Scotland – August 2013

Every drive to Scotland is a long and sometimes seemingly endless journey. This trip’s destination was the west coast of Scotland, nearly 500 miles. The late evenings of August meant we arrived before dusk, and managed to find both a Badger and Pine marten before the light disappeared. The light wasn’t good enough for anything beyond record shots, but it was a nice relief from the long journey we’d just done.

Red Deer

Up at dawm, the morning started with a pink sunrise which made a nice background to some silhouetted Red Deer atop the hills north of Acharacle. Another Pine marten followed, this time in better light and some ok photos were managed. More Red Deer were seen along with Hooded Crows, which are usually never that far away in this part of Scotland. A scan of Loch Sunart quickly produced Arctic Terns, Sandwich Terns and numerous Grey Seals. A walk produced further Red Deer, Yellowhammer, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Oystercatcher, Buzzard, Wheatear and Grey Heron. That night time was spent on the peninsula in an area known to be Wildcat territory – specifically, in a place that bordered two territories. Equipped with night vision and spotlight but no cats on this night – to be expected, but if you don’t try… plenty Red Deer as always on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

The next morning started with a number of Red-breasted Merganser on the loch, then a drive over to Mull for the day. More Grey Seals, Meadow Pipits, Hooded Crows, Red Deer, Herons, Oystercatchers, Curlew, etc. For the rest of this account, I’ll try not to refer to these species again as they’re ever present! Loch Na Keal delivered exceptional views of White-tailed Eagle and many photos were taken. Later that day an Otter was seen fishing, returning to the kelp covered rocks to consume the larger catches. Meanwhile a juvenile White-tailed Eagle had landed on the rocks which prevented the Otter from returning to shore, and the ealge was eventually mobbed and moved on by Hooded Crows. Lots of Moon Jellyfish and Lion’s Mane to be seen from the Fishnish – Lochaline ferry. Another night out in the dark looking for cats produced no results.

The next day was fairly relaxed, but the best views yet of Pine marten were enjoyed in perfectly clear weather. Later on time was spent photographing Grey Seals, Wood Warbler, Sandwich Terns, etc. At night, another trip out looking for Scottish Wildcat and a distant cat was eventually seen but too distant and impractical to photograph, but it was a first for me, even if its wildcat credentials weren’t exactly possible to verify. The silhouette was right, and it was exactly where I’d been anticipating seeing one.

Pine Marten

Next morning after a walk which produced no new species of note, we went out on Loch Shiel. The scenery is stunning, and it’s always nice to see where the legendary Mike Tomkies successfully reared and released some Scottish Wildcat kittens – ‘Wildernesse’. Red Deer were seen on the craggy moutain slopes, and along the way, a few Golden Eagles soared high overhead, or were picked out perched on the mountain tops. Red-breasted Merganser and Greylag were next, then a pair of White-tailed Eagles. The bird I’d most wanted to see was next – Black-throated Diver in full breeding plumage – a stunning looking bird, even if it did only give distant views and poor photo opportunities!

We headed towards Coll the next morning with a specific target in mind – Basking Sharks. Althouth the waters were a little choppy at times, the water around the Cairns of Coll was perfectly smooth and still, and surprisingly clear. Great Skua, loads of Arctic Terns, Common and Grey Seals and various gulls were ever present, but I was mostly scanning the water for dorsal fins. The first fin didn’t belong to a shark at all, but to a Minke Whale – a nice bonus. Shortly afterwards, a huge splash was all that I saw of what must have been a breach by either a Minke Whale or a Basking Shark. Then the unmistakeably somewhat floppy fin of a Basking Shark cut through the surface and drifted sedately while the shark scooped up the plankton below. Over the next ten minutes, more kept appearing, until we were surrounded by at least twenty sharks. Some went right beneath or alongside the boat, giving amazing views straight in to their gaping mouths and back out to the sea through their huge gills. A final night dedicated to Wildcats produced nothing, but I was still buoyed by the sighting from two nights ago. Setting off back to our accommodation, both Pine marten and Tawny Owl were seen on the way. Then, just over half way to ‘home’, a cat emerged from woodland and crossed the road, right in front of the car. My headlights were already on full beam and I was driving slowly, which gave me a brief, but very good look at this cat. A mental note was made, and a year later, I placed camera traps all over the place, including that very woodland. Read the ‘on the trail of… Scottish Wildcat’ article to see what happened.

Great Skua

An explore of Loch Linnhe the next day produced Black Guillemot and their young. We then headed back to Mull, this time to stay for a few days. We started at Carsaig for Feral Goats, but despite their apparent reliableness, none were seen. Eiders, Golden-ringed Dragonfly, Common Starfish, various Jellyfish, Scotch Argus, and the usual birds and more common butterflies were seen. The eagle viewpoint on the Loch Na Keal layby gave good views of the resident pair, along with another Otter.

The following day we effectively repeated the trip to Coll, with similar results. Ridiculously close Great Skuas, just as many Basking Sharks, two Minke Whales, White-tailed Eagle and the usual mixed colony of Grey and Common Seals.

The next day on Mull we watched a White-tailed Eagle carrying long entrails of something – presumably carrion – from the side of a loch to the hill-tops, hassled on the way by Hooded Crows. Below in the water, a single Red-throated Diver was the first (and only) of the trip. Towards Grasspoint more White-tailed Eagles were perched, and a female Hen Harrier was seen quartering the long grass.

Basking Shark

Before the long drive home, I had arranged to meet the RSPB’s Dave Sexton, in order to install a hide overlooking an unusual location that White-tailed Eagles had chosen to nest, on behalf of the BBC. The intention was that the hide would remain in place until the next season, giving the birds time to get used to it, but in the event, they chose to return to their usual nesting spot of previous years. Nevertheless, the views were spectacular, even if they did involve very precarious climbs to reach. A White-tailed Eagle gave a close fly-by before attempting to catch a Gannet, which dived beneath the water to evade capture. A nice end to a fairly relaxed (by my standards!) trip to the west coast of Scotland.