Staff blog: Parting and swirling in the skies above Assynt

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett takes stock following a particularly bounteous autumn

Fieldfare flock detail

The parting and swirling of the thrushes has dominated our skies in Assynt during the last month. Fieldfares and redwings circle around flapping furiously in their typical untidy flight.

They are not serene fliers when airborne and move collectively in great waves forming complicated patterns above. The clack clack of the fieldfare complements the higher pitched seeip of the redwing. This swirling is often short-lived as they find the nearest rowan tree and descend on.

These hungry fieldfares come for the winter from mainland Scandinavia. First they come slowly in ones and twos. The first recorded sighting was on 11 October. More and more arrive and by 27 October the largest count of 2,500 was recorded locally.

Redwings arrive from Iceland, the Faroes and Scandinavia and are often intermixed with the flocks of fieldfares. They fly in smaller numbers, typically about 20 to 30 can be seen in a flock. A rowan tree can be stripped bare within hours, but this year has been bounteous for fruit so these winter visitors will hopefully stay around for a while.

Autumn has been spectacular, with the varying shades of yellow, orange and rusty brown all complementing each other. Even the deep orangey brown bracken is quite a sight. The stags stopped roaring a while ago and have settled back into their bachelor groups. The hinds, often pregnant now, are accompanied by their follower (their previous year’s calf) and their nursing calves.

Downy birch - the dominant tree on Quinag - is a pioneer species, spreading where it is allowed to regenerate. Most of the young saplings have short twiggy ends where they have been browsed by deer, but they continue to try and push up through the heather. Overall average growth for saplings on Quinag this year was 2.1cm. This is positive at least, but growth could be as much as 11cm if unhindered.

It is always heartening when there is a diversity of tree species, as there should be in this area. There is a handful of wych elm beside the burn at Torgawn and a scattering of holly on the South side of Quinag, many quite an age now. Hazel is more palatable to deer than other species and therefore more likely to get nibbled, but there are some lovely stands of it along Torr a Ghamhna.

Aspen is another rarity and is lovely in the autumn. In this region aspen only regenerates vegetatively, which means a population of aspen can all be linked underground and in effect be one tree. With so many being genetically identical clones, this makes the aspen here very vulnerable to disease and unable to adapt to climate change.

As autumn sinks into winter, frost and snow cover most of the mountain. The season of guided walks has finished and visitors to the area have all but gone. The red grouse and the odd meadow pipit might be seen, but most breeding birds leave the ground for warmer climes. However, you may still spot some elusive and secretive winter visitors - woodcock and jack snipe have become more common and, if startled, will typically fly up suddenly before haphazardly flying away.

Photo: courtesy of David Haines, Assynt Field Club