Highland Diary

Gyr Falcon & other birds on North Uist

  • April 16, 2016
Gyr Falcon

Gyr Falcon

I am not one usually given to rushing from one end of the UK to the other in search of rare birds. The chance to see and photograph the long staying white phase Gyr Falcon on North Uist was an opportunity I thought worth considering. Thinking about it, a less than three hour drive to Uig on Skye and a ferry hop over the Minch involved a lot less effort on my part than a day spent lugging my camera gear over the tops of the Cairngorms. Queuing for the afternoon ferry to Lochmaddy at Uig it was fairly obvious from the car loads of binocular/camera toting birders in the queue in front of me that I was not going to be alone in my quest. Once on to the island a mad grand prix ensued in the direction of Balranald where the bird had been seen. I was quite happy not to compete and wended my way over the island, taking in the landscape and the birdlife along the way. Seeing the heavily cropped fields and bare machair of at this time of year was a real contrast to the lush flower rich landscape that I had experienced previously during summer. I duly arrived at a line of cars drawn up on the grass verge fifty metres or so from the remains a mute swan on which the falcon had been known to feed in the past. The magnificent almost white Gyr Falcon was sitting on a fence post some distance away on the other side of a lochan. It was preening and generally relaxing the in early evening sun. A cold wind off the sea in combination with air warmed by the radiant heat of the sun rising from the ground was enough to make a shimmer haze sufficient to make photography impossible at that distance. After half an hour or so, after some wing stretching, the falcon took off and headed in the direction of the swan. Probably to everyone’s surprise it landed not on the swan but on the carcase of a Greylag Goose fifty metres or so further along the loch shore. Unwittingly I had parked some distance ahead of the other carloads of birders and by chance had ended up closest to the now feeding falcon. The light was perfect and the haze had started to lessen as the evening sun started to lose its power, photography was easy.  For a while the bird was happy to perform for its growing audience but gradually became more alert as car doors started to open, tripods started to appear outside the cars and voices grew louder. The falcon tried dragging the goose into more cover but eventually decided that it have eaten enough and returned to its fence post. I stayed on after everyone else had left, expecting that the bird would probably return to feed as it was getting dark. Parked a couple of hundred metres away, in the gathering gloom, I was able to make out a white shape cross the loch and disappear out of sight at the spot where the goose lay.

The next day dawned wet. A very bedraggled falcon fed several times on the goose which overnight had somehow spirited itself further away from the road down on to the loch shore. Happy car loads of birders came and went throughout the day. The following day the weather had returned to sunny spells with a cold north-westerly wind off the sea. By midmorning the shimmer haze was making photography with a long lens all but impossible. I set off to see what other birds the island had on offer. Plenty of waders were starting to nest on the wet pastures but the machair was still bare and fairly birdless except for a few larks, flocks of Twite and the odd Corn Bunting. Distant flocks of Barnacle Geese were very wary and un-photographable compared to those to be found further south on Islay.

The numbers of raptors up on the hill ground in North Uist can’t fail to impress. Just as I arrived at a raptor viewpoint six immature sea eagles appeared in the air together above a small plantation. Two departed to the north only for another pair to join the party arriving from the opposite direction. Whilst this display was going on in the air above I was trying to focus on a male hen harrier passing by with prey in its talons. It suddenly dropped out of the sky. I lifted my eye from my camera to see a couple of the young sea eagles hot on his tail, presumably intent on a pipit supper. The harrier reappeared and flew on, his prey lost somewhere in the heather. I spent most of the next couple of days trying to get a sequence of pictures of the male harrier’s ‘skydancing’ nuptial display. It was all rather distant and spoiled by the dreaded shimmering haze whenever the sun shone in the middle part of the day. On the plus side during my hillside sojourn I observed no less than eight more raptor species passing by.