HANDA ISLAND & SUTHERLAND, SCOTLAND
24th - 27th JULY 2015
Ben Stack, Sutherland
Straightforward enough to connect with during the autumn in the right conditions, over the years I've seen numerous Great Skua & Arctic Skua migrating south along the Yorkshire coast, especially going back to a time when they seemed to pass in bigger numbers than they do now.
I've always wanted to visit their breeding grounds, and pondered Handa Island on a number of occasions as the most accessible location, compared to the more remote alternatives of Orkney and Shetland. The downside was and still is, just how far from Yorkshire it is to get this far north in Scotland, with a potential drive of over 9 hours one way - a journey of 460-480 miles (depending on the route taken), Edinburgh isn't even half way. For this sole reason, it never happened.
Roll on to two years ago with a spring visit to Speyside, one day of which was taken to visit the west coast. Stopping off at Ullapool, then heading north to Loch Assynt, a quick check of the map revealed I wasn't actually that far from Handa. The seed was sown - yes it is a long way, but it was definitely a possibility.
By coincidence a couple of months later, I was in Iceland, where I should have had a good chance of photographing both species. Saw a fair few, but for one reason or another, either weather, light, distance, or the fact that I was driving, I just didn't have much luck.
A welcome change - no need to worry about being at an airport at a set time, or the exact weight of luggage I was trying to squeeze into the cabin of an airplane - for this it was just a case of throwing what I needed into the car, checking I had petrol, oil and that tyre pressures were OK, then off I went.
In any visit to Scotland, it helps to have a good idea as to what weather conditions you're going to face, or else you chance a potential washout. As far as possible, I will do a trip at short notice to minimise the risks, and the forecasts in what was a summer dominated by low pressure systems (so a bit up in the air/unreliable) were OK, best for Saturday with more sunshine than cloud, but all days were reasonable, generally dry conditions with maybe the odd shower. I could have waited for a better forecast, but delaying into August would see the seabirds gradually start to leave their colonies, and with hindsight, the weather was so poor this summer in the north-west of Scotland, I made the right decision to go in July.
Just one other thing to be aware of, being so sparsely populated, there's not really a huge numbers of places to stay - as it was booked at short notice I had to split three nights between two different hotels.
Loch Stack, Sutherland
Day 1 - 24th July 2015
The dreaded drive north - thought I'd timed it so that I'd have a couple of hours to check the lochs on the final leg en route to the Hotel Rhiconich, but losing well over an hour between trying to get onto the A66 at Scotch Corner from the A1, then trying to get off the A66 at Penrith for the M6, both stretches of which were grid locked, it couldn't have been a more horrendous start to what was already going to be a very long drive.
Setting off at 10.30am on a Friday, had been a really bad decision.
Route - went via Glasgow, returned via Edinburgh
A decent run from Penrith onwards, past Glasgow, Perth and Inverness, before heading across from the east coast back to the west coast via Lairg. Really heavy rain at this point, virtually dark, and after the drive I'd had, I just wanted to get to the hotel as soon as possible - bear in mind also that what passes for an A road in England, may not be the same in Scotland - the 40 miles through the mountains on the A838 between Lairg & Laxford Bridge is a single track road, with passing places. Driving past Lochs Shin, Merkland & More, photography couldn't have been further from my thoughts, but very gradually the rain was getting lighter and the weather was improving.
Black-throated Diver - Loch Stack, Sutherland
The final loch on the way to Laxford Bridge was Loch Stack, and driving past couldn't believe there was a Black-throated Diver tight in to the bank of the loch next to the road - still really poor light, by now it was past 9.00pm, with what light there was being shaded by Ben Stack, but took the opportunity at getting a couple of images. Shooting at high ISO, hand held, anything that was useable was a bonus, so just did the best I could.
When I think back to the times in the past I had seen Black-throated Diver on Lochindorb in Speyside, the views were always distant, and Sutherland is so much easier.
Finally arrived at Hotel Rhiconich at 9.30pm, 11 hours after setting off from Scarborough, and after dumping my kit in the room, went to the bar for a well earned pint and unwind.
Day 2 - 25th July 2015
According to yesterdays forecast, thought it would be bright sunshine from the off - no chance, fairly cloudy, again with poor light. A pre breakfast drive to Loch Stack gave at least three Black-throated Diver (probably four), all adult, and a real surprise which was a summer plumage adult Great Northern Diver. This should really have been in Iceland at this time of year, so a bit surreal to see it shadowing in tandem one of the Black-throated Divers.
Great Northern Diver - Loch Stack, Sutherland
Heading back to Hotel Rhiconich for breakfast, picked up a couple of Red-throated Divers close in on one of the small lochs adjacent to the A838 - pretty good to get three species of diver in breeding plumage, in the UK, and all in just an hour or so. The scenic views over breakfast from the hotel towards Loch Inchard were outstanding - with hindsight would have liked to have stayed here for the rest of the trip, the price was good at £50 per night, the en-suite room excellent, bar decent, but unfortunately it was full.
Handa Island in the mid-distance as viewed from Tarbet harbour
Booked out of the hotel, then the short drive of ten miles or so to Tarbet, the harbour from which the ferry leaves for Handa from 9.00am onwards. All of the scenery in this area is superb, but the drive from the A838 down to the harbour is stunning - a single track road, steep in parts, just hope you don't meet anyone coming in the opposite direction. As an added bonus, a flock of six Black-throated Diver were seen on Loch Nam Brac, again all adults, and these birds were regular in the same area over the next couple of days. A quick glance of the vehicles parked up at the harbour revealed just how popular this part of Scotland is with European tourists - over the next couple of days, cars and camper vans from Belgium, Holland, Germany & France were common place - some drive distance wise from the continent.
Handa ferry with Tarbet in the background
A few birds on the tide line at Tarbet, including Rock Dove, Redpoll, Wheatear, Common Sandpiper and Rock Pipit. It's a very short trip on the ferry of a mile and quarter across the Sound of Handa, costs £12.50 with the ticket office at the end of the quay, takes less than ten minutes, and typical birds on the water included Black Guillemot, Shag and Red-throated Diver.
Met at the landing beach by the Scottish Wildlife Trust warden, and after a brief talk, free to explore the island sticking to the footpaths.
First sighting was a couple of Rock Dove, then started the climb over the moors towards the cliffs on the northern edge of the island - Red Grouse looked out of place here, as did Common Lizard basking on the boardwalk. Regular sightings en route of both Great Skua and Arctic Skua, the former more numerous. Likewise for the Arctic Skuas, it was the dark-phase birds that outnumbered the pale-phase ones.
The Old Man of Stoer, Sutherland
Great views over the surrounding area, impressive scenery, including to the south the 200 foot sea stack Old Man of Stoer and to the north Cape Wrath.
Skuas were everywhere, in flight, on the moors, and at times showing just a few feet from the footpath. Difficult light for photography, the earlier breaks in the cloud when I was waiting for the boat had filled in, and with grey skies, no chance of getting flight shots above the horizon - everything was silhouetted, even when compensating for the exposure. Only option was to try and photograph the skuas with the island as the background, and this proved a struggle for the 7D's focussing system - the write off rate was horrendous.
Great Skua - Handa, Sutherland
After a mile or so over the moors eventually you come to the cliffs at Puffin Bay on the northern side of the island, with it's typical breeding species of Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Kittiwake, etc - the cliffs are around 100 metres high, with no fencing.
Also in this area is Swabbie Loch, which is the main bathing area for the Great Skuas, and usually 20 or 30 present.
From here the route carries on along the western edge of the island back to the landing area, but I decided to retrace my steps back over the moors, which would give additional opportunities for skua photography.
Pale phase Arctic Skua - Handa, Sutherland
The type of visitors to the island were basically normal holidaymakers/tourists, especially families, rather than birders.
By mid-afternoon headed back to the beach for the return boat journey to Tarbet, then onto Scourie a few miles further south to book into the Scourie Hotel. More formal and up market than Hotel Rhiconich (eg: dinner announced by a gong), and very much set up for trout & salmon fishing clientele.
Struggled to find anywhere to sit down for a meal in the public bar at the hotel, so headed to the caravan site for some hot food. Good views from here over the bay, especially now the the skies had finally cleared.
Day 3 - 26th July 2015
A Sunday today, which meant no chance of getting onto Handa as the ferry didn't run. Wasn't really a problem as I knew that in advance, with the original plan to have a tour around the general area, taking in any lochs and bays, and basically picking up whatever wildlife was available.
Scourie Bay, Sutherland, with Scourie village in the background
This ended up being the day with the best light for photography, so there was an element of frustration - would have been so easy getting flight shots of skuas today in comparison to yesterday. Was always a calculated risk having only three days, and a shame the best day of the three came on the day with no access to Handa (which wasn't what the weather forecasts had predicted) - with hindsight, I would avoid going over a weekend, to maximise your chances of visiting Handa in good light.
A look around the local lochs, and still fairly straightforward to get sightings of all three divers, but typically in better light, generally distant views.
Highland Cattle, Sutherland
Then headed north past Rhiconich to Kinlochbervie, and from there Oldshoremore - superb sandy beaches in this area, reasonably popular with tourists, but even so, still virtually empty.
Back south to Scourie Bay, waders including Dunlin and Ringed Plover, but not much else.
Maid of Kylesku - former turn-table car ferry
South from there to Kylesku, on the banks of Loch Gleaann Dubh. Easy to access now via the bridge that crosses the loch, but pre 1984 it was by turn-table ferry only, one of which was the Maid of Kylesku, now beached and rusting away on the banks of the sea-loch - in its day, this avoided the 100 mile detour via Lairg. Hoped to see either terns or seals at this location, but was having no luck with photography opportunities.
Sutherland - typical scenery
Another look at the lochs, with the main plus being a tight group of four adult Black-throated Divers on Lock Merkland, again close in - really wasn't expecting this species to be so straightforward to get good views of.
Day 4 - 27th July 2015
Last day of the trip, so always that balancing act as to how long to stay before setting off on the long drive home.
Great Skua in display posture - Handa, Sutherland
With the lack of anything to photograph yesterday on the mainland, and in the hope of better photos of the skuas, decided to head back to Handa. A rerun of Saturday, but the light was marginally better, so worthwhile.
Loch More with Arkle mountain (and beyond that Foinavon mountain) in the background
Set off home just after 3.00pm, with no hold ups in any of the cities. Came back via Edinburgh and the east coast this time around, and a much easier drive compared to the outward journey.
I try to get up to Scotland most years as it's always been one of my favourite places to visit, and normally I go either to the Speyside & Cairngorms area or else the Isle of Mull on the west coast. This trip was the furthest north I've been, and the scenery in this part of the world not surprisingly is superb. Remote, roads free from traffic, ever changing landscapes and with special wildlife on offer, it's a great place.
Insect wise, midges were unbearable the first evening when I was trying to photograph the Black-throated Diver, and a bit of a nuisance pre breakfast the following morning, but other than that, it was fine. No ticks was also relief.
Worth the effort as a one off, but I wouldn't do a short trip to here again, just too much driving involved. One day when I have more spare time available I'd love to do the loop right around the northern tip of Scotland as part of a touring holiday, taking in Handa en route.
Arctic Skua dive bombing - Handa, Sutherland
Gallery is here - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p711460380.
Handa Island - http://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/handa-island/.
Ferry info - http://www.handa-ferry.com/.
Handa Island Skuas - http://www.handaskuas.org/
Hotel Rhiconich - http://www.rhiconichhotel.co.uk/.
Scourie Hotel - http://scouriehotel.com/.