Birdlife around Ardentinny
We would like to thank Steve Petty for this addition to the website. We are grateful fo the time he has taken to share his vast knowledge of the birds found in Ardentinny.
BIRDLIFE AROUND ARDENTINNY
Ardentinny is a wonderful area for anyone who has even a vague interest in wildlife. This article describes the bird species associated with the six main habitats (below), and mentions some of the most important food resources within these habitats that influence bird density. The account is by no means comprehensive, but attempts to portray some of the more characteristic birds that can be seen in the area, and also mentions some of the mammals.
Coastal and Islands
Coastal habitats are an important and integral part of this part of Cowal, varying from sea water lochs, to rocky shores, sandy beaches, estuaries and scrub habitats along the coast. Together these haunts provide exciting places for the naturalist – you never know what’s going to turn up!
Loch Long, and nearby Holy Loch, provide a wide range of fish and other marine life as food for numerous seabirds, many of which are particularly abundant during spring and summer when fish are more plentiful. The gannet is one of the most characteristic birds, and even the visitor with little interest in birds can hardly help noticing their spectacular, arrow-like plunge into the sea as they dive for fish. This behaviour is even more impressive when a large shoal of fish is located and flocks of gannets synchronise their diving. Virtually all gannets fishing in the area are from the nearest breeding colony on Ailsa Craig, an island located some 70 km to the south and containing over 20,000 nests. Sandwich terns catch smaller fish than gannets and use a similar, but less impressive fishing technique. It is the commonest tern in the area, but only seen during spring and autumn migration. Other seabirds that frequently pass through the Kyles are the Manx shearwater, fulmar and kittiwake, none of which breed locally. August is the best month for shearwaters, when you can occasionally see hundreds moving through Loch Long and the Clyde.
Other seabirds that exploit fish include the cormorant and the similar, but more abundant and smaller shag. Both catch fish from surface dives and subsequently spend much time preening and drying their feathers, often on a perch with outstretched wings. Closer inshore, red-breasted mergansers dive for smaller fish along the tide line and exploit a similar habitat to the otter, which feeds on other foods as well, including crustaceans. Although nowhere abundant, otters do occur, but are mainly nocturnal feeders. They obtain much of their food from the sea, with occasional forays into freshwater haunts, such as Loch Eck. Other fish-eating mammals include both grey and common seals, and occasionally common dolphins. A few years ago a humpback whale spent some time in Loch Long near to Blairmore.
The wide expanses of mud and sand exposed at low tide at the head of Holy Loch attract large wintering flocks of oystercatchers and curlew, and smaller numbers of redshank. Wintering wildfowl are abundant and include mute swan, widgeon, teal, mallard, eider, shelduck and goldeneye. Many of these can be viewed from the hide at Broxwood, Sandbank. Herons are attracted to these intertidal areas, where they seem to have little trouble catching fish.
Eider ducks are by far the most abundant sea duck, with the Clyde estuary holding nationally important numbers in the winter. While a few breed on the mainland, most nest further away on offshore islands, often in large colonies. Drakes finish their moult in autumn and display loudly throughout the winter in mixed sex flocks. Eiders feed largely on mussels, which they collect from the seabed by diving. They eat the shell whole and a muscular gizzard grinds up the shells to extract the edible parts. Red-throated divers are regularly seen during winter. The most abundant gull in the area is the herring gull, but common gull, lesser black-backed gull (summer visitor), great black-backed gull and black-headed gull are frequently seen. Black guillemots (or tysties) breed on some of the old piers in the area. This is the only auk to breed in the locality, but common guillemots and razorbills are frequently driven into Loch Long and Holy Loch during spells of bad weather.
The mixture of sandy bays and rocky shores provides breeding places for oystercatchers, with pairs regularly spaced around the coast except where disturbance is too great. They lay their eggs in a scrape in the gravel above the tide line, and rely on the stone-like appearance of their eggs to provide protection from potential nest predators, such as gulls and crows. Another common wader that breeds in similar sites is the ringed plover. It is much smaller and better camouflaged than the oystercatcher, and consequently less easy to detect. A further species that is solely restricted to rocky coasts is the rock pipit; this feeds on the abundant insect food to be found along the shore and nests in vegetation above the tide line.
Farmland birdlife owes much to the relatively low input systems used in agriculture, including the still widespread use of cattle. Improved grasslands provide a rich source of invertebrates for rooks, jackdaws, and mistle thrushes, and during the winter for redwings and fieldfares. The magpie is also found around the coast. Twenty years ago there were no magpies in Ardentinny, but they have gradually spread along the coast from their stronghold around Dunoon. Elsewhere in Argyll it is a rare species.
Damp, unimproved grazings with abundant rushes and mire vegetation are widespread and important for even more species. These grasslands often interface with moorland, scrub and woodland, and in the past provided habitat for black grouse. This is a fast declining bird in the Britain, but can still be seen occasionally in Cowal. In spring, cocks display to one another and hens at traditional sites called leks. An early morning visit to a lek can be a truly memorable event!
Unimproved grasslands are home for field voles and other small mammals, which are the most important food of barn owls. Barn owls occur at low density throughout most low-lying farmlands and breed both in farm buildings and in large cavities around the base of crags. Field voles also provide food for a number of other birds of prey including buzzard and kestrel.
Gardens within Ardentinny provide opportunities for many birds and some mammals. Nowadays some species are dependent on man-made structures in which to nest, including the swallow, house martin and house sparrow, while other species benefit from food that is provided regularly by villagers, sometimes throughout the year. Bird feeders, with a regular supply of peanuts, seed, and other food provide ample rewards for householders with visits from birds such as blue, great and coal tit, house sparrow, wood pigeon, chaffinch, dunnock, siskin and greenfinch, and less frequent, but much appreciated visits from scarcer species, such as long-tailed tit, goldfinch and great spotted woodpecker. This abundance of small birds often attracts a sparrowhawk looking for a quick meal. Occasionally a weaker visitor to the bird table is killed, but more often that not such attacks fail. Yet, those lucky enough to witness this spectacle will be left with a lasting impression of the agility of this small, elusive bird of prey. Greenfinches are just one of the birds to benefit from year-round feeding and an abundance of ornamental conifers in which to nest. In these situations they produce one brood after another throughout spring and summer. Blackcaps increasingly winter in small numbers where they benefit from food provided at bird feeders and the abundance of small berries to be found in many gardens. One of the most important berry-bearing plants during winter is ivy. This plant is often prolific on walls, and provides food for many other species apart from blackcaps. Blackcaps are a regular summer visitor to woodlands and gardens, but have only started recently overwintering, a habit that is increasing throughout Britain. Red squirrels are regular visitors to garden bird feeders. The pine marten, which has been absent for this part of Scotland for over 100 years, is slowly making a comeback, and visits bird feeders too.
In the distant past, much of Cowal would have been covered by extensive broadleaved forest. However, the increasing human population led to a dramatic decline in native woodlands, which were replaced largely by pasture for sheep and cattle, although in the 18th and 19th centuries some oak and hazel woodlands were managed to produce bark for tanning, fencing material, firewood and charcoal. The area of woodland probably reached its lowest point around the turn of the 20th century. The main increase in woodland area since has been with the expansion of coniferous woodland from the 1920s. Some of the first of these new forests were established around Loch Eck, which lies in a deep glacial valley between Holy Loch and Loch Fyne.
The oceanic climate in the west of Scotland was ideally suited for a range of conifers from western North America. The most important being Sitka spruce, but the list included Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, lodgepole pine and two species of Sequoia (redwoods). Fine examples of these, planted in the mid-late 19th century, can be found in Benmore and Ardkinglass Gardens, and around the walled garden in Ardentinny. Today, coniferous forests are one of the most important land uses in Cowal.
There is also an increasing awareness of the value of native broadleaved woodland for conservation and recreation. Characteristic songbirds include blue and great tit, redstart, tree creeper, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit and willow warbler. Blackcaps and, less frequently, garden warblers can also be found, but mainly where Rhododrendron ponticum has invaded woodlands to form an understory. Blackcaps also breed in large gardens with Rhododrendron thickets. The only woodpecker species to breed in Cowal is the great spotted, which is widespread. Sporadic records of green woodpecker are becoming more frequent, particularly around Lock Eck, and it may not be too long before they establish a breeding population. Two birds of prey are associated with broadleaved woodlands, although both occur in other habitats too. These are the tawny owl and buzzard. The former is mainly confined to woodland habitats whereas the latter species ranges far more widely, but is dependent on trees and wooded crags for nest sites. The breeding performance of both species is largely governed by the abundance of small mammals, and also rabbits in the case of the buzzard. The abundance of these prey fluctuate from year-to-year, and can be scarce in some years. Tawny owls overcome such periodic food shortage by abstaining from breeding, while buzzards switch to alternative, but less abundant foods, such as birds, insects and carrion. Wood mice and bank voles are the main prey of tawny owls in broadleaved woodland. The abundance of these rodents is closely linked to the autumn seed crops of hazel, oak and beech, which also vary from year-to-year. Seed from broadleaved trees are important for red squirrels, which abound in Cowal. So far there are no grey squirrels. The most abundant large forest mammal is the roe deer, which can sometimes be a pest in gardens.
Conifer forests provide habitat for a range of birds that are scarce or absent in broadleaved woodland as well as birds that are common to both types of woodland. Two of the most abundant species that are largely restricted to conifers are goldcrest and coal tit. These are very small birds with a largely insectivorous diet. They feed in the upper tree canopy, which makes them difficult to see, but once their songs can be recognised, they are much easier to locate. Insect food is abundant in conifer forests and so are a range of other insectivorous birds that occur in broadleaved woodlands too, these include chaffinch, robin, wren and song thrush.
Conifer forests provide another valuable food resource for wildlife, but not every year. Cone crops are produced every 2-6 years depending on tree species and weather condition. In bumper cone years many birds switch from their normal diet to conifer seed, and birds that specialise on conifer seed can increase dramatically in numbers. This latter group includes two finches; the common crossbill and siskin. Crossbills appear in an area soon after cones start to mature in late summer, as they are able to open unripe cones with their uniquely shaped beak. On the other hand, siskins have to wait until cones mature and the cone scales start to open with the onset of dry, warm weather. They can then use their long beaks to reach between the cone scales to remove the seed. Both finches prefer the small to medium sized cones that are produced by some of the most widely planted conifers, such as Norway and Sitka spruce, Scots pine, Douglas fir and larches.
A number of other woodland birds switch to conifer seed when it is abundant. One example is the great spotted woodpecker. They break off cones and take them to a site into which the cones are wedged and smashed by repeated blows from their strong beak to obtain the seed. Such sites are often in a tree with a broken top or a crotch between trunk and branch. Under such “anvils” many hundreds of cones can sometimes accumulate. Coal tits also avidly feed on conifer seed when available, but also need the cone scales to be partially open before they can extract seeds successfully. These periodic abundances of conifer seed are also beneficial to red squirrels, which have higher densities when they have access to both broadleaved and coniferous woodlands.
Sparrowhawks prefer to build their nests in conifers, probably because they are then better protected from adverse weather conditions and potential predators, such as tawny owl and buzzard. They prey exclusively on birds, which they catch in swift, agile flights in both woodlands and more open habitats. Females are the larger sex in most birds of prey, but in the sparrowhawk this size difference is taken to the extreme, with female more than twice the weight of males. One advantage of such a size differences is that it allows a far greater size range of bird prey to be taken, with males concentrating on small birds such as finches and tits and females taking larger prey, even occasionally up to the size of a woodpigeon.
Hills and Moorland
The highest peaks in the area are Beinn Mhor (741m) on the western side of Loch Eck and Beinn Bheula (779m) between Loch Goil and Loch Eck. Many of the hills are rugged with extensive areas of heather and mire vegetation. Here the meadow pipit is the most abundant bird during spring and summer. It feeds almost entirely on insects and spends the winter away from the hills. This small brown nondescript bird is the main host for the cuckoo. Female cuckoos can lay up to 25 eggs, but with only one in each pipit nest. Therefore, cuckoos spend much time searching for nests once they return from their wintering quarters in Africa. Red grouse are widespread, but dependent on heather for food, and are most abundant where the heather is not overgrazed by sheep. Mountain hares have similar dietary and habitat requirements to red grouse, but are generally less abundant. Another characteristic bird of moors and hills is the raven, although it also occurs along the coast and over farmland. It is one of the earliest birds to breed, sometimes laying its eggs before the end of February. It builds a substantial nest of sticks, lined with sheep’s wool, and sited on the steepest part of a crag, often with a good overhang above the nest for protection against severe bouts of weather.
The higher hills are also home for two spectacular birds of prey; the golden eagle and peregrine falcon. For such large birds, golden eagles are fairly inconspicuous, as they hunt almost entirely over the hills. Visitors are far more likely to see buzzards than eagles, as the former are plentiful at lower elevations, and at times very obvious with aerial displays and calling, principally just prior to breeding. Buzzards are a similar shape to eagles, but much smaller. For example, the length of a buzzard from wingtip to wingtip is about equal to the length of one wing of an eagle. Eagles feed on a range of prey including mountain hares, rabbits, red grouse, crows and the occasional seabird or even fox. When live prey is scarce they frequently resort to eating carrion of sheep or deer. The peregrine is about buzzard size, but a different shape, with long pointed wings and short tail. It is designed to kill birds in the air, and this it does in the most spectacular fashion. It has superb eyesight and is able to locate prey from a great height, sometimes appearing just as a speck in the sky, even when viewed with binoculars. It then closes its wings and dives almost vertically towards its unsuspecting prey, which it kills with its talons in high-speed impact followed by an explosion of feathers from its victim. Pigeons are the favoured prey of peregrines, but they take a wide variety of birds ranging in size from herring gulls to meadow pipits. Red deer provide an autumn spectacular as the rut starts. On crisp evenings in October the roar of stags can be heard on the hill above Ardentinny.
Fast-flowing burns carry water from hill lochans through moorland and woodland to farmland where its passage often becomes more sedate before reaching the sea. The more turbulent stretches of these watercourses provide a home for dipper, grey wagtail and common sandpiper, although the latter species also occurs beside gentler sections of river as well as along rocky coasts. All are dependent on the abundant supply of insects to be found either in the water or amongst bankside vegetation. The sand martin is not only associated with the quieter stretches of river, but with grazing animals too, particularly cattle. Quarries or sandy river banks that have been eroded by winter rains provide opportunities for sand martins to excavate nesting tunnels, while abundant insects flying above both river and pasture provide a rich food source on which to rear a family. All but one of these insect-feeding birds are summer migrants, spending their winter in warmer areas where insects abound. The dipper is the only one that manages to feed on aquatic invertebrates throughout the winter. It breeds early in the year and as a result is one of the first birds to start singing in the New Year, often when burns are still partially frozen.
The lower reaches of most rivers have bankside vegetation that includes many trees and adjacent marshy areas. Such a combination is ideal for a rich community of invertebrates, which can be exploited by a range of insectivorous birds such as chaffinch, pied wagtail, spotted flycatcher, swallow, house martin, redstart and willow warbler, many of which are also common and widespread in other habitats.
SOME FURTHER READING AND INFORMATION
ap Rheinallt, T. (1999). A checklist of the birds of Argyll. Argyll Bird Report 15, 100-110.
ap Rheinallt, T. & Daw, P. (2000). Argyll bird checklist - 2000 update. Argyll Bird Report 16, 105-108.
ap Rheinallt, T., Craik, J. C. A., Daw, P. C., Furness, R. W., Petty, S. J. & Wood, D. (2007). Birds of Argyll. Argyll Bird Club, Lochgilphead.
Baxter, E. V. & Rintoul, L. J. (1953). The Birds of Scotland: their History, Distribution, and Migration. 2 volumes. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Forrester, R. W., Andrews, I. J., McInerny, C. J., Murray, R. D., McGowan, R. Y., Zonfrillo, B., Betts, M. W., Jardine, D. C. & Grundy, D. S. (2007). The Birds of Scotland. 2 volumes. Scottish Ornithologists' Club, Aberlady.
Forrester, R. W., Hopkins, I. & Menzies, D. (2012). The Birds of Bute. Buteshire Natural History Society, Rothesay and Scottish Ornithologists' Club, Aberlady.
Harvie-Brown, J. A. & Buckley, T. E. (1892). A vertebrate fauna of Argyll and the Inner Hebrides. Edinburgh: David Douglas.
The Argyll Bird Club
The club was formed in 1985 for the purpose of promoting ornithology in Argyll. Currently, it has about 300 members. There are two full day meetings each year where members are entertained by a variety of invited speakers. The venue for these meetings moves around Argyll. Regular field trips are also organised to all areas of Argyll including the islands. The main publication of the club is the Argyll Bird Report, which is published annually, and is indispensable to anyone with an interest in Argyll’s birds. Details of club activities, recent bird sightings and articles by members are given in a newsletter (The Eider) that is issued four times annually and on the club’s website (http://www.argyllbirdclub.org). The latter is updated frequently and also gives information about membership