Bird Watching on Handa Island
Handa Island, an offshore island with sea cliffs, is only a half hour drive from Kylesku Lodges via the A894.
Handa Island is internationally famous for its sea-bird colonies, including the largest breeding colony of guillemots in Britain and there are estimated to be around 120,000 pairs of breeding on Handa! There are also puffin, fulmar, shag, razorbill, artic and great skuas, kittiwake, gulls and terns. You will also find attractive plant-life and archaeological remains of an old village which was inhabited until 1847
Handa is renowned for its magnificent Torridonian Sandstone cliffs, which rise to a height of 400 feet along the dramatic northern edge of the island. Thousands of years of weathering of the sandstone has formed horizontal layers which provide ideal disturbance free places for seabirds to breed. Each summer they come alive, when nearly 100,000 seabirds gather here to breed. Guillemots, razorbills, and great skuas reach internationally important numbers.
Many of Handas seabirds, which can live for 20 years or more, return to exactly the same spot on the cliff year after year. In these sea-bird cities each pair holds a territory of a few square feet, which is essential for breeding. From mid-July onwards the seabirds begin to leave the cliffs to spend the winter out at sea.
The moor land of the interior is home to arctic and great skuas. It is worth pausing for a moment to watch their spectacular flying displays. The Great Skua, or bonxie, is a powerful bird which will often bully other seabirds and make them disgorge their fish. They also rob kittiwake eggs and chicks and will regularly kill other species. Great Skua will attack and sometimes drown a bird as large as a gannet. They can be aggressive in defence of their eggs and young, and may swoop low enough to strike an intruders head with their feet.
The Arctic Skua is noisy and demonstrative. During their graceful flying displays they show a complete mastery of the air. Much of their food is obtained by chasing other seabirds and forcing them to drop or disgorge their catch. On the breeding ground this species can be even more aggressive than the Great Skua, dive-bombing at human or animal intruders as well as other skuas.
The Great Stack or Stack an Seabhaig (the hawk’s stack) is pictured above. The stack is the best place to experience the sight, sound and smell of some of Handa’s 100,000 seabirds. The stack is a pillar of sandstone separated from the island by the sea. Over 7,000 guillemots alone breed on ledges on the Stack’s east-face! Razorbills lay their single egg on crevices near the top of the Stack. Kittiwakes build nests made of grass cemented together by droppings. Puffins nest in burrows on top of the Stack, probably because of introduced brown rats. Following the eradication of rats from Handa in 1997, puffins have started to colonise the main island again.
Watch the graceful fulmars in flight. They are superb flyers and can hang almost motionless as they ride the air currents on straight narrow wings. Fulmars nest on narrow ledges near the top of the cliffs. For about eight weeks male and female take turn to brood the single egg, usually for spells of two to five days.
Guillemots and razorbill are generally found below the fulmars. Razorbill lay their single egg in crevices. Guillemots nest in packed communities and often share eggs, chicks and mates. Kittiwakes build their nests even lower down on narrow ledges. Their nests are made of grass cemented together by droppings. Kittiwake are true ocean gulls and only come ashore to breed, spending the long winter months at sea.
As you walk along the cliffs you may also see many of the areas marine wildlife such as dolphins, porpoises, seals and the occasional whale. Minke whales, which are the whales most commonly seen from Handa, have a small dorsal fin two thirds of the way down their back.
How to get there
Adults Ł12.50 round trip Children , ages 5 to 14, Ł5.00 round trip, under 5's go free
Best time to visit:
April-July Guillemots, puffins and
razorbills. May-September Great skuas, arctic skuas, fulmars and
Points of interest:
Until 1847, up to 60 people inhabited Handa, living on oats and potatoes. Their food crops failed due to potato blight and they were evacuated to Nova Scotia. The ruins of their houses can still be seen.
The less energetic may prefer to take a boat trip around Handa. One or two hour trips depart twice daily from Tarbet Pier, depending on demand, a minimum of four persons is required. Operators and boats are Marine and Coastguard Agency approved. (Tel: 07780 967800 or 07775 625890)
Kylesku Lodges, Kylesku, Sutherland, Scotland, IV27 4HW
Tel: 01971 502003