Scotland Field Course – Highlights of the Highlands

I have recently returned from a trip to the highlands of Scotland. This was part of the Scotland Field Course, run for second-year students at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. The trip is run Safari style and aims to immerse and educate students about Scottish wildlife from the mountains and forests of the Cairngorm’s National Park right up through the endless flow country into the far North West. The trip was jam-packed with views of iconic and charismatic species and some unforgettable experiences. I thought I’d share a few of those experiences with you.

 A Windswept Isle

Torrential drizzle soaked us as we followed otter tracks that pitter-pattered across the soft golden sand-dunes of Handa Island. The Scottish weather was being true to its word and the short crossing over the Sound of Handa had left us feeling a little brass-monkeys. We sought shelter in the small visitor centre and stared out into the weather-beaten expanse. Handa Island is situated off of the far North West coast and a breath-taking vista of craggy mountains stretched out beyond the grey, foamy sea. The wildlife here is built to cope with conditions that would leave any Southerner feeling noticeably shaken. A group of female eider ducks congregated in the bay, their superbly thick layer of downy feathers keeping them warm. A smart red-throated diversleek and streamlined ducked effortlessly into the depths after its prey. As we walked around Handa we encountered barrel-chested, heavy-set, formidable birds with a forcible personality. Great Skuas are in charge of Handa Island, using their brute force to bully other birds into forsaking their latest meal. Bonxies are also skilful hunters, capable of tackling birds much larger than themselves.  Their classy cousins – Arctic Skuas – have slender wings, tapered tails and sleek black sheen. But don’t let that fool you. They too are experienced pirates, using their aerial prowess to chase their unlucky victims until they drop their food. Luckily the Skuas didn’t bother us as we sat overlooking the seabird cliffs, taking in the raucous collection of kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots nesting on the mighty stacks.

Great Skua - Handa Island 4
Great Skua – also known as Bonxie – on its territory
Arctic Skua - Handa Island 4
Arctic Skua showing off its sleek outline and pointed tail streamer.
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island

Lutra lutra

Minibuses act as handy portable hides. We edged slowly around an expansive loch, eyes peeled for a certain shy mammal that makes its living hunting in the dark and chilly waters at dusk. For the first hour or so there was no sign, although we had good views of eiders, red-breasted mergansers and a great northern diver. McGowan’s group caught a faint glimpse of an otter, but by the time we arrived at the spot the beast had vanished. We waited, we watched, we waited. Slowly but surely daylight edged towards twilight. Just as the incessant annoyance of midges was becoming unbearable and all hope of seeing one was beginning to dwindle, we suddenly heard a blunder of muffled excitement through the radio. McGowan’s group had driven out of sight, far around the other side of the Loch. Surely they hadn’t seen another otter, not now?  We braced ourselves and buckled up. We weren’t missing another opportunity. As we wound our way closer around the Loch, more excitement buzzed out of the radio. After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled up at the vantage point where McGowan was pointing frantically. We hopped out of the van quickly and stealthily, binoculars clasped firmly in our hands. Below were three dark and shadowy shapes swimming smoothly through the shallows of the Loch. A mother otter and her two cubs were journeying along the Loch edge, purposefully but playfully –  ducking, bobbing and diving. The air was still and silent, aside from the faint calls of cuckoos toing and froing. Time seemed to stand still as we watched the otters before they eventually faded off into the distance.

Haliaeetus albicilla

On our way back down from Durness, we wound our way along the North coast and then headed back inland toward the Cairngorm National Park. On the way, we made an impromptu stop at a remote and beautiful coastal loch to look for eagles. We climbed up to a rocky outcrop with some seriously stunning panoramic views of mountains, moorland, forest, loch and sea. Our eyes were on the skies and patiently, we waited. Suddenly the cry went up. ‘Eagle… WHITE-TAILED EAGLE!’  Swooping across the ocean was the unmistakable beast. Huge barn-door wings and bold, bright tail. It was gone as soon as it arrived. A mythical beast? Eagerly we waited. Again it came. Distant, but certainly a sight to behold. The UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of over 2 metres, the white-tailed eagle is unmistakable. Also known as the Scottish sea eagle, these huge birds were tragically persecuted to extinction in the 20th Century. Recently re-introduced, there are now around 40 pairs breeding in Scotland. What a privilege to see!

Ardmore 4
Watching for eagles

Tursiops truncatus

The Moray Firth is renowned as a place where bottlenose dolphins put on a superb wildlife spectacle. Usually being a more tropical species, Scotland is at the Northern limit of the bottlenoses’ range. Seeing them would, therefore, be a real treat. A large congregation had gathered with hope and anticipation, undeterred by the brisk buffeting wind and the dark clouds looming overhead. Excitement built as a pair of dolphins were spotted far out in the mouth of the Firth, zig-zagging their way back and forth. Soon a larger pod began working their way into the Firth, surfacing at regular intervals. Suddenly a gasp came from a group of spectators and people started rushing to the edge of the shore. A mother and calf had surfaced extremely close, no more than 20 metres away. Every time they surfaced was truly breath-taking, you could make our the fine shapes and details of their perfectly streamlined bodies and even their contented-looking smiles. The calf stuck close by its mother’s side as they used the rushing tide to catch fish that were getting pulled in by the flowing tide. We all watched in awe as the rain pelted down on us, hoping that we could watch them all day.

Bottlenose7
Occasionally the dolphins would show off their tail flukes.
Bottlenose6
The cheeky little face of a bottlenose calf

The week was filled with plenty more amazing wildlife. I’m sure everyone will have their personal favourites including the mountain hares, black grouse, puffins, ospreys, ring ouzels, red squirrels…or the endless banter produced by our lecturers, of course! It was by far the best week of University so far… roll on the Costa Rica field course!

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