The unsound approach

Colonsay

24-28th August 2013

Dan Brown

Colonsay is probably the most under-watched accessible island with serious potential in the UK. A quick look at its past reveals the likes of Yellow-billed Cuckoo in 1904, Killdeer in 1984, and both Red- & Black-headed Buntings and more recently Birdguides has a total of 10 (!!) reports between 2000 and 2013 including Buff-breasted Sand, Lesser Yellowlegs, American Golden Plover, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike, Sooty Shearwater, Turtle Dove, Snow Bunting, oh and Semipalmated Plover! It’s fairly apparent from this list that given the paucity of records and the calibre of those that exist, the island holds great potential, particularly in autumn.

I hadn't really thought much about the possibilities before arriving as the holiday was supposed to be girlfriend-friendly rambling type affair. It was only once I started birding the island that I realised its potential. As a result I thought it might be useful for those visiting in future to have a few notes on places to hit, in addition to a summary of what I saw in four days.

Looking back east towards the runway and Port Lobh from Dun Gallain

The Island

Its pretty well equipped for those coming to visit with a hotel and seemingly unlimited amounts of self-catering accommodation. Camping is generally discouraged. There’s a restaurant and bar at the hotel, and the Pantry by the quay does evening meals as well as serving food throughout the day. There’s a small if limited shop if you’re DIYing it. Bikes can be hired from Archies and apparently you need to book a vehicle onto the island if you’re thinking of driving.

Calmac run the ferry service to and from the island which goes in and out of either Oban or Kennacraig (make sure you book your return to the right port – unlike me who ballsed this one up!). You can also fly on with Hebridean Airways from Oban. The island itself is about 12km long and 4km wide with Oronsay tagged on the end.

The birds

If nothing else the island is a cracking place for regular birds. Last week there was no end of Hen Harrier sightings and other common species included Chough, Twite, Black Guillemot, and Golden Eagle.  In spring there’re plenty of Corncrakes to keep you awake at night.

The best wader bay - Traigh nam Barc

Top tips:

The island will no doubt be a good bet for the likes of American Golden Plovers, Buff-breasted, Bairds and White-rumped Sandpiper but it also looks pretty decent for a few other things. My top tips would be:

Fea’s/Zino Petrel – the seawatching looks like it should be great here, give it the time and I’m sure you’d get the rewards.

Northern Harrier – The island is full of great harrier habo and with an increase in claims this must be well and truly on the cards (if you like dodgy taxa)

Least Sandpiper – loads of great marshy pools at the top of the beaches – check them all.

Long-tailed Skua – surely the western headlands are a great place to witness the spring passage in NW winds?

Snowy Owl – An island full of warrens – got to be a chance of this

Buff-bellied Pipit – its bound to have had a few by now

Citrine Wagtail – Loch Breac was made for a Cit Wag – it should have been this year.

Rosy Starling – surely not too irregular in all the large starling flocks

Not to mention any Yank passer and every eastern drift migrant that filters down the west coast.

If you want an indication of what is likely then have a look at past records from Tiree, Barra and even Skye to get an idea – anything is possible.

The sites

For ease of reference I’ll go around the island clockwise starting in the north.

Kiloran Bay and the northern Headland

If you’re going to bird the bay then you need be there early before Joe public arrive. A small stream flows out here which looks pretty good and the more isolated bay at the end of the beach seems to be better for waders and gulls. Balnahard meadow hosted the Killdeer back in 1984 and the coast looks good for AGP’s, Buff-bellied Pipits and alike

You need to be here, Kiloran Bay, first thing to stand a chance of finding anything

Colonsay House & Kiloran

A birders nightmare! Ridiculous amounts of habitat and undoubtedly a vagrant sink! The house and gardens are open on Weds & Fri from 12pm and would definitely be worth a wander. Apparently access into the wider woodland isn't restricted.  It no doubt holds Yellow-broweds by the dozen in good years and I can very easily imagine a Black-and-White Warbler clinging to the trees.

Scalasaig

Again, pretty overloaded with cover but not undo-able. Looks great for Wrynecks, Shrikes, RB Fly’s and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

The Strand

Simply a cracking wader spot. Best to get down first thing and ideally on a high or rising tide. Where the road ends has an area of saltmarsh worth checking for waders and pipit and a few pools remain at low tide which where the best areas for Tringas. At low tide you can walk out across the mud to Oronsay. Times of low-tides and the crossing window are listed in most places such as the hotel and ferry terminal.

Oransay

Too rare. If you’re lucky you’ll have a few hours to hammer around it at low tide. Dunes, beaches, pools, fields – it all needs checking. The private gardens at the Priory are some of the rarest I’ve ever seen but I’m not sure how easy access would be.

Loch Breac

This small loch screams rare. The lochan is now split with the eastern half surrounded by muddy, weedy edges ideal for Cit Wags, Pecs, Least and Solitary Sands, whilst the western half has much more cover and areas of open water – perfect for Blue-winged Teal. There’s a large rock outcrop which you can climb to view into the western half.

The pool of dreams, Loch Breac, made for a Cit Wag/Blue-winged Teal/Stilt Sand 

Traigh nam Barc/Ardskenish Bay

Rivalling The Strand for waders, this bay seemed much better for Calidrids and alike than the Strand. At high tide the waders roost up on the saltmarsh in the eastern corner of the bay where the streams flow out. You can cycle down the track to the bay from Garvard which means an early morning trip is easy from Scalasaig.

I found this bay pretty undisturbed and had up to 4 Golden Eagles around it on every visit – quite a backdrop whilst scanning through the waders.

The streams here look great for Cit Wags, Buff-bellied pipits and waders.

A few gulls gathered in the bay each day and are worth checking.

The dunes to the east of the bay held a flock of Lapwing and are probably good for Golden Plover too.

I’d put money on Tawny Pipit and Short-toed Lark here too.

Ardskenish Headland

I didn’t get out this far but it’s probably good for Buff-breasts etc and the Golden Eagles enjoyed hunting rabbits over it.

Port Lobh & Traig an Tobair Fhuair

Two great little bays worth checking for waders

Dun Ghallain Headland

Possibly the best seawatching spot on the island? The fort is at 38m and doesn't have any islands/reefs out beyond it. It makes a great spot if there’s considerable spray. In calmer conditions An Rubha maybe better. I had Manxies coming in right under the cliffs here and with Tiree visible in the distance it makes for a great view shed. SW winds followed by NW are likely to be best, just like at Bridges of Ross. I reckon that these westerly headlands are likely to get a significant passage of Long-tailed Skuas in Spring. Definitely worth investing a few days in mid to late August to check for large shears and maybe a Pterodroma?

Runway and Golfcourse

Buff-breasted Sands, Buff-bellied Pipits and Short-toed Larks a gogo! No golf course should be left unwatched. There’s also a small reedy pool here which has probably had a Sora in it at some point.

The Loch Fada’s

All look great and need checking for flocks of Nearctic duck and Pied-billed Grebes. Turraman Loch also looks very good

Key gardens:

Garvard (NR 367 914)

An old mature fence line runs away from the house and is easily birdable. It was full of warblers, reed bunts and linnets whenever I checked and two Sparrowhawks were harassing most stuff around.

Machrins (NR 368 933)

More manicured but still the first big cover in from the west.

Lower Kilchattan

Several great gardens here and an old graveyard with patches of nettles and thistles.

Sightings:

Sooty Shearwater – a couple on 27th from Kiloran Bay amongst hundreds of Manxies. Given I didn’t have a scope I’d love to have known how many more where out there.

Golden Eagle - a pair with two juvs seen around the south end and a displaying female at the north end may have been one of the four.

Two juvenile Golden Eagles cavort above a beach full of waders at Traigh nam Barc

White-tailed Eagle – a 2cy bird knocking around the northern end on 27th & 28th.

Hen Harrier – common, at least three sightings every day, all of juveniles and females

Spot the Ring-tail. Northern Harrier has to be a good bet here too!

Merlin – one near the strand

Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed Plover – common, up to 250 in Ardskenish Bay and small groups continually passing south offshore.

Spotted Redshank – a juv at the Strand – an Argyll description species!

Curlew Sand – a juv at Ardskenish Bay

Pomarine Skua – an adult on the water on the crossing over from Kennacraig

Many migrant Sedge Warblers noted on 28th having not seen any on previous days. Also an abundance of Spot Flys at the beginning of the week. Only one Willow warbler found in the garden at Garvard.

Chough – common with five even visible from the hotel bedroom!

 

The arduous cycle across The Strand at low tide to Oronsay