White-tailed Eagle and Corncrake: Birdwatching in the Scottish Hebrides, Part 1

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare his praise in the islands. 

Isaiah 42:12
White-tailed Eagle aloft in the Outer Hebrides   (LHH Scotland photo credit)

Watching coastal birds is a favorite pastime in the Outer Hebrides, according to Outer Hebrides Tourism.  Having visited some of the Inner Hebrides, with marvelous birdwatching opportunities (including puffins!), I am not surprised.

The Outer Hebrides archipelago is a unique island chain perched on the North Western edge of Europe. Here the landscape ranges from white sand beaches and flower covered machair grasslands to barren hilltops, fjord like sea lochs and vast peatlands. Wildlife is abundant and birds of prey are a particularly visible feature of the open landscapes . . . Spring and autumn are the best times to spot migrating birds in the Outer Hebrides with large numbers of seabirds passing up and down the coasts of our islands on their way to and from northern breeding grounds and wintering grounds to the south.  These are both exciting birding seasons in the Outer Hebrides when almost anything can turn-up but the highlights of spring and autumn birding in the Western Isles include the passage of Skuas offshore and the flocks of geese and whooper swans passing overhead. Visit in the spring and summer to see the Outer Hebrides seabird breeding colonies of terns and gulls, which be found scattered along the coastline on headlands, beaches, islands and sand dunes.  Although most breeding colonies are found offshore they will travel long distances to feed and birdwatchers can often see seabirds in the Western Isles from the shore.  Spot Gannets in the Outer Hebrides as they make their spectacular dives after fish and keep eyes open for Black Guillemot, Guillemot, [Atlantic] Puffin, Razorbill and Fulmars, as all are common island birds.

Quoting from “Bird of Prey Trail Locations” and “Wildlife: Coastal Birds”, VisitOuterHebrides.co.UK  —  emphasis added by JJSJ
Northern Gannet, aloft in the Outer Hebrides  (Islandeering photo credit)

Some of the coastal birds that frequent the Outer Hebrides include shorebirds (such as Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Dotterel, Dunlin, Jack Snipe, Little Stint, Oystercatcher, Pectoral Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Ruff, Sanderling, Turnstone, Heron), seagulls (such as Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull), as well as various ducks (such as Eider, Goldeneye, Black-throated Diver, Great-northern Diver, Red-throated Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Shelduck, Shoveler, Long-tailed Duck), plus Shag and Cormorant, Atlantic puffin, Northern Gannet, geese (Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Greylag Goose), Mute Swan, plus a mix of passerine songbirds (such as Barred Warbler, Blackcap, Bluethroat, Brambling, Chiffchaff, Common Crossbill, Common Whitethroat Warbler, Corn Bunting, Dunnock, Hawfinch, House Martin, House Sparrow, Meadow Pipit, Pechora Pipit, Pied Flycatcher, Redwing, Rose-colored Starling, Stonechat, Yellow-browed Warbler), the Ring Ouzel, the ever-versatile Woodpigeon, and more!

Atlantic Puffin, ashore in the Outer Hebrides  (Sykes Cottages photo credit)

The Hebrides, formerly known as the “Western Isles”, are wildlife-watching venues.

With the islands enjoying one of the last untouched natural landscapes in Europe, wildlife in the Western Isles is some of the finest in the world, with Outer Hebrides animals and plants all at home in their surrounding without fear of poaching, pollution or disturbance.  Wildlife watching in the Outer Hebrides offers a glimpse into a time almost forgotten by the rest of the world, where the white -tailed eagle soars over the rugged coastline as red deer roam proudly over the peaty moorlands and [river] otters swim in many sea lochs.  Much of the wildlife in the Western Isles is unique and protected, meaning that visitors enjoying Scottish island nature breaks here can enjoy pursuits as diverse as spotting minke whale in the sea around the Outer Hebrides and eagle watching in the sky. 

[The Outer Hebrides] are a popular destination for birdwatching in Scotland, as birding in the Western Isles offers opportunities to see everything from birds of prey to seabirds and waders. Look out for the Bird of Prey Trail which spans the Outer Hebrides with location markers for the best places to see birds of prey. As well as this, the Western Isles are the summer home to two thirds of the elusive British corncrake population from April to September. 

[Quoting VisitOuterHebrides.co.UK, “Closer to Wildlife” — emphasis added by JJSJ
White-tailed Eagle   [ photo credit: Animalia.bio ]

In the above quotation the White-tailed Eagle (a/k/a “Sea Eagle”) is mentioned; this raptor is Great Britain’s (and thus also Scotland’s) largest bird of prey.  It habituates almost all of Scotland, including the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

The White-tailed eagle is one of the largest living birds of prey. It is sometimes considered the fourth largest eagle in the world and is on average the fourth heaviest eagle in the world. White-tailed eagles usually live most of the year near large bodies of open water and require an abundant food supply and old-growth trees or ample sea cliffs for nesting. They are considered a close cousin of the Bald eagle, which occupies a similar niche in North America. The adult White-tailed eagle is a greyish mid-brown color overall. Contrasting with the rest of the plumage in the adult are a clearly paler looking head, neck and upper breast which is most often a buffy hue. The brownish hue of the adult overall makes the somewhat wedge-shaped white tail stand out in contrast. All the bare parts of their body on adults are yellow in color, including the bill, cere [nose-like part of upper bill], feet, and eyes.

[Quoting “White-tailed Eagle”, Animalia, https://animalia.bio/white-tailed-eagle .]
White-tailed Eagle with caught fish   ( Wikipedia photo credit )

Watching these sea eagles catch fish in their talons, as they wing to, near, and then away from the seawater surface, is much like watching Bald Eagles catch fish in the coastal seawaters of Southeastern Alaska.  [See video clip of a Sea Eagle catching fish, at rspb.org.UK – website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.]

White-tailed eagles are powerful predators and hunt mostly from perches, in a “sit-and-wait” style, usually from a prominent tree perch. Fish is usually grabbed in a shallow dive after a short distance flight from a perch, usually with the eagles only getting their feet wet. At times they will also fish by wading into shallows, often from shores or gravel islands. When it comes to non-fish prey, White-tailed eagles often hunt by flying low over sea coast or lake shore and attempt to surprise victims. [emphasis added]

[Quoting “White-tailed Eagle”, Animalia, https://animalia.bio/white-tailed-eagle .] 

These coastal raptors mostly eat fish.  However, they also eat waterfowl and small mammals (such as rodents).  During winter they eat lots of carrion.

In previous centuries the White-tailed eagle populated the coasts of Scotland, but it was hunted to extirpation in the A.D.1920s.  However, it was conservationally re-established on Rhum in A.D.1975, and (thankfully) it has since re-colonized (beyond 25 breeding pairs, apparently) many of the indented inlets of the coastal strands of Outer Hebrides islands, including Harris, Lewis, and South Uist. 

White-tailed Eagles are large birds (2-to-3 feet, from bill-tip to tail-tip; 6-to-8 feet wingspan; 9-to-16 pounds), famous for eating fish (such as salmon, trout), yet they also prey on rabbits and hares, geese, available seabirds (such as fulmars and petrels), and lamb carrion.  Like their Golden Eagle cousins—which reside in the Hebrides—these eagles establish and defend territories for their families.

Other birds of prey, habituating the Outer Hebrides, include two types of owls, the Short-eared Owl and the Long-eared Owl.  Other birds of prey include hawks (such as harriers, sparrow hawks, and ospreys) and falcons (such as kestrels, peregrines, and hobbies), which routinely find and consume rodents (such as voles).  Other birds of prey, sometimes observed, include Buzzards, Snowy Owl, and Gyrfalcon. 

However, in contrast to such carnivorous raptors, consider the common Corncrake.

Corncrake in grass      (Wikipedia photo credit)

The chicken-like Corncrake is a migratory rail that frequents grassy parts of Hebridean islands, as well as Scotland’s semi-marshy floodplain grasslands (dominated by grasses or sedges) and coastal wetlands (such as nettle beds, iris beds, and reed beds), yet the Corncrake prefers the tall plant-cover of farmed crop-fields (such as hayfields, fields of wheat and other cereals, and clover meadows).  This rail arrives from mid-April and stays for breeding and beyond, till August or September.  After that the Corncrake migrates to North Africa, for over-wintering.

Corncrake in camouflage       (IBTimes UK photo credit)

The Corncrake’s appearance somewhat resembles a young Grey Partridge (or somewhat like a moorhen or coot), yet it is almost as small as a blackbird.

Plumage softly but richly coloured, with pale grey face, fore-neck and breast, yellowish-buff upper parts, lined with cream and spotted or streaked blackish-brown, chestnut wings ‘catch fire’ in flight, barred white flanks.  Bill and legs dull pink.  Flight typical of [rail] family, loose-winged and clumsy; usually escapes by running into dense cover. 

[Quoting Roger Tory Peterson, Guy Mountfort, et al., A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), page 93.]
“Singing” male Corncrake, Hebrides (Steven Fryer/BirdGuides.com photo credit)

Because Corncrakes (a/k/a Land Rails) routinely reside in grassy fields, where photosynthetic biomass productivity is high, they have a smörgåsbord of seeds – as well as other foods, available just for the taking. 

Corncrake, hunting food, Hebrides (Alan Lewis/Surfbirds.com photo credit)

Besides seeds these rails eat bugs (especially cockroaches and beetles, including dung beetles), fly larvae, termites, ticks, spiders, dragonflies, earthworms, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, weevils, and even small frogs. [Regarding the diet of Corncrakes, see further Suzanne Arbeiter, Heiner Flinks, et al., “Diet of Corncrakes Crex crex and Prey Availability in Relation to Meadow Management”, ARDEA, 108(1):55-64 (April 24, 2020), posted at https://doi.org/10.5253/arde.v108i1,a7 . ]

Corncrake, on the island of Iona, Inner Hebrides (Flickr photo credit)

Corncrakes themselves must be careful—they serve as prey to other animals, including mustelids (mink, ferrets, and river otters), foxes, larger birds (such as white stork, harrier hawks, seagulls, and corvids, especially hooded crows).

Wonderful birds are there to be seen, in the Outer Hebrides (Scotland’s “Western Isles”).  If you get the opportunity, go see them! 

Meanwhile, appreciate that they are there, living their daily lives—filling their part of the earth—glorifying their Creator (Isaiah 42:12).

><> JJSJ     profjjsj@aol.com  

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Gannet Blown Off-Course, by Strong Winds

Gannet Blown Off-Course, by Strong Winds

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

For Thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall. (Isaiah 25:4)

Gannet at Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire England (Wikipedia photo credit)

What is an oceanic fish-eating seabird doing atop an inland trampoline in England? That was the question, recently, when a North Atlantic Gannet was seen resting on a British trampoline.(1)

Later, the weary-looking gannet moved to a garden, before it was gently captured by a resident (using a towel), who turned the poor seabird over to animal carers, who should return the bird to the wild after its health is aptly rehabilitated.

A seabird native to the North Atlantic has been rescued by the RSPCA after it took up residence in a Norfolk garden. Dawn Austin discovered the gannet resting on a trampoline in her North Wootton garden on Tuesday [June 2, 2020] and contacted vets when it did not fly away. … [Someone with] the RSPCA [Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] said there were no “obvious injuries” but the gannet was “very weak” and vets were doing all they could to help him. … feeding him three times a day as he was unable to feed himself, but they hoped that “having a chance to rest and recover” would help him “find the strength to pull through”.(1)

But gannets are seabirds—they belong at sea, not on trampolines! Gannets are gregarious seagulls that go far offshore to scoop up North Atlantic fish.

Gannets are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and can dive at speeds of 60mph (96.5kmh) to catch fish.(1)

The largest seabirds in the North Atlantic can travel hundreds of miles from their homes just to catch food. … by following their elders. Scientists recorded thousands of [these] seabirds commuting to and from the Bass Rock, in the outer part of the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland.(2)

So how did the ocean-faring gannet end up resting on an inland trampoline? The animal protection charity guessed that the bird “was blown off course”.(1)

This is understandable, since the British Isles (and their coastal waters) have been experiencing some weird weather lately.(3)

Gannet flying over the Celtic Sea, near Ireland (Wikipedia photo credit)

Meanwhile, being blown off-course can change an individual’s destiny, and thus also he destinies of progeny who descend from that individual.(4)

And, in some cases, a ship being blown off-course can lead to world-changing consequences.(5),(6)

Consider how the apostle Paul, and those traveling with him in a boat, were blown off-course—and eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea.(5) Paul’s ministry unto Maltese individuals would not have occurred had it not been for the “accidental” shipwreck that providentially occurred there.(6)

Likewise, the Mayflower Separatists (“Pilgrims”) who sailed west in A.D.1620—400 years ago—were blown off-course, reaching (and settling in) what is now part of Massachusetts, rather than territory farther south (in “Virginia”, which then stretched up to the Hudson River) as planned.(5)

Yet God’s providence, seen in hindsight, makes sense of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth—and thus the Pilgrims were forced to establish their own Scripture-based form of colonial self-government, rather than the Pilgrims arriving in “Virginia” territory, to merely join a preexisting colony south of Plymouth.(5)

Being blown off-course can be scary, to be sure—losing control (or, or put more accurately), losing the feeling of being in control) is usually a nerve-wracking experience. Yet God is in control—even in the storms of life.(7)

Morus bassanus adu.jpg
Gannet aloft (photo credit: Andreas Trepte / Wikipedia)

References

And, providentially speaking, sometimes an unexpected destination includes some unexpected help from strangers, such as Squanto and Hobomok, if you are a Mayflower Pilgrim. Or, if you are a wind-tossed seabird like a North Atlantic gannet, the help might come from Dawn Austin and some RSPCA vets.(8)

  1. Staff writer. 2020. North Atlantic Gannet Found on Norfolk Trampoline. BBC News – England (June 5, 2020), posted at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-norfolk-52938253 .  
  2. “By demonstrating that young gannets follow more experienced adults, we have shown that knowledge about the best feeding grounds may be being passed down from generation to generation.” Staff writer. 2019. Scientists Solve Mystery Behind How Gannets Hunt for Fish. BBC News – Scotland (November 1, 2019), posted athttps://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-50267180 . See also Wakefield, E. W., R. W. Furness, et al. 2019. Immature Gannets Follow Adults in Commuting Flocks Providing a Potential Mechanism for Social Learning. Journal of Avian Biology. Posted (September 18, 2019) at  https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.02164
  3. “A top climate scientist has called for more investment in climate computing to explain the UK’s recent topsy-turvy weather.” Harrabin, R. 2020. Weird weather: Can computers solve UK puzzle? BBC News – England (June 5, 2020), posted at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-52921479 .
  4. Johnson, J. S. S. 2014. People Yet to Be Created. Acts & Facts. 43(11):20, posted at https://www.icr.org/article/people-yet-be-created .
  5. It was 400 years ago that the Mayflower providentially sailed for America, arriving at Plymouth (Massachusetts). See James J. S. Johnson, Mechanical Multi-tasking on the Mayflower. Acts & Facts. 46(11):21 (November 2017), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/mechanical-multitasking-mayflower .  See also James J. S. Johnson, Maple Syrup, Gold Nanoparticles, and Gratitude. Creation Science Update (May 25, 2020), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/maple-syrup-gold-nanoparticles-and-gratitude . The Spanish Armada’s disastrous experiences with “freak” storms during 1588 would be another example of sea-storms with historic consequences.
  6. Regarding the apostle Paul’s providential visit to and ministry at Malta, via shipwreck, see Acts 27:6-28:11.
  7. God is our personal refuge in all of the storms of life. Isaiah 25:4.
  8. God cares for birds at the individual level. Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:6-7.

Lee’s Seven Word Sunday – 5/14/17

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Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) ©WikiC

MAKE THY WAY STRAIGHT

BEFORE MY FACE

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“Lead me, O LORD, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face.” (Psalms 5:8 KJV)

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) ©WikiC

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