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Coll photograph
Birds of the Isle of Coll

Birds of the Isle of Coll



Very few birdwatchers make the journey to Coll in the winter but it can be a very interesting time for birds. Good numbers of divers can be found with normally 50-80 Great Northern, 20-30 Red-throated, and occasional Black-throated in addition to a flock of 40-80 Long-tailed Ducks. As winter progresses the numbers of Great Northern Divers build up so that by late April there can be as many as 40 in Crossopol Bay alone. The best locations are without doubt Crossopol Bay and Feall Bay.

10-20 Whooper Swans regularly winter on Coll, their numbers picking up in the spring as birds move through on their way back to northern breeding areas. An average of about 500 Greenland White-fronted Geese spend the winter here, scattered across the island in small herds. The flock of up to 1000 Barnacle Geese are seen predominantly on the RSPB Reserve where up to 20 feral Snow Geese can also be seen. Approximately 200 each of Teal and Wigeon can be found on freshwater wetlands, mainly Loch Ballyhogh and the Canal Loch on the RSPB Reserve. Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers are present in good numbers throughout.

White-tailed Eagles are becoming a more frequent sight during the winter months when Hen Harrier, Buzzard, Peregrine, Merlin and Sparrowhawk should also be encountered.

Half a dozen Water Rails frequent wetland areas through the winter and the shorelines attract good numbers of Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Curlew, Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers. Snipe, Lapwing and Golden Plover tend to prefer the wet grassland areas of the island and Woodcock are often flushed from the hill land.

The commoner gull species are abundant in winter. It’s also a good time to find white-winged gulls with both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls annual in varying numbers. The winter of 2004/05 was particularly good with at least six Glaucous and four Iceland noted.

Winter is a great time to see flocks of Rock Doves feeding in stubbles along with Skylarks and Twite. The RSPB Reserve and Cliad hold the greatest concentrations. It is also the best time to see Barn Owl or Short-eared Owl.

Very few songbirds are present in winter although small plantations and gardens regularly hold Coal Tit, Treecreeper and Goldcrest in addition to good numbers of Greenfinch, Chaffinch and winter thrushes.

The first signs of spring are usually the return of the Shelducks, the chatter of Grey Herons nest-building in the islands two plantations, and the filling of the air with Skylark song. The fields, particularly on the RSPB Reserve, become alive with the ‘drumming’ of Snipe and the displays of Lapwing and Redshank.

Migrants such as Swallow, White Wagtail, Wheatear, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Cuckoo arrive in April with Whinchats, Spotted Flycatchers, Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and Grasshopper Warblers generally coming in May.

There is a strong passage of birds heading north from their European wintering areas and these include Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Redwings and Linnets, as well as a wealth of wildfowl and waders. More interesting waders include regular Black-tailed godwits, Whimbrel and Greenshank. The first Corncrakes usually arrive back in mid-late April when they are at their easiest to see.

Coll has also attracted several unusual migrants in the spring, including Night Heron, Common Crane, Hoopoe, Red-rumped Swallow, Bluethroat, Black Redstart, Golden Oriole and Common Rosefinch.

The hill lochs attract Red-throated Divers and Common Sandpipers whilst the adjacent land provides nest sites for Greylag Geese, Twite, Stonechats, Meadow Pipits and Cuckoos. There are several large gull colonies and near these nest Arctic and Great Skuas. Buzzards breed on the hill along with other birds of prey, all of which are strictly protected by law.

Around the coastline Rock Pipits are common and both Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover nest. There are also several small tern colonies and good numbers of Shags and Fulmars. Black Guillemots can be seen offshore in small numbers around the rocky coast. Ravens and Hooded Crows are a frequent sight.

Freshwater areas attract breeding Teal and Mallard with adjacent vegetation housing Sedge Warblers and Reed Buntings. In the dunes Skylarks and Wheatears are aplenty and Shelducks nest in rabbit burrows.

The meadows and pastures are particularly important as they provide nest-sites for the island’s healthy Corncrake population. The RSPB has worked with the island’s farmers to conserve this rare species with great success. In twelve years the population has risen from 16 to 134 calling males. This has been achieved by a combination of measures. The first is the provision of sufficient early-cover for first broods, by providing fenced off ‘Corncrake corners’ planted with cow parsley and nettles that grow quickly early in the season. Later in the summer Corncrakes move into the hay-meadows so the second measure is to cut the hayfields late and in a ‘Corncrake-friendly’ manner – from the middle of the field outwards to avoid accidental mowing of chicks. Breeding Corncrakes are also found in the pastures. Here the removal of stock for the summer months means that the iris beds are allowed to flourish, providing good early-cover, with birds then moving into the species-rich grassland once the vegetation grows sufficiently tall.

Around the plantations and gardens of the island species such as Robin, Dunnock, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Lesser Redpoll, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Linnet can be found.

In the evenings thousands of Manx Shearwaters can be seen offshore, whilst from the ferry Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins are frequently encountered.

Autumn migration starts early for some birds, with July to September being the best months for some wader species. These include Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Whimbrel and Greenshank. There are occasional sightings of Ruff, Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper and 2004 saw several species of North American waders carried over by Atlantic gales.

Observing passing seabirds offshore can be productive, particularly in September storms. Seawatching in such conditions in 2004 produced Pomarine, Arctic, Great and Long-tailed Skuas, Sooty Shearwaters, Storm and Leach’s Petrels and Sabine’s Gulls. Strong south-westerly or north-westerly gales produce the best chances.

The plantations and gardens of Coll attract numerous migrants if the weather conditions are favourable during September and October. Rarities such as Red-eyed Vireo, Lesser Grey Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, Barred Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler have been found amongst commoner migrants such as Robins, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Goldcrests. The migration of winter thrushes through Coll can be spectacular with flocks of up to 3000 Redwings and 2000 Fieldfares arriving over the sea to gorge on Rowan and Hawthorn berries.

The arrival of White-fronted and Barnacle Geese from Greenland in mid-October takes us full circle.
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Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
Edition 4th
Paperback 336 pages. 216x135 mm.
Illustrations line drawings and maps.
This bird-finding guide is the standard reference to the best birding sites in Scotland. Each site is described in terms of the nature of the habitat, the species likely to be observed, access details and recommended timings to get the best from the site, and a calendar summarising which species are found in which seasons.

Fully revised and updated, this new edition will be much sought-after by all birders hoping to find Scotland’s stunning specialities or to plan an itinerary for a successful birding trip to this beautiful country.

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Where to Watch Birds in Scotland


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