Handa Island skua paradise

We woke up quite excited this morning knowing that in just a few hours we will be spending our time with thousands of seabirds. The lovely and for us, southern guys, the rarely heard Common Sandpiper territorial songs filled the whole bay. I want to wake up to this trilling song every day. What an underrated bird. As I sat on my ‘usual’ rock one of the Common Sanpipers flew high up to hillside and landed on a rock and started singing. It looked to be guarding over its nest or territory.

A well camouflaged Common Sandpiper on the hillside ner Tarbet harbour. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

A well camouflaged Common Sandpiper on the hillside ner Tarbet harbour. Can you see it? Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

There was a surprising couple of Twite just landed in front me and started feed on the dead seaweed. They were soon followed by House Sparrows, Eurasian Linnets and 3 Lesser Redpolls. In the restaurant garden there was two Song Thrush, Rock Pigeons and an overflying European Siskin. At the hillside a Northern Wheatear and Barn Swallows were hunting.

Song Thrush on the top of a shed of the restaurant yard. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Song Thrush on the top of a shed of the restaurant yard. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

The harbour was pretty calmed with a single Red-breasted Merganser a couple of Common Eider, 3 European Shags, 4 Eurasian Oystercatchers, 4 Razorbills, a Common Murre, an overflying Great Skua and of course gulls.

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Rocks around the island provided roosting sites for Common Gulls, Arctic Terns and European Shags. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Male Red-breasted Merganser was fishing all morning in the harbour. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Beautiful morning with calm water. Sitting at the shore and switch off mind is the best thing one can do. iPhone 6s Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

Beautiful morning with calm water. Sitting at the shore and switch off mind is the best thing one can do. iPhone 6s Plus © Gyorgy Szimuly

European Herring Gull next to the restaurant. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Subadult European Herring Gull next to the ferry pier. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Just before 9AM the ticket office opened and we faced with a little challenge. On the Handa Island ferry website there was no mention about the ‘cash only’ ticket purchase and of course we had no cash with us. I suspected that when the first visitors arrived with cash in their hand. Unfortunately, there is no ATM in Tarbet so we had to miss the first crossing and pick up some cash from the slowest cash machine of the world in Scourie.

An hour later we finally jumped in the boat and in just 10 minutes we were greeted by a lovely girl, a local wardenwho gave a short introduction to the area then we started our 6km long trek. The first speciality was a dark form Arctic Skua which was standing next to its nest. On the way to the peak we passed some potential habitat of the few pairs of Red Grouse but we couldn’t find one. The whole island was under the reign of about 200 breeding pairs of Great Skua. I counted 49 of these formidable sea raptors on and around the island. It was a good introduction to the different colour phases of Arctic Skua for Dani, as both were present. The inner island has a relatively low diversity with just a couple of songbird species, including Meadow Pipit, European Sky Lark and Northern Wheatear but we saw Willow Warblers in the bushes and also British White or Pied Wagtails. Orchids were blooming along the wooden path.

Our first Arctic Skua on its guarding rock. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

Our first Arctic Skua on its guarding rock. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

The plumage of the Arctic Skua is almost seems like a velvet and even with the sharpest lens it would be hard to get feather details. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

The plumage of the Arctic Skua is almost seems like a velvet and even with the sharpest lens it would be hard to get feather details. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Light morph Arctic Skua over its nest. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Whichever direction we looked to we saw incubating Great Skuas. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Arctic Skua silhouette against the cloudy sky. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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It was a fun to play with the camera on these tame birds

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This Arctic Skua was standing just next to the footpath. There was a plenty of opportunities for terrific bird photography on the whole island. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

A group of Great Skuas had long bath time in the freshwater pool. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

A group of Great Skuas had long bath time in the freshwater pool. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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A flock of preening Great Skuas after having a bath. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Incubating Arctic Skua. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Great Skuas often returned to the pool for anouther round of bath after shaking most of the water off the feathers in flight. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Great Skuas off for patrolling over the cliffs. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Great Skua is shaking water off the feathers after having a bath and returning to the pool again. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Dani is under attack by an Arctic Skua couple. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

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Dani could easily have touched these defending breeders. Sony Cyber-shot HX400V © Gyorgy Szimuly

On the northern part of the island there was the big thing. Visitors, photographers and birdwatchers enjoyed the view of thousands of seabirds on the cliffs and on the sea around the colonies. Amazing numbers of Common Murre and Razorbill with dozens of Atlantic Puffin are breeding on the island. On the top of the island, possibly the only freshwater pool provided excellent bathing opportunities for a flock of Great Skuas with the company of a pair stunning Red-throated Loon.

End of Part One. To be continued…

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