Lewis & Harris Tour 29th June – 6th July
We set off from Kindrogan 12.30pm and made our way steadily towards Ullapool. The wind conditions made for a lively crossing and also hampered our cetacean searches. A couple of people in the group locked on to a couple of Harbour Porpoises just outside the harbour area at Ullapool and then once out into the Minch proper we came across a great variety of seabirds, all of the auks, Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Bonxies, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Tern.
As we approached Stornoway there was a marked increase in the numbers of seabirds and suddenly splashes in the water revealed the first dolphin close to the boat, a dash of ochre streaking suggested it was an Atlantic White-sided Dolphin, but it never showed again to allow confirmation. Shortly afterwards we spotted a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins underneath a flock of Gannets dive bombing into the sea and moments later a Minke Whale surfaced fairly close to the boat.
We made Stornoway shortly after 9.00pm and then made the hour long journey to our guest house at Baile na cille.
Sunday 30th June
Probably the most important aspect of the day was the force 8 gale and the regular horizontal showers that had to be coped with by the party.
The day started with walk along the Uig Bay with plenty of opportunities for the botanically minded souls in the party to get their eye in with the interesting local flora. Within a short period of time four species of orchid had been located including, Heath spotted Orchid, Common Spotted Orchid of the Hebridean race and Common Twayblade. Adders Tongue Fern was an excellent find and other notable plants for the day included Bog Asphodel, Meadow Rue, Roseroot as well as Moss Campion at sea level.
Wheatear juv © John O’Dwyer
We took some time to take on board the human influences on the landscape including a defensive ‘broch’. However the most artistic element in the landscape were the various carvings of the famous ‘Lewis Chessmen’, the largest of which was a 7ft high representation of a King piece on the south side of Uig Bay, though for most folk the most memorable part of that bit of the day was a member of our party managing to lock themselves inside one of the public toilets.
Martyn (right) and Berseka © Tina Shirt
At the latter part of the day we spent an excellent hour watching good numbers and variety of seabirds close inshore at Gob Rubha Phail. Among the numerous Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters we also picked out a few European Storm Petrels. The sea was incredibly rough so it was no surprise when we failed to spot any cetaceans.
Monday 1st June
Callanish Stone Circle © Tina Shirt
Today was a cultural day combined with wildlife. We started with the spectacular standing stones at Callanish. Around the stones interesting plants included Early and Northern Marsh and Heath spotted Orchids. Some of the group went to look at other groups of stones and a few went to peruse the inland area of Loch Roag. Near the smaller stone groups plants included Marsh Cinqfoil and Round-leaved Sundews. On the loch itself we found Red throated Diver, Great Cormorant, Common and Arctic Terns. A pair of Golden Plover overflew the area and a few Curlew were also alongside the loch. As we left Callanish the group were entranced by a family group of Gloucester Old Spots pigs.
We travelled on to the Dun Broch at Calloway. A superb double skinned structure built between 200BC to 300BC. Here we enjoyed superb views of the Hebridean race of Wren. From here we motored the short distance to see Norman, a local Harris Tweed weaver. Whilst there we found Swallow, lots of Rock Dove and also a special aculeate, the superb Great Yellow Bumblebee.
With a little time to spare we headed for Dail Mor beach. Beautifully scenic and moving with a large burial ground mostly dedicated to military personnel lost in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. A good number of seabirds were offshore but they were eclipsed by an immature Peregrine mobbing a Common Buzzard.
On our return to Uig we were delighted to have a memorable close encounter with 2 Golden Eagles. One was clearly a young bird with a lot of white in the plumage.
Tuesday 2nd June
The weather was once again decidedly unseasonal and the best description was ‘dreich’. We travelled out to Arnol, en route we had a Common Snipe and a Common Teal crossing our path simultaneously. On arrival we explored the fascinating ‘Blackhouse’ museum. It’s amazing to think that these primitive establishments were still in use up until the 1960’s. Shortly after we visited the adjacent RSPB site of Loch na Muilne in the hope of seeing Red necked Phalarope. Sadly the conditions kept them in deep cover but we did see Golden Plovers, Redshank and another Teal.
Lunch was taken in the village of Eoropie, a few flicked pieces of bread brought down a contingent of gulls and a Hooded Crow. After lunch we split the group, the majority electing to walk around the headland at the Butt of Lewis with Martyn. Jeff took the remainder to the lighthouse and commenced a saturatingly wet seawatch. The sea watch produced a few notables including both Bonxies and Arctic Skua and cetacean-wise the only identified species was Harbour Porpoise, which was a bit of surprise considering the relatively messy sea.
Hooded Crow © Jeff Clarke
At Butt of Lewis Martyn’s group comprised of most of the botanists and they enjoyed a very diverse and unusual flora on their cliff top walk. Stand-out plants included Lesser Spearwort of the sub-species ‘minimus’ Marsh Pennywort, Scot’s Lovage, Blue Water Speedwell, ‘dwarf’ Heath Spotted Orchids.
By now the weather was really poor and so the local Tea Room gave us welcome sanctuary. On the return to base we had a bonus moment when a pair of Twite fed on the track in front of the mini-bus close to our guest house.
Wednesday 3rd June
The day started frustratingly for half the group when their eagerly awaited trip to St Kilda was aborted before we even reached the open sea, due to a problem with one of the propellers. Luckily we were able to regroup and then changed our plans for the day by making a visit to Valtos to enjoy the excellent Machair and observe the birds in the bay.
The bay itself was full of moulting Eider Ducks but most people enjoyed the ducklings rather more. We had superb views of several Red throated Divers in close to shore. They were mixed in with many Razorbills and a few Black Guillemot. The bay also added a mammal in the shape of Harbour Seal.
Machair on Lewis © Tina Shirt
After lunch we explored the superb machair, dancing with buttercups, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, and Kidney Vetch. Among them were gems such as Early Marsh Orchid, Frog Orchid and Moonwort. A few more invertebrates were obvious today including the Moss Carder Bee and caterpillars of the Belted Beauty moth.
Early Marsh Orchid ‘coccinea’ © Jeff Clarke
Moonwort © Jeff Clarke
Late in the day the group split. Some explored the local community museum at Uig bay. The remainder headed for the nearby headland hosting Mangersta Radio Station to do some cetacean spotting. After a few minutes a disturbance in the water heralded the arrival of a pod of 5 Risso’s Dolphins. We enjoyed nearly an hour of their antics as they indulged in tail-slapping, spyhopping, and some breaching, particularly by the calf in the group.
Thursday 4th June
Another ‘wild weather’ day, with gale force winds and periodic showers. We headed in the general direction of Tarbert to experience the different character of North Harris with its brooding mountains. Our first wildlife excursion of the day was a 2Km stroll up to an eagle observation hide. Sadly the deteriorating weather scotched our chances of sighting eagles but the botanists did better with Great Sundew, Black Spleenwort and Lemon-scented Fern.
Great Sundew © John O’Dwyer
From here we pushed on to the picturesque Hushinish. The fierce gale had pushed gannets into a sheltered sea loch where they plunge-dived at close range. Retracing our steps saw a small improvement in the weather and a few raptors appeared, firstly a merlin crossed our bow a few minutes later we watched a distant pair of wind-hanging Golden Eagles.
After our evening meal we attempted to find otters in the nearby Loch Roag at the Sea Trek harbour. No otters but we had major compensation with superb views of Golden Eagle, mobbed by most things including a Raven, which it dwarfed. A few minutes later a Buzzard cruised by with a rabbit dangling from its talons. The sea loch was hunted by Grey Herons, Black Guillemots and Arctic Terns.
Friday 5th June
Thankfully it was a largely dry day. The wind was still a factor but conditions were more conducive to spotting wildlife.
A pre-breakfast search of the local sea loch found no Otters but we did see a Merlin and a Dipper. After breakfast we headed initially for Loch Suainaval where we found a few Red-throated Divers, including displaying birds. Shortly afterwards two Golden Eagles appeared above the adjacent peak, where the local Peregrine proceeded to dive-bomb them repeatedly.
This proved to be the first of many Golden Eagle sightings during the day. Great Bernara on Bolsta Beach was our next destination with a few more eagles en route to enjoy including a nesting pair. Once at the beach we were immediately overflown by yet another pair of eagles, this time the views were exceptional with close approaches by both birds.
The group then explored the superb Iron Age restoration dwelling near the beach. Its idyllic setting looking out to Little Bernera was incredibly atmospheric, as was the building internally, complete with peat fire. Most of the group emerged well smoked.
Iron Age Dwelling at Bolsta Beach © Tina Shirt
From here the group divided, a few choosing to potter in the local vicinity whilst the rest marched off across the boggy headland on a five mile hike. Some superb bog plants were enjoyed including a spectacular patch of Marsh Cinqfoil, more Great Sundew and Bog Asphodels. At the end of the walk it seemed only right to enjoy a series of Eagle encounters to round off a ‘golden’ day.
Golden Eagle at Bolsta Beach © Jeff Clarke
Golden Eagle chick Lewis © John O’Dwyer
Saturday 6th June
Our final morning on Lewis we awoke to another wild and windy day, by the time we had departed from our guest house the rain was driving against the windscreen. On arrival in Stornoway a number of the group decided to explore the town. The rest decided to try out Tiumpan Head in the hope of connecting with some cetaceans. We parked at the lighthouse and found some shelter. Within a few minutes Mary spotted a fin in the water. We got onto the area and soon a pod of White beaked dolphins were visible in the high seas. Sadly not everyone in the group managed to see them. The cliffs themselves were full of birds, including Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillimots and Razorills. Out to sea Bonxies and Arctic Skuas harassed the local Gannets and Kittiwakes.
All too soon it was time to catch the ferry to Ullapool. The crossing was a little bouncy but thankfully the wind was now lessening and it was possible to watch for wildlife from the port side. All the expected birds were on view including many Puffins, but the most difficult birds were to spot were a few European Storm Petrels. No fins were visible in the turbulent white-caps but as we closed in on Ullapool the sheltered waters were calm in enough to allow the briefest of glimpses of two Harbour Porpoises and we also spotted a few Harbour Seals.
So that was it. A wildlife filled week despite the unseasonably windy weather that was such a feature of our trip.
Thanks to those who have contributed their photographs to the blog.
Martyn and Jeff.