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.
began relatively mild and calm, with less rain than usual and some crisp sunny days followed by light snow and frost at the month-end. All of the rare birds from December remained as they were, including the Todd’s Canada Goose at Caoles, the Ring-billed Gull at Sandaig and the trio of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol. The drake Green-winged Teal reappeared at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd-17th). A lack of NW gales meant that unlike last January, there was no big influx of “white-winged” gulls from the Arctic and just 1 Glaucous Gull appeared at Loch a’ Phuill (11th). Other good birds included adult Sea Eagles at Milton (1st) and Loch a’ Phuill (17th), a Pale-bellied Brent Goose at Heylipol (15th), up to 18 Jackdaws at Heylipol/Crossapol all month and 2 lingering Scaup at Loch a’ Phuill with a high count of 8 Gadwall there (28th).
The Big Garden Birdwatch weekend on 26th-27th January found fairly high numbers of birds visiting garden feeders in the cold conditions, including good numbers of Chaffinches but Greenfinches were conspicuous by their absence and only one Dunnock was seen. The January goose count (14th-15th) found a total of 4,195 Barnacle Geese, as well as 765 Greenland White-fronts and 1,863 Greylags, plus 182 Whooper Swans on the lochs, 16 Pink-footed Geese 2,290 Golden Plover and 2,485 Lapwing. Dead Common Dolphins came ashore at Port Ban and the Green, and there was an unusual influx on the beaches of the alien-like barrel-riding parasite Phronima sedentaria.
The winter weather remained rather benign with unusually warm temperatures at the month-end. In the on-going mild conditions, the first returning migrants were early, including our earliest-ever Goldcrest at Balephuil (22nd) and a rare spring Brambling there (from 16th). There was an obvious influx of adult Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the last two weeks, whilst numbers of Pied Wagtails also increased on the beaches, as the one or two wintering birds were joined by early migrants. Other signs of spring included Shelducks returning to the coasts, large numbers of Fulmars back around the cliffs, flocks of Redwings in sub-song and noisy groups of displaying Oystercatchers including colour-ringed birds that had wintered in Ireland and Wales, plus Skylark song-flights on the brighter calmer days. Big numbers of Frogs and Toads were on the move at the end of the month on damp nights as they headed towards their breeding pools, whilst early moths included two new species for the island. A hardy band of volunteers searched Tiree’s beaches on the annual “Beached Bird Survey” over the weekend of 23-24 February and found very few dead seabirds, although there were also two dead dolphins and a dead porpoise. A White Skate egg-case found at Traigh Bhagh on 17 February was the first for Tiree and was one of only a handful ever found away from Celtic Sea coasts.
More unusual birds included the long-staying Ring-billed Gull at Sandaig (to 14th), the three Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol, wandering Sea Eagles around West Tiree (1st and 27th), the 18 Jackdaws all month at Heylipol/Crossapol and Glaucous Gulls at Balephetrish Bay (11th) and the Reef (14th). A goose count (11th-152th) found 4665 Barnacle Geese, 1992 Greylags, 867 Greenland White-fronts, 7 Pinkfeet, 123 Whooper Swans, 1910 Golden Plover and 2270 Lapwing.
April was very dry with mostly light SE winds and some warmer sunny days. The calm and relatively warm weather meant that spring came a little earlier than in 2018 for much of our wildlife. The first Corncrake returned to Sandaig (20th), four days earlier than in 2018, with at least 20 calling males reported around the island by the month-end, although grass growth in the fields was held back by the dry conditions.
The persistent SE winds allowed the Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese to depart en masse for their staging grounds in Iceland very early on 6th-7th, although there were unusual influxes of Canada Geese and Pinkfeet later in the month. The favourable conditions for migration meant that many birds passed over Tiree without stopping. As a result, numbers of Black-tailed Godwits peaked at a modest 165 on 20th, whilst Golden Plover numbers peaked at just 4,350 on the Reef on 18th. However, the month was notable for rare migrants with no fewer than three new species recorded for the island. First up was a splendid Black-winged Stilt on roadside pools near Heylipol Church (16th-18th). This elegant wader is more at home on coastal lagoons around the Mediterranean, with only around a dozen previous Scottish records. This was followed by a female Mandarin Duck at Cornaigmore (20th), presumably from the small breeding population in mainland Argyll, and then a flighty Greater Yellowlegs from North America at Loch a’ Phuill (28th). Meanwhile the pair of Ring-necked Ducks remained at Loch Bhasapol all month and other unusual birds included a Great Tit at Balephuil (4th) with a Rook there (15th-16th), an Osprey at Loch a’ Phuill (19th), an adult Sea Eagle at Balevullin (5th) and an immature Sea Eagle at Hough (21st). An arrival of at least 1,000 Redwings at Balephuil (7th) included colour-ringed bird “426” from Höfn, SE Iceland. Further returning migrants included Manx Shearwater (2nd), Lesser Redpoll (3rd), Chiffchaff (4th), Blackcap, White Wagtail and Great Skua (5th), Sand Martin and Linnet (6th), Woodpigeon (8th), Whimbrel, Little Tern, Swallow, House Martin, Redstart and Willow Warbler (11th), Greenshank (13th), Whinchat, Grasshopper Warbler and Arctic Tern (20th), Common Sandpiper (21st), Sandwich Tern and Common Redpoll (22nd), Common Tern, Tree Pipit, Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat (23rd), plus lots more Wheatears and White Wagtails.
Otters were widely reported including several sightings of new cubs. Offshore, groups of Harbour Porpoises and the odd Bottle-nosed Dolphin were seen on calmer days, whilst a young Sperm Whale washed ashore at Traigh nan Gilean. The first 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 was slow to get going in the rather cool dry conditions but improved with rains in the last week of the month. The annual night time census will be completed in June and this will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 322 calling males in 2018.
The breeding season was in full swing for many of our birds with many Lapwing broods seen, although Oystercatcher and Redshank broods appeared a little later than normal at the very end of the month. Garden birds also did well with many broods of Blackbird, Song Thrush, Stonechat and House Sparrow noted, whilst the mass emergence of Starling fledglings occurred on 31st, the same day as in 2018. There were also at least 7 Cuckoos on the island and possible breeding pairs of Dunnock, Whitethroat and House Martin, none of which normally breed here. Numbers of seabirds nesting at Ceann a’ Mhara were either up or stable compared to 2018 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 Gull-billed Tern at Loch a’ Phuill (17th) and then at Loch Riaghain (20th-27th), followed by a female Red-backed Shrike at Balephuil (21st), whilst other island rarities included a wandering Little Egret (from 8th), a Wood Warbler at Balephuil (5th), a Yellow Wagtail at Loch a’ Phuill (8th-10th), a Black Redstart at Balemartine (12th), 3 Tree Sparrows at Hynish (28th) and Sea Eagles on three dates. Other spring migrants included up to 7 passage Ruff, 5 Dotterel (8th-9th), a Little Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (29th), a Curlew Sandpiper at Sorobaidh Bay (10th), 3 Whinchats, some 14 Spotted Flycatchers (from 14th) and at least 13 Woodpigeons. 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, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Marsh Fritillary butterflies all flew on warmer days. Moths were slow to show in the cool conditions but included a new micro moth Glyphipteris simpliciella at Kenovay. The first Basking Sharks appeared offshore as the coastal waters slowly warmed up with some 15 noted off the south coast on 27th and there were frequent sightings of Common Dolphins, Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Minke Whales, plus Otters on the lochs.
Three night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 298 calling male Corncrakes. This figure is slightly down on the 322 birds recorded in 2018. 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 rather cool and dry, although there were some heavier showers from mid-month. Our breeding birds appeared to have mixed results in the cool dry conditions. Numbers of Lapwing and Black-headed Gull chicks in particular were well down, whilst Redshanks, Oystercatchers and Common Gulls did a little better but still had fewer chicks than in 2018. Smaller birds on the other hand, such as House Sparrow, Starling, Stonechat, Song Thrush and Blackbird, seemed to have a bumper breeding season, whilst the first broods emerged of Wren, Willow Warbler, Wheatear and Twite. Seabird breeding success looked reasonably good so far with increased numbers of breeding Kittiwakes and Fulmars, although several Arctic Tern colonies failed mid-month, whilst the first Little Terns fledged at the month-end.
Best birds were a Hobby at Milton (6th), a Turtle Dove at Heylipol (8th), 2 Little Gulls at Loch Bhasapol (4th), a Quail at Crossapol (18th) and a female Bullfinch at Scarinish (3rd), plus 4 nesting pairs of House Martin and up to 3 nesting pairs of Whitethroat. Some 6 Whooper Swans summered on the island, as did at least 2 Black-tailed Godwits and up to six Golden Plovers.
The cool breezy conditions did not favour our bumblebees, but our resident Marsh Fritillaries, Six-spot Burnet Moths, Highland Darters and Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies were all on the wing on sunny days. Migrant Painted Lady butterflies, Red Admirals and Silver Y moths all arrived in good numbers from mid-month. Tiree’s own micro-moth the Tiree Twist, found nowhere else in the UK, was relocated at its main site on 26 June 2019 in a joint search by folk from Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Tiree Ranger Service joined by local volunteers. Basking Sharks were again scarce but there were several sightings of Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Common Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises, as well as a dead Risso’s Dolphin that came ashore at Sorobaidh Bay.
July was mostly settled and warm with occasional spells of rain to keep the vegetation growing, which resulted in a spectacular display of flowers across the machairs. Most of our breeding birds did well and there were large numbers of young Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Sedge Warblers, Twite, Linnets, Starlings and House Sparrows all around the island. Up to four pairs of House Martins bred this year and a pair of Whitethroats raised at least two young, the first confirmed breeding for many years. A few small Mute Swan broods appeared on the lochs, where there were also scattered broods of Red-breasted Merganser, Tufted Duck, Mallard, 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 115 and 480 fledged young respectively, whilst the Fulmars fledged some 750 young and Arctic Terns around the coast got some 150 young away.
July is a quiet month for migrants, but odd Swifts were noted at Milton (9th), Baugh (9th) and Ruaig (27th), a Sandwich Tern was at Gott Bay (1st), a very early Goldcrest was at Gott (28th), a late Blackcap was at Balephuil (1st) and single Spotted Flycatchers were at Balephuil (8th and 19th). Return wader passage was earlier than normal with big numbers of Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the beaches, plus increasing numbers of Curlew and Golden Plover joining up with the local Lapwings and Oystercatchers on the first cut-silage fields. Scarcer waders included a Green Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (28th), plus two Wood Sandpipers and a Spotted Redshank in Central Tiree (30th).
Small numbers of Basking Sharks appeared late in the month and there were regular sightings of a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins around the coast, as well as pods of Common Dolphins and a family group of Risso’s Dolphiins off Milton (29th). After a slow start, bumblebees emerged in larger numbers later in the month as the queens were joined by their workers, including a few sightings of the rare Great Yellow Bumblebee. Moth-trapping highlight of the month was a Tiree Twist at Milton – the first to have been light-trapped here. Butterflies also did well in the sunny weather with a record influx of hundreds of Painted Ladies in the last week, plus smaller numbers of Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks.
August was often warm and sunny but there was heavy rain at the month-end. Our breeding birds appeared to do well with increasing gatherings of Starlings, Sand Martins, Swallows, Twite and Linnets, plus scattered Stonechat, Redpoll and Sedge Warbler families around the island, although late broods of Swallows struggled in the rain. More Corncrakes than normal were calling in the first half of the month with four birds still calling around the Reef (15th). The local Greylags also had a productive breeding season with 2,730 counted at the month-end including 41% 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, Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit
There were increasing numbers of passage Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling on the beaches. These were joined by small groups of Knot, at least 17 Whimbrel, 3 Ruff and 28 Bar-tailed Godwits. Sea-watching was patchy but included 9 Storm Petrels and 3 Sooty Shearwaters off Hynish. Migrant songbirds began trickling through with the first White Wagtails (from 28th), a Common Crossbill at Carnan Mor (24th), a very early Chiffchaff and 2 Goldcrests at Balephuil (27th), plus a large influx of Greenland Wheatears (from 28th) involving hundreds of birds. Rarest bird of the month was a brief Two-barred Crossbill at Balephuil (10th), the first record of this Russian-breeding species from Argyll.
Small numbers of Basking Sharks and Harbour Porpoises were seen offshore on calmer days. Good numbers of Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacock butterflies were on the wing during the month, but these were heavily outnumbered by the largest influx of Painted Ladies to reach Tiree in recent decades. Moth-trapping revealed a wide variety of late summer moths such as Pink-barred Sallow, but no new species for Tiree. Our bumblebees made the most of the good weather with many fresh queens out at the month-end.
September was often rather settled with many calm sunny days, although there was also much rain at the start of the month and occasional near-gales. Westerly winds brought a small number of American waders to the island including a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper at Vaul Golf Course (3rd-12th), a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (15th) and an adult American Golden Plover at Baugh (26th). The settled conditions in between the storms favoured the arrival of continental drift migrants including at least four different Yellow-browed Warblers, with up to three at Balephuil from 25th and one at Vaul (28th), as well as two Pied Flycatchers at Balephuil (16th and 30th), late Spotted Flycatchers at Caoles (25th) and Balephuil (24th-27th), a Reed Warbler at Balephuil (19th), a Redstart at Balephuil (19th) and our latest ever Wood Warbler at Balephuil (18th-20th) in amongst a good arrival of commoner warblers, Goldcrests, Common Redpolls and Robins.
Onshore winds brought large numbers of seabirds inshore Pomarine Skuas off the Ringing Stone (16th) and Balevullin (30th), a Grey Phalarope off Aird (4th), 6 Leach’s Petrels, 3 Storm Petrels, 4 Sooty Shearwaters, 8 Arctic Terns, 1 Common Tern (5th), 20 Arctic Skuas and 49 Great Skuas, plus 4,920 Manx Shearwaters in 1hr off Aird (5th). Most of our summer migrants departed during the month with only a handful of Swallows and Wheatears remaining at the month-end, although there was an influx of some 30 Greenland Wheatears (12th). The first returning Redwings were at Balephuil (30th) and there was a bumper passage of some 1,520+ Pink-footed Geese heading SE over the island (29th-30th), whilst a few single Pale-bellied Brent Geese appeared on the beaches (from 27th). Our wintering raptors also returned with increasing numbers of Merlins, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers noted around the island.
Mammal of the month was the Common Pipistrelle Bat, one of which was found in a barn in Balemartine on 19 August and then single bats were seen and tracked using bat-detectors on various dates in September at Balephuil and Heylipol. It remains unclear if Pipistrelles are resident on Tiree or if they simply visit the island during spells of good weather in the summer from neighbouring islands. Good numbers of dolphins and porpoises were spotted on the calmer days as well as the odd late Minke Whale and a few late Basking Sharks off Crossapol and Sorbaidh Bays (27th). Numbers of moths caught at light-traps declined during the month but included the first-ever Pearly Underwing for the island at Kenovay (15th).
October saw winds from all directions, but the island relatively mild until the last week of the month, when the wind switched to the north. The last of our summer migrants drifted away during the month with the last Wheatears noted at Loch a’ Phuill on 14th, the last Willow Warbler at Scarinish on 4th and the last Goldcrests at Balephuil on 20th, although a Cuckoo near Loch Stanail on 17th was the latest ever recorded on the island. Rarest bird of the month was a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher at Sandaig (5th), which remained until the month end and was the first confirmed record of this rare wader from Eastern Siberia for Tiree. Other scarce migrants included 2 different juvenile American Golden Plovers at Middleton (12th-14th) and Loch a’ Phuill (14th-15th), 2 Waxwings briefly at Balephuil (24th), four more Yellow-browed Warblers at Balephuil (to 18th), Pied Flycatchers at Scarnish (14th) and Balephuil (14th), a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Balephuil (14th), Ring Ouzels at Balephuil (15th) and Heylipol Church (18th), a late Whinchat at Scarinish (18th), a Siberian Chiffchaff at Balephuil (25th) and a Tree Sparrow at Balephuil (2nd). There was a large influx of winter thrushes towards the end of the month peaking at over 1,000 Redwings (24th) and at least 28 Fieldfares (from 14th). Winter finches included 3 Brambling (from 5th), 25 Goldfinches, 10 Siskins (28th), 2 Greenfinches and just 1 Chaffinch (18th), plus 11 Snow Buntings (from 1st).
Numbers of winter wildfowl such as Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye and Tufted Duck built up steadily on the lochs during the month. In amongst these was a Little Grebe at Loch Riaghain, a Slavonian Grebe at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd), up to 5 Scaup at Loch Bhasapol and Loch a’ Phuill and a juvenile female Ring-necked Duck from North America at Loch a’ Phuill (25th-28th). An unusually heavy passage of Pink-footed Geese saw some 2,000 birds pass through (1st-2nd) with flocks of 120 on the ground (1st) and scattered groups of up to 12 remaining to the month end. Heavy passage of Barnacle Geese, Greenland White-fronts and Whooper Swans was noted on and off all month, with heaviest goose passage on 12th-13th. A rare Todd’s Canada Goose appeared with the Barnacle Geese at Balephetrish (14th) and remained to the month end. Occasional strong onshore winds brought hundreds of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes streaming past offshore and spotted in amongst these were scarcer fare including 2 Storm Petrels, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 5 Pomarine Skuas, 14 Arctic Skuas and 6 Great Skuas. Moth-trapping produced a few more late surprises including the first Setaceous Hebrew Characters for many years on the island, whilst Otters had a good showing both around the coast and on the lochs.
There were several calm dry days in December but there was also a period of more typical Atlantic storms over the Festive period, which brought gales and heavy rain. The most unusual birds of the month included the pair of Ring-necked Ducks from October, which regularly moved between Loch Bhasapol and Loch a’ Phuill, the long-staying Todd’s Canada Goose in with the Barnacle Geese in NE Tiree and a very late Siberian Chiffchaff at Balephuil (22nd). New arrivals included a third-winter Glaucous Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (4th) and then at An Fhaodhail (7th), followed by up to 3 different juvenile Glaucous Gulls at Gott Bay (21st), The Maze (26th) and An Fhaodhail (31st). 2 Little Grebes remained all month at Loch Riaghain, whilst there were up to 3 Long-tailed Ducks, 2 Scaup and 2 Gadwall at Loch a’ Phuill. Two small bright-pink cuttlefish bones at Traigh Bhi proved to be the first records of the Elegant Cuttlefish from the Hebrides.
The generally mild weather encouraged some smaller birds to stay on the island including at least 7 Pied Wagtails on the beaches, plus scattered groups of Meadow Pipits, Goldfinches and Redwings. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 25-27 January will once again provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
An all-island count (17th-18th) found a high total of 5.646 Barnacle Geese, as well as 750 Greenland White-fronts, 2,253 Greylags and 25 Pink-footed Geese, plus 2,640 Golden Plover and 3,550 Lapwing and 135 Whooper Swans.