Paul rang me on the 18th February to advise that an immature drake Harlequin Duck had been found on the sea off Balranald Reserve on North Uist. We both secretly hoped it would fly away as we had both just returned from separate trips to Shetland to see a Pine Grosbeak and had no wish to renew our acquaintance with the Motorways going north. Tuesday came and it was still there. Wednesday also. By Thursday our anxiety levels approached overload. Please little duck fly away and solve our dilemna. Friday it was still there and a short phone conversation resulted in myself and Paul leaving Oxford at nine that night to make the long haul journey by car and ferry to North Uist.
The mesmeric white lines of the carriageway lanes and red tail lights of other vehicles were all too familiar as we sped northwards in the night. Neither of us could have managed the journey on our own non stop but by alternating the driving one of us could sleep whilst the other drove and we made very good time. Driving through the night you are unaware of the changing landscape around you and it is always a surprise when dawn breaks in Scotland to find how very different it is to sedate Oxfordshire. Seven am and well north of the border we were confronted by an inhospitable but beautiful scenery of snow covered mountains, frozen lochs and wild rugged moorland.
The desolate road wound ever onwards towards the Isle of Skye with us making our first stop at a lonely loch to view fifteen Whooper Swans. We carried on, crossing the road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. Another stop found us at Broadford and in a roadside cafe, mixing it with lurid jacketed road maintainers and early morning delivery drivers, and there we got a bacon roll and an extremely good cup of tea served by two very amenable eastern European ladies. Then onwards towards Portree, where just south of there, we made another stop at the Aros Centre, a cultural and natural history focal point for the Isle of Skye and which had a tremendous elevated view over Portree Bay and Loch Portree beyond. I had been informed this was a good point to look for White tailed Eagles. It did after all have a huge ornamental eagle guarding the entrance to the car park and even an exhibit on the eagles inside.
Disappointingly the man on the reception desk advised that we had little chance of seeing any White tailed Eagles here as the overcast and damp weather meant they would not be flying around and they were not really in this part of the island anyway, but he did direct us northwards which is where we were going, and where he said we had a good chance of seeing Golden Eagles. Undeterred by this set back I got the scope out to check the waders feeding in Portree Bay. They were mainly Curlew and Bar tailed Godwits. I then scanned the snowy, mountainous cliff sides beyond the bay. The man on reception had said there was little chance of eagles. 'What's this then?' Two distinct lumps were visible on top of the highest plateau of the cliff to my left. Surely they were two eagles, perched? 'Paul, either I am a Dutchman or I espy two eagles yonder. Have a look though my scope'. Paul looked. 'Indeed, I can say categorically you are not Ewan van Two Eyes, they are definitely eagles'.
|White tailed Eagle site- top left|
We set off north towards our destination which was Uig where the Calmac car ferry sailed for Lochmaddy on North Uist. The ferry did not sail until 2pm so we had hours yet and after traversing the cloud shrouded Cuillins and then coming into sunshine we arrived in Uig around eleven o clock and parked near the terminal. I scanned the cliffs looking over the sea. At the highest point two lumps manifested themselves. Surely not? But yes, there were two more eagles. Golden Eagles this time and relatively close, giving great views. One soon took off and sailed over our heads, it's golden head shining in the sunlight but the other remained perched for a good hour before it too took to the wing and soared upwards and over the sea to the other side of Uig Bay.
|Golden Eagle site at Uig|
|Golden Eagle courtesy of Paul|
We intended to push our luck and try and see the Harlequin Duck that evening when we left the ferry although it would be tight as the ferry did not dock until four pm and we could not be certain of the light. Paul had called the warden of Balranald, a friend of a friend and we had got specific instructions from him as to the location of the duck, which was frequenting the sea off the northwest dunes at Balranald. Crucially he had given us permission to drive further onto the reserve than is normally allowed which would save us time, although even then it was about half a mile further to walk. We were first off the ferry and away down the single track road to Balranald. I navigated via the warden's instructions through gates and right and left turns through the machair until we arrived at the specific gate where we were to leave the car. We got our stuff together and silently started to run to the designated spot in the dunes which would either make or break our hearts. This was at one of the most northwestern points of the island. The famed Long tailed Skua watchpoint of Ard an Runair was just to our right.
On arriving at the Harlequin Duck location my heart sank as there was an awful lot of sea and rocks confronting us. I steadied myself and in a calm manner started to scan the sea. Did I hell. I grabbed my bins and rapidly scanned the expanse of ocean before me more in hope than expectation. Almost immediately I latched onto a small, dark duck swimming steadfastly on the sea, alternately appearing and disappearing into wave troughs. 'Paul, I think it's here' I shouted in the wind. Paul scanned with his scope. 'You cracker! Oh yes! Brilliant! That's it! We've done it!' This told me all I needed to know and I too got it in my scope and we just enjoyed this supreme moment.
|Paul phoning a friend|
|First winter Glaucous Gull|
|Loch nam Feithean|
|Dunes and beaches at the Harlequin site|
|View to St Kilda just visible on horizon|
|Barnacle Geese with distant Snow Geese|
|Snow Geese courtesy of Paul|
|Moon rising over Lochmaddy harbour|
That night peace, quiet and the still of a Sunday night were ours to enjoy. I slept for eight hours. Next morning we had a leisurely breakfast. The morning was again superb weather wise but frankly we did little birding. As we waited for the ferry to arrive two Golden Eagles flew low from our right, over the harbour and gradually rose upwards towards the distant mountains. On the ferry as we left the outer harbour, a White tailed Eagle floated high above us in the blue heavens. The view from the ferry's forward facing lounge was unbelievably scenic. We were faced with a blue sea and white capped waves in the strengthening south east wind as the distant wintry brown hills of Skye turned golden in the sunlight. Guillemots and Razorbills flashed across the bows. Unbelievably an Otter was swimming around some two miles from shore as we passed, accompanied by a Greater Black backed Gull. As we approached Uig two Golden Eagles and two White tailed Eagles were soaring over the harbour. We left the ferry and commenced the long journey home on what Paul declared was the most scenic drive he had ever made in Britain. The whole countryside was bathed in a golden light and we passed through the jagged beauty of the Cuillins of Skye, skirting blue sea lochs and barren moorland, then over to the mainland and up Glen Sheil,
|The road south over Skye|
|North Uist sunset|
White tailed Eagle/ Golden Eagle/ Common Buzzard/ Peregrine/ Common Kestrel/ Merlin/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Glaucous Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Kittiwake/ Mute Swan/ Whooper Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Snow Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Richardsons Canada Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Red Breasted Merganser/ Eider Duck/ Harlequin Duck/ Mallard/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Northern Shoveler/ Eurasian Teal/ Tufted Duck/ Ring necked Duck/ Common Goldeneye/ Great Northern Diver/ Red throated Diver/ Black Guillemot/ Guillemot/ Razorbill/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Grey Heron/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Golden Plover/ Lapwing/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Common Redshank/ Turnstone/ Ringed Plover/ Sanderling/ Rock Dove/ Dipper/ Common Starling/ Eurasian Skylark/ Meadow Pipit/ Rock Pipit/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Robin/ House Sparrow/ Dunnock/ Greenfinch/ Twite/ Chaffinch/ Goldfinch/ Blue Tit/ Wren