Birdwatching in Skye and Lochalsh
by Bob McMillan
With a land mass covering 535 square miles, at no point more than 5 miles from the sea, fiordic lochs penetrating deep inland towards a huge and spectacular mountain mass, Skye allows you to experience a whole range of species from pelagic to upland montane, at virtually the same time. It is quite possible to sit with Golden Eagles and Ptarmigan in the Cuillin and, with a good telescope, watch rafts of Manx Shearwaters on Loch Scavaig below. It is equally possible to see Golden or White-tailed Eagles from virtually any public road in Skye, or for that matter from the Co-op car park in either Broadford or Portree. The scattered crofting communities of Skye are host to a wide range of species and the townships around Staffin, Dunvegan, Broadford and Kyleakin, as well as Portree itself, provide shelter from the vagaries of the weather and additional feeding opportunities.
Because of the influence of the North Atlantic drift, the water temperatures round the coast of Skye are significantly higher than the east coast of Scotland. Coastal water systems are therefore mostly frost free. Species such as Greenshank and Grey Wagtail therefore winter in reasonable numbers. The open sea contains some of the deepest underwater cliffs in Scotland, plunging to depths of over 100 metres relatively close inshore. Many of the coastal cliffs, though steep and precipitous, are unsuitable for large concentrations of seabirds, but there is continued expansion of important breeding populations of Fulmar, Shag and Black Guillemot. These species exploit both inshore and offshore feeding opportunities along with Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and other gulls. In spring and autumn there are huge flocks of Guillemots, Razorbills and Manx Shearwaters offshore, many from the large colonies on nearby Rum, Canna and the Shiants.
As much of the coastline is rocky, it provides limited opportunities for feeding waders. Wildfowl and divers tend to concentrate in shallower bays and sea lochs. As a consequence these species are more common on the more sheltered eastern side of the island, and at the head of sea lochs. Probably the most important site is the Broadford Bay complex, a stopover point for migrating waders, which in winter contains significant numbers of Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers. Some 157 species have been recorded in the Broadford Bay area and White-tailed Eagle is recorded regularly. Skye is well known for its White-tailed Eagle population hosting 25% of the present Scottish breeding population. Boat trips from Portree can provide opportunities for spectacular views and the birding experience of a lifetime.
Skye is well placed to turn up North American vagrants, the best example being the breeding attempt by a pair of Spotted Sandpipers in 1975. A Greater Yellowlegs in 1985 was the third Scottish record. Little is known of the occurrence of other unusual migrants and vagrants, and work requires to be done to identify potential hotspots. A Blackpoll Warbler which turned up in 2005 was the 6th record for Scotland and perhaps an example of the potential. There is visible migration at a number of locations, and strong evidence that locations such as Broadford Bay are important re-fuelling points for migrating waders. Sea watching opportunities are extensive and totally unexploited. There is certainly no lack of opportunities for dedicated birders, and hard work will be well rewarded. The spectacular scenery of Skye provides a unique backcloth for wonderful days in the field.
It's also well worth building in time to explore the birdlife of Skye's picturesque neighbouring mainland region of Lochalsh.
Mountain and sea also dominate the landscape of Lochalsh and the deeply indented lochs of Duich, Long and Alsh contain some of the finest examples of rocky reefs in Europe which are frequented by Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. The lochs provide good spawning grounds for many commercial fish and in turn these are important to bird species such as Heron and Shag. The heads of these sea lochs are interesting areas for feeding waders and generally provide much greater shelter than the more exposed Skye coast. The crofting townships around Drumbuie and Ardelve remain important areas for a remnant population of Yellowhammer, a species now virtually disappeared from Skye. There are also good areas of broad leaved woodland in Lochalsh which provide ideal breeding habitat for Wood Warbler, Garden Warbler and Blackcap, species relatively scarce in the area. Back to the mountains, Lochalsh is dominated by the mountains of Kintail with its famous ‘five sisters’ ridge. Fine walking here gets us back into Golden Eagle country, and the high tops provide a refuge for Ptarmigan and the often elusive Dotterel.
Bob McMillan is the author of Skye Birds and runs a highly informative website www.skye-birds.com.
For accommodation and tourism information about the Isle of Skye & Lochalsh, visit www.skye.co.uk