Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Otters in the Western Isles

Luskentyre beach in South Harris, one of the finest beaches in the world, backed by rugged mountains and edged with weedy rocks which are rich feeding grounds for otters.

I recently spent a week on the islands either side of the sound of Harris. Golden Eagles and White-tailed Sea-eagles aplenty, and there were Red-throated Divers, Corncrake and other rare birds famously found in the islands. Although I like to see and hear the abundance of the more common species, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Snipe. And I spent hours watching otters. They are so adept at hunting, agile, quick, such well adapted animals, I could only sit back and admire them. The one in the photograph above is lying asleep on the seaweed in the background. They are so easiliy overlooked when lying quietly on land.

One clue to their presence can be the behaviour of the birds, like this Herring Gull that had spotted an otter eating a fish. They are probably easier to see from the air. The gull hung around from any scraps, but there were none.

Otters are not much easier to see when swimming at sea either. Look for a head, slimmer and more pointed than a seal's. Seals abound in these seas and every one has to be checked not to be an otter.

Another clue to spot an otter at sea is the flick of a tail. Like the one above, as the otter bobbed in the waves keeping in balance as it munched on a Butterfish.

This one was diving to hunt through the fronds of seaweed fringing the tide zone in a bay. It brought some items onshore to eat, others it persisted in eating while treading water. However, their forepaws are not adapted to gripping and Butterfish are incredibly slippery, hence their name.

But when you have strong jaws and very sharp teeth, you can do it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A rain day

Yesterday was little bit wet. It rained all day and the hills in north west Sutherland were blanked out, as seen in this view from the Kyle of Durness.

At high tide the waders on the Kyle were sheltering behind clumps of seaweed, like these four Dunlin. Water is good for saturation, colour saturation, and the richness of the greens and yellows of the seaweed were stunning. These dunlin were probably birds that breed in Iceland and they had been prevented from travelling across the Atlantic by the constant north winds. A Knot, a Sanderling and several Whimbrel were also on the shore, all north1en breeding birds. There were about 400 Dunlin waiting in the Kyle.

The rain was heavy, splashing all around and the wind was strong. Yet the birds kept low, tucked in their bills and fluffed up their feathers to keep warm until the tide went back out and they could begin foraging again.

A Ringed Plover rested with a couple of Dunlin, taking time to preen its feathers while they all rested.

A single Greenshank was resting farther along the shore, standing knee deep in weed and rustling its feathers to shake off the rain drops. This bird would have been one of a local breeding pair. Its mate would be incubating their eggs up in their nest hidden on the moorland above the Kyle. This bird would have flown down to the shore to feed on the rich invertebrate life and small fish that live on the edge of the weed.

But the Dunlin are the species that attracted and held my attention. Their breeding plumage of dark bellies and rich red backs are so delicately toned. And their trilling flight calls as they fly over the wet sands are so evocative of the northern heaths and tundra.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

A few Highland butterflies

A Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon sunbathes on a patch of Highland grassland. May is one of the best times to visit the Highlands and it is the month when these marvellous little butterflies begin to fly.

Loch Arkaig, Lochaber, in the west Highlands of Scotland. And the road into the general area where I found these rare and protected skippers.

Glen Dessary at the head of Loch Arkaig. The slopes of the upper glen are clothed in moist grassland, dominated by Purple Moor-grass Molinia caerulea, the main food plant for Chequered Skipper caterpillars. The butterfly's stronghold in the UK is in the western Highlands, where this habitat is abundant.

A site shot of where I found the skippers. The butterflies were making short flights over the grassland on the edge of the woodland, landing frequently to disappear into the herbage. If they hadn't flown I would not have noticed them. There were four of them flying and chasing one another.

Fortunately they all settled with open wings after their short flights, so identification was easy by the chequered pattern on their wings.

A Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi rests on a clump of sphagnum moss. They are named after the faint white line across the underside of their wings. There were three of these in the same little sheltered patch as the skippers. The main food plant for their caterpillars in the area is Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus. These are more common and widespread in the Highlands, and mostly fly in May or June. 

And there was also a Large White Pieris brassicae flying over the area. They are abundant over most of the country.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Spring hare

On the same day I took the previous set of photographs of ptarmigan, I took these shots of a Mountain Hare. I followed its fresh footprints in the snow for a few hundred metres to find it in amongst boulders. Most hares dash off when approached, but some are confiding, like this one, which I sat and watched for several minutes as it moved around the boulders looking for food.

The hare was feeding on heather, blown free of snow on top of a ridge. Fortunately, the most nutritious parts of the dry looking plants are the buds, and they are at the tips of the stems, the parts mostly free of snow. The hare was moulting out of its white winter coat and the mix of browns, greys and white blended so well with the mix of old heather stems, rocks and snow.

I was feeling the cold north wind, but the hare was perfectly comfortable in its thick warm fur.

After its feeding bout, the hare hopped over to sit in the lee of some boulders, sitting with its back to the wind, or any wind that might have curled around the rocks. Then is began to groom its fur. This must be important for an arctic-alpine animal to keep their fur in tip-top condition and peak performance.

Then it gave a long stretch of those long hind legs and toes.

Next was a face wash. It looked so warm, with the fine fur on its face and those soft woolly gloves.

And don't forget behind the ears.

Once satisfied, the hare settled down into a relaxed hunch. This is how hares sit when fully resting; head and ears are tucked into the shoulders and legs all snuggled underneath the body. This is important to maintain body heat. The hares body shape also helps aid heat retention; its face and ears are shorter than a brown hare's, as reducing exposure to cold via extremities all helps conserve a liitle warmth.

The hare then sat motionless, a last final trick to conserve energy and heat. Although, it didn't quite fall fully asleep, it kept twiching an eye open. So, as it might have been my presence that was keeping it from fully relaxing, I walked away and left it alone. It had been a great experience to spend time with it, to be accepted as much as is probably possible on a first encounter with a wild animal. And such a beautiful animal.

Sitting with Ptarmigan

I have been surveying ptarmigan in the Cairngorms over the past week. Now is a good time to count them as the pairs are all formed, set in their territories, and the females are laying up. This is when they are most conspicuous, well they are never conspicuous, but less likely to not be seen. The males, above, sit on prominent rocks and the females spend much of the day feeding. I found this confiding pair, so I sat about 10 m from them as they went about their business.

They have now moulted out of their white winter plumage, the females are mottled brown and grey, and the males are mostly grey. Although there was fresh snow every day last week, they spent their time feeding on snow-free clumps of herbage and rested amongst rocks. So their colouring didn't expose them to predators. Nor to me except after watching for movement for a long time - about half an hour. They had probably been watching me and decided that I was no threat before they began moving, it was only then that I saw them.

The males spend most of their time watching over their hens as they feed. Watching for predators and chasing away rival males. There were males about a hundred metres either side of this pair, one had one hen and the other had two.

The only food plants not covered by snow were up on wind-swept ridges and the most abundant food in such places is crowberry, Empetrum nigrum. The hen picked the developing leaf and flower buds from the very tips of the shoots.

It's not only food that the hens need to make eggs. They also need water as they might lay 7-10 eggs, which is a lot of water volume, and the most readily available supply was the snow lying all around. So this hen was eating snow.

After about twenty minutes, the hen stopped eating and clambered up into some rocks to rest. Always closely followed by the male. She was heavy at the rear, a sign that she had eggs forming inside her.

The pair settled down to rest, the hen to digest her meal, and the cock to sit alert on top of a nearby rock. His pie-bald spring plumage perfectly matching the rock and snow landscape.