Western Isles, the Highlands and NE England, 23-29 May 2014

Left to right-Me (Mart), Nige and Neil (Smarty)

Applecross Gang, Neil, Nige and Mart

23 May 2014

This trip was something of a last minute job thrown together,  I joined Neil Smart and Nige Warren in booking some time off and we formulated a plan over a brew one Sunday morning. I was up for Morocco again, where sandals and a t-shirt but Nige and Neil were keen on heading North. We all just wanted a little adventure, a break. I needed to test myself back out on the road and experience long days after what has been an extremely difficult year. It was a good call as it worked out less expensive than going abroad as I for one was on a tight budget. I went with the flow and we booked a car for a couple of days time. A late start on the road due to me being chauffeur to my wife and her friends (a birthday promise delivered) and taking my car to the garage.

We picked up what turned out to be a BMW 3 series touring, auto gearbox and very comfortable to drive and loaded the gear at my place. Off we went making up a plan as we went up the M5. The weather looked good for a fall so we all decided to head to the East coast, we stopped at a Travelodge near Hull for our first night on the road.

24 May 2014
Up with the lark we headed to Spurn/Easington and birded the area, it was not leaping but we were seeing Brent Geese and waders on the estuary and Neil had a Grasshopper Warbler. We moved on up the coast hearing later that Red-breasted Flycatcher had been seen and tried to locate a Temminck’s Stint site with no luck. Our next stop was a fry-up in a café after which we stopped at Filey North Cliff CP. Rainy conditions and easterlies were full of promise as we enjoyed Eiders, Scoter, Sandwich Terns and Guillemot and Razorbill below. We were soon watching a very smart male Red-backed Shrike that had been found earlier, it was bee catching below us.

Red-backed Shrike, male

Red-backed Shrike, Filey NCCP, 24-05-14, MJMcGill, 001 Red-backed Shrike, Filey NCCP, 24-05-14, MJMcGill

The rain set in and we climbed back in to head further North via Cleveland. A stop at our latest destination at Hummersea was for an Icterine Warbler but we elected to park in a rain soaked clifftop gateway. The weather made us recline and nap for 30 mins to allow it to let up. The shut eye re-programmed our brains but looking out it was still grim, despite to monsoon the bird was still being reported and there was also a Woodchat Shrike to boot. On with the wet weather gear and out to stumble along a track in a pea-souper. We arrived at the end of the track and immediately hear the Icky singing away. It was belting out a song, ‘singing in the rain’. We all got views of it when it made feeding forays. Nige wandered off down the track to look for the shrike and saw what he thought was a Richard’s/Tawny Pipit but off it went into the murk. It began to clear a little but we wanted to get on the road so did not linger for the shrike which showed not long after we left. A long drive to Aberdeen followed with only a Marsh Harrier over roadside fields somewhere in Cleveland to add to the list. We stayed at Aberdeen airport Travelodge, making plans as we went.

25 May 2014

Another early start in the poor weather with our first stop the Ythan estuary, poor weather but cleared enough to really enjoy the great birding here. The terns, Sanderling flocks and local King Eider were all soaked up along with the rain. Arctic, Common, Little, Sandwich and a couple of Roseate Terns were compared.

Royal King Eider having a kip

KIng Eider, Ythan,

Leucistic or just a pale phase female Common Eider with a more normal specimen

Eider, contrasting females, Ythan, Aberdeenshire

One of two Roseate Terns


Back down the coast we walked from Blackdog to Murcar watching seabirds flying by and settled to get into a Common Scoter flock, they were all so busy doing everything a Scoter could do in a heavy swell and above a feeding area against a tide, there should be a specific name for a scoter flock, a scooter maybe? Sifting through the throng and ever changing, shape shifting flock we managed to pick out two big-headed male Surf Scoters and 6 very fine Velvet Scoter. A few Red-throated Diver were on the sea or moving through too.

Common Scoter fly-past
They look like they are having fun

Common Scoter flypast, Blackdog

Enough of rain, it was time to take on board soup in a roadside eating house, head to Inverness and then West along the North shore of Loch Ness. The sun came out and the scenic drive was spot on. A few stops for bird sightings, fuel for us and the car and scenic views our next birding destination wasto be  the high pass to Applecross. Before we climbed up the mountain, fortunately in the car, we saw a couple of Pink-footed Geese with the Greylags by the bridge. A roost of Oystercatcher and Curlew were on this small estuary. At the top the views were pretty good, the mist would close in on our target area but clear away again. We walked up the slope toward the radio masts and sat down against the rocks to scan a likely area. Immediately a Ptarmigan appeared in my scope as it scratched about on the steep, rock strewn slope.

Nige closes in on me to scope the Ptarmigan

Nige Warren up in theApplecross mountains

Ptarmigan settles down to rest, it never moved after doing this so we left it be

Ptarmigan, Applecross, MJMcGill

A selfie with my birding mates, looks more like a defensive position or partridge covey! No sneaking up on us.

Scanning for Ptarmigan


We still had a way to go to reach our destination and had to reach the Isle of Skye and Portree to seek out a Bed and Breakfast. We stopped for a chippy tea at Kyle of Lochalsh and were all suffering from indigestion after bolting the grub down. It was a shame we were so hungry and on a budget as Portree had lots to offer in the way of eating. The local hostel was full so we found a bed and breakfast with friendly landlady and then went out for a couple of pints of Guinness. Views around the town and the sunny, still harbour rounded off a long but rewarding day.

26 May 2014

A slightly later start at 0700 to make the most of a monster breakfast and it was straight to the ferry port of Uig, checked-in, loaded up and on the deck for a seawatch on this 2 hour crossing. It was very productive, lots of Puffin as well as commoner auks but the real highlight was Minke Whale. This beast actually breached twice in what was probably a fishing lunge, actually came out of the water before crashing back in, awesome.

Minke Whale breaching– Image captured by Neil Smart

One hell of a flying fish! I know, I know it is a mammal

Minke Whale, Uig-Lochmaddy, Neil Smart

A few Black Guillemot and a pair of Red-throated Diver were in the Lochmaddy harbour as we arrived on North Uist, soon after disembarking we booked into a hostel nearby and secured our bunk beds for two nights. With that all sorted we popped into the  stores for food and then went birding. Our first target area was RSPB Balranald where we had great views of Corncrake singing whilst the farming activity carried on all around. We explored the N part of the island for the rest of the afternoon stopping at many beautiful places and likely spots, too many to name. Calling in at Grenitone we explored a fenced willow/alder area. A few Willow Warbler sang and sallied after insects and we all studied differents spots. I was well pleased when a male Golden Oriole appeared on top of the bush next to me before flying up the slope and perching in full view. I called to the lads but they could not hear me, so I walked back to find them. It took a bit of time but we all saw it well as it zipped about in the low canopy or made flights into the open. We headed out to Benbecula for the early evening and took a coastal track as the tide came in on the N shore, more excellent views of waders ensued be they on passage or local breeders, it is warming to see such healthy numbers. On reaching tarmac once again I pulled away over a bridge and saw what appeared to be the eye stripe of a Garganey out of the corner of my eye. Reversing back down the road to check I was seeing properly and sure enough a smashing pair of these summer ducks were showing very close to the road as they fed in a ditch. The end of the road at Aird was a beach and rocky point with a large gathering of gulls and Sanderling in the seaweed. An 2nd summer Iceland Gull was among them. Following the coast road we stopped at Stinky Bay and looked through the masses of Sanderling and gulls, in the fields/dunes inland at least 5 Corncrake were in full song. As we had already seen them very well today we focussed our efforts on searching for a reported Snowy Owl back on N Uist. The rest of the evening was spent looking for it and seeing Short-eared Owls, Hen Harriers and passerines but it turned out the Snowy Owl was a Shortie! We saw the same chap next day who admitted getting it wrong, I guess to an inexperienced watcher the brilliant light on a fully illuminated Short-eared Owl was pretty mind blowing. A bit more pottering about and it was time for an evening meal at the Lochmaddy Hotel.

A pair of Garganey

Garganey, Benbecula

Some more images from the day follow.

Corncrake near Balranald


Dunlin singing on saltmarsh, Benbecula
The bay beyond was full of waders

Dunlin on S.Uist saltmarsh, N Bay.

Dunlin singing

Dunlin on S.Uist, singing bird, SUist.

Machair- Ard un Runair
Easy on the eye

Machair, Ard un Runair

Hen Harrier cruising-Sollas, North Uist
We enjoyed many encounters with these stunning raptors.

Hen Harrier, Sollas, N Uist, MJMcGill

27 May 2014

Up for yet another early start, no slacking and we headed along the N coast of N.Uist, a stop to search the dunes around Sollas, the small plantation at Grenitone and the slopes and hills inland produced a hunting Merlin plus great views of hunting Short-eared Owls. We stopped off at a Golden Eagle nest site watch point near Sollas and had distant but OK views of the birds and a chat with the guardian who told us of the Minke Whale washed up nearby. We also saw three Cuckoo chasing around, one being tail-less and rather odd looking. The lure of lekking Ruff and lots of waders at RSPB Balranald drew us back to this bird rich area and we once again heard calling Corncrakes, another look on the nearby beach gave us a 1st summer Glaucous Gull.

Moving on south we drove to Benbecula and spent awhile watching 5+ Red-necked Phalarope on a freshwater loch, nearby a further two were feeding in the surf on the beach at Stinky Bay with Sanderling for company. Our next destination was Pollycharra at the S end of South Uist but we stopped off at any areas with cover on the way to search. From the the point we scoped the sea and the Island of Barra. A Great Northern Diver drifted on the slack water and the views and sunshine were just perfect. A coffee stop later and it was time to continue exploring various stops on the way back north. We scanned the beaches around Staoinebrig which had large creches of Greylag (nice to see them doing so well all over the islands). Numerous Sanderling were running up and down the beaches. One colour ringed individual, as it turned out later, was marked in Mauretania the previous winter. Also in the smelly insect rich seaweed was a Little Stint as well as Dunlin. Nige was on scope duty and located pair of Golden Eagle over the hills inland.

Little Stint

Little Stint, S Uist, MJMcGill Little Stint, S Uist, MJMcGill, 001

Nige and Neil study a breeding plumaged Great Northern Diver with Barra in the distance

Nige and Neil

On Benbecula we called in at Aird again and saw 1st summer Glaucous and second summer Iceland Gull on the sea, the Garganey was lacking the female mate but showing well on a roadside pool. Heading back inland a White-tailed Eagle flew over the car, we followed it, or at least tried to. Whilst stopping to scan we had intimate views of one of the ubiquitous Redshank. The eagle chase took us to yet another new part of the island.

White-tailed Eagle

White-tailed Eagle, S Uist, MJMcGill, 27-05-14


Redshank, Benbecula, MJMcGill

Short-eared Owl
We were seeing them everywhere we went!

Short-eared Owl, Grenitone, N Uist, 28-05-14, MJMcGill

Short-eared Owl, Grenitone, N Uist, 28-05-14, MJMcGill, 001

First summer Glaucous Gull, Ard un Runair

Glaucous Gull, first summer, Ard an Runair, N Uist, MJMcGill 27-05-14

Glaucous Gull, first summer, Ard an Runair, N Uist, MJMcGill, 27-05-14, 001

Ard un Runair, the bay

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope, Western Isles, 27-05-14

Our last stop of the day was still bathed in sunshine, heading back toward Lochmaddy we turned off onto the long winding track out to Lochportain with Wheatears along the way. Getting out to search a likely spot Nige located some very confiding Twite. We scanned a nearby low ridge and had great views of Golden Eagle in the evening sun as well as more Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl action.


Twite, N Uist, 27-05-14, MJMcGill

28 May 2014

Another day and another early start, first stop and search the bushes at Grenitone before a brief look for a Blyth’s Reed Warbler that was singing near the Sollas CO-OP, it was also a breakfast stop. No luck with the warbler so back to looking for our own birds. A look around various places on the Berneray road and another Great Northern Diver was seen. Many of the houses on the way had decent cover for migrants, we saw Buzzard and common species of bird only. A search of one roadside plantation produced a Spotted Flycatcher and more Song Thrushes.

We had to be on the 1130 ferry so had a café breakfast and hung around the harbour in readiness, the Red-throated Diver pair were still offshore. A peaceful sea was quieter that our outbound journey a couple of days before but we saw a few seabirds including Great Skua following a trawler and another Minke Whale. Better views of Black Guillemot were had as the ferry entered Uig Harbour.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot, Uig, MJMcGill, 28-05-14

A long drive back across Skye and into the Highlands was broken up by a visit to Alt Mhuic near Spean Bridge to look for a special butterfly. As well as seeing the target insect (a lifer for Neil and I) we had stunning views of the area in nice weather. Nige saw a Golden-ringed Dragonfly and Neil and I saw a dragonfly that looked to be a hawker but eluded us. Back in the car and on we went to eat up some more miles.

Chequered Skipper

Chequered Skipper, Allt Mhuic, 28-05-14, MJMcGill, 001

Highland Cow

Highland Cow, Alt Mhuic, MJMcGill

Back on the road we called in at Insh in Speyside logging a Crested Tit family feeding their young. We never had time to do much more and wanted to carry on home, another two hours south and we arrived to spend the night in Milnathort, Perth and Kinross. A few beers in the Village Inn with Jubs (who put us up, but had no food) and a starter, main course and pudding which consisted of a single packet of mini Cheddars was not what we had planned as sustenance, I guess it does not hurt to miss a meal now and again and gives me a chance to moan about it.

29 May 2014
A later start and lazy breakfast the next day only left time for a leisurely drive back to Gloucestershire to conclude our rather busy but excellent trip.

Martin J McGill

*Having wrote this up months later I may have forgotten something, I certainly have not mentioned all the birds we logged and to be fair it was a lot. The Western Isles are rich in birdlife. I will add any updates subject to my birding companions thoughts and comments.




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