Autumn continues in the beautiful Scottish Highlands - our Guided Days Out throughout October and early November have been wonderful. There has been brilliant bird and wildlife sightings within a nice mixture of habitats and sites.
I will begin with mentioning a very special species of goose sometimes found along the coasts at this time of year. The 'pale-bellied' Brent Goose is an uncommon autumn visitor to the Black Isle and Moray Coast. They are an attractive bird with a black head and white neck patch; they also have a distinctive white flank that is very obvious. They migrate south from the Canadian Arctic where they breed during the summer months.
Keeping the theme of wildfowl, now is the time late-autumn duck numbers start to build up and we see the arrival of Pochard to our lochs. The male Pochard is a handsome bird, a lovely pale grey duck with a chestnut coloured head and black breast. They migrate to Scotland from northern Europe and Iceland. Pochard belong to a group of ducks known as ‘diving ducks’, their behaviour differs from surface feeding ducks which are often refereed to as ‘dabbling ducks’.
A much larger species of wildfowl that is also turning up right now, is the magnificent Whooper Swan. These birds arrive from Iceland to winter in freshwater, wet fields and the marshes of the Scottish Highlands. They differ from the resident and familiar Mute Swan by the Whooper having a yellow rather than orange bill. The bill is long and the yellow base is triangular in shape, looking like a wedge of cheese. Whoopers are a specially protected species, being particularly threatened by collisions with overhead power lines and lead poisoning from shotgun cartridges.
Passage waders have been seen recently passing through at several coastal locations. A familiar species seen is the charismatic Dunlin. This small wader is often found foraging on our shores and it has a black bill that is slightly decurved. In the breeding season adult Dunlin have attractive black bellies but in the winter they loose this plumage and have plain underparts. Dunlin are good birds to get familiar with, as mastering their identification often then makes it easier to identify more unusual or scarce wader species.
Another wader species similar to the Dunlin but larger is the stocky Knot. Unlike the Dunlin the bill is straight rather than decurved and the legs are a grey-green colour rather than the black legs found on the Dunlin. These delightful waders are often seen in very large numbers and it is mesmerising to sometimes see a huge flock take off, twisting and turning over a saltmarsh.
A predator of the Knot, that occasionally is encountered on our day guides is the awesome and iconic Peregrine Falcon. This raptor is built like a fighter jet and is the fastest living bird on the planet. They are always a thrill to watch, their profile obvious with long pointed wings, blue grey above and barring below; they have a powerful impressive feel to them. Sometimes they are seen perched high up on a crag scouring the ground below or zooming past chasing a wader or a pigeon.
The Grey Heron was encountered regularly on our Guided Days Out in the past month. Always an impressive species to see; a powerful bird with a dagger-like bill, they are pale grey with a long neck; they make short work of any frog, toad or fish they stalk through the marsh. They have a loud and harsh call, ‘fraank’ that is uttered usually when the bird is in flight.