Am Bratach No. 232
February 2011

Nature’s call
by Paul Castle

The other morning I awoke to the sound of sleet hitting the bedroom window hurried along by a stiff north westerly wind. Even below the duvet I could tell it was cold outside and the only sensible course of action was to curl up and stay right were I was. A few moments later the alarm clock rang and the horrible truth that I would have to emerge ran through my entire body causing me to shiver.

It was as cold and miserable as I feared, one of those mornings when you can almost hear the dawn turning over and saying just another half an hour — please! My auto-pilot finally kicked in to help me complete the tasks necessary to eventually leave the warmth and comfort of the house. Even the car seemed reluctant to start that morning and I didn’t blame it either.

I set off in no particular hurry looking out over a grey unwelcoming Pentland Firth. Hoy was nowhere to be seen, always a sure sign of poor weather. Suddenly to my left I caught a glimpse of grey, level with the car heading in the same direction. I thought it was just a gull swooping down but I took a look over anyway. To my delight it was a male hen harrier about 15 metres away hunting low over the field and travelling at the same speed as the car.

He bounced along in the strong headwind with those piercing yellow eyes scanning the ground in front. Even from several metres away the eyes were very obvious with that stern, almost cross look as he peered over towards me several times. His light grey feathers and black wing tips combined with the snowy white rump, unmistakable. I drove along and kept pace with him for about 500 metres before he suddenly veered off and headed away across the field. This was the first hen harrier I had seen near home for some considerable time and to be blessed with such a fine view of his hunting technique was priceless.

That one simple experience cheered my mood immensely and instantly the day seemed far better. That’s one of the beauties of wildlife, they have the ability to thrill and cheer us as they just go about their daily routine, with no cost to us or them. I didn’t have to spend a fortune or plan a special trip somewhere to witness this wonderful sight. These chance encounters are often some of the most thrilling and memorable. I urge everyone to keep those eyes peeled and never miss the opportunity to check out anything you think you may have seen. That day it could well have turned out to be just a gull but without checking that grim day may have stayed just grim.

I do hope turkey wasn’t the only bird you were concerned with this festive period and you all made a particular effort to keep feeding and watering the wild birds while the snow lay on the ground. At home I was thrilled to be regularly visited by groups of hungry skylarks and reed buntings which were very grateful for the bird seed and scraps I was putting out for them on the snow. There are usually flocks of them in the surrounding fields during the winter but up to fifteen at a time were happy to come right to the house for the chance of an easy feed.

One particular day between both the front and rear garden we had 18 different bird species they were: common gull, black-headed gull, herring gull, great black-back gull, hooded crow, carrion crow, jackdaw, collard dove, starling, house sparrow, skylark, reed bunting, chaffinch, greenfinch, blackbird, dunnock, robin and even a lapwing. It was an absolute pleasure to share our Christmas and New Year with such an array of feathered visitors.

Now for a sad but comical tale. Recently one of the Caithness rangers unfortunately discovered the remains of a dead otter by the roadside which had been killed by a vehicle. With his ‘ranger head on’ he gathered it up to bury it in the dunes at Dunnet Bay thinking of using the bones for possibly displaying in the Seadrift Centre at a later date. He chose an area of the dunes near an old post to dig the hole so he could find it again. Several inches down he started to uncover something in the sand. Would you believe it he had dug right in the same spot were I had buried another dead otter for exactly the same purposes only a couple of months before. What were the chances of that then?

Regarding ranger colleagues I’m sure you’ll all join with me in wishing Durness ranger and regular Am Bratach contributor Donald Mitchell a speedy recovery from his recent surgery.

We will have a printed copy of the ranger events booklet once again this season which will be a Highland wide version but separated into area sections including Sutherland and Caithness. All our events will eventually be available from the Highland Council website at Just look for the ranger events link.

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