Monthly Bird Information
by John Bowler RSPB
Many thanks to those of you who keep me posted with your latest observations. If anyone would like to report unusual sightings of birds or other wildlife on Tiree, please contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org. All photographs in this section are by John Bowler, Tom Marshall, Graham Todd or Laurie Campbell.
The extremely cold weather of late December continued into January, creating an extended spell of sub-zero temperatures, which left much of the island frozen for the first half of the month. Tiree missed out on the heavy prolonged snow cover elsewhere on the mainland but the unprecedented freezing conditions made things very tough for many of our wintering birds. The weather warmed up a little later in the month with some more typical wet and windy days, although further freezing occurred at the end of the month.
With the wet grasslands frozen for days on end, many of our wintering birds moved away from the island in the New Year and numbers of Lapwing, Golden Plover and Redwing were much reduced. Waterfowl huddled together around small holes of water on the main lochs, kept free of ice by the actions of feeding swans. Interestingly, the Mute Swans and Whooper Swans retained separate ice-free holes on Loch a’ Phuill, which made counting the two species on the International Whooper Swan count rather easier than normal. Normally elusive birds were tempted into gardens by the lure of easier feeding during the cold spell and these included regular Water Rails at Mannal, Balephuil and West Hynish, together with at least 15 Woodcock and larger numbers of Snipe.
Rarest bird was a Barn Owl, which frequented sheds at Heylipol at the end of the month and must have found easy pickings amongst the hundreds of roosting starlings there. This species is a very rare winter visitor to Tiree but has become a little more frequent in recent years, presumably wandering from breeding sites on Mull and mainland Argyll, where the species is currently doing well. Remaining rarities included the female Surf Scoter, which was still at Hough Bay early in the month, together with up to 19 Long-tailed Ducks and 3 Common Scoters, although it could not be found there after 11th. The two small vagrant “Lesser” Canada Geese remained with the Barnacle Geese and were seen at both Cornaigmore and Balephetrish, the European White-fronted Goose re-appeared at Balephuil (8th), whilst the wandering immature Sea Eagle was seen again at Sorobaidh Bay (11th). Other scarce winter birds included a Mistle Thrush at Balemmartine (6th), a Jackdaw at Balephuil (16th), a Jack Snipe at Milton (18th), 2 Rooks at Heylipol (21st), a Dunnock at Hynish (24th), 5 scattered Fieldfares, 5 Black-headed Gulls and up to 3 Pied Wagtails. Some 150 Redwings remained, whilst wintering finches included a high count of at least 23 Goldfinches, but only 2 Chaffinches and 4 Greenfinches, all making the most of food put out in island gardens during the cold weather.
The mid-January goose count (18th-19th) found 3,532 Barnacle Geese and 787 Greenland White-fronts, with Greylags a little down in numbers at 3,126 birds. The count also found 4 Pink-footed Geese and 5 Canada x Greylag Goose hybrids in West Tiree, plus the long-staying Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Ruaig. The January count produced a high island total of 139 Whooper Swans, but Golden Plovers had dropped to 645 and Lapwing to 1160, from 4,300 and 3,805 respectively in December. Scarce waterbirds included up to 5 Coot and 12 Pintail plus high counts of 160 Tufted Ducks and 49 Goldeneye at Loch a’ Phuill (31st). Hopeful signs of spring included the first Shelduck pairs appearing at inland sites and large numbers of Fulmars displaying noisily at their breeding colonies on calmer days.
February saw a continuation of the very cold dry conditions that dominated in January, with little of the wet and windy weather that might normally be expected at this time of year. Tiree remained more or less snow-free throughout, although periods of heavy frost caused the lochs to freeze on several occasions and conditions remained tough for many of our wintering birds. One group that did not appear to suffer however were the seabirds. The weekend of 27th-28th February saw a hardy band of volunteers searching the beaches of Tiree for the bodies of dead or sick seabirds for the annual “Beached Bird Survey” which is part of a co-ordinated effort throughout the UK. This year, most beaches were found to have no dead birds on them and the few that were found, were predominantly land birds such as Lapwing and Oystercatcher, which would have found foraging difficult in the often frozen grasslands. The very low numbers of dead seabirds may have partly resulted from high spring tides bringing a heavy accumulation of sand and seaweed, which could have buried some bodies, although it probably also reflected the lack of winter storms, which may have resulted in lower levels of seabird mortality than in previous winters.
Of our wintering rarities, the two small-race vagrant Canada Geese remained with the Barnacle Geese throughout, being observed at both Balephetrish and Cornaigmore, although the female Surf Scoter did not reappear in Hough Bay having apparently moved on in mid January. More unexpectedly, given the cold conditions, Tiree saw the arrival of two different Mediterranean Gulls with a ringed 2nd-winter bird at Sorobaidh Bay (7th) followed by an unringed bird of the same age at Gott Bay (22nd – see photo) – representing just the third and fourth island records of this attractive gull. Both birds probably wished they were somewhere warmer than Tiree, although the Mediterranean Gull has been spreading rapidly north in range in recent years, with small numbers of pairs now regularly breeding in Black-headed Gull colonies as close as Northern Ireland. With increasing numbers appearing regularly along the coast of mainland Argyll as well, it may be only a matter of time before this species starts nesting here. Other good birds included the Barn Owl still in cattle sheds at Heylipol at the start of the month, a couple of Dunnocks, an influx of around 20 Fieldfares mid-month, at least 7 Goldfinches and long-staying Water Rails in gardens at Mannal and Balephuil. Unusual ducks included a drake Pochard and a drake Gadwall at Loch a’ Phuill, both species have been very scarce here this winter.
The first obvious migrants to return to the island at the end of the month included up to 30 adult Black-headed Gulls with their full dark brown hoods and pinkish breasts plus increasing numbers of Pied Wagtails around the coast, although no Lesser Black-backed Gulls had returned by the start of March. Other signs of spring included Skylarks song-flighting on brighter days, plus widespread display by pairs of Lapwing and noisy groups of Oystercatchers on the wet grasslands and machairs. Otters also became more noticeable with records from various parts of the island including several family groups consisting of mothers with up to three almost full-grown cubs. The all-island goose count (16th-17th) found a high total of 3,729 Barnacle Geese, plus 2,768 Greylags, 769 Greenland White-fronts, 5 Pink-footed Geese and a Light-bellied Brent Goose, together with 156 Whooper Swans. Numbers of Lapwing and Golden Plover increased to 2,510 and 975 respectively following the exodus in January’s freezing spell.
The Icelandic volcano dust caused me to be stuck for an extra two weeks in Syria, where I had been conducting bird survey work in a new Protected Area in the northeast of the country. The delay gave me a chance to work in additional sites in Western Syria, but meant that I missed most of the month on Tiree. However, bird records still came through from many islanders and visitors, for which I am very grateful and which enabled me to piece together the avian events of the month. The predominant cool northerly winds which brought the volcanic dust over Britain, also held back migration this year, and spring was generally two weeks later than normal over most of the country. Some smaller migratory birds made it through to Tiree, despite the headwinds. The first Corncrake was reported from Balemartine (11th), a typical arrival date and some 30 birds had been reported by the end of the month at widely scattered sites across the island. Co-ordinated night time counts of calling male Corncrakes will start later in May to see how numbers compare to last year. Fingers crossed we will see an upturn in numbers across Scotland after a small drop in 2009. Other spring arrivals were later than normal but by the end of the month, most of the regular breeding migrants were back, albeit in small numbers so far, including Willow Warbler (from 14th), Swallow and Sand Martin (from 21st), Arctic Tern (from 28th), Sedge Warbler (from 28th), Little Tern (from 29th), and Grasshopper Warbler (from 30th).
The most marked event of the month was the arrival of hundreds of Pale-bellied Brent Geese around the coast. Normally, these birds pass over the island very quickly in spring as they head from their Irish wintering grounds to breeding sites in Arctic Canada. However, this year unprecedented numbers were grounded on Tiree with reports of flocks of up to 450 birds from 14th, reaching a peak around the third week of April but with smaller flocks still present at the month-end. A few colour-ringed birds were noted in the flocks and it will be interesting to see where these birds had been ringed. There was also a good passage of Black-tailed Godwits in their brick-red breeding plumage feeding around the loch-sides from mid-month as they staged on the island before moving on up to Iceland. Golden Plover numbers built up on their traditional staging area at The Reef to at least 3,500 birds mid-month, but most of these had moved on to Iceland by the month-end. Most of the Greenland geese also departed during April, although there were still 25 Barnacle Geese at Balephetrish (28th) and two late Greenland White-fronts there (30th).
April rarities included a Gull-billed Tern, which hawked for insects along roadsides near Heylipol Church (25th) – this was the second record in as many years of this rare tern for Tiree, following a long-staying bird at Crossapol in October 2008. Another surprise visitor was a Hoopoe, which was first spotted at Hough Dunes (24th) and which re-appeared at Loch an Eilein (30th). This exotic-looking bird with its salmon-buff plumage and erectile crest is normally found in Mediterranean olive groves but must have overshot on migration – fingers crossed it finds its way back to warmer climes. Other good birds included a Sandwich Tern at Hynish (28th), a fine male Ruff at Sandaig (29th-30th) and a pair of Lesser Redpolls at Cornaigbeg (30th), plus a handful of scarcer migrants such as Blackcaps, House Martins and Chiffchaffs. A few Lapwing chicks were observed on The Reef at the month-end, together with the first Mallard broods, indicating that summer was not so far away, despite the cool temperatures.
May brought mostly dry and rather cool weather being dominated by northerly winds, although there were a few days of warmth later in the month, when the wind switched to the south.
Corncrakes became very conspicuous once more throughout the month with birds widely reported from all over the island and early indications are of good numbers in most areas. The annual night-time census rounds started at the end of the month and we will have to wait until June to see how final numbers compare this year with the count of 389 calling males in 2009.
As usual in May, the island’s coasts, grasslands, lochs and gardens became home to large numbers of breeding birds. Many bred a little later than normal in the rather cool conditions and some, such as Stonechat and Lapwing, in reduced numbers following the severe winter, although by the end of the month the first broods of Stonechats and Blackbirds were seen, together with Greylag and Mute Swan broods. There were good numbers of young Lapwings around the island during the month, but the first broods of Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Redshank and Snipe were delayed. The annual mass emergence of young Starlings began right on cue however, with the first fledged broods noted on the last day of the month.
Should anyone out walking find themselves being mobbed by waders or crowds of terns and gulls, please bid a hasty retreat. The eggs and young broods are very vulnerable to attack by gulls and crows, which can sneak in while the parent birds are busy trying to drive you away. Please also watch out for young birds crossing the roads at this time.
May is always a good month for migration on Tiree and this year was no exception. Pride of place goes to the two female Red-necked Phalaropes, which fed with Sanderling along the tide-line in the drizzle at Gott Bay (20th). This brightly coloured wader formerly bred on Tiree but nowadays is a very rare visitor on spring migration as birds head north to breeding grounds in Iceland and mirrored a very similar record in May 2009. Other spring rarities included a Pied Flycatcher at Carnan Mor (22nd), a female Marsh Harrier at Balephuil (22nd) and 2 Wood Sandpipers on a pool at Kilmoluaig (28th). More regular spring scarcities included a Woodpigeon at Gott (27th), up to 8 Mealy Redpolls at Balephuil/Carnan Mor, 5 House Martins, 9 Spotted Flycatchers, 5 Whitethroats, a Blackcap at Kilkenneth (21st), 3 Chiffchaffs, 4 Chaffinches, 2 Goldfinches and 5 Lesser Redpolls. A singing Redwing at Balephuil (30th) was extremely late but quickly moved on. Cuckoos were again scarce this year, with just single birds heard calling at Barrapol, Carnan Mor and Cornaigmore (from 16th). This species is declining rapidly throughout Britain and remains on the “red” list of birds of conservation concern.
Large numbers of migrant waders passed through during the month on their way north to their Arctic breeding grounds, with peak counts at Gott Bay of 180 Ringed Plover (28th), 315 Dunlin (20th) and 700 Sanderling (21st). Four different colour-ringed Sanderling were identified with ringed birds coming from both Ghana and Iceland, and including three birds that had been seen on Tiree in previous years. A late Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Caoles (27th) had been colour-ringed in County Kerry in Ireland in April and carried a radio transmitter. Groups of Great Northern Divers gathered in the bays as they moulted into their breeding finery before heading north to their breeding grounds in Arctic Canada, whilst 10 Whooper Swans decided not to risk the hazardous flight up to Iceland and instead opted to spend the summer on sunny Tiree.
Three complete night-time counts of calling male Corncrakes around the island were conducted during the month. The counts revealed a preliminary total of 383 calling male Corncrakes, with birds calling in good numbers all over the island. This was very similar to the total of 389 birds in 2009, and the thriving population on Tiree now represents around a third of all the Corncrakes in Britain, making it increasingly important. Once again, this success is down to all the hard work put in over the years by the crofters and farmers of the island, who manage their land in a Corncrake-friendly way.
June saw a continuation of the extended dry spell, with sunny conditions and dry northerly winds predominating, causing many of the machairs to “burn” and turn brown. Many of the islands pools and marshes dried out during the month, which must have caused problems for some of the wetland birds, although as always, good numbers of young Lapwings, Dunlin, Redshank and Snipe were seen, together with perhaps even larger numbers than normal of young Oystercatchers. Duck broods were less easy to spot as many of their favoured brood-rearing pools were bone dry, but several broods of Shoveler and Teal were noted in amongst the more conspicuous broods of Mallard, Shelduck and Eider.
The seabirds also seem to be having another reasonable breeding year so far with good numbers of sand-eels brought into the colonies throughout the month. Numbers of nesting Little Terns were down overall on the island but they fared well with good numbers of chicks fledging from the main colony, although a second colony failed completely, possibly due to high tides. Other seabirds such as Arctic Tern, Guillemot and Fulmar were all still brooding good numbers of small young at the end of June so we need to wait until July to see how many young they manage to fledge. Kittiwake numbers on the other hand dropped again at Ceann a’ Mhara, with less than half the pairs bothering to lay eggs. At least 2 Puffins hung around the cliffs at Ceann a’ Mhara once more, although it is not clear if they nested this year, following on from the first successful breeding in 2009. Shags once again had another good breeding season, with some 108 nests at Ceann a’ Mhara and large numbers of young fledged or were close to fledging at the end of June. The gulls fared less well, with reduced numbers of nesting pairs of most species in the scattered breeding colonies producing only small numbers of chicks. Numbers of breeding Sand Martins increased yet again this year with perhaps as many as 120 pairs breeding in sandy banks around the western half of the island. New breeding species for the island this month included a pair of Chiffchaffs at Balephuil and a pair of Common Redpolls at Carnan Mor.
June often brings the odd surprise late migrant and this year the highlights were a Pectoral Sandpiper briefly at The Reef (10th) and an adult Long-tailed Skua at Sorobaidh Bay (25th). Other scarce migrants included a Marsh Harrier at Loch Bhasapol (3rd), a Little Stint at Loch a’ Phuill (4th), a Short-eared Owl at Balinoe (1st), 4 Swifts at Gott Bay (26th) and a late run of Woodpigeon records in West Tiree, although 2 quail photographed feeding along the roadsides at Kenovay (6th) proved to be escaped Japanese Quail rather than the migratory wild species.
The Corncrakes continued to call all over the island during the month. The finalised count total this year for the island was 391 calling males, which was very similar to the 2009 figure of 389 birds. The weather was reasonably good throughout July following on from a very dry spring, so hopefully breeding success will again be high, thanks once more to all the Corncrake friendly techniques employed by the island’s crofters and farmers.
Given the absence of gales or prolonged spells of heavy rain, it was generally a reasonably good breeding season for most of our birds. The waders, gulls and starlings all produced lots of young, with large mixed flocks building up once more on the first cut silage fields. Wildfowl did less well given the very dry conditions in April and May, but many broods of Mute Swan, Mallard, Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser and Shoveler were still noted on the island’s wetlands, as well as one Tufted Duck brood at Loch Bhasapol, plus dozens of Greylag broods on the lochs. Pintail fledglings were again noted although no young Gadwalls were observed this year, despite 3-4 pairs being present in June. Seabirds benefited as last year from a reasonable abundance of sandeels throughout the month and 22 Little Terns plus dozens of Arctic Terns fledged from colonies around the island. The other seabirds had more mixed results: Shags produced lots of young as always and Guillemots fledged around 290 young at Ceann a’ Mhara. However, numbers of young Fulmars in their nests dropped steadily through the month, Razorbills produced very few chicks and the 305 pairs of Kittiwake at Ceann a’ Mhara managed to fledge just 20 chicks between them. Better news came from Balephuil, where the island’s first ever nesting pair of Chiffchaffs fledged 4 young and a territorial pair of Greenfinches looks set to nest, although the Common Redpoll nest at nearby Carnan Mor appeared to be unsuccessful.
July is generally not a good month for scarcer migrants, as birds are mostly still on their breeding grounds. However, failed breeders and younger birds started moving once more during the month and there were a few notable records. Best birds were an immature Sea Eagle at Loch Bhasapol (17th) and a juvenile Marsh Harrier at Loch a’ Phuill (21st-31st), whilst there was a long-staying Woodpigeon at Balephuil (4th-21st). Return wader passage was rather slow but included a Ruff at Loch a’ Phuill (7th), 30 early Golden Plovers at Sandaig (15th), 120 Sanderling at Gott Bay (26th), a Whimbrel over Ben Hynish (30th), 8 Black-tailed Godwits at Loch a’ Phuill (30th) and some 10 Greenshanks daily on the larger lochs (from 7th). At least seven Whooper Swans, four Great Northern Divers and a lone Barnacle Goose summered on the island, whilst the first Hen Harrier, a fine male, returned to The Reef (29th). Offshore, there were increasing sightings of Storm Petrels, Arctic Skuas and Great Skuas, together with good numbers of Basking Sharks and regular pods of Harbour Porpoises, including a freshly dead adult of the latter species at Balephetrish Bay.
A handful of Corncrakes continued to call in the first week of the month at various places around the island and there were several reports of adult birds and broods seen during the month. With the weather staying reasonably dry and settled until September, the birds will hopefully have had another good breeding season.
August was largely warm and dry with occasional overnight rain and mostly light winds. The month marks the end of the breeding season for most birds on the island, with flocks of adults and juveniles of several species building up once more. Gatherings of over 100 Swallows on the wires marked the preparation of their southwards migration next month, whilst over 100 Sand Martins hawked over Loch a’ Phuill on wetter days as the birds focussed on storing up food for their migration to Africa. Big flocks of Lapwings, gulls and locally-reared Starlings feasted on invertebrates exposed on the freshly cut silage fields, and these were joined by Golden Plovers and Curlews migrating to the island from their breeding sites further north. Careful searching of these flocks revealed smaller numbers of scarcer species such as Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff and Whimbrel.
Coastal waders were also on the move with large flocks of Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin returning to the beaches. Checks of the Sanderling revealed nine different colour-ringed birds, including seven, which had been ringed in Iceland, one from Portugal and one from Ghana. In the largely settled conditions, there were no major rarities in the flocks and indeed scarce migrants remained exactly that – scarce! The best birds were a juvenile Little Gull off Aird (11th), a Grey Plover at Gott Bay (31st) and an early Spotted Flycatcher at Balephuil (19th). Offshore, numbers of Basking Sharks remained very high throughout the month with regular sightings of shoals of up to 30 sharks from all around the coast, although a count of around 100 sharks from the ferry between Coll and Tiree at the end of the month, must have been quite a sight. There were several records of sharks seen jumping clean out of the water, which apparently is linked to mating activity and highlights the importance of the island’s coastal waters for this spectacular animal.
There was the usual late summer influx of Merlins, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers, none of which breed on the island, but which come here to feed on the abundant birdlife over the winter. Sadly, a juvenile Peregrine was found dead at Moss, which a post mortem revealed had died from a flying collision with overhead wires. Unfortunately, flying accidents seems to be a rather common cause of death for young birds of this fast-flying species, with at least five such deaths noted in recent years on the island.
September is always an exciting month for migrants on Tiree but no-one was prepared for the shock discovery of the Northern Parula at Carnan Mor on 25th – the first ever Scottish record of this brightly coloured North American warbler! Fortunately, the bird remained in a small area of bushes for five days and proved popular, attracting some 75 birders to visit the island to see it – Tiree’s first major “twitch”. With so many birders on the island, it was inevitable that other interesting migrants would be found, and these included a Common Rosefinch at Scarinish (28th), a Short-toed Lark at Sandaig (from 30th), a Turtle Dove at Balevullin (28th) and some 4-7 mobile Buff-breasted Sandpipers, which put in appearances at Ruaig, The Reef and Sandaig. The latter presumably came in on westerly winds, which would have brought them across the Atlantic from their North American home. Similar conditions were probably also responsible for the Pectoral Sandpipers at Greenhill (13th) and Loch a’ Phuill (20th), which also breed in the Canadian Arctic, whilst SE winds at the start of the month brought up to 5 Black Terns to Loch a’ Phuill and Loch Bhasapol (9th-16th) and a long-staying Pied Flycatcher to Balephuil (2nd-11th).
Each autumn is different on the island and this year, the main event was an unprecedented influx of Lapland Buntings, in common with similar events on the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles. Typically, we are lucky to see a handful of these plump Arctic-nesting buntings each autumn, but for some reason this year, there were flocks of up to 50 birds scattered around the island for all of the month, feeding on seed-heads on the machair. Peak counts were 48 at Hough Bay (5th), 30 at Sandaig (8th), 17 at Cornaigmore (11th) and 29 at The Reef (30th), but with odd birds seen all over the island and groups of birds moving through all month and into October, it is likely that several hundred birds were involved.
Smaller birds were also on the move, with the gardens playing host to a mix of more common migrants such as Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Goldcrest, Spotted Flycatcher, Greenfinch and Sedge Warbler, plus the first Robins and the odd Dunnock. Less common migrants included a Whinchat at Balephuil (2nd), a Garden Warbler at Carnan Mor (26th) and up to 18 Common Redpolls at various locations. A Redwing at Vaul (3rd) was extremely early, whilst the first 6 Snow Buntings were at Sandaig (26th). Other winter migrants passing through included the first 28 Pale-bellied Brent (14th), 150+ Pink-footed Geese (from 17th), 2 early Greenland White-fronts at Kilmoluaig (22nd) and 12 Whooper Swans over Carnan Mor (23rd). NW gales on 14th-16th brought bumper numbers of seabirds off the north coast including 2 adult Sabine’s Gulls, 56 Sooty Shearwaters, 49 Leach’s Petrels, 2 Long-tailed Skuas, 2 Pomarine Skuas and a record count of 77 Great Skuas. Wader interest included an influx of at least 15 Curlew Sandpipers (from 5th), 6 Little Stints (from 7th), 7 Whimbrel and a good showing of up to 25 Ruff, although pride of place must go to the largely all-white Oystercatcher found at Scarinish – a bizarre-looking bird! Owls are always rare on Tiree, but this month, two species were seen, including a Short-eared Owl at Milton (17th) and a Barn Owl at Balephuil (30th).
October is a month of change on the island, with the last of the summer visitors heading off south to Africa and the first mass arrivals of winter visitors from further north. With so many birds on the move, it is always a good month for spotting more unusual birds and this year was no exception, helped by the watchful presence of islanders and visiting birdwatchers alike. Weather-wise, there were many calm mild days interspersed with wet and windy periods as Atlantic fronts rolled through, although it became noticeably colder at the month-end.
Bird of the month was a brightly-coloured Firecrest at Balephuil, the first record for Tiree. This close relative of the Goldcrest is usually rare in western Scotland but the appearance of this bird coincided with two more on The Outer Hebrides, presumably an influx from Scandinavia on the back of easterly winds. This also tied in with the appearance of other rare eastern visitors including a Bluethroat at Balemartine (5th), a Short-toed Lark at Sandaig (2nd-7th), a female Yellow Wagtail at Vaul (9th), a Barred Warbler at Vaul (7th-9th) and 3 Yellow-browed Warblers involving singles at Balephuil (11th-12th and 23rd-24th) and at Kenovay (12th). Other scarcities included a Turtle Dove at Balevullin (1st-2nd), Pied Flycatchers at Cornaigmore (11th) and Carnan Mor (24th), a Lesser Whitethroat at Vaul (20th), no less than 14 Curlew Sandpipers, 14 Grey Phalaropes and a late Little Stint at Sorobaidh Bay (23rd-25th). More unexpected however, was a lone Dipper on the outlet stream from Loch a’ Phuill (16th), just the second record for Tiree of this usually sedentary species. These rarer birds were picked out from larger numbers of commoner migrants such as Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Goldcrest, which passed through at the same time. The unprecedented influx of Lapland Buntings from September continued through the month with a further 400 birds noted including a peak count of 160 at The Reef (13th), whilst there was a rapid flurry of Waxwing records with some 60 birds through (23rd-26th). Shorebirds from North America are more or less expected now in October and there were some 4 Buff-breasted Sandpipers with up to 2 at The Reef (4th-8th), 1 at Ruaig (3rd) and 1 at Heylipol (5th) and up to 3 Pectoral Sandpipers including 2 at Heylipol (5th) and 1 at Ruaig (10th).
Young birds of prey tend to wader more in their first autumn than adults and as a result Tiree saw a number of unusual raptors this month, including a young Osprey, which was first noted roosting near the Power Station (6th) and then frequented west Tiree until 9th, a wing-tagged Red Kite at Carnan Mor (10th) and up to 2 immature Golden Eagles in West Tiree (from 9th). Goose passage was particularly pronounced this year with some 950 Pale-bellied Brent noted passing over the island (4th-8th),1,030 Pinkfeet (10th-15th) and 5,500 Banacle Geese (13th-16th), plus the first of the Greenland White-fronts (from 15th) and Whooper Swans (from 7th), with 180 of the latter at Loch a’ Phuill (23rd). To add to the wintry feel, there was an influx of hundreds of Redwings (from 9th), plus dozens of Fieldfares (from 11th), Bramblings (from 10th), Siskins (from 17th) and Snow Buntings (from 7th), although the lone Mistle Thrushes in amongst the thrush flocks at West Hynish (11th) and Balephuil (24th) were more unusual for the island.
November began wet and mild with some heavy rain and gales, but colder drier weather set in over the last week, with widespread heavy frost and a sprinkling of snow. Some late summer migrants remained at the start of the month in the milder conditions including a very late Corncrake at Heylipol (1st) and a Swallow at Sorobaidh Bay (4th-5th), whilst there were 3 Blackcaps through (to 14th) and 4 Chiffchaffs (to 20th) including a calling Siberian-race bird at Balemartine (14th). Late rarities included a male Black Redstart at Hough (1st), a Long-eared Owl at Balephuil (20th – see photo) and a Tawny Owl reported from Barrapol (4th), whilst a drake Green-winged Teal from North America turned up amongst the hundreds of Teal at Loch a’ Phuill (7th) and remained there for the rest of the month.
Unusual birds of prey included a sub-adult Golden Eagle which soared over Ben Hynish and Beinn Hough (5th), followed by a 1st-winter Sea Eagle at Loch a’ Phuill (28th) and at Balephuil the next day, where it was joined by a Short-eared Owl (29th). Both eagles were mobbed remorselessly by Buzzards, Hen Harriers and Ravens, which may have explained why they both quickly moved on. More typical winter visitors included at least 17 Snow Buntings scattered around the island, 3 Lapland Buntings at Balephetish (15th) with another at Ben Hynish (21st), up to 4 Pied Wagtails, 3 Dunnocks, a dozen Goldfinches, plus 2 Woodcock at Ben Hynish (21st) and the first Glaucous Gull of the winter at Sorobaidh Bay (7th). All-island surveys of our wintering birds (15th-16th) found rather low totals of 1,801 Barnacle Geese, 2,743 Greylags, 3,625 Golden Plovers and 2,125 Lapwings, although numbers of Greenland White-fronts were up at 898 birds and there were 151 Whooper Swans. More unusual geese involved 9 scattered Pink-footed Geese including 3 together at Barrapol (16th), a large-race Canada Goose with 4 Canada x Greylag hybrids at Greenhill (16th), plus a Pale-bellied Brent Geese amongst the Barnacle Geese at Balephetrish.
Flocks of winter wildfowl steadily increased on the lochs and floods during the month and as always these included some scarcer fare. A Great Northern Diver at Loch a’ Phuill (10th-16th) was a very rare freshwater record of this normally marine species. Scarcer ducks included single Scaup at Loch an Eilein (4th) and Loch Bhasapol (10th), plus a lone Pochard at Loch a’ Phuill (7th) and 3 Gadwall at Loch an Eilein (10th), whilst a juvenile Common Scoter was with the Long-tailed Duck flock at Hough Bay (6th) and numbers of Shelducks built up once more in sheltered spots around the coast. A single Coot returned to Loch a’ Phuill (from 23rd) and there were Little Grebes at Loch Bhasapol (6th) and Loch an Eilein (22nd).
The gales resulted in several Grey Seal pups being washed ashore, together with a couple of dead Trigger Fish at Gott Bay and the tag of a Blue-finned Tuna at Balephetrish Bay!
The unusually cold and dry weather that set in at the end of November, continued into December, creating an extended period of freezing conditions with light snow cover for much of the month. There was a thaw on Christmas Eve but cold weather returned towards the New Year, making this the coldest December in Scotland since records began. The prolonged freezing weather caused problems for many of our wintering birds. Grassland waders such as Lapwing and Golden Plover found it difficult to probe for food in the frozen fields and marshes forcing some to the shore to feed along the beaches, which remained unfrozen, whilst many others left the island with numbers dropping from around 2,125 Lapwing and 3,600 Golden Plover in November to just a few hundred of each. Large numbers of Snipe plus the odd Woodcock moved out of the frozen marshes to feed in gardens and along road-sides, whilst even the usually elusive Water Rails were reported from several gardens. Far more unusual however was a Corncrake at Balephuil (4th). This bird appeared to have a damaged wing, which may account for its failure to migrate. Many smaller birds also left the island during the month in search of better foraging conditions elsewhere with only a handful of Redwings and Meadow Pipits, for example, remaining by the month end. Finches on the other hand, remained in good numbers with scattered groups of up to 50 Twite, 12 Greenfinch, 12 Goldfinch and 3 Chaffinch.
Winter scarcities included at least 6 Lapland Buntings that lingered from the autumn influx, a Barn Owl at Balephuil (10th), a Tawny Owl at Barrapol (21st), a Short-eared Owl at Balephuil (7th) and a Little Auk in Gunna Sound (30th). For much of the month, the main lochs were frozen hard, except for tiny ice-free holes kept open by feeding groups of swans. Wildfowl remained mostly packed into these holes, although some species such as Goldeneye moved to the sea to feed in sheltered bays, where they were joined by large numbers of Great Northern Divers. Scarcer waterbirds included 3 Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd) with 4 Gadwall there (2nd), 8 Long-tailed Ducks at Hough Bay (4th), up to 3 Coots, a Knot at Sorobaidh Bay (5th) and 2 Grey Plovers at Balephetrish Bay. A goose count (13th-14th) found reduced totals of 2,556 Greylags, 3,029 Barnacle Geese, 632 Greenland White-fronted Geese and 6 Pink-footed Geese, together with a high count of 234 Whooper Swans.
Freezing weather causes big problems for small birds as it renders the ground too hard for them to probe for worms and insects. Regular feeding with seeds and bread, plus provision of fresh water, provides a lifeline for regular garden birds such as House Sparrow, Blackbird, Robin and Song Thrush and may attract usually more wary birds such as Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Reed Bunting and even Water Rail. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 29-30 January will provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.