Our monthly columnist from the Scottish Highlands

A long-time associate of Vine House Farm is Roger Hughes, who now lives in the north of Scotland and the beautiful county of Sutherland. Roger helps us with a range of business services, but he’s also a keen bird watcher, is very knowledgeable about feeding birds, is a general nature lover, and also partly earns his living from writing. He lives with his wife, Julie, and they have a small croft with a wide mix of habitats from wooded riverbank to meadow and moorland – all good for wildlife of course. So with all this in mind, Roger now writes a monthly column for the Vine House Farm website which we very much hope you’ll follow and enjoy.

North Highland wildlife diary – June

Early in June, my wife and I again took on the task of looking after a croft belonging to some friends who were taking a week’s holiday. Although the croft is only about a mile and bit away from ours, it has a very different look and feel as it’s a true hill croft and some 150 metres higher than where we live. Julie, my wife, takes on the job of feeding and watering our friends’ two horses, and I take on the job of feeding the chickens and watering the poly tunnel. Julie takes her time, but I rush my chores as I’m keen to take a short walk to the shore of a hill loch which our friends are fortunate enough to have on their land.

The loch sits just below the brow of a hill and therefore suddenly becomes visible as the top of the hill is reached – some 100 metres from the poly tunnel! Reaching the top of the hill on the first morning and with the lettuces brought back to life with a thorough drenching, I immediately saw the sight I was hoping for: an osprey. But not just an osprey; an osprey with a large brown trout in its talons. Well, ‘large’ for an osprey to be carrying and certainly the largest fish of any species I have seen an osprey hold.

Although excited by the great views I was having of the bird, I was also kicking myself for showing the lettuces so much care and attention, because it seemed pretty clear that if I’d arrived at the top of the hill just 20 seconds earlier I’d have seen the osprey actually catch its not insignificant meal. But hey... that’s bird watching for you, and this will probably be the only time you’ll ever hear about the care of lettuces being blamed for not getting a better view of an osprey (or, for that matter, the words ‘osprey’ and ‘lettuce’ in the same sentence).

What also made the spectacle of the osprey special and interesting is what it did next: Rather than gain a little height from the water and head straight for its nest – assuming it was a breeding bird it will have had young on the nest in early June – it instead spiralled on a thermal until it was barely a speck in my binoculars. I’ve since thought long and hard about why it would have done this, and can only conclude that its nest was some distance from the loch and it wanted to gain as much height as possible to be able to make a relatively easy glide back with its unusually large fish. But that’s just me speculating and I really don’t know the answer for this unusual behaviour, though I am pretty sure that the nearest pair of nesting ospreys to that loch is about six miles away, so perhaps it was one of those birds.

Further daily trips to the same hill loch didn’t bring anything quite so exciting, though I did enjoy watching a pair of red-breasted mergansers – a stunning bird which, and just like the osprey, previously suffered centuries of persecution for having the audacity to take the odd fish from the nobility’s rivers and lochs.

Away from our friends’ croft, I’ve had a number of walks into the local hills in the last month and have been pleased at the number of fledgling birds I’ve seen – in particular wheatears and stonechats. In fact on one particular walk – and one I’d never previously taken – I counted approximately 10 pairs of wheatear, most with young out the nest, from a stretch of track of probably no more than one and half miles. Which must be the highest density of breeding wheatears I’ve ever seen, though the habitat was pretty-much perfect for them with short cropped grass courtesy of grazing sheep, scattered boulders and just the odd stunted rowan tree.

The past month has been relatively dry here in our corner of the northern Highlands, with the first three weeks of the month hardly bringing a drop of rain. This dry weather always reminds me of the need to provide birds with a supply of clean water, which I do even though we have a river on the boundary of our land. I do this because for some species – e.g. those that nest well away from the river – it’s just easier for them to have easy and safe access to water in order to drink and bathe. But if you’re reading this and live in an urban area, then there’s a good chance that the only clean water your garden birds will have access to is what you provide for them. That being the case, I’d very much urge you (if you don’t already of course) to have a bird bath in your garden and, critically, ensure the water is kept clean. I’ve written more about this subject here if you’d like more information.

During July I’ll be spending some time on the coast, so hopefully I’ll have some interesting stories to bring you at the end of the month.