Handa Island, Sutherland, Scotland
On day 3 of a minimally planned road trip through the Scottish Highlands, our Lonely Planet guidebook suggested Handa Island, a tiny nature reserve off the extreme north-western coast. It is known for its dramatic sea cliffs that serve as breeding grounds for a lot of strange birds, the most famous of which are probably the puffins. Have I ever seen a puffin? I thought to myself, wandering back through fuzzy memories of the Bronx and Central Park zoos. They’re not endangered or uncommon, but it turns out they are incredibly elusive in the wild. In fact, ten minutes after we pulled into the harbor at Tarbet to catch the ferry, a group of birdwatching photographers rolled up dressed like Indiana Jones, ready to take on the puffin challenge.
Our “ferry” to the island was essentially a row boat with a powerful motor attached. We were given life jackets and instructions to remain seated for the ten-minute ride to Handa’s sandy southern shore. This early in the spring, it was just us and the Birdwatchers Of The Lost Ark, but there was a tiny visitor center in operation where we were given maps and walking directions to the northern cliffs. We were warned it might be too early in the season to see any puffins, and there would certainly be no babies yet (officially called pufflings, in case you thought you’d already picked out your favorite word in the English language). But the cliffs would be amazing regardless, and the weather was holding up for once, so I couldn’t imagine being disappointed either way.
We set off from the beach on a boardwalk path that led us over a rolling moorland, still brown from winter. Handa is so small that the sea is always visible in at least one direction, and the distant views of the mountains dotting the mainland coast are an easy compass to the north side of the island. Fifty meters from the end of the boardwalk was the end of the island itself; A vertigo-inducing 90-degree drop to the ocean below.
The cliffs themselves are breathtaking; Upon closer inspection, they are also alive. Thousands of sea birds inhabit the natural shelves and crevices of the stone, flying out to the open sea and back to catch fish in periodic flurries of activity. We sat down as close to the edge as we dared and began unpacking our picnic lunch. As I surveyed the scene in front of me, I spotted something… orange?
Out of a burrow in the side of the opposite cliff, a pelican emerged. It’s penguin-like coloring and clown-like eyes made it unmistakable. Cautiously and clumsily, it waddled out into the open, sat still for a long moment, and then flew out to sea. We all saw it. I got one very mediocre photo of it. I looked around for the birdwatching group but they had long since disappeared to the other side of the island.
Back on the beach just in time for our return ferry, we excitedly told the ranger that we’d seen a pelican after all. He was impressed with our good luck, but warned us not to brag about it to the dejected birdwatchers sharing our boat. Unfortunately, they’d missed the show. They were, of course, treated to a huge array of less camera-shy species that we common folk would not have been able to appreciate. In fact, I tend to assume everything that flies is either a pigeon or a seagull.
TO SEE PUFFINS:
Puffins come ashore in Scotland to breed and nest from late April until mid-August. Besides Handa Island, some of the best places to see them are the Treshnish Isles off Mull, Hoy in Orkney, Noss in Shetland, and the Isle of May in Fife.
TO VISIT HANDA:
The ferry from Tarbet costs £12.50 per adult (2016). It runs all year, except in extremely bad weather or during high winds. A thorough visit to the island takes about three hours. Lastly, the island is completely uninhabited. So, you know, bring your own snacks.