On our first morning I was out before 7.00am to begin to get to know the island and walked over to the west coast and on to the machair, although not many wild flowers at this time of the year! The machair also forms the golf course and hosts the annual Iona Open at the end of August, but I only saw two people on it all week! The Bay at the Back of the Ocean holds a mix of sand and pebbles and is also home to ‘The Spouting Cave’. The best ‘blows’ are seen on a mid tide with a good sea running. We had the mid tide and even with a less than angry sea, it was still an impressive sight.
As soon as we got over to the island, (we had taken a cottage with two good friends) and after dumping our belongings, I was out to the coast overlooking the Sound of Iona. It was wonderfully empty of people and with a week ahead I was full of anticipation of what the island might offer up. Scotland is nothing without the ubiquitous ‘Hoodie’ (Hooded Crow) and there were plenty here. The previous week I’d tried to find the single ‘Hoodie’ that had spent at least the last two years on Walney, a note worthy bird for Cumbria, but failed. Here I hooked up with them again and would spend some time enjoying their striking plumage and seemingly individual antics, and indeed, personalities.
I’d been to Iona once before. It was a bit of a stressful day as I remember it! We were on a family holiday north of Oban and decided to ‘do the tour’ from Oban over to Mull, then Iona. I recall that we all felt like cattle being herded from one form of transport to another, then another and so on all day long.
Being on the island at night was an experience that reminded me of the nights I’ve spent on the islands of Skokholm and Skomer. No Shearwaters here, but the almost human cries of seals punctuating the stillness of the small hours was reminiscent of those wonderful nights I spent with my youngest daughter on the Welsh islands during her formative years.
All our other days on the island saw temperatures into the mid to high twenties with no weather systems to help us. Nonetheless we enjoyed slowly clocking up the numbers and getting some fine views of the regulars. High tide brought in some of the Atlantic Grey Seals and on occasions they can number up to 500. Last year, however, they were disturbed by dogs off their leads, which resulted in some of the seals abandoning the site. Their is no access onto the beach at anytime of the year.
The first morning dawned bright before a heavy fog engulfed the Island. Greenshanks appeared to be everywhere along side the edges of the gravel pits – 20 counted on one pit alone. Other waders making use of the pools were good numbers of Dunlin, Redshank and small numbers of Curlew and Turnstone. 3,000 Oystercatchers with a few Bar-tailed Godwit were out on the sands of the estuary. A few migrants were a passing through but most notable was a large movement of Swallows, 5,000+
Over two weeks in September I stayed on two vastly differing islands, for the first week it was Walney Island and the second week Iona. One well populated and in England, the other an island of pilgrimage in the Inner Hebrides. Two Islands – Two worlds.
Slimbridge is a place that I can never get tired of. It holds a special place in my memory as one of the first reserves where I can remember feeling that birds were going to be an important part of my life. We stopped there as a family on the way back from a holiday on the south coast. I was about 12 at the time and the bird I remember most was the Long-tailed Tit. I’d never set eyes on them before and seeing them working their way through the willows was a seminal experience for me.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve spent some time with the Purple Sandpipers that spend the winter on our rocky shores down here in South Wales, the wintering population of Britain is roughly estimated at about 16,000. They’re a bird that feeds and roosts in the littoral zone and often as close to the surf as possible, rarely venturing above the high tide line.
Keeping local on our last day we took the short walk down to Rhue Lighthouse, just north of Ullapool, before heading back to where it all started; the walk from Fisherman’s Cottage down to the edge of Loch Kanaird. The wind had in no way abated and we were treated to some wonderful and spectacular light and further intense squalls at both locations.
…. and so to the last full day up in the high north. With two days travelling to come and 600 miles to cover to get home to Wales we’d decided on a slower day. We felt we’d got so much done the previous days that we could afford a quieter morning. It was to be anything but!
From Stoer we moved a little south to Balchladich Bay, still on the west coast so taking the full force of the gale. Really difficult working here with stinging rain coming directly at us. The rocks once again were treacherous but seemingly dancing with the rain glossing and polishing them.
Day five saw us heading out to Stoer lighthouse, on one of the most exposed headlands on the north west coast of Scotland. We took the quick route up, rather than on the ‘Mad wee Road’. So to Ledmore junction first, before swinging left up to Inchnadamph and then into Lochinver past Loch Assynt.
A little past Achiltibuie there’s a road on the left heading down towards the coast. This was our next port of call for an hour or so before moving back to Achnahaird Bay, where we had started the day, for the last of the light.
I’ll quote from my diary for today ‘The hardest day yet with heavy pulsing showers, but with that comes drama and interesting light’ We headed out on the ‘Mad wee road’ again and out to Achahaird Bay on the Rubha Mor peninsula.
Forty five minutes in the Stornoway terminal (you can’t actually stay on the ferry and must disembark and embark again) and we were once again on our way. A lone Guillemot was close to the shore by the terminal and gave really fine views of its winter plumage.