Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dragon Hunt

Within Orkney, there are only eight breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly, four of each. All eight species occur in Hoy, the island to the south west of mainland Orkney, but no other island of the archipelago has the full assemblage. None of the species are rare in a UK context, but one, the Four-spotted Chaser, has a very local distribution on Hoy and appears to be confined to a few pools in the Rackwick valley.

In 2014, no records were received for Four-spotted Chaser. In 2015, only one exuvia, the shed larval skin, was found. This, at least, proved that one had emerged to be an adult insect. Last year, 2016, there were no recorded sightings of the species on Hoy, raising the question "Are they still there?"

It appears that there is only a small population, so it might be that, as the dragonfly has a two year life cycle (perhaps longer in a harsh environment), flying adults will only be seen every two years. In this scenario, the 'missing' years being explained by the fact that the larvae are only half-grown. Equally, as the pools are not readily accessible, it may just be that lack of recorder effort is the reason for the dearth of sightings. Having not seen a Four-spotted Chaser in an Orkney context, I was keen to see if they were present in 2017. An added complication to surveying for dragonflies, especially in Orkney, is the presence of breeding Red-throated Divers on many of the same pools that the odes use. The level of protection (Schedule 1) afforded to these divers means that a licence has to be obtained to approach them during the breeding season.

It is also possible, though perhaps unlikely, that the Red-throated Divers on Hoy are predating the Four-spotted Chasers, either as larvae or as emerging adults, on the pools which they share. Having liaised with a Field Club colleague who possessed a Schedule 1 licence, it still remained necessary to find a convenient date where we were both available and also when the weather was suitable for dragonflies and surveying.

The chaser's flight season within Orkney begins in mid-May and lasts until mid-August, with the peak time being mid-June until the end of July. As this time ticked by, it began to look as though we might miss the opportunity for another year. But this does rather suggest that recorder effort is the problem! Fortunately, several days before National Dragonfly Week commenced, all the planets aligned and the Hoy trip went ahead. Hours before setting off, we learned that the divers on site had failed in their breeding attempt for this year, which took away a bit of the pressure we were feeling.

Once on Hoy, a local minibus dropped us off on the nearest bit of tarmac road to the pools in question, then it was a yomp across country, very off piste, over heather, bogs, burns and hills. En route, we saw several Large Heath butterflies, which I mistakenly presumed were day-flying moths until I was educated otherwise. At the pools, there were many damselflies on the wing, the day being very sunny and with a gentle breeze. An immature Black Darter dragonfly was seen, then we discovered an emerging Common Hawker, hanging beneath some heather at a pool edge.

The Admiral busy logging all Odonata activity

Common Blue Damselflies in tandem

Blue-tailed Damselfly female, form rufescens-obsoleta

Recently-emerged Common Hawker

Our guide pointed out another dragonfly, whizzing low over the water, which soon resolved itself into a Four-spotted Chaser. So they were still present! Yay! Then we spotted another and another.

Four-spotted Chaser, with minimal wing damage

Four-spotted Chaser, with quite a bit of wing damage
We did not witness any breeding activity, and our photographs from the day can only confirm that two of the chasers were male, so there's a bit of a question mark over the future. Hopefully, our brief snapshot of their flight season is not typical, and sufficient numbers of males and females made it onto the wing and were able to mate. Pond dipping for larvae would be an option, but I think it would fall foul of the Red-throated Diver issue.

Returning to the ferry on foot, we popped into another site and found evidence of Emerald Damselfly emergence, meaning that on the visit to Hoy we had seen seven of the eight Orkney species. A good day's work.

All photos courtesy of Alan Nelson, less for the first one.

Next time: National Dragonfly Week begins...

Monday, 24 July 2017


[Moves aside several weeks' worth of accumulated detritus, blows the dust off the 'New post' button and tentatively presses it...]

It has been nearly three weeks since my previous blogpost, which means that my usual 'twice a week' habit has foundered on the shores of the unchartered island of Doingotherstuff.

And what other stuff have I mainly been doing? Well, it's been quite an intense period of odo-ing, brought about by a decision made months ago to celebrate National Dragonfly Week (15-23 July) with a tour of the smaller islands of Orkney. The plan was to raise the profile of dragons and damsels throughout the outer isles, so that more folk might take an interest in conserving their habitat and to generally look out for these wondrous insects.

As a member of the Orkney Field Club committee, I was also keen to give some time to folk on the outer isles, because most Club walks and talks tend to be Mainland-based. So here was my opportunity to put that right and perhaps collect some useful data along the way.

I would have to take the time off work for the duration of National Dragonfly Week, but there would not be a possibility of recce-ing each island beforehand. To overcome this problem, I approached either Island Rangers or nature reserve wardens (RSPB) on individual islands to act as hosts and provide some logistical support, mainly in the form of transport. As a self-funded venture, I tried to keep costs down by not taking a car to each island. The wardens and rangers were keen to be involved, so the week's itinerary soon filled up and we then publicised the events. Through the Field Club network, via my own OrkOdo page on Facebook and with flyers sent to each island, the visits were promoted from about two weeks in advance.

I already had a prior commitment on Saturday 15th July, at an open day organised by the local biological records centre, but this would also act as a promotional day for the OrkOdo tour.

The Sunday before National Dragonfly Week, we (Our Lass, The Admiral (visiting on holiday), and I) took the ferry over to Graemsay to survey a quarry pond as a shake-down trip, to iron out any possible problems. This worked well, we seemed to have all the correct gear, plus we found a handful of Blue-tailed Damselflies emerging, which proved that they were actually breeding on the island, rather than being blown in from elsewhere.

A recently-emerged damselfly with its exuvia (shed larval skin)

Our Lass, Yours Truly and Sian (from Life on a Small Island), possibly as you've never seen her before

This is what we were looking at, a female Blue-tailed Damselfly
All photos courtesy of Alan Nelson.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Pond life

A few weeks ago, on a walk with the Flora group of the Orkney Field Club, in between all the orchid wrangling and what have you, I was shown a flooded quarry that had potential as a dragonfly site. Once I discovered who was the land owner, I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to survey the site for Odonata. This afternoon, I had some free time and, more importantly, lots of sunshine!

Whilst most of the site is probably too deep for odes, there are shallows at the margins, with emergent vegetation likely to appeal to a damselfly larva looking to take the next rung on the ladder of Life.

It is also home to lots of these wee guys...

so maybe not so hospitable for insect larvae of many species?

After a few minutes of searching, I came across a Blue-tailed Damselfly, and then another and another.

There were Large Red Damselflies too.

All damsels so far, approximately 15, were mature adults, and I couldn't discount the possibility that they had flown in from elsewhere. However, just as I was retracing my steps, I spotted this very fresh immature one, pale-coloured, milky wings and not far from the water's edge. It may well have just taken its maiden flight. I think it's a Blue-tailed Damselfly, but no amount of searching could locate the exuvia from which it had emerged. So the breeding status of the site is unresolved.

I did find Large Reds ovipositing in tandem, so they are trying to breed here. Time will tell whether they are successful in that endeavour.

And whilst we're on the subject of mating, back home at Tense Towers, later in the evening, the local Hares were looking decidedly frisky.

It's not just March when they go mad, y'know.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Hit me with those laser beams

As musical references go, this one is not from a track in my collection. I'll leave you to decide whether the inclusion of the stone wall is intentional.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Coincidence and serendipity

Coincidence and serendipity in equal measure, that's how I'm calling it.

When I switched on my computer this morning, I had an email from a cousin in London, asking about the identity of a moth she had rescued from a cobweb. It was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, a fantastic insect to see, let alone experience up close and personal. I was very envious.

Photo credit: Cousin J
In the late afternoon, Our Lass returned from work and was keen for a walk around the usual circuit, so off we went, catching up on the day's events and soaking up some sun. Returning home, as we reached the garden wall, we could see something fluttering around the front of the house, flying up towards the soffits, and then moving along the wall. It didn't appear to have the colours of any of the butterflies currently on the wing, but there was too much daylight for a big moth to be out and about.

Beseeching Our Lass to keep her eyes on it, I hurried around into the garden and to the front of Tense Towers, where I was guided to the spot where it had last been seen... "Just above the light."

Yep, this is the opposite view to the one I normally post.

And above the light, tucked up at the top of the wall and under the soffit was a dark shape.

Now I could see that it was a moth...

A Hummingbird Hawkmoth!

And the really serendipitous part? If we had not gone for a walk and had, instead, been sat at home, possibly even looking out of the window... we probably wouldn't have seen it.

Yellow and Blue

Within the confines of Tense Towers, 'Yellow and Blue' is a much-appreciated track by local duo Saltfishforty.

The weekend's wildlife also took on these hues or, at least, the roadside swathes of buttercups and surreptitious damselflies kindly obliged.

A day-flying moth "Nothing to see here... move along now."

Helophilus sp hoverfly

Another hover, Leocozona lucorum

Poplar Hawkmoth

Likely to bee... a Heath Bumblebee (Thanks for the advice, John!)

Blue-tailed Damselfly, Ischnura elegans, the rufescens form of the female

Summer solstice 2017 (northern hemisphere edition)

Today is the Summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, traditionally marked by either waking up at Stupid o'clock to view the sunrise, or pulling an all-nighter from the previous evening's sunset. A stone circle is optional, but does lend the occasion a frisson of gravitas.

Regular readers (check your medication, folks) will know that I'm not great at late nights and that also, although mornings are easier, 4am is very not the panacea I'm seeking.

Hence this photo, a panorama from the front door of the sunset on 20th June 2017, taken at approximately 22.25 whilst clad in my dressing gown. Neither the Oystercatcher or the cow seemed to mind.

(Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Dawning realisation

Our Lass spent a week in Paris recently, ostensibly as part of a re-union, but the real reason was to see how many times Birmingham Airport could lose her luggage. Twice, as it turned out. It's a skill.

At Charles de Gaulle airport, as she prepared to return to home, she overheard an English lady, in the same queue, complaining that Disneyland Paris had been full of French people.

I think this attitude tells you much of what you need to know about the predicament in which the UK currently finds itself.

Whilst I voted to Remain within the EU, I can now see that Europe is probably better off without us, dumb-headed pillocks that we are.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Early birds and insects

Sunday dawned bright and... [struggles for the correct descriptor]... [what was that unfamiliar sensation?]... oh yeah, warm! The temptation to be up and out was too much to resist so, probably earlier than was advisable for finding Odonata, I park the car by Inganess Bay and slung some optics around my neck.

The previous night had seen quite a bit of rain, which left the path very squelchy underfoot and the Wideford Burn with an obvious flood line, high up its banks. On seeing these signs, a few worries surfaced that I may have called the sojourn wrongly, but calm was restored when it became apparent that there was plenty of insect life on the wing.

As I walked upstream alongside the burn, Sedge Warblers were whistling and scratching their jazzy songs. Reed Buntings were also calling, though I suspect that when it comes to song, the Reedies are still in the Primary 1 Music class. Sand Martins and Swallows flew overhead, whilst several other species perched conveniently close to the path, in the early sunlight.

Meadow Pipit

Redpoll sp. (male)

Redpoll sp. (female)
Once over the main road and into the lightly wooded portion of the valley, more insects could be seen, basking in the warmth offered by the shelter of some trees. It still wasn't 'core hours' for odes, but a few Large Red Damselflies fluttered amongst the vegetation, along with butterflies, hoverflies, and a few day-flying moths.

In fact, I was well and truly distracted from Operation Odo by the sheer amount of other things to see.

I didn't have a clue what I was looking at, but it was clear that insects were pedalling furiously through their life cycles. Later, the knowledgeable folk of the local Insect page on Facebook were able to put names to the images: pupa of the Magpie moth (TG); a day-flying moth Micropterix aureatella (NC); eggs of the beetle Gastrophya viridula (AG); caterpillar of the Garden Tiger moth (TG); and, a fly Leucozona lucorum (AF). Thanks, guys!

I was on firmer ground with the damselflies, quite literally, as the path is intermittently boardwalked at this point.

A female Blue-tailed Damselfly Ischnura elegans

A pair of Large Red Damselflies Pyrrhosoma nymphula in tandem
It was a grand start to the day.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Thoughts on a trip south

There were several reasons for our short break in Perthshire: celebrating Our Lass's recent birthday; marking the end of her post-op convalescence with an adventure; a bit of time off for me (as I'd worked the the last 4 bank holidays); and, a change of scene, with different geography and wildlife.

In thinking of the different wildlife in and around Glen Lyon, I tended to dwell upon what was present within the wooded hillsides and leafy river valleys in comparison to our home in Orkney. What I didn't consider, until later, was the flip side of that, what was missing compared to home.

During the four days of the trip, we did not see a single House Sparrow or Starling, despite these two species being the most frequent visitors to the garden of Tense Towers. In fact, the sparrows nest under our eaves, and both species are always foraging along the drystone wall, through the borders and across the grassed areas.

I think this is known as locally abundant and widespread, which aren't the same thing, obviously. Both House Sparrows and Starling numbers are in decline, though there are still a great many of them, just not as many as there once was.

Here's a quote from the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) website:

"Starlings are not doing very well at the moment. The abundance of breeding Starlings in the UK has fallen rapidly, particularly since the early 1980s, and especially in woodland The declines have been greatest in the south and west of Britain; recent BBS data suggest that populations are also decreasing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the trends were initially upward. The species' UK conservation listing has been upgraded from amber to red as the decline has become more severe. Strong improvements have occurred in breeding performance, suggesting that decreasing survival rates, particularly of young birds, may be responsible for the observed decline."

Data from BTO survey

And one from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' (RSPB) website:

"Monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population, recently estimated as dropping by 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008 with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations."

Data from BTO survey

Due to their large population declines, both birds are Red Listed as species of high conservation concern.

It's a sobering thought that we need to appreciate them, and much else besides, whilst they're still here. The appointment of Michael "We've had enough of experts" Gove as the latest Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does absolutely nothing to quell my fears for our wildlife and the habitats in which it lives.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

A trip south, part 4

If I was being pedantic [...waits for myriad exclamations of "Surely not?!"], I would have to say that this post is actually about the trip back north. As it is the concluding part of the trip, I guess we can let that pass. For the journey back, the weather wasn't great, but at least it was a driving day, so no harm done.

With plenty of time in hand to catch the early evening ferry across to Orkney, we pootled up through the Highlands, stopping off at Ralia for refreshments, Inverness for comestibles, Foulis for lunch, Helmsdale for the hell of it and Wick for gardening supplies and fuel.

Just north of Inverness, near the Black Isle, we were fortunate to spot a Red Kite and a Buzzard. Sadly, this isn't as much of a forgone conclusion as it used to be, due to raptor persecution in the area.

Somewhere on the A9 in Caithness, we rounded a bend to see a Kestrel up ahead, hovering high over the road verge. I eased off to see what would happen. The Kestrel dropped lower. I slowed down a bit more. The Kestrel dropped lower. With the distance between us decreasing, I slowed down some more, and the Kestrel dived into the undergrowth. By sheer luck, I had just about timed things to perfection, as the little falcon powered back into the air with a small rodent in its talons, right across the bonnet of the car. What a view! I suspect that the mouse or vole was less enamoured with the situation.

Once on the ferry, we took up a window seat for the crossing, just in case there was a sniff of a chance of Orca (yes, they'd been seen several hours beforehand, yada, yada, yada). Predictably, they were not around now, but our seawatch was rewarded with a solitary Manx Shearwater, scything its way across water.

It had been a fantastic long weekend, though I never did finish the hot tub list.

A trip south, part 3 and a bit

Well, this is awkward.

Awkward is a relative term, I suppose, depending upon whether one has forgotten to include a couple of photographs in a blogpost, or if one has called a snap election and inadvertently reduced one's standing in the country.

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm the former.

These photos were taken at the cottage after returning from our walk. We were looking out of the lounge window which, on the southern aspect, is at first floor level. The top image is of a pair of recently-fledged Goldfinches, who were hopping about and investigating all manner of things on the ground. The second image is of an unfamiliar bumblebee, so I had to seek advice about its identity. My grateful thanks go to JC (not Jeremy Corbyn!) and DD (not David Davis!) for their help. It is a Blaeberry Bumblebee.

Hopefully, unless more sudden elections are called, my next post will be part 4.

Friday, 9 June 2017

A trip south, part 3

The forecast for Sunday was for more showers with a few sunny periods. The plan had been to climb the hill behind the cottage, going up to a water body shown on the OS map, in the hope of finding some dragons. It looked like a long, gentle slog, definitely do-able, and the lower part of the route had already delivered with Tawny Owl and Pine Marten. Closer scrutiny of the map revealed shooting butts on the tops, so the higher land was obviously being managed for Red Grouse, with all the environmental nasties that entails, and then I noticed that the water body was fenced off. Hmmm.

So, instead, we drove up Glen Lyon, past Fortingall and its 5000 year old Yew tree, and parked at Bridge of Balgie. Over a pre-walk cuppa at the Post Office and Tea Room, we chatted to a family up on holiday from the Scottish borders (mum, dad, two wee bairns and grand dad). It turned out that next month they'll be in Orkney, exploring family roots and taking in all that scenery. As I explained what we were doing in Glen Lyon, i.e. going for a walk, it dawned on me that this was quite a big deal. In the previous twelve months, since we'd last been in Glen Lyon actually, Our Lass has had two knee operations. This walk was going to be our first proper amble up a hill for many a year. Momentousness!

Donning waterproofs, we set off across the bridge over the River Lyon and towards the start of the walk. Our main challenge was going to be the climb up the side of a gorge formed by two burns. Taking it slow and steady, with frequent halts for... er... taking photographs, we made our way ever higher.

Dung beetle of some sort

Rock showing striations caused during glaciation

Singing Tree Pipit. That's the pipit singing, not the tree.
Near the top of the initial hill, we came across several pools. As it was beginning to rain, we sheltered by some trees and had lunch. By the time we had polished off several slices of flapjack and some fruit, the sun was beginning to re-appear. All the better to explore the pools.

Diligent staring at likely spots produced several Common Blue Damselflies and a single Blue-tailed Damselfly, though sadly, nothing larger.

Much later, looking at the images on my computer, I noticed that the Blue-tail had one wing which hadn't formed properly, or not inflated during emergence (right fore wing). It could probably manage to fly with 'one engine down', so be able to forage and maybe even mate.

The descent from the highest point of the walk began in a steady drizzle, but as we clambered our way down the side of another burn, the sun returned. On reaching the road, Our Lass managed to find a Siskin and a family of Grey Wagtails, two species that we were hoping to see during the weekend. Then it was back to the tea room for a well-earned feast.

We even shared it with the local Chaffinches, who were very used to humans.

In part 4, we return home, via a few transportational wildlife encounters.