This is the first of a series of short blogs about our recent week’s holiday (18 – 25 May) on the Uists, during which we saw 79 species of birds. This first blog relates to North Uist; others will cover Benbecula, South Uist and the amazing RSPB reserve at Balranald on North Uist.
Last week was the third time my wife and I have holidayed on the Uists. We have always had a holiday cottage on North Uist, and this is our second time in a lovely house by the sea at Carnach, and owned by Gina Macdonald. On this holiday we were joined by our daughter, Janet, and husband Sean. The crossing over the Little Minch was a bit rough, but we still had some good views of seabirds, mainly gannets, fulmar, guillemots, terns and some little auks. I was amazed at how the tiny auks dived under the water when the passenger ferry (the Hebridean) was almost upon them.
For those who have never visited the Uists, a string of islands are connected by causeways (with one having the warning sign to be aware of otters crossing). Starting at the north is the small island of Berneray, then North Uist, with the even smaller island of Baile Shear of to the west. Travelling further south there is the small island of Grimsay, which leads on to Benbecula. Continuing south is South Uist with the small island of Eriskay at its southerly tip. The island of Barra is even further south, though not connected by a causeway and requiring a ferry trip.
All of the inner, outer and northern isles are amazing for birdlife but I think that North Uist, South Uist and Benbecula take some beating. Our first interesting sighting was a short-eared owl on a roadside fencepost. These owls seem quite small until they take off and show their quite remarkable wingspan. The owl began to hunt, and reminded us of a moth or butterfly in flight. It was a real beauty, and was the first of many sightings of this owl. On another occasion a male hen harrier was hunting over the same area, and we had three sightings there of this gorgeous light grey raptor.
The Uists have a large breeding population of greylag geese, and we saw several with a flotilla of fluffy yellow goslings behind them. Eider ducks are common on North Uist, as are shelduck, but a species we were not expecting was the shoveler, with those we were seeing mostly in broad ditches. Red breasted mergansers largely replace the goosanders I am much more used to seeing on the mainland, and a pair treated us to a regular close-up viewing on a pool left behind by the tide just outside the house. The retreating tide behind the house treated us to more than birds, and we had a pleasant starter one evening of cockles that we gathered.
An extremely small number of whooper swans breed in the Western and Northern Isles, and I was lucky enough to see a single whooper. On another occasion I saw two swans on a loch near where I had this sighting but never managed to stop to see whether they may have been breeding whoopers.
There are few hirundines on the Uists, and we only saw two houses on North Uist with nesting house martins (though I am sure there will be more). They are certainly not as common as on the mainland. Other interesting species make up for their absence of course, and we saw two of those on our last evening. We were having dinner with Catherine, a friend of Janet and Sean. As I got out of the car I looked up at two small birds on the telephone wire, with the initial thought they were house sparrows. A second glance identified them as a pair of reed buntings, confirmed through the binoculars. After the meal our host was looking out the window when she suddenly reached for the binoculars, and said, “I’m pretty sure that is a greenshank out there.” Indeed it was, only 30 yards from the house and feeding in a wide and shallow pool of the small river that passes her house. It was the last of the 79 species recorded.