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.
January was mostly rather cold and dry with easterly winds predominating and some hard frosts and light snow cover at times, although there was also some heavy rain on occasion. The rare North American birds from December remained as they were, including two lone Todd’s Canada Geese in with the Barnacle Geese at either end of the island, a drake Green-winged Teal at Loch a’ Phuill and the trio of Ring-necked Ducks, which commuted between Loch Bhasapol and Loch a’ Phuill. Northerly winds brought in a few “white-winged” gulls from the Arctic including a young Iceland Gull at Loch a’ Phuill (22nd) and juvenile Glaucous Gulls at Balemartine (2nd), The Maze area (3rd-18th) and at Sorobaidh Bay (16th). Other unusual birds included a drake Goosander at Loch an Eilein (12th-27th) – the first on Tiree since 2011, a female Velvet Scoter in Gunna Sound off Caoles (from 27th), the Barn Owl again at Balephuil (2nd-5th), 2 Greenland Redpolls at Balinoe (9th), a loitering Blue Tit at Crossapol (12th-16th at least), up to 2 Common Scoters all month off Traigh Bhi and the wintering flock of 15 Rooks in the Ruaig/Vaul area.
The Big Garden Birdwatch weekend on 30th-31st January found good numbers of birds visiting garden feeders in the cold conditions, including large numbers of House Sparrows, Chaffinches and Starlings, but no Greenfinches or Dunnocks were reported. The January goose count (12th&14th) found a total of 5,939 Barnacle Geese, as well as 866 Greenland White-fronts and 2,999 Greylags, plus 109 Whooper Swans on the lochs, 7 Pink-footed Geese, 2,480 Golden Plover and 2,700 Lapwing. A dead Common Dolphin came ashore at Traigh Bhi at the month-end but mostly the bays were alive with mixed feeding flocks of waders.
February brought a real mix of weather with strong SE winds and rain early on, followed by a spell of freezing weather and light snow mid-month and then a run of mild calm days at the month end. Obvious 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 returning Oystercatchers included a colour-ringed bird that had wintered in Pembrokeshire. There was the usual spring influx of adult Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls from mid-month, whilst numbers of Pied Wagtails also increased on the beaches, as the one or two wintering birds were joined by early migrants. Four Common Dolphins washed ashore during the month and a couple of very early Barrel Jellyfish were noted at the month-end, as well as a Red Gurnard at Traigh Bhagh. Hundreds of Frogs and Toads were on the move once again on damp nights in the last week of the month as they headed towards their breeding pools.
More unusual birds included the long-staying trio of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol, the two Todd’s Canada Geese still in with the Barnacle Geese in north and east Tiree respectively, an adult Sea Eagle at Port Ban (5th), up to two Velvet Scoters in Gunna Sound all month, a Long-tailed Duck at Loch Bhasapol all month, the drake Goosander all month at Loch an Eilein, 3 early Pale-bellied Brent Geese at Gott Bay (16th), a juvenile Glaucous Gull at Traigh Bhagh (23rd), a Woodpigeon at Balephuil (8th-14th), the 15 long-staying Rooks at Vaul and Gott all month, the lone Blue Tit at Crossapol (to 5th at least), 12 Goldfinches and some 23 scattered Fieldfares. A goose count (8th-9th) found a record total of 6,101 Barnacle Geese, as well as 3,095 Greylags, 861 Greenland White-fronts, 7 Pink-footed Geese, 106 Whooper Swans, 1,880 Golden Plover and 1,485 Lapwing. A total of 110 different rings was read on the Barnacle Geese including 34 that had been ringed in Iceland.
March began settled and mild but became increasingly wet and windy resulting in significant flooding across the island at the month-end. Spring migrants were slower to arrive than in recent years, as a result of the inclement weather later in the month, although there was still a big return of adult Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls, the latter including a colour-ringed bird from Ayrshire at Gott Bay (25th). Numbers of Pied Wagtails, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits also continued to grow, whilst many birds began to display once more on calmer days including Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Skylark on the grasslands and Snipe and Redshank in wetter areas. Other returning migrants included up to 7 Goldcrests at Balephuil (from 1st), 4 Manx Shearwaters off Aird (11th) with 168 off Hynish (23rd), 2 Goldfinches at Balephuil (from 23rd) and a Dunnock at Balephuil (from 26th).
Rarities included the long-staying trio of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch a’ Phuill (3rd-5th) and then at Loch Bhasapol for the rest of the month, the 2 Todd’s Canada Geese in with the Barnacle Geese in north and east Tiree all month, the Goosander at Loch an Eilein (to 24th) and a drake Green-winged Teal at Loch Riaghain (4th), whilst a Stock Dove at Loch an Eilein (22nd) was the first Tiree record since 2015.
An all-island count (15th-16th) found a record 6,191 Barnacle Geese, as well as 909 Greenland White-fronts, 2,815 Greylags and 1 Pink-footed Goose. Golden Plover flocks started building up once more with 1,700 at the Reef (23rd) and a lone Canada Goose arrived from the mainland at Kirkapol (1st). Whooper Swan passage was noted in the second half of the month, with notable arrivals of hundreds of birds to the lochs on both 22nd and 27th. Frogs and Toads were widespread on damp nights and the first moths of the spring appeared on milder cloudy nights, involving mostly Red Chestnuts and Clouded Drabs. The first bumblebees were late to emerge in the wet conditions and await drier days in April.
April was unusually cold with northerly winds predominating and frequent frosty nights. The cold conditions meant that spring came later than normal for much of our wildlife. The first Corncrakes returned to Balephuil (16th), with calling birds thinly scattered around the island by the month-end. The Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese departed en masse for their staging grounds in Iceland early on 10th-11th, whilst the northerly winds held up migration for other birds causing their numbers to build up on the island. Some 2,000 Black-tailed Godwits including a flock of 900 plus 150 Redshanks at Loch Bhasapol were an impressive sight on 20th, whilst Golden Plover numbers peaked at 3,000 on 15th and there were 650 Redwings on 5th. Greenland Wheatears were forced to wait on the island for more favourable southerly winds to aid their migration with dozens around the island at the month-end, whilst there were small influxes of Woodpigeons and Collared Doves.
The month saw a slow return of other spring migrants, mostly a little later than normal, including Chiffchaff and Great Skua (1st), Swallow, Sand Martin, Wheatear and White Wagtail (2nd), Whimbrel (10th), Little Tern (14th), Woodpigeon (15th), Willow Warbler (16th), Arctic Skua (19th), Common Sandpiper (21st) and Blackcap (23rd). Rarer birds included the lingering trio of Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol all month, an immature Golden Eagle at Balephetrish (1st), Sea Eagles at Loch Bhasapol (6th) and Milton (10th), a Spotted Redshank at Loch an Eilein (21st), a long-staying Jackdaw at Kilkenneth/Balevullin and at least 7 Lapland Buntings (12th-22nd).
The cold nights were poor for moth-trapping, with only a handful of species recorded, whilst butterflies too were slow to emerge with occasional Small Tortoiseshells and Green-veined Whites in sheltered sunny spots from 11th. A few queen bumblebees were on the wing on sunny days at the start of the month and we can only hope that things warm up for all of the island’s wildlife in May. More encouragingly, there was a lot of activity offshore with frequent feeding frenzies of hundreds of Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, gulls and auks gorging on small fish brought to the surface by large pods of Common Dolphins and smaller groups of Bottle-nosed Dolphins.
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 to reveal how numbers compare this year with the count of 294 calling males in 2020.
The breeding season was in full swing for most of our birds. There were many Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank broods in the grasslands, and the first Common Gull and Black-headed Gull chicks emerged in their scattered colonies at the month-end. 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 from 30th, as it does like clockwork every year, whatever the weather. There were also at least 3 Cuckoos calling and breeding pairs of Common Redpoll, Goldfinch, Dunnock, Whitethroat and House Martin, which all appear to be colonising the island, whilst a brood of Robins at Balephuil was a very rare event for Tiree! 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. Many thanks!
As ever May brought a mix of scarcer migrant birds including a Gull-billed Tern at Loch a’ Phuill (11th), 2 Chough at Baugh (17th), a Kingfisher at Milton (14th) and a most unexpected pair of Smew at Loch Riaghain (31st) – the first on Tiree for over 100 years! Other birds included a wandering all-white Glaucous Gull around north Tiree all month, regular sightings of an adult Sea Eagle, a Long-eared Owl at Balephuil (4th), an adult Little Gull at Balinoe (11th-29th), a Tree Sparrow at Baugh (10th-13th), a male Redstart at Balephuil (16th) and a marked influx of Collared Doves and Woodpigeons. The last week of May saw the emergence of the first Four-spotted Chaser Dragonflies and Large Red Damselflies. Butterflies such as Green-veined White, Large White, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell all flew on warmer days. Moth catches were small in the cool conditions but searches for the caterpillars of the rare Tiree Twist moth by visiting experts appear to have been very successful, whilst Belted Beauty moths were active on the machair. Offshore, there were regular sightings of pods of Common and Bottle-nosed Dolphins, including super-pods of hundreds of the former species, whilst Otters were seen regularly on the lochs and shores and large groups of Brown Hares boxed in the fields.
Three night-time counts around the island revealed a preliminary total of 276 calling male Corncrakes. This figure is slightly down on the 294 birds recorded in 2020. The large 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.
With northerly winds predominating, June remained unusually cool with occasional spells of light rain. Our breeding birds generally appeared to do well in the mostly settled conditions. There were plenty of Lapwing, Oystercatcher and Redshank chicks around the island, plus big numbers of young Starlings. Smaller birds, such as House Sparrow, Stonechat, Linnet, Song Thrush and Blackbird, appeared to have another good breeding season, whilst the first broods emerged of Wren, Wheatear, Sand Martin and Twite. Seabird breeding success generally looked good so far with increased numbers of breeding Kittiwakes and Fulmars on the cliffs at Ceann a’ Mhara, and there were many Arctic Tern and gull chicks in the colonies at the month-end.
Best birds were a singing male Common Rosefinch at Balephuil (2nd-5th), a female Black Redstart at Balephuil (6th-8th), a Quail at Balemartine (5th-6th) and a late Little Stint at Crossapol (30th). Scarce breeding birds included one pair of House Martins, three pairs of Whitethroats, two pairs of Goldfinches and one pair of Greenfinches, plus the odd late Cuckoo, Spotted Flycatcher, Collared Dove and Woodpigeon. A pair of Robins raised young at Balephuil – the first pair to do so on Tiree for many years. Up to 5 Whooper Swans summered on the island, as did at least 10 Great Northern Divers.
The cool conditions meant that insects were slower to emerge than normal. However, Marsh Fritillaries, Common Blue butterflies and Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies were all noted on the wing on sunny days. Numbers of moths increased on the warmer calm nights towards the month-end, whilst the Tiree Twist micro-moth (found only on Tiree in the UK) and the first queen Great Yellow Bumblebees were spotted once more at the end of the month. There were several sightings of cetaceans around the coast and Hedgehogs were also noted on warmer nights. Please watch out for wildlife and livestock when driving on Tiree’s roads, as they became more used to using them during lock-down.
July was very dry and settled with many sunny and warm days, causing the machairs to go brown and “burn”. Despite the dry conditions, most of our breeding birds did well and there were large numbers of young Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Swallows, Twite, Linnets, Starlings and House Sparrows all around the island, as well as broods of Wheatear, Reed Bunting, Stonechat, Common Redpoll, Wren and Willow Warbler more locally in suitable habitat. Once again, a single pair of House Martins bred this year as well as up to three pairs of Whitethroats, two pairs of Goldfinches and a pair of Robins. After a poor breeding year in 2020, our terns had an excellent season with some 355 pairs of Arctic Tern fledging 250 young, 39 pairs of Little Tern fledging 21 young and 45 pairs of Common Tern fledging around 60 young. It was also a good year for the cliff-nesting seabirds at Ceann a’ Mhara, with Shags and Kittiwakes producing some 170 and 650 fledged young respectively, whilst the Fulmars fledged some 750 young and the Razorbills and Guillemots also produced many young. Several Mute Swan broods appeared on the lochs where there were also scattered broods of Tufted Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Mallard, Gadwall, Pintail, Teal and Shoveler.
July is a quiet month for migrants, but unusual birds included an adult Rosy Starling at Caoles (6th), which was presumably the same bird reported there on 24 June, a late Spotted Flycatcher at Balephuil (2nd), four Sandwich Terns at Traigh Bhagh (2nd), 2 Swifts at Scarinish (18th) and an early Coot at Loch Bhasapol (9th). Return wader passage was intermittent with large influxes of Sanderling (including two leg-flagged birds from Mauritania), Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the beaches later in the month and small numbers of Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit on the loch-edges. There were also increasing numbers of Curlew and Golden Plover in with the local Lapwings and Oystercatchers on the first cut-silage fields.
Basking Sharks remained very scarce throughout the month, but there were regular sightings of Harbour Porpoises and of small dolphin pods around the coast. After the delayed start to spring, numbers of bumblebees and moths slowly increased, whilst butterflies showed well on sunny days with good numbers of Common Blues, Small Tortoiseshells, Green-veined Whites, Large Whites and Meadow Browns seen.
August was largely warm, calm and sunny with very little rain. Many of our breeding birds began to flock up, with increasing gatherings of Pied Wagtails, Starlings, Sand Martins, Swallows and Linnets around the island. A few Corncrakes kept calling in the first week of the month and there were a few sightings of birds crossing roads later on. Some 3,226 Greylag Geese were counted (23rd-24th) including 32% goslings. Freshly cut silage fields attracted flocks of Common Gulls, Lapwings, Oystercatchers, Rock Doves and Starlings, and these were joined by the first returning migrant groups of Golden Plover and Curlew.
There were increasing numbers of passage Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin on the beaches including many juveniles, indicating a good breeding season. These were joined by small groups of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwits and Little Stint, whilst the loch edges hosted small parties of Greenshank, Ruff and 2 Pectoral Sandpipers (2nd and 27th). Sea-watching was patchy because of a lack of strong winds but 7 Sooty Shearwaters and 3 Storm Petrels headed past Hynish early in the month, whilst there was a bumper passage of 1,200 Gannets in 1 hour there (12th). The first migrant songbirds began trickling through including Willows Warblers, Grasshopper Warblers, White Wagtails (from 23rd) and Greenland Wheatears (from 13th). Scarcer migrants included 2 early Spotted Flycatchers at Balephuil (24th) and Ruaig (27th), a Lesser Whitethroat at Balephuil (30th) and best of all, a Bee-eater reported heading east over Heanish (22nd).
The calm seas were ideal for cetacean-watching and there were regular sightings of Porpoises and Common Dolphins, plus the occasional Minke Whale. Good numbers of Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Large Whites and Peacock butterflies were on the wing during the month, together with the last of the Green-veined Whites, Common Blues and Meadow Browns. Moth-trapping produced the island’s first Least Yellow Underwing at Balephuil (9th). Our bumblebees made the most of the good weather with large numbers seen on sunny days and many males and fresh queens were on the wing mid-month.
September finally brought the island some much-needed rain after a long dry summer but there were many calm sunny days as well. Strong westerlies blew a few migrating American birds across the Atlantic to the island including a Semipalmated Sandpiper at Clachan (23rd-26th), Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol (from 20th) and Loch a’ Phuill (from 26th), a Pectoral Sandpiper at Loch Bhasapol (6th) and best of all, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Balephuil (30th). The last is a chunky American bird that looks like a fat wing-barred finch with a rosy-pink chest (see photo). The grosbeak showed briefly on wires a couple of times before going to ground and was not seen again. It is the first record of the species for Argyll and only about the seventh record for Scotland. High pressure earlier in the month favoured the arrival of continental drift migrants including Barred Warblers at Balephuil (2nd-8th) and Balemartine (6th-12th), Common Rosefinches at Balephuil (9th-11th) and Balemartine (30th), as well as three Pied Flycatchers, two Redstarts, a Whinchat, a Reed Warbler, a Lesser Whitethroat and two Garden Warblers, in amongst a good arrival of commoner warblers, Goldcrests, Common Redpolls, Dunnocks and Robins. Pride of place, however, went to the Arctic Warbler, which was found feeding along the roadside at Balinoe (12th) and was the first record for Argyll of this species, that nests in the pine forests of Scandinavia and winters in south-east Asia.
Strong winds brought some seabirds inshore at the end of the month including 8 Sooty Shearwaters, 5 Arctic Skuas and 19 Great Skuas. Most of our summer migrants departed with only a handful of Swallows and Wheatears, plus the odd Sand Martin remaining at the month-end. A lack of northerlies meant that there were no early arrivals of Redwings and only 5 Barnacle Geese were back (30th), although some 130 Pale-bellied Brent Geese passed through (from 12th) and 200 Pink-footed Geese passed south over Milton (23rd). Our wintering raptors also returned with increasing numbers of Merlins, Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Hen Harriers noted around the island, plus the occasional visiting Sea Eagle and, more unusually, a couple of wandering young Marsh Harriers.
October was dominated by south-westerly winds with much heavy rain, resulting in localised flooding on the island, although spells of northerly winds were a reminder that winter is on its way. The last of our summer migrants drifted away during the month with the last Wheatear noted at Vaul (4th), the last Sand Martin at Cornaigmore (1st) and the last Swallows at Gott Bay (15th). Rarest bird of the month was a Great White Egret at Loch a’ at Phuill (17th-19th) just the third record of this large white heron for Tiree. Other scarce migrants included 2 Yellow-browed Warblers at Balephuil (14th-17th), a potential Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat at Balephuil (21st-22nd), Siberian-type Lesser Whitethroats at Balephuil (15th-22nd) and at Scarinish (21st-22nd), a returning Todd’s Canada Goose at Balephetrish (from 20th), a juvenile Dotterel at Balevullin (15th-17th), a Barn Owl at Balephuil (9th) and a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper at Baugh (4th). 4 Slavonian Grebes at Loch a’ Phuill (13th) were a record count for the island. There was a large influx of Redwings peaking at 800+ birds (21st) but only 2 Fieldfares (20th). Winter finches included a bumper 56 Siskins (from 6th), 11 Greenfinches, 65 Goldfinches, 8 Brambling (from 48th) and over 20 Common Redpolls.
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 3 Little Grebes at Loch Bhasapol, a Coot at Loch a’ Phuill (10th), and no fewer than 3 different Ring-necked Ducks from North America including a male and 2 females at Loch Bhasapol. Heavy passage of Barnacle Geese, Greenland White-fronts and Whooper Swans was noted on and off all month, including over 280 Whooper Swans, which headed over south (15th). Strong onshore winds brought hundreds of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes streaming past offshore and spotted in amongst these were scarcer birds including 11 Sooty Shearwaters, 3 Pomarine Skuas, 9 Arctic Skuas, 23 Great Skuas, a Sabine’s Gull, a Leach’s Petrel, a Grey Phalarope and record count of 17 Velvet Scoters (21st). The storms brought several live seal-pups onto the beaches as well as a dead Common Dolphin at Crossapol, whilst Red Admirals, Silver Y Moths and Common Carder Bees were on the wing until the end of the month.
Bird of the month was a first-winter Killdeer, a rare and striking North American plover (see photo), which loitered for three days in the west of the island. This long awaited first for Tiree was found and identified by Ewan Malcolm at Kilkenneth (21st), before moving to Greenhill (22nd) and finally to Balevullin (23rd). Although very mobile, it was also very confiding, allowing a close approach. It is possibly still lurking somewhere on the island so please do let me know if you spot it! Other North American birds included the wintering Todd’s Canada Goose in with the Barnacle Geese at Balephetrish and Kenovay, plus the three long-staying Ring-necked Ducks at Loch Bhasapol. Other scarce birds included our latest ever Yellow-browed Warbler at Balephuil (14th-22nd), a Slavonian Grebe at Loch Bhasapol (19th), a Sea Eagle at Vaul (2nd), 2 Golden Eagles at Hough (23rd), up to 3 late Woodpigeons (to 27th), a late Wheatear at Traigh Bhi (3rd), a Lapland Bunting at the Reef (1st) and 15 Snow Buntings (to 21st). There were hundreds of Redwings scattered around the island with 7 Fieldfares (to 28th), whilst finches were well represented including a scattering of some 40 Goldfinches around the island, 15 Chaffinches, 3 Brambling, 7 Siskins (to 20th), 3 late Linnets at Kirkapol (22nd) and a Greenland Redpoll at Balephuil (20th-23rd).
All-island surveys of our wintering birds (22nd-23rd) found 5,832 Barnacle Geese, 3,068 Greylags and 663 Greenland White-fronts, plus 2 Pink-footed Geese, 2,230 Golden Plovers, 2,360 Lapwings, 104 Whooper Swans and 9 Black-tailed Godwits lingering at Loch a’ Phuill. A Common Dolphin was washed ashore at Crossapol, together with an influx of By-the-wind Sailors, several Elegant Cuttlefish bones and a Grey Triggerfish at Balephetrish Bay, whilst Otters were conspicuous on the lochs and beaches.
December was mostly rather mild, with frequent wet and windy spells leading to extensive flooding at times. The most unusual birds of the month included the group of 3 Ring-necked Ducks from November at Loch Bhasapol, a new Ring-necked Duck at Loch a’ Phuill (9th-17th) and the long-staying Todd’s Canada Goose in with the Barnacle Geese in central Tiree. New arrivals included a late Greenland Redpoll at Balephuil (13th), a Jackdaw at Heylipol (12-14th), 3 Common Scoters in Gunna Sound (30th) with 2 very late Puffins there (30th) and single Siberian Chiffchaffs at Balephuil (6th and 22nd). In other wildlife news, stranded Elegant Cuttlefish were noted for the third December running at Traigh Bhi and some 30+ Common Dolphins were present between Tiree and Coll (20th).
The generally mild weather encouraged some smaller birds to stay on the island including at least 2 Pied Wagtails on the beaches, 3 Collared Doves, up to 40 Goldfinches and some 200 Redwings. The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 28-30 January will once again provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
An all-island count (13th&15th) found a high total of 6,215 Barnacle Geese, as well as 668 Greenland White-fronts, 2,815 Greylags and 15 Pink-footed Geese, plus 2,695 Golden Plover, 2,980 Lapwing and 124 Whooper Swans.
Thank you to everyone who has reported wildlife sightings to me during the year and here’s hoping for another wildlife-rich year on Tiree in 2022.