A celebration of new life

Published: 9th July 2017

As the West Highland summer kicks in we are besieged by a plethora of youngsters, from pine marten kits to osprey chicks to baby slow-worms. We have enjoyed a couple of themed holiday weeks over the last few weeks, together with a variety of day trips. The last two day-trips have even been rewarded with the full complement of Scottish ‘Big Five’ sightings. Despite indifferent weather we have managed to stay more-or-less dry, catch the sun where we could and enjoy two very different boat trips.

We took the funicular up Cairngorm during the ‘Dotterel and Ptarmigan’ week and joined the ranger for a walk on the top. From the train we had glimpses of red grouse and ring ouzel, with several ring ouzels, including this year’s fledglings, seen from the observation platform at the top. Our walk to the summit produced at least two dotterel (one, unusually in flight), a hen ptarmigan with chicks followed by a nice cock and hen together, and a cheeky cock snow bunting perched atop of the weather station. A flock of crows near the summit were rather more sinister, and an indication of new threats to our upland fauna on Cairngorm. On the way down, we watched the reindeer from afar. In the woods at Loch Morlich we found no less than three active spotted flycatcher nests, with parents busy hawking flies for their nestlings.

Other sightings that week included a leisurely swim-by from an otter, the first of the year’s common seal pups, a hen harrier and three summering great northern divers. In the cuteness stakes, fluffy oystercatcher chicks competed with ringed plover and sandpiper chicks. Eider ducklings of various sizes were spotted, along with a family of newly hatched mergansers, mallard ducklings and lots of greylag goslings. The pine marten kits finally made an appearance, with two reported by guests.  We have only subsequently seen one, however. A couple of late chequered skippers were seen along with the first of the year’s dark green fritillaries.

Puffins were the focal point of our next holiday week. We took the trip across to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles with Staffa Tours, departing from Kilchoan. Auks and porpoise were plentiful on the way across to Staffa, including good numbers of puffins on the island itself, lined up for tourists along the cliff-edge. We opted for the path into Fingal’s Cave instead – truly awesome (in the old-fashioned sense). Black guillemot could be seen peeping out from cracks in the cave roof. Seabirds were in much greater abundance over on Lunga. Puffins were everywhere and busy bringing back sand eels to chicks in burrows, amidst much grunting. Over at Harp Rock there were good numbers of common guillemot along with several chicks, and smaller numbers of kittiwakes, also with chicks, which is good to see. Indeed, some of the guillemot chicks had already taken the plunge off the cliffs and we saw juveniles with adults out at sea. Hissing shags and stately razorbills also peered at us along the path as we passed. On the trip back we saw a flock of feeding gannet, rafts of shearwaters, more porpoise and a feeding minke whale. A golden eagle wheeled high above Ardnamurchan Point, but this was probably our poorest eagle sighting of the week.

After eagles had been difficult to spot for a couple of weeks we had a low flypast of a goldie at Kingairloch, following sightings of possibly another bird, nicely contrasted with a passing buzzard. All this was seen while having lunch and admiring a red-throated diver in the bay! We had earlier seen an otter fishing and clambering on to rocks, and had yet more otter and golden eagle sightings later that same day – a real treat for day trippers! Another goldie flew right across Loch Sunart and then quartered the ridge not far above us, all with barely a flap of wings. We had a prolonged sight of a sea eagle plucking and feeding on a large gull, before it eventually flew off, noisily pursued by a flock of oystercatchers and other gulls. Both red deer and sika calves were showing well. Common seal pups were performing as hoped, swimming close behind their mothers and suckling as soon as they had clambered on shore. Red squirrels have also been active, on the feeders at Inchree and at Glenloy Lodge, where they are now seen most mornings, often scampering across the yard. The pine martens seemed to become more relaxed this week, with up to four individuals visiting for food in quick succession. Butterflies seen over the last ten days included the first large heath of the year, along with meadow browns and ringlets – truly a sign of summer.

All youngsters cannot be expected to make it, as illustrated in a timely way to the followers of the Loch Arkaig osprey cam. Although the named pair of adults managed to hatch all three eggs, only the oldest chick survived. Much to the consternation of observers the dead chicks were seen being eaten by the mother and fed to the survivor. This is now growing well and is already stretching its wings. A further local chick is also thriving. We suspect we are down to a single pine marten kit, too. This young male is almost as big as its mum, but still squeaks pitifully for food. Long may it entertain our guests.