16 Oct 2015

16 Oct 15 - A Chance To Explore Lewis & Harris

After a good sleep & decent breakfast in Stornoway, I was ready to explore Lewis & later Harris. I hadn't visited either end of the island before, apart from the previous day's twitch to the Northern tip of Lewis for the Wilson's Warbler. I didn't have any idea of where to go Birding on the island, but was happy to just explore & stop whenever I saw interesting looking spots of habitat. The plan as it stood was to go via the Callanish stones & to end up at Leverburgh, Harris to catch the last ferry that evening across to Berneray (which is connected by a causeway to North Uist). After that it was to spend some time Birding on North Uist. A simple plan & what could go wrong with that. Continue reading to find out. First I took the same road out off Stornoway that I took to Port Nis the day before. This crosses the island to the village of Barvas, where the road splits. The Northern turning leads to Port Nis, whereas the Southern turning heads to Callanish & ultimately Harris.
The road to Barvas goes for quite a few miles over this rough heath
The first Birding stop was at a line of small Conifers & Sycamores just outside of Barvas. This was the first trees I had seen after leaving Stornoway behind & therefore worth a quick look. Initially, the trees looked empty, but some pishing produced the Hebrides race of Wren, Robins, Chaffinches, 22 Redwings & a Sparrowhawk.
This is the Hebrides race of Wren hebridensis: It is darker than the ones in Dorset
Wren: I saw them at a number of locations during the day
Taking the road South from Barvas, I quickly reached a small right turn which headed down towards the sea through the village of Brue. Looked worth exploring. It lead to a rough grassy area around a small lake, just behind the beach.
Brue village
The coast at Brue
The locals were preparing a surprise for a future generation of archaeologists
With no immediately interesting Birds on the sea, I headed back to check some of the gardens in Brue. 
Redwing: This is the Icelandic & Faeroes race coburni. My first chance to use the excellent Challenge Series: Winter by Martin Garner & the Birding Frontiers team
Redwing: The coburni subspecies is described by Martin as having darker, broader streaks as well as, more ochre-yellow supercilium & darker almost blackish crown, lores & ear coverts
Redwing: Looks like it has learnt the Ovenbird walk. Maybe I should have checked the rest of this garden more carefully
Driving out of Brue, I saw a ruined stone house which confused me as the entrance was quite low & there obviously wasn't a roof. This was once one of the local houses known as Blackhouses.
Ruined Blackhouse: Brue
Carrying on South along the main road, I soon saw a Historic Scotland sign for Arnol Blackhouse. I didn't know what this was at the time, but decided to have a quick look. Turns out this was a fully restored traditional stone Blackhouse. It is open to the public, but I decided to press on rather than look around.
Arnol Blackhouse: Within the building was a living room, bedroom & byre, with a separate barn & stackyard. The front entrance is halfway along the side of the house. This Blackhouse was built about 1880. More information on the Arnol Blackhouse can be found on this link
The signboard gave an indication of the iside of life inside the Blackhouse
Most of the gardens I passed had small fences & grass lawns. But every now & then I found the occasional garden with trees planted around them. Whenever possible, I would stop for a few minutes to have a quick look.
Another interesting roadside garden
The side of the same garden: Unfortunately, another garden where I drew a blank
I stopped at Callanish for lunch & a look at the Callanish stones: This was an excellent place. More to come in a further Post.
Callanish stones: They are understood to have been erected about 4500 - 5000 years ago
A significant part of Lewis is covered with this wet moorland
Traditional peat extraction
After a few more roadside stops for interesting gardens, I stopped at Gisla, where there was a larger garden of trees. Some pishing produced the usual Robin & Chaffinches. Then a cracking Yellow-browed Warbler popped into view. It always wanted to skulk in the bushes, rather than come out into the open. Probably not too surprising, given the large numbers in the UK this Autumn, especially as there had been one at Port Nis the previous day. But interestingly, I saw a statement that Lewis doesn't get many in an Autumn. I guess it is in the shadow of Shetlands & Northern Scotland, but there probably aren't that many Birders on Lewis either.
Redwing: One of another group of coburni Redwings at Gisla
Yellow-browed Warbler: I wonder if the NGBs will get the same thrill about finding these special Warblers that many Birders of my generation have (given they appear to have become noticeably commoner in recent years)
Yellow-browed Warbler: One of my favour signs of the Autumn
Chaffinch: One of the commonest of Passerines seen during day
The side of the Yellow-browed Warbler garden: Looks like a great place to live
Crossing the road, I decided to try the next group of trees around a small hydro-electric station. As I reached the main group of trees, I was greeted by a Sweeet call from another Yellow-browed Warbler. This was very vocal, unlike the other silent individual, but wasn't very photogenic. I was happy to find one Yellow-browed Warbler, but two was even better. Clearly, they are less common here than the several in a garden that were being seen on Shetlands earlier in the Autumn.
The locals clearer have done a great job creating these two
Having explored a few miles further South of Gisla, I decided to check the map as I had been expecting a large inlet on the left hand side of the road: which helps define the Lewis-Harris border. This confirmed that I had taken the wrong road South. I hadn't checked at the turning to Gisla, as I had been enticed by a couple of interesting looking gardens & a decent road (at the turning). As it was around mid afternoon now, I decided to drive rather than stop at interesting gardens, so I could ensure I would catch the ferry to Berneray that evening.
The rush hour had started
I made good time to Tarbert once I got back onto the right road South. I soon crossed the line on the map, that is the border between Lewis & Harris. After a while I reached Tarbert, which is the port for the crossing back to Uig, Skye. It is about another twenty miles further South to Leverburgh. Just after the Tarbert port turning, there was a ferry sign up in Tarbert advertising the Berneray ferry. This said there were only four crossings a day, with the last one being around 17:00. I had been expecting about eight crossings, with the last one at 18:30, which I was aiming for. I turned back to the Tarbert ferry terminal to check what was going on. It turns out, the normal ferry is out for a service & the replacement doesn't have the full set up to allow it to sail after dark: hence the reduced service. The only think I could do was book the car onto the 09:20 sailing the following morning. This turned out to be a better plan in hindsight, but it was a bit disappointing at the time. Ticket bought, I pushed onto the Leverburgh.
There was a great estuary & sandy-mud flats at Seilebost: A quick scan in the failing light revealed a reasonable number of common Waders including Ringed Plovers, Sanderling, Curlew & Bar-tailed Godwit
I was lucky that there was a great viewpoint as the sun was setting: The timing was perfect as I hadn't had a good view over the sea up to that point
That's it, the sun had gone for the day
Looking back on the Southern side of the bay: This was taken after the sun had set. I am always impressed about how good modern cameras are in low light conditions
Finally, I made it to Leverburgh, which is a small port & settlement on the South coast of Harris. Here I found an old bus which doubled up as the local cafe & some hot food for the evening. With a kettle in the car, which had been providing hot drinks throughout the day I was sorted. I didn't need to check in until 09:00, so decided to head back to find somewhere to sleep closer to Seilebost, so I could have a quick look there in the morning.
A final night shot of the port at Leverburgh: This was a 15 second time expose of the ferry slipway & lifeboat
My impressions of Lewis & Harris is they look a great place for a longer Autumn Birding trip for anybody who wanted to be a bit more adventurous. It is a softer island than the Isles of Shetlands, with more bushes & gardens for Birds to be found. Personally, I think the Western Isles are prettier islands. While it might not have the track record of Shetlands, especially for Eastern goodies, it is obviously capable of attracting Some excellent Western goodies, if Purple Martin & Wilson's Warbler are anything to go by. I'm sure I will be back for a longer trip in a future Autumn.