Greenland White-fronts on Skye
12th October 2011
Most Skye birders will know that two small flocks of Greenland White-fronts winter on the island - one at Broadford and one north of Uig around Loch Chaluim Chille. Both number only a few tens of birds, and both have declined to some extent over recent decades. The Broadford flock has fluctuated greatly in numbers since the 1970s, with 30-70 birds recorded over the years and slightly lower numbers very recently. The birds use a range of sites around Broadford and are often very hard to find, which may account for the fluctuations. Most records come from Ardnish and one or two other sites south of the village, but often there is no sign of them, suggesting they are hidden somewhere amidst the complex of fields and wetlands in the area. They may roost on Pabay, amongst several possible sites. The birds at Loch Chaluim Chille are representative of a flock with a complex history. Their favoured site was around the football pitch at Skeabost until the early 1990s, and they numbered up to 70 birds in the decade before that. They may have been using other areas around Loch Snizort at the same time, but gradually their most regular use settled around Loch Chaluim Chille, where just over 20 birds have been recorded in recent years. It is not know where they roost; possibly at the same site, or at times perhaps the Asrib islands.
Both flocks are little known and their use of habitats are poorly understood. We have few records of how many young they produce, and no sightings of ringed birds to reveal any information about movements. Yet both flocks remain vulnerable. Their numbers are low, and we know little about what, if any, threats they face. Over the last year, the Greenland White-fronted Goose Study Group has collated all the known information about the birds on Skye, with the help of comments from local birdwatchers. This confirmed how poor our knowledge is! We certainly need help from birders on Skye, and any who visit, to keep an eye open for these birds. If you see any Greenland White-fronts, anywhere on Skye, please note exactly where they were (with an OS grid reference if possible), try and obtain a good count, and if you are able to decide if any are youngsters (which lack the dark belly bars through the winter and the white around the beak until around Christmas), then the number of young and adults would be immensely useful. Any notes on their behaviour or type of habitat would also be very helpful. It's worth looking out for them now - at this moment, they are on their way from Iceland, and should arrive around mid- to late October!
Please send any records to Bob McMillan, who will collate and pass on the sightings. You can find more information about Greenland White-fronts, both on Skye and at all other parts of their world range, at http://greenlandwhitefront.org.
Ian Francis and Tony Fox