Who are you calling "shy"?
Corncrake, Balranald, North Uist
Thanks to Steve Duffield whose daily commitment to updating his website Western Isles Wildlife certainly helped me to see everything I was looking for.
7am, Orasay B&B, Uig, I was already packed for the ferry across to Lochmaddy. Breakfast wasn't until 8am so I had a walk around the harbour. Lots of waders on the shore and on the sea Great Northern Diver and Black Guillemots cut through the glass like surface. I wasn't the only one up early, another group were already boarding their boat for the trip to St. Kilda. Hope they took plenty of food because some were staying overnight and the weather didn't look too good for a pick up anytime soon.
Soon enough the ferry sailed out into The Minch. The numbers of birds on the crossing was very low, into single figures for most species. Puffin, Razorbill, Kittiwake & Fulmar were all seen. The star bird however was a resplendent summer plumaged Grey Phalarope which flew North behind the ferry. On entering Lochmaddy harbour the birders scanned the cliffs for White-tailed Eagle but there were none to be seen. A nice summer plumaged Red-throated Diver and a shed load of Arctic Terns were the only birds seen here.
Red-throated Diver, Lochmaddy, North Uist
After disembarking I drove directly to the campsite at Balranald. On that 16 mile drive I was continually amazed at huge white sandy beaches and the turquoise waters of the North Atlantic with the mountainous backdrop of Harris behind. There were a few Cuckoos and Stonechats and masses of Wheatears. There were also a few pairs of Sedge Warblers in the appropriate habitat. As I turned off the "main road" toward Balranald I could immediately see and hear the masses of breeding birds in the fields on either side. As is my way, I immediately pitched my tent but the weather forcast didn't look good. I was worried about how open to the elements this site is for tents.
Anyway! I was soon birding and I could hear one of my main targets less than a 100 metres away by the side of the RSPB visitor centre. It took a while and while I was there I met well known Norfolk birders Dave & Jacquie Bridges. Jacquie was telling me about an Iceland Gull and I pointed up to a white gull overhead and asked "that one?". I also asked her to tell me about other exotic birds but the magic had worn off and none appeared.
Iceland Gull, 1w, Balranald RSPB, North Uist
We then proceeded to nail down the elusive Corncrake. I could hear several singing nearby, it all sounded quite subdued until this enormously loud call from nearby nearly stopped my heart. It was so loud you could actually feel the vibrations. He must have got tired because he then posed for a few minutes, calling from time to time.
"The lull before the storm"
"Giving it Large!"
"Who's your daddy now?"
Corncrake, Balranald RSPB, North Uist
Basically, North Uist is a 40mile long roundabout (with some off shoots) and it has some of the friendliest people you are ever likely to meet. Bisecting the island from North to South is the Committee Road, probably one of the best places in the UK to see raptors. I linked up briefly with a group of birders to watch male Hen Harriers hunting over the heather alongside several Short-eared Owls. A Merlin shot past us and was soon lost to view.
The rest of the evening was spent listening to the myriad of breeding waders nearby. I counted 16 drumming Snipe just from my tent plus masses of Redshanks, screaming Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Lapwings and Oystercatchers. It seemed to be the same everywhere I went.
Tuesday 20th was my first full day on the islands and I had a pilgrimage to make to Benbecula, more specifically Stinky Bay and the nearby lochs. There were several birders there already but all had drawn blanks. I could see a likely target with my bins so set the scope up and HE SHOOTS!, HE SCORES! female Red-necked Phalarope and not just one but another close by. They were very mobile and as they flew about and more birds were noted it was clear that there were 6 birds present. Outstanding...a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes! I watched them for about an hour and then watched the hundreds of waders in the bay itself.
I arrived at Ardivachar, South Uist at lunch time to see if the reported Iceland Gull was there. It was clearly visible, a nice 2nd year bird. The tideline debris had attracted a huge number of Ravens, over 57 sat on the rocks. Sanderling, Dunlin, orange Knot and Whimbrel were also present. A colour-ringed Sanderling was identified as a female rung last year, well above the Arctic Circle, in Greenland.
Iceland Gull 2w, Ardivachar, South Uist
Whimbrel, Ardivachar, South Uist
The Arctic Skuas were something special to see. They were not terrorising the local terns. No, they were steaming in at zero feet trying to take small waders. I watched one bird take a Dunlin and then drown it before the skua itself had its meal stolen by the local Greater Black-backed Gulls.
At Ardivachar I also noted a Red Admiral and a Painted Lady butterfly. Both unusual on the islands.
ALL HANDS ON DECK!!! A twitch. White-winged Black Tern at Loch Nam Feitham. "Good grief" I thought "I can see that from my tent". I eventually made it back to Balranald and looked out over the loch. Sure enough there it was...and its mate. Now I'm smiling. Red bills & feet, silvery wings, black axilliaries & underwing all the right markers. Not brilliant views but enough to make a lot of people happy.
White-winged Black Terns, Loch Nam Feitham, Balranald, North Uist
Wednesday was not such a good day. Rain and gusts over 50mph did my tent no favours. I decided to start local and was quite surprised to see a male Ruff in full regalia feeding on the road. I visited Loch Sandary and saw the drake Scaup and 7 Black-tailed Godwits, possibly of the Icelandic race. A pair of Whooper Swans also graced the loch.
Scaup, Loch Sandary, North Uist
Black-tailed Godwits, Loch Sandary, North Uist
Whooper Swans, Loch Sandary, North Uist
After a few hours at Lochmaddy to visit the health centre I decided to visit the beach at Baleshare. On the track to the beach I had my first breeding plumed Golden Plover and also the first Buzzard on the islands. It was raining again but I did see a pale phase Pomarine Skua fly north along the beach. Plenty of Arctic Skuas also.
The rest of the day was salvage...literally. As I storm rigged my tent a particularly strong gust just blew it all the way over, snapping all the poles and ripping the tent. Like any good boy scout I had a back up which I tied to a picnic table to stop it blowing away! It never budged until I took it down on the sunday.
Thursday, I decided, was a day for Eagles but not before a quick look around Balranald. I spent 15 minutes watching the Ruff lekking, it looked a rough affair (sorry, no pun intended) from what I could see. I headed to Loch Portain first of all but no eagles were showing. The rain had eased off a bit but the wind was still strong. However, I had Bonxie and Arctic Skua there as well as the Hebridean race of Song Thrush and Wren. Still searching I then went to the end of the Loch Euphort road to view the local mountains of Eaval, Li'a Dea's and Buraval. I didn't have to wait long until a magnificent adult White-tailed Eagle came soaring overhead. It stayed for another 20 minutes then later another birder found a juvenile White-tailed Eagle which stayed around Buraval until I left.. We also had fair views of a pair of Golden Eagle on the slopes of Eaval. Another lovely sight was a Black-throated Diver which kept flying low over us and eventually landed on a small loch not 50 metres from us, stayed a while and then flew off.
Black-throated Diver, Loch Euphort, North Uist
Friday was an exceptional day. At Balranald I reacquainted myself with the White-winged Black Terns and the Ruff. In a nearby field I also came across a Curlew Sandpiper and a Little Stint side by side.
Curlew Sandpiper, Balranald, North Uist
Little Stint, Balranald, North Uist
I spent an hour or two at Griminish on the North coast catching up with more Short-eared Owls and another Golden Eagle, from a well known local site, hunting along the beach and local machair.
Short-eared Owl, Griminish, North Uist
Common Sandpiper, Griminish, North Uist
After Griminish I decided to go back to Loch Euphort. I saw no White-tailed Eagle but there was a single Golden Eagle over Li'a Dea's and the displaying pair over Eaval. They were still distant however. Halfway back along the road the car full of birder, in front, suddenly threw their anchor out. I did curse a bit until they pointed out the Golden Eagle only a few hundred metres away and then another came screaming over the road with a Raven nearly up its butt. The photographs certainly don't do the birds justice. A female Garganey was also seen in a small roadside pool here.
Golden Eagle, Sidinish, North Uist
As well as the birds typically found on the islands, there were some birds we tend to take for granted but can be scarce here. Birds such as Whitethroat, House Martin, Turtle Dove and Marsh Harrier.
Spent a bit of time at the campsite then headed toward the end of the track that passes the campsite. This leads to the famous sea watching site at Aird an Runair and Loch a'Roe. There were the usual two 2w Glaucous Gulls on what remained of last weeks stranded Minke Whale. Arctic and Little Terns were fishing, Corn Bunting and Twite singing and the occasional Arctic Skua passing North. The winds had changed slightly and I thought this may offer the chance for a few sea birds. There were a few groups of skuas passing then a group of 12 Arctic Skuas seemed to have a large, dark, tern in their midst. The three birders there just stood, stunned, as the awesome adult Long-tailed Skua passed over our heads.
Glaucous Gull, Aird an Runair, North Uist
Arctic Skua, Aird an Runair, North Uist
Sunset at Aird an Runair
With no sign of the reported Snowy Owl, Saturday was just a mop up day. I had another look at the Red-necked Phalaropes and visited the Committee Road.
Hen Harrier, just completed a food pass, Committee Rd, North Uist
After that it pack up time and getting ready to ship out the next morning. This part is too long already to include the homeward leg so...look out for Part Deux. The Sequel, on a screen near you soon.