Archive for March, 2010

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Bottlenose Dolphins

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

There are a number of wildlife icons in the Highlands and each have their role in shaping the landscape and our attitude to them.  The red deer stag, particularly when roaring in the October rut,  has attracted artists and sportsmen.  The leaping salmon has shaped the way we treat our rivers and lochs and fishing for them is now a multi-million pound business.   That iconic bird, the red grouse, has created the heather clad moorland that needs intensive management by burning, called muirburn.  There are others such as gannets, capercaillie, ptarmigan and mountain hare but one that is increasing in popularity is the now famous bottlenose dolphins.   The resident population in the Moray Firth is the only one in the north of Britain.

There are various ways to see the dolphins and one of the easiest is at Chanonry Point  on the Black Isle.  This was made popular by the BBC Springwatch team visiting there and seeing the dolphins and filming them.    Another way is to take one of the boat trips specifically aimed at seeing dolphins.   Such boat trips are based at various places including Inverness,  Avoch and Cromarty and whilst on such trips there is plenty of other wildlife to see such as  grey and common seals and occasionally harbour porpoises.  These  porpoises are much smaller than  the dolphins and if the water is choppy they can be difficult to see.   At one time there were problems about such boat trips disturbing the dolphins but in 1995 the first “code of conduct” was agreed by all the boat operators.  One of the principles is to let the dolphins come to the boat rather than the other way round.  This works because the dolphins are very curious and will often come close to a boat on their own  accord.

Perhaps the best way to see the dolphins and possibly the most reliable is to visit one of the two  centres devoted to seeing dolphins and seals.   One is the Wildlife Centre at Spey Bay  and it is open now and  there are displays and an underwater world experience in the largest ice house in Britain.  The other centre is the Dolphin and Seal Centre at North Kessock on the Black Isle.  Both centres are run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and admission is free at both centres.   The North Kessock Centre which opens in June, is aimed at people seeing dolphins and seals and there is a superb viewing window overlooking the firth.  Binoculars are available including a massive pair on a large tripod that dominates the room.  The dolphins hunt by “echo location” and the  clicks and whistling noise they make can actually be heard in the centre.  Hydrophones in the firth relay the noises so that people can hear them.   If no dolphins are hunting there is a recording that can be played.     Likewise if there are no dolphins to be seen then a screen plays a video recording previously filmed at Chanonry point.  From a distance it is difficult to appreciate the size of the dolphins but they can grow up to four metres in length.  They are powerful swimmers and fast enough to catch fast swimming salmon.    The centre caters for youngsters as well as adults and part of the success is the enthusiasm of the attendants, officially called “ Dolphin and Seal Co-ordinators”.   The photograph shows  the notice board outside the centre being updated telling people what has been seen that day.   The centre is open every day from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm  (Telephone 01463 731866).

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Bird Watching

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

There are so many bird watching places around Inverness that there is a wide choice but if the interest is in waders, wildfowl, not forgetting mute, whooper and Bewick’s swans, then the firths are ideal.  There are hides open to the pubic at all times and they vary in style, access and comfort.  Hides at The Longman, Munlochy Bay, Udale Bay and Nigg  Bay offer a wide range of opportunities to see some of the spectacles of wildlife typical of the coast of the Highlands.  There are other prime sites to visit where there are, for various reasons, no hides such as Chanonry Point, Redcastle, Milton of Culloden  and, further afield, Tarbetness further north  up the east coast.   There is another good place, often overlooked, that is close to Inverness and this is Alturlie Point which is a triangular shaped headland  a few miles east of Inverness.

Such places can be visited at any time of the day but for the best birdwatching opportunities the tide should be taken into account.  If the tide is well out and such is the case at places like Nigg Bay then unless you see birds flying past you really need a telescope to do the place justice.  Likewise if the tide is well in, especially the high tides, then the birds could be out on the water unless the sea is choppy but otherwise they often move to nearby fields or raised ground where they can be difficult to see.  If you take advantage of the weekly tide tables indicated in local   newspapers then you can plan accordingly.  The movements of the birds at this time of the year is often dictated by two aspects of the bird behaviour.  One is the need for feeding areas and the other is a safe resting or roosting place.

If the tide is ebbing then the water is revealing fresh feeding areas with more food near the surface.  Birds  tend to start at the water edge and following the tide out feeding as they go.  The converse is true in that a making tide means that the  feeding areas are diminishing as the water comes it.  Then at the fullness of the tide the birds must  find somewhere to rest until the next tide.  This  means that  irrespective   of daylight or darkness the must feed.  If you visit an area on an ebbing tide then the birds are well up and close but steadily moving away from the vantage points.  When the tide is making the birds will be moving in front of the water and will get closer and closer.

Wildfowl and waders are not the only birds to haunt the foreshore as the areas of mud and / or sand are called.  Some other species of birds flee to the coast in the poor weather we have experienced in the last three months.  Some herons will stay inland feeding in lochs and rivers for the  winter,  until  severe weather comes, and may not come to the coast until the breeding season which is now starting..  Most heronries are on the coast either on cliffs or woodland and the one in woodland on the  eastern edge of Inverness is typical.  The birds may stay there all the year round as there is a good breeding site and food virtually a quick flight away not far from the nests.   Carrion and hooded crows and, in the poorer weather, rooks often scavenge along the shores of the firths.  These birds have  such a  catholic taste they will eat almost anything but specialise in dropping shells such as mussels from heights until they smash on the rocks below.  Opportunism is the name of the game for many birds in the winter and early spring.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Wood Pigeons

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Despite the severe weather in and around Inverness this past winter there have been signs from birds’ behaviour and song that spring is not too far away.  This will probably be the affect of the increasing number of daylight hours although the weak sunshine of some days will have played its part. Great tits have been calling with their melodic two tone “teacher-teacher” and they and blue  tits have even been investigating nestboxes.  This may be exploring the boxes for them to set up territory for future use or to use them as roosting places away from the cold.   Wood pigeons have been very much in evidence  from their cooing song, the endlessly repeated coo-coo-coo, and their display flight.  The flight involves  flying up and then planing down with the accompanying one or two claps of their wings.  These birds have taken over many gardens and not only take feed off the ground and from bird tables but also from wide trays. The trays are placed under mixed seed feeders to catch any spilt grain but the woodpigeons have learnt the art of balancing to get this free food.

From a wild flower point of view the signs of spring are less noticeable and more subtle.  The hazel catkins are lengthening slightly and some of the earliest willows trees are now showing their silky catkins often called “goslings”.  Along the shore of Loch Ness in the woodland the dog’s mercury is one of the earliest plants to show green leaves.  They are small and inconspicuous and the name comes from it being poisonous and classed as a “dog”. More conspicuous, although not widespread in the Highlands, is the snowdrop that may be seen as an historical part of the countryside so that it  is easy to forget  that this is almost certainly an introduced wild flower.

Snowdrops are mainly a woodland plant although they will not tolerate dense shade.   It is frequent in parks, gardens, road verges and watercourses but one if its favourite   places is in churchyards.  It is the latter habitat that makes it all the more surprising that it is not more widespread in the Highlands.   It occurs in a few places around Inverness and is commoner along the east coast to Aberdeen.  Elsewhere it is absent from vast tracts of the countryside with a few records for the coast of Caithness and a couple of sites on the west coast.  It appears to be absent from the Western and Northern Isles.   In Britain it was known in  cultivation since 1597 but not found in the wild until 1778. For a long time it was thought to be, in  a few places, native but now it is assumed that they are all alien plants.

Whilst we welcome the flowers as a sign of spring it is also welcome by various early flying insects. Worker bees in a  colony dwindle in numbers  but with the lengthening days the queen may start to lay her eggs again.  The new brood is nourished on the pollen and honey from the previous summer and also on fine days from flights to collect pollen and nectar offered by such plants as snowdrop, gorse and later celandines.  Slightly later the willow pollen source is most nutritious for the bees.  There are various local names for the snowdrop including Candlemas bells, snow piercer, February fair maids and dingle-dangle.  The Gaelic name is Gealag-lair meaning, appropriately,  little white one of the grounds.   It dos not seem to have been used by any of the Clans as a plant badge possibly because of its small size, limited distribution and its supposed re-introductio