Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Great Cumbrae & Millport (Firth of Clyde)

The island of Great Cumbrae sits in the Firth of Clyde, approximately a 10 minute ferry ride from the seaside resort town of Largs on the mainland. Considering it is only about a 40-minute drive from Glasgow and given the proximity of large towns and ferry ports such as Greenock, Gourock and Ardrossan (not to mention Hunterston power stations!), a great part of the island's charm is that it still manages to feel as though it's miles away in the heart of the Scottish countryside. In addition, the island and its surrounding waters are a great place to see a huge variety of coastal marine wildlife from seabirds to seals.
Location of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde

Millport & the South of the Island

Students working on Kames Bay

In the town of Millport are two large sandy bays (Kames bay and Fintry Bay) which are popular spots for dog walkers and horse riders, which doesn't always make them most peaceful spots for wildlife watching. But, if it's quiet, it can be a decent place to look for waders and you'll get some beautiful views south towards Ailsa Craig if the weather's nice. From the harbour you can also get some cool views of the seal colony if you have your binoculars with you (or a long lens).

Rocky pools along the coast are great places to play around with your camera and find some cool marine life in the process!

Rocky beaches dominate the rest of the coast which are brilliant for rockpooling (particularly at White Bay in the north of the island).

Blue-rayed limpets can be found on the underside of kelp fronds if you look at low tide.

The marine life here is quite typical for a Scottish rocky shore, and all the usual species of green and brown seaweeds, limpets, barnacles, winkles, mussels and beadlet anemones can be found readily in the pools. Blue-rayed limpets are also commonly found on Kelp fronds in the sublittoral zone (only accessible at low tide). If you have a net and fancy a bit of pool-dipping, you can also often small crustaceans (e.g. shrimp and amphipods) and occasionally small fish in many of the rockpools here. There is an easy circular path around Farland point which makes it suitable for most people, though it can get a bit muddy.

Coastal birds and Seabirds

There are a huge variety of coastal birds and seabirds around Great Cumbrae, which a quick trip around the island will prove! Eider ducks are common around the entire coast, and can regularly be seen diving for food, or calling to each other in large groups, though I've never been particularly successful at approaching them on the island. For that, I tend to find that fishing harbours are a better place to photograph them, but you never know your luck.

A curlew on the shore.
Bar-tailed godwits foraging on the shore.
Oystercatchers on Cumbrae.

Oystercatchers and curlews are also extremely common, and can often be seen in large groups, either resting or feeding at the beaches, along with shags and cormorants, lapwings, and various waders such as turnstones, dunlin and redshanks.

Gulls on the shore.
A cormorant in flight.

I have generally seen these species most often along the western side of the island and the bays in the north, although I would expect them to be seen around most of the coast. In the north and north-west of the island there are also several Swan (or Chinese) geese, which are a domestic species and are not native to Scotland. Around the town of Millport itself, it is not uncommon to spot red-breasted mergansers, as well as all the usual gulls you would expect to find in a seaside town!

Gannets can be commonly seen out in the Clyde channel.

Several species of seabird also live on the island, including a small colony of Fulmars which live on the cliffs in the south of the island. Kittiwakes and gannets can also commonly be seen further out at sea. There is a large gannet colony at Ailsa Craig, south of the Firth of Clyde, and the waters around Millport are a popular feeding area for these birds in the summer (particularly when the fishing boats are working).

Marine Mammals and Basking Sharks

Porpoise feeding between the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae.
The Firth of Clyde is home to a large number of marine mammals, including large groups of harbour porpoise, common dolphins and common dolphins. Minke whales can also be seen in this area. In the past, there have also been sightings of Killer whales (Orca), a Risso's Dophin, and even a humpback whale! Sightings of these species are incredibly rare however, and are certainly the exception rather than the norm. Nonetheless, taking a pair of binoculars out to the coast with you could certainly be worthwhile. 

Grey seals hauled out opposite Millport harbour.
Around the coast of Great Cumbrae, it is quite common to spot common and grey seals. There's a small haul-out area for grey seals just opposite the main harbour in Millport, and if you have a pair of binoculars you should be able to spot them there quite easily.

The waters around Great Cumbrae are famous for basking sharks, not least because this was until very recently, the home of the last basking shark fishery in the UK. In 2005, the Firth of Clyde had the second highest sightings rate for basking sharks in Scotland (after the Minches).
To see more photographs like the ones in this article, have a look at the SeabirdsCoastal Wildlife and Marine Mammals galleries.