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Western Isles - Wildlife, Birdwatching Holidays in the Outer Hebrides

Each island link in the Western Isles chain has different wildlife watching opportunities. From gannet and dolphin look-outs on Lewis headlands, go south through big boglands to look for eagles over Harris and terns and seals in the water between there and North Uist. The world’s finest flower-rich meadows of their kind, busy with wading birds, fringe the corncrake haven of the Uists, while Barra is big on primroses and beaches.

 

Divers and eagles

Travel the A857 from Stornoway to Callanish (visitor centre beside the magnificent standing stones) and you’ll go across one of the finest blanket bogs in Scotland. At Achmore, stop at the roadside to look south towards Harris over patterned pools, small hills and lochs, and north across huge, level bogland. Breeding bogland birds include dunlin, greenshank and golden plover, with red-throated and black-throated divers in some lochs and golden eagle hunting the area. Along the east coast, a long-distance walking route from Tolsta to Ness takes in peatland, coastal birds, plants and scenery. 

Seals close up

Interesting wildlife comes into the heart of Stornoway, capital of the Western Isles. There’s always a range of gulls eyeing-up the fishing boats in the harbour area (worth checking in case Iceland gulls are among them in winter). Some large grey seals often do likewise, patrolling near the quayside in search of discarded fish. Cross the small river by a footbridge off Braehead Street to walk the grounds of Lews Castle. This is the most wooded part of these generally treeless islands (and now home to a good café and exhibition centre), so the place to go to see rooks, treecreeper and spotted flycatcher.

Dolphins and whales

If you take the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool, try to be on deck as the boat pushes clear of the headland at the end of the Eye Peninsula and enters the deeper waters of the Minch. Seabirds and ‘cetaceans’ such as harbour porpoise, Risso’s dolphin and white-beaked dolphin often feed in this zone. There’s also a chance of seeing minke whale from the boat in summer. Ashore, try sea-watching in search of the same creatures from Tiumpan Head, at the end of the peninsula.

Gannets and ducks

The northern tip of Lewis is intriguing: out on the edge, yet densely populated in the croftlands of Ness. Take the A857 to its end at Port of Ness to see where the township’s annual harvest quota of young gannets from remote Sula Sgeir is landed. Then use the B8015 that loops to the west to get roadside views of Loch Stiapavat - best place on Lewis for wildfowl, such as tufted ducks in summer and whooper swans in winter. An even smaller road goes to the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis, from where you can seawatch for the Sula Sgeir gannets, and look out for dolphins.

Huge beaches

The western edge of Harris has some huge beaches that make a soft rim to its generally rocky interior. At Northton, the machair on windblown shell sand is good for flowers such as cranesbills and orchids and rich in breeding birds such as lapwing, dunlin and redshank. Take the minor road off the A859 through the village and walk the track beyond in the direction of Toe Head. Listen for corncrake in iris beds and rough patches. The saltmarsh here is pink with thrift in early summer.

Sound of Harris

It’s worth taking a local boat tour or going on the ferry from Leverburgh across the Sound of Harris simply for the beauty of this lagoon-like divide between the Isle of Harris and North Uist. Look for black guillemots loafing on channel buoys, arctic terns fishing the shallows and both common and grey seals. A stopover on Berneray, only inhabited island in the Sound, could give you time to see the machair (big on wild carrot and meadow rue here) in from the massive shell-sand beach at the island’s western edge.

Orchids and corncrakes

Although primarily a bird reserve, Balranald on North Uist (access by turning off the A865 at Houghton, 3 miles north of Bayhead) is also excellent for flowers. Orchids, meadow cranesbill and corn marigold thrive on the machair between the loch and the coastal dunes. Corncrakes and corn buntings breed here as do lapwing and redshank. Warm conditions on the grassland and dunes are also good for butterflies, such as meadow brown and grayling, and bumblebees. Visitor centre, regular guided walks in summer, one trail (not for wheelchairs).

St Kilda

Look west over the sea on a clear day from North Uist or the hills of Harris and you’ll see a cluster of craggy islands on the far horizon. That glimpse might tempt some intrepid sea travellers to try to reach St Kilda. This World Heritage Site is home to the world’s largest gannetry, a host of other seabirds, including the biggest puffin colonies in Britain and Ireland. But Kildan wildlife watching doesn’t come easy. You’ll have to charter a boat or join one of the National Trust for Scotland work parties.

Geese, grouse and deer

If you want to get an idea of a big variety of Hebridean wildlife habitats in one area, then Loch Druidibeg, near Stilligarry on the A865 on South Uist, is hard to beat. The machair at the west is part of the world’s finest stretch of this flower-rich grassland. Use a self-guided trail out from Stilligarry past the main loch to the B960 and back to see locally breeding greylag geese, other wildfowl and waders and look out to wooded islets. There are corncrakes and corn buntings in the cultivated fields. To the east, heather moorland and rough grassland, home to red grouse and recently introduced red deer, stretch to the summit of Hecla.

Beaches, birds and primroses

It’s quite something to land on Barra’s cockle strand at Traigh Mhor and have seashell fragments on your shoes by the time you reach the airport building. Wildlife and human life interweave here, so travelling the A888 road that circles this bonny isle can provide many natural surprises. The show of primroses along verges and sunny banks in early summer is one of Scotland’s finest. Take a day trip from Castlebay (Barra’s hub, with many facilities) to the southernmost islands of the Outer Hebridean chain. Mingulay has major seabird colonies (including puffins) and sheer cliffs.

Golden Eagle, RSPB images