Caithness wildlife : May 2016

Two-day workshop based at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in Thurso, Caithness, and organised by the University of Nottingham to talk about remote sensing and peatland mapping. The early mornings and evenings offered the opportunity for wildlife watching.
To start with, the centre of Thurso was ringing with the calls of rooks nesting in the trees of St John’s Square. The young are already pretty much teenagers and are as hungry as wolves (click on photos for full view):
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It’s extraordinary to see the bulging chin pouch of the parent just completely empty after feeding the young:
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Afterwards the youngsters sit waiting for yet more. I was intrigued to find out where the food was coming from, and noticed that the parents kept flying north, to the coast:
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I found all the rooks strutting round the beach along with several jackdaws, turning over seaweed for sandhoppers and things:
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The kelp beds themselves provided some lovely shapes and colours – aided here by Photoshop:
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Flitting about amidst the kelp was a redshank – and I suspect various turnstones but their camouflage is so good I just couldn’t spot them:
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The oystercatchers, on the other hand, were hard to miss with their constant piping, flashy black and white wing bars and brilliant orange-red legs and bills. Very entertaining to watch them doing a sort of hokey-kokey walk from time to time:
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Out on the peatlands, the skies were a gorgeous blue with not a trace of the rain which helps to create these peat bogs. All rather fortunate for the workshop!
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After a day spent out on the bogs, we were taken to a secret spot on the coast in hope of seeing puffins. There was one, but with my camera it was a tiny white dot. The scenery was, however, quite stunning:
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The fulmars were wheeling about on their stiff wings above the crashing waves and along the cliff faces:
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At the end of the second day we had the opportunity to visit the REAL northernmost point of mainland Britain – Dunnet Head – which lies just a few miles west of John o’Groats:
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The cliffs around Dunnet Head are breeding grounds for a great many sea and coastal birds – but of course everyone wanted to see puffins. While everyone else went puffin hunting, I headed off to find ravens, which also nest on the cliffs:
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Having been disturbed by a band of puffin hunters, the raven then flew round and practically right past me – too close for the camera to cope with zooming and focusing! Managed to catch a good view of the huge beak, though:
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Joining the puffin hunters, there was much excitement about a couple of puffins on a ledge – but closer inspection revealed the nearer bird to be a razorbill:
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Then a very obliging puffin came waddling out from its burrow to stand there displaying its essential puffin-ness:
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Meanwhile the fulmars continued to wheel around along the cliff edge and I continued to take many photographs of empty sea with just the hint of a fulmar tail at the edge of the photograph. If you take enough photos, at least one will work just by sheer luck:
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From the high point of the headland we could see all the way back into Caithness, bathed in the evening light. In the middle distance the regular lines within the brown of the peat bog indicate where domestic peat has been cut in the past:
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Driving back down from the headland, my PhD student, Jerushah, and I stopped to capture the yellow of the gorse, plus a little male stonechat:
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Then in the meadows in Dunnet itself we spotted this curlew, feeding hungrily while its mate flew overhead calling with that liquid whistling call that marks the edge of the peat bogs and the start of the in-by land:
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Photos from the 16 hour journey home will follow soon.

Author: Richard Lindsay

Having worked for 20 years in the UK statutory nature conservation agencies as Peatland Specialist in the Chief Scientist Team, I then moved to the University of East London where I ran the nature conservation degrees for several years. Now I mainly undertake research and support peatland conservation activities, including the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, within UEL's Sustainability Research Institute. I also paint.

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