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 - email@example.com. All photographs in this section are by John Bowler, Tom Marshall, Graham Todd or Laurie Campbell.
January brought a wild mix of weather with severe gales, heavy rain, hail, lightning and even a light sprinkling of snow, although there was a calmer spell at the month-end. Rarest bird was an American Herring Gull briefly at Sorobaidh Bay (21st), the third record for Tiree if confirmed, whilst the male Ring-necked Duck remained at Loch a’ Phuill. NW gales brought an influx of up to 12 Glaucous Gulls around the island (from 17th), which fed on dead seals washed ashore in the storms. Much more unusual however was a young Kemp’s Ridley Turtle found washed up at Ruaig (10th). This was just the sixth Scottish record of this species that normally lives in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and which is the world’s rarest sea turtle. There were also records of this turtle from Sutherland and Cumbria around the same time, plus hundreds caught out by a cold current off New Jersey, many of which were then airlifted back to Florida!
An influx of hundreds of Herring and Common Gulls included a colour-ringed Herring Gull at Sorobaidh Bay (26th) that had been ringed as a chick on Oronsay in July 2014, plus the first returning Black-headed Gull at Loch an Eilein (23rd). A Pomarine Skua off West Hynish (11th) and a Greenland Redpoll at Hynish (14th) were the first ever mid-winter records for either species on Tiree, whilst the group of 15 Jackdaws and 1 Rook remained at Loch an Eilein. The Big Garden Birdwatch on 23rd-24th highlighted the value of putting food out for birds with larger than normal numbers of House Sparrows and Dunnocks recorded.
The mid-January goose count (13th-14th) found 4,173 Barnacle Geese, 639 Greenland White-fronts and 2,216 Greylags plus 119 Whooper Swans on the lochs, whilst numbers of Lapwing remained high in the mild conditions at 3,045 and Golden Plover at 3,280.
The winter’s stormy weather continued through February and well into March with the odd calmer drier day giving a hint of spring. Migrants were slow to return in the cool conditions. The first Wheatear was at West Hynish (21 Mar) and there was a modest showing of up to 9 Goldcrests (from 14 Mar), the first 2 Linnets at Balephuil (21 Mar), the first Manx Shearwaters offshore (26 Mar) and the first 2 Black-tailed Godwits at Loch a’ Phuill (27th). More obvious was a steady increase in the numbers of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a big return of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. Despite the cold conditions, Lapwing, Snipe, Mallard and Skylark all started nesting during March.
The huge influx of gulls over the period brought included up to 12 huge white immature Glaucous Gulls throughout, an Iceland Gull at Sandaig (17 Mar) and rarest of all, an immature Bonaparte’s Gull at Sorobaidh Bay (24 Mar) – just the third Tiree record of this North American gull. The long-staying group of Jackdaws at Loch an Eilein finally dispersed in mid March, whilst a Rook was at Moss (17 Mar). A check of the island’s beaches by a hardy band of volunteers on the annual Beached Bird Survey in late February pleasingly revealed only very low numbers of dead seabirds although three dead Common Dolphins were noted.
An all-island count (16-17 Feb) found 4,291 Barnacle Geese, 660 Greenland White-fronts and 2,119 Greylags plus 3,400 Lapwing and 3,780 Golden Plover on the grasslands and 100 Whooper Swans on the lochs. The Whooper Swans began heading north in March with many flocks noted passing through the island including a group of 24 (17 Mar) that stopped off in Balephetrish Bay and a high count of 275 on the island’s lochs (24 Mar).
April remained rather cold and changeable which delayed the start of spring for much of our wildlife. The first calling Corncrake was heard at Mannal (23rd), followed by a few scattered birds in West Tiree but only a dozen or so calling males were back by the month-end and cover for them remained scant.
The Greenland White-fronts and Barnacle Geese departed en masse on 17th and up to 550 Black-tailed Godwits arrived in their brick-red breeding dress to feed around the lochs at the end of the month, including a colour-ringed bird from the Wash, which was at least 22 years old! Rarest bird was an American Green-winged Teal at Loch an Eilein (13th), whilst other unusual birds included a Red Kite at Cornaigmore (6th), a female Marsh Harrier at Balinoe (19th), an early pair of Garganey at Balinoe (17th), a wandering Sea Eagle and a Stock Dove at Balephuil (28th) - the first on Tiree since 1999.
Many of the returning migrants were a little later than normal and included over 200 White Wagtails (from 8th), Chiffchaff (5th), House Martin (7th), Greenshank (8th), Blackcap (9th), Swallow (10th), Sand Martin (11th), Willow Warbler (16th), Little Tern (16th), Whimbrel (16th), Arctic Tern (23rd), Sedge Warbler (24th), Arctic Skua (24th) and Common Tern (28th), plus lots more Wheatears. There were still no reports of Cuckoo by the month-end.
Offshore, small numbers of Basking Sharks returned early (from 1st) with 30 noted of Skerryvore (22nd), whilst large numbers of feeding Gannets, auks and Manx Shearwaters close inshore indicated that plenty of prey-fish were present. A trip to Lunga (24th) as part of the Coll Birdwatching festival revealed huge numbers of Puffins and Shag already back and displaying. Odd Belted Beauty moths were noted on the machair and the first Puss Moths appeared right on queue, although the cold weather was generally not conducive to moths or to moth-trapping.
After the first arrivals in April, many more Corncrakes arrived in May, with good numbers back and calling all around the island by the month-end. Vegetation cover was in shorter supply in the fields that last year as a result of the cool conditions and many were recorded in gardens instead. The annual night-time census will be completed in June and this will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 396 calling males in 2014. The unseasonal weather resulted in a late breeding season for many birds with Lapwing chicks hatching two weeks later than in 2014, whilst Oystercatchers were still on eggs at the month-end, although the very first Redshank and Ringed Plover broods were noted. The first Greylag broods appeared from 14th but both the number of broods and brood size were down on 2014. Birds in the sheltered gardens did better with several broods of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes noted, together with the first brood of Stonechats (27th) and the very first Starling fledglings (31st). Most of the seabirds delayed nesting so only time will tell how well they do this year. 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.
Strong westerly winds for much of the month meant that continental migrants were in short supply. Best bird was an adult Sabine’s Gull from North America at Salum (23rd) and Gott Bay (27th), whilst the westerly winds also brought 1 Long-tailed Skua (18th) and 26 Pomarine Skuas. An influx of 5 Tree Sparrows to Balephuil and 10 more to Milton was unprecedented although none appear to have remained to breed. Other spring migrants included a Marsh Harrier at Moss (14th), a Red Kite at West Hynish (26th), 2 wandering Sea Eagles, a Curlew Sandpiper at Vaul (14th), 3 Cuckoos (from 14th), a Siskin at Balephuil (16th) and a Snow Bunting at Kilmoluaig (20th). One or two Basking Sharks were noted on calmer days and stranded dolphins included a Risso’s Dolphin west of Vaul and a Common Dolphin at Brock. It was a poor May for insects but the first Great Yellow Bumblebees emerged on drier days and Green-veined Whites flew in between the showers.
Three night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 330 calling male Corncrakes. This figure is down on the 396 birds recorded in 2014 but some males may have not called on the unusually cold nights. The thriving population on Tiree represents around a third of all the Corncrakes in Britain and is a testament to all the Corncrake-friendly management put in over the years by the islands’ crofters and farmers.
June was mostly wet and windy with cool NW winds predominating. Surprisingly many breeding birds did well with large numbers of young Lapwing and Oystercatchers produced, plus big broods of Starlings, House Sparrows, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds. Seabird breeding success also looks encouraging with increased numbers of breeding Arctic Terns and Kittiwakes, although the cool weather delayed the start of egg-laying for most species.
Rarest bird of the month was a Cedar Waxwing at Scarinish (10th) – just the fourth UK record (although Tiree’s second!) of this North American woodland bird. May’s Sabine’s Gull re-appeared at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd) and both a young Iceland Gull and a young Glaucous Gull remained in the Traigh Bhi area all month. Other good birds included a drake Garganey in the Kilmoluaig area (9th-15th), an adult Curlew Sandpiper near Heylipol Church (14th-17th), a female Marsh Harrier at Vaul (10th), 2 calling Quails and most surprisingly a Treecreeper at Balephuil (29th) – just the 4th record for Tiree!
Marsh Fritillaries re-appeared on the central sliabh on the few sunny days and 3 Silver Hook moths (11th) there were new for the island. Basking Sharks remained scarce in inshore waters but a flat calm day (23rd) saw 2 Orcas, 2 Minke Whales, 12 Common Dolphins and 5 Harbour Porpoises logged off Hynish and Baugh. Sadly, there were further stranded dead cetaceans including 2 Long-finned Pilot-Whales and a Harbour Porpoise.
July remained unsettled with cool, wet and windy conditions predominating. Many breeding birds struggled in the wet conditions with very few Swallows produced and there was a complete breeding failure for the Little Terns. However wildfowl did well with many broods noted of Tufted Duck in particular, as well as smaller numbers of Mute Swan, Mallard, Gadwall and Shoveler. The number of Greylag broods was well down as a result of egg-gelling this year, whilst lower brood sizes reflected the poor weather. The cliff-nesting seabirds at Ceann a’ Mhara had mixed results: Shags and Kittiwakes did well producing some 170 and 250 fledged young respectively but 2,600 Guillemots only managed to raise around 275 young and Arctic Terns around the coast got around 100 young away.
July is generally a quiet month for migrants and best birds were an early Pectoral Sandpiper at The Reef (10th), an Osprey off Milton (28th), a Sooty Shearwater off Gunna Sound (31st) and a lingering Glaucous Gull with an Iceland Gull at Traigh Bhi. Return wader passage was intermittent with increasing numbers of Sanderling, Dunlin and Turnstones on the beaches and of Black-tailed Godwits, Curlew and Golden Plover on the wetlands and cut-silage fields. Offshore, Basking Sharks began showing in moderate numbers late in the month and there were several sightings of Otters, Minke Whales and dolphins offshore including an adult Bottle-nosed Dolphin that stranded at Sorobaidh Bay.
The weather was not ideal for moths but included a surprise influx of Six-spot Burnets, a colourful day-flying species that has never been recorded on Tiree before, whilst other new moths for the island included The Drinker and Shoulder-striped Wainscot.
August finally saw some warmer spells, although there was further heavy rain in what has been an unusually wet summer. More Corncrakes than usual continued calling at the start of the month and several adults plus broods were seen during silage cutting. Swallows finally fledged youngsters this month after a poor start to the breeding season, whilst Sedge Warblers and House Sparrows were still feeding new young at the month-end. Freshly cut silage fields provided rich foraging for large flocks of island-reared gulls, Lapwings, Snipe, Rock Doves and Starlings, as well as groups of Golden Plover, Curlew, Whimbrel and Black-tailed Godwit from further afield. Unusually high numbers of young Ruff and Bar-tailed Godwits joined the feeding groups this year suggesting these species had a good breeding season in the far north. The local Greylags on the other hand had a poorer breeding season with around 1,903 counted at the month-end including 29% goslings.
In amongst the large numbers of passage Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling were some rarer birds including both Wood Sandpiper (7th) and Green Sandpiper (14th) at Loch a’ Phuill, a Spotted Redshank at Sorobaidh Bay (24th) and a Little Stint at Clachan (30th). A family party of Black-throated Divers off Hynish (15th-20th) and a Short-eared Owl at Gott (10th-12th) were unusual, whilst sea-watching produced 13 Sooty Shearwaters and over 100 Puffins off Hynish (8th), plus a Little Gull at Gott Bay (24th). Migrant songbirds were late following the poor summer with just 2 Robins logged by the end of the month.
Visiting botanists found a new site for the very rare Irish Lady’s-tresses Orchid at Cornaigmore with some 13 flower spikes recorded, whilst moth-trapping picked up four more new species for the island: Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, The Rustic, Northern Spinach and Sallow. Small numbers of Basking Sharks were seen offshore, together with a handful of Harbour Porpoises and Minke Whales.
September brought some much needed warm, calm and dry weather after an unusually wet summer. As a result, many Swallows stayed later than usual and were still feeding young in nests at the month-end. Several Corncrakes were noted throughout the month and huge flocks of Twite and Linnets indicated a bumper breeding season for these species. The lack of strong westerlies meant that American waders featured less than normal, although there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (12th) and a Baird’s Sandpiper at Hough Bay (29th-30th). High pressure for the much of the month resulted in good conditions for continental drift migrants to reach Tiree, bringing us a Barred Warbler at Balephuil (6th-7th), at least 5 Yellow-browed Warblers from Siberia, 2 Pied Flycatchers and 2 Garden Warblers in amongst a host of commoner warblers and finches. A Cuckoo at Balephuil (18th-19th) was the latest ever recorded on Tiree and it was joined there by a Long-eared Owl (18th). An adult Sea Eagle spent a week wandering around West Tiree (10th-18th), whilst a pair of House Martins at Balephuil bred successfully for the first time ever on Tiree. Southerlies at the month-end brought 2 Sabine’s Gulls, 3 Pomarine Skuas, a Balearic Shearwater and 18 Sooty Shearwaters off Hynish.
The warm settled conditions suited insects with large numbers of Highland Darter and Black Darter dragonflies active throughout the month and some very late-flying Common Blue and Meadow Brown butterflies to the month-end. The calm nights were good for both moths and moth-trapping. Pride of place went to a massive Convolvulous Hawk-moth found on a washing line at Crossapol, whilst four new moths were added to the Tiree list in the shape of Bulrush Wainscot, Autumn Green Carpet, Turnip Moth and Rush Veneer.
October remained largely dry, mild and oddly settled for the time of year with only the occasional blast from the west. Many summer migrants hung on late in the good conditions including several pairs of Swallows which hatched out some exceptionally late broods during the month. Many butterflies and moths were also out later than usual including the first records of Rush Veneer, a migrant moth, for the island.
Although there were few spells of westerly winds, those there were brought the rarest birds of the month, all from North America, including a Baird’s Sandpiper at Sorobaidh Bay (2nd), a Lesser Yellowlegs at Cornaigmore (21st) and a drake American Wigeon at Loch Bhasapol (21st), which then moved to Loch a’ Phuill. A westerly gale (22nd) produced a large movement of commoner seabirds SW out of the Minch and in amongst them were 2 Sabine’s Gulls, 4 Leach’ Petrels, a Grey Phalarope and 5 Pomarine Skuas. Light winds for the rest of the month brought a wide range of small migrant birds from the mainland and further afield including a Lesser Whitethroat at Balephuil (3rd), a Siberian Chiffchaff (7th), a Ring Ouzel (10th), a Lapland Bunting (11th) and 2 Short-eared Owls, although rarest bird was a Jay, Tiree’s first, that flew in off the sea at Baugh (1st) and later flew NE over The Reef. There was the usual influx of hundreds of winter thrushes towards the end of the month peaking at 1,000 Redwings (28th) and 650 Fieldfares (30th), plus a record influx of 150+ Goldfinches.
Numbers of winter wildfowl built up steadily during the month with a record Argyll count of 402 Whooper Swans at Loch a’ Phuill (28th), although this was bettered in November, and daily movements of swans heading south over the island. Heavy Barnacle Geese goose passage was noted on 11th but the first Greenland White-fronts arrived late on 26th. The first Goldeneyes returned to Loch a’ Phuill (21st) and Long-tailed Ducks to the bays (22nd).
November was very wet and windy but remained mild. Rarest bird of the month was a brief female Lesser Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (15th), only our third record of this North American duck. It joined the long-staying drake American Wigeon on the loch plus a Slavonian Grebe from Iceland and a rare inland Long-tailed Duck (22nd). Late migrants in the mild conditions included a Yellow-browed Warbler at Balephuil (1st-2nd), a Black Redstart at Loch a’ Phuill (7th-16th), 2 Tree Sparrows (from 3rd), 4 Greenland Redpolls (from 3rd), a Siberian Chiffchaff (17th-28th), a Waxwing (21st), 4 Brambling, 5 Siskins, 5 Chiffchaffs and 4 Blackcaps to 22nd. At least 3 Short-eared Owls and a Barn Owl were reported at the start of the month, whilst the influx of winter thrushes continued with some 90 Fieldfares and 1,000 Redwings around the island (24th).
All-island surveys of our wintering birds (24th-25th) found 3,253 Barnacle Geese, 1,789 Greylags, 701 Greenland White-fronts, 2,300 Golden Plovers and 3,390 Lapwing. There was a record island count of 502 Whooper Swans (5th) including 431 at Loch a’ Phuill, plus a late group of 21 Pale-bellied Brent at Balephetrish Bay (13th). Westerly gales brought some very late seabirds including 13 Sooty Shearwaters (to 17th), 3 Leach’s Petrels (to 16th), 4 Pomarine Skuas (to 17th) and 3 Great Skuas (to 17th), as well as large numbers of Gannets, Kittiwakes and auks. Cetacean strandings involved a White-beaked Dolphin at Sorobaidh Bay and a Harbour Porpoise at Balephetrish Bay.
December brought some more wild weather with frequent gales and heavy rain, which caused widespread flooding across the island, although it remained mild throughout. Hundreds of Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing and Golden Plover frequented the flooded grasslands along with foraging bands of Common Gulls. The storms produced some unusual records including the first Glaucous Gulls of the winter (from 6th), a long-staying Tree Sparrow at Balephuil and a Snow Bunting at Gott Tip (8th). On 3 January, a fairly freshly dead 6.2m long Killer Whale came ashore at Crossapol Point. From its distinctive markings it was identified as “Lulu” one of just 9 animals in the resident west coast pod, which was first catalogued by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust in 1995 and was last seen alive off Waternish, Skye in July 2014. A post mortem conducted by cetacean stranding specialists from the Scottish Agricultural College indicates that “Lulu” died after becoming entangled in ropes. Offshore, regular sightings of Kittiwakes and Gannets indicated that there were still plenty of fish about in the mild conditions, whilst hundreds of Fulmars returned to visit their nest ledges on calmer days.
The mild weather encouraged some smaller birds to stay on the island including the odd late Linnet and Pied Wagtail, plus scattered groups of Goldfinches, Redwings and Fieldfares. Hopefully calmer conditions in the New Year will allow a better chance to see how our garden birds are faring this winter. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 30-31 January will once again provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
An all-island count (8th and 10th) found 3,412 Barnacle Geese, 698 Greenland White-fronts, 1,696 Greylags, 2 Pink-footed Geese and a hybrid Greylag x Canada Goose, as well as 90 Whooper Swans on the lochs, plus 3,150 Lapwing and 2,350 Golden Plover on the wet grasslands.