By Wednesday the rain looked like it was set in for the long run with banks of cloud barely clearing the cliffs, covering the landscape like a quilt. Normally I’d have called the whole thing off and stayed in bed but we had a boat trip booked with Turus Mara out to Lunga (one of the Treshnish islands) and Staffa (of Fingals cave and basalt column fame). This is a trip not to be missed as you will soon see.
I began to get a feeling that it was going to be a good day when while eating breakfast a rather strange looking Wheatear hopped into view. It was clearly a male bird but in addition to the usual black eye stripe it also sported a large black bib. It was only visible for a few moments before one of the local Wheatears chased it off, but consulting the bird book leads me to believe that the individual in question could belong to the seebohmi race from NW Africa. I have no idea how likely this is but we did see another bird that exhibited similar characteristics a few years ago at Crackaig. Answers on a postcard please if you have any further information regarding this sub-species.
At our departure point we were surprised to see that the trip was as fully booked as normal despite the conditions, so we made sure we were in prime position to get the best seats on the boat. We needn’t have worried as we were the only ones brave enough, or should that be stupid enough, to sit out in the open. The trip to Staffa was very wet but we still managed to see good numbers of Black Guillemots as well as the occasional Manx Shearwater and Gannet. At Staffa itself the sea had a big swell on the go and it was only thanks to some expert seamanship that we were able to dock and disembark.
Back on the boat we headed out into open water and got stuck into the good stuff with a Cory’s Shearwater seen through the driving rain. Despite being at some distance the sheer size of the bird compared to the nearby Manx’s was unmistakeable, as was the lighter brown colouring on its back. It’s funny as I always considered identifying a different species of Shearwater as an almost impossible task, but when you see one there really is no doubt. With one lifer in the bag the second was upon us moments later as a Storm-Petrel flew parallel to us past the boat. If I was to describe it as a House Martin of the sea you wouldn’t be far off imagining what we could see. In my excitement I very nearly ended up flat on my back due to the slippery deck, but as I’ve said there fortunately wasn’t anyone up there with us to witness my mad flailing.
By some miracle our arrival at Lunga brought with it a break in the weather and even some sun. Lunga holds large colonies of Puffin, Guillemot and Razorbill amongst others, but unlike elsewhere the island is visited by so few people that the birds have almost no fear of humans. As a result the Puffins will often walk right up to you giving an encounter that is unparalleled anywhere in the UK.
Away from the main concentration of Puffins a large outcrop of rock holds the noisy Guillemots. Here thousands of birds vie for space along the ledges and bicker amongst themselves as they try to get the best patch upon which to lay their single eggs.
Many of the birds already had chicks at various stages of growth. It was somewhat nerve wracking to watch the youngling’s career around the place only inches from a tremendous fall, but the parents would soon get them under control and safely tucked away under a wing.
Mixed in with the Guillemots you can often find Razorbills. When seen on water the two species can look remarkably similar but up close the massive beak of the Razorbill is unmistakeable. You’ll have to excuse the Puffin in the second picture as every time I tried to photograph the Razorbill stretching its wings the Puffin would pop up into shot to see what I was doing. It was incredibly endearing if a little frustrating.
Other inhabitants of the island include the ever aggressive Shags that are willing to hiss and spit just as soon as they think you are getting a little too close. Trust me when I say they are not birds that you want to mess with.
Check out the midges in the top left – they bite!
Kittiwakes also use the cliffs to breed. Seeing them here in a natural environment certainly contrasts with the colony that we have at home on Mumbles pier.
It’s impossible to portray through a few photos just how amazing a place Lunga really is. The sheer quantity of birds and the behaviour between them that one can witness is beyond imagination. It is something that just has to be experienced to be believed. To finish things off nicely we were treated to the sight of a White Tailed Sea Eagle sat on a small island in Loch Tuath as we approached Ulva ferry on the return leg of the trip.