Island Wildlife

Here's a taste of what the wildlife is doing on the island in spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Lying within about a mile of the mainland, Tanera reflects in miniature many features that are typical of the North West coast of Scotland. The island covers approximately 800 acres of peaty hillsides interspersed with outcrops of Torridonean sandstone, fresh water lochans and bogs. The coast is rugged with cliffs and bouldery beaches all round, but the east facing shore encircles a bay of deep, sheltered water, much valued by humans and wildlife alike.

In recent times, there has been a total absence of sheep grazing on Tanera, and the beNorthern marsh orchidnefits to the flora are now very apparent. In sheltered corners primroses, bluebells and foxgloves flourish in turn, while later on orchids, meadow sweet and knapweed add to the colour in the grasslands. Out on the more exposed slopes, there is a wealth of plants that are adapted to this harsh environment – creeping willow, bearberry, sundew and scots loveage, to mention a few. Rowan seedlings are gaining in stature all over the island, and the small birch wood is expanding exponentially. This natural regeneration has recently been augmented by a native broadleaf treeplanting scheme, which in time will add to the diversity of habitats on the island.

The weather is naturally a big issue at all seasons for the wildlife on a small exposed island, but at least a steady increase in day length can be relied upon as winter gives way to spring. The flocks disperse and the resident greylags turn to territorial matters, their noisy disputes erupting at all times of day and night. Around the cliffs numbers of fulmar build up and ravens will soon be nesting. Rafts of eider duck gather and display, sounding endlessly pleased and surprised to see eachother. Snipe begin their wonderful drumming display flights, and pairs of oystercatchers patrol their patch. Soon sightings of porpoise will become more frequent in the sound, a chance meeting with an otter feeding by the shore is always a possibility, and even basking sharks occasionally roam.

By April, the island rings with calls of returning migrants. Willow warblers and pied wagtails are among the first, soon joined by wheatear, cuckoo and sandpiper. Red throated divers nest regularly on the lochans, commuting noisily to sea to feed, while black guillemot and shag fish silently around the island. On stormy days, gannets are driven inshore, and provide dramatic diving displays, plummeting from up to 30m.
Cotton Grass in the summer
Last but not least to arrive are the common and arctic terns, with their manic cries and synchronised flying displays. Greylag geese meanwhile are taking the rearing of young more sedately, both parents constantly on the lookout for danger, shepherding their goslings anxiously throughout the day. Carpets of thrift and cotton grass bloom on the shores and bogs.

August brings an early hint of autumn light, and ever-shorter days. Largely unnoticed, bilberries ripen under foot and rowan twigs sag under the new crop of berries. Heather fills the air with scent and bees work tirelessly. Moorland grasses, bracken and birch leaves turn the island golden. The island migrant birds have slipped away by now and there is a lull before autumn starts in earnest. On mild evenings pipistrelle bats are easy to spot hunting insects over the trees.

October brings fieldfare and redwing in great numbers from Scandinavia, to feast on the rowan and hawthorn berries. Before long they have had their fill and moved on. In the distance great skeins of barnacle geese can be heard before they can be spotted heading south, and small parties of whooper swans pass overhead. High above the cliffs ravens are displaying and pairing ready to start breeding early in the distant spring.

Highland cattle in the snowDuring winter, the gulf stream ensures that frost and snow never keep a hold on Tanera for long. The sun is lazy in its rising duties, and a beautiful soft light falls on the mountains and sea. The days aren't as short as some might think; even in mid-winter it's light by 9am and not dark until after 4pm. The permanent inhabitants are prevented from feeling too lonely by flocks of greylag geese flying in to graze the old crofts, joined occasionally by barnacle geese; visits from eiders, pairs of divers, and cheeky seals. And before too long the days will lengthen and the whole cycle will start again.

Tanera Mòr, Summer Isles, Achiltibuie, by Ullapool, Ross-Shire, Scotland IV26 2YN

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