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Wildlife wonders in Caithness really lift the spirit

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: No sting in the tail getting closer to nature across the far north

Great yellow bumblebee.
Great yellow bumblebee.

Bumblebees are friendly creatures, they’re only interested in going about their busy bee business. They never attack like wasps and might only sting if you actually tried to pick them up.

Our garden is full of them and in Caithness, if you are lucky, you might see the very rare Great Yellow.

I remember the reaction when I told somebody the good news that I’d just seen the Great Yellow Bumblebee in a certain public garden. "That’s me definitely not going in there again!" she exclaimed.

What a shame, there is absolutely no need to be scared of bumblebees. The Great Yellow is a spectacular insect, long and very yellow with a black band near the head and a lovely deep buzz.

We saw the first one in our garden the other day and watched it flying from flower to flower.

There is so much spectacular wildlife around us in the far north at the moment, naturalists would travel thousands of miles to see what many either take for granted or never even notice.

Golden plovers are one of my favourite birds, you find them on high, remote moors and mountain plateaux, isolated birds calling in an evocative, fluid tone from a tussock or rock near their nest.

Primroses, north end of Loch Calder.
Primroses, north end of Loch Calder.

The males and females take shifts in turn looking after the nest and feeding on slugs and grubs on farmland. So there’s often a flock of the birds down the fields, sometimes taking off to fly over the house with a swish of white-flashing wings and a chorus of those wonderful calls.

A few weeks ago there were many hundreds of birds migrating to Scandinavia, their flocks would dive and turn in spectacular patterns, a so-called ‘murmuration’. Many will have seen this with starlings, but not so many with golden plovers.

Walk out into the flow country now and you’ll likely hear an evocative ‘twee wee wee’ in a minor key – the greenshank, as well as the trilling of dunlin on the shores of remote lochans.

The other morning when out on a short cycle ride the curlews and lapwings were singing over the moors, a cuckoo called from a windblown plantation and, with the binoculars, I could see that at least one osprey was back in residence at the local nest.

The terns and swallows always arrive with the cuckoo and yes, the the first swallow sat on our electricity wire and the sandwich terns were diving, swooping and making their piercing calls at Dunnet.

We used to hear the snipe drumming in an evening from our door, there are less now but I only needed to go a mile down the road to see and hear three birds over the marsh. They make a call like a squeaky wheel in addition to the strange fluttering noise from their tail feathers as they dive.

In the sea, seals are everywhere, even lying out on the foot of the pier at Brough harbour. Tourists are always delighted to see a seal!

Seals at Brough.
Seals at Brough.

The first two puffins were on the water, with black guillemots, while the inhabitants of the seabird cities on the cliffs are also back in residence. And keep an eye out to sea, you might well see orcas or porpoises swimming past.

The huge sea eagles are not far away, there is certainly a nest on Hoy and I’ve seen the birds around both the east and north Caithness coast. Last autumn, one of these spectacular birds flew almost overhead as we were driving the road near Mey.

Just off Thurso Harbour a big bird was swimming, almost like a little boat, it frequently let itself sink down in the water before diving and remaining under for perhaps a minute. A Great Northern Diver, also quite special. Otters, too, are often seen around the river in Thurso.

I haven’t seen the pine martens this year but more than once one of these handsome animals, a bit like a big red squirrel, has run across my path in the wood or I’ve come across one or more kits which the mother has temporarily left.

Meanwhile, willow warblers call from almost every bush, common but a lovely sound of spring. The wild primroses are out everywhere, on the side of ditches and on grassy slopes above the sea, spectacular in big clumps and outdoing any garden flower. One of my favourite primrose spots is the old broch and chambered cairn at the north end of Loch Calder.

Any disadvantage of living in the Highlands is well worth putting up with for the sake of the sheer abundance of special places and rare and wonderful wildlife on our very doorsteps!

Black guillemots.
Black guillemots.

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