Day 1: Saturday – Nethy Bridge to the North Coast
Depart Nethy Bridge early morning and head through the heart of Ross-shire and Sutherland to reach our base in the far north-west. Birdwatching through the day as we travel, we have a range of different options with the days weather conditions dictating our exact route to the north coast. We make several stops, breaking the journey at scenic stops alongside stunning lochs and glens. In clear skies we focus on raptors, hoping for good views of Golden Eagle as we pass through numerous territories. White-tailed Eagle, Merlin and Peregrine are also possible today, with gorgeous, summer plumaged Red and Black-throated Diver on roadside lochs. Possible stops include floral rich dunes and pinewoods on the east coast, Loch Fleet for its waterbirds or quiet backroads through the moors to look for Cuckoo, Whinchat as well as raptors. We anticipate arriving on the north coast after lunch, and if the tide is right can look for Otter, Common and Grey Seal. Overnight Rhiconich area for 4 nights.
Day 2: Sunday – Cape Wrath
Today we head to Cape Wrath, literally the furthest North-Western part of the British mainland! Touted as “Scotland’s Last Wilderness”, to get to the Cape we first take the small passenger ferry from Keoldale, and once across the sea loch the scheduled minibus taxi. The bay at Kearvaig is stunning, a beautiful, clean and quiet beach and we can plan to be dropped off here to begin exploring. In late-June, the grasslands and flower-rich machair will be full of wild-flowers, a botanists treat. In the bay there will be a Grey Seal or two, and on the cliffs at Clo Kearvaig a small sea-bird colony with Kittiwake, Puffin, Guillemot, Razorbill and Shag present. Great Skua and Arctic Skua both nest on the surrounding moorland and are likely to be seen patrolling the cliffs, as are Twite, Rock Pipit and Wheatear as we walk west along the coast. Passing Loch na Seamraig, we view breeding Red-throated Diver at a safe distance before continuing to the lighthouse, a total walk of around 5km. Appreciating the views from one of Scotland’s hardest to reach places are only available to those who make the effort to get there and we scan for cetaceans and seabirds, and of course visit the cafe before the return taxi for the ferry.
Returning with a few hours of the afternoon left, we can continue along the Sutherland coast to Durness and Balnakeil. With a mixture of habitats including marshland, rich machair and croftland where the only regular Corncrake in Mainland Scotland reside here, and though tall vegetation is likely to make views of Corncrake unlikely we may get lucky and hear a few giving their grating call. A massively under-watched area, recent rarities including Rose-coloured Starling, Bee-eater, Iberian Chiffchaff, Stone Curlew and Semi-palmated Sandpiper indicate we definitely need to keep our eyes and ears open for the unexpected!
Day 3: Monday – Glorious Handa Island!
Handa Island - a true Scottish gem and a real birding treat with over 150,000 seabirds! Our focus of most of the day, we walk slowly around the whole Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve, we have time to enjoy the flora and fauna of the maritime heath and steep cliffs. The island holds breeding Great and Arctic Skua announcing their presence by dive-bombing as we walk along the boardwalk paths, occasionally making contact if we are too close! Thousands of birds breed on Handa, Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill mingle with Fulmar, Kittiwake and Shag on the cliffs. Gannet fish close to the island, and with Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot, Raven, Red Grouse, ‘real’ Rock Dove, Snipe, Lesser Redpoll, Sedge Warbler, Eider, Hooded Crow and Great Northern and Red-throated Diver also around, there is plenty to keep us interested. The geology here is stunning, sheer 110m Torridonian Sandstone cliffs covered in birds make every minute on Handa is an absorbing experience! With luck we may find a few cetaceans offshore, including Harbour Porpoise and Common Dolphin. Always a memorable seabird experience, we close the day at the flower rich machair and stunning beach at Oldshoremore SSSI for a coffee, before returning to our hotel.
Day 4: Tuesday – Assynt
Assynt is a patchwork quilt of rich croftland, rough grazing, stunning sandy beaches, small lochans and stunning rocky hills and we take a full day to work around the narrow and winding roads. The landscape here is recognised as a Geopark for its diverse geology and sees us going through several National Scenic Areas as we tour around. As well as Red-throated and Black-throated Diver, roadside lochans hold breeding Greenshank, Redshank and Common Sandpiper with the adjacent moorland a home to Golden Plover, Dunlin, Curlew and Snipe. Raptors are likely to feature with Golden and White-tailed Eagle, Hen Harrier and Merlin all possible.
If conditions are favourable and we get the right day for a hilltop trek, we plan to target Ptarmigan. A walk of around 6km on good tracks to a maximum Corbett height of 800m can be expected, and should reward us with good views of this tricky to see species plus one of the most splendid and rarely enjoyed panoramas in Scotland! We maintain a flexible approach to the day, and if conditions are unsuitable for exploring higher ground we can choose to spend more time in the Durness area perhaps with a walk out to Faraid Head. The coast near Eriboll is another possibility while venturing east as far as Tongue or Loch Loyal can be equally great for wildlife.
Day 5: Wednesday - Transfer and birding on Lewis, Outer Hebrides
Driving south and straight to Ullapool to take the mid-morning ferry, we sail 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 scan for seabirds and marine mammals. All the familiar seabirds are likely, with Manx Shearwater, Storm Petrel and skuas possible as are Minke Whale, Risso’s and Common Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise and perhaps even a Basking Shark.
On Lewis our activities will suit the weather conditions, unseen target species and any known rare birds. With a full first afternoon on the island, we may choose to visit the Butt of Lewis to search for seabirds and vagrants, look for raptors in the peatlands or check quiet lochans which hold nesting waders including a few Red-necked Phalarope - a truly special bird! Overnight Stornoway for 2 nights.
Day 6 – Thursday - Exploring Lewis and/or Harris
The majority of the Lewis interior is vast peatland and as such is an internationally important area for breeding species, including divers, Greenshank and a high density of raptors. We take time to look through these desolate, open environments, and should locate some of the commoner breeders including Golden Plover. 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 Otters. In boggy ground and isolated patches of Flag Iris a few Corncrake are present, and we pause at such habitats to listen for their unmistakable calls. In a break from wildlife watching, we plan to visit key archaeological sites including Dun Carloway Broch and the Standing Stones of Callanish, though be warned – 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, we may choose to venture further afield and explore the island of Harris to the south. A true 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, with fishing Little, Arctic and Common Tern around too. A haven for Golden Eagle, a range of high viewpoints amid spectacular granite ridges and hillsides give us every chance of great views.
Day 7: Friday – Tiumpan and return to Nethy Bridge
Our last morning may be spent looking for eagles and cetaceans perhaps from viewpoints such as Tiumpan Head. A location with an excellent track record for large whales, both Fin and Humpback are increasingly recorded along with more regular Minke Whale. Large pods of Common Dolphin can often be tracked across the Minch, with Risso’s, Bottle-nosed and Atlantic White-beaked Dolphin seen too. Harbour Porpoise are common, and our previous groups have even seen Orca from Headlands on Lewis in the past. We then head for home on the ferry via Ullapool, sea-watching again and bringing our thrilling week to an end, arriving at Nethy Bridge at around 7pm.
This holiday can be combined with:
Highlands and Orkney