First Chiffchaff of Spring

Published: 31st March 2017

We have been busy over the past couple of weeks, re-visiting old haunts and seeing what there is about in preparation for the new season. Already folk are starting to arrive to watch the pine martens, and usually two, sometimes three have obliged. One is our resident mother, who we think has had kits, but we have yet to find them. The other regular is her son from last year (just watched polishing off moths that settled on the wall in response to the moth trap last night). A son from a previous litter has also been around. I am sure mum is not happy either sharing her food at the present or suffering the presence of jealous males whilst her new kits are small and defenceless. Perhaps the high degree of relatedness offers a degree of protection to the new litter. The martens have stuck rigidly to Greenwich Mean Time, and so it is usually 7pm by the time they appear at the front of the house waiting for food.

The beautiful sunny days over the last weekend have brought the first of the summer migrants. We heard and caught a fleeting glimpse of our first chiffchaff of the year in the woods above Loch Teacuis on 27th March. The repetitive call is very welcome at this time of year, less so if one takes up residence in the garden. Later that day we also saw a fine pair of cock wheatear by the shore of Loch Linnhe. Black-throated divers have re-appeared on the larger lochs, resplendent in their black and grey stripes. A lone red-throated diver wailed mournfully on a sea loch. Slavonian grebes are gathering in Loch Linnhe to move on, with many already colouring up. There seems to be more each year, with groups of 6-8 not uncommon. Great northern divers are also plentiful, but are largely in winter plumage still; they will linger well into May. Meadow pipits are moving up the glens, in small numbers so far, but it will not be long before the hills are repopulated. Oystercatchers are also appearing inland, where they are establishing territories on the shingle banks of upland rivers. Pied wagtails are flitting about everywhere, and many will settle to breed locally. Small troops of golden plover, resplendent with their black breeding bibs, are gathering prior to moving up to the tops of the mountains to breed. The black guillemots are already on their nest boxes at Ardgour.  On a jaunt to Rhu we saw displaying lapwing and heard the song of a soaring skylark, in case spring was in any doubt.

Eagles have already been nesting for some 3-4 weeks now, including our local white-tailed eagles, which have returned to the same tree to nest along Loch Arkaig. Hens will generally be sat tight on eggs, which reduces the chances of spotting eagles, but hunting birds can still be seen. We have been on the lookout for eagles in advance of our ‘eagles and otters’ break this weekend. One of the Glen Loy eagles was seen soaring over the ridge, and we watched it hunting for some time. Other golden eagles have been active in local glens, so we remain optimistic. We have also spotted a couple of otters in the last few days, both of which were close to shore. A big dog otter was curled up on a rock at high tide just metres from the minibus. By the time we had worked out what this lump was, it had (not surprisingly) spotted us and slipped off into the water to peruse us at a safe distance.

On Saturday evening, driving into a glorious sunset, we were surprised to see at least a dozen bats hunting in the gloaming. Although the temperature had been in the high teens during the day it plummeted to well below freezing during the night, so this may have been a rude awakening for them. We also spotted a hedgehog trundling off the road up someone’s drive on the way home, a welcome, but sadly rare sight. The drive back was also enlivened by the presence of red deer on the verges. They are now surprisingly high on the hilltops in the mornings, but are still coming down to the low pastures in the afternoons and become a traffic hazard in the evenings. As well as red and roe deer, there are quite a few sika stags about. These still have their very dark winter coats, with a contrasting bright white backside, and look quite different from their red cousins. Common seals are also back in the sea lochs and can be seen basking on their usual rocks.

Other wildlife is also stirring. Angela saw the first butterfly of the year, a peacock, by Loch Eil on Saturday 25th, and we saw another at Loch Teacuis on Monday. Orange underwing moths are flying high amongst the birch canopies. Our first tiger beetle of the year was seen in Glen Loy yesterday, and queen bumblebees are foraging in the garden. Lungwort is a particular favourite.  I had a tremendous haul of moths last night, with over 73 individuals of some 16 different species, including spectacular ones such as oak beauty and red swordgrass. The frogs have been busy serenading us since the end of February, but now the toads have started mating. We watched several knots of ardent males, tied around larger females. It will not be long before the lizards and newts are out. On a less harmonious note the fine weather has also brought on the muirburn, which undoubtedly accounts for millions of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates each year, as well as threatening early nesting birds (including eagles). It is high time this dubious practice was banned.