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Viewing Eider Ducks – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

January 31st, 2017

eider ducksAt this time of the year eider ducks  can be found all along the east coast with good viewing points being at Chanonry Point near Fortrose, Loch Fleet near  Golspie and various points to the east from Inverness.  Many of these viewing points can be from the car in comfort, using the car as  a hide, and this has the added advantage  of leaving the eiders undisturbed.   Eiders are seaducks so you may be lucky to also see other seaducks such as long-tailed ducks and scoters plus the chance of  a rarity such as the king eider.   However, for me the favourite of these ducks is the eider for a wide variety of reasons with the outstanding one being their eiderdown.   Eiderdown is the feather down that the females plucks from  their breasts  to line their nests.  Its function is to insulate the clutch of eggs from the cold and to camouflaged them  while the parent is away.   Intriguingly the usual feather down is white which could make the nest and eggs conspicuous from predators so the final lining of the nest is by special brown feathers down for camouflage.    The majority of eiderdown on the world market comes from Iceland.  It is the only down on the market that comes from a wild bird and is the only  down that comes solely from female birds, whilst domestic down is from male and female alike.  The male eider gives no down and do not sit on nests.

Many of the eider colonies that are “farmed” are traditional and man has taken them over to only a certain degree.  The eider are still wild birds  but man makes the conditions easier for them in protecting  the habitats to make it more attractive and expand.  The eider colonies are also protected from fox, mink, dogs and gulls that might disturb or kill the sitting females or take the eggs.   The first collection of eiderdown is removed soon after incubation has begun; this the duck replaces over the next few days.  The second collection  of eiderdown takes place after the eggs have hatched and the ducklings depart with the female.   The down left behind after this departure is often soiled and mixed with pieces of vegetation, and requires very careful cleaning before it can be used in quilts.     Eiderdown is unrivalled in lightness, insulation properties and elasticity which is why it is so desirable and so expensive.

With such a common birds, about 20,000 pairs breed in Scotland  and the winter population is about 65,000 individuals, there have been many myths and folklore about them.   One of its old names is St. Cuthbert’s duck because it breeds in the Farne islands where St. Cuthbert lived part of his life in a cell, and it figures in legends surrounding the Saint.   It has over ten Scots names such as Coo-doos, Dusky Duck, Crattick and Dunter.   In contrast it seems to have only one Gaelic name “Lach-Lochlainneach” which means “wigeon-like”.    At this time of the year most of the eiders you see will be feeding by diving underwater after a variety of food such as mussels, clams, sea urchins, starfish and crabs. They swallow their prey whole and the  crush them with their gizzard.   They often feed in groups for up to 30 minutes at a time.  After feeding, they rest, preen and then feed again throughout the day.  This means they spend most of their time on the sea but they can often be seen by the fact that  gulls  circle above them waiting for any scraps the eider  leave on the surface.  The photograph shows an adult male flapping its wings and an immature male in front.

Pine Martin Conservation – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

January 24th, 2017

pine martenOf the trilogy of major wildlife conservation programmes in the Highlands we have now covered wildcat and  red squirrel so now we turn  to the enigmatic pine marten.  The pine marten has had mixed fortunes, as with the other two mammals, in that for  a very long time persecution was the order of the day.  In the famous, or should it be infamous, list of killed predators between 1837 and 1840 from the estate of Glengarry, south-west of Inverness the pine marten is put into perspective.   Foxes 11, wildcats 198, house cats 78, pine martens 246, polecats 106, weasels and stoats 301 and badgers 67.    These “gibbet” numbers were not exceptional  and could be repeated on most  other estates  throughout the Highlands.   Indeed it is a wonder that the pine martens ever survived such a continuous slaughter.

Much more recently than this the pine martens have been persecuted for raiding young pheasant rearing pens, invading loft spaces of houses to rear  their kits and raiding domestic birds such as chickens, ducks and even rabbits in their hutches.    In many instances  it is the owners fault for not securing their livestock at night but remember that a pine marten can chew through new rabbit netting so precautions have to be sound.  One aspect about the pine  marten, and other predators can be the same, is what some people mistakenly call “blood killing”.  This is where a pine marten will kill far more prey than it apparently needs.   This is not killing  for the sake of killing but leaving food either so it can brings its kits back to feed or come back itself.  However, this does not help the owner, for example of chickens, reacting to the  slaughter when it takes place.

However, changing times and attitudes have been helping the pine marten for some years and one move was the total protection under the legislation in 1988.  Pine martens have also been able to take advantage  of the suitable habitats that widescale planting of conifers created.  Nevertheless the immediate and long term moves remain  essential for the pine marten’s future.  One recent major step forward has been the current work of  the Vincent Wildlife  Trust to translocate them from Scotland to Wales.  A major step forward by the Trust was its development of special nestboxes that only the pine martens would use.   This stops the animals taking over nestboxes erected for goldeneye ducks, barn owls and other species.  Needless to say such programme are costly and initial  figures estimate it at £1.2 million .  According  to the first reports the moving of pine martens form Scotland to Wales  has been successful and the first kits have been born.

Some people are lucky enough to have pine martens visit their gardens and some people even put out food for them.  For those who are not so lucky seeing one is a matter of chance.   Some hotels and Bed and Breakfasts even advertise their presence as part of the attraction.  Elsewhere there are a few hides from which  they can be seen such as the Speyside Wildlife Hide.  There is one at Aigas Field Centre, near Inverness, and at the Kindrogan Field Centre in Perthshire.    As for identification  the pine marten is about the size of a domestic cat with shorter legs and a long, bushy tail.  The ears are large and rounded and at close quarters the creamy inside fur in them may make them visible.   They are essentially nocturnal  animals so if you see one during the day it could well be hungry for some reason, such as the weather, or have hungry  kits.

Red Squirrels – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

January 16th, 2017

People who feed red squirrels in their gardens in and around Inverness and beyond may be surprised to know that at one time these delightful animals were persecuted.  Of all the animals in the Highlands, the red squirrel has had very mixed fortunes from re-introductions to severe culling and then back to re-introductions.   If we go back to the 18th century in the Highlands, the red squirrel may well have been extinct largely to do with deforestation.    Re-introductions were made in various areas in Scotland to ten estates in the 18th and 19th century but not until 1844 in the northern  Highlands.  Then Lady Lovat re-introduced introduced them to the Beaufort Castle Estate  west of Inverness  by Beauly.  They then spread rapidly to the widespread new plantations of conifers and so much so that by 1903 they were doing considerable  damage to young trees.

It seems incredible with our current  programme of “saving” the red squirrel that it was necessary to form the Highland Squirrel Club in 1903 to 1946 with the sole purpose of killing  them.  Between those years the Club killed at least 102,900 red squirrels and that number is low because it is based on payments made for the bounty on the tails.  Undoubtedly some estates did not bother to send in all the tails for the bounty.   Most of the estates in the Highlands were active members including all those around Inverness, including the Beaufort Estate  where the re-introduction  had started in 1844.    Fortunately the papers for the Club were deposited with Duncan and Duncan, a Dingwall firm of lawyers.  After  extensive  searches I found these papers in the Highland Regional Council Archive and I have a copy of all the annual reports and correspondence.  The originals are, hopefully, still with the Archive Office.

In contrast the conservation of the red squirrels in the Highlands is being tackled in two major ways with one of them being the unlikely role that many readers play in feeding them in gardens.   Over the last few decades feeding wildlife in the  garden has been transformed into a huge commercial business although most of its effort is towards birds.  Animals have not lost out and the red squirrel is a  good example.   If the old fashioned wire bird feeder  is now  a standard feeder for a wide range of  small birds then so is the new type feeder for red squirrels.  It consists of a box similar in size for a nest box for small birds such as titmice   etc.  However, the squirrel box has a clear plastic  front and a hinged lid.  The squirrel  sits on a ledge on the base of the box of the box  and they have learnt to push up the lid with their  noses and help themselves to the peanuts.  The photograph was taken of a squirrel at a feeder that is on a fruit tree about six feet from one end of the house and taken through a window.  This individual is easy to identify  by the light and dark banding on the tail.

Whilst the feeding of red squirrels in our gardens is important so is the latest round of re-locations that has been ongoing for a few years.  The one a few years ago at Dundonnell south west of Ullappol was successful but  highlighted the need for monitoring  after the movement of reds squirrels had  taken place.  The expense of moving the animals is large enough but the follow up is equally important – and expensive.  Others are now in the  pipeline and will help to ensure the future of these enigmatic animals that are  a joy to watch whether in woodland or at a garden feeder.