North Uist: Birdlife at the Edge of the World
On the outer edges of the British Isles, in the Uist chain of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, beyond the many lochs and inlets of North Uist, where the sea ebbs and flows through boggy peatland,on the very Western fringe before the land drops into the North Atlantic, is the RSPB site of Balranald.
It welcomes a modest five thousand visitors annually and many are from among the local population: almost 1500 people (just over 4 per kilometre), of whom around 60% are Gaelic speaking. Residents once survived largely by harvesting kelp (seaweed) but now tend to earn their living through modest crofting or tourism related businesses.
Covering almost 700 hectares of rocky headland and beautiful machair grassland, Balranald is a place of white sandy bays, gently shelving into turquoise waters.
Its inland lochs are home to internationally important populations of several birds, notably the corncrake (numbers have declined sharply in Western Europe, though still hold strong on the Kazakh Steppe and across Russia). The repetitive, rasping call of the male is said to sound like a coin being scraped along a comb’s teeth.
Balranald is host to grey seals, otters and great yellow bumblebees, who bob across the machair’s orchids, poppies and silverweed. It is a breeding site for waders such as the oystercatcher and snipe, and farmland birds: skylarks and song thrushes and rattle-songed corn buntings – the ‘fat bird of the barley’ – whose call echoes the jangle of keys.
In spring, lapwings dive grazing cows to drive them away from their nests in the flower-rich machair, where the first plants are already blooming.
In autumn and winter, greylag and barnacle geese swoop through the mizzle, over desolate outcrops, and pick their way around the wetland of Balranald’s marshy mini-lochs (called lochans), accompanied by whooper swans and snow buntings.
You may even spot the occasional golden or white-tailed eagle in search of a careless rabbit.
Balranald is a place of wide skies and clear horizons, with freshly-salted air blown through from the great ocean to the West, illuminated by light delicate and divinely pure.
To learn more about Balranald, click on the RSPB link: entrance is free and dogs are welcome on leads.
Thank you Red King Photography for the use of this fantastic aerial shot.
Click on the photo to visit their site.