Birds of the Western Isles – Balranald RSPB Reserve, North Uist

Sanderling and dunlin. Dunlin magically appeared in almost every photo I took

Sanderling and dunlin. Dunlin magically appeared in almost every photo I took


Turnstone and sanderling. With so many birds of different species it was difficult to get a photo of only one species. The turnstone's camouflage is incredible

Turnstone and sanderling. With so many birds of different species it was difficult to get a photo of only one species. The turnstone’s camouflage is incredible


This beautiful female wheatear kept my attention for ages.

This beautiful female wheatear kept my attention for ages.

I have been on a few nature reserves in my time but the RSPB reserve at Balranald on the west coast of North Uist must take some beating. On none of the reserves have I seen the variety of birds as here. In fairness most do not have the mix of farmland (farmed in the old-fashioned way with a minimum of pesticides and herbicides), machair, coastline which is in part sandy and part rocky, and with wetlands and small lochans completing the mix. It was so amazing that I visited four times during the week, at different times of the day and in a variety of weather conditions, including a day so windy I thought I’d see nothing.

The first part of the reserve encountered is the wetlands. There were lapwing , oystercatcher, redshank and mallard everywhere. On an evening visit snipe were drumming, flying up high in the sky and zooming down again, the pin feathers in their tail making the most incredible vibrating sound as it does so, referred to as ‘drumming.’ As the week wore on I saw more and more young lapwing and mallard, and a redshank was alarming at me as I walked along the designated track, so it most likely had chicks as well.

The sandy fields of the farmland had lapwing, oystercatcher, feral pigeons and a huge number of ringed plover. Some of the fields were being rolled, and I hoped that not too many eggs or chicks would be lost, though there was plenty time for another clutch to be laid. Several skylarks were singing high above a grass field, and a party of twitchers were excited about a short-toed lark that had been seen. It’s unlikely I would have recognised it even if I had seen it, and in any case I don’t get too excited about rarities or birds blown off course.  (There was also a harlequin duck off the rocky shore that twitchers were rushing about to see). Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I spotted a corn bunting sitting on a fence. I watched it through the binos for a few minutes and when I looked away from the bird another half dozen people had cameras with enormous zoom lenses trained on it.

On the shoreline there were probably 300 or 400 waders feeding either in the sand as the tide retreated or among the seaweed that had been washed up and refreshed by the tide. They were mainly sanderling, turnstone and dunlin, though I was told that there was a large flock of purple sandpipers the previous week.  I sat quietly on a grassy banking and took a few photos with my wee pocket digital. A man with a camera with a huge lens was almost amongst the birds. I’m sure with that lens a single bird would more than fill the screen. Occasionally – and for no obvious reason – the birds would lift and wheel round a few times before resuming their feeding. A female wheatear and a rock pipit were slightly closer to me than the waders and gave me some good views through the binoculars. In the distance, in a rock pool, four shelduck had a series of squabbles over some shelduck-related problem that I couldn’t fathom.

The first small lochan I came to held a single Canada goose (maybe the other was on a nest in the reeds), and a shoveler. A heron stalked round the shallows and a redshank and a lapwing mobbed a couple with a dog that had gone off the designated track and were really too close to the loch and its surrounding marsh. The other loch held a colony of nesting Arctic terns, and there was a constant stream of terms coming and going over my head between the sea and the lochan.

Lastly, away out on the rocks at the furthest point of the reserve, I spotted a dozen or so people all with telescopes trained on the sea. I clambered over the rocks to see what was of interest. Three great-northern divers were swimming off-shore, some shags sat on a rock, and half a dozen gannets were diving for fish. These were not the main points of interest though: the group was watching out for skuas migrating up the west coast. There were long-tailed skuas and pomerine skuas (rare enough and certainly not seen in Perthshire) and I was thrilled at seen them.  One bird that passed caused considerable interest and excitement and was announced as a yellow-billed diver. Not one I would have known and I was grateful to the guide with the group for the commentary he was giving. I’m afraid it would have left me scratching my head.

So my four visits to the reserve (two with the rest of the family in tow) were well worth the short trip from where we were staying and I am looking forward already to my next trip to the Outer Hebrides.


My daughter, Janet, had been desperate during the trip to see an otter. On the morning we were leaving North Uist, about 6.00 am, I was carrying the cases out to the car. I looked across to the inlet, rapidly filling with water on an incoming tide, when I saw an otter on the sandbank. It quickly ran into a deepening lagoon, swan quickly across and disappeared round a headland. It was all over in seconds, with no time to shout the rest of the family out. What an end to the holiday!

(In the next post I will list all the birds seen on this and two previous trips to the Uists)

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