Thursday, 19 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 4, 7th June

....continued from (Handa Island, Part 3)....

We arrived at a small headland that looked directly towards the Outer Hebrides. There is a very small pond here and on one of last visits we had watched a Great Skua bathe in the peaty water at very close range. Whilst we watching it spruce up another had flown in and tried to get in the spa as well only to be met with great hostility by the occupant. We had had first class views of the Skuas full on threat display in which it raises its wing high above it, flashing the large white wing patches skywards, whilst emitting a really deep snarl towards its adversary which very wisely went to look elsewhere to have its own clean up.

Great Skua bath time.
"Go away!"
On this trip, however, the pond was empty and undisturbed but we did notice a Fulmar nestled down in amongst the thrift flowers. Like the one seen earlier this bird also looked to be affected by the rising temperatures although it wasn't panting quite as badly as the other one had been.

The bird that was laid on a rock ledge just a few feet away did look bothered by the heat however. The Great Skua resting there actually looked distinctly unwell with its head slumped down to the ground and its feathers all fluffed up. This was one very sick and unhappy bird. I feared the worst for it and wondered what could be wrong with it, maybe it had ingested something bad or came off second best in a dispute over a mate or a territory. In any case I felt moved to inform a warden of its plight later in the day and they said that they'd check it out.

"Poor thing"
Rather more happily a young Wheatear, fresh out of the nest, stood on a low rock waiting patiently for its parents to bring it food. It looked so vulnerable out in the open by itself but it wasn't long before it was fluttering down the hillside towards mum. Nearby what I perceived to be a young Skylark was partly concealed in the short grass and looked similarly unprotected. The Skylark flew quite easily away when spooked by a passing walker so I was worrying unduly there.

Wheatear fledgling
Skylark juvenile (I think)
The path leaves the coast after passing a few rocky inlets and beaches where some Eider Ducks loafed just offshore and Red-breasted Mergansers were fishing. Surprisingly we saw no Ringed Plovers during our walk, they are normally quite common on this side of the island. A wooden boardwalk leads back into the interior, over normally damp moorland and back to the ruined village. I say normally damp since this year, in keeping with the entire country, the whole island was incredibly dry and a lot of the damp areas had dried out. Hence the Snipe and Dunlin that could usually be seen from the boardwalk were absent. Hopefully they'd be breeding safely in a wet spot elsewhere on the island. As soon as you head away from the sea then you enter Great Skua territories again and birds are observed flying to and fro while others stand over their domains. Having taken so many photos of them already I resisted the urge to take too many more, but ultimately couldn't help myself!

Displaying Great Skuas 

In the middle of the afternoon the day was now at its hottest and we were both flagging a bit especially considering that our reserves of water were virtually depleted. As we approached the village, much to Mrs Caley's delight since the end of the walk was in sight, we could hear Sedge Warblers chuntering away in the isolated bushes. I listened intently to one of them because I thought I could hear some mimicry contained within the song but further scrutiny failed to convince me that it may be the rarer Marsh Warbler. Then, excitedly, I noticed four Skuas wheeling away in the distance. There is another species of Skua that breeds on Handa and up until now I hadn't seen a single one and I was, quite frankly, worried. But now at last I had Arctic Skuas riding a thermal and displaying high above. Arctic Skuas are smaller than Great Skuas and are much more dynamically designed with long falcon like wings. They are the jet fighters of the piratical bird world as opposed to the bomber like Bonxies. In the past we've had cracking views of Arctic Skuas here but that wasn't going to be repeated on this tour since the birds stayed quite high up. The photos below were taken on a previous visit to Handa.

"Light morph" Arctic Skua, June 2015
"Dark Morph" Arctic Skua, June 2015
We were glad to see the warden's hut emerge at the base of the slope since we were well and truly done in. Taking a final short rest at the last gate a light morph Arctic Skua finally flew over on a much lower trajectory enabling some better views and photos and thus completing another good day spent on the island.

At the west beach a pair of Great Skuas were stood looking pretty threatening towards anything that might encroach too closely. I'm pretty sure they are always there taking charge of the sand and environs. I imagine that the small bay must be a loafing area for non-breeding and juvenile birds.

We waited for the boat to be hailed from the mainland and a little later saw it approaching. We were soon on board and heading at speed, far too fast for my liking because I couldn't study any of the birds on the water, back towards the harbour. I finally spotted a Red-throated Diver but my attempts to capture any decent shots were hopeless. I fared a bit better with a lovely Black Guillemot as the boat slowed a little and my last shot of the day provided a bit of symmetry to the proceedings as another, or maybe even the same one as earlier, "bridled" guillemot floated past.

Black Guillemot
"Bridled" Guillemot
It was a great day out but Handa is hard work, it's a long walk if you traverse the whole island, so on reflection we considered that next time we'd maybe just visit the seabird cliffs and then return straight back to the ruined village and cut out the trudge around the west of the island. That way we'd have time to visit somewhere else on the North West coast, perhaps tripping up to Durness and taking a look for Corncrakes.

The End!

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 3, 7th June

....continued (from Handa Island, Part 2)....

There were Puffins dotted around the cliffs close to where we sat so after enjoying the heart attack inducing pork pie, I set to work in trying to get some nice images. Mrs Caley was happy watching the seabird comings and goings and in the clear conditions we could both see the Outer Hebrides on the horizon, a place we'd enjoyed so much last summer and where we'd definitely revisit soon. A Puffin was stood on a nearby outcrop and was looking out to sea. When I looked at the photos later it was apparent that the bird had been seemingly mesmerised by a small fly that passed it by. I mused that (as I often do) maybe the Puffin was thinking "what the hell do those little birds get out of eating that?" and "give me a nice Sand-eel any day".

"Give me a sand-eel any day!"
The Puffins were joined at the top of the cliff  by the ever daring Fulmars and a few of these were already sitting on their nests (or what passes for a nest anyway). They also looked extremely hot, panting excessively in the midday heat (it had rocketed to a healthy 20 degrees centigrade) and one bird in particular looked as if it would rather be out at sea in the cool water than sat on the sun trap of the cliff face. By design we always choose a good weather forecast to visit Handa, obviously wind and rain wouldn't be at all pleasant in such an exposed place. The trade off with visiting on clear days is that it gets very warm and the temperature  seems to be increased by the island acting as a heat sink. The whole walk around Handa amounts to 5 miles too so it's important to take plenty of drinks and to wear a hat. I'd remembered the hat but we'd already drank most of our water and freshwater supplies are hard to find here!

One very hot Fulmar!
A pair of Oystercatchers scolded us as we neared a patch of sea thrift. One stood knee deep in the pink flowers whilst the other flew around us continually "peep, peep(ing)" at us as it did so. We couldn't see if they had a nest with eggs or some young chicks but guessed it must be the latter owing to the ferocity of the defence they were making.

Once we had cleared away from the Oystercatchers "no go zone" and they had calmed themselves another Puffin was spotted on the cliff top. This Puffin stood on his own little rock and looked to all the world as if he owned the whole island. Staring all around he appeared very noble indeed. Until he stooped to "smell" the flowers that was. Maybe his ancestors were of French aristocratic lineage.

Great Skuas were still bombing about all around us and one flew just feet away from us, the shadow cast and the breeze as the huge bird sailed overhead was palpable. But we were safe since the low flying bomber was merely on its way out to sea to harass some poor unfortunate fellow seabird.

As I've said before in this piece, many of the seabirds were still pair bonding and displaying prior to breeding, well behind on their usual schedules. Razorbills were flying up to the cliffs but instead of landing on a ledge they kept diverting off at the last moment and whirling back around out to sea before coming back again and repeating the routine. One such bird, presumably a showy male bird, kept coming in very close to us so I settled down next to the cliff edge (not too close though, the cliffs are continually eroding here) and waited for a photographic opportunity. Focussing on a bird that's flying straight towards you at speed is a tricky skill that I'm still trying to master but I was reasonably pleased with my efforts. On one sortie the Razorbill appeared to be targeted by a Bonxie which at one point was so close it could almost grab the tail of it's quarry but the Razorbill made a deft turn and the pursuer was left hurtling into thin air. If I'd had managed to get a frame of the encounter then I may finally have nailed an award winning image but, did I heck! Still I have nice images (but better memories) of the birds individually just not together.

Incoming Razorbill
"Damn, missed!"
Once the Razorbill had regained its composure and dusted itself down it resumed its flights around the cliff face and was joined by another, potentially a suitor. The two birds then wheeled around in unison and cut some rather interesting poses as they flew both side by side and above and below each other. I'd never witnessed such aerobatics before and was suitably impressed by the whole show.

Razorbills in formation flight
A Bonxie made another move towards the two Razorbills splitting them up again but the lead bird kept going and came back around several more times allowing me to indulge myself a little bit more.

I had secured some really nice flying Puffin shots from the boat out to Coquet Island a week ago (was it really that long) so didn't waste too much time in trying to emulate those here but the dark background of the cliffs made for some interesting exposures. At Handa most flight views of seabirds are of birds below your feet owing to the cliff top vantage point. We'd found a spot slightly underneath the Puffins flight path, a bit too far away, but enabled some level shots to be achieved as the birds also took to displaying. Even though I try to stay cool and pretend that Puffins are nothing special, in truth I can't resist them any more than anyone else can! They are brilliant little birds and the one that everybody comes to see when they visit a seabird colony. I could sit and photograph them all day if allowed but there were still other birds to (hopefully) see and about half the walk still ahead of us so we had to move on.

The path away from the seabird cliffs and back towards the landing beach winds gradually downhill but hugs the coast so, at least for the next mile or so, the sounds and sights of auks, gulls and skuas accompanied us on our way. The SWT are doing a lot of work rebuilding the worn paths by building many steps into the slopes and by gritting the way much in the same fashion that's been done on popular walks in the mountains. They appear to be utilising the rocks that are in abundance throughout the island to make the steps which certainly gets my admiration but I also have a reservation that the paths are changing the natural look of the island. Increased visitor numbers are leading to increased damage to the grass and plants so I guess that such work is essential. Also if there is a well marked path then people will be more inclined to keep to it which alleviates the disturbance to breeding birds that are just off it. On one section of the new path we followed a pair of Skylarks as they grubbed around presumably for grit although they could have been finding small insects that we couldn't see.

....continued in Handa Island, Part 4....

Monday, 16 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 2, 7th June

....continued (from Handa Island, Part 1)

One of the iconic birds of Handa Island and certainly the most noticeable are the Great Skuas or Bonxies as they are known in this part of the world. These hulking great brutes of the seabird community nest in their hundreds on the moorland that covers much of Handa and are easily seen either standing menacingly on guard at their territories or flying and displaying overhead. You can also witness them, if you're not too feint hearted, harassing other seabirds for their fish catch, robbing unguarded eggs or even catching and devouring unsuspecting chicks and adult Puffins and the like! On one of our first visits to the island we were fortunate enough to see a Bonxie take a Guillemot egg from the cliff face. It then landed just metres away and skilfully cracked the egg open and feasted on the contents. It remains one of my most treasured wildlife encounters and although the photos that I took are not the best quality (my camera at the time was pretty basic) the image below is still one of my favourites. It looks as if the Skua is holding the whole world in its bill which, in the case of the developing chick inside, it certainly was!

Great Skua & Guillemot egg, June 2010
As we left the old village stones behind one such Great Skua eyed us carefully from a rocky outcrop. They really are impressive birds, buzzard sized with a very dangerous looking hooked bill. In early June they are really only just starting their breeding season so are mainly displaying and setting up territories although some may be sat on eggs. Later in the month and into July they will have young and at that time they become highly aggressive to any intruders, so any that have made nests close to the paths and boardwalks are very keen to attack and many tourists have had to beat a hasty retreat after being battered around the head. In fact the rangers and wardens have had to develop a tactic to divert such attacks and they do that by carrying a pole or stick above their heads which the Skuas then go for instead. We watched from afar as a Skua made a practice dive at a pair of said rangers who were out on the moor counting the birds. As visitors we stayed firmly on the boardwalk.

Great Skua standing guard
At the end of the uphill walk and about a mile from the wardens hut you arrive at the seabird cliffs. Close by these cliffs is a small lochan which serves as a bathing place for the Great Skuas. There are always some taking time out here to refresh and clean the salt from their feathers, this time there were around 30 birds. Bonxies were coming and going all of the time, mainly to and from the moorland but some were flying out to sea. We've also seen Red-throated Divers on this lochan before but none were present today.

Bonxies bathing
We spent some time watching the antics of the bathing Skuas and I reeled off shot after shot of them flying past or overhead. It was a lovely sunny day so there were no lighting complaints from me for a change and the blue sky backgrounds always help. As is usual for me when in a place like this, I took hundreds of frames and probably managed the best Great Skua shots that I've ever taken (apart from the egg thief of course). 

After spending ages with the Skuas Mrs Caley finally managed to pull me away and we studied the cliff nesting birds. As I feared the density of birds on the cliffs seemed lower than on our previous visits but I knew already that birds were late in starting to nest this year because of the poor weather in the spring, so maybe a lot of birds just hadn't settled down to breeding yet. In fact there appeared to be many more birds on the sea than on the cliffs so perhaps this was indeed the case. It is impossible to capture the splendour of the seabird city on camera and you really have to visit in person to appreciate it. There is much more to take in than just the sight of the birds, there is the constant barrage of noise from the thousands of Kittiwakes and Auks and then there is the smell of the tons of fishy guano that is excreted all over the rocks! Such sounds and smell cannot be related in a photo. 

Guano (& Auk) covered rock
So I chose instead to concentrate on taking photos of individual birds and my first targets were the Fulmars that glide effortlessly around the cliff face. Fulmars are one bird that seem to positively enjoy riding the up currents of air and take in circuit after circuit of the cliffs. Maybe they're all racing each other or daring to see who can get closest to the cliff without hitting it, either way they are supreme at flying.

A wheatear scolded us for taking up a position close to its nest burrow but it would have to get used to it since a few other day trippers were now arriving at the cliffs. I always think that small birds such as the wheatear, skylark, meadow pipits and even the tiny wren are incredibly brave setting up home so close to the Great Skua colony, but the predators very presence probably helps in deterring other birds of prey that would usually target those smaller birds.

The nesting passerines and the smaller seabirds also had to keep an eye open for the Herring and Great Black Backed Gulls that were monitoring the area too. They would be just as eager to take advantage of an easy meal as much as the Skuas were.

Herring Gull
Most visitors to Handa come to see that most recognisable of all of our seabirds, the Puffin, and although there were some dotted around the grassy areas of Great Stack, I preferred to concentrate on watching and photographing Kittiwakes. I knew that they'd be ample opportunity to capture images of Puffins later in the day further around the cliffs too. Kittiwakes are one of our most beautiful Gull species with pure white plumage on the body and tail, a bright yellow bill and a staring black eye. They also have solid black wingtips which is unique amongst our adult gulls so makes them readily identifiable. And they are constantly baying their "kittiwake", "kittiwake" calls. Another bird that is named for exactly what is does. The bright white plumage against a darker background does make them more difficult to photograph though since its easy to over expose images so I spent a bit of time using different settings. Problem is I'll forget what was successful and what wasn't and make the same mistakes next time!

We moved on and found a nice quiet and comfortable spot to eat our picnic which included a forbidden fruit, a pork and pickle pie! I'd kill for such delights but unfortunately too many of them will kill me instead so such guilty pleasures are only taken on special trips like this one! We'd found a place that overlooks a less busy cliff but there were still many birds on offer including some more Bonxies that were patrolling on the lookout for an easy meal. Truth is though that few of the Auks or Kittiwakes were bringing in fish since there weren't any hungry chicks to feed yet so the Skuas were largely wasting their time. Maybe they just wanted the other birds to know that, "any time you feel like going fishing, we'll be waiting for you when you get back"! They truly do have that intimidating presence. be continued in Part 3....