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