TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT


Scottish Island Cruise

Friday 27 May – Friday 3 June 2005

Expedition Leader

Martin Gray


Lecturer

Kent Brooks




Leaders
Neil Arnold

Jamie McMillan

Trip Diary



Friday 27 May

It was raining hard on the quayside at Oban as we met up in the new and impressive ferry terminal. Some immediately went with Jamie to the harbour beach where the second-summer Iceland Gull from this morning was still performing well.

After a welcome cup of tea on board we met Martin the expedition leader who gave us our introductory briefing, and then a chance to watch the ship sail just after 6 o’ clock, followed by a quick lifeboat drill.

After dinner Martin told us about the plans for the next day ,and a few of us spent half an hour on the bridge as we passed the rugged headland of Ardnamurchan and saw our first auks, Manx Shearwaters and at least three Harbour Porpoise.

Saturday 28 May

The morning found us lying in the lee of the isle of Rum in a north-easterly gale. After Martin’s zodiac safety briefing it was still too rough to go out in the boats, so we cruised up to Canna, out to the west end and along the north cliffs. The Hebridean scenery was as impressive as ever, and we enjoyed the views of seabirds including a superb blue-phase Fulmar close into the ship.

Just off the west end of Canna we passed close to a huge (five metres long?) Basking Shark, its floppy and ragged dorsal fin and tail showing above the water and its huge bulk dimly visible below. Shortly afterwards another one came into view.

Along the cliffs we saw the first and then the second of the resident White-tailed Eagle pair in flight, the white tails showing up brilliantly against the dark basalt cliffs, and their massive size evident when two Hooded Crows flew up to mob them.

It was still blowing hard after lunch so we decided to land in a sheltered bay on Skye at Loch Brittle. The rain started as we landed and continued hard for the whole time we were ashore but nevertheless we enjoyed the zodiac trip, a bit of beachcombing, a chance to stretch our legs and a few birds. The highlights of these were several Red-throated Divers in the loch and good views of Twite in the hedges with a special mention for what will probably turn out to be the only Blue Tit of the trip.

Just before dinner about ten Common Dolphins appeared alongside the ship, giving superb views as they leapt clear of the water and rode the bow wave. We continued heading south-west towards Barra Head.



Sunday 29 May

It was raining with a big north-easterly swirl as we approached St. Kilda in the morning so rather than land we decided on a circumnavigation. The Captain did us proud, with a lap of Boreray and no less than three passages between Boreray and the Gannet-covered needle of Stac Lee.

We then went round to the south-west of Dûn and Hirta, something neither of us nor Martin had done before, getting wonderful views of the side of the island that take the full force of the Atlantic. Here the scale of these amazing outpost islands really becomes apparent. Around Soay next, and then under the cliffs of Conachair: at four hundred and twenty-six metres, the highest sea cliff in the British Isles. We then turned into Village Bay and anchored for an early lunch.

Martin and Jamie then set off in the zodiac to fetch the warden Neil who came on board to brief us and then we shuffled across in the boats to take our first footsteps on St. Kilda. Neil and Susan, the archaeology warden, took groups around the village and showed us the stone ‘cleits’ or storehouses, and both old and ‘new’ (i.e. Victorian) St. Kildan dwellings.

We then split up for a walk up to the ridge of the island along various routes. Whichever one you took you were going to get great views, with the walk along this skyline surely one of the finest scenically anywhere in Britain – given good weather! One group went up to the Mistress Stone where young St. Kildans tested their climbing nerves, while the others went up to the Saddle, with great views across to Boreray.

On the way bank down Martin’s voice came over the radio “Jamie, Jamie, Martin… get back to the jetty as soon as possible”. We hurried back to find that the vicious swell had got up as the tide dropped. We posted Peter Roberts to look out for big waves and piled onto the zodiacs on the command “go, go, go” from Martin. Everyone played their part in the evacuation fantastically and all were soon safely aboard, but we had to abandon our plans for a pub evening on the island, and, as an alternative, told each other stories in the bar till it got dark.



Monday 30 May

Quite a heavy swell greeted us at the Flannan Isles but it was judged to be ‘do-able’. We anchored in the lee of Eilean Mor and carefully boarded the zodiacs for a cruise round the rocky island. As we set off four Risso’s Dolphins were seen, their long pointed fins slicing back and forth just off the nearby Eilean Tigh.

Soon the sun came out and we had a wonderful trip getting close to seabirds on the cliffs and on the water, riding the swell and pushing the boats into colourful sea caves. It was superb to get a seabird’s eye view of the colonies, for many of us our first really close-up look at Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots. On our return to the ship all agreed that it had been a memorable and exhilarating experience.

We sailed across to Lewis over lunch time, landing in warm sunshine and walking the two miles along the road to Callanish Village and the famous stones. It was a bit of a shock to come back to civilisation with some unfamiliar features like traffic (which consisted of around ten cars). Our first butterflies of the trip were also seen, all Green-veined Whites and even the odd bumble bee was spotted amongst the roadside flowers.

The stones themselves looked wonderful in the sunshine and we learnt about the various astronomical alignments to the rising and setting sun and moon. After tea in a Black House some opted to take the zodiacs for the long trip back to the ship whilst others walked back to the main jetty. One of us even managed to hitch a lift from one of the locals.

In the evening we had a barbeque on the aft deck in glorious sunshine in a superb setting with the hills of Harris and Lewis as a backdrop. The more rash amongst us even indulged in some dancing.



Tuesday 31 May

Another fine day, with the enticing prospect of a landing on North Rona. After breakfast Martin, Jamie and Colin zoomed off in a zodiac to check the possible landings. In the end none were deemed perfect despite their doing a complete lap of the island (purely in the interests of everyone else on board) and looking at five potential places. In the end we went for the easiest landing but steepest ascent, which proved successful for most.

The rest were offered a zodiac cruise to the south and west coasts and had superb views of around two hundred Grey Seals hauled out on the rocks, swimming and diving.

Meanwhile the land party visited St. Ronan’s Chapel and Cell, and the old village gaining good views of two Short-eared Owls on the way, as well as two Wood Pigeons, a local rarity.

Back on the ship for lunch and a couple of circuits of Sula Sgeir, the Gannet rock, we got much closer in than to the colonies of St. Kilda, and could both hear and smell the Gannets and inspect the nests, many which were decorated sadly with bits of green fishing net. We saw the strange obelisks built by the men of Ness who would come out very year to claim their harvest of ‘Gugas’ or young Gannets.

Then it was back for another go at North Rona and it was a case of ‘who dares wins’, as everyone who wanted to land managed this time, even getting up the steep slope. We then had a delightful late afternoon on the island in glorious sunshine, some going searching for migrant birds while others were content to sit amongst the Puffins or watch Seals. All too soon it was time to head back to the ship where we dined in triumph having managed two landings at one of Britain’s most remote and notoriously inaccessible islands.



Wednesday 1 June

A lovely calm, mild and yes according to some ‘balmy’ morning as described by one early bird on the bridge as we approached the island of Foula. We landed in perfect conditions and were greeted by the “Foula Rangers”: not a football team, nor even a bunch of cowboys but the island guiding service.

While most opted to go for a walk with the rangers some stayed and birdwatched around the village, seeing a few migrants including two splendid male Snow Buntings and a relatively rare (on Shetland in spring, anyway) Robin. We also had decent views of Arctic Skuas and were impressed by the numbers of Bonxies in one of their U.K. strongholds. We also saw yet another Short-eared Owl looking very fine in the sunshine.

Back for lunch and then we headed north for an unscheduled visit to what must here be described as ‘Martin’s Island’, and whose identity we are on point of honour not to divulge. The calm conditions and lack of swell tempted us to try a zodiac cruise around some fabulous sea caves there. The caves go deep into the red sandstone of the island, interconnect and form multiple archways, stacks and tunnels, all in fantastic red and green colours. Two hours here in the boats absolutely sped by, but all too soon it was time to head back to the ship to sail around the southern tip of Shetland, Sumburgh Head, and our final island of the day : Mousa. This trip we had the good fortune to have John Lister-Kaye on board with a group from Aigas Field Centre. John introduced us to Mousa by reading a chapter from his latest book ‘Nature’s Child’, where he described the experience of taking his young daughter to see and hear the petrels on the island. It was a memorable and moving piece and all the more so by being read by the author to a spellbound audience.

My only slight concern was that the event itself would fail to live up to such a superb description of what seemed to be a perfect night spent on the island at the peak of the petrel season. This evening in contrast, the wind was getting up from the east and there were few spots of rain as we headed into the shelter of Mousa Sound. It was doubtful if we could even land.

In the event the swell around the ship was not that bad, and it seemed calm at the jetty. After we had landed with utmost care, and made our way up to the famous and imposing Broch, we assembled inside and took it in turns to climb the tiny narrow steps to the top by torchlight. By this time, 10.30pm, it was pretty gloomy outside too, and we began to hear the first petrels churring, first from one of the field walls and then the Broch itself. It was at about 11.10pm that the first Storm Petrels showed, flying bat-like around the top of the Broch. Those inside were summoned and were met with the surreal sight of the leaders lying on their backs in the rain looking up at the sky.

A few more petrels came in and then some were seen across the bay. As numbers increased it was evident that this was going to be a special night for petrels, and sure enough as it got really dark the torches could pick out up a to a dozen birds around the Broch at any one time. Churring came pretty continuously from the walls, and several people actually felt wing-tips brush their faces as wave after wave of petrels flew in and around us. One actually collided with Anne, and Martin picked up the slightly dazed individual (that is the petrel, not Anne) to show all a wonderful close encounter with a rarely-seen seabird.

It was way past midnight when we headed back to the ship, our heads full of the sight and sounds of European Storm Petrels in what is possibly their only really accessible colony in the world. Our chef, Jan, was ready with the rum and chocolate to warm us up before we went to our bunks after a truly amazing wildlife encounter.



Thursday 2 June

After a huge day like yesterday, today had to be somewhat quieter. As we approached Fair Isle the landing was doubtful. An untidy swell had knocked out our usual anchorage and landing. The Good Shepherd IV, the Fair Isle ferry, passed us as we approached, and the skipper, our friend Jimmy Stout, called up on the radio to say that we had just one slim chance: to try anchoring off Malcolm’s Head in the south-west, and go by zodiac round the corner to land in the long narrow Hesti Geo.

Martin, Colin and Jamie went off on the ‘recce’, meeting islander Florrie Stout, halfway across the first field. Florrie, the wife of Jimmy from the Good Shepherd, was very keen for us to land too, and we hatched a plan on getting as many islanders as we could to turn up in their cars and ferry our group up to the north end, where we would be met by the Observatory staff. In the end the landing was a doddle, and we all got to the Bird Observatory where we were welcomed by Derek the warden who took us on a sadly unproductive ‘trap round’. Nonetheless we saw how the traps worked before wending our way to the island hall where teas, cakes and craft displays were in full swing and we had a chance to chat to many of the islanders.

In the afternoon we walked around the crofting part of the island and took in the fascinating museum and chapel with birds few and far between, but which did include a migrant singing Common Rosefinch and Siskin. We left mid-afternoon for the long haul back to Aberdeen with a farewell dinner at which we took the opportunity to thank the Captain, crew and staff.



Friday 3 June

It was a bit lumpy that night with a few staying firmly in their cabins until we reached the calmer waters of Aberdeen, where the final wildlife highlight of the trip came out to meet us. It was a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins swimming alongside the pilot boat and giving fantastic views.

As well as our thanks to the staff and crew we would like to record our thanks to Martin Grey, the expedition leader, who led us superbly well and guided us safely through some of the most difficult landings on any Arctic or Antarctic cruise. Special thanks are also due to Kent Brooks for his geological expertise, to Yvonne Brown and Peter Roberts with the Aigas group for sharing their leadership and expertise (the latter in particular for his wave-spotting skills in the St Kilda emergency evacuation episode!), to Colin McNulty of Natural Habitat Adventures for sharing his expedition-leading expertise, and to John Lister-Kaye for sharing his unique knowledge and perception of the Highlands and Islands.

On this trip we were indeed incredibly fortunate, not just in the landings, but also in our complement of travelling companions, and we (that is Jamie and Neil) would like to thank the whole group for being such a smashing group to lead and great company throughout the trip. We look forward to seeing you again in the not too distant future.

SPECIES LISTS

BIRDS



Key

AB Aberdeen

CAL Callanish, Lewis

CA Canna

FI Fair Isles

FL Flannan Isles

FO Foula

LB Loch Brittle, Skye

MI Minch

MO Mousa

NR North Rone

OB Oban

SU Sula Sgeir

ST St Kilda



BIRDS

Red-throated Diver
Gavia stellata Eight LB, four CAL and two FO

Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Common throughout. Breeding

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus Seven off OB, twenty five off

CA and singles off SK and AB

European Storm-Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus Numerous MO

Northern Gannet Sula bassana Common and widespread.

Breeding

European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Common. Breeding. CA (200)

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea One LB and one CAL

Mute Swan Cygnus olor Two OB

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus Four SK

Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus One NR

Greylag Goose Anser anser Three LB, two with young CAL

and four NR

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Only noted OB, CAL and FI

Common Eider Somateria mollissima Common and widespread.

Breeding

Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator Two OB

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla Two CA

Common (Eurasian) Buzzard Buteo buteo One CAL

Merlin Falco columbarius One FL

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Very common. Breedimg

(Northern) Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Common. Only noted

SK,FL,CAL,FO and FI

(European) Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria Ten SK, fifteen NR and four FO

(Greater) Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Scattered records [25]

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa One FO

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus Scattered records [11]

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Breeding birds FI and FO

Common Redshank Tringa totanus Twenty records. CAL (5)

(Ruddy) Turnstone Arenaria interpres Small flocks throughout

Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Breeding birds in display

FI,FO,,SK and CAL

Red Knot Calidris canutus One FI

Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima Two FL and one NR

Dunlin Calidris alpina Scattered records except SK

(36)

Great Skua Catharacta skua Common throughout

Arctic Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius parasiticus Breeding FI, FO and SK

Common (Mew) Gull Larus canus Sparsely distributed

Herring Gull Larus argentatus Common on the mainland but

scarce in the islands

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus Less common than Greater

Black-backed Gull. Thinly

distributed

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Common. Breeding

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus An adult FL

Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides A second summer bird OB

Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Eight scattered records

(Black-legged) Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla Common. Breeding

Common Tern Sterna hirundo One CAL

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Breeding FI, FO and NR. MI

(150)

Common Guillemot Uria aalge Common breeder

Razorbill Alca torda Common breeder

Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle Common breeder

(Atlantic) Puffin Fratercula arctica Common breeder

Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia Noted FI, FO ,NR (25)and CAL.

Breeds

(Common) Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus A visitor to the far flung islands.

Two NR

Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Two NR and three LB

Common (Eurasian) Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Heard CAL

Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus Two NR and one FO

(Eurasian) Sky Lark Alauda arvensis Scattered records of breeding

birds

European Sand Martin Riparia riparia Two LB and one NR

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Common migrant

Common House Martin Delichon urbica Widespread. [8]

Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava One heard FI

Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrelli Widespread [11]

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Common

Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus Common

Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio A male NR

(Winter) Wren Troglodytes troglodytes The Fair Isle and St Kilda races

were seen well

Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) Prunella modularis One FO

Common (Eurasian) Blackbird Turdus merula Four scattered records

Redwing Turdus iliacus One FO

Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Heard OB and three LB

European Robin Erithacus rubecula One LB and one LO

Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata A male NR

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Very common. Peak count fifty

NR

Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus A common migrant

Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Three FO

Blue Tit Parus caeruleus One LB

Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Common.

Carrion Crow Corvus corone One CAL

Common Raven Corvus corax Four FO and two FI

Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris Common. Subsp. zetlandica

noted on the outer islands

Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis Four NR and two FO

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Two LB and five CAL

(Eurasian) Siskin Carduelis spinus Sixteen LB and one FI

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis cabaret Six CAL

Twite Carduelis flavirostris Five LB and three FI

Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus An imm. male FI

House Sparrow Passer domesticus Common on the mainland, FI,

FO and CAL

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Two FI




MAMMALS

Common (Harbour) Seal
Phoca vitulina - Two FO

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus - Common on the outer islands. NR (200)

Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus - Four FL

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena - Three near OB

European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus - Noted LB, FO, FI



AMPHIBIANS

Common Frog
Rana temporaria - Noted FO - introduced



FISH

Basking Shark
Cetorhinus maximus - Two CA



BUTTERFLIES

Green-veined white
Artogeia napi - Several CAL

Small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae - One CAL



Jamie McMillan and Neil Arnold, August 2005


© The Travelling Naturalist 2005