Meet the RSPB on board the Arran Ferry, MV Caledonian Isles, this summer. Most Saturday's during July and August, 9.45am – 5.30pm, weather and capacity permitting.
On most Saturdays during July and August, along with the weekend of the Arran Wildlife Festival in May, volunteers mainly from the North Ayrshire RSPB Local Group will be on board the Arran ferry going between Ardrossan and Brodick "Showing People Seabirds". When onboard they will be on the outside back deck manning a stall which also contains information about the RSPB, local events and sightings, as well as having RSPB Membership available.
During the 50-minute crossing between Ardrossan and Brodick you will be surprised at how many birds you can see from the ferry – often over 30 species. A daily list is displayed on the outer aft deck of the ferry when the RSPB volunteers are on board.
One of the most common birds to be seen is the gannet. This large white bird has black tips at the end of its wings and is often seen diving from great heights into the sea. Over 26,000 pairs of gannets nest on the RSPB's newest reserve, Ailsa Craig, in the lower Clyde. They can often been seen following the ferry along with the numerous gulls.
Around Ardrossan and Brodick harbours you should also see the black guillemot. This is a small duck-like bird that is a member of the auk family. It is black with a white patch on the side of its body and often nests in holes in harbour walls. When it opens its beak you can usually see its bright red gape. Other auks that can be seen frequently include the common guillemot and razorbill. These two birds are very similar to the black guillemot but they have more white about them and the razorbill's beak is very sturdy. If you are very lucky you may see the most well-known auk – the puffin. Increasing numbers of puffins now breed on Ailsa Craig and ocassionally fly up the Clyde.
All around the Clyde, you should see plenty of eider ducks. The male is mainly white with some black patches on it, and has a pale green tinge on its head, whilst the female is a drab brown colour. Over 500 pairs of eider nest on Horse Island. Also on Horse Island over 1800 pairs of lesser black backed gulls and herring gulls nest. It is also home to shelduck, curlew, oystercatcher and even greylag geese! You can often also see sandwich terns fishing offshore, some of which nest elsewhere on the Clyde, and some common and grey seals basking on the rocks.
One of the most exciting birds to see on the crossing is the manx shearwater. This is a member of the petrel family and is the size of a medium gull, but is totally black on top and white below. In calm weather large groups (200-300) of shearwaters can sometimes be seen feeding on the water, or more commonly, groups of birds may fly together in a line, zig-zagging between the waves. Several thousand shearwaters can easily be seen in a very short space in time if conditions are right. During late summer the occassional great or arctic skua may sometimes be seen as can the odd storm petrel.
More common birds that are easy to see from the ferry are the shag and cormorant. Brodick Bay also often has several pairs of red breasted merganser and great black backed gulls.
Dolphins and porpoises are being seen more frequently from the crossings. If you are lucky you may even spot a basking shark or minke whale. The basking shark often frequents Brodick Bay and the shores near Corrie. Identification charts for cetaceans are usually available when the RSPB volunteers are on board the ferry. The University Marine Biological Station at Millport are currently surveying basking sharks by tagging them. If you spot a basking shark on the Clyde then please call the Marine Station on 01475 530581 as soon as possible, noting the location of the sighting, direction the shark was travelling and approximate size.
There is a wealth of birdlife to be seen on Arran itself, with over 200 species having been recorded on the island. The absence of the fox as a predator on the island should enable most visitors to see plenty of raptors including buzzard, sparrowhawk and maybe even the elusive hen harrier or golden eagle. Commonly seen around Brodick in good numbers are ravens and during the summer common migrants such as wheatear, swallow, house martin and common sandpiper can also be readily seen. The wide variety of habitats on Arran can be easily viewed by following the main roads around and over the island.
The local Tourist Information Centre and bookshops should have the latest bird and nature reports published by the Arran Natural History Society whilst the National Trust for Scotland Ranger Service at Brodick Castle is also a good source of current information. The Castle gardens themselves are rich in birdlife and are well worth a visit at any time.
The North Ayrshire RSPB Local Group is extremely grateful to Caledonian MacBrayne for their continued support in this venture in 'Showing People Seabirds'. Caledonian MacBrayne sails a fleet of modern ferries to 22 islands off the West Coast of Scotland and the Firth of Clyde. Many of the destinations are near to areas rich in wildlife and nature conservation. Full information on their services and facilities is available from their website at www.calmac.co.uk or by contacting Caledonian MacBrayne, Ferry Terminal, Gourock PA19 1QP, Tel: 01475 650100.