Tuesday 24 July 2018

National Dragonfly Week 2018

As alluded to in the previous post, Saturday 21st July saw the beginning of 2018's National Dragonfly Week, as decreed by the British Dragonfly Society. Locally, I ran an event under the auspices of the Orkney Field Club, promoted through the Club's web page and Facebook site, as well as on the Odonata-centric OrkOdo page.

Nine hardy souls braved the early morning wind and rain to meet at the ferry terminal at Lyness in Hoy, for a gentle amble up to some bog pools on the southern side of Wee Fea. The eight folk who joined me varied in dragonfly experience, but they each brought plenty of enthusiasm for all wildlife, so prospects were reasonable for a good day.

The initial climb was quite sheltered, but two miles later, as we neared the first pools, a westerly wind was beginning to make its presence felt. In the absence of any direct sunshine, there weren't any dragons or damsels on the wing, so we began to search for roosting individuals amongst the rushes at the pool edges.

The group soon spotted a few Emerald, Large Red and Common Blue Damselflies, and began photographing the more approachable insects, a task made trickier by the afore-mentioned breeze.

Photo courtesy of MT
As I was explaining a few details of the life cycle of dragonflies, JT made the discovery of the day (ok, I called it early, but I was correct) by finding a recently-emerged Common Hawker dragonfly. Reasoning that it had not yet moved far from its emergence site, I was able to spot its exuvia, the shed larval skin, the only remnant left of the insect's several years spent as an aquatic creature. Although we didn't see any more Common Hawkers on the day, we did find six exuviae, proving that the species was breeding at these pools.

Photo courtesy of JT

As the clouds thinned and the temperature rose, a few Black Darters flew by, most of which were yellow and looked as though they had only recently emerged. However, the occasional mature individual was seen, including this male which actually became too hot in the brief spell of warm sunshine. It began 'obelisking', pointing its abdomen towards the sun, effectively limiting the surface area of its body able to absorb heat from the sun.

After a picnic lunch, we began the return descent back down the hill. The second site for the day was a larger bog pool which was located in a more sheltered location in the lea of the hill. For this reason, there were many more insects present, with butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies all vying for our attention. But perhaps the most intriguing find was a Marsh Speedwell, a small plant with the characteristic blue Speedwell flower, but with leaves more akin to a Willowherb.

This site was predominantly populated by Black Darter and Emerald Damselflies.

The female damselfly above was in tandem with a male, but she didn't seem the slightest bit interested in mating with him, resolutely refusing to take their relationship to the next stage. However, she was having to be very patient, because until the male became bored and released her, she was rather stuck.

Here's a happier shot, of a pair of Emerald Damselflies ovipositing. Well, actually, it's obviously the female who's egg laying, but her partner is guarding her from other suitors.

Photo courtesy of PM
Another floral note at this site was a rather picturesque aquatic plant, Least Bur-reed Sparganium natans, many thanks to JC for the ID.

Our last target water body for the day was a pool beside the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre. This pool is less acidic, much more duck-infested, but blessed with pond weed and plenty of emergent vegetation. As well as more Emerald and Large Red Damselflies, we found several Blue-tailed Damselflies to take our species tally for the day to six.

Friday 20 July 2018

Parched panic and possible precipitation

This weekend sees the beginning of National Dragonfly Week which, for 2018, runs from 21st to 29th July. What do you mean you haven't written it in bold pen on your calendar? Nor underlined it twice? Nor added exclamation marks? Just me then.

After 2017's full-on odofest around the islands, I decided to back off the gas this year, with maybe just a few events during the weekends. As it turns out, that's now seeming a bit ambitious, so there's only going to be one dragonfly walk, on Hoy.

What with all the hot weather in the UK, and Orkney hasn't been immune to it either, I began to worry that maybe the usual pools we visit on Wee Fea may have suffered from the lack of rain. To ease my concerns, I decided to carry out a recce, just to make sure we weren't going to be faced with vistas of baked mud and forlorn vegetation.

A previous graduate of the School of Odo, M, offered to help with the recce so, after consulting the weather forecast, we chose last Tuesday as a suitable time, close enough to be relevant, but space to plan (well, panic) for a new venue if needs be.

To refresh our collective memory, here's what the various pools usually look like at this time of  year:

And here's what we found on Tuesday:

However, and I don't fully understand the reasons behind it, there were good numbers of dragons and damsels to be found. In fact, the first ode we saw was a Common Hawker, silhouetted against the sky as we climbed to the higher pools. At one point, we witnessed three Common Hawkers at once, all males hoping to find a mate. I am guessing that perhaps many bog pools have dried up, so the remaining water is concentrating the population. For now.

Between pools, we wandered through a conifer plantation, listening for bird calls. Neither of us recognised the first one we heard as it made its way, unseen, through the treetops above us. We suspected a Crossbill, but couldn't be sure. We were more confident of the high-pitched calls of Goldcrest, and eventually were rewarded with views of this tiny bird. Then, in a clearing, I was amazed to encounter two Common Hawkers foraging, one even taking a butterfly on the wing.

At the lower pool, we stumbled upon what must have been a recent mass emergence of Emerald Damselflies, just too many to count. Again, perhaps the drying of the pool has forced their hand?

In all, we found six species, which is normal for these water bodies, although the distribution was different from previous years. We couldn't find any Blue-tailed Damselflies at the upper or lower pools, only recording them at the museum pool near the pier. The lower pool only produced Emerald Damselflies and a few Black Darters, so all I can really say is that this year is different. There has been a little rain overnight, so let's see what Saturday brings for the official Dragonfly Walk, hosted by the Orkney Field Club and OrkOdo.

My grateful thanks to M for her invaluable help.

Sunday 15 July 2018

A craking good day

If there's a problem with moving to live and work in a place where you used to go on holiday, it is that it can be very difficult to recapture the carefree spirit of a vacation. Sure, it's easy enough to spare a few moments for a sunrise or a sunset, or back off the throttle ever so slightly when you catch sight of a Hen Harrier gliding across the road in front of your car, or even stop at the side of the road to watch an ephemeral moment of sunlight and clouds. It is much harder to find the time to go 'full tourist', even without a loud shirt and red trousers.

However, this weekend, we made the effort, along with friends L and C, and booked ourselves onto the ferry to Westray to sample the heady delights of the 'Queen of the Isles'.

Following the recent dry spell, it seemed churlish to be a bit disgruntled about the decidedly damp and dour weather, as the landscape needs some precipitation to maintain its verdant complexion. Fortunately, there were plenty of gaps between the showers and places to go indoors when there weren't.

It was a very early start for a weekend morning, the ferry leaving Kirkwall harbour at 07.20. The journey was pleasant enough, with most of it spent on deck, watching the world slip gently by. At 08.45, when we landed at Rapness in Westray, we set off straight away for the Castle o' Burrian, a lump of rock sat at the entrance to a sheltered bay. This is as close as you can get to Puffin Central in Orkney, without sailing 60km out into the Atlantic to visit Sule Skerry. Walking along the clifftop path to the Castle, we were oo-ing and ah-ing at all the cuteness to be seen, with fluffy Fulmar chicks and boisterous Black Guillemots vying with the Puffins for our attention.

Returning to the car, there was also grand views of a Twite, sat picturesquely on some ripening seed heads. 

After a visit to a tea room, natch, we headed to Noltland Castle. As L and C explored the ruins, Our Lass and I were astonished to hear a very recognisable bird call from some wet pasture a little way away. Although it was the middle of the day, there was no mistaking the crex crex call of a Corncrake.

Next stop on our whirlwind tour was Grobust beach, but our wander along the sandy bay was cut short by a heavy shower, so we decamped to the Wheeling Steen Gallery to marvel at the wonderful photographs of Westray scenery and wildlife.

Following a pleasant lunch at the Pierowall Hotel, we drove along the rough track to Noup Head, an RSPB reserve and seabird colony. Here, along with Gannets galore and beguiling Guillemots, were Razorbills, Kittiwakes, more Fulmars and Puffins, as well as Arctic and Great Skuas.

Somehow, we managed to fit in another tea room visit, before heading back down the island to catch the return ferry to Kirkwall. Again, much of the journey was spent on deck, watching islands slowly slipping by and trying to spot L and C's house through the haze, some 10km distant. After all that fresh air, not to mention the early start, I, for one, slept well.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Rothiemurchus ramble

Our last full day in the foothills of the Cairngorm area was spent on another low level walk, making good use of the shade afforded by the pine forest. A gentle four and a half mile potter around two lochs was a fitting end to our holiday, and lived up to expectations in more ways than one. Loch an Eilein and Loch Gamhna are situated within the Rothiemurchus Estate and reached via a minor road off the B970 from Inverdruie. 

Setting off on a well-marked path, we skirted around the eastern edge of Loch an Eilein. There were plenty of Large Red and Common Blue Damselflies active already, as the morning was very warm. We were glad to be in the forest, although this made us susceptible to cleg attack.

Before long, we found this nicely-vegetated bay which was alive with dragons and damsels, all busy either defending territory, mating or egg-laying. It was so hot that the insects were in turbocharged mode, which made photography difficult. Fortunately, one or two individuals did stop, briefly, for a rest.

Golden-ringed Dragonfly, male
Common Darter, male
Soon, we discovered the less obvious track which circumnavigates the smaller Loch Gamhna and we wandered into a habitat which appeared to have had a recent mass emergence of Common Darters. They were everywhere, perched on heather, bracken and trees. Many were quite fluttery, possibly taking their maiden flights, after spending a year or so as aquatic larvae.

Also on the heather, we stumbled upon this huge green caterpillar, which is the larval stage of the Emperor Moth.

We stopped by a burn to eat our picnic lunch, and were joined by a pristine Four-spotted Chaser which temporarily halted munching duties.

Carrying on around Loch Gamhna, we discovered more excellent habitat, more damsels and dragons, and definitely more biting clegs.

Emerald Damselfly, female

Emerald Damselfly, male
There were also views to the east, revealing the summit of Cairn Gorm, and snow persisting at height, despite the 30 degrees Celsius temperatures of lower altitudes. We would've loved to tackle this sort of terrain, but neither the heat nor our stamina were up for it.

Returning to the main path around Loch an Eilein, we continued clockwise along the western shore, eventually coming to a glade where the pine trees were much older. An important constituent of many habitats is dead wood, standing or otherwise. Trees in this state are vital for biodiversity and the health of the forest, being home to all manner of invertebrates. If we clear away every 'untidy' bit of habitat, we unthinkingly remove so much of the natural world.

Nearing the end of the walk, we were treated to views of a ruined 13th Century castle on a small island in the loch, as well as another distant sighting of the Cairn Gorm summit.

It was now baking hot, so we treated ourselves to an ice cream, before heading over to Loch Garten, where Our Lass was keen to see the nesting Ospreys. I loitered by a tiny bog pool, just near the viewing point, watching dozens of Large Red Damselflies and a single Four-spotted Chaser. After a while, I realised that there was another small dragon present, although when the larger Chaser spotted it, it would drive it away. It took me ages to have a good look at the smaller dragon, as it was continually being 'moved' by the Four Spot, and would perch just out of sight. However, eventually, I was fortunate and had a decent enough view to identify it as a mature female White-faced Darter. This was the first time I had seen this species anywhere other then the bog pool half a mile away!

After all our perambulations over and through these wonderful landscapes during the week, it was fairly inevitable that we would encounter one other creature which is resident there. On returning to the cottage, I discovered a less-than-welcome visitor in the form of a female sheep tick, Ixodes ricinus. Fortunately, we had come prepared with tweezers, which Our Lass deployed to good effect.

But let's not leave this post on such a dismal view.

Instead, share in the sight of wispy clouds in a deep blue sky, as your eyes gaze across the regenerating pine forest to distant mountain peaks. You'll have to imagine the treetop calls of a family of Coal Tits, the occasional clatter of dragonfly wings from the nearby pool and the pondering conversation of two folk wondering what they might have for tea.