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Wildlife Chronicles

Journeys in Scotland - 'An Island Odyssey'

Scotland beckoned us again this year for our summer holidays. We travelled up to Oban where we stayed in a fine guest house at Connel called ‘Ronebhal’ run by Bob and Shirley Strachan. I highly recommend it as an overnight stay for those contemplating visiting the Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides) by ferry or to spend a few days in that area of mainland Scotland. It is also a great place to see the glorious sunset on the western horizon or witness the fierce ebbing tide race which forms at the narrow mouth of the long finger of Loch Etive as it passes through what is known as ‘the falls of Lora’.

Hebridean beach
Beach on the Isle of Lewis
Puffin
Hebridean cliffs

On the 16th June we took the short 10 minute drive from the guest house to the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal at Oban. The time waiting to embark onto the ferry, which had the nice title of ‘The lord of the Isles’, was not wasted as I watched terns and black guillemots feeding in the harbour and a rather inquisitive Common Seal. I get very excited with ferry crossings with the prospect of seeing sea-birds and perhaps even a cetacean or two so I was eager to get under way. The ‘Cal Mac’ ferries I have to state are highly efficient and organised so the whole experience is as stress free as it can get much better than the highly charged atmosphere of an airport terminal! We sailed out of Oban dead on time and without hesitation I was out on deck. We sailed through the Sound of Mull and the vessel passed close to the Scottish mainland and I scanned along the seaweed covered shoreline for Otter and caught a brief glimpse of one just as it dived exposing its sleek back and flat rudder like tail. We watched a group of Harbour Porpoise feeding in the waters off Mull. The crossing to our destination the Western Isles was relatively calm but not perfect for spotting cetaceans as one could easily mistake a wavelet for a dorsal fin but it was still good fun and challenging in attempting to spot the signs. I met a couple of birders who had been one of my group on the Bay of Biscay whale watching trip last September it’s a small World as they say! They too were heading for the Outer Isles to do some birding. On the crossing today I saw all the birds that I expected to see, Manx Shearwaters in the waters off the isle of Rhum, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes, shags, gannets, Storm Petrel and a Great Skua and a raptor over the Ardnamurchan peninsula which I hoped would be a Golden Eagle but it was in fact a Buzzard.

Our base on the Western Isles or the Outer Hebrides for a few days was Langass Lodge on North Uist. A wonderfully located hotel near the shore of Loch Langais. We stayed in the superb new hillside annexe. Some of our fellow guests were extremely keen fishermen and at the end of the day it was nice to glean from them information about the birds they had seen on their fishing expeditions to remote parts of the island. There are countless lochs on North Uist with a stock of wild brown trout which pass from one loch to another along small burns. There is a good population of Otters on the islands too and Langais loch is one of the most reliable places to get sightings of them. There are regular organised walks in search of them which start off from the lodge but myself being an ‘intrepid’ naturalist! Decided to go D.I.Y. as I think you are far more likely of seeing them whilst alone with less chance of alerting the animal of your presence. So it was early one morning at 6.30am bleary eyed I took a short stroll from the hotel around the edge of the loch in search of an Otter. I walked through knee high heather and came to a raised level of ground which overlooked some skerries in the loch here there were a number of Common Seals some with pups (unlike grey seals which pup between September & November in Britain common seals give birth during the summer months). Suddenly just yards away from me I caught sight of the side profile of a beautiful dog Otter its fur was sleek and wet having just come out from the water. Moments later he re-entered the loch and all I could see was a head profile and a slight wake as he swam close to the shoreline and dived. Stealthily and silently he went about his business the only sign of his presence was the air bubbles from his waterlogged fur breaking on the surface. It was a brief encounter but I walked back to the hotel ecstatic that I had achieved my goal. I had however acquired some passengers on the way a few ‘ticks’ these unpleasant little mites had probably been lurking quietly in the tall vegetation waiting for a mammal, which in this case was me, to come along so that they could attach themselves to conduct their parasitic lives. Fortunately my wife spotted the little creatures and extracted them from my skin with some tweezers. They had really dug in deep with their jaws ready to suck my lifeblood. You can of course contract a rather nasty disease called ‘Lyme Disease’ if you allow these creatures to go undetected. In the wildlife observations book kept at the hotel for guests to enter their records it was amusing to read that under the heading ‘what seen’ someone had put ‘two ticks’ and where it said ‘where seen’ was added ‘On me -Hank the dog!’. Well I beat you Hank I had four ticks to your two! I took the same walk the following day (with my trouser bottoms tucked into my socks I might add!) but saw no otters but I did locate a holt, a flattened area of vegetation was what drew my attention to it, a couple of tunnel entrances into an underground holt and subtle trails hidden in the undergrowth leading to the loch below and some telltale ‘spraints’ in the vicinity of the holt. This was the lair of the otter one of our shyest and most fascinating mammals.

If you were staying at Langass lodge then it its only a short walk to two of the islands most well known pre-historic sites. The oval-shaped stone circle known as ‘Finn’s People’ (Pobull Fhinn) and ‘Barpa Langass’ which is a Neolithic chambered cairn which is situated prominently on the north-west shoulder of Ben Langass (Beinn Langais). The walk up to the summit is easy and from here you get commanding views of the lochs and islands of North Uist. Keep a lookout for Hen Harriers and Short eared-owls which frequent this area and there is always the chance of a Golden Eagle, Merlin, Peregrine, Buzzard, Kestrel or a Red-throated Diver. There is a public car park just off the A867 road from Lochmaddy. The islands of the Uists are very compact and ideally suited to take a short birding break a lot of which can be conducted from your vehicle. If you want to walk to the remoter lochs in search of divers then you would be advised to take care over the boggy bits on the heather covered peat moors. There is unlimited right of access on the islands but please be respectful of peoples privacy. There is a good population of Corncrakes on the islands. You should of course visit the R.S.P.B’s Balranald reserve on North Uist. This was our second visit in two years and we had great views of a signing male Corncrake by the visitor centre a real little ‘show off’. We also saw a Corn Bunting on the reserve a ‘chubby’ male perched on a section of wire fencing uttered his ‘jangling keys’ song.

On one fine evening we dined at the ‘Polochar Inn’ situated on South Uist overlooking the Sound of Barra and across to the islands of Barra & Eriskay. The food is good here. Sitting outside in the beer garden sipping a pint we heard a Corncrake frequently calling it was skulking within the tall vegetation in a hayfield to our right. I scanned Barra sound with my scope and picked up a Storm Petrel dip feeding in the flat calm sea. From here it is also possible to see otters and bottlenose dolphins both species had been seen in the area during the previous day. It is only a short drive to Eriskay across the causeway from South Uist. Scan the seaweed covered rocks and shoreline at the start of the causeway as this is a good place for otters too. I saw a Great Northern Diver in summer plumage from here. If you are looking for Golden Eagles then I found them whilst travelling up the scenic road leading up a valley to Loch Sgioport. A pair soared effortlessly above us and above them was a male Hen Harrier doing the same. The eagles were mobbed by a Buzzard and by comparing the two species it is then that you appreciate the size of the eagle. I saw Red throated-diver on loch Teanga up this valley. This route skirts around the edge of the National Nature Reserve at Loch Druidibeg and up towards the majestic summits of Hecla and Ben Mor. There is a small colony of wild Greylag Geese breeding on the reserve although at this time of year you will see many small flocks with their young ‘goslings’ as you travel about the islands. Look out for Golden Plover uttering their plaintive songs from the tops of heather covered mounds. If you are looking for Red -necked Phalaropes then the place to visit is Loch Mor near Griminis on Benbecula. They are not easy to see and you need to carefully scan with your scope along the edge of the lake shore or in the water around the small islands in the loch to pick out these diminutive but highly active waders patience is the key issue. There are also terns nesting on the small islets. I reiterate again that you should respect the privacy of the island inhabitants and please as a matter of courtesy seek permission to enter private land. The people of the islands are very welcoming warm and courteous and they would expect nothing less from their visitors!

The Uists are teeming with wildlife and the population of breeding waders is one of the highest in Europe. You will be enthralled at the number of Redshank, Snipe, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Lapwing that you come across on your travels. Birds of prey abound in particular Hen Harriers and Short eared owls. The island of Berneray now accessible by a causeway is a microcosm of island life with a fine selection of the aforementioned breeding waders as well as arctic terns. Please be wary of their nests or young chicks if you are walking or driving across the machair which in summer will be vividly ablaze with the wild flowers for which these islands are famous. Together with the shell white sandy beaches and azure blue sea the overall effect is positively stunning. The air here is the cleanest in Europe and the beaches have a remarkably low incidence of litter.

Fulmar
Fulmar
Grey seal
Grey Seal © Andrew Howe

The next leg of our journey was to cross over to the island of Harris we took a small ferry from Berneray to Leverburgh. On a flat calm sea in the warmth of the sunshine we enjoyed watching common and black guillemots, razorbills, gannets, skuas, eiders and all the three diver species as well as common seals. A most pleasant crossing indeed. We drove through the lunar landscape of Harris as our destination was a guest house on the Isle of Lewis. Broad Bay House in the community of Back was to be our base here for a few days and our hosts were Ian & Marion Fordham. It is difficult to put into words the stunning location of this bed and breakfast without doing it justice but I have no qualms in saying that it is the finest accommodation of its kind I have stayed in. It has definitely got that ‘wow’ factor. They describe it as ‘Luxury accommodation by the sea’. From a birders point of view it is pure paradise. From the cavernous residents lounge and dining room you look out over the wide expanse of Broad Bay to some offshore skerries where there is a regular haul out of Atlantic grey seals. Within hours of arriving I was watching a feeding frenzy of plunge diving gannets and terns which were being harassed by no less than 3 arctic and 1 great skua! A couple of hundred yards away in front of the house on the low sea cliffs there were a handful of Fulmar nests and they would occasionally fly past the house as well as ravens and skuas too. Over the next few days I watched all this seabird activity from the lounge or the terrace which could be accessed from our bedroom .We also saw Harbour Porpoise from here and Red-throated divers and auks. I saw several hundred drake Eider ducks in moult at the north end of the bay. The Eye peninsula partly encloses the bay with the lighthouse on Tiumpan head visible. I discovered during the following days that there were breeding skuas of both species on Druim Moor which was visible in the distance from Broad Bay house which therefore explained their frequency in the Bay. Clearly this bay is a rich feeding ground for many species of sea-birds which in turn provided the parasitic skuas with a regular food source.

Basking shark
Harris landscape
Butt of Lewis
Butt of Lewis

It has been a long ambition of mine to visit the headland at the Butt of Lewis at the northernmost tip of the island where you will find a brick built lighthouse. You get excellent views of breeding fulmars from here on a stack just a stones throw from the headland and there is a constant procession of gannets past the headland presumably making their way to and from their vast breeding colonies on the isolated St; Kilda island group or even Sula Sgeir where the inhabitants of the port of Niss (Ness) on Lewis are licensed to take plump gannet chicks which they call ‘gugas’ from the island each summer in August. I understand the annual total is about 2,000 chicks which is by all accounts a sustainable figure. The ‘gugas’ are considered a delicacy by the folk of Niss and this is a tradition which dates back centuries so it may be prudent to quietly accept this tradition. Please don’t contact me if you find this annual cull of the young gannets in any way distasteful I am merely bringing it to your attention should you visit the island of Lewis at any time. I wouldn’t want it to come as a complete shock to you particularly if you are a birdwatcher or a person who finds such acts abhorrent.

I imagine the Butt of Lewis would be a cracking place to conduct some seawatching in the late summer or autumn for migrant seabirds. Likewise Tiumpan Head on the Eye Peninsula would warrant the same effort. Cetaceans are frequently sighted from both headlands. On your way to Tiumpan Head along the A866 road stop off along the causeway crossing the narrow isthmus and scan the bay here called Braigh na h -Aoidh (If you think Welsh pronunciation is difficult then you ought to try some of the Gaelic names)! I saw Common and Little Tern, skuas, auks and Black -throated Divers. The bay and the freshwater loch are good locations to see wintering duck too which include Long-tailed duck, Scaup, Common Scoter, Goldeneye & Teal. There are parking places along the causeway but do take care some vehicles travel at great speed along the causeway in both directions.

We eventually left the islands on the ‘Cal Mac’ ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. The crossing was slightly rough so it was no good for cetacean watching but I did see some Puffins and Skuas. Ullapool was quite a pleasant little place which would warrant further time but we were heading north into Sutherland. We were heading for the village of Scourie where we were to spend the next two nights at the excellent Scourie Guest House run by Ken & Madeline Stephen. I had my sights set on visiting Handa Island.

Handa Island

I woke up early on the morning of Tuesday the 26th June as I knew that to cross to Handa the weather and in particular the sea conditions were crucial to our plans. So it was with a happy heart I awoke to see that the wind experienced the previous day had subsided and the weather was looking clear so we downed our breakfast and we made the short 3 mile drive to Tarbet in order to catch the first ferry across to the island at 9.30am. I don’t think my wife had seen such excitement in me for a long time as I conjured up in my mind the wildlife sights I would see on this famous island.

Handa lies off the northwest coast of Scotland 18 miles south of Cape Wrath. Near vertical cliffs of Torridonian sandstone over 120 metres high in places bound the island on three sides and in the south these diminish into lower cliffs and picturesque sandy bays and azure blue waters. The interior of the island consists of rough pasture moorland and a few lochans. The island is home to an incredible number of sea-birds (180,000-200,000) making it one of the largest and certainly one of the most accessible seabird colonies in the British Isles. It is privately owned by Dr. Jean Balfour and managed for its wildlife by The Scottish Wildlife Trust. As you land on the beach on the island you will be greeted by one of the trust rangers or volunteers who spend a week or more at a time here to help the warden with their duties. You will receive a brief introduction to the island and its history and wildlife in the ‘shelter’ before you embark on your walk around the island. The paths are well marked and there is an extensive boardwalk which takes you through the territories of Great and Arctic Skuas. About 200 pairs of Great Skuas nest here with a far less number of Arctic’s which consist of both the pale & dark phases. There is a slight risk of you being mobbed by the skuas but all you need to do is to extend a hand or a stick or in my our case the tripod of my telescope in the air to give the birds a point to aim at other than the top of your head! But I have to say the risk is probably exaggerated so you have nothing to fear. The Arctic’s were conducting ferocious attacks on their bigger cousins the bonxies though as they over flew the formers nesting territory. You near a point at Puffin Bay where you get your first taste of what is to come vast numbers of seabirds nesting on the ledges on the high cliffs. We sat here for a while and watched a group of more than 20 squabbling Great Skuas bathing and preening in a freshwater lochan just yards way. We then made our way to the Great Stack and ‘Great’ is not an incorrect word to use in this case I think the word ‘Wow’ may have passed my lips. We came upon a tall massive stack of torridonain stone and it was absolutely teeming with seabirds. Guillemots and Razorbills lined the ledges in their thousands and Kittiwake nests hugged the sea cliff. This great pinnacle of rock was whitewashed with their droppings. The sounds produced by the seabirds emanating from the stack was no less wondrous as there was a constant cacophony of sound like no other. The distinctive smell of a seabird colony wafted the air. I felt completely overawed by the whole experience which was beyond my wildest imaginings. Its estimated that there are 9,000 guillemots alone breeding on the ledges on the stack’s east-face! On the top of the stack were a few Puffins occupying burrows in the thin soil. They probably retreated to the stack to avoid predation by introduced brown rats which have now been eradicated so hopefully the puffins will one day re-colonise the main island. I could have spent hours looking at this stack just studying the day to day life of a seabird city but we had to move on as we wanted to walk the complete trail around the island which is about 6km long and takes at least 2 hours but please allows time for rest and lunch stops. Take a packed lunch and water with you. There are no toilets on the island. As you are walking around don’t forget to watch out for cetaceans out at sea whales, particularly Minke Whales, dolphins & porpoise are commonly seen from the island as well as Basking Sharks. You may also catch a glimpse of an Otter or Grey Seals hauled out on the low lying rocks.

Basking shark
Basking Shark
Puffin
Puffin

The Handa ferry operates from Tarbet pier on demand between Good Friday and early September from 9.30am to 2pm Monday to Saturday the last boat returns from the island at 5pm. Its an uncovered boat of an aluminium construction. It runs at the ferryman’s discretion and may occasionally have to be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions which is why I would advise would be visitors to plan a few days in that area of Scotland to make allowances in case of a period of bad weather. There are plenty of good birding areas on the mainland to occupy your time in the interim. As I write the boat fares for Handa are Adult £10, Child £5 and under 5’s Free. For further information contact the boatman on 07768 167786.

The source of reading material on our holiday in Scotland were:-
‘The Rough Guide to Scottish Highlands & Islands’
‘Where to Watch Birds in Scotland’ written by Mike Madders and published by Christopher Helm & A&C Black

‘Wildlife Traveller Scottish Islands’ & ’Wildlife Traveller Scottish Mainland’
Both written by Richard Rowe & published by Pocket Mountains Ltd;
(Extremely useful & informative pocket size guides for the light traveller, cyclist, or
backpacker).

Accommodation we stayed at were:-
Ronebhal Guest House, Connel, Oban, Argyll, Scotland.
Tel- 01631 710310 www.ronebhal.co.uk

Langass Lodge Ltd; Locheport, Isle Of North Uist, Scotland
Tel- 01876 580285 www.langasslodge.co.uk

Broad Bay House, Back, Isle of Lewis, Western Isles, Scotland
Tel- 01851 820990 www.broadbayhouse.co.uk

Scourie Guest House, Scourie, Sutherland, Scotland
Tel- 01971 502001

Elfyn PughElfyn Pugh, retired police officer and life-long observer of the natural world, now leads bird and wildlife trips in Wales through his company Red Kite Safaris.