January 2018 – Winter, weather & wildlife

Published: 30th January 2018

We have had a proper January in the West Highlands, this year – lots of snow, some periods of ice and clear skies, and, of course, pouring rain. At least this has almost cleared the snow, but the state of the roads is terrible, and there is much work to be done before the spring.  On top of this clearing the verges along Glen Loy has proceeded in fits and starts – at least when everything was covered in snow it did not look so bad. The expectation is that the ditches will be reinstated and the glen road repaired. Hopefully the spring growth will cover a multitude of scars, and the open ground should encourage butterflies.

Amongst all this the local wildlife has been getting on with things, at times almost undisturbed. We have not been able to be out and about as much as we would have wished, but at least we have been paying more attention closer to home. The roe deer have still been pottering around the garden in the snow, and we have had further sightings, as well as camera trap images. More surprisingly the red squirrel was still running around. I watched as it came right up to the sun lounge window to gnaw on an old antler there. As for many other mammals, antlers provide squirrels with a source of calcium and phosphate. Even a woodmouse has been busy feeding during the day underneath the bird feeders. Our pine marten numbers have dwindled slightly. Mum is regularly seen each evening, but one or other of the ‘boys’ approaches quite warily – amidst much growling she seems to be busy defending her patch, and intruders are not being encouraged at the feeding station. Even more excitingly, we saw a set of snowy cat prints leafing through the yard and into the garden. Although we cannot be sure, we do not know of any local domestic moggies, so there is a good chance that these belonged to our local wildcat.

The Big Garden Birdwatch was carried out this year in pouring rain. Before the count officially started, the female sparrowhawk was making repeated swoops across the yard towards one or other of the feeders. It was not having much success but succeeded in driving off a woodpecker. Eventually the birds settled down to feeding but were as difficult as ever to keep track of. The tits come and go at rate fantastic, and it is very hard to know just how many there are. My maximum count was of 15 coal tits alone at any one time on the various feeders, but I am sure this was an underestimate. We did not have anything out of the ordinary this year, but at least our local house sparrows made an appearance, as did a pair of siskins (yet to appear in numbers but seen in flocks moving around the area). We have regular hooded crows muscling in under the feeders, and a jay has been back on the peanuts, but neither visited in the hour! Crossbills continue to sing from the tops and can be seen most days. Angela managed some nice photos of a one when out on a walk.

Nearby on the Lochy she also filmed  goldeneye displaying, the drakes always entertaining, bending their heads onto their backs before stretching them vigorously into the air and calling. As we walked above the river along the canal we also flushed a woodcock, watched flocks of redpoll flitting amongst the birch and alder, and glimpsed the retreating rumps of a pair of bullfinch.  A number of goosander swam on both. We have watched dippers singing on the Lochy at both Glenloy and near Fort William – always a sight to warm a winter’s day.

At Lochy Mouth a midday walk was rewarded with no less than four otters. I was watching a young pair squabbling and fishing far out in the loch when I heard a splash very close to where I was standing. I could see the ripples, but it was some minutes before the unmistakable head of a dog otter appeared. It swam all too short a distance before disappearing, presumably into a holt under my feet. On the way back we spotted him again, more or less in the same place, this time with a partner. Not bad for a dreich day. The other sighting of interest was a long-tailed tit that had lost its tail. I could not help but feel sorry for the little ball of feathers, and althougb it seemed to be foraging fine, wondered how it would cope with impeded acrobatics.

We have had a good year for otters so far. On a lovely walk along Loch Aline to Old Ardtornish Castle we saw a rather small otter fishing, from high above. It almost seemed too little to be fending for itself, but hunted successfully and seemed to be managing. Earlier we had watched three sea eagles wheeling over the mainland behind us. Two glided over our heads to investigate the castle, affording wonderful silhouetted views against a clear blue sky. No fewer than four greenshanks hunted in the shallows along the side of the loch. These seem to be increasingly wintering in the area. We were also taken by the fine ash woods along the shores, with much regeneration in fenced off areas. These warrant further investigation in the summer.