Birding in the Hebrides
We’re always delighted to welcome birders and photographers on board, and our cruises offer superb opportunities for our guests to appreciate wildlife to the full. With chances to enjoy spring and autumn migrations, we also experience seabird colonies at their most spectacular and are privileged to see a wide variety of birds of prey wherever we sail throughout the Hebrides.
From the decks of our vessels, you can also take advantage of excellent opportunities for seawatching as we coincide with spring and autumn seabird passage in the Minch and other equally productive waters. It’s also possible to see other island specialities, with breeding birds such as Corncrakes, waders on the Machair and smaller passerines in Sessile oakwoods.
Wildlife photographers are also well catered for. Our skippers know the best spots and have decades of wildlife experience between them. Our birding guests are very generous with their knowledge and experience and regularly share their sightings with other guests so no one misses out. If you’re a birdwatching beginner but would like to learn more, there’s nearly always someone on board, either guests or crew, who can help foster that enthusiasm.
Raptors – Mull deserves a mention all of its own but it’s not the only place where we enjoy fantastic experiences with Scotland’s raptors, including Golden Eagle, Sea Eagle, Peregrine, Raven and Buzzard on our spectacular sea cliffs, as well as Short-eared Owl, Hen Harrier and Merlin hunting over moorland. Sitting on deck as the sun sets, with a Short-eared Owl quartering the moorland or in wing-clapping display to its mate is a haunting image which lives long in the memory. Birds of prey can turn up anywhere but Skye, Canna, Jura, Rum, Harris, Lewis and the Uists are particularly good locations where sightings are regular.
Seawatching – with our vessels being mobile and stable ‘platforms’, we have the advantage of bringing our birding guests a lot closer to the action than the usual restrictions imposed by land-based seawatching from headlands. The upper deck of Hjalmar Bjorge in particular allows wide ranging scope views. Our crossings of the Minch sail right through the heart of the spring and autumn passage of skuas, divers, shearwaters and petrels. The seas between Skye and the Small Isles and around Ardnamurchan Point can also be very productive.
The Minch also offers excellent opportunities for encounters with seabirds such as Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills from nearby breeding colonies, making feeding forays in these rich waters, but we also have regular sightings of Arctic Skuas and Bonxies following the boat. On migration, we’ve even caught up with Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas on passage, both in their breeding finery. A bulky Pom Skua cruising lazily past Hjalmar Bjorge sporting full ‘spoons’ can be hard to beat!
It wouldn’t be the Hebrides without seabird colonies. Many of our trips visit remote breeding colonies which are very difficult to see other than from a live-aboard cruise. A particular favourite of our guests is the Shiants but we also sail to the Flannans, Barrahead, Sula Sgeir, North Rona, the Stacs at Boreray, St Kilda and Mingalay. Another favourite anchorage and landing is the Monarchs with their fabulous but vulnerable Arctic Tern colonies.
Each colony offers so much variety, with breeding Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Petrels (both Leaches and Stormies), Gannets, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots and Shags. Imagine sitting on deck on a peaceful overnight anchorage off the Shiants, with the sight and sound (and smell!) of the seabirds bustling back and forth to their nesting sites amongst the boulder fields.
The Isle of Rum is renowned for Manx Shearwaters and our regular passage past the Small Isles is enlivened with good views as they shear the waves or raft offshore, waiting for the safety of darkness before returning to their burrows to feed their chicks.
Our unique island Machair plays host to significant numbers of Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Snipe, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Corncrakes and our visits to the Uists, Coll, Tiree, Scarp and Taransay offer a chance to connect with these breeding waders. Curlew and Twite are other scarce breeding birds which thrive in this low intensive farming regime. The evocative calls of these waders drifting over the water to our quiet anchorage is an unforgettable experience.
Spring and Autumn Migration – it’s been recognised in recent years that the Outer Hebrides have untapped potential as a migration hotspot, not only for migrants from America but also as a corridor for migrants usually more associated with east coasts. While some islands have been regularly ‘worked’ by birders in autumn, like the ‘Barra Boys’, and are now known as tremendous places to find your own scarce birds, so much of the Outer Isles chain and the Inner Hebrides remains unexplored.
Our spring and autumn cruises will put you in the right place at the right time for finding interesting migrants or even something much rarer. There’s still so much to discover and it all adds to the growing knowledge of migration. All that’s needed is suitable wind and weather in the preceding days for something good to turn up. It’s a well-known adage among birders that anything can turn up anywhere! So join us to see what you can find… whether it’s a Nearctic wader from the west such as Buff-breasted Sandpiper, or a Siberian waif and stray like a Yellow-browed Warbler or Red-breasted Flycatcher; species which are now fairly regular on this west coast.
Other breeding birds – the Hebrides have such a diversity of breeding birds that there is always something new to see on our cruises. Iona, Coll and Tiree are well known as breeding grounds for Corncrakes but find an Iris bed or a traditional hay meadow on any island and you stand a chance of hearing one rasping away. Our idyllic Sessile Oakwoods and Birch woods are ideal for breeding warblers such as Redstarts, Wood Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers, as well as Redpolls and Siskins. Tree Pipits are also regular on some islands in areas with scattered trees and open ground.
Our cruises taking in Colonsay give the opportunity to connect with Chough, and remote Hebrides island lochans shelter breeding Red-throated and Black-throated Divers and we often see Great Northern Divers in spring on passage, sporting the velvet finery of their summer plumage. Other more regular island residents include Dippers and Grey Wagtails nesting along the banks of streams and rivers. Hooded Crows are ubiquitous and strikingly different from their southern cousins. The Hebrides are also home to several endemic species such as St Kilda’s very own Wren, the Hebridean Starling and Song Thrush and on passage, we see Icelandic Redwings.
Mull – It’s no surprise that Mull is a firm favourite of both guests and crew alike. The island is now firmly established on the wildlife map as possibly the best place in the Hebrides to watch wildlife and in particular, it’s justifiably known as Eagle Island. All our cruises past or around Mull have the best chance of catching up with both ‘flavours’ of eagles, Golden and White-tailed Eagles.
But the island is not just famous for its eagles. Other birds of prey nest here in safety, such as Hen Harrier, Buzzard, Merlin and Peregrine. Iona is an excellent spot to catch up with Corncrakes, even if you only hear them! Black Guillemots also nest on Mull, and the Treshnish Isles are a superb destination to catch up with Puffins, and the island’s Sessile oakwoods host breeding Redstarts, Wood Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers.
We pride ourselves on putting the welfare of all wildlife first. Responsible viewing is our watchword. We ask all our guests to abide by our Code of Conduct which you can read here https://www.northernlight-uk.com/about-us/code-of-conduct/
If you’re interested in reading more about birding in the Hebrides before your cruise, you may find these books and websites useful.
- Birds of Coll and Tiree by John Bowler & Janet Hunter
- The Birds of Eigg by John Chester
- Skye Birds by R.L. McMillan
- Birdwatching on Mull and Iona by Dave Sexton
- Best Birdwatching Sites: Scottish Highlands by Gordon Hamlett
- Island Eagles by Ken Crane & Kate Nellist
- The Return of the Sea Eagle by John Love
- A Saga of Sea Eagles by John Love
- Birds of Islay by Richard Elliott
DID YOU KNOW?
Approximately 45 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, St Kilda was once home to Britain's most isolated community.