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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Some Highlights of Natural History in 2007 (by Mary Legg, and Ken Butler)

Plants (Ken Butler)
The mild winter followed by a warm Spring meant that plants got off to a good start. By the end of April the weather was cold and wet – and so was the rest of the year!

In this column last year I left a hint of an announcement to come. It was of the discovery of a plant new to science, found at St John’s Loch. This was a horsetail hybrid found by Dr Heather McHaffie in 2003 and formally published in 2007. The story is given later in this issue.


One project for the summer was to survey Reay Golf course, which has not been seriously botanically examined for at least 30 years. It led to the find of a good previously un-recorded colony of the Curved Sedge Carex maritima. Since this is a vulnerable Red Data Book species this was an important find. Another known colony was re-found and was in better condition than expected. The hybrid between the Primrose and the Cowslip was very prevalent, especially on the west boundary. New plants to the county found on or near the course were Field Scabious Knautia arvensis and Indian Balsam Impatiens glandulifera.

New to the county was Hemlock Water-dropwort Oenanthe crocata, a poisonous plant found in the margins of the Wick River. It must be recently arrived, since it is in a place where it would surely have been noticed before now.

Many plants were late to flower because of the cold season. The colony of the very rare Marsh Saxifrage Saxifraga hirculus on the Munsary nature reserve had ¼ of the normal number of flowers, while the Bog Cranberry at Kensary did not flower at all and it was late September before a Bog Cranberry flower was found anywhere.

Another late flowerer was the garden escape Persicaria campanulata found flourishing in a lay-by near Watten on 28th October. It too is new to the county.

Other things (Mary Legg)
Starting at the larger mammals, there were early sightings of dolphins in April 2007 with a large pod of common dolphins off Thurso bay and 5 white beaked dolphins off Lybster (Swiney Head). The lookout at Lybster again produced Risso’s dolphins on the 6th July and a basking shark on the 21st June. Risso’s dolphins appeared off Thurso Bay on the 12th of April.

Once again Orcas made what is becoming an annual appearance and were seen early in the summer both off east Stroma on the 28th June and excellent sightings off John o’ Groats on the 19th June. The pod included a large male, one calf and several females. There is an ongoing survey of orcas looking at their dorsal fins as a way of identifying them and it may be that we have the same group re-occurring in this area. Minke whales were also seen in small numbers throughout the summer.

The end of the summer was best for seeing porpoise particularly off Gills Bay and they were particularly good there from Sept to mid Oct with over 50 animals feeding in the bay. They appear to disperse in November.

Grey seals were counted from the clifftops at Duncansby head and numbers were similar to last year but pups, particularly those born on the north coast, took a battering from stormy conditions and many were swept away and found abandoned in bays from Sandside to Sannick. Common seals are also thought to have has a poor breeding season.

I have had no pine martin records this year. I have reports of three otter road-kills on the north roads plus regular sightings around Dwarwick Head in springtime. One of the best places to see them is still Thurso River often from the bridge. It is always worth looking along rocky shores on the off chance of them making an appearance.

I am finding plenty of signs of water voles, particularly where there are beds of soft rush for them to feed on and tunnel in. So far the fact that we have no mink here means that their population remains strong.

This year a moth recording project has been launched UK-wide as part of a 5-year project to increase the interest in this group of insects and raise the number of records and information in the UK. It will look at population trends particularly amongst moth species that are threatened. This part of the world is under-recorded but through the Caithness Biodiversity Group moth traps have been purchased and are out to new recorders. Please send any records you have to me as I am now the County Recorder for moths.

Speckled Wood butterflies were seen again in Dunnet forest and appear to have spread further across the north.

There have been some interesting changes to the marine food chain with the appearance of snake pipefish in large numbers around the UK coast. I have found them in the middle of Thurso, presumably carried there and dropped as unpalatable by sea birds . They are also appearing in the diet of seabirds, otters and cetaceans. Information on the nutrient value of snake pipefish is currently lacking but their rigid, bony structure makes them difficult for young seabirds to swallow and there are numerous records of chicks choking to death. This is particularly true for guillemot and tern chicks so unfortunately they will not replace the diminished supply of sand eels in those birds’ diets, nor prevent this year being a disaster for our sea bird colonies.

Another interesting change in our seas is the lack of post-breeding swarms of jelly fish this year. These occur about July time but there were far fewer this year. However we did have a new jellyfish visitor, the Mauve Stinger, that swept up from the west coast and reached as far as Shetland. They stayed stranded on the beach at Dunnet for only a few days before being swept away or buried in the sand. Despite their small size they have a nasty sting so we were fortunate in that they arrived here in November and not mid-summer.

We continue to need records so please keep sending them in.

Orcas Found Around Caithness

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