February 2018

Published: 1st March 2018

As I write, winter is still with us, it is freezing outside, the odd snowflake drifts downwards onto a frosty yard, and there are dire warnings about snow and ice for the rest of the week. Sunshine and milder weather has lulled our local birds into a false sense of security. Last week they were all busy singing their hearts out, but now all is eerily quiet, and even the feeders appear to have been deserted. The only bird I heard singing yesterday was a crossbill from the top of one of the tall cypress trees around the Lodge. Perhaps the birds know something that we don’t! Despite this the snowdrops are now in full bloom and the lungwort is flowering. It will be a while before the bees start nectaring, however!

On a brighter note our red squirrels seem to have been more active, with at least three different individuals around the garden. One bright morning they were all busy chasing each other through the treetops – a sure sign that spring is in the air. Some squirrels have even started to use the peanut feeders again, including one with a shortened tail that we have inevitably christened ‘Stumpy’. It is interesting to speculate how it might have lost part of its tail – was this a narrow escape from a voracious pine marten? Another individual is seen most days rooting around under the rhododendrons for cached hazel nuts. I have also been putting out a few hazel cobs in the squirrel feeder. A few are eaten there and then, but most are taken away to be hidden, so the nuts do not last long.

After a slow start we are also starting to catch up with the local golden eagles. After the snow cleared we finally made it up to the head of Glen Loy.  While putting our boots on we were treated to a fly-by from a cock merlin – an auspicious start. Walking up the glen we saw plenty of deer, with little sign of any reduction in numbers by the local estate at least. As we neared the end of the stony path we were treated to the sight of a golden eagle hunting. Periodically this was buzzed by a pair of ravens whose territory it was encroaching upon. We watched for several minutes. Further west we also had a further sighting of a merlin, almost certainly a different bird from the one we had seen a couple of miles further down the glen. A cock stonechat added further icing on the cake. This last week we went specifically to look for eagles along Glen Nevis. We were treated to a pair of goldies flying round and round the cliff faces opposite the Steall, alternately landing on small trees, or soaring high above the tops. These two were periodically mobbed by ravens, with an attendant sparrowhawk.  As the cock bird evaded his pursuers by descending across a further slope he was met by a tiny merlin, once more asserting its territorial rights. The two eagles circled around each other until they ascended to a great height, then flew off in opposite directions. As we descended the Nevis Gorge, a pair of buzzards wheeled above us mewing – a real raptor fest!

At the weekend I led a birdwatching expedition to Kentra Bay with the Lochaber Natural History Society. The idea was to do some general wildlife watching, but to specifically look for the flock of 60 or so Greenland white-fronted geese that winter on Kentra and Claish Mosses. Sadly, we were unsuccessful in this latter goal, despite drawing on the services of a local expert, but it is likely the geese were feeding on Claish Moss, where they will be practically invisible amongst the bog pools, peat hummocks and hollows. We did see plenty of Canadas and greylags! The foot of Loch Shiel produced another target species, however, a wintering ring-necked duck (surely a misnomer, this should be ring-billed duck), hidden amongst a flock of tufted duck. There was also a big flock of goldeneye, several dabchicks, teal and mallard. An adult white-tailed eagle flew across the opposite side of the loch and later we saw a juvenile, being mobbed by crows. Out on Kentra Bay we found a large flock of wigeon, with several shelduck and groups of waders including oystercatcher, dunlin, curlew, ringed plover, redshank and a single greenshank. Sea watching produced a couple of great northern divers, flocks of razorbills and handsome mergansers. All-in-all we saw around 42 species on what was a lovely day. On the return journey we picked up an otter on Loch Ailort, which just rounded things off nicely. 2018 is the 50th anniversary year of LNHS. To celebrate this, we have put a series of articles on the Wildlife of Lochaber written by JM and Ian Strachan into booklet form, which is now at the printers. Watch this space for details of availability.