Carpe diem

There were plenty of reasons not to do what I did yesterday; forecast heavy rain, forecast heavy seas and no certainty of success after 14 hours on a boat.

On the other hand, yesterday was the only day this week, this month, this year, maybe this decade, when I could stroll down the road and get on a ferry at Oban which would call at Coll and Tiree and then cross the Minch to Barra before retracing its steps.  So I went!

It rained a bit, but not nearly as much as had been suggested, and the sea was interesting rather than heavy. I didn’t see any Basking Sharks (it’s on the early side, but how many did I miss?) or any whales (always a long shot) but there were dolphins (Bottle-nosed?) in and around Coll harbour. We rarely get dolphins in east Northants, so they were a delight.

There were lots of seabirds though; Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns.  Also an Arctic Skua, several Great Skuas and an adult Long-tailed Skua. That last bird was worth the 14 hours on the ferry by itself – beautiful and my first for decades. But my main memory will be of the large numbers of Manx Shearwaters that were in the Minch.

Most of the world’s Manx Shearwaters nest in the British Isles and one of the largest colonies, tens of thousands of pairs, is found at the top of the mountains of Rhum – I could see Hallival and Askival in the distance.

On the outward journey the small relatives of albatrosses were heading in all directions – skimming close over the waves on stiff wings (shearwatering, in fact). They alternated looking dark (back, top of the head and upper wings) and white (underparts) as they glided, stiff-winged, through the troughs and over the crests of the waves

On the return journey, all the Manx were streaming towards Rhum to visit their burrow nests high in the mountains of Rhum. As my ferry entered Oban harbour, those mountains would be loud with the strange, to our ears, ‘strangled-chicken’ cries of shearwaters. This bird, so at ease in the air over the open seas, would waddle the last few feet to its nest in the mountains with Viking names.

The Long-tailed Skua was memorable, but the Manx Shearwaters were the signature bird of the trip and of those seas.

I felt that I had well and truly seized the day.  If I had been put off by the forecasts I would have missed a treat.


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8 Replies to “Carpe diem”

  1. Your last few blogs mention Rum and remind me of the time I was a Ghillie on the island when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Some great times and great characters on the island although living and working with people and not being able to get off the island did cause some friction at times!
    The young sea eagles arrived when I was there and I remember helping to build the cages and going out to catch fish for John Love, the eagle man to feed them - the rest of the time they ate venison!
    My other repeatable memory was the midges!!

    Are you getting the chance to visit?

    1. Pete - we may have been there at same time. No chance to boost this trip. I remember the midges too!

  2. Been there, done that, albeit about 20 years ago. To this day I can remember it clearly, including the long tailed skua flying with the boat as we headed south down N Uist, which was a lifer for me and in fact the only one I've ever seen!
    Such an amazing birding experience, makes you glad to be alive.

  3. Most surprising ferry bird I had was when I was guiding in the Outer Hebrides and was crossing the Sound of Harris, when the odd looking gull cruising over the waves turned out to be a male hen harrier. It was also surprising to see just how confused you can get when you see something completely out of context.

  4. I once spent the night in the shearwater colony on Rum - a magical experience. Also used the phone box where they breed all the midges!

  5. Mark

    Sounds amazing and a similar journey I'll be doing in a fortnight except I'll be getting off the boat at South Uist and getting back on at Barra with a week in between. Looking forward to exploring the islands, the birds but I'll be surveying for the spiders! A very under recorded group but one I find fascinating. I just hope the midges are not too bad as I'll be hoping to survey on some of the mires.


  6. Earliest ever Basking Sharks this year around Coll and a massive plankton sample to go with it. Seems to be the best skua passage for a long time. Even I found around 20 Long tails in the Solway. Now a regular site for watching for all 4 species especially in May.


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