ORCA Wildlife Officer - Hebrides update

2nd Mar 2018

It’s always important in any project to get to know the members of your local community.  And for a wildlife officer that community inevitably involves a combination of both people and animals.  People are relatively easy to meet; you make an appointment, get together, and have a meeting.  Wildlife is a little different and involves understanding which species will be where at any given time of year, which habitat favours them and subsequently placing yourself within that environment and hoping for a large amount of luck at the same time.  For example, it is pretty futile to go looking for basking sharks in the Hebrides during the cold winter months as they start arriving in the late spring as the waters start to warm and the plankton blooms start to develop.  Equally you would stand little chance of finding many barnacle geese here in the summer months as they will be one and a half thousand miles away on their breeding grounds in Greenland.  Look for them in winter, however, and you only need to take a two hour crossing on a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry from Kennacraig on Kintyre to the most southerly Hebridean island of Islay.

There you will find up to 35,000 thousand of the birds overwintering on the island, which amounts to 45% of the world population.  Plus another 13,000 Greenland white-fronted geese, accounting for 60% of their global population.  This makes the island, often referred to as The Queen of the Hebrides, a significantly important habitat for these birds.  Its relatively warm Gulf Stream climate makes it a haven for many other over-wintering avian species.   Needless  to say these were some of the locals I wanted to catch up with last weekend and I needed  to do it before the geese head north in late March.  Not only did I have a goose filled couple of days but I was also treated to red billed choughs, brown hares, lots of different wader species and after a lot of perseverance a brief but wonderful meeting with a member of a celebrity otter family living close to a well know whisky distillery – check out Winterwatch 2018 on BBCiplayer. 

As Wildlife Officer on the Caledonian MacBrayne MV Finlaggan, heading back to the mainland we passed through the Sound of Jura.  It is often possible to see white tailed eagles soaring above the coastline of Jura on this route.  I had already spotted a beauty a few days previously on a field trip with the Argyll Bird Club to Port Appin.  The Islay routes, particularly in the Sound, are also excellent for seabirds.  During the late spring and summer months they should be full of common guillemots, razorbill and manx shearwaters.  But now the Sound of Jura has plenty of black guillemots, shags and overwintering divers present.  Infact across the Inner Hebrides ferry network, winter plumaged great northern divers can easily be seen at the moment, like this one that I photographed fishing next to the Clansman in Tiree harbour last week whilst a huge white winged glaucous gull (another winter visitor from more northern climes that bird watchers get excited about seeing) soared over the ferry.

Inevitably I couldn’t just stick to wildlife and last week I headed over to Mull with ORCA’s Head of Science and Conservation, Lucy Babey, to meet up with some of our local partners in the CalMac Marine Awareness Project, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT).  HWDT have been surveying and collecting data in the area for many years and have produced an excellent baseline of data particularly from their research vessel the Silurian, and their ongoing conservation on the west coast is well respected.  ORCA’s friendship with HWDT is longstanding not least because over the years many staff members have crossed from one organisation to the other.  The world of marine mammal conservation is a relatively small one!

So we were excited about the meeting which was also going to involve a trip to their fantastic interactive visitor centre in Tobermory and out to Silurian, currently in Tobermory harbour undergoing its annual preparation for their summer surveys.  It was great to actually get onboard and below decks in person, see where all the science takes place, and compare and contrast our similar scientific protocols.  It didn’t disappoint and luckily we had a calm and wind free day for it.

So much of my work with the CalMac Marine Awareness Project is going to involve collaboration and relationship building with the other partners involved in the project.  You should be able to keep a track of how that is going in my future blogs as well as how the dynamics of the most important locals, the wildlife, changes over the months.