Friday 28 September 2018


A week ago this evening, Our Lass and I went along to the first Orkney Field Club talk of the 2018/19 Winter season, that was all about the wildlife which the speaker, Anne, encountered during a trip to the White Sea coast of Russia. As can be seen by the photo below, this was principally for floral interest, with many Arctic or Alpine species not seen in Orkney (or the UK) growing in profusion during the short Summer at 71 degrees North.

During a brief dry (well, dry-ish) spell at the weekend, we managed a walk along some of the Deerness coast, from Dingie's Howe to Newark Bay. Here's a view of a small secluded cove, although not secluded enough to prevent someone from dumping a load of garden waste over the cliff. Mainly New Zealand Flax, by the look of it. 

And here's a the view looking back to Dingie's Howe, a thin strip of land which is mainly sand dune, but which is all that prevents Deerness from being an island.

One day in the week, I happened to look out of the window and saw a rare sky phenomenon for Orkney. We don't, thankfully, experience many con trails up here. We prefer our big skies to look untainted by the hand of humanity.

I'm not sure what this weekend will bring, other than plenty of rain and wind, so I might have to work quite hard for any wildlife moments.

Thursday 27 September 2018

As a matter of fact, it's all dark

The only metaphorical cloud of our holiday at Bamff was the fact that we missed the Orkney Science Festival. In particular, we missed the Museum of the Moon and loads of moon-based activities throughout Stromness.

How and ever, help was at hand in the form of Classic Album Sundays. This is a concept which had not crossed my orbit through life until earlier this year, but I was amazed to discover that events happen all around the world, with folk coming together to sit down and properly listen to a vinyl record played through some top end amps and speakers. You suspect that there's glowing valves involved, rather than just a bucketful of digital sampling.

Any road, we were back home for the day after the Science Festival, and Classic Album Sunday Orkney had niftily chosen Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' as its featured album for September. Not only that, forsaking its spiritual home in Grooves record shop, the venue for the event was Stromness Academy and the not-yet-dismantled Museum of the Moon.

For weeks, we'd been hearing about the huge 7 metre Moon which was to be suspended in the Academy, but that hadn't prepared us in any way for witnessing it up close and personal.

Once the heart beat sounds of the beginning of 'Dark Side...' kicked in, I closed my eyes and forgot about all extraneous distractions. When you consider how records were made back in 1973, with none of the fancy gizmos we have these days, the layers of detail contained within the album are pure joy. But the thing about Pink Floyd is, and I can't recall who originally made the assertion, there's just so much space and time in their music. The band don't try to fill up every bar of music, but allow it room to breathe. Just before the end of Side One, I remember thinking, "Heck, Adrian's got to turn the record over in a second!" Funnily enough, whilst he did this, someone's spurious ring tone sounded which, bearing in mind all the ambient noises in a Floyd album, it wasn't really out of place.

By the end of Side Two, I was very relaxed. As a mindfulness experience, it is to be recommended.

Saturday 22 September 2018

Summoning dragons one mouthful at a time

The venue for our recent holiday was a cottage on the Bamff Estate, near Alyth, in Perth and Kinross. The owners, Louise and Paul Ramsay, are ecologically-minded folk with a passion for the re-introduction of Beavers into the Scottish landscape. I admire their dedication and drive (it's two thirds of a mile long), in taking an idea, making it a reality and properly giving a dam about wildlife. Make no mistake, this isn't just about Beavers, this is landscape management by a species other than Homo sapiens, which means that it is one hundred percent about wildlife and zero percent about vested human interests. You can probably see why this doesn't sit comfortably with everyone? 

The Eurasian Beaver was extinct in these parts as long ago as the 16th Century, mainly due to hunting for its fur and meat. As a once native species, the current European Union Habitats Directive places a responsibility upon governments to consider restoring Beavers to their former range and, indeed, 27 European countries have already done this.

In Scotland, SNH set up an official Beaver re-introduction trial in Knapdale, which ran from 2009 to 2014 and looked at the feasibility of returning the species to its former range. Meantime, further east, in the River Tay catchment, a few animals had escaped from  wildlife parks and an unofficial population grew in the region (which explained my chance sighting in Aberfeldy in June 2016). For a while, it looked likely that these unofficial Beavers would be culled, but after a campaign to save them by the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, the Scottish Government announced in November 2016 that the population could remain.

Fast forward to 2018 and a couple of very excited wildlife watchers arrived at Bamff in the hope of catching a glimpse of this iconic mammal. Now, being wild Beavers, these animals are nocturnal, so our best chance to see one would be in those crepuscular moments of late evenings and early mornings. With zero chance of coaxing Our Lass from her bed at Ungodly o'clock, we opted to book an evening tour with Paul. Meanwhile, we were blissfully spending time enjoying all the other sights, sounds and smells of riparian habitats and the interiors of tea rooms.

Halfway through our holiday, the weather improved for a morning, so we ventured out around the estate to look at all the different signs of beaver activity. In shallow valleys, burns were frequently dammed, taking on the feel of a flight of locks on a canal. Trees close to the burns had been felled for both food and dam material, opening up the woodland edge for other plant species to flourish and create a mosaic of different habitats.

There is a 'flight' of four dams in this photo

Where the ground levelled out, rising water levels had created shallow pools, which were being colonised by aquatic plants and invertebrates (and probably amphibians, reptiles and mammals we couldn't see). No guesses for where this is heading, eh? Yes, in a sheltered patch of sunlight, by one of these newly-created pools, I found first a male Common Hawker dragonfly, basking on a felled birch sapling, then Our Lass spotted a pair of Emerald Damselflies in tandem (either prior to mating or about to oviposit), and finally a couple of male Black Darters were seen on a track. To my mind, you can't have a more ringing endorsement of successful habitat management and improvement of biodiversity.

Gotta love a spider with that much ambition!
Later that evening, we accompanied Paul out into the fading light, treading carefully to keep noise to a minimum. We walked along the side of a valley, parallel to a series of pools and dams, pausing frequently to watch and listen. Bats fluttered above our heads (it would've been worth bringing a detector!), owls called from the adjoining woodland and it was simply a pleasure to be out amongst all this wildlife. Just before darkness fell, as we strained our eyes peering into the gloom, I remember thinking... if I had known it was going to be like this, I would've tried to memorise every bit of branch and floating log in the estate. Then, Paul gestured to look just upstream from where we were stood. One of the 'floating logs' was moving, and then silently disappeared with hardly a ripple. It had been the head of one of the kits from the family group on this stretch of water. From a low Earth orbit, you could probably have measured the glee emanating from Our Lass and I.

On our last night at Bamff, we went out once more, and this time we were treated to a 'swim by', again I think it was a kit, as it seemed a small Beaver. Just the head was visible, moving silently through the water, with only the faintest of ripples to betray its presence. Immediately below us, it climbed out of the pool, over the dam and continued on down the valley. I could not believe how soundless the creature had been.

Of course, all is not sweetness and light in regards to Beaver re-introductions. Farmers will worry about water levels affecting their fields and crops, other land owners may look at their landscapes on a tree-by-tree basis and not see the wider picture, and then there will be those who can't countenance any creature other than Man having this level of influence within the countryside. So there will need to be appropriate regard for other landowners, but I think there is a place for Beavers in our landscape, in providing a habitat which was present for millennia and that has been sadly lacking for the last four hundred years.

Finally, I should say that even we spotted local evidence of the damming of water courses and the unsightly mess which had been left behind. Perhaps some species just don't deserve to be let loose in the countryside?

Weir on the Alyth Burn

Thursday 20 September 2018

Hedge find

It’s said that Life is to be found ‘at the edges’… whether it is a conglomeration of organisms around a thermal vent in the deep ocean or our ancestors settling in coastal communities, foraging between the low tide line and the woods beyond the beach. More prosaically, and with a slightly-intended pun, this is also true of hedges. As a boundary between fields, or between a pasture and a path, or even bordering woodland, these are all edges in some sense.

In Orkney, it’s not a habitat which we come across very often, but when we do, it’s to be savoured. So when on holiday, we often seek out such places for the biodiverse havens that they are. And at this time of year, at least the other week in Perthshire, ‘this time of year’ means mellow fruitfulness.

On one of our walks over the Hill of Alyth, we ventured along between two such hedges, and although many of the Summer-visiting birds had departed, there was still plenty to experience.

I can’t recall ever, anywhere, seeing such a profusion of sloes adorning a Blackthorn. Whether this is due to the previous very cold Winter and the hot, dry Summer, I don’t know. Perhaps this quiet corner of Scotland is always so sloe.

There were also masses of hips and haws on the wild roses and hawthorns, as well as plenty of blackberries on the bramble bushes. I have to admit, I had committed the error of not packing my blackberrying stick (the one with a coat hook on the end) when making holiday preparations. Truth be told, it’s not had much use in Orkney, but we lamented its absence now as we walked by bush after bush of forageable fodder.

Muscid Fly on a Rosa rugosa hip

Comma butterfly
Over lunch in a café in Alyth, as we dripped dry from a sudden heavy shower, we mused upon our brambling options. Do we pass up on free food for lack of a suitable container to carry them in? Do we nip into the local Co-op and purchase a plastic container with a lid? Or do we womble a discarded, single use, plastic bottle from the grass verge and give it a second, and very environmentally-friendly, use? Oh, I should think so!

Fortuitously, we had brought some apples from Orkney, rather than leave them to moulder at home, or chuck them away. We had already bought porridge oats for our breakfasts and a tub of margarine for toast, so there was the beginning of a crumble. By carefully searching out every sachet of sugar in the cottage, I was able to complete the deal, and soon was gazing impatiently and hungrily through the oven door.

Yew berries are poisonous to humans, but one tree in the grounds of the estate was being jealously guarded by a family of Mistle Thrushes, whose rattling calls could be heard whenever they thought anyone else had the temerity to even think of pinching a berry. This Red Admiral was quite well camouflaged though, escaping the birds’ attention, as it sipped from some fruity sweetness. I presumed the upside down tactic was to improve the angle for suction rather than because the insect was paralytic on fermented berry juice?

Whilst in the well-maintained gardens of Glamis Castle, I noticed an odd thing. It was a cool, cloudy morning, and the bumblebees and hoverflies were not very active. Many were heads down in the plentiful Sedum blooms, waiting for a blast of sunshine to kick start their flights, but passing the time by mainlining nectar.

This wasn’t the odd thing. No, the mystery was that there were only two individual plants, both of the same species, which were being visited by wasps. These were Persicarias which had some unknown (to me) attraction for the wasps, as they studiously ignored all the other blooms and were only to be found clambering around the dark red spikes.

Common Wasp on Persicaria
Also in the gardens at Glamis, I was heartened to find a small Fumitory plant, tucked away beneath a shrub. I always approve of a varied selection of arable weeds in a garden!

Monday 17 September 2018

A Bridge Toot Far

Our accommodation for the week was located on a country estate, north of the town of Alyth in Perthshire. As well as the exciting possibility of beaverage, the cottage was chosen for its access to decent walking, directly from the front door. We made much use of this, giving the car several days off, whilst we trogged about the countryside, through woods, along river banks, over hill and glen and, inevitably, generally in the direction of a cafe or tea shop.

The town of Alyth has had an interesting history, with many architectural remnants giving a clue to some of its past buildings. Having used an old drove road to reach the place, we were pondering upon the derivation of 'Tootie Street', as we discovered it before we found this information panel.

An old pack-horse bridge still crosses the Alyth Burn which runs through the town.

About four miles north of Alyth, on the River Isla (there's a fashion brand that didn't quite make it), was a spectacular waterfall known as the Reekie Linn, a reference to the spray in the gorge looking like smoke.

We also spent an interesting morning in the grounds and gardens of Glamis Castle (though, admittedly, only after we'd been to the tea shop). 

I'm too much of a revolting peasant to be having anything to do with the inside of the castle. Not far from Glamis is the town of Kirriemuir, a name which I had a niggling feeling I knew from somewhere, if only I could think where. We had a look around the place, and its main claim to fame appeared to be as the birthplace of J M Barrie of 'Peter Pan' fame.

I was fairly sure that wasn't why I knew of the place and, fortuitously, I overheard a barman in one of the local hostelries talking to a customer about Bonfest. Of course! One-time AC/DC front man, Bon Scott was raised in Kirriemuir, and the town have an annual rock festival in tribute. One of Orkney's local bands, Rocker, played at the 2015 festival, so that was obviously what I had almost remembered.

On the way back from Kirriemuir, we stumbled upon an RSPB reserve, Loch of Kinnordy, and its wildlife busy stocking up on food for a harsh Winter to come. I just love how the chewing gradually subsides as the realisation that there's something not quite right slowly dawns.

Sunday 16 September 2018

Fungal inflection

We've had a bit of a early Autumn break, spending a week in Perthshire, soaking up some sun, rain, wildlife and cake. Our Lass had booked us into a cottage on the Bamff Estate in the hope that we would have the opportunity to see Beavers. Yes, you read that right but, sorry, Leslie Nielsen fans, no nakedness, no guns, just wild Beavers.

More of that in due course, but with plenty of damp Beech and Birch woodland to wander around, we were astounded by the abundance of fungi to be seen. I know that this is the best time of year for mushrooms and the like, but we were amazed at the variety of colours and forms on display.

Not being anything of an expert in these matters, I looked but did not touch, and neither do I have identifications for many of them...

Sulphur Tuft, I'm told

This is a slime mould, not a fungus

Yellow Brain Fungus on Gorse

Porcellain Fungus, I'm told

I think this is a Lurid Bolete

Fly Agaric

There were more, but just how much of a holiday does one spend crawling around in the leaf litter, when there's cake to be had?

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Life on the edge

Saturday lunchtime, we were about to head out to meet friends, when there was much twittering outside the kitchen window. Sneaking a peek from the back door, I could see half a dozen Swallows perched on the guttering above the window. It turns out that I wasn't so sneaky after all, and they all took to the air in high dudgeon. However, this did allow me the opportunity to make it to the shed amidst all the confusion. From the shed doorway, I was able to watch two parent birds feeding some recently-fledged youngsters

The following day was much brighter, so we drove over to Stromness to check the banks of the reservoir for any damselflies. I only found one, a male Blue-tailed, so we continued on a walk into the town along tracks and narrow roads. The view across to Hoy never disappoints.

On Brinkies Brae, the hill behind the town, we found this Emperor Moth caterpillar and half a dozen Black Darter dragonflies.

Since then, wildlife moments have been few and far between, but this afternoon things took an unexpected turn. As I went to prepare our evening meal, I discovered this fungus (?) growing on a Sweet Potato. This begs the question... non-native vegetable... native fungus?