Thursday, 20 September 2018

Hedge find

It’s said that Life is to be found ‘at the edges’… whether it is a conglomeration of organisms around a thermal vent in the deep ocean or our ancestors settling in coastal communities, foraging between the low tide line and the woods beyond the beach. More prosaically, and with a slightly-intended pun, this is also true of hedges. As a boundary between fields, or between a pasture and a path, or even bordering woodland, these are all edges in some sense.

In Orkney, it’s not a habitat which we come across very often, but when we do, it’s to be savoured. So when on holiday, we often seek out such places for the biodiverse havens that they are. And at this time of year, at least the other week in Perthshire, ‘this time of year’ means mellow fruitfulness.

On one of our walks over the Hill of Alyth, we ventured along between two such hedges, and although many of the Summer-visiting birds had departed, there was still plenty to experience.

I can’t recall ever, anywhere, seeing such a profusion of sloes adorning a Blackthorn. Whether this is due to the previous very cold Winter and the hot, dry Summer, I don’t know. Perhaps this quiet corner of Scotland is always so sloe.

There were also masses of hips and haws on the wild roses and hawthorns, as well as plenty of blackberries on the bramble bushes. I have to admit, I had committed the error of not packing my blackberrying stick (the one with a coat hook on the end) when making holiday preparations. Truth be told, it’s not had much use in Orkney, but we lamented its absence now as we walked by bush after bush of forageable fodder.

Muscid Fly on a Rosa rugosa hip

Comma butterfly
Over lunch in a café in Alyth, as we dripped dry from a sudden heavy shower, we mused upon our brambling options. Do we pass up on free food for lack of a suitable container to carry them in? Do we nip into the local Co-op and purchase a plastic container with a lid? Or do we womble a discarded, single use, plastic bottle from the grass verge and give it a second, and very environmentally-friendly, use? Oh, I should think so!

Fortuitously, we had brought some apples from Orkney, rather than leave them to moulder at home, or chuck them away. We had already bought porridge oats for our breakfasts and a tub of margarine for toast, so there was the beginning of a crumble. By carefully searching out every sachet of sugar in the cottage, I was able to complete the deal, and soon was gazing impatiently and hungrily through the oven door.

Yew berries are poisonous to humans, but one tree in the grounds of the estate was being jealously guarded by a family of Mistle Thrushes, whose rattling calls could be heard whenever they thought anyone else had the temerity to even think of pinching a berry. This Red Admiral was quite well camouflaged though, escaping the birds’ attention, as it sipped from some fruity sweetness. I presumed the upside down tactic was to improve the angle for suction rather than because the insect was paralytic on fermented berry juice?

Whilst in the well-maintained gardens of Glamis Castle, I noticed an odd thing. It was a cool, cloudy morning, and the bumblebees and hoverflies were not very active. Many were heads down in the plentiful Sedum blooms, waiting for a blast of sunshine to kick start their flights, but passing the time by mainlining nectar.

This wasn’t the odd thing. No, the mystery was that there were only two individual plants, both of the same species, which were being visited by wasps. These were Persicarias which had some unknown (to me) attraction for the wasps, as they studiously ignored all the other blooms and were only to be found clambering around the dark red spikes.

Common Wasp on Persicaria
Also in the gardens at Glamis, I was heartened to find a small Fumitory plant, tucked away beneath a shrub. I always approve of a varied selection of arable weeds in a garden!

Monday, 17 September 2018

A Bridge Toot Far

Our accommodation for the week was located on a country estate, north of the town of Alyth in Perthshire. As well as the exciting possibility of beaverage, the cottage was chosen for its access to decent walking, directly from the front door. We made much use of this, giving the car several days off, whilst we trogged about the countryside, through woods, along river banks, over hill and glen and, inevitably, generally in the direction of a cafe or tea shop.

The town of Alyth has had an interesting history, with many architectural remnants giving a clue to some of its past buildings. Having used an old drove road to reach the place, we were pondering upon the derivation of 'Tootie Street', as we discovered it before we found this information panel.

An old pack-horse bridge still crosses the Alyth Burn which runs through the town.

About four miles north of Alyth, on the River Isla (there's a fashion brand that didn't quite make it), was a spectacular waterfall known as the Reekie Linn, a reference to the spray in the gorge looking like smoke.

We also spent an interesting morning in the grounds and gardens of Glamis Castle (though, admittedly, only after we'd been to the tea shop). 

I'm too much of a revolting peasant to be having anything to do with the inside of the castle. Not far from Glamis is the town of Kirriemuir, a name which I had a niggling feeling I knew from somewhere, if only I could think where. We had a look around the place, and its main claim to fame appeared to be as the birthplace of J M Barrie of 'Peter Pan' fame.

I was fairly sure that wasn't why I knew of the place and, fortuitously, I overheard a barman in one of the local hostelries talking to a customer about Bonfest. Of course! One-time AC/DC front man, Bon Scott was raised in Kirriemuir, and the town have an annual rock festival in tribute. One of Orkney's local bands, Rocker, played at the 2015 festival, so that was obviously what I had almost remembered.

On the way back from Kirriemuir, we stumbled upon an RSPB reserve, Loch of Kinnordy, and its wildlife busy stocking up on food for a harsh Winter to come. I just love how the chewing gradually subsides as the realisation that there's something not quite right slowly dawns.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Fungal inflection

We've had a bit of a early Autumn break, spending a week in Perthshire, soaking up some sun, rain, wildlife and cake. Our Lass had booked us into a cottage on the Bamff Estate in the hope that we would have the opportunity to see Beavers. Yes, you read that right but, sorry, Leslie Nielsen fans, no nakedness, no guns, just wild Beavers.

More of that in due course, but with plenty of damp Beech and Birch woodland to wander around, we were astounded by the abundance of fungi to be seen. I know that this is the best time of year for mushrooms and the like, but we were amazed at the variety of colours and forms on display.

Not being anything of an expert in these matters, I looked but did not touch, and neither do I have identifications for many of them...

Sulphur Tuft, I'm told

This is a slime mould, not a fungus

Yellow Brain Fungus on Gorse

Porcellain Fungus, I'm told

I think this is a Lurid Bolete

Fly Agaric

There were more, but just how much of a holiday does one spend crawling around in the leaf litter, when there's cake to be had?

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Life on the edge

Saturday lunchtime, we were about to head out to meet friends, when there was much twittering outside the kitchen window. Sneaking a peek from the back door, I could see half a dozen Swallows perched on the guttering above the window. It turns out that I wasn't so sneaky after all, and they all took to the air in high dudgeon. However, this did allow me the opportunity to make it to the shed amidst all the confusion. From the shed doorway, I was able to watch two parent birds feeding some recently-fledged youngsters

The following day was much brighter, so we drove over to Stromness to check the banks of the reservoir for any damselflies. I only found one, a male Blue-tailed, so we continued on a walk into the town along tracks and narrow roads. The view across to Hoy never disappoints.

On Brinkies Brae, the hill behind the town, we found this Emperor Moth caterpillar and half a dozen Black Darter dragonflies.

Since then, wildlife moments have been few and far between, but this afternoon things took an unexpected turn. As I went to prepare our evening meal, I discovered this fungus (?) growing on a Sweet Potato. This begs the question... non-native vegetable... native fungus?

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Whisky galore

With a free morning ahead of us and rain not due until the afternoon, we headed to Scapa beach on the outskirts of Kirkwall, for a short circular walk to the south of the city (well, burgh, to be exact).

This is the view looking towards Scapa Flow, as we watched the Council's Marine Services tugs heading out to escort a tanker.

Following the road towards the pier, we picked up a footpath that headed east up a short, but steep, ascent. At the top of this, we bided a while to catch our breath and stare across the bay towards the Scapa Distillery.

We continued along a rough track, taking in further views of the Flow...

before leaving it behind us, as we headed eastwards away from the coast.

There was a short section of 'A' road to negotiate, quiet enough on a Sunday morning, before we turned onto a bridle path towards Inganess Bay. On the grass verge of the main road, I had to chuckle at this caffeine-fiend of a snail.

Fast food, slow mollusc.

The bridle path, so the sign said, was created in the early 1980s, and certainly some of the tree planting would corroborate that. The shrubs, for that's all the height they had, did have quite a girth on their trunks. It was most odd, but definitely in a good way, to be walking along between two hedgerows.

We had decided not to continue to Inganess Bay, saving that for another day, so turned north to pick up a track that went back over the top of the brae into Kirkwall. Soon, Highland Park Distillery came into view, perched on a hill above the construction site of the new hospital.

You will notice that the corporate colour scheme of the brand is black, which is evident in the exterior fixtures and fittings of the buildings of the distillery.

Even the stonework seems to echo this branding, which I had blithely assumed to be as a result of the peaty smoke produced during the drying of the maltings. However, I now know, thanks to an excellent article by Derek Mayes in the The Orkney Naturalist 2018, that it is in fact due to the presence of a fungus Baudoinia compniacensis, which grows in ethanol-rich environments.

When The Rolling Stones sang 'Paint It Black', not only were they gathering no moss, they were also encouraging the Whisky Fungus.

Continuing downhill, we joined the Crantit Trail, which follows a burn towards Scapa beach and our circuit was complete.


Monday, 20 August 2018

Gravel puss and a solicitous damsel

Following the post where I was extolling the virtues of Wild Radish, I turned to more mundane matters and decided to tidy my van ready for the working week. The Satmobile has a hard life, lugging all manner of equipment to various points of the Orcadian compass, often in foul weather, so it was due a bit of TLC.

After vacuuming the cab, I bent down to coil up Henry's power cord and came face to face with this...

 A Puss Moth caterpillar, somewhat out of its comfort zone, in the middle of the gravel hard standing where we park our vehicles. How it came to be there, I know not, but after watching it for a few minutes, it became obvious that the caterpillar was trying to spin a cocoon.

We removed it to a place of comparative safety amongst the potted trees and shrubs tucked in by the garage wall, and left it to decide its own fate without becoming accidentally squished.

In the late afternoon, the sun eventually put in an appearance, so we drove down to Hoxa Head in South Ronaldsay to look for dragons and damsels at the pools there. Sadly, these were drier than my previous visit, with nary an ode in sight. Checking the old quarry nearby, we did manage to find six Blue-tailed Damselflies, including this bromance between two males.

The flight season in Orkney for this species has now passed its peak, so breeding opportunities will become ever more rare as numbers inevitably decrease. Some males struggle with this concept and will try to mate with females of a different species or, as in this case, with a male of the same species.

The lower male is showing his disgruntlement by flashing and flaring his wings at the other damselfly, which is as about as angry a sign as these insects can muster. For the record, mixed pairings, either of species or gender, are destined to be unsuccessful.