Sights, sounds and struggles
July was a busy and interesting month, full of highs but with some lows.
The weather continued on its colder-than-usual trend, and this reflected as always in the happenings of our wildlife. Just “oot’n’aboot” generally, it was noticeable that there was a distinct lack of bees and wasps…though flies tended to appear (especially around my head whilst out walking!). Every now and then I’d get fed up looking like Pig Pen from ‘Charlie Brown’, raise a hand above my head and let them circle that for a while, which is fine until my darling wife points out how stupid I look.
Anyway, back to the birds. Our two closest Osprey pairs, which breed exactly a mile apart, are unfortunately poles apart in fortune. At our closest nest, the established pair has two well fed chicks who have been flying a good couple of weeks now. From the distance we view the family, when sat up on the nest all four birds are quite indistinguishable now in terms of size – only the golden edges of the otherwise brown upper feathers of the birds show which are juveniles.
At the other nest, it’s a sad sight. I checked it yesterday to find no birds at all. Around mid-June the female was sitting on eggs – they had bred late but she seemed fairly settled and the male was sat in a nearby dead tree (which still contains the remnants of a collapsed nest – the original one at this location). The birds are young, and hopes were high that their non-breeding last year wouldn’t be repeated this year. By early July, the signs weren’t good – both adults were off the nest and no sign of bobbing heads of young in the nest. Our friend Roy Dennis - arguably the world’s foremost Osprey expert – studies this nest (and a lot, lot closer than us under official licence) and recently confirmed that the nest had failed, and the young had died. Roy also observed that of the recent clutches of birds he’d assembled for translocation to Spain and Switzerland, the chicks – all gathered from different nests across Scotland – were small and this was directly linked to the cold summer. The birds appear to have had regular food intake, indicated by the lack of fault bars in the feathers, but used the food to keep warm rather than grow. For more details of Roy’s recent work, as well as his eloquent observations, see here: http://www.roydennis.org/category/roys-blog/
In recent weeks, we’ve also caught up with a couple of old Osprey friends. My wife Karen and I were extremely lucky to be present at the ringing of an Osprey brood in Strathspey in July 2010 – my 40th birthday to be exact. One of the birds was a male, ringed as Blue DF. He returned as a two year old in 2012 on schedule, as young Ospreys spend their second summer in their wintering grounds before undertaking their first migration north in their second year, and was seen fishing not far from his birthplace. It was particularly great to finally catch up with him in the feather, as it were, when I saw him one morning at the lochan that I use for teaching on fishing Osprey photography. It’s highly likely that he’s supporting a family, and somewhere in his natal Strathspey. See the photos below, taken almost exactly five years apart...
Osprey Blue DF - five years apart
The other Osprey catch-up this month was male Green 2E, an interesting bird who ‘disappeared’ (well, he simply wasn’t recorded) for five days short of twelve years until we saw him in 2012. See the story and photos on my Facebook page here: Osprey Green 2E
Osprey Green 2E looking for trout (he did get one!)
And lastly for Ospreys this month, for the last few weeks I’ve been keeping an eye on a loch-side wood for signs of a new nest location – all important information for Roy who I mentioned earlier as part of his studies. The location is ideal, though the woodland is quite well-used by humans but - as many a Florida garden proves – Ospreys can quite happily live in proximity to the strange apes that try to be dominant on this planet. The loch itself was always a good Osprey fishing location, and Karen and I have seen six birds fishing there at once a few years ago. This year, not many Ospreys have been seen…a good indicator of a territory nearby? Seeing one bird take a fish from the loch and into the wood was another, and a very brief glimpse of two Ospreys flying in the wood started to get exciting.
Having spread a look out request amongst fellow birders for more information, I’ve now seen two birds perched up in the woods….content behaviour which hopefully indicates a male and female pair. Any young should be on the wing now, but no signs as yet…indeed maybe not forthcoming this year, but it will be interesting to keep on monitoring. I can’t stress enough to fellow birders that although Ospreys are ‘fun’ and ‘exotic’ to many, having a birdwatching patch and knowing the comings and goings of all species - and the environmental changes around them - can yield great finds, and knowledge not just for yourself but for others too.
Our previous blogs have described the successful breeding local to us of a pair of Black-throated Divers. On one of several occasions of watching these beautiful birds (and from inside my car so as not to disturb them when they’re close to the loch edge), I witnessed some remarkable behaviour. As the chick has grown, the male Diver has tended to range away from the female and chick as was the case on this particular morning. The birds were drifting on the water, the mother feeding her youngster with small fish she took from just under the water.
She dived – not unusual – but I was aware she’d gone under for a long time. Suddenly water erupted off to the right – I hadn’t noticed the female Mallard and her three ducklings but the female Diver had. She’d gone sub-surface to rear up amidst the ducklings, one of which was caught in her bill. The Diver thrashed around, eventually holding the duckling under water before resuming her glide across the loch surface. Soon she disappeared again, and repeated her frenzied attack on the second and third ducklings, discarding one with serious injuries on the water and dispatching the third youngster as she did the first. All the while, the female Mallard was shouting having fled to the bank of the loch, and eventually had the courage to fly back over the Diver and her chick (who was seemingly unperturbed by all this taking place a few feet away) calling all the time – seemingly in admonishment but more likely a fruitless call to her now-deceased young.
The attack underway
Although Divers of various species are known to attack other birds that stray near to them, as a territorial action especially when they have attendant young, these attacks are almost all recorded as being against other adult birds. The Black-throated Diver in this case picked off the ducklings, ignoring the adult bird. Anyway, looks like my wee story may make the next edition of ‘Scottish Birds’ – a first for me!
Lochindorb is a favourite place, and very few trips south from home fail to find an excuse just to do a quick drive by – the foreboding ruined castle, once the lair of the 14th Century’s infamous Wolf of Badenoch (Google it!), adding intrigue to the ‘beautifully bleak’ landscape. It also features on a number of birdwatching trips with my A9Birds customers, as you never know what you’ll find (the Rough-legged Buzzard which stayed through early Spring was always much appreciated though!). Last week I was there with Bruce, A9Birds’ most-repeat customer on his third trip out with us, and was scanning the far side of the loch when a large brown bird with white wing flashes buzzed through the binoculars as it hugged the water.
Great Skua, or 'Bonxie', with Lochindorb castle wall in the foreground to prove location!
The bird settled just beyond the castle, and I called Bruce’s attention to what was now a distant brown blob of a bird, but what I’d initially seen was enough to call it – a Great Skua, or ‘Bonxie’ if you use the nickname awarded to the species somewhere in the mists of time (and on Orkney, it seems). Eventually the bird took flight, heading west and not seen again. Now overland movement of skuas of the various species isn’t unheard of, and July is the month when they leave their breeding grounds though such places are well north and west of our part of Scotland. It was great to see an inland Bonxie, the Highland county recorder confirming that this was the first Lochindorb record since 4 June 1990. It has to be said that Bruce is not only a great customer but also a lucky talisman, as on his last visit in May we found the Velvet Scoter near Aviemore, and that was the first in Strathspey since 1971. Luckily I was able to treat him to the sight of a Sea Eagle later that day as a tiny thank you!
Cathedral of the Seabirds
Sorry, this is turning out to be a long blog, so thanks for getting this far if you’re still reading. One other lasting impression during July was the visit, by boat, to Troup Head. The weather was glorious – light winds, azure clear skies and silky blue calm waters. Now Troup is known for being the only Scottish mainland Gannet colony, the birds having arrived there by the mid 1980s and nowadays some 1,700 pairs arrive to have their young. The tower of noise – cathedral-like in size - created by these magnificent birds as they go about their business of rearing young, echoing around the craggy face of the cliffs, has to be savoured as much as the sight of what – at a distance – appears to be ‘just’ a white-coloured headland.
Gannets - adult and chick
Added to the Gannet spectacle is the hustle and bustle of Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and even a small number of Puffins, though the latter being burrow nesters seem to suffer from predation by mink along the cliff tops (come on RSPB it’s your reserve, what are you doing about it?).
Guillemot (top) and Puffin enjoying the beautiful calm sea
Summer though is now moving to autumn, and the Gannet’s neighbours are returning to the sea. They’ll hang around a wee while yet, and the Gannets still had plenty of downy young should you be considering a trip to Troup Head yourself – either come guided with us (an extra pair of eyes to help you spot all the species will help, I promise!), or we can recommend the boat trip company we use – just drop us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
I mentioned autumn, didn’t I? Already I’ve seen Eiders and Goldeneyes in eclipse plumage, and Mistle Thrushes are flocking up as they look for blaeberries…just two signs that the year is moving on apace. I'm also beginning to think that the two Swifts I saw on 27 July may be the last for this year (though Karen has just told me she saw one today, 1 August - I'll shut up now).
Irrespective of Mother Earth's axis tilting, in just over a month’s time it will have been a year since our move to Scotland to live in the cradle of her landscape and the nature within it, and each day remains as exciting as the first.
Happy birding as always
A9Birds is a birdwatching and wildlife photography company based in Moray, covering the local area including Strathspey, the Moray Firth and Inverness-shire. Please see our website for details of what we can offer you, and why not keep up to date with our sightings and photos on our Facebook page. All photos on this page are copyright Mike Crutch/A9Birds.