Saturday 30 April 2022

Birds on The Isle of Arran April 2022

In the Spring of most years we rent a cottage on the northwest side of Arran. We like this part of the island as it is quiet, beautiful and for the most part we have the surrounding coastline and rocky beaches to ourselves. This area of Arran is separated from the Kintyre peninsula to the west, by a stretch of sea called Kilbrannan Sound.

Here are some of the birds which provided a daily fascination and much pleasure as we sat on a seat outside our cottage overlooking the sea or wandered the shoreline.

Great Northern Diver

A good number of these magnificent birds spend their winter around Arran and many others also winter along the northwest coast of Scotland. For the most part they come from Iceland, where around 300 pairs breed, although others, in the minority, originate from Greenland.

In Catacol Bay where our cottage is situated, up to four are currently present, two in their second year of life and unlikely to breed this year or acquire adult breeding plumage, which only comes when they are in their third year of life. The other two are older, in one case still with a way to go to acquire full breeding plumage, whilst the other looks spectacular, transformed from the dull grey and white of winter into the magnificence of its black and white, lined and chequered patterning, all black head, bill and wine red eye that constitutes breeding plumage for an adult Great Northern Diver.

Second calendar year Great Northern Diver

Third calendar year Great Northern showing quite a late transition
to breeding plumage

Third calendar year or older Great Northern in full summer plumage prior to migrating north to breed
Coincidentally, on my local Farmoor Reservoir there is still an immature Great Northern Diver present, that arrived on the 12th December 2021 and shows no signs of departing but may well do so in May, although who can tell. It has certainly broken all records for a long staying diver in Oxfordshire, 138 days so far, but like other  immature birds may fly to Iceland, even though it is not going to breed this year. Call it a trial flight, learning the ropes so to speak, preparatory to the real thing next year, assuming it survives another winter.

Like the immature divers here on Arran it retains a predominantly, unremarkable grey and brown plumage and I look at the adult diver here and wish that the diver on the reservoir would remain for another year and by next Spring adopt the sumptious breeding plumage of an adult. I know this will not happen.It's a fantasy. Such a thing has never been recorded but..................

The divers at Catacol are also vocal and a stroll by the calm waters of Kilbrannan Sound of a late evening, as the sun sets the sky afire beyond Kintyre,  is sure to bring the eerie haunting cry of the divers, swimming far out in the sound. The calls create within me a minor emotional conflict. Precipitating a feeling of slight unease but also a fizz of excitement at hearing these haunting and so very strange cries. A disembodied, unearthly sound, an evocation of something primal and long lost to our senses, now so de-sensitised by contemporary human existence. 

One memorable evening, with no wind and another flaming sunset over Kintyre to the west, I walked with my wife by Kilbrannan Sound. On the way back with the sun now departed but leaving an orange glow behind the dark mass of Kintyre and with the smooth flat waters of the sound slowly turning to silver in the half light of dusk, we listened to two divers calling far out, the cries travelling across the water as if magnified. 

An Otter was fishing just offshore, caught a crab and brought it to a rock to eat. So still and quiet was the seashore we could hear the crunching of crab shell in the Otter's jaws as the divers continued their wailing. It is a memory that will serve to sustain me through the inevitable trials and tribulations of the coming months.

Photographing the divers is always fraught with difficulty as weather and tides can all have a deleterious effect but sometimes a window of opportunity presents itself and, with a little luck, combine to allow me to record something worth keeping.

The adult diver naturally drew most of my attention. Its spectacular and highly attractive patterning of white polkadots, black stripes and velvet smooth black head cannot fail but please, especially to one used to only seeing immature or winter plumaged individuals rather than such a bird in its breeding finery. Of the four individuals here it was the one that would venture closest to the shore, where you could watch it slide below the water to catch crabs and flat fish or snorkle a wayward path  on the sea's surface, before submerging once more. Supremely adapted to a life on and under water, their plumage sleeks down and is compressed as they dive and even when surfacing their head feathers remain compressed, looking for all the world as if the bird's head is covered by a wet suit.

Northern Wheatears

This being the month of April but so much further north, migrants that have for some weeks been arriving in southern Britain are only now  beginning to put in an appearance in Scotland, such as here on Arran.

It is my custom to rise early each morning and walk a mile or so along the road by the seashore when it is quiet and no one is about, not that there is ever anyone. This last week, for a couple of days I witnessed Northern Wheatears arriving from the sea and pitch onto the low rocks that guard the seashore in front of the row of cottages where we stay.

We have experienced truly exceptional sunny weather, every day for a fortnight, and such was the case on one particular morning, suffused with the gentle light of the sun rising over the hillside behind, when a wheatear arrived from Kilbrannan Sound, circling over my head. It cocked its head skywards as it flew and was joined by another. They circled together before pitching down onto the rocks in front of me. Always, when confronted by such an event, my mind goes into a gentle freefall of speculation as to where they had come from, for how long had they flown through the night and where were they bound for? Of course I will never have the answers but that does not prevent my innocent enjoyment of the romance of bird migration, especially when made so obvious.

The birds were male and female and perched for some minutes, spaced a few metres apart, each on their own particular piece of rock, encrusted with golden lichen, but ensuring they kept in visual contact. They were tired but still retained the jauntiness of their kind, alert enough to grab an unsuspecting insect from the rocks when the opportunity presented itself.

Female Northern Wheatear

Male Northern Wheatear

The colours of their plumage enhanced by the sun and with a background of blue sea, emphasised a pleasing robustness of form in such a small bird. Standing upright, they dipped on wire thin legs and flicked their wings, wary of these unfamiliar surroundings that constituted a first landfall. They have a pleasant habit of slowly lowering and then raising their tail back to the horizontal, the action seeming to involve the entire rear half of their body, a sensual and calming motion. The movement a displacement to settle their nervous spirit much as we scratch our head when uncertain.

For five or less minutes they remained but having safely made landfall there was no time to tarry.The impetus of Spring and urge to breed meant they soon disappeared and I saw them no more. Twenty minutes later another arrived, a lone female this time, but again remaining for only minutes, almost as if to catch her breath before she too flew northwards in a fast bounding flight, flashing a white rump and outer tail feathers.

The next day, in the early morning, in similar conditions another male flew in and perched on the same rocks as had the three yesterday. Again came speculation on my part. Where were they bound?Will they stay on Arran where some breed or move further north or even head for Greenland? The male yesterday certainly looked colourful enough to be of the Greenland race.

Black Guillemots

As I mentioned, the shoreline along this part of the island's coast is entirely rocky. Millions of stones cast up from centuries lie between the road and the sea. Much larger boulders are also scattered at random along the shore and it is these that form the attraction to Black Guillemots, which are now preparing to nest under them.

The mile of shoreline from our cottage at Catacol northwards to Lochranza is a summer home to at least a dozen Black Guillemots which have already formed pairs or are in the process of doing so. The guillemots spend the night out to sea but first thing in the morning they can be seen swimming close to the shore. 

Some, already paired, like to find a large rock on which to sit endearingly close to each other as if, like many a courting couple, they wish to be alone. Occasional mild conflicts arise when they are joined by an interloper which is usually repelled by mild vocal protest from the paired birds and flies off to try its luck elsewhere.

I cannot vouch for the confiding nature of Black Guillemots elsewhere but here on Arran, at this time of year, they are remarkably approachable and will tolerate me getting very close to them provided I do not rush the process, which involves walking gently over the stones to a pair sitting on a rock a metre or less offshore. Stopping every so often to re-assure the birds I eventually call a halt just three metres from them. They remain squatting on their red legs, showing mild interest in my presence but show far more concern at the regular passing of the adult Ravens that have a nest of four young to be fed on the cliff behind me. Their bond is strong and being further strengthened by sitting in harmony on their selected rock. Soon the female will seek a larger boulder further up the shore under which to lay her egg.

For now they squat, content but the tide is rising and the rock will soon become submerged by the gently lapping sea. As the water rises they become restless, the female raising her wings as she endeavours to move further up the rock.

The male, behind her, eventually struggles to a standing position. It is an ungainly pose, his legs, as with all birds that are adapted to an aquatic existence, are placed far back on his body so he has to lean forward to act as a counterbalance.

A minute later they both leave the now almost submerged rock and whirrr away on rapidly beating brown and white wings, low over the sea, to seek somewhere else to sit and wait.


A number of these waders stop off  every year on Arran's shores as they make their way north from their winter home in West Africa. Slightly smaller but similar in colouring to a Curlew they can be identified by the black stripes on their head or, if unseen, the distinctive seven note tittering call they make when alarmed or keeping in contact with each other.

The birds here on Arran are probably bound for northern Scandinavia or are possibly even part of the small population that breeds on Shetland. Recent research has shown that some Whimbrel breeding in Iceland make an epic five day, six thousand mile plus crossing of the northern Atlantic, direct and non stop from West Africa.

Incidentally, a Whimbrel  was ringed on Arran with a coloured yellow flag (A2) in 2017 and has returned to the island each Spring for five successive years, to the same spot at Kildonan, as it makes its way north.This year it was seen at Porta Buidhe, Kildonan on 26th April.

Today we went to the Blackwater Bakehouse some miles south of Catacol to buy bread and the amazing pastries that are sold only between 1100 and1330.

Having availed ourselves of a cinnamon twirl each we walked a hundred metres down to the seashore to eat them, sitting on a bench looking out to sea. Ringed Plovers, Turnstones and Oystercatchers wandered amongst the seaweed and rocks with a pair of Sandwich Terns also resting there, while Gannets from  the just visible island of Ailsa Craig, fished offshore. 


Sandwich Tern


Sitting in the sun it was far from unpleasant and then came the distinctive calling of one or more Whimbrel, somewhere to my left along the shore. I could not see them but only hear their calls.

Blackwater is, unlike Catacol, a large village with a hotel, long sandy beach, village store and bakery and consequently is much more populated and beloved of visitors and dog walkers. I thought no more of the Whimbrel, assuming they had gone but they had obviously not departed as I heard them call again, presumably disturbed by people wandering along the shore. When they came into sight I could see there were two and they flew back towards us, circled and settled briefly on the rocks in front of us.There was no time to get set and I just grabbed the camera to record them before once again they were disturbed by a lady walking her dog.

They flew off, doubtless to try and find somewhere more peaceful to rest and feed after their long journey from West Africa. Such a shame they could not find rest here after all the effort of their still to be completed migration.

White Wagtails

At this same location, just below us on the beach lay a large patch of rotting seaweed. Not so desirable  to us maybe but for wagtails and pipits, along with the local sparrows, it provided a veritable cornucopia of flies and other invertebrates and they were intent on making the most of it.

There were up to five White Wagtails present amongst a similar number of Pied Wagtails with a couple of Rock Pipits for good measure. 

Rock Pipit

As ever the wagtails called constantly and cheerily, hyperactively leaping up to snatch flies, their reactions lightening fast, twisting and turning after their prey or chasing one another around at high speed. To my way of thinking they were not unlike those troupes of acrobats one used to see at a circus, that shout encouragement to each other as they perform various acobatic skills

White Wagtails are the continental version of our more familiar and native Pied Wagtail which is classed as a sub species of the White Wagtail. Male White Wagtails are very smart indeed in breeding plumage, their backs being a pure pale grey as opposed to the matt black of a Pied Wagtail.

White Wagtail

Their black bib and crown always seem more neatly defined from the white of their face than on 'our' Pied Wagtail.

Most will move north to breed in Scandinavia or Russia. having wintered in southern Europe but some will remain in northernmost Scotland to breed, while others will sometimes interbreed with a Pied Wagtail.

While watching the wagtails I idly scanned the gulls loafing around where the Blackwater Burn joined the sea. Apart from the customary Common and Herring Gulls there was an odd looking gull which could easily, and almost was, mistaken for something much rarer but was in fact a leucistic Herring Gull, virtually all white from head to wing tips. 

It was sporting a white plastic ring, inscribed with black numbers and letters on one leg and a metal ring on the other and further enquiries elicited the fact it had been ringed at Sliddery on Arran on 24th June 2018 and had previously been reported from Blackwater on 7th June 2021. 

Common Sandpiper

During our stay there was a general arrival of Common Sandpipers along the rocky shore between Catacol and Lochranza with up to three pairs establishing themselves. Their high pitched trilling and singing, along with wild  erratic display flights mimicking a piece of paper being caught by a delinquent gust of wind and blown every which way, became a common encounter towards the end of our stay.

I often see them stopping off on their migrations, north and south, at my local reservoir at Farmoor in Oxfordshire but of all the waders they are easily the wariest, never allowing you to get anywhere that could be called close. At Catacol however, they are much more approachable and will permit you to come relatively near to them.

One bird in particular even commenced running towards me over the boulders and rocks as if curious about me.This came as something of a shock having become so used to see them flying in the opposite direction at Farmoor Reservoir.

It eventually came to a teetering halt on a mess of bladderwrack and here too my blog comes to an end.