The waters around the Western Isles / Outer Hebrides are excellent for whales and dolphins with a number of companies around the Inner Hebrides offering tours to see this group of mammals in their natural habitat, the sea. No such tours operate from the Outer Hebrides although there are a number of land based locations and ferry journeys that will reward those that put some time in looking for cetaceans. The following ferry journeys can be excellent in the summer months although you may spot whales or dolphins at any time of year:
Bottle-nosed Dolphin and Long-finned Pilot Whales (Steve Duffield)
Oban - Lochboisdale, S Uist / Barra. Good for Common Dolphin, Porpoise and Minke Whale as well as Basking Sharks from July - September. Pilot Whales are also occasionally reported.
Uig, Skye - Lochmaddy, N Uist. A shorter crossing than the one above but never-the-less can be good with regular sightings off Vaternish Point, Skye including Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Porpoise and Minke Whale.
Ullapool - Stornoway. Excellent in calm conditions with a good chance of Risso's Dolphin, Porpoise and Minke Whale
Harbour Porpoise and Common Dolphin (Mark Darkaston)
Inter-island crossings can also be productive with regular sightings of Bottle-nosed Dolphins in the Sound of Barra with Porpoise and the odd Minke Whale in the Sound of Harris.
Land based observations are limited in the southern isles although the sea watching locations of Ardvule, S Uist and Aird un Runair in N Uist can be good for Porpoise and Minke Whale. The small cliffs at Scoplaig / Griminish Point produce regular sightings and is probably one of the better locations due to the deep water trench coming close inshore here.
There are many potential locations in Harris and Lewis for observing cetaceans although a few stand out as being excellent such as: the lighthouse on Scalpay to the east of Tarbet, NG247947. In Lewis: Tiumpan Head NB 574378; the Butt of Lewis and last but not least the headlands at Mangersta NB 004334 and Gallan NB 052394.
Regular species sighted: Harbour Porpoise, Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Risso's Dolphin, White-sided Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Minke Whale, Killer Whale.
Rare sightings of Humpback and Fin Whale have also been recorded in the last few years. The frequency with which Sperm Whales are also washed up may mean that this species is also a contender along with the odd beaked whale. A bit of effort would no doubt reap some excellent rewards, after all a major whaling station operated out of Harris in the past.
This is one of the best places in the U.K. for seeing otters as they occur at a high density and can be seen at virtually any time of day. Otters that utilise fresh water habitats on the mainland are often elusive due to their habit of being most active after dark. This does not apply everywhere as many otters in the west of Scotland that utilise a marine area are frequently seen during the day as they are more dependent on the height of the tide; fishing when conditions are at their optimum e.g. rising and falling tides.
The islands here have a thriving Otter population as their is so much habitat for them. Miles of coastline indented with narrow inlets, plentiful rock pools full of seaweed and lots of freshwater lochs and burns. Fresh water is very important to an Otter as although they may depend on the sea for the majority of their food they need to keep their coat in superb condition. To do this they must wash regularly in fresh water to clean out the salt and maintain some water repellent qualities.
The best time to see Otters is when the cubs are around, out and about with their mother teaching them how to fend for themselves. The cubs spend the first few months in their natal holt before venturing out but when they do they regularly keep in touch with their mother by calling. The call is sharp, high pitched pipit-like note that could be easily over looked as a small bird but once known is an excellent way of locating Otters. The best time to look for Otter here is the winter months.
You may not see a live animal but knowing that they are utilising an area can help narrow down where to spend time looking.
Holts, like this one at Balranald can be either virtually on the beach or anywhere up to a couple of Km's inland. The entrance holes are larger than what you'd expect for a rabbit and there's usually more than one hole. The holt pictured above has a fresh spraint outside, a sure sign that it has been used recently.
Other signs that they are around can be found by examining footprints. Otters show five toes whilst a dog shows just four. They are a reasonable size, depending on whether its a male or female as the dog Otters are the larger. The prints are roughly the same size as a Border Collie's paw prints.
Red Deer is the only species of deer you will see on the islands and apparently an old introduction here. It occurs throughout the main islands of Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist. It has also recently been introduced on to Barra. They can also be found on many of the smaller islands around North Uist as they regularly under take crossings to these quieter uninhabited spots being good swimmers.
Red Deer stag Hinds
Unfortunately some of the introductions have caused problems. Hedgehogs can be found on all the main islands and were probably originally introduced to control slugs but also have a taste for birds eggs. Studies of waders nesting on the machair in South Uist have found that Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank have all suffered significant losses to these animals. Another alien to the islands and Britain, the Mink has also had devastating affects on the wild birds. Mink are veracious hunters and have caused huge problems at some of the tern colonies. It appears that Mink have been successfully eradicated from the Uists and phase two of this program, Lewis and Harris is underway at the moment.
Other mammals include: Mountain Hares on the northern isles of Harris and Lewis and rabbits throughout. Rabbits were introduced in Medieval times and although they can prove a pest, they probably display more benefits than not as they are a food source for many birds of prey and provide ready dug burrows for Puffins as well as turning and aerating large areas of soil.
The smaller denizens include both Brown and Black Rats, although the latter is found only on the Shiants (and very few other places in the U.K.). Long-tailed Field Mouse or the Wood Mouse as it is alternatively known is common as is the Field Vole in the Uists. Voles are absent from Lewis and Harris which undoubtedly contributes to the lack of Short-eared Owls here. Other small mammals include Britain's smallest, the Pigmy Shrew.
In and around Stornoway there are a few scattered colonies of Pipistrelle Bats. There are at least two colonies in the town and others at both New Market and Lochs, Lewis. Occasionally other species of bats may be found on the islands although they are rare and not resident here.
Two species of seal can be found around the islands, the Atlantic Grey Seal and the Common Seal, or Harbour Seal as it is alternatively known. Both these names are descriptive and tell you a little something of how to identify them. Grey Seals are largely dark grey although occasionally they are paler or russet in colour they tend to be less variable than Common Seals which are often intricately spotted helping them blend into rocks.
As adults, Grey Seal have a large 'Roman' nose which leads to them occasionally being known as horse heads. Both males and females show this distinctive head shape although it is more pronounced in the bulls.
Common seals on the other hand are much gentler looking and appear to have a head resembling a Golden Retriever. They also frequently adopt this characteristic 'banana posture' that Grey Seals don't hold so much or for any length of time.
Another clue lies in their name; Harbour Seals frequently haul out on sand bars and in very sheltered inlets whilst Greys are often encountered on smaller off-shore islands in more exposed locations. This or indeed any of the points above are not fool proof as young of both species closely resemble one another. The only sure way is to look at the shape of the nostrils when they are closed. Common Seals' nostrils form a V or a heart shape whilst Grey Seals are more parallel. It takes a bit of practice but given good views and closed nostrils, most can be readily assigned to a species
Grey Seal pup Balranald, N Uist November 2006. Pups are regularly washed up on the beach here from the huge colony on the nearby Monachs.
Sometimes these pups are swept off before they have gained their first adult coat. This one still has the remains of the juvenile coat, or lanugo as it is known. This first coat is not waterproof and young seals swept into the sea at this stage may easily drown once their coat becomes sodden.
Common Seals also breed around the islands although their pups can swim reasonably well a few hours after being born. Common Seals may be seen with pups around June / July whilst Grey Seals wait until late October / November before giving birth.