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 on - 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 brought some periods of wet and windy weather whilst March was mostly dry and settled with warmer temperatures but also the odd spell of heavier rain towards the month-end.
In the generally mild and settled conditions, migrants were rather early to return. Increasing numbers of Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls returned from late February, and large numbers of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits returned to the beaches and rich grasslands during the period. Single Blackcaps at Balephuil (23 March) and Kilkenneth (24 March) were the earliest on record for the island, whilst there was a typical spring influx of half a dozen Goldcrests (from 24 March) and 2-3 Chiffchaffs (from 27 March), plus the first Wheatear at Port Ban (20 March). Skylarks began singing on warmer days, Snipe began drumming from the marshes once more (from 4 March) and Lapwings were noted with eggs by mid-March, all signs that spring had started.
There were a number of interesting scarcities during the period. The long-staying Scaup remained at Loch a’ Phuill for much of February whilst up to two all-white Glaucous Gulls graced the west end of the island in March. A pair of Bean Geese seen flying NW at Carnan Mor (26 March) were the first confirmed record for Tiree, but almost as rare was a brief singing Blue Tit at Balephuil (22 March). A flock of 8 large-race Canada Geese at Kenovay (14 March) was the largest group yet seen on the island. Scarcities in February included 2 Grey Plovers at Caoles (28th), 2 Fieldfares at at Loch a’ Phuill (3rd) and lone Dunnocks at Balephuil and Baugh, whilst the Long-tailed Duck flock at Hough Bay peaked at 21 (10th). Scarcities in March included a Fieldfare at Balephuil (28th), Dunnocks at Hynish (5th) and Balephuil (28th-31st) and 2 Goldfinches at Balephuil (18th). The mid-March goose count found a very high count of 4,190 Barnacle Geese, plus 880 Greenland White-fronts and 5 Pink-footed Geese, whilst Greylag numbers remained down a little at 2,276. Whooper Swans were on the move during the period with 71 noted flying north on 24 March, whilst Golden Plover numbers built up once more as they staged on their way to Iceland with 2,200 at The Reef (28 March). A long-dead Pilot Whale was washed ashore at Scarinish and several lost seal pups were noted following periods of high tides.
The weekend of 26th-27th 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. Encouragingly only low numbers of dead seabirds were encountered, suggesting that the lack of winter gales may have reduced seabird mortality this year, although there was also some evidence of an oiling incident off the west coast of the island involving a small number of Guillemots.
April was dominated by high pressure with light SE winds, much sunshine and very little rain. The warm temperatures encouraged many migrant birds to arrive a little earlier than normal, whilst others such as Lapwings and Greylags also started breeding earlier.
April is a very busy month for migration and Tiree is an important staging post for many species heading to breeding sites further north. Scattered flocks of up to 100 Black-tailed Godwits in their brick-red breeding dress stopped off for a few days to feed around the lochs (8th-27th) and included colour-ringed birds from both wintering sites in southern England and breeding sites in Iceland. There was also an arrival of some 300 Pale-bellied Brent Geese around the coast (15th-21st), including birds that had been ringed at their wintering sites in Ireland and on staging areas in Iceland. Golden Plover numbers built up at their traditional staging area at The Reef to at least 5,000 birds (12th) and were joined briefly by a trip of 14 Dotterel (19th), the largest flock ever recorded in Argyll. Most of the Greenland geese departed early in the first two weeks of April, although there were 4 late Barnacle Geese at Loch Bhasapol (21st) and two late Greenland White-fronts at The Reef (26th), plus a scattering of lone Pink-footed Geese and at least 13 Whooper Swans at the end of the month.
April rarities included a 1st-winter Bonaparte’s Gull at Gott Bay (see photo), the first record of this small North American Gull for the island and only the second for Argyll. Other good spring birds included two juvenile Glaucous Gulls together at Traigh Bhi (17th), a hybrid Glaucous x Herring Gull at Gott Bay (7th), a drake Garganey at Loch a’ Phuill (21st-24th), a female Redstart at Carnan Mor (16th), a male Ring Ouzel at The Reef (26th), a Brambling at Carnan Mor (30th), single Lapland Buntings at Balephetrish (11th) and Traigh nan Gilean (12th) plus 2 including a summer plumaged male at Loch a’ Phuill (24th), a male Ruff at The Reef (4th-5th), an early Woodpigeon at Balephuil (4th), a Barn Owl at Heylipol (5th-8th) and single Lesser Redpolls at Balephuil (10th and 21st) followed by 2 at Carnan Mor (24th). There was an unprecedented spring influx of up to 12 Blackcaps (from 9th) and Sand Martins (record count of 550 on 27th) plus good numbers of both White Wagtails and Greenland Wheatears. A colour-ringed Pied Wagtail observed at Sandaig (12th) had been ringed at Slapton Ley, Devon in September 2009 and is believed to have wintered in Portugal.
Arrivals of spring visitors were mostly early and almost all of the regular breeding migrants were back by the end of the month. Following early arrivals of Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Wheatears in March, April arrivals included Swallow (2nd), Sand Martin (4th), White Wagtail (5th), Manx Shearwater (7th), Great Skua (7th), Willow Warbler (9th), House Martin (10th), Little Tern (11th), Whimbrel (18th), Arctic Tern (21st), Sedge Warbler (21st), Grasshopper Warbler (21st), Whitethroat (28th), Whinchat (30th) and Cuckoo (30th). Lapwing chicks were observed from mid-month and were widespread by the month end, whilst Corncrakes returned from 14th with some 50 scattered males back by 30th. Many smaller birds took advantage of the good weather with early nests seen of Blackbirds, Stonechats and Linnets.
May brought a real mix of weather. The start of the month saw the dry spell from April continuing with high pressure and SE winds but SW and W winds then predominated bringing a lot rain plus an unusually severe gale on 23rd.
Corncrakes were widely reported from all over the island during the month and the early signs are of good numbers in most areas. The annual night-time census rounds started in June and these will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 391 calling males in 2010.
The breeding birds must have been hit hard by the stormy weather. Several Little Tern nests for example were washed out in the heavy rain, whilst parents would have struggled to both keep chicks fed and warm during the wet and windy conditions. However, there were good numbers of young Lapwings close to fledging around the island at the end of the month together with the first of the Oystercatcher broods, whilst several Redshank and Ringed Plover broods were also noted. A fledged brood of 5 Stonechats was a welcome sight at Carnan Mor, as numbers of this species were greatly reduced by the severe winter weather in December, whilst more unusual for Tiree were fledged broods of Greenfinches at both Balephuil and Scarinish, the first on the island for several years. More typical was the synchronised fledging of hundreds of young Starlings around the island, which occurred as always in the last two days of May, possibly timed to coincide with the annual mass emergence of a particular beetle on the machair. This beetle provides an abundance of food for a wide range of birds including hundreds of gulls which come inland at this time to make the most of this brief bonanza. Large numbers of Arctic Terns also returned to their scattered colonies with many birds on eggs at the end 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.
The SE winds in early May brought a succession of scarce migrant birds to Tiree including a Brambling and a Whinchat at Balephuil (1st), a Wood Sandpiper at Sandaig (1st), a male Lapland Bunting at Heylipol Church (1st-9th), an adult Little Egret at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd), a male Redstart at Kilkenneth (2nd), a Garden Warbler at Balephuil (2nd), a Wood Warbler at Carnan Mor (3rd) and a male Blue-headed Wagtail at Loch a’ Phuill (5th). Other good birds included a female Red-necked Phalarope feeding with Sanderling at Gott Bay (11th), a sub-adult Golden Eagle in the Moss area (2nd-9th), an adult Yellow-legged Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (9th), a wandering female Marsh Harrier (9th-11th), 8 Dotterel at Tiree Airport (17th), 2-3 Common Redpolls at Carnan Mor (19th and 30th) and a splendid storm-driven adult Sabine’s Gull at Sandaig (23rd). Cuckoos were again scarce this year, with just single birds heard calling at Cornaigmore, Heylipol Church and Carnan Mor (from 1st).
Large numbers of migrant waders passed through during the month on their way north to their Arctic breeding grounds, with peaks of 2,200 Sanderling and 1,200 Dunlin at Gott Bay (11th), 330 Ringed Plover at Loch a’ Phuill (3rd) and some 135 Whimbrel including 35 north on 17th. 21 different colour-ringed Sanderling were identified with ringed birds coming from Ghana, Portugal, Spain and France on their way north to their breeding grounds in Greenland, although less expected was a bird at Hough Bay that had been ringed in Poland in September.
Three complete night-time counts of calling male Corncrakes around the island were conducted during the month. The counts revealed a preliminary total of 380 calling male Corncrakes, with birds calling in good numbers all over the island. This was very similar to the total of 391 birds in 2010, 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.
After the unseasonal gales in May, June remained rather unsettled with few calm warm days. There was frequent light rain, particularly at night, which kept water levels topped up in the island’s pools and marshes and as a result, the breeding wetland waders did well with good numbers produced of young Lapwing, Dunlin, Redshank and Snipe, as well as Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher broods on the drier ground and on the beaches. Duck broods were hard to spot as they had a wealth of pools in which to hide, but odd broods of Gadwall and Tufted Duck were noted in amongst the more obvious broods of Mallard, Shelduck and Eider.
The seabirds are having a mixed breeding year. The storms in May flooded out many nests, but those that kept going were rewarded with an apparently good supply of sand-eels throughout June and into July. Little Tern nests were particularly badly affected by the storms but most pairs laid replacement clutches and fingers crossed they might yet have a reasonable breeding season. Arctic Terns, which nest later than the Little Terns, largely missed the storms and for once fledged young before their smaller cousins. Some Arctic Tern colonies appear to have produced good numbers of flying young, whilst others failed, presumably as a result of variation in local food supply. Guillemots and Fulmars 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 dropped once again at Ceann a’ Mhara, a decline of over 75% since 2000, although the 200 pairs that remained had good numbers of chicks at the end of June. Numbers of nesting Shags were also slightly down but again fledged good numbers of young towards the end of the month. The gulls also had mixed results. The main Black-headed Gull colony at Loch Bhasapol was disturbed by something (probably otters) and the parent birds took the unusual step of moving their small young well away from the loch onto open machair, where some 50 pairs managed to raise moderate numbers to fledging. Some Common Gull colonies appear to have failed completely, probably as a result of localised predation, whilst others, such as the large one behind An Talla, successfully produced large numbers of young. Numbers of breeding Sand Martins increased further this year with perhaps as many as 200 pairs breeding in sandy banks around the western half of the island – it is hard to imagine that this species only started recolonising the island in 2001. Scarce breeding species for the island this month included a pair of Chiffchaffs at Balephuil and pairs of Common Redpolls at two sites.
June often brings the odd rare late migrant and this year the highlights were a singing male Scarlet Rosefinch at Balephuil (8th-9th) – although sadly it was an all-brown immature bird (see photo), a Dark-bellied Brent Goose with a Pale-bellied Brent at Gott Bay (2nd), a Tree Pipit at Carnan Mor (8th) and a calling Quail at The Reef (27th).Other scarce migrants included up to 2 roving sub-adult Golden Eagles (14th-18th), a Little Stint at Loch a’ Phuill (9th-10th), a Crossbill at Balephuil (12th), followed by a Siskin there (18th-19th) and a late run of Woodpigeon records in West Tiree.
Corncrakes continued to call all over the island during the month. The finalised count total this year for the island was 385 calling males, which was very similar to the 2010 figure of 391 birds. The weather was mostly good throughout July, 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.
Most of our birds seem to have had a reasonably good breeding season, although numbers of young raised were no doubt knocked back by the gales in late May. Mute Swans for example only managed to rear two broods totalling 7 young from at least 11 nesting pairs in April. The waders, gulls and starlings all appeared to produce plenty of young, with large mixed flocks building up once more on the first cut silage fields. Wildfowl also did well given the wet spring and many broods of Mallard, Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser, Pintail and Tufted Duck were noted on the island’s wetlands, as well as a Gadwall brood at Kilmoluaig and a fledged Shoveler brood at The Reef. The total number of Greylag broods was down on previous years as a result of the on-going goose management scheme, although many broods were still to be seen at their favoured lochs. As in 2010, seabirds benefited from an abundance of sandeels throughout the month and 32 Little Terns plus over 100 Arctic Terns fledged from colonies around the island. The other seabirds had mixed results: at Ceann a’ Mhara, Shags produced a fair number of young as always, as did the Razorbills, whilst Guillemots fledged some 260+ young. However, numbers of young Fulmars in their nests dropped steadily through the month, whilst the very low count of 200 pairs of Kittiwake at Ceann a’ Mhara managed to fledge a respectable total of 205 chicks. Smaller birds also appeared to do well, with many scattered families seen around the island of Linnet, Twite, Sedge Warbler and Wheatear. Scarcer species also did well - a pair of Chiffchaffs fledged 4 young for the second year at Balephuil, Greenfinches fledged young at 4 sites and Common Redpolls fledged young at 2 sites.
July is not normally 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. The most unusual sighting was that of a juvenile Blackcap at Balephuil (4th), the first mid-summer record of this species from the island and presumably a wandering youngster from the increasing population on the Argyll mainland. Other good birds included an adult Sea Eagle at Traigh Bhi (12th), the long-staying Golden Eagle again at Ceann a’ Mhara (23rd) and an early Sooty Shearwater off the south of the island (20th).
Return wader passage picked up during the month and included 5 Whimbrel (from 11th), 4 Common Sandpipers (from 13th), 13 Black-tailed Godwits (from 13th), 121 Sanderling at Gott Bay (18th), a Ruff at Loch a’ Phuill (28th) and up to 10 Greenshanks daily on the larger lochs (from 20th). Up to 10 Whooper Swans, two Great Northern Divers, 2 Pink-footed Geese and a lone Barnacle Goose summered on the island, whilst 3 Hen Harriers, including a fine male, returned (from 19th). Offshore, there were moderate numbers of Basking Sharks all around the coast, regular pods of Harbour Porpoises and occasional exciting sightings of Orcas.
A few Corncrakes continued to call at various places around the island with the last calling birds later than normal well into the second week of the month. There were several reports of adult birds and broods so hopefully they should have had another good breeding season.
August was largely warm with mostly light winds and moderate rainfall which kept the grassland green and the machairs full of flowers. As the breeding season came to a close once more, flocks of adults and juvenile birds of many species began building up prior to migrating south. Big flocks of Lapwings, gulls and Starlings feasted on invertebrates in the freshly cut silage fields, and these were joined by Golden Plovers, Curlews, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff migrating to the island from their breeding sites further north. Feeding groups of up to 100 Swallows gathered over longer grassland and flocks of up to 60 Sand Martins hawked over the lochs on wetter days as the birds focussed on storing up food for their migrations to Africa.
Large flocks of migrant waders also built up on the beaches with hundreds of Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin passing through. In amongst them were a few scarcer waders including groups of up to 10 Knot, a Spotted Redshank at Hynish (8th), plus the odd Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, but more unexpected was an adult White-rumped Sandpiper at Gott Bay (4th – see photo). This was the first ever record of this North American wader from Tiree. Checks of the Sanderling revealed seven different colour-ringed birds, including six, which had been ringed on spring migration in SW Iceland and one from the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. There were also increasing numbers of smaller birds on the move including obvious influxes of wagtails and wheatears, a couple of late Swifts (10th and 13th), a Crossbill at Carnan Mor (11th) plus a Wood Warbler at Balephuil (30th), which proved to be the latest ever record of this species from Argyll. Offshore, there were regular sightings of small numbers of Basking Sharks from all around the coast, whilst a small pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins frequented Crossapol Bay for a couple of days.
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, whilst an adult Sea Eagle was reported from Gott (28th). The post-breeding goose count (31st-1st) found the Greylag total a little down in numbers at 2,236 birds although the proportion of young remained high at 33%. The count also found 2 Pink-footed Geese, 1 Canada Goose and 4 Canada x Greylag Goose hybrids in West Tiree, plus totals of 2,235 Lapwing and 405 Golden Plover.
September is the month when large numbers of birds are on the move as they head south once more for the winter. Lying on the East Atlantic Flyway, Tiree is well placed to see migration in action as wildfowl and waders pass through from their Arctic breeding grounds, whilst strong winds from fast-moving Atlantic depressions often bring more unusual species to the island. With a very active hurricane season off the eastern seaboard of America during the month, winds were predominantly from the west and these brought bumper numbers of American waders to the island, part of a record influx to Britain and Ireland. These included an adult White-rumped Sandpiper at The Reef (15th), just the second record for the island following the first at Gott Bay in August, a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper at Sandaig (26th-27th), single juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Loch a’ Phuill (3rd) and Barrapol (29th), plus a scattering of up to 5 juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers (9th-27th).
Easterly winds on the back of the depressions however brought the rarest bird to the island when a Blyth’s Reed Warbler appeared at Balephuil (19th-26th). This small brown warbler is very similar to the more widespread Common Reed Warbler but is subtly different in shape and plumage. It breeds in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe and normally winters in India, so it was well off course! Equally lost was an exotic-looking Hoopoe at Balemartine in wet and windy conditions (30th), which quickly realised the error of its ways and moved on. Other wanderers from Continental Europe included a Nightingale at Vaul (3rd-8th), juvenile Common Rosefinches at Balephuil (19th-24th and 30th), a juvenile Dotterel at Ruaig (25th-26th) and an Osprey at Moss (13th). There was no replay of the Lapland Bunting invasion that occurred last autumn and instead there was a more typical showing of just 3 birds (from 19th), whilst the first 4 Snow Buntings were seen (from 25th).
NW gales on 7th-14th brought high numbers of seabirds off the north coast including 6 juvenile Sabine’s Gulls, 46 Sooty Shearwaters, 28 Leach’s Petrels, 8 Storm Petrels, 2 Pomarine Skuas, 48 Arctic Skuas and some 94 Great Skuas in amongst hundreds of Gannets, Kittiwakes, Manx Shearwaters, auks and Arctic Terns, whilst there was a Grey Phalarope off Soa (28th). Wader interest included an influx of at least 45 Curlew Sandpipers, 5 Little Stints, 10 Whimbrel, 31 Black-tailed Godwits and a record influx of Ruff including a group of 33 at Loch a’ Phuill (18th).
Large numbers of smaller birds were also on the move, with the gardens and other areas of cover attracting common migrants such as Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Sedge Warbler, Goldcrest and Greenfinch, plus the first Robins and the odd Dunnock. Less common migrants included a very late Grasshopper Warbler at Balephuil (15th), Garden Warblers at Balephuil (2nd) and Vaul (4th), a late Whitethroat at Balephuil (24th-25th) and up to 4 Common Redpolls. Small numbers of Corncrakes, Sand Martins and Swallows hung on to the end of the month whilst winter migrants passing through included the first 12 Pale-bellied Brent (from 18th) and 13 Whooper Swans at Loch a’ Phuill (16th), although no Redwings had been seen by the month-end. Winter raptors such as Hen Harrier, Merlin and Kestrel were also back in force, whilst the lone sub-adult Golden Eagle lingered around West Tiree.
October continued where September left off, with strong winds, heavy rainfall and rather mild conditions for much of the month as further Atlantic depressions rolled through from the west. The month sees the final departure of many of Tiree’s summer visitors followed by the arrival of winter migrants and is often the best month of the year for finding rare birds on the island. Excellent coverage was achieved this year by visiting birders and sharp-eyed resident alike resulting in the discovery of three new species for the island.
By far the rarest bird was a Brown Shrike at Balephuil (see photo), which appeared during SE winds on 22nd and then stayed well into November. This rare shrike breeds in Siberia and normally winters in India and tropical SE Asia, so gale-bound Tiree must have come as a quite shock to this individual, although it appeared to find rich feeding in the form of dung-beetles and the occasional mouse. This bird was judged to be in its first-winter plumage and will be only the fifth record for Scotland if confirmed. Surprisingly, this was not the only shrike on Tiree this month, since a 1st-winter Red-backed Shrike was found at Kilkenneth (9th-11th), just the third Tiree record of this more widespread European species. Other eastern migrants filtered through whenever the wind switched from the west and included a male Redstart at Cornaigbeg (13th-15th), a Pied Flycatcher at Carnan Mor (14th-15th), a Turtle Dove at Sandaig (17th), a Black Redstart at Hynish (25th-26th) and a Yellow-browed Warbler at Balephuil (26th). Also from the east were late Curlew Sandpipers at The Green (24th), Sandaig (26th-31st) and Loch a’ Phuill (28th) plus some 18 Ruff with 1 remaining to 31st. Other island scarcities included a Slavonian Grebe at Hynish (5th) a Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (23rd-26th) with a drake Pochard there (15th-27th), a Short-eared Owl at Balephuil (19th), a Coal Tit at The Glebe (9th-11th), up to 20 Common Redpolls and a Jackdaw at Scarinish (27th).
The predominant westerly winds brought more American waders to the island with up to 3 juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers around West Tiree (to 14th), a mobile juvenile American Golden Plover (7th-27th) and better still an elusive juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs at Barrapol/Sandaig (15th-16th), the first ever record for Tiree if confirmed. The other new bird for Tiree was a splendid adult White-billed Diver in full summer plumage which flew west past Aird (18th) during strong NW winds amongst a strong passage of Great Northern Divers. Sea-watching from the north coast was very productive during spells of NW winds on the back of fast-moving depressions and resulted in totals of 3 juvenile Sabine’s Gulls, 17 Sooty Shearwaters (to 6th), 3 Storm Petrels, 10 Leach’s Petrels, 10 Pomarine Skuas, 32 Arctic Skuas, 71 Bonxies, a “blue-phase Fulmar (19th), 58 Arctic Terns and 2 Grey Phalaropes (18th).
Goose passage was fairly light this year, with most Barnacle Geese passing over the island at night (6th-12th) and just 120 Pale-bellied Brent noted passing through (2nd-17th), although rarities from the Arctic included a blue-phase Snow Goose at Cornaigmore (from 12th) and a Richardson’s-type Canada Goose with two medium-race birds at Balephetrish (from 26th). The first of the Greenland White-fronts were noted at The Reef (9th) with some 372 back around the island by 26th. Whooper Swans peaked at 138 at Loch a’ Phuill (15th) and brought with them a resplendent Black Swan that remained to the month-end. A juvenile Glaucous Gull at Barrapol (27th) was a sure sign of winter, as were influxes of hundreds of Redwings and Fieldfares in the last week of the month, accompanied by at least 8 Bramblings plus a bumper passage of some 85 Snow Buntings including a flock of 25 at Beinn Hough (9th).
November remained wet and mild with further heavy rain and frequent gales, although the winds swung round to the NW towards the end of the month bringing much colder air. The generally mild conditions encouraged some late summer migrants to hang on late. These included an exceptionally late Wheatear at Balinoe (22nd) together with 7 Blackcaps (to 21st), 3 Chiffchaffs (to 21st), a Coal Tit at the Glebe (1st) and 2 Mealy Redpolls at Baugh (3rd). Other unusually late migrants included a Curlew Sandpiper at Sandaig (to 7th), a Ruff at Loch a’ Phuill (4th), 2 Arctic Terns at Hynish (1st) and 3 Pomarine Skuas from the Tiree ferry (1st). The Brown Shrike remained at Balephuil from October and was last seen at Carnan Mor (20th). Strong SE winds at the start of the month brought two different egrets to the island – a Little Egret arrived on 5th and remained in the Barrapol area to 16th, whilst a much rarer Cattle Egret was seen at various locations in West Tiree (17th-25th). The latter bird lived up to its name and spent most of its time feeding on insects and frogs disturbed by foraging cattle and was just the second record of this southern European species for Argyll. Other rarities included a 1st-winter Ring-billed Gull from North America at Loch an Eilein (16th), the blue-phase Snow Goose in NW Tiree all month, a small-race Canada Goose with two medium-race birds at Balephetrish (1st) and the long-staying Black Swan at Loch a’ Phuill
More typical winter visitors included at least 5 Snow Buntings scattered around the island, 2 Brambling at Balephuil (4th), 2 Lapland Buntings (21st), up to 3 Pied Wagtails, a Waxwing at Hynish (15th), a Dunnock, 5 Goldfinches and a Short-eared Owl at Balephuil (5th), plus unusually high numbers of Woodcock. The large influx of thrushes that started in October continued through the month with counts of 1000 Fieldfares, 500 Blackbirds and 2000 Redwings (15th-17th) plus 3 records of Ring Ouzels (7th-20th). All-island surveys of our wintering birds (16th-17th) found 2,706 Barnacle Geese, 2,259 Greylags, 188 Whooper Swans, 4,195 Golden Plovers and 2,385 Lapwings, although numbers of Greenland White-fronts were down at 571 birds. More unusual geese involved single Pink-footed Geese at Barrapol and Vaul, a large-race Canada Goose with 2 Canada x Greylag hybrids at Greenhill (16th) and a Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Balephetrish.
Flocks of winter wildfowl increased steadily on the lochs and floods during the month and as always these included some scarcer fare. A Red-throated Diver at Loch a’ Phuill (21st) was a very rare freshwater record of this normally marine species here. Scarcer ducks included a fine drake Goosander at Loch Bhasapol (18th), 3 mobile drake Pochard from (17th) and up to 5 Gadwall at Loch a’ Phuill (10th), whilst there were 4 Common Scoter in Gunna Sound (17th). Numbers of Shelducks built up once more in sheltered spots around the coast and a single Coot returned to Loch Bhasapol (from 18th).
The gales resulted in several Grey Seal pups being washed ashore, together with a couple of dead Striped Dolphins.
The extremely wet and windy weather continued unabated through December with a hurricane-strength storm on 8th causing widespread damage across the island. A few birds got into trouble in the high winds and there were reports of a swan in a garden at Scarinish and a Cormorant on the road at Balephetrish. Unlike in the previous two freezing winters however, conditions remained generally mild with an absence of any prolonged frost. As a result, grassland waders and wildfowl found it easier to find food in the wet fields and marshes, with some 2,990 Lapwing and 3,150 Golden Plover counted around the island mid-month. There were also hundreds of Wigeon and Teal scattered on the floods across the island, whilst many of the shorebirds such as Ringed Plover and Turnstone came in off the beaches to make the most of the rich feeding inland. Offshore, gulls and auks found good feeding in more sheltered areas and there were fewer storm-bound birds on the beaches than might have been expected given the stormy conditions. Hundreds of Fulmars returned to visit their nest ledges on rare calmer days, a sure sign that they were not feeding far from shore, whilst odd Gannets were present offshore throughout.
Winter scarcities were few and far between but included the long-staying blue-phase Snow Goose, which remained all month with Greylags in the Cornaigmore area. The Black Swan was last seen at Loch a’ Phuill on 2nd and presumably headed off to winter further south, whilst a Barn Owl was a rare find hunting along the road at Loch an Eilein (11th). Scarcer waterbirds included 3 Pochard at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd) with a Scaup there (11th), a Little Grebe at Loch Riaghain (12th and 20th), 5 Common Scoter at Hough Bay (17th) with 3 more off Mannal (31st) and a Moorhen at Loch Bhasapol (20th). Far rarer however was a Kemp’s Ridley Turtle that was found freshly dead on the shore at Baugh (9th) by Bill and Moira Welstead - a victim of the hurricane. An Iceland Gull near Loch an Eilein at the end of the month was the fore-runner of an unprecedented invasion of this all-white gull from Greenland in the New Year, together with smaller number of Glaucous Gulls.
A goose count (12th+15th) found lower totals than in November totaling 2,153 Greylags and 566 Greenland White-fronted Geese, although Barnacle Geese increased to 2,934 and there were also 3 Pink-footed Geese, a large-race Canada Goose with two hybrid young at Greenhill and a lone Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Balephetrish.
Prolonged windy weather can causes problems for smaller birds as they struggle to find shelter in which to feed and roost. 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 28-29 January will provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.