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.
Despite the vagaries of the weather 2015 was another good year for the website with 177 different species reported from Skye & Lochalsh, the Small Isles and western parts of Lochaber. The biggest rarity of the year was the Ortolan Bunting found in Stephen MacDonald's garden at Morar in late June. It was a species which had been on my list of birds to find when we were in Catalonia a few weeks previously, and little did I realise it would turn up on our doorstep. Two new species were added to the Skye list, with a Nuthatch at Broadford on April 27, and a Firecrest at Isleornsay on November 2. The Ivory Gull at Uig was last seen on January 4 before spending a few weeks at Ullapool, and hopefully returning safely to the Arctic. Bee Eaters were reported from Canna and Eigg. A female Black Redstart at Dunvegan in May was also seen in August suggesting it might have summered. Also at Dunvegan, a male Yellowhammer was extremely unusual. Two Dotterel were reported on Bruach na Frithe on May 15. A Green Woodpecker was heard calling in Sleat in June and a Marsh Warbler was again singing at Uig on July 25. A Hoopoe was at Ardvasar in late August, when a Kingfisher was reported from Drynoch, and another was seen by a fisherman on the River Shiel on October 6. The rarest wader report was a Green Sandpiper at Point of Sleat on August 20. Little Egrets are now reported annually and a bird was at Breakish Obbe for several weeks to mid October. A Little Egret was also reported from Eigg. Mediterranean Gulls were first recorded on Skye in 2014 and up to two were found in Broadford Bay in December 2015. Unfortunately the December gales brought a few Little Auks to our shores, some of which did not survive. Its worth mentioning that a number of these rarities were found by non-birders, so thanks to them and everyone else who supports the site, and we look forward to an equally interesting 2016.
This year we had a national survey of our Golden Eagle population, cordinated by the RSPB, with this aiming to gauge the total number of breeding pairs across the UK for the first time since 2003. Like many other volunteers in Raptor Study Groups across Scotland, John Smith and I enjoy checking the breeding success of our local pairs in the Lochalsh area each year anyway. Being a national survey year, this was a particularly important one for us though.
We had enjoyed a good year in 2014, with 10 pairs confirmed laying eggs and 9 of these going on to fledge single young. We were optimistic of a similar outcome this year then when we detected 10 pairs on eggs again, with 5 more pairs not nesting or failing early in their nesting attempt (as is common each year). Sadly it all went downhill from this good start. Unlike in 2014 when the weather was predominantly mild, dry and settled, the spring and early summer of this year was incessantly wet and cold, with snowfall on the hills into May and June. Failure followed failure as we rechecked each of the 10 nesting pairs to see if they had young. The image shows a long failed nest with the addled egg remaining. It looked like we were going to have no young fledged this year at all (for the first time in John’s nigh on 40 years checking eagles.) Thankfully one of the last pairs we checked somehow managed to brood a single chick through the extremely tough conditions, and this went on to fledge the nest.
This was the last national Golden Eagle survey John will be involved with. Like many keen birders of his era, as a boy John was more egg collector than bird protector. When he settled in Scotland in the mid-1970s he was converted to a conservation outlook and has devoted his time since to monitoring our local Golden Eagles. Over the years John has seen a slow decline in our local population, with the survey this year showing 5 ranges which he once had occupied now to be vacant. Why? We can’t know for sure and it’s probably a mix of factors rather than a sole cause, with these possibly including increased human disturbance, a declining food supply and habitat degradation. Climate change may be an issue too, with our weather being variable and extreme over recent winters and springs; with some fine spells but unsettled times too, which could be impacting eagle prey. John himself wonders whether atmospheric pollution has been a cause, with Europe’s industrial emissions being dumped down within our upland’s high rainfall over decades, perhaps augmented by Chernobyl – he noticed big declines in many species from the mid-1980s onwards. Our declining eagle population will come as no surprise to many who head to our local hills, with many folk of John’s generation noting how scarce many of our bird species have become compared to decades ago. (A local decline in Peregrines highlighted by the 2014 national survey reflects this too.)
For me personally I’m extremely grateful for everything John has done for me over the years, “taking me under his wing” and sharing all his unique knowledge. It’s been a pleasure to hear his stories of past days watching these magnificent birds, but also sad to stare up at the crags that were once home to his “favourite pairs”, empty and lifeless now.
Exhibition and presentation at Talla Dearg, Isleornsay on Saturday 21 September 2019 - Migrations - a field study in adversity - in support of The Highlands Support Refugees