Saturday, October 20, 2012

Seabird Surprise

Seawatching often produces a new bird, but how often does it produce a new bird observatory itself?  This wondrous event happened to me in Scotland recently.  I had spent most of the summer employed on breeding red and black-throated diver surveys in Argyll.  On a rare day off I drove down the Kintyre Coastal Route aiming to visit the Mull of Kintyre for a spot of seawatching, but I never got there.
Stopping for petrol I got chatting to the proprietor of Clachan filling station about birding (what else?).  I discovered that there was a bird observatory at Machrihanish that was ‘well worth a visit’.  I was immediately intrigued, a great admirer of our bird observatories I have visited most and carried out counts from many, including Portland Bill, Strumble Head, and my favourite at Spurn.  I tried to visualise a mental map of the observatories, but could place nothing on this side of Scotland, in fact I could only ‘see’ the Isle of May in Scotland at all, way over on the opposite east coast.
I just had to investigate and found my way west out of Campbeltown to the airport.  Following the given directions I was becoming a little skeptical, passing through Machrihanish Village and past the giant Old Hotel I was out onto a farm track.  This led naturally enough to a farm, beyond which I could already see there was nothing but the rolling Atlantic.  Thankfully I decided to proceed in search of a turning spot rather then attempt a several point turn, because on rounding the last farm shed I beheld a sight that made me brake and stop.
There was an L-shaped bird hide with the legend ‘Seabird Observatory’ emblazoned along its front and a flag proudly fluttering from its pole.  I entered with a sense of delight, wondering how had this place slipped under the radar?  A man rose to greet me as I walked in, and as we shook hands I thought he looked familiar.  This was a mutual feeling apparently as he asked me where he knew me from, and after a brief verbal tour of Britain we decided it must have been Spurn!
See?  A Seabird Observatory!

Eddie Maguire has been the warden at Machrihanish Seabird Observatory since 1993, leading a small group of dedicated volunteers.  There have been many notable recordings in that time including white-billed diver, red-necked grebe, and great, little, and Cory’s shearwaters.  Glaucous and Iceland gulls are seen regularly and the observatory has been responsible for the upgrade in status of several of the more uncommon seabirds.
It is open to the public and equal emphasis is placed on recording the commoner species and their migratory trends and patterns.  Over a thousand oystercatchers a day pass south overhead during August, returning from their Icelandic breeding grounds, along with huge numbers of knot, sanderling, godwits, greenshanks, whimbrel, stints, auks, and turnstones.  Perhaps due to its remote setting, and being largely unknown, this spectacle was enjoyed by myself, Eddie, and one other birder dining on tea and toast.  I could hear a paraphrased Churchill “Never before have so many  been enjoyed so much by so few”
Twites fed just yards away on the shingle outside, and bottlenose dolphins turned in the waves.  The whole of Kintyre is in fact an undiscovered birding gem.  Eddie himself wrote the seminal book ‘Birds in Kintyre’ a discursive site guide and records checklist.  A read through this spawned an adage in my mind; “No bird lands anywhere in Kintyre, that isn’t logged by Eddie Maguire!”   The observatory itself is a three hour drive from Glasgow - with a bit of good luck, fair weather and a following wind!  It is a little bit of birding heaven, and well worth seeking out.
A 'twittering' of twite fed outside the observatory

Eddie at his post!

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