West­ern Isles

This bleak but beau­ti­ful Scottish habi­tat of lochs and long stretches of beaches is home to a wide va­ri­ety of birds and wildlife

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

The land­scape may be bleak but the Outer He­brides is a great bird­ing spot

BEYOND SKYE, ACROSS the un­pre­dictable waters of the Minch, lie the wild and windy West­ern Isles, the Outer He­brides. A 130 mile-long ar­chi­pel­ago stretch­ing from Lewis and Harris in the north to the Uists and Barra in the south, the is­lands ap­pear as an un­bro­ken chain when viewed from across the Minch. In re­al­ity, there are more than 200 is­lands with a to­tal pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 27,000 peo­ple.

This is truly a land on the edge, where the tur­bu­lent seas of the At­lantic smash up against a ge­o­log­i­cally com­plex ter­rain whose coast­line is in­ter­rupted by a thou­sand shel­tered bays and, in the far west, a long line of sweep­ing sandy beaches. The is­lands’ in­te­ri­ors are equally dra­matic, veer­ing be­tween flat, boggy, tree­less peat moor and bare moun­tain tops soar­ing high above a host of tiny lakes, or lochans. In the sit­com ‘Dad’s Army’, Pri­vate Frazer (pic­tured left) claims to be from Barra, which he of­ten de­scribes as “a wild and lonely place”. It is. But these is­lands are one of the strongholds of the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion of Corn Crake and hold some of the high­est den­si­ties of breed­ing waders in Europe, with up to 15,000 pairs of var­i­ous types in the ar­chi­pel­ago. The lack of mam­malian preda­tors is one of the key fac­tors en­abling the den­si­ties of ground-nest­ing birds to reach such high lev­els. One of the most im­por­tant habi­tats is the machair – low-ly­ing, flower-rich grass­land grow­ing on soil com­pris­ing peat and wind­blown sand. Other habi­tats in­clude up­land moor and blan­ket bog, marsh­land and lochans, farm­land and hay­fields. The coasts have wide sandy beaches backed by dunes in the west and rocky shores with deep marine in­lets in the east. Pre­his­toric sites lit­ter the is­lands. This is a land of an­cient ghosts.

Waders ga­lore

North Uist has many breed­ing waders, but the most im­por­tant bird is the Corn Crake, which sur­vives ow­ing to the tra­di­tional croft­ing meth­ods. Whooper Swans are of­ten present in sum­mer, Black-throated Diver breeds, as do Red Grouse and Arc­tic Skua, on the moors, and Black Guille­mot on rocky head­lands. Rap­tors in­clude Hen Har­rier, Golden Ea­gle and Pere­grine Fal­con, and Rock Pipit and Twite breed. Also im­por­tant for pas­sage and win­ter­ing birds, the is­land at­tracts wa­ter­fowl such as Pink-footed, Green­land White-fronted and Bar­na­cle Geese, ducks in­clud­ing scot­ers and Long-tailed Duck, and var­i­ous waders. Off­shore, pas­sage divers are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors, as well as shear­wa­ters, storm-pe­trels and skuas. This is also one of the best sites in Bri­tain for Long-tailed Skua. In the north-west of the is­land is one of the most im­por­tant ar­eas for birds and where a

sight­ing of a Corn Crake is most likely. Rich in wild­flow­ers, the re­serve is dot­ted with fresh­wa­ter lochs, boggy ar­eas and rough pas­ture, as well as cul­ti­vated and un­cul­ti­vated machair. This re­serve proves at­trac­tive to the ‘land­lub­bing’ rail, with Bal­ranald be­ing not only one of the Scottish strongholds, but also one of the eas­i­est places to see this no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult species. A visit in May is the per­fect time to see them, as they re­turn in late April from their African win­ter­ing quar­ters, but the veg­e­ta­tion on the re­serve, par­tic­u­larly the iris beds they favour, will not have grown suf­fi­ciently to con­ceal them fully. Its dis­tinc­tive rasp­ing ‘crex’ call and skulk­ing habits can make search­ing for the Corn Crake an ex­as­per­at­ing busi­ness. Of­ten sound­ing as if it is at your feet, they have the un­canny abil­ity to throw their voice. Look­ing for a call­ing bird in an over­grown field can be a fu­tile task. The trick is to ar­rive be­fore the veg­e­ta­tion has had a chance to grow. Then, with pa­tience, the ‘singer’ is rel­a­tively easy to see. The Corn Crake was in se­ri­ous de­cline un­til the late 1980s/early 1990s, when mea­sures were taken to in­tro­duce agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes in its strongholds on is­lands off the west coast of Scot­land. This has been a big suc­cess, and more re­cently the pop­u­la­tion at many lo­ca­tions has be­gun to re­cover dra­mat­i­cally. The machair draws breed­ing waders and is par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to Corn Bunt­ings; a species now in se­ri­ous de­cline and barely hold­ing on. Aird an Ru­nair is a rocky head­land on the re­serve, which in spring and au­tumn is a good point for sea­watch­ing. Dur­ing spring, west­erly and north-west­erly winds may pro­duce a pas­sage of Long-tailed and Po­ma­rine Skuas, with mid-may be­ing the peak time. Dur­ing au­tumn, both Leach’s Pe­trels and Storm Pe­trels, Grey Phalarope, auks, skuas and gulls can be seen; the best con­di­tions be­ing strong west­erly winds. Au­tumn sea­watch­ing is, how­ever, nor­mally more pro­duc­tive from Rubha Ard­vule, a head­land on South Uist.

Beauty among the bleak­ness

The lochs and marshes on Bal­ranald are favoured by breed­ing wild­fowl: Teal and Mallard pre­dom­i­nate, though Shov­eler, Gad­wall, Wi­geon and Tufted Duck are present in smaller num­bers. A decade ago, a cam­paign to re­move the in­tro­duced Hedge­hog failed to re­store the breed­ing wader pop­u­la­tions that the re­serve is im­por­tant for – namely Lap­wing, Oys­ter­catcher, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Red­shank and Snipe. The cull im­me­di­ately courted con­tro­versy and mor­phed into a translo­ca­tion project in­stead. With Hedge­hogs still at large, it re­mains a con­tentious is­sue. A long-term He­bridean Mink project is bear­ing fruit, how­ever. Blan­ket bog and machair plants reach their peak in Bal­ranald in July, in­clud­ing Early Marsh, He­bridean Marsh, North­ern Marsh and Heath Spot­ted Orchids. Jamie Boyle, site man­ager for RSPB Scot­land’s Uist re­serves, sums up the ap­peal of this spe­cial place: “Bal­ranald and the rest of the Uists are an in­cred­i­ble place due to the mix of the fan­tas­tic ge­og­ra­phy of machair, croft­lands, moors, hills and wa­ter cou­pled with the low in­put agri­cul­tural sys­tem and a dis­tinct cul­tural iden­tity.” There is beauty among the bleak­ness of these lands.

Wa­ter­fowl and rap­tors

South Uist has sim­i­lar habi­tats and species, with ex­cel­lent sea­watch­ing. The fresh­wa­ter wet­lands and sea lochs play host to im­por­tant num­bers of breed­ing, win­ter­ing and pas­sage wa­ter­fowl. Loch Druid­beg, a re­serve cov­er­ing 1,677 hectares, is one of the best ar­eas. Corn Crake also breed on South Uist, as well Black-throated Diver, terns and ‘na­tive’ pop­u­la­tions of Rock Dove and Grey­lag Goose. Ar­di­vachar Point in the north-west is ex­cel­lent for sea­watch­ing with Grey Phalarope reg­u­larly seen. Red-necked Phalarope nest on the isles in very small num­bers, if at all, and are by no means guar­an­teed. Har­bours in the Outer He­brides of­ten hold Glau­cous and Ice­land Gulls through­out the win­ter months. The RSPB has launched a Bird of Prey Trail that will lead vis­i­tors to the best rap­tor-view­ing spots on the is­lands. The rugged is­lands of Lewis and Harris seem to hold more ap­peal for the ever-in­creas­ing Golden and White-tailed Ea­gles, while the flat­ter land­scapes of the Uists are bet­ter suited to healthy pop­u­la­tions of Hen Har­rier, Mer­lin and Short-eared Owl. Wher­ever you go in this windswept wilder­ness you will en­counter memorable birds and even the oc­ca­sional Ot­ter. All in all, it is an area of out­stand­ing nat­u­ral beauty, more loch than rock, com­plete with long stretches of white shell sandy beaches.

ê CORN CRAKE The key bird that every visi­tor to the Outer He­brides wants to see (and hear) ê ARC­TIC SKUA Some of the most southerly skua colonies are on the Uists ê ROCK PIPIT Along with Twite, this is one of the most im­por­tant passer­ine breed­ers on the is­lands

South Uist is a great place to go to see these su­perb birds breed­ing Like the rest of Scot­land, Red Grouse are present wher­ever there are moors HEN HAR­RIER The West­ern Isles are one of the last great bas­tions of nest­ing Hen Har­rier in the coun­try RED GROUSE ê BLACK-THROATED DIVER

ÉWHITE-TAILED EA­GLE Both ea­gle species flour­ish on the is­lands of the Outer He­brides ÊWHITE BEACHES In ad­di­tion to su­perb bird­ing habi­tats, you can have the spec­tac­u­lar beaches to your­self GREY­LAG GOOSE The He­bridean pop­u­la­tions of Grey­lag Goose and Rock Dove are prob­a­bly as ‘wild’ as any in the UK

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