Sunday morning at Ravensthorpe Reservoir

Less than a 10 minute drive from our house is Ravensthorpe Reservoir, one of several all in a short distance from our Northamptonshire home. The 100-acre water body is dissected at its northern end by a causeway across which a country road passes, and this linked with the path around the larger southern part of the reservoir form a good circular walk. There is a small car park at the north-eastern end of the causeway but it is also possible to park on the road-side at the other end, as we did today.

We walked clockwise around the water, across the causeway first. You have to be a bit careful of traffic walking along the road and it’s better to walk on the righthand, southern, side no matter which way you are walking, due to the bend of the road. You soon come to the water’s edge and today, in the watery sun, on the calm surface, we saw two great crested grebes already starting courtship, albeit only half-heartedly and briefly. On the opposite side of the road, the much smaller northern portion of the reservoir gave us good views of a group of goldeneye, both males and females, on the surface and diving down into the water.

Turning right at the junction at the northern end of the causeway, we soon came to the car park and the off-road track around the rest of the reservoir. The track is very muddy for much of the rest of the route and we were glad we had put on our wellies – a family coming the other way probably wished they had too. The path down to the dam is all within woodland cover with some limited views of the water; there are just a few points where you can get to the water’s edge. As we approached the dam we came to the raised walkway over the spillway which helps to regulate the reservoirs water levels. It’s quite a picturesque spot with the Victorian engineering clear to be seen.

Passing through a metal gate, the path then travels across the top of the dam, with the waterworks below, eventually coming to the fishing lodge. The dam provides a view across the whole reservoir south of the causeway and is a good place for grey wagtails and as well as the wider range of waterfowl. Today, we had a reasonable number of birds on the walk, including greylag, Canada and pink-footed geese, mallard, gadwall and tufted duck, as well as coot and moorhen. We had 27 species in total, without looking too hard.

The last leg of the walk on the western side of the water provided a range of woodland and farmland birds but the views were the main reason for stopping frequently to look across the water. The sky was slightly hazy in places but the deep blue breaks in the cloud opened up and the sun was even slightly warm at times. It certainly didn’t feel like spring this morning but it did provide the first early sign that it will be coming.

Looking forward to 2022

This post two years ago had no sign of what has occurred since, both in terms of COVID-19 but also my life in general. Now at the start of 2022, there are all sorts of hopes in my head that could make this year one of the brightest after two very hard years for everyone.

Two weeks into the new year, there are already some glimmers of hope that we are approaching a new phase in the pandemic, Omicron may be subsiding in the UK and becoming somewhere near endemic. Later this month, many of the remaining restrictions may be removed and a greater level of normality returned to us. Finally, there may be hope that, while COVID-19 may not disappear, we can move on and live with it like we do so with many other similar viruses. I’m not daft enough to think there aren’t still risks ahead, especially the emergence of further variants, and people will still die from being infected with COVID-19. However, there is very much more hope now than in this equivalent post from a year ago.

My life has changed such a lot since my 2020 post, so much for the better, and I aim to build on that. Now firmly settled into our new home in rural Northamptonshire, I’m keen to keep exploring the area, looking for wildlife, finding new walks and cycle routes and returning to the places we already like to spend time. The county really is lovely and we’ve very happy to have found somewhere that provides so much for us to enjoy.

Even with the restrictions placed on us last year, we still managed to do quite a lot with it and we have even more planned for this year. One thing that is close to the top of my list of things to do is finding some new volunteering opportunities after I left so many behind when I moved away from Cheshire last year. I did visit a bird ringing group late last summer to see if there was a chance I could join and start training. However, I just couldn’t commit the amount of time they required. I’m very sad about this but perhaps this is something I could consider again in a few years’ time. There are other opportunities I’m considering and I really do need to make some efforts to get involved again. At very least, I would like to get a new BTO Breeding Bird Survey site to do and I need to get on and make enquiries before it’s too late.

Away from home, as usual there are a few trips away planned. For what is becoming an annual occurrence, we may head across to Norfolk for a short break at the end of the January or in early February; it’s such a wonderful place for winter wildlife. We have a holiday to Sweden in late April/early May, to see family particularly, who I haven’t seen in over two years, but to also show my girlfriend places I have come to love and are very close to being like another home. There is also hope that I can return to Ramsey Island to stay for the first time since my three months there in 2019; a week in September would be great, spending time in another place that feels like a home. Our trip furthest away from our real home will hopefully be to Zambia in October. This has been postponed twice due to the pandemic and we’re hoping it will be ‘third time lucky’.

Lastly, but very much not least, is our biggest event of the year; we are getting married in the summer. As readers of my blog might expect, nature will be fairly central to the location, the day and the ceremony and I’m in no doubt that our plans will make it a day, and couple of weeks, that will be unforgettable. 

A frosty walk around Pitsford Water Nature Reserve

Today we had a sunny and frosty wander around the nature reserve at Pitsford Water. We’re fortunate that the reservoir is only a 10-minute drive away, so is one of our most common spots for a quick walk as well an occasional longer circuit. Today we decided to do the seven mile round trip of the nature reserve. The reserve covers one half of the reservoir’s 14 miles of shoreline and there is a lovely walk that can be started at either end of the causeway that cuts the water in half.

We parked on the Brixworth side of the water at the junction of the old road towards Walgrave that was severed by the building of the reservoir. Walking down what is now a track towards the water’s edge there were nice frosty views across the surrounding countryside and our first encounters with birdlife with reed buntings and yellowhammers feeding on the seed put out for them close to the gate onto the reserve. The signs here are very clear that a permit is needed to visit the reserve, which is amazingly quiet compared to the country park half of the shoreline. The permits can be obtained for free if you are a member of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust or a day permit can be bought at the fishing lodge on the Holcot side of the causeway.

Starting out on our clockwise walk, we passed through the low, wet meadows on the water’s edge with good views of the water birds immediately with great gatherings of duck, a few flocks of greylag and Canada geese and good numbers of mute swans. The ducks were dominated by wigeon and teal but as we wandered on there were plenty of others including mallard, tufted ducks, pochard, shoveler, pintail, and eventually towards the end of the walk, a few gadwall.

The landscape then changes into shoreline woodland and open rides with intermittent views of the water. It is like this for much of the rest of the walk but views of the wildlife are helped by a number of good hides at irregular intervals. The woodland provided views and sounds of a different variety of birds with plenty of tits and finches flitting about the leafless branches. The trees right by the water also host a number of cormorant colonies and provide perches for herons and great white and little egrets.

About halfway around the walk, there is a spot overlooking the water with a picnic bench. This is a lovely place to stop and usually there is no one else around. In the summer, it’s nice to have lunch there watching and listening to common terns over the water. Today it was quiet but still nice to sit there in the sun, out of the cool breeze.

In the last of the bays, before getting to the causeway, we came across a new species for us, another duck; smew. Two males were hanging out with some wigeon and mallards on the other side of the water but we still had good views as they sat on the water between dives below the surface. The males are rather a flamboyant black and white bird and very easy to spot amongst the others. We had learned that they had been seen in the Holcot Bay area of the reservoir from a great local birdwatching website (Northamptonshire Birding), which is now one of our go-to places for news of wildlife around the area. Usually, things have disappeared by the time I get anywhere near where they might be, but this time, they were in the right place.

To end the walk, a chilly stroll across the causeway was needed, back onto the main road and close to the more public side of the reservoir. It’s amazing how quiet the reserve is and it’s easy to forget how popular the other half is. Usually, we barely meet anyone as we walk there but today there were a few more about, perhaps this is peak season for watching wildlife at Pitsford with the winter wildfowl being a particular draw.

After seven miles of relaxed walking, a few stops in the hides and occasional chats with fellow walkers, we got back to the car, having seen 52 different species of bird as well as our first hare and muntjac of the year. This really is a very special place to have almost on our doorstep and a great way to start the year of wildlife watching.

Looking back on 2021

2021 was a year like no other, well, apart from 2020, maybe. Except, personally, it was quite momentous. Despite all the impacts of COVID, on home, on my health and on work, many good things eventually came out of 2021.

The year started with planning and preparing for, and then actually, moving house. At the beginning of February, after over 40 years of living in Cheshire, albeit with four years studying in Birmingham, I moved to Northamptonshire. The previous 12 months had largely been spent in Kew, West London, being locked down with my girlfriend and then between lockdowns splitting time between Kew and Cheshire. However, February was the big change we both needed as we settled into our new home in a rural village north of Northampton.

It wasn’t long before COVID returned, personally, to spoil things. We both got it but I developed additional glandular fever symptoms which were pretty awful and took many weeks to fully recover from. However, I can count myself lucky compared to many. Once over the worst of it, and when the pretty rubbish spring weather allowed, we started to explore our new home.

I had a vey strange feeling when we first moved into our house; one of being on a very small island of familiarity (our house and the nearby villages lanes around it) in a great ocean of the unknown. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling living somewhere of which I knew so little. However, over the following months of 2021, through driving, cycling and walking around the area, that island has been expanded greatly, its shores pushed further and further out, until I’m now surrounded by known, if not all very familiar, places.

Much of our exploring has been through walks in the countryside and visits to nature reserves, all of which have provided an insight into Northamptonshire’s landscape and wildlife – which have been an unexpected collective joy so far.

We were lucky to have a week long trip to South Uist spanning late June and early July when the Machair was at its best – a truly amazing spectacle in an often harsh but always stunning place. A day trip to Mingulay not only produced great views of wildlife, particularly the seabird cliffs, it also resulted in our engagement – quite a special place to ‘pop the question’.

We also had a weekend in North Norfolk in July watching wildlife and enjoying the warm weather on the coast and I had a long-awaited return to Ramsey Island. This was only for the day and it seemed quite odd being back after leaving over two years previously at the end of my three-months long term volunteering stint. Although I did have a Manx shearwater in my hotel bedroom overnight (after rescuing it from the kerbside outside a pub) to make it even more odd!

Our travels of 2021 were completed by a week in Skye in October, walking and more wildlife watching, with some very nice food along the way, and a few nights with friends on the south Devon coast at New Year. The latter was not so much for wildlife but the scenery was lovely despite the rain and strangely warm temperatures.

I would normally do a list of numbers for my review of the year but it would be very much depleted compared to non-COVID years. However, there are some worth noting:

  • 53 bird species seen from the house so far and five heard
  • 154 bird species seen in 2021 plus two heard – better than last year but less than many when I have travelled abroad
  • 21 species of mammal seen – probably the best UK only year to date – and included 11 species at the house
  • 12 species of butterfly seen including 11 at the house – probably the best year I’ve had0 days volunteering – well, it could be one if I count a morning with a local bird ringing group. Unfortunately, its probably just not feasible for me to start ringing training at present.

I thought I’d finish the post with a photo taken on our favourite walk in the area – this time in high summer (and very unlike the weather tonight which to forecast to get down to -5oC)

Finally, a fine day for a walk

Yesterday, after seemingly spending almost the whole Christmas period under a veil of dark and damp cloud, the final day of the holiday turned out to be clear and sunny. We went out on what is now our favourite walk in the area close to home – a circular around Cottesbrooke and Haselbech Hill.

I’ve found a great blog for wanders in the county – Northamptonshire Walks – with guides for hundreds of routes all over the county and beyond. Before we moved here early last year, I spotted an area that might be nice for a walk and by chance this blog already has a route around it – Walk 132.

We started in Cottesbrooke itself, a lovely old village with ironstone houses and cottages, heading out towards Brixworth but then some way after leaving the buildings behind, heading up a farm track into the countryside. The route meets up with one of our regular walks from Hanging Houghton but then continues up to the high ground between Cottesbrooke and Haselbech. Near to the top of hills is a view point with great vistas over the fields around our village and those surrounding it, with a very distant Northampton barely visible in the background. At this point, the land seems almost like the Downs rather than the more wold-like landscape lower down the hills and it has to be my favourite spot in Northamptonshire we’ve found so far. On a day like yesterday too, it really was a special place to be.

Starting as I mean to go on…

At this time of year I usually do a review of the previous 12 months and another looking forward to the next 12. I may get around to writing them but I really want to get blogging more and rather than waiting for those longer posts, I thought I would start 2022 with something shorter.

After Christmas as home, we spent New Year with friends renting a couple of cottages on the South Devon coast. We’ve done this before and South Devon was no less lovely, despite not having the best weather. We stayed close to Noss Mayo and just a few metres from the South West Coast Path. Down the hill was Stoke Beach which had some spectacular rock formations and crashing waves racing in with the tide; these photos taken on New Year’s Day…

After the walk on the beach, some of us went for a further walk on the Coast Path and while short, it gave me a chance to see some of more wildlife on the first day of the year, adding to the seabirds seen on the beach. In addition to the hovering kestrel in the image below, at Stoke Point we also saw a long sought-after bird for my UK list – Cirl Bunting. They’re very rare in the UK with the only populations being on the coast around where we were staying and a little further down into Cornwall. We didn’t have great views as the flock of birds was mostly feeding in a stubble field and when they were airborne, they weren’t so for long and the light was really poor but a great bird to see in the new year. On the walk we also saw a whinchat, which is the first time I’ve seen one for a few years.

Hopefully, this year will be full of wildlife and the first day won’t be the high mark for the 12 months!

Northamptonshire – raising hope for nature in our rural places

Come the early days of February, we will have lived in our cottage in a quiet Northamptonshire village for a year. So much has happened and so much has changed over the 12 months that I could write about but I want to get back to the basics of my blog; my love of nature and my concern for the natural environment.

As I have written previously, we knew very little of Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. I’d only ever passed through the county, racing through by train or car, usually on the West Coast Mainline or along the M1 or A14. It came as a surprise to us when we started looking at the county, having first focused on Warwickshire, just how lovely rural Northamptonshire is. 

Our part of the county, particularly, is rolling, steeply in places, with a patchwork of large arable fields for growing grains and smaller pastures primarily for sheep and beef cattle. The fields are bounded by both mixed hedgerows and dry stone walls and the area is criss-crossed by a network of country lanes and relatively quiet more major roads. The west of the county is very lightly wooded for a rural area, with West Northamptonshire having only 5.6% woodland cover, less than some cities, but what it is missing in trees it makes up for with water. 

We have a good selection of open water around us with Ravensthorpe, Hollowell, Stanford reservoirs close by and the much larger Pitsford Water a ten minute drive away. There is also the River Nene, which passes through Northampton a few miles to the south of us and makes its way through the county and onto Cambridgeshire, briefly into Lincolnshire, before it meets the North Sea at The Wash. As it meanders through Northamptonshire there are groups of lakes, many being former gravel pits, that have increased the water habitats through a large area of the county.

This wold-like landscape, with its mixed farming and its range of water habitats has had a particular positive effect on me. It holds a range of wildlife, birds, mammals and insect life, that was so often missing from my former home in South Cheshire. It is altogether a richer place in nature terms and in being so has rekindled some hope that rural England doesn’t have to be so nature-depleted, that it can mix farming with wildlife and that man’s impact on the land doesn’t all have to be bad.

I won’t pretend that everything is as it should be in rural Northamptonshire; that would be very far from the truth. Only in the last month have I seen flood water inundating rivers with soil from autumn-ploughed fields, turning them to the colour of fudge. Chalara die-back is taking many of the ash trees which are so widespread around the edges of the county’s fields. I also expect, like so many other places, that the wildlife I am seeing now is in a very much diminished state compared to earlier decades. However, what wildlife I have seen over the last 11 months has been in a positive contrast to where I used to live.

In that time, we have recorded 53 bird species seen in or from the garden and a further five heard. We have also had 11 species of mammal, including six species of bat over the garden, as well as 11 different types of butterfly. I could only dream of such richness in my old garden (although I do still miss the badgers that suddenly started sneaking in under holly hedge in the last few months before I left).

Almost from the moment we moved in to our cottage, the wildlife was evident. From the owls calling during the first night, to a kestrel landing on the telegraph post next to the house the following snowy morning, it was immediately clear that this might be a better place for wildlife.

That owl on the first night wasn’t the last. We hear tawnies almost every night and in the spring we heard little owls nearby and as well as a barn owl once or twice in late winter. During our first drive around the area after we moved in we saw a barn owl in broad daylight sitting on a post and also saw one in an old barn at Hanging Houghton, a place we have come to love for a walk when we have a spare hour or so. This was also the first place we heard skylarks this year and we saw upwards of a dozen at a time on some of our spring and summer walks there. I love to just stand or sit, eyes closed, listening to the skylarks; a perfect way to meditate for a while.

Working from home for so much of the year, wildlife has been a release, during the working day as well as after it. Red kites and buzzards frequently fly over the house and I hear them from my desk. I also often hear green woodpeckers from the same spot yaffling away in the nearby gardens alongside their great spotted cousins hammering on the trees down in the shallow valley beneath us. There’s usually a few birds flitting about in the trees and bushes behind the drystone wall opposite my home office but the best view I had this year was a fleeting one, of a spotted flycatcher perching on the telegraph wire just outside my open window.

Some of the flora has also been notable, particularly in the hedgerows. During the spring there was a procession of blossom over the months with apple and cherry coming first followed by the blackthorn and hawthorn, then the elder and finally the bramble. With such a display of flowers we expected, or rather hoped, for a great glut of berries and we weren’t disappointed. Several autumnal walks resulted in good harvests of sloes, blackberries and elderberries and our hedgerow gin has just been decanted and kicked off a few festive evenings.

My cycles around the local countryside were accompanied in the spring and summer by yellowhammers and whitethroats, as well as more skylarks. In some spots it seemed as though they were in every hedge and tree; a continuous calling as I pedalled along the country lanes. As summer started to fade and the crops were harvested, I got frequent views of groups of red kites feeding on the creatures exposed in the stubble left behind by the combine.

It’s not just our walks that have revealed the richness of nature in the area; there are quite a few nature reserves too and our favourite to date has probably been at Titchmarch. In the eastern half of the county, it is one of those series of lakes on the Nene and our first spring time walk there was lovely with a wide range of warblers calling from the reeds and undergrowth. We also saw a cuckoo for the only time this year, standing in clear view in a stand of poplar calling out over the water.

We have visited a few of the reservoirs and particularly like Pitsford and Ravensthorpe, which are so close by. A walk around the nature reserve half of the former is always very quiet despite the number of bird hides provided. I particularly loved watching the common terns which nest there, a species I never saw in Cheshire. The autumn and winter have revealed a place for thousands of waterfowl of a wide variety. Ravensthorpe on the other hand, whilst also good for ducks and swans, gave us views of hundreds of hirundines hawking over the water as they arrived for the breeding season and we’ve also seen a small starling murmuration over the reed beds and grey wagtails on the dam.

Returning to home, we also have a grey wagtail visiting our often waterlogged patio at the moment and our bird feeders have more visitors than I can remember seeing at any other. We often have a dozen or more goldfinches supported by a cast of greenfinches, chaffinches and a range of tits.  

Good numbers of my favourite bird, swifts, appeared around the village in the summer. The Chairman of the parish council not only has his own swift boxes on his house, he’s installed some in the village church tower along with speakers playing recordings of swifts. Often on a spring lunchtime walk around the village I would stare upwards expecting to see them flying above only to (again) realise that it was just the recording. However, one late spring day they were actually chasing around above my head and I stood watching as they raced between the steep roofs of the ironstone houses, my heart lifted by the sight of them. Over the course of the next few weeks we regularly saw them around the village and could lie in the back garden watching them wheel and dart above us.

Perhaps, however, the birds that has most made an impact on us in our new house have been the starlings. They were calling in their slightly crazy way from tree tops and TV aerials around the house when we first arrived in but then they moved in too. We have had three pairs nesting in the eves of the house and we regularly hear them in the morning before we get out of bed and during the rest of the day. When they had chicks, we heard them grow; their calls starting as quiet ‘cheeps’ but developing into raucous screeching to wake us every morning for two weeks running before they fledged. They then had creches in the back garden, the fat balls on the feeders being rapidly devoured each time we put them out. Now we are at the quiet time for them but some are wintering in our roof and we still hear them as they chatter and slide down the sloping section of the eaves.

Despite all the above, the view that pleased me most was a very recent one. As we headed down the hill for our usual walk at Hanging Houghton, we saw four roe deer feeding quietly in one of the fields. We stopped the car and watched them for a moment and they looked back at us. I never saw free-roaming deer in Cheshire in the 40 years I lived there, but these roe add to the muntjac we have seen on several occasions at various places in the county. I love seeing deer, they remind me of wllder places, particularly of my trips to Sweden where they are so often seen in forest glades at dawn or dusk, and seeing them in my new home county really lifted my spirits on an otherwise gloomy day.

I’m sure we have only just touched the surface of Northamptonshire’s wildlife and I can’t wait for the new year to start and to see what else we can find out about nature in this quiet and so little known county. If we find even more, this place will make that hope for a better future for nature in our rural places even stronger.

The Uists in Summer

With Christmas upon us, it now feels an age since our summer trip to the Outer Hebrides but the memories remain vivid. Our week staying in a croft cottage on South Uist was spectacular in so many ways and deserved a much quicker blog post but such tasks have been on a back burner this year. Finally, I’ve written the post and, hopefully, the coming year will have many more.

We travelled up to South Uist via a night in Fort William and the CalMac ferry from Mallaig to Lochboisedale.  Our cottage was only a 15 minute drive from the ferry, located in the very far south-west of the island; much further south and you meet the causeway across to Eriskay, from where you can catch the ferry to Barra. 

The village where we stayed, Smercleit, like many settlements in the Outer Hebrides, is formed of single homes or small collections of houses, spread over a wide area, rather than more clearly defined villages on the mainland. Our cottage stood alone down a gravel track, set back from two road-front houses and the beach beyond them. It stood on a small island above the surrounding wet pasture, which was dissected by drainage channels and punctuated by small lochans and the remains of old crofts. Looking behind the cottage, the land eventually started to rise into the southern hills between Lochboisdale and Eriskay. They are not high, only 243m at the most and tiny compared to those further up the island; the highest being Beinn Mhor, standing a 620m. Out to the front, looking south west, was the Atlantic Ocean, but with a glancing view of Barra too.

The wildlife of the rich, wet pastureland around the cottage was almost immediately visible. That first evening there was a short-eared owl patrolling in front and around the house and snipe ‘chipping’ in the long grass and ‘drumming’ overhead. Drumming snipe are one of my favourite wildlife sights – the sound not unlike a comb kazoo as the bird drops quickly through the air vibrating its wing feathers. There were other birds too, easily seen with a walk along the quiet road  behind the beach front; plenty of starlings, lapwing, redshank, swallows and the ever watchful and noisy oystercatchers. 

There’s one word that it synonymous with the Outer Hebrides at this time of year: machair. The low-lying sandy and rich coastal pasturelands are at their best in June and July with the scent of their flowers drifting across most of the islands. Away from the damp pasture, the machair coats vast areas on the west coast of the islands with the flowers spreading from the sea to the bottom of the eastern hills and mountains in some places. The land that run at right angles from the central spine road towards the sea put you right into the middle of the scenes with sandy tracks then leading off through the flowers. I’ve visited the islands a few times before but always at the wrong time of year for this seasonal spectacular – this time, at the end of June and beginning of June, we hit the perfect moment for the flowers to be at their peak.

However, the Uists do not just have flowers out on the Machair; the harsher moorland areas were surprisingly rich in flora too. A walk around the national reserve Loch Druidibeag revealed great numbers of orchids, the scale of which I’ve seen nowhere else.

Like so many remote islands, the landscape is dotted with abandoned houses and farmsteads and in the case of the Uists, abandoned vehicles left to decay on the machair. I often feel drawn by the signs of people being taken over by nature and disappearing into the landscape and these islands are full of such sights. Some of the abandonment is very old but even with relatively new vehicles left out in the fields, nature hasn’t taken long to take control, with a few becoming homes to small flocks of starlings. 

As with most of my trips, watching wildlife was a big part of the experience. Many of the birds we saw may have left the area now, replaced by winter visitors or other passing through on their autumn migration from the high north. 

There was one particular summer visitor to the islands I’ve wanted to see for many years but they can be particularly challenging. Gone from the vast majority of their former range, populations of concrakes hang on in some of the Scottish islands and the Uists are a particularly good place to find them. We were driving down a single track road one sunny lunchtime when we saw partridge-like birds walking along the road. We immediately knew what they were and as we came to a halt, they jumped into the long road-side grass. However, they didn’t go far and were quite obliging in providing us with very close views from within the car. We eventually got out but they slinked off further into the long grass, not to be seen again. 

That wasn’t the last time happened upon them. We didn’t see them again but we heard them several times at the RSPB’s Balnarald reserve and while out walking along an area of Machair – the video below recorded their instantly recognisable call.

We saw 75 species of bird over the course of the week with plenty of species of note. We particularly went to see those species of the remote areas of Scotland; those of the moorland, the lochs and the sea. There were red-throated divers, eiders, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, there were white-tailed eagles, hen harriers and peregrines, dunlin, common sandpipers and curlew, and there were arctic and little terns, and great and arctic skuas, and twite and wheatears. All in all, a great range of birdlife amongst quite spectacular scenery.

Perhaps the most spectacular of all the scenery is down on the coastline. The Uists are home to some of the most fabulous beaches in the UK and, for the most part, even in summer, you may find you have vast areas of sand to yourself. We were very lucky on the days we went for beach walks in that the sun shone strongly with very little breezy giving fairly balmy weather for the Outer Hebrides. 

The Uists, North Uist and South Uist with Benbecula in the middle, are 54 miles, or just under 1.5 hours to drive north to south. Staying at the very bottom of the islands, it was a long drive to the top each time we went and I’d perhaps suggest it’s better to stay in the north of South Uist or the south of North Uist, to provide better access to the islands as a whole. For me, Benbecula perhaps has less to offer in wildlife and scenery terms but it well worth a look around and certainly should just be pass through on route between the Uists. In fact the causeways that join the three islands together are good places to see wildlife from, although our otter targets never appeared when we were looking.  

Overall, if you like remote islands with few other people around, beaches to yourself and scenery and wildlife to linger long in the mind, the Uists need to be on your holiday list.

Outer Hebrides: A day on Mingulay

I’m so far behind my blogging at the moment that I’m writing a post about a previous holiday when actually on the next one. This current trip follows on from so many now to the west coast of Scotland; a place I’ve grown to love for its remote and stunningly beautiful islands. Sat inside sheltering from wet and blustery autumn day on the Isle of Skye, it’s seems hard to write about a summer’s day back at the beginning of July – although that day did have a hint of autumn about it, come to think about it.

Staying on the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist for a week, we wanted to take a boat trip to an even more remote island. There are a few to choose from including St Kilda but we decided instead to go to Mingulay at the southern tip of the archipelago (only Berneray is further south).

First we had to make a 40 minute ferry journey between Eriskay (joined to South Uist by a causeway) and Barra. Usually this crossing of the Sound of Barra would have provided great views of the islands but due to COVID-19 restrictions passengers had to stay within their cars for the entire trip. Not that walking around the ferry would actually have given us much of a view, however, as the clouds on this summer day were shrouding the ferry and the surrounding sea and land.

On arrival on Barra, we drove one half if the road that loops around the island and arrived in the main town of Castlebay still cloaked in cloud. This didn’t look promising for our trip but as we waited at the small marina the cloud started to lift a little; the gloom remained but it didn’t obscure every view.

We were welcomed aboard ‘Spirit of the Hebrides’ by the Hebridean Sea Tours crew for 30 minute from Barra to Mingulay. The boat was comfortable and stable as it powered across the open sea, helped by the good conditions. The water was almost bubbling with birdlife all the way to the island with auks, cormorants and gulls flying in groups or fishing alone on the surface. There were lines of gannets too, skimming low over the sea and we had a glimpse of a possible albatross tagging on to the back of one of those groups.

As we neared the island, we entered Mingulay Bay and moved slowly over towards the rocks on the northern tip of the beach. Anchored to the seabed, the boat sat still as the crew unloaded an inflatable at the back and half the passengers disembarked and were taken across to the shore, making the sometimes nervy step onto rocky land. We immediately headed up the grassy slopes above our landing place to seek out the puffins. Once halfway up the hillside we sat and waited for them to come in to land. They almost immediately started to appear but flew onwards, both above and below us, and sometimes straight past our heads. It took a while for them to get confident to land with people close by but eventually they were popping into and out of their burrows all around us.

After a while, we decided to take a wander down to the beach and up to the abandoned village. The island has no resident population after the final permanent inhabitants left in 1912. The island was not cleared like so many old communities around the Highlands and Islands; this was a much later and voluntary, if to some reluctant evacuation, when the last remaining families decided that a better and easier living could be made elsewhere. Mingulay was a tough place to live and as numbers dwindled the living became even harder. Other nearby islands had natural harbours and landings from which to load and unload boats; Mingulay does not and could be cut off for months at a time.

I find the old abandoned islands and villages of Scotland, as can be seen in some of my other posts, fascinating and hugely magnetic. There is something I can’t quite explain that draws me to them. I find silence where communities used to thrive, or survive, is almost tangible. There is a spirit to these places where the human past is being claimed by nature as the signs of former habitation slowly melt into the landscape.

The island around the bay is one large amphitheatre with four peaks along its outer edge. The sandy beach at its centre, on a clear day, reflects turquoise up through the lapping water but for most of our four hour stay, the sea remained a dark steel blue grey. Occasionally, the sun would start to break out through the dominant cloud to reveal the true colour of the bay but it was soon obscured again as the cloud got its way. As we sat having our lunch by the old school house, a sailing ship came in to moor while we were distracted by the old village, giving the island an even greater feel of times long gone

All too soon, the time had come to return to the boat but having made a more confident return by the inflatable, we didn’t sail straight to Barra but had a tour around the other side of the island, unseen as we approached in the morning. Away from the green eastern-facing slopes of Mingulay, the island is rocky with high, precipitous cliffs, towering dark and foreboding over passing boats and ships. I’ve seen quite a lot of sea cliffs around the UK and further afield and Mingulay has some of the most spectacular I have been fortunate enough witnessed. They seem almost endless at times and so steep that you have to be careful not to fall backwards as you stare vertically upwards. They are covered in seabirds from guillemots and razorbills, fulmar and kittiwakes to shags, cormorants and puffins. The cliffs are patrolled by gulls and great skuas picking on unsuspecting nests as they pass. Just as we left the island behind a white-tailed eagle appeared and made is purposeful way along the cliffs looking for its next meal.

The sights, sounds and smells of the cliffs were a spectacle like few I’ve seen and the cliffs made all the more ominous by the dark looming clouds above. As I’ve written before of other sea cliffs, these are probably not the spectacle they once were with many seabird populations in serious decline compared to the historical scales but it was a privilege to see such a place while such large numbers of birds are still there.

Just to add to the great day, the cliffs were not the last spectacle. As we made our way back to Castlebay, we were joined by a pod of common dolphin, playing in our wake and riding the waves alongside us. They were distant at first but as we slowed, they soon caught up and we had a good ten minutes of action. Unfortunately, we had eventually to leave them behind and return to the marina – some of us had a ferry back to Eriskay to catch. 

As we retuned to the ferry slipway and waited for our crossing, the sun started to break through the cloud and patches of the Sound of Barra took on its stunning turquoise shimmer. In the distance, the were grey seals hauled up on sandbanks and we could hear their eerie calls washing over the water – quite a lovely way to end a day in the wilds of the southern Outer Hebrides.

P.S. Whilst this post is really about the Mingulay and it’s wildlife, I can’t not mention that up on that grassy slope watching the puffins, I proposed to my girlfriend, Sarah, and got a positive answer! Mingulay will therefore always be an even more special place to us and this gives us another reason to return in the years to come.

A Hebridean ferry crossing

We’ve just got back from a week’s holiday on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Hopefully more blog posts to follow but I had to write about the ferry crossing on the way home; I don’t think I’ve had a more lovely one!

We caught the very early morning ferry from Lochboisdale to Mallaig, getting up at 4:30am to pack the last bits into the car and make the 15 minute drive to the port. The day started dull and cloudy but as the ship (the Lord of the Isles) pulled away the sun started to break through the cloud, although the thick haze never lifted completely. The Sea of the Hebrides was as flat calm as I ever recall seeing open water. The ripples weren’t strong enough to break the surface and it had taken on a liquid glass appearance. This meant that we could see far further across the water than normal and the wildlife wasn’t obscured behind waves as it so often is; even individual birds hundreds of metres away could easily be picked up with the naked eye.

Having seen cetaceans before in this sea, including on the way across at the beginning of the week, I was hoping for more and there was no disappointment. We saw common dolphins four times during the crossing and a couple of pods of porpoise. The dolphins were leaping clear of the water as they chased across the flat calm sea while at times they circled around catching fish. The porpoise, however, we more subdued in their movement, simply breaking the surface and rolling down again, often barely noticeable. 

The birds were equally special. At first there was some arctic terns slowly flying out to sea but there were many more birds to come. I saw my first ever storm petrels, as they darted swallow-like, close to the surface of the sea. I’ve helped to install nest boxes for them but never seen one before – they were lovely and so much easier to pick out against the calm waters.

More spectacular were the Manx shearwaters. Large flocks of them sat on the sea, feeding on the surface but they lifted almost swarm-like as they were harried by the skuas after their catches. They raced across the water, escaping their tormentors and eventually settled back on the surface again.

The were groups of other seabirds, often gulls and fulmar, fishing around concentrations of fish, with gannets plunging in from above. There were also auks everywhere; individuals fishing, sitting on the surface and long chains of birds racing across close to the water. We saw guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills and puffins for much of the way across, often dipping below the surface as the ship passed by.

All the sea life was laid out in front of the stunning backdrop of Skye and the small isles (Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck) as well as the Outer Hebrides disappearing in the mist behind us.

I generally love a ferry crossing but this was was spectacular!