February 2011 Update

Published: 17th February 2011

As I write at my desk at Glenloy the sun is threatening to shine outside – a rare event so far this winter. On the positive side the copious rain appears to be replenishing the water tables; severley depleted in the cold dry spring of 2010. Water levels in the freshwater lochs are probably higher now than at any time since we have been in Lochaber. The marshy area at the end of Loch Arkaig has become part of the loch proper, and some of the diving ducks are to be found closer in to shore where the water is shallower. Brief outbursts of sun spark the birds off singing. All of a sudden tits appear to be proclaiming their rights throughout the garden, along with Robins and latterly the resident Chaffinches. Migrant flocks still confuse the picture, including a large group of Fieldfare, the first seen for several weeks, flitting over the sheep pasture by the River Lochy. Dippers, which have been braving the elements all winter, contine to serenade from river and lochsides througout the region.
Our first foray up Loch Arkaig since the snow served to remind us what a desolate place the glens can appear in winter, with little apparent at first sight. On the loch there appear to be rather more Goldeneye, as well as the usual Goosander and Mallard. Parties of Tufted Duck come and go on Loch Lochy, and have at times been accompanied by small numbers of Scaup – a rare treat for us. The Red Deer stags are still present in good numbers, in most of the usual plcaes. Deer look generally underweight, a pale shadow of their southern counterparts. Their survival must depend heavily on the potatoes and hay provided by the local estates; invariably they hang around the feeding stations, and will do so well into spring. Apparantly glutting on sudden flushes of new grass is what does for many of them – a phenomenon well-remembered from my youth on a dairy farm. Further up Glen Dessary we traipsed up a barren hill, seeing where the path went, looking for signs of life. Angela saw a brace of Red Grouse, flushed from the scant heather. but otherwise nothing stirred until we began our descent. A small flock of Twite flitted from cover to cover, whilst a Golden Eagle winged straight and hard along the glen across our field of vision almost at eye-level. Back at the van Buzzards and Ravens, the other local scavengers of the hills, called for their mates.
The local Sea eagles lost their nest over the winter, a victim of heavy snow and a snapped branch. The female has soon rebuilt a new one in the crown of the same tree. Hopefully this will be more robust, and has the added value of being less obscure than the old. With a bit of luck it should be possiblle to see the birds more clearly this year, albeit from a great distance. Better sightings tend to be chance encounters, and could really occur anywhere in the region.
On Tuesday it was dry and again we had our first trip of the year to Rhu point. It was nice to see the familiar sights; Mergansers paired up in the water, Shelduck in the usual spots, Common Seals on the rocks ahead of the advancing tide. We stopped for a bite of lunch on a small headland with good views across the rocks and skerries. Our attention was grasped by the chittering of Otter cubs, and we soon located the source. Two well-grown cubs were engaged in a rough and tumble with their motheron the top of some distant rocks. Variously they squabbled and chased, made sortees into the water or curled up in an ottery ball to rest. Rather than slide noiselesssly into the water one cub seemed to delight in death-defying leaps and belly flops. The three animals hunted together, munching small fish and crabs about half way between us and the rocks to which they returned. We left them after about half an hour, seemingly unaware of our presence. The white sand beach at the point was deserted , with an expanse of shore covered in small shells. On an incongruous sliver of plastic Angela found a small raft of tiny Goose Barnacles, stranded amongst the flotsum and jetsum – an unusual sight of an unfamiliar species. When we returned to the otter viewpoint their rock was almost covered and the trio had moved on.