Fins and Feathers

February 29th 2012

Article originally published in the Assynt News during September 2011

Fins and Feathers

Having done enough chores for the day we decided the rest of Thursday 1st September was our own. It had turned out a warm, bright and relatively calm day so it seemed a good idea to head to Stoer Head lighthouse and just sit and watch.

We arrived at the car park just before 4pm, pleased to see Leigh’s food van was still open for a cuppa. She was busy with customers so we had a scan over the water with the binoculars. It must only have been seconds but we picked up ‘fins’ way out in the Minch. The initial thought was a pod of Common Dolphin but they were too far out to be seen so well through bins. While hurriedly extracting the scope from the car we dared to think this could be Killer Whales or Orcas as they are also known.

The fins were around 2.5km out but the scope did its job once again and confirmed our hopes – we were looking at a pod of around a dozen Orcas with females, calves and at least one male. They were heading generally south in no great hurry but would disperse with some heading back north or straight towards us.
Leigh and several visitors to the lighthouse also had a look at these whales through the scope, with Skye in the background it was a fantastic sight and they all left happy. We never did get that tea!

We continued to watch the whales for over 2 hours as they moved southwards. Twice we saw one of them breach, clearly showing white under the chin, and at one point it looked very much like they were corralling fish as we could see at least four fins forming a semi-circle.
How lucky could we get – Orcas within less than a minute of getting out of the car?

Pushing our luck we headed back to the lighthouse on the Sunday as it was another calm, warm day. At the lighthouse however it was a different sea, far too many waves and quite a swell to be much use for whale watching. An hour there gave us some nice birds then we headed to other locations ending up at Clashnessie where the sea was calmer.

We were looking at a Great Northern Diver in the bay when ‘fins’ appeared to the west of Eilean Chrona. Unbelievable, this time it was an Orca pod of around ten females and calves heading, again very lazily, north towards Handa. We watched for 10-15 minutes and then saw four more approaching from the west – this was a group containing at least two large males with their massive, vertical dorsal fins showing clearly, compared to the smaller curved fins of the females and calves.

It is very probable that this was the same family group we had seen on Thursday. This time they were a bit closer so we took some photos through the scope as individuals, and hence family groups, can be identified by the cuts and nicks on their dorsal fin. Looking at the photos later revealed we had not captured any fins with visible marks.

Orcas, or Killer Whales, whose species name is Orcinus orca are contained within the suborder Odontoceti, or toothed whales, which also contains the more frequently seen Common and Bottlenose Dolphins, the latter being the Moray Firth species . Orcas have 46-50 conical shaped teeth which they use to great effect to catch their prey which includes seals, porpoise, fish and even smaller whales.

Orcas are found in all oceans of the world with the males, which can weigh over 8 tonnes, reaching 7m in length. The females can be 6.5m long and weigh over 3.5 tonnes. We mentioned earlier the different fins on males and females. Those on the males are generally much more vertical and pointed than the female and can be up to 1.8m long while the females, and juveniles, have curved fins which can still be 0.9m long.

Being toothed whales Orcas differ from the more often seen Minke whale and the Fin whale which was washed up near Raffin in November 2007. Minke and Fin whales are part of the family Balaenoptera – baleen whales. These whales do not have teeth but instead have a series of hundreds of fringed overlapping plates made of keratin, like our fingernails, in their mouths.

Baleen whales feed on items such as krill or small schooling fish. They take in massive volumes of water containing their prey and then when they close their mouth the water is forced out through the baleen trapping the prey which is then swallowed.

If you would like to see and handle baleen there is a piece of it in the Highland Council Ranger’s office in Lochinver – it came from the Raffin Fin whale. To get much more information on the whale species mentioned and records of sightings in the North West www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk is well worth a look.

On our more usual subject of birds we would add that now is a great time to look out for autumn migrants. Culkein Bay has so far given us Common Scoter, Slavonian Grebe, Sanderling, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone and, on 6th September, a juvenile female Ruff, or Reeve and then three more (an adult Ruff and two more Reeves) on the 13th. Also on the 13th we had six juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. These last two birds are new records for Assynt with only around five Ruff and even less Curlew Sandpiper being recorded in the whole Highland recording area each year. Ruff mainly over winter in Africa but a few hundred brave it out in the UK. Curlew Sandpiper breeds in Arctic Siberia and again winters in Africa.

By the time you read this article the Pink-footed Geese will have started passing over us on their way back from breeding in the arctic to initially Scotland’s east coast and then further south in the UK; listen out for their wink-wink call. Last year our first skein went over on 14th September.

There is a well-worn “flight line” used by many migrating birds which runs from Loch Laxford, via Loch Shin to the Dornoch Firth, however, as they travel on broad fronts and weather conditions can change their exact route, we fortunately often see and hear them. Incidentally, this route is reversed in the spring.

Enjoy the autumn and all that it might bring to Assynt.

D and A Haines

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