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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Some Highlights of Natural History in 2006 (by Mary Legg, Donald Omand and Ken Butler)

Birdlife Ė by D Omand
The New Year saw the usual presence of Iceland gulls in Thurso and Wick harbours, with the occasional Glaucous gull, but neither species occurred in the same numbers as last years record influx. Other winter residents included a small number of Waxwings in a few locations, and the long-staying drake American Wigeon on Wick river, which was recorded from January through to April. A Ring-necked duck was seen on Loch Calder in January, with another sighting again on 15 April.

Spring migration was a quiet affair, with few records, but included a Long-Tailed skua on 22nd May at Duncansby, whilst 5 Great Northern divers were still present in Dunnet Bay on the same date.

The breeding season appeared to be generally successful for nestbox species, but less so for seabirds. Ospreys bred again, Grasshopper warblers were confirmed as breeding, and Barn Owl numbers continued to increase considerably.

Autumn highlights included a Pallasís warbler at Skirza on 13-14 October, with Yellow-browed warbler at Noss, Common Rosefinch at Duncansby, and Little Bunting at Shebster also occurring that month, along with a juvenile Crane in Harpsdale.

The year closed with an influx of crossbills in December, and the return of some Waxwings, and of a drake American Wigeon to Wick river.

The county bird recorder, Stan Laybourne, is always grateful for any bird records you may have, which can be sent to him at Old Schoolhouse, Harpsdale, Halkirk.

Wildlife etc. Ė by M Legg
Once again minke whale were spotted during our June walks along the north coast which seems to be the regular pattern of movement tied to prey species. We had excellent sightings of killer whales during our trip to Hoy as part of Wild Encounters fortnight at the end of May when two separate pods came very close to the boat. The first one was of twelve animals including two males the other an adult male a female and one young. They were on the opposite course to us and looked as if they were travelling with a destination in mind rather than feeding. The sea surface was reasonably rough yet we still had good views of these amazing mammals. In September our boat trip for cetacean watch found good numbers of porpoise again showing well around the boat.

I had my first sighting of a basking shark in Dunnet bay and there continue to be sightings along the north coast. It could be a plankton shift or a recovery in numbers from hunting days.

Seal numbers, counted from the clifftops, were much the same as last year with about 170 between Queenie Bay and Wife geo on Duncansby head.

No pine martin records this year that I know of but three roadkill otters plus regular sightings around Dwarwick head in springtime.

Speckled wood were seen again in Dunnet forest in August during the butterfly monitor in Dunnet Forest and by others reflecting the northern spread of this pretty species. They were also seen in North Sutherland. Spring time records have come in for the peacock butterfly one in Harpsdale and the other in Scotscalder in early May and again feeding on French marigold in the same garden in Scotscalder .

The Caithness biodiversity group and the local countryside volunteers started the kidney vetch project this summer. The small blue butterfly is one of the national priority species and its most northerly colonies in Scotland are found in Caithness at three coastal sites; Scrabster, Castlehill and within the dune system at Dunnet. These coastal locations suit the caterpillars` food plant, kidney vetch. At the Dunnet site much of the vetch grows at the seaward end of the dunes and it is steadily eroding into the sea. To ensure the long term survival of the habitat the Caithness Biodiversity group chose as one of its projects for 2006 the enlargement of the area where the flower grows taking it into the dune back and finally into Dunnet forest itself where there are plenty of sheltered clearings.

There were several stages to the project. Seed was collected locally as we have a subspecies of vetch growing here and didnít want to introduce the wrong plant. The seed was prepared by taking it out of its case and then given to a local nursery where it was grown on to form robust plugs. These were then planted out with the help of the Caithness Countryside Volunteers in July. Due to dry conditions and sandy soil the plants needed to be well watered in over a few weeks but all seemed to have matured into strong plants. The local nursery did very well producing over 600 plants. Most of the seed germinated from spring sowing but it was unusual in that although nearly all the seed eventually germinated it did so sporadically over the two months.

Within the forest area man and nature have combined to do their bit for the project. The Dunnet Forest Trust has been laying new paths for improved access and, within these, patches of kidney vetch have appeared. We have also scattered seed in some of the stony open ground suitable for the plant. It is hoped that we can repeat the project next year perhaps putting more flowers into the flagstone quarry spoil at Castlehill as well as at Dunnet. I grew on a few seeds myself successfully and will plant them in our own garden. The vetches are such good plants for attracting bees and butterflies, it can only enhance our insect life.

Barn owl boxes were also built and erected by the group. One of them is already being used and we have regular sightings on the links of Dunnet and records of the owls using abandoned crofts as breeding sites.

Swift boxes were also incorporated into the new building at Mansons Lane in Thurso. The Swifts use the old brewery to breed in and as its future is uncertain it is a wise move to add boxes to the new flats. Getting the birds to flit into their new homes is not so easy and it may be that we have to get someone to use tape lures. They are such a regular sight and sound above the town that it would be a shame to lose the colony if the old building goes.

Plants Ė by Ken Butler
The Spring was warm in February then cold in March and April, so the burst into growth was late and everything came at once. Conditions were good for some repeats of last years searches for the Curved Sedge Carex maritima. It is nationally rare and we did not do well in re-finding old sites last year. This year the colony at Sannick Bay flowered and it was accurately located by GPS and the 48 flowering heads counted. So now the only missing colony is at Dunnet on the Links of Old Tain. This may have been lost due to change of grazing patterns.

One national project last summer was to look at sites for the Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia. In north Sutherland there is a good colony at Strathy, while in Caithness the Dunbeath valley is the place to go. Across Britain it seems to be losing many sites, but it is stable here.

New member Mike Lunan, looking around the walls of the former Brownhill Quarry in Thurso found a colony of Sedum forsterianum which is a new record for the county.

Meanwhile there has been an interesting find at St Johnís Loch. Iím not allowed to tell you about that until it is formally published Ö. So watch this space

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