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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Some Highlights of Natural History in 2004 (by Mary Legg, Donald Omand and Ken Butler)
2004 proved to be a year of mixed weather and mixed wildlife. Some old favourites never appeared but this was balanced out by the arrival of some newcomers.

Starting at the top end of the scale in size there was an unprecedented number of whales between the end of May and the middle of June sighted around the Caithness coast. We had our first report on May 30th of over 30 minke seen off Dunnet Head, with killer and possible pilot whales amongst them. These sightings continued over the next fortnight with high counts from Holborn Head; during one guided walk from Duncansby head to Freswick there were continual sightings of the mammals over a four hour period with possibly as many as 30 animals. They were all heading in a northerly direction towards the Pentland Firth. The large group of minke disappeared probably with the herring and mackerel that they feed on. One dead stranding of a minke was also found during this period on the north coast.

Killer whales (also known as orca) also featured during this bonanza. One exciting record was from a group of canoeists out from Wick who found themselves surrounded by a group of ten orcas( four young males and six females). The orcas came within a couple of metres of the boats but ignored the canoeists. The paddlers did move away when two of the males approached at high speed. We continued to get records of orcas between Wick and Orkney; one group was teaching their youngster how to hunt at the expense of a young seal. High orca records are possibly a result of the increase in local seal populations.

Strangely no records of Risso's dolphins came in. Normally this is a relatively common species up here. Nor did we have sightings of the bottlenose dolphin that seem to have been regular visitors over the past few years but it could be that we have just not been around to see them. Porpoise reached high numbers at the end of summer with up to 50 in Gills bay which is a regularly used stretch of water for them.

A leatherback turtle was found caught up in fishing gear of Latheron wheel on October 30th. By catch ( entrapment in fishing gear) is a major threat to turtles in Britain's litter-strewn seas. Although it nests in tropical areas it will forage in temperate waters, feeding mainly on jellyfish.. Unlike other reptile species, the leatherback can maintain some control over its body temperature and can therefore remain active and feed in cooler waters. Adults are regular migrants to our coastal waters where most sightings are during late summer and early autumn.

We do an annual count of grey seal pups from the cliff-tops between Skirza and John O'Groats every November. The grey seals pup in the winter months, in contrast to the common seals which have their pups in summer. The grey seal pups remain on shore where they are suckled on extremely rich milk. They are white coated and are not seaworthy until they have cast this coat. They will then have a few rough months learning to fend for themselves. Over the years we have seen an increase in the number of seals pupping on the narrow rocky shores along this section of coast and this year we counted about 150 plus (over double last years number) at various stages of development. Some were feeding, some were new-born and sadly a few were dead. The mortality rate can be very high as these beaches are exposed and backed by high cliffs and if hit by easterlies the pups will be swept off and separated from their mothers.

From large to little - it was an interesting year for butterflies . Several small tortoiseshells over-wintered in the upstairs cupboard at the Ranger Quarters and we managed to release a few of them in springs warmth.

This year none have come into the house. Perhaps there were less around from the summer broods
in a colder autumn than we had in 03. It was, however, a good year for painted ladies, migrants that don`t always reach this far north. In early June I had lots in the garden on the cotoneaster . Small blue butterfly numbers were down on last year but the best feature in the Lepidoptera world was the appearance of peacock butterflies on Dunnet Head and at Latheron-wheel. We have had unconfirmed records only up here so it was really exciting to see them. These butterflies have effective false eyes on their wings great for scaring off birds. They can also over-winter in Britain so, who knows, maybe those on the headland will find a corner to hibernate in.

The great yellow bumble bee made several appearances. It was seen several times in the Scarfskerry area in a field full of wild plants including vetches and once at Dunnet Forest Open day. Scottish primrose were fewer this year at both the flowerings; those we transplanted from the Dunnet Forest seem to be holding their own. There have been plenty otter records around the county but unfortunately a high mortality on the roads with the Murkle area particularly bad.

Its been a very bad year for breeding sea birds with a terrible wreck of both adults and young guillemot and razorbill, all starving. Various theories have been given for this from changing patterns in the movement and availability of sand eel possibly related to global warming. Its also possible that an increase in herring stocks is competing with the birds for their food. Bad weather and feather moult also meant the birds were more vulnerable. On two separate beach counts we totalled 600 birds dead on Dunnet Bay.

Moist conditions combined with some heat to give much better conditions for fungi than in the dry weather of 2003. It turned out to be a good year although some species appeared later than usual i.e.brittle caps and saffron caps.

Mary had her first sighting of dog stinkhorn in Achvarasdal and also bird`s-nest fungi. These are possibly new records for the county.

Mary also had a lovely surprise on the last day of the year with a call from the SSPCA . Someone had trapped a pine martin at their domestic ducks. It was released elsewhere in the county. A fine end to the wildlife year to see such a beautiful creature so close up.

Botanical recording in 2004 focussed mainly on the Local Change project which is described later in the Bulletin. Walking the hedgerows has also thrown into focus the increasing number of plantings and escapes of garden plants into the countryside. First and second observations of new plants growing "in the wild" are recorded in detail for historical purposes and to allow tracking of their survival. This year the daylily Hemerocallis fulva was recorded at Rangag, the oriental poppy Papaver pseudoorientale was found at Watten , while at Watenan Kniphofia uvaria and Lysimachia punctata were among the plantings. A truly wild find which was a new record for the County was Carex vesicaria in Tarroul Wood. It is undoubtedly part of the original flora of the hinterland around the Loch of Winless.

Turning to birds, the year opened with the over-wintering Oriental Turtle Dove present in the Ham/Rattar area until late March. Other winter rarities included a Ring-Billed Gull at Dunnet, and an American Wigeon in Wick.

Spring migration was quiet, but a Garganey in April, at least two sightings of Cranes in June, and a Little Egret at Loch of Mey on 1st June were notable. The breeding season was a successful one for nestbox species, but seabirds had a very poor season in Caithness, and in Orkney & Shetland. Some rare breeding birds included Rosefinch, Brambling, and Ospreys bred again, and the Black Kite present at Auchentoul was seen near Knockfin in July.

Autumn passage was initially unremarkable, but a Red-backed Shrike was seen in August. However, things picked up in October with an unusually large influx of northern-race Bullfinches, Waxwings and “white headed” Long-tailed Tits seen across the county. American Golden Plover was seen on Noss Head on 15-16 October. Redwing and Fieldfare numbers were not as high as in some recent years.

Perhaps the birding highlight of the year was the Bonaparte’s Gull, seen originally at Castlehill on 12th September, but subsequently present at Thurso for many weeks, and was still seen in 2005. The bird was the first county record, and attracted many birders from south.

The last two months of the year saw a late record of a Barred Warbler on 4 Nov in Reay, and sightings of Ring-Necked Duck at Loch Sarclet 14-29 November, and another American Wigeon on Wick River. Finally, there were good numbers of northern gulls, with up to 4 Glaucous Gulls and 8 Iceland Gulls (including at least two adults) at Thurso Harbour, with additional sightings at Scrabster, Dunnet and Wick. Two of the Iceland Gulls were regarded as “Kumlein-type” gulls, several of which were seen in Scotland over the 2004-5 winter.

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