Our migrant birds are returning, and with them, came the first guests of the season.

After months of relative quiet, it felt strange to watch Clansman disgorge a line of glinting vehicles and smiling faces.

Surf boards and bicycles wobbled as their owners bumped along the ramp, pleased to hit dry land after four brisk hours at sea.

Looking south-east across Balephuil from Ceann a’Mhara

On our beaches, brightly coloured kites bloomed and snapped in the offshore breeze.  Happy dogs bounced through the surf, and small children patted hopefully at mounds of damp sand.

Looking east towards the Treshnish Isles and the Isle of Mull from Ceann a’Mhara

The golden plovers are moulting into their summer finery – a mandala of spangled dandelion. Soon, these winter birds will disperse to lonely moors and breed.

There, quiet and lustrous among the greening heather, they will shelter tiny offspring.

Nurtured on a high octane mix of upland invertebrates, these knock kneed scraps of life will fly at speeds of over 95kmh when grown.

Small numbers of Lapland Bunting have arrived on Tiree from their wintering grounds along the east coast of Britain. These dapper little birds are scarce migrants – with only several hundred individuals thought to visit the UK each year from Scandinavia and Greenland. It was exciting to see them.

The spring winds have brought change, and they have also brought giants.

In the last six weeks, both a sperm whale and a minke whale have arrived dead at our shores. Glaucous gulls from the far north are drawn to these carcasses; the pallor of their feathers matching the acres of skinless fat.

Even in death, such large animals are mesmerising. Watching the 10m sperm whale roil and roll in the shallows is compulsive. Its great tail moves up and down with lithe grace – a weird echo of the living creature.

The headless Minke Whale that washed up in Scarinish Harbour, complete with its attendant Glaucous Gull

There has been sunshine and there have been squalls. In the half-light between showers, the distant finger of Skerryvore points like an obelisk into pastel skies.

Watching from the summit of Ceann a’Mhara, my view is constantly interrupted by fulmars sweeping along the updrafts.

The Fulmars of Ceann a’Mhara, keen to get in on the action as I sea-watch from the summit

I imagine that Skerryvore’s searching light has provided comfort and a feeling of safety for many, but I cannot reconcile myself to it. It draws the eye somehow – a sinister chess piece twelve miles to our southwest, across dark water and Am Bonn Sligheach. 

The smell of the fulmar colony is homely and pleasant – or at least, it is to someone who enjoys being around birds as much as I do (!)

Their plumage exudes a musky tang that settles at the back of your throat well before you reach the cliffs. Like albatrosses and other members of the order Procellariiformes, a fulmar’s nasal passage sits in a small tube-like structure at the top of their bill. Interestingly, tubenose bills are made up of between seven and nine plates depending on species – all of which have a special name. This gives the skull of the fulmar a somewhat menacing and armoured look.

Note the darker tube-like structure at the base of this Fulmar’s bill

All members of the tubenose family smell. Indeed for some species, it is thought that their peculiar odour helps individuals to identify their nest burrows in the dark – as well as informing mate selection by recognising kin.

Tubenoses use scent to locate feeding opportunities at sea; consequently, they boast some impressive olfactory abilities. While the full extent of their reliance on scent is yet to be proven, it is certainly feasible that smell could play an important role in life away from food.

Should you ever find yourself in possession of a storm petrel, I highly recommend that you give it a good sniff. This might not strike you as an obvious opening gambit, but you will be richly rewarded nonetheless: Their feathers are sweet and nutty like crushed almonds.

Regrettably, the guano spattered mountain of horror that represents a Shag’s nest [centre] DOES NOT smell like crushed almonds. Guillemots have cut out the middle man, and just lay their eggs directly onto poop drenched rock ledges… 

This Shag proudly clutches a strand of Kelp, ready to be added to its mountain of horror. Shags are also quite keen on pinching materials from neighbouring nests – it can be very amusing to watch this subterfuge unfold

Stephanie Cope

Tiree Ranger

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