The awe-striking Handa Island sits off the north west coast of Scotland, in Sutherland, and is renowned for its wide variety of bird species throughout the year. This attraction is a few miles north of Scourie, and the Handa Island birds are a top sight for any enthused birder.
A visit to Handa Island during the summer is one of the best experiences for budding birdwatchers, as the island regularly receives 100,000 bird species of international importance yearly.
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Operated independently and managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Handa Island is one of the most unique nature reserves in the Scottish Highlands. The scenery is awe-inspiring, with dramatic cliffs, beautiful beaches, and one of the largest seabird breeding colonies in North West Europe!
In addition to the wide variety of birdlife, the waters around Handa Island have plenty of ocean creatures to see. We’re talking Minke whales, grey seals, and even basking sharks too!
Handa Island is a haven for ground-nesting birds, and the lack of natural predators (besides other birds) makes this island of Torridonian sandstone one of the best places for birds to return to each year.
The Island is easily reachable from Tarbet, making it an excellent stop for travelling the North Coast 500. And its 1.1 square mile size means you can fit the Handa Island walk as part of an adventuring day while exploring the North West Coast of Scotland.
Details to Know
Your visit to Handa Island should be planned with the expectation that it may rain, even if you plan on visiting in mid-summer. These weather conditions mean you should always bring waterproof clothing, an umbrella, and appropriate footwear for climbing.
The walking route through the island’s attractions covers about 6 kilometres and is relatively easy to navigate without any prior hiking experience. There is a shorter, 4-kilometre route you can take if need be.
If you’re planning to spend more than a couple of hours on the island, it’s recommended that you bring along your food and water, as there are few amenities to purchase from the small visitor shelter that rests on the island.
Once you arrive, you’ll be given a short introductory talk by one of the conservation volunteers about the island and receive a map of the routes. We recommend bringing an instrument that will let you look closer at your surroundings, such as a telescope or a pair of binoculars.
How to Get There
There’s only one way to reach Handa Island: from Tarbet. Once you arrive in Tarbet, park your car in the car park next to the port. The Handa ferry takes visitors to the island every day except Sunday and is weather dependent. The Ferry operator may cancel daily trips if they feel that the ferry crossing will be unsafe.
Ensure that you’ve also booked your ticket and return ferry ticket for the small ferry boat and arrive about half an hour early in case there are delays. These trips start at 9:00, and the last outbound journey approx at 14:00, with the final return journey at 17:00. Tickets are £ 20 for adults and £ 5 for children.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Handa Island is spring and summer, although the region is excellent for birdwatching no matter what time of year you arrive.
From mid-May to July, visitors can see the great Atlantic Puffin come to Handa Island. And the majority of the breeding season for the seabird colonies occurs between April and July.
Top Birds to Look Out For
In addition to the grassy slopes and cliff edges that make up Handa Island, guests can look forward to several species of birds. Here are the ones you should look out for:
Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus)
Alongside the several scenic beaches, you can find one of Scotland’s lesser-known and appreciated bird species: the Skua! Great Skua and Arctic Skua are unique birds you can see when visiting Handa Island.
Unfortunately, both these species are in decline. The Arctic Skuas have seen a population decline for several years – the impact of the Great Skua decline is still debated as they affect the lives of other seabirds.
These birds are easy to identify thanks to their dark and pointed wings with pale tips on the end of them. They are parasitic birds, often found scavenging food from other birds.
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
On Handa Island, Puffin Bay is one of the best places to see the prized Atlantic Puffin. Puffins are adorable birds, easily identifiable by their multicoloured beak and black overcoat of feathers.
They resemble penguins, but there’s no mistake about the difference between them once they take flight. You can often see the birds during mid-May, with several fish within their beak back to the beach or rocks.
Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica)
The Red Grouse is a beautiful bird species with a spotted black and red feather pattern that allows them to blend into the underbrush easily. While you may not see them along the coastline, the keen-eyed birdwatcher often finds them across the island with binoculars.
Kittiwakes ( Rissa)
Throughout the island, the Kittiwakes’ noisy calls are easily heard above the crowd. The iconic “kii-tiii-waaakee” call gave them their name, but they can also be identified by their yellow, sharp beak and grey wings.
There are plenty of fantastic accommodation options, but keep in mind that during the peak season, the booking system of accommodations may be complete. That being said, the North Coast 500 makes the North West parts of Scotland extremely attractive to tourists, and you’ll find accommodation in many towns that the route runs through.
If you want to stay close to the action, why not stop by and enjoy accommodation at Tarbet or on the Scourie estate? There are options for comfortable self-catering lodges that grant views of the magnificent sea cliffs or homely bed and breakfasts that give you a proper Scottish breakfast each morning!
Ullapool and Lochinver are larger towns which still make it easy to visit Handa Island in a day, but they also offer luxurious hotels to choose from while you’re there.
Things to Do Nearby
The Scottish Highlands are packed with things to do! The Handa Island Nature Reserve is only a minor detour from the North Coast 500 route, making it an excellent place to stop by as you navigate the gorgeous coastline of Scotland.
Following the NC500 route, you’ll see other significant attractions like Cape Wrath, the John o’Groats sign, and many cultural sites like castles, cairns, and museums. If you have time to spare, it’s also recommended that you visit the Orkney Islands, which lie a couple of miles north of Scotland’s mainland.
We’ve written about some of the top things to do while you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, so feel free to read through our suggestions for some inspiration.
- Things to Do in Harris
- Things to Do in Isle of Lewis
- Things to Do in Lochinver
- Things to Do in Thurso