Christmas come early

Published: 1st December 2010

We were treated to the sight of some rather unusual mammals in Fort William last weekend – reindeer. Several animals on loan from the Cairngorms were involved in pulling Santa's sleigh in a procession to teh Christmas Fair at the Nevis Centre, and with snow on the ground and a beautiful clear day, it was all very festive. Remarkably, Lochaber has not experienced the snow falls seen over in the east, and what little snow there has been (at low level) has been quickly cleared off the roads. It has, however, been bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping below -10 at night and not creeping above freeezing during the day.
As expected the bird feeders have been become very popular, with huge flocks of chaffinches on some days (with the odd brambling thrown in for good measure). The great spotted woodpecker has returned, and we have even had flocks of long-tailed tit passing through the garden. Siskins must still be finding plenty to eat in the forest, tjhough, as we are only getting the odd visitor. The fine dry weather enables them to access plenty of seed in the (mainly) sitka cones. A cheeky visitor to to the feeding stations is a vole, which dashes out for seeds from the shelter of some dead ferns. Robins are everywhere, and immediately start following us as we go outside – even in remote coastal locations. We still have a great crop of holly berries, and wonder how long they will last. There are plenty of blackbirds around but they seem to prefer foraging in leaf litter, or under the feeders. Most of the migrant thrushes have passed through, which will help preserve the holly – hopefully until Christmas. In the Glenloy area we are seeing more and more woodcock, and had a rare sighting of a peregrine the other day, over Loy Bridge.
With the snow comes the opportunioty for tracking again – a common theme in this blog. Watching a roe deer cross a forest track in fromt of us gave some valuable insights into how to interpret slot marks. “Double” prints can be quite confusing, whether these are deer or carnivores. Pine marten, as ever, are everywhere locally (but strangley absent around Arisaig yesterday), as are foxes. This never ceases to amaze us as fox sightings continue to be very rare. Local farmers detest foxes for their predation on young lambs, so perhaps not surprisingly, the foxes keep a very low profile. Several individuals seem to be travelling along the near side of the canal towpath (rarely used by people and dogs), along with badger, martens and the ubiquitous roe deer. Camera traps would be interesting here. Much larger slot marks indicated the continued prescence of red deer in the Glenloy Forest. An unusual track comprised a small tunnel through the snow (barely wide enough for a worm), partly collapsed to reveal little paw prints along the bottom. These tunnels were surely not big enough to take a mouse, so possibly these are shrew trails.
A foray to the coast yesterday was suitably invigorating. The smaller freshwater bodies have already fozen solid, and the larger lochs are sarting to go around the edges. More disturbingly the saltmarshes at Kinlocheil have frozen over, along with the edge of teh sea at Arisaig. We walked through mixed woodland and open hillside to a deserted beach, where we spent an hour watching the still water from the vantage of a basalt dyke. There were several divers about (red and great northern for sure) along with shags and herons. The only sign of otter was a series of footprints leading down to the shore. The view was postcard perfect, and the temperature even reached a balmy 1 degree. Well worth the efort of getting out. We also saw a single seal and a few deer. We ended up driving back tentatively in the dark, alert for the possibility of deer crossing the road. Unusually we saw none – two years ago they were every few hundred metres along this stretch of road. Possibly there are fewer about, or maybe the grazing slghtly higher is still sufficiently good to keep them higher. We will continue to be vigilant, however!