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North-west Scotland

13  - 21 July 2013

By Stephen Burch, England

This is a short report on a week long trip to the far north west corner of Scotland, staying at Kylesku in the splendid terrain well to the north of Ullapool which we last visited in 1982! This location was convenient for the SWT reserve of Handa Island - notable for skuas and other sea birds. En-route we went on a brief but productive dragonfly foray to Bridge of Grudie (the scene of hours of frustration in 2011) and repeated this in a more leisurely manner in much better weather on the way south a week later, when we spent one night in Gairloch.

To avoid the long drive north, we opted for EasyJet flights from Luton to Inverness which were fine both ways, although Luton is not my favourite airport by some distance.

Car hire
Unlike in 2011, Thrifty were unhelpful and refused to give any indication of the model of car we might have had. The other main companies were very expensive, so I decided to try a local company - Arnold Clark who provided an excellent service. We were met at the terminal and taken by minibus to their site in Inverness where we were provided with a brand new Insignia - one of the models I had requested in advance. On the return we went first to their Inverness site, and were then driven to the airport in the same car for a drop off right outside the terminal. This avoided the trudge from the long stay car park we had on returning the Thrifty car 2 years ago. Arnold Clark's price was good as well.

For most of our week, the UK was generally experiencing magnificent hot, sunny weather, but with one exception - the far north west of Scotland where we were! Instead we had cool, windy and at times wet conditions. Only right at the end of our stay (Friday afternoon) did the good weather extend as far north as us! From Friday to Sunday conditions were then superb, almost too hot - this part of Scotland is really magnificent in such conditions.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D with the EF400mm/f5.6 lens. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Birding Sites

1. Handa Island SWT reserve
Our visit to Handa was definitely the birding highlight of our stay. We left this until the last possible day in the hope the weather would improve - which it eventually did during the afternoon of our visit. On arrival at Tarbert Harbour, I was pleased to see several Arctic Terns flying around (they nest in good numbers on Handa). After a half hour wait (we just missed a boat - you can't book - just turn up!), we were then quickly on our way over to the island - with a brief view of a Black Guillemot en-route. On arrival visitors are shepherded into the visitor centre (which lacks a roof!) and given a brief introduction to the island by one of the wardens (note there is now a toilet on the island, together with many boardwalks and ropes - nothing like that in 1982 from what I can remember!).

We then promptly set out along the path that heads inland across the island to the northern shore. This path was good for both Skuas - they are clearly used to visitors and the Arctics can be approached quite closely, although I did get dive bombed by one!

Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua (click to enlarge)

The northern coast has the cliffs and sea bird colonies which can be viewed distantly from the path. All 3 auks were present in good numbers, and many could be seen on the water, in flight, or on the offshore cliffs -the Great Stack was particularly impressive. There was also a Red-throated Diver on a small loch to the east of the path as it reaches the coast, where there were several Great Skuas bathing.

Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua Puffin

The northern section of the path was good for flight shots of the plentiful Fulmar, Great Skua and Gulls that are continually cruising past. Also a good place for a picnic lunch. I had heard that the Puffins are now breeding on the mainland following the removal of the rats, but access was forbidden to their main breeding area, and so photographs were difficult. 

Fulmar Lesser Black backed Gull
Fulmar Lesser Black backed Gull

The highlight of the return path which runs along the western shore was an amazingly obliging Great Skua sitting on mound - it just let me walk right up to it, to within frame filling range. The result was only my fifth Bird Guides Notable Photo!

Great Skua
Great Skua
Great Skua (click left to enlarge)

The Arctic Terns can also be seen from the final section of the path, but of course their breeding colony is out of bounds. Waiting above the beach for the return boat several were passing over either on the way out to fish or returning with their catch. In the brief time available I didn't get any good shots, but a longer stint might have been productive.

2. Other birding sites
We didn't come across any other particularly notable birding or photo sites. There were certainly good birds around but well spread out. Summer plumage Red-throated Divers could be readily seen both on the sea and on inland lochs, but the only Black-throated Divers we saw were on the sea in the second bay at Aultbea on our way south (where we had also found them in 2011).

The lighthouse NW of Stoer produced distant auks (including one Black Guillemot), Gannets and passing Manx Shearwater in strong winds. We were a couple of months late for the Collared Flycatcher that had been seen in the car park briefly!

Traigh Bad na Baighe, a muddy offshoot of Loch Laxford, is right by the A894 and at low tide produced a few waders including Greenshank and Redshank. Scourie beach produced a flock of c. 30 summer plumage Dunlin, Red-breasted Merganser, Eider and Ringed Plover in dismal conditions one day and almost nothing in better conditions on another visit! Twite was a bird I was looking for without much success until I came across a small flock by the Rubha Cadail lighthouse which is a few miles NW of Ullapool (accessed from the minor road to Rhue).

The immediate surrounding to our accommodation, although spectacular scenery wise, were fairly birdless, except for the odd Common Tern from the breeding colony in the nearby loch - better views of which can be had at the nearby Kylesku hotel. Also there was a plastic duck bobbing about on the small pool by the main road - put there by the owner as a joke, who has been amused to see several groups of birders staring at it trying to work out what it was (OK so it had me fooled briefly as well)! He was mentioning something about it being joined by a similarly unnatural crocodile later this year!

Common Gull
Common Gull Immature Wheatear

Dragonfly Sites

1. Bridge of Grudie
This is a famous dragonfly site on the shore of Loch Maree, some 9 miles north of Kinlochewe on the A832. In 2011, it was a big disappointment and in generally mediocre conditions had very few dragonflies. However we had more success in 2 out of 3 visits this time. Firstly on the way north on our first day we made a detour here as the weather seemed a bit better than forecast. In very brief sunny spells in the sheltered "dell" on the loch side of the road, I had a tantalising glimpse of a departing Northern Emerald that four other dragonfly watchers had been viewing for sometime (it departed just as I arrived!). But there was considerable compensation in the form of a very briefly settled Azure Hawker (spotted by the other four, who then promptly rushed up to it with inevitable results, but not before I had grabbed a few hasty frames).

By the end of our week, the conditions were completely different with hot sunny weather, which should have been ideal for dragonflies, but strangely on the hottest day (Sunday) there was hardly anything to be seen. Maybe it was too hot for these northern specialities?! But a prolonged visit on the Saturday afternoon had fortunately been better with another brief view of a settled Azure Hawker (on the almost dried up pools on the opposite side of the road from the loch) which followed a copulating pair that eluded me photographically.

Azure Hawker
Azure Hawker
Azure Hawkers

On the other side of the road, the edge of the dell on the river side again produced a Northern Emerald, but this time it was visible after settling high up in one of the conifers. The conditions were all wrong for photography but this didn't stop me trying! However nothing I was able to do resulted in anything better than a record shot (see below). This insect stayed put for well over an hour but had then departed when looked for again. So both my remaining two northern targets were "bagged", although the Northern Emerald pic could certainly do with some improvement.

Other commoner species at this site comprised Emerald Damselfly, Common Hawker, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Highland/Common Darter and one immature Black Darter (below).

Northern Emerald
Black Darter
Female Northern Emerald record shot
Black Darter

2. Other dragonfly sites
During most of our stay the poor weather ruled out any thoughts of dragonfly hunting. However in the odd warm spell, we visited Duartmore Forest briefly late one afternoon. This is 'notable' for a single Azure Hawker record from 2007. During our visit we stopped in the lay-by and walked a few metres up the bank and wandered left and right in the rough area between the road and the trees. Here we saw one Hawker that could well have been this species, but it never settled and although it looked small I find size difficult to judge in isolation and it could have been a Common Hawker instead. So certainly not a record I wish to submit. I was however more confident of the numerous Highland/Common Darters around, the odd Golden-ringed Dragonfly and one Emerald Damselfly.

The only other site where we came across any Odonata was the 3 mile circular Loch an t-Sabhail path at the Little Assynt Estate at the western end of Loch Asssynt of the A837. In barely adequate conditions, a few Highland/Common Darters and Golden Ringed Dragonflies were showing.

Stac Pollaidh in the centre of the general view (left) and close-up (right), both from the same splendid spot on the A835 north of Ullapool
Sunset from Scourie
Sunset from Scourie
 Sunset from Scourie after the weather had improved!

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Kylesku Lodges Good self catering lodge at Kylesku with excellent views of Quinag. Quite well equipped and comfortable. Unfortunately the balcony did not get much use given the poor weather! Very quiet and secluded. Informal booking arrangements and fair value for money. Recommended. The nearby Kylesku Hotel was a good place to eat.
Myrtle Bank Hotel, Gairloch Adequate hotel for one night, nicely situated on the bay with divers on view from the dining room! It was very hot when we arrived! Food OK from what I can remember.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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