Thursday, 7 July 2011

Scotland. It's warmer further north...


After another brisk night amid the pines and another grey and gloomy start, we headed on northwards in search of better weather. We broke the journey with a quick stop at Chanonry Point to look for Bottle-nosed Dolphins, which put on an obliging show for us and a cavalcade of admirers, then headed on northwards into the murk. The journey was brightened up by a very obliging couple of Black-throated Divers at Lairg, though a walk at the other end of Loch Shin failed to produce much of interest - bar a brief snatch of Ring Ouzel song. We pressed onwards to the north, eventually finding a campsite at Scourie with a view along the sea-loch towards Handa island. Gratefully we pitched the tent and headed off for a short walk.

Wood Tiger moth, livening up a rather quiet walk near Loch Shin.

Next to the campsite a small stream runs out into the loch, with a little road across the mouth damming it back into a small marsh. This was packed with a wide variety of plantlife - Marsh Cinquefoil, Northern Marsh Orchid, Water Forget-me-not, and some spectacular Monkeyflowers. A Sedge Warbler gave us a brief rendition of his song before breaking off to beat up his neighbour. Following the patch on towards Tarbet, we climbed the hillside and enjoyed the view before the weather once more began to close in on us.

Northern Marsh Orchid


We awoke to another grey and cool day, so decided that plan B was the one to execute. We packed a substantial lunch, filled the thermos and set out cheerfully to walk from Duartmore to Ben Stack, then round the base of the mountain and back the way we'd come. We soon arrived at our kick-off point. An auspicious beginning: within moments of setting out, a male Merlin hurtled overhead, a pair of Common Sandpipers bobbed around the rocks of the little roadside lochan, and - believe it or not - the sun came out. Briefly. The old road along which we set out was fringed with Fragrant Orchids, studded with butterworts and heathers. All in all it looked good. The path soon left the road and plunged wildly up and down over the gnarled gneiss which underlies the wet heath and blanket bog of this part of Scotland. Squelching through mires, skirting lochs and lochans, we headed on away from the road and deeper into the hills. The sun didn't fulfill its earlier promise, and indeed the cloud slowly dropped down the tops throughout the day, but the walking kept us both warm. We eventually crested the highest point of the walk, dropped down to yet another loch, and settled in to lunch to the sound of Greenshank, Common Sandpipers and the omnipresent Meadow Pipits, whilst a Black-throated Diver kept a wary eye on us from the middle.

Arkle. In the lowering cloud.

Small White Orchid

The next part of the walk was probably the least interesting: a switchback path led us to a steep drop to the main road, along which we trudged for about three miles before we turned away along the western side of Ben Stack, trudged steadily up the slope to where we'd had lunch, and finally turned our noses for home. Whilst the bird-life wasn't exactly spectacular at any point along the way, at least we were serenaded by Golden Plovers on the journey back. In all it worked out at a quite respectable 20 mile walk, there or thereabouts, which we felt justified some slightly stiff legs and a good appetite: well and truly satisfied with a fine meal at the Scourie Hotel later that evening.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid


By contrast, Wednesday morning was fair of face, rather like Sunday's child is meant to be in the old rhyme, so we splashed out on a boat trip to Handa Island - a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. We arrived bright and early, in fact about half an hour before the first boat, but soon realised that that was probably a very good move: people appeared in droves just before the boatmen and began queuing on the jetty. Fortunately we managed to get on the first boat of the day and were swiftly ferried over to the island.

We were met by a pleasantly efficient warden who instructed us all to remain on the paths, explained where the best places were for the purposes of Puffin-viewing and told us a little of the history of the island before releasing us all to the tender mercies of the wind and the skuas. In case you don't know what skuas are, they are close relatives of the gulls which lurk around your local town centre and steal your food. Skuas, however, are generally chocolate-brown coloured (without getting into complexities of colour morphs) with pale patches towards the outer edge of the wings, and they live by stealing food from auks, gulls and terns. In fact, Great Skuas (a.k.a. Bonxies) will attack anything up to the size of a Gannet, and rather than steal from the smaller seabirds will sometimes just eat the birds and their lunch. As all seabirds do, they come to land to breed, and have an undeniably effective method of protecting their nests: if you come near it they'll beat you up. Simple...

Great Skua

The path to the seabird colonies of Handa take you through the skua colonies. Fortunately the birds seem pretty phlegmatic about people, so contented themselves with a few token eforts, circling us as we walked and occasionally gliding around behind us to keep us on our toes. A solitary Red Grouse popped its head over the skyline as we walked up towards the cliffs, and then we arrived. The first to notice is the nose: a mildly fishy, tangy smell wafts over the edge of the cliff in the updraft. Then the ears start to pick up the murmur of the birds on the ledges, and as you get to the edge, the view below spreads until you feel you're teetering on the edge of it all, a clamour of growling, gurgling, squalling Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Shags, Puffins and gulls assaults your eyes, ears and nose simultaneously.

Red Grouse

Gradually the whirling mass of birds resolves itself into some sort of order. Fulmars drift along the edge of the cliffs, apparently revelling in their ability to ride the updraft with the minimum of effort: constantly wheeling down into chasms and crevices to be able to pop up again at the top of the cliff a moment later, twisting and turning with splayed feet, crooked wings and fanned tail until they come almost to a halt, then whirling away again in a series of twirls and swoops.

Fulmar, demonstrating wind-hanging skills

Gulls and skuas also patrol the cliff edge, but they drift elegantly along the wind on the lookout for an unwary auk coming back from the sea with fish for its offspring. Puffins loaf on the edge of the cliffs, where the soil is deep enough to dig a respectable burrow. They pop in and out of the plants, looking a little incongruous with their outrageously colourful and oversized bills. Occasionally one will arrive from the sea with - or without - a neat silvery row of small fish held tightly in their bills, whilst their wings whir them up to the land, where they scurry post-haste down into the safety of their burrows.

Below all this is the main activity of the colony: the Razorbills and Guillemots. The Razorbills tuck themselves into the deeper ledges, where they can lie flatter on their bellies and relax. If there is a crack behind a rock into which they can press themselves, so much the better. They tend to sit carefully in their pairs, a respectable distance between themselves and their immediate neighbours. The Guillemots, on the other hand, cram onto the smallest possible ledges, shoulder to shoulder with one another, yarring and growling, attempting to stab one another (or so it seems) with their long slender bills. There are abandoned (infertile) eggs scattered around the ledges like childrens' toys, and a constant stream of adults rocketing up to the cliffs from the sea below, with fish clasped lengthwise for their chicks.

Interspersed with the auks are the Kittiwakes and the Shags - the former gluing nests made of seaweed and birdshit to the ledges, decorated with whatever comes to hand, often bits of old fishing gear, and usually sitting together on their nests, nuzzling one anothers' faces and screaming at their neighbours with a deafening 'kitt-a-waaak, kitt-a-waak' call. The Shags confine themselves to deeper ledges like the Razorbills, building a messy stick-based nest which is liberally spattered with droppings, and brooding with a squat, menacing look, emerald-green eyes alert for any attempt by the neighbours to steal bits of nest material.

The sea offshore is peppered with auks, all bobbing gently on the slow swells that roll in from the Atlantic, some diving for fish near the colony, others washing and preening before heading back out to better fishing grounds elsewhere.

A pair of Razorbills deciding whether or not this ledge really, actually, honestly suits them.

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