Winter wildlife break

Published: 26th March 2015

Just finished an extended

Two Blackcock squaring up on the lek

Two Blackcock squaring up on the lek

break looking for winter wildlife with Glenloy Wildlife. Some might argue that the end of March hardly counts as winter, but we beg to differ here, with sleet and snow in the wind today, fresh snow on the hills and a beautifully crisp, frosty morning yesterday. Just the right light for photographing blackcock on the lek, incidentally – they were really starting to get warmed up heading towards the peak period next month. We saw a variety of birds in different phases of plumage from winter divers to breeding plumage Slavonian grebes (still on the coast), but it is fair to say we did not find any summer migrants in Lochaber. Even the flocks of fieldfare and redwing working their way back up north have yet to arrive. The local wildlife performed well, although the otters took a while to come up with the goods!

On our first morning out we watched a golden eagle perch on a craig, then soar across Glen Loy in glorious winter sunshine. A flat calm Loch Eil reflected the mountains beautifully, providing a stunning backdrop for displaying goldeneye and merganser. Plenty of wigeon and dabchick still on the loch, whilst the golden plover have coloured up prior to ascending the hills. Good view of the coloured throat on a breeding-plumage red throated diver. The black guillemot were also ready for the mating season. Plenty of deer close to the road still, with a pair of young red stags hanging about the fields at Strone, close to Glenloy Lodge. We managed a full complement of local deer species, with lots of roe, a few sika and even a herd of (parkland) fallow.

A day across on the Black Isle looking for coastal specialities proved fruitful. My highlight of the day was a red-necked grebe, but our guests were more taken with the (much cuter) long-tailed duck, showing well in the sheltered waters of the Cromarty Firth. A large flock of scaup also came close enough for a good look. We managed to spot a pair of Slavonian grebes in the rather choppier waves of the Moray Firth. It was so windy at Chanonry that the only bird brave enough to swim in the channel was a single guillemot, but we were fortunate enough to catch a reasonable glimpse of a pair of bottlenose dolphins, although they did not linger. Some big flocks of shelduck on both firths, along with wigeon, teal and some of the commoner waders. We found a small herd of whooper swans in Munlochy Bay, whilst displaying lapwings, skylarks and yellowhammers entertained us on the surrounding farmland. Lots of pink-footed geese in the fields, but rather flighty, all taking off in a whoosh of wingbeats when we tried to stop (still in the van) to photograph them. Managed to find a few red kites, suggesting that last year’s tragic poisoning episode has not hit the local population too hard.

Pink foot geese in a field by the Cromarty Firth

Pink foot geese in a field by the Cromarty Firth

Red squirrels performed well on the feeders at Inchree, with at least four individuals feeding and chasing each other while we were there. We managed to spot an adult sea eagle hunting the ducks around Sallachan point. Common seals are still high up the sea lochs, and basking in numbers at low tide. Probably our best sighting of the week was a big dog otter that swam parallel and close to the shore below us, before surfacing with a huge crab and swimming into the bank below us. As it swam under the shallower water it was clearly visible. Although we could not see it eat the crab, it obligingly paused on a rock before returning to the water and swimming leisurely away. Later that day we saw several great northern

Otter swimming under water with a large crab in its mouth

Otter swimming under water bringing a large crab to shore to eat.

divers and a couple of black throated divers, all still in winter plumage. I have yet to see any black-throats back on the freshwater lochs this year. Conversely, both skylarks and stonechats were heard and seen singing on territory. On the way back from Morar, we spotted a bonus male hen harrier, quartering over a large bog – an unmistakable sight and a great way to end the week

Back at home the pine martens also performed well for our guests. We watched from the van as last year’s youngster tried climbing all over and playing with its mother, much to her annoyance.  Another marten appeared and went for the little one, the two tumbling over each other in a screaming bundle, before the juvenile took flight, hotly pursued by the aggressor. Possibly it is seen as a territorial threat, but the older mother, who watched this with an air of insouciance, is definitely the local boss. Today we responded to a tip and went in search of a Kumlien’s gull, seen at Gairlochy (along with a vagrant barnacle goose amongst the Canadas), and were somewhat amazed to find both despite the rain. The white (ish) gull looked quite different from the mainly common gulls it was with, so this helped, but it is always nice to be able to identify gulls positively!