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Tuesday 26 June 2018

The Outer Hebrides - Pt.1 - 24th to 28th May, 2018

For a couple of years now, I'd had a longing to visit the island of North Uist, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. There was just one reason for this desire, and that was that it is considered probably the best place in UK to see Short-eared Owls in the early summer months. I broached the subject with my ever-understanding wife, Lindsay, who did a bit of research and agreed to a stay on North Uist, provided we took a day out to see the famous standing stones at Calanais, on the nearby island of Lewis. And thus it was decided. We booked ourselves into a traditional black house for a week of self catering, and arranged the ferry crossings and the stops en-route to our destination. Here's how the visit unfolded:-

Thursday, 24th May              to Northumberland, and a visit to Holy Island

We left home around 10h00 stopping for lunch at the wonderful  Deli Café in Boston Spa, and then had a short visit to a couple of charity shops in the hope of finding a book or two to read on the inevitable wet days we were going to get in the Outer Hebrides. I was delighted to find one by the Hebridean author, Peter May.

The journey to our overnight stop at Purdy Lodge, Belford, was uneventful and we were soon checked in. I was pleased that, although this establishment is right next to the busy A1 road, our ground floor room had a window onto open fields at the back. We did not stop in our room for long however, as the causeway to Holy Island was open and we fancied a visit.

As we got to the mid-point of the causeway, Lindsay exclaimed "there's something big in the water!". I manage to find somewhere to stop a couple of hundred metres further on, and saw though my binoculars that a seal was just hauling out of the water. I took a log range shot, before walking back down the road.

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) - by Holy Island Causeway
I'd not got far before it slipped back into the water again, but I carried on anyway to see if I could see where it had gone. I was somewhat surprised when it surfaced just in front of me! It soon became apparent that it was as interested in me as I was in it, and it played around in front of me for five minutes, until I decided that it was time I was getting back to the car, and Lindsay.

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) - by Holy Island Causeway
Having parked in the car park at the edge of the village we had a wander round the village, keeping our eyes open for somewhere to have a light evening meal. We ended up having a superb crab sandwich (local crab) at the Manor House Hotel.

We then took ourselves off to the shoreline where Lindsay looked for sea-glass and pottery shards while I looked for birds, but the tide was right out, and the birds very distant, with Eider and Curlew in small numbers - I didn't make a note of other species, and didn't take any worthwhile photos.

It was getting a bit dull and grey, and a mist was starting to come in so we set off back to Purdy Lodge, stopping on the causeway for another session with the seal, which came to greet me like an old friend - I suspect that someone had been feeding it!

At Purdy Lodge, I was pleased to see a pair of Grey Partridge crossing the field behind our room. The window was too dirty to take a shot through, and didn't open wide, so I went outside to look for them, finding them in the next field. The light was, by then, quite grim and the mist arriving inland, so I only managed a record shot of a species I'd not seen for a couple of years.

Friday, 25th May                             to Fort William via Blairgowrie

We woke to thick mist and so, after a very good breakfast at Purdy Lodge set off slowly northward. It was Lindsay's first time over the new Forth road bridge, and she was impressed! The Dalmore Inn, just south of Blairgowrie is, without a doubt, the favourite lunchtime stop for both Lindsay and I so, as it only added about 20 miles (30 km) to our journey, that is where we stopped for an excellent light lunch. The mist had prevailed all the way up to Blairgowrie, but we were delighted to find that it had cleared and we had a sunny afternoon for our onward journey to Fort William. The journey was pleasantly scenic, without being spectacular, and there was little traffic until we reached the outskirts of Fort William.With the aid of our satnav we found our B&B (Gruisachan House) without putting a foot wrong and were greeted at the door by the landlady, who showed us around and then to our room. The view from the lounge and dining room was splendid!

View from Gruisachan House, Fort William
The landlady had warned us that the eating establishments in town would be extremely busy as it was a Friday night, and advised us to go early to eat. We also needed to get fuel for the car for an earlyish start the next day, so soon headed off into town. Having had a quick look round, and bearing in mind that we had eaten well at lunch time, we settled on a light meal in the café at Morrison's supermarket, and then fuelled up at their petrol station afterwards. 

We then had a quick drive round the town before returning to our B&B. On our initial arrival I'd not noticed the sign in the doorway. 

Welcoming sign at Gruisachan House
By the spelling, I suspect that the sign-maker had been indulging in one of those prohibited items! Needless to say, we behaved ourselves that evening, and retired to bed early after sampling a fine malt whisky in the bar.

Saturday, 26th May          Fort William to North Uist - a disaster narrowly recovered from - First Impressions of North Uist          

As we had to be at the ferry port at Uig, on the north-west edge of the Isle of Sky, by 13h45 at the very latest, we had arranged an early breakfast with the B&B - and a truly excellent breakfast it was too! With satnav set for Uig we set off, happy in the knowledge that we'd allowed plenty of time to get to the ferry port, and the last ferry of the day. 

We enjoyed a highly scenic journey with only one small mishap en-route when I scrambled down a rocky slope beside the road for a bit of privacy (I'll leave you to guess why), slipped, and tore a large hole in my sock and ankle on a jagged rock. Fortunately the damage was relatively superficial, but it smarted for a few weeks afterwards, and evren now still reminds me from time to time!

makeshift 'loo with a view' - beside the A830
We then arrived at the coast, and my first reaction was 'where's the bridge?'. Since 1995 there has been a bridge which connects the mainland of Scotland to the Isle of Sky. Knowing that my satnav was programmed to avoid toll roads and ferries, I'd blindly followed its directions - and ended up in Mallaig - the bridge, however, links Kyle of Lochalsh with Kyleakin!

My first reaction was to head back the way we came, and then take the road to Kyle of Lochalsh, but after we'd gone a few miles I realised that there was a good chance that we'd never make it as, although the two locations are only 20 miles (32 km) apart 'as the crow flies', it is 116 miles (187 km) and 2 hours 35 minutes by road.

We raced back to Mallaig and Lindsay threw herself into the CalMac office to try and get us on a ferry from Mallaig to Armadale (Sky). She was told that the 11h00 ferry, which would be boarding soon, was fully booked but we were sold a standby ticket in case of 'no-shows' or compact loading. They also phoned ahead to Uig to let them know that we were on our way, so that the minimum check-in time was waived for us. It was a tense wait, but we weren't the last in the standby queue, and eventually we were called to drive on board. Phwew!!

It was a pleasant crossing, and Lindsay saw a Porpoise. Here's a shot, taken as we were leaving Mallaig:-

Leaving Mallaig! - from the CalMac ferry to Armadale
We'd been told it was a 2 hour run by road from Armadale to Uig and we'd landed at 11h35, so thought we had no time to waste if we were to be there by 13h45. In the event, we did it much quicker, and even had time to visit the quayside bar in Uig for a much-needed drink before boarding time.

We'd not had lunch in Uig as originally intended before my faux pas, so had a late lunch/early tea on the ferry as soon as we boarded. We then spent time on deck in brilliant sunshine, looking for birds and marine life. 

Seal and Puffin (Fratercula arctica) - from ferry Uig to Lochmaddy
Razorbill (Alca torda) - from ferry Uig to Lochmaddy
Whilst on the ferry, I was given a bit of sad news by a tour guide from one of the major nature tour companies, and that was that the March 'Beast from the East' (an extended period of extremely cold and windy weather) had had a disastrous effect on the vole population and, as a result, also the Short-eared Owl population. He said I should get some sightings, but they were very thin on the ground.

The ferry crossing was of just one and three quarter hours duration and the time passed quickly. We were first off the boat, and soon on our way to our accommodation, just over 6 miles (10 km) away. 

We arrived, to be greeted by owner, Ian, and his daughter, Heather, who were working in the vegetable garden. Our immediate impression of the property  - its appearance, its location and its internal layout - was 'wonderful'! 

Tigh na Boireach - Clachan Sands, North Uist
We'd brought nothing in the way of basic provisions with us, knowing that the Co-op supermarket, just over 6 miles (10 km) away in Solas, would be open until late on this day, but closed the next day (Sunday) and so, after making ourselves at home, we set off there.

Bird-wise this gave us a great start to out holiday as, on the return journey, we found Twite (a bird I have rarely seen) and had great views of a Cuckoo (my first of the year).

Twite (Carduelis flavirostris) - near Solas, North Uist

Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (female) - near Solas, North Uist
Having put away all the groceries, it was time to head out for the evening. As Lindsay is at her happiest when wandering along a deserted beach, we went to see what the local beach had to offer. The answer was - lots of white sand with not a soul in sight, although there was evidence that a campervan had been based here at some time for a considerable period.

Hornais Beach - North Uist
Lindsay didn't want to walk on the beach at this time so we set off for the famed Committee Road. It seemed that the birds were coming out for the evening as we had a few close sightings before we passed the Co-op in Solas again.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - near Solas, North Uist
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - near Solas, North Uist
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) - near Solas, North Uist
Passing through Middlequarter, we soon arrived at the Committee Road and started a gentle cruise along its length. We were finding photographable birds almost immediately. During the week I noticed that many of the Buzzards had rather pale heads - like this one:-

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) - Committee Road, North Uist
Much as I tried, I couldn't persuade this Snipe to raise its head!

Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) - Committee Road, North Uist
At this stage of the game, I did not realise just how many Redshank we would see during our stay!

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Committee Road, North Uist
Lindsay was the first to spot a Short-eared Owl, after we'd been on this road for just a few minutes. It was quite a way away, but close enough for some reasonable shots in a nice setting.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Committee Road, North Uist
The Committee Road is just over 4 miles (6.5 km) long, and for the last three quarters of that we saw nothing of great interest, so turned round at the southern end and headed back. We'd not gone far before I found a Short-eared Owl on a roadside fence post, and it was most confiding.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Committee Road, North Uist
The owl even stayed put when I inched the car a bit further up the road.  Thought for the day - do people in metric countries 'inch' their car' or 'centimetre' it?

A bit further on we had our first, but very distant, sighting of Hen Harrier.

Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) (female) - Committee Road, North Uist
As we neared the northern end of the road, three Red Deer crossed in front of us and fled up the hillside. Here are two of them.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) - Committee Road, North Uist
After passing through Solas once more, we were treated to the first Wheatear of the holiday. It was getting quite late by now, and this next shot was taken at 21h49, when the light was quite low. I can't make my mind up, from this image, as to what sex this bird was but suspect immature male.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) - near Solas, North Uist
We were soon to bed on our return after an exciting, and at one time stressful, day. Little did we know that, particularly as far as the Short-eared Owls were concerned, we'd already had the best of the holiday!

Sunday,  27th May           exploring North Uist - and six ticks!

Lindsay wanted to wash her hair, so I set off early the next morning before breakfast to have another shot at the Committee Road. From my previous paragraph, you'll not be surprised to learn that this visit wasn't nearly as profitable. I did photograph the inevitable Redshank. A Short-eared Owl was seen - in flight, carrying prey in its mouth, and distant, and I did manage a shot of a Snipe with its head up!

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Committee Road, North Uist
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Committee Road, North Uist
Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) - Committee Road, North Uist
Having had breakfast back at base, Lindsay and I set off to explore, taking the road through Solas (again!) but keeping to the road that skirts round the north and west of the island. Lindsay wanted to see beaches, so we peeled off the main road (for want of a better term - single track with passing places!) and headed to the beach near Malacleit. As we approached there was another Redshank opportunity. I only show these next two images because I didn't know that Redshanks had a saw-toothed upper mandible.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - near Malacleit, North Uist
To our dismay we found the beach was not deserted, but a couple with a dog were walking on the sands towards us - and there was a distant Little Tern on the sands. I managed to grab a couple of record shots before the approaching dog sent it flying.

Little Tern (Sterna albifrons) - beach near Malacleit, North Uist
We had a walk around and, having returned to the car, were treated to the delightful sight of cattle wandering down onto the beach.

the beach near Malacleit, North Uist
After this, we rejoined the A865, stopping briefly to attempt to photograph a distant Raven. We saw several Ravens during the week, but this was the nearest I got to photographing one.

Raven (Covus corax) - from A865, North Uist
We had another stop to view the much-photographed folly at Loch Scolpaig. I believe that the island in the background is Haskeir and I suspect that St. Kilda is just visible through the mist on the left.

Folly on Loch Scolpaig, North Uist
We had intended to next visit the RSPB reserve at Balranald but, before we got there, we found a sign to the St. Kilda Viewpoint, and this had to be investigated. It was a pleasant diversion and, at one point, we stopped to view a lochan where we saw distant Snipe and Ringed Plover but the best find photography-wise was an obliging Linnet on a fence.

Linnet ( Carduelis cannabina) (male) - road to St. Kilda Viewpoint, North Uist
Having had a brief stop at the RSPB's Balranald Visitor Centre, we continued along the long track to the beach. En-route we glimpsed our first and only Corn Buntings of our stay.

Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra) - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
Down by the beach the tide was out and there were distant waders, but we were looking into the sun and photography was all but impossible. Suddenly a large bird appeared high in the sky and approached our position. It didn't come close, but close enough to sea why a White-tailed Eagle is sometimes described as looking like a flying barn door! This was, I believe, a relatively young bird.

White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
We had a picnic lunch on the grass above the beach, and I went for a stroll to the north where I could see a number of waders feeding in a huge mass of seaweed that had been, I'm told, washed up in a storm earlier in the year. This gave me clearer views of the waders and I took several hundred shots (still into the sun) of Dunlin, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, and Sanderling, but the results were all awful. Here are a couple of the least dire ones!

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) (male) - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
After a while, we headed back to the visitor centre, where there were some interesting bones on display on the ground. I was told that these were of cetaceans.

Cetacean skulls - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
Corncrakes were heard, but not seen (by me, anyway!) but I did take some shots of Lapwings flying around over the adjacent field.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) - RSPB Balranald, North Uist
From Balranald we headed south on the A865 and came upon the Hebridean Smokehouse at Clachan. This proved to be a marvellous find and we came away with hot-smoked salmon and peat-smoked scallops.

We completed the circuit of the island by heading over to the east side on the A867. As we passed near to Langais, a male Hen Harrier flew across the road in front of us. By the time I could find somewhere to stop it was heading away and a bit distant and so I only got record shots. As this was the only male of the species seen during our stay, I'll include a couple of shots.

Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) (male) - near Langais, North Uist
Having completed the circuit, Lindsay agreed to another visit to the Committee Road. We found a Short-eared Owl flying over a field near Solas.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - near Solas, North Uist
Reaching the Committee Road, little was seen in the way of birds. However, I did spot a Meadow Pipit with what looked like a damselfly in its bill.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) - Committee Road, North Uist
I'm of an age now that results in me needing relatively frequent stops for 'the bathroom' (to use a euphemism from the Americas). This sometimes results in unexpected sightings (no giggles from the back row, please) - more than one owl has been found in this way in the past. However, on occasion, it has been detrimental - my above-mention scuffle with a sharp rock being an example. On this day it had a plus side (or so I thought at the time) as, scrambling down the bank at the side of the road, I found several damselflies.

Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) (immature male) - Committee Road, North Uist

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) (male) - Committee Road, North Uist
I spent some time in this place and, at one point, stopped to photograph some Oystercatchers that were noisily flying over.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Committee Road, North Uist
A return run up the Committee Road resulted in no more excitement, but in the region of Solas there was a confiding Stonechat.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (female) - near Solas, North Uist
There was a full moon that night.

Full Moon from Tigh na Boireach
Then the trouble started - as I got ready for bed I noticed I'd got six tick nymphs stuck on my legs. In my panic, I pulled them off with tweezers, squidging most of them as I did so. I subsequently was informed that is a dangerous way to do things as it can cause them to eject their juices into you. A call to NHS 111 resulted in some good advice as to what to do, including seeing my GP when I got home as I'd picked up the ticks in a high-risk area for Lyme Disease - I was sure that I'd got them when I'd stopped to photograph the damselflies on the Committee Road as there were many deer around, and I'd stood still for long enough to allow them to find me.

Monday, 28th May              to Benbecula and South Uist

It became my habit to take an early morning wander round the garden at Tigh na Boireach. I was getting used to seeing a Wren all around the property.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) - Tigh na Boireach, North Uist
There were always Green-veined White butterflies in the garden when the sun was out and, at one time, I swear I momentarily saw a large blue butterfly too (no, I don't mean a Large Blue), but it had gone by the time I got my camera. I guess I must have misjudged its size and it must have been a rather pale common blue.

Green-veined White (Pieris napi) (male) - Tigh na Boireach
Green-veined White (Pieris napi) (female) - Tigh na Boireach
We weren't troubled by midges at all during our stay. I'm not sure if this is a midge, but it was quite large - I'm showing it at 'life size'.

Midge? - Tigh na Boireach
Only kidding about 'life size'!

After breakfast we set off for the islands of Benbecula and South Uist, joined to North Uist by causeways. It will come as no surprise that I decided to take the route via the Committee Road! However, we had another sighting of Short-eared Owl near Solas.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - near Solas, North Uist
In retrospect, I could have saved a lot of time, and fuel, if I'd just taken to patrolling the A865 near Solas for the week! 

The Committee Road yielded Skylark near the north end and a large herd of Red Deer (tick carriers, every one!) near the south end

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) - Committee Road, North Uist

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) - Committee Road, North Uist
A little further along there was a distant Curlew.

Curlew (Numenius arquata) - Committee Road, North Uist
Arriving onto Benbecula, we took a right turn and stopped at Maclean's Bakery to top-up our picnic lunch. We then took the road which keeps near to the western edge of Benbecula, seeing little as we did so, except for a Buzzard that, although close, didn't look very natural sitting on the airport security fencing.

I can't remember why we found the need to stop at the Co-op supermarket at Creag Ghoraidh, but I'm glad we did - the car park there must have one of the best birding car parks of any supermarket.

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (male) + Red-breasted Merganser - Creag Ghoraidh, Benbecula

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (female + male) - Creag Ghoraidh, Benbecula
To give Lindsay her beach 'fix' we went to a beach by Bhag a Tuath.  It wasn't 'birdy' but she enjoyed it! A hot day, and nothing, or nobody, on the beach to spoil it other than a large piece of bright green plastic.

Beach by Bhag a Tuath
We then had another drive around and ended up at another beach - by Loch a Mhoil. This had a lot more interest for me as there were plenty of small waders around.

mixed waders - by Loch a Mhoil, South Uist
I had similar problems here to those with waders at Balranald on the Sunday - bright sun in the wrong direction and a muddle of seaweed debris to confuse the images, and the camera. However, I got a little closer and got slightly better results. I'm no expert on waders so if I have miss-identified the birds that I have as Sanderling, please let me know.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) - by Loch a Mhoil, South Uist
Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) - by Loch a Mhoil, South Uist

Sanderling (Calidris alba) - by Loch a Mhoil, South Uist
As I've not shown a Redshank image for this day, here's one taken when we stopped by Tobha Beag, later on.

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Tobha Beag, South Uist
On our return journey, we diverted to visit Kallin Shellfish, on Grimsay, having seen a sign to their establishment on the way south earlier in the day. This proved to be a great find and we came away with crab claws, langoustines, and prawns for our tea.

A return run up the Committee Road did yield a Short-eared Owl but I only got another 'going away' shot!

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - Committee Road, North Uist
Near the north end of the Committee Road there is an old tractor standing beside the road. I noticed that this seemed to have a notice attached to a rock by it, so we stopped to take a look. It was an 'art installation'.

Ferguson TEF-20 tractor - Committee Road, North Uist
The road through Solas came up trumps again, with a Short-eared Owl giving the ultimate in 'going away' shots, and a couple of obliging Stonechats staying put for my camera.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - near Solas, North Uist
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (juvenile) - near Solas, North Uist
Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (female) - near Solas, North Uist
That evening we dined well on shellfish. We'd had three days of almost constant sunny weather on the Outer Hebrides, and they say that you never get two sunny days strung together here!

Thus ends Pt. 1 of my account of our visit. I might have to do an interim post on another subject before I'm ready with Pt.2!

Thank you for dropping by.