My wife, dog Molly and I are on the last day of our week on North Uist. The birdlife and scenery are fantastic here, spoiled only by the random dumping of old cars, tractors and other machinery.
Of the more interesting birds, the first to be seen was a golden eagle, which was no more than quarter of a mile from the cottage we were staying in. My attention had been drawn by a carrion crow swooping down at something on the ground. On further investigation a golden eagle flew up but unfortunately disappeared over a ridge. According to the visitors’ book in the cottage golden eagles and white-tailed eagles have been frequently seen flying over the cottage. This is hardly surprising as where we are situated at the very north of Uist is only a few minutes glide from the mountainous Island of Harris.
Many of the lochs have a pair of shelduck, most of them now having a brood of ducklings in tow. I watched two broods, one of three and one of seven, on the shoreline at the RSPB reserve at Balranald. Over the course of the week they had gained considerably in size and in diving ability; in fact with the larger brood it was difficult to count the ducklings as they were as much under water as on the surface.
A loch in North Uist and one in South Uist held a single black-throated diver. On the South Uist loch the bird was at the far end of the loch near the shore. We watched it for a while but while we were having a coffee it suddenly disappeared. I wondered if it had come of the nest for a dip in the water and had returned to the shoreline nest when we were distracted. It would ne nice to think that was the case. There were no red-throated divers on this visit though there was a single great northern diver well offshore at Balranald.
One lovely-looking small and very shallow loch with reeds at either end at Baile Shear hald an amazing variety of ducks for its size. These were two mallard drakes, a male shoveler, a pair of tufted ducks and a pair of wigeon. The icing on the cake was a single black-tailed godwit. This bird was wading up to the very top of its long legs. It’s russet-coloured head and neck were very clear, possibly making it a male, though the loch was nearly a quarter of a mile away so it was hard to be sure. Viewing from half that distance would have been perfect.
Sightings of short-eared owls were common, quartering the heather or rushes rather like giant butterflies. Even more common a sight were the hen harriers. They were all males that we saw – at least six different birds in all – and it was lovely to see their hunting technique, quartering low to the ground, suddenly turning, almost stopping then diving to the ground if they had spotted a prey item.
One day my attention was drawn to a group of half a dozen lapwings and several redshank flying round in a panic about some threat. I stopped to watch. The birds were just over a field breadth away, in the corner of a rushy part of the next field. The lapwings were repeatedly diving down nearly to the ground attacking the threat. Seven redshank then sat on fence posts as observers. I could hear the lapwings but couldn’t hear the redshank, though I’ve no doubt they were piping their alarm call from the sidelines. The lapwings gradually whittled down to three determined attacking birds and after a full ten minutes a male hen harrier rose from the rushes with a decent sized bird clutched in its talons. I’d guess from the determined lapwings that it was one of their chicks.
This would be a good meal for the male to deliver in a food pass to a female hen harrier. It was unfortunate for the individual young lapwing but it was only one of many thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of young lapwings, oystercatchers, redshank, common sandpiper and snipe that were visible in the fields. It is a great pity that even small pockets of this rich habitat are now missing on the mainland. Similarly it is a pity – indeed a disgrace – that hen harriers have been decimated on the mainland to make way for driven grouse shooting.
It was good to see a fair number of corn buntings on North Uist. Sympathetic farming benefits this species here, as it now does in several parts of the mainland. The numbers of at least this farmland bird seem to be gradually improving.
I was disappointed not to have heard or seen a corncrake on this visit. On previous visits they seemed plentiful and every so often their crek, crek call could be heard as you drove along a road. I spoke with a local woman and asked her if she had heard any this year. She said she had not but her sister had said that she couldn’t get a wink of sleep the other night for a corncrake on one side of the house and a cuckoo on the other side. The sister lived beside the Westford Hotel, which was not far from where our conversation took place. We drove to the Westford Hotel and parked up for a while. Not a single crek was heard, though the cuckoo was still voicing its presence. We’ll need to wait till the next visit to hear or see a corncrake.
There is not such a variety of mammals on the outer isles as on the mainland but we were treated to two red deer stags in the garden of the cottage. They remained unperturbed by my presence or that of our wee dog Molly, even at 20 yards away. Also unperturbed by humans were a small number of common seals that regularly haul out at low tide next to one of the villages on the Isle of Beneray. I was happy to photograph them at 50 yards away but a couple of chaps with large lenses walked over the rocks to about 10 yards away, with the seals being content to snooze on in the sunshine. A bigger group of 75 grey seals were hauled out at Loch Aineort on South Uist. They have been there on all of my visits, and this is also a great place to see golden eagles and otters, though not on this occasion.
The next visit can’t come quickly enough.