Locals often claim that fuel in the Outer Hebrides is the most expensive in Europe. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but the fact that the cost of filling up my car now runs into three figures means I have to think twice before clocking up the miles on birding trips around my island. Fortunately, the Patchwork Challenge gives me a chance to see this as an opportunity rather than a limitation: an opportunity to explore my local patch more intensively and do plenty of birding on foot from my house.
So much for the background; what about the patch itself? It’s located in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the far northwest of Scotland. Stornoway is a town best known to birders for its gulls—and with reason. The harbour area is a recognised hot-spot for white-winged gulls, and numbers reached an all-time high last winter, when 60 or more Iceland Gulls could be seen from one spot during January. Very roughly, the town is sandwiched between two areas of sea, one to the south (opening out from the harbour) and one to the northeast. Getting both of these into a 3 km2 local patch involved a fair amount of acrobatics with the mapping tool, but I didn’t feel I had much choice. The south side had to be included because of its potential for gulls, the list of species seen in the past including American Herring, Ross’s, Ivory, Bonaparte’s and Laughing. The north side was equally if not more important because I needed a vantage point over Broad Bay, which is where divers, Slavonian Grebes and seaduck (Long-tailed, Eider, scoters) concentrate in the winter, although some of these species can also be seen in smaller numbers around the harbour. I imagine that both the north and south sides might produce seabirds such as shearwaters and petrels in the right conditions, but this is a bit of an unknown quantity for the moment.
Between the town and Broad Bay on the northeast side is a large estuary bordered in parts by saltmarsh, and separated from the sea by two narrow spits formed by sand dunes. The estuary has breeding terns of three species, which attract skuas; it has a good-sized wintering flock of Wigeon together with smaller numbers of other ducks; and at times it holds plenty of waders and gulls. Adjacent to the estuary are fields that have undergone various levels of improvement and have a decent variety of birds. Some of them become quite wet in autumn and attract Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff as well as various common waders that are shared with the estuary. They also provide feeding for growing numbers of Greylag Geese, which in autumn can be accompanied by the odd Pinkfoot or Barnacle Goose. Geese also migrate overhead in the right conditions and are occasionally forced down by bad weather, though they never stay long.
All in all, it’s a pretty good local patch, and it certainly holds a greater variety of species than the rest of the Isle of Lewis, both in winter and in summer. However, I’m not convinced that I or anyone else has ever done it full justice, in part because the headlands and open coasts elsewhere on the island are so tempting when it comes to looking for migrants. Take waders, for instance. In recent autumns American waders have turned up on the Isle of Lewis, as elsewhere in the Hebrides, in numbers that would have seemed inconceivable only a few years ago, yet hardly any of them have been found in the Stornoway area. In fact, the rarest wader I’ve ever come across in my patch was a Little Ringed Plover: a very good bird in a western Scottish context, though worth no more than two measly points in the Patchwork Challenge. After that, I have found a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and … well, not a lot else. Better birds must surely turn up from time to time, and I’m hoping I might get lucky in 2013.
On the west side of Stornoway are Stornoway Castle Grounds, aka Stornoway Woods. These are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, as the only area of mature woodland in the whole of the Outer Hebrides, they have several breeding species that can be difficult or even impossible to find elsewhere: Grasshopper Warbler, Whitethroat, Treecreeper, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit, for example. They also attract migrants and transient visitors such as Waxwings, winter thrushes, redpolls, Siskins and Crossbills. The downside is that because they are so extensive, searching for rarities is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I have spent a lot of time in the castle grounds and to date the best bird I have seen (by far) is a Red-rumped Swallow. Last year I was totally gutted when a visiting birder found a Red-eyed Vireo that promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. This was in fact the second Red-eyed Vireo to be recorded in the Castle Grounds over the years, the other being well before my time. Also before my time was a Blackpoll Warbler that turned up in a small plantation near the estuary. These are the only American passerines to have been positively identified in my local patch, and the only ones ever on the Isle of Lewis, I believe, except for the famous Purple Martin.
Many of the birds that nest in the castle grounds disperse into adjacent gardens in winter. My own garden is one of these. There are plenty of trees in and around it, so I get visits from various woodland species. Discounting sporadic arrivals of Waxwings, the only half-decent birds I have had there are a Yellow-browed Warbler and a fly-over Mistle Thrush (a local rarity). Talking of fly-overs, both Golden and White-tailed Eagles drift over Stornoway from time to time. The latter, if I manage to see one, should give me a useful six points in the Patchwork Challenge and help compensate for the fact that I certainly shan’t be getting any Great Tits or Magpies or Great Spotted Woodpeckers as they (together with several other species common elsewhere) are totally absent from the island.
To date, my best find in the patch has been a Cattle Egret, the fourth Scottish record of a species that at the time (2007) was still a BB rarity. I reckon I have seen about 140 species in total in the area, and there are still some obvious gaps on the seabird side. I don’t suppose I shall do particularly well in the Patchwork Challenge, certainly not as well as I would if I lived near the Butt of Lewis, where the number of species might be less but the chances of finding scarce and rare birds much higher. However, I reckon that a bit of friendly competition will motivate me to get out more, to see more, and maybe, just maybe, find something that will help me get over that vireo.