SUTHERLAND (Ullapool), (N)

National Grid NC 140480 00o00´/00o00´ 383 ha 0-123m (Sithean Mor), rocky coastline and high cliffs, meadows, rough grass, heath and bog with pools, a small wood and willow scrub 
summer (24.05.08-26.05.08)


Birding Site Guide


Of the many seabird colonies dotted around Britain’s coast, Handa Island is one of the largest. Its 120m cliffs hold around 175,000 seabirds each year. Sadly though most are in decline as at other colonies due to over-exploitation of Sand Eel (Ammodytidae) stocks, and some species have been badly affected by rats, such as Black Guillemot. Tysties no longer breed on Handa, even though rats were eliminated in 1997, but a few pairs manage to hang on on the small islets dotted around Tarbet Bay.

Handa Island lies off the north west tip of Scotland, not far from the mainland, the rock of this part of nw Scotland are some of the oldest in the world dating back 3000,000,000 years and are known as the Scourie gneisses. Handa however is made of different younger rock called Torridonian sandstone, which are a mere 1000,000,000 years old. 

Take the A9 from Inverness then the A835 to Ullapool and then the A837 and A894. Just a few miles after passing through Scourie, which is to the south, is the turn off for the road for Tarbet, from where the ferry to Handa crosses. There is a bed and breakfast in Scourie as well as a hotel and a campsite and Spa shop. Buses run from Ullapool through Scourie and it is possible to be dropped off at the turn off to Tarbet. However transport will probably be required from here as it is 3 miles to Tarbet along a hilly road. 

The ferry from Tarbet runs every day in summer except on Sunday. It carries 10 passengers and runs on demand not to a timetable. It costs £10 return and the last boat returns from Handa at 17.30. On busy days the ferry can run 100+ people back and forth and runs just about constantly. The small ferry is open topped and takes about 10 minutes to reach the beach on Handa. 

As the ferry leaves Tarbet look for Black Guillemots around the islets, it may be your only chance.

The only residence (summer only) on Handa is the private warden’s bothy, and staying here is by invitation only. The bothy has bunks for 8 guests. 

Once ashore the path leads up the dunes to the information shelter. Here leaflets and info on the island are available and binoculars can be hired. From this spot breeding Arctic Terns can be easily observed, with 3 pairs present on our visit. Also here are Ringed Plover and Eider. The path from here leads around the southern then western part of the island and returns through the centre. The eastern part of the island has no path and is off-limits. The island is low with rocky coves and improved pasture on the south side rising steeply to the north and west sides to the peak of Sithean Mor (120m). The rugged cliffs and stacks hold the breeding colonies of auks, fulmars and Kittiwakes, while inland Arctic and Great Skuas breed. 

The only woodland on Handa is around the bothy and this small patch attracts a few passing migrants, with Spotted Flycatcher present briefly on our visit. Here also a few pairs of Blackbird, Chaffinch, Song Thrush and Lesser Redpoll breed. On the rest of the island the only other cover is from scrubby willows but here Willow Warbler, Wren and Robin breed. Stonechats and Wheatears abound in open areas and Red-throated Divers can be found in the pools. The pools also hold large numbers of Palmate Newt. Grey Seals breed around the island and cetaceans and basking shark are sometimes seen from the cliffs. 

Full lists of birds and plants are available on the island. 

Otters can be found here but a more reliable and easier place is on the road along the north coast at Tongue. Here on the slipway at dawn and dusk is a good place to look. 

Birds seen

  • Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata
  • Fulmar Fulmaris glacialis
  • Gannet Sula bassana
  • Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
  • Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis
  • Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
  • Mallard Anas platyrhynchus
  • Eider Somateria mollissima
  • Buzzard Buteo buteo
  • Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
  • Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
  • Dunlin Caladris alpina
  • Snipe Gallinago gallinago
  • Curlew Numenius arquata
  • Turnstone Arenaria interpres
  • Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus
  • Great Skua Stercorarius skua
  • Common Gull Larus canus
  • Herring Gull Larus argentatus
  • Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
  • Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
  • Common Tern Sterna hirundo
  • Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
  • Guillemot Uria aalge
  • Razorbill Alca torda
  • Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle
  • Rock Dove Columba livia
  • Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
  • Cuckoo Cuculus canorus
  • Skylark Alauda arvensis
  • Swallow Hirundo rustica
  • Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
  • Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus
  • Pied Wagtail Motocilla alba
  • Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
  • Dunnock Prunella modularis
  • Robin Erithacus rubecula
  • Stonechat Saxicola torquata
  • Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
  • Blackbird Turdus merula
  • Song Thrush Turdus philomelos
  • Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
  • Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus
  • Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata
  • Raven Corvus corax
  • Hooded Crow Corvus corone cornix
  • Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
  • Redpoll Carduelis flammea
  • Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

Handa holds several species of plants of note, we saw.

  • Pyramidal Bugle Ajuga pyramidalis
  • Thrift Armeria maritima
  • Common Scurvygrass Cochlearia officinalis
  • Heath Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza maculata
  • Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia
  • Adder's-tongue Ophioglossum vulgatum
  • Royal Fern Osmunda regalis
  • Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica
  • Heath Milkwort Polygala serpyllifolia
  • Tormentil Potentilla erecta
  • Primrose Primula vulgaris
  • Roseroot Sedum rosea
  • Sea Mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum

Author: BSG