The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

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!


  1. Hi Sean,
    Seen 1 & 2 Whoopers on North Uist in June 2011 & June 2012, respectively. So probably not too surprising you saw them there. It's a great place for a few days Birding. Unfortunately, my timing was too late for Long-tailed Skuas on both trips. But connected with Corncrakes, SE Owls, Hen Harriers, both Eagles on those trips.

  2. Thoroughly enjoy you blog posts on trips like this. Hope you rediscover your enthusiasm for writing them more this year!

  3. Good stuff, Steve. Yes, although I said surprising, I had read that a few ususlly summer (and sometimes look like breeding). We saw at least 3 individuals in the end. And, thanks Neil!