Sunday, 11 July 2010

Islay, 2-10 July

Another family holiday in Argyll (following Seil and twice on Gigha) took us to Islay this year. Again most dedicated birding time was spent on BTO atlas tetrads, 4 in NR34 around Port Ellen and 4 in NR44 in the small triangle of land behind Ardbeg, both previously given red dots on the "richness gaps map". Concluded on 88 "species" (50 confirmed) and 72 (32 confirmed), respectively, which will hopefully be enough to get squares de-listed!

As this was our first visit, and the island is inhabited by RSPB staff and a range of eminent and expert birders, with at least two blogs for the western half (Armitage, Brooke), I hesitate to comment on bird status but these are the things that I found of interest. Soon after arriving and wandering out from our cottage at Ballivicar a male Hen Harrier flew right past us, the first of 10+ (daily) sightings in various areas in the south. Probably taken for granted by locals, but a surreal experience for me to actually see one of these beautiful birds, all but gone from Lothian and Borders and I guess I have not seen one in the flesh since childhood in NE Scotland, 20+ yrs ago. What a magnificent creature!

Heading out for first TTV the next day came across 2/3 f/imm Hen Harriers together, suggesting successful local breeding. Also heard snatches of song from a Grasshopper Warbler at Loch Muichart, and a single dusky duckling there confirmed breeding of Tufted Duck, though adults nowhere to be seen (neither any on a return visit).

As ever on visits to the west coast I was struck by the super-abundance of certain species - along the Ballivicar to Kintra road I pushed a wave of birds along the fences, mainly Redpoll, Linnet, Willow Warbler and Mipit, all with young. Willow Warblers were even more abundant in the scrubby areas behind Ardbeg, peak hourly TTV count being 16 - this being an estimate purely of adults, which invariably had several "weeching" young in tow; in short they were present in virtually every patch of cover. Swallows were also thick on the ground, many fledged young out, and birds visiting nests for second broods at nearly every farm; I was impressed by their determination, one day with gale force winds (gusting to 70mph, per BBC forecast) and driving rain they continued their transits to and from nests at our farm, whatever they were finding I can't imagine. Equally House Martins present at many isolated buildings.

Another insect dependent, Spotted Flycatcher, was very apparent in most areas visited - even located in the few isolated sycamores behind Ballivicar farm house, also on the banks overlooking Kilnaughton Bay at Port Ellen and many along the coast throo woods past Kildalton Castle to Kintour, where juvs being fed. Also in those woods were singing Chiffchaff and Blackcap and families of Treecreeper and Long-tailed Tit at large. Fledged Stonechats in 3 tetrads in NR34 but also a female found on her own at Ard Imersay, mate perhaps having perished?
Tetrads in the areas behind Ardbeg equally memorable; en route to Loch Uigeadail by Beinn Sholum 4 separate Grasshopper Warblers in song, the highest on the slopes of Sholum itself at c. 500ft asl, and several Whinchat families, including bird above. Uigeadail itself was desolate, just a Common Sandpiper in residence, but again Hen Harrier was seen, plus Red-throated Diver "FF" N with a
fish (surely this is not an efficient way to feed young - minimum 10 mile round trip with each fish?!) and, most impressively, a Buzzard "FF" with a writhing adder into woods behind Ardbeg! If this was for the young Buzzards (one was heard calling) then I hope the parent "dealt with" the snake before offering it to them.

Breeding success along coast here noted with Eider duckling, Shelduck b6, Greylags 2xb2 on sea, and a Teal family on Loch nan Diol. Also a Peacock family on the main road! 6 adult Red-throated Divers were on the sea at Claggain Bay. Red deer were everywhere, just a single Roe seen and two hedgehog road-kill.

One day with galeforce winds a small tern was seen heading overland from Port Ellen towards Kintra, i.e. cutting off the Oa peninsula, perhaps a regular practice? Juv Arctic Tern and BHG were noted on the small rock at Gartnatra by the main road out of Bowmore.

Nocturnal visits at Ballivicar produced only singing Snipe; the Barn Owls which had formerly bred there (having taken over site in wall of farm from resident Choughs!) apparently now absent, neither any SEO seen here where they have formerly bred.

Venturing into the RSPB areas, we got to the Oa, seeing more Hen Harrier hunting in beautiful scenery, and Loch Gruinart/Ardnave (photo top) where in a few short minutes we were treated to a summer plumage Great Northern Diver just off the coast by Tayovullin, rasping Corncrake, and Choughs swirling overhead. Shot of the diver right, I decided not to disturb anything by venturing off the track for a better photo and left it to its fishing.

The final morning we went back to Kintra again - auks were confirmed breeding on coast to west, including small juv Guillemot on the sea and 30+ Black Guillemots with "FF" to cliffs. 58 moulting RBM on sea.

The final highlight was the return ferry crossing - having had blustery and drizzly conditions on the way out we were lucky to get a flat sea and sunshine exiting the Sound of Islay on the 15:30hrs Port Askaig - Kennacraig ferry, in defiance of the dire weather forecast issued the previous day. The sea was covered with auks and shearwaters over a mile off the southern tip of Jura - estimated 2500+ birds in the main zone, of which majority Guillemot but also many Razorbill including young, 2 juv Puffins and 300+ Manx Shearwater. A single dark Arctic Skua was approaching from the north and a porpoise was showing. Many more auks were on the sea off Gigha and we enjoyed the different views of beaches we had visited on the previous holidays.

Finally as we entered West Loch Tarbert past Ardpatrick Point I was surprised to see a medium-sized white-winged gull over the sea just NE of Eilean Traighe. As we drew closer it became apparent it was indeed an adult Mediterranean Gull, always a stunner, and in a plumage I rarely have the privilege of seeing, a great conclusion to the trip as it flew alongside the ferry briefly [NB - with their continuing increase in numbers, Med Gull breeding has fairly recently spread to Northern Ireland and they have progressively increased in mixed gull colonies in northern England; singles have also been present in various Scottish gull colonies, and for all I know they may already be breeding here somewhere!]

The heavens then opened for one final downpour, all the way home! Back in Lothian reminded yet again just how different our avifaunas are, with, it often seems, virtually every flying bird you look up to see being *yet another* Wood Pigeon (very scarce on Islay), and Magpies all along the trunk road verges suddenly and briefly being noticeable, plus the resident Swifts overhead that we just take for granted here. But when will I ever see a Hen Harrier, Corncrake, let along Chough, in Lothian?!

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