The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Friday, 5 June 2015

Outer Hebrides - Day 6 + 7

We awoke on our last morning on North Uist to the still astonishing sound of Corncrake, before heading for the early Ferry.
The ferry terminal at Lochmaddy seemed an equally promising-looking area for keeping an eye on while we waited to depart, as the other side.  And so it proved, with some movement on some nearby rocks turning out to be an Otter!  Two of the my three UK Otter sightings have now come at Ferry terminals!
The journey across the Little Minch was not quite as eventful as last time, with just the usual seabirds (including Puffin) though there were a pair of Long-tailed Skua powering through, as well as two distant Pomarine Skua.  A good farewell! 
Once back on the mainland, we headed straight south, with just a brief stop for lunch at Ballachulish on the way.
We planned to head to County Durham, as we we'd noticed of a bit of hot gen about a site for both Grouse in the vicinity of the North Pennines AONB.
We eventually reached this picturesque area of moorland and pasture late afternoon.
As we drove along, Matt suddenly mentioned of an 'interesting' looking shape sitting on a post.  I reversed back, only to discover a male Ring Ouzel foraging!  Totally unexpected.
We had trouble locating the Grouse site, with seemingly little moorland in the area, which is where I expected both species to be.  We instead had a walk round the isolated hamlet of Langdon Beck.  This proved a gem of a spot, with Spotted Flycatcher, a Sand Martin colony, loads of breeding waders (including very numerous 'drumming' Snipe), and best of all, a confiding juvenile Dipper found on the beck itself.
This spot was also good for flowers, with Mountain Pansy...

...and Early Purple Orchid, around.

It was then by a bit of a fluke that I spotted some dark spots on a distant hillside - Black Grouse!
We got closer, and got great views of 6 males and a female from the car.  Also a Hare in the same field.
We wanted to look for a place to camp for the night, so decided to explore a quiet minor road nearby.  We stopped to scan over a valley, and I was astonished to come across a displaying male Black Grouse, no 2, 3, 4, actually, an entire lek of 20 males!!!  What luck!  What a spot to have our dinner, to the wonderful sounds of the lek.  While we watched, a Short-eared Owl with prey suddenly shot behind the car!  What a good spot this was.
After that triumph, we headed off towards Barnard Castle, in search for a camping spot.  We eventually decided on a secluded wooded spot by the attraction of Gibson's Cave.
This proved to be another quality area, with more Spotted Flycatcher, and into the night, calling Tawny Owl and roding Woodcock.
We awoke the next morning to a perfect dawn chorus of Spotted Flycatcher, and new trip species of Treecreeper, Garden Warbler, Nuthatch, and Redstart.  I disturbed a Dipper from the stream.

We soon moved off, heading for a stop-off at RSPB Blacktoft Sands, E. Yorks, in hope of the breeding pair of Montagu's Harrier.  The nest-area was apparently viewable from the hides. Easy, surely?

Once there, we ticked off various trip ticks including the ever present Tree Sparrow and Marsh Harrier... well as the likes of Peregrine and Avocet. We were there for some 4 hours, but not a peep from the Monties!  Oh well, we didn't let that spoil the trip!

We got back to Surrey for early evening.  What an adventure!

I've been on trips with more species, I've been on trips with rarer species, I've been on trips with more lifers (I only got one), but never have I enjoyed a trip more!  I think this was down to two things.  The remarkably accessible and easily seen birds on the Uists, which pay little attention to cars being the first, and the great company of Matt being the second! 

Full trip list (in brackets were not seen on the Hebs):

Mute Swan - Many
Whooper Swan - At least 3 individuals, at 3 sites, North Uist.
Greylag Goose - Many
(Canada Goose) - Ballachulish
Shelduck - Many
Wigeon - A couple of sites, North Uist and Benbecula.
(Gadwall) - Blacktoft
Teal - A couple of sites, North Uist and Benbecula.
Mallard - Many
Shoveler - Several
(Pochard) - Blacktoft
Tufted Duck - Many
Scaup - Loch Sandary
Red-breasted Merganser - Many
(Goosander) - Loch Lomond
(Black Grouse) - North Pennines
Red Grouse - Ben Langass
Pheasant - Lochmaddy
Red-throated Diver - Ben Langass, Aird an Runair, and Loch Eynort (S Uist)
Black-throated Diver - Aird an Runair
Great Northern Diver - Many
Fulmar - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Manx Shearwater Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Storm Petrel - Little Minch
Gannet - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Cormorant - Several
Shag - Many
(Little Egret) - Blacktoft
Grey Heron - Many
Little Grebe - A couple of sites, North Uist and Benbecula
Great Crested Grebe - Ben Langass
(Red Kite) - M40
(Marsh Harrier) - Blacktoft
Hen Harrier - Knockintorran, Ben Langass, Loch Portain, and Committee Road.
Sparrowhawk - Ben Langass
Buzzard - Several
Golden Eagle - Uig, Ben Riabhach, and Loch Eynort (S Uist)
Kestrel - Several
(Peregrine) - Blacktoft
Corncrake - Balranald, Knockintorran, Ardivachar Point (S Uist), Howmore (S Uist) Borgh (Benbecula)
Moorhen - Aird an Runair and one other.
(Coot) - Blacktoft
(Avocet) - Blacktoft
Oystercatcher - Many
Golden Plover - Aird and Runair and Malacleit
Lapwing - Many
Ringed Plover - Many
Whimbrel - Aird an Runair and Loch Euphort
Curlew - Ben Langass and Loch Euphort
(Black-tailed Godwit) - Blacktoft
Bar-tailed Godwit - Aird an Runair
Turnstone - Many
Sanderling - Aird an Runair and Ardivachar Point (S Uist)
Dunlin - Many
Purple Sandpiper - Aird an Runair
Red-necked Phalarope - Benbecula
Common Sandpiper - Many
Greenshank - Ben Langass and Loch Euphort
Redshank - Many
Snipe - Many
Pomarine Skua Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Arctic Skua - Several
Long-tailed Skua - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Great Skua  Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Puffin - Little Minch
Black Guillemot - Several
Razorbill - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Guillemot - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Little Tern - Grenitote
Common Tern - Lochmaddy and Loch Euphort
Arctic Tern - Many
Kittiwake - Little Minch and Aird an Runair
Black-headed Gull - Many
Common Gull - Many
Lesser Black-backed Gull - Grenitote
Herring Gull - Many
Iceland Gull - Aird an Runair and Grenitote
Great Black-backed Gull - Several
Rock Dove  - Several
(Stock Dove) - North Pennines
Woodpigeon - Malacleit
Collared Dove  - Several
Cuckoo - Many
(Tawny Owl) - Gibson's Cave
Short-eared Owl - Committee Road, Knockintorran, and Ben Langass.
(Swift) - Blacktoft
(Great Spotted Woodpecker) - Somewhere in Scotland...
(Magpie) - Blacktoft
(Jay) - Somewhere in Scotland...
(Jackdaw) - Blacktoft
(Rook) - Somewhere on Skye...
(Carrion Crow) - Somewhere in Scotland...
Hooded Crow - Many
Raven - Many
Goldcrest - Ben Langass and Loch Eynort (S Uist)
(Blue Tit) - Somewhere in Scotland...
(Great Tit) - Blacktoft
Skylark - Many
Sand Martin - Aird an Runair, Loch Sandary, and Loch Hosta.
Swallow - Many
(House Martin) - Blacktoft
(Cetti's Warbler) - Blacktoft
(Long-tailed Tit) - Blacktoft
(Chiffchaff) - Somewhere in Scotland...
Willow Warbler - Several
(Blackcap) - Fort William
(Garden Warbler) - Gibson's Cave
Whitethroat - Loch Eynort (S Uist)
Sedge Warbler - Several
(Reed Warbler) - Blacktoft
(Nuthatch) - Gibson's Cave
(Treecreeper) - Gibson's Cave
Wren - Many
Starling - Many
(Dipper) - Langdon Beck and Gibson's Cave
(Ring Ouzel) - Harwood
Blackbird - Many
Song Thrush - Several (Hebs race)
(Mistle Thrush) - Langdon Beck
Spotted Flycatcher - Loch Eynort (S Uist)
Robin - Many
(Redstart) - Gibson's Cave
Stonechat - Several
Wheatear - Many
Dunnock - Several
House Sparrow - Several
(Tree Sparrow) - Blacktoft
(Yellow Wagtail) - Blacktoft
(Grey Wagtail) - Langdon Beck and Gibson's Cave
Pied Wagtail - Many
(Tree Pipit) - Loch Lomond
Meadow Pipit - Many
Rock Pipit - Loch Euphort
Chaffinch - Several
Greenfinch - Benbecula
Goldfinch - Loch Eynort (S Uist)
Linnet - Benbecula
Twite - Aird an Runair and Loch Euphort
Redpoll - Loch Eynort (S Uist)
(Bullfinch) - Somewhere in Scotland...
(Yellowhammer) - Somewhere in Scotland...
Reed Bunting - Loch Sandary
Corn Bunting - Aird an Runair

Total: 102 (146)

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Outer Hebrides - Day 5

A night of seemingly constant 'Crex-ing', but not complaining!

We initially weren't going to attempt to make it down as far as South Uist, given the distance involved (not actually that far, but on slow roads), and the time required to get our targets on North Uist.

Well, given that we'd pretty much cleaned up there, we thought we may as well give it a go, particularly given the information we'd received of a site which was apparently virtually guaranteed for Otter, and does occasionally have White-tailed Eagle.  Today was the day we made the journey.

First though, we headed back to Aird an Runair, for the last time.  A couple of flocks of Pomarine Skua were a fitting last hurrah, the Iceland Gull was still around, and a single Bar-tailed Godwit was new for the trip.  Soon though, we were eager to get off to South Uist.

A good 45 mins drive later, we'd travelled across Benbecula and 2 thirds the way down South Uist, to the scenic splendour of Loch Eynort. 

We started to walk through a bit of deciduous woodland, which held a Spotted Flycatcher, amongst a load of other scarcely-seen passerines for this trip.  It was a breezy day, so it was a great relief to walk down onto the shoreline, in a little sheltered bay, free of any wind.

A Cuckoo showed well, a young Grey Heron was calling from its nest, the only Redpolls of the trip flew over, and two pairs of Red-throated Diver interacted with each other.  It was at this point I found a distant Golden Eagle flying along a distant ridge.

Then, suddenly, a huge dark shape reared over us, being shadowed by another.  One was a Great Black-backed Gull, but the other was an adult White-tailed Eagle!  It circled, and drifted around a bit, before disappearing over a distant mountain-top, being persued by the dwarfed GBB.  Awesome!  What a great little spot!

We carried on reluctantly along the loch shore.  We were told by a couple of an Otter which had just been seen, quite possibly in view whilst we were watching other things! It had apparently swum behind a point, into a small bay, so we headed there.

Once there, we found precisely nothing bar a few ever-present Grey Seal. A mis-ID?  Here, I did see a brief Whitethroat, the only one of the trip.

We carried on along the moorland path, seeing another distant Golden Eagle on the way, being mobbed by a small raptor, almost certainly a Merlin.

We found ourselves in a small dry-stone wall enclosure, and watched from there.  After a fair amount of scanning, I eventually spotted a promising looking head out in the middle of a bay - an Otter! Finally! We watched it chomping on various morsels, though it soon disappeared whilst we were distracted by other things - plenty to do that here!

On the walk back, we found the interesting carnivorous Butterwort on one of the many wet flushes, and saw another 2 Golden Eagle, seemingly defending a nest-site.  What a place this is!

Once back at the car park, we talked to a birder who told us about a Glaucous Gull nearby, so off we went.

We had great trouble following his directions, but eventually found the spot near Howbeg.  Plenty of Gulls, but nothing notable at all.  We moved on to try and find a Rose-coloured Starling that had been around for a few days.

Ardivachar Point was the site, and what an interesting one it was.  It was nice to walk round, though it was totally Rosy-less!  It wasn't seen again.  Mind you, we shouldn't complain given the events of earlier in the day.

We drove all the way back to base, before going off for an evening meal at Lochmaddy, on our last night on these magical islands.

You can't do anything here without seeing amazing things, and even driving back from Lochmaddy we saw what proved to be our last Hen Harrier of the trip, and had an amazing encounter with 2 Short-eared Owl near Knockintorran, doing their amazing 'wing-clapping' aggression display over our heads!  A fitting end.


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Outer Hebrides - Day 4

The forecast for today was pretty bad, so we took the chance to have a bit of a lie-in to catch up on sleep.  Once out, our mission for the day was to find Otters.

Before leaving the B&B though, we marvelled in the fact that Corncrake were visible from our window, as were the Whooper Swan and Scaup on Loch Sandary.

Our B&B owner furnished us with two hot tips of spots for Otters, so we headed for the first one of the camera-obscurer near Lochmaddy.  That wasn't until we got our customary male Hen Harrier encounter from the car, near Ben Langass.

The weather wasn't quite as bad as feared, though that didn't help us at Lochmaddy, with little of note to see, and no Otters.

We moved on to our next chance, along the shores of Loch Langass.  It was nice to encounter a bit of woodland on the way, but a rather wet and muddy tramp across the moor later, still nothing of great note!  Today wasn't quite living up to previous days, so far!

I wanted to explore further north up the island, so took the road to the isolated Loch Portain.

It was a good thing we were joined at our lunch spot by a quartering ringtail Hen Harrier (probably a 1st-summer male), cause otherwise this was equally uneventful to earlier excursions!

For no particular reason, we headed back to the picnic spot near Grenitote, where the Iceland Gull was still present, showing much closer than before.  The most exciting moment was watching an Arctic Skua failing to chase down a Little Tern!

Onto Malacleit, where we found our second Golden Plover of the trip, feeding in a field.

We then happened to bump into Heatherlea leader Dave Pullan, who directed us to a spot at Loch Euphort, where he and his group had just seen an Otter!  Surely now!

We soon found the spot, but a wander round revealed nothing Lutra-shaped whatsoever!  We did have 2 Arctic Skua fly over, and found a fascinating Greylag Goose skeleton, but not much consolation to be honest!

We thought we may as well spend the rest of the evening back at old faithful, Aird an Runair (where Otters had been seen recently).  A Curlew skull was an interesting find here, and we did happen to see two distant Long-tailed Skua, but otherwise, nothing new.

Could a day in which we saw Long-tailed Skua and Corncrake really be described as disappointing?!  Well, sort of.

Outer Hebrides - Day 3

Today was the day we had set-aside to visit Benbecula, but we couldn't resist popping to Aird an Runair first thing, as the forecast westerly winds seemed promising for Skuas.

Witin minutes we were seeing flocks of Pomarine Skua totalling some 51 in a couple of hours.  We finally saw some Long-tailed Skua from here too, or be it 2 rather distant birds.  Other highlights on this watch were a fly-past Golden Plover, the Iceland Gull still present, and our first Black-throated Diver on the islands, associating with a Great Northern Diver

On our way back to the B&B to check-out, we came across an amazing little spot near Balranald, with FIVE Corncrake - 3 in view at once, and 2 others calling nearby.  Remarkable!  So much for our pessimism about seeing the species!

So, off we went to Benbecula, taking in yet another roadside male Hen Harrier near Knockintorran, and the wonderful scenery of Grimsay and the causeway on the route.  We headed straight to a site where we'd been tipped off about apparent presence of Phalaropes.

It took a little while to locate them, but eventually we found 3 stunning Red-necked Phalarope, two males and a female.  At one point they were seen to mate!

Also at this spot we found our only flock of Linnet of the trip. On our way to a lunching site mid-island, we witnessed a Buzzard feeding on something on the ground - judging by the cloud of Lapwing mobbing it, we suspected the prey to be a Lapwing chick.

After lunch by the scenic Loch Olabaht, we headed to the main town of Balivanich to try and find a site by a Co-op, someone had mentioned was good for Otters.  We spent some time here in a nice sheltered spot watching over a bay, and got great views of summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver amongst other things.

We eventually discovered that the Co-op was in the far south of the island at Creagorry, so went back off down there! 

We took a little walk around by the rocky channel, but the tide was fully out - not the best for Otter-finding.  The main highlights here were loads of Eider (some calling - my first experience of this) and a Common Heath moth (one of very few lepidopterans seen on the trip, the only other identifiable one being Green-veined White).

Back north we went onto North Uist, to try and check-in to our new B&B at Knockintorran.  This turned out to be on the shores of Loch Sandary, which not only still held a Whooper Swan, but also a long-staying male Scaup.

After dropping our stuff at the wonderful Ben View B&B, we decided it worth having an evening seawatching session at Runair, after our promising morning stint.

Almost as soon as we pitched up at the car park, a flock of 4 Long-tailed Skua past close to the rocks, so we rushed down there in anticipation.  The Skuas were streaming past!!!  The Pomarine Skua were particularly spectacular, with flocks of 26, 23 and 22, being the largest, many passing over the rocks, and one flock of 6, over our heads!  We were awe-struck, and stuck to the spot till  dusk.  Our final day total of Poms was 202. 

Long-tails were less numerous, and generally more distant, but it was still extraordinary to see tight flocks of these stunning birds shearing past, the biggest being 19, which powered up to a positively stratospheric height!  We finished on 59 for the day.

A particularly ridiculous moment came when a tight flock of 22 Skua turned out to be 11 Poms and 11 Long-tails! You couldn't write this stuff.

After yesterday, I could not believe today could match it, but it was better! What a place.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Outer Hebrides - Day 2

We awoke to the sound of wailing Red-throated Diver (or in Matt's case, Red Grouse!), and we immediately made off for the most important site of the week, Aird an Runair on the west coast.
On the way, we had an incredible encounter with the first of many Short-eared Owl, which at one point landed on a post right next to the car!
Then, on the entrance road to the Balranald RSPB reserve, we got our first experience with calling Corncrake.  Remarkably, the bird almost immediately emerged from a stand of Iris, and continued calling.

Target number two already achieved!
On the sandy track to the site, a Corn Bunting sung, and there were lots of waders and pure Rock Dove on the machair (the sandy, flower-rich grassland, characteristic of this area).
We finally got to Runair after that load of distractions, and the weather was fairly kind at this point.


On the short walk to the rocky watchpoint, a summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver was in the bay, and I was surprised to find a load of Purple Sandpiper feeding with the massed small waders (mainly Dunlin, Turnstone, Sanderling, and Ringed Plover) on the sandy beach amongst the fly-invested seaweed.

We watched for a few hours, and it was great to see a few flocks of Pomarine Skua numbering 20 or so, including 3 which blogged around the place, including heading right over us a couple of times!  No Long-tails though.

As we walked back to the car, we flushed a 1st-summer Iceland Gull from a puddle.  We knew there was one about, but it was still great to see.

We moved on north to explore the island a bit more.  We heard more Corncrake, and saw a surprise Whooper Swan.  On the way towards Sollas, we happened to just come across an organised Golden Eagle nest-watch near Balelone.  The female Golden Eagle was seen on the nest, and then the male made a brief flight appearance, before landing on a distant hill-top (they really are more like hills rather than mountains on this island, yet still support 3 pairs of Golden Eagle!).

We moved to the machair and sand-flats near the village of Grenitote for lunch.  Another Iceland Gull was immediately in view following a plough, and a Little Tern was sitting on the sand - I was surprised to read they have a small breeding population on North Uist.

From there, we went back towards Ben Langass, where we hoped to find the Red Grouse which Matt had heard in the night.  On the way, we came across a stunning male Hen Harrier hunting by the road - quite possibly the bird we'd seen the evening before.

We had a little hike across the moorland...

...but to no avail in terms of Grouse.

Afterwards we took a drive along the shores of Loch Euphort, but little new was seen.

We decided next to try and check-in to our B&B early.  We headed towards the area around Loch Sandary, but on the way was distracted by yet another male Hen Harrier, and another Whooper Swan on the loch itself.  We then discovered there were 2 B&Bs on the island with the same name, and we had gone to the wrong one! 

This turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise however, as in order to go to the right one, we had to go along the moorland-lined Committee Road.

We soon found another Short-eared Owl along here, but this bird was clearly defending a nest-site, as it mobbed a Raven!  While we watched that, a dark shape appeared overhead - an Arctic Skua!  No doubt one of the small breeding population.  And last, but not least, we came across our 3rd male Hen Harrier of the day, but this one was seen to catch a vole, eat a bit of it, and fly off in a direct manner across the moor. We changed our position, only to watch a female spring out of the heather to take the morsel from him!  A food-pass. Wow!

We settled in to our B&B (Struan House, Malacleit), then decided to head back to Aird an Runair for the evening, after news of more Skuas passing.  On the way, we found our very own Golden Eagle, stalling in the strong wind above Ben Riabhach (presumably the male of the pair we'd seen earlier).

Back in position on the rocks, and we managed a few more Pomarine Skua, a single Great Skua, and best of all, an Arcitc Skua hunting down and catching a Dunlin with great agility!  This is apparently a relatively recently-observed new behaviour, unique to this area.  Is this due to the lack of seabird colonies on the island, I wonder?

We returned to our B&B for a well-earned nights sleep!