West Coast Here We Come – The Outer Hebrides … July 20th-27th
Pauline has already written an account of this part of the trip while it was happening and posted it on the Wild About Britain website, so I shall let her take over here and rehash it similarly again – if it sounds familiar you are a ‘wabber’ and read it there first!
Sat 20th July
So we woke to a perfect blue day which had been promised the previous evening on Skye when we watched the sunset turn the hills from a faded orange, through pink, to mauve and then blue just before the dusky gloaming of night at this time of year when the sun doesn’t go far before dawning again …
Rather oddly we had cold steak pies for breakfast! Good solid fare for a long day’s action! We packed up and drove the rest of the way to Uig and our date with the afternoon Lochmaddy ferry. The sail across was sublime – flat calm and glassy and hot even on the deck of the ferry – the sky another unbroken blue arc … Davy Crockett aka our good friend David and his friend Eddie must be approaching Scotland and bringing the sun – it’s a trick he’s well known for – join David if you want sunny conditions! The crossing was so calm we could see dolphins breaking the surface and had good views of red-throated divers, puffin, guillemot and black guillies, fulmar, gannets and Manx Shearwaters.
We hadn’t been off the ferry 10 mins when around a bend we saw our first Hen Harrier - a ‘ringtail’ female hunting alongside the road: we hadn't seen one single harrier during the first three and half weeks on mainland Scotland …
David and Eddie had arrived on the morning ferry from Oban and reached the croft cottage before us, wasting no time settling in, whilst prowling round the windows and garden area seeing buzzard and two snipe to kick the listing off. Once we were unpacked Eddie cooked up steak pie filling, spuds, carrots and peas, while rolling and baking a pastry lid to go with it … yummy!
It was ‘up and at ‘em’ bright and early, breakfast sunk, butties thrown together and out the door! We all piled into our campervan and set off for the prime and most favourite raptor watching spot on North Uist’s Committee Road. A male Hen Harrier flying close to the road on the way brought an abrupt halt and dive for cameras! The journey brought two sets of hen harrier families on the wing, but only one family of short-eared owl. At one stage during our time at the watchpoint we didn't know what to watch - we had in view one full harrier family, a kestrel, a sparrowhawk, a buzzard and very high in the sky a possible/probable golden eagle. A further high dot could have been large and even further off: it was dark and straight-winged but it sailed out of sight without any of us making a definite call – it could have been anything! (Though of course white-tailed eagle was on the tip of our tongues!) We drove off eventually for a tour of North Uist and the sightings of both Whimbrel and Black-tailed Godwit were in places where I thought they could be breeding birds. The Greenshank however out on one of the estuary inlets suggested a return off the moors and the start of migration …
Back at the accommodation Ian cooked up a huge mixed grill for tea … must make a note not to get on the scales for a while …
The morning dawned with an unwelcome grey sky but still warm: thankfully by 10am it was a big blue arc once more. Despite that early grey it was ‘up and at ‘em’ and into the campervan heading for South Uist this time getting there by my most favourite route of the Howemore River and tight little bridge, through the patchwork fields of cultivation and wild flowers, the acidic ‘rushy’ area and onto Peninnerine with its beach flora recolonizing behind the newish sea defences. A seawatch brought great northern and red-throated divers but at distances only just viewable with the scope.
We moved steadily on towards Rubh Ardvule and were rewarded with hot sun and the mountain blue of Heaval on Barra dominating the diamond sparkling blue sea. There were families of eider and shelduck going about their business: groups of gulls searching the seaweed or just plain sleeping on the beach – a picture of birdy domesticity. Except in the bird/animal world there is no such thing as a comfortable life … enter a Great Skua … normally these birds will be just passing by – flying through – heading to areas where terns feed and can be ‘mugged’ of their meal by an idle skua. We actually watched what followed next (those with a delicate disposition should miss this paragraph out) it was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen. It was quickly apparent that the great skua was taking more than an idle interest in the other birds: it flew over the beach at low level and sparked a panic … if the birds had stayed put on the beach the skua would have gone unrewarded – but – the shelduck and their well-grown young – almost at flying stage – fled into the water. Mistake number one: pay with your life. The skua soon panicked the family apart and split off one of the large young – a bird as big as itself if not slightly bigger. The rest of the shelduck scarpered leaving the hapless separated youngster to deal with the problem. Had they stuck together and attacked the skua it would have quickly given up. The skua began an earnest and sustained attack and the terrified young shelduck kept diving under and bobbing back up in different places, the skua spun round on the water till it saw the duck bob back up, then it jumped up and on it again and again and again …. Eventually the duck was floating on its back: I thought well its drowned now the skua can have its meal and it began plucking the belly of the duck and blowing feathers around like any bird of prey would … then I saw the ducks head come up out of the water and look around … it wasn;t dead and the skua was eating it alive. I went in the camper and put the kettle on but was drawn back out by Eddie’s blow by blow commentary. Misanthropic it might be but that little head and and huge eyes full of pain and panic kept coming up off the water’s surface and looking around – to me it seemed to be thinking is no-one going to help me here? Eventually it must have died from shock and blood loss as the skua fed on regardless for a further 45 mins before having a wash and resting for a while digesting its meal bobbing on the water all innocent looking …. It was the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen – more so than watching peregrine and sparrowhawks – you know they catch and eat stuff also equally alive sometimes, but we had not anticipated this or how brutal it was going to be. That’s wildlife watching for you – very little is cute about it ... Warning beautiful scenes can contain violence ...
We woke to grey and dry weather with a breeze blowing. Yet again it was get ready and off out – back up to North Uist and over the Committee Road which was quiet and without the usual raptors. This time we came back down and drove up on the western side to go up Cleitraval – the hill with the masts and ‘domed’ radar station. The commanding view was admired and photographed but no eagles showed – we had to make do with a short eared owl! Dear me what is life coming to?!!! Balranald was the next logical stop and we immediately saw one whooper swan at the start of the reserve. (we saw another one on Scolpaig later.) A Corn Bunting managed to stay long enough to get its photo taken! A wander was had on the reserve but I seem to remember ‘wuzzying’ out and remaining sat in the van looking at the view? As I recall it rained hard and I was spared a wetting … the more intrepid got a soaking …. David and Eddie prepared a ‘spag bol’ for tea for all of us – not my favourite meal but this was good as the pair of them can cook!
Grey again on waking but it soon ‘blued up’. Wed was a ‘raptor day’ finally – short-eared owl soon after leaving the cottage: another shortie (making it 6 separate birds for the week thus far) was on the territory just before the Ballivanich left turn and harriers over the Committee Road. The tide was unfortunately a long way out robbing us of the amazing turquoise bay of Valley Strand as we made our way towards Bernaray. But a side call at my most favourite bay of all - Clachan Shanda found the tide coming in and it didn;t take long in the heat for boots to come off and folk to go paddling!
On reaching Bernaray we made straight to the far end – the big bay with the most amazing view across to Harris and all the little islands inbetween … the tide had come in at last and the beach had small waders on – sanderling, dunlin and ringed plover. Both Ian and David grabbed their cameras and big lenses and set off to stalk in the sand. They ended up choosing spots to crouch and wait and eventually their patience paid off as the tiny waders approached and even ran past them! Eddie and I sat on the grass in the shade of the campervan and sea watched the afternoon away – Eddie with his pipe and me with a brew … very civilised and relaxed!
On the way back we went out to Borve machair and parked near the cemetery: the nesting terns had all gone but there were dune flowers to try and photograph in the ever present strong breeze and the light had gone - the weather was slowly relapsing into the Scottish Default Setting - grey and windy - lucky it wasn't raining as well then!
We dropped David and Eddie back at the cottage as they wanted to start using up the various tins, packets and frozen foods they had brought, while we ordered fish and chips from the café/restaurant in Balivanich. ! I have to smile at the ironies of life at times - we'd driven from place to place around North Uist yesterday hoping for a hen harrier or short eared owl to fly close by the camper and although we saw both in several places none were near enough .... so we set off from the croft at 7.15pm with our fish and chips booked to be ready for take away at 7.30pm and straight round the corner what do we get? Yup a shortie flying alongside the van and the choice was soggy expensive cooling fish and chips or a shortie pic ... I'm afraid my stomach overruled my brain for once and we drove on!
With fish and chips under our belt we set off back and just past the croft we turned down to have a quick glimpse at St Peter’s Port. Finally I managed a ten second glance of a rapidly disappearing golden eagle off behind the island of Wiay - which a board on the tiny harbour tells is 'for sale' .... Mmmm wonder how much it costs to buy your own island? I looked it up on the internet eventually and decided I could have a new campervan for that kind of money and go wherever I feel like! Our evening ride out coincided with the highest tide I have ever seen in all these years of visits - I think of high tides in Feb but not July! There was a full moon which I guess has helped but we were amazed to see water up to the tops of causeway bridge arches and in one low spot almost to road level! All the surrounding little islands were just green grass - none of the grey rock, black rocks or seaweed showing - the whole scene made me think of a flood - which of course in a way it was!
Weather beginning to fail – a bright start became cloudy and rain showers - we went south, fitting in side visits to Beinn a Charra the big standing stone and The Polacher Stone before going across the causeway to Erisky. We had hen harriers in the usual place and red-throated divers too. A short eared owl was nice to watch on the way back. We had checked the opening times of the chippy at Burnside and made sure we hit on it on the return! Their fish and chips are delicious – as near perfect as its possible to be … what a shame its so far from where we’re staying!
This was ‘mop-up’ time and we chanced our arm around a few places despite the weather deteriorating at a rate of knots – showers and just plain heavy rain at times spoiled a lot of what we had in mind. We did drop on a red-throated diver but the rain began as soon as the bird was in view so what was a quick visit became mega fast as we rushed to get cameras and lenses under cover … A further couple of soakings and we called it a day and headed back to the croft for a shower and dry clothing. On the way to do some evening visiting of friends who live out there we called in at a fairly new edition to eateries on the island – a Chinese take away! We had chicken chow mein and it was delicious and plenty of it, then it was off to Brian’s on North Uist to catch up with news, birds and general island gossip! For some reason I always think the local island folk should be living a fantastic life because of where they are and what surrounds them - if I was living there I would be having the time of my life - or I think I would ... I'm well aware that winter must be long and drab, difficult, dark, cold, windy, dismal probably: that's when I realise there are plenty reasons for islanders to be unhappy ...
All too soon and it was time to pack and leave … we’d managed to fit in flying visits to most of our usual spots on the three islands – but it was whistle-stop and had more to do with birding with friends than photography … We said our goodbyes to Bill and Sadie who keep Lionacleit Guesthouse plus their two lovely rental cottages – we’ve stayed in both over the years and been very well cared for – Sadie even brings in my washing if it rains while we are gadding about!
One of the biggest reliefs about coming out to the isles was the lack of MIDGES! But it wasn’t all plain sailing as we found the ‘cleggs’ horseflies were the worst of any visit over the past 23 years. Yet again we had to resort to slathering our bare parts in industrial strength repellent – handle the camera without washing it off your hands and you will leave fingerprints etched into the plastic! The thing with cleggs is they have decent biting mouthparts that can penetrate cloth – so they avoided the bare tasty-looking skin bathed in spray and cream and went instead straight through my cycling shorts – my ‘backside’ looked and felt like a pin cushion! Perhaps I should have sprayed my shorts as well?!!!
So it was onto the boat for the 5 hour sail back to Oban but I felt elated as I wasn’t facing that long drive home (though that was growing closer )instead its round the dock and onto the end of the Mull boat queue for the last two weeks of our Great Scotland Journey ...