During the course of the cruises around the Western and Hebridean islands of Scotland we expect to see a great variety of both flora and fauna and of course also to take the opportunity to spend time enjoying the sights and exploring the islands, with David as your Guide (and photographic helper if needed). David is an accredited Associate of the SWGA, an organisation only open to those guides who are suitably qualified and specifically knowledgeable in the wildlife of Scotland.
The re-introduction of the white tailed eagle into the west coast of Scotland has proved a great success, resulting in further similar schemes in the east of Scotland and now into Ireland. Attempts to do so in the south east of England were foiled as it is thought that the eagles would predate on members of another rare water loving species- the Bittern!
The birds initially were sent off from Rum, and now have their greatest stronghold nearby on the Isle of Skye. In fact most mornings during the winter I see a pair patrolling Loch Snizort from my bedroom window!
Another of the rarer birds we do see (or more often hear) is the corncrake. Although quite difficult to photograph, it is surprisingly easy to get to see them, with good optics, a bit of patience and a lot of luck. Best time is early in the season before the vegetation has grown and provided cover.
I'd been looking for the elusive snowy owl on North Uist for ages, it was always where I had been the day before! However on a visit to the Monachs - there was the owl! As you might expect I only had basic camera gear with me so the image is not very good.
One of the great delights of the Hebrides are the colonies of marine birds. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills choose the islands of the Hebrides to nest and rear their young during the summer months. On certain islands they are present in spectacular numbers - Lunga off Mull, Mingulay south of Barra, Handa near Cape Wrath , the Shiants to the north of Skye, and of course St Kilda all offer the opportunity to enjoy watching these wonderful birds from close range. Getting close enough to get great images is easy, although of course care must be taken not to disturb the birds.
2009 showed a marked improvement in the breeding success rate of these maritme species although the following years have not lived up to that promise. For the past twenty years the climate on the west coast has become more unpredicatable and this trend has accelerated over the last five years. 2013 has seen a unusual drop in avarage sea temperature of about 2 degrees C which resulted in the failure of the usual seasonal plankton blooms and this trend has continued into 2016. Of course it is this plankton that provides food for the fish and ultimately for the breeding birds! Some birds had some success, often due to a delay in mating, but in general their seems to be a substantial decline in the number of juveniles to be seen. What this augers for the future.......?
Of course some species are doing well - particularly those which eat the larger fish like the gannets and shags. On Boreray, St Kilda, the enormous and world famous gannet colony still continues to thrive
There are now otters in almost every suitable habitat in the Hebrides. They can even be seen around the harbour at Tobermory, but I still avoid the place and its crowds.
However it is much better to watch otters in action in more natural surroundings and we regularly see them in nearly all of the secluded anchorages we use.
Red deer are common on most of the bigger islands and in fact, as they are very capable swimmers they are able to get across to lots of the smaller ones too. The stag on the left may be one of the ones that have appeared on Autumn Watch, as it is on Rum. The one of the right is hiding among bracken below the cliffs on Mull
Cetaceans are one of the greatest attractions of this area, in particular minke whales. Although numbers have decreased noticeably around Mull in last years, they have increased in waters further north such as around Skye. In fact since 2013 the numbers of whales to be seen south of Skye are in single figures and seem to be around for brief periods only. Numbers are still good in the Western Isles and to the north of Skye.
Surge feeding behaviour by minke has become less common as the huge shoals of sandeels on which they often feed, have become hard to find. This lack of food is also affecting bird populations as well.
However the whales are still as inquisitive as ever and often approach the boat giving some wonderful views of these animals.
Other species of whale are seen here, this young humpback was feeding a couple of miles from Mallaig in 2006.
But in 2007, we were the only boat to see this humpback, which appeared out of the gloom on a very wet and miserable day near Loch Hourn.
While we are in more open waters we are often visited by various species of dolphin such as this common dolphin.
Others are more rarely seen especially Risso's dolphin which are now less frequent than in former years. They are nowadays more often to be seen west of the Hebrides. Known as the "grey dolphin" - you can see from this image just why!
The most commonly seen dolphin, at least inshore, is of course the bottlenosed. There are several resident populations on the west coast, one in the Sound of Barra and another that seems to prefer the Small isles and Mull area. However for several years ago one individual stayed around Coll & Tiree, and David managed to swim with it on many occasions. It has since left to join its pals over at Barra!
But we should not forget the importance of the flora of the Hebrides and Western Isles. The machair is a particular habitat formed by the ingress of huge quantities of shell sand onto rocky islands such as the Western Isles, Coll, Tiree and others.
Orchids such as this pyramidal abound amongst the dunes.
On the likes of the Monachs there are expanses of colour that seem to stretch to the horizon and beyond.
Other islands which do not have machair still maintain a fabulous flora. Star of parnassus (left) and purple loosestrife seen here.
Traigh Ghael (white beach in Gaelic) is a quiet hidden beach on the south of Mull with a wonderful selection of flowers.
Grass of Parnassus, purple loosestrife, even such rare species as narrow leaved hellaborine cling to some of the steep cliffs while thyme broomrape can be found in sheltered corners.
All in all, the Hebrides, both Inner and Outer provide a wonderful and fascinating place for the naturalist. Combine this with innumerable islands to walk on and explore, stunning geology and a wealth of historic remains to visit, then surely this area must be one of the worlds treasures.
We are so lucky to be able to offer a unique experience and a marvellous holiday for everyone interested in wildlife, the outdoors and the sea. Most cruise companies now mention "wildlife watching" in their adverts - there is a huge difference between what we offer and what is so widely mentioned. Thirty plus years of doing this mean David has more experience than anyone else - he is now the longest serving charter skipper on the West Coast.
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