sarah candlin

Sarah has returned from her holiday with tales of flying doors and snowy mountains…

“It seems that spring is arriving at last. I saw the first signs of bird nesting activity last week– but you’ll never guess the species!  I saw a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) carrying a stick, perhaps more aptly described as a branch as it was probably about a metre long!

As you have probably guessed, I was not in Devon last week! Instead I was enjoying a holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland. I was there to enjoy the stunning scenery and to do some winter mountain walking, and although I was not doing any specific wildlife surveys, I still kept my eyes open.”

“Some of the wildlife in that area includes very familiar species that we frequently encounter in Devon, for example I saw badger footprints in one of the glens, fox tracks in the snow on the mountains and a whole range of familiar birds. However, there were other species that are not found down here or are less abundant/more secretive.

As I already mentioned, we saw a white-tailed sea eagle. This impressive species went extinct during the early 20th century due to illegal killing, but was re-introduced to Scotland from 1975 and a self-sustaining population (37-44 breeding pairs*) now exists along the northwest coast and adjacent islands. In my bird book, it describes this species as looking like a ‘flying-door’, and it is so true! They are massive and the wings are very broad. Although only slightly smaller, I personally think the golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are far more graceful. I loved watching this species soaring over the mountaintops, scanning the ground for a tasty mountain hare (Lepus timidus).

It turns out that the mountain hares are pretty good at hiding, as I totally failed to see one even though I saw their tracks all over the mountain tops. The tracks were often accompanied by fox tracks so they need to be masters of speed and camouflage to avoid both land and aerial predators! They moult during October to January, which turns their coat from russet brown to white or grey, and then back again in February to May. A clever camouflage if it works, but given the poor snow cover for much of this winter they may have had a tough time and this is likely to become a more frequent problem with climate change.”

“Another master of disguise and a mountain specialist is the ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), which also turns white during the winter. Unless they move, you have little chance of spotting them but we did see several.

As ever, we saw many red deer (Cervas elaaphus) feeding in the glens. The stags in particular are impressive animals with their large branching antlers. Red deer are abundant in the North West Highlands, and extensive deer fencing is installed as part of the habitat management, to enable native woodland habitats to re-establish.

Another highlight was my first ever sighting of a pine marten (Martes martes). This omnivorous species has a very restricted distribution in England and Wales, but is expanding in number and range in Scotland. These agile members of the mustelid family are at home on the ground and in the trees, and although often elusive, this one couldn’t resist the temptation of some peanuts!

Down by the sea lochs I had a wonderful view of an otter (Lutra lutra), but I’ll tell you more about that in another blog!”

Thank you for sharing, Sarah. All our ecologists have a passion for nature and wildlife, whether on holiday or at work. How are your mammal ID skills? Could you spot tracks and signs and know what made them? Why not take a look at our training website? We run numerous courses on different aspects of ecology. If you liked Sarah’s post, maybe these courses would interest you:

Survey Techniques for Protected Species

Ecological Survey Techniques

Mammal ID – online self-study course

Bird Survey Techniques

hare tracks

The best choice for your wildlife surveys

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