Scottish Island Cruise

Friday 20 – Friday 27 May 2005

Expedition Leader:

Martin Gray


Neil Arnold

Jamie McMillan

Paul Harvey

Phil Read

Trip Diary

Friday 20 May

Aberdeen 57° 08.587’N 02°05.605’W

We left Aberdeen at ten past nine in a very light south east wind and slight drizzle. Most were gathered on the top deck where the shout of ‘dolphins!’ went up as we left the harbour mouth. We had excellent views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins as they fed lazily (‘logging’ according to Neil), with Sandwich Terns and gulls flying over. We had left slightly late as we were waiting for one essential member of the ship’s complement: the doctor. Eventually we decided it was better to wait off-shore, and he duly came dashing out in the pilot boat about an hour later throwing his bags and leaping across onto the ship, and apologising for having the wrong date in his diary. However the wait did allow us to get wonderful views of the dolphins breaching out of the water: about twenty in all we estimated.

Saturday 21 May

Fair Isle 150.4 NM sailed; 59°30.000’N 01°36.300’W

It was dark with heavy rain as Neil gave the early morning call at seven o’ clock. A Collared Dove stood huddled under a lifeboat sheltering from the rain along with Phil. Neither had seen much, but as we approached Fair Isle after breakfast it started to clear and we had better views of the sea birds including Gannets, Arctic and Great Skuas and Puffins.

As we waited for our zodiac, first a small flock of Whimbrel, then over twenty Greylag Geese flew over. Deryk, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory warden, accompanied by the new ranger, Rory Tallack, greeted us in the rain on North Haven beach. We split into two groups, one to go and have a look at the Puffins above the Observatory and the other to do a ‘trap round’ for migrant birds.

A flock of Barnacle Geese went over as we walked up past the Observatory, the first they had seen this year, and here we also saw our first Twite. The trap round was more informative than productive, but we managed to catch a migrant Sedge Warbler and a locally breeding Meadow Pipit. Everyone seemed fascinated by the whole process of ringing birds which Deryk ably demonstrated to the group, interrupted briefly by Neil finding a Short-eared Owl on a fence post. We saw the owl, a scarce bird on Fair Isle, briefly in flight as well.

We had been so engrossed in the trap round and enjoying the clearing weather that we let the time get away from us and had no time for the Puffins, which were seen well by the other group.

Then back to the ship for lunch, but just as we were getting our boots on again a shout of “Osprey” went up. Martin had seen one fly over pursued by two Ravens. Those who rushed out on deck (at least one of the leaders with just one welly on and a sock) got the best view.

At our second landing we were greeted by Paul who had stayed over for lunch, and the news of a male Bluethroat by the landing huts. The bird led Jamie a merry dance around the huts and beach but showed itself nicely for Paul (typically) who got us all onto it, its fine blue throat and red central spot gleaming from the clifftop turf. The Observatory garden had Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler but there was no sign of the Puffins this afternoon.

We split up to walk the island in the afternoon sunshine, some getting lifts to and from the museum hall where craft displays and teas and cakes had been laid on for us. Others opted to search for migrants with some interesting birds including a Waxwing (new to the Travelling Naturalist British list). Others enjoyed displaying waders including Curlew and Snipe.

We left the havens and said our farewells to the Fair Isle folk at six p.m., and headed for Shetland mainland in glorious evening sunshine.

After supper we arrived at Mousa for our landing at 21.30, but with an irregular swell it proved too difficult to land beside the broch. We therefore headed along the beach to a narrow cove running the gauntlet of spitting Fulmars (only one direct hit!) as we walked up the beach. We had time to look round the broch in the dusk finding our way up the tiny narrow steps by torchlight and getting a Picts-eye view of the bay and the rising moon with the ship’s lights looking attractive in the bay from the top of the tower.

Then whilst several headed back to the ship and to bed after a long day most of us waited in the gathering gloom until just after half past eleven (a few minutes earlier than promised by Martin) the first petrels appeared over the bay and around the broch. The Storm Petrels seemed like bats as they fluttered round, with best views of the silhouettes as they flew in front of the moon over the broch itself. As we walked back to the landing Martin had us gathered round a ruined wall. We could hear the quiet churring of two of the Storm Petrels from amongst the stones, a superb and unexpected finale to a great evening.

Mousa 29.3 NM sailed; 59° 58.300’N 01° 09.500’W

Sunday 22 May

Foula 39.3 NM sailed; 60° 06.260’N 002° 02.310’W

It was a misty and calm start as we approached Foula. Over breakfast we welcomed Tony Mainwood, the Ranger, and Sheila Gear from the island. They had come on board to talk us around the island, literally as we sailed round it.

We gazed in awe at the mighty sandstone cliffs on the west side with their sea bird colonies. The tops of the hills were shrouded in mists but that seem to add to the brooding atmosphere. Tony and Sheila pointed out various points of interest and told us about the seabird populations, many in worrying decline.

After lunch and in very calm, overcast conditions we landed and split up into groups, some to go with Tony on the long walk around the island, some with Sheila on a shorter historical and cultural walk and some in cars to the superb scenery at the north end with islander Isobel Holbourne, while the rest of us went birding looking for migrants and resident birds towards the south end. When we returned to the quay all agreed that it had been a smashing afternoon and that we had enjoyed the warm welcome given to us by the islanders.

At least two groups were enthralled by a group of eight Snow Buntings, the majority of them males in superb breeding plumage. Other odd migrants included Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, Redwing, Bluethroat, Black-tailed Godwit and a superb Grey-headed Yellow Wagtail, with pride of place rarity-wise going to a drake Green-winged Teal seen (all too fleetingly by some) on the excellent new marshland habitat near the south end of the island. As a finale the Captain took the ship past the awe-inspiring west cliffs, only slightly less high than those of St. Kilda, where we saw Harbour Porpoise and paid our farewells to Britain’s most remote inhabited isle. Then it was time to set our course to the even more remote uninhabited isles to the west – next stop North Rona!

Monday 23 May

North Rona 129 NM sailed; 59°06.210’ N 06° 10.970’W

The day dawned fine and calm, with North Rona in sight dead ahead, and the lighthouse gleaming in the sunshine.

After breakfast a recce party of Martin, Paul and Jamie went to inspect the landing site. The first place looked a bit rough, so we headed round to the south side and tried there. Paul skilfully jumped onto the slippery rocks and Jamie tried to follow in the same style... but fell flat on his face, and in landing dislocated his finger. Although it was soon put back in place and bandaged up, this was not a good omen and the east landing proved best at that time.

Paul and Jamie then had the island to themselves while Martin went back to brief everybody and to decide whether to risk a landing, and they had their first taste of the idyllic calm and seabirds of Rona. When Martin returned with four zodiac loads, however the swell had got up and the east landing looked far too dangerous, so we opted for a zodiac cruise beneath the impressive seabird cliffs. Looking again at the landing (now renamed ‘Jamie’s nemesis’) though, it had calmed down and the tide had dropped, and the barnacle encrusted rocks (with a good grip for landing) were showing.

In fact with expert boat handling the landing proved quite do-able although the climb up to the top proved hard. Anyway, here we were mid-morning, and at last we had reached Britain’s remotest island.

And what a day it was to land: wall-to-wall sunshine and a light easterly wind ensuring that we all had a fabulous time. The first port of call was the village and the old chapel and Britain’s oldest surviving Christian building, dating probably from the eight century. There are few visitors here, and Martin in fact had to drag out a dead sheep from the chapel before those who wished could crawl in – a memorable experience. We then walked round the south-west corner of the island, and found a surprising quantity and variety of bird migrants amongst the turf and boulders with masses of Meadow Pipits and Wheatears, Willow Warblers and a few Chiffchaffs as well as Whitethroat and three new birds for the trip in quick succession, an Icterine Warbler, a Stonechat (very rare in the outer isles) and a most unusual Shore Lark.

We had lunch with the Puffins and then dispersed, some to do more exploration of the island and some content to doze in the sunshine with seabirds all around. Getting away from the island was much easier as the swell had gone down and we were soon all back on board for a well earned tea and setting course for Sula Sgeir. After dinner we slowly cruised round the Gannet Stack of Sula Sgeir which looked very fine in the evening sunshine.

We saw the weird stone towers that Phil explained were built by the men of Ness who come every year to take a quota of young Gannets or Gugas - the only place in the world this is allowed to happen. Not entirely by coincidence this is the only Gannet colony that is in decline in numbers, and it was interesting to see many Guillemots nesting in the spaces amongst the Gannets.

Sula Sgeir 38.2 NM sailed; 58° 36.400’N 07° 01.700’W

Then it was time to set course for our overnight journey to the Flannan Islands. A few of us stayed until dusk on deck but failed to see any Leach’s Petrels.

Tuesday 24 May

Flannan Isles 67.0 NM sailed; 58° 16.900’N 07° 33.300’W

Another superb morning with calm wind although there was a moderate north-westerly swell as we approach Eilean Mor, the largest of the Flannan Islands. A lighthouse supply ship complete with helicopter was on station in the safe anchorage so we drifted while disembarking from our zodiac cruise. It was a little tricky getting off the zodiacs in the unpredictable swell but was well handled by all – we were getting practiced now.

The reward was splendid adventure around the cliffs and sea caves of a geologically fascinating island, the highlight being an adventure deep into one of the caves, the low tide making it possible for Martin to take the boats further in than he had ever been in the past.

Then it was off towards St. Kilda which came into sight after lunch, with Boreray and Stack an Armin the first to show. Even at this distance it was apparent that these islands were on a different scale to anything we had so far seen. The Captain took us around Boreray and the stacks and, daringly, with the stupendous cliffs of Boreray on one side and the Gannet -encrusted pinnacle of Stac Lee on the other, we marvelled at the ability of the old St. Kildans to land on and climb both in their bare feet. It was a wonderful and scenically exhilarating experience with the tiny looking Gannets putting everything into scale.

St Kilda 43.5 NM sailed; 57°48.170’N 08° 33.940’W

We crossed straight over to Hirta, the main island and anchored in Village Bay, where Neil the warden joined us for a briefing. We lost no time in disembarking and heading for the quay where Neil and the archaeological warden, Susan showed us round the old houses of the village and gave us in insight into how the St. Kildans lived at various stages in their history.

It was glorious to be in such a superb and usually inaccessible place on such a fine, calm and mild evening and the stone walls and restored houses and ‘cleits’ the huts where they dried and stored their seabirds gleamed golden in the evening sunshine. We headed back to the ship very satisfied that we had managed to land on St. Kilda, some even managing to go shopping! And ready for our treat: an evening barbeque.

As the wine flowed we toasted the Travelling Naturalist and wished the company a happy 21st birthday. And what a setting for the party it was, in the calm waters of Village Bay, St. Kilda, with the jagged peaks of Dûn on one side and the high rounded hills of Hirta on the others. It was also good to welcome the St.Kilda wardens on board for the party. Martin appeared in rugby shirt and kilt, and Jamie clad in a Djellaba tried dancing with several of the female Russian crew members. Special mention should be made of Patricia’s gown and tiara, but a veil I think should be drawn over the rest of the evening which involved Neil leading a conga and singing ‘Kippers and Jam’.

Wednesday 25 May

St Kilda 0 NM sailed; 57°48.170’N 08° 33.940’W

The day dawned again, calm with yet another two Collared Doves perched on the ship mast in the sunshine. The clouds started gathering after breakfast but we still had ideal landing conditions for our day on Hirta. At the quay we split up, Paul and Jamie heading to the cliffs above Dûn and the famous Mistress Stone, on which the young men of Kilda had to demonstrate their climbing nerves before being allowed to marry.

Others with Neil and Phil headed for the saddle and the cliffs overlooking Boreray, while some opted to do their own thing and walk the ridge. It was six of the latter independent brigade that brought on the major coup of the day, finding a fantastic white male Snowy Owl along the top ridge. We watched the bird for about an hour before Paul and Jamie arrived with their group, almost walking right past them but hauled back by an energetic David who ran over. Paul managed to get the word out on the radio to the other group, who at that time were tucking into their packed lunches in the village a thousand feet below.

Fell-running is not usually amongst our leaders’ or clients’ most obvious skills, but on this occasion a determined band was soon legging it up the steep track, some it has to be said against express medical advice. Phil was first on the scene, several minutes ahead of the main pack, one of whom was heard to say “Where is the bloody thing? I want to see it before I die!”

Anyway we watched this magnificent bird peering about itself and occasionally yawning and preening, for at least a couple of hours over lunch, before some continued to walk the ridge despite the increasing cloud cover, while others drifted back down to the village as the drizzle set in. At dinner all agreed that it had been a smashing and memorable day on the remotest outpost of the British Isles. In the evening a hardened band set off for a pub crawl with a difference in a couple of zodiacs. In the famous Puff Inn some chatted to locals while the rest of us watched Liverpool win on penalties, getting back to the ship in the dark.

The Snowy Owl was a new bird for the Travelling Naturalist in Britain. Following tradition the six clients who found the bird celebrated with a few bottles of wine between them.

Thursday 26 May

Mingulay 78.7 NM sailed; 56°48.700’N 07°37.200’W

The wind had got up to the south west overnight and we were greeted by our first Manx Shearwaters effortlessly gliding through the swell as we approached the Outer Hebrides to the west of Mingulay. Around Barra Head the swell seemed to increase and even on the sheltered side of Mingulay there was about three metres of swell. Despite this Martin and Jamie went off in the zodiac for a landing recce and found a reasonably sheltered beach but got pretty wet as the zodiac was caught by a wave as they were leaving. All things considered we decided that a Mingulay landing was not safe enough and set course across the Minch to Canna.

On the way we saw more Manx Shearwaters and a couple of Great Northern Divers and Storm Petrels and four Common Dolphins only seen by those late for lunch. But the best dolphin display was seen later as we neared Canna when around twenty Common Dolphins gave us a superb display, several leaping clear of the water right along the side of the ship. As we neared our anchorage a White-tailed Eagle soared off the spectacular common basalt cliffs out to sea greeting us to the Isle of Canna.

Canna 45.8 NM sailed; 57°03.400’N 06°28.800’W

After landing on the beach, the first true ‘wet landing’ of the trip for most, we split into two groups, one taking the ‘high road’ quite a long walk up to and along the cliff on soft ground and the others taking the ‘low road’ to Sanday. Sadly the bridge across to this island had been washed away in January so the group walked up to the glen past the highland cattle seeing Peregrine and White-tailed Eagle. Meanwhile the ‘high road’ brigade had superb views of the two eagles soaring off the cliffs and a Short-eared Owl on the top.

After a farewell dinner we paid out thanks to staff and crew of an outstanding and almost unbelievably successful cruise. Captain Yuri took us in for a bonus trip along under the Canna cliffs as the sun set – a scenic spectacular and wonderful finale to the trip.

Friday 27 May

Oban 59.1 NM sailed; 56°25.100’N 05°29.090’W

We arrived at Oban at about half past eight, a bit later than expected, but were soon exchanging farewells on the quay. Jamie had gone to look for the coach and found a nice second-summer Iceland Gull, the final good bird of an excellent list.

As well as our thanks to the staff and crew we would like to record our thanks to Martin Gray, 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. We, that is Jamie, Phil, Neil and Paul would also 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.




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


Red-throated Diver
Gavia stellata Three FO

Great Northern Diver Gavia immer Two MI

Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Common throughout. Breeding

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus Forty west of MY and twenty MI

European Storm-Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus Several seen arounnd the broch and at least two heard calling from their nests, MO, One NR and four MI

Northern Gannet Sula bassana Common and widespread. Breeding

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo A handful AB

European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Common. Breeding

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Two AB

Mute Swan Cygnus olor Ten AB and eight OB

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus One FO and four SK

Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus Eight FO and one NR

Greylag Goose Anser anser Twenty six FI, two FO, three NR and two OB

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis Thirty five FI

Brent Goose Branta bernicla One at sea south of FI

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope A pair FO and two SK

Common Teal Anas crecca Three FI and a drake NR

Green-winged Teal Anas carolinensis A male FO. A first for The Travelling Naturalist in the UK.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos A handful FO and four OB

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Four FO, a drake NR and a drake SK

Common Eider Somateria mollissima Common and widespread. Breeding

Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator A duck FO, a duck NR and two pairs CA

Osprey Pandion haliaetus One FI

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla Two CA

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus One FI

Common (Eurasian) Buzzard Buteo buteo One FI and one CA

Common (Eurasian) Kestrel Falco tinnunculus One FI and one CA

Merlin Falco columbarius One NR

Peregrine Falco peregrinus A male CA

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Very common. Breedimg

(Northern) Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Common. Breeding on FI,FO,and one NR

(European) Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria Widespread, twenty in total

(Greater) Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Two AB, twenty FO, twenty five NR, five SK and two CA

Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa One FO

Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus Common throughout

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Breeding birds FI,FO and one NR

Common Redshank Tringa totanus Two FI, two FO and ten NR

Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus One migrant FO

Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos One FI

(Ruddy) Turnstone Arenaria interpres Small flocks throughout

Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Breeding birds in display FI,FO,NR,SK and CA

Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima Three FI, three FL, two SK and two CA

Dunlin Calidris alpina Two FI, twenty FO, five NR and forty SK

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 SK

Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides A second summer bird OB

Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Six scattered records

(Black-legged) Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla Common. Breeding

Common Tern Sterna hirundo Two FI

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Breeding FI, FO and NR

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 (12) FO (20) NR (25) SK (4) Breeds

(Common) Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus A visitor to the far flung islands. Two FO and six CA

Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Eleven records on the remote islands. Six CA

Common (Eurasian) Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Heard CA

Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca An immature male SK on the 25th. A first for The Travelling Naturalist in the UK.

Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus Two FI, two NR and one CA

Common Swift Apus apus Common AB and OB. One SK

(Eurasian) Sky Lark Alauda arvensis Scattered records of breeding birds

Shore (Horned) Lark Eremophila alpestris A female NR

European Sand Martin Riparia riparia Six FI, three FO and one SK

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Common. Peak count 50 FI

Common House Martin Delichon urbica Widespread. Peak count 20 FI

Yellow (Grey-headed) Wagtail Motacilla flava thunbergi One Grey-headed Wagtail FO

White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba Six scattered records

Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrelli Widespread

Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis Two FO and one NR

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Common. Peak count two hundred NR

Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus Common

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

Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus One FI. A first for The Travelling Naturalist in the UK.

Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) Prunella modularis Two FI and one CA

Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus One trapped FI

Common (Eurasian) Blackbird Turdus merula Noted FI,FO and CA

Redwing Turdus iliacus Two FO

Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Two CA

European Robin Erithacus rubecula Three CA

Bluethroat Luscinia svecica A male FI and a male FO

Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus A male FO

Whinchat Saxicola rubetra Two FI

Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata A male NR and a family party CA

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Very common. Peak count fifty NR

Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Three FI

Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina One NR

Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus A common migrant

Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita A common migrant

Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla A male FO

Garden Warbler Sylvia borin One FI

Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis One FI and one NR

Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca One FI and one NR

Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata One FI, one FO and one NR

Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Common. Peak count 14 CA

Carrion Crow Corvus corone Less common than cornix. Eight FI and one NR

Common Raven Corvus corax Three FI, four FO, one SK and two CA

Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris Common. Sub sp. shetlandica noted on the outer islands

(Eurasian) Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus One FI and two FO

Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis Ten FO, two NR and two SK

Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Several CA

European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris One male CA

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Three CA

Lesser Redpoll Carduelis cabaret Heard CA

Twite Carduelis flavirostris Four FI, one FO and ten CA

Common Linnet Carduelis cannabina Three FI

House Sparrow Passer domesticus Common on the mainland, FI, FO and CA

Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Two FI


Common (Harbour) Seal
Phoca vitulina Noted off Aberdeen, FO and FL

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus Common on the outer islands

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis Twenty off CA

Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus Twenty off AB

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena At least ten near FO

Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata Three MI

European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Several FO

Common (Harbour) Seal Phoca vitulina Noted off Aberdeen, FO and FL

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus Common on the outer islands

Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis Twenty off CA

Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus Twenty off AB

Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena At least ten near FO

Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata Three MI

European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Several FO


Common Frog
Rana temporaria Two FO - introduced

© The Travelling Naturalist 2005