The island of Tiree is a great place for bird-watching. Its rich machair grasslands, wet heath-lands and lochs host high densities of breeding waders, waterfowl and corncrakes, along with a wide range of smaller birds such as twites and stonechats. All these birds benefit from traditional crofting practices, which enhance the natural habitats. Terns and gulls nest widely around the island and the sea-cliffs at Ceann a' Mhara hold a classic Scottish sea-bird colony, which can be visited by boat. Bird interest is year-round, as the mild oceanic climate enables large numbers of waterfowl and waders to winter on the island, including some 8,000 barnacle, greylag and Greenland white-fronted geese, whilst the lochs are host to flocks of wintering ducks and swans and to resident greylags. Passage in spring and autumn is often very pronounced as birds stop off to feed on their way between Arctic breeding grounds and wintering areas further south. The island is an ideal place to watch bird migration in full swing. Tiree is significantly under-watched at such times and there is a good chance of the casual observer finding something new and interesting. Lying at the south end of the Minch, the island is well-placed for sea-watching and for boat trips to adjacent seabird islands, whilst the numerous rich shallow machair lochs and broad sandy beaches are highly attractive to migrant waders, ducks and gulls. Cover for smaller migrants is scarce at best but nettle patches and bushes in isolated gardens can provide temporary refuge for a surprising range of warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and chats.
The island welcomes visitors who respect property and farm animals, park sensibly and leave gates as they found them. Please be especially careful in the spring and early summer during lambing and when ground-nesting birds can be easily disturbed. Noisy parent birds usually mean that you are too close to a nest or brood, so please retreat to a safe distance and steer clear of obvious gull and tern colonies. When viewing gardens, do so discreetly, or better still, check with the owner if it's OK for you to look - many will be happy to talk about the birds in their gardens, but please respect the wishes of those that are more private. This guide lists some of the most productive sites - see map for locations - and some species to expect.
Excellent sea-watching can often be had from the Oban-Tiree ferry. Between April and October, large numbers of gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags, fulmars and Manx shearwaters are sure to be seen together with smaller numbers of Arctic and common terns. Arctic and great skuas chase the feeding flocks and close checking during the summer should reveal smaller numbers of puffins and storm petrels, particularly out towards the Treshnish Isles and Skerryvore.
Westerly gales in autumn can produce leach's petrels, grey phalaropes and sooty shearwaters in amongst the commoner seabirds, whilst westerlies in late April-May can force pomarine skuas and more rarely long-tailed skuas to move up the passage between Tiree/Coll and Mull. Watch out for harbour porpoises, minke whales, common and bottle-nosed dolphins, whilst basking sharks can be quite numerous in summer. The best watching from the ferry is often just off Ardnamurchan Point and between Coll and Tiree. Summer boat tours visit Staffa and the Treshnish Isles with their teaming seabird colonies including good numbers of puffins, as well as the remote lighthouse of Skerryvore with its roosting seabirds and feeding storm petrels offshore.
Loch a' Phuill • This large machair loch is difficult to approach in April-June because of high densities of breeding birds, however it is most productive for migrants in autumn. Best viewed from the public hide. Low water levels in the autumn create broad muddy/sandy fringes, which attract flocks of passage waders, mostly dunlins, ringed plovers and redshanks but black-tailed godwits, whimbrels and greenshanks are regular together with smaller numbers of scarcer species. The loch hosts large flocks of dabbling and diving ducks and these should be checked thoroughly for scarcities such as gadwall, pintail and scaup.
Large numbers of gulls visit the loch to wash and preen and these frequently include the odd glaucous and Iceland gulls between October and April, as well as kittiwakes from the nearby cliffs. The loch is also attractive to feeding terns and to aerial feeders such as swallows and sand martins in the summer, whilst the adjacent grasslands can hold large numbers of golden plovers during the winter. Otters can be seen from time to time, fishing for eels in this loch as well as at Loch Bhasapol and Loch an Eilein below.
Loch Bhasapol • Best viewed from the public hide. Better for breeding ducks than Loch a' Phuill and holds a large breeding colony of black-headed gulls in summer together with smaller numbers of Arctic terns. Large rafts of winter diving ducks include regular pochards and the odd scaup, plus occasional little and slavonian grebes. The reed-beds hold good numbers of sedge warblers and reed buntings, which in turn attract hunting hen harriers and buzzards. The gull flocks are worth checking for less common species, including little gulls which are near-annual.
Loch an Eilein • Park off the road at (NL987433) to view the east side, and at (NL983434) to view the west. This shallow loch is always worth a passing check. This is the most consistent site on the island for passage black-tailed godwits in April-May and for greenshanks and ruffs in July-September, plus small numbers of ducks and swans throughout the year.
All of the beaches and bays are worth a check, as the gull and wader flocks constantly move in search of the best feeding sites. Flocks of pale-bellied brents regularly stop off along the shore in both spring and autumn. The top three bays are:
Balephetrish Bay • Park along the track at the west end of the bay (NL995471) and view the beach for waders and the inshore waters for divers and duck. Large mixed flocks of sanderlings, ringed plovers and dunlins are present for much of the year and are joined by turnstones and purple sandpipers near rocky outcrops, plus smaller numbers of oystercatchers and bar-tailed godwits. This is a good spot for great northern divers between September and May. The sheltered western end of the beach is good for wagtails, chats and pipits including regular white wagtails in spring, whilst large gull flocks can appear in winter and spring.
Sorobaidh Bay • Long sandy bay, generally most productive at the southern end, but the north end is also worth checking. Park off the road opposite the cemetery (NL984416) and proceed on foot. Similar range of birds to Balephetrish Bay. Combine with Balemartine below.
Gott Bay • Broad 4km long sandy bay. Park off the road and view at the south end (NM039459) and again half way along near some rocks (NM052473). This bay often has the largest flocks of dunlins, ringed plovers, sanderlings and bar-tailed godwits from July to May, plus the odd knot. Little stint and curlew sandpiper are near annual in autumn. The shallow bay is good for feeding terns in summer, mostly little terns and Arctic terns, but the odd sandwich tern can appear on passage. The western end of the bay often holds a few pale-bellied brent geese in spring and autumn, plus a large flock of golden plovers in winter.
Hynish • Park in the car park (NL986393) and explore the area on foot. Migrants use the stone walls, walled gardens and nettle beds for cover.
Balemartine • The coastline south of Sorobaidh Bay is sheltered in westerlies and migrants haunt the shore, nettle beds and gardens. The area west of Balemartine towards Balinoe and Balephuil is one of the best for corncrakes and an evening stroll along the roads in May-July will produce lots of calling birds and hopefully a glimpse of one as they move between calling locations.
Heylipol Church • Park at the church (NL965433) and explore the extensive gorse patches. This site is best in spring when it often holds migrant warblers and flycatchers. Vaul • Roadside gardens here hold some of the best cover on the island and often host island scarcities such as goldcrests and spotted flycatchers in both spring and autumn, but have attracted fewer rarities than more westerly locations. The bay and beach are also worth a check.
Scarinish • The few garden trees and bushes in Scarinish are usually unproductive. Better cover lies to the north at The Manse, including gorse patches and a tiny wood-lot. Balephuil • The gardens and crofts in the SW corner of the island are amongst the most productive for migrant passerines and have gained a reputation for turning up rarities. Yellow-browed warblers have appeared annually in recent autumns.
Milton • The sheltered gardens and coastline near the harbour have turned up several surprises in recent years including kingfisher, red-backed shrike and little bunting
Cover for Smaller Birds
Birds typical of open grasslands such as skylarks, meadow pipits, pied wagtails, lapwings and starlings are abundant on the island. Thanks to recent conservation measures employed by the island's farmers and crofters, the rasping call of the corncrake is once again a typical summer sound on Tiree and birds can be seen with persistence and luck in any of the townships. Wheatears are common in rocky areas, whilst stonechats and linnets frequent the taller heath and gorse. Blackbirds, song thrushes, twites and house sparrows are widespread around the crofts whilst both collared and rock doves frequent farm buildings. Woodland birds such as tits occur only as vagrants, and only a handful of willow warblers breed each year.
Many other smaller birds can however be seen on passage, with small numbers of greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches remaining for the winter. The west coast of the island (Balevullin to Hynish) is the most productive for smaller migrants but cover is particularly scant. Warblers making landfall here can be found in areas of minimal cover but quickly move on. Check all sheltered patches but, as elsewhere, always use discretion around houses. Goldcrests can be numerous in early spring, and smaller numbers of willow warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, whitethroats and garden warblers are annual. Redwings and fieldfares can appear in huge numbers in autumn and are often accompanied by smaller arrivals of continental blackbirds and song thrushes. On clear days, visible migration can include heavy diurnal passage of meadow pipits and skylarks together with smaller numbers of finches and both snow and Lapland buntings. Smaller migrants can be thin on the ground, but if there are blackcaps and goldcrests about, then there is always a chance of something more unusual such as a lesser whitethroat or a pied flycatcher. In some years, the island sees irruptions of northern forest birds such as crossbills, siskins and waxwings, although owing to a lack of suitable habitat these rarely stay for long. Despite being on the west coast, most migrant passerines arrive from the east so easterly winds offer the best chance of new arrivals.
Tiree has produced some first-rate rarities from Europe over the years such as roller, booted warbler and yellow-breasted bunting, and no doubt will continue to do so. American passerines are extremely rare but red-eyed vireo (2008) and northern parula (2010) have both been found recently, hinting at further possibilities.