On the loch again

A single skunk cabbage by the loch side

A single skunk cabbage by the loch side

A small raft of tufted ducks on the loch

A small raft of tufted ducks on the loch

Continuing my 2011/2012 wildlife survey on a north Highland estate- Part 1

Monday 9 April 2012.  Weather:  Dull with a few light showers

Easter Monday, and I decided to have a boat trip round the estate loch since Mondays are always the quietest so far as the presence of anglers is concerned. As I parked in the car park I noticed a plant, whose beauty belied its invasive nature, growing in the marsh beside the car park. The yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), sometimes called the swamp lantern, is often grown as a bog garden plant and is available from nurseries and garden centres. It is a large plant, growing up to three feet high, with green waxy leaves and a bright yellow flower.  The centre of the flower gives off a strong, unpleasant rotting smell, which attracts insects that act as pollinators.  Plants in the wild like this one probably originate through the dumping of garden material, as colonies of the plant quickly outgrow their space in most gardens. Some will have been established from seed dispersed from nearby gardens, and of course at the edge of a loch this size the seed may have floated some distance. The plants have a negative impact and, like most foreign invasive species, out-compete native plants and cause extensive damage locally. New legislation in Scotland that considerably improves the previous legislation is intended to reduce the release or spread of non-native species of both plants and animals.

As I walked towards the boats I met Craig and Louis, who is owner’s son-in-law.  Craig, who is lucky enough to live beside the loch, told me he had seen the great-crested grebes displaying a couple of weeks earlier. These birds have an elaborate courtship display, which involves a lot of beak-to-beak head shaking, and culminates in the birds raising themselves out of the water, side by side, and paddling rapidly away parallel to each other before eventually settling back on the water again. Louis also had a story of watching an osprey that had gripped a fish too large for it and, after much splashing and flapping to get airborne again, had to abandon its oversized catch. An osprey was circling the loch as I got into the boat, and I watched with interest hoping it would spot a fish, but there was no tempting trout for it and it gradually drifted westwards towards Loch of the Lowes. I wondered if it might have been Lady, the now-famous osprey that is again nesting at the Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve at Lowes and is just about to lay her 22nd clutch of eggs.

I edged the boat out into the loch and turned left (I should use the terms port and starboard on a boat) to go round the loch clockwise. There was a strong ripple on the water, though not quite enough to be called a wave, but as the wind was from the west I could see it was a lot calmer at the opposite end. I gradually headed up the loch, keeping about 100 yards out from the south shore so as not to disturb any birds on the shoreline. Only drake mallard were present, with the females no doubt incubating nests of eggs in the woodland. The pair of great crested grebes was ahead of me, about 20 yards from each other but intent on feeding as they kept diving. I stopped the motor to watch, hoping for some courtship activity, even though it was getting late in the season for this. Unfortunately I had no luck, but what I did see, some distance away on the other side of the loch, was a second pair.  Might there be two broods of chicks on the loch this year?

Between the two pairs of grebes, a solitary cormorant swam low in the water keeping a close eye on me. It seemed it was trying to hide by sitting as low in the water as possible, but this is their normal swimming posture: the body barely visible, the neck emerging from the water and the head and beak pointing upwards, all rather serpentine and even Jurassic-looking.  As I studied the birds on the water I was aware of birds above the water: the first of the season’s hirundines back from Africa. I had already listed two last year on this estate – swallows and house martins – but here was a small flock of sand martins. So far as I know these earliest of the swallow-like birds to return to our shores don’t breed anywhere on the estate; at least I’ve never seen a sandy bank with their tell-tale elliptical nesting burrows. The wee chocolate brown and white birds darted to and fro above me, filling themselves with insects. Though I was sure they were sand martins and not really early house martins, I checked with the binoculars for the white rump easily visible on house martins.  No white rump apparent, and my identification satisfied, I watched as their insect-catching activity gradually drifted towards the north shore, then disappeared altogether. I suspected they were still en route to a destination slightly further north, but was pleased to have seen them. They and other summer visitors will shortly replace the geese, fieldfares, redwing and other visitors that winter with us.

I slowly edged the boat between the first pair of grebes and one of only three boats of anglers on the loch, heading for the bay at the west end. Several goldeneye were in the bay and, as I kept to the north side, they gradually swam round the south side. They had quickly become accustomed to boats and I even managed a photograph of some of them. I doubt if they’ll nest here but if we get some nest boxes up for next year maybe then some will stay. There seemed only two pairs of mute swans on the loch, with one nesting on a spit of land on the north side of the bay while its mate kept watch from the south side. The female had its neck curled round under its wing sound asleep, not in the least concerned about the presence of my boat only ten yards away. It looked the picture of contentment and I wondered how many eggs it was incubating. I also wondered – not for the first time – why there were no cygnets last summer. Maybe the answer lies with the number of pike in the loch, so I’ll watch with interest this year.

I gradually headed down the loch near the north shore, seeing the other swan on a nest in reeds half-way down the loch, with her mate much more attentive and only a few yards from the nest. A small flock of tufted ducks swam on the other side of my boat. They should nest round the loch-side yet I never did see any young tufties last year, nor any young mallard come to that.  Are pike the villains of the piece? They are certainly voracious predators and can have a significant impact on their prey species. Though their main diet is smaller fish, they regularly supplement it with frogs, waterfowl or any other species that might enter the water.  A week-old ducking would be a snack to a large pike, and it could easily manage one half-grown.

 As I tied up the boat at the anchorage I heard a moorhen kurr-uk from the reeds near the yellow skunk cabbage. I’d heard it several times on my visits but had never seen it – until today. As I put my rucksack in the boot of the car it was skulking through the reeds, slowly and carefully placing one large olive-green foot in front of the other in typical moorhen style, flicking its tail as it went, and with its red forehead and red beak tipped with yellow in complete and flamboyant contrast with its dull olive-brown plumage.  They’re lovely wee birds. I had one for a while visit the burn in the garden and hoped it would bring a mate and remain there, but unfortunately there must have been more suitable habitat elsewhere.

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