Monday, 18 July 2011

Islay 4-16 July

Back at Ballivicar just outside Port Ellen on Islay for family holiday in early July; with the BTO atlas now completing and required TTV's done main focus was 10km species lists, including nocturnals, and boosting breeding confirmations.

A few highlights and observations. Our first trip to the Mull of Oa itself produced both stunning scenery and great views of Golden Eagle, Peregrine and hunting Hen Harrier. Photo of two young ornithologists above having seen all of above; indeed Michael put me on to the harrier - "daddy, there's a dove" - need to work on fostering his ID skills! Scanning offshore towards Ireland Manx Shearwaters were circulating with a raft of 60+ gathered on the sea. Also a few Puffins heading past. A Bonxie proceeded south-east round the headland. Two whistling Great Blackback chicks had the top of a small offshore stack to themselves. Inland Stonechat and Whinchat families were out, indeed four of the former were found in total from Port Ellen west, a good sign (given how depressed many of our upland populations are after last winter).

The scenery was equally stunning at Claggain Bay, where there was a tern colony on the beach - and the fine sight of young Arctic Terns out on the edge of the water being fed. A Common Sandpiper chick was wandering over the boulders, I feared for its safety as it ventured among the terns, little more than a ball of fluff but wagging a tiny stump of a tail. Just offshore an otter swam past in full view, all of this accompanied by the wailing song and calls from three Red-throated Divers on the sea. A Tree Pipit was also present here, another was further west at Rhaonastil.

Nocturnal excursions focused on the coniferous woods on the south of the island. Starting with those on An Curran and beside Cornabus and Cragabus on The Oa, several Tawny Owls were located, including a noisy young family at Imeraval. Walking throo Cragabus on the Oa road a Barn Owl was heard calling, but no sign of any Long-eared Owls. Nearby in a narrow ride between mature conifers a Grasshopper Warbler was in continuous song, as I drew level it faltered briefly but then continued just a few yards from where I was standing. It sang on as I departed and I pondered on this amazing creature, which migrates all the way to Africa and back only to take up home within the tangle of vegetation in the depths of a conifer plantation, there singing away round the clock and presumably also having drawn in a mate to the same location. Others were not hard to find, a minimum of 11 territories from Port Ellen west, some singing for extended periods particularly from dusk onwards. This was a definite increase on last year with several new locations.

The next night trip was along the south coast. At Kildalton initially the only species detected were waders calling, which included a migrant Greenshank passing over, and I began to fear the trip was in vain. But as dawn approached a roding Woodcock appeared; down at Rhaonastil the same appeared again, this time flying directly overhead, the delightful rich burbling calls between "spix" notes clearly audible. Two more were found on the moor east, one initially on the road and then both flying in formation. At the same location by The Gate House (near Ardilistry) a bunch of Tawny Owls made themselves known with noisy calling, another presumed family, though older, plus a few more Grasshopper Warblers along as far as Claggain, pics show dawn approaching there.

On the next trip, in the woods near Laggan Bridge and up towards Cattadale further families of Tawny and Barn Owl were quickly located, and 2 more hunting Barn Owls on way back to Port Ellen, but again no LEO. There too were Grasshopper Warblers singing in the dark - considering the amount of suitable habitat on the island in total, i.e. rank vegetation, I would be surprised if their overall numbers did not run into the hundreds.

Proving breeding of Grasshopper Warbler was another of my atlas targets - but after an initial fruitless stake-out at the boggy area where the one nearest Ballivicar had been observed singing at dusk this was proving difficult. Whilst on first trip to Claggain I thought I had heard a brief Grasshopper Warbler but with so many of the real thing (grasshoppers) also buzzing away I began to doubt it. Shortly afterwards after pausing to observe a Golden-ringed Dragonfly on patrol I caught sight of a small bird flitting into cover, a bramble thicket in the bottom of a gorge; it came out again, a Grasshopper Warbler, and over 10 minutes had several good views of it peering at me, presumably the first of my species it had seen. But it was unfortunately not apparently gathering food for a family so again no proof, though its mate did continue in song further east.

Back at same site after the owl excursion it was negative here so I walked up the Claggain River and came to a small fenced bog on edge of the moor. Two more Grasshopper Warblers were singing there and I got onto one in cover at the edge of the bog. It soon flew off to the moor; a few minutes later another came into view and briefly showed well - yellow-ish throat and impression it was a youngster, but hard to be sure - proof was needed for the first confirmed breeding. Then turning to check a bunch of passing Goldfinch I saw a small bird fly up from another part of the moor - carrying food! As it came in I realised it was the adult Grasshopper Warbler and seeing me it obligingly perched up on the fence wire having a look at me. After 10 seconds or so I realised I could have got a brilliant pic but no time to grab the camera before it was gone to feed the family; nevertheless, breeding could no longer be doubted, at least in NR45.

As previously, mightily impressed at the overall abundance of bird life (and insects) in many places. The home tetrad at Ballivicar (NR34N) is a good example - within a stone's throw of the farm (above) there are 30+ species present (53 logged in total for atlas), with 24 confirmed breeding - some, such a Swallow and House Sparrow, in great numbers (motley crew shots of latter below). Willow Warblers are ever present right up around the house (on the washing line, outside the kitchen window where I could have reached out and touched them); pic below is one of this family, also observed on occasion feeding on the ground out in the open with the sparrows, clearly taking some tiny insects, something I do not recall seeing before. Snipe frequently sing from the bog to accompany the Grasshopper Warblers at dusk. Hen Harrier often come by hunting, sometimes circling the area. Ravens are regular - one morning I opened the front door to hear cronking and looked up to see seven of them high in the sky above. They hung around for a few minutes, playing in the air, then two vocal individuals led off north together - from the obvious signs of moult these were the parents and the other five presumably this season's offspring, a good crop. At the opposite end of the scale a racing pigeon arrived and found the place to its liking; read the ring and submitted report to NEHU, finding it had come from Gateshead!

In the far south-east is a region of special habitat, woods of stunted alders and birch, with lots of tangled vegetation, moss and thick lichen, interspersed by more desolate tracts of rushy bogs and bracken - mainly very heavy going on foot though. Redpoll is a characteristic species of this area, it seems their buzzing calls are audible continuously at times, and as per last year Willow Warblers are in almost every patch of cover available, total numbers must be huge. It is also what may be called the "zone of the zitters and squeakers" - Robin, Spotted Flycatcher, Wren, Coal Tit, Goldcrest, Treecreeper - and plenteous young thereof, are all here in numbers - at the same time an atlasser's joy and nightmare! In early July there are calls of all sorts from every patch of cover, but logging proof of breeding needs confident ID of call and young. Spot Fly juvs are particularly bad, their call is loud enough, but they can remain well hidden perched high in branches never moving. At least Dunnock young have a more distinctive repeated begging call.

Final atlas results included the efforts of others doing repeat (late) TTV's but a minimum of 40 ticks were accrued at 10km level, almost the same boosted to confirmed breeding. Thus the atlas status of NR24/34/44/45 is now uniformly "red" for species richness and breeding confirmation, i.e. no significant omissions remaining. Particularly pleasing to fill in a few gaps in the nocturnals map - the various owls and Woodcock must have been there year in year out since the last BTO atlas 20+ yrs ago, I felt I owed it to them to get out there and get them logged for the current one.

[Postscript - have now done a quick analysis of atlas changes; the smallish chunk of land in NR44 centred on Kildalton was hard to get up to anywhere near comparable to last atlas (indeed still yellow on national Roving priorities map for >10% missing, paradoxically red on the Islay results map for >90% found; presumably is on 90%, so 9 species short). So what are the differences?

Present last atlas but missed this time: Red-throated Diver, Cormorant, Kestrel, Corncrake, Moorhen, Golden Plover, BHG, Common Tern, Barn Owl, Grey Wagtail, Redstart, Wood Warbler, Rook;

A further 27 species confirmed last time, including several waders and seabirds which are not very accessible (perhaps a boat was used?). Altogether quite a a catalogue of omissions! Some I'm sure are genuine, they are gone (bold), others we've clearly just missed and coverage last time must have been way better, particularly on offshore islands. More positively we have at least 3 additions: Tawny Owl and Blackcap.

In other 10kms, Chough and Yellowhammer may be gone from NR34, and Grasshopper Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Goldfinch are new for NR45. Calling Quail were previously logged in NR24 and NR34, no hint of these in the areas I covered.

Amongst all of this atlas effort and family excursions little chance for "traditional" birding but we were lucky to happen upon a large gathering of godwits at Gartnatra, upper Loch Indaal, on 7 July. A minimum of 81 stunning (islandica) adult Black-wits were amongst them, and a single Knot. Other days there were only Barwits there. A decent flock of Little Terns at the Machrie river-mouth was also a very pleasant sight.

Mammals seen included the otter at Claggain, gatherings of common seals including those at Ard Imersay (above), many red deer, herds of up to 40 with many fine stags, fallow deer at Kildalton, a dark (Polecat coloured) ferret dashing over the road by Ballivicar and stoat at same place and by Farkin Cottage, vast numbers of hares and rabbits (one with myxomatosis), many hedgehogs including youngsters and various bats including what I thought may be Long-eared Bats at Kildalton and Cragabus (certainly looked bigger than pipistrelles). Sadly many toads dead on road at Kildalton. Butterflies quite plentiful, including Dark-green Fritillaries and Speckled Wood. A Great Diving Beetle was found in our car (!) - can only guess we picked it up by accident at Finlaggan.

A Linnet was also found dead on road at Bruichladdich, the pointed tail feathers may suggest juv, its presumed parent (or mate) standing over it. Sent it to the NMS collection.

This final photo is the sunset over Kintra viewed from Ballivicar one evening, it was inevitably accompanied by the reeling song of the local Grasshopper Warbler.

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