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One day on wild Handa Island

by 27 Apr 2019

We realized when planning our road trip in Northern Scotland that it would be the perfect opportunity to observe puffins for the very first time. Of course you already know them, they are those little colourful birds found in the Northern countries of the North Atlantic! A little bit of research quickly drawed my attention to Handa Island located off the Northwestern coast of the country. We decided to go and spend one day there to discover the island fauna!

Where is Handa Island?

How to get to Handa Island?

Handa Island is not very far from the coast. We can get there using a ferry which is – let’s be honest – just a small boat. It operates 40km West of Durness in a small village called Tarbet. You can’t book your ticket ahead of time. The Handa Ferry website only mentions the following operating times: from 9am to 2pm Monday to Saturday. The last departure from the island is at 3pm. There is no fixed schedule. It will depend on both demand and weather!

The return fare is 15£ per adult. Plan to bring cash because cards are not accepted.
The ferry only runs during high season which is roughly from april to september.

Not really knowing what to expect and how much time we were going to spend on the island, we showed up at the jetty at 9am. When we arrived, there was no ferry in sight and hardly anybody around. But there was a shack with a sign reading Handa Island Ferry so we guessed we were in the right place. And so we waited! As rain started to pour, we began to wonder if we were not wasting our time. But people finally arrived and took care of us. Yipee! With our tickets bought, we boarded a small zodiak. There was nothing onboard to protect us from both wind and rain but well, when you decide to spend your vacation in Scotland, you are ready to face the weather!

Walking on Handa

Both rangers and volunteers welcome us on the island. They are working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust which is responsible for the island conservation. They guide us towards a very basic hut which serves as visitor center and souvenir shop.
After a short briefing about the rules to follow on the island, they offer to rent binoculars and give us a map of Handa. It is actually rather simple: there is a 6km walk which covers most of the island. A few points of interest are marked down for us to know where are the best spots to observe seals, puffins and all other types of critters!

The walk starts trough the ruins of the historical village of the island. Back in 1847, 64 persons were still living on Handa island. But the great famine forced them to abandon their houses.

In the middle of the island, we get to see a lot of great skuas nesting in the grass. It is important that we do not step off the track in order not to disturb them. And be careful, we heard that they wouldn’t hesitate to attack you if they feel threatened!

In addition to cute Northern wheatears like the one on top, you can observe Red grouses or Arctic skuas in summer. Those are known to steal fish from other birds!

When we reach the northern and western cliffs of the island, we can make dozens of marine birds out. Generally, guillemots are standing in crowded areas at the bottom of the cliffs. It’s not easy to get a good picture of them in these conditions. As far as they are concerned, razorbills are standing at the top of cliffs.  They are the one you can see on the pictures on top.
But we’re still searching for our little stars… Looking for puffins is very similar to looking for Waldo! With a closer look, we can see that they are actually there in front of us. Some are roosting on the cliffs, others seem to be wandering in the grass… Luckily for us, their orange bill and orange legs make them easier to spot.

Wouldyou be able to identify this species? This is not your common seagull. This is a Northern fulmar. This is an incredible bird capable of drinking sea water. It is able to desalinate it with its nasal gland. It seems to be a rather good feature because this bird can live up to 35 years!

You might also be able to spot whales or dolphins from the cliffs. We didn’t get lucky enough to do so. There is also a small bay at the end of the walk in which otters are often seen. You might spot one if you’re patient enough! Or it might also be a grey seal hanging in the water with only its small head above the surface!

A rain shower started as soon as we got to the cliffs! We hadn’t seen any puffin yet… And I’m not talking about a light drizzle! Rain poured heavily during more than 30 minutes. It was freezing cold with the wind blowing and there was nowhere to shelter from this weather. But we had kind of similar experience a year before in Ireland which made us pack as much rain gear as we could. So we just sat there waiting and once the shower was over, we took some great bird pictures. In the end my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them anymore!

Bits of advice so that you enjoy your day

We recommend that you take with you:

water and if you plan to spend a lot of time on the island, food.
binoculars and/or a telephoto lens. It will be easier for you to observe birds as they are often in the distance.
rain gear (pants, jacket, shoes and even a cover for your backpack…). An umbrella will be useless with so much wind!
gloves, especially if you’re taking pictures. The wind can be freezing cold!

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