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Post Info TOPIC: Isle of Arran

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Isle of Arran

Just spent four days on Arran, not a birding holiday, more of a Mountain climbing holiday really. Covered all of the island visiting villages and exploring the coasts. Was really quiet birdwise to be honest not much seen. Best birds were 2 Golden Eagle and three Hen Harrier, plenty of Buzzard about, Raven and Kestrel seen. Saw a single Sparrowhawk. Smaller birds seen mostly Meadow Pipit and Chaffinch in abundance, Robin and Coal Tit decent numbers too. Decent numbers of Jackdaw. Had a lifer in a Red Squirrels they do very well on this Island. There's a cracking hide in the grounds of Brodick Castle you can see them down to 6 foot amazing views. Very little seen on the seas around Arran, Red Breasted Mergansers the best, although spent very little time scanning the seas to be honest. Definitely would go back but maybe a little bit earlier in the year for birding. Forgot to mention Oystercatcher and Curlew the only waders seen.

-- Edited by Scott robinson on Thursday 30th of August 2018 12:08:36 PM

Scott robinson

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Posts: 592

I have just got back yesterday from a short trip to Arran, my first experience of birding in Scotland, and it was a great trip. Arran is in the Firth of Clyde, an island of about 50 square miles between the coast of Ayrshire and the Kintyre peninsula. It is an interesting place as it lies on the so-called Highland Fault line, and the northern half of the island is full of steep rocky hills and valleys and the south is lower, more rolling and given over more to agriculture. The coastline is a mix of shingle beaches and some cliffs.

Arran is therefore known for providing a spread of habitat for wildlife in a small area that is not easy to match elsewhere in Scotland, when you factor in the coastal nature too. It is a stronghold for Red Squirrel, is full of Red Deer, has Seals and Otters on the shore and apparently about 10 pairs of Golden Eagle breed there, so it has the full set of the so-called 'Wildlife Big 5' that Scotland markets to visitors. I saw loads of deer and a single seal and squirrel, but I was too lazy to look for the otters at 5 in the morning.

From a birding perspective, the island has a reputation for supporting some great upland birds in the summer as the moors are not largely managed for Grouse and hence the raptors are not as pressured as in some places. It also apparently has breeding Red-throated Diver. As an introduction to some Scottish island birding it was brilliant. I'm sure none of these observations will be too surprising for people but firstly, how mad is it to have no Magpies? Plus I saw no more than 6-7 Wood Pigeon in 3 days. Almost eerie! Commonest birds were:
On the hills - Meadow Pipit
On the lower ground - Swallow, Jackdaw
On the coast - Oystercatcher, Common Gull, Rock Pipit

The flip side was a perceptible scarcity of things like Robin and Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, and as mentioned the Pigeons and Magpies and also Carrion Crows. The normal background noise of English birds was just not there. I did spend most of my time in the uplands so perhaps this is a slightly false picture.

I arrived on the island having caught the ferry from Ardrossan on the mainland. I didn't see much on the way over, just a few Gannets, Black Guillemot, Shag and common gulls. At Brodick on the island I got a bus to my accommodation and saw a male Hen Harrier within about 20 minutes. Wow! But that was the last I saw too, apart from a possible Ringtail on the same journey. Having arrived at the Arran Hilton (not really), by now it was about teatime, and to my massive surprise, at least 2 people I'd spoken to about being on the island for birding had said, 'oh well you know there's an Eagle's nest near here don't you?'. 'With two chicks'. I didn't by the way! I headed off with my map straight away, and within 30 minutes I'd seen my first Golden Eagle, one soaring and gliding above. Helpfully it was a hot sunny day, the sky was the exact colour of City's shirt and the bird stood out easily, and when I got bins on it, my life it was wonderful. Absolutely massive, a golden head (you don't say...), rich golden brown on the front edge of the wings, dark above and underneath, and about twice as big as a Buzzard. The flight was different too, straighter lines without the tight circles. As if to confirm the point, a Buzzard appeared soon after and the contrast was perfect, the white underneath and the rounded wing tips in comparison. The Eagle was a more angular T shape, the tail was not fanned, the wings held more rigid and had the fantastic long 'fingers'. I was so happy!

Having got the big prize so easily, I started noticing my surroundings a bit more, and noticed a cracking little line of deciduous trees running up the valley along a stream, sorry up the glen along a burn... Good for flycatching perhaps? I had never seen Spotted Flycatcher and so I thought I'd have a look. Hearing a call I didn't know, I soon found 3 birds bombing around in the trees and they were indeed Spotted Flycatchers, 2 parents feeding a juvenile. They looked so exactly like the Collins pictures I had to laugh! Birding is so easy! I was actually pretty proud of this as opposed to just looking in the air where someone else has told you to look.

Walking back to my digs as the sun was setting I saw a Curlew, Common Sandpiper, 2 Red-breasted Merganser females with ducklings and as mentioned tons of Swallows and House Martins. There were Herons coming in to roost in the trees and the Oystercatchers' piping calls became the lullaby and the alarm clock over the next 3 days. Some awesome dragonflies and butterflies too, plus things like the odd lizard on a rock in the sunshine. Is it really Scotland?

Next day I wanted to try and find this nest, so I headed back to the place from the evening before. Walking up another glen, I found the nest location but there was nothing going on. Carrying on up the way I heard a call which was pretty familiar from so many TV bits and films and so on, and got a tiny glimpse of a bird flying off, then a few minutes later a great view of a soaring bird. Again the angular T shape was evident and the wide sweeps compared to Buzzard.

The other brilliant bird I saw that morning was after hearing some commotion from the omnipresent Meadow Pipits. I saw a shape in a tree, and in my determination to see a Hen Harrier started calculating. Can't be a Sparrowhawk, or a Kestrel, has to be a Ringtail. Er, no, try a juvenile Cuckoo, being fed by a Meadow Pipit literally a quarter the size. Hen Harrier in a tree like that? Calm down dear boy. The Cuckoo was a beauty though, saw it again the next day from closer and it was a sumptuous deep brown and the barred chest was beautiful. Also saw Whinchat, Wheatear and Stonechat bickering with each other and the Mipits, and Ravens. No raptors though, and actually the uplands were pretty quiet once you got above about 200m. I don't think I got to grips with the best places to look for the Harriers and Short-eareds at all to be honest.

Having spent a long day trekking about looking for the elusive Harriers, I was pretty downbeat, so after chatting with another guy who'd seen the Golden Eagles well I dragged my carcass back to their nest area to see what might happen as it got dark. Good call as it turned out.

Walking up to the site a smaller raptor was visible, falcon in profile but hard to pick. It was quartering over a ridge a good 400-500m up, surely too high for a Kestrel so most likely Peregrine, but it looked really light brown in the strong setting sunlight. As I got nearer and it got later, about 2130, a massive shape loomed over the ridge above the ledge which supposedly held this nest. It glided in and was indeed an adult Golden Eagle. I was probably about 500 yds away across the glen and through my bins the thing was unreal. It was so huge, the plumage was perfect and its flight in was amazing, circled then folded its wings in, plunged down then checked and dropped onto the ledge. I almost wet myself. There was some movement on the ledge and then I noticed another bird above. The second adult! This one glided around in front of me before diving like its mate and then dropping on to the ledge. So there were the pair and a chick suddenly visible, presumably politely enquiring 'what's for dinner mum?'.

One of the adults flew off and you could see 2 chicks ripping an unfortunate specimen to pieces, which the first adult had been carrying. Then it got more crazy. As the 2nd adult Eagle laconically flew off a missile launched at it and suddenly 2 Peregrine were mobbing the big guy. They were like sparrows next to it but they chased it off and then when it dared to come back around a few minutes later it was fightnight again. We all know Peregrine are big, strong birds, near the top of the foodchain, but they were totally dwarfed and actually looked like the plucky underdog. Not the way we're used to thinking about them...At this point I was grinning like a lunatic at the realisation that I'd now seen something really special, something that made up rather for dipping on some birds I should see at Parkgate anyway in a few months time.

Now I hope nobody has objections to this report regarding the breeding birds. I've read through reports from Mull and other Scottish islands on here around nesting White-tailed Eagle and I'd like to think I've not created any greater risk than exists already to the birds on Arran by writing this about them.

So back in the real world on my last day on the island I stuck to the coast a bit more and there were some nice birds around. I saw a pair of female Eider, which was a lifer, also numerous Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper on the pebbly beaches, as well as Black Guillemot and Gannet on the sea near the shore and a single Fulmar flying along the shore. I also ticked Hooded Crow, which I'd forgotten I might see until I saw one! One salutary note was seeing the presence of Great Black-backed Gulls near the female Mergansers I'd seen before. First one bird, then 2 or 3. Overnight for one poor duck 6 ducklings was 2 ducklings. Then no ducklings later that day. Oh dear. I saw a group of 9 males in eclipse plumage somewhere else, it does make you wonder about the evolution of behaviour. I'm sure there's a reason why they were living in separation. Also numbers of families of Mute Swans on the sea. A bit odd...

If I have a regret it's that I dismally failed to find several of the signature birds of Arran, if they were there, which they will have been. Especially the Red-throated Divers that I was keen to see, but also dipped on any Grouse either Red or Black, or Ptarmigan that are reputedly on the island. I'll have to go back, I like a challenge! I also bungled identifying 4 finches that were probably Twite but eluded me by sitting in a gorse bush for a few minutes while I fannied about looking at a Curlew trying to make it a Whimbrel. Small brown finches with yellowy beaks, but a male Linnet dropped in too and I lost my focus a bit. Doh!

There was one last highlight on the way home, on the ferry. The crossing over had been in spectacular weather, by Saturday coming back it was windy and overcast, I figured that seabirds would be nearer in than the sunny calm day so I parked myself at the front of the boat and like a charm after 10 minutes a small black spitfire slicing over the waves, a Manx Shearwater, another lifer for me. What a fantastic bird, buccaneering its way along. I saw another 6 in a group a couple of minutes later, as a group they were even cooler. A squadron of fighter pilots. I actually enjoyed watching them more than any other bird of the trip for those few seconds they were rollicking around the boat. Wonderful. I need to get out on some pelagic trips now. 5 to Dun Laoghaire looks an opportunity.

So in summary a good trip, it has given me some amazing memories and the incentive to get out and see more in the future. As a parting shot, some feedback for the insect-eating community of birds, reptiles and other creatures: you guys need to seriously raise your game. The insects are making you look silly. Step it up.

-- Edited by Simon Gough on Sunday 13th of July 2014 04:26:12 PM

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