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.
January brought further wet and windy weather, although there were also some colder drier days. The best bird of the period was the Glossy Ibis from December, which shifted its favoured haunts from Cornaigmore to Balevullin and remained there all month gorging on earthworms, despite the unwelcome attentions of a Merlin! The drake Green-winged Teal reappeared at Loch a’ Phuill (1st) and a Ring-billed Gull was new in from North America at Sandaig (26th). Regular NW gales produced a large influx of “white-winged gulls” from the Arctic including up to 20 Glaucous Gulls and some 10 Iceland Gulls. Other good birds included a very early Great Skua at Gott Bay (29th), 8 Snow Buntings at Sorobaidh Bay (13th) and 4 lingering Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill.
The Big Garden Birdwatch weekend on 27-28 January found fairly high numbers of birds visiting garden feeders in the cold conditions including a Dunnock at Balephuil, but Greenfinches were conspicuous by their absence. A team of eight surveyors counted all the wintering waders around the entire Tiree coastline at the end of the month, something that happens every five years. Some 4,670 waders were counted including 799 Ringed Plover, 734 Turnstone, 731 Sanderling and 196 Purple Sandpiper revealing that the island’s shores remain nationally important for these species.
The January goose count (15th-16th) found a record total of 5,102 Barnacle Geese, as well as 901 Greenland White-fronts and 1,703 Greylags, plus 132 Whooper Swans on the lochs, 6 Pink-footed Geese 2,910 Golden Plover and 2,490 Lapwing. A dead White-beaked Dolphin came ashore at Clachan.
February began wet but became cold and dry later on, as easterly winds took hold. These easterlies also dominated March, which was mostly cold and dry with good spells of sunny weather. There was a steady return of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls to the island throughout the period and a big return of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits in March. Typical spring migrants were slow to arrive in the cold weather in March but included 3 Wheatears (from 19th), 10 Manx Shearwaters off Sorobaidh Bay (22nd), a Whimbrel at Baugh (26th), 4 Goldcrests (from 27th), a White Wagtail at Gott Bay (30th) and 2 Linnets at Balephuil (31st). Large noisy groups of Oystercatchers displayed on the machairs whilst the sounds of displaying Lapwing, Snipe and Skylark also rang out across the grasslands on calmer days.
Rarest bird was the Glossy Ibis which remained at Balevullin to 4th February and then it, or another, appeared at Kilmoluaig on 25th-31st March. Up to 15 Glaucous Gulls and 12 Iceland Gulls were scattered around the island throughout, whilst visiting Sea Eagles were seen on various dates including 2 adults together near Balephetrish (30th March). Island spring rarities in March included a Blue Tit at Milton (10th-11th), a very confiding Woodcock at Balephuil (19th-22nd), a male Brambling at Balephuil (22nd-23rd) and a Great Tit at Balephuil (30th). Volunteers on the Beached Bird Survey at the end of February found relatively small numbers of dead seabirds overall on the island and these were mostly focussed on the west coast beaches.
All-island counts in both months found a record total of 5,126 Barnacle Geese, plus 839 Greenland White-fronts and 1,956 Greylags, as well as 2,220 Golden Plover and 2,290 Lapwing on the grasslands. The Whooper Swans began heading north once more with many flocks noted passing through the island in March including a high count of 231 on the island’s lochs (24th).
April was rather cool and dry with many calm sunny days. The cool weather held back the start of spring for much of our wildlife. The first Corncrakes returned to Mannal, Balephuil and Balinoe (24th), three days later than in 2017, with at least 15 calling males reported around the island by the month-end, whilst the first Swallows did not appear until 20th, some three weeks later than last year.
Clear skies and southerly winds allowed the Barnacle Geese to depart en masse on 10th-11th with most of the Greenland White-fronts leaving around the same time. The favourable conditions meant that many migrating birds were able to pass over the island without stopping, so there was no repeat of the record-breaking numbers of April 2017. Black-tailed Godwits, all in their brick-red breeding dress, peaked at a modest 338 on 19th, whilst Golden Plover numbers peaked at 6,500 on the Reef on 24th. Rain near the end of the month grounded some 412 Pale-bellied Brent around the coast (24th) including 16 ringed birds from sites in Arctic Canada, Iceland and Ireland, although these all quickly moved on. Island rarities included a Cackling Goose at Ruaig (5th), the long-staying Glossy Ibis at Kilmoluaig (to 19th), a male Black Redstart at Carnan Mor (11th), a pair of Garganey at Barrapol (26th), up to 4 lingering Iceland Gulls and 6 Glaucous Gulls, an adult Sea Eagle at Loch an Eilein (27th) and a Brambling at Balephuil (11th). Further returning migrants included Chiffchaff and Greenshank (7th), Blackcap (8th), Great Skua and Little Tern (9th), Willow Warbler (10th), Sandwich Tern (14th), Sand Martin and Arctic Skua (16th), Whimbrel (19th), Swallow (20th), Greenshank (18th), Arctic Tern (20th), Common Sandpiper and Cuckoo (28th) Grasshopper Warbler (27th), Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat (30th), plus lots more Wheatears and White Wagtails.
A talk about the seabirds of St. Kilda went down very well at the Tiree Primary School, with many well-informed questions at the end from the pupils. The value of checking dead seabirds for rings was highlighted when a dead Guillemot on Crossapol beach (16th) was found to be carrying a data-logger. This bird was first ringed on Canna in July 2006 and its data-logger was fitted in July 2017. This was sent off and the downloaded data should reveal intimate details of its recent movements.
Sadly, at least three different Otters were run over on the roads during the month, whilst another was watched catching and eating an adult Greylag Goose at Loch an Eilein! Offshore, groups of Common Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises were seen on calmer days, whilst a dead 6 metre-long Minke Whale washed ashore at The Green (30th). Belted Beauty moths were noted once more on the machairs and the first Green-veined White and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies emerged at the month-end, together with the first queen bumblebees.
Corncrakes returned in good numbers and were calling all around the island by the month-end. Vegetation cover for them in the fields became increasingly tall as a result of the warm settled weather later in the month, after a cold delayed start to spring. The annual night-time census will be completed in June and this will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 316 calling males in 2017.
The warm calm conditions resulted in a good breeding season for many birds with large numbers of Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank chicks around the island. Garden birds also did well with many early broods of Blackbird, Song Thrush and House Sparrow noted during the month, whilst the mass emergence of Starling fledglings took place four days little later than in 2017 from 31st. There were also at least 8 Cuckoos on the island and possible breeding pairs of Dunnock, Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Blackcap, none of which normally breed here. Numbers of seabirds nesting at Ceann a’ Mhara were either up or stable compared to 2017 for all species, whilst the Arctic Terns also got down to egg-laying at the month-end. Should anyone out walking / running 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.
Best birds were a Bonaparte’s Gull from North America at Barrapol (31st) and a Common Rosefinch from Eastern Europe at the Balephuil (28th), whilst other island rarities included 2 female Hawfinches at Balephuil (10th-14th), with the same garden producing a Tree Sparrow (15th-16th), a male Common Redstart (27th) and a Garden Warbler (28th), whilst there was a Wood Warbler at Carnan Mor (6th) and a Pied Flycatcher at Hynish (28th). Other spring migrants included a calling Quail at Balephuil (31st), up to 8 passage Ruff, 8 Pomarine Skuas (4th), 3 Little Gulls (30th-31st), an adult Little Stint at Gott Bay (27th-28th) with others at Vaul (30th-31st) and Loch a’ Phuill (31st), up to 2 Curlew Sandpipers at Sorobaidh Bay (25th-31st) with 2 more at Loch a’ Phuill (31st), a Swift at Carnan Mor (14th), a Whinchat at Balephuil (9th) with a very late Fieldfare there (3rd) and 2 Siskins at Balinoe (1st) with another at Hynish (30th). The last week of May saw the emergence of the first Four-spotted Chaser Dragonflies and all three of our damselfly species. Green-veined White and Marsh Fritillary butterflies flew on warmer days, together with a large influx of Silver Y moths, whilst Mother Shipton moths at Ceann a’ Mhara (16th) and near the Ringing Stone (28th) were new for the island. The first Basking Sharks appeared offshore as the coastal waters slowly warmed up with some 50 noted on 28th and there were frequent sightings of Common Dolphins, Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Minke Whales, plus 6 Risso’s Dolphins off Hynish (28th). A Pipistrelle Bat hawking at dusk at Balephuil (21st) was a rare sight for the island.
Three night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 321 calling male Corncrakes. This figure is slightly up on the 316 birds recorded in 2017. The thriving population on Tiree represents around a third of all the Corncrakes in Britain and is a result of all the Corncrake-friendly management put in over the years by the islands’ crofters and farmers.
June was mostly warm and dry with long settled spells although storm “Hector” brought some much-needed rain mid-month. Our breeding birds appeared to do well with large groups of island-bred Lapwings, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls by the month-end. Many garden birds such as House Sparrow, Song Thrush and Blackbird produced their second broods, whilst the first broods emerged of Swallow, Wren, Willow Warbler, Wheatear and Twite. Seabird breeding success also looks good so far with increased numbers of breeding Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Guillemots and Razorbills, whilst the first Little Terns fledged at the month-end.
Best birds were the Bonaparte’s Gull from North America again at Barrapol (1st), a male Subalpine Warbler from Southern Europe at Cornaigbeg (8th), a Marsh Warbler at Balephuil (3rd) and a Rose-coloured Starling at Hynish (6th). Other good birds included a singing Reed Warbler at Balephul (6th) with others at Mannal (3rd) and Loch Bhasapol (11th), a Marsh Harrier at Sandaig (24th), a Little Stint at Gott Bay (10th) and an adult Curlew Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (26th). There were very late Redwings at Baugh (2nd) and Gott Bay (12th), whilst the first 4 returning Golden Plovers were at Sandaig (29th), marking the start of the autumn migration already!
Our resident Marsh Fritillaries, Six-spot Burnet Moths, Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies and bumblebees were on the wing on sunny days, the latter including several queen Great Yellow Bumblebees. Migrant Painted Lady butterflies, Red Admirals and Silver Y moths all arrived in large numbers from mid-month. Basking Sharks were again scarce but there were several sightings of Minke Whales, Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Common Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises.
July remained unusually settled, warm and dry, although the island missed out on the heat of the adjacent mainland. The machair began to burn in the absence of rain until light bands of rain arrived at the month end. Most of our breeding birds did well and there were large numbers of young Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Twite, Linnets, Starlings and House Sparrows all around the island. A juvenile Cuckoo at Balephuil (from 22nd) was just the second confirmed successful breeding by the species on the island, following another juvenile there in July 2017 and the same site also held a family of locally-reared Water Rails. There were good numbers of Mute Swan broods on the lochs, plus scattered broods of Tufted Duck, Mallard, Gadwall, Pintail, Teal and Shoveler. It was also a good year for the cliff-nesting seabirds at Ceann a’ Mhara, with Shags and Kittiwakes producing some 170 and 300 fledged young respectively, whilst the Fulmars fledged some 500 young and Arctic Terns around the coast got around 250 young away.
July is normally a quiet month for migrants but highlights included up to 3 Rose-coloured Starlings together at the east end of Traigh Bhi (17th-31st) and a very early adult American Golden Plover at Sandaig and Barrapol (18th-23rd). Other unusual visitors included a Carrion Cow at Sandaig (from 8th), 2 Woodpigeons at Balephuil (3rd-15th) and a juvenile Robin at Balephuil (14th). Return wader passage was intermittent but there were increasing numbers of Curlew and Golden Plover joining up with the local Lapwings and Oystercatchers on the first cut-silage fields, and of Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Turnstone on the beaches. Small numbers of Basking Sharks appeared at the month-end, whilst up to 4 Pipistrelle bats over-summered at one location.
Bumblebees emerged in large numbers later in the month as the queens were joined by their workers, including many sightings of the rare Great Yellow Bumblebee (see update from Tiree’s Great Yellow Bumblebee Project). Moth-trapping during the month resulted in several new species for the island including Small Fan-footed Wave and Bramble Shoot moth at Balephuil and Scalloped Oak at Milton. A Dark-green Fritillary photographed at Ceann a’ Mhara (13th) was the first record of this fast-flying butterfly for the island.
August was mostly calm and relatively dry, although overnight rains kept the grasslands green compared to much of Scotland. Our breeding birds appeared to do well with increasing gatherings of Swallows, Twite and Linnets, plus scattered Stonechat families around the island. A few Corncrakes were calling at the start of the month with a very late bird still calling at Loch Bhasapol (21st). The local Greylags also had a productive breeding season with 1,968 counted at the end of the month including 40% goslings. Freshly cut silage fields attracted large flocks of gulls, Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Rock Doves and Starlings, and these were joined by returning migrant groups of Golden Plover and Curlew, plus bumper numbers of juvenile Black-tailed Godwits including a flock of 205 at Kenovay.
There were increasing numbers of passage Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling on the beaches and loch-sides. These were joined by small groups of Knot, at least 27 Whimbrel, 16 Greenshank and a lone Little Stint at Gott Bay (13th). At least one Rose-coloured Starling remained from the influx in July with regular sightings in the Kenovay and Balephetrish area all month. Other unusual birds included the long-staying American Golden Plover at Sandaig and an adult Ring-billed Gull from North America at the Maze (14th). Sea-watching was patchy but included a Pomarine Skua and a Balearic Shearwater off Hynish (26th), plus 11 Storm Petrels. Migrant songbirds began trickling through with the first White Wagtails (from 20th) and Greenland Wheatears (from 20th), plus the first Willow Warblers, Robins and Dunnocks back in the island’s gardens and an early Blackcap at Balephuil (31st).
Small numbers of Basking Sharks and Harbour Porpoises were seen offshore on calmer days. There was an unprecedented arrival of up to six long-dead Cuvier’s Beaked Whales on the island’s beaches. These are small oceanic whales that dive to great depths to feed on squid and were part of a worrying influx of 30+ individuals up and down the western seaboard of the British Isles. Good numbers of Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacock butterflies were on the wing during the month, whilst Graylings showed once more at their only known breeding site on Tiree. Moth catches declined in size as the month progressed but include a Golden-rod Pug (3rd), which was new for Tiree plus 5 new species of micro-moth.
September was mostly breezy, with the winds mostly coming out of the west bringing wetter weather but also with the odd calmer and drier spell. Westerly winds brought a small number of American waders including 4 juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers involving 1 at Sandaig (1st-5th), 2 at Vaul golf course (12th) with perhaps the same pair at Kenovay later the same day, and another at Loch a’ Phuill (21st). There was also a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (27th), plus the long-staying adult American Golden Plover at Sandaig (to 24th), which was joined by a second adult bird (12th). An absence of easterly winds did not stop continental drift migrants from reaching Tiree, although numbers and variety were lower than in 2017. Showiest birds were the
long-staying immature Red-backed Shrike, which frequented the bushes around Heylipol Church (23rd-30th) and the adult Rose-coloured starling that remained in the Kenovay area (to 4th). Other good birds included only our third-ever record of an Icterine Warbler at Balephuil (2nd) and 2 Lapland Buntings at Sandaig (23rd) in amongst a small arrival of commoner warblers, Goldcrests
Onshore winds brought good numbers of seabirds inshore including a Leach’s Petrel (19th), 5 Storm Petrels and 27 Sooty Shearwaters in amongst large numbers of Gannets, auks, Kittiwakes and Manx Shearwaters. Large flocks of birds built up to feed in the cut silage fields, included some 2,000 Golden Plovers and 4,000 Lapwings around the island, plus hundreds of locally produced Starlings and Common Gulls. Most of our summer migrants departed during the month with only small numbers of Swallows and Wheatears remaining at the month-end. The first returning Redwing was at Scarinish (25th), whilst the first family of migrating Whooper Swans was at Loch a’ Phuill (27th). Barnacle Geese started flying through (from 30th), 16 Pinkfeet were noted (from 5th) and small groups
of Pale-bellied Brent Geese appeared on the beaches (from 11th). Our wintering raptors also returned with increasing numbers of Merlins, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers noted around the island.
A Leatherback Turtle was photographed feeding at sea about 1 mile south of Milton (3rd) – this is thought to be the first live sighting of this huge reptile from Tiree’s seas, which is now know to be a regular visitor to Scottish waters, feasting on jellyfish in the Gulf Stream. A few dolphins and porpoises were spotted on the rare calmer days but Basking Sharks slipped away early in the month. Numbers of moths caught at light-traps declined during the month but included the first-ever Red-line Quakers for the island.
October was dominated by westerly winds, which kept the island mild until the end of the month, when the wind switched to the colder north bringing the first frosts of the winter. The last of our summer migrants drifted away during the month with the last Wheatears noted at Mannal on 14th, the last Swallow at Vaul on 12th and the last Goldcrest at Scarinish on 18th. Rarest bird of the month was the long staying Red-backed Shrike from Continental Europe at Heylipol Church (to 10th). Other scarce migrants from the continent included a Common Rosefinch at Balephuil (3rd-4th), Yellow-browed Warblers at Balephuil (14th) and Carnan Mor (16th), Lesser Whitethroats at Balephuil (1st-6th), Scarinish (1st-5th) and Cornaig (5th), a Ring Ouzel at Balephuil (14th), a Grey Wagtail at Balephuil (11th-13th) and a Dotterel at Scarinish (2nd-23rd). There was a smaller than normal influx of winter thrushes towards the end of the month peaking at 300 Redwings (25th) and just 8 Fieldfares (from 13th), plus increased numbers of Blackbirds and Song Thrushes. Winter finches included 7 Brambling (from 11th), 42 Goldfinches, 2 Siskins (6th-13th), 2 Greenfinches and at least 9 Chaffinches (from 6th), whilst an early juvenile Glaucous Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (28th was a real sign of winter approaching.
Numbers of winter wildfowl such as Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye and Tufted Duck built up steadily on the lochs during the month. In amongst these were 2 Little Grebes at Loch Riaghain, a Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill and a find drake Pochard plus 2 Coot at Loch Bhasapol. Heavy passage of Barnacle Geese, Greenland White-fronts and Whooper Swans was noted on and off all month, although numbers of the latter were lower than normal on the lochs, possibly because high water levels prevented them from reaching their favoured pondweed food. Strong onshore winds brought hundreds of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes streaming past offshore and spotted in amongst these were scarcer fare including 3 Leach’s Petrels, 2 Storm Petrels, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 3 Pomarine Skuas, 8 Arctic Skuas, 10 Great Skuas, 2 Grey Phalaropes, 2 Little Auks (26th) and the last 2 Arctic Terns off Hynish (12th). Moth-trapping continued to be productive until colder temperatures set in at the month-end, with a good late showing of Red-line Quakers, Brindled Ochres, Large Wainscots, Red and Dark Sword-grasses and Angle-shades.
November was mostly rather mild, windy and wet but there were also some more settled, drier and colder spells. It was a good month for rare North American birds on the island with a record group of 3 Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol (from 12th), a Ring-billed Gull at Sandaig (from 11th) and our first ever Todd’s Canada Goose at Caoles (from 15th). Other good birds included a Little Egret at Balephetrish (12th), a very late Dotterel at Scarinish (to 19th), 2 Long-eared Owls roosting at Balephuil (5th-6th), at least 16 Jackdaws and 1 Rook at Heylipol/Crossapol, 5 Blackcaps (to 18th), 3 late Chiffchaffs (to 10th), 2 Bramblings (to 17th) and 10 Snow Buntings (10th-18th).
All-island surveys of our wintering birds (15th-16th) found 812 Greenland White-fronts,10 Pink-footed Geese, 2,935 Golden Plovers, 2,845 Lapwings and 132 Whooper Swans. The counts of Greylags and Barnacle Geese were complicated by poor weather and possible shooting disturbance, so await counts in better conditions in December. A recently dead adult Bottle-nosed Dolphin was washed ashore at Gott Bay, whilst mild nights at the start of the month kept moth activity going later than normal and a new micro moth for the island (Blastobasis lacticolella) was trapped at Balephuil on 4th.
December started wet, windy and mild but there was a welcome prolonged calmer and drier spell over the Festive period. The most unusual birds of the month included the flock of 3 Ring-necked Ducks from November, which regularly moved between Loch Bhasapol and Loch a’ Phuill, the long-staying Todd’s Canada Goose at Caoles and the Ring-billed Gull still at Sandaig. New arrivals included a drake Green-winged Teal from North America at Loch a’ Phuill (from 23rd), possibly the same individual that has returned annually to Tiree since at least 2010, a brief Kumlien’s Gull at West Hynish and a Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill (from 23rd). A wintering flock of 18 Jackdaws remained in the Heylipol/Crossapol Farm area, up to 3 Coot graced Loch Bhasapol and 4 Little Grebes were at Loch Rigahain (10th). Some 40 Common Dolphins and 6 Harbour Porpoises were feeding between Tiree and Coll (27th), together with large numbers of Guillemots, Kittiwakes and a few Gannets, all making the most of the unusually calm conditions.
The generally mild weather encouraged some smaller birds to stay on the island including 3 Linnets at Traigh Bhagh (27th), up to 3 Greenfinches around West Tiree and the odd Pied Wagtail on the beaches, plus scattered groups of Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Redwings. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 26-28 January will once again provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
An all-island count (10th-11th) found a total of 3,989 Barnacle Geese (over 1,000 less than in December 2017), as well as 672 Greenland White-fronts, 1,709 Greylags, 14 Pink-footed Geese and 1 Pale-bellied Brent Goose, as well as 2,080 Golden Plover and 2,775 Lapwing plus a high count of 182 Whooper Swans.