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Uists 10.03.07-17.03.07

Posted by on March 19, 2007 7:54 PM | 

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Mrs D and I just spent a wild and windy week in the Outer Hebs - staying in the Locheport area of North Uist.
The wind never really dropped beneath a constant 50 miles per hour (at least that's what it felt like) and often the cloud base was below knee-level, but when the sun shone and the skies were blue, the islands were as beautiful as ever.
Although a fairly quiet time for birds, mid-March wasn't bad with at least two Glaucous Gulls (one or possibly two) individuals at the North Ford at the top of Benbecula), and a single bird on the beach at Balranald.

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This was one bird I watched at the North Ford - the second shot below shows the size difference between these brutes and Herring Gulls....

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I saw Glaucs here on March 10 and 16th, and had a much whiter second year bird at Balranald on March 11th.
Biggest problem was keeping the scope and camera steady in the wind, which meant that my blurry photos are even dicier than usual, such is life.
Had a nice first winter Iceland Gull drifting north near Bayhead on March 11th, when I also watched one of the two male Lesser Scaups that are on Coot Loch, Benbecula.
Hard to get a shot of it at distance as it bobbed and dived with Tufties....

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Plenty of Long Tailed Ducks about, with up to 13 in the wonderfully named Stinky Bay on Benbecula.

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The stormy bay gets its name from all the rotting kelp on the shore - a few feet deep and guaranteed to clear the lungs and head after too much Black Cuillin ale....and the beach east of the seaweed strand more than makes up for the stench.

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And as usual, Great Northerns were the commonest diver, with a count of at least 9 birds off Berneray on March 13th.

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This Red Throated Diver was a bit easier to digi-scope, in the narrow channel north of Griminis.

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Raptors were a bit disappointing, with just one superb male Hen Harrier, a few Kestrels and a displaying Short Eared Owl on the Committee Road to Sollas - but the bad weather probably kept them down.
Missing out on Golden Eagle on two days was quickly forgotten there on March 15th, when a wonderful sub-adult bird came over a low hill and hunted in front of the car at no more than 100 feet for a good five minutes - absolutely magical views, but I didn't dare get out the car to try to get a pic, preferring to enjoy the bird instead - best views of a Golden Eagle I've ever had in the UK.
Wild Greylags are everywhere on the islands, but there were more Barnacles in the north west, where a few flocks of up to 100 birds fed on the wintry machair.

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The Barnies on the Uists are wintering birds from the Greenland breeding population, not from Spitzbergen.
Also in the north west, around Bayhead and Paiblesgarry, I had two groups of Twite, while the usual Stonechat was further north on the road to Sollas.
Despite the strong winds I couldn't resist a few walks out to Aird an Runair, my favourite seawatching spot on the planet, although there wasn't much to see - huge waves and chasm like troughs meant anything that was out there was well hidden.
Four Snow Buntings were there too, but elusive, mind you given the screaming gales, most sensible critters were elusive out on the point......

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At least 70 Fulmars past there in ten minutes on the 15th though, in force 8 winds (hooley scale force 7 - handcuff yourself to a grand piano).
Good numbers of wintering Purple Sands in the area, with up to 30 in one flock.

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Oystercatchers, Redshank and Ringed Plovers were everywhere, with the former mating and the latter displaying, while on the night of March 11th I heard a Snipe drumming in the dark over the boglands of Locheport.
Small family groups of Whoopers were on any suitable lochs or marshy areas, often feeding alongside Mute Swans, and frequently stained by the peat in the water.

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And while otters were hard to find in the harsh conditions, at least this one was happy to haul out on this rock in front of our digs in Locheport at dusk for a snooze, curling up like a cat on the flat stone.

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One day, all islands will be made this way - a great week in a place where people still talk to you and ALWAYS wave when they drive by, as opposed to a world where people generally shout at you and if you hear the words "drive by" you best take cover....
Ferry back from Lochmaddy to Skye on March 17th was pretty good too for the middle of March....
Gannet 5; Fulmar 100+; Puffin 1 winter plumage bird; Razorbill 7; Guillemot 2; Black Guillemot 3; Great Northern Diver 1; Bonxie 1 superb flyby close to the ship; Shag; GBB; Herring Gull; Kittiwake ....plus two Bottle Nosed Dolphins.
Thanks to everyone on the islands for their usual hospitality, only a few short weeks now before the days get longer, the Corncrakes return and the Machair starts to bloom.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies....

10 Comments

Hi John,
just been lookin at your hebs stuff, and particularly the 'Lesser' Scaup shots.The bill on your bird gives the impression of having a large amount of black at the tip, normally on Lesser this is very small and restricted exclusively to the nail, on the first photo it seems to spread out beyond the nail. Also on the right hand photo the bill shape looks wrong, it shows a reasonably straight upper outline and deep base. Lesser shows more of a concave shape, especially towards the base.
The head shape also looks a bit odd, on both shots the highest part of the crown appears to be at the front of the head,quite rounded in appearance, on Lesser the highest point should allways be at the rear, and much more sloped at the front.
The photos also seem to show the flanks to be gleeming white,even on rear flanks. On male Lessers these feathers have fine grey vermiculations which are almost never visable in the field but give the flanks a clouded greyish appearance.(rear flank striping usually courser and visable.)
The upper parts as well seem to be, in my view, to pale for Lesser Scaup, which shoud in theory be darker and more coursely vermiculated.
Finally, the bird looks to be swimming(sitting) rather low in the water, tail trailing, Lessers often look more bouyant, sitting higher in the water, maybe due to there slightly smaller size and lesser bodyweight.
Of course, this is only my opinion taken from the photo's shown above, they do not take into consideration the weather,light, etc only the above shots. It would be interesting to here anybody elses thoughts on the subject. I do have to confess that I'm leaning more towards the bird being a Greater Scaup, sorry John.

Ta Neill
Conditions were pretty bad, although not as bad as these blown-up/tweaked shots.
Nothing rides high in the water up there at this time of year.
I know what you mean about the bill tip and shape, and I did consider the possibility of a runt Scaup, but the bird was the same size, or slightly smaller than some of the Tufties around it (which of course you can't see here), and was clearly narrower in the beam, bill and head than a Common Scaup.
Can't really pin it down to a hybrid either.
I'm still in the Lesser Scaup camp - but I'm happy to be proved wrong.
The two birds identified as drake Lesser Scaup have been on this small loch since January, but I can't find any better pix of them on the internet.
What do others think?

Not a palm tree or a mangrove in sight! Not my kinda place at all!

I did actually see a palm tree up in Balemore once, but the islands are admittedly short of mangroves.
No trees means the birds are easier to find!

Hi John you came back....if you had come this week you would have never got off no ferries for 3 days and no food!
I work in Stornoway and weekend in Benbecula and for the last 2 months I have been trying to get a picture of the Lesser scarp. I took what I thought was one but my bird forum and bird recorder decided it wasn't.
I got another but I was too embarrassed to post that. There were Wigeons and Teals too on Coot Loch.
I climbed the fence and waded through the flood mud until I could not go any further!
That day I went to Stinky Bay, I love that place and got quite a good picture of a Little Gull 18th February.
I don't know how to post pics onto your blog for you to see.
I have some good pics of the Iceland Gull at Stornoway Harbour and reasonable ones of the Northern Diver.
I have been trying to get pics of the glaucous gulls spotted but I haven't been able to get out as the weather has been terrible!!!
Debbie
PS A great place for Purple Sandpipers and Fulmars is Balivanich Beach at very low Tide....Go down to the beach just past Hospital and you will be greated by noisy fulmars, sandpipers, long tailed ducks etc. etc.

On reflection I think Neill is right.
I may well have been watching a Lesser Scaup, but I have somehow managed to digiscope a Greater Scaup.
Apologies for the confusion.
I am an *rse.

Hi John,
concerning the scaup featured on your blog pages I would agree with Neill that the bird on the left is in fact a Greater Scaup whilst the bird on the right does appear to be one of the Lesser Scaup present. It appears to show a more restricted black nail to the bill, a darker mantle (compared with the bird on the left) and a grey wash to the fore-flank. Although the head looks quite square and does not show the peaked crown this is often the case in actively feeding birds, which this one appears to be. The peaked rear crown of Lesser Scaup is much more evident when the bird is relaxed. There have been up to three Lesser Scaup wandering the isles this winter with all three being present on Coot Loch quite recently. The grey wash on the flanks is variable from bird to bird; one shows a strong wash (heavy flank markings)whilst on others it's much paler. In strong light two of the Lesser Scaup appeared to have white flanks but in more nuetral light or when seen closely the whiter flanked birds do show fine, grey vermiculations in the flanks. For more shots of these birds please visit recent sightings at: www.western-isles-wildlife.co.uk
Cheers
Steve

Thanks Steve - all information on these birds welcomed!

Was very interested in the Uist report as we are to visit the Hebrides in July for the first time.

Would be interested to know what camera / lens etc you use? Even given the windy weather the pictures look good to me !!

I'm a very amateur, amateur birder. (and obviously and even more amateur photographer !!)

Always interested to read your 'blog'.

Thanks
Gill

Hi Gill, glad you like the blog (for a summer visit to the Hebs, check the blog archives on the right for June/July last year when we were up there for a fortnight, and October/November 2006, when we were there for a fortnight too).
As for my kit - I use a Coolpix L1 digital camera, handheld to the lens of a tripod mounted Nikon 780 scope - this has pros and cons, as there will inevitably be some camera shake, especially in windy weather, but it's easier than learning how to take pix properly!
Regards,
John
PS Calling all optical companies - why don't you sponsor me and the blog and send me lots of lovely kit to use/abuse?

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