Loch Stiapabhat in Ness – Lewis’s busy migration crossroads

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Autumn is the best time of the year for birdwatching and in this article, RSPB Scotland’s Vicky Anderson highlights the recent visitors to the Western Isles.

It’s the time of year when birds which have spent the breeding season in the high northern hemisphere migrate south for the winter.

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Throw in some inclement weather, such as we have recently experienced, and birds can get blown off course and end up in places where they shouldn’t really be.

The Western Isles have hosted some very rare visitors in recent weeks – including birds that have travelled all the way from America in the wake of Hurricane Gonzalo.

These have included a scarlet tanager and a grey-cheeked thrush on Barra; a hermit thrush on North Uist; and here on Lewis a chimney swift at the Loch Stiapabhat nature reserve in Ness.

The chimney swift breeds in North America and will have been on its way to its wintering area in South America when it was blown across the Atlantic by the hurricane.

It is only the third record of chimney swift for Scotland, the first for the Western Isles and the first one in nine years seen anywhere in Britain and Ireland.

It was first spotted by a visiting birdwatcher, Nick Davies, flying past the lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis on the morning of 23rd October, but was not specifically identified; this was confirmed later that day by local ornithologist Tony Marr.

Tony spends most of his time finding, watching and recording the birds at the Loch Stiapabhat Local Nature Reserve and in the wider Ness area every spring and autumn.

He has an impressive list of records but the chimney swift is by far his most exciting. In the birding world it is known as a “mega” which translates as an “extremely rare vagrant!”

“This autumn has been my best ever”, Tony told us. “I thought I was lucky seeing a gyr falcon a few weeks ago, but the highlight is the chimney swift. Nick and I were standing near the Loch Stiapabhat Reserve late in the afternoon, looking through a flock of golden plover, when the swift flew over our heads! The bird was small and sooty grey, with a stocky body and a square-ended tail”.

The swift attracted a few twitchers, birders who travel long distances to see a new species to add to their bird list. One enthusiast drove from Lands End in Cornwall, where he was watching a yellow-billed cuckoo from North America when the news of the swift broke.

He picked up a friend in Cheshire, drove overnight to Inverness Airport and they flew from there to Lewis for a few precious hours to hopefully add this swift to their British List. Fortunately, their luck was in and the bird was re-found flying over the reserve and Port of Ness.

As well as these rarities, Loch Stiapabhat has hosted many regular migrants this season. Small groups of whooper swans are touching down almost every day after their long flight from Iceland.

The machair surrounding the Loch supports lots of feeding waders, and golden plover numbers for example peaked at 600 in October.

The wet fen around the loch at the moment is literally jumping with common snipe. In the last few days Tony has also spotted a white-rumped Sandpiper on the machair and a Slavonian grebe on the Loch.

Another wildlife spectacle has been the arrival of thousands of Icelandic redwings. Two thousand flew in and landed at the Butt in bad weather on just one day last week, and hundreds more were covering the Machair. These thrushes are migrating from Iceland to spend the winter in the UK and Ireland.

Tony sits on the advisory board for the Nature Reserve, which was set up by Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, the landowner, who have led on the management of the reserve in recent years.

In April this year they opened a new Nature Observatory at Loch Stiapabhat, which includes some excellent interpretation panels about migration, illustrating how the reserve serves as a refuelling and resting stop for birds in both spring and autumn as they head to their final destination.

Tony, who used to be a bird tour leader, said: “I enjoy finding the rarer birds, but I also love seeing all the commoner ones flying through the reserve and over the surrounding area. Bird migration is a great spectacle, and it’s fantastic to sit in the hide and see this in action all around you.”