Best Bird Watching Sites on Galson Estate
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Our thanks to Shona Morrison for this blog post.
There are many wonderful bird watching areas throughout the Galson Estate. Here is a list of my top five favourite places:
The Butt of Lewis
There are few places as dramatic and wild as the Butt of Lewis (sometimes even on a sunny day), with the sheer cliffs and a wealth of bird life. It is a wonderful rocky spot on the wild and windy coast of the North of Lewis. Here the scenery is spectacular with plenty of wildlife to see. This is where the Minch meets the Atlantic Ocean, so produces a roaring sea with great depth and rapid currents.
This is a striking place to watch the sea birds nesting on the cliffs, where the Lewisian gneiss has created vertical, steep cliffs. Here you will see lesser black backed gulls, great black backed gulls, European herring gulls, rock pigeons and northern fulmars all nesting or resting on the cliffs. There is a kittiwake colony 200m south of the Butt. Further out the cliffs, the shags stand in small groups, some fishing in the sea. One of the most spectacular of the birds to watch feeding here is the northern gannet. They start arriving in the spring time and can put on a wonderful show at feeding time. They dive into the sea from a height like a ‘torpedo hitting the water’ and pursue their prey under water. Another bird that you will spot bobbing in the waters here are the common guillemots and you may be lucky enough to spot a black guillemot, which breed near the lighthouse. On the cliff tops and grassy banks you can see redshank, curlew, lots of oyster catchers and hooded crows. Manx shearwaters and the rarer sooty shearwaters can also be spotted in the waters around the Butt of Lewis. South to the Butt, there is sometimes a small colony of Artic terns. Rock pipits can be found on the cliffs. Occasionally you could also see a great skua flying past.
A walk around the Butt is great in spring and summer, as not only can you see most of the above but occasionally you can spot rare, migratory birds passing by.
One of the most beautiful places I like to bird watch is at Stoth, Eoropie. It is a small sheltered beach found on the way out to the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. There is a track which leads down to a slipway which runs down to an idyllic sandy beach in the summer time.
During the winter time, it is often full of pebbles and sea weed, then in the spring it transforms into this stunning beach with white sand and turquoise waters.
Not only can you see otters there (if you have enough patience!) but it is also a good spot to cetacean watch. Grey seals often come in to rest on the shore here, especially the pups in the winter after mum has left them to fend for themselves.
As you drive or walk to Stoth, look out for bird life on the linear shaped crofts in Eoropie. Here you are highly likely to see buzzards sitting on fence posts or soaring above you. Ravens pass by here as well as hooded crows. If you arrive here early morning or late at night you may be lucky enough to hear a corncrake shouting from end of April/May onwards. In the lazy beds before you reach Stoth, look out for the wonderful curlews with their slender long downcurved beaks and mottled brown plumage.
Once you reach Stoth, the first thing you often hear is the beautiful sound of the sky lark, mostly heard before seen.
Out to sea you can see the spectacle of diving northern gannets. Shags are seen on the cliffs out to the right of the beach, huddled in a wee group, some with their wings spread out to dry off their feathers. You will also see the tufted heads of the shags bobbing about in the sea looking for fish. Amongst the shags you can see some lesser black backed gulls.
Down on the shore line is the perfect location to spot the noisy oyster catchers. Towards the bottom of the cliffs you have the pied wagtails bobbing about. Resting on their nest sites on the high cliffs are the northern fulmars. Some gliding with stiff wings above the cliffs in their predictive flight paths. You can also spot a rock dove or two flying about.
On the grassy banks above the beach you can see pied wagtails, starlings, northern wheatears and meadow pipits. In the summer time barn swallows nest in the old red brick building above Stoth, where you can witness and appreciate their wonderful aerial displays.
There is a small freshwater pool up from that old red brick building where many birds wash and rest. Here is a great place to spot your different types of gulls, the lesser black backed gull, herring gulls and my favourite, the more delicate common gull. Oyster catchers and redshank frequent here. This is also a good spot for other species of waders passing through or going back to Iceland such as turnstones, black tailed godwits and dunlin.
I love the combination of birds you can see at Stoth, both coastal birds and the inland birds.
Port of Ness, Port
If you head down to the Port of Ness harbour (situated at the very north end of the A857), you shouldn’t be disappointed with the selection of sea birds to watch. This area is probably best in spring and summer when a lot of our breeding birds forage here. In at the harbour bobbing about in the water you can see great northern divers (occasionally the black and red throated divers can be seen in the quieter autumn and winter months) with the black headed seagulls flying above your head. Pied Wagtails dot about the harbour wall. Slightly further out to sea the shags, common guillemots and black guillemots hunt for fish and sand eels.
Soaring above those are the noisy but delightful artic terns, again, fishing for sand eels. The northern gannets torpedo into the sea all around which make a wonderful spectacle to watch.
There are a variety of gulls all round. Look out for a grey seals in the water, basking sharks in the summer and cetaceans such as dolphins (including Orca) and porpoises passing by.
When you go down to the stunning white sands of the Port of Ness Beach, there are plenty oyster catchers to admire at the tide line. There is a colony of breeding northern fulmars on the cliffs which is a protected SSSI site. You can admire them soaring low over the sea with shallow wing beats gliding past you. They defend their nests from intruders by spitting out a foul-smelling oil, so don’t get too close!!
Loch Stiapabhat was declared a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) in July 2005. It is the only LNR in the Western Isles. It is the largest eutrophic loch in Lewis and is on the main flyway to and from the Artic. The loch is the first fresh water loch found by birds migrating from Iceland and Greenland in Autumn, for washing, drinking and feeding. It is the last for those returning in the spring. Loch Stiapabhat has a huge range of rare birds recorded and boasts many types of species of common water birds that can be watched in the hide at relatively close quarters.
The hide is a welcome addition to the loch to be able to watch the bird life away from the harsh elements of the Hebridean weather.
Also due to its marsh, machair and bird life, Loch Stiapabhat has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific interest.
Springtime is a busy, noisy (!) time at the loch.
During migration in spring, the most common geese you will find are the greylag geese. Flocks of barnacle geese and pink footed geese can also be spotted in the surrounding crofts. Whooper swans and a large variety of ducks winter over on the loch which means although it is quieter then, you can still see plenty of bird life. The variety of ducks include wigeon, teal, mallard, tufted duck and the beautiful golden eye. Loch Stiapabhat is the only place in Lewis that the graceful mute swan comes to and breeds in the summer, successfully producing cygnets. The male mute swan is the “King” of the loch, behaving very territorial to anything that passes him and raising his wings like sails whilst charging other birds.
Another yearly, rare visitor to the loch is the elusive corncrake. He arrives at the end of April/beginning of May from Africa and starts shouting/singing to attract a mate.
This is a very distinguished call and once heard, never forgotten. The Loch and surrounding crofts lie within the Special Protection Area of Ness and Barvas for the corncrake. The corncrake numbers are unfortunately diminishing due to changes in crofting practice, however, Loch Stiapabhat is one of the few areas in Ness that offers the corncrake early cover protection to hide in at that time of year. Due to this, the corncrakes tend to go there when they arrive back early in the season. The best time to hear them is very late at night and very early in the morning.
The loch is a perfect location to watch waders due to its muddy margins. Redshank, dunlin, snipe, lapwing all breed here successfully. It is the only nesting site in Lewis for little grebes and moorhens. Rarer bird spots include water rail and the spotted crake.
Black headed seagulls are a spring/summer visitor and make up for a lot of the noise on the loch! One of the largest breeding colonies on Lewis of the black headed seagulls is on Loch Stiapabhat. Artic terns are also noisy birds, visiting the loch to wash and feed on sticklebacks.
The surrounding machairs and crofts are alive with activity, all year round!
You will see more lapwing, golden plover, skylarks, meadow pipits, hooded crows, ravens, redwings, wheatears, resident buzzards, sparrow hawks, merlin and passing peregrine falcons, short eared owls and hen harriers. Sometimes in the spring, if you see the geese being flushed into the sky it is often due to juvenile sea eagles passing by hunting, testing them out for any easy meals.
The machair beside the loch is a great spot if you like seagulls. The herrings gull, lesser black back and the greater black backed gull all rest here. If you are fortunate enough in winter or early spring you may also spot a lone glaucous gull or Icelandic gull, which sticks out due to how light they are compared to the other gulls.
Otters also frequent Loch Stiapabhat. Part of the reason they go there is to keep their fur free of salt using freshwater for it to remain effective as insulation. They also feed on the eels and sticklebacks in the water. All in all, Loch Stiapabhat is a wildlife haven and certainly worth a trip to see it.
The machair at Barvas is a breeding wader hotspot. You will be guaranteed to enjoy the displays of the male lapwing in the spring/summer. He produces dramatic aerial displays, tumbling through the air, accompanied by the piercing “peewit” call. The females can be spotted on their nests. Redshank, snipe, oyster catcher, curlew, whimbrel, dunlin, golden plover and ringed plover also frequent here. It is also an excellent spot to hear corncrakes after April, throughout the summer, especially on the farmland around the cemetery and from the road approaching the cemetery.
In spring and summer, Barvas machair is another great place to observe migratory birds,
such as pink-footed geese, white-fronted geese and barnacle geese. The Barvas machair can also be a great place to spot the white tailed sea eagles and golden eagles, both magnificent birds in their own rights. Buzzards and ravens are also here.
As you can see, the Galson estate overall, is an excellent area to see a host of iconic breeding birds. We enjoy masses and masses of migrating birds. It is difficult to keep it to five areas to suggest good bird watching areas, as there are so many, such as the Fivepenny, Swainbost and Lionel machairs which attract hundreds of wading birds. The coastal trail from Skigersta to Tolsta is also a wonderful place to spot golden eagles, white tailed sea eagles, buzzards, merlin, peregrine falcons, great skuas and occasional red grouse. When passing gardens and crofts, look out for autumn migrants such as redwings, blackcap, brambling, chiff chaff, garden warblers and occasional waxwings. Also keep an eye out for small tight flocks of twite rising from the ground and circling and dropping again as one.
My advice when driving/walking around bird watching around the Galson Estate is to look up, you just never know what is flying past your head!