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  • Phil Keetley

Wildlife of the Clyde Part 1 - Birds

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

I recently wrote about the joys if the Clyde, and if you haven't read the post - please do as it sets the scene for this post.

Paddling towards the mighty Ailsa Craig by Phil Keetley

The Clyde is an endlessly fascinating body of water that has both residential populations of animals, as well as seasonal visitors.  Journeying by sea kayak is an amazing way to see the wildlife.  Animals do not necessarily recognise you as human, and are often curious and will get much closer to you in a kayak than in any other form of transport.  I have been buzzed by Artic terns, had a face off with an otter, chased red deer from my tent porch and been woken by a curious Highland Coo licking my tent!   I have been followed by curious seals for over 10km, with the seal nudging my stern, nibbling the toggle and acting in a generally attention seeking manner!  

Friendly seal by Phil Keetley

Now, I am not an expert by any means, but I retain an interest and am constantly seeking to learn more.  I do love my time spent outdoors observing nature.  Thus my observations below are what I think I have seen, or have read about.  

Birdlife.  The Clyde supports 17 breeding species of sea birds, with some critical sites of international importance such as Ailsa Craig and Sanda. The Clyde also supports an estimated 20,000 overwintering wildfowl in the inner estuary alone.

Stunning Gannet by John Williams

The Clyde is full of Gannets, with Ailsa Craig being the fourth largest Gannetry in the UK, home to 40,000 breeding pairs.  Gannets are one of the most wondrous birds on the planet.  A fully grown adult might have a six foot wingspan. They fly hundreds of miles a day searching for food, and use their amazing vision to spot shoals of fish.  Gannets eyes are hugely adapted, set so that they can judge the distance below the water exactly, despite the refraction.  Their eyes can withstand enormous pressure as they dive, hitting the water at up to 70mph!  Due to this enormous impact with the water, their brains are also enclosed in a spongy shock absorbing mass.  

Cormorants are ancient birds that are adept in the sky and in the water.  Unlike most sea birds, they have not developed the waterproofing oil on their feathers, hence you often see them drying themselves on rocks, looking rather Pterodactyl-like.  Interestingly, the lack of oil means that the feathers become saturated with water, which may also help them dive deeper when hunting for fish.  And dive they certainly do - some having been recorded as diving to 45m (148 feet)!

Cormorant by John Williams

I have seen lots of Shags, Great Black Backed Gulls, Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Black Headed Gulls, Terns, Artic Terns, Green Shanks, Eider Ducks, Turnstones, Lapwings, Red Shanks, Guillemots, Curlews, Wigeon, Teal, Golden Eye, Mallard, Shelduck, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Mute Swans, Canadian Geese, Grey Herons, Whooper Swans, Greylag Geese, and, of course, the omnipresent and noisy Oyster Catcher on the Clyde.  

Noisy Oystercatcher

Unmistakable shape of Artic Tern

Reasonably often I spot Black Guillemots,Razorbills, and Manx Shearwater - temporary visitors breeding on the west coast, then heading back to Brazil for the winter! It is always amazing to watch the Shearwaters, gliding effortlessly over the surface of the sea - whether it be mirror calm or calamitous seas, they glide gracefully - wingtips just 'shearing' off of the surface.  Indeed, it is now thought that they gain energy and uplift from the high winds and waves, needing such conditions to maintain their lonely vigil out in the ocean, other than the one time a year they come ashore to breed.

Gliding Fulmar by Alan de Rollo

I have seen Kittiwakes, although sadly they remain in major decline linked to the decimation of the Herring shoals, fished to destruction in the 19th Century.  Fulmars can also be spotted, and there are evens Puffins off of Kintyre.

Curious Puffin by Phil Keetley

I once saw an Artic Skua, dive bombing the gulls mid way between Arran and Skipness Point.  At first I thought that it was a Peregrine Falcon due to its speed and agility, although I had never seen one out at sea before.  I then saw the pintail and realised what it was.  It was probably migrating, using the Clyde as a major navigation feature as many migrant birds do; I have yet to see another this far south.  

Artic Skua by  Peter Taub - PJT56 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Present here in the Clyde, but not yet seen (or perhaps recognised) by me are Red Breasted Mergansers, Red Throated Divers, Black Throated Divers, and Great Skuas (Bonxies), and apparently Purple Sandpipers.

Aggressive Great Skua or 'Bonxie'

On top of the vast sea bird population, there are also some fabulous raptors to spot.  Ospreys, Buzzards, Golden Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons are often seen on or near the coast in the quieter and more remote areas of the Clyde.  White Tailed Sea Eagles are not yet thought to be resident, although there has been the odd sighting of a young looking for a new home.  As the birds spread out form their reintroduced habitats around Jura and Mull it is highly likely that some will recolonise the Clyde.  With a wingspan up to eight feet and living between 21-28 years old, these magnificent birds cannot be mistaken.

A young White Tailed Eagle over the Clyde by John Williams

I shall write some more about the marine wildlife of the Clyde, and some of the serious problems that the Clyde faces, in Part 2.

With a special thanks to John Williams, an amazing wildlife and landscape photographer from the Isle of Bute who supplied some of the fabulous images here.  Do check out his fantastic Twitter account @williamsjohn76 to see more of his work.  Also thanks to Alan de Rollo and Peter Traub for other excellent images.

What birds have you spotted on the Clyde?

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