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Wednesday 30 June 2021

2021 Hebridean Adventures, Pt.1 - 18th to 22nd May, 2021

OK, so Blogger is still playing silly devils with header images. It lets me put in an image at my chosen size but messes the image up so that it is very soft. It is not a question of it doing it because it needs to resize it - it doesn't need to. The blog header width is 1184 pixels wide and I resample the image to 1184 pixels wide so it should fit exactly without Blogger messing with it. It seems that many others are having similar problems - time Blogger got off their backsides and sorted it - it's been like it for weeks.


Way back in 2020, when lockdown prevented Lindsay and I from going on a booked holiday based on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist, we'd booked a replacement visit for the same period in 2021 and kept our fingers crossed since then. This really 'went to the wire' as our bookings would have us travelling from home to a Travelodge near Stirling on Wednesday 19th May, then driving to Mallaig on the Thursday where we'd booked an evening ferry to take us to South Uist for a two-night stay before driving up to our accommodation on North Uist on the Saturday. The first hurdle that loomed large was waiting for the ban on travel between England and Scotland to be lifted - this happened on the Monday, just two days before our booked departure!

The second hurdle was totally unforeseen and that was getting a phonecall from CalMac on the Monday afternoon to say that our ferry booked for the Thursday evening would not be running and that the only alternative to cancelling altogether that they could offer was for us to get a ferry on the Thursday morning from Uig on Skye. This would add 81 miles to our driving distance at the mainland end and 42 miles at the Outer Hebrides end. However, this was not a significant problem compared to having to be checked in at the ferry port at Uig by 04.15 on the Thursday morning after a journey timed at 5 hours! This, for a while, threw us into a flat spin. However, I managed to find a solution which, although not ideal, got us out of a hole. We'd leave a day early (less than 24 hours after notification of the problem!) and bring forward our booking in Stirling by a day (which, to my relief, was done without a problem) and then stay in a B&B in Uig (which, it seems, I was extremely lucky to find).

So here is how the holiday unfolded.

Tuesday, 18th May          Ashby de la Zouch to Stirling

          cloudy, with showers

After a panic packing session on Monday evening and Tuesday morning, we managed to set off after an early lunch. We had an unventful journey via the M1, M18,  A1, and the Edinburgh City Bypass, arriving at the Travelodge in time to sort ourselves out before trotting over to the M&S Foodstore to buy a selection of items for a cold evening meal. Knowing that our next night would be a very short one, we turned in early.

Wednesday, 19th May          Stirling to Uig, Skye

          mainly sunny, but with a cool breeze

Breakfast was also facilitated via a visit to the M&S Foodstore before a gentle start on our travels. We'd only gone a few miles before we found ourselves approaching Doune, and the Scottish Antiques & Art Centre, which is home to the Café Circa. We couldn't resist a comfort stop here even though we'd been on the road for less than half an hour as we knew from past experience that there were wonderful cakes to be had - yes, it was a bit decadent!

I was quite surprised to see a pair of Oystercatcher on one of the roofs as this was, as far as I could make out, a long way from water. One of the birds was doing its morning aerobics.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Scottish Antique and Arts Centre, Doune
The weather was, quite fortunately, pleasant for sitting outside when we stopped for a light lunch at TJ's Diner in Tyndrum. 

In the Glencoe area, we started seeing snow on the tops, and this required a photo stop or two.

from the road in the Glencoe area
We arrived in Uig at around 5 p.m. and went straight to the ferry terminal to see if we could pick up our tickets there and then, rather than mess about in the early morning. We were told that tickets weren't necessary and someone would be in the carpark in the morning to log us in, so we immediately headed to our B&B which was '5 Glenconon'. I will say, up front, that this now ranks equal with our favourite B&B in UK which is Tweed View House in Berwick Upon Tweed. We were greeted by Shirley on arrival and shown to a wonderful bright and airy room with every comfort to hand. When we enquired about somewhere to eat that night we were told of our options and then, having chosen, Shirley booked a table there for us. We ate at The Uig Hotel and enjoyed a good meal on the terrace, overlooking the bay. Afterwards, I took a stroll up the road above the B&B. 

view from a couple of hundred metres up the road from '5 Glenconon'
We went to bed early again that night with the alarm set for 03h00. Shirley had kindly made us up a packed breakfast to eat on the ferry, which was very much appreciated.

Thursday, 20th May          Uig to Lochmaddy (N. Uist) to Lochboisdale (S. Uist) - and bits between

          cold, wet and breezy to start, turning brighter but cold and windy before noon

It was a cruel start to the day with the alarm waking us almost before we'd got to sleep. We woke to a chilly morning with light rain but, fortunately, only a light breeze. We'd packed most of our stuff into the car the evening before, so as not to disturb the neighbours and were at the ferry port in good time to down our picnic breakfast before boarding the ferry. 

It was a relief when we eventually got under way with Lindsay and I finding  seats  on a deck that was open at the sides, but roofed. But, oh dear, we've turned round and are heading back onto the dock! This consternation lasted for a while until we relised that a huge mobile crane was coming on board and it could only be fitted onto the ferryat the end which was opposite to the one that we'd all boarded on. Phew!!!

With it being a damp grey day at 05h00, the light was quite dreadful, but I stayed on the open deck for the whole journey (Lindsay got too cold and had to go inside) and did manage a few photos.

Soon after leaving port I took some shots of the Island of Harris/Lewis at the north end of the Outer Hebrides - it would be an hour and three quarters before we arrived at Lochmaddy at the North end of North Uist, some way south.

Harris/Lewis from the Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
Bird-wise we saw the usual suspect, of Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffin, and Gannet, but I didn't note any other bird species.
Razorbill (Alca torda) - from Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
Guillemot (Uria aalge) - from Uig to Lochmaddy ferry

Puffin (Fratercula arctica) - from Uig to Lochmaddy ferry

Gannet (Morus bassanus) - from Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
The greatest excitement, however, occurred when a fellow traveller spotted a distant pod of Dolphin. After a while these wonderful creatures came rather closer for a very short while and I just about managed a shot or two.
Dolphin species - from Uig to Lochmaddy ferry
We were pleased to get off the ferry and into our car but in no hurry to get to our final destination as it was now only about 06h45 and we could not check in at our hotel until 17h00 which was 42 miles (68 km) and about one hour away. Some serious deviations were, therefore, necessary.
Our first departure from the direct route was to head north, rather than south and then take the road that crosses the north end of the island - this we did as far as the famed Committee Road. The Committee Road is often hailed as the place to see raptors, including Short-eared Owls. At this time of the morning, however, none were seen. It was drizzling when we first reached it and the usual mix of Stonechat, Wheatear and Meadow Pipit were seen. Partly because of the weather, but mainly because tiredness was having a serious effect on my photographic skills,  I did not fare well with images. It was good to see a Curlew near the northern end.
Curlew (Numenius arquata) - Committee Road, North Uist

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (female) - Committee Road, North Uist
At the southern end of the road were several Greylag Geese.

Greylag Goose (Anser anser) - Committee Road, North Uist

As we headed south, we were pleased to see that the Hebridean Smokehouse was in operation, although not open at this hour, as this would be one of our most important sources of food later in the week!

Causeways took us over the island of Grimsay and then onto the island of Benbecula.Here we left the main road south and headed through Baile Mhanaich and stopped near Aird to check out the view.

fishing boats - from near Aird, Benbecula
We then stopped a bit further on, where there is a jetty, half way between Aird and Borgh. Here there were waders at the water's edge. These turned out to be mainly Sanderling if my ID is correct. However, these were in so many different states of plumage that I am not entirely confident. One pair were having a bit of a disagreement!

Sanderling (Calidris alba)  - Benbecula
There were also a two Dunlin in the area.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) - Benbecula
Our main reason for taking this route was to visit Griminis, which is a location known for  regularly breeding Red-necked Phalarope.

At first, all we saw were two Red-breasted Merganser.

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (female) - Griminis, Benbecula
I'll blame it on extreme tiredness, but I was caught napping when a pair of Red-necked Phalarope flew in and almost immediately flew off again. I managed to fire off some record shots but my zoom lens was not fully extended.

Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) (male + female) - Griminis, Benbecula 

It was pre-ten o'clock and we had time to kill before we turned up at our hotel with the intention of asking them if they had a lounge we could snooze in until it was time to check in to our room. We therefore went on an exploration of the B891 which heads to the south-east of Benbecula.

This Red-breasted Merganser decided to make a break for it when I stopped the car.

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (male) - from B891, Benbecula
A little further along the road we found a trio of small, but rugged-looking ponies. We wondered if these were of the famous Eriskay breed but, judging by what we saw later in the day, this was probably not the case. We were able to mingle with these ponies and they took not a blind bit of notice!

ponies - beside the B891, Benbecula
It turned out to be a very scenic road and, on the way back, a Wheatear obliged by posing for a photo.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (female) - beside B891, Benbecula
It was then time to head south to the south-eastern end of South Uist and our booked hotel, the Lochboisdale Hotel. From a distance, the hotel looked fine. However, having parked the car, the outside of the hotel started ringing warning bells in our heads. I left Lindsay in the car and approached the entrance, which was surrounded by dirt and rubbish. The entance hall was no better and nobody answered when I rang the bell at reception. After a few minutes, I set off round the outside of the hotel to see if I could find anyone and ended up at some building work that was taking place. The builder managed to raise the hotel owner who, it seems, was also engaged in the building work. It seemed that there was nowhere where we could sit and relax until the room was ready and no food available for lunch. However, he recommended a restaurant named Am Politician on the island of Eriskay, about 11 miles (18 km) away via a causeway.

We didn't get that far, as 3 miles (5 km) along the road we found the Borrodale Hotel and decided to try there. We had a splendid lunch here and were extremely impressed by the Covid precautions being taken, to the extent that we asked about room availability with a view to sacrificing our booking at the Lochboisdale Hotel. They were fully booked that night but agreed to hold a room for us for the following night in case we found the Lochboisdale unacceptable. 

After lunch, we set off to Eriskay and soon found the Am Politician and were glad we hadn't opted for eating there, purely because the place was small and seemed busy, judging by the cars in the car park, and we didn't feel ready to start mingling with people in close confinement.

There is an interesting story about Am Politician. The restaurant is named after the SS Politician boat which, in February 1941 was wrecked off the coast near the point where the pub stands. It's cargo was around 40,000 cases of scotch whisky. None of the crew were lost, but some of the islanders helped  themselves to some of the cargo, before the revenue men put a stop to it. This is the event which provided the inspiration for the famous and delightful film 'Whisky Galore!'.

A bit further down the road from Am Politician is a cemetery with a grassy area beside it which has access to the beach some way below. Sheep were grazing here, totally unfettered, and these two lambs seemed relatively unperturbed by my presence.

lambs - Balla, Eriskay
It seems that a Grey Seal had me spotted and came to investigate.
Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) - Balla, Eriskay
Down at the water's edge were Sanderling. I'm afraid that you are going to see a few more Sanderling on this and future blog posts as they were rather omnipresent on beaches during our stay!

Sanderling (Calidiris alba) - Balla, Eriskay
We set off on a different road on Eriskay, but I do not remember which one. Part-way up the hill we saw a field of ponies and a fellow feeding them. This person assured me that these ponies were genuine Eriskays - a breed known for its strength and hardiness. These did seem to have distinctly shaped heads. However, I now believe that it is the pale ponies behind - the ones that he is actually feeding - that are the Eriskays!

Eriskay Ponies (the ones in the background!)  - Eriskay
We decided to properly explore Eriskay when we had more time and to do something else before we could check in at our hotel at 17h00. There being a coastal picnic area marked on the OS map near Geàrraidh na Mònadh on South Uist, this is where we went. One could not complain that the beach here was overcrowded!

beach near Geàrraidh na Mònadh, South Uist
Are those more Sanderling?!

Sanderling (Calidiris alba) - near Geàrraidh na Mònadh, South Uist
We checked in at our hotel promptly at 17h00 and were pleasantly surprised by what we found once in there, with the room being comfortable and the lady owner being very helpful. The meal that night was also very pleasant.  You will not be surprised to hear that we turned in early.

Friday, 21st May          South Uist and Eriskay

          cold and very windy, but mainly dry with sunny spells

After a lazy start, breakfast was good, although I only have cereal and a yoghurt with a pot of tea - even when in a hotel. However, it was disappointing that the fellow serving breakfast was hovering over us without a mask - something that I'm sure was in breach of the regulations, but was probobaly condoned by the management, as the male of the owning pair not only wasn't wearing a mask but seemed to make a point of thusting his face within half a metre of my face when speaking to me. Judging by a rather unprofessional communication I'd previously had from him slating the current Scottish government regulations, I suspect that he was somewhat of a renegade.

Lindsay has a thing about standing stones and, having seen one marked on the map at Pollachar on the road towards Eriskay, that was our first stop this day. I omitted to take any photos of the standing stone, so here is one that Lindsay took with her phone. Apparently, it dates from  around 2,000 B.C. and is just over 1.7 metres high (the stone, not the phone which is a little younger!).

Pollachar Standing Stone - South Uist
We had a short stroll on the beach here - me looking for birds and Lindsay looking for shells and sea glass. Lindsay found a jellyfish and called me over to see it.

Lindsay on Pollachar Beach, South Uist

Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) - Pollachar Beach, South Uist
From Pollachar, we continued on to Eriskay via the causeway in order to check out this small island in more detail. We started by revisiting the road beyond Am Pollitician, stopping again at Balla. There's a plant that grows in the grass above beaches in these parts. I have not taken much notice of this before, but on this occasion found myself intrigued by its silvery appearance, However, on close inspection, this is caused by a dense covering of 'hairs'. I have not been able to find an ID for this plant so any help would be appreciated. UPDATE - My thanks to friends David and Diane, who both pointed me at Silverweed, which I am sure is correct.

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) - Balla, Eriskay
I spent a little time here photographing a Ringed Plover down on the beach below my viewpoint.

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) - Balla, Eriskay

From here we headed towards the ferry terminal from where the ferry to Barra departs. From the hilltop above the terminal, we observed the approaching ferry.

Ferry Terminal and Barra Ferry - Eriskay

We made a full exploration by car of all the roads on Eriskay, and decided that we rather liked the place. It was then time to head north again as a return visit to the Borrodale Hotel for lunch was calling. This journey gave one of the main highlights of the holiday. Approximately 5 minutes from our lunch stop I noticed a Short-eared owl flying on Lindsay's side of the car, and it landed at a point where we could stop, with no traffic visible in either direction. I grabbed a quick shot through Lindsay's door window, but only then noticed that the lens was at 170 mm rather than its full 500 mm. This is the result, rather heavily cropped.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - south of Daliburgh, South Uist
I then saw that there was a pull-in just a short way down the road and this gave me the leeway to move the car forward and get out of the car to take some better shots with the lens at 500 mm.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - south of Daliburgh, South Uist
We had another very enjoyable lunch at the Borrodale, and then turned back south again to explore the minor road which heads round the south side of Lochboisdale (the loch rather than the town of the same name). There were some splendid views over to the town, and the hills beyond,  on the north side of the loch. The red 'flash' is on the funnel of the ferry (which was now running). Just to the left of that is the white Lochboisdale Hotel and the long white building to the left of that is what constitutes the main part of the town.

view across Lochboisdale to Lochboisdale
This run gave me some shots of Tufted Duck and Wheatear.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) (male + female) - Lochboisdale

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (male) - by Lochboisdale

From the South Lochboisdale road, we headed back north and took a side road to the coast at Kildonan. There was a fine beach here with the mix being a bit different, with Dunlin and Turnstone being dominant. The Turnstone looked particularly fine in their breeding plumage.

Kildonan Beach - South Uist

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) -Kildonan Beach, South Uist

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Kildonan Beach, South Uist
It was now time to pay a visit to the Kildonan Museum, back on the main road in order to avail ourselves of coffee and cake before the café closed!  This was followed by a visit to the craft shop at the museum. The proprietor of the craft shop, was a bird and photography enthusiast and gave us a couple of pointers for places to visit, one of which was the nearby Loch Eynort. We had time to visit this location before heading back to our hotel for dinner.

We arrived to find our target bird, Red-throated Diver, visible in the far distance, and this is the way it stayed until the pair flew off eastward at a height. You can just about see them towards the top left in the record shot below. One of the Grey Seals woke up and came towards us.

Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) -Loch Eynort, South Uist
Slightly better was the record shot of the Black Guillemot. Sadly, this was our only sighting of this species during this holiday.
Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle) - Loch Eynort, South Uist
Just before we departed, a beautiful low-slung rainbow appeared to the east of us.

Rainbow - Loch Eynort, South Uist
A we headed back to the main road, we saw a Red Deer beside the road. Strangely, this was the only deer we saw whilst on the Uists this year. In the past they have been an almost daily occurrence.

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) (male) - near Loch Eynort, South Uist
Dinner that night was fine and again we tirned in relatively early.

Saturday, 22nd May          south of South Uist to north of North Uist via an indirect route

          cold and very windy with sunny spells

This day we were able to take posession of our self-catering property to the north of North Uist at 17h00. We therefore had a gentle run northwards to make that day. I spent time looking for birds around the hotel both before and after breakfast, with nothing exciting being seen except the suspicion of a Twite. Nevertheless, I did take a few photos.

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (female) - Lochboisdale, South Uist

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (male) - Lochboisdale, South Uist

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) - Lochboisdale, South Uist
All the while I was round the hotel, I was regaled with the music from this Song Thrush.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) - Lochboisdale, South Uist
Our first vist of the morning was to the other place that we had been recommended by the lady in the craft shop and that was the machair area and beach beyond Bornais. This proved to be a good call with plenty of birds seen both on the machair and from the beach. Here are a few from the machair.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) - beyond Bornais, South Uist

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) - beyond Bornais, South Uist

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)  - beyond Bornais, South Uist

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (female) - beyond Bornais, South Uist
More exciting was a positive sighting of Twite, although I only got a couple of record shots.
Twite (Linaria flavirostris) - beyond Bornais, South Uist
At the beach there were Turnstone, Sanderling and Eider

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (males + female) - beyond Bornais, South Uist

Sanderling (Calidris alba)  - beyond Bornais, South Uist
I was not expecting, however, to see a Rabbit on the beach!
Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) - beyond Bornais, South Uist
Later, we headed off to Loch Eynort once more, hoping to get a better view of the Red-throated Divers. At the end of the road, we found the parking area choked with badly parked cars with nobody in them, so had to park elsewhere. Nothing interesting was seen from the usual viewpoint, so Lindsay and I decided on a gentle walk along the footpath that starts at this point. 
view of Loch Eynort from footpath
Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) -Loch Eynort, South Uist
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) (female + male) - Loch Eynort, South Uist
I am not sure of the identity of this beetle, but believe it to be Ctenicera cuprea.
Ctenicera cuprea? - by Loch Eynort, South Uist
I confess to photographing this inflorescence without taking notice of what it was on! However, I suspect it was a species of conifer. It was only when subsequently looking at the image that some aspects struck me as being somewhat phallic - oh dear!
? - by Loch Eynort, South Uist
We didn't spot the hoped-for Red-throated Divers so continued with our slow wander northward.
Reaching the island of Grimsay, we headed off to Kallin Shellfish to buy something to cook for our evening meal that night. We were disappointed to find that they'd closed an hour early. However, their Namara Café, just a few hundred metres down the road was open and we were able to enjoy a very good light lunch while sitting out in the open.
After our late lunch we headed north again, stopping at the Hebridean Smokehouse to buy some smoked fish, including peat-smoked scallops for our evening meal. We then continued to the RSPB's place at Balranald, mainly for a comfort stop. Nothing of interest was seen here and little was heard of the Corncrakes except for one very distant craking. I was disappointed to see that the landscape had changed dramatically since our last visit with very little ground cover for the crakes and only a few small isolated patches of Iris for them.

It was now time to head for our new home for the week - a beautifully converted 'blackhouse' at Clachan Sands, just off the road to Berneray. The late afternoon was spent unpacking and visiting the Co-op, 5 miles (8 km) away to buy our basic provisions for the week.

After our meal, for which the smoked scallops were heated through in a pan with butter and a sprinkling of chives from the cottage garden, and washed down with a bottle of rosé, I went for a stroll up the lane from the cottage. This turned out to be disappointing and, at the same time, encouraging. The usual plethora of Redshank and Lapwing were not in evidence, probably because of adverse weather patterns over the past couple of months. However, encouragement came in the form of a Short-eared Owl within viewing distance from the property, although I only got rather distant shots on this occasion.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) with prey - Clachan Sands, North Uist

Redshank (Tringa totanus) - Clachan Sands, North Uist

the Moon - from Clachan Sands, North Uist
This brings me to the end of Pt. 1 of my account of our Hebridean stay. Pt.2 will follow at some time in the future.
In the meantime, take good care and stay safe.
Thank you for dropping by - - - Richard