East and West Coast Sun

Published: 22nd February 2013

Redshank, oystercatcher and ringed plover on Dornoch coast.

Redshank, oystercatcher and ringed plover on Dornoch coas

Here at Glenloy we continue to enjoy a snow-free winter. We can see all the snow we need up on Aonach Mor.  Better still we have enjoyed a whole week of winter sunshine, and despite some sharp frosts it has been a pleasure to be out and about. The birds are also starting to think of spring, with a notable dawn chorus. We even saw a song thrush singing its head off on Tuesday – usually one of the later species to return to the glens. Earlier in the week mistle thrushes were also singing loudly – a rather monotonous song compared to that of the song thrush, and one quite often overlooked, relative to their usual harsh nagging alarm call. Despite this, migrant thrushes, including flocks of blackbirds, have been in evidence recently, perhaps forced west by snow elsewhere. Other birds tempted into song have included dunnocks, tits and chaffinches. Out at the coast near Arisaig the black guillemots have adopted their breeding plumage, so things are definitely on the move.

Had a rare chance to do some birdwatching across in the north-east last weekend. We drove across to Dornoch via Beauly, avoiding the Kessock Bridge chaos. Thanks partly to an unintended detour determined by the sat-nav we saw no less than seven red kites, most close to the road, in open farming country. These birds still have failed to spread much further than the Black Isle where they were first released, and despite odd sightings near us they seem to have failed to become established. Later in the day we walked along the beach at Dornoch and were delighted to see small groups of long-tailed ducks off-shore, together with larger numbers of common scoter. During the rest of the weekend several more groups of each were spotted between Golspie and Tarbat Ness. These birds have suffered a catastrophic decline in wintering numbers around the UK coast over the last few years, seemingly slipping away without this really being noticed. The long-tailed drake is one of our more handsome, nay cute, ducks with its striking black and white plumage, and long, pheasant-like tail. It also revealed a comic turn, as its landings on the sea resembled nothing so much as a bouncing bomb – the birds landed with a flat trajectory, skimming the surface several times before ending with an ungainly flop. I wonder if this is an adaptation to protect the tail from breaking off?

We were struck by the contrast in the amount of birdlife at this time of year between the east and the west coast. The flat arable farmland, very seldom encountered on on the west, attracts huge mixed flocks of corvids, including rooks and jackdaws, and both hoodies and carrion crows – obviously this must be a transition zone for the last two species.  Out at the coast the numbers of waders was noticeable – we simply don’t have suitable estuarine conditions on the sealochs of the west. The redshank, a bird we only have small numbers of back at home, was common along the shoreline here, together with large groups of other waders we only usually tend to see in small doses such as dunlin, lapwing, turnstones and bar-tailed godwit. I was even treated to the sight of large wader flocks swirling amorphously above a rising tide, although no hunting raptors could be discerned. Large numbers of pintail, wigeon and shelduck added to the colourful vibrancy of the scene.  A very pleasant couple of days with distinct possibilities for winter trips.

Back on the west coast we continue to see large numbers of great northern diver (altogether scarcer last weekend on the east), together with smaller numbers of red-throats and black-throats. One GND floated close into our view in the beautiful bay at Port nam Murrach and gave its haunting, wailing call – redolent with the longing for remote boreal forest lakes. We also watched an otter lolling about on the rocks. The skerries were full of basking common seals, which also seem to have moved back into our coastal waters. Buoyed by the grandeur of the day we stayed to watch the sunset over Eigg. If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, get up here now and take advantage of the winter sunshine.