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Some Highlights of Natural History in 2012 (by Donald Omand and PaulCastle)

18th September 2014

Published in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol 8 No. 1 - April 2013

Caithness Bird Notes 2012 by Donald Omand

Geese and Gulls were the highlight species of the first three months of 2012. There was an influx of "white-winged gulls" during the first week of the month, peaking at a count of 30 Iceland gulls on 19th February at Scrabster. The number present in Caithness during January and February was certainly exceptional in the opinion of most local observers. There were sightings of Kumlein's Gull in Thurso Bay on several occasions during the winter, with the last seen in April. This bird is deemed by some authorities to be a subspecies of Iceland Gull, but by others as a separate species. It nests in the High Arctic of Canada. Another North American species, Bonaparte's Gull, was seen at Castlehill in several months.

The winter months saw relatively high numbers of the Tundra subspecies of Bean Goose. The influx in late 2011 was probably unprecedented for Caithness, and sightings continued to be recorded in the county until April 2012. Other notable winter records include two Red Kites seen at Castletown on 14th January, and a Lesser Scaup seen in February/March at St John's Pool will be the 9th record for the county if accepted.

A notably early spring migrant was a Cuckoo seen at Brough on 22nd March, possibly the earliest ever sighting in the county. A Red-rumped Swallow seen on 9th April will be the third record for Caithness if accepted. A record of 220 Whimbrel at Rattar on 4th May was very unusual. Several rarely-seen raptor species were seen in May: White-Tailed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Red Kite and Honey Buzzard. A White-Tailed Eagle at Broubster on 16th May was showing wing-tags that identified it as belonging to the East-of-Scotland reintroduction programme. Red-Necked Phalarope and Dotterel were seen in May, as were a total of 79 Common Scoters in Dunnet and Sinclair's Bay. Another unusual American visitor, Greater Yellowlegs, was seen on 28th May at the Loch of Mey, and could prove to be the first sighting of this species in Caithness. A Greater Yellowlegs appeared at St Johns from 25-27 July and is suspected to be the same bird.

Tree Sparrow is a very scarce species in Caithness these days, so records at Dunbeath and Harpsdale are worth mentioning.

June highlights including a calling Nightjar at Killimster on the 10th, the third county record of Woodchat Shrike was at Skirza on 13th, and a summer-plumaged Grey Phalarope was seen at St Johns Pool on the same day. Another possible county first record is Black Kite seen at Gills on 19th June.
The breeding season as usual saw some highs and lows. The first recorded breeding in Caithness for 15 years of Shoveller duck was at St Johns Pool where at least 7 ducklings were seen. This same site was a real hotspot for breeding birds, including 280 pairs of Back-Headed Gull (very few breeding sites remain in Caithness now) raised 300+ chicks, 100+ pairs of Arctic Terns raised at least 70 chicks, and the 10-12 pairs of Sandwich Terns which raised 12-14 chicks consitute the only inland breeding colony of that species. This is a site which is well worth visiting at any time of year.

Nestbox species appear to have had patchy success, with Great Tits again appearing to have had a better year than Blue Tits. Seabirds again seem to have had a bad season.

A Nuthatch reported to be at Rattar on 7th August was another exceptional record, with Little Egret and Rose-Coloured Starling also seen that month. There were influxes of Long-Tailed Tits, Great-Spotted Woodpecker and Coal Tit in the autumn, with around 100 of the latter ringed at Shebster in October. Buff-Breasted Sandpiper was seen at Hempriggs on 14th October, possibly the third county record.

Whooper Swan and Greylag geese appeared in large numbers in October and November, but the favourite influx was that of Waxwing, which delighted many garden birdwatchers in November and December - 200 birds were reported at Castehill on 3rd November.

Finally, many readers will have heard of the death in June of Stan Laybourne. Stan was the Caithness Bird Recorder for many years and is very sorely missed by all in the local ornithogical community and also by many on the national and international scene. The local bird recorder is now Sinclair Manson, 7 Duncan Street, Thurso.

2012 Wildlife Records/notes 2012 by Paul Castle

These cetacean figures were gathered from information freely available on Colin Bird's excellent cetacean watching website and also from ranger records. In total 493 reports of cetacean sightings (not number of animals) were collected between Caithness and north Sutherland in 2012. This was the highest total of reports for a number of years but this probably reflects the increased amount of folk reporting sightings in our area rather than an increase in cetacean populations.

As usual the most common species seen was the harbour porpoise with 235 reports of sightings. Minke whale came next with 116 reports, followed by unidentified dolphin species, Risso's dolphin, orca (killer whale) and white-beaked dolphin. The orca's put on a great show last year swimming right in to Thurso Bay and Scrabster in June much to the delight of many people. There were also plenty of Orca records from around Duncansby Head, John O Groats and Stroma. One (possibly 2) fin whales were recorded at a great distance from Strathy Point in September.

On a guided walk at Dwarick Head in late July we were treated to 25-30 common dolphins in Dunnet Bay for the whole of the walk. During that same walk we also saw a red kite close to the House of the Northern Gate.

The only cetacean stranding on Dunnet Beach was a sub-adult male common dolphin which was taken away for post mortem by the SAC veterinary investigation team. This stranding allowed me to definitively identify a skull we had on display for several years which I knew was either a common or striped dolphin. Bob Reid from the SAC showed me on the stranded common dolphin the obvious nasal grooves running along the underside of the top jaw. The skull on our display does not have these grooves thus we now know that the skull on the display came from a striped dolphin.
There were 41 Basking sharks records reported to with regular records coming from Orkney waters, Strathy Point, Thurso and Wick (around the Trinkie area). We saw 2 basking sharks in Dunnet Bay from the Seadrift Centre window in June and July. The total basking shark records were way up on 2011 but it's difficult to draw any definite conclusions for the increase from such limited data.

We saw two otters at Dunnet Bay in April and May and I heard them regularly whilst fishing at night on the beach. Following a spate of otter road casualties the burn by the Seadrift car park was cleared in 2011 allowing free flow of the water below the road bridge. Since this happened I have seen no further otter road casualties in that area. I received no Caithness records of pine martens in 2012.

The small blue butterfly appeared at Dunnet Dunes in May as usual but in much smaller numbers as was the case with all butterflies in 2012. Previous kidney vetch planting projects at Dunnet Dunes, Castlehill, Dunnet Forest edge and Scrabster has helped to extend the range of the small blue. There are possibly many other suitable sites in Caithness such as abandoned quarries, which if planted with kidney vetch could help to significantly increase their range.

Since the first sighting of speckled wood butterflies in Dunnet Forest in 2005 they have continued in their colonisation of the north area. They are now very common in Dunnet Forest and have also established in Achvarasdal Woods. In 2012 they were also recorded for the first time in the northern section of Broubster Forest. Butterfly Conservation would like records of speckled wood butterflies in 2013 and any sightings can be entered at

Bumblebees have been one of my pet species for some time now and the great yellow bumblebee in particular. It is now one of the two rarest species in the UK and is still found in relatively good numbers in the far north. The kidney vetch sites in Dunnet Dunes are a good place to visit in June to see the newly emerged queens on the wing. Patches of knapweed, marsh thistle and hedge woundwort are good for great yellows later in the season. From mid-July check out the bumblebee site at Farr Glebe in Bettyhill, just behind the Strathnaver Museum. It is packed with wildflowers such as greater knapweed and field scabious and is full of bumblebees including the great yellow - well worth a visit!
Cool conditions meant a limited number of dragonfly species were encountered during the identification event run by Jonathon Willet and the Rangers in Dunnet Forest in 2012. It will be repeated on the 30th June 2013 and hopefully better weather will be forthcoming. During our training event run by Jonathon at Borgie Forest we found several species of dragonfly at several pool systems including adults and nymphs.

The Caithness Roadside Verges pilot project led by Mary Legg and the Caithness Biodiversity Group has now been rolled out throughout the Highlands. This project aims to limit the cutting of verges in suitably safe areas with much more consideration given towards wildflower establishment. This will allow wild flowers to finish flowering and set seed before they are cut back. The benefits to the associated invertebrate species are obvious and should help provide feeding corridors to aid the movement of many species (plus they look wonderful when in full flower).

Interestingly I caught my first squat lobster in the rock pools at Portskerra Harbour in 2012 during a family event. I have previously caught these on the west coast but never before here along the north coast.

Please remember 2013 is the ‘Year of Natural Scotland' so why not make a special effort to pass on any records of species you may see either to the Rangers or other local recorders. My contact details are 01847 821531 or paul.castle[AT]

Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 2013 Index


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