Sunday 21 June 2020

Mountain time

Since the vegetable plot was dug over and planted up, the local House Sparrows have delighted in having a new dust-bathing facility right on their doorstep. The other morning, as I blundered into the kitchen, half awake and somewhat defocussed of thought, I peered out of the window and mused that the sparrows had a severe case of lockdown hair. Except they weren't House Sparrows. There, happily dust-bathing in between rows of potatoes were a pair of Skylarks.


We had arranged to meet up with Eagle-eyed M for a socially-distanced walk on a bit of coast that we hadn't explored before. We rendezvous'd by her home and spent a while marvelling at the flowers and insects in her garden.

Papaver poppy
Setting off along a track around the edge of a bay, we could hear Harbour Seals calling from a holm just off shore. Soon though, we began to climb away from the beach as we made our way through unimproved grassland full of wild flowers. After several pauses to catch our breath admire the view of Scapa Flow, we crested a rise to open out another vista across Hoy, Graemsay and Stromness. At this point, we were so intent on wildlife watching, that I omitted to photograph the scene.

We sat for a while on a low wall, which had been part of the coastal defences for the northern entrance to Scapa Flow during the 20th Century. Birds and insects swooped and flitted by, the gentle breeze gave motion to the flowers of the meadow and creel boats to'd and fro'd in the sea below us.

After this restorative moment for body and soul, we clambered down to the low cliffs, through swathes of gorse and meadowsweet. M pointed out some of the plants that could be foraged and we all tried a few fresh Common Sorrel leaves for their citrus-y, apple-y flavour.

As we contoured back along the coast, on a track which must've previously connected the afore-mentioned military defences, we kept our eyes peeled for any cetaceans in the sea below us, and also for the many wild flowers growing by the path. No fins breaking the surface today sadly, but plenty of interesting plants.

Fairy Flax, a purgative
Indeed, whilst gazing intently at the vegetation, we spotted a brightly-coloured insect that we had never seen before, but which I immediately recognised as a Ruby-tailed Wasp. These are constantly mobile wee creatures, but I managed to take a few photos as it scurried across a rock, before it flew off never to be seen again. These solitary wasps are sometimes known as cuckoo wasps, as the female will lay her eggs in the nests of other soliary bees or wasps.

I had been keen to see this difficult-to-find species for a while, so was really chuffed to encounter it by pure chance!

Some of the old coastal defences are located at the base of the cliffs, and I can only imagine how bleak a look-out they must've provided in the middle of an Orcadian Winter. Today, though, the view northwards to Hoy, Graemsay and Stromness was stunning.

Continuing back around the hill, we wandered by orchids, Thyme, trefoils, Tormentil and Cross-leaved Heath, but M had saved the best until last, a small colony of Mountain Everlasting. She explained that the male and female flowers are on different plants, a trait known as dioecious, as we carefully studied both.

Female Mountain Everlasting

It's not a large colony

Male Mountain Everlasting
Returning around the bay, we reflected upon a wonderful few hours, steeped in both natural history and the history of two World Wars. As and when lockdown restrictions are finally relaxed, such informative and enchanting wildlife experiences can be arranged via Wild Orkney Walks.

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