A wildlife visit to Harris and Lewis

At the end of March into early April 2022, we had one week on Harris and Lewis and it was a great opportunity to catchup with the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides.

We stayed in Uig on Skye the night before our ferry and were pleased to see a Great Northern Diver still in winter plumage fishing off-shore. This is a diver you are much more likely to see in winter before they head north (the clue is in the name) and it is told from other divers by its big chunky bill and steep forehead.

We had an early ferry, and whilst it was grey and wet waiting around the port, I was able to tick off a few more species. Eider Duck and Black Guillemot giving distant scope-only views. Kind-faced Common Gulls alongside mean-faced Great Black-Backed Gulls. Pied Wagtail and Turnstone foraging around the seaweed clad shore. A flock of 50-60 Starlings taking off and flying over my head moving inland.

Ferries to the Outer Hebrides are a great opportunity for some sea-watching. I always wonder why everybody is inside when they could be kickstarting their holiday with views of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets. I hope for a Skua or a Dolphin but not today. As we approach Tarbert on Harris I do get a brief view of a Peregrine hunting off a small rocky skerry.


The joy about heading to the Scottish Islands is that some of the rare birds here are now common and vice versa. I met one birdwatcher on Skye who had once travelled 50 miles to twitch a Magpie! The first swan I see is a Whooper striking with its yellow bill and straight neck “alert” posture. A much more refined bird than the Mute Swan in my opinion.

Similarly the pigeons here are true Rock Doves rather than our bred (inbred?) Ferrel Pigeons. Look how consistent these birds are to each other compared to what you see in town waiting to steal your sandwich.

Birds are starting to carve our territories and fenceposts make a bold-statement for any parading male. This Pied Wagtail and Stonechat are good examples.

However what strikes me soon after arriving is that the Wheatears have arrived. I haven’t seen any on the mainland yet this year but I count 15 Wheatear in two days here. These are all males which arrive first and establish their territories in advance. The females take a more leisurely journey and then get to pick their mate on arrival with the males competing to win her affections. Wheatear is old English for “White Arse” and the bird is told in flight by a white sugar-cube on it’s rump. But it is the black eye mask on the male, like a bandit, that always stands out for me.


We take a coastal drive and I am delighted by close-up views of a Greenshank. I hear it first but am grateful that it lands nearby and I can photograph it from the car.

Greenshank

The Greenshank appears much more refined to me than the more common and bolshy Redshank which I keep seeing around the coast and sometimes inland on marshes.

A Cormorant on a rock allows reasonable views, this is a sub-adult still with quite a lot of white showing. The full adults tend to be darker with only a small white patch around the gape of the bill.

Cormorant

There are lots of Red-Breasted Mergansers around the coast. These are the punk rockers of the duck world with a far out hairdo and bright red eyes (from the night before?). These are sawbills with thin serrated bills which are ideal for catching small fish which they chase under water. This bird is very common on the west coast of Scotland but nonetheless special for that.

At one particular inlet I am astonished to count 27 Grey Herons at one time – there is practically one every 10 feet. I don’t think I have ever seen such a dense collection of herons before and I can only guess that a Heronry is nearby and the fishing here at this time of the tide must be excellent.


Over the week as a whole the weather is quite mixed with a couple of lovely sunny days but a lot of grey and wet ones too. I am keen to see Birds of Prey and whilst we are not overwhelmed with sightings, as we would have been on Mull for example, we did get to see most target birds.

Over the week I had a remarkable three sightings of Merlin all too brief for a photo but nonetheless special for that. We also had a brief glimpse of a female Hen Harrier. We see quite a few Peregrine including this beauty which gave sustained views from a bike ride on South Harris.

Peregrine

On a drive around south Harris we were delighted to catch views of this Golden Eagle. This was the only one we saw during the week but the weather conditions were far from ideal for raptors flying so I am sure on a finer week more could have been seen.

Golden Eagle

Towards the end of our stay we hadn’t seen any White-Tailed Eagles, but on a drive out to Great Bernera we were pleased to get distant views of a flying White-Tail, at one point it came down on an island and we made out a second bird on the ridge. It was terrible light, raining and quite distant, so not great for photos, definitely a record shot.

Two White Tailed Eagles

There are obviously Mammals to see on Harris and Lewis too. Whilst we looked for Otters we didn’t see any. But we did come across a couple of Otter spraints marking territories.

Red Deer were abundant round the Island too and on a few occasions we pulled the car over and took some pictures.

And we saw several seals around the Island too, both Grey out to sea and Common in more sheltered inlets. On a cycle around South Harris we were pleased to see several Common Seals out on the rocks but also playing in the water.

I should add that the beaches on South Harris really aren’t bad at all either!


The top of Lewis had a wild feel to it with long flat moorland terrain mixed in with marshes and a few small lochs. At the northern point is the Butt of Lewis which is the last stopping point for birds migrating to Iceland.

We saw lots of Golden Plover on the machair and some were clearly the Northern Subspecies (altifrons) in their full summer breading plumage with a smart black-dipped-in-oil look continuing up onto their face. The first time I saw birds like this I was actually in Iceland in July and they were on their breading territories, it is nice to be taken back there and I wish these birds well for their upcoming migration.

Over the day several skeins of pink-footed geese arrive from further south whilst others head out to sea. It is quite emotional watching them leave – will all of them make it?

The very northern tip hosts an impressive lighthouse surrounded by descent cliffs.

Butt of Lewis

Looking across the cliffs there are so many Fulmars which are great to see. As well as a few Black Guillemot and Kittiwakes.

People confuse Fulmars with gulls but they are actually members of the tubenose (petrel) family and they pair for life.

Fulmars really come into their own when they take to the air. Fulmars are fantastic flyers, masters of exploiting the air currents over the waves and around the cliffs. They mostly fly with stiff locked wings and it is this that most easily tells them from gulls. I spend a happy half hour photographing them in flight – a lovely experience.

A nearby rock is covered in Shags and a few Cormorants and looking around the surf you can also see birds swimming on the surf between the rocks on some apparant suicidal mission.

Out to sea Gannets are flying past. Grouped together in tight squadrons showing near military precision these are impressive birds, our largest seabird.

Gannets

Some are plunge diving I was really pleased with the following picture showing a gannet with a beautifully fanned out tail, I have never noticed this before.

Gannet Diving

Walking around the tops of the cliffs there are several Ringed Plover feeding. These birds always seem busy to me and whilst it is raining now I stoop down low to get a clear background and therefore a cleaner photo.

Often around Lewis, Skylarks have provided a wonderful backing soundtrack. When these birds sing they are fully committed and sometimes continue for 20 minutes or more, and this is normally in flight too. It is as if they are saying “Pick me, I can fly and sing at the same time!”

Skylark singing

Here, sheltered from the wind there are a few resting on a cattle feeder.


Our time in the Outer Hebrides is coming to an end but we are in for one more treat. We head back to Stornoway Harbour and before catching our ferry we are pleased to see a first-winter Iceland Gull among the ubiquitous Herring Gulls. Whilst the murky light doesn’t do the bird justice when you see this bird up close it is ghostly white – one of only two birds found in Britain with all white wingtips (the other being the larger Glaucous Gull)

The last time I saw an Iceland Gull was on Islay in 2018 – but they say good things come in twos. A week later another Iceland Gull turns up a short bike ride from my home. I share a couple of pictures of this bird here so you can see how white it appears, particularly the wing tips.

On the ferry home I was happy to add a Great Skua and I also see a couple of Common Dolphins too. A great week on the Outer Hebrides, I can’t wait to go back.

2 thoughts on “A wildlife visit to Harris and Lewis

  1. Lovely account of a good variety of birds. I like the red breasted mergansers and of course golden eagle. Thanks for revising them for others to learn and appreciate.

    Liked by 1 person

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