This page features current news and views from Skye and elsewhere. It will also provide an opportunity for others working locally to report research and results.
Apologies if you detect a note of disappointment here but the number of these rare summer migrants visiting our shores has dropped again for the third year running. In 2015, we counted nearly 1300 calling male corncrakes in Scotland and only 860 this year. You can see how numbers had gradually been building up since we started formally counting in 1994 on the graph below and then the recent downward trend. We are investigating the possible explanations for this but the decrease across the Scottish range is worrying.
On Skye, only 14 males were counted – down from 25 last year. As usual, these were found mainly on Waternish and Trotternish. The first corncrakes on Skye started called on 1st May, on Waternish and on Trotternish and one in Portree! A single bird was heard on the south end of the island so we can only hope that a female found him. Without the help of Skye Birds, I wouldn’t have known about this bird – so thank you!
The corncrake is a short-lived bird that needs to produce a large number of offspring in order to maintain numbers. It is possible that the past couple of breeding seasons were poor but reasons why this should be are unclear. Their preferred habitat is fertile croft land with enough vegetation for them to hide in – plants that are at least 20cm high, such as nettle, cow parsley, flag iris early in the season, then they move into the hay and silage meadows.
Hiding in vegetation is their mechanism to avoid predation. As you’ll know, this is in short supply in spring on the wild and windswept Isle of Skye. Small pockets of growth are found along dykes and sheltered ditches and some crofters create Early Cover plots specifically for corncrakes to use when they return from Africa. Silage and hay meadows are very attractive to corncrakes because they can hide in the tall grasses and a vast assortment of their prey (e.g., slugs, worms, insects, and spiders), also live there. However, these fields will inevitably be cut and the corncrakes are particularly vulnerable then.
Delaying mowing until the corncrakes have finished nesting and the young are mobile (August) can really improve their chance of survival. Using the corncrake friendly cutting method (starting the cut on the inside of the field and working towards the edges) will allow corncrakes to run to safety without leaving the protection of tall grass. As croft land is so important to corncrakes, it is commendable that so many Skye crofters protect these rare birds by cutting in a corncrake friendly way or delaying mowing where possible.
Your reports are extremely important in making sure we have a record of as many of the corncrakes on Skye as possible so I would like to thank all of you and Skye Birds for your support. If you would like to know more about the work RSPB is doing on Skye for corncrakes please get in touch.
Fair Isle is the prime migration hotspot in Scotland and its long been an ambition to visit. A bird observatory converted from former naval huts, was established in 1948, a far cry from the new building and accommodation block established in recent years. Midway between Orkney and Shetland the island is well placed to receive stray migrant birds and over the years has played host to many rarities, as well as a summer residence for breading seabirds and skuas. Transport links can be challenging, as we found, especially in late October when the ferry, the Good Shepherd, only makes a weekly journey, and the weekday air service can be curtailed by crosswinds on the runway. Unfortunately we were a day late in arriving and had to leave a day early otherwise we would have had a three day wait for another flight. Accomodation on a full board basis at the Observatory, in excellent facilities was £60 a head..impossible to match on Skye! Easterly winds had brought in thousands of thrushes from Scandinavia. A siberian Black-throated Thrush had made a brief appearance but disappeared before we could see it. In all we recorded 67 species over three days, no lifers but a number added to my year list for Scotland which now stands at 213. As we had to leave early because of weather, a productive 24 hours on Shetland produced a Steppe Grey Shrike, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Siberian Stonechat...all three birds proving new to me and there are images in the Gallery. The ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen was in a Force 8/9 gale so the weather had the final say.
The Highland Bird Report 2014, published by Highland Branch of the SOC has just been published. The majority of the records submitted to this website are forwarded for compilation into this report, which represents all the records which have been accepted as occurring in the Highland recording area. Skye and Lochalsh district is part of this region and the report contains a summary of the highlights for the district. There is also a summary of records from Lochaber which includes the Small Isles. Sean Morris from Rum has compiled this summary and we regularly carry records from the Small Isles and Morar. Please contact me if you need a copy as I have a few available at £9 or £11 including postage.