Birds of the Outer Hebrides

 

 

Birds

Please click here for photogalleries and status of birds of the Outer Hebrides.

Up to August 2016 there have been approximately 398 species of birds recorded in the Outer Hebrides (not including obvious escapes) compared with a total of 601 species for the whole of the UK. For a checklist of birds of the Outer Hebrides please click here

Breeding birds:

The UK is one of the most important sites for breeding seabirds in Europe and the islands here support internationally important seabird colonies and large numbers of breeding waders. The Outer Hebrides are made up of over 50 islands of which 12 are inhabited. Some that are free from introduced predators, such as the Brown Rat are internationally renowned for their breeding seabirds. Most notable amongst these are; St. Kilda, North Rona and Sula Sgeir, the Shiants, Flannans, Monachs and both Berneray and Mingulay to the south of Barra. St. Kilda can lay claim to the largest Gannetry in the world with over 60,000 pairs and the first Fulmars to nest in the U.K. were found here too in 1697. There are now over 64,000 pairs of Fulmar on St. Kilda alone although these birds can be found nesting on all the islands. The Outer Hebrides also support the majority of Britain's breeding Leach's Petrels with St. Kilda hosting 94% of the total (45,000 pairs). Huge colonies of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills can also be found on the main seabird islands plus breeding Storm Petrel, Shag, Cormorant, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake, Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Common Tern and Little Tern.  

Wader wise the islands hold 12 breeding species including the rare Red-necked Phalarope found only here and in Shetland. There are only about 40 pairs of Red-necked Phalaropes regularly breeding in the U.K. as we are on the southern fringe for this species and they have a precarious toe-hold in Britain. It was assumed that the Red-necked Phalaropes that nest in Scotland followed the same migratory route to their wintering grounds as do birds from Scandinavia which migrate to the Arabian Sea. In 2012 tiny geolocators were attached to 10 phalaropes nesting on Fetlar, Shetland. One of these birds was re-trapped in 2013 when the tag revealed an amazing 16,000 mile journey to Peru and back! Whimbrel also breed in small numbers from North Uist north although current numbers nesting are not known, they are thought to be declining. Two areas are outstanding for breeding waders, the machair of the Uists and the Lewis Peatlands. The machair held over 17,000 pairs of waders in the early 80's and although numbers have declined by over 50% in some species the machair still supports nationally important numbers with 25% of the U.K.'s breeding Dunlin and Ringed Plover and 10% of our Redshanks. Lapwing, Snipe and Oystercatcher also nest in large numbers and the coastal plains of the Uists are alive with the calls of breeding waders from March until August. The Lewis Peatlands are equally as important for waders with one tenth of all British breeding Greenshank nesting here and some of the densest concentrations of Golden Plover in the U.K. Dunlin also occur in large numbers, mostly in the north of this extensive area. Other nesting waders in the Western Isles include both Common Sandpiper and Curlew.

The Western Isles hold eight breeding species of diurnal birds of prey from the smallest, the Merlin to the largest, the White-tailed Eagle. The islands can also lay claim as one of the best places in the U.K. for seeing birds of prey due to their abundance. The following are averages for breeding pairs: 84 - 99 pairs of Golden Eagle, 23 pairs of White-tailed Eagle, 30 - 45 pairs of Hen Harrier, 19 - 21 pairs of Peregrine, 85 - 100 pairs of Merlin, around 40 - 60 pairs of Kestrel, 28 - 40 pairs of Sparrowhawk and around 180 - 200 pairs of Buzzards (figures kindly supplied by RSPB, February 2014). Lewis is actually home to the densest breeding population of Merlins in Western Europe an accolade North Harris also holds for Golden Eagle. White-tailed Eagle numbers are also steadily growing at a rate of 10 - 20% annually.

Corncrakes have managed to hold their own throughout the Western Isles despite the dramatic declines seen all over the U.K. in the last 50 years. Even so numbers did fall and calling males were down to 238 in the Uists in 1988. Since this low, numbers have gradually risen with 317 males singing in the Uists and 115 between Lewis and Harris in 2006. Signs of recovery are beginning to be noticed throughout the British Isles although the Outer Hebrides are one of the best places to see this species and in the first half of May you are almost guaranteed a sighting with a little patience. 

Corn Buntings have declined dramatically throughout the U.K. and numbers have also fallen severely in the Western Isles over the last 20 years. They no longer breed in Lewis or Harris (where they are now a rare visitor) and numbers appear to be in free fall in the Uists and Barra. In 2013 there were just 49 territorial males compared with 111 in 2006 (which was half what it was previously). This is despite local efforts by the RSPB to halt the decline.

Wintering birds:

The Western Isles hold good numbers of wintering wildfowl and waders including large numbers Barnacle Geese (up to 5% of total Greenland population) and small numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese (mainly in South Uist). The southern isles also support around 7,000 Greylag Geese and numbers of the latter are steadily growing in Lewis and Harris. Long-tailed Duck are common in suitable bays and inlets throughout the islands and Lewis and Harris hold wintering Common Scoter as well as regular Surf Scoter in the Sound of Taransay. The numerous fresh water lochs hold large numbers of Tufted Duck as well as Wigeon, Teal, Mallard and small numbers of Pintail, Shoveler and Gadwall.

There are also large numbers of wintering Great Northern Divers that concentrate even further during their annual moult with places such as Broad Bay, Lewis holding upwards of 800 birds alone during the lateinter. Considering that the BTO estimate that there were around 2,500 individuals wintering in the UK in 2008 / 09 the total in the waters around the Outer Hebrides is very significant indeed.

Large numbers of wintering waders may also be found chiefly in the southern isles, especially on the machairs in Uist. These low lying, cultivated plains hold excellent numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover as well as many other species that use the machair from time to time when feeding conditions are at their best. At other times the west coast of the southern isles hold flocks of Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Dunlin, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and nationally important numbers of Purple Sandpiper (1,550 in 2006/07). Until 2013 it was not known where the Purple Sandpipers in the islands were spending their summer. Once again the use of geolocators helped enormously and finally some of the birds wintering on our shores were tracked to breeding grounds on Baffin Island (pers comm. Ron Summers).

The machair is also a wintering ground for Skylark, Twite and Corn Bunting, plus flocks of Snow Bunting with up to 400 being found in a single flock.

Another feature of the winter is the numbers of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls. In good years these white-winged gulls appear to be everywhere but even in quiet years you're sure to encounter one or two in favourable locations such as Stornoway harbour, Barvas in Lewis, the fish dump between Kyles Paible – Rubh’ Arnal and Rangehead in the Uists. Occasionally in winter dead and decomposing whales, dolphins and seals are washed up and these are often a magnet for gulls with Glaucous Gull being particularly attracted to these often rancid corpses.

Passage:

Huge flocks of waders use the Western Isles and in particular the west side of the Uists as a refuelling stop before carrying on to their breeding grounds further north. From April to late May masses of Turnstone, Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin throng the western bays whilst the machair is full of fine Golden Plover in summer plumage and flocks of Black-tailed Godwits on their way to Iceland. It's a superb place to be with many of the waders proving to be very approachable and in full summer plumage. in the autumn the islands are also home to huge flocks of waders, this time as they head south. Numbers are swelled in the latter season by juvenile birds and a greater variety of species as birds from further a field frequently turn up. Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpiper are annual in the autumn and between September and October there's usually the odd rarity.

Masses of wildfowl pass over the islands in both autumn and spring with Greenland Barnacle Geese and White-fronted Geese passing through from their major wintering grounds on Islay and Tiree. They rarely stop unless they meet head winds and once these abate the birds move on quickly; when conditions are right flock after flock of these birds plus Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans pile through the islands. It's superb to experience one of these days as the air is full of honking as the birds keep in contact with  each other as they pass over the islands.

Divers also use the islands as a staging post too with large numbers of Great Northern Divers to be found in various bays and sounds. The discovery of regular small numbers of White-billed Divers, staging off north-east Lewis was one of the most exciting ornithological insights into the Outer Hebrides birdlife in the last few years. The divers increase from March onwards when they begin to moult, temporarily losing flight as they renew their primaries. The passage is not so apparent in the autumn although large numbers of Great Northerns pass by they don't often linger, unless they're here to winter.

Seabird passage is also excellent in the Outer Hebrides with good numbers of Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas being seen when onshore winds from the north-west or west bring birds close in-shore in the spring. Similar conditions brought about by fast moving low pressure systems in the autumn also bring lots of seabirds close in-shore with occasionally hundreds of Leach's Petrels being recorded in favourable conditions as well as regular Sabine's Gull and good numbers of Sooty Shearwaters. Recent autumns have also produced both Cory's Shearwater and Great Shearwater with the record count for Scotland of the latter species from the Butt of Lewis in 2006.

Migration time is quite an extended affair this far north because no sooner has the spring passage ceased than the first Arctic waders are returning. The best months to see a variety of migrants are like most places in the U.K. April / May and September / October. Even so other times of the year are excellent for particular species; March is good for wildfowl and gulls and June is good for rare songbirds. At the other end of the year, November is proving to be an excellent month for turning up something exceptional with birds from both the Far East and America making appearances in the last few years although the islands are very under-watched with few resident birders. You could easily discover or see something outstanding in the Western Isles, probably the least known of Britain's birding treasures.