of wild flowers and our first decent views of Twite.

Lunch and early afternoon was spent on the machair of west South Uist enjoying the carpets of wildflowers and particularly the marsh orchids.

Saturday 14 June: Cloudy then bright. Wind SW'ly moderate. Max temp PS 15.

The morning was spent walking out onto the moorland of east Benbecula. Highlights of the walk included a hunting Short-eared Owl, rather brief views of two Hen Harriers and stunning close views of a Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly perched on a piece of dead gorse waiting for the day to warm up.

The afternoon was spent at Balranald trying at last to see Corn Crake and despite hearing them in a number of places we again failed. Isobel found an Otter playing in the sea which pleased those who had missed the sighting earlier in the week.

We returned via our usual spot for Red-necked Phalarope where two gave a rather brief appearance.

Sunday 15 June: Cloudy. Wind Light S'ly. Max Temp PS 15 C.

Ironically the wind at last relented as we took the return crossing to Oban. This gave us excellent "fin watching" conditions and no less than five Minke Whales were seen, one alongside the ferry. We also saw nine Harbour Porpoise and very brief views of another Long-finned Pilot Whale. The calm conditions also help us see the birds which included at least six Storm Petrel and four Great Skuas.

SPECIES NOTES

BIRDS

Red-throated Diver: Birds seen in breeding plumage in a number of locations. Excellent views, from the vehicle, of breeding birds on Lochmaddy Moor.

Black-throated Diver: Two birds in non-breeding plumage viewed from Ludac, South Uist on 13th.

Great Northern Diver: Two birds in non-breeding plumage at Balranald on 14th.

Little Grebe: A few pairs of breeding birds seen on west coasts lochs.

Fulmar: Recorded each day, often at close quarters.

Manx Shearwater: As usual one of the highlights of the week were the large flocks of shearwaters seen at close quarters during both crossings.

Storm Petrel: Around ten, most rather distant, on the outward crossing. Six, rather closer to the ferry, on the return crossing.

Gannet: Recorded most days offshore. Excellent views during both crossings.

Cormorant: Recorded daily in small numbers.

Shag: Seen well on crossings. Seen in small numbers during the week.

Grey Heron: Seen daily. Excellent views of birds nesting in rowan trees on Benbecula.

Mute Swan: Very common breeding bird.

Whooper Swan: One summering bird at Balranald on 10th and one at Loch Mor, Benbecula on 14th.

Greylag Goose: This wild goose is a very common breeding bird. Many parties of young seen.

Common Shelduck: Breeding birds seen daily.

Wigeon: A male on Loch Mor on 14th.

Common Teal: A male on Loch Mor on 14th.

Mallard: Common and widespread.

Tufted Duck: Common breeding bird mainly on west coast lochs.

Common Eider: Recorded commonly each day but very few young seen.

Common Goldeneye: Three birds, one male and two females, at Aird an Runair, North Uist, on 10th was an unusual summer record.

Red Breasted Merganser: Seen each day in a variety of habitats from fresh water lochs to open sea.

Osprey: One of the highlights of the trip were the prolonged views we enjoyed of this bird on North Uist on 10th.

White-tailed Eagle: A pair on South Uist on 11th gave frustratingly distant views whilst perched on rocks but we all appreciated the huge size of this species when one of the birds took flight. One of the highlights of the week were the stunning views we all enjoyed on North Uist of a huge female as she flew towards and eventually over the minibus only to be chased off by a Golden Eagle!

Hen Harrier: An excellent series of sightings with eight birds seen in total, sometimes at very close quarters. A male catching voles alongside the minibus on South Uist was mobbed by Swallows.

Common Buzzard: Fairly common and widespread breeding bird.

Golden Eagle: Six birds seen in total. We enjoyed superb views of a pair on Benbecula during an evening outing on 10th. They were mobbed by a variety of birds including Shelduck.

Merlin: Our only sighting was a fleeting but very close view of a hunting male at Loch Skipport, South Uist on 11th.

Corn Crake: Heard, sometimes at very close quarters, on a number of occasions. Very frustratingly the strong winds and tall vegetation prevented us from actually seeing this elusive bird.

Coot: Only seen on "Coot Loch", Benbecula.

Oystercatcher: Very common and vocal breeding bird.

Lapwing: Very common and vocal breeding bird.

Golden Plover: Surprisingly scarce. One heard on breeding grounds on Benbecula on 14th.

Grey Plover: One, in non-breeding plumage, on the shore at Liniclate during the morning walk on 12th.

Ringed Plover: Very common breeding bird.

Black-tailed Godwit: One in, summer plumage, on Benbecula on 14th.

Bar-tailed Godwit: A noticeable passage seen during the week. Highest count was seventy at Ardivachar, South Uist on 13th.

Whimbrel: One at Loch Eynort, South Uist on 13th.

Curlew: At least six pairs on a North Uist moorland on 10th. Single pairs noted on the coast on a few occasions.

Redshank: A delightfully common and noisy breeding bird.

Greenshank: One on the Liniclate shore during the pre breakfast walk on 12th.

Common Sandpiper: Seen well in breeding habitat of rock edged lochs.

Turnstone: Recorded in small numbers on three days. Some of the birds were in their splendid breeding plumage although this species does not breed on the Hebrides.

Red-necked Phalarope: Rather distant and fleeting views of this delightful bird at a traditional site.

Common Snipe: Common and widespread breeding bird. The fascinating drumming display seen on a number of occasions.

Knot: One, in non-breeding plumage, with Bar-tailed Godwits at Ardivachar on 13th.

Sanderling: Two, in breeding plumage, at Ardivachar on 13th.

Dunlin: Passage birds seen on the shorelines, with breeding birds seen in both machair and moorland habitat.

Great Skua: One on the outward crossing. Four on the return crossing.

Arctic Skua: Excellent close views of birds on Lochmaddy Moor on 12th.

Common Gull: A very common breeding bird on these islands.

Herring Gull: Common breeding bird.

Lesser Black-backed Gull: Seen daily in small numbers.

Great Black-backed Gull: Seen daily.

Black-headed Gull: Common breeding bird.

Kittiwake: Common on crossings.

Common Tern: Common breeding bird.

Arctic Tern: As always this is an excellent area for southern birdwatchers to appreciate this species at close quarters.

Little Tern: Breeding birds seen at Liniclate during our pre-breakfast walks.

Common Guillemot: Very common on both crossings.

Razorbill: Common on both crossings.

Black Guillemot: It is always a pleasure to watch these delightful birds at close quarters in Oban harbour. Twelve in Castlebay, Barra on 9th.

Puffin: Seen in small numbers on both crossings.

Rock Dove: Excellent views of this truly wild bird.

Collared Dove: Seen on two days.

Cuckoo: Surprisingly scarce this year. Only a few fleeting views.

Short-eared Owl: One fleetingly on Lochmaddy Moor on 12th. One gave prolonged views on Benbecula on 14th.

Common Swift: One of the surprise sightings of the week. One at Daliburgh, South Uist on 13th.

Sky Lark: Still delightfully common on these islands.

Swallow: Seemingly continuing to become increasingly common. Six sightings altogether including three mobbing a Hen Harrier on South Uist.

Pied Wagtail: Recorded daily.

Meadow Pipit: Common breeding bird.

Rock Pipit: Fairly common in suitable habitat.

Wren: This larger, darker, hebridensis race of Wren with a noticeably different song was seen on three days.

Dunnock: Only seen at "Archie's Garden" Loch Eynort.

Blackbird: Recorded daily.

Song Thrush: This larger, greyer, hebridensis race was seen on three days.

Robin: Only seen in "Archie's Garden".

Stonechat: Surprisingly scarce with only a few sightings.

Wheatear: This common breeding bird was seen daily.

Willow Warbler: Breeding birds seen, and heard, at Lch Druidibeg and Loch Eynort.

Goldcrest: Heard in "Archie's Garden".

Hooded Crow: This once common species has all but been exterminated from the islands. One at Newtonferry, North Uist, was the only sighting.

Raven: Seen daily. At least fifty around the dump area on Benbecula on 14th.

Starling: Much debate surrounds the race of this species which is a common breeding bird. Whether or not they are the zetlandicus race is open to question but all the young appear very dark like the Shetland birds.

Corn Bunting: We enjoyed excellent views of birds from this relict population on North Uist. This is one of only three "large" populations remaining in Scotland.

Reed Bunting: A pair on South Uist on 11th.

Greenfinch: Common in the plantation at Loch Druidibeg.

Lesser Redpoll: Becoming increasingly common in "Archie's Garden".

Twite: Only seen on two days. This species becomes rather elusive during the breeding season.

Linnet: A pair at Liniclate, Benbecula are part of a recent colonisation of the islands.

House Sparrow: Very common particularly around the crofts.

MAMMALS

Otter: Two playing on Benbecula on 10th. Two at Balranald on 14th.

Common Seal

Grey Seal

Red Deer

Short-tailed Field Vole: In the talons of a Hen Harrier

Rabbit

CETACEANS

Common Dolphin: A pod of at least twenty showed well on the outward crossing.

Long-finned Pilot Whale: One gave close but brief views on the outward crossing.

Another gave very brief views on the return crossing.

Harbour Porpoise: Only one on the outward trip but nine on the return crossing in calm seas.

Minke Whale: An excellent total of five on the return crossing.

BUTTERFLIES

Green-veined White

Red Admiral

Painted Lady

DRAGONFLIES

Four-spotted Chaser

FLOWERS

(This following is a sample of the wealth of flowers we saw. Thanks to Naomi for help in compiling this list.)

Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata

Northern Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella

Common Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii

Heath Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza maculata

(Also many beautiful hybrids of the above species)

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

Pale Butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica

Creeping Buttercup Ranunculus repens

Meadow Buttercup Ranunculus acris

Common Chickweed Stellaria media

Lesser Chickweed Stellaria pallida

Bell Heather Erica cinerea

Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix

Round leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia

Heath Bedstraw Galium saxtile

Crosswort Cruciata laevipes

Seaside Pansy Viola tricolor curtisii

Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor

Eyebright Euphrasia officinalis

Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica

Silverweed Potentilla anserina

Marsh Cinquefoil Potentilla palustris

Alpine Cinquefoil Potentilla crantzii

Bluebell Endymion non-scriptus

Wild Strawberry Fragaria vesca

Black Medick Medicago luputina

Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulnerana

Bird's Foot Trefoil Lotus corniculatus

Yellow Flag Iris pseudacorus

Marsh Marigold Caltha palustris

Foxglove Digitalis purpurea

Sea Rocket Cakile maritima

Early Scurvy Grass Cochlearia danica

Rowan Sorbus aucuparia

Cutleaved Cranesbill Geranium dissectum

Round leaved Cranesbill Geranium rotundifolium

White Water-lily Nymphaea alba

Marsh Thistle Carduus personata

Common Catsear Hypochaeris radicata

Common Figwort Scrophularia nodosa

Lesser Bittercress Cardamine amara

Cuckoo Flower Cardamine pratensis

Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa

My thanks to all the group for their wonderful company and good humour, despite the wind.

I hope you all enjoyed visiting these wonderful islands as much as I do.

Phil Read

June 2003


© The Travelling Naturalist 2003