Herring and helicopter

January 28th 2023

Herring and helicopter

[Update added below on 28 January 2023]

The local craic during late October 2022 frequently concerned the masses of birds feeding at several locations around Assynt’s coast.

For most of the last two weeks of the month and the first week in November hundreds of gulls were feeding all day, every day in Loch Inver, and further in towards the end of the River Inver. On 21st October a lot of the activity was in the small bay just below the Highland Stoneware pottery.

A perfect spot to see what all the fuss was about!

It was mesmerising. The bay was packed with three species of gull: Herring Gull; Common Gull; and Black-headed Gull. A single Iceland Gull was also present, one of the white-winged’ gull species. In addition, both Grey and Common Seals were there in double digit numbers.

The reason was ‘countless’ Whitebait; the gulls and seals were having a feast. The gulls were gorging on the whitebait while the seals picked off the few dead or injured fish floating on the surface. Larger fish were present too, maybe mackerel or herring, and they were more likely the target for the seals. The larger fish were also helping clear up the dead or injured fish.

The term ‘whitebait’ can mean different things around the world. Here it seems to refer to the fry of fish in the family Clupeidae i.e. young sprats and their relative the herring.

Back to the bay.

Every few minutes the whitebait shoals would suddenly ‘erupt’ and the surface of the water seemed to boil. Fish were leaping everywhere and the gulls took their cue.

Unlike Gannets gulls do not plunge dive, they’re not designed for it. They do drop onto the water making a splash which lets them get their head, hence their beak, just deep enough to catch a fish. The black-headed gulls were by far the most successful at this. We can’t remember seeing so many black-headed gulls before in Assynt. The count in this one small bay alone was 50+.

Andy Summers, the High Life Highland Senior Countryside Ranger has collected a small bowlful of the fish. He is sending them for expert identification.

A stop at Clachtoll later on and the action continued with numerous small pods of Common Dolphin about 2km out. Then the Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway seemed to head towards Lochinver against a late afternoon sky.

The helicopter/sunset photo is not simply a gratuitous pretty picture – look along the horizon. There must have been 1000’s of gulls and gannets feeding all along the horizon, given the number that can be seen in just this small section alone.

Never a dull moment with herring and helicopter!

David Haines

UPDATE (added 28 January 2023)

This amazing spectacle continued in Loch Inver until 20th December 2022.

Andy Summers, who is both the Field Club Chairman and Assynt Ranger, put together some statistics regarding the number and weight of fish present during this time.

He also received information regarding the sample of fish he had submitted to try and have the species established.

Andy posted all of this information on his ‘Assynt Ranger’ Facebook page on 23 January 2023.

These additional images are screenshots of Andy’s post and make for fascinating reading.

One additional thing to think about is that this sort of activity was being reported, at the same time, from several other locations on the north-west coast, the Western Isles and Orkney!

 

The text from Andy Summers' Facebook post. He describes the findings of the samples he sent to the West of Scotland Herring Hunt. Approximately one third of the fish were juvenile Herring. Andy then gives some calculations of the minimum number and weight of fish present in Loch Inver from 10 October to 20 December 2022. The number of fish is estimated at 2 million with a combined weight of 30 tons.
Text from Andy Summers’ Facebook post.

 

Photograph of two white trays with 19 juvenile Herring on the left tray and c60 Sprats on the right hand one. The fish are around 5cm in length and are very silvery.
Herring(L) and Sprats(R). Photo Michelle Frost

 

Photograph of a single Sprat and a single juvenile Herring beside each other on a white tray.
Sprat above Herring. Photo Michelle Frost

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