Happy New Year!

Published: 20th January 2015


After a miserable, wet December, we have some lovely, cold, frosty weather here at Glenloy. Fortunately there has not been so much snow that we cannot get in and out of the Lodge drive easily, but there is plenty up on the mountains and the view across to Aonach

Strange ice 'fungus' which appears on dead wood when it's really cold.

Strange ice 'fungus' which appears on dead wood when it's really cold.

Mor is stunning. The canal is now largely frozen over, so much so that even the odd goldeneye that was using it has moved off to the river. In its place scattered piles of localised rocks have appeared on the surface of the ice. These seem too numerous and large to have been thrown on without sinking, so remain a mystery. Elsewhere we have had a sudden blooming of ‘frost fungus’, where ice crystals appear overnight to coat dead branches in a very life-like manner. We are convinced that this is simple a mechanical process whereby moisture in the wood is drawn out to the surface where it forms feathery crystals, but if anyone knows any different we would be pleased to hear. As ever snow gives the opportunity to do a bit of tracking. Badgers appear to have been making good use of the canal towpath, and pine martens have been everywhere. Foxes, which we very seldom see, have very straight, determined sets of prints, in contrast to the pine martens that meander from side to side and seem to take their time about things.

The local wildlife struggles to cope in very cold weather, and we have definitely seen an increase in feeder occupancy in the garden. The siskins have started to return from the forests and are hogging the nuts. I had to liberate a short-tailed vole (very short tail, possibly part of it lost to predators?) from the seed bin this morning. How a fat little thing like that manages to squeeze itself into a tin box is beyond me. I saw the first crossbills of the year in the large spruce behind the house the other day. The hoped-for irruption has not yet happened, and I assume this was a local pair. There was a calling male, and a female with a bit of twig or vegetation in her bill. Crossbills can be early nesters, but in this case nest-building seems to have coincided with some of the fiercest winter weather to date. Our local pine martens know when they are onto a good thing, and usually three are waiting on the Lodge steps for me to feed them each evening just before dusk. They polished off the remains of the Christmas turkey long ago.

A very welcome sight to herald the New Year was a pair of sea eagles seen from our kitchen door over the woods at Erracht. Unfortunately the view was partly blocked by trees, but there was some suggestion that they were displaying, which is to be expected about now. This is probably the Loch Arkaig pair that was unsuccessful last year, so we will see if we can see more of them when the roads clear a little. We also saw a juvenile sea eagle out by the coast near Arisaig at the weekend, flying low enough to make the local greylags nervous. The sparrowhawks have been busy around the garden, but seem to have little impact on the local population of small birds. I don’t think I have ever seen as many great tits about, not just in the garden but also in the wider countryside, where they appear to be dominating mixed tit and finch flocks. A kestrel was also hunting over the fields at Strone, and after seeing several last autumn it would be nice if a pair were to take up residency in the immediate area this year. Buzzards certainly appear to also have been extremely successful, and not just here. Numbers seen by the side of the roads and even from the train on seasonal trips down toLancashirewere quite remarkable.

We also seem to have seen lots of common seals in the last couple of weeks, even on the rocks at Lochy Mouth inFortWilliam. I always had a notion that they moved out of the shallow sea lochs in winter, but there have been plenty at the top of these recently. Often these sea lochs have contained great northern divers for added interest. Perhaps seals also had a good year last year. Merganser numbers have built up around the coast and the drakes are at their best now, displaying to small harems of females. At the end of Loch Eil, huddled on the snow by the water’s edge was a small group of snipe. These handsome waders are usually more secretive, but at high tide there was nothing else to do but wait for the mudflats to be uncovered.

Travelling across towards Creag Meagaidh just after Hogmanay we had a variety of interesting wildlife sightings. A stoat ran across the road in front of us – not a common animal locally, by any means. This was shortly followed by a flock of grey partridge atSouth Laggan, another rare bird of the area, and one which we wouldn’t ever see just at home. The wild goats were showing well on the crags outside Newtonmore, while small herds of whoopers could be seen on Insh Marshes. On the way back we caught sight of a flock of around eight blackcock and greyhens in the birches right by the side of the road. Red and roe deer, a good mixture of woodland birds and a dipper rounded the day off well.