The Highlands are unique in spring and summer, with everything from divers to waders
The Scottish Highlands offers a wide variety of birds and other wildlife, too
WHATEVER YOU CALL the vast open landscape of the Scottish Highlands, there are many images that epitomise the hills, glens, straths, lochs and coastline. Red Deer stags, Salmon and Golden Eagle to name but a few. For many naturalists who regularly explore this wilderness, it is not the visual images but the sounds that haunt these vast areas, that really resonate. For many, the Greenshank has one of the most evocative of all bird calls, such as the flight notes described as “tew, tew, tew”, although this will often mean the bird has been disturbed in territory.
For me, the most attractive call is in the spring, when its song is a rich “ru-tu, ru-tu, ru-tu” The first time I heard this was on a reserve I was responsible for in Sutherland, the famous Gualin NNR. I was with the legendary ornithologist Desmond Nethersole-thompson, who had forgotten more about Green shanks than I ever knew. In the background to the calling Greenshank was another moorland wader, whose call is one of the most beautiful and lonely sounding of any British bird, the Golden Plover. And then there’s that wailing call of the loons, a mournful and haunting sound, that to many, me included, surpasses all others. It is probably the male, circling a freshwater loch, making contact with the female below, perhaps on their nest. The International Ornithologists’ Union names the various divers as Black-throated Loons, Red-throated Loons, Great Northern Loons and Yellow-billed Loons, but these have failed to catch on and very few, even the latest books, use the word ‘loons’. Even the BTO Atlas 2007-11 has retained the old name – diver – which is why it is continued in this article.
Divers are iconic birds for many naturalists in this part of the world, in particular the Black-throated Diver, and this is the best time of the year to see them in territory. Now, thanks in part to innovative artificial islands, called rafts, there are 240-plus pairs in the Highlands. We tend to accept these rafts and, as with many other conservation ideas, the follow-up monitoring is essential but expensive. With the divers’ rafts there is another important consideration, often overlooked – they also take time and expense, for they constantly need maintenance and repairs. As for seeing Black-throated Divers, a few are on lochs right next to busy roads – a pair regularly nest on a site near Ullapool. Despite the proximity of traffic, the birds regularly use the raft. However, some of the pairs nest on very remote lochs, seldom visited by people, either by design or, perhaps, by accident. Fortunately, for visiting naturalists, there is an outstanding area that makes access to the divers very easy, the famous archipelago of islands on Loch Maree in Wester Ross. It’s outstanding in that, unusually, three or four pairs of Blackthroated Divers nest there most years, and there are even facilities to make bird viewing easier. The birds are best viewed from the many car parks and laybys along the southern edge of the loch. Using the car as a hide means the birds are not disturbed in any way. There are other facilities and a hide is available for observers and a website for live action from the nest.
These facilities vary from year to year, so contact the local Scottish Natural Heritage office at SNH Reserve Office, Anancaun, Kinlochewe, Ross-shire IV22 2PA. You can call them on 01445 760 254. SNH also supply information on divers in leaflets and interpretive panels. There’s a push button on a plinth to hear a recording of their call. Loch Maree has six rafts in six divers’ territories, and three or four pairs regularly nest there. Needless to say, Loch Maree and its divers have been studied far more than any other site in the UK. Observations over many years make one wonder if similar behaviour takes place on other lochs, but go unseen. For example, there was reputed to be a pair of Great Northern Divers that bred on Loch Maree in 1970. Confusingly, the following year a Great Northern Diver x Black-throated Diver hybrid bred with a Black-throated Diver and produced one chick. The pair were well documented and close examination indicated the hybrid looked more like
And then there’s that wailing call of the loons, a mournful and haunting sound, that to many, me included, surpasses all others
a Great Northern Diver. Then there was the predation record on Loch Maree, when an Otter was seen to rise from underneath a Black-throated Diver and attack it. The Otter was disturbed and the Black-throated Diver swam off, but was later found dead on the shoreline. So, what goes on at the more distant lochs, that are not watched anywhere near as much as Loch Maree?
Natural predators are one of the main problems facing divers in general. Gulls, three species of corvids, Mink and Otters all take their toll on eggs and chicks of varying ages. One photographer in a hide on the side of Loch Shiel saw the Black-throated Diver slip off its two eggs into the water. Within seconds, an Otter had eaten the eggs! Now, there is a new and increasingly worrying natural predator that is increasing its range – the introduced Pike. They are spreading and more than one raft has been removed from lochs near Inverness because of divers’ predation by Pike, deliberately spread by increasingly active Pike fishermen. Any Pike caught by anglers are released back safely back into the loch, the idea being that, next time the Pike is caught, it will be that much heavier. Reports of Pike more than 20lbs are increasing and on one loch, where the raft was removed a few years ago, a Pike reputed to be about 30lbs had been caught. Any water birds are open to the threat, from various species of ducks to Slavonian Grebes. I have raised the Pike issue with the relevant conservation bodies and, while they freely acknowledge this serious problem, no positive
action, as far as I know, has been taken so far. There are some guidelines for successfully watching the Loch Maree divers that equally apply to many other sites. Very calm conditions are best, as that’s when the divers are more easily seen, even at a distance. When the water is choppy the birds are surprisingly difficult to see, as they always swim rather low in the water. Early morning or late evening in very calm conditions are ideal. While binoculars can be sufficient, there are many occasions when a good scope is desirable. For photographers, long-range telephoto lenses are a must. However, always remember – and I know that most of you do – the birds come first and they should never be disturbed.
Much more than divers
There is much more to Loch Maree and the surrounding landscape than Black-throated Divers. Loch Maree is, in its own right, a National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and there are plans to consider joining it to the adjacent NNR, the famous Beinn Eighe. Beinne Eighe NNR has a visitor centre, at Kinlochewe, that is open in the summer months and well worth a visit, as are the two trails, including the famous Mountain Trail. This wilderness area of the north-west Highlands is home to Golden Eagle, Red Deer, Pine Marten, Feral Goats and much, much more. One of the best ways to see such wildlife, including a wide assemblage of birds and mammals, is to drive from Garve, just north-west of Inverness, past Loch Maree to the west coast, then north and east to come out at Braemore Junction just south of Ullapool, before heading south to Garve. That will give anyone an overview of the Highland wildlife to be seen.
Have you been to the Highlands this year and are you taking part in Bird Watching magazine’s #My200birdyear challenge? If so, you could plot the birds you’ve seen on our special map, which you can find at birdwatching.co.uk/my200
LOOK AT THE LOCH! Red-throated Divers also breed in the Highlands