Martens by candlelight

Published: 28th October 2017

The days are becoming considerably shorter now, and we await the clocks going back so that it will still be light before breakfast. Our early morning trips to see the deer rutting have meant setting off in darkness. It is well worth the effort as we arrive at the rutting grounds just as dawn is breaking. The deer are still down by the road then and any action is much closer to observe. Good pictures of stags roaring have been taken by all who wanted them. The glorious autumn colours have shown the rutting grounds to their best advantage this year, with even glimmers of sunshine between the rain showers being enough to cast an ethereal light. There have been lots of hinds with this year’s calves about this year, which means they must have had a good breeding season. These hinds rarely play an active part in the rut, but are reluctantly rounded up into harems nonetheless. At that time of the morning there is always the chance of an added bonus such as black grouse. A rather unexpected sight, however, was that of fallow and Pere David’s deer in an enclosure in Glen Garry, bringing our species count of deer to five for the week .  Elsewhere we were also lucky enough to observe the sika rut.  Despite being smaller than red deer, we found a rather handsome dark stag with a reasonable set of antlers, who kept us entertained by seeing off a younger rival. The walk across Rum to the rutting grounds at Kilmory was once again well worth the effort, with lots of deer close to the path and at the greens, although stags were rather settled into groups. A stag remembered from last year, Sargasso, was the star of the show, chasing hinds all over his patch, seeing off youngsters and bellowing lustily.

The walk across Rum produced three golden eagles, including a youngster being mobbed by a merlin, as well as a ring-tailed hen harrier. This has rather set the tone for the month, as we have had a succession of great raptor sightings. These have included several harriers (strangely all ring-tails), another merlin, a couple of peregrine, kestrel (rare in these parts, but more visible in autumn), a family of sparrowhawks, yet more goldies, white-tailed eagles, kites and countless buzzards. One lucky group were fortunate enough to watch a hunting white-tailed eagle at Insh Marshes, which spent some 30 minutes chasing ducks and waders, making several unsuccessful stoops. We left it looking tired and wary on a grassy mound, being pestered by crows. Teal that it had put up started to settle back into the reedy pools around it.

Ducks and geese have started to arrive back for the winter, with wigeon numbers, in particular, beginning to swell. The pink-footed were back on the Black Isle, with several thousand pushed onto the salt marsh at Udale by a rising tide. Skeins passed over regularly on their way to the few remaining stubble fields. As we watched, flocks of lapwings, oystercatchers and curlew were scattered as a peregrine came whistling through. The pink-foots were accompanied by at least one barnacle goose, and apparently a brent goose, which we sadly failed to pick up. A more prominent visitor was more easily spotted – a little egret, which is the first we have seen in the Highlands. Just around the corner at Jemimaville, hundreds of scaup were floating close by. Careful scanning produced the odd long-tailed duck and a few Slavonian grebes. Eider and merganser have now recovered their winter plumages, and the latter, at least have been displaying, their libido restored. A lonely whooper swan was spotted on a reedy lochan near Ardgour. Later the next week we were alerted by the flutey calls of a flock of over a hundred whoopers, which flew in tight formation over our heads. Thrushes have been slow to arrive, but large flocks are now passing through looking for berries on which to refuel.

The weather has not been particularly good, with lots of rain and strong winds. Most of the local boat operators have now stopped for the season. We were fortunate enough to find a weather window when we could take a non-landing cruise to Eigg and Muck on the CalMac ferry. There were still plenty of plunging gannets about, and these alerted us to the presence of feeding cetaceans, including dolphins, minke whales and a large pod of porpoise. We had good views of the whales and porpoise, even from the ferry (which does not stop) making this well worth the trip. Divers have also started to arrive in numbers along the coast, with a group of some 16 great northerns being seen off Camusdarach beach.  Beachcombing after strong winds has yielded dividends, with the best find being a lump of driftwood covered in goose barnacles, still waving their brightly coloured heads.

Otters have continued to show well, even in rough seas, and we have had more sightings of mothers with cubs, this time learning to fish. Squirrels continue to forage for and cache nuts. Our latest group enjoyed views of pine martens by candlelight whilst sipping on a glass of wine – very civilised. Martens are starting to arrive earlier and up to three at a time are visiting. They are now sporting their thick winter coats with lovely bushy tails; a sure sign that winter is coming.