Bird watching and whale watching around Ardnamurchan, Scotland.
June 2nd - 8th 2005
Authors : Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
With a 23-night trip to South Africa planned for September 2005, both time and funding were at a premium. We decided to try and combine birdwatching with other wildlife and after searching around, opted for the Ardnamurchan peninsular.
It's a long 500+ mile drive from the English Midlands to this part of Scotland, so we booked flights on Easyjet from Luton to Inverness and picked up a car from Europcar when we arrived. We stayed for 5 nights in the Sonachan Hotel, near Kilchoan. This is the most westerly hotel on the British mainland and is a delightful place to stay. B&B for two per night was £50 with en suite facilities and this seemed good value for money, for both the beautiful location and the superb breakfasts. The rooms are clean, bright and pleasantly decorated. We wanted to see whales and dolphins so we contacted Ardnamurchan Charters (www.west-scotland-marine.com ) and arranged to try one of their whale watching trips. These seemed excellent value at £45 per person for a full day trip (less for children). They also offer tours to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles that we would probably have taken, but we were not there on the right day. We strongly recommend both Sonachan Hotel and Ardnamurchan Charters.
Some useful tips
The northern and western location of the peninsular mean that it stays light in June until very late. Bird watching is possible until after 22:00 on most days - sunset was around 22:20. We didn't really see any proper darkness. We were often up and about before 07:00 by which time it had been light for hours.
Midges were not too much of a problem. We suffered a couple of times in the evening when the weather was very calm, or in sheltered places on Loch Sunart, but CC has seen many worse places in northern Scotland. It's usually not too difficult to find enough of a breeze to keep these annoying insects down.
Stuff in general is expensive here, compared to the rest of Britain. Petrol was about 15p / litre more than in Shrewsbury. This is generally because of the difficulty of access. We took most evening meals in the Sonachan Hotel. Bar meal prices are higher than in most English towns, but comparable with country pubs - and the standard of the meals was excellent, with fresh scallops, venison, haggis etc. being available. The hotel has a well-equipped kitchen available to guests, should they wish to cook for themselves. We purchased a decent sized lobster on Muck and asked the hotel staff to prepare it for us as a starter for our final night. They didn't even charge us for this and finished it off with salad garnish and sauce.
We arrived at Inverness slightly ahead of schedule, having stopped "on the way" to Luton airport for the Willington Great Reed Warbler and picked up our Renault Megane from Europcar. We drove straight to Loch Ruthven, south of Loch Ness where we found summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe easily and also saw a pair of Red-throated Divers. We then decided to drive straight through to Ardnamurchan. Somewhere around Fort William the intermittent drizzle turned into torrential rain that accompanied us all the way to the hotel. The drive beyond Fort William, and especially after Lochailort is a slow one, with single-track roads for the final 30+ miles. However even in the pouring rain it is still beautiful country and the rain had turned all the hillside watercourses to silver and white torrents.
We made it to Sonachan after 8 p.m. (having stopped to photograph a Red Deer herd just outside Kilchoan) and after dinner drove down to the lighthouse on the UK's western mainland tip. Here the rain was complemented by gale force winds that persuaded us not to get out of the car. Surprisingly, visibility was quite good and we could see large numbers of auks, gannets, gulls etc.
CC was in the car and heading for the lighthouse by 6 a.m., JD having opted for a lie-in. The rain had turned to showers and the wind had lessened in strength so it seemed like an ideal opportunity for a spot of sea watching.
Just below the lighthouse is a huge foghorn on a concrete platform. There is room here for several people with telescopes. There is a small building on the platform that can be used for a little shelter (depending on the wind direction). Below the platform were the remains of a more substantial shelter that looked to have been badly damaged by storms.
Most notable on this first sea watch was the huge number of Manx Shearwaters, many close inshore. In fact there were lots of birds visible most of the time from the platform, with many Razorbills, Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Gannets, Fulmars, gull, terns etc. being seen. On land Rock Pipits and Northern Wheatears were common and in addition to the birds there were frequently Common and Grey Seals to be seen and Palmate Newts in the small rock pools in the higher sections of the cliffs below the car park (this is the second car park, right next to the lighthouse buildings).
An hour of wind and rain was enough and so CC returned to the hotel to find JD checking the birds and wildflowers around the hotel (Cuckoo, Whinchat, Wheatear etc. along with a few orchids and plenty of common flowers). After a good breakfast we returned to the lighthouse where the same species were seen again. It was still showery and breezy but the weather showed signs of improvement and patches of blue sky began to appear.
When we were cold enough, we returned to the car and drove through Kilchoan (on the south coast) to get to the beaches on the north coast around Kilmory. A stop on the minor road to Kilmory, Ockle etc. near the point were it leaves the B8007 east of Kilchoan was made to admire a herd of about 100 Red Deer (this species is very common in the area) as the weather steadily improved. The sun started to appear in between showers and we found Ringed Plover on the beach, along with other common species.
Later, after a sharp shower we decided to have a look a Glenborrodale, where there is an RSPB woodland reserve. The start of the path into the reserve was very steep and was still awash with mud and water following the previous day's rains, so we decided to stop for lunch at the visitor centre. By the time we came out the sun was shining and the temperature had climbed noticeably. We did a little birding around Glenborrodale, took some photos and returned to the Point for some more sea-watching and an excellent evening meal in the Sonachan. During the sea-watch JD spotted a whale species, probably Minke, a couple of miles offshore in the direction of Muck.
The weather continued to improve and we spent an hour in the morning at the lighthouse where the highlights included single Arctic Skuas and Storm Petrels, with the latter being a long-sought new species for CC. We then caught the ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory on Mull, thinking that we might try to get a look at some of the White-tailed Sea Eagles breeding on the island. We walked straight past the Tourist Information office in Tobermory (it faces the wrong way for people coming from Kilchoan!) and by the time we'd located it, it was looking a bit difficult to arrange transport to one of the watch points, so we bought some chips and then went for a beer. We then went in to the office of Sea Life Surveys and booked a 2-hour "ecocruz" with the prospect of seeing some whales and dolphins. In the event, we saw only a single Minke Whale and a couple of dolphins that broke surface a mile or so outside Tobermory harbour. Sadly the staff on the boat didn't see these, but our best guess was Risso's Dolphin from the brief views we had. Despite the absence of cetaceans, the trip was excellent and well worth the £20 per person charge. We were able to get close up views of a variety of sea birds, with the most interesting being a couple of Bonxies that were patrolling the area where the whale surfaced, where there were numerous gannets, shearwaters, auks and gulls feeding on a shoal of small fish. On return to Tobermory harbour there was a further bonus in the shape of an adult Iceland Gull that was apparently spending the summer on Mull.
On arriving back at the mainland we sat outside the Sonachan Hotel until late evening where we were quite surprised to see a roding Woodcock that regularly flew directly over the hotel buildings. This first appeared at around 22:30 each evening.
This was the day of our long-anticipated whale-watching cruise with Ardnamurchan Charter. It was another beautiful day of blue skies and minimal winds and Loch Sunart was mirror calm as we set of in the direction of the Cairns of Coll. Unfortunately we were unlucky with sea-going mammals again and had brief views of a couple of pairs of Harbour Porpoises along with a prolonged close-up of a Basking Shark and plenty of Common and Grey Seals. The sea between Coll and Muck was much rougher, which made for quite an exciting crossing, but there were plenty of birds about, with Arctic Terns nesting on the Cairns of Coll and a handful of Bonxies and Storm Petrels seen. Black Guillemots were common in the straits between Muck and Eigg.
We stopped for 90 minutes on Muck (population 25) which gave us time to visit the tea room (delicious cakes) and walk across the island south to north.
On the return leg we came upon a large flock of birds, mainly Kittiwakes, shearwaters, auks and terns, feeding on the surface. We waited a while with these birds but no dolphins or whales arrived.
After our evening meal we went down to the lighthouse to admire and photograph the sunset. On the drive down we observed an Osprey being mobbed by a Lesser-Black Back.
We expected this to be our last full day and decided to go in search of Black-throated Divers and eagles. We had a quick look around the end of Loch Sheil at Acharacle, where we found a few Redpolls, then drove along the north shore of the loch for a few miles to Dalelia. After parking the car we continued on the path along the loch side and quickly found a Black-throated Diver a few metres from the shore. We stopped for a picnic and whilst we were enjoying yet another warm, sunny morning a male Hen Harrier flew across the loch and disappeared into the hills of Moidart, north of the road.
After our picnic we explored the roads in the direction of Kentra and Ardtoe. We stopped for a scan of the marshes at Kentra and noticed a large raptor back towards Loch Sheil. Through the telescope it was clearly an eagle, but we were unable to get a positive identification.
We were ready for breakfast at 0730 and on the road before 0830, and we made steady progress along the peninsular, stopping only to buy a few souvenirs in the Strontian Tourist Information office. We thought that the return route via the Corran Ferry would be a quicker way back to Inverness and fondly entertained the idea that we might have half an hour in the Rothiemurchus Forest to find Crested Tit and Crossbills. The ferry runs every 15 minutes and was due to depart from the Ardgour side in about 10 minutes time. However after 30 minutes it was still on the eastern side of Loch Linnhe and no cars had boarded. We had time to top up our sun tans (yes, the weather had been that good!) and get some photos of the Black Guillemots nesting on the pier next to the ferry slipway and to pack every non-essential, ready for arrival at the airport. When the boat finally arrived, over 40 minutes late due to some mechanical fault, we were first on and first off again at the other side.
Thoughts of Rothiemurchus put to one side, we made rather slow time to Spean Bridge (several lots of road works and slow vehicles) and opted to take the A86 from Spean Bridge to the A9. Although longer, this road is much improved and we had very few hold ups. As there was minimal traffic on the road we probably more than made up for the extra mileage driven. We saw a Golden Eagle somewhere between Roybridge and Loch Laggan but didn't have time to stop for a proper look, and the first Scottish Swifts and Jackdaws as we got further east. We had a further delay getting fuel at Tesco in Inverness and finally got to the airport check-in 4 minutes after it had closed. No amount of persuasion was going to get us on to the flight but we were offered seats on the next service, the following day. We resigned ourselves to an unplanned night in Inverness.
We had another hire car booked from Luton airport. The Europcar courtesy bus was still outside the airport so I asked the driver what we needed to do to get this changed. Not only did the driver offer to take us back to the Europcar offices, where they changed out booking in about 2 minutes flat, but he also directed us to a local taxi driver who would come and pick us up from the office and help us find a B&B in the city.
After getting somewhere to sleep sorted out, we walked into the city centre and found a late lunch (we'd had no time to stop on the way from Corran Ferry!). We were aware that there is a resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphins in the Moray Firth so we went to the Tourist Information Office to find out more. The best place to see the dolphins seems to be Rosemarkie on the north side of the Firth. This place was pretty much inaccessible by public transport from Inverness, so we decided to get the local bus to the South Kessock turnaround. A short bus ride/20 minute walk gets you to the shore at South Kessock. Plenty of common land and shore birds around here, but no sign of any dolphins. However a local helper at the South Kessock Environmental Project (the building at the end of the pier – pay them a visit as they seem to be doing some excellent work) we were talking to told us that the dolphins are seen here frequently, the best time to see them being on an incoming tide, when they follow fish shoals up the Firth. There was consolation in the form of a pure white European Starling, foraging on the beach with a group of recently fledged starlings.
With a few hours to kill before the flight, we decided to try South Kessock again, where we were immediately rewarded with the sight of several dolphins loitering 100 metres or so offshore. We watched these for half an hour and also added Red Kite to our list with two or three distant birds visible north, over The Black Isle.
In the following list, the birds English and scientific names are used. The details in brackets indicate the order in which the birds were seen and where possible the number of days on which it was recorded. Thus, Red-throated Diver - Gavia Stellata (7,1) was the 7th bird recorded and was seen on only one day. We have tried to record all species seen, but some common (for UK species) were only recorded for Ardnamurchan, hence “starting off” with an interesting species. A number of common species were not listed, e.g. House Sparrow, Blackcap, Meadow Pipit but definitely seen, so these have been given numbers from the end of the list.
RED-THROATED DIVER – Gavia Stellata (7,1) – a pair seen on Loch Ruthven
BLACK-THROATED DIVER – Gavia arctica (61,1) – a single bird observed fishing on Loch Sheil, near Dalelia.
SLAVONIAN GREBE – Podiceps auratus (1,1) – several seen at quite close quarters on Loch Ruthven.
FULMAR – Fulmarus glacialis (32,4) – common around the coast.
MANX SHEARWATER - Puffinus puffinus (19,4) – one of the commonest sea-birds, with hundreds seen from Ardnamurchan Point on most visits. Seen at close quarters on both boat trips.
STORM PETREL – Hydrobates pelagicus (47,2) – one bird watched for several minutes by ‘scope from Ardnamurchan point. One bird each seen by JD and CC on the trip with Ardnamurchan Charters trip.
GANNET – Morus bassanus (13,5) – common at sea.
SHAG – Phalacrocorax aristotelis (20,4) – common around Ardnamurchan.
GREAT CORMORANT – Phalacrocorax carbo (73,1) – surprisingly not recorded from the west coast but common around South Kessock.
GREY HERON - Ardea cinerea (77,4) - common around the coast and plenty around South Kessock. 1st sighting not recorded.
MUTE SWAN - Cygnus olor – (78,1) – South Kessock. 1st sighting not recorded.
GREYLAG – Anser anser – (15,5) – a flock was always present around Loch Grigadale, just east of the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.
SHELDUCK – Tadorna tadorna – South Kessock. 1st sighting not recorded.
MALLARD - Anas platyrhynchos (42,2) – present but 1st sighting not recorded.
COMMON EIDER – Somateria mollissima (29,2) – a large flock on Loch Sunart near Glenborrodale and a single male near Ardnamurchan Point were the only records.
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER – Mergus serrator (42,2) – seen on both the east and west coast.
OSPREY - Pandion haliaetus (52,1) – one bird only, mobbed by Lesser Black Back near Ardnamurchan Point.
RED KITE – Milvus milvus (70,1) several birds seen across the Firth from North Kessock.
HEN HARRIER – Circus cyaneus (63,1) – a male flew across Loch Sheil near Dalelia.
COMMON BUZZARD - Buteo buteo (16,4) – the most frequently seen raptor. Common in most areas.
GOLDEN EAGLE – Aquila chrysaetos (64,1) – one bird flying close to the road a few miles east of Roybridge.
MERLIN – Falco columbarius (34,2) – two sightings of Merlins around Kilchoan and Sonachan.
KESTREL - Falco tinnunculus (65,1) – not noted in Ardnamurchan but a few seen along the A9 south of Inverness.
PHEASANT – Phasianus colchicus (80,1) – Kilchoan.
MOORHEN - Gallinula chloropus (81,2) – several seen but 1st sighting not recorded.
COOT - Fulica atra (82,1) – possibly only seen around Inverness.
OYSTERCATCHER – Haematopus ostralegus (2,6) – common and widespread, both inland and at the coast.
GREAT RINGED PLOVER – Charadrius hiaticula (35,1) - present Ardnamurchan in sandy coves.
LAPWING – Vanellus vanellus (68, 2) – seen near Sanna, Ardnamurchan but more common in east.
COMMON SNIPE – Gallinago gallinago (50,2) – one seen on Muck. Also at South Kessock.
WOODCOCK – Scopola rusticola (39,3) – from about 10:20 p.m. each evening birds seen roding near Sonachan Hotel, often passing within a few metres.
CURLEW – Numenius arquata (6,2) – quite common Loch Ruthven and South Kessock. Not recorded in Ardnamurchan.
REDSHANK - Tringa totanus (88,2) – one seen on the rocks near the waterfall that disgorges into Tobermory Harbour and several at south Kessock but 1st sighting not recorded.
COMMON SANDPIPER - Actitis hypoleucos (4,5) – common and widespread in several habitats.
GREAT SKUA – Catharacta skua (45,2) – several birds, often at close quarters, observed during both boat trips.
ARCTIC SKUA – Stercorarius parasiticus (89,1) – single bird seen from Ardnamurchan Lighthouse but sighting not recorded.
BLACK-HEADED GULL - Larus ridibundus (46,2) – common around Inverness but much less numerous in Ardnamurchan
HERRING GULL – Larus argentatus (43,6) – common but 1st sighting not recorded.
LESSER BLACK-BACK – Larus fuscus (53,5) – common but 1st sighting not recorded.
GREAT BLACK-BACK – Larus marinus (54,5) – common but 1st sighting not recorded.
ICELAND GULL - Larus glaucoides (44,1) – an adult bird apparently spending the summer in Tobermory Harbour. .
COMMON GULL - Larus canas (30,5) – not as numerous as expected but several seen each day.
KITTIWAKE – Rissa tridactyla (24,5) – common around Ardnamurchan.
ARCTIC TERN - Sterna paradisaea (49,2) – breeding amongst the Cairns of Coll and also from Ardnamurchan Lighthouse. .
COMMON TERN - Sterna hirundo (36,2) – breeding amongst the Cairns of Coll and also seen further up Loch Sunart.
RAZORBILL – Alca torda (22,4) – very common around the coasts of Ardnamurchan.
GUILLEMOT – Uria aalge (25,4) – as per Razorbill.
PUFFIN - Fratercula arctica (48,1) – despite there being breeding colonies nearby, not many seen. Those recorded were all from the second boat trip.
BLACK GUILLEMOT – Cephus grylle (41,3) – quite common. Nesting on the pier at Corran Ferry.
ROCK DOVE – Columba livia (71,1) – a convincing looking pair near Point of Ardnamurchan.
WOODPIGEON – Columba palumbus – (85,1) – possibly not seen in Ardnamurchan but noted around Inverness.
COLLARED DOVE - Streptopelia decaocto (40,3) – present in Ardnamurchan but not particularly common.
CUCKOO – Cuculus canorus (11,5) – seemingly very common in Ardnamurchan. 3 or 4 could be heard calling from the Sonachan Hotel whenever it was light, so for about 20 hours per day.
COMMON SWIFT - Apus apus (83,1) – possibly absent from Ardnamurchan but quite common further east.
SKYLARK – Alauda arvensis (28,5) – common and widespread.
SAND MARTIN – Riparia riparia (8,4) – fairly common. Seen around Lochs Ruthven and Sheil and nesting in a roadside cutting between Kilchoan and Glenborrodale.
HOUSE MARTIN - Delichon urbica (10,4) – fairly common and widespread.
BARN SWALLOW - Hirundo rustica (9,6) - common and widespread.
TREE PIPIT – Anthus trivialis (3,1) – heard at Loch Ruthven.
MEADOW PIPIT – Anthus pratensis (74,4) – common and widespread but 1st sighting not recorded.
ROCK PIPIT – Anthus petrosus (21,4) – common at rocky coastal sites.
WHITE WAGTAIL - Motacilla alba (86,3) – present in several areas but 1st sighting not recorded.
GREY WAGTAIL – Motacilla cinerea (72,1) only seen near Kilmory in Ardnamurchan and 1st sighting not recorded.
DUNNOCK – Prunella modularis (90,3) – one or two pairs around Sonachan Hotel.
ROBIN – Erithacus rubecula (38,4) – common and widespread.
STONECHAT – Saxicola torquata (31,3) – fairly common.
WHINCHAT – Saxicola rubetra (33,4) – possibly more numerous than the previous species.
NORTHERN WHEATEAR – Oenanthe oenanthe (12,5) – possibly the commonest terrestrial bird in Ardnamurchan.
BLACKBIRD - Turdus merula (14,6) – widespread and common.
SONG THRUSH – Turdus philomelus – (17,4) – widespread and common.
MISTLE THRUSH – Turdus viscivorus (60,2) – present Ardnamurchan and Loch Sheil.
SEDGE WARBLER – Acrocephalus schoenobaenus (92,1) – a bird singing near Kilmory was only identified after examination of photographs after we got home.
GARDEN WARBLER – Sylvia borin (51,2) – singing birds on Muck and near the Sonachan Hotel.
BLACKCAP – Sylvia atricapilla (76,4) – quite common but 1st sighting not recorded.
WOOD WARBLER – Phylloscopus sybilatrix (91,2) – heard frequently when we were driving by several of the Sunart Oakwoods but 1st sighting not recorded.
WILLOW WARBLER – Phylloscopus trochilus (26,4) – common and widespread.
COAL TIT – Parus ater (62,2) – may be nesting in the trees in front of Sonachan Hotel.
GREAT TIT – Parus major (87,4) – fairly common but but 1st sighting not recorded.
BLUE TIT – Parus caeruleus (37,4) – fairly common.
WREN – Troglodytes troglodytes (93,6) common and widespread but but 1st sighting not recorded.
MAGPIE - Pica pica (84,3) – not particularly common in Ardnamurchan.
ROOK – Corvus frugilegus (67,2) - not seen in Ardnamurchan.
HOODED CROW – Corvus corone cornix (27,5) – common and widespread.
JACKDAW - Corvus monedula (66,2) – not seen in Ardnamurchan.
RAVEN – Corvus corax (57,3) - reasonably common around Ardnamurchan
STARLING - Sturnus vulgaris (69,2) – not seen in Ardnamurchan but common around Inverness. The all white bird was quite unusual.
HOUSE SPARROW - Passer domesticus (75,?) – possibly not seen in Ardnamurchan.
CHAFFINCH – Fringilla coelebs (5,6) – very widespread and common.
REDPOLL – Acanthis flammaris (58,1) – Acharacle.
LINNET – Acanthis cannabina (18,3) – seen several times at coastal locations. Quite common on Muck.
GOLDFINCH - Carduelis (56,2) – seen around Sonachan Hotel.
GREENFINCH - Carduelis chloris (55,2) – as for above species.
REED BUNTING – Emberiza schoeniclus (59,1) – only noted around Acharacle.
Basking Shark – one observed for 15 minutes between Coll and Muck.
Common Toad – Loch Ruthven
Palmate Newt – Point of Ardnamurchan
Rabbit – common
Hare – several east of Loch Laggan
Red Squirrel – one seen, Newtonmore
Red Deer – very common in Ardnamurchan
Common Seal – seen most days
(Atlantic) Grey Seal – seen most days
Harbour Porpoise – a few seen during second boat trip
Risso’s Dolphin – a small group of dolphins in Loch Sunart may have been this species
Bottle-nosed Dolphins – several seen from South Kessock
Minke Whale – one seen during the first boat trip. A distant whale seen by JD from Ardnamurchan Lighthouse was probably this species.
Over 90 species, including one new species for CC and two for JD is pretty good going. More species could be guaranteed with even a couple of hours birding further east (e.g. Rothiemurchus) and one or two expected species were completely missed (e.g. Dipper). The scenery is delightful and with good weather it is a pleasure to watch birds in Ardnamurchan.