Wednesday 1 June 2011

Rock and roll in the North Atlantic

St Kilda is renowned as one of those places where the weather really does its own thing.  After a bumpy night at sea, with most people having a pretty unsettled night (me included), we arrived into a very windy St Kilda.  However, even though the weather gods were throwing everything at us, we were lucky enough to have shelter from the 3m+ swell inside Village Bay.  The winds however were gusting up over 60 knots at times and were almost catabatic roaring down off the top of St Kilda and into the bay.  You could see the gusts coming and whipping spray up as they approached the ship – very exciting.  So with extra staff in the boats and the odd rain shower coming through we managed to get everyone ashore on St Kilda.  Pretty awesome considering the wind strength.

I led a bird walk around the village, and we quickly had a couple of purple sandpipers, turnstones, dunlin and ringed plover along the shoreline and on the grassy fields.  As usual there were a lot of northern wheatears around the place, and both meadow and rock pipits, redpolls, and of course the famous St Kilda wrens.  Unfortunately, despite the wrens singing off and on they were surprisingly skulky this time and I never managed to get good close views.  I was hoping for a photo but just never got a good view for long enough...sneaky little mongrels!

So we got back safely to the ship for a BBQ lunch on the pool deck – in 60+ knot winds.  Pretty spectacular and reasonably sheltered on the pool deck, so all good.  As we left Village Bay and headed out into the 6-8m swells towards the stacks it was obvious we were in for a rolly afternoon.  We cruised past the stacks which are covered in gannets and were really impressive in this storm.  There were lots of fulmars and gannets flying past the ship and a bit of photography, but in these conditions I stayed inside the bridge a fair bit.  The Captain sent everyone to their cabins as we turned beam on to the sea to then head for shelter around the Butt of Lewis.  It was a bumpy afternoon, but the ship handled it pretty well once we got on course.  I kept watch for a while, but not a lot of other seabirds, and the only Leach’s storm-petrel was seen late in the evening and not by me.  Never mind!

Next day we were up at 0430 as we came in close to Handa.  We had hoped to offer a zodiac cruise around the bird cliffs, but with 20+ knot winds increasing and big swell still there was no chance.  So we did a close cruise in the ship, and then I headed back to bed for a couple more hours of sleep.  Then into Tanera Mor in the Summer Isles, where the rain held off ALMOST till the end of the landing.  Nice view from the top and a couple of red-throated divers on one of the small lochs.  Not much else bird wise though.  So then to Loch Ewe and Inverewe gardens.  The heronry at the jetty was still occupied with some large chicks in the nests.  Quite a few birds around with siskin, wrens, and great tits pretty common.  I went and checked out the small hide on the shoreline just outside the gardens and there were several greenshank, a group of mergansers, and dunlin and ringed plover.  On the way back though the gardens I managed to get reasonable views of a black-throated diver out on the Loch.  That’s two species of diver in the day...and as we cruised across to Drumchork there was the third, a great northern diver.  Not bad going!

Ended up going ashore with the Capt and a few others and we went up to the Drumchork Lodge Hotel which has something over 800 single malt whiskys and make their own in a small distillery.  We had a few pints and then had dinner – my first haggis!  Very very nice.  Then we did the distillery tour which was fantastic.  Really ingenious setup and the only place in the World you can go and stay and make your own whisky, taking it home in a cask at the end of it.  We then sampled a number of their brews and then staggered off down the hill.  It just started to absolutely bucket down (with hail) as we got in the zodiac and headed back to the ship.

Next day the sun was shining (finally) as we did a really awesome zodiac cruise around the Shiant Isles.  There were thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills resting on the water and nesting on the islands, and with sunny weather it was a really nice final zodiac cruise for the trip.  Managed to get a few nice photos, and got to see nature in the raw, with great black-backed gulls tearing apart a puffin on the beach in front of us...nature red in tooth and claw.  There were a couple of black guillemots and a lot of grey and common seals around the place, so we got looks at them.  Perhaps the best of the birds though were at least 4-5 immature white-tailed sea eagles.  My first sightings of this species in the UK, and they sure are big birds.  No good photos, but some distant ones.

Then it was lunch as we cruised to Loch Dunvegan, where the Capt basically parked the ship on the shore, with an 80m zodiac ride to the shore.  I didn’t bother with the castle, but explored the gardens pointing out a few birds to people.  Additions to the list were spotted flycatcher and blue tit (would you believe it), and I spent some time wandering the coastline with very scenic views out over the flowering gorse.  Back onboard for the Capt’s farewell cocktail party and then the slide show.

So now we are Oban, it’s still windy and the weather forecast for the next 36 hours or so looks dreadful!  We finished the first cruise this morning, with disembarkation.  Lunch in a local hotel, emails and internet, and then back to the ship to welcome the next group of passengers...that’s the way we roll!  Hope you enjoy the photos below.

Amongst the stone cleats on St Kilda

Stone cleats, walls and old buildings on St Kilda

Soay sheep

Northern wheatear on St Kilda

Soay sheep lamb

Northern fulmar beside a stone wall at its nest

Stac Lee covered in gannets

Northern fulmar winging past the ship

North Atlantic gannet

Fulmars dotting the sky against Boreray in the background

Northern fulmars against the rough sea

Big swell!

Cotton grass on Tanera Mor

View from the top of Tanera Mor across the Summer Isles

View from the top of Tanera Mor back towards the landing

The M/V Clipper Odyssey just off Tanera Mor

Part of the Shiant Isles, Garbh Eilean on the right and Eilean Mhuire to the left

Grey seal peering back at us

Great black-backed gulls tearing a puffin apart...there are no villains in nature

The one that got away...

Another puffin flying past

Razorbill in flight

A puffin walking on water

Garbh Eilean on the right and Eilean Mhuire to the left

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