Highland de­lights

The High­lands are unique in spring and sum­mer, with every­thing from divers to waders

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: RAY COLLIER

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.

Iconic divers

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?

Pre­da­tion wor­ries

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


Black-throated Diver

LOOK AT THE LOCH! Red-throated Divers also breed in the High­lands

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