Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Counting butterflies and a dragon spell

Until I logged onto the BBC Nature website, I hadn't realised that it was the Big Butterfly Count from July 24th to Aug 1st, as part of Butterfly Conservation's... erm... would you believe, Butterfly Week. Fortuitously, we had just had a potter around the BBOWT reserve of Little Linford Wood and the place was teeming with them.

I was hoping to photograph White Admirals, but although our lass spotted three individuals, they were resolutely committed to staying out of camera range. So you'll have to make do with this fresh Peacock instead...

We recorded a dozen species, plus a Silver Y moth, but of course I really wanted to see  dragons. There were plenty of Brown Hawkers on the wing, the odd Southern Hawker, several Migrant Hawkers and a few Ruddy Darters. We had a bit of luck when an immature male Migrant landed in the undergrowth beside us, hanging around just long enough for me to galvanise myself into action to capture a shot.

Hopefully, warm summer evenings will now be filled with groups of these dragonflies, hunting and feeding, in woodland glades, along hedgerows, and if I'm very lucky, in the garden of Tense Towers. Several years ago, this did occur. And to be stood in a small space, bordered by a tall hedge and panel fences, surrounded by ten or so Migrant Hawkers, was a magical experience. The air was filled with the sound of their wings, a delicate gentle sound, as they brushed against the vegetation and carried out impossibly tight turns in their search for food. Unperturbed by my presence, the squadron of dragons stayed for a few minutes and then left as suddenly as they had arrived. A close encounter, fondly remembered.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 6

Another day, another ferry or two, another cup of tea at the Wind Dog Cafe on Yell. Another unimaginatively-titled blog. Today is the day to visit the isle of Unst.

First port of call is the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve. The directions to which might as well read "just turn right at the bus stop, you can't miss it. That's the bus stop, not the reserve". More on the bus stop later. Keen of Hamar is, at first glance, a "barren, bleak and lifeless rocky desert" and that's a quote from the Scottish Natural Heritage information leaflet! But this lunar landscape is home to some of the rarest flora in the UK, a veritable botanical gold mine. The stony ground, a debris field of serpentine rock, has a fragile carpet of tiny plants which have evolved to survive in this harsh environment where they don't have to compete with more normal flowers and grasses.

The star of the show is Edmondston's Chickweed (Shetland Mouse-ear) which is endemic to Unst and discovered by the 12-year-old Thomas Edmondston in 1837. Take a moment to contemplate that... this tiny flower grows nowhere else in the world, except on this small, desolate, north-facing slope. We were nervous about even walking around the reserve, in case we inadvertently brought about its irretrievable extinction. Other treasures included Northern Rock Cress, Norwegian Sandwort, Mountain Everlasting, Frog Orchid and Moonwort.

Edmondston's Chickweed  (flower approx 20mm across)
After tip-toeing around in the biting wind for a while, we retreated to safer ground. Well, safer for our feet, but not necessarily our sanity, as we returned to the Unst Bus Shelter. Think I'm resorting to my usual hyperbole and blowing the whole thing out of proportion? OK, how many bus shelters do you know with their own website? As it was late June 2010, the theme gave a nod to the World Cup, though I couldn't possibly divulge which team was being favoured.

This is the closest our lass has ever come to smiling at football

After a most pleasant lunch in the Northern Lights cafe in Haroldswick, we headed for another NNR, this time the seabird colony at Hermaness. From the car park, we trekked across the moor to the west side of the island and the cliffs that support 100,000 pairs of breeding birds in the summer months. These include 12,000 Gannets, 25,000 Puffins, 14,000 Fulmars, 20,000 Guillemots, as well as numerous Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Bonxies, Shags, and Arctic Skuas. I'm afraid we can't vouch for any of this, for although we could certainly hear them and most definitely smell them, due to low cloud, we couldn't actually see them. At the risk of repeating myself, "Shag!" Occasionally, a gannet would emerge out of the gloom, balancing on the wind to hang in front of us before disappearing into the fog once more.

Gannets in the mist
Bl**dy glad I brought the Factor 30 sun cream!
From one bit of clifftop, thankfully below the cloud base, we could just make out the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, at the very northern tip of Great Britain. Retracing our steps across the moor, our lass spotted some Bonxie chicks, not far from the footpath. We felt fortunate not to be dive bombed by their parents, as Great Skuas are fiercely protective of their young. They seemed more preoccupied with repelling sheep from the area around the nest than with us. To be honest, my estimation of sheep as stupid creatures had to be reconsidered, as they stubbornly refused to be threatened by pairs of screaming skuas zooming in at sheep head height. And in inverse proportion, my estimation of Bonxies as fierce aerial predators went down due to their inability to scare off a woolly lawnmower.

Following a picnic tea by the shore at Baltasound, we had a wander along the coast. Here we were brought up sharply by what we found. A stark reminder that despite the idyllic scenery and fantastic community spirit that exists in these islands, unless at all times we are on our guard to the dangers, there is always space for that insidious and destructive force known as peer pressure...

I had to apply for a licence from the Guild of Grammatical Pedants for special dispensation to work in that typo.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 5

Sunday morning dawns bright and breezy, with a fresh southerly wind which has a bit of warmth in it. More importantly, visibility is reasonable and for once the top of Ronas Hill is clear.

At 450m above sea level, this is Shetland's highest point, a huge lump of granite that is the remains of a magma chamber from the Eshaness volcano. Whilst this isn't a particularly tall hill, its location at 60 degrees North means that it is home to an alpine flora normally found on much higher peaks.

Not having built up our stamina as we'd have liked, we opt to drive up to Collafirth Hill on a tarmac track to some communications towers. This halves our climb, but the route is still a 2 hour slog through a boulder field to the top of Ronas Hill.

The wind isn't as balmy up here, making us wonder if we're barmy to be up here, but as we gain height, hazy views open up to the north, east and south. As we crest the hills of Roga Field and Mid Field, Ronas Hill looms ever larger and we are forced to lose height to cross Shurgie Scord. On the final part of the ascent, we disturb a Great Skua (Bonxie) feeding on a carcass. Intrigued, we clamber over to discover the remains of largish gosling that the skua must have carried all the way up here.

Once on the flat summit of Ronas Hill, we investigate a well-preserved chambered cairn, before settling down to lunch in the lee of a small walled enclosure protecting a trig point. Before setting off again, we notice a metal box tucked away behind the Ordnance Survey structure. Intrigued, we open it to discover the Ronas Hill Visitors Book, which we duly sign.

Tucked away between the boulders, rock debris and fellfield, we find numerous alpine flowers. Mountain or Trailing Azalea, Alpine Lady's Mantle, Hard Fern and Fir Clubmoss, but the relentless buffeting by the wind encourages us to leave the summit. During the descent back to Collafirth Hill, we are fortunate to catch a glimpse of a Mountain Hare as it scampers away, though even an animal built for speed has to carefully pick its route between the rocks.

In the evening, we head for Eshaness cliffs, in the hope that there's a sunset. Unfortunately, as the moment draws near, a wall of cloud fills the western horizon and renders the whole enterprise a waste of time. Well, actually, not a complete waste of time, as on the way there we had picked up our 50th bird species of the trip, a not-so-rare Tufted Duck.

The following day begins both sunny and calm, which seems too good to be true. Indeed, the Beeb weather forecast reckons there'll be rain, though local radio is more positive. Suitably encouraged, we decide to return to the Lunna peninsula in the hope of further otter sightings. Before lunch, we work our way along the west side of the headland, with only a solitary Grey Seal to report. We picnic by the Burn of Feorwick, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and then head on towards the most northerly point of Lunna.

It begins to rain as we stop to scan a likely bay, and as on our previous visit to the area,  precipitation seems to be the catalyst for some lutrine action (apparently that isn't a word, but what the heck). From open water, a creature swims towards the shore, then dives. Another seal? A Guillemot? No, emerging onto some rocks is an otter! It proceeds to shelter under an overhanging rock and begin grooming. Having dropped to the ground, we sit on the damp grass, not daring to move, let alone put on our waterproofs. Protecting our optics as best we can from the steady drizzle, we just have to be patient and wait. Eventually, it emerges back into the open and clambers down towards the sea.

Under the watchful eyes of a pair of Oystercatchers and a pair of soggy humans, the otter swims towards us and I have to resist taking any more photos, in case the shutter noise spooks it. Eventually, predictably, I risk an image and the otter does dive out of sight and away. 

Weirdly, the rain immediately stops and we share a moment of bright eyes and big smiles in an atmosphere of "Did that really just happen?"

Our route now takes us up the spine of the peninsula to the trig point on the Ward of Outrabister. It is not easy progress, being in turn boggy, rocky and then tussocky, all the while being scolded by several Great Black-backed Gulls. Dropping down from the top of the hill, we make for the Stones of Stofast, a set of huge boulders deposited by glacial action in some previous ice age.

They're a bit like my map reading, erratic.

To mark another successful otter expedition, we pay a visit to Britain's most northerly chippie, for a celebratory haddock, chips and mushy peas. Boy, we know how to party!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

We interrupt this blog...

Breaking news... the Tense Towers pond has recorded a new breeding species of dragonfly!

When I returned from work yesterday evening, I scanned the pond for signs of life, whilst enjoying a mug of tea. Lo and behold, there were two exuviae (empty larval skins) clamped to the reed stems. Too big to be damsels and too small to be hawkers. A swift perusal of the relevant ID guide (thank you, Mr Cham), confirmed that they belonged to Common Darters. Sadly their owners were nowhere to be seen, presumed on the wing elsewhere.

This morning, still in shorts and slippers, I ventured out again, just in case. There was a further larval skin which we had missed the previous evening, but also a newly emerged adult, still clinging to its exuvia whilst it inflated first its wings and then its abdomen. Predictably, I was nearly late for work!

Early morning and we have emergence
The day was not as warm as yesterday and there were frequent rain showers, some of them heavy. These facts would explain what I found on my return home...

But not a very warm day, so still around at tea time
In fact, there were now two adults, neither of which had felt like venturing far all day, presumably due to the conditions. We've seen Common Darters in the garden almost from the minute that the pond was dug, seven or eight years ago. I recall that we've witnessed plenty of Dartery love (pervy, I know) and Mrs D laying eggs. But we've never had proof of confirmed breeding for this species, either by finding an exuvia or a newly emerged adult. So this was an historic moment for the Tense Towers pond and a pleasing endorsement of our wildlife gardening ethos.

An all home grown Common Darter
There, that makes up for two Odo-free weeks in Shetland, more of which later...

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 4

In the north west of Shetland lies Eshaness, a landscape forged by a volcano several hundred thousand years ago.

Fortunately, the temperature's dropped a wee bit since then, though as we leave the car and step into the wind and rain, I can't help thinking that a few degrees warmer wouldn't be so bad. Wrapped up against the elements, we can only marvel at the fulmars and ravens using the geography and air currents like some giant aerial skate park.

The rock formations of Eshaness are picture postcard stuff. Out to sea are several sea stacks, Da Drongs (Shetlandic for The Drongs) and an impressive sea arch, Dore Holm, which resembles a drinking horse. By the lighthouse is a blow hole, Kirn o Slettans, which is the remnants of a side cone from the ancient volcano. The cliffs are a slice through the physiology of the eruption, with solidified ash, lava, agglomerate and pryoclastic flows preserved in the Devonian landscape. A kilometre north, a subterranean passage leads 100m under the cliff to a gloup known as the Hol o Scraada, where the roof of a sea cave collapsed.

Another kilometre or so brings us to Grind o da Navir, a storm surge beach on a colossal scale. The pebbles in this case being half ton lumps of rock, excavated by Atlantic storms and hurled inland by the power of the waves. Standing on the floor of the beach, it's like being the world's tidiest quarry.

The following day, we awake to the realisation that we've been here a week and for the first time don't have a plan for the day. After talking to some fellow guests over breakfast, we decide to head to Fetlar, two short ferry trips away. I must admit that I'd been putting off the ferry trips because I was struggling to understand the time table. I was much reassured, however, to learn that I was not alone in this regard, on hearing that the school children of Fetlar had taken it upon themselves to write and publish a much more easily comprehendable version.

On reaching Fetlar, we made for the RSPB reserve at the Mires of Funzie, in the hope of seeing Red-necked Phalaropes, the island being one of the their few UK breeding sites. Sadly, fortune wasn't with us, though we did see about a bazillion Snipe, or Schnip! as our Dutch comrades in the hide would exclaim at regular intervals.

The return trip to mainland meant a 55 minute wait on the island of Yell, so we detoured slightly and settled down to a picnic tea at West Sandwick. After munching our sarnies, watching the waves crashing on the beach and photographing some orchids in the meadow behind the dunes, we eventually realised that it was nearly ferry time. Our lass drove like the wind, whilst I shouted encouragement along the lines of "Keep your foot down!" and occasionally screamed "More speed!". On reflection, this may be why the island is called Yell.

Back on north Shetland, we stopped off beside Voxter Voe to check out a shingle beach. We had seen a chap there that morning, armed with a camera, so thought it worth a look. And so it proved, when our lass spotted a Ringed Plover chick and then an Arctic Tern chick, two little fluff bundles unconcernedly preparing to face the world and all its dangers. Let's hear it for Team Pom Pom.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 3

Deciding on a bit of a respite from the hiking, and cautious of succumbing to that peculiarly Shetlandic malady, Spectacular Scenery Fatigue, we visited the town of Scalloway on the west coast of Central Mainland. This was the ancient capital until those upstarts in Lerwick began trading with Dutch fisherman in the 1600s, which the court in Scalloway tried to ban, but hey, no point in raking over those ashes, eh?

We parked ourselves in a harbourside cafe and wrote postcards to family, friends and work colleagues. Well, you've got to rub it in that it's so much colder where we are, whilst they're sweltering in the heat, haven't you?

After enough tea to sink the RMS Oceanic (Shetland, 8th September 1914), we pottered around the town, looking at the castle, the harbour, the bookshop/Post Office, but not the museum as it closed for 2 hours for lunch. Not having the patience to wait another hour and 48 minutes, we pottered some more and came across this engraving on the side of a house by the harbour...

It was created in 1910 by William Johnson, a Scalloway stonemason and amateur scientist and reads:

"This diagram illustrates the cause of the so called Earth Tides. Also each alternate Ocean Flood, the cause of which has never yet been understood. Re Earth Tides: we are told that the Moon raises the solid surface of the Earth under it about 8 inches and raises the OPPOSITE SIDE 8 [inches]. This I hold to be impossible. The phenomenon called EARTH TIDES IS CAUSED BY EARTH's WEIGHT PULLING AGAINST THE SUN'S ATTRACTION.
"The water flows back when attraction over & forms a heap on opposite side of Earth. to balance attn. flood. There is no ..." [the rest of the inscription is illegible and appears to have been deliberately effaced.]

The white circle is a diagram of the earth and is also marked:

Germans are Not The Favoured of Heaven."

Obviously the First World War is not too far away and propaganda may be colouring this gentleman's judgement. As we have seen above, the residents of Scalloway were not averse to a bit of verbal fisticuffs, so we left town before we got into trouble for being blatantly Southern in a public place.

What had been our private joke, suddenly became a horrendous reality, as we journeyed to the island of Burra and were involved in a drive by shooting. As we pootled through the village of Hamnavoe, we spotted a small building, the exterior of which was decorated in sea shells. Somewhat out of character, our lass wasn't cheeky enough to stand outside it and take a photograph, so I got the job of firing off the camera as we trundled by in the car. As we were holding up the traffic (another first for our lass), it all got a bit fraught, as I guess drive bys do.

"Shell shocked in Shetland shooting!"

After all that excitement, we went to ground in the Bonhoga Gallery, a converted watermill in Weisdale. By this point, I was in disguise to protect my identity, pretending I liked salad and being interested in art.

The weather had now taken a turn for the worse, so we abandoned plans to have a walk in the area, which does boast that rare thing in Shetland, a small wood, and if that wasn't surprising enough, also an active rookery.

At a loss as to what to do next, we headed back north and then east, and found ourselves on the Lunna peninsula. Not having had the presence of mind to bring maps or tourist info for that area, we parked by Lunna Kirk and bimbled onto the shore to look at what an interpretation board described as "Shetland's best preserved bod". A bod is a stone building a bit like a small barn, and many of them have been turned into the local equivalent of youth hostels. This particular one most certainly had not, its proximity to the tide line ensuring a plentiful supply of 21st Century jetsam, courtesy of places further afield than Shetland.

Our lass turned to me to record her disgust and sadness at this state of affairs, whilst I continued to stare past her right ear, at a patch of seaweed bobbing in the waves. To be honest, countless fruitless hours have been spent watching bits of seaweed bobbing in the waves, both in Orkney and now Shetland, none of which have turned out to be anything other than actual bits of seaweed. 

999 times out of a 1000. 

It was slowly dawning on me that bits of seaweed don't have tails. Directing our lass to where I was looking, I brought my bins to bear on what proved to be three otters, a mother and two cubs.

OMFG! Three       ing otters!

Now at this point, dear reader, you may be forgiven for wondering if we were in the company of Wrong Len. Well worry not, cos we weren't. Nope, for the only time on the holiday, I'd left the camera in the car. By the time I had nipped back to fetch it, otters and highly-excitable wife were disappearing around a headland. I caught up with our lass as it started to rain and the otter family vanished into a tiny cove. The terrain was such that our only option for further views was to back track, up and around onto a steeply-sloping grass clifftop above the cove. Not wearing boots (we weren't hiking today, remember), a wet grass slope above the rocks was probably not a safe place to be. However, having manoeuvred into position, we risked skylining ourselves by peeking over the edge of the cliff. This gave us a very brief view of a furry family grooming session, before we were spotted and the otters dived back in the water.

Honest, there's two otters in this photo!

Wow, our first up close and personal wild otter experience. Wet clothes, wet camera, big grin.

Even £1.36 a litre for unleaded petrol on the way back to the B+B couldn't remove the smiles.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Holiday 2010 - Part 2

Our home for the next week and a half, Muckle Roe (Old Norse for " Big Red Isle") is an island composed of red granite  and is covered in moorland and small lochs. Its most impressive features, however, are the bays of North and South Ham, an hour or so's walk across to the west. Here sea stacks, caves, arches and cliffs combine to give spectacular views. Our first few days on the island were spent exploring these and the nearby abandoned settlement of Ham.

Cliffs at North Ham

The walk across from the B+B was punctuated with frequent stops to look at the plentiful flowers on display: Lesser Spearwort, Spring Squill, Butterwort, Round-leaved Sundew, Milkwort, Heath Bedstraw and Heath Spotted Orchid to name a few. A family of Ravens were making a raucous din on a hilltop, Snipe were drumming all around, the shrill call of a raptor alerted us to a brief glimpse of a Merlin and a pair of Golden Plover made plaintive contact calls as they watched our progress.

Golden Plover

The flora and fauna were definitely different to that found in good old Milk 'n' Beans. In fact, the only "normal" garden birds we spotted were these two healthy-looking specimens.

Britain's most northerly pair of Blue Tits

The garden of the B+B was cunningly designed to provide a sheltered location for a colourful array of flowers. In turn, these were providing food and accommodation for all manner of insects. Besides Large White Butterflies, we also spotted the Shetland Bumble Bee, a species endemic to the islands.

Shetland Bumble Bee

The punky nature of that haircut is made less threatening by those little orange armbands. Yeah, we're anarchists, but only if the water's not too deep!

Holiday 2010 - Part 1

This year, for our summer holiday (or our second spring, as we like to call it), we thought we'd have a change from the usual trip to Orkney. Well, you can have too much of all that cloud, wind and rain, can't you?


With that in mind, we went to Shetland instead. Nestled at 60 degrees North and sharing its latitude with the likes of Oslo, Helsinki, St Petersburg and Anchorage, what better place to go to escape all that sweltering English weather?

For the first few days, we were based in the capital, Lerwick, and immediately met several of the locals, one of whom even turned up for breakfast.

Herring Gull

Arctic Tern

We had arrived in the middle of the Hamefarin 2010 celebrations, a festival for descendants of emigrants from centuries past, returning to Shetland to meet relatives and catch up with what's been happening on the "Auld Rock". Inevitably, for a land so steeped in Norse culture, there's a great deal of Viking regalia on display. I'd not seen so much sheepskin, leather and gleaming metalwork since the day a chapter of Hell's Angels gate-crashed an episode of One Man and His Dog.

We were travelling in the company of Wrong Len and his Scottish companion, Cameron Binns. They couldn't wait to travel down to the RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head and take the obligatory shot of a Puffin. We took the option of parking at Jarlshof and walking along the coast to the lighthouse, a decision which paid instant dividends when a family of Wrens emerged on a dry stone wall beside us. The accent of a singing Shetland Wren is a joy to behold. Anyway, without further ado, let's get the chuffing Puffin bit out of the way, with the usual mitigation about poor light, strong winds and a rubbish photographer.


We did pop in to Jarlshof on the way back and I was pleasantly surprised to hear a Celtus CD being played in the gift shop. Not particularly Neolithic, I'll admit, but a band sadly missed by the staff at Tense Towers.

Continuing our exploration of the southern part of Shetland, the next day we ventured to St Ninian's Isle, which is not strictly an island as it is connected to the mainland by a geographical feature called a tombolo. This is a sand bar formed by the tides flowing around the north and south of the isle, producing a beach with two shores.

Tombolo from St Ninian's Isle

Over a picnic lunch, watching the to-ings and fro-ings of various sea birds, our lass asked a question that had obviously been troubling her for some time, "What do Fulmars actually do?" Now admittedly, they're either soaring playfully on the wind or just idly sat about, so when do they raise a family? Our bird book states that they live to be fifty, so perhaps they have got loads of time to loaf around.

At times during the holiday, it felt like all the Wheatears in the world were on Shetland, and St Ninian's Isle was no exception. We also managed to approach a pair of Bonxies (Great Skuas) who obviously weren't nesting there, as we did not come under aerial assault. If it were not for the fact that this one was sat right at the edge of a particularly narrow bit of cliff and that the wind was gustier than a gusty thing, I might even have been able to get a bit closer.


We now set off for our second location, where we would be based for the remainder of the holiday. Another island, Muckle Roe, this time connected to the Shetland mainland by the more prosaic method of a bridge. And also a  very different prospect to the bustle of Lerwick, a B+B tucked away at the end of the road on the south side of the island.