Day 1: Sat 29 July 2023 Transfer to Ullapool and birding on Lewis
Departing Nethy Bridge early morning we drive north to Ullapool, where we take the mid-morning ferry across the Minch to the large island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. With majestic mountain scenery and rugged coastlines both in front and behind us, we encounter seabirds and marine mammals for the first time. A range of breeding and feeding species are likely, with Fulmar, Shag, Gannet, Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake, Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Great and Arctic Skua some of the first birds in our notebooks.
Arriving in Stornoway, all our 'land based' activities will suit the weather conditions, and we may choose to visit the Butt of Lewis to search for seabirds and cetaceans on our first afternoon. On the Atlantic coast we have chances of passing species such as Sooty Shearwater or a scarce skua. We look for raptors in the peatlands and check quiet lochans for divers, Whooper Swan and nesting waders including a few Red-necked Phalarope - a truly special bird! Overnight Stornoway for 2 nights.
Day 2: Sun 30 July Mainland Lewis/Harris
The majority of the Lewis interior is vast peatland and as such is an internationally important area for breeding species, including divers, waders including Golden Plover and Greenshank and a high density of raptors. With a full day to explore, we scour the hillsides for Golden and White-tailed Eagle, and hopefully Hen Harrier and Merlin too. On the Atlantic side, the landscape changes and working our way down the west coast, empty beaches and bays provide temporary feeding for passage waders, and many are good for Otter too. In boggy ground and isolated patches of Flag Iris a few Corncrake are present, and we pause to listen for their unmistakable calls. The ‘Machair’ will be at its glorious best, wildflowers and northern orchids offering a vibrant splash of colour which needs to be seen to be believed! In a break from wildlife watching, we also plan to visit key archaeological sites including Dun Carloway Broch and the Standing Stones of Callanish, though be warned wildlife may interrupt – both White-tailed and Golden Eagle can often appear overhead!
A flexible approach will again be important, and if all our birding targets have been achieved on Lewis, we may choose to venture further afield and explore the island of Harris to the south. A scenic gem, rightly lauded as one of the most beautiful islands in Europe, though conjoined with Lewis it is not actually a true island. Harris has a different feel to Lewis, offering a full range of rugged habitats including long sweeping beaches and diverse dune systems. Summering Common Scoter and Eider may be seen in the bays and Harris is a haven for Golden Eagle, a range of high viewpoints amid spectacular granite ridges and hillsides giving us every chance of great views.
Day 3: Mon 31 July Eastern Lewis and the Minch
Our last morning on land may be spent looking for eagles and cetaceans perhaps from Tiumpan Head or another east coast viewpoint overlooking the Minch. Twite, Rock Pipit and Wheatear are all likely on the headlands, and we may have time to explore other habitats to enhance our wildlife-lists. Return wader passage will be in full flow and on unspoilt beaches a range of species are possible including Dunlin, Knot, Sanderling, Black and Bar-tailed Godwit, many of them in smart summer plumage. Sheltered bays can be good for moulting Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, feeding gulls and terns. Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little are all possible, the latter retaining a small breeding population here.
In the afternoon we board our cruise-boat, sailing north to begin exploring the Minch by sea. We may well see our first cetaceans with Harbour Porpoise, Common and Risso’s Dolphin and Minke Whale often numerous within this stretch of the Minch. We stay overnight on our vessel for the next 4 nights.
Days 4 - 6: Tue 1- Thur 3 August Minch Wildlife cruise
We have a flexible itinerary to explore the Minch over the next three days, with every chance of some fantastic wildlife experiences in this wonderful area with a rapidly increasing reputation for cetacean watching. Our skipper knows these waters well and we have plenty of time to go to known hotspots, investigate feeding frenzies ad-hoc and follow up on any news from land-based observations. Harbour Porpoise are likely daily, while commoner species of dolphin include Risso’s, Bottle-nosed and (Short-beaked) Common with chances of Atlantic White-sided and White-beaked Dolphin too. Occasionally Orca pass through and it is prime-time for ‘larger’ whales with Humpback, Fin and even Sei Whale attracted by the abundance of food. Basking Shark may also be seen, and among any feeding frenzies we look out for scarcer seabirds such as Leach’s Petrel, Great and Cory’s Shearwater, Sabine’s Gull, Pomarine and Long-tailed Skua.
During our time cruising the Minch we plan to sail south for the Shiant Isles and its bustling seabird cities. Shag, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Guillemot and Puffin all breed and can be especially abundant in the surrounding waters. We plan to land on these rarely visited islands, enjoying all the sight and sounds (and smells) of the busy colonies. Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater are also likely, often seen as we head for our anchorage at the end of the day as dusk falls.
We also venture inshore to sheltered sealochs on the Lewis/Harris east coast offering a unique perspective of these dramatic islands. Scanning the ridges for White-tailed and Golden Eagle, we may encounter Red Deer too. Both Common and Grey Seal are likely, and we look out for Otter in quiet stretches of the coast. Stunning Red-throated and Black-throated Diver may be seen, and if time and conditions allow, we plan to land in remote areas to explore on foot.
Day 7: Fri 4 August Return to land and transfer to Nethy Bridge
After a final morning on board our cruise boat, we return to Stornoway in time for the afternoon ferry to Ullapool. From deck we have one final chance to enjoy the 'Wildlife of the Minch' before returning to Nethy Bridge, expecting to arrive at around 7pm when our holiday ends.
This holiday can be combined with:
Birds and Mammals featuring Perthshire, Highland Wildlife in High Summer, Highlands and the Outer Hebrides