Summertime and the living is ...breezy!
I have to admit a times I have problems with the wind. No, no, no, that’s not what I meant to say. What I am trying to say is that it can be windy, very windy at Dunnet Head. In fact, Caithness is said to be the windiest county in northwest Europe and standing atop the cliffs at Dunnet I can well believe it!
On some days you can see water flowing up hill!
A prime example of windy weather was to be had last week at the Family Fun Day we held on the reserve. All was going well until a sudden gusty spell caught us out and cracked one of the plastic joints of the marquee we had on site.
It's Not All bad
But wind is not all bad news. The seabirds of course were loving every moment of it. Fulmars always seem to enjoy the updraft beside the cliffs and it is a very rare day in summer that you don’t see them gliding along the cliff tops, backwards and forwards. It is as if they are patrolling their patch and they certainly make it look effortless.
Fulmar in flight at Dunnet head
Fulmars, despite their appearance, are not a gull, but a kind of petrel. Look at the tubular nostril on top of the bill. No gulls have this feature. They are more akin to shearwaters and albatrosses, and just like those masters of the oceans, fulmars are great travellers. They employ their effortless gliding technique, using very little energy to catch the merest updrafts, which occur at every wave crest. This way they can cover great distances, often up to 40 miles, in search of their food, which includes, small fish, offal, and marine invertebrates such as crustaceans, squid, jellyfish mostly taken at the surface.
If fulmars seem to enjoy the breeze, then puffins must really delight in the updraft by the nesting cliffs. This predictable airstream can turn these otherwise clumsy fliers into talented aerial acrobats. It is as if they are playing and is great opportunity to get a close view of these often distant birds. Try standing at the cliff top viewpoint and you may be lucky enough to see puffins “gliding” past watching you, watching them!
..And There's More
After the breeding season show is over, there is a bit of a seabird encore, when the winds of late summer and autumn bring huge numbers of seabirds past headlands such as Dunnet Head. These can be excellent times to try to spot Manx and sooty shearwaters or the various skuas (Arctic, great, long-tailed and pomarine)
So if you are near the coast and it turns out too be to windy for a picnic, why not try a bit of sea-watching. You never know what might turn up!
In this and future articles I will keep you up to date with the comings and goings of the birds and other wildlife of the reserve. Of course many folk come north to tick off John O’Groats, but the real aficionados come to see Dunnet Head. Not only is it the true northernmost point on the British mainland but it houses an exciting nature reserve centred on a spectacular seabird colony. If you have not visited before, perhaps this should be the year that you do!
Seabird colonies are exciting places to visit. In the breeding season they come alive with the sights, sounds and yes, the smells of the seabirds. Dunnet Head is no exception, with the common nesting species of fulmar, kittiwake, puffin, guillemot and razorbill. If you count the less common species and those that are seen feeding or passing-by off-shore then you might easily see another seven or eight species of seabirds.
I have started carrying out weekly guided walks every Wednesday afternoon. These will run until the end of August and are designed to show new birdwatchers and family visitors the various special birds of the reserve. The first few walks have been quiet for birds and strong winds have made it difficult to watch them without a tear in the eye! With this spring being very late, few of the usual wildflowers were out too and the vegetation still looks very wintry. An exception is the common scurvy-grass which doesn’t seem to realise how cold it is just now. In fact, anyone driving regularly up and down the A9 right now should keep a look out for this white-flowered plant and its relative Danish scurvy-grass. Both are in full flower now by the roadside, thriving in the salt-laden soils of the modern road network. They have thick fleshy waxy leaves which are well able to store water and resist desiccation in the salty environment of the coast (or the roadside). They think they are still by the seaside!
Last week; however, was very special as we saw the first puffins of the walks season. There were just a handful showing and they would disappear underground but everyone on the guided walk managed to get cracking views through the telescope. They should be seen in increasing numbers as the season gets underway, so if you have not seen a puffin yet, get yourself along. Another highlight of last weeks walk was a common lizard. I saw it again this week and managed to take a snap of it. Despite the chilly weather it was able to bask in the sunshine by the south side of the wall. It’s May so let’s hope it will warm up pretty soon for lizards and visitors alike!
NESTING IS WELL UNDER WAY
After a slow start the seabird season seems to be well underway now with lots of activity to be seen as the birds try to catch up. It’s a great time to visit Dunnet Head to see the fulmars cackling away to each other, razorbills tucked under rocks incubating their single eggs and the massed ranks of guillemots huddling together, yet stabbing at each other to maintain what is surely the bird world’s smallest territories. Puffins to are very visible just now, whirring through the air. I’ve not seen any carrying food; when I do I will know for sure that their eggs are hatching underground.
IT'S BATH TIME!
Kittiwake with nest material
Just now nest-building kittiwakes can be seen gathering mud and grass from the cliffs to mix with seaweeds and their own guano to create beautiful little cups which will hold two or three speckled eggs. All this work means they can get really dirty. If you are lucky to be around at the right time you will see flocks flying up from the cliff colony and over the heathland to the nearest lochs were they indulge in noisy bathing parties. A delight to see.
Commuting Kittiwakes - en route to their favourite bathing spot
Kittiwakes bathing in Loch of Easter Head
ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL...
Last week I had a look at the wonderful coastal heathland just behind the seabird cliffs of Dunnet Head. There is so much colour at this time of year, with the pinks of red campion, ragged robin and thrift vying for attention with the yellow of bird’s-foot trefoil and the sky blue of the delicate little spring squill.
Among this abundance I searched for a local rarity, the Alpine bearberry, a mountain plant, which occurs here close to sea level. I found it, but sadly it was too early for flowers, so I will have to go back and try again.
The next goody was a lesser twayblade. This tiny orchid must very often be overlooked; here at Dunnet Head it has not been recorded for a decade. And no wonder, as it grows no more than about 12cm tall and then it is usually tucked away deep beneath a heather bush!
They say things come in three, and so they did for me. The cherry on the cake came in the form of a small reddish moth I noticed flying low over the heathers. It looked unusual, so I was intrigued and gave chase. It soon settled and I managed to grab a few “record shots” – that’s my excuse for my rubbish photography! I’m really glad that I did, because after consulting a local expert I discovered that it was a moth called Phiaris schulziana which, was only the second county record.
Unsurprisingly as a caterpillar it feeds on heather and crowberry, both of which are abundant at Dunnet Head.
Day-flying moth Phiaris schulziana at Dunnet Head
..and finally a reminder that we have our first Family Fun Day of the year on Wednesday 3rd July.
Dunnet Head Family Fun Days Wednesday 3rd July and Wednesday 17th July from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m.
...and if you are visiting the area for a few days then why not pop in to our Forsinard Flows reserve too!