Islay: corncrakes, choughs & cowpats

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No phone signal. No internet connection. For a week’s sound recording at the 2018 WSRS Spring Meeting in the Hebrides what could be better? Well the weather for a start. The wind began as I boarded the IMG_0373-ferryCalMac ferry at Kennacraig, and it stayed with us all week, gusting crazily from unexpected compass points, then dropping suddenly to nothing, and while most of Britain basked in hot spring sunshine, we had to wait until the latter part of the week for some good clear, dry weather. But by then Islay was really splendid, offering dramatic coastal walks with plenty of birds, beautiful flowers and hardly a soul in sight.

My two target species for the week were Corncrake and Chough – I wanted to improve on old cassette recordings of both that I made on Colonsay nearly 30 years ago. The omens looked good the moment I arrived at our excellent accommodation at Kilchoman on the far west of the island, as a flock of more than 30 Chough cavorted in the wind above the  ruined church. These birds were to be my constant companions all week, whether waking me up at dawn, gathering noisily on the roof, or leading me a merry dance with a parabolic reflector around the magnificent sand dunes of Machir Bay. And with some excellent guidance from my recording colleagues (thanks, David) a night trip to Loch Gruinart provided the close-up Corncrake recording that I was after.

There was plenty more to go at. In the old WW2 radar bunkers at the beautiful Saligo Bay, a couple of Swallows were still nest-building while adjacent Starlings were feeding young. bunker-IMG_0421The enclosed concrete space created a nice reverb, the birds twanging an old bit of steel  fencing each time they landed. And the large expanse of the Gruinart Flats was alive with anxious and displaying waders – Redshank, Lapwing and Snipe – mostly I suspect with well-camouflaged young. At first sight this is not a great recording location – dead flat and criss-crossed by roads, but the people of Islay, be they visitors or residents, don’t seem to go out much after 5pm, so the evenings and nights were surprisingly free of traffic noise. And the nearby rookery on the RSPB reserve was a popular location for everyone to pop a microphone down and capture some more evocative crow recordings.

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But I always have a desire to work on a somewhat smaller scale than everyone else. While my colleagues were recording soundscapes, I was thrilled to find Wheatear feeding young high on a sand dune, and using well-honed fieldcraft techniques (this would be the 70th species I’ve recorded at the nest) I managed to get a tiny mic into the nest, with another on their nearby perch, to record the sounds of the chicks and the adults simultaneously.2018-05-22 14.04.39

Also in the dunes, I couldn’t pass the many cowpats without a look and a listen; as I lay my mics on the surface to record one of my favourite sounds – the Yellow Dung-fly (yes, think ‘Blazing Saddles’) I could hear the cowpat crackling away underneath. Closer inspection revealed that it was full of Dung Beetles (probably Aphodius sp.), so true to form I stuck two DPA 4060s inside and recorded them munching and burrowing away. Thankfully these mics are designed to be washable!cowpat-2018-05-22 15.20.17

And of course, this is one reason that the Choughs are here; as well as requiring mild winters, they need a good population of dung-living insects on which to feed. The fact that the cowpats on Islay are alive with bugs is testament to a lack of the antiobitic-induced sterility that is affecting fields elsewhere in the country.

A night visit to Loch Tallant revealed great acoustics, with a large Raven roost, Woodcock, Water Rail and nocturnal singing Sedge Warblers, but with rising temps and calm conditions, the Hebridean midges – almost as bad as those in Kielder – finally defeated me and I headed off to bed.2018-05-22 21.40.43

As I drove back the next day for the ferry to the mainland, a Cuckoo flew by the front wing of my car for over 100 metres, and a male Hen Harrier lifted from roadside with prey, only to be stooped on by a Peregrine falcon. A spectacular and fitting finale to a successful week of birdwatching and wildlife sound recording.

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