That was the summer that was

Published: 13th September 2015

Apparently it is almost certain that 2015 will have been the hottest year globally since records began. This just goes to show that statistics should be treated with extreme caution, as the heat certainly seems to have passed us by in the West Highlands. A cold, wet spring has been followed by a cool, damp July and a typically wet August. Snow patches are larger than usual on the north face of Ben Nevis. This is all supposed to be the result of a disturbance in the jet stream which failed to deliver warm air to the north-east Atlantic, as it would usually do. Poor weather here has had a marked effect on the local wildlife. Migrant birds were slow to arrive, almost three weeks later than usual in some cases. We did not see tree pipits or whinchat locally before May, and even the willow warblers only just made it before April was out. At the same time plants were slow to flower – we still had plenty of bluebells about at the end of June. There was also a knock-on effect on the insect life, with many species slow to emerge. Local bee keepers have reported a very poor year, with hardly any honey produced. Some moths and butterflies did appear later than usual, and this may have been the saving grace for some summer warblers, that were still able to find an abundance of caterpillars for their young. Despite the cold the Highland midges appeared to have a ‘good’ summer, and are biting us still!

I have seen some good broods of wood warbler this year. This is a pretty yellow-green warbler with paler undersides, brighter than the willow warbler. The male wood warblers have a characteristic song in the breeding season, which is often described as similar to a stack of falling coins, followed by a descending series of single notes. At the height of the season these little birds become so wound up whilst singing that they start to quiver violently and actually rise up in the air a few centimetres above their perch. At least four males were calling in the woods at Erracht in the late spring, and another two in Puiteachan. This is an oak woodland specialist, and as such should do well in our area, but numbers have been declining worryingly over the last few years. Other birds of western oak woodlands have been even harder to spot locally. Redstarts are very handsome birds related to thrushes, and once the trees are in leaf, are also easier to hear than see. There used to be several pairs by the road to Clunes and along Loch Arkaig, with a scattering of others elsewhere, but this year I have only heard them at Ariundle. Since coming to the area some eight years ago I have yet to see or hear another oak woodland specialist, the pied flycatcher, and have only had a couple of reports of these from Sunart.  Some species of birds that spend most of the year in Scotland will also have been badly affected by cold springs, particularly grouse and waders, whose chicks rely on insects to feed upon. Cold, wet years here may well impact on breeding success of some of these birds, but equally, hot, arid conditions elsewhere, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa are having a disastrous effect on populations.

On the butterfly side, everything continues to be late (or virtually non-existent). Scotch Argus still seem to be emerging in numbers at the end of August, when they really should be proving harder to find. We have even seen a couple of dark green fritillaries, including quite a fresh specimen at Allt Mhuic on the last day of August – rather late for a summer species. On the moth front there were plenty of days in summer when it was just too cold for moths to fly, and numbers trapped were well down. On a more positive note we were delighted to find a striking puss moth caterpillar along Glen Loy (see our Facebook page for pictures). This was feeding on suckering aspen – a species which is benefitting from the lack of verge cutting this year. A couple of rarities were also caught at light at the Lodge at the end of August. The barred carpet (a faded specimen identified by expert Jeff Waddell) is a national rarity, and the crescent is a rather local species, both new records for Glen Loy.

Although the swallows have been gathering on the telegraph wires for a week or more now, we were very surprised to see a swift on the Mallaig road on Sunday 30th August, long past its normal departure date. Young whinchat up Glen Loy are still developing adult plumage prior to migration. We saw an osprey over Loch Lochy the following day, with another from the centre of Fort William on Wednesday 2nd September. These are probably young birds or their attendant fathers; this handsome raptor will also soon have headed south. Following a short trip of our own to the balmier climes of Auld Reekie we were encouraged to spot a sea eagle at Corran on our way back, and to be greeted by the waiting pine martens when we arrived at Glenloy Lodge. Later that evening I had some wildlife guests to pick up from the late train. On the return leg we spotted a large tabby cat with a thick black-tipped, bushy tail – another sighting of the Banavie wildcat?

The disruption caused by climate change is not something that we can afford to ignore. If there are notable changes in weather patterns and wildlife here, then this is being repeated in various forms almost everywhere. As President Obama has finally realised, it is time to take action now, and we can all do our bit in our daily lives to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emission. It is sadly depressing to contemplate a future without iconic species such as wood warbler and redstart in the Glen Loy oakwoods.