December began where November left off, being rather mild, wet and windy but it became increasingly colder (and drier) and by the end of the month, an unusually prolonged spell of sub-zero temperatures set in as it did across the whole of Scotland.
The freezing weather made conditions very tough for many of our wintering birds. With the ground frozen hard, birds of the wet grasslands such as Lapwing and Golden Plover found it difficult to probe for food, and by the end of the month, numbers had dropped from around 3,800 Lapwing and 4,300 Golden Plover to just a few hundred of each.
Many other smaller birds also left the Island late in the month to search for better foraging conditions elsewhere and only a handful of Redwings and Meadow Pipits, for example, remained by the month end.
Shorebirds were less affected, as although the tops of the beaches froze hard at times, the lower portions remained ice-free, enabling birds to continue to probe in the sediments at low tide for worms and other invertebrates.
High counts included 193 Dunlinand, 131 Ringed Plovers at Sorobaidh Bay (9th), 216 Sanderling at Balephetrish Bay (17th) and 70 Turnstone at Gott Bay (14th).
Some wildfowl also moved to the coast as the lochs froze up, whilst the remainder made use of small holes kept free of ice on the larger lochs by feeding swans.
A goose count (14th- 15th) found 3,460 Greylags, 3,438 Barnacle Geese, 769 Greenland White-fronted Geese, 5 Pale-bellied Brent and 3 Pink-footed Geese, together with 138 Whooper Swans.
It is always hard to be accurate with numbers of raptors as these are normally seen scattered singly around the island and are very mobile so could be counted more than once. However, on 2nd, three female-type Hen Harriers were watched at dusk coming in to a roost together, whilst a male was seen at Balephetrish that afternoon, so at least 4 birds were present at the start of the month.
There were also at least 5 Merlins, 2 Kestrels, 2 Sparrowhawks, 25 Buzzards and 4 Peregrine Falcons around the island.
Rare birds seen during the month included the wintering female Surf Scoter at Hough Bay, two vagrant Lesser Canada Geese in with the Barnies including a tiny “Richardson’s” Canada Goose at Balephetrish and a European Whitefronted Goose – all of which remained from November, but new in was a juvenile Sea Eagle, which soared around Ben Hynish (30th).
Other winter scarcities included up to 10 Goldfinches and 2 Pied Wagtails, a Jackdaw at Balephuil (1st), a Dunnock at Crossapol (7th) and increasing numbers of Woodcock as the weather worsened.
Most unusually, Water Rails (pic.) were reported visiting gardens at Mannal and Balephuil – this normally most elusive of species was presumably tempted out of cover in the wetlands by a combination of the cold weather and the lure of provisioned food.
Food for small birds is always in short supply by midwinter and this problem is exacerbated by freezing weather, which renders the ground too hard to probe for worms and insects. Regular feeding with seeds and bread, plus provision of fresh water, can be a lifeline for regular garden birds such as House Sparrows, Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes. During cold snaps, such as the recent one, more wary birds such as Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Reed Buntings and even Water Rails may also put in an appearance on island bird tables.
The Big Garden Birdwatch event on 30-31 January will provide the opportunity to chart the continuing fortunes of birds in gardens across Scotland.
Thank you to everyone who has reported their sightings of wildlife to me during the year and here’s hoping 2010 will be another wildlife rich one for Tiree.
Bird images copied with permission: