Winter birds

Published: 16th November 2011

After many long months of abysmal weather the sun is shining in Glen Loy, and it continues to be unseasonably mild. The top of Aonach Mor is free of any traces of the white stuff, and even the summit of the Ben stands clear against the late autumn sunshine. The mild weather has had a marked effect on delaying the arrival of our winter visitors, however, which have had no good reason to date to advance to Lochaber. I have not yet seen a single brambling, and winter thrushes, with the exception of good numbers of blackbirds, have been few and far between. Although the first few sightings of waxwing have been reported, including one from Inverness, it is unlikely that they will hang around for long, as this has been a pretty poor year for berries. There have been few rowans or even haws this autumn, hardly any beech mast and even the cone crop is light. Crossbills have already made the most of the noble fir cones along our drive, and will have to forage hard for the sitka seeds that have produced locally this year.
Amongst the residents, life goes on as normal. Robins are singing lustily around the Lodge and boldly foraging for worms as we garden. Coal-tits have appeared out of the surrounding forestry in good numbers. The odd goldcrest has still been foraging for insects and spiders in the cherry tree next to the bird feeders. Walk in any of the local woods, and there is a good chance of a woodcock being flushed, rising silently from the leaf litter, often from right underneath your feet. Pheasants too are back in the garden, a long way from their release site at Achnacarry, and much further from their native lands on the Indian subcontinent. One wily old cock is spending his second winter scratching under the bird feeders, well away from the local shoots.
Out on Loch Eil, the winter duck have started to arrive, albeit in small numbers. Good flocks of wigeon and teal are present along the margins at Kinlocheil, and the handsome goldeneye grace the water itself. Loch Eil seems to be a magnet for dabchicks, which can be seen in their hundreds along the water’s edge, popping up like small corks, only to disappear almost as suddenly. The loch can often produce surprises. Amongst the little grebes the rare Slavonian grebe may also appear; a larger bird with a straight neck, and flat black-crowned head. We saw a pair not far away on Loch Linnhe recently, one in the winter plumage described, whilst the other still had the remnant of its breeding plumage, resplendent with golden ear tuft. Hundreds of Great Northern Divers are currently off the coast around Arisag, some also still in transitional plumage, along with smaller numbers of Red-throats and Black-throats.
The annual deer rut is pretty much over, but we did see a pair of stags rather desultorily sparring in Glencoe yesterday. Birds were conspicuous by their absence, with only the sounds of a single raven and meadow pipit to break the silence. Along the side of a very muddy track a snipe rose with its usual explosive squawk. The mild weather led to the unusual sighting of the odd plant in flower on the hills, including a foxglove and a lousewort. The promised frost will soon put paid to these.