Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Eagles and Otters - a fine day out in North Uist

A warm, breezy day in North Uist with the car thermometer reading up to 23 degrees - not sure how accurate it is but it was certainly warm despite the strong wind from the east. Adrian Lee, Wildlife North West had requested a tour of the island with the hope of connecting with otters and birds of prey. As it happens his top request was Hen Harrier as he'd not seen one before and no sooner had we started than our first Hen Harrier of the day was spotted along the road to Loch Euphort. The female showed well, if briefly as it crossed the road in front of us. Numerous Red Deer were picked up here as at many other spots around the island. We headed back to the main road and whilst scanning the moorland to the north-west we spotted a Golden Eagle being mobbed by a Buzzard. A quick spin up the main road put us more or less under the encounter and gave us great views of the pair as they headed east.

The Committee Road was quiet and our ottter site produced little although very fresh spraints outside a holt revealed that they were in the area and a Red-throated Diver bobbed on the sea. We headed around the north-west corner of the island and as we rounded the corner at Scolpaig came across our second harrier of the day, this time a fine adult male. We watched the bird as it flew low across the loch and towards the valley leading back the way we came so we reversed our route and watched the bird hunt low over the moor. Unfortunately it never came close again although we did spot a juvenile Ruff in flight over Loch Olobhat.
Heading back towards Scolpaig our attention was drawn to a commotion over the hillside where 3 Kestrels were chasing a Merlin that was carrying prey. They soon disappeared over the hill and we carried on to Clettreval. More Kestrels were on view but little else so we popped into Loch Sandary where 3 Whooper Swans remained. Our next stop saw us at Aird an Runair, Balranald. The beach held a small number of waders including a juvenile Little Stint whilst a Corn Bunting sang from a nearby fence.

The afternoon was ticking away so we returned to our otter site but not before having a close encounter with another male Hen Harrier en route. It showed well although again all to brief before it had vanished low over the corn fields. Once back at our otter site we almost immediately found one feeding. In total we watched it for around 50 minutes, in which time it came tantalisingly close as if it was going to come ashore just below our position but alas it never did although it did show well bringing its larger catches out on a rocky island to eat in full view.
Finally we headed back south and called in at Baleshare in search of more harriers. We paused to look at a flock of alarmed Lapwings to discover an immature Golden Eagle perched on a fence post. It appeared enormous and allowed us to approach within150 feet before deciding it was time to move to another post further away; flushing masses of Greylag Geese as it went. We turned back to the car and a Merlin came hurtling past in hot pursuit of a small passerine that managed to take shelter in a small garden nearby. The Merlin perched on the edge of the beach before heading off once again flushing 5 knot as it went; \ fine end to the day.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Mountains, Moths and other Beasties

We (Finlay, Freya, Johanne and I) just got back from a few days on the mainland staying one night at Braefield, on the road to Cannich and two nights in Drumnadrochit. It was another of our short holiday come shopping trips to Inverness; we were beginning to look a bit thread bare and the kids' feet needed measuring again. We also managed a day in Glen Affric as well as notching up a couple of mountains for my pittyful Munro list.

Thursday 9th: The early ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig, Skye was quite productive with 3 sightings of Common Dolphins (at least 10 in the closest group); a Minke Whale just off Skye and around 8 Storm Petrels amongst other seabirds. The rest of the day was taken up by a nice drive through Skye and Glen Shiel before an afternoon shopping in Inverness - what fun! Well actually it turned out to the best shopping trip I've ever had as Tizos in the centre of town was having a closing down sale which was unfortunate for the staff but fantastic for us with everything reduced by 50%.

Friday 10th: First stop was emptying my moth trap (a small Heath trap) that I set in a area of birch and coniferous plantation near to Braefield. The day had been nice and hot but the early morning was cool with low-lying mist and temperatures down to 5 degrees but there was still plenty in the trap including numerous Mottled Beauties, Barred Red and a single Welsh Wave amongst others.

Barred Red

Welsh Wave

Returning to the hostel were we knocked together a breakfast, re-packed the car and rounded up the kids before spending the rest of the day in Glen Affric. Johanne kindly volunteered to look after sprogs no. 1 and 2 whilst I headed to the hills. It was hot, I was hung-over and I soon had a sweat on. The aim was to climb two peaks, Toll Creagach followed by Tom a'Chonich in roughly a circular route. What I hadn't done is consulted the book properly and made my own route up the first peak, Toll Creagach which although not much more than a large, rounded lump was actually very interesting wildlife wise. The stoney southerly slopes had lots of berry plants including Cloud Berry and Cow Berry whilst on the upper reaches I came across a few diminutuve examples of Common Cow-wheat growing on very exposed ground just to the south of the summit. The summit itself afforded superb views in the t-shirt weather and as I headed over to the next mountain I flushed two adult Dotterel from the western slope close to the top.

Common Cow-wheat

Toll Creagach
The haul up to the next peak was even more enjoyable, clambering up the rocky ridge. The views from the summit of Tom a'Chonich were superb and the fine ridge running away towards Carn Eighe very tempting although perhaps another 3 hours in the mountains and 3 hours late for my lift might not have been appreciated so I headed down the south-east ridge and had great views of a family party of Ptarmigan.

Mam Sodhail from Tom a'Chonich


The valley bottom was alive with insects with hordes of Scotch Argus butterflies as well as Dark Green Fritillaries and Large Heath. Dragonflies hawked along the path and both Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Common Hawker posed for photos on the way back to our meeting point.
Tom a'Chonich

Common Hawker (female)

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
As I got back to the road a Tree Pipit flew up from the Bracken into the nearby trees and I passed away the next few minutes awaiting Johanne's return by enjoying the spectacle of two guys trying to extricate their landrover from where they'd got it stuck close to the loch edge.
Finally a quick jaunt to a small loch near Dog Falls produced a couple of cracking Emerald Damselflies and Black Darters.

Black Darter

Emerald Damselfly
Saturday 11th: Another day enjoying the pleasures of Inverness with more clothes shopping and a spell in the local park and on the minature railway. We rounded off the day with a trip around the Nessy Exhibition in Drumnadrochit which I was not looking forward to but turned out to be excellent and even kept the kids quiet for a few minutes.

Sunday 12th: The moth trap (set in the woodland by Loch Ness at Drumnadrochit) had a few goodies in it this morning - well at least a couple of beasties that I'd not seen before including Plain Clay and Square-spotted Clay amongst others.

Riband Wave

Small Rivulet

Plain Clay

Twin-spot Carpet

Square-spotted Clay

The car was re-packed, well more like everything was thrown in and breakfast consumed so we could get to Glen Shiel in plenty of time for my final ascent along Am Bathach to Ciste Dhubh. It was a bit cloudier today which was great as hiking up the steep ridge in the baking heat wouldn't have been much fun. Still the cloud was high enough to allow some excellent views and I was quietly patting myself on the back for reaching the summit of Ciste Dhubh in just over 2 hours when a couple of young(ish) girls turned up; one of which had just done the Cuillin Ridge over two days and only had 6 Munros left to complete the set. Ah well, I only have another 226 to go!

Ciste Dhubh

Looking down from summit of Ciste Dhubh (one of them in red has only 6 Munros to do)

Looking west from Ciste Dhubh
The ferry home, Uig - Lochmaddy produced another (possibly the same) Minke Whale just off Skye and a couple of Storm Petrels rounding off a very nice few days and some great bargains in the outdoor shop.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Black-winged Pratincole in Outer Hebrides

On the 2nd August 2012, Tony Marr found a Black-winged Pratincole as it dropped onto the machair adjacent to Loch Stiapabhat, just 1.5 miles south of the Butt of Lewis. This is only the 4th record for Scotland following birds on Fair Isle in 1927; Aberdeenshire, 1976 and Angus 1996.

Despite its extreme rarity and obvious appeal very few birders have made much attempt to see this superb and unsual wader. This probably reflects the difficulties and cost of getting to the site but also perhaps reflects just how rare a bird has to be before many people make the effort to twitch the off-shore islands.

Lucky for me I was already booked on the late ferry between Berneray and Harris on 3rd August as I had an early start the following morning at Siadar to survey birds for the renewable energy project here. An anxious wait followed to see if the bird was present that morning with the initial news at 9am being negative that there was no sign of the wee cracker despite searching since 6 am. I needn't have worried as around 10:30 am Tony found the bird once again hawking over Loch Stiapabhat and kindly kept an eye on it throughout the day. On my arrival just after 8 pm Tony was also there to meet me (what a good man he is) and we eventually located the bird in fading light as it flew around with a flock of Lapwings in fields adjacent to Loch Stiapabhat. We even managed to watch the bird running around in the grass in a courser-like fashion before the fact that passing vehicles had their main lights on persuaded us it was time to leave.
I revisited Loch Stiapabhat on the 4th where the throng of admirers (Tony and Andrew Stevenson) were already watching it as it hawked low over the loch for around 45 minutes. I managed to obtain a few images (above) that morning before having to leave to continue the survey work.

At the time of writing the bird is still present and up to 12 people have been to see it!

If you're keen on finding your own rarities the Butt of Lewis  / Loch Stiapabhat area is an obvious choice, lying at the northern tip of the Outer Hebrides; although it has been woefully neglected due to its isolation. It has gone through long periods with sparse and irregular coverage; that is until Tony moved in at Port of Ness a few years ago. Since he became a regular in the area he has found: Killdeer, Blue-winged Teal, Gyr Falcon (more than once), Baird's Sandpiper, Red-rumped Swallow, Alpine Swift and numerous scarce waders such as American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpiper and Pecs. Add to that the success of past visitors with Europe's first Purple Martin; Least Sandpiper wandering around the car park at the Butt; Scotland's highest count of Great Shearwaters; plus the regular early spring gathering of White-billed Divers off Port of Ness / Skigersta you can begin to see what potential this site has. It's just a shame it's at the a**e end of anywhere, unless you like crowd free birding!