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.
Pelagicbirder Andy and I managed to escape our biggest snow fall on Skye of the winter by heading for the western isles for three days in pursuit of some rarities. The weather remained bitterly cold throughout our visit, not exactly the best conditions for camping. An American Herring Gull on Barra proved elusive though we managed distant views of a summer plumage White-billed Diver. Migrants were fairly thin on the ground as was to be expected, though big numbers of Whimbrel and other waders were trying to move north. A disorientated Black Kite had found itself roosting in a chilly wood in Lewis so this prompted a quick change of plans and a visit to Liurbost. Unfortunately the bird had either left or had gone missing and who could blame it. Always a fantastic place to see raptors we had great views of both Eagle species, Short-eared Owl, Peregrine, and Hen Harrier. Both Little and Common Terns were returning to territories. A few Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were singing but the only hirundines we noted were Sand Martins. How early migrants coped with these kind of conditions is a mystery and one can only be saddened at the fate of some. Fortunately we always seemed to miss the worst of the weather and in northerly winds and sunshine, the seascapes were fantastic. We managed 83 species and 4 ferry crossings - and thanks to Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) - it was all affordable!
There is a Hen Harrier breeding survey throughout the UK this year and we are making a contribution by checking a number of 10km squares in Skye and Lochalsh. The core areas have now been monitored for 15 years though the breeding population has significantly reduced from the peak years of 2007-2012 when we averaged around 11 territorial pairs in the North Skye study area. Breeding pairs on Skye are often slow to settle and the majority are not on eggs until early to mid May. Birds can often be in territory early but disappear to perhaps breed elsewhere. The presence of skydancing birds is also a giveaway as is the fluttering flight of the male, usually with flaired tail and dangling legs - see the image. However this does not always indicate a pair and in my experience unpaired males which hold territories usually display a great deal. Males will also build cock nests almost to try and entice the females. But the female will invariably select the nest site. So far there are probably 5 adult males in the north Skye study area with at least 4 pairs so far. There is another pair in south Skye and a pair in Lochalsh. I'm still following up other reports and these can be extremely helpful in piecing together information. Males will also hunt 5/6 miles away from a breeding site so observations are always difficult to interpret. Notes on flight direction and behaviour are always useful when observations are made. Thanks again to everyone who sends records in.
In my last blog post I lameneted on the fact that a group of us had spent three days on North Uist searching for a wintering Gyr Falcon only to have missed the bird by minutes. Persistence reaps rewards and on Wednesday we returned and managed to get some magnificent views and stunning images. Though the bird has been taking live prey it has also been taking carrion. A Mute Swan had collided with overhead wires and its carcass provided more than one ready meal. With the bird returning daily to feed it was simply a question of being patient and waiting for it to return to feed. After about 5 hours it came on to the carcass and gorged itself - after such a feed it was doing very little flying and simply sat around resting. There are several historic records for Gyr in Skye and many of them had an unfortunate demise by being shot. At one time the species was divided into Greenland and Iceland Falcon, but now the generic term is used. Bird originating in Iceland are normally grey phase whilst birds from Greenland are white phase. The North Uist bird is a juvenile white phase, a spectacular looking bird, which has now been seen by a good number of visiting birders. There was also a Great White Egret nearby which I was also able to add to my Scottish list. It would be great if either came over the Minch for another addition to my Skye list but for the moment I will simply reflect on what was another exceptional visit to the Uists. There are more images in the UK Gallery.
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