Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Honeysuckle Eyrie

The Golden Eagle breeding season is almost over, with most of the chicks fledging soon or having already left their nest. This one was jumping about and exploring its surroundings, taking very short flights between the nest and an adjacent ledge. It hadn't yet taken its first full flight a few days ago, but it might have done so by now as I write this.

This bird has been reared in one of my favourite eagle eyries, set below a deep overhang with a lush growth of honeysuckle which was in full bloom. How did the honeysuckle get there? Perhaps the eagles brought in sprigs to add to the eyrie and seeds came with them. The plant is certainly vigorous, probably a result of fertilisation from the droppings and prey remains in the eyrie.

This the first time I have seen a chick fledge from that nest since I first knew it in 1982. The birds have alternative nests on nearby cliffs and last year they raised a chick in one of those, which is very high and rather inaccessible. In the past, the birds' breeding efforts usually failed if they tried to nest on this relatively low and accessible crag. Disturbance was the most likely cause for their failure as they were usually successful if they nested on the big cliff. This territory is on ground once used for sheep rearing, and now that sheep numbers have been greatly reduced in that area and in the Highlands in general, there seems to be less disturbance.

There was a heavy mist when I checked the eyrie, some would call it rain, but the chick was well sheltered by the overhang. I was soaked through. The chick had a lovely big nest to play about in, and the view from the cliff is quite dramatic. What a wonderful eyrie to grow up in.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Lots of insects - and birds

A Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava eyes off a crane fly Tipulidae

As a final post on my recent trip to Norway, I would like to mention the insects, the profusion of insects which make it possible for so many migrant birds to breed in the tundra and birch forests. The most noticeable insects are the mosquitoes, of which there are thousands, millions, and all the females are intent on sucking blood. This is probably the most deterring factor for me to visit the arctic, but for the birds it is perhaps the most alluring factor. And many other insect species also thrive in high numbers, all adding up to form the rich feeding grounds for birds to rear their chicks. Of course, on balance, it is worth the discomfort to study the birds.

Mosquitoes torment a Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus chick

However, not all birds eat insects. The owls eat voles and have to endure the mosquitoes like we humans.

Male Red-spotted  Bluethroats Luscinia svecica are one of the more conspicuous birds in the birch forests
they often perch on on high perches when hunting for insects

The most obvious and abundant passerines feeding on the insects are the Yellow Wagtails, Red-spotted Bluethroats and Willow Warblers Phylloscopus trochilus. However, in some years the weather can be cold and insects scarce. Then the passerines are scarce too, as so often happens with bonanzas, it can be a case of boom or bust. The migrant birds clearly take a risk in flying so far north to breed, but the risk must be worth taking or else evolution would have selected against such behaviour.     

Female Red-spotted Bluethroats are one of the less conspicuous birds in the birch forest
when they hide on their nests 

The waders also rely on the insects. The adults eat them, often probing for the larvae, and the chicks eat them, often as adults, picking emerging mosquitoes as they lie on the water surface. If only they could eat a few more mosquitoes before they eat me. But now that I am back south and away from the mosquitoes, birch flies and horse flies, I have cast them out of my thoughts. I can now concentrate on the good memories; the wealth of flora and fauna in arctic Norway. That was a great trip.

Wood Sandpipers are very conspicuous when they have young.
They often stand on high perches overlooking the mires where their chicks are feeding
- even in the rain

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Arctic Norway Flora

A northern Norway landscape showing a mix of  tundra with small pools and mires,
a large lake, birch forest and high mountains 

While I was in northern Norway studying birds recently, I took the opportunity to note and familiarise myself with the plants. Below is a small selection of them; they are are all common in the area, some abundant and forming large proportions of the ground flora.  

Arctic Bramble Rubus arcticus

The Arctic Bramble was growing in small clumps, often only tens of centimetres tall and wide, very unlike its sprawling southern relation. I found it growing on hummocks in wet mires and on the forest floor, in sheltered, wet conditions. The flowers are delicate and like so many of northern species, short-lasting. I wondered how the fruit would taste, it is famed for its flavour.

Bog Bilberry Vaccinium uliginosum

Bog, or Northern Bilberry was one of the common ground covering plants on the hummocks in the mires. The drooping pink flowers would soon drop their petals and the dusty blue fruit would form. There are so many fruits on the tundra in autumn, forming a rich food source for the animals before the onset of winter.

Blue Heath Phyllodoce caerulea

Blue Heath is a very rare plant in Britain, confined to a few small locations in the Scottish Highlands. In northern Norway it is abundant, growing thickly on drier ridges and hummocks. It is one pant that seems to have taken advantage of the loss of lichens as mentioned in the previous post.

Alpine Bartsia Bartsia alpina

Alpine Bartsia is one my favourite alpine/arctic plants. The tubular sepals enclose the flowers, and the rich blue colouring flushes through all the uppers parts of the plant, making it difficult to make out where the flowers are in the crown. The downy surface on the leaves and flowers are a feature common on cold-climate species.

Wood Cranesbill Geranium sylvaticum

Wood Cranesbill is found widely in European and British woodland. In the far north, it grows in the birch forest and is commonly found on roadside banks. This is not a northern specialist plant, rather an example of one that has an extensive range. It is just as good to find old friends as to find new ones.

Blue sky and clouds reflected in open water surrounded by floating mire

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lichen heath

The tundra in northern Norway covers a vast area and the landscape appears to be one large spread of rolling heath of browns and greens. From one horizon round to the other. The richness however, is in the detail, the fine structures and colours of the lichens which form some of the main ground cover. Hence, this post is simply a sample of shots to show the beauty of the lichens.

Most of the lichens are fruticose, those that grow in shrubby bush-type structural forms, and most are Cladonia species.I do not list them here, for that would detract from the visual appeal that I  have tried to portray, rather than a scientific list.

Bells of Blue Mountain Heath  Phyllodoce caerulea stretch up above the lichen sward.

When looked at in fine detail the lichens resemble the form and colours of a coral reef. And both are being destroyed by human influences. In the case of the lichens, they are being eaten and trampled by large herds of reindeer. There are hundreds of thousands of reindeer in northern Norway, herded by the indigenous Sami people. The lichens shown here are only a few centimetres tall, and in sparse clumps. In areas where there is less grazing by reindeer, they grow much more luxuriantly, often several centimetres tall. For more on this and some dramatic aerial images of the effect of reindeer, see this article in Arctic Biodiversity Trends.  I find it ironic that these lichens are often collectively referred to as reindeer lichens.

But for now, forget the ecological damage and political discussions, simply enjoy the colours and forms of the lichens as they are.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Hawk Owls

An adult Hawk Owl Surnia ulula watches over its shoulder
There is an abundance of voles, Grey-sided Voles Myodes rufocanus in northern Norway this spring, so there are lots of raptors and owls breeding. Two species I have been seeing are Rough-legged Buzzards Buteo lagopus and Hawk Owls, both well-known specialist feeders on small rodents. The buzzards hunt mostly over the high open tundra and the owls in and around the woodland, but this family of owls were hunting around the edge of a small hamlet set in birch forest.

The owl brood were perched around this building; in the trees, scrub and wooden structures 
The adult female owl was perched high above her brood. She was up on wires, while her chicks were perched in birch scrub, one on the roof of a hut and one on the frame of a lavvu. These owls hunt by daylight, which in such a place above the arctic circle is no problem. There is abundant food and 24 hours of daylight to hunt. So the owls have large broods. There were four chicks at least in this brood, but there could have been perhaps seven or more.

An adult owl sits atop the frame of a lavvu, a Sami tent-type temporary dwelling
While the female was guarding the chicks, the male was away hunting, returning frequently with voles for the chicks. I have been seeing a few voles per day while walking through the local forests, but these owls were catching several per day, how many did they see per day. They are such efficient hunters, they probably saw many more than they caught, looking down from their high hunting perches.

A close up of the same bird
I have seen hawk owls before, mostly at a distance and in thick extensive forest, so it was a special experience to stand amongst them as they carried on their business regardless of my presence. And they really are such wonderful birds.

An adult bird brings a vole to feed a chick
Hawk owls can be aggressive in defense of their chicks, but fortunately these birds were not. They can attack humans around the head and draw blood with their very, very sharp talons. Another reason to admire them. And respect them.

One of the fledgling owl chicks
While watching them, I thought how easy it was to approach the chicks without causing them to fly away. Meanwhile, I stayed constantly aware that the adults were vigilant and could swoop at me if they wanted to. To them, I was easy to approach and cause to flee. And I would have done so if they had.

A wink that only owls can do so well