28th May. Our hotel at Lochcarnan, South Uist was well situated for our exploration of not only South Uist, but also Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray and Eriskay, islands all joined by causeways. We were soon heading off towards RSPB Balranald on the coast of North Uist finding our first Whooper Swans of the trip along the way. On arrived at the reserve quite early and there were few people about as we checked out the information centre. I was pleased to note that there was no café or gift shop to be seen and I don’t recall seeing any staff. It didn’t feel like a reserve and in my opinion that is the way it should be! We were soon listening to Corncrake and photographing the sub species of Starling and soon watching and listening to Corn Buntings. We then set off on the almost three miles of farmland, coastal and machair path. I have to say that at the end it seemed more than three miles in the heat and we were pleased to have the cooler atmosphere near to the ocean for a good part of the time. A wonderful and rewarding walk.
I thought this a wonderful reserve with fine views and excellent machair areas. From the coastal path we were able to watch Great Northern Divers 10+, Fulmer, Gannet, Shag, Grey Heron, Shelduck, Eider, Red Breasted Merganser, Kittiwake and other gulls, and Arctic Tern, and find our first Rock Pipits of the trip. In the bays we found our first Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Turnstone and Dunlin of the trip, along with Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Curlew and Snipe. As we rested at times on the machair we were able to photograph Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Wheatear and listen to Cuckoo, Skylark and Meadow Pipit. Both Grey and Common Seals were also seen along the coast line. We weren’t the only photographers and we got chatting to Alex, a visitor from Hamburg, Germany. Alex was carrying a heavy load of equipment and was probably happy to stop for a rest and chat. We found that he had visited Northumberland and had friends living there. He told us he really had a desire to photograph Slavonian Grebes and we told him of our close encounter and photographs of them in Sweden at a nest site to which he showed great interest. I think Alex was surprised by Sam’s knowledge of German common names for birds which helped the conversation along, although I have to say Alex spoke perfect English. After a long chat we all moved on, but we bumped into Alex again whilst awaiting a ferry and he asked us again about the Slavonian Grebes in Sweden and give us his email address, so we could send him details. Afterwards we walked past an Arctic Tern breeding area where the noise and threatening flights towards us reminded me a little of the Farne Islands. I seem to remember that we saw Wigeon, Teal and Tufted Duck in the area too. We ended the walk feeling that we had passed through and excellent reserve and it restored some of my confidence in the RSPB.
After lunch on our drive back we stopped at Committee Road in the wild upland area and Sam got out his Swedish army stove again to make us cups of tea. This area is renowned for raptors, but initially we found little. Then Golden Plover was heard, and Kestrel seen hovering. Kestrels are not at all common in the Outer Hebrides. As we left we had a decent but short sighting of our first Hen Harrier (male) of the trip, as it flew and dropped behind the hills. Time didn’t allow us to return to the area. We visited Dun An Sticir which is two small islands in a loch which are connected to the mainland by a rather tricky rocky causeway. It is an area of historical importance with some remains of a Broch on one of the islands. We explored parts of Benbecula too.
In the evening we returned to the heathland and mountain area that we had discovered the previous night and as well as the scenery and birds, enjoyed sightings of Red Deer and watched the full moon over the mountains before watching a wonderful sunset again and listening to birdsong and watching Short Eared Owls at 10:00pm. Later we realised we had seen 7+ Short Eared Owls today. Sleep was welcome.
Full Moon over mountains
29th May. We began today again under sun and clear skies and found a rather nice wetland site as we set off to further explore the Uists and Benbecula. We were watching the site when someone told us there were Red Necked Phalarope visible from a little further along the road. As you might imagine we didn’t hang around and sure enough we soon had good close sightings of 5 Red Necked Phalarope. This was a UK tick for me as I had missed them in Shetland. A car stopped, and I initially thought the guy was going to complain about where we were parked, but no, it was the land owner who talked about the birds on his land. We were able to put him right on how many Red Necked Phalaropes there were. The guy was clearly proud off his patch. Almost as rewarding as the phalaropes were breeding plumaged Black Tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Ruff, also new for the trip list as was the Little Grebe that was heard and the Shoveler seen. Other birds seen included Grey Heron, Mallard, Teal, Moorhen, Redshank, Snipe, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Cuckoo, Skylark, Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren and Hooded Crow. We decided to visit again in the evening.
After our good start to the day we took a walk to a rocky inlet which on reaching we felt looked ideal for Otters. We found a comfortable spot to sit and we waited. We watched Common Seals and enjoyed the sight and sounds of birds in an otherwise silent area, but we saw no Otters. Another scenic area brought us sighting of Red Deer and a very attractive view of the mountains. During our drive we had a very nice sighting of a male Hen Harrier as it carried prey away before dropping again and eating it in our view. The bird eventually disappeared after showing well again in flight. We found that we would visit wild areas and often not have much luck with the likes of Hen Harrier and Short Eared Owl but suddenly find them near buildings including our hotel and on this occasion the Hen Harrier had been hunting near to the community centre. Red Throated Diver was also seen on a loch today.
In the early evening we returned to the Red Necked Phalarope but didn’t have quite such good sightings as in the morning. We did enjoy some great sights and sounds on this very warm evening including calling Cuckoo, singing Dunlin in display flight, drumming Snipe, calling and displaying Redshank and calling Curlew. Then a highlight, a very distant White-Tailed Sea Eagle being mobbed by a Common Buzzard was picked up by Sam. Although distant there was no doubt what we had, so we drove closer to the area that it was flying but sadly didn’t re-find the bird, but we had had our first White Tailed Sea Eagle of the trip.
We returned to our now regular evening haunt beneath the mountains. We saw the Shetland ponies again and on our return enjoyed another amazing sunset and watched Short Eared Owls.
30th May. We decided to spend our time on South Uist today and began by exploring the raptor viewing route we had found on our first evening. We met the Shetland Ponies on the way and this is where I think I lost my ‘super cool’ sun glasses. If your passing by this area and see a Shetland Pony wearing sun glasses, they will be mine! I was a bit concerned as you really do need sun glasses on the island because of the very intense light, but I coped in the morning.
Heath Spotted Orchid
We didn’t climb really high, but we did have a decent walk into the foothills and although no raptors were found apart from Common Buzzard we weren’t disappointed in what we did find which included some very nice Heath Spotted Orchids, our first Twite of the trip, Wheatear, Stonechat, Four Spotted Chaser Dragonflies and Large Red Damselflies, oh yes, and a Frog. I really enjoyed this walk and we talked to a couple exploring the area, the man being a retired Geologist who had worked in Edinburgh.
Four Spot Chaser Dragonfly
Large Red Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly
I was a wee bit concerned about my eyes, so we asked an assistant in the restraunt where we had lunch if she knew where we could get some. She didn’t, but suggested we try ‘The’ Eriksay shop, which seemed to suggest it was the only shop and thankfully this shop did have a selection of sun glasses, a pair which I now possess. Maybe not as cool as my lost pair, but they served the purpose.
As we returned we stopped at a sandy bay. We found a blind hill in the road suddenly came to an end and there was a drop to the beach. I wonder how many unsuspecting tourists have ended up on the beach? We watched a few birds from this area including Lapwing, Redshank and Ringed Plover and most importantly Hen Harrier. We saw both male and female Hen Harrier today.
As we were later driving along Sam suddenly said ‘Whooper Swans with cygnets which brought little response from me, but an ‘aye’ he had to repeat his words three times before it sunk in as my brain had interpreted it as Mute Swans. Anyway, we both now have our first ever sighting of Whooper Swans with cygnets, five of them! Just near this spot we drove up a rather beautiful glen and found a small patch of woodland which held both Common Flycatcher which we saw and Redpoll, which we heard, both new for the list.
Short Eared Owl