Tuesday 22 June 2010

Scotland: Uists

Skye was a 2 day pitstop enroute to the third destination of the trip, North Uist. Seen recently on Monty Halls' Herbridean programme, this set of isles promised a lot, even though his series failed to show much wildlife. And we didn't see much when Ian and I arrived, as it was chucking it down with rain. Poor Rob had been delayed as his BMW had failed completely on Skye, so was awaiting a hire car.

The first day, given the weather looked to be a wash out, and we tootled around the undulating roads, waving at traffic which had stopped (all very civil over there) and hoped to see something interesting. Stinky Bay (named after the foul stench from the seaweed) proved interesting, though the rain failed to cease and we watched the waders on the shoreline from the cars. Numerous sanderlings, dunlins and ringed plovers scurried around, plus the now obligatory oystercatchers (they were everywhere) and out on the water, several eider ducks. And snipe sat on fence posts, though they flew off as soon as they saw the car slowing up.

A drive along a very narrow road on the north east of the island yielded distant views of a golden eagle perched on the top of a hillside, looking as fed up with the wet weather as we were. And I doubt the dive-bombing antics of a kestrel improved its mood.

The afternoon improved though, with the torrential rain easing to drizzle, and allowing me to leave the comforts of the car and go for a walk along the grassy scrubland behind the beach at the RSPB Balranald reserve. More little waders were on the shore, which I have to stop now to comment on. The beaches are breathtaking. White sand. Turquoise (when the sun is out) waters and deserted. Just stunning. The waders - more dunlins and ringed plovers, yet more oystercatchers and above us were Arctic terns, showing us that it's not only kestrels that can hang in the air when hunting. Everything went up when a skua went through, though it was too wet at the time to get a shot.

Noticing the numbers of ringed plovers around me, I opted to lie down on the grass, set the tripod up almost flat, and hope the birds would come to me. Didn't take long for a pair of ringed plovers to scurry over, and I was soon getting shots of them in amongst the daisies. Rather pretty, even with the rain.

Having checked into the B&B already (a very nice place called The Rowan Tree) we heard from Rob that he was set to join us by getting the later ferry, and we opted to meet him at about the only "pub" on North Uist, the Loch Maddy Hotel. Enroute from the reserve though, I spotted a corn bunting singing away on a fence, and wasn't about to refuse the shot. Parked too close initially, and had to reverse back to get it in the frame!

Just then the CBs we were using crackled into life - Ian had got a corncrake making its noise in the field by the entrance. Slowly driving alongside, we could hear it "creking" away, but just didn't have the time to search for it. Another time perhaps?

Our first full day of the trip was to be spent with a tour guide (Steve Duffield) who I'd spotted on the internet and offered personal tours of the isles based on his local knowledge. And what a tour it proved to be. He'd asked before we got there about what we wanted to see and boy was he determined to get the results. Given that we were based on North Uist, he suggested that we get a look around the other isles to see what they had to offer. That said, before we even reached the meeting point, we toured down Committee Road for a look, and bagged some shots of a short-eared owl as it sat out in the drizzle, so that got the day off to a good start.

The first stop was to see the red necked phalarope, though unfortunately this was at a fair distance, and I didn't even attempt a photo - would have been confused with a dust bunny on the sensor! More interestingly, we saw another short-eared owl nearby - that was about the 7th of the day - they were everywhere.

Driving along, we also spotted a distant golden eagle being harrassed by a buzzard and several cuckoos, which of course flew off before we could get a decent shot. A walk around a rather scenic loch proved to be productive, seeing an otter on the other side. A redpoll sang to us as we wandered along, and a pair of cuckoos bantered at each other up the hillside. On the loch itself was a red throated diver - such a shame the weather was so gloomy, but we could make out the red patch and I got some record shots. Also nearby was a black guillemot, fishing near the shore, showing off those bright red legs when it dived. And on the hills behind the loch, yet another SEO flew along, hunting for breakfast.

Another short drive and another loch - this time we were treated to views of 2 pairs of hen harriers. By now the weather had improved dramatically and the sun was out. This gave us (moaning) photographers another issue - heat haze. The distance to the harriers simply meant we couldn't get a decent sharp shot, though I was just as happy to watch them to be honest.

The day ended with Steve desperately trying to get us a view of a corncrake. He tried all over the place and admitted we were actually a little late in the season, in that most would be on a nest by now. That said, he still delivered the goods. Pulling over sharply, he'd spotted a head poking out above the grass - a corncrake! Calling away. It was then that Rob did the unthinkable, and instead of staying hidden in the car, decided jump out and go for a closer shot. Ian, Steve and I were somewhat surprised by this as we expected the corncrake to bolt, never to be seen again.

It didn't. It stayed put and seconds later, when we decided to join Rob (what did it matter now?) we spotted 2 other corncrakes in the same patch of ground. Probably a male and female, and the one we'd seen first was defending his territory, and chasing the female. We were then treated to views of the 2 flying over a fence (none of us reacted to take a shot!) and the lone male strutting his stuff out in the open. I have to admit, the birds are highly amusing. They resemble those velociraptors on Jurassic Park, but with mechanical flip-up heads as they call. And so loud! No wonder folks moan about being kept awake by them.

Steve's day tour was certainly that - he ended it early evening sort of time. We thanked him for his time and company - definitely worth the small cost if you're visiting the isle.

We promptly went out again, in search of raptors on Committee Road. Oh to have a camper van on this stretch of moorland. Hen harriers, golden eagles, short-eared owls a plenty, not to mention the possibility of merlin, and dozens of pipits and wheatear too. I could spend a fortnight on this patch alone!

After seeing the delights of the Uists, we generally did our own thing for the remainder of the trip, with Rob desperate for hen harrier shots, and Ian and I more content to tootle around seeing whatever came our way. Another couple of visits to Balranald gave even more glorious views of the beach, and some brighter shots of the waders and terns. We even ventured across a few causeways, to get scenic shots (why not, it was so picturesque!) plus a few more common species such a skylarks and redshank. Committee Road never seemed to fail to deliver, and we got some decent pics (in the end) of short-eared owls, including a chick, nestled in the undergrowth, hen harriers and a distant golden eagle, which defied all tradition and perched on a fence post.

If there's more than one of you going in separate cars, I recommend taking these CB radios that Ian had brought along. Decent range and were invaluable when it came to watching large areas for subjects. I dread to think the number of opportunities that we'd have missed between us had we not been able to communicate from afar.

Leaving Uist was sad. We'd only been there a few days but wanted to stay so much longer. The only thing stopping me from getting too downbeat was the prospect of Mull next.

1 comment:

Max Silverman said...

Super report Pete.A Corncrake shot WOW!!!!