Shearwater Trip

Published: 31st July 2014

Manx shearwaters gathering in the evening off Rum.

Thousands of manx shearwaters gather in the sea off Rum at dusk before flying to their nest burrows to feed their young when darkness falls.

Took one of the Rum Shearwater trips at the weekend along with a couple of Glenloy Wildlife guests. These have been organised by SNH and are evening cruises aimed at seeing huge rafts of Manx Shearwaters gathering prior to returning to their burrows at the top of the Rum Cuillins under cover of darkness. The fabulous Scottish weather we have been enjoying broke the day before so we were on tenterhooks as to whether it would be sufficiently calm and dry to make the experience a good one! As it happened the rain dried off, the wind moderated and we had a glorious evening. We got off to a propitious start, being waved off by one of the huge Grey Seals that frequent Mallaig harbour, then on the way out it was calm enough to spot small groups of Porpoise, turning in the Sound of Sleat.  We passed a number of fishing Gannets and small groups of shearwaters and auks before picking up more passengers at Rum.

As it was still relatively early, the skipper took the boat round the coast of Rum to show us a Kittiwake colony, and as we approached a juvenile White-tailed Eagle flew off the cliff and circled round us for quite a while. Whilst milling about it also put up a Golden Eagle and a pair of Ravens off the cliffs. The young Sea Eagle perched back on the cliff and provided entertainment as passengers attempted to spot it, perfectly disguised against the rocks – only its yellow legs were a giveaway. After all this excitement it was time to tear ourselves away from the eagles and look for shearwaters. True to form thousands were gathering on the water in groups of 10s to 100s, and as dusk started to fall the groups started to merge into huge rafts of birds. We moved gently amongst the shearwaters, with birds sometimes staying put, and at other times getting up to skim the waves on either side of us. The dangers that they face was evident as a Great Skua appeared and dived down to try and pluck a shearwater off the water, just as we were leaving as it was starting to get gloomy. It appeared to survive the ordeal.  As darkness fell birds would have left the sea to head for their chicks up the mountains. SNH also offer opportunities to visit the colonies at night, to experience the ‘Troll Mountains’ at first hand. Another trip for another year, perhaps. The one we did is certainly recommended.

The same weekend we went out one evening to look for Otters in the centre of Fort William, middle of the tourist season notwithstanding. We watched a big male leisurely swimming towards us from some distance off, eventually to disappear into his holt right under our feet. He later emerged again to fish and was joined by another Otter, and they played together, rolling and twisting. Great views. As we were watching them move off there was a stirring amongst the birds, and large flocks of gulls and jackdaws took to the air. It took a while to trace the culprit, but eventually we spotted a Peregrine that wheeled around above us, swooped to look, and then flew off, leaving the otters in peace. Also around that evening was a Black Swan. I have never seen one at Lochy Mouth before, so wonder where it came from.

Elsewhere in Lochaber, Scotch Argus emerged last week and are flying everywhere in their 100s, almost whatever the weather. Great Northern Divers are back off the coast between Arisaig and Mallaig, presumably non-breeders returning from the north. In similar vein a flock of Golden Plover has reappeared at Kinlocheil, keeping the Pinkfoot Goose company. At least one of the Osprey nests on Loch Arkaig has fledged young, and birds can be seen flying around almost anywhere locally. It seems that our Pine Marten family has been reduced to two kits, but these are now appearing regularly at feeding time. There is still plenty to see – so do come and see for yourselves.