It’s all about the birds!
After a week of nigh on tropical (“Scottish” tropical that is) weather, we’re back to grey skies, gale force winds and the odd wee bit of rain – in these parts known as God’s way of keeping the coo’s (cow’s) clean – and it was time to pick back up the hats, gloves and scarves and watch the raging white horses roll in!
Although the whales and dolphins (and of course the often forgotten porpoises) appeared to be in short supply, the Minch sustains a wealth of other wildlife, and there’s certainly no shortage of birds! An ornithologist I am not, nor even a well-versed “twitcher” but one can’t fail to be captivated by these masters of the skies and in times when the watery world keeps her treasures well hidden, my attention turns to our feathered friends. Read on to share in the avian wonders we’ve encountered over the past weeks.
The Scottish mainland and islands have between them well over 1,000 miles of coastline, from sandy beaches to sea cliffs over 300m in height, where immense colonies of seabirds thrive. Possibly the most well known of which is the majestic gannet! They never cease to amaze with their dramatic plunges into the sea to catch their prey. If a shoal of fish is relatively close to the surface then their dives are made at an angle and from only a few metres, if however their intended prey is at a greater depth they will drop vertically from a height of about 30m, and only at the very last second before entry will they fold their wings, arrow-like (not unlike the many fighter jets currently littering the sky above us) allowing them to make a deeper and more efficient dive, leaving in their wake a volcanic eruption of white foam. Visible from great distances, some say intentionally so that others of their kind can see them and share in their find, gannets foraging are a most mesmerising sight.
Almost extinct 150 years ago the Great Skua – a large, fierce and powerful bird, known to attack and kill smaller birds – is more often seen pursuing and harassing other seabirds in order to steal their catch. Even the mighty gannets are not safe from these pirates of the sea, who force them to crash dive into sea and release or indeed disgorge their catch.
Fulmars are amongst the most graceful and spectacular fliers and feed almost entirely on floating refuse whilst the Greater black-backed gull is a menace among coastal nesting birds, raiding nests and killing smaller birds. Puffins (which we’ve yet to see, despite the nearby Shiant islands claiming to be home to almost 2% of the worldwide total!!) are a favourite of theirs but luckily for them, humans, who as late as WW2 were known to supplement their Government controlled diet with, amongst other variations, puffin stew, are now prohibited from hunting them. One less predator for them to contend with.
Other members of the gull family that frequent this part of the Minch include the lesser black-backed, herring and common gulls and the ever-charming Kittiwake.
Bring your eyes out of the sky and down towards the water and within moments you’ll spot that familiar black shape of the Shag, flying as close to the surface as a skimming stone. The oldest shag fossil ever found is said to be over 60 million years old (compare with a puffin at 5 million years) meaning they’ve been around since not long after the dinosaurs were wiped from the Earth.
Bobbing about on the surface, in low or high swell, waves or flat calm, you’ll find Razorbills and Guillemots (both common and black). Guillemot chicks display perhaps the bravest of all behaviour, or alternatively take a blind leap of faith, when at only a few weeks old, encouraged by their parents, they plunge from their nest high on the cliff face down into the sea below. For the next few months they raft with their father who looks after them and teaches them how to survive.
Some other surface-dwellers include both the Great Northern diver and Black-throated diver. Red-throats have been spotted in the vicinity but apparently not very often and certainly not by us…!!
But we can live without having seen them knowing that we were privileged enough to have had a close encounter with one of the true masters of the sky, the White-tailed (or Sea) Eagle. Reintroduced recently into the Highlands and Islands, despite some controversy from local crofters who blame them for stealing their lambs, with a wingspan over half a metre greater than the giant that is the Golden Eagle, these “flying doors” take your breath away. Their smaller but no less impressive, cousins, the Buzzards and Kestrels are also making Gairloch and surrounds their home.
A visit to the shoreline brings you into contact with the easily recognisable Oyster catcher – a rather misleading name as it is actually mussels that form the core part of their diet – an attractive bird whose bright orange/red bill makes it difficult to confuse it with any other. Whenever I hear them I can’t help but associate their call with the sound of one of Kila’s squeaky toys! Much like the similar call made by the smaller more gregarious Turnstone. Another bird encountered at the waters edge is the Curlew, its distinctive bill long and curved downwards, giving it the advantage of being able to probe deeper into the ground to find the prey that thought they’d got away. Terns are another species making the most of the Minch’s bounty but the difficulty with them is telling whether they’re of the Common or Arctic variety. I am however not alone in my identification naivety and apparently this problem is widespread resulting in many describing Terns as being of the “comm-ic” variety.
But it’s not all about the sea birds…A Grey Heron is living somewhere in the vicinity and puts in an appearance every now and then. Hooded crows, known locally as “hoodies” also catch the eye with their contrasting grey bodies, jet-black wings, head and tail.
Wheatears, one of the first summer residents to arrive are abundant and we’ve been visited by several Pied Wagtails, Great tits, both House and Tree Sparrow and quite a few more “wee brown birds”, but I’ve not quite worked out what they are yet! (I’m a beginner remember!) There are also two doves that frequent the area – Rock or Stock? – I’m not too sure as I’ve not seen them since I worked out how to tell the difference.
We have some resident Skylarks who keep us in song all day long and two Swallows have recently shown up, hopefully munching on the midges which to date have thankfully left us in peace. And speaking of song, one bird I haven’t seen yet but hear on a regular basis is the neighbourhood Cuckoo, perhaps he/she is making the most of the skylarks being up doing their hovering and singing thing in the sky by hiding their eggs in the unattended nests.
Although my little book of Scottish birds says no, I spotted a Goldfinch, which even for a beginner is a hard bird to mis-identify and later the same day was treated to a brief visit from a Golden Plover, whose cryptic colouring assists in hiding them from predators.
And last but not least, the biggest bird of them all in the skies over the Minch ……
(You’ll be glad to hear that the weather is due to be taking a turn for the better so it should be back to news about the dolphins again soon ?)