Continuing this series of short blogs, we visited Benbecula a couple of times during the week’s holiday. There is a fabulous beach with well over a mile of sand and with thousands of tons of the most amazing variety of oval stones. The beach was extremely busy both days, with at least another three people there besides us, but no deck chairs, beach balls or any noise other than gentle waves lapping the shore. Over the past three visits we have collected some lovely stones from Benbecula that now decorate a small patch of alpines in the garden.
Dunlin and some sanderling were running back and forth with the outgoing tide, snatching an invertebrate of some sort here and there and always just a few inches ahead of the waves. Beyond the waves, but still in shallow water Arctic terns dived into the sea to catch a sand eel or similar snack, while slightly further out a lone great-northern diver floated on the water, almost half submerged in the manner of divers, and repeatedly disappeared under the water in search of food. Further out still two gannets were taking it in turn to dive from about 20 metres up in the hope of catching a bigger fish. As we watched this wonderful wildlife spectacle a dark morph Arctic skua slowly flew along the coastline less than 50 metres from the shore, its twin extra-long tail feathers, somewhat resembling a swallow’s tail feathers stuck on as an extension, making it an easy skua to identify.
Slightly north-east of the beach are fields surrounding a small and shallow freshwater loch that have as good a variety of birds as found anywhere on Benbecula. A small island in the centre of the loch was peppered with black-headed gulls on nests, while on a marsh area at the edge of the loch scores of Arctic terns were nesting. Lapwings, looking black rather than their true iridescent green and with crests blowing in the breeze, were sitting on nests everywhere on the marshy fields and the grass fields, with one early clutch hatched and probably reduced from four to two as that is all I could see despite watching for at least 15 minutes. Redshank waded in the shallows and a common sandpiper perched momentarily on a rock sticking out of the water before flying off with its shrill tee wee wee, tee wee wee call.
I have heard many complaints of wader chicks being decimated in Perthshire by crows, gulls and buzzards. I bet thousands of wader chicks fall victim in the Western Isles, not only to hooded crows but to the various species of gull, skua and ravens. The difference is that the habitat is correct and these losses can be sustained. I’m afraid most mainland habitat is ruined for farmland birds by intensive agriculture, its monocultures of cereal crops and associated spraying of pesticides and herbicides.
On another part of Benbecula, with rough permanent pasture, skylarks twittered overhead and a pair of twite briefly landed on the narrow public road before perching- equally briefly – on the fence. Further along, near a farm steading, a pair of greenfinches landed on the roadway; common enough birds in Perthshire but the only ones I have seen on Benbecula. A raven watched from on top of a fence post 100 metres from the road, but when I stopped the car it was off like a shot, prukk, prukk, prukking in annoyance. They are no less wary of humans here.
We were seeing much of this wildlife from the roadside, driving at a slow pace and stopping if an interesting bird was seen (with no disruption to traffic, as another car may not have come along for five minutes). I saw many enthusiastic birdwatchers with telescopes and cameras with long lenses that would cost much the same as a small car. We were quite happy with binos and a pocket digital camera since there is little need to creep up on the wildlife here. All of these ‘islands on the edge’ are a paradise.