Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Monday, 8 October 2018

A week on Lewis

I recently returned from a week on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Situated in the far north-west of Britain and in a prime location to receive (particularly) Nearctic vagrants and also eastern species, there’s no doubt that the island, with a resident birder population of less than five, is seriously under-watched. My visit was arranged with the intention to try and unearth some migrants, and despite trying conditions and limited results, it’s safe to say Lewis needs to start becoming seriously considered by autumn self-find crews.

Golden Eagles were seen on most days.

The Outer Hebrides of course have rich birding heritage, but the island of Lewis and Harris is weirdly off-grid. There is no literature whatsoever on the island from a birding perspective (not even a sentence in the expansive Where to Watch Birds in Britain). Even the internet yields little. A scan through the BBRC archives, and sightings data via BirdGuides is about as good as it gets. Given that, in the last four (yes four!) years, Lewis has recorded Chimney Swift, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-crowned Sparrow and both Wilson’s and Rüppell's Warbler, it’s pretty remarkable. Add in the recent rapid elevation in status Barra has enjoyed, and it makes it even more curious that Lewis remains largely un-visited.

Fortunately, I was put in touch with Tony Marr, finder of that Wilson’s Warbler, who was able to supply me with excellent gen and detailed information on the island. Dan Pointon also helped with sites, but otherwise it was down to Google Earth and an OS map to work out where looked good. Like many Northern Isles, almost anywhere can hold a migrant, and Lewis was no exception. In theory, most places along the west coast from the Butt of Lewis to Mangersta could be productive. The villages along this stretch of coast hold gardens, some with highly attractive cover. Then you have the acres of crofts, coastal crops, iris beds, small plantations, sandy beaches, coastal lochs, machair meadows and plentiful views out into the Atlantic. The extent of these different habitats varies, but it’s all there, and consequently relatively varied birding can be done, which is important in a place as wild as Lewis…

This Barred Warbler was found in a garden in Bragar.

The weather has to be considered. Of course, unsettled periods, a heavily westerly airflow and fast-moving transatlantic depressions from North America are ideal for Nearctic arrivals. In this ‘all-or-nothing’ weather standard eastern drift fare is likely to be limited, and Lewis’ westerly location furthers this probability – when it’s quiet, it’s super quiet. However, the selection of mouth-watering Yanks mentioned earlier suggests that Lewis should theoretically be one of the first to score in such favourable conditions. And, regardless, the aforementioned Rüppell's, and scarce stuff found as standard (myself included) shows that easterly conditions would still deliver good birds to be found.

On top of these fine factors, you have to contend with the harsh local weather. This was the sole frustration I found with Lewis. Sure, I knew it’d be wet, I knew it’d be windy, but the relentless nature of it was pretty frustrating. Based on my conversations with locals I was particularly unlucky. In total, I had a grand total of seven hours of suitable passerine-searching weather! Every day experienced rain, sometimes heavy, but it was the force 8/9 winds that were the killer, and they rolled through on five of the six full days I was there! Add in the particularly uninspiring wider weather patterns for migrants (reflected across the country this autumn), and I was already on the back foot, as well as working solo.

Flocks of Twite were commonly encountered.

Anyway, despite this, I had a pleasant week of birding. Based in Bragar, about thirty minutes along the coast from the Butt, I made myself a patch away from patch, which encompassed the village gardens, a couple of coastal lochs, crofts and a seawatching vantage. I was pleased with my haul of 79 species for this small area, the best of which were Barred Warbler, Common Rosefinch, two Lapland Buntings and two Yellow-browed Warblers. The former was found on the best day by far for migrant-finding – sunny and settled conditions after a storm the day before had resulted in a mini-fall in the village, which included four other warbler species. Indeed, that morning I saw more warblers than I did the whole trip. Three ‘Greenland’ Common Redpolls were good value, and a few Mealy’s were also seen around the village. However, I can’t help but feel that, if I had one or two more days of decent conditions for passerines, that dream Yank or eastern rare would've taken me out the scarce-zone.

Several Whooper Swan families were seen.

The Outer Hebrides have plenty of species that are nice for the southern, landlocked birder to encounter, and often this kept me going. Both Golden and White-tailed Eagles were seen daily, with Merlins often noted as they dashed past and Hen Harriers commonplace. Flocks of Twite were frequently encountered, and it was humbling to watch various species come in off the sea from Iceland and Greenland, including Whooper Swans, Barnacle Geese and Snipe. Seawatching was OK; conditions often seemed ripe for a Sabine’s or even just a Leach’s, but the best I managed was a couple of Pomarine Skuas and several Sooty Shearwaters.

Waders disappointed. This almost untapped western strip of coast surely holds many, many Nearctic waders that go undetected. I was a week or two late for prime time, and I understand it’s been a poor breeding season, but I was disappointed to not find at least a Pectoral Sandpiper, or an American Golden Plover (I must have looked at nearly 3,000 European Golden Plovers that week!). My main wader searching site was Loch Ordais, and the lack of anything unusual here was made up for somewhat by the presence of a pair of Eurasian Otters.

Eurasian Otters offered good views at Loch Ordais.

Where to bird

As mentioned, the west coast from the Butt to Mangersta is likely the best part of the island to search. I was based in between the two, at Bragar – in hindsight I may have been better off based at the Butt or around Mangersta. However, Bragar juts out a little, and the habitat around the village is diverse. Anyway, below is an attempted, loose summary of where should be productive:

Butt of Lewis area

The tip of the island, perhaps starting at South Dell and running up to Port of Ness, and taking in the Butt of Lewis down to Skigersta, is likely where many migrants end up. Tony Marr is based here, and all five of the megas mentioned earlier have been found in the area. A point well made by Dan is that the gardens along the road south from Lionel to Skigersta is probably where many migrants that think they’re heading inland end up – I checked these on two days, but the wind beat me both times. If I was to visit again, I’d stay in this area.

Meadow and Rock Pipits (above) were common.

Mangersta, Ardroil and Gallen Head

Exceptionally remote – people hardly visit these places, let alone bird them. The few gardens at Mangersta are surely magnets for migrants. The notably extensive gardens around Ardroil are probably a good place to start – I had a Pied Flycatcher here, and Dan a Common Rosefinch in mid-September. Very exposed though, particularly Gallen Head.

Kneep loop

A real favourite of mine and it’d be keen to stay here. It’s basically a ring road that starts near the church at Miavaig. The gardens adjacent to said church were packed full of birds, sadly all common, but surely a great place to look. Kneep also had tasty looking cover – I saw a flock of c.100 Lesser Redpolls here.

Much of the coastline is Rocky - good news if you're a Purple Sandpiper.

Bragar area

The gardens are particularly extensive at Bragar, with a good number of sycamores. Loch Ordais is the best wader site on the island in my opinion (more on Steinis later), and the crops, iris beds and crofts nearby held loads of common finches and buntings. This is where I found the Common Rosefinch. Seawatching can be done from the various vantages either side of the loch.

Carloway and Garenin

I didn’t spend much time here, but some good gardens in a good location are surely productive.

The marked undertail coverts, dumpy appearance, heavy bill and white outer tail feathers can be seen here.

Stornoway area

Two notable habitats here are the estuary at Steinis and the Lews Castle Grounds. I found the waders at Steinis to be always a bit distant (and relatively low in number). The Castle Grounds are unique in the Outer Hebrides – the only woodland, and they hold breeders such as Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Whitethroat, all unheard of elsewhere in the county. I had a Yellow-browed Warbler here, and in calm conditions a couple of days after a low, this could deliver.

This Lesser Whitethroat arrived with several other warblers.


  • So much potential, but so much land – this is an island that needs multiple crews if the full fruits are to be harvested. It’s not a small island, and the key sites aren’t close to one another.
  • Weather. It’s probably worth considering doing the island if some appealing conditions from the west are in play. Otherwise it can be a slog, and the size of the island means concentrations of birds are always going to be far lower than say Shetland. In essence, Lewis should perhaps be twitched in the event of that all-or-nothing Yank weather.
  • Earlier visit. A mid-September visit wouldn’t harm chances of finding that Red-eyed Vireo (or Connecticut Warbler!), and it’d also mean Nearctic waders should be easier to come by.
'Pure' Rock Doves were seen in large flocks.