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Songs aplenty in Caithness as early breeders make the call

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Wildlife Sightings by Rob Hughes

Common Crossbill photographed in Broubster Forest by Rob Hughes.
Common Crossbill photographed in Broubster Forest by Rob Hughes.

Most bird species in Caithness breed between April and July, but not all. In mid-December, crossbills were already singing in Broubster Forest.

They are one of our earliest breeders and can have fledged young by the end of January, taking advantage of the pinecone crops.

Tawny owls are another early breeder and can sing and call more frequently at this time of year. Ravens will also start displaying, if not already, with breeding starting in early February. Whilst all this is going on, robins will sing throughout the winter, holding their territories.

Back in November, whilst on my morning daily walk around Dunnet Bay, I stumbled across a nutcracker on the 10th. This is the first ever record of the species in Caithness and the last one in the UK was seen at least 10 years ago.

It belongs to the crow family and has a chocolaty brown body with bright white spotting and has a fairly chunky long bill. Foraging on nuts and seeds, this species is usually found from Scandinavia to north-eastern Asia. If anyone happens to see or photograph it in the county, please get in contact with me.

A glossy ibis was in Reay between December 16 and 20. It looks like a large glossy black curlew with its long curved bill, neck and legs. Around this date there was an influx of glossy ibis into north Scotland from the continent with 11 on Westray, Orkney and at least four on Shetland.

A Spanish ringed glossy ibis arrived in Norway at a similar time, perhaps giving us a hint as to where the Reay bird originated from. There is a chance of more arriving in the coming weeks.

Potentially from a similar area, a little egret was at Loch Scarmclate on November 13, with a great white egret there on December 12. The little egret was just the sixth Caithness record, despite the UK’s wintering population now being approximately 4500 birds.

Both these two egret species are expanding their natural breeding range in recent years with the first breeding record of little egret in the UK in 1996, and great white egret in 2012. It can’t be too long until one of these species is breeding in the county.

Amazingly, two swallows were still flying around Castletown on November 25, the latest ever record in the county. Despite their hardiness, Storm Arwen seemingly encouraged them to head south. Before these swallows left, waxwings were seen in Thurso on the 10th and in Reay on the 20th, whilst the first snow buntings were back in the stubble fields.

Storm Arwen brought some seabirds into the bays and, on November 7, Dunnet Bay had a Leach’s storm-petrel, grey phalarope and great skua. There was another grey phalarope in Dunnet on December 3 with a scattering of little auks around the coast.

I suspect there will be a couple of American ducks turning up in January, with flocks of carrier species like tufted duck, wigeon and teal moving from frozen parts of the continent.

  • To report any sightings, email Rob at: xema_sabini@hotmail.co.uk

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