About Two Owls

Tuesday 21 June 2022

In Search of Island Birds Part 2

After our visit to St. Kilda our next destination was to be Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis.  Very little birding here for us though we did have Arctic and Common Terns in the harbour and Black Guillemots.  We disembarked and had a walk through the town and along the river to cross at the bridge making our way to Lews Castle,  here we found a Grey Heron fishing in the shallow river.

Grey Heron © Nick Hull

A walk through the wood to Lews Castle.

Lews Castle - Stornaway © Nick Hull

Back In 1844, the MacKenzies sold Stornoway, and the Isle of Lewis as a whole, to and his descendants) who built the present Lews Castle on a hill overlooking the bay of Stornoway. Fragmentary ruins of the old Stornoway Castle had survived in the bay until that time, and can even be seen in Victorian photographs, but Matheson destroyed them in 1882, in order to expand the harbour.

In the museum here we were able to see examples of the 12th century Lewis Chessman. Chess is a very old game. It originated in the Islamic world and by the medieval period its popularity had spread across Europe. It became an important part of elite medieval society, a way of practising and demonstrating skill and strategy in a war-like setting. Many of the medieval chess pieces are familiar to those who play the game today.

Some of the Lewis Chestmen at Lews Castle Stornaway

Most of the Lewis chess pieces are made from Walrus ivory. This was probably obtained in Greenland and traded back to Norway. Two of the pieces in the collection (and three British Museum pieces) are different, carved from sperm-whale teeth.

I also recorded a first here in the form of a beetle which is most probably Phophuga atrata (Silpha atrata) Sometimes this species is called the Black Snail Beetle as it preys on snails.

Silpha atrata © Nick Hull

As we walked back through the town we saw various pieces commemorative statues and signs about the local history such as:-

The Herring seller and the Peat being carried back for the fire. Stornaway © Nick Hull

Jackie taking a rest on the car park bench Stornaway © Nick Hull

As you can see the weather wasn't that kind to us though the complementary waterproofs, though a bit bright, worked very well. We headed back to the ship for lunch and rest to be ready for the evening sail and seawatch off the bow if the rain stopped.

I did manage a couple of shots from the ship of birds in the harbour.

Hooded Crow Stornaway Harbour © Nick Hull

Black Guillemot Stornaway Harbour © Nick Hull

Common Tern Stornaway Harbour © Nick Hull

Grey Seal off the stern St Maud, Stornaway Harbour © Nick Hull

So it was goodbye Stornaway and Lewis and next morning hello Islay, here we decided to do our own thing and found an RSPB reserve that was around 25 minutes from the Port.   We rang around several taxi's once we were ashore and they were all busy then on the quay info sign there was Hughie's Taxi so gave him a ring and he told us he would be around 15 minutes and would pick us up by the cenotaph.  

The Cenotaph Port Ellen Islay 

Well 20 minutes later we were on our way to Oa RSPB Reserve it was a very scenic route and we saw a few species on route, Hooded Crow, Buzzard, Whinchat, Meadow Pipit.  When we arrived we found the access road to the reserve was being resurfaced so we had a bit of a walk to reach the reserve proper.  Oa is a working farm as well as a nature reserve and we met a few of the locals and I had to include one shot here of one of them just for Jackie.

Highland Cow or is it 'Coo' Oa Islay © Nick Hull

There is also a monument here to commemorate the loss of 700 American lives in two WW1 troopship disasters.

The information sign and the monument in the distance

It was too far for Jackie to walk around the whole trail but we managed to get to look over the coast to attempt to see the Golden Eagles that reside in the area but it really wasn't ideal weather for raptors. Skylark were everywhere, Lesser Black-backed Gull were resting in the shelter of one of the small hillocks and we had Wheatear, Stonechat and Whinchat in the scrub and on the fences.

View across to the coastal cliffs of Oa © Nick Hull

After around 2 hours we made our way back through the roadworks to the cross roads where we waited for Hughie to pick us up.  On route we heard Snipe calling and found Northern Marsh Orchid 

Northern Marsh Orchid - Oa Islay © Nick Hull

Hughie arrived and we started our return to the port but en-route we had a Hen Harrier fly across the road and dive into the long grass and Hughie pulled over for us to have a good look at this stunning bird, just a little further on a Merlin flew across the front of the car.  We were probably half way back and Hughie asks "have you time" yes we've have plenty "Ok I'll take you up the valley where I live show you a bit more don't worry won't cost you anymore".  Off we went, he showed us his house and small holding and where the best fields for Corncrake were and we came across a flock of Greylag and he told us they used to be winter visitors but have begun to stay and breed in recent years.  Eventually we arrived back at Port Ellen and said goodbye to Hughie a real top taxi driver!  Back on the the rib and back to the MS Maud, we did not have a big list but had some quality and saw a small part of the beautiful Island of Islay. Next morning we would be entering Douglas on the Isle of Man passing this refuge tower built by 
Sir William Hillary, 1st Baronet best known as the man that started the RNLI.

Douglas Isle of Man harbour tower © Nick Hull

The Isle of Man didn't give us much in the way of birds, we were more like typical tourists. We walked from the port to the railway station to take the steam train to Port Erin and back.

Steam Train Isle of Man Douglas to Port Erin© Nick Hull

It was an interesting ride though probably not the most scenic of train rides but when we arrived at Port Erin we were starting to have a look around the town when the heavens decided to open up and we dashed back to the cafe at the station and drinks all round.  Time was moving on soon time to take the train back to Douglas and walk back to the port and the The Maud.  Later we sailed around past the Calf of Man where the Manx Shearwater is supposed to have been originally named on our way towards our next location Waterford in Ireland.

End of Part 2

Wednesday 15 June 2022

In Search of Island Birds Part 1

May is usually one of the best months of the year in Dorset for rarities so why book a holiday away for one of the best months of the year, is a question I'm still trying to answer. In compensation we visited some beautiful islands with fantastic habitats and met some lovely people.  

It all started many months ago when Jackie saw that Hurtigruten were doing a UK Island Expedition cruise which included two islands we have long wanted to visit Rathlin and St Kilda and having previously been with them on a Northern Lights, Norway trip decided to give it a try as it wasn't your normal type of cruise. On board they have a ornithologist, botanist, biologist and an expert on Cetaceans from ORCA. They also had an expert on Viking mythology and history as many of the islands we were to visit had Viking history. 

Hurtigruten's MS Maud Fishguard © Jackie Hull

We were to board our ship 'MS Maud' at Dover and sailed overnight and the next day to Fishguard for our first landing where we used ribs to go ashore to the jetty.  Oddly though Jackie and I have visited Pembrokeshire a number of times we had never been to Fishguard but recently had watched a TV programme featuring the Fishguard tapestry which depicts the last invasion of Britain by the French. We thought it would be good to see it for ourselves so we headed into town and to the Library, and I have to say the tapestry was fantastic at 30m in length and a little longer than the Bayeux tapestry, the needlework was superb and well worth a visit if you're ever in the area.  

A section of the tapestry depicting the women dressed in traditional clothing marching around a local hill to make the French think there was a larger army resident in the town than they thought.

This depicts local heroine, Jemima Nicholas, who is said to have captured soldiers single-handedly and secured them in St Mary’s Church.

After, we refreshed at The Royal Oak where the surrender was signed and where the table it was signed on still resides. A very welcoming pub also worth a visit as though you require encouragement.

Jackie, Fran and David contemplating whether it was time for drinks. © Nick Hull

We sailed in the evening and as became the norm we had dinner and headed out onto deck 6 and positioned ourselves overlooking the bow and seawatched, till almost dark before turning in for the night. Our destination next morning was Rathlin Island so we had a slow cruise up the Irish Sea passing the Isle of Man on to this beautiful Island off the Northern Ireland coast.   Land of the Golden Hare which was something Jackie and I hoped to see.  

There were 15 Ribs to transport passengers to shore © Jackie Hull

We were lucky to be in the first group to get ashore and we caught the shuttle bus to the RSPB reserve to look at the seabird colony which I have to say was tremendous with high stacks and cliffs full of birds Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Fulmar, Kittiwake and the more common Herring and Great Black- backed Gulls.

Just as we approaching the centre Jackie spotted a hare from the bus, soon as we were off we were scanning for the hare and one of the RSPB wardens told us that one was usually somewhere near the rocks over there and pointed to the field opposite.  We scanned with telescope and found it crouched down sheltering from the wind in a tussock of rushy grass. It was some distance away but because of it's golden blond colour you could make it out easily.

My digi-scoped shot of the Golden Hare on Rathlin Island.

So you can see what they really look like I've shared a You Tube video taken by Rathlin Stickybeak a group which records the Islands Wildlife, which shows the hare much better than my photograph.

Whilst looking for the hare I found a Great Skua or Bonxie as they are also known which lifted off and flew off towards the seabird colony around the head.  As this required a 100 step to get down to the viewing area by the lighthouse only David and myself made the descent which allowed us to see the many thousand of Guillemots, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Shag plus Great Black-backed and Herring Gull. 

A view of one of the sea cliff colonies at Rathlin RSPB © Nick Hull

We really had to short a time here but due to the popularity of the site and to allow as many  people to visit we jumped back on the bus and travelled back to the bay and headed off to a few small fields behind the houses where we were told we may hear Corncrake.

Sounds of Corncrake Rathlin Island © Nick Hull

After standing on the lane and listening to two Corncrake for ages in the hope that one of them would show which they didn't, we headed back to the beach and sat at one of the picnic benches and had some of the best chips from the mobil van that anyone could have.  It probably helped that it was sunny and warm and we were able to watch Black Guillemot and Eider with recently hatched ducklings in the small harbour.

Eider and ducklings also Black Guillemot - Rathlin Is. Harbour © Nick Hull

Unfortunately our time came to leave but Jackie and I agreed that we will come back and visit again in the future to this beautiful island. 

Our next destination was due to be Isle of Iona but unfortunately the swell was such that it was unsafe for the ribs to take us across, while "plan B" was decided and the captain sailed us around Staffa and Fingal's Cave unfortunately it was wet and misty.  Plan B turned out to be taking us into Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, a lovely colourful town but it turned very wet so was not our best day.

However the weather change for our next landing, St. Kilda an island I've always wanted to visit and was my main reason for going on this expedition cruise, though I knew that being able to land there was always risky as the landing is difficult if there is any sort of sea swell, and speaking to others some had tried several times and failed to get ashore but the forecast looked good.

View of the village on St. Kilda from our anchorage out in the bay © Nick Hull

As numbers were limited on the island each group that went ashore had approximately two hours to explore as much as you can in the allotted time.  Our first bird species that we saw was a little unexpected a Whooper Swan as we were heading into shore on one of the ribs.

Whooper Swan - St. Kilda © Nick Hull

The jetty isn't the easiest to get off of but we all managed it without incident and the first birds to be seen on the island, well you couldn't miss them as the glided effortlessly low over our head to their nest site on the harbour wall were Fulmar.

Fulmar nesting along the sea wall © Nick Hull

Then as we walked around the edge of the harbour towards the island helipad we met lots of the Soay Sheep.  These animals are treated as wild sheep and are not interfered with so if one breaks a leg it either survives or dies as if it were a wild animal, it appears with so many lambs around they survive very well as there were many around the village.  All the adults were very scruffy as they were shedding their winter fleece.

Soay Sheep - St Kilda © Nick Hull

A little further on whilst we were trying to find a Wren that had just flown into the shoreline boulders, we had another species we hadn't considered that we would see on the island, spotted by Fran moving through the shoreline rocks was a stunning male Snow Bunting.

Male Snow Bunting - St. Kilda © Nick Hull

Shortly after we managed to see our first St Kilda (Hebridean) Wren, a sub species of our Common Wren which has slightly different feather markings and is a tad bigger than the mainland race with a slightly different song but when you listen it sounds like a Wren, I just wish I had my recording equipment with me.

St. Kilda (Hebridean) Wren © Nick Hull

Other species seen around the village were a pair of Arctic Skua both dark phase birds, lots of Wheatear around all the stone walled enclosures and on a small wet bog we had several Snipe which we often heard calling with the yapping sound at various locations around the village.  We also had what we can only say sounded like a Ring Ouzel singing high up on a scree above the village but we couldn't find it for love nor money.  Though I did see a a bird at one point fly across and out of view over a ridge which looked very much like a male Ring Ouzel with silvery panels in the wing.

Northern Fulmar - St. Kilda © Nick Hull

I don't usually like getting too close to Fulmar as they can let loose and throw the contents of their stomach 
at you as a form of defence but this one came in and landed on to one of the stone turf covered houses right next to me. Though it does seem to have a smirk on it's face as it looked down it's tube nose at me, so I didn't stay in range too long.

After our village walk we caught a rib back to the ship for lunch and then in the afternoon we caught another for a rib cruise around the bay to see the nesting birds and seals.

Puffin and Razorbill taken from the rib loafing on the water St Kilda © Nick Hull

Some Bridled Guillemot with the usual plumaged Guillemot © Nick Hull

On the high-rise ledges which have well painted in guano were a number of Guillemot which had the white spectacle look which are known as Bridled Guillemot which are found much more as you move further north.

Kittiwake on their nesting ledge St Kilda © Nick Hull

As we moved around the bay there were a couple of what only can be calls shallow caves and this is where we found the Kittiwake nesting set back under the overhanging cliff above.

Great Skua (Bonxie) patrolling the sea cliff © Nick Hull

As with many of the northern seabird colonies there is always predators either Great Black-backed Gull or Bonxie and here we had two birds, one came very low and just cruised past us looking for the opportunity to pounce on an unsuspecting auk or Kittiwake to get a free meal. These birds have suffered terribly on the island from avian-flu this year and around 48% of the islands breeding population have died. It's very tragic and they aren't the only species Gannets and auks are being effected as well.

At sea level we had several Grey Seal, some resting on the flatter areas of the rocks and a few were in the water.  Our coxswain, as were the others, very good and didn't go too close so not to disturb them allowing them to get their rest and conserve their energy.

Atlantic Grey Seal - St Kilda © Nick Hull

Most areas of the cliffs had something going on, the green areas at the top Puffin and then a little lower Razorbill and Guillemot then the Kittiwake and then Shag and seals at the base.  Though one very high promintary had a group of resting Shag which looked quite prehistoric sat so high silhouetted against the pale grey sky.

Shag resting - St Kilda © Nick Hull

After our rib cruise around the bay it was back to the ship freshen up and then have our evening meal before heading back out for a evening seawatch on deck 6.  This seawatch produced possibly the best bird of the trip as we were watching lots of Shearwaters, Guillemot, Puffin and Gannet coming and going and as the light was just starting to dim Jackie shouts "Nick over here, out there going right" Amazingly I saw it straight away and couldn't quite believe what I was looking at a Leach's Petrel skimming across the sea unfortunately too far out for my 100/400 lens but we were able to watch it for a couple of minutes before it was gone from sight.