On the evening of the 17th May, I met up with Matt Phelps at his home in Surrey, before driving up to stay the night near Carlisle.
It was the beginning of a week-long trip to the Outer Hebrides and back, with my own personal targets being Corncrake and the Long-tailed Skua passage. After hearing that North Uist had already had hundreds of Long-tails past the week before, we wondered whether we'd just be too late. I'd also heard the stories of how incredibly elusive the Corncrakes can be once the vegetation has grown up.
I really was expecting to require all of the 5 days to try and catch up with them.
We took a relaxed attitude to getting going the next morning, and as a result, lost the chance to go for the Aberdeen Harlequin Duck - it ended up leaving the day before we got our last chance to make the twitch, on our journey home!
On the way through Scotland, we stopped off briefly on the shore of Loch Lomond, seeing a pair of Goosander. I later also stopped at a loch in the middle of nowhere, cause I thought it looked good for Divers. Indeed, there were 2 summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver!
We were hoping to put a bit of time in on Skye trying to see White-tailed Eagle, en route to the ferry terminal at Uig, but after a rather slow drive, we ran rather low on time even for that. We did have a quick look at a couple of stops at the beautiful Broadford Bay, but other than a few waders, a flock of Twite, a distant Great Northern Diver, and a singing Wheatear, there was little dynamic about. It was nice however, to hear a Dunlin doing its whirring 'song' for the first time.
I'd had a bit of luck at Scottish ferry terminals in the past, so I thought it worth having a good scan from Uig. Indeed, there were a couple of Black Guillemot in the harbour, along with a nice flock of Eider. Then, a bit of sccanning of distant mountain-tops revealed a hoped for gigantic sillouette amongst the many Buzzard and Raven - a Golden Eagle! It came a bit closer, then disappeared behind a hill. Already 3 lifers for Matt!
Then, Matt went into the shop to stock up on a few things. It was at this point, I then found 2 Golden Eagle, more in the distance, and one of them was being hounded by a small raptor, quite possibly a Merlin! They also ended up going behind the same closer hill. Great stuff!
Onto the ferry we went, and it was with great anticipation, as I'd heard what sort of things had been seen from it recently. Could we get any of those special things?
Well, it wasn't long before I spotted the breach of a setacean in the choppy water, off towards the land. Dolphin? It was massive though, with a small dorsal fin - a Minke Whale! Sadly, Matt couldn't get on it as we ploughed on past.
Onwards, out in to the 'Little Minch' (the sea between mainland and the Hebs) proper, and we soon bumped into lots of Puffin, and a close pod of Harbour Porpoise, along with loads of Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Fulmar, and Gannet.
Then, just past the halfway point, I spotted a small group of smallish, dark birds moving menacingly away from us. I felt they had to be Skuas, but couldn't be sure. Then, a flock of 10 or so more, closer, and now I was sure they were Skuas! But what species? Finally, looking north I found a further flock of 10 coming south towards us. They moved past the front of the ship, and round towards us. They then suddenly began to climb in a tight wheeling flock - they were Long-tailed Skua! As they rose up, a Great Skua flew the other way underneath them - they were clearly climbing in order to avoid it! A magnificent sight, and I feel confident the proceeding 15-20 birds were also Long-tails.
As we approached the land, the water calmed, and we were able to spot a couple of Manx Shearwater, a pair of Arctic Skua, and best of all, a single feeding Storm Petrel - such a distinctive flight!
We made landfall at Lochmaddy, and we set foot on the magic isle of North Uist.
We were camping the first night, so I wanted to check out a promising set-up spot near the pine plantation of Ben Langass, so we headed there first.
There was a nice moorland lochan in view, and a quick scan of it revealed a pair of stunning Red-throated Diver. Another pair then arrived, and these birds went on to be one of the stars of our visit to this spot, as they called and displayed, right into the night.
It was a beautiful calm evening, and we decided there was plenty here for us to stick around till it was time to sleep. In fact, this turned out to be one of our only feelings of windless-ness all week!
I was scanning for raptors constantly, and eventually I came across a distant white 'blob' sitting on the ground, which stood out to me as out of place. It was unclear it was even an animal.
After an age of squinting at it through the scope, it eventually moved a bit - it was something! Then it took flight - a male Hen Harrier!
We then settled down, Matt in a tent, me in the car, for a short, but chilly night.
What a first day, and we'd barely scratched the surface of what North Uist has to offer, too!