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Western Isles 2017

Mark Finn
September 24th-30th

Our autumn tours are often affected by windy weather, but we still saw some memorable birds. The ferry crossings provided us with views of European Storm Petrels, Manx Shearwater and Great Skuas. On the islands good numbers of Golden and White-tailed Eagles. A reasonable passage of wildfowl (included American Wigeon) and waders but passerines were thin on the ground due to the wrong wind directions.

September 24th: Black Isle, Uig, Tarbet, Isle of Harris Ferry, South Uist.
Weather: Sunny with light SE winds 17C.

After leaving the Black Isle we headed towards Uig on the Isle of Skye for the ferry crossing to Tarbet in Harris. Close to Uig a large cliff attracted a soaring Golden Eagle and several Ravens on fenceposts. The ferry crossing to Tarbet went smoothly with sightings of Manx Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Gannet and rafts of Common Guillemot and Razorbill. Near to Tarbet groups of Eurasian Oystercatchers, Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls were noted. Leverburgh on a Sunday is a truly dead place with little or no evidence of people or activities. The ferry left a few minutes late for Berneray around an hour duration in time. The crossing added winter plumaged Black Guillemots, Common Eiders and an adult White-tailed Eagle sitting quietly on a grassy island. Near Berneray the group observed a few Red-throated Divers and a Ruddy Turnstone. it was getting late as we headed down the spine of the lower islands with a Short-eared Owl being seen near the road. A long travel day ended as we pulled up at our hotel in South Uist.

September 25th: South Glendale, Smerclate, Rubha Aird A'Mhuile, Loch Eynort, Loch Bee, Coot Loch, Stinky Bay.

After breakfast we headed south towards the hamlet of South Glendale. The area has a few houses and gardens which are attractive to migrants. A short walk produced Eurasian Blackbird, Song Thrush, European Robin, Common Stonechat and Dunnock plus a male Blackcap in the autumn sunshine. Smerclate is a short drive away where we encountered several Northern Wheatears of the Greenland race sitting on rocks and posts. Other visible migrants included Meadow and Rock Pipits and at least three Barn Swallows. On the wires and in gardens Eurasian Linnet, European Goldfinch and Collared Doves. It was time to travel north and visit the seawatching and migration point of Rubha Aird A'Mhuile. On the entrance track a party of Ruff totalled 12 birds. The walk towards the point added Eurasian Teal and Tufted Duck whilst offshore Northern Gannets passed by along with a Red-throated Diver. Lunch was taken at Loch Eynort although the gardens and bushes were very quiet today with sightings of Goldcrest and Common Chaffinch. A diversion to Loch Bee was notable for large numbers of Mute Swan, Eurasian Wigeon and a few Black-headed Gulls. We intended to visit The Range but this was closed for rocket firing until Thursday. Another diversion towards the Atlantic coast had Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Common Ringed Plover and in the fields Rock Pigeons. Coot Lake often has a few birds and today was no exception as the group located Little Grebe, Tufted Duck, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Common Coot, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Curlew and a party of Black-tailed Godwits (Icelandic race). Visits to Stinky Bay and Griminis produced nothing of note so we headed back to base.

September 26th: South Uist, Baleshare, Loch Sandaray, Balranald, Valley Parade, Grenitote, Berneray.
Weather: Cloudy with an increasing S wind 16C.

Today we headed towards North Uist. After leaving the hotel a nearby lagoon held Eurasian Teal and a few late Barn Swallows. Our first birding stop was at Baleshare an extensive agricultural area of machir and wetlands. Before reaching Baleshare a roadside stop produced a group of migrant Common Greenshank numbering over 20 birds. On entering Baleshare a male Hen Harrier showed well by the road and European Golden Plovers and Northern Lapwings formed sizeable flocks on the fields. Everything scattered as an adult White-tailed Eagle flew over. A stop for coffee was good for another eagle (an older adult with an almost white head), Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Common Knot. Loch Sandaray held Whooper Swan, Little Grebe and a single Black-tailed Godwit. Next on the agenda was the RSPB reserve of Balranald with the entrance field having the uncommon Corn Bunting and flocks of Eurasian Linnets. Seawatching at the point added Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet and Common Eider. Along the beach rocks attracted Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Common Redshank. On exiting the reserve a female Merlin was noted hunting the fields. Valley Parade and Grenitote were visited with the former having a pair of Hen Harriers. The extensive flats at Grenitote held the commoner waders plus Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlin. The road to Berneray held a surprise in the form of a Little Egret and a hunting Eurasian Kestrel. The extensive fields at Berneray had little of interest so I returned south to our base on South Uist.

September 27th: South Glendale, Eriksay, The Range, Loch Bee, Ford Terrace, Baleshare, Commissioners Road, Valley Parade, Alieodair.
Weather: Cloudy with frequent rain showers on a strong SE wind 14C.

The weather had a direct effect on plans today as strong winds meant we had to cancel our day trip to Barra. Before going to the ferry terminal a diversion to South Glendale produced nothing new. At the terminal we were surprised to find around fifty Black-throated Divers offshore sheltering from the worst of the weather with three Red-throated Divers. On learning of the ferry cancellation we headed north towards The Range which had been closed for military purposes over the last two days. The commoner waders were on the grass fields and a bonus came in the form of a drake American Wigeon on Loch Bee. Another visit to Ford Terrace resulted in a large increase of waders including Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin and Grey Plover. It was time to visit Baleshare again without too much success apart from newly arrived Common Snipe and an adult White-tailed Eagle with a juvenile in tow. Along the Commissioners Road another juvenile White-tailed Eagle was noted perched in a pine tree out of the strong winds. At the bottom of the road a male Hen Harrier was being attacked by a male Merlin. Further east the immature Little Egret was still present. A little bit of luck brought us to Alieodair where several hundred Eurasian Wigeon were joined by two drake American Wigeon, Little Grebe and Whooper Swans. The smaller birds were disturbed by a Golden Eagle which flew overhead and duly perched high on a ridge - great views. The weather started to close in with heavy rain showers as we travelled south to our base for the final night in South Uist.

September 28th: South Uist, The Range, Berneray, Harris Ferry, Northdon, Luskentyre.
Weather: Cloudy with sunny spells on a SW wind 16C.

Checked out of the hotel in South Uist and headed towards The Range via Ford Terrace. The birds were similar to the past few days as we pulled into the lay-by looking over Loch Bee. A juvenile White-tailed Eagle was sitting quietly on an island. A flooded area of The Range produced a Glaucous Gull, Black-tailed Godwit and Common Snipe. I headed up to Berneray for lunch where Eurasian Skylarks were very common on the recently harvested fields. The ferry crossing to Harris had similar birds to a few days ago with dozens of European Shags roosting on rock outcrops. On arrival ion Harris the first birding stop was at Northdon a small village with houses and gardens with vegetation. Careful searching of the bushes revealed no migrants so we pressed onto Luskentyre. This tiny settlement is located among spectacular vistas and is overlooked by the island of Taransay and the island of the same name. A walk down towards the beach gave us an elevated position looking into the Sound of Taransay. Searching the water produced Slavonian Grebe, Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Common Scoter and Razorbill. Time was running by as I headed up to Stornoway and the last two nights of our tour to the islands.

September 29th: Stornoway, North Tolsta, Butt of Lewis, Loch Stiapabhat, Bragar, Stornoway Castle.
Weather: Cloudy with a strong S wind 16C.

This morning the weather had taken a turn for the worse with strong southerly winds and overcast conditions affecting the islands. We started with a visit to Mealabost a suburb of Stornoway which has a freshwater loch adjacent to the sea. The loch held Tufted Duck and Mallard whilst the beach area attracted Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Picked up supplies and headed towards North Tolsta a picturesque area of Lewis with stunning beaches and sea cliffs. On the first beach the group watched a party of Twite feeding on dock seeds at close range. On the second beach an array of gulls which included a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake. Next on the agenda was The Butt of Lewis the most north-westerly point in mainland Europe. Seawatching from the lighthouse produced hundreds of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes and European Shags but no shearwaters or skuas on this occasion. Loch Stiapabhat has a hide which offered us shelter from the strong winds. En route to the hide fields had European Golden Plover and Northern Lapwing and ever-present Common Ravens. From the hide Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal and plenty of Great Black-backed, Herring and Common Gulls. A visit to Bragar offered nothing of note so I went back to Stornoway to visit the castle grounds. A walk through the woodland added Common Chiffchaff, European Robin and calling Goldcrest. This was another day dominated by weather systems which clearly affected our birding.

September 30th: Butt of Lewis, Stornoway to Ullapool Ferry, Inverness.
Final species total: 92.
Weather: Sunny with SW winds 13C.

The usual birds were in and around Stornoway so we headed towards the west coast and the villages of Bragar, Barvas and Mealabost. The only new species was a hunting Eurasian Sparrowhawk. Next on the agenda was Loch Stiapabhat where the wind conditions had died down from our previous visit. Whooper Swan and Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Black-tailed Godwit and European Golden Plovers were present. A short seawatch at the Butt of Lewis produced passing Northern Gannets and Razorbills but nothing else of note. Back to Stornoway and the crossing back to Ullapool with Great Skuas about halfway across The Minch. Landed on time and travelled back to Inverness where the tour concluded.

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