152 and counting!

February 29th 2012

Article originally published in the Assynt News during December 2011

152 and counting!

How many lists does a birder keep? To be honest the list of lists is limitless. We keep three; a life list – all the birds we have ever seen; a year list – all the birds we see in a calendar year and an Assynt list – a “life list” of Assynt Birds. Oh and, sorry, a list every time we visit Assynt.

We can assure you that’s not bad. Some birders have many, many more, e.g. week lists; month lists; town lists; county lists; country lists; holiday lists, you get the idea. The best one though, and hands up we do it from time to time without actually keeping a list, is a list of birds seen or heard on TV – great fun practicing your bird song and call recognition with the heating on.

This article, you will be glad to know, is not intended to be an Assynt year list but a quick look at some of our own notable and interesting sightings of 2011 and a few from other visitors and residents – thank you for passing those on to Andy Summers.

Because of the weather last winter we didn’t start our Assynt visits until 12th February. That night we get Tawny Owl calling from the electricity pylon across the road, the first of several tawnies we would see and hear this visit. Tawny Owls breed early so that one would be holding a territory.

Tuesday 15th was a nice bright day with fresh snow on Quinag to quite low level so we head off to the usual haunts, Culkein Bay, Balchladich, Loch na Claise, Clachtoll, etc. Some waders are around, amongst them Knot, Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone. The Purple Sandpiper could be the same birds that have been around since the end of last year and are now waiting to head back to their breeding grounds in Iceland.

We are only here for a week or so but the list ends up at 54 birds, not too bad for a winter week. It includes some nice birds e.g. Whooper Swan, Barnacle Goose, Shelduck, Wigeon, Goldeneye and Peregrine.

Returning mid-April for nine days gives us not only some really warm weather but the first of the summer migrants for our list – Common Sandpiper, Great Skua, Cuckoo (18th), Swallow, Willow Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler and Wheatear amongst others. On the 24th we add a pair of puffins mating on the water out from Clachtoll. Disappointingly we miss out on a Hoopoe at Achnacarnin on the 15th – the day before we arrive!

This time of year is really exciting as not only do we start to get the summer birds but also a number of the winter visitors which are still around – Whooper Swan and Pink-footed Geese, with around 250 of the latter flying north-west over Nedd Bridge on the 21st. They will be heading back to their breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland.

We leave with 84 birds from our visit.

A three week visit in May coincides with some pretty cold and windy weather but the bird list just keeps growing. It starts with us getting a brand new bird for Assynt – Surf Scoter on Loch Dhrombaig. It brings a few ‘twitchers’ to the area and some of them spot a Franklin’s Gull in Clashnessie Bay – another new bird for Assynt – so we in turn ‘twitch’ it – only fair!

We have been coming to Assynt for over 20 years and there are a lot of birds we have not seen, yet. So it gets to be a bit of a joke when we regularly speak to the binmen about their Osprey sightings – one of our ‘missing’ birds.

Two days before we are due to leave we decide to walk from the All Abilities Path car park to Little Assynt then back along the side of Loch Assynt – a superb walk with two pairs of Black-throated Divers seen. Two minutes into the car journey back towards Lochinver and there, flying down the middle of the road, is our first Assynt Osprey. Thank goodness the road is quiet; breaking while looking through binoculars is not to be advised.

That majestic bird together with Storm Petrol off Rubh’an Dunain and a female Shoveler on Loch an Aigeil brings our three week list to 101 birds.

Another three weeks in June, with mixed weather, and there are lots of juvenile birds around, also parent birds carrying food to nests. We confirm breeding for – Shag, Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Peregrine, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Redshank, Great Black-backed Gull, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Swallow, Willow Warbler, Song Thrush, Robin, Stonechat, Wheatear, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Twite which is all good information for the UK wide survey of birds “The Atlas” of which this is the third and final year.

Golden Eagle features twice on our June list, a single bird off Sail Gorm being mobbed by a Buzzard and two birds off Suilven. The two birds seem to be having what looks like a mild territorial dispute or perhaps they are a local breeding pair reinforcing their life long pair bond.

Also this time we have about a week of early rises thanks to a female Pied Wagtail that is seeing her reflection in the glass panel of our front door and spends around 30 minutes at 4.30 am ‘pecking’ at the ‘other’ bird.

After waiting over 20 years and getting one in May, we again see Osprey this time near Loch Druim Suardalain, bringing the list total to 93 birds.

Our July visit provides us with some hot sunny days and some very windy days, but only 76 birds! However, in that 76 are some nice records including Osprey again, but in yet another location, and this one is carrying a fish, so are they breeding close by?

Also on the list is a superb flock of over 30 Long-tailed Tits, adults and juveniles, at Culkein Drumbeg. We also confirm breeding of Common Terns on one of the off shore islands at Culkein Drumbeg, with at least two large chicks present – a first for us in Assynt. We also get Golden Plover and Dunlin at Culkein Stoer on the 15th and 17th respectively, this was the start of the autumn migration for some of the waders. These waders could be from the small numbers that breed in Scotland.

Although the bird count is down this time it is more than made up for by the profusion of wild flowers, moths, butterflies and dragonflies (and midges!!).

Coming back late August to mid-September gives us some really good birds and really heavy rain.

Culkein Bay is one of those spots that throw up lots of surprises and it does not fail this time. By now the autumn passage migration, particularly of waders, is well underway and at the bay we get Ringed Plover, Knot, with five of them feeding in the bay on 3rd September and another 20 flying overhead, Sanderling, Dunlin (30 on 13th September), Bar-tailed Godwit and Turnstone. This is also when we get Ruff and Curlew Sandpiper – both new Assynt birds.

Other birds are migrating at this time as well with large numbers of Meadow Pipits around e.g. over 40 at Balchladich on 3rd September and the first Whooper Swan showing up on 1st September at Lochan Saile.

While walking near Little Assynt on 14th September we see and hear our first Pink-footed Geese of the ‘winter’ with two skeins totalling around 120 birds flying due east. Could these be some of the birds we saw at Nedd Bridge in April returning after a, hopefully, successful breeding season? Next day at Raffin another 110 pinks fly over, again heading east. These geese will fly non-stop to the east coast; Loch of Strathbeg gets over 60,000 of them at this time of year.

Although the geese are returning the swallows are still feeding young in the old house next to ours; we wonder if they hear the geese and if this makes them think of the South African summer that awaits them.

A super time of year and we leave with a total of 85 birds and two sightings of a pod of Killer Whales on 1st and 4th September.

Our final visit of the year takes in the end of October to the middle of November and the weather seems to be some of the best we have had all year – 16⁰C in the first week of November.

We have just missed seeing two exciting birds; a Common Rosefinch in Lochinver on the 19th-24th October, a first for Assynt, and a Rough-legged Buzzard over Loch Assynt on the 25th, not a first but still an uncommon sighting.

Culkein Bay delivers again – sitting there on 31st October watching a Great Northern Diver in winter plumage out in the bay is magic, then feeding over the wrecked seaweed is an immature Swallow. We continue to see this bird until 8th November. On the 9th the strong south-easterly wind has dropped so we guess it has taken the chance to head off in improving conditions. Unlike most other birds, swallows do not always wait for a tail wind to migrate; because they feed all the time while on migration it can be a benefit to fly into/across the wind as it is easier to stay airborne while continuing to hunt for food.

It is odd to see this Swallow at the same time as some real winter birds – 35 Purple Sandpiper off Rubh’an Dunain and 8 Snow Bunting at Achnacarnin.

There are large numbers of Fieldfare around now with 200 at Clachtoll on 7th November and 80 at Raffin on the 10th. Also this year there are lots of Blackbirds from Scandinavia; this seems to be repeated throughout the Highland Recording area and elsewhere. Always a welcome record is Long-tailed Tit, and we get 10 of them at Strathan on the 8th.

The big excitement this time however is finding four Bean Geese at Raffin on 14th November and then again at Culkein on the 18th. These are new to Assynt and possibly for the whole West Highland recording area. Not a bad way to round of the year.

Well that’s it, a quick run through 2011, with the summary showing we added 14 birds to our own Assynt life list this year taking it to 152, hence the title; four new birds to “the” Assynt list taking it well over 220 and a final count for our Assynt year of 131.

We cannot wait for 2012 when it all starts again; in the meantime, there are still a few days left of this year so where are those binoculars.

Good birding and best wishes.

D and A Haines

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