Being a wildlife guide can be a tricky business – you never know what you’re going to see, and even if you do see it, will your expectant customers:
A. Be impressed? And:
B. Also manage to see it before it runs/swims/flies away?
There are days when wildlife just simply isn’t there and you have to make the most of whatever you’ve got around you (oh look everybody – a herring gull!) but other times, the wildlife makes your job so easy you can just sit back and relax…
This week, a pod of ten dolphins came along to greet the boat, leaping out of the water, splashing with tail slaps and swimming alongside us for half an hour. In my two years of watching whales and dolphins at sea, I’ve never had such a close and mesmerising encounter with these inquisitive creatures.
Their dark grey bodies glided in and out of the water with such elegance that only Olympian swimmers can aspire to. Some of them bore white scratches on their rubbery skin – scars from fights amongst their own or with other pods.
The most wonderful part was that the dolphins were choosing to spend time with us. Not wanting to outstay our welcome, we started to leave after 15 minutes – but they followed us! They swam alongside the boat, titling onto their sides to get a better look at us and even showed off by swimming upside down.
For half an hour they graced us with their presence and, after we left, I looked back to see them a mile away. Their black silhouettes gently kissing the glassy surface before disappearing under the cool waters and out of sight.
I was absolutely elated. Part of me wished that everyday was this easy – but half the fun is the challenge of using your skills to find the wildlife too. I could write a whole book on “The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Wildlife Guide” – from guests wanting me to attract whales by whistling to them, to days in the rain when there isn’t a hope of seeing birds of prey. But sometimes, a great deal of it can be sheer luck – and I’m grateful to whichever planets aligned for me (and more importantly, for my guests) to have one of the most fantastic experiences of a lifetime.
As I sailed through the swarms of feeding kittiwakes, gannets and manx shearwaters a dark shape caught my attention. Fleeting between the wings of the other birds was a lone ranger, working without any group or partner, to terrorise the skies.
I see a small handful of these boisterous birds every year as they relentlessly harass other seabirds for their catches of fish.
Even though they dwarfed it in size, the great skua (or bonxie as they are called here) confidently cruised towards a group of gannets like a thug looking for its next victim to rob.
I couldn’t see any puffins bobbing about on the waves, and just as well, as the great skuas will readily attack and drown them before devouring them for a meal.
The bonxie made several swoops and dives before plunging into another group of startled birds and disappearing over the waves. That might be the only sighting I have of one this summer (the puffins will be relieved if so!), but despite their thuggish nature I have to respect their adaptation to a life of piracy – they certainly live up to their reputation as the pirates of the high seas.
More next week,
Photos: David Ainsley
This week I am thrilled to release my new wildlife film “Wild Islands”! Please sit back for 10 minutes and join me at sea as I show you the fantastic wildlife in my local patch: the Inner Hebrides.
Click to watch Sara’s Wild Islands:
I’ve had 6 months of fun filming in sun, rain and snow. It’s been a steep learning curve – I didn’t realise how difficult it could be to film at sea (a lot of footage is made useless by waves wobbling the boat – especially in a whirlpool!).
There have been some highs and lows (presenting next to an extremely foul smelling pile of crab shells was certainly NOT my favourite moment) and I’m very pleased to have it finished. So please enjoy the film.
Hope you like meeting the wildlife in my local patch!
I scanned the treeline looking for that familiar shape standing out against the branches. Nothing in the trees…and nothing in the branches…
Oh wait – here she is! Right on cue the female sea eagle flew from the open woodland, dominating the sky. For such a heavy bird (about 5kg) she landed elegantly into her nest, careful not to trample what was sitting inside it. She had a kill clutched in her talons. Through my binoculars I could see her tearing small pieces of meat with her beak and gently feeding it to something out of sight underneath her – she has a chick!
One of the parent Sea Eagles casting a protective glance over its territory. No photos of the nest will be posted to protect the eagle’s location (…and privacy??) (Photo: David Ainsley)
I was elated. There are two white tailed sea eagle nests on these islands. The first nest has been here for 7 years or so, but this one was only built last year by a young pair, and they failed to breed. Hopefully this could be the year!
After feeding the chick(s), she took to the skies with the remains of her kill and landed on a hill side where she continued to feast on it, pulling out white feathers (an unfortunate seagull?) as she dined.
Dining away from the nest on a freshly caught seagull
Only 50 metres away, a juvenile white tailed sea eagle was being pestered by a pair of hooded crows. I felt a rather sorry for it – it was perched on a branch in the sun minding its own business when they ganged up on it and refused to leave it alone. It eventually gave up and flew off over a ridge, the crows squawking and mobbing it as they escorted it out of their territory.
A juvenile sea eagle being harassed out of the area by a pair of hooded crows
The second (older) sea eagle nest was occupied – mum was sitting in it and didn’t move once, so I can only hope she’s also on eggs or has a chick already.
Only time will tell! I’ll keep you posted.
No one has seen me…I’m a GENIUS. And mum thought I’d be rubbish at fending for myself…
Just keep hiding under this seaweed until the moment comes. Getting past the seals might be tricky of course – but I’ll take them by surprise *sniff sniff* hey what’s that? Oh YUM a dead crab! No stay focussed. Fresh eggs are much better…
These are the thoughts that I imagined were going through a young otter’s head as he calculated an ambush on a goose nest yesterday morning. One of three kits born last summer, this was the first time I’d seen him out on his own without mum.
He hadn’t been terribly subtle in positioning himself amongst a pile of floating seaweed (after scrambling across rocks and disturbing a pair of oystercatchers) but he was still learning.
It seemed he had, however, been successful in hiding from the seals who were basking in the sun, eyes closed. In the moment he chose to pounce from the water they gave startled grunts as his dripping wet furry body ran across rocks and into long grass at impressive speed.
What was that?!
Almost at the nest!
The backside of the young otter as he busily sniffed his way to the goose nest
The Canada goose swiftly came to the rescue of her young – leaving the otter empty handed.
For a moment I thought he’d done it – raiding a goose nest would be a good meal – however, Mrs. Canada Goose wasn’t far away, giving a horrified squawk and chasing him off with some angry pecks and wing flapping. Better luck next time little one – perhaps it’s dead crab until then?
The best sighting I’ve had this week is a great northern diver – the first I’ve ever seen! The few (around 2,600) that do come to winter around the coastlines of the British Isles will stay until April before leaving for their mainly Icelandic breeding grounds for the summer. This diver seemed quite content bobbing about on the waves (and, of course, diving under them) although it took several attempts at manoeuvring the boat to photograph it both looking in my direction and without the sun behind it blocking out the black and white patterns of its winter plumage.
The islands looked as beautiful as ever as I went out on the boat. Plenty of sightings of harbour porpoise and seals hauled out enjoying the sun.
The isle of Mull (left), Easdale (centre) and the Isle of Seil (right)
The Slate Isles (foreground) and the Isle of Mull (background)
I’ll be back next week with updates on the White Tailed Sea Eagles!
I love the smells of spring. Luring scents of coconut are floating in the warm breeze across the island this week – after the gorse bushes have opened their sunshine yellow flowers. The nights are noticeably longer and the animals are out in their numbers making the most of the good weather!
Yesterday I watched, beaming, as Mr. White Tailed Sea Eagle flew purposefully over my head, dropping a branch from his talons into his nest as he settled on the tree tops. A beak poked out of the nest, and carefully moved the branch into a more useful position. Mrs. Sea Eagle was sitting on her eggs. Her mate glared down from the branches of the tree and along the shoreline for several minutes before he took to the skies again in search of more branches – it seems they’re having a bit of a spring clean and nest refurbishment.
The Golden Eagles have a chick already – a white head was seen sticking out of the nest this morning! Fingers and toes are tightly crossed for a healthy chick to fledge in a couple of months.
It’s not just the eagles who are setting up families – my camera trap has caught some rather amusing behaviour of Mr. Pheasant trying to get himself a girlfriend last week. Perhaps he needs to work on his way with the ladies?? Enjoy!
Will keep you posted on the eagles.
“Is it her?” I shouted to my boss in the wheelhouse. He’d spotted a white blob in the distant trees on Jura.
I scrambled up the whale watching platform on the deck and had a scan through my binoculars as our boat drew closer to the shore.
“Yes it is!” I shouted down. I saw a familiar shape proudly perched on top of the highest fir tree of the shoreline. Fantastic!
Her golden feathers shone boldly against the green foliage as she cast an authoritative glare over her kingdom. Then, with a bow of her head, she spread her 2.5 metre wings and took to the skies.
White tailed sea eagle. Photo: David Ainsley
A flying white tailed sea eagle is fairly hard to miss close up – think of a seeing a pair of flying barn doors suddenly dominating the sky and sending all other birdlife squawking for cover. Pretty impressive.
It’s a privilege to watch the daily lives of these animals without disturbing them – I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I hear the patter of tiny feet (or should I say the flapping of tiny wings?) this summer and I have some chicks to watch grow up too.
With a cry she flew off over a ridge and out of sight, as I headed home with a big grin on my face. The weather on the island has been (mostly) calm, with a few good sunsets to sit by while I write my blog!
Hoping for more calm weather to come, and that it brings the wildlife with it.
This week I was a guest on BBC Radio Scotland’s Shereen Show talking about my adventures with wildlife.
Teaching otters to swim and raising raccoons? Watching whales? Living at sea? It’s all here…Enjoy!
“What’s that white thing?!” a guest asked as we bobbed gently on the calm waves. We were moored in a small bay by Jura, just a few metres from the shore. Indeed, as I looked above the rocky shoreline, a creamy white blob moved busily next to a bush.
“That” I said, lowering my binoculars, “would be a deer’s bum”.
The red deer are almost impossible to spot against the rusty orange colour of the dead bracken – except for their white rumps which give them away. Sure enough, a set of magnificent antlers slowly rose from the ground and the outline of a large male deer appeared from nowhere against the bracken. I scanned further along the hillside to see a younger male visible in a patch already turning green with the coming spring.
Another male deer – this one easier to spot against the greener grass!
Jura has a healthy population of red deer as they don’t have any natural predators. But when old or sick ones die they provide a feast for the local golden eagles who will scavenge the carcasses.
A group of common seals were hauled out on the shoreline, enjoying the refreshingly calm day after the days of constant high winds. They barely lifted their heads to acknowledge our presence as they rolled over to go back to sleep.
The calm waters round Scarba
A rippling in the still water caught my eye as an otter popped its head out of the water and scrambled onto the shore to enjoy its catch. With each day I can sense a growing anticipation as the islands wait for spring to finally sweep through the waters and forests – and I can’t wait to be here when it does!
Until next week,
An otter enjoying lunch on the shoreline. Photo: David Ainsley