Highland Spring Underway

Published: 23rd May 2018

Here in Lochaber we have reached probably the best time of the year to visit. The oak leaves are just starting to unfurl, the bluebells are unfolding, the gorse is glowing, summer visitors are singing and even the sun is shining. We even managed to go out badger watching this week without getting too bothered with midges (and we saw a badger). Blackcap, willow warbler and chiffchaff are singing from the shrubs around Glenloy Lodge, with cuckoo calling from the hills behind us, and whinchat calling up the glen. Elsewhere, both garden warbler and wood warbler appear to be plentiful this year in both oak and ash woodland, with quite a few whitethroats about. The sand martins, house martins and swallows are all back, busily renewing their nests and hawking around the canal and River Lochy. Terns are busy stoking up with small fish around their usual haunts, after their long journeys from the southern hemisphere. A number of migrants are still passing through, including whimbrel and dunlin. Some of the winter visitors are lingering, with plenty of great northern divers still around in the last few days, as well as a single whooper swan, and a barnacle goose, found amongst a flock of Canada geese. The most spectacular migrant we have seen so far was a honey buzzard, presumably just arrived at the coast, craning its long neck to-and-fro in a most un-buzzard-like manner.

Over the last two weeks the golden eagles seem to have appeared, and whereas they were difficult to spot in April, we have had almost daily sightings on trips in May. Better still, these have been different birds in a wide variety of locations and have included juveniles. Hopefully an increase in sightings is indicative of successful breeding with the cock birds hunting, increasingly joined by the hens as the chicks become bigger. Our best sighting was somewhat different, however. A cock bird which was perched on a craig flew off and started to display with a succession of plunge dives above the low hill adjacent to us.  We watched it for some 20 minutes in total. The local white-tailed eagles appear to be now feeding chicks, and whereas the hen bird was sat tight on the nest a couple of weeks ago, she is now up and moving about the rim. The Woodland Trust Arkaig ospreys have been less successful, with the eggs being predated by pine martens. Other pairs on Loch Lochy and Loch Arkaig are still incubating. We were treated to a fly-past by a fishing male, although he was unsuccessful this time.  Hen harriers have also been showing well.  There are probably more pairs about locally than we have seen before, or perhaps we are just getting our eyes in!

The woodlands are still ablaze with primroses and wood anemone, probably a consequence of a late spring. These are supplemented by celandine and wood sorrel, with bluebell out in sunny locations and on the coast. Typically, Glen Loy is one of the last places in which the latter flowers. I was fortunate enough to spot one of our more unusual woodland flowers, the alternate-leaved golden saxifrage, at Chia-Aig. A larger cousin of the widespread opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, I was surprised to learn that there are very few local records. As the bugles and bluebells arrive, so do the butterflies. Angela photographed our first chequered skipper of the year at Ardery on 16th. May. We were surprised to receive a message from Butterfly Conservation that this was the first recorded skipper of the year! Our transect at Erracht has yet to produce much other than green-veined white, orange-tip and speckled wood, however, although we hear that pearl-bordered fritillary are flying locally. On the same day as the skipper emerged we witnessed a huge hatch of four-spot chasers along the River Shiel, along with large red damselflies – also our first local odonata species of the year. The chasers glowed gold and were particularly voracious with several busy feeding (some on damselflies!). Slow-worms have re-appeared under our reptile tins.

Mammals have also been co-operative. The red deer have been showing well, still descending in the afternoon, and appear to be a particular attraction for French visitors. Some of the younger stags have retained their antlers. We found several sika, a couple of brown hare and last, but not least, a feeding otter for a group of ladies we took out over a period of days. Red squirrels are still a daily feature at the feeders around the Lodge, but numbers seem to have suffered at Onich, and this population may be further hit by planned felling in the Inchree forest. Our pine martens continue to delight visitors. This year’s kits, which we can hear, but cannot see, are becoming increasingly vocal and boisterous, and it cannot be too long before they are moved. Last year’s male is still wanting to be fed each evening, but his mum is not always tolerant, and occasional squabbles are aiding the moulting process!