Old Friends

Published: 26th March 2013

Preparing for the season ahead, Glenloy Wildlife are busy looking round the area to see what’s about and renewing acquaintances with old friends. Although much of the country is still struggling in deep snow, Lochaber has been spared the worst and despite a bitter cold wind and a few daily flakes of snow, we have had absolutely no problems getting out and about. Today the Ben was actually clear, offering some great photo opportunities. Earlier this week I took the first group of guests out to see the blackcock lekking. A slight patina of snow only helped the birds to stand out in the pre-dawn light. There were seven birds on the lek and we were able to watch in peace and quiet for a good half hour. Even the bubbling and roo-cooing could be heard above the east wind from time to time. We went on from there to look for otters in a good tide with the Lochy islets clearly visible above a ruffled sea. After five minutes of waiting a mother and cub appeared out of the rocks below us and fished on and off the islets, giving great views. We waited until they had moved on and then hurried back to the vehicle to warm up – too cold to hang around watching the goldeneye displaying or the goosander cruising along at a rate of knots. A pair of roe deer grazed unconcernedly in the fields by the Caledonian Canal on the way home, We even had time for a drive up the glen before breakfast, which was rewarded with some red stags.

Yesterday we did a run down to Oban, stopping off to see how the squirrels at Glen Righ were faring. Feeders and birds had proliferated over the winter, but there was only a single squirrel out braving the cold. He fed and posed for pictures for some while, however, and was joined by a bonus woodpecker. This cheeky male greater spotted had learned the knack of lifting the perspex at the base of the feeders with his beak, and could feed at his leisure. On the way back we stopped off to have a look at the new section of cycle path opposite Balnagowan Island at the southernmost edge of Lochaber. We could see that the island was covered in gulls, which breed there, and indeed three greater black backs were displaying to each other and making most peculiar noises on nearby rocks. Our attention was drawn, however, to a Slavonian grebe resplendent in full breeding plumage between us and the island. Quite often there is a pair in Cuil Bay, nearby. Scanning the sea we also came up with a couple of great northern divers, just starting to colour-up for summer, a black guillemot, an inquisitive seal, and further round the bay, a pair of eider. Not bad for a shopping trip.

Talking about messages, I nipped into the bank on Friday and right behind the car park, spotted a couple of starling-sized birds flying off a cotoneaster into the trees by the church. Closer inspection revealed a group of waxwing, which had obviously homed in on a scarce remaining food source. We went back to take some photos the next day and they were still flitting to and fro from the tree top to the berries and back. Angela and I got quite a few funny looks as we were vaguely hiding behind the corner of the public toilets armed with cameras. Despite pointing out the glorious waxwings to a few folk, no-one else seemed to take any notice. Likewise the waxwings seemed to take no heed of pedestrians and could be approached to a matter of metres. Buoyed with success we had a wander along the River Lochy to see what was about. A grand total of 19 oystercatchers were feeding happily on the shinty pitch. Amongst a flock of chaffinch below feeders we spotted a solitary female brambling, possibly our first of the winter. Other birds include siskins, thrushes, long-tailed tits, a wren and a beautiful pair of bullfinches. There was no sign of any sand martins yet – quite late, but not surprising. A possible osprey turned out to be a buzzard, and indeed, the local ospreys do not appear to have returned yet, but it cannot be long now. This area is always a good area for small birds, and these are joined by a host of migrants over the next couple of months.

In the garden the pond has remained semi-frozen over the last week and there has been no sign of frog spawn. We came across a gloop of jettisoned spawn today in the middle of what might have been a puddle, but the cold has dried both water and spawn away. The local lochs are very low and there may not have been enough snow to replenish them this spring. Birds are feeding frenetically on the garden feeders. We filled a feeder with nyger (a rare treat) two days ago and today were rewarded with a small flock of siskin. There are more chaffinch, tits and blackbirds than ever, along with no less than 4 robins and three hedge sparrows looking for seeds on the ground. No greenfinches yet this spring. As ever the robins are ultra-aggressive, and spend as much time fighting amongst themselves as feeding. One also decided to see off a dunnock as a potential rival this afternoon. The robins also lurk in waiting for me to feed the pine martens in the evening and virtually snatch the bread out of my hand as I set it down. The pine martens better be quick, but the female is nervous and wary at the minute, and may well just have had her kits. Add to this visits by the woodpecker and our resident pheasants and we have quite a busy place.

The forthcoming otter weekend continues to fill, but there are still spaces left. A big plea to all naturalists out there wanting to visit – come in May when the spring flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, all the newly-arrived birds are singing and the corncrakes rasping amongst scarce cover. If you want to do your own thing the new Wild Lochaber Trail Guides, which we have had a big hand in producing, are just about to go to print and will be ready for launch at the Wild Lochaber Festival (18-24th May) – another good reason to visit before the midges make a move!