Friday, 13 July 2018

Handa Island, Part 1, 7th June

Settled weather was in and with a good forecast of a clear and sunny day we decided to get up early and head to Handa Island for the day. This would be our first visit for three years to the Scottish Wildlife Trust run reserve and it would be interesting to see if the number of birds, particularly seabirds, had changed since our last visit. Last time here it was noticeable just how the numbers of iconic species like the Puffin had reduced, a worrying trend amongst many seabirds. Handa is set just off the north-west coast of Scotland close to the village of Scourie in Sutherland. The drive from Boat of Garten takes over two and half hours but takes in a very scenic route once past Inverness. We passed Lairg on the way and reminisced about the superb male Ring-necked Duck that we saw there in February earlier this year on an equally gorgeous sunny day. We also drove past the excellent Pier Cafe remembering the very fine Sunday lunch and dessert that we'd had there on that day. Sadly it would be closed by the time we returned later in the day.

Ring-necked Duck, Lairg Feb 25th 2018
Once north of Lairg you enter what has been termed by locals "Mamba" country which has nothing to do with dangerous snakes but stands for "Miles and Miles of Bugger All!". The definition tickled me the first time that I ever heard it and still does now, I'm easily amused! But it isn't quite that bad since you pass some very nice lochs and hills on the way particularly as you forge further northwards. One such loch about ten miles before Laxford Bridge is a reliable place to see Black-throated Divers since they breed in the locality. So it was in a passing place by Loch Stack that we now sat and sure enough about midway out in the water was a Black-throated Diver. It was just idling away the morning and doing nothing spectacular but at least it was a bit closer than the ones that were seen the previous day at Lochindorb.

Black-throated Diver
At the northern end of Loch Stack the River Laxford exits on its short journey to the coast. As we drove past a gap in the trees that line its nearside bank, I noticed a duck in the shallow waters. I backed up carefully and there midstream was a female goosander. She stood her ground and probably either had a nest nearby or ducklings somewhere close by. Goosander's are ducks that enjoy fast flowing rivers to breed near to and usually nest in a hole in a tree or sometimes in a stony bank or wall. I used the open window of the car as a vantage point to take a few frames and then left her to it, whatever it was that she was up to.

female Goosander
We arrived at the ferry in Tarbet at just before 9 o'clock fully expecting to get on the first boat to the island. I had checked the times the night before and realised why we are never first to get onto Handa since we'd always turned up at 10 o'clock, a full hour after the first boat. So we strode confidently down to the shed that serves as the booking office, parted with our thirty quid and were then told that "there'll be no sailings before 10 because the health and safety man from the marine department was coming to check the boat over and pass it safe so we get the necessary certification in order to be allowed to sail". Bloody typical! We make the effort to get here for 9 and the boat won't leave until 10 which is when we've always turned up before! Could have had that extra hour in bed, except I for one never lie in but we could have at least spent longer exploring somewhere else on route. Still I would rather the boat which was a fairly new looking Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), last time we came it was an old chugg-a-long, be safe. Other folk were arriving to be greeted by the same news so we weren't alone and at least the skipper had sold us tickets which signified that we'd be on the first sailing. We also had to contend with some unwelcome residents while we waited since the entire harbour area was swarming with the dreaded midges. I had laughed aloud when I saw a couple come sauntering past wearing nets over their heads. They were laughing louder at me now they saw me scratching all of my uncovered extremities (and a few that weren't on show).

I had the good sense (not often you can say that of me) to take Mrs Caley and myself up to a picnic bench on the small headland while we waited. Midges hate the breeze and in that more exposed spot there was enough wind to keep most of them at bay. We could also keep an eye on proceedings at the boat from up here as well as scan the bay and surrounding coast for birds. We had the company of a Wheatear, a Pied Wagtail and a Song Thrush which were all collecting food for their young. A pair of Cuckoos called constantly at each other across the valley. 

Pied Wagtail
Song Thrush
We gazed longingly at the gorse covered slopes above the harbour to the north where a few years ago we'd had some extraordinary luck. We had been on our way to Handa when we heard that a Bee-eater had been found by somebody waiting for the ferry. By the time we arrived there had been no further sign so we boarded the boat and spent the day as planned on the island. I must admit though that I was twitchy all day long because I knew that the Bee-eater would still be around somewhere. On arriving back in Tarbet I scanned those gorse bushes and immediately located the Bee-eater! At the time it was only the second time that we'd seen one! Today the gorse was empty barring one of the  Cuckoos. We resumed looking out towards Handa trying to spot any Divers that may be on the sea without success. A friendly Herring Gull came close, probably checking to see if we had any food that it could pinch. Herring Gulls have a bad press but are really handsome birds and should be admired as much as any others.

Herring Gull
Finally the boat was ready, the captain had his certificates and we could get on our way to Handa. Another vast improvement that had been made was the provision of a brand new concrete jetty which would make embarking and disembarking so much easier. The last time we had been here we had arrived back to the harbour on a very low tide and the landing point was onto some very slippery seaweed covered rocks. Too slippery for one elderly lady who had an unplanned swim and a very distressing experience, both for her and the rest of us who had yet to leave the boat! The Sound of Handa was calm and the RIB sped it's way to the waiting wardens who would welcome us. It moved a bit too fast really and the seats face inwards making photography of any birds on or over the water very difficult. To be fair there wasn't many birds anyway, another indication maybe of the downturn in the fortunes of our birds, but perhaps it was just the wrong state of the tide. I did see Arctic Terns fishing and a few Great Skuas were milling around. The only usable image that I managed to get was of a swimming Guillemot but, by a small measure of luck, it was one of the "bridled" forms that have the lovely white line above the eyes.

"bridled" Guillemot
We landed on the lovely sheltered sandy beach after the 10 minute crossing and followed the SWT wardens to the welcoming hut. We've been here many times before so were allowed to skip the introductory talk and made our way towards the seabird cliffs. The initial path is very steep as it rises away from the shore to the interior. A fine male Wheatear stood watchfully as it waited for us to pass so that it could take food to its hungry brood. We saw it disappear into a rabbit burrow and emerge almost immediately whereupon it resumed its scrutiny of us before flying off to find more sustenance. 

male Wheatear
At the top of the climb there is the ruined village where over a hundred hardy souls lived until around the turn of the 20th century eking out a living from the cultivated fields below, the shape of which can still be seen today. We had already surprised, the benefit of being the first to walk through, a couple of Common Snipe from out of ditches that ran past the path and a Skylark very obligingly  perched on a grassy bank. I could see Bonxies abound further ahead!

Skylark be continued....

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