Last Hurrah of Autumn

Published: 9th November 2017

The weather in the West Highlands has continued to disappoint, with yet more rain and wind for our last group of guests of the season. Needless to say, since they left, it has been beautiful for the last couple of days and Ben Nevis has been revealed in all its glory in the late autumn sunshine. When the sun has peeked out there have been spectacular autumn colours, enlivened further by a veritable procession of rainbows.   Plenty for the photographers to get excited about, at least. By moving around and dodging the showers we have continued to find some great wildlife, some of which also posed for photos!

Raptors again provided some of the highlights of the week. In one memorable half hour at the end of a remote glen we watched a pair of red kites drift across the loch, closely accompanied by a buzzard. Two more buzzards appeared, this time mobbing a golden eagle. The buzzards moved to the opposite side of the glen where they were joined by a trio of sparrowhawks, playing in the updraughts, and a smaller raptor that chased a flock of small birds back across the valley. We caught up with the latter falcon, which turned out to be a merlin. Remarkably, the merlin then started mobbing a hen harrier, and a further ring-tailed harrier appeared, hovering above the hill, which both harriers proceeded to quarter, with the merlin’s mate also joining in. We could not have scripted this. A pair of kestrels was also seen later in the day, along with further kites, buzzards and sparrowhawks. Indeed, we had good views of goldies on each of the three days we were out, the best being of a pair that drifted over our heads after hunting over a mountainside. The views of sea eagles were less spectacular, with a very distant bird sat on an islet, and a further one flying from a tree along Glen Garry in the early morning sun. Perhaps the best raptor sighting of the week we had was that of a peregrine sat at the top of a tree, at least in terms of one that stayed still to have its picture taken.

There were plenty of red deer present on the rutting grounds, but the action seemed mostly to be over for this year. A few young stags were hopefully sniffing around hinds with calves afoot, and some of the larger stags were still accompanying their harems, but none were roaring. The sika deer were similarly positioned with a larger stag minding his hinds while a younger stag still wandered around the periphery. Red squirrels are busy caching food for the winter, and were active around the feeders at Inchree. We only saw one otter – this was relaxing on a pebble beach and rolling around on his back. Seals have moved off into deeper water within the sea lochs, but were seen swimming around. The pine martens have now fully grown their thick winter coats and are looking huge, with mother and two sons now waiting to be fed in the evenings.

The theme of the week was winter migrants. The most notable of these were pink-footed geese. Skein after skein of these circled round the Cromarty Firth at high tide, and a good number whiffled down to roost at the head of the saltmarsh. Here they joined several hundred wigeon (including a solitary American wigeon), which have also appeared on the west coast in increasing numbers. Just up the firth at least a thousand scaup had gathered in large dispersed flocks, close to the shore. Amongst these were the odd Slavonian and great crested grebe and the first of the year’s long-tailed ducks. Huge flocks of redwings were also seen throughout the week, with smaller numbers of blackbirds. Usually rather shy, the redwings, presumably tired from their exertions, were not quite as flighty as usual, and provided some close encounters. Surprisingly there were no fieldfares to be seen. Goldcrest numbers have swelled, and these busy little birds are now everywhere.  We also saw the first woodcock of the winter, as well as a black grouse perched by the side of the road.

On the last trip of the year we saw another hovering hen harrier, also shadowed by a buzzard. This was again a ring-tail. Cock birds have been few and far between. Sitting down in the sun lounge of Glenloy Lodge later that day after the last guests had departed, I watched a magpie fly over the rhododendrons. This is the first we have seen from the garden, and only the third sighting we have had in Lochaber over the last ten years. A common sight for most folk, this was a real treat for us.