|Ring-necked Duck, Lairg Feb 25th 2018|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
....to be continued....