Sunday, 1 November 2015

Highlights from the Highlands Part 2

For the second half of our trip in Scotland, we headed to the west coast starting with a few nights on the Isle of Skye, staying in a friendly vegetarian B&B near Portree. Skye has to be one of the most scenic parts of the British Isles and the drive around the northern half of the island is particularly special.

A must do activity whilst staying in the area is to take a wildlife boat trip out of Portree. The main target on these trips is the white-tailed eagle, which I have seen many times on Mull and around Gruinard Bay, but the resident pair that nest on the cliffs not far from Portree provide the best sighting of this magnificent eagle you could ever hope for. Over time the local boat operators have built up a relationship with these birds by offering them a mackerel. The result being, (if you are lucky) one of the birds will swoop down from the cliff above and pluck the fish from the water at close range leaving the crowd of onlookers gasping and the skipper desperately trying to balance the boat as everyone rushes to one side.

White-tailed eagle
We also crossed the sound of Raasay to visit a common seal colony and watched black guillemots at their nest, while great skuas were harassing kittiwakes and gannets and terns were diving into a feeding frenzy. We also came across a few flocks of puffins, but unfortunately they were always just too distant for pictures.

Great skua

Common seal
Common seals

On the way back into Potree harbour I spotted a superb great northern diver, sporting its full summer plumage which was a treat as I never seen them in this plumage before.

Great northern diver

We then moved to Plockton for a few nights and explored the Applecross Peninsula. The drive across this remote area is not for the inexperienced driver and there are signs warning you not to attempt it at all in the bad weather. The highest point is the Bealach na Ba pass which takes you towards the village of Applecross is the highest navigable road in Britain and one of the most beautiful too.

Applecross Pass
There are plenty of red deer on the higher moor here and on arrival in the village of Applecross we actually found some in cultivated fields close to the road.

Red deer
Red deer
It was quite a surprise though to find not one but two immature Iceland gulls feeding alongside the herring gulls on the beach outside the Applecross Inn. In fact I took delight in feeding them parts of my cheese and pickle sandwich. Other notable birds seen here included rafts of red-breasted merganser, eiders, rock pipits, a singing wood warbler, common sandpipers, bullfinches and wild rock doves.  

Iceland gull
Iceland gull
Iceland gull
Hooded crow
Wild Rock Dove
Rock pipit
Heading south we spent some time around Fort William and Glencoe and used Glenloy Lodge as our base. The owners of this lovely B&B also run Glenyloy Wildlife Holidays and are wealth of knowledge on the local fauna and flora. Best of all though is that they leave titbits around the gardens for their resident pine martens which are unusually for martens are active well before dusk.
Pine marten

Buachaille Etive Mor

We were staying Glenloy at the start of the flight season of the chequered skipper, which is now restricted to just a handful sites in the Fort William area, but despite some favourable weather conditions at the time of our visit we still failed to find any, but we may have been just a little too early for them to be on the wing.

Orange tip
Oak fern

One of the last points of call was Loch Garry en route back to Inverness, for some exquisitely marked summer plumaged black-throated divers and we were even lucky enough to see common scoter on their breeding grounds here too.

Black-throated diver

Loch Garry

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Highlights from the Highlands Part 1

Back in May this year, we spent two weeks exploring the Highlands of Scotland.

The Lairig Ghru (A spectacular example of a glacial valley)

We took the Caledonian Sleeper train up to Inverness overnight so initially spent some time on the Black Isle and made our first point of call; Chanonry Point. Famous for its acrobatic and crowd pleasing bottle-nosed dolphins, we had good fortune in spotting the resident pod immediately on arrival. You have to keep an eye on the tide here though, as whilst being engrossed in dolphin watching it creeps up very quickly and will soon be lapping at your feet. Other sightings included whimbrel on the golf course and a steady movement of sandwich and common and arctic terns moving up the Moray Firth.

Bottle-nosed dolphins

We then took the Farr road down to Aviemore, for good views of red grouse and a frustratingly brief golden eagle plus some surprisingly high numbers of red kites.

Next up was Speyside and the Cairngorms, where we called in at all the key wildlife sites and discovered a few new places of interest. First up was Abernethy Forest and RSPB Loch Garten, where we enjoyed seeing the usual suspects of red squirrels and the celebrity ospreys from the visitor centre. The walk to Loch Malachie proved productive for redstarts and spotted flycatchers although it took alot of effort to find our only crested tit of the trip here.

Crested tit in Abernethy Forest

Red squirrel

On one day we took the funicular railway up Cairngorm which was still receiving fresh snowfalls at this time of year. We enjoyed watching ring ouzels and real ptarmigans from the Ptarmigan restaurant at the top over a tasty lunch. I also climbed Carn Ban Mor another day in search of freshly arrived dotterel and was rewarded with a flock of at least 20 birds. Ptarmigan were also present and I found some interesting mosses and lichens deep into the cairngorm plateau.

Dotterel habitat

Female dotterel

Male dotterel

Male Ptarmigan

It was on the way back from Carn Ban Mor and travelling through remote Glen Feshie however, that we came across the mega find of that day; a female capercaille crossing the road!

Female Capercaillie

We also spent a day at the Highland Wildlife Park, where there was as much wildlife outside the fences as inside them.

Lapwing nesting inside the bog at the Highland Wildlife Park

Oystercatcher on nest in the Highland Wildlife Park

Eurasian lynx in the Highland Wildlife Park (Hopefully soon to be on to outside the fence list)

The Speyside Wildlife Hide on the Rothiemurchus estate was also visited, which has now become something of a tradition for me when in Aviemore. A young female pine marten and three badgers showed well.



Pine marten
We also discovered an excellent new site near Grantown-on-Spey for mountain hare.

Mountain hares changing into summer coats

Mountain hare

Monday, 28 September 2015

In search of the Wolf

I have been fascinated by one animal more than any other my whole life; The Wolf. It's my favourite species for a number of reasons, but I think possibly the main being, that for me it represents true wilderness and the untamed world more than any other creature.
Iberian Grey Wolf

In recent years it has become more and more apparent that are wolves are not just keystone species and at the top of the food chain, but that they are actually the most influential and important species in the entire northern hemisphere. The actual geography of the land and the diversity of habitats and species that occur within it is mainly due to presence of wolves. Where wolves have been extirpated, ecosystems collapse, populations become out of balance, climate change is increased, biodiversity decreases, flooding increases, herbivores damage agriculture, forestry is decreased and we have to spend millions of pounds trying and failing to do these jobs that wolves do for free. Aside from the science, wolves are good for the soul, without them, I feel countryside is not wild, but empty and degraded. When you walk through a landscape that wolves have created, it feels truly natural and exciting and that was what the feeling I had walking through the mountains and valleys of the Picos de Europa recently.  

 Cantabrian brown bear footprint.

In August, we made a trip to Riano, which is a small village on the southern edge of the Picos de Europa National Park in the Spanish county of Asturias. In August the hay meadows in the valleys of the Picos de Europa are cut, exposing the burrows of field and "terrestrial" water voles which make easy pickings for the European wildcat population here. According to research this area has the highest density of wildcat in Europe and I can believe it. During 5 excursions specifically in search of wildcat, we found cats each time and in total we saw a staggering 10 - 11 different cats. The subspecies here is also the largest in Europe and they differ slightly from the Scottish subspecies in pelage and the presence of white flashes on the chest of the young cats. The population has also remained almost completely free from hybridisation with feral domestic cats, probably because the population hasn't suffered a dramatic decline the way it has in Scotland and other areas.

European wildcats
The wolves proved slightly harder but we had 2 very good sightings including watching the pack return to the den and regurgitate food for the cubs. Sounds unpleasant, but it was actually very special to watch. We were about 700 meters from the pack on the other side of a valley and at one point I spotted an adult sniffing the air, and announced the sighting to the rest of the group. At which point, the wolf turned its head to look straight at me and starred intently in my direction for a good 10 seconds. Incredibly he had heard me speak from that distance! One of the highlights of my life.

Iberian grey wolf

Some of the other interesting fauna, we encountered included the localised Schreiber's green lizard (a female pictured below), numerous raptors including Griffon and Egyptian vultures, many migrating honey buzzards, black woodpeckers, red-rumped swallows and many butterflies which I am still identifying.

 Honey buzzard
 White stork
European wall lizard
Schreiber's green lizard