January 2009

On the 31st a Lesser Black-backed Gull was seen along Treshnish shore. This is not a true migrant but birds are scarce in the winter months in Scotland, preferring the milder climate of southern Britain. I had seen one 6 weeks earlier but was not certain that it wasn’t the common wintering Great Black-backed Gull.

European Storm-petrel, Black Grouse and Great Skua

Whilst researching for a list of North Mull birds some unusual records were discovered.
One of the most exciting was that of a European Storm-petrel seen flying from a burrow at Treshnish Point on 26/08/1989. The bird was seen by D & M Alcock and recorded in the Argyll Bird Report (ABR) 6:12.
European Storm-petrels are nocturnal so difficult to see. Like Puffins they breed in burrows and it is the churring from within the burrows that is a sign of breeding. They also breed amongst boulders and rocks. So the bird seen flying from a burrow in 1989 is intriguing. If it had been earlier in the summer it could have been exploring for territory but in late summer it seems less easy to explain. Realistically breeding would seem impossible at Treshnish Point where Mink predation would surely be inevitable.
Although several hundred breed on the Treshnish Isles there have been a few sightings from North-west Mull including 5 on 14/06/1991 at Caliach Point (ABR 8:25), 1 on 21/09/1990 flying south off Caliach Point (ABR 7:12), 1 on 07/08/1988 'picked up exhausted but soon recovered at Calgary Point, Coll' (sic), (ABR 5:15), 30 on 27/07/1981 off Caliach Point and about 25 on 14/08/1980 off Caliach Point on a foggy day (ABR 1:14).
Birds have been known to breed on Cairn na Burgh More, Treshnish Isles (which is in the Treshnish 10x10km square) in at least 2006 when several were heard churring in burrows there (Treshnish Isles Auk Ringing Group Report 2007).

Another record of special conservational interest was of 2 male Black Grouse on 25/04/1990 at Reudle (ABR 7:25). This is probably the summer record for our 10x10km square in The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991 (1993). Black Grouse is a species of national concern due to its drastic decline in recent decades and is therefore rare on Mull. The only other recent record I could find was 1 on 17/05/1993 at Glen Aros (ABR 10:39).

More recently a large bird-ring was found at the remains of a Golden Eagle kill on 23rd June 2008. There was nothing left of the dead bird to identify it but with the help and determination of several bird-ringers and numerous e-mail exchanges it was eventually traced to a Great Skua which was ringed as a chick on the north coast of Scotland in 2001!

GIBBONS, D.W., REID, J.B. & CHAPMAN, R.A. (1993). The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991 (Poyser).

Snow Geese on Mull

Occasionally an old-timer asks what happened to the Snow Geese at Treshnish.
One of the previous owners, Niall Rankin (see below) had a wildfowl collection, which included a flock of Snow Geese brought here in 1950s. Some of the strange artificial water retaining structures around Treshnish farm were for the birds of this collection, I am not sure if that includes Treshnish lochan or not but the sluice like structure at the mouth of Ensay Burn was one of these. Perhaps it was after Niall died in 1965 that the flight feathers were allowed to grow but whether that was the case or not in 1983 the flock flew to Coll for the winter and has apparently continued to do so ever since. It appears that later, part of the flock started to stay to breed on Coll because the first breeding occurred on Coll in 1985 possibly earlier and breeding has occurred there until at least 2002. Birds were successfully rearing young at Treshnish up until 1996 and probably 1997 (possibly 1998) but since then the whole flock has been wintering on Coll. In fact it seems that Coll has become their home because they have not been seen on Mull since 2003 at Gruline at the head of Loch na Keal, when 40 were seen.
If anyone has any further news on these birds please contact me.

Niall Rankin
Niall was an ornithologist and photographer who wrote Haunts of British Divers (1947) and Antarctic Isle: Wild Life in South Georgia (1951). He won the International Wild Life Photography Award of the Year in 1935, which was presented to him by Hermann Goring! A collection of 39 of his photographs is housed at the Natural History Museum, Tring and some were exhibited at the Country Life International Exhibitions of Wild Life Photography in 1935 and 1950. He died in Bechuanaland (Botswana) making a film on the life of Cecil Rhodes. Some of his photographs were published in the magazine British Birds where his obituary was published (BB 58:7). The famous wildlife photographer Eric Hosking writing in British Birds considered his photo of a Gannet braking to land to be highly memorable and one that ‘he would always be remembered for’.

From British Birds obituary
‘His varied interests led him to many distant lands, from Tibet and Indo-China to the American and European Arctic, and not only for birds. A tribe in Sikkim or a photo-mosaic of Annapurna were as much up his street as the wild geese of Iceland or big game in Africa…Although a lover of good company, he was very much an individualist, always content to be ‘the lone wolf’ and just as happy alone with Eskimos or Sherpas.’ G.K. Yeates
Apparently he was so busy moving onto his next project that he rarely had time to write up his bird notes or even to print his negatives!

Niall Rankin films
PEOPLE OF THE CONGO (1959). Documentary, Director
KING OF BIRDS (1956). Documentary, Director
LAND OF THE BASQUE (1950). Documentary, Director Of Photography
BRIDGE ACROSS THE SKY, THE (1940). Documentary, Director Of Photography, Director
ROOF OF THE WORLD (1940). Documentary, Director
HILLS OF SMILING DEATH, THE (1941). Documentary, Director
MANDARIN ROAD TO CHINA, THE (1938). Documentary, Director
MASAI PLAIN (1957). Documentary, Director
If you want to read the most incredible life of his brother click here.
His wife Lady Rankin is better known and you can find out more about her on her Telegraph obituary

Mountain Hares on Mull

Visitors to Treshnish are very likely to come across one or even a group of Mountain Hares Lepus timidus, which are quite easy to find in the fields below Treshnish House. Perhaps some visitors are not aware that they are a different species to the Brown Hare L. europaeus but if you have looked carefully at Brown Hares and they are still vivid in your memory you will notice immediately the difference. Mull hares are smaller, have shorter ears and white fur on the back of the legs, under the tail and on the ear edges, even in the summer. The general jizz is also different and so is the overall colour, which is more reddish brown than the Brown Hare. In winter they become slightly more white but I have never seen one turn all white but apparently sometimes they do, even on Mull which receives only occasional snow.

A fact that certainly comes under the ‘not many people know that’ category is that the Mountain Hares on Mull were introduced to Mull from Ireland. This introduction is by popular belief thought to have occurred in the nineteenth century by The Duke of Argyll although according to Corbet & Harris 1991 in Scottish Natural Heritage report 278 they were introduced in the early to mid twentieth century and not only to Mull but Shetland, Orkney (Hoy), the Western Isles, Skye, Raasay, Scalpay, Eigg, Mull, Islay and Jura and according to Yalden 1999 in the 1830s and 1840s to much of southern Scotland. This fits with J. P. MacLean who in 1923 wrote in The History of Mull that the Irish Hare L. hibernicus was a recent introduction to ‘Loch Buy’. It is amazing to think that they could have colonised all Mull from Loch Bui in such a short time.

Looking at map of the Mountain Hare distribution today you can see this more clearly. As the name suggests this is a montane species and so it’s stronghold is the highlands. There are no records in the Morven, Ardamurchan peninsulas and the highland distribution seems to peter out just before Oban. The squares in lowland Scotland and southern Scotland are geographically isolated from the northern population. It still occurs in Shetland, Lewis and Harris, Jura and the southern tip of Mull of Kintyre.

Apparently the introductions of at least some Mountain Hares to southern Scotland at about the turn of the century by a Mr Munsay were from Inverness stock and have spread to Cumbria. I do not know whether there were any Scottish Mountain Hares also introduced onto Mull but what is clear is that the Mull hares have Irish genes and this fact has been mentioned in recent scientific papers. It is probably more likely that all the Mull hares came from the same source in which case the Mull hares would all be Irish Mountain Hares.

Why am I going on about this you might ask, Irish, Scottish what’s the difference? Well there is a difference. The Irish Mountain Hare is a distinct subspecies of Mountain Hare Lepus timidus hibernicus hence the name given by MacLean, when it must have been considered a completely separate species. But times change and the ‘lumping’ of animals particularly birds in the mid twentieth century is coming around full circle to the Victorian trend of ‘splitting’, perhaps the Irish Hare will be resurrected again. Incidentally the Irish race is apparently larger than the Scottish race Lepus timidus scoticus and so approaching the Brown Hare in size and is also much less likely to turn white in winter.

Corbet, G.B. & Harris, S. (1991) The handbook of British mammals. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
Kinrade V, Ewald J, Smith A, Newey S, Iason G, Thirgood S & Raynor R (2008). The distribution of mountain hare Lepus timidus in Scotland (2006/07). Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 278 (ROAME No. R07AC308)
MacLean, J.P. (1923) The History of Mull embracing Description, Climate, Geology, Flora, Fauna, Antiquities, Folk Lore, Superstitions, Traditions with an Account of Its Inhabitants together with a Narrative of lona The Sacred Isle.
Yalden, D. (1999) The history of British mammals. T & A D Poyster Ltd, London

Treshnish Birds Spring 2008

This year is an important year for British and Irish birdwatchers. 2008 is the first of four years contributing to the forthcoming Atlas of Breeding and Wintering Birds. The previous New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland covered the years 1988-91 and the only Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland 1981-84. This time the records for winter and breeding atlases are being collected over the same time period.
The new atlas is exciting as it will show changes of bird populations over the last 15-20 years and even further back to the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland of 1968-72. In participating we also take more notice of what is happening locally to our birds.

We know that Fulmars breed on the cliffs of Treshnish but when do they arrive back to breed or do they occasionally turn up at their breeding grounds in the winter? Well, through taking part in the winter bird survey we know that at least some visit these breeding cliffs during the winter. They were not actually seen sitting on the ledges but it is very possible that they do. Perhaps they are only exploiting a food source near the breeding cliffs but the way they patrol the cliffs is identical to the way they patrolled and landed on the cliffs in early spring in mid and late March 2006 and late March 2007. Then they departed before returning to breed from mid-April until mid-August.

Many of our so-called resident birds actually leave Treshnish for the winter. Some only disperse locally within Britain and may not even leave Mull but a few may even migrate southwards across the channel or westwards to Ireland in the same way that British resident birds are augmented by Scandinavian visitors. Lesser Black-backed Gull, Pied and Grey Wagtail, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Siskin, Linnet, Twite, Lesser Redpoll, Reed Bunting and probably Gannet, leave Treshnish for the winter (although one Lesser Redpoll was seen in the winter survey of 2007-2008). The previous atlases tell us that Lesser Redpoll move to the south and east of Britain according to the presence of birch seed and Siskin to the south of Britain to feed mostly on Alder cones. Twite move to form flocks at prime coastal sites; Southern Mull, Coll, Tiree, Colonsay, Oronsay, Jura and Islay being the closest winter hot-spots with the highest concentrations in Scotland appearing in Uist, NE Scotland, Shetland and Orkney. Even Meadow Pipit and Skylark become much less common in the winter.

Most ‘resident’ species arrive back in early spring from March onwards to take advantage of the first warm weather and so gain the advantage over the true summer migrants. Some appear to arrive later than the first true migrants so Wheatear is back singing in its territories in mid-April before residents such as Greenfinch, Linnet, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Twite have made an appearance. Of course conditions contributing to the breeding of resident species change from year to year. Perhaps that early singing Song Thrush that you may have heard has had an early success but two of our local species that usually lay early are Tawny Owl and Golden Eagle. Tawny Owls become more silent in early spring and in Britain start laying in mid-February although in Scotland it is a little later but by mid-April chicks may have hatched. This year it appears that one nearby Golden Eagle nest had a sitting adult in mid-March and another in early April.

Noticing the arrival of local and long distance migrants is a lot easier than the departure of winter visitors but it appears that the last Woodcock had left our woods by mid-March.
Fieldfare were very scarce this winter only being seen in the autumn and Redwing too were only seen in early winter and early spring. Probably each year is different but certainly this year Treshnish was only visited on passage by these northern thrushes; this may have been an effect of the mild winter. A severe winter would push birds further south but a mild winter with a good Rowan crop might mean Scandinavian thrushes have less need to migrate so far, although Fieldfare is less versatile in its feeding and so less able to stand harsh conditions than for example our Blackbirds. Redwing on the other hand can forage in fields and woods but is also more sensitive to cold weather than our resident thrushes.

Golden Plover flocks can be seen occasionally at Treshnish in the spring and autumn but less frequently in the winter. This year a flock was found on one of the nearby hill tops and so they may only be moving very locally and not leaving the area at all although flocks seen in the winter may not actually be the breeding stock at all.

Dipper which has been seen on the Ensay Burn in the summer was, as expected, still present in the winter but should weather conditions become harsh would this species disperse? In the unlikely event of the streams freezing solid, this species would also have to move towards the shore but apparently as long as it can reach any flowing water below the ice, though air holes, it can survive and will probably remain in its breeding grounds. But interestingly the winter atlas tells us that it breeds early and can even lay eggs in late February, so in Scotland breeding is probably a little later.

Puffin is the odd one out as the auks go. Razorbill, Guillemot and Black Guillemot can all be seen offshore in the winter but the Puffin leaves our coastal waters during the winter. Kittiwake are also pelagic during the winter but can still be seen from the coast throughout the year although they have been seen roosting on tidal rocks here in September. In the British Isles as a whole there is a general displacement of birds further into the Atlantic but not a true migration. Breeding birds start arriving back in their colonies in February and some still visit their colonies up until November. The nearest breeding colony to Treshnish is on the Treshnish Isles.

At Treshnish the most common true winter migrant, assuming that Redwing and Fieldfare are mostly on passage, is the Great Northern Diver. In winter plumage it can be a little difficult to separate from the much less common (resident) Black-throated Diver but the pale breast side has square dark patches projecting forwards and this is usually easy to see. Red-throated Diver which breeds on Mull is more common than Black-throated Diver and can be separated by its upward pointing bill. In April Great Northern Diver is starting to moult into its breeding plumage and before leaving for its arctic breeding grounds we can see it in all its splendour. Some birds may stay until early June and it is not uncommon to see them until mid-May.
Whooper Swan another enigmatic winter visitor can usually be seen at Loch an Torr and Mishnish Lochs but this year I have seen none there and again this could be due to the mild winter. We see this magnificent swan occasionally at Treshnish in October and April when it sometimes settles on Treshnish lochan. Winter ducks are rare at Treshnish and so Goldeneye for example is best looked for at Loch an Torr and Mishnish Lochs.
Sanderling another winter migrant can sometimes be seen on passage in autumn on Calgary beach and Turnstone can be seen there throughout the winter if the beach is not too disturbed.

In late March a Short-eared Owl was seen along the road about 1km south from where the Treshnish farm-track meets the paved road. In early April a pair was seen hunting in the same area and again one was seen hunting in mid-April so it looks like the abundance of voles this winter has benefited this species and hopefully it will remain. It has certainly chosen a perfect spot as the deer fence protecting the broad-leaved plantation here must be excellent for voles. Another species which seems to have benefited from the ‘vole year’ is the Buzzard. Nine were seen circling together above Treshnish Point in early April. Another vole predator is the Hen Harrier, which is virtually a year round speciality here at Treshnish; although they do not breed on the farm but nearby and therefore the only time they are difficult to see here is at the peak of the breeding season when they will be hunting closer to the nest site. Hen Harriers are polygamous and so numbers can increase quite quickly if they are not prosecuted. The new plantation is ideal habitat and hopefully we will have them breeding there soon.

Spring is probably the best time to see Merlin but again they probably do not breed very close by and so we do not see them in the breeding season. They can also be seen throughout the rest of the year. Peregrine sightings are quite scarce but scanning the sky when the Common Gulls are alarmed could provide results. Golden Eagle is THE Treshnish bird speciality and is very easy to see throughout the year but especially in January, February when at least one pair seems to spend hours soaring together. I can only conclude that this is either for pure enjoyment or is part of the mating and bonding ritual or both because during breeding period they fly much less. If you disturb a Golden Eagle during the breeding season (mid-March until end of July) please leave the area immediately as some pairs are very prone to disturbance and will abandon the eggs especially in the early stages. White-tailed Eagle can be seen throughout the year, usually flying along the coast. On one of the timed winter surveys two or three juveniles were seen near Port Haunn. All had white wing tags and one was perched long enough to identify it as a 2007 chick from Skye which had not yet been seen on Mull. During the summer the Loch Frisa adults frequently come to Treshnish to hunt but last year the chicks fell out of the nest and afterwards they were not seen at Treshnish probably because they had fewer mouths to feed. This was good for the Fulmars, which reared at least 7 chicks around Treshnish Point in 2007.