First otter of the year

Published: 16th January 2014

Lichen growing on an old pine, Glen Mallie

Lichen growing on an old pine in Glen Mallie, possibly Witch's Hair.

Yesterday was fine and calm, so we headed down to Cuil Bay en route to Oban. We had a delightful walk across the headlands, which took just as long as if we had had wildlife guests with us (so it’s me, not you!). We were rewarded with a great variety of birds, and the bonus of our first otter of the year. The otter, a young male, swam right across the a shallow bay and then fished against the rocky shore for some 30 minutes, periodically coming out onto the shore to eat its catch. Quite an amount of effort was expended for each reward, but on balance he seemed to be doing well. Elsewhere in the bay there was a lot on the sea, including several great northern divers and a couple of Slavonian grebes. One of the divers was really quite close into the shore and was having great difficulty dispatching a flat fish. I have seen this before, and wonder if these are young, naïve birds. The diver kept on dashing the fish against the water, dropping it and picking it up again, but took several minutes before finally swallowing it. Other seabirds included black guillemot in winter plumage, razorbill, both merganser and a fine drake goosander, eider and goldeneye, as well as the ubiquitous shags. A decent flock of ringed plovers foraged along the edge of the sea along with a smaller group of turnstones. We were pleased to see several stonechats, some feeding right down on the shore. The storms have washed up great rolls of seaweed amongst other detritus, and there must be plenty of pickings for small birds with sharp eyes. The local rock pipits were also out in force. Unusually we also saw two dippers (or was it the same one that had moved some distance?) in the burns flowing down to the sea here.

We had a rather different walk at the end of last week along nearby Glen Mallie, just over the hill from Glen Loy. Accessed from the Chia-Aig car park, and crossing the spanking newly refurbished bridge over the Arkaig an estate road leads deep into the glen. There is a proposal from Forestry Commission Scotland to sell off a couple of blocks of forestry here, and we were keen to remind ourselves what they looked like. The local community is considering the possibility of purchasing these as community woodland. Frankly one of the main problems (and reasons for the sale) is access, and hence lack of recreational opportunity – one block in particular can only really be accessed readily by boat across Loch Arkaig.  The commercial plantations in the larger block are mostly sandwiched between native deciduous woodland and Caledonian pinewood. There were extensive ancient pinewoods here before these were largely torched by commandos on training exercises during the war. Even today a substantial remnant remains, with several hundred fine old trees, many of which would be included in the sale. Indeed the site is ranked as having high ecological value by FSC, and it is somewhat puzzling as to why such a rare and important block of pinewood cannot be left in public ownership. We made no attempt at an ecological survey, but just enjoyed a lull in the rain, picking up plenty of birds along the path, including a huge flock of siskin. Pausing at Invermallie bothy we could see that this had had some use at New Year at least, as there was a dead firework littering the ground. Wonder what the nearby deer thought of that? Amongst the old oaks and some wonderful granny pines was an abundance of lichens. On a couple of fine specimens by the bridge over the Mallie drooped strands of a lichen that I am pretty sure is Witch’s Hair – remembered  vaguely from a talk by local lichenologists Andy Acton and Anna Griffith. Pausing on the way back we saw a large salmon resting in the lee of one of the bridge supports. This was obviously not a fresh fish as it was partly discoloured by fungus, but whether it had already made its way all the way through the loch and had spawned in either the Dessary or the Pean, who knows. I would like to think that it was on its way back to the sea.

A further expedition to Lochy Mouth between squalls on a blustery day also produced a nice little haul of different birds. There were the usual gulls, ducks and waders, including calling redshank and curlew. Walking along the river I searched hard amongst the large chaffinch flock and eventually found a rather plain looking brambling, its barred chestnut wings giving it away. There was also a pleasing trio of yellowhammer, no doubt also taking advantage of the copious amount of birdseed on offer. In a triangle of scrubby grassland between sports fields, the back of a housing estate and the river, three roe deer grazed nonchalantly in the middle of the day. Despite the presence of dog walkers and chainsaws these normally shy animals seemed quite unperturbed – another good example of the blurry margins between town and country in Fort William.