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!

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