Late summer brings out the wildlife

Published: 12th October 2015

At last we have had a summer in Lochaber, and as I write at Glenloy the sun is still shining in the second week of October. The last four groups of guests have all enjoyed wall to wall sunshine, with hardly a drop of rain between them! Finally it is becoming colder and the midges are retiring for the winter – not before time. The good weather has certainly made wildlife watching an even pleasanter undertaking, and the local wildlife has been gracious in turning out to perform for us. The year continues to run late, however, with the trees only just starting to turn, and flowers that we would expect to have been long gone continuing to bloom right into October. These included the delicate pale butterwort, as well as more robust species such as knapweed and even the odd foxglove. Butterflies and dragonflies also continue to fly, with a late flying golden-ringed dragonfly in the first week of October. More commonly we are seeing the common hawker and black darters, with surprisingly few common hawkers this year.

The advent of October brings the climax of the red deer rut, although indications were that this has also been delayed a little this year. We had another memorable trip to the Isle of Rum to watch the rut at Kilmory, made famous by Autumnwatch. Although the seas are quieting down now we still saw plenty of gannets, a few auks and several porpoise, whilst a lucky few also caught sight of common dolphin. Walking across Rum from Kinloch on the smashing, newly restored track, we were treated to a good display by a pair of golden eagles, soon to be trumped by a close fly-past of a female merlin. As we approached the rutting greens stags were holding court over their harems, which increased in size as we approached the coast. Several young and vanquished stags were roaming forlornly about the periphery, including a couple of last year’s alpha males, sadly now beaten up and down on their luck. Much roaring and chasing of both young bucks and recalcitrant females took place. A few frustrated stags sized each other up in a series of parallel walks and even indulged in a bit of half-hearted sparring. Ali was on hand to explain the action, and the time sped all too quickly.

In Glen Loy the next day the deer were once again all around us, albeit at a distance. The eagle was, however, much closer and quartered the hillside above us for some 20 minutes before flying across the glen high above us and landing in an old tree. An early morning trip to Glen Garry produced stunning landscapes illuminated by the growing dawn amongst swirling mists.  The deer did not disappoint, with a handsome stag charging to and fro across the river below us to round up his females and see off a young challenger. His efforts to maintain a large group of females were not entirely successful, however, as a couple of his charges snuck off and were quickly appropriated by one of his rivals,  waiting in the wings. Further groups of deer appeared out of the mist. We also saw a family of ravens and a small flock of twite above Loch Quoich, and were pleased to find a feeding blackcock on the return leg.

The last month has also been memorable for a couple of real red letter days. On a heady trip around the Ardnamurchan peninsula we were first treated to at least five red squirrels simultaneously feeding or squabbling on the feeders at Inchree, before catching sight of an otter from the jetty at the Corran Ferry. Across the narrows at Ardgour we watched the seals at Sallachan, before noticing two sea eagles perched on the marker cairn of the point. These eventually flew off, revealing their massive wing span and bright white tails. Nearby a trio of Slavonian grebes passed almost unnoticed. Similarly a group of 4 red throated divers bobbed gently amongst flocks of newly replenished eiders, the drakes now resplendent in their breeding colours. Further up the loch we spotted another otter feeding, and then on Loch Sunart, a pair of well-grown cubs feeding and playing. Lunch was accompanied by a fly-past of a pair of golden eagles. Red deer proved the most difficult of the ‘Big Five’ to find, but we eventually came across a rutting ground, where a lucky stag was actually spotted in flagrante through the telescope (blink and you’ll miss it). Close by, a group of wild goats looked down on the proceedings nonchalantly. Other wildlife of the day included a newly arrived great northern diver, black guillemot, mergansers, goosanders and twite. The pine martens were waiting for us when we returned to Glenloy Lodge. Not a day to be guaranteed for all, sadly!

The adult sea eagles were even closer on another trip, actually perched on the rocks at Sallachan, and flying off round the point in front of us, having been proceeded by a juvenile as we drove round from the ferry. I subsequently heard that a lucky resident of Ardgour had recently seen the two adult sea eagles with two juveniles being mobbed by a pair of goldies, but that would be pushing our luck too far. Not to be outdone, the pair of golden eagles in Glenloy also put on a great display of quartering Drum Loy for a lucky trio of ladies on a special break. Goldies have also been showing well up Glen Roy, which makes a welcome change from the last couple of years.

Further afield we reprieved our September trip to Applecross, where we again saw a gathering of about 30 black-throated divers in the bay. The weather was still kind, and we kayaked with seals on a flat calm sea. We can thoroughly recommend the boat trip along Loch Torridon from Shieldaig. Once again we were surrounded by wildlife; no less than 4 sea eagles on the island in Shieldaig Bay, two otters and porpoise in the Upper Loch, divers (GND and BTD) in the outer loch together with islands covered with common and grey seals, more porpoise and what I am convinced was a basking shark. Lovely boat, attentive and friendly crew – even tea and cake, what more could a naturalist want? Different, but equally impressive was a barn owl, watched quartering the field behind my parents’ house in Lancashire. It eventually floated right past our ears in the garden and out of view. Commas were basking in the sunshine – not a species we have up here, and always nice to see.