A few days ago, I was invited to help Eagle-eyed M with a recce for a couple of clients who are hoping that travel restrictions will be lifted by August. It was a route that I haven't walked for several years, so I didn't need much persuading.
We met up in the car park for one of Orkney's many wee shoreside kirks and set off along the beach, a mile of golden sand and turquoise seas, edged with Sea Sandwort, Oysterplant and Sea Rocket. Sand Martins hawked across the vegetation, Red Admirals flitted from flower to flower and Shelducklings bobbed in the shallows with their parents. There were fewer than half a dozen other folk present, all at the car park end of the bay, and our passage was safely negotiated.
We clambered up a gentle slope which gradually wound its way up onto the clifftops further south. The path was rather overgrown due to lack of footfall, but it was neatly delineated by buttercups, a yellow line to guide us through the verdant undergrowth. As we climbed away from the beach and through different habitats, there were more and more wild flowers to appreciate.
Soon, we experienced the sights and sounds of several seabird colonies, an aural and olfactory sensation which was kinder on the ear than the nose. Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Kittiwake and Fulmar were all busy raising the next generation. Great Skuas and Great Black-backed Gulls patrolled the cliffs, ever alert for an easy meal, and on the clifftop path we came across several eggshells robbed from the ledges below.
The sunshine had now disappeared, which made the wind seem cooler, so we took the opportunity to shelter in a small quarry and have lunch. There were flowers aplenty here too, but also a clear pool with newts (I didn't know we had those in Orkney), leeches and Great Diving Beetles. At one end of this pool were a few patches of Broad-leaved Pondweed, and as several folk had seen damselflies here in recent years, I thought that they would be worth investigating.
Yup, several flower stalks were hosting recently-emerged damselflies, complete with their exuviae, the shed larval skins.
As the exuviae were all in the 'head down' position, I knew that these were Blue-tailed Damselflies, even though the new adults were still to fresh to have much colour. However, there was plenty of colour around and about.
All along the route, there had been Meadow Pipits flitting all around us, adults busy feeding hungry young beaks, so by this point we were a bit blase about small brown speckled birds. However, one of them didn't look quite pipit-y as it flew off and, through our bins, we realised that it was a Crossbill. It too was feeding on Crowberry, and our original flummoxedness at its identity was in part due to the fact that it wasn't at the top of a pine tree!
With the wind and the rain, most insects were sheltering from the weather, and I was fortunate to spot this Red Admiral butterfly tucked away on a patch of bare earth in a small depression.
On the return trip, we popped into the quarry again to see how the emerging damsels were doing. With the cloud and cool temperatures, the answer was not much. However, I did find a few larvae, sat on pondweed leaves, presumably having converted to air-breathing after a year of an aquatic lifestyle.
M's sharp eyes spotted another recently-emerged adult and its exuvia at the water's edge, so I was able to take some close ups of both.
Heading north, M found more caterpillars, larger than the wee black ones. These were about 35mm long, strikingly marked and feeding on Meadowsweet.
Later, after a discussion with a local expert, we learnt that both caterpillars were different stages (instars) of Emperor Moth larvae, which will end up as a large green caterpillars with black hoops and yellow spots.
M pointed out some Yellow Vetchling which was just coming into flower and I noticed a small insect crawling across it. Looking closer, this turned out to be a potter wasp, a different species from the one I'd seen a week or so ago. As I took photographs of it, I realised that it was robbing nectar from the Vetchling through holes bitten in the base of the flowers. What we couldn't be sure of was whether the wasp had done this or it was merely taking advantage of holes made by bumblebees.
Just before we returned to the shore, I noticed a tiny beetle in a Buttercup flower. Again, I had no idea what it was, but I contacted the local beetle recorder later, who couldn't be absolutely sure from a photograph, but thought it likely to be a leaf beetle, Hydrothassa marginella. As there's few records for this species in Orkney, I may have to return to find it again!
The sun was shining once more as we made our way back along the beach. Several broods of tiny Eider chicks were braving the gently-breaking waves by the rocky shore and Oystercatchers kept a wary eye on our progress. In a foraging spirit, I was encouraged to try some Sea Rocket leaves, which in taste were... peapod-y... peapod-y... peap... !!!... MUSTARD!