Outer Hebrides

Sunday 6 June to Saturday 12 June 2004

Phil Read


Before commencing this report we pay our respects to Alan Pownall.

Alan, a lifelong lover of birds and wild places, passed away suddenly on 8 June after a blissful evening spent watching Golden Eagle and Otter against the background of a spectacular sunset. Our deepest sympathies go to his family and friends for their loss.

Alan was a former council member of the BTO, and we thought it appropriate for The Travelling Naturalist to make a donation to the BTO in Alan's memory.


Sunday 6 June

We all gathered at Oban for our cruise to the Outer Hebrides. As usual the resident Black Guillemots gave excellent views in Oban harbour. As we sailed through the Sound of Mull, as well as admiring the variety of seabirds, we scoured the surrounding hills for raptors. We were rewarded with a distant view of a pair of Golden Eagle when Mike said "What's that large bird those Gannets are mobbing?" Only one bird is big compared with Gannets and sure enough a superb adult White-tailed Eagle flew along the sound giving rather distant views, but we could all appreciate its huge size.

Out in the open sea there were plenty of seabirds to enjoy including thousands of Manx Shearwaters gathering off Rum, several Great Skuas, some very close to the ship, and a variety of auks.

Monday 7 June

For our first full day on the Uists we headed north to visit the RSPB reserve at Balranald. As usual the Corn Crakes were in good voice but seemingly impossible to se in the long vegetation. A fine summer plumage Great Northern Diver was the highlight of our lunchbreak.

We spent the afternoon in a moorland area which gave us excellent views of a pair of Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and, surprisingly, a Sparrowhawk. Breeding Curlew were amongst the abundant breeding waders much in evidence on the moorland.

An after dinner trip to east Benbecula was highly successful. On arrival at the coast a Golden Eagle was seen perched on a distant rock whilst an Otter swam around in the loch in front of us. The evening ended with the most dramatic sunset one could wish to see.

Tuesday 8 June

We headed south, starting the day at the Loch Druidibeg nature reserve. The small plantation holds a few species we struggle to see elsewhere including singing Willow Warbler and Dunnock. A short walk at the end of the road gave us excellent views of a pair of Golden Plover in their breeding habitat. Sheila took advantage of finding a few pools to go "bug hunting" and Phil skilfully caught a dead fly.

Lunch was spent on one of the many endless white shell sand beaches on the west coast. We saw another summer plumage Great Northern Diver and the waders on the beach in front of us included a flock of thirty Sanderling on their way north to breed.

The afternoon was spent at Loch Eynort, one of our favourite sites. Around "Archie's Garden" Lesser Redpoll were very vocal but rather elusive to see perched and a Hen Harrier flew overhead. For the first time ever on a Travelling Naturalist trip to the Hebrides we were pestered by midges and had to leave the moors and escape to the west coast. The huge beach at Ardivachar held a flock of around eighty Sanderling and a very white Glaucous Gull.

Wednesday 9 June

Heading north again we stopped on the way to enjoy superb views of the delightful Red-necked Phalarope at a traditional site.

We all enjoyed the moorland walk on North Uist, visiting the chambered cairn and stone circle at Ben Langass. Highlight of the birds on show was a flypast by a magnificent Golden Eagle at very close quarters, a female Hen Harrier and a Short-eared Owl.

After lunch we watched the exciting Arctic Skuas on their moorland home before circuiting the north of North Uist.

Thursday 10 June

We headed to the far south of South Uist and during the morning visited the famous "island" of Eriskay. A flock of eighty non-breeding Red Breasted Merganser was a surprise find. The botanists enjoyed the orchids including some very attractive hybrids before we headed north to Loch Eynort again.

This time there were no midges and the hoped for birds of prey were out and about. Having seen Buzzard, Kestrel and Peregrine we were treated to prolonged, if rather distant, views of two enormous White-tailed Eagles. As always at this sight Common Seals were much in evidence and an Otter gave prolonged views fishing in the loch in front of us.

Friday 11 June

We started the last full day with a moorland walk on Benbecula. The rain was rather a nuisance, recent burning of the moorland seemed responsible for the lack of birds of prey and Sheila failed to find any bugs in the lochs, but we were rewarded with a flypast by a pair of Black-throated Diver.

After lunch we made our final attempt to see the elusive Corn Crake. At Balranald we were rewarded for our patience with views of one bird out in the open on short grass. Further along the road we watched another bird from the minibus behaving in the classic Corn Crake way; calling with its neck outstretched from a bed of Yellow Flag.

Saturday 12 June

As we headed south on our last day we stopped off at Loch Skipport and we were amused by two fluffy baby Common Sandpipers behaving exactly like adults bobbing their tails, despite the fact they didn't have any tails!

A pair of Hen Harrier gave excellent views over the moorland before we headed to the ferry.

The weather was glorious for the return crossing and the calm sea gave us excellent conditions for seawatching. As we skirted Rum, Eigg and Muck thousands of Manx Shearwaters were all around us and over thirty Storm Petrels were seen, some very close to the boat.

"Fin spotting" was highly successful with at least one Minke Whale, over forty sightings of Harbour Porpoise and a Basking Shark very close to the ferry.



Red Throated Diver: Birds in breeding plumage were seen on three days. This diver breeds throughout the islands on tiny moorland lochans.

Black Throated Diver: Our only views were of a pair in flight on the east side of Benbecula.

Great Northern Diver: A few single birds, in their dramatic summer plumage, were seen off the west coast. This species does not breed on the islands.

Little Grebe: A few sightings around the islands including birds on a nest at Balranald.

Fulmar: Relatively common on the crossings. Seen most days, mainly off the west coast.

Manx Shearwater: As always one of the highlights of the trip is the literally thousands of this species seen from the ferry. We enjoyed excellent views of rafts of many hundreds near Muck on the return crossing.

Storm Petrel: Only a few brief views on the outward voyage but the return trip gave us much better viewing conditions. Distant views of around six near Canna but prolonged and at times close views of at least thirty near Muck on 12th.

Gannet: Seen daily offshore with excellent views from the ferry.

Cormorant: Recorded daily in small numbers.

Shag: Recorded most days in small numbers.

Grey Heron: A relatively common breeding bird on the islands. Excellent views of young in a heronry on the east side of Benbecula on 7th.

Mute Swan: Common breeding bird. Many family parties seen.

Whooper Swan: One summering bird at Balranald on 11th.

Greylag Geese: This wild goose is a common breeding birds. Many family parties seen.

Common Shelduck: Common breeding bird particularly along the west coast.

Wigeon: A female with three young on "Coot Loch", Benbecula was the only sighting.

Gadwall: Two on "Coot Loch" were the only birds seen.

Common Teal: Two in flight at Peninerine was the only sighting.

Mallard: Common breeding bird.

Shoveler: A female with young on "Coot Loch" was the only sighting.

Tufted Duck: Widespread breeding bird. Many family parties seen.

Common Eider: Common breeding bird around the rocky shores.

Red Breasted Merganser: Breeding birds recorded daily in small numbers. An interesting record of a flock of eighty non-breeding birds off Eriskay on 10th.

White Tailed Eagle: A superb adult from the ferry in the Sound of Mull. A pair on South Uist gave prolonged but rather distant views.

Hen Harrier: An excellent series of sightings of this exciting bird which suffers so much persecution during the breeding season throughout the UK. Twelve sightings in all, involving at least nine birds, including excellent views of a pair alongside the road on North Uist.

Common Buzzard: Seen daily in surprisingly small numbers.

Sparrowhawk: A surprising record of one over the Committee Road plantation on 7th. This is normally an autumn or winter visitor to the islands.

Golden Eagle: A pair were seen distantly from the outward ferry in the Sound of Mull. We enjoyed prolonged, if rather distant, views of a perched bird on the east side of Benbecula on 7th. A immature female gave us stunning views on Ben Langass, North Uist as she flew past at close range. Her enormous size became even more evident when she was joined by a "tiny" Buzzard.

Kestrel: The only sighting was one at Loch Eynort on 10th.

Peregrine: The only sighting was one at Loch Eynort on 10th.

Corn Crake: After hearing this elusive bird on a number of occasions our patience was eventually at Balranald on 11th. One bird was seen in the open near the information centre whilst another gave a classic Corn Crake performance, calling with its neck outstretched from a patch of Yellow Flag.

Moorhen: Seemingly more common than in the past with birds seen on four days on different lochs.

Coot: Only seen on "Coot Loch" Benbecula.

Oystercatcher: A very common and vocal, if not neurotic, breeding bird.

Lapwing: One of the features of the islands in summer is the abundance of this breeding wader.

Golden Plover: We enjoyed excellent views of breeding birds at Loch Skipport. A flock of four passage birds were at Loch Hallan, South Uist on 12th.

Ringed Plover: Common breeding bird.

Bar tailed Godwit: A flock of around sixty migrant birds were seen on the South Ford on 9th and 10th.

Curlew: Seen daily. We enjoyed excellent views of breeding birds with young on North Uist.

Common Redshank: Very common and vocal breeding bird.

Common Sandpiper: Excellent views of breeding birds including downy young displaying the characteristic tail bobbing pose, even though they had no tail.

Turnstone: Two seen at "Stinky Bay", Benbecula and one at Aird an Runair, North Uist and one at Rubha Ardvule.

Red Necked Phalarope: We enjoyed superb views, from the minibus, of this delightful bird at a traditional site.

Common Snipe: It's always a delight to watch the evocative "drumming " display flight of this common breeding bird.

Sanderling: Migrant birds were still around in good numbers with around a hundred seen on 8th including eight at Ardivachar, South Uist. Many of the birds were in fine summer plumage and one sported a selection of colour rings on its legs. (Details have been sent to the BTO).

Dunlin: A few small flocks of migrant birds on the beaches. Seemingly less breeding birds than in the past. (This species has suffered at the hands (or mouth) of the infamous Hedgehogs).

Great Skua: Five, including some alongside the ferry, on the outward journey. Only one seen on the return crossing.

Arctic Skua: We enjoyed excellent views of these exciting birds on the moorland on North Uist. One seen in the Sound of Mull on the outward trip and one dark phase bird on the return crossing.

Common Gull: This species lives up to its name on the islands. We were intrigued to find a flock feeding over the heather on Ben Langass. On close inspection we discovered they were feasting on very small dark caterpillars which were in the heather; a sight I had not previously witnessed.

Herring Gull: Very common breeding bird.

Lesser Black Backed Gull: By far the less common of the breeding gulls.

Great Black Backed Gull: Seen daily in small numbers.

Glaucous Gull: One, presumed 2nd summer plumage, on the North Ford on 7th. One, presumed 1st summer plumage, at Ardivachar on 8th.

Black Headed Gull: Recorded daily.

Kittiwake: Seen well from the ferry.

Common Tern: Common breeding bird.

Arctic Tern: Very common breeding bird. An excellent opportunity to compare this species with the previous.

Little Tern: Seen regularly during our walks to the beach behind the hotel.

Common Guillemot: Very common on the crossings.

Razorbill: Seen well on the crossings but significantly less numbers than the previous species.

Black Guillemot: It is always a delight to see these charming birds at close quarters in Oban harbour. Also seen at Loch Eynort.

Puffin: Seen in relatively small numbers on both crossings.

Rock Dove: This wild pigeon was seen daily.

Collared Dove: A few seen on two days.

Common Cuckoo: Seen well at Loch Eynort but fewer sightings than usual. The recent decline in this species seems to be countywide.

Short Eared Owl: One watched at close quarters on Benbecula. Three other sightings in breeding areas.

Skylark: Still delightfully common and vocal.

Swallow: Up to four seen on four days. Breeds here in small numbers.

Pied Wagtail: Recorded daily.

Meadow Pipit: Common and widespread.

Rock Pipit: The Hebridean race was seen around the rocky shores on a few occasions.

Wren: We saw the distinctive Hebridean race in its usual moorland habitat.

Dunnock: Only seen at Loch Druidibeg plantation and Loch Eynort.

Blackbird: Seen daily.

Song Thrush: The distinct Hebridean race was seen daily.

Robin: Only seen at Loch Eynort.

Stonechat: Seen around the islands in small numbers.

Wheatear: A common breeding bird.

Sedge Warbler: One in full song in a garden at Liniclate on 10th. Another in song at Balranald on 11th.

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

Hooded Crow: The only sighting of this much-persecuted species was two at Balranald.

Raven: Seen daily. Over fifty around the dump on Benbecula.

Starling: Seen daily. We all noted how dark the young are on the Hebrides.

Corn Bunting: We enjoyed excellent views on the machair near Balranald.

Reed Bunting: A few of us saw a male at Benbecula dump on 11th.

Greenfinch: Common at Loch Druidibeg plantation.

Lesser Redpoll: Very vocal and visible, if rather restless around Archie's garden, Loch Eynort.

Twite: Often difficult to find during the breeding season. Only a few sightings.

House Sparrow: Very common.



Common Seal

Grey Seal

Red Deer



Harbour Porpoise: Four on the outward ferry trip but an excellent count of at least fourty two on the return trip in calm conditions.

Minke Whale: One on the outward trip and at least one on the return trip.


Basking Shark: One, briefly, alongside the ferry on the return trip.


Green-veined White

Painted Lady

Small Heath


Highland Darter

Large Red Damselfly

Blue Tailed Damselfly


(The following is a sample of the many flowers seen, kindly compiled by Ailsa.)

Thrift Ameria maritima

Scarlet Pimpernel Anagalus arvensis

Bog Pimpernel Anagalus tenella

Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulnerana

Daisy Bellis perennis

Hard fern Blechmum spicant

Sea rocket Cakile maritima

Heather Calluna vulgaris

Marsh marigold Caltha palustris

Lesser Bittercress Cardamine pratensis (amara)

Marsh thistle Cirsium palustre (Carduus personata)

Early (Danish) Scurvy Grass Cochlearia danica

Crosswort Crucata laevipes

Early Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza incarnata

Heath Spotted Orchid Dactylorhiza maculata

Northern Marsh Orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella

Foxglove Digitalis purpurea

Oblong-leaved sundew Drosera intermedia (or anglica)

Round-leaved sundew Drosera rotundifolia

Bell Heather Erica cinerea

Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix

Cotton grass Eriophorum augustifolium

Eyebright Euphrasia officinalis

Heath bedstraw Galium saxtile

Lady's bedstraw Gallium vernum

Cut-leaved cranesbill Geranium dissectum

Round-leaved cranesbill Geranium rotundifolium

Bluebell Hyacinthoides (Endymion) non-scriptus

Catsear Hypochaeris sp (radicata)

Yellow flag Iris pseudacorus

Bird's foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus

Ragged-Robin Lychnis flos-cuculi

Black medick Medicago lupitina

Bog Aspodel Narthecium ossifragum

White water lily Nymphaea alba

Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica

Pale Butterwort Pinguicula lusitanica

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

Heath Milkwort Polygala seryllifolia

Bog-Pondweed Potamogeton polygonifolius

Silverweed Potentilla anserina

Tomentil Potentilla erecta

Meadow Buttercup Ranunculus acris

Bulbus Buttercup Ranunculus bulbosus

Creeping Buttercup Ranunculus repens

Yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor

Cuckoo flower (Lady's smock) Rumex acetosa

Common Figwort Scropharia nodosa

Rowan Sorbus aucuparia

Chickweed sp Stellaria

Wild Thyme Thymus drucei

Thyme-leaved speedwell ? Veronica serpyllifolia

Tufted vetch Vicia cracca

Spring vetch ? Vicia. latheroides

Heath dog violet Viola canina

Marsh violet Viola palustris

Wild pansy Viola tricolor curtisii

Despite the obvious sadness at the start of the trip I will remember this holiday as a very enjoyable one with much banter, (and much food).

I thank all the participants for their company during the week and hope they enjoyed these magical islands as much as I do.

Phil Read

June 2004

© The Travelling Naturalist 2004