Wildlife Summary of 2015 in Assynt
By Andy Summers (Highland Council Senior Ranger) using personal observations and records from the Assynt Field Club website.
2015 was notable for a very wet summer, dry and sunny autumn and ending with an exceptionally mild but windy winter. Much of the unusual weather this year can be attributed to the El Nino effect on the global weather pattern.
In Assynt the year started with a massive storm with westerly winds on 8th January (A storm that in Stornoway equalled the highest wind ever recorded there -117mph) followed by several others. January and February saw a number of Iceland and Glaucous gulls around the coast. Up to 32 Barnacle geese spent time at Culkein Stoer and a painted lady butterfly was seen in Lochinver presumably woken from its hibernation.
The first honey bees were seen flying on 13th March which was the start of a warm and sunny week. The solar eclipse was a rare phenomenon that we were able to watch in Assynt on 20th March. Lapwings returned to their breeding grounds at Clachtoll and Clashmore, the first black-throated diver was seen on loch Drumbeg and the first wheatear returned on the 26th.
The first frog spawn, as usual, were recorded at Culkein Drumbeg on 19th February. The same day, large numbers of toads were seen crossing the road at Loch an Ordain. Another wet night on 19th March had the toads out again in force. 30-40 toads skinned by a feeding otter were found at Badnaban 26th March. Several early adult slow worms were seen under the corrugated tin at the car park at the back of the Lochinver Tourist Information Centre on 23rd March. Later in the year adders were seen at Loch Beannach 8th June and Little Assynt 22nd July.
April saw three weeks of great weather ending with a sudden cold north wind and lambing snow on the 26th. 9th April saw the first white tailed bumblebee and the 17th the first common carder bee. A small tortoiseshell butterfly was seen on 10th April (an increasingly scarce sight nowadays). By 10th June, green-veined whites were everywhere. An osprey was seen at Culkein bay on 3rd April and a wave of Icelandic/Faroese redwings descended on Assynt on 7th April on their way north. Over 100 kittiwakes and 85 plus fulmars were seen off the rocks at Stoer lighthouse on 5th April. The first migrants included willow warbler 12th, whimbrel 15th, cuckoo 17th and mallard ducklings were seen at Clachtoll on 30th April.
The harbour seals started to gather as usual in the Culkein Drumbeg/Oldany area. 26 were counted 16th March and 42 on 17th April reaching 62+ on 25th May prior to pupping. While in Loch Roe 14 adults were seen 20th April.
However the end of April was the end of the dry, sunny weather. May, June and July were incredibly wet and cold. A weather station at Clachtoll recorded July temperatures to be significantly lower than average and the dominant wind was from the NE and not the typical SW. The same station also recorded 43.7mm of rain in 24 hours on the 7th July.
May started with a hoopoe at Raffin on the 5th, a female black grouse at Stoer on the 9th and reports of a corncrake at Clachtoll on the 10th. The corncrake did not stay around unfortunately. A huge flock of waders were recorded at Culkein bay on 17th May including 260 dunlin.
This cold wet summer meant that for many birds it was a disastrous breeding season. Very few greenshank territories seemed to be occupied. Black and red-throated divers failed in many of the traditional lochs in Assynt because of the high water tables. Ardvreck castle on Loch Assynt for example was an island for most of May. But even common garden birds like great tits had a poor breeding season presumable because of the lack of caterpillars. However on the positive side there were reports of juvenile great spotted woodpeckers in Culag woods, singing redwings at Elphin and young ring ouzels at the Bone caves.
The breeding waders at Clachtoll did well with at least three large lapwing chicks and the resident breeding pair of snipe and redshank had young also. Greylag goslings were seen in many places. But there are only a small number of active grey heron nests left in the Culag woods. There were also fewer records of butterflies, bumblebees and dragonflies. The wet and cold weather meant butterflies such as common blues and small heaths and even meadow browns were less often seen. A single orange tip was recorded at Torbreck on the 29th May. A few gold-ringed and common hawker dragonflies were seen at Cnocaneach 30th June. While Scot’s argus butterflies continue their expansion of Assynt starting with records at Duart on 26th July.
Flowers in general seemed later than in recent years. Although early woodland flowers such as bluebells and primroses were spectacular. The few clumps of cowslips at Achmelvich did well due to their protection from grazing. The oyster plant at Clachtoll was not as prolific in flowering as last year but nevertheless survives.
Mole hills were seen along the road to Ardvar for the first time ever but moles continue to be exterminated in other places in Assynt. Yet again no records of hedgehogs have been reported and we may conclude they have gone extinct here. Rabbits on the other hand started to show themselves again at Clachtoll and Stoer after several years at very low numbers. Resident people at Raffin however report that their rabbits never experienced the decline felt elsewhere. While in Nedd there was the first record of a rabbit in ten years. It feels as if there have been fewer reports of badgers this year compared to previous. Early October saw them back on the machair at Achmelvich digging up the solitary bees’ nests. A dead badger (presumably road casualty) was picked up near Cathair Dubh on the 1st April. A pine marten was recorded using the artificial den box in Culag woods during December and may have been there all summer.
Single and pairs of Otters were seen all year at loch Nedd, Loch Roe, Lochinver bay, Culkein Stoer, Badnaban, Clachtoll, Stoer (where Clachtoll broch is being used as a holt) and lots of sightings around Clashnessie but interestingly only one record of young otters were reported this year (mother and two cubs at Kylesku 15th December). Spraints have been seen along the Altanabradhan path, were none have been seen for a few years. A record was sent in to the Ranger Service by a visitor of a mink on the Traligill on the 24th June but trapping failed to catch anything. While there were unconfirmed records of wildcat scats on the Bone caves path during the summer camera trapping during August by the Ranger failed to record anything other than fox and badgers.
A common pipistrelle maternity bat roost was counted at Achmelvich (max 123 bats 23rd June) as well as Recharn (max 91 bats on 9th July). Unfortunately two dead young males were discovered outside the former house in the middle of August. The first red deer calf was spotted 14th June at Torbreck and during the rut the deer seem to be coming ever closer to crofts in Clachtoll and other townships throughout North Assynt estate.
Raptors had a mediocre year. This was the year of the national golden eagle count and generally in the Highlands the west did worse than the east. We had a least two fledged young but equally we know of two who apparently failed at early egg stage due the weather. But the highlight was the first definite record of (not one but two) breeding pairs of sea eagle for Sutherland. Although the nests were not in Assynt the birds were frequently seen around Kylesku and Drumbeg area. Lots of raven fledged as usual and barn owls seem to continue their expansion. One pair almost certainly nested in the artificial nest box provided near Ledbeg house.
It seems to have been a mixed year for the seabird colonies. Guillemot productivity on Handa Island, north of Assynt was apparently the highest recorded in the last 15 years. Other bird species did not fare so well. Arctic and common terns failed to breed on Handa this year but a handful of young were fledged in Loch roe and on the island opposite Culkein Drumbeg.
August was a bit warmer and at last a few butterflies and dragonflies appeared. 184 Oystercatchers on Clashnessie beach was exceptional on 7th August but 60+ whimbrel on the 9th and 200+ starlings at the bay of Culkein was to be expected. A goshawk was seen at Clachtoll on the 23rd yellow-browed warbler on the 22nd and there were several records of barn owl around Stoer and also Inchnadamph. 245 shags were observed on the rocks below Stoer lighthouse on 26th August.
The middle of August saw several young harbour seals weak and in trouble on Clachtoll, Stoer and Achmelvich beaches. One 5-6 week old pup was collected by SSPCA and taken to Alloa.
But it was into September that saw the start of the good weather not seen since April. Indeed September was so dry that the fungi normally so abundant in the Culag woods were almost non-existent. The warmer weather saw a rise in dragonfly activity. On 8th September at least 8 common hawkers were seen at the bone caves – several in mating tandem. An elephant hawk-moth was spotted in Clashnessie on the 7th. While on 21st September the Ranger counted 23 mostly white tailed bumblebees in a 100m transect feeding on the flowering heather at Badnaban. Goldfinch numbers continue to rise but a count of 85 on a croft in Clachtoll at the end of September was the highest. Single observations of Slavonian grebes at sea were seen in September, October and November but the best was a family of six on Glencanisp Loch on 3rd September.
The warm and dry weather continued almost to the end of October. A good crop of Rowan berries were on the tree in early October but were gone by 20th October. And therefore the visiting redwings and fieldfares moved on. A late wheatear was seen at Raffin on the 12th. Whooper swans arrived on 3rd October and an unusually high peak of 69 were seen on 24th. A single jack snipe was recorded on the 17th while a red admiral butterfly was seen on 27th October and again 4th November.
November recorded the usual high number of great northern divers around the coast while an unusual record was a chiffchaff on the 12th. Over wintering tadpoles were noted at Gleann Leireag. December meanwhile was noted nationally for its unseasonable warmth. Some nights the temperature did not drop below eleven degrees.
There were seven basking shark records this year – four in June and one in July, August and September. There were 215 sightings of seven species of cetaceans this year largely thanks to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation volunteers at Stoer Head lighthouse carrying out Shorewatches. Harbour porpoise were seen every month of the year. There were a stunning 54 records of Common Dolphins this year seen from June to October with a peak in September. There was a big increase in Risso’s Dolphin sightings during the summer but only three records of Bottlenose Dolphins. There were 23 sightings of Minke whale (same as last year) with peak in June and August and three of Orca (July and August) and a reported record of a single Pilot whale.