Introduction to the Birds of Assynt
There are few parts of the British Isles as wild, remote and under recorded as the North West Highlands. Assynt at first sight can be seen as a hostile place for birds with its rocky coast, ancient rocks, lack of trees and blanket peat covering much of the landscape.
However we have a unique assemblage of birds and hold some of Britain’s rarest breeding birds including black-throated diver and common greenshank. 236 species of birds have been recorded in Assynt in recent decades. 107 of these maybe reasonably called regular breeders. There are a further 20 regular winter visitors and the rest are regular or rare passage migrants.
2. The Highlights
Assynt enjoys a milder climate than you would suppose thanks to the Gulf Stream. But the Atlantic depressions bring frequent rain and strong south westerly winds that can suppress vegetation and make it less hospitable for many birds. The extensive moorland can be a very empty place in winter, except for the occasional common raven or winter wren skulking in the undergrowth. Deer carrion help keep the golden eagles alive during the winter months, but in spring the summer migrants such as northern wheatear, willow warbler, common sandpiper, barn swallow and common cuckoo start to arrive and then Assynt comes alive.
Because of the high rainfall we do not have the extensive heather moors that occur on the east coast and that support large populations of red grouse. The patchy heather and grass hillsides in Assynt will provide food for small numbers of grouse, but here you will also find meadow pipit, golden plover, ring ouzel, and common greenshank with rock ptarmigan and maybe snow bunting on the summits.
Woodland cover in Assynt is sparse but where it does occur the woodland, in spring, can be alive with willow warbler, treecreeper, lesser redpoll, Eurasian siskin and four species of tits along with the occasional tree pipit and wood warbler. Redwing also breed in small numbers.
With a few exceptions the great many lochs and lochans that cover Assynt are poor in nutrients and do not support much wildfowl. Nevertheless they provide ideal nesting sites for red-throated and black-throated divers. The margins are a good place for breeding common sandpiper, white-throated dipper and grey heron.
The sea around the coast of Assynt on the other hand, is very productive and the Torridonian sandstone cliffs make ideal ledges for breeding sea birds. As well as the breeding fulmar and kittiwake on the Stoer cliffs, to the north is the internationally important seabird colony of Handa Island. Many of the common guillemot, razorbill and Atlantic puffin, not to mention arctic and great skuas that breed on the island, feed in the waters around Assynt’s coast. We suspect there maybe a strong autumn migration of seabirds past the Point of Stoer but it is very under recorded.
Around the coast roads, the in-bye croftland is good for seeing northern wheatear, pied wagtail, stonechat, twite and some nesting waders such northern lapwing, common redshank and snipe. We no longer produce many grain crops or grow hay and the once common corncrake is now a sporadic breeding bird. Highland Cattle are no longer widespread and the numbers of sheep are in decline but the croft land has turned up some interesting surprises in recent years such as rose-coloured starling and great grey shrike.
In Assynt, even a small garden with a few bushes must seem like an oasis in the otherwise very open landscape and they can produce occasional rarities such as a hoopoe, hawfinch and common crossbill. Many members of the field club undertake an annual garden bird survey.
Our bird fauna, as in other parts of Britain is changing. Some species such as yellowhammer and twite are in decline while others such as great spotted woodpecker, goldfinch and collard dove have increased in recent years and former birds, such as osprey and white-tailed eagle, may be on the threshold of returning. We would like your help in adding to the Assynt list so please get in touch if you see anything of interest.
3. Bird recording in Assynt.
In the past decade bird records from Assynt have been collated by the Highland Council Ranger Service and individuals within the Assynt Field Club and forwarded to the Highland Bird Recorder for inclusion in the annual Highland Bird Report. The Assynt Field Club also assisted with the national BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11. Field Club members surveyed a large number of tetrads within Assynt and also contributed a great number of roving records so we now have a better understanding of the distribution and numbers of our birds.
Bird populations give an excellent indication of the health of our environment and we would appreciate any information on any birds you see in Assynt with the date, location and grid reference if possible. All records will be forwarded to the Highland Bird Recorder.
Please send your observations and photographs or any queries relating to Assynt’s birds to: Andy Summers, Highland Council Ranger Service, Lochinver, Sutherland, IV27 4LX; 01571 844654 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or simply use the reporting form at the bottom of this page.
4. Further information.
The best introduction to local birds is the Birds of Assynt booklet published by the Assynt Field Club or Birds of Sutherland by Alan Vittery. They are available from the local bookshop at Inverkirkaig.
For distribution maps look on www.bto.org/birdatlas
Other sources of information include:
Angus, A. 1983. Sutherland Birds. The Northern Times (out of print).
Assynt Field Club. Garden Bird Survey (1997-2009) Unpublished.
Assynt Field Club. (1998; 3rd edition 2004,). Birds of Assynt. Assynt Field Club
RSPB Highland Members Group. 2002. The top 50 birdwatching sites in the Highlands. RSPB. www.rspb.org.uk/groups/highland
SOC. The Annual Highland Bird Reports. Highland Branch of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. www.the-soc.org.uk/whats-on/local-branches-2/highland
Summers, A. Bird List for Glencanisp and Drumrunie 2006. Unpublished but available to see in the Assynt Visitor Centre.
Vittery, A. Sutherland Bird Reviews (2001, 2002 and 2003). East Sutherland Bird Group.
Vittery, A. 1997. The Birds of Sutherland. Colin Baxter Photography Ltd