Scotland Trip 2015 part 5. 22/23 May. Handa Island and Journey Home

Bonxie, Handa
No rushing around today as I'm off to Handa Island. The first "ferry" doesn't leave Tarbet until 10am and it's only a few miles away though it can take a while when driving at "bird watching speed".
Tarbet is a passerines oasis. The Shorehouse Restaurant has one or two feeders and they are very busy. In the space of a few minutes we saw Rock Dove, Robin, and surely some of the UK's most northerly Great Tits, Blue TitsBullfinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. Rock Pipits were on the shore by the slipway while Common Sandpipers and a Wood Sandpiper were on Loch Dubh. In the Sound of Handa there were Arctic Tern, Red-throated Diver, Black Guillemot and Shag visible.
Bullfinch & Goldfinch, The Shorehouse, Tarbet
The Handa ferry with Handa behind
Everyone gets a life jacket on the ferry and soon you are speeding across the Sound to one of the two landing beaches. There the boat is met by volunteers from the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The head boy then gives an orientation briefing on the island and no go areas. The rest of the time is yours. Last ferry at 17:30.
We did the 6km circular walk around the whole island. Everywhere there were Arctic and Great Skuas, often flying very close and always appearing menacing. Waders on the moorland were represented by Oystercatcher, Dunlin and Snipe. Red Grouse were also present. Red-throated Divers were continually flying over our heads.
After yesterdays shocking weather I wasn't expecting much today, especially as there were some showers early on. However, the Gods of Handa looked down upon us and we had blue skies nearly all day and got sunburnt despite the wind.

Bonxie, Handa
Arctic Skua, Handa
Arctic Skuas
Tough Guy! A pair of Bonxies flew too close to an Arctic Skua nest. One of the Arctic Skuas got in the air and gave chase. It knocked the first Bonxie to the ground and then the second. The Bonxies were not seen to approach the nest again.
As we walked / hobbled around the island we were in awe of the size of the cliffs and the numbers of seabirds. Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmar. There were also one or two Manx Shearwaters off the island.
Handa Stack

Puffin nesting area

Guillemots. A bridled form can be seen near bottom right. Handa
Razorbills, Handa
The cliffs on the seaward side of the island are very high and seem to rise straight out of the North Atlantic. As we walked along the top we were getting soaked yet there were no clouds visible. The culprit was a phenomenon that I had never seen before. Water from the water logged island drains over the cliffs but the wind was so strong that the water was pushed back up and over the cliff top. It was RAINING UPWARDS! weird!
A few Twite were seen here along with Fulmars riding the same air currents that got us wet.
Handa seaward side. We were soaked at the top. The white lines are hundreds of nesting birds.

Fulmar hanging in the air, Handa

Twite, Handa
We made our way slowly back to the ferry point, dodging Skuas along the way. Passerines were in short supply. Meadow Pipits were the commonest followed by Wheatear. A particularly large Wheatear stood out as a "Greenland" Wheatear. A single Common Whitethroat was singing. Flowering plants included a lot of Spotted Heath Orchid.
Greenland Wheatear, Handa

Spotted Heath Orchid
Nearly time to go now so we lounged by the Warden Hut and waited for the last ferry. Red-throated Divers, Skuas and Eider all in evidence. Then back on the ferry, fight with a life jacket and away. What an amazing place. I'll be back.
Red-throated Diver, Handa

Handa ferry in action

Bye-bye Handa
The day and my holiday is finally coming to a close. I scanned the lochs on the way back to Scourie. A particularly confiding Red-throated Diver was on Loch Gobhloch and a very wary Black-throated Diver on Loch Druim na Coille along with a Dipper.
Red Throated Diver, Loch Gobhloch, Tarbet

 The only other bird of note that evening was a Garden Warbler on the beach by Scourie Causeway. It was climbing over and going under rocks looking for insects. Never even seen one on the ground before.

Saturday 23rd May- Packed up and gone by 9am and heading back to Newcastle via the scenic route. I chased Bert, the Robin, out of the car several times while I was packing.

From Scourie I headed north to Durness photographing the awesome ridge of Arkle along the way. It was very sunny and I scanned the mountains for signs of Golden Eagle. I stopped in a layby near Gualin House and looked across at the peaks of Cranstackie and Beinn Spionniadh to the east. A displaying Golden Plover put on a good show then a large bird put in an appearance over Cranstackie. It was very high and kept high as it glided west almost over head. A 2cy Golden Eagle! I tried very hard to get some decent photos but it was just too high so they are rubbish.

Golden Eagle, 2nd/3rd calendar year, Cranstackie
At Durness I had a quick look over Balnakiel Bay but there were no divers only the 5 Long-tailed Duck.  I then followed the A838 east and turned off at Hope and followed the unclassified road south past Ben Hope and Loch Hope along Strathmore to Altnaharra. There were some good birds along this road then places where there was nothing. Birds included Raven, Merlin, Whinchat, Fieldfare, Spotted Flycatcher and Golden Plover.
Loch Hope

Spotted Flycatcher, Strathmore

Territorial Dunlin, Mudale

Golden Plover, Mudale
Headed off the Newcastle now with only a few stops for decent birds. Likewise the next stage from Newcastle to King's Lynn. Birds on these stages include Peregrine, Tawny Owl, Common Scoter, Black Grouse, Black-necked Grebe and Garganey.
I'm sure there will be another trip next year. Until then back to local birding. LITTLE BITTERN here I come!