Autumn Glory

Published: 21st October 2015

Golden autumn colours of trees and bracken

Glorious autumn woodland colour

The great weather has continued well into October in Lochaber, but as the nights have become colder the leaves have started to turn, and the Highlands are now ablaze with colour. There are a surprising number of maples that have been planted up and down the roadsides and these have really stood out as the leaves have turned to orange and red, following in the wake of the rowans and cherries. Similarly, ash have gone a bright yellow, and although uncommon up here, have stood out against the birches and general background of oranges and browns. The oaks are now also changing colour, and have enlivened trips around the Ardnamurchan peninsula. In the garden of Glenloy Lodge leaves on the big copper beeches have turned from purple to red, and are pattering to the ground like raindrops. Out on the hills the last of the heather has turned from purple to brown, but the bracken still presents a range of colours from livid green through orange and gold to a withered brown, while the deer grass provides a background orange sheen. The bog asphodel, now normally long over, still retain their orange seed capsules to add to the scene. Lovely still days have produced fantastic reflections of woodland and mountains in the local lochs. This all provides a perfect backdrop for autumn wildlife watching in the West Highlands.

The autumnal equinox has also been accompanied by the usual spring tides. We have tried to take advantage of very low water to do a bit extra rockpooling and beach combing with guests. Samalaman beach is a great place for this and recently the sea

Sea potato or heart urchin

Sea potato or heart urchin

had retreated all the way past the island in the bay, leaving a sandscape covered with sand masons and a variety of worm casts. Angela was able to spot a heart urchin depression and I dug out the live urchin, its ’hairy’ feet undulating rather feebly in the air, which belies its ability to dig rapidly into the muddy sand. Elsewhere a pea crab was found, and in the rocks that would be normally covered,  a variety of other crabs, including a vicious-looking velvet swimming crab,  large, hairy spider crabs, a small marbled crab, a couple of edible crabs, numerous hermit crabs and the usual shore crabs. We also found a couple of squat lobsters, and were intrigued to see their escape mechanism; in which they shoot backward with their arms extended in front of them, resembling a squid or cuttlefish. Echinoderms included the pretty purple urchins, a number of common starfish, and some large brittlestars. A small bright yellow and white nudibranch was also found, along with a variety of anemones, shrimps and worms. Fish are always an attraction and mainly consisted of butterfish, gobies and a couple of impressive scorpion fish. The variety of marine life came as quite a surprise to this group of guests, even though they were not so keen on handling it themselves! We were also lucky enough to experience some very low tides along Loch Sunart, and were amazed to find the seabed carpeted with a layer of brittlestars – many thousands of these, all crawling over each other, many extending their arms upwards to filter detritus from the current. Amongst this mass of brittlestars were a number of other echinoderms including a large spiny starfish, some edible urchins and several common starfish. Fish could also be seen swimming over them all, including several young Pollock.

In a recent trip I was surprised to see an otter feeding on pipefish, of which more than one seemed to be taken. These are particularly boney with not a lot of flesh and we wondered why this otter was bothering with them, although they may be particularly numerous in shallow water at this time of year. We had found several in a previous low-tide search of Loch Eil. Other mammal activity is becoming more visible (albeit our local badgers failed to show up when I took someone to see them!). The deer rut continues, and the stags are still roaring around the hills. The largest harem we found last week consisted of no less than 42 hinds, and a rather tired looking stag that was still confident enough to lie down and chew the cud a while. Roe deer are starting to come out of deep cover again following a lull after their rut, and a number of pairs were seen in fields by the canal. The Glenloy pine martens have continued to become even fluffier as their winter coats thicken. Three have been coming to feed at night, and have become increasingly competitive, rushing around like animated fur balls as they dash in to snatch tidbits.

The woods have been full of migrating redwings in the last few days, and these are busily feeding on both retained and fallen rowan berries. There only appears to be a few fieldfare amongst these. The number of goldcrest also seems to have swollen. Goldeneyes are starting to appear on the lochs, whilst the first of the season’s whooper swans have also arrived. Three greenshank were seen at the head of Loch Sunart, and as it has been a while since we have seen any there, we assume these must be passage birds. Raptors still provide plenty of interest, and the sea eagles, in particular have continued to show well. Look out for these in the vicinity of the Corran Ferry and the nearby part of Ardgour. Over the last month I have been pleased to see quite a few kestrels, but must conclude that most of these must be birds on the move, as we see very few during the breeding season. We had another view of a merlin, mobbing a buzzard, this time deep in the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Bird of the month, however was a ring-tailed hen harrier that quartered a hillside for at least 5 minutes, including a stop to perch on a rock. This was spotted whilst watching a pair of sea eagles, and was soon followed by a close view of a great northern diver, still largely in breeding plumage – welcome to Lochaber!