The Enchanted Islands
Na h-Eileanan Seunta or the Enchanted Islands… Despite the thick mist or rain frequently shrouding the archipelago, any person visiting the Shiants for the first time quickly falls under their spell. Whether there is bright sunshine or cloudy weather, the Shiants are stunning for their breathtaking beauty, their purity and their biodiversity. Even if visitors are rare, there are seabirds everywhere, nesting in the cliffs, skimming the surface of the water, or flying over the islands…
The rocks, cliffs, dolomite columns or barely visible rocky points are all whitewashed with guano, while the cries of birds on the water body fill up the background. The gathering of puffins, murres and razorbills at sunset in front of Gharb Eilean Island, which is the highlight of the natural spectacle taking place all day long, is not to be missed. Spring is the breeding period for murres and puffins and remains the best time for seabird watching.
Each bird species has its respective territory
While exploring the archipelago, we realise that each species living in the archipelago has its respective territory and does not encroach on the habitat of other species. The seal population for example groups around a rocky area opposite Eilean Mhuire Island, while puffins have settled in the cliffs on Gharb Eilean Island. They share the area with murres and razorbills, whose primary residence is on Eilean an Taighe Island, where they coexist with fulmars and Kittiwakes. It is to be noted that murres and penguins occupy the first level above sea level, while seagulls and fulmars nest further up in the cliffs.
Great black-back gulls and white-tailed eagles in the heights
For their part, great black-back gulls occupy the peaks of mountains and rocky headlands, just like white-tailed eagles, also called sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), which are present at the top of steep rocky cliffs. Their powerful, hoarse cry is particularly identifiable when they are nesting or defending their territory. It is easy to spot their especially large nest, which is mainly made of branches and built in the shelter of an inaccessible cliff. The wingspan of this raptor listed in Annex I of the EU Birds Directive can reach 2.40 m! During the nesting period, great black-back gulls can also be aggressive and will attack any visitor who dares to pass close to their territory. They are easily recognisable with their large black wings with 1.7m wingspan and large yellow beak marked with a red dot.
A major international site for seabird watching
These 500 hectares of rocks, grass, cliffs and wilderness, wedged between Skye and Lewis in the middle of the Minch and surrounded by the seas, are a unique natural place for many seabird species that thrive or migrate there. The Shiants are unquestionably an international Mecca for seabird watching, where one can especially admire at close range and in excellent conditions pelagic species that can rarely be spotted from the coast. There are a countless number of birds! According to the latest ornithological data, there are some 15,000 to 18,000 murres, between 8,000 and 11,000 little penguins, between 4,000 and 6,000 fulmars, 2,000 black-legged Kittiwakes, about 1,500 common shags, hundreds of gulls of various types whose numbers are rising, 26 great skuas whose population is also on the rise, and 240,000 puffins, which represent approximately one eighth of the UK population, and 2% of the world population.
Bird banding coordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology
While visiting Chelsea an Taighe Island, we come across volunteer members of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), an organisation devoted to the study of birds founded in 1932 in the UK. The BTO contributes to research on the biology of birds and mainly the study of populations and their reproduction. It also undertakes bird banding, which is the only way to know how long they live, through the involvement of a large number of volunteers. We precisely meet with one of them, Ian Buxton, who had the chance to find a puffin banded in 1975 while on an expedition to the Shiants in July 2009. ‘When we found it, EB73152 still had its original metal ring, but also its coloured ring, which allowed us to identify it as a bird from the Shiants and determine its age: 34. At the time, it was the oldest puffin in Europe,’ says Ian Buxton with emotion before adding, ‘But a 41-year-old specimen has since been found in Norway.’ According to the BTO volunteer, these longevity records were almost inevitable since the data collected using rings showed an adult survival rate of about 92%. ‘In recent years, puffins have had good breeding seasons as birds enjoy excellent living conditions in the Shiants, where there is no pollution or degradation of their habitat and where they find an abundance of food.’ On the other hand, during migration, they may suffer from lack of prey due to the decrease of fisheries resulting from industrial fishing and they suffer badly from oil spills, such as the Erica and Prestige disasters, from frequent degassing and by catch in gill nets.
The Atlantic puffin, the star of the Shiant Islands
There is no need to be an ornithologist to be able to identify the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). It is called the ‘clown of the sea’, mainly due to its amazing and massive triangular beak with a red tip, and the rest of it is blue with a yellow border. Puffins use their beak to store their prey and can carry up to 30 fish at a time! The bony plates adorning their beak are used for courtship and disappear after nesting. Their beak then becomes smaller and predominantly yellow and grey.
A swimming clown in deep waters that also travels the high seas
It is perhaps also its large head, black cap and red circled eyes that give it a gentle, dreamy character. Similarly, its awkward and hesitating gait makes you smile when it takes off, running on the surface of the water with its orange-red webbed feet and flapping its short wings very fast. While it is clumsy in the air, the ‘clown of the sea’ is more comfortable under water, where it swims using its short wings. The maximum depth reached by a puffin is nevertheless 60 m (Burger & Simpson, 1986).
The Atlantic Puffin is a pelagic bird that lives mostly on the high seas. It only settles in the islands or along the coast for reproduction. It then nests on grassy slopes and cliffs, in the scree for example, as is the case in the Shiants. The largest populations breed in Iceland (2–3 million pairs), Scotland, Ireland, the Shetlands, Scandinavia, etc. This species is found only in the North Atlantic.
As early as August, the Atlantic puffins in the Shiants, like those from the Irish Sea, leaving the islands to reach the Bay of Biscay in fall and sometimes even go as far as the Mediterranean (Brown, in Nettleship & Birkhead op. cit.; Harris, in Wernham et al., 2002).
The passage of sea mammals and basking sharks
Fin whales, killer whales, dolphins, basking sharks, porpoises… Aside from seabirds, the waters around the Shiant Islands are home to a fantastic variety of marine wildlife, which is visible from the islands or even better, from a boat. The waters of the Hebrides are among the most important marine habitats in Europe, with nearly 70% of the species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans are concentrated mainly in spring and summer in the coastal waters of the Hebrides, particularly in the Minch Strait where fish is particularly abundant at that time.
The Minch Strait is dotted with shoals where various waters and currents meet, which is suitable for the production of plankton which attracts large numbers of fish, mammals and seabirds. Located in the heart of the Minch, the Shiant Islands are thus an ideal place to observe fish and marine mammals, especially since the archipelago is little visited by tourists.
Encounter with the second largest fish in the world
Besides killer whales, Minke whales and dolphins (read our feature story), we had the opportunity to come across an adult basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) measuring nearly 9 m long with a juvenile off the coast of the Shiants! They were both moving at a slow speed of about 3 knots. We could easily spot them through their first dorsal fin forming an equilateral triangle, which is characteristic of the species, and their crescent-shaped tail fin coming to the surface. Their dark grey slate fins could be seen from afar on the calm, light grey sea. We just had time to observe the pointed snout of an adult before it disappears in the mist. A fleeting but touching moment: we were in the presence of the second largest fish in the world! Basking sharks are massive and imposing but completely harmless animals since they feed mainly on plankton and algae. It is quite common to see them in this region, which used to be the preferred hunting ground for shark hunters. Basking sharks were hunted for liver oil in Scotland for nearly 50 years from 1947. The last fishery based in the Firth of Clyde was closed down in 1995. Industrial methods were used to hunt basking sharks at the time by the Scottish West Coast Fisheries, which operated a factory vessel and three 12 m motor hunting boats, equipped with a harpoon cannon. Their liver, which represents up to a quarter of their total body mass, is filled with oil (squalene) used as an industrial lubricant.
Basking sharks are today protected in British waters, mainly thanks to Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.