Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Handa Island - Home of the Skuas

Handa Island, another birding site that was high on my list of places to visit. So with the weather forecast predicting the best day of my stay in Scotland, I eschewed the Chequered Skipper and set off north. As I left Nethy Bridge at 0530, travelling towards Inverness on the A9, the mountains were a picture, sun beaming down in a clear blue sky highlighting the remaining snow patches on the tops. Ha! As I reached the Slochd summit a dense fog closed in and was to remain with me as far as the outskirts of Ullapool. Luckily, in front of me, a white van driver who obviously knew the road, thanks mate you saved me at least an hour.

Beyond Ullapool the fog slowly dissipated and the sun returned. I thought the scenery of the Applecross peninsular was outstanding but the drive from Ullapool to Scourie is through a landscape that is simply stunning. With time in hand and no traffic on the road I was free to do some birding on the move and had great views of Golden Eagle, Buzzard and at long last an Osprey. Most lochs or lochans had a resident diver, usually of the Black-throated variety, all in summer plumage.

I eventually arrived at Tarbet for the ferry to Handa and surprisingly wasn't the first there. The first boat is around 0900 "ish" so I set up the scope and scanned the coastline. First up a pair of Red-throated Divers, loafing just at the end of the jetty, on seeing me they slowly drifted further out. A fly by of a Black Guillemot, great to add a "Tystie" to the year list and finally three Bonxies overhead. By the time the ferryman arrived there was a bit of a queue but we all made it across for some great views of the whole range of seabirds. As I had visited both Bempton and The Farnes I decided to concentrate my efforts on the Skuas. Unfortunately I had timed my visit a tad early as the birds had not yet got down to setting up their nesting territories, therefore no spectacular scrapping to be seen.

The first encounter was with a Bonxie that almost appeared to be standing guard on a rock that overlooks the path, probably dismayed by another stream of old birders puffing their way up the hill.

As I made my way past the abandoned village several pairs of Bonxies or Great Skuas were beginning the pairing rituals.

Just before I made the cliffs I found a dark form Arctic Skua willing to pose for the camera. These birds have declined drastically on Handa, I noted 7 during the day, most flying, five dark and two light form. Such a shame as they are really handsome birds.


Finally I made it to Puffin Bay and set up shop on the cliff edge, the Bonxies appeared to have a routine of bathing in Swaabie Loch, feeding along the cliffs and returning to rest above the loch. I noted their path over the cliffs and spent a couple of hours trying to capture these aerial brutes in flight. Thankfully there was plenty of sunlight and shutter speed wasn't a problem.


I didn't totally ignore the other birds, as I sat on my clifftop perch Fulmars were constantly swooping just a couple of feet above my head. Flight shots proved difficult so I found an obliging bird on the nest instead.

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