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.
The numbers of white-winged Gulls we see varies each winter and the exact reasons behind this are possibly not well understood. The last two winters were exceptionally cold yet numbers of white gulls were low. The exceptional windy weather may be a factor this winter. Iceland Gull breeds mainly in Greenland but Glaucous has a more widespread distribution. The two can normally be easily separated as Iceland is smaller and has a more 'dove-like' head. Kumlien's breeds in arctic Canada and is a hybrid between Iceland and Thayer's Gull and sometimes the markings can be very subtle. This winter has seen good numbers on Skye and Lochalsh, including several adult Iceland Gulls which is unusual. Since the Portree 'dump' was closed the area is probably less attractive to wintering gulls though Portree harbour has always attracted some. However the real local mecca is Mallaig where Stephen MacDonald has found around 20 white-winged Gulls, not quite reaching his record total here. In the image of one of the new pontoons at Mallaig, are five Iceland Gulls of varying ages, including a Kumlien's. Images in the Gallery will hopefully help out with the identification of the different species and hybrids.
For non gaelic speakers, the literal translation is - have you seen the ‘yellow one of the dung or cowpat’? In scots it has been called a variety of names including Yella Yite, Skite, Yaldie, Yallow Lintie, or Scotch Canary. For those still struggling, we are talking about a bird, with a catchy song which goes like this ... “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese......”. If this doesn’t help, then perhaps the name Yellowhammer or Yellow Bunting will be more familiar, or to the scientifically minded Emberiza citronella.
Older members of the community will be extremely familiar with this delightful little bird which was at one time common in the crofting townships. It has been well documented in all the historical reference works as being common in Skye and the Inner Hebrides. It was even breeding in Soay in 1952. When ‘Birds of Scotland’ was published in 1986 it was described as being widespread and common on Skye, although there were already signs of some decline. Certainly by the early 1990’s it had disappeared from a significant number of its former haunts and records have become scarcer and scarcer.
The experience on Skye is by no means unique as the species, has disappeared from large areas of its former distribution, and it is now ‘red listed’, as of high conservation concern. The main explanation is changes in agricultural practices, and the absence of stubble fields overwinter. This is a seed eating species and grain is an important part of its diet. Changes in crofting practices and the movement away from growing cereals such as oats, has probably been a factor in its decline on Skye. This was a bird which was mainly resident, and it would therefore require food to keep it going through wet and cold winters. Though it can still be found in Lochalsh, the chances of a small breeding population ever being re-established on Skye is probably remote so it is part of our local heritage which unfortunately, may now be lost. Conservationists often make a big fuss about the risks to our ‘spectacular’ birds. Regrettably, little ‘brown’ birds, or in this case little yellow ones, do not always figure in our priorities until it is too late.
I wrote this note for the Elgol Historical Society magazine in 2005. I finally managed to see a Skye Yellowhammer at Kyleakin a few days ago - thanks to Hugh and Margaret Scott
Stopping the introduction of pike into Scottish lochs could help ensure the future of one of Scotland’s rarest birds, according to research by RSPB Scotland. The study, led by RSPB and part funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, looked at what factors influence breeding Slavonian grebes to choose certain lochs to raise young. It found that the moderately sized lochs with an abundance of small fish (sticklebacks and minnows) to feed on, clear water to hunt fish and plenty of nesting habitat were most suitable for the species. It also revealed that lochs containing pike had fewer small fish, which are a valuable food source for grebes. The Slavonian grebe only began breeding in the UK in 1908; its population today remains restricted to northern Scotland where latest counts have shown only 29 breeding pairs remain.
Conservationists hope a better understanding of species, particularly during the breeding season, could help determine what measures are needed to reverse the population decline.
Ron Summers, RSPB Scotland’s Principal Conservation Scientist said “The Slavonian grebe is still a relative newcomer to the UK and as such we have much to learn about its behaviour and factors affecting its population size. This research helps us understand what kind of conditions are suitable for grebes when raising young. In this way, we can help ensure suitable habitat is maintained and that the species isn’t competing against others, such as pike, for food. By considering these measures we stand a better chance of improving breeding success in the future.”
Though not breeding on Skye - Slavonian Grebes breeding strongholds are not far away in Inverness-shire. The birds which winter round our coast are thought to be from the Icelandic population.