Trip reports

BIRDING IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES (Southern Islands)

Otter among seaweed

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

On a dark, wet morning we fled flooded Worcestershire and headed for Benbecula, our base for the week. Storm Ciara, wreaking havoc with the ferry services, delayed our trip and Storm Dennis was forecast to rapidly follow on but we hoped for a brief weather window to enable a crossing. To our delight the journey north went well and after overnighting in Fort William had a wonderful drive through snow-capped Highland mountains to scenic Skye where a ferry took us from Uig to Loch Maddy in North Uist. We arrived at our accommodation in Benbecula late evening on day two.

The next six days were spent touring the chain of islands linked by causeways - Berneray, North Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay. The weather was stormy with some ferocious gusty winds making it difficult to hold scopes steady, but there was little rain and lots of bright, sunny periods. The landscape was extraordinary and the views stunning with light reflecting off the myriad freshwater lochs and tidal inlets under dark clouds and hills.

Our tally of species grew steadily as we enjoyed watching the 'regulars' including oystercatcher, redshank, curlew, grey heron, mute swan, greylag geese and shelduck. Many more unusual and visiting species were seen over the days, including purple sandpiper, greenshank, goldeneye, shoveler and wigeon. There were many more memorable wildlife moments. Shouts from the front of the minibus alerted us to the first white-tailed eagle of the trip, flying low over the water as we parked on a causeway. Whilst turnstone foraged among empty scallop shells at a shellfish farm, a juvenile glaucous gull watched us nearby. Great northern diver and black guillemot made close appearances whilst red-breasted mergansers were viewed at an old ferry port. A male hen harrier flew across the road and a very large buzzard was spotted disguised as a cairn! A peregrine sat by the shore and barnacle geese and whooper swans grazed on the machair, lapwings rested in fields by the road and snipe were flushed from the verge as we walked by. Sanderling, dunlin and knott dashed around in a feeding frenzy as a rushing incoming tide rolled kelp up a beach. Common seals rested in banana pose on rocky islets. Scopes lined up in the shelter of a cafe's wall for panoramic views of black and bar-tailed godwit, golden plover and unusual numbers of grey plover feeding as the incoming tide steadily engulfed a wide sandy inlet.

We made a second attempt driving the Committee road on North Uist looking for raptors and spotted an eagle circling high on the horizon, considered most likely to be a golden eagle, though the distance made identification inconclusive. At Balranald RSPB reserve, near hurricane wind, hailstones and sand blast forced an early retreat to the minibus, but twite, greenfinch, dunnock and reed bunting continued feeding round the farm buildings, and small flocks of starling wheeled in the air.

The weather suddenly provided a calm sunny treat for our final day on the islands and the opportunity for a ferry to Barra and onto Vatersay via a causeway. We walked the pristine sands of a stunning tranquil silver beach where ringed plover foraged on the waterline. We viewed Barra's picturesque Kisimul Castle in the bay, and the airport on the beach where scheduled services land. A ring-necked duck had been reported at Loch Tragas. Scopes were set up and it was still there. Stopping at a jetty, a white-billed diver was spotted offshore. On the return crossing, eider duck and shag swam alongside the ferry. Back on Eriskay, after pausing to fraternise with the local ponies - an ancient breed unique to the island, we saw, at long last, our first otter swimming in an inlet then coming ashore to scurry along the road. A fitting end to our stay.

Seas remained calm for our return crossing to Skye, and we saw guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake and two more white-tailed eagles before continuing to Fort William. The following day we travelled south through a magical landscape of snowclad glens where conditions had driven red deer down from the mountains, and huge stags stood by the roadside. before eventually returning home to a very wet Worcestershire.

Cameron & Kathy Badenoch