Birding in the Western Isles.
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BIRDING IN THE WESTERN ISLES
The Western Isles, otherwise known as the Outer Hebrides, are a group of islands lying in a crescent about 40 miles off Scotland's West Coast. The name Hebrides is derived from the Norse Havbredey, the "isles on the edge of the sea". The islands extend about 130 miles from north to south with remote outliers such as North Rona, lying a further 40 miles north of Lewis, St. Kilda, 41 miles to the west of N. Uist and the Flannan Isles, some 16 miles west of Lewis.
Some vital statistics give some idea of the scale of the archipelago. There are 119 named islands although only 14 are permanently occupied. The land area is 290,000 ha. and there are over 6,000lochs and lochans (15.8% of the UK's area of standing water). The largest of these is Loch Langavat in Lewis (8.9 sq. km.), but the majority are quite small (less than 0.25 sq.km.). The islands have an important indigenous avifauna and because of the islands' geographical location, they attract migrating birds from many parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
Birding locations on Lewis
The first part of the article deals with birding in the largest and most northerly islands of the group. Lewis and Harris is geographically one island but has been culturally and historically considered as two islands. The beautiful and spectacular scenery is recognised in the designation of the south of Lewis and all of Harris as a National Scenic Area. Man's occupation has had an important influence on the present day countryside and natural habitats. This occupation can be traced from the prehistoric sites at Callanish and Carloway through the Scandinavian rule which ended in 1335 but is still reflected in the place names, to the more recent crofting history and Gaelic culture.
The Islands' 212,690 ha. have a predominant topography of hills, higher and more rugged in Harris (culminating in the Clisham at 2,622 ft. (799m)) and of peaty moorland, more extensive in Lewis. This topography lies on a foundation of 3,000 million-year-old rock, Lewisian Gneiss. Numerous lochs of different sizes dot the landscape and the island coastline consists of a variety of sea lochs and sandy, rocky or muddy shorelines depending on the underlying geology. Landward of many of the sandy beaches there are areas of flower-rich machair, a nationally important habitat.
Birding these islands starts with the ferry crossing. Ulapool to Stornoway if travelling to Lewis, Uig in Skye to Tarbert if travelling to Harris, and Otternish in North Uist to Leverburgh if travelling to Harris from the Uists. Any of these ferries make excellent seawatching platforms, except on the rare occasions when the sea is too rough!
During the breeding season the birds seen from the ferry will be those that breed on the nearby and often difficult to access island seabird colonies. Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Cormorant, Manx Shearwater, Fulmar and Gannet can be seen and careful study of the sea surface on the longer crossings should reveal Storm or less commonly, Leach's Petrel fluttering over or weaving about the waves. In late summer Sooty Shearwater is a regular sight on the Minch crossings and the Great and Arctic Skuas regularly seen harassing the other seabirds are joined on rare occasions by Pomerine or Long-tailed Skuas. The regular show of cetaceans in the Minches adds to the overall interest.
The coastline of Lewis and Harris extends to some 770kms. The remoteness of most of this coastline, its physical variety and thereby the provision of nesting sites, and its proximity to rich feeding grounds makes this ideal seabird breeding territory. It is therefore relatively easy to find an interesting headland or stretch of coast for birding. The problem I have is singling out just a few locations for detailed description in the space allowed. Having said that and apologising for any personal bias, I will attempt the task.
The coastal sites of Lewis and Harris are rich in birdlife. The large expanse of moorland and hills in the interior and the vast number of lochs of all sizes, also hold nationally important breeding species; Golden Eagle, Black-throated Diver, Red-throated Diver, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin and Greenshank. Commoner species include native Greylag Goose, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Meadow Pipit, Wheatear and the Hebridean form of Wren and Song Thrush.
The richness of the coastal birding complemented by the nationally important species breeding inland and a spectacular scenic setting makes Lewis and Harris the ideallocation for a birding trip at any time of year.