Monday, 6 June 2011


Snipe, Corn Bunting, a flowery machair field and an iris bed harbouring a Corncrake.

The month ahead looks busy, with visits to a number of far-flung sites in the UK, some new and some old favourites. The month started with a quick tour of Scotland, including a trip across to North Uist and Benbecula. Walking through the machair of North Uist is a revelation compared to breeding wader sites in the south of England; there are birds everywhere. Lapwing, Snipe, Dunlin, Redshank, Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers all giving the tell-tale alarm calls of nesting activity in contrast to the depressing quietness of some recent visits to ‘wet’ grasslands down south.

So what is machair and why is it so good? Machair consists of a mosaic of dry and damp semi-natural grasslands, marshes and standing water. It has developed as a result of the combination of soils derived from wind-blown shell sand, a wet, windy climate and low-intensity crofting agriculture.

The waders of the machair are of very high conservation value, the first full survey of the Uists in 1983 estimated that it supported at least 17,000 pairs of the six main species. Significantly, the Uists have no native terrestrial mammal predators. Unfortunately, humans have introduced several potential predators, including Brown Rats, Hedgehogs and Mink. However, there have been various attempts to remove these. Strangely for southern eyes, Little and Arctic Terns also nest in loose groups across the fallow machair fields, forsaking the nearby glorious shell sand beaches. No doubt another effect of the lack of ground predators.

Apart from waders there is plenty to see. The flower-rich fields support huge numbers of orchids including the endemic Hebridean Marsh Orchid. With 100 or so male Corncrakes on North Uist, it was not a surprise to hear one calling from just about every bit of suitable habitat. Other highlights included Red-necked Phalaropes, Golden and White-tailed Eagles, 3 species of diver, Pomarine Skua and Bonxie, breeding Whooper Swan, Hen Harriers, Twite and Corn Buntings everywhere.

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