Sunday, 17 July 2016

A yomp around North Hoy

A friend from our Milton Keynes days has been visiting us recently. Long suffering readers of this blog may remember many a natural history adventure with the Tense Towers Team which included The Admiral?

Well, here's one from this week!

With a shared passion for Odonata, a bit of rubbish weather wasn't going to keep The Admiral and I from tackling North Hoy, in the quest for dragons and damsels. We took the foot passenger ferry from Stromness to Moaness and set off across the island, headed for the hamlet of Rackwick.

Courtesy of Ordnace Survey and Geograph
At the top of the steep climb out of Moaness, we stopped to catch our breath and check out a couple of pools that have been fruitful in the past. The smaller ones by the dam head of Sandy Loch looked like perfect habitat, but were bereft of any odo interest. The larger pool behind them was inhabited by a couple of Red-throated Divers, so we complied with Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and left them alone.

Setting off again, along the western edge of Sandy Loch, we had good views of Great Skua (Bonxie), as plenty of the local population seem to use the loch for bathing.

A keening raptor call had us scanning the skies for its source. It turned out to be a pair of Peregrine falcons, presumably an adult and a juvenile. No prizes for guessing who was making all the noise.

As we walked through the valley formed by Ward Hill and Cuilags, we searched in likely places for any dragonflies or damselflies, but the coolness of the day and the lack of sunshine severely compromised our chances of finding anything.

The path did bring us into contact with several families of Stonechats, providing an opportunity to photograph this stunning male bird.

After 6.5km, we were tired and hungry, but we had reached the road bridge that crosses the Rackwick Burn. Here are a couple of small pools where several species can be seen regularly through the flight season. But not today. A chill north-westerly breeze blew across the surface of the water in a most uninviting way. Despondent, I retraced my steps a few metres, to the shelter of some bushes, to hunker down out of the wind and unpack some food for lunch. Halfway through removing my rucksack, one shoulder relieved of its weight, I froze. Not because of the weather, but due to the words in my head, repeating over and over again... 'the shelter... out of the wind'.

There, not a metre from the path, was a Common Hawker dragonfly, perched in the lee of some heather and seemingly unperturbed at my presence. Indeed, not five minutes previously, we had both walked past this point.

I called The Admiral over and, as we marvelled at our good fortune in finding one resting dragonfly in all this habitat, we took loads of photographs and then sat down with our sandwiches, staring contendedly at our new companion.

Though blue in the colouration of its spots, rather than the normal yellow, it was a female. There is an andromorph form of Common Hawker, more frequently encountered in Scotland, and here was an exquisite example.

Later, looking at my photographs, I noticed this pair of spines (on the left) located near the end of her abdomen, possibly protecting her ovipositor or of some other use during mating (?!).

We watched her for ages, until with a short bout of wing-whirring to warm her flight muscles and a toilet break to lighten her payload, she took to the air and disappeared across the heather, out of sight.

Our next target water body was the Rackwick Pool, behind the car park near the beach. However, as we approached it, we realised that there were several Arctic Skuas hunkered down in the heather between us and the pool. Again, not wanting to unnecessarily disturb breeding wildlife, we beat a dignified retreat.

As we wandered back up the road, the Admiral spotted first a Large Red Damselfly and then, by a small pool, an exuvia. Keen eyes, indeed. The exuvia was from a Common Hawker, who knows, maybe even the one we had seen earlier.

As we returned to Moaness along the tarmac'd road, we had no further odo sightings, but my camera recorded that we saw a bumblebee on some Red Clover and a gall on a Willow leaf.

But the day belonged to a serendipitous moment shared with a stunning dragonfly.

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