Winter continues in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Our Day Guiding throughout January has been excellent, with some fantastic wildlife sightings; there is so much to see, even in the depths of winter.
I will begin with mentioning a few of our special mammals that can be found at this time of year. The Grey Seal is a regular sea mammal that is often found on our shorelines. They are quite distinctive but can be confused with Britain's only other seal species, the Common Seal. Grey Seals are larger but there are other subtle differences in telling them apart. The Common Seal looks ‘friendlier’ with a more rounded head, it has a short neat muzzle; in comparison the Grey Seal has a flat, long muzzle giving a ‘Roman-nosed’ appearance. The Common Seal’s coat is more uniformly speckled, whereas the Grey Seal has a more blotched contrasting coat. Interestingly, Britain and Ireland hosts about 36% of the world population of Grey Seals.
A very different mammal is the Wild Goat; these can sometimes be seen down in the glens. Wild Goats were introduced into the UK from the Mediterranean region in Neolithic times. They are quite obvious, looking very different to any Deer species. Wild Goats have a shaggy coat and backward pointing horns, males have larger and longer horns than females and a beard-like tuft on the lower jaw. They are primarily grazers and are able to survive the harsh winter weather by eating almost any vegetation. The young, known as kids, are born from January to March.
Another iconic mammal species of the uplands is of course the Mountain Hare. It is great seeing them at this time of year when they are in their white finery. Unlike the Brown Hare, Mountain Hares are native to the UK. Mountain Hares are slightly smaller and are more compact, with obvious shorter ears. Like the name suggests they are also found at a higher elevation than Brown Hares. Mountain Hares feed predominately on heather and various grasses; however, they are the staple prey of the Golden Eagle. Some lucky guests had the opportunity recently of seeing both Golden Eagle and Mountain Hare together on a day guide.
Often found in the same habitat as the Mountain Hare, is the Kestrel. These are delightful small raptors, famous for their distinctive hovering behaviour. Like all falcons, they have pointed wings and an obvious moustache. Males have a grey head and tail with a lovely rufous back. Females are plainer, lacking the grey head and tail. Both sexes have clear streaking on the breast and spotting on the back. They are predators of small mammals and birds, but also feed on invertebrates such as beetles. Unfortunately the Kestrel in recent years has declined; this is due to changes in agriculture, with fewer areas supporting voles.
A delightful little bird that is more easily seen at this time of year is the handsome Snow Bunting. They are a pale, frosty looking Bunting with some black in the wing. Snow Buntings have a sandy coloured face that is quite noticeable. During the breeding season the adult males are stunning, being unmistakable with an all-white head and breast and all-black back. Small numbers breed in the Scottish highlands, on the highest mountains. This is a species that breeds all around the arctic circle, from Scandinavia to Alaska. They make a lovely rippling twittering call which is usually heard in flight. With global warming and climate change, this could affect future nesting of this species in Scotland.