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 was very wet and windy, thanks to a succession of Atlantic storms, although it remained unusually mild. The rare birds from December remained as they were, including the Todd’s Canada Goose in with the Barnacle Geese at Kirkapol/Vaul and the pair of Ring-necked Ducks, which commuted between Loch Bhasapol and Loch a’ Phuill. The Atlantic storms brought in a few “white-winged” gulls from the Arctic including a young Iceland Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (19th) and an adult Glaucous Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (4th) followed by juvenile birds at Gott Bay (14th) and Loch a’ Phuill (19th). Other good birds included 2 Pale-bellied Brent Geese at Heylipol (17th-22nd), a Black-throated Diver off Traigh Bhi (24th), Short-eared Owls at Ruaig (20th) and Balinoe (20th), 9 Common Scoters including a flock of 7 in Gott Bay (22nd-28th), a Jack Snipe at Balephuil (27th) and a Snow Bunting at Gott Bay (30th).
The Big Garden Birdwatch weekend on 25th-26th January found moderate numbers of birds visiting garden feeders in the mild conditions, including a few Greenfinches and odd Dunnock. The January goose count (22nd-23rd) found a total of 5,612 Barnacle Geese, as well as 741 Greenland White-fronts and 2,243 Greylags, plus 143 Whooper Swans on the lochs, 20 Pink-footed Geese, 2,290 Golden Plover and 2,500 Lapwing. A dead Common Dolphin came ashore at Gott Bay (14th) but mostly the bays were alive with mixed feeding flocks of waders. Many garden plants began flowering much earlier than normal in the mild conditions, including banks of Primroses in sheltered spots.
February continued where January left off, with frequent gales and heavy rain throughout the month. Despite the poor weather, there was the usual spring influx of adult Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the last week, 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 large numbers of Fulmars back around the cliffs and Skylark song-flights on calmer days, whilst Shelducks returned to the coasts and noisy groups of displaying Oystercatchers included colour-ringed birds that had wintered in Ireland and Wales. Flocks of up to 300 Sanderling gathered on more sheltered shores and groups of up to 26 Hooded Crows fed around the cattle feeders. Hundreds of Frogs and Toads were on the move once again on damp nights at the month-end as they headed towards their breeding pools, but conditions were unsuitable for moths or moth-trapping. A hardy band of volunteers searched Tiree’s beaches on the annual “Beached Bird Survey” over the weekend of 22-23 February and found more dead seabirds than in 2019, presumably because of the stormy weather.
More unusual birds included the long-staying pair of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol, the Todd’s Canada Goose still in with the Barnacle Geese in North Tiree, an adult Sea Eagle at Hough (26th), up to eight Common Scoters at Gott Bay all month, an adult Glaucous Gull at Ruaig (20th), a Fieldfare at Scarinish (14th) and a Mistle Thrush at Beinn Hough (24th). A goose count (24th-25th) found 5426 Barnacle Geese, 1923 Greylags, 722 Greenland White-fronts, 19 Pink-footed Geese, 117 Whooper Swans, 3030 Golden Plover and 2300 Lapwing. Some 70 different rings were read on the Barnacle Geese including 12 that had been ringed in Iceland.
March continued where February left off with more gales and heavy rain, but things finally calmed down later in the month with a lengthy period of cool dry weather. Spring migrants continued to arrive despite the inclement weather, with the most conspicuous of these being a big return of adult Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, whilst numbers of Pied Wagtails, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits also continued to grow. Large noisy groups of Oystercatchers displayed on the machairs, whilst the sounds of displaying Lapwing, Snipe, Redshank and Skylark also rang out across the grasslands later in the month. Other returning migrants included up to 6 Goldcrests at Balephuil (from 21st), 5 Black-tailed Godwits at Sandaig (22nd) with 15 more at Loch a’ Phuill (28th), Chiffchaffs at Scarinish (25th) and Cornaigmore (25th) followed by singles at Balephuil (26th) and Ruaig (26th), 39 Manx Shearwaters off Hynish (24th), a Lesser Redpoll at Balephuil (26th) followed by a Common Redpoll there (29th), an early Great Skua at Ceann a’ Mhara (26th), 2 Goldfinches at Balephuil (26th-29th), up to 3 Linnets at Balephuil (from 26th) and a Wheatear at Sorobaidh Bay (29th).
Rarities included the wintering pair of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol and the Todd’s Cananda Goose in with the Barnacle Geese in north Tiree, whilst lone Sea Eagles were seen on various dates at the end of the month. Island scarcities included a Little Grebe at Loch Riaghain (9th), up to 10 Common Scoters at Gott Bay (17th), 11 Long-tailed Ducks at Hough Bay (20th) with another at Loch a’ Phuill (6th-26th), an adult Glaucous Gull at Ruaig (17th-19th) and an immature Glaucous Gull at Sorobaidh Bay (29th).
An all-island count (19th-20th) found 5,656 Barnacle Geese, as well as 855 Greenland White-fronts, 2,080 Greylags, 21 Pink-footed Geese, 7 Canada Geese and 3,040 Golden Plovers. Whooper Swan passage was noted all month with groups flying over and others stopping off on the lochs, whilst 23 Greenland Whitefronts heading high NW over Balephuil (28th) were the first obvious goose movement. A few queen bumblebees emerged on sunnier days with the first Moss Carder Bee noted at Crossapol on 18th and several White-tailed Bumblebees were noted from 26th. The first large moths of spring appeared on milder cloudy nights, including a fine Red Sword-grass at Balephuil (25th).
April was very dry with mostly light easterly winds and many warm sunny days. The calm and relatively warm weather meant that spring came a little earlier than normal for much of our wildlife. The first Corncrakes returned to Balephuil (15th), five days earlier than in 2019, with calling birds widely reported around the island by the month-end. The slack winds allowed the Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese to depart en masse for their staging grounds in Iceland early on 8th-10th, whilst a rare spell of dreich weather on 15th caused up to 1,000 Pale-bellied Brent Geese to stop off briefly in the bays on route between Ireland and Iceland, including an impressive flock of 550 at The Green. The generally favourable conditions for migration meant that many migrating birds passed over Tiree without stopping. As a result, numbers of Black-tailed Godwits peaked at a modest 105 at Loch a’ Phuill on 11th, whilst Golden Plover numbers peaked at “only” 5,500 on the Reef on 16th.
The month was busy with returning spring migrants, mostly a little earlier than normal, including Blackcap and Swallow (from 5th), White Wagtail and Woodpigeon (from 6th), Sand Martin (from 7th), Willow Warbler (from 9th), Whimbrel and House Martin (from 10th), Little Tern and Sandwich Tern (from 12th), Common Tern (from 15th), Arctic Skua (from 18th), Greenshank (from 19th), Arctic Tern (from 20th), Grasshopper Warbler and Common Sandpiper (from 21st) and Sedge Warbler (from 24th), plus lots more Wheatears, Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests, Linnets, Goldfinches, Redpolls and Great Skuas, which had all first arrived in March. Rarer birds included the lingering pair of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol all month, Glaucous Gulls at Sorobaidh Bay and Gott Bay, regular visits from mid-month by an adult Sea Eagle hunting Greylags, an Iceland Gull at Gott Bay (20th), a Marsh Harrier near Heylipol Church (21st), a Siskin at Sandaig (24th) and rarest bird of the month, a Great-crested Grebe, just the fourth record for Tiree since 1952, at Balephetrish Bay (1st).
The calm nights proved to be a purple patch for moth-trapping, with another three new species: Water Carpet, Early Grey and the Herald recorded for the island, amongst some large early catches at Balephuil, whilst Belted Beauty, Puss and Emperor moths were some of the showy species noted around the island. Butterflies too emerged early in the warm sunny conditions with many Small Tortoiseshells seen from 13th, several Red Admirals and Peacocks (22nd), plus a few Green-veined Whites from 22nd. Most excitingly male Orange-tip Butterflies were noted at Milton (21st) and at Balephuil (from 23rd). Will this be the year that this colourful species finally colonises the island? Many queen bumblebees were also on the wing later in the month.
Corncrakes returned in good numbers and were calling all around the island by the month-end. The annual night-time census will be completed in June and this will reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 300 calling males in 2019.
The breeding season was in full swing for most of our birds, many perhaps enjoying a rather quieter time on the island than usual. There were many Lapwing and Redshank broods with young of both fledging at the month-end, whilst Oystercatcher broods appeared a little later in 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 the last two years, despite this being a leap-year! There were also at least 6 Cuckoos on the island and breeding pairs of Dunnock, Whitethroat and House Martin, none of which normally breed here, 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.
Northerly winds meant that scarcer migrants from the south were few and far between, but these included an Icterine Warbler at Balephuil (21st) – just the fourth record of this continental bird from Tiree, a Wood Warbler at Balephuil (6th), at least 15 Spotted Flycatchers (from 6th), 8 Blackcaps, a Lesser Whitethroat at Balephuil (14th) and 3 Siskins, whilst other good birds included a Sea Eagle at Kilmoluaig (1st), a pair of Garganey at Kilmoluaig (5th-14th), a late Glaucous Gull at Gott Bay (27th), 4 Common Scoters at Gott Bay (27th) and a small influx of Collared Doves and 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. There were some big catches of moths on warmer nights including our first Small Phoenix at Kenovay (27th) and another new micro-moth (Micropterix calthella) at Balephuil, whilst showy moths like Emperor and Cinnabar were widely reported. The first 3 Basking Sharks appeared offshore (26th) and there were frequent sightings of Harbour Porpoise on calmer days, plus Otters on the lochs and shores.
Three night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 288 calling male Corncrakes.This figure is slightly down on the 300 birds recorded in 2019. 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 rather warm and dry, although there was more rain later in the month. Our breeding birds generally appeared to do well in the mostly settled conditions, perhaps aided by less disturbance than normal. There were plenty of Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank chicks around the island, plus big numbers of young Starlings, including an all-white bird near Loch a’ Phuill (28th). Smaller birds, such as House Sparrow, Stonechat, Linnet, Song Thrush and Blackbird, seemed to have a bumper breeding season, whilst the first broods emerged of Wren, Willow Warbler, Wheatear, Sand Martin, Swallow and Twite. Seabird breeding success generally looked good so far with increased numbers of breeding Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills on the cliffs, although several Arctic Tern colonies failed mid-month and numbers of gull chicks appeared low at many of the colonies.
Best birds were a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Balephuil (12th), a Black Redstart at Balinoe (1st), a Wood Sandpiper at Loch a’ Phuill (2nd) and a Garganey (8th), plus at least one nesting pair of House Martins, at least two nesting pairs of Whitethroat and the odd late Robin, Spotted Flycatcher and Woodpigeon. A pair of Dunnocks nested for the first time ever on Tiree at Balephuil and raised 2 fledged young. Up to 8 Whooper Swans summered on the island, as did at least 7 Great Northern Divers.
The often warm and sunny conditions were good for our nesting queen bumblebees, as well as for other insects, with Marsh Fritillary and Common Blue butterflies, Six-spot Burnet Moths and Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies all noted on the wing on sunny days. Numbers of moths increased on the warm calm nights, with our first-ever Lychnis moths recorded at Balephuil, together with three new micro-moths at Kenovay, whilst the Tiree Twist micro-moth (found only on Tiree in the UK) emerged at the end of the month. Up to seven Basking Sharks were off the Green (8th) and groups of Tope were noted off the north coast (30th). There were several sightings of cetaceans around the coast, as well as a dead Northern Bottlenose Whale that came ashore near the Maze. Several Hedgehogs were also noted on warmer nights, as well as the odd one that emerged during the day, taking advantage of the quiet roads. Please watch out for wildlife and livestock when driving on Tiree’s roads, as they have become more used to using them during lock-down.
July brought a mix of weather with many cool dry days dominated by north-west winds early in the month and wetter spells towards 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, as well as broods of Reed Bunting, Common Redpoll, Wren and Willow Warbler more locally in suitable habitat. At least one pair of House Martins bred this year and a pair of Whitethroats raised at least three young at the same site where they bred in 2019. Several Mute Swan broods appeared on the lochs where there were also 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 150 and 500 fledged young respectively, whilst the Fulmars fledged some 800 young and the Razorbills and Guillemots also produced many young. Our terns fared less well, with few Arctic Tern young raised and only a handful of Little Terns fledged, presumably due to a shortage of suitably-sized sand-eels at the chick-rearing stage.
July is a quiet month for migrants, but unusual birds included a Garden Warbler at Balephuil (21st), two Sandwich Terns at Balephetrish Bay (21st), a Robin at Balephuil (18th) and a late Blackcap there (2nd). Return wader passage was intermittent with smaller numbers of Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the beaches than normal until hundreds arrived on 31st. There were also increasing numbers of Curlew and Golden Plover in with the local Lapwings and Oystercatchers on the first cut-silage fields. Scarcer waders included 11 Knot at Gott Bay (31st), 35 Black-tailed Godwits (31st) and 19 Bar-tailed Godwits (31st).
A Weasel was reported from Milton (21st). This predatory species has not been seen on the island before and I would be very grateful for reports of any more sightings. Small numbers of Basking Sharks appeared late in the month, particularly in and around Gunna Sound, and there were regular sightings of Harbour Porpoises around the coast. Bumblebees emerged earlier than in 2019, with good numbers of queens and workers seen on sunny days. Numbers of moths peaked during the month with some spectacular catches of several hundred moths of up to 50 species, plus a Hummingbird Hawk-moth reported at Ruaig (21st). Butterflies showed well on sunny days with good numbers of Common Blues, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Meadow Browns seen, although there was no repeat of last year’s record influx of Painted Ladies.
August was mostly warm, calm and sunny with a couple of storms later in the month bringing stronger winds and heavier rain. Many of our breeding birds began to flock up, with increasing gatherings of Pied Wagtails, Starlings, Sand Martins, Swallows, Twite and Linnets around the island, whilst the last families of Little, Common and Arctic Terns departed mid-month. A few Corncrakes kept calling in the first half of the month and there were several sightings of families crossing roads. The local Greylags had a bumper breeding season with 3,203 counted at the month-end including 45% goslings. Freshly cut silage fields attracted large flocks of Common Gulls, Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Rock Doves and Starlings, and these were joined by the first returning migrant groups of Golden Plover, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and the odd Ruff.
There were increasing numbers of passage Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling on the beaches including many juveniles, indicating a good breeding season. These were joined by small groups of Knot, the odd Whimbrel, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint, plus over 30 Bar-tailed Godwits. Sea-watching was patchy but included a Balearic Shearwater, 7 Storm Petrels and 7 Sooty Shearwaters off Hynish (20th) courtesy of Storm Ellen. Migrant songbirds began trickling through with the first White Wagtails (from 13th), plus a large influx of Greenland Wheatears (28th) involving over 60 birds. Scarcer migrants included no fewer than 3 different Pied Flycatchers at Balephuil (16th-28th) and a Garden Warbler there (28th), plus early Blackcaps (from 17th) and a Whitethroat (15th).
The calm seas were perfect for cetacean-watching. A mobile super-pod of over 200 Common Dolphins was noted on several occasions, together with regular sightings of Basking Sharks, Minke Whales and Harbour Porpoises, but pride of place went to the three Humpback Whales noted feeding in deeper water towards Coll at the very end of July. These spectacular whales were watched lunge-feeding on a bait-ball of small fish together with Minke Whales, dolphins and hundreds of Gannets – a spectacular sight! Good numbers of Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacock butterflies were on the wing during the month, together with the last of the Green-veined Whites, Common Blues and Meadow Browns. More exciting was the discovery of Grayling butterflies along the coast between Hynish and West Hynish (9th), a new site for this scarce butterfly on the island. Moth-trapping revealed a wide variety of late summer moths and a new species in the shape of a Marsh Oblique-barred moth at Kenovay. Our bumblebees made the most of the good weather with large numbers seen on sunny days and many males and fresh queens were out at the month-end.