Puffins and Pups

Published: 10th July 2016

After a glorious June the West Highland weather turned, and our latest wildlife holiday was beset with wet weather. However, we managed to avoid getting seriously drenched during the week, and even to prove the Glenloy Wildlife motto that some of the best sightings can be had in adverse weather conditions. Not the best of weeks for butterflies, but even on our wettest day we were surprised to find a sufficiently bright patch that produced both a common blue and a tiger beetle. A single undetermined dragonfly flew across the front of the van along Loch Arkaig. Orchids were still showing well throughout the week, with the wildflower meadows coming up to their best. Melancholy thistle and marsh thistle were now in full flower, and just required a bit of sun to attract the butterflies – a single dark green fritillary took the opportunity to do just that near Arisaig, and close-by a hatch of green-veined white was also taking advantage of a bright interlude.

The weather did not affect our target species for the week. We took the Staffa Tours boat to the Treshnish Isles from Kilchoan in order to see the puffins on Lunga. The boat crew considerately put us ashore in the best weather of the day, although the low tide meant there was quite a slippy scramble up the shore.  The puffins were all waiting for us and performing well. The cliff top colonies were easy to approach, and a full range of puffin behaviour was easy to observe at close quarters.  Several birds kept arriving with sand-eels neatly stacked, nose to tail, in their beaks, only to disappear rapidly down their burrows where they were met with the grunting of a chick. Other adults stood about watching on, the odd one busy plucking vegetation to augment a nest lining. There were even a couple of males all puffed up and strutting about in a courtship display – surely too late for any success this season. Razorbills peered out from between the ranks of puffins, and both auks formed significant rafts in the sea below, along with countless guillemots. The shallow waters around Lunga were full of sand eels, with Arctic terns plucking them from just below the surface. As we watched the puffins a corncrake rasped below. Behind us a couple of menacing skuas kept a watchful distance. On the pebbly beach ringed-plover chicks scurried to hide between their mothers’ legs, whilst a family of young wheatears flitted around them. Alexanders and Scots lovage had largely replaced the bluebells and primroses of our previous visit.

Common seals thronged the rocks, setting out for training forays with their pups amongst flotillas of geese and goslings. Some of the pups were becoming more independent now and not clinging quite as close to their mothers as the more recently born.  Young seal pups were much in evidence throughout the week, with all the local colonies seemingly quite productive this year. Other babies to entertain us included gull chicks, red deer calves, eider ducklings, sandpiper chicks and even young herons still on the nest. Flocks of young songbirds were frequent, including families of whinchat and stonechat. Young siskins could be seen on the garden feeders, along with crimson-topped young woodpeckers. We were particularly pleased to see that the shelduck family on Lunga still had three well-grown youngsters in tow, last seen as tiny fluffy ducklings. The only youngsters still to make an appearance are the pine marten kits, although we did obtain a camera trap image of two youngsters having a right barney in the garden before scampering off.

Other wildlife also performed well.  We were lucky enough to watch two sets of sea eagles near their nests, one bringing food in to two hungry chicks – now large enough to be visible at quite a distance. A golden eagle swooped around the parallel roads in front of the Glen Roy viewpoint, coming towards us for a close encounter. Elsewhere in the glen three buzzards and two ravens squabbled around a sheep carcass, both in the air and on the ground. As we were watching a peregrine investigated, with a stoop and fly-by. We were also treated that day to a young ring ouzel in the middle of the path, followed later by a pair of adults, seen from the minibus. Having been relatively elusive in the spring, divers made a good showing, with two singles and a pair of black-throats, and a trio plus a pair of red-throats, including close-enough sightings for photography. Otters also did us proud this week.  An evening sortie was rewarded with a large dog otter eating a sizeable flatfish on rocks. It must have kept losing the fish initially as it had to chase it into the water on a couple of occasions, but eventually managed to scrunch it all up, before posing on the top of the rock to spraint. It then swam directly towards where we were standing, only to disappear into the holt beneath our feet. On the last day we were also treated to a mother and two well-grown cubs feeding just off shore, crunching up butterfish and scorpion fish whilst still in the water. Eventually all three clambered up onto rocks while we were having lunch and proceeded to mutually groom and roll around in a little ottery heap. A very satisfactory end to what had been a cold damp week!