Spring Tides

Published: 7th March 2014


Things are moving along here at Glenloy Lodge and spring is in the air. A small flutter of snow did not put a damper of proceedings yesterday, but the rain has been pretty successful of late. We take the opportunity to get out whenever we can, providing the rain is not so heavy that it prevents wildlife from moving. The local golden eagles are appearing closer to home at the moment and we have watched single birds several times over Beinn Bhan recently. One flushed a pair of birds from the snow-line whilst hunting that surely must have been ptarmigan. The male has been displaying on good days, plunge-diving from a great height, but we have yet to see the pair together. We did see a pair in Ardgour yesterday, but they were hunting and not displaying. The local sea-eagles are foraging far afield, but return each evening to the breeding site, often via Glen Loy. We watched them doing some half-hearted repairs to the nest. Our local ospreys have yet to return, but will have a nasty shock when they do, as their nest of the last two years has been blown off the branch on which it was built. It will be interesting to see if the birds choose to rebuild in the same site or move elsewhere in April. I heard the first song thrush singing locally at the weekend, and have started to see a few more closer to home. Migratory thrushes are on the move and the numbers of fieldfare and redwing in the area has increased of late. There also seems to be several small family groups of whooper swans around and about, although these appear to move around. Chaffinch and dunnock are singing in the garden. Primrose have been flowering for a few weeks now, and while the emergence of other wild flowers seems to have been put on hold there is a proliferation of catkins along with pussy willow in full bloom.

Spring tides are not synonymous with spring, but we took advantage of one of the highest of the year at the weekend when we joined a Highland Seashore Project outing at Plockton, led by James Merryweather. The project aims to increase the number of seashore recorders in the area and raise awareness of the rich biodiversity of our local shores, generally. Angela has been attending regularly and has organised a grand seashore day to be held at Glenuig on Sunday 18th May as part of this year’s Wild Lochaber Festival. I went along because the opportunity to experience a really low tide was too good to miss. We drove through the usual smirr, avoiding packs of ‘wild’ goats and their kids around Shiel Bridge together with hoards of underfed deer. Remarkably, apart from the odd leaking wellie we stayed remarkably dry when we did finally get outside.

The variety and abundance of marine life we encountered was truly amazing. We were able to wade out to a section of muddy shore where peacock worms were still filter feeding, with bright fan-like tentacles. On a sandier section of shore we accessed extensive horse mussel beds, the huge shells buried firmly into the sediment leaving a small filtering gape.All around the mussels were the outlying coralline twigs of a maerl bed. Heavily camouflaged spider crabs scuttled from one bit of weedy cover to another, whilst a procession of starfish, sea urchins and other creatures was brought out for poor James to identify (including deeper water species such as ‘Bloody Henry’). A highlight of the excursion was the discovery of two flame shells tucked away in an uprooted kelp holdfast. These are a noted feature of the local coast, particularly Loch Duich, where they form dense beds at some depth. When placed in shallow water, the bright red ‘flames’ were extruded for all to see. Other finds new to me were a long, black bootlace worm, and a live cowrie shell.

Never seen a live one before - great find. Photos courtesy Janet Ullman

On the rocky shore any weedy stone with an underlying space was filled with butterfish, including a female guarding a newly-laid egg mass, and brittlestars of all sizes. One of our younger members also found a substantial viviparous blennie, which could be readily compared with the butterfish in the same pool. Add to this various interesting crabs, sea anemones, a wealth of sea squirts, including some actively squirting stonkers, and our expectations were easily surpassed. Above and beyond this the inner child in all of us was fully engaged.

It is no wonder that otters are very active in this region given the amount of food on offer. We have also had another good week for otter sightings. I went out on my first guided Glenloy Wildlife tour of the year last week to look at the blackcock  (6-7 males, with some pretty impressive scrapping going on – sorting out an ‘intruder’?). We followed this up with the usual trip to Lochy Mouth, and there saw four otters, a mother with two cubs and a distant male, all feeding in the falling tide. Alan, my guest, kindly pointed out a white-winged Iceland gull for me. He had already seen a little gull flying there the day before, which I had tried but failed to find for myself. I am always impressed by the ability of ‘serious’ birders to distinguish between the various phase plumages of juvenile gulls. As we have large gatherings of gulls locally it is always worth looking out for something unusual and I am reminded yet again to have a proper scan across gull flocks when out. A trip to Loch Sunart yesterday produced more otters. A male was feeding in a very low tide at the head of the loch, and another at Garbh Eilean. For once we had the hide to ourselves (not surprising given the weather), and were duly rewarded with the sight of an otter swimming across to the rocks, coming on shore to spraint and returning to fish not far from the hide. It was the middle of the afternoon and still a low point of the tide, which also serves to remind me that you can see otters around the coast at almost any time of the day or tide, so it is always worth looking.