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.
Despite periods of ice, snow and freezing fog on the mainland, the island remained largely frost-free throughout. After the exceptionally windy and wet weather of the previous three months, January was both a little calmer and drier, which gave the island a chance to dry out a little. With the wet grasslands remaining unfrozen, very large numbers of birds fed inland including some 3,450 Lapwing and 4,010 Golden Plover counted around the island (16th-17th). These were joined by at least 270 Fieldfares - much larger numbers of this colourful Scandinavian thrush than we normally see at this time of year.
In common with the rest of the Scottish coastline, Tiree received a record influx of Iceland Gulls this month. These frosty-white gulls breed only in Greenland and normally feed out in the North Atlantic during the winter, although strong NW winds sometimes bring larger numbers to the UK. The largest groups appeared immediately after a NW gale with some 13 birds noted feeding in groups of up to 5 together with Common Gulls in west coast bays such as Hough and Traigh nan Gilean (5th). A minimum total of 16 different birds was recorded, although there may well have been more than this, as the birds quickly dispersed to feed inland. Small numbers of the rare darker form of Iceland Gull known as “Kumlien’s Gull” that breeds further west on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada were also involved in the Scottish influx and these included a 1st-winter bird at Moss (17th-21st) and a 2nd-winter bird at the same spot (27th) – these are the first ever records of this rare gull from Tiree. Glaucous Gulls, the larger relative of the Iceland Gull, were also involved in the influx of northern white-winged gulls, with at least 9 different birds seen during the month, whilst a 1st-winter Ring-billed Gull at The Reef (21st-24th) may well have been the same bird that was seen at Loch an Eilein back in November.
Rare geese were also much in evidence this month. A Tundra Bean Goose at Gott (16th) was the first Tiree record of this rare goose that breeds in the high Arctic of northern Russia, but was part of a large influx to Scotland associated with exceptionally cold weather on the continent. The blue-phase Snow Goose, first noted in October, remained on the island and moved to Balephetrish (16th-26th) where it joined up with the Greenland White-fronts there, whilst the Cackling Goose, two intermediate-race Canada Geese and a Pale-bellied Brent remained with the Barnacle Geese in the Balephetrish / Kenovay area. Other scarce winter visitors included 2 Lapland Buntings at The Reef (23rd), with a Jack Snipe and a Woodcock there (26th), 3 Snow Buntings at Hynish (3rd), at least 3 wintering Pied Wagtails, a Jackdaw at Heylipol (5th) and a Goldfinch at Scarinish (1st). The Big Garden Birdwatch on the last weekend of the month highlighted the value of putting food out for birds, with high numbers of House Sparrows, Starlings, Blackbirds and Greenfinches reported plus smaller numbers of Chaffinches at several sites.
The mid-January goose count (16th-17th) found 4,352 Barnacle Geese and 687 Greenland White-fronts around the island, with Greylags remaining a little down in numbers at 2,005 birds. The count also found 2 Pink-footed Geese and 90 Whooper Swans. Scarce waterbirds included up to 10 Common Scoters and 15 Long-tailed Ducks around the coast, 2-3 Pintail and a Grey Plover at Balephetrish Bay (23rd), plus a high count of 160 Purple Sandpipers (27th). The very first signs of spring included Shelduck pairs and groups of Oystercatchers beginning to appear at inland sites plus large numbers of Fulmars returning to their breeding colonies on calmer days.
Otters were conspicuous during the month with sightings of lone adults, family groups and fresh tracks from sites all around the island.
February and March 2012
February continued wet and windy but March became drier and more settled with some welcome sunshine which helped dry out the island after one of the wettest winters on record.
Migrants retuned once more as the days began to lengthen. First back were Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with increasing numbers of both from mid February, whilst large numbers of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits returned to the beaches and grasslands during the period. There was a typical spring influx of a dozen or so Goldcrests, with the first at Kilkenneth on 1st March. Other spring arrival dates included 2 Black-tailed Godwits at Loch an Eilein (21st March), 3 Wheatears at Sandaig and Beinn Hough (22nd March), a Chiffchaff at Balephuil (25th March), 4 Manx Shearwaters from the ferry off Coll (25th March), a Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Gott Bay (29th March), 2 Linnets at Balephuil (30th March) followed by a Lesser Redpoll there (31st March) and the very first Swallow at Balinoe on the last day of the month. With Skylarks singing once more on warmer days, Snipe drumming from the marshes and Lapwings on eggs it was clear that spring had started by the month-end. Several of the scarce wintering birds remained during the period including the blue-phase Snow Goose at Cornaigmore, the Richardson’s Canada Goose with two medium-race Canada Geese also at Cornaigmore, up to five different Iceland Gulls and three different Glaucous Gulls around West Tiree and unusually high late-winter numbers of Fieldfares including an all-island count of 375 (14th February). A fine drake Green-winged Teal was new at Loch a’ Phuill (14th February), whilst a flock of 19 Common Scoters feeding off Balemartine (5th February) was the largest ever count of this species from Tiree. With spring migrants on the move once more, there were a number of interesting records in March including a Mistle Thrush at Balephuil (2nd), a Great Tit at Mannal (7th), a Woodpigeon at Cornaigmore (22nd) and a Jackdaw at Balinoe (26th). The mid-March goose count found high numbers of 4,295 Barnacle Geese and 948 Greenland White-fronts, whilst Greylag numbers remained down a little at 2,296. Whooper Swans were on the move during the period with flocks noted flying north on several dates, whilst Golden Plover numbers built up once more as they staged on their way to Iceland with 2,500 at The Reef (2nd March).
The annual “Beached Bird Survey” was conducted by a dedicated group of volunteers who searched the Tiree beaches over the weekend of 24th-25th February for the bodies of dead or sick seabirds as part of a co-ordinated effort throughout the UK. Moderate numbers of dead birds were encountered, particularly Fulmars and gulls, although most appeared to be very old and had presumably succumbed during the severe gales earlier in the winter. At least three dead cetaceans were also recorded during the period, although the most unusual find was that of a dead Trigger Fish at Traigh nan Gilean. This is normally a fish of warmer seas such as the Mediterranean but occasionally finds its way this far north along the Gulf Stream.
April was dominated by high pressure with light northerly winds, much sunshine and very little rain. The generally cool temperatures and northerly winds held many migrant birds back with most arriving a little later than normal, whilst many residents such as Lapwings and Greylags also started breeding later.
Thousands of birds were on the move despite the head-winds and for many species, the island represents an important stop-over for refuelling on their spring migration to breeding sites further north. Some 250 Pale-bellied Brent Geese stopped to feed around the coast (from 1st), including birds that had been ringed at their wintering sites in Ireland and on staging areas in Iceland. Whooper Swan passage was noted on several dates as flocks passed north over the island or dropped in to stop for a day or two on the lochs. More unusual was a movement of some 410 Pink-footed Geese that headed NW past Urvaig (13th), presumably pushed further south and west from their traditional mainland spring route by strong NE winds. Sadly, two Common Cranes seen flying NW over the west end of Coll on the same date appear to have just missed Tiree! There were scattered flocks of up to 100 Black-tailed Godwits in their brick-red breeding dress feeding around the lochs all month including colour-ringed birds from The Wash in southern England and from breeding sites in SW Iceland. Golden Plover numbers built up on their main staging area at The Reef to at least 4,500 birds (17th) and were joined briefly by a lone Dotterel (18th), whilst at least 23 Whimbrel arrived (23rd). The wintering Greenland geese departed en masse (14th), although there were 11 late Barnacle Geese at Rubha Chraiginis (30th), plus a scattering of up to 8 Pink-footed Geese and at least 15 Whooper Swans still around the island at the end of the month.
The rarest bird in April was a drake Eider of the Northern borealis race at Traigh Bhi (7th) showing the classics back sails and orange-tinged bill of birds from Western Greenland. If accepted, this will be the first record of this race from Argyll. Other rarities included two different drake Green-winged Teal at Loch a’ Phuill (16th and 27th), with a drake Garganey there on the latter date and a Green Sandpiper at Balephuil (27th). Up to two different 1st winter Glaucous Gulls and four different Iceland Gulls were seen on and off throughout the month, whilst up to three Short-eared Owls included singing males at two sites. Other notable birds included an adult Golden Eagle at Moss (14th), a pair of Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (19th), a Knot at Gott Bay (17th), a Coot at Loch an Eilein (10th-17th), two Woodpigeons at Balephuil (24th) with another at West Hynish (29th), two Lapland Buntings at Gott (5th), single male Snow Buntings at Baugh (10th-12th) and West Hynish (29th), three Siskins at Crossapol (21st), 5 scattered Goldfinches and a Lesser Redpoll at Balephuil (24th). Some 140 Redwings arrived (13th) and there was an unusual fall of 10 Blackcaps, 6 Chiffchaffs and a Goldcrest at Balephuil / Carnan Mor (24th), but many species were in short supply, with just one Greenland Wheatear (30th). Further returning migrants were all a little later than normal but included 40+ White Wagtails (from 2nd), Willow Warbler (11th), Sand Martin (17th), Little Tern (17th), Sandwich Tern (17th) and Grasshopper Warbler (30th). Lapwing chicks were observed from mid-month and were widespread by the month end, whilst Corncrakes returned from 17th with some 50 scattered males back by 30th. Despite the rather cold conditions, the very first Basking Sharks were reported back feeding around the island with large sharks noted off Milton (12th) and the Green (15th) – hopefully a sign of another busy summer here for these amazing creatures.
May continued where April left off with mostly dry and sunny conditions and predominantly light northerly or easterly winds. It remained rather cool until later in the month when higher temperatures were linked to a period of gentle SE breezes.
After the early arrivals in April, the bulk of the Corncrakes were a little slower to arrive than normal in the cool northerly airflow, although they were widely reported from all over the island by the end of the month. The annual night-time census will be completed in June and these will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 385 calling males in 2011.
The ground-nesting waders appear to be having a good breeding season so far, with large numbers of young Lapwings of various sizes around the island at the end of the month, including birds that had fledged and others that had just hatched out of the egg. Several Redshank and Ringed Plover broods were also noted during the month, whilst the first of the Oystercatcher broods appeared at the month-end. Several broods of Stonechats were spotted around the island, suggesting that this species is bouncing back after two recent hard winters, which had greatly reduced their numbers. The synchronised mass fledging of young Starlings began on 27th, very slightly earlier than normal with hundreds of youngsters fledging by the month-end. Seabirds too appear to be doing well so far, with hundreds of auks, Fulmars and Kittiwakes on eggs by the third week of the month, whilst 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 late May brought a flurry of rare birds to Tiree with the pick of the crop being a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler at Balephuil (28th). This species normally breeds in Greece and Turkey, so was a long way from home and will be the first for Argyll if confirmed. The same day produced both a singing Marsh Warbler at Carnan Mor and an immature male Golden Oriole at Balephuil, as well as a large influx of scarce migrants such as Whitethroat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher, 4 Woodpigeons and a lone Lesser Whitethroat. Other good birds seen in May included a Pectoral Sandpiper near Heylipol Church (14th), an Osprey heading north at Sandaig (1st), 3 Pomarine Skuas north at Scarinish (3rd), a Long-tailed Skua off Balevullin (19th), a Turtle Dove at Ceann a’ Mhara (29th), 2 late Iceland Gulls, 3 Curlew Sandpipers, 2 Little Stints, 7 Swifts, 2 male Pied Flycatchers, 3 Redstarts, 3 Whinchats and 4 Siskins. There was also an unusually large influx of Cuckoos with up to 7 birds noted around the island in the second half of the month.
Huge numbers of migrant waders passed through on their way north to their Arctic breeding grounds, with peaks of 1,700 Sanderling, 1,000 Dunlin, 960 Ringed Plover and a record count of 169 Whimbrel (7th). 53 different colour-ringed Sanderling were identified with ringed birds coming from Ghana, Mauritania, Portugal, Spain, France, England and Iceland on their way north to their breeding grounds in Greenland.
Three complete night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 371 calling male Corncrakes, with birds calling in good numbers from all the usual places. This figure is very similar to the total of 385 birds in 2011, and the thriving population on Tiree 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.
The first half of June continued with the cool and dry weather of May causing the machair grasslands to start to dry out and “burn”, until some wet weather finally arrived in the second half of the month. Despite the dry conditions, the breeding wetland waders appeared to do well with good numbers produced of young Lapwing, Redshank and Snipe, as well as Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher broods on the drier ground and on the beaches. Ducks also seemed to fare well, with odd broods of Shoveler, Red-breasted Merganser and Tufted Duck noted in amongst the more frequent broods of Mute Swan, Mallard, Shelduck and Eider.
The predominant northerlies helped keep the coastal waters cool throughout the month and perhaps as a result, the local seas were busy with shoals of sand-eels, Basking Sharks and feeding seabirds, as well as occasional sightings of a pod of White-beaked Dolphins, which typically inhabit cooler waters further north up the Minch. Seabirds consequently enjoyed a successful breeding season. Little Terns fledged dozens of young from two main colonies, whilst large numbers of Arctic Terns chicks were close to fledging at the end of the month. Please give these birds a wide-berth if you come across them, as the parents will peck you if you come too close to their young! Up on the cliffs, Guillemots and Fulmars were all still brooding good numbers of small young at the end of June, whilst the Kittiwakes for once appear to be doing well, having laid eggs early in May and with many nests containing two good-sized chicks. Gulls also appeared to fare well with lots of fledged Black-headed and Common Gulls around the island and smaller numbers of fledged Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.
In the absence of rough weather, garden birds also did well, with many broods seen of most species, including very large numbers of young House Sparrows. Greenfinches were less obvious than in 2011, but a pair of Goldfinches stayed to nest at Balephuil – the first time this attractive species has bred on Tiree. Other interesting breeders included at least one pair of Common Redpolls, a calling Cuckoo at Cornaig (to 11th) and at least 4 reeling Grasshopper Warblers, whilst there were up to 4 different calling Quail around the island. Numbers of breeding Swallows also looked good, but Sand Martins were well down on 2011, possibly because of consistently poor weather during their spring migration, which is a little earlier than that of other species. There were late singing Whitethroats (to 17th) and Spotted Flycatchers (to 23rd) plus a very late singing Blackcap at Balephuil (to 23rd) but none of these birds appeared to stay on the island to nest.
There were surprising numbers of Arctic-nesting waders about, which were presumably either non-breeding birds or early returning failed breeders. These included a Pectoral Sandpiper (29th), 4 Little Stints (3rd-12th), 4 Curlew Sandpipers at Loch a’ Phuill (4th-6th), a high count of 142 Black-tailed Godwits at Loch a’ Phuill (28th), 30 Bar-tailed Godwits at Hynish (18th), 2 Greenshanks (4th and 26th), 84 Sanderling (25th) and scattered Whimbrel throughout the month. There were no real rarities but island scarcities included a Little Gull on Crossapol beach (7th), a Pomarine Skua off Scarinish (16th), a Sandwich Tern at Loch a’ Phuill (7th-29th), 3 Lesser Redpolls (to 11th) and up to 4 Siskins at Balephuil (to 10th).
July remained relatively cool and dry with most northerly winds, although there was more rain towards the end of the month as the winds switched round to the southwest.
Most of our birds seem to have had a good breeding season in the largely settled conditions. Mute Swans reared five broods totalling 20 young from at least 12 nesting pairs in April. Other wildfowl also did well with many broods of Mallard, Shelduck, Red-breasted Merganser, Pintail, Teal, Shoveler and Tufted Duck noted on the island’s wetlands. The total number of Greylag broods was down on previous years as a result of on-going goose management, although many broods were still to be seen at Loch a’ Phuill in particular. Seabirds benefited from an abundance of sand-eels throughout the month, perhaps related to the cool sea-surface temperatures, and some 54 Little Terns plus over 200 Arctic Terns fledged from colonies around the island. The cliff-nesting seabirds at Ceann a’ Mhara also generally fared well: Shags produced some 150 fledged young, whilst Guillemots fledged some 230 young, Kittiwakes fledged 150 young from just 209 pairs and a pair of Great Skuas fledged 2 young for the first time on the island. Numbers of nesting Fulmars in the study area were up at 853 pairs, although numbers of downy young remaining in their nests dropped steadily through the month. The waders, gulls and starlings also appeared to produce plenty of young, with large mixed flocks building up once more on the first cut silage fields. Smaller birds also appeared to breed well, with many scattered families seen around the island of Swallow, Linnet, Twite, Sedge Warbler and Wheatear. Scarcer species also did well: a pair of Goldfinches fledged 4 young at Balephuil, the first recorded nesting of this species on Tiree, whilst one pair of Common Redpolls fledged 4 young.
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 moribund Turtle Dove at Kilkenneth (3rd – see photo), which sadly died the next day. Other good birds included a 1st-summer Iceland Gull at West Hynish (8th), a Wood Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (23rd), a territorial male Lesser Redpoll at Balephuil (from 5th) plus another at Milton (31st) and an Arctic Skua at Miodar (9th).
Return wader passage was rather slow but included 3 Whimbrel (from 7th), a peak of 54 Black-tailed Godwits at Loch a’ Phuill (18th), 165 Sanderling (23rd), 80 Ringed Plover (31st) and 2 Greenshanks (31st), plus up to 16 summering Bar-tailed Godwits. At least 3 Whooper Swans summered on the island, whilst 3 Hen Harriers, including a fine male, returned (from 4th) and the first Merlin of the autumn was at Caoles (29th). Offshore, there were large groups of Basking Sharks all around the coast, regular pods of Harbour Porpoises and a pod of feeding White-beaked Dolphins off Gunna Sound (2nd) with some 800 Manx Shearwaters and 200 Gannets in attendance.
A few Corncrakes continued to call at various places around the island in the first week of the month before going quiet during their moulting period. There were several reports of adult birds and broods suggesting that they had another good breeding season. Hopefully, as a result we will see good numbers returning to the island next spring.
August remained relatively dry although the winds and rain picked up towards the end of the month. The freshly cut silage fields provided rich foraging for large flocks of locally breeding Lapwings, gulls and Starlings which were joined by groups of Golden Plovers, Curlews, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff migrating to the island from their breeding sites further north. The island’s breeding Wheatears departed early in the month and were replaced by influxes of larger brighter birds from Iceland and Greenland. The first Robins appeared in the gardens (from 12th) and small numbers of juvenile Willow warblers filtered through together with Pied Flycatchers at Balephuil (24th) and Carnan Mor (26th). Flocks of up to 100 Swallows feasted on insects over longer grassland, whilst groups of up to 60 Sand Martins hawked over the lochs, as the birds focussed on storing up food for their migrations to Africa. Late summer oddities included a Quail at The Maze (11th), a Little Grebe at Loch Riaghain (20th) and Swifts at Miodar (2nd) and Loch a’ Phuill (14th-15th).
Hundreds of small migrant waders also passed through with large mixed flocks of Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin on many of the beaches and loch shores. In amongst them were a few scarcer waders including groups of up to 46 Knot, 2 Wood Sandpipers at Loch a’ Phuill (13th-16th), a Green Sandpiper there (14th), plus up to 14 Greenshanks, 15 Ruff and 2 Common Sandpipers, but rarity of the month was an adult White-rumped Sandpiper at Gott Bay (6th-7th – see photo). This rare North American wader was only recorded for the first time on Tiree last year, and it seems possible that this was the same returning bird as that seen at exactly the same spot on 4 August 2011. Checks of the Sanderling revealed six different colour-ringed birds, including five, which had been ringed on spring migration in SW Iceland and one from a beach in Ghana, whilst large numbers of juveniles indicated that they had enjoyed a good breeding season. The beaches also witnessed an unusual influx of at least 53 Common Terns including some 39 juveniles, presumably from breeding colonies on islets around Mull. Offshore, there were regular sightings of very large numbers of Basking Sharks from all around the coast, with particular concentrations off the west side including a count of at least 250 sharks from Ceann a’ Mhara on 9th.
There was the usual early autumn influx of Merlins, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers, none of which breed on the island, but which feed on Tiree’s abundant birdlife over the winter. The post-breeding goose count (28th-29tht) found a total of 2,210 Greylags, a very similar total to August 2011, whilst the proportion of young remained high at 32%. The count also found 2 Canada x Greylag Goose hybrids in West Tiree, plus totals of 1,665 Lapwing and 1,010 Golden Plover.
September is always an exciting month on Tiree as it is the peak month for bird migration. Large flocks of wildfowl and waders head south through the Hebrides from their Arctic breeding grounds, whilst strong winds from the west can blow American birds off-course to our shores and easterlies can bring birds from Continental Europe. Strong westerly winds predominated at the start of the month and these brought a selection of American waders to the island. These included a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at Gott Bay (2nd-7th), just the third record of this rare bird and the first since 1999, as well as single juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Sandaig (10th-12th) and Loch a’ Phuill (19th), plus groups of 3 juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers at Kirkapol (2nd) and Loch a’ Phuill (8th), followed by a lone bird at The Reef (20th). Rarest bird from points west however, was a lone Buff-bellied Pipit which shared a field with 50 Meadow Pipits at Ruaig (27th ). This is the first Argyll record of this North American bird that breeds as far east as Western Greenland and which may well have migrated to Tiree with Meadow Pipits from Iceland.
Occasional spells of easterly winds on the back of the depressions brought continental migrants to the island and the rarest of these by far was a 1st-winter Citrine Wagtail (27th-29th – see photo), which frequented the outflow ditch by the bird hide at Loch a’ Phuill. This is the first Argyll record of this rare wagtail that breeds in NE Europe and Russia. It turned up on the same red-letter day as the Buff-bellied Pipit. Other Eastern migrants included a juvenile Common Rosefinch at Hynish (5th) followed by two birds at Balephuil (7th-8th), a Tree Sparrow at Vaul (10th), a Pied Flycatcher at Balephuil (21st) and up to 3 Lesser Whitethroats at Balephuil and Carnan Mor (8th-19th). From the north, 7 Lapland Buntings put in an appearance (from 23rd), a Snow Bunting was at Loch an Eilein (19th), a very early Fieldfare was at Cornaig (13th), 7 Common Redpolls of the Icelandic northwest form arrived from 26th and the first 2 Redwings were at Carnan Mor (30th).
Sea-watching in the strong west winds produced a juvenile Sabine’s Gull of Aird (12th), 2 Common Scoters, 40 Sooty Shearwaters, 25 Leach’s Petrels, 2 Pomarine Skuas, 15 Arctic Skuas, 81 Bonxies and 11 Arctic Terns in amongst hundreds of Gannets, Kittiwakes, Manx Shearwaters and auks, whilst a Little Gull was seen from the ferry off Gunna Sound (18th). Wader interest included a lone Little Stint at Vaul Bay (26th), 8 Knot, 3 Greenshanks and 6 Grey Plovers on the coast and lochs, as well as 18 Whimbrel, 80 Black-tailed Godwits and 5 Ruff in amongst hundreds of Lapwing and Golden Plovers feeding on the cut silage fields and machairs.
Migrant passerines were rather scarce in the generally westerly airflow but included Garden Warblers at Carnan Mor (9th),and Balephuil (24th), 5 Blackcaps, 2 Chiffchaffs, 20 Willow Warblers, 5 Sedge Warblers (to 18th), 8 Goldcrests and 4 Dunnocks. 80+ Wheatears and several White Wagtails were seen throughout the month, whilst there were late Sand Martins (19th) and Corncrakes (22nd). Returning winter raptors included up to 8 Hen Harriers, 2 Kestrels, 2 Sparrowhawks and 6 Merlins, whilst wildfowl passage included 56 Light-bellied Brent through (10th-11th), 198 Pinkfeet overhead (12th and 19th), 23 Whooper Swans in Sorobaidh Bay (19th) followed by 45 at Loch a’ Phuill (29th) and 5 more south over Gott (29th).
Offshore, the last of the Basking sharks melted away once more as the seas roughed up but occasional dolphins were still reported on calmer days, as well as a rare Triggerfish which was washed ashore at Balephetrish Bay (28th).
October saw high pressure dominate over Scotland and the winds were mostly in the east or north, resulting in unusually dry and calm conditions for the time of year. This month normally sees the final departure of Tiree’s summer visitors as well the main arrival of winter migrants. With so many birds on the move, it is inevitable that some more unusual birds also find their way to the island and this year was no exception.
The rarest bird was a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Balephuil (see photo), which appeared amongst a small fall of migrants there on 13th. This small flycatcher breeds in Eastern Europe and Russia and normally winters in India, although young birds are not infrequently seen in autumn on Shetland and down the east coast. This was the first record of the species for Tiree but was quickly followed by another, which was observed for 15 minutes at Balinoe on 20th. The latter bird bore a metal ring on its right leg, whereas the Balephuil bird did not, so we know that they were different birds. A Red-breasted Flycatcher had been ringed on Barra earlier in the month so we assumed this might be where our bird had come from, but photos revealed that the Barra bird had been ringed on the left leg (not the right!) so our bird must have been ringed somewhere else. Other unusual birds included a juvenile American Golden Plover at Sandaig (1st-9th), a female Ring-necked Duck (also from North America) at Loch a’ Phuill (19th), a Red Kite at Balemartine (24th) and Short-eared Owls at Balephuil (11th) and at Crossapol (24th).
The predominant easterly winds brought a nice selection of scarce passerines to the island including 2 Yellow-browed Warblers at Balephuil (3rd-6th and 13th-19th), up to 2 Siberian Chiffchaffs at Balephuil (15th-23rd), a peak of 25 Northwest Common Redpolls (5th), 2 Lesser Whitethroats at Balephuil (13th-14th and 16th), 2 Garden Warblers (13th-14th), 18 Blackcaps, 3 Ring Ouzels at Carnan Mor (13th), 8 Mealy Redpolls (18th-20th), a Coal Tit at Loch a’ Phuill (20th), a record influx of 38 Long-tailed Tits (14th) to Kilkenneth, Scarinish and Caoles, up to 28 Dunnocks, 7 Crossbills south over Balephuil (21st), a flock of 21 Jackdaws with 2 Rooks at Balephuil (22nd), 19 Jackdaws at Kirkapol (23rd) and a Tree Sparrow at Hynish (24th). Winter birds arrived early with an influx of 39 Fieldfares and 380 Redwings (18th), 7 Snow Buntings (from 6th), 20 Lapland Buntings (1st), 9 Brambling (from 3rd) and at least 4 Waxwings around West Tiree (28th-31st). On the other hand, some summer birds hung on late in the mostly sunny conditions including a late Corncrake at Ruaig (20th), a very late Spotted Flycatcher at Balinoe (24th-25th) plus a late Swallow there (24th).
Goose passage was earlier than usual, reflecting a period of very cold weather in Iceland. The first Barnacle Geese were seen heading south over the island on 2nd and the first week of the month saw heavy movements over the island of thousands of Barnacle Geese followed by hundreds of Greenland White-fronts in the second week of the month. Whooper Swan passage was also pronounced early in the month, with a peak count of 326 Whooper Swans at Loch a’ Phuill (18th). An all-island count (23rd-24th) found 2,758 Barnacle Geese, 459 Greenland White-fronts, 2,724 Greylags, 4,050 Golden Plovers and 2,765 Lapwing.
November brought a mixed bag of weather. There were several spells of intense rain which brought some flooding to the island, but also the odd period of colder drier weather from the north and an absence of severe gales. The mostly mild conditions allowed some summer migrants to hang on late into the month including a late Wheatear at Heylipol (5th) together with 3 Blackcaps (to 26th) and 11 Chiffchaffs (to 29th) of which at least one bird at Balephuil (5th) was the distinctive far-eastern race known as Siberian Chiffchaff. Much more unexpected however was a small arrival of warblers to Balephuil (16th) which included a very late Barred Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat and a Goldcrest, the latter remaining until 20th. These are easily the latest dates that these three species have been recorded on Tiree and indeed the latest ever Barred Warbler in Scotland was just 4 days later on 20th November! Other rarities came in the form of a Tree Sparrow at Hynish (18th), a drake Green-winged Teal from North America at Loch a’ Phuill (18th-21st) and a continuing influx of Waxwings with a further 17 birds recorded (to 17th). Winter thrushes were in fairly short supply but included 180 Redwing (21st) and 38 Fieldfares (to 21st). There was also a Pied Wagtail at Gott Bay (10th), at least 2 Dunnocks all month, a Brambling at Balephuil (8th), up to 35 Goldfinches (10th), a late Linnet at Balinoe (13th) and Short-eared Owls at Loch a’ Chlair (13th) and at Crossapol (16th). Late sea-watching produced 3 Little Auks off Balevullin (2nd), whilst north-westerlies of Aird (8th) produced 2 immature Pomarine Skuas, a Great Skua and a very late Manx Shearwater.
All-island surveys of our wintering birds (19th-21st) found 2,914 Barnacle Geese, 2,2409 Greylags, 207 Whooper Swans, 5,390 Golden Plovers and 3,380 Lapwings, whilst annual wintering numbers of Greenland White-fronts declined further to 532 birds. Other geese were scarce and involved just a single Pink-footed Goose and a Canada Goose x Greylag hybrid at Barrapol throughout the month. Flocks of winter wildfowl increased steadily on the lochs and coasts during the month and as always these included some scarcer fare. These included single Little Grebes at Loch an Eilein (10th) and Loch Riaghain (19th-20th), a Black-throated Diver off Soa (24th), a high count of 25 Great Northern Divers off SE Tiree (29th), an immature Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (7th), a Coot and a Pochard at Loch a’ Phuill (18th-21st), up to 11 Shoveler (30th) and the first Shelducks back around the coast.
December brought some wet and windy weather, although gales remained thankfully rather few and it stayed mild throughout. Heavier rain later in the month resulted in widespread flooding, which was quickly used by large numbers of grassland waders, with high counts of 3,640 Lapwing and 4,130 Golden Plover around the island. Many of the shorebirds such as Curlew, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Turnstone also came in off the beaches to make the most of the rich feeding inland, where they were joined on the floods by hundreds of Wigeon and Teal. Large numbers of gulls came inland to feed at the end of the month around foraging livestock, whilst hundreds of Fulmars returned to visit their nest ledges on calmer days. Offshore, large groups of Shags and Great Northern Divers indicated that there were still plenty of fish about. Gannets are normally absent from Tiree in mid-winter but unusually this year, small numbers of birds could be seen throughout the month, making the most of the mild conditions.
Several scarce small birds lingered in the mild conditions including a Tree Sparrow at Hynish (4th), 2 Lapland Buntings at Gott Bay (31st), single Snow Buntings at Whitehouse and Sandaig (17th-30th), a Brambling at Balephuil (2nd), 3 Mealy Redpolls at Balephuil (2nd-4th) and a late Blackcap there (12th). Small birds often suffer during prolonged freezing spells, as we had in two recent winters, but should thrive if the conditions remain mild. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 26-27 January will provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
More typical winter scarcities included a Little Auk off West Hynish (31st), a juvenile Glaucous Gull at Balevullin (26th), a Short-eared Owl at The Reef (14th), a Scaup at Loch an Eilein (11th-26th), a Coot at The Reef (17th) and at least 3 Water Rails all month at Balephuil. Up to 20 Goldfinches wintered together with 30 Fieldfares and a bumper total of at least 13 Dunnocks in sheltered spots around the island. Scarcer waders included 2 Knot at Gott Bay (17th-21st), a Woodcock at Balephuil (23rd) and Grey Plovers at Balephetrish Bay (12th) and Caoles (16th). An all-island count (17th-18th) found 3,424 Barnacle Geese, 662 Greenland White-fronts and 2,619 Greylags plus 2 Pink-footed Geese, as well as 149 Whooper Swans on the lochs.