Friday, 25 February 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Winters Coastline

When winter bites the Isle of Arran is a haven for wildlife.  This article is the first of a series that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about walking and wildlife on Arran.

It is a dark blustery day on Arran and I’m walking along a rocky shore. A wet wind stings my face and finds its way through all my layers of clothing. Cold is not the word, bitter seems closer to the mark.  I’m determined to endure this harsh salty world for as long as possible- it’s a daily reality to the birds and mammals that forage along our coastlines.  I’d like to catch a glimpse of the animals that thrive on the bounty our wild coast provides in winter.

I crouch amongst a jumbled rib of rocks separating two sandy bays. On the beach either side I spot groups of bold oystercatchers.  Oystercatchers can be found everywhere along the coast of Arran, with their unmistakeable black and white plumage, long red bill and legs. In spring their indignant cries can be heard up and down the island, as they defend their territories from each other, marauding gulls and careless humans.  Today, they are conserving energy, and my presence raises barely a flutter. They forage in the piles of seaweed strewn across the beach, using their beaks to root through the fronds, hunting soft creatures and molluscs.

Further down the beach, redshanks scurry amongst the foam.  Their little grey bodies tip back and forth in the surf like toy boats. They stab their delicate beaks in to the surging waves. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of their long legs in crimson stockings. I wonder how such a slight and impractically dressed bird can find a living at the waters edge on a day like today.

Concentrating harder, I can see small birds that move like clockwork pebbles amongst the redshanks. Ringed plovers are tiny reminders of the toughness that lies beneath nature’s beauty.  Close up, their striped heads and orange beaks make them look like minuscule clowns.  From a distance, they are almost invisible.

Suddenly they lift up in a flash of barred wings. Alarm spreads up the beach as a female sparrowhawk darts amongst the boulders. She tests first the oystercatchers, then the smaller birds in the surf.  Angry cries are carried on the wind.  She retreats, hunt unsuccessful, to a hollow bank at the back of the beach.  I can see her beady eye watching intently from the dark cover. She will try her luck again. What she is doing away from her usual woodland and hedgerow haunts I can’t say, but perhaps when the weather is cold she too finds easiest pickings on the beach.

When winter bites Arran is a haven for wildfowl and other birds. The temperatures are milder at the coast, and even the blackbirds and the pipits know there is food to be found amongst the rotting seaweed. Many of the birds along the shore are winter visitors. Some like the redshank, come from as far away as Iceland.

My eye is drawn out to sea. A pair of eiders sit amongst the waves.  There is a determined hunch to their backs as they weather the storm. The female is dark like her mallard cousins, but her powerful shape betrays a tough marine existence. She is a true sea duck. The male is dressed in gaudy black and white. Later in the year he will gather with other males in a sheltered bay up the coast to show off his flashy feathers but right now he seems happy to hunker down between the breakers.

Beyond the eiders, I glimpse a strange conical shape. It’s the nose of a seal, protruding out of the water. Unable or unwilling to haul out on to the rocks in this wild weather, the seal is bobbing like a cork in the ocean. Just its nose protrudes, and it will lounge about this way for hours. In calmer weather, seals prefer to sleep on land, and the large boulders that jut out of the sea become luxury couches at low tide. From the snub shape of this seal’s nose, I can see that it is a harbour seal.  Often called common seals, they are anything but. There is a small population here on Arran, but elsewhere their numbers are falling. We also get regular visits from the larger grey seal, and the two will often haul out together.  They can be told apart by the shape of their noses- harbour seals have charming “spaniel” like faces, while grey seals have regal “roman” noses. At 300kg, an adult male grey seal is a very noble beast indeed. 

I’m getting really cold now, my clothes are soaked and I’m ready to go. Just before I turn away, I catch a hint of something- a flick of a long pointed tail. There is another, and a low humped back that rolls through the water. Focussing now, I see more, and a pattern of tails and humps that flow like liquid… one… two… three… A mother otter and her two cubs are on the move. A small, pale face appears and dives.  She catches a wave, and I see a row of brown sausages surfing the breakers. Barely breathing, I watch them, heading west along the coast, until they disappear from view in the gloomy light.

Warmed by the fleeting glimpse of the otter family, I finally stumble to my feet. Time to get out of the wind and rain where luckily for me, a warm fire and hot drink await.

Tips for enjoying coastal wildlife:

  • Keep your distance and use binoculars to get a better view.
  • Take your time, keep your voice down and dogs on a lead.
  • Keep an eye on the behaviour of your subjects- are you affecting them?
  • Never disturb or follow animals and birds with young.
  • Take your litter home and don’t light fires.
  • Look for otter and bird tracks in the sand.

For more information about guided walks with Lucy, visit her website or email

No comments: