On our week’s holiday we had two sojourns to South Uist. The first, on the Sunday after we arrived, was to a café and craft shop, mainly for a bite to eat. The second journey was much more interesting. This took us first of all along a side road to Loch Eynort, a sea loch on the east side of the island. A pair of red-breasted mergansers were feeding in an inlet close to the road and affording a great view as they dived in turn in the shallows. Another half mile along the road the next pair of birds was even more interesting. We were now in mountainous terrain and two golden eagles were soaring high in the sky. They would be about quarter of a mile apart and I kept my binos trained on an immature one with much white under the wings and on the tail. It must have been in part moult as it had a feather missing on each wing. Birds moult pretty much symmetrically and it is always interesting to see a bird of prey with several feathers missing on one wing and none on the other. Good chance it has been shot at. The eagles soared for at least ten minutes and gave us some great views – the first time my daughter has seen two at the same time.
We continued on to near the end of the road and spotted some grey seals basking on the rocks in the loch. Once I stopped and we had a good look around we saw a total of at least 50 on three separate rocks. They looked like giant black bananas and were just about to get swamped by the incoming tide. One large bull had a rock to itself; either an outcast or more likely one near the top of the pecking order. Now that we were stopped I could see several vehicles at the turning point at the road end. These were mainly organised wildlife trips, and many of the same folks I had met the previous day at the RSPB reserve at Balranald. All of their expensive telescopes were parallel and trained on a large rock in the centre of the loch, where they had been watching an otter – that had just this minute disappeared. Typical! I chatted to one of the guides and he told me they had also been watching a golden eagle that had just disappeared as well. We were not too bothered about that as we had been one better with a sighting of a pair. We had an even better view of the seals from this point, and of a friendly robin that sat in a bush in front of us. The spell at Loch Eynort was completed with a fly-past of a pair of goldfinches, ditto a heron from the heronry just round the corner, a male wheatear perched on a rock, and of a willow warbler singing heartily in some thick undergrowth.
Heading south again on the ‘main’ road we stopped at a small loch to look at a pair of birds at the far side. These were red-throated divers and gave us some good views as they swam almost the length of the loch. The remained silent, which was a great pity as their ghostly call is, I think, one of the most eerie calls of all birds in Scotland. The next stop was across the causeway to the Isle of Eriskay where several razorbills were swimming in the harbour. Eriskay was the most unlikely place to encounter a traffic jam, but coming round a corner we were faced with a man with a stop/go lollipop. At stop. I don’t know how long he had been there but we were the first and only car in the queue. He told us the road ahead was being tarmacked and there was nothing for it but to park the car and maybe go to the nearby hotel. Nearly an hour and a pint of Guinness later I was able to recover my car and continue. It was not the worst traffic jam I had been in.
Heading back north again on South Uist we cut across to the west coast past the fields that would very shortly be a blaze of colour as the machair came to life. They certainly were alive with birds now, including a field with at least 30 golden plover, the males in particular resplendent with their golden backs and what looked like a white waistcoat open at the front and showing a black shirt underneath. These northern golden plover are far more heavily marked than their southern counterparts, with their cheeks and breast jet black rather than grey. I climbed a giant rock barrier newly built to prevent the fields being flooded in times of high, stormy tides, and was rewarded with a decent view of a rock pipit, a bird pretty much absent from Perthshire. A ringed plover ran off the shingle and its antics confirmed it had a nest. I gave up looking after a few minutes as a needle would be more easily found in a haystack.
Like in the other isles, the fields were full of nesting lapwing, curlew, skylark, oystercatcher, snipe, and redshank. Thankfully farming has changed little in the western and northern isles otherwise most of these birds would be at an extremely low ebb as UK breeding species. The last highlight of the trip was a short-eared owl hunting a roadside field, back and forward, back and forward, dropping occasionally into the grass, and, I am sure, hunting over the garden of a house. It was an absolutely magical day.