Sunday, 5 May 2013

The North Wind Shall Blow

At last we seem to be out the other side of winter and heading for some warmer weather in the Outer Hebrides. The last week of April and first day or two of May were very cold for the time of year. The 2nd May was notable for a good fall of snow in Lewis and Harris in the evening creating a lovely wintry scene on 3rd May with snow covered hills. This inclement, cold weather held up masses of northbound migrants and our guided tour of Lewis from 27th April - 3rd May witnessed some excellent numbers of waders and wildfowl as well as producing some classy surprises.

The tour started well with probably the bird of the trip (well at least for me) with the discovery of an adult Rough-legged Buzzard hovering at the side of the Pentland Road where the Breascleit and Carloway roads meet. Most Rough-legged Buzzards that occur in the UK are along the east coast or in the northern isles. Most are juveniles with adults being rare; so the occurence of one hovering over the desolate Lewis moors was really something special.

adult Rough-legged Buzzard

The following day we encountered good numbers of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plover and Pink-footed Geese as well as a huge flock of around 600 Icelandic Redwing on the outskirts of Stornoway. The gale force westerly wind and wintry showers certainly made birding difficult and the forecast wasn't showing much in the way of improvement the following day. In fact on the 29th April we headed for the Butt of Lewis in north-west 8, gusting to severe gale 9. The tide was a big one and the swell wrapping around the top of Lewis was incredible making searching for divers rather difficult. Despite the weather and likely due to it we had a very interesting day.

The machair at Fivepenny and Eoropie was covered in summer plumage Golden Plovers with over a 1,000 present whilst a flooded pool close to the road held 65 stunning Black-tailed Godwits. It was whilst watching these that a flock of Redshanks dropped out of the sky to join the godwits. Shortly after we spotted the squat figure of a snipe-like wader. Further investigations revealed the bird to be a Long-billed Dowitcher moulting into summer plumage. This American wader is one of the more regular trans-Atlantic vagrants to turn up in the UK although spring records are much rarer than autumn ones. At least 2 Long-billed Dowitchers have been wintering in the UK this year so there's a fair chance that this bird was one that had successfully wintered on this side of the pond and then headed north as it would have done in its native America.

Long-billed Dowitcher with 2 Redshanks (Tony Marr)

Following all the excitement around the arrival of the dowitcher we moved up to the Butt where we found good numbers of migrant Meadow Pipits in amongst which was a fine, summer plumage, male Lapland Bunting.

Next stop was Loch Stiapabhat which held a decent variety of wildfowl and remarkably our second North American bird of the day, a drake Green-winged Teal that was intruigingly accompanied by a female (Green-winged?). Differentiating female Teal and Green-winged Teal is not for the faint hearted and we left with the pair of ducks slinking off into the emergent vegetation.

Golden Plover at Eoropie
Great Northern Diver in Sound of Taransay
Butt of Lewis
Spring had indeed sprung with masses of migrants trying to battle north but who knows what would have been in Lewis to greet us if the weather hadn't stopped many of these northbound migrants. Thanks goodness the weather isn't wonderful all the time! For more information on tours and recent sightings please visit the website Western Isles Wildlife

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