Scottish Islands Cruise May 14—23, 2011

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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VENT's 2011 charter around the Scottish Islands was to follow a similar route to our successful 2007 and 2008 cruises. However, one extreme westerly weather front after another forced us to completely revise our itinerary. Despite this, the Quest and its exceptional crew made this cruise exciting and a great success with many unforgettable highlights for us all.

Sea conditions put us in at the deep end on our first night; however, we successfully arrived at the unique, most remote Scottish Island of Saint Kilda. The fascinating and remarkable human history centered on Village Bay combined wonderfully with optional time for meandering hikes amid the old crofts and cleits—complete with Saint Kilda Winter Wrens—to soak up the unique atmosphere of this double World Heritage Site. Certainly a trip highlight that can be easily missed, this island rates as one of the most difficult to land on in the UK! Upon landing, after a short search we enjoyed point-blank views of the endemic Saint Kilda Wren, breeding Northern Fulmar, Great Skua, Black Guillemot, Common Eider, Atlantic Puffin, Eurasian Curlew, Northern Wheatear, and the Scandinavian race of Lesser Black-backed Gull. Offshore, we steamed close to a stack containing countless thousands of Northern Gannets.

As it turned out, the Quest was the last ship to land, and after our departure it was over seven days before anyone got on or off the island by sea!

After another overnight, we docked into the shelter bays of the Inner Hebrides at Tobermory, Mull. Here we had an exciting exploration by bus, birding the hotspots of the island. The highlight was a spectacular scope study of our main target, the massive White-tailed Eagle. We had a pair perched near their nest, and the youngster fledged in the previous year also put in an appearance. In the afternoon we cruised past Fingal's Cave (hidden in the fog) for afternoon birding on Iona. Here, we all had fantastic encounters with the much-wanted Corn Crake, and heard its unusual voice before visiting the historic Abbey. That night we departed for the Outer Hebrides.

Some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe are found here in Scotland, and we were lucky to visit several. The highlights were on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, with a visit to the Callanish Stone Circle, and to Gearrannan, where we discovered what life was like for native Gaelic people who lived in the rebuilt traditional low dwellings called Black Houses.

A bonus was a splendid Zodiac cruise around the uninhabited seabird reserve of Shiant Isles. Some birding highlights this year included the Gray Heron colony and magnificent Inverewe gardens; watching diving gannets fishing close in shore; and a majestic Whooper Swan, followed by breathtaking Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits and close shorebirds in full breeding plumage frantically feeding at high tide on Orkney at Castle Mey. In the Inner Hebrides, we all got good looks at the Corn Crakes on Iona, and found ourselves immersed in early Christianity. Another highlight was our exciting visit to Saint Kilda, where the last Great Auk was caught in 1840 on Stac an Armin (unfortunately, only to be clubbed to death after being tied up for three days because the bird was thought to be a witch responsible for bringing a huge storm.)

This was a very special voyage to remarkable places and remote islands, thanks to the expert guidance of all of our excellent Quest team of leaders. Our quirky little ship with its able crew and compatible group of traveling companions became a friendly and happy base for a truly memorable week of great birding, typified by immense numbers of seabirds and many localized breeding birds, combined with phenomenal world-class historical sites and a perpetual backdrop of breathtaking scenery.