Sunday, 22 May 2016

Windy sea cliffs

A small section of a colony of Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla 

A few days ago the weather was forecast to turn windy and wet, so I took a day out to visit the seabird colonies on the north-east Scottish coast, where the rain would reach last. I timed it right and I had a great time watching the birds flying in the wind, the clifftop giving me an eye-to-eye view of them in flight. So different from standing low on land or a boat looking up and only seeing their bellies.

A Kittiwake cruises past me at cliff top height, feathers ruffled by the wind

Windy days are also best for watching and photographing them as they often stall and hold themselves stationery in the wind, without any need to flap their wings. From my high perch, I could see how the wind ruffled and tugged at their feathers, flight is obviously not always smooth.

A Kittiwake flying with its feet down - controlling its speed with them|?

Most of the birds were holding their feet down, using them as extra aids to flight in strong wind.

A Fulmar similarly flying with its feet down

The truly specialist fliers on these cliffs are the Fulmars Fulmarus glacialis. One minute, they would cut through the wind at high speed, the next they would float up on an updraft, holding themselves in one spot by the slightest of flicks of wing, tail or feet. They seemed to be inquisitive and deliberately approached me as I sat on the cliff top, watching me eye to eye before slipping off on the breeze.

A Fulmar on wide-spread wings tilts to steer, but holds its head level all the time

The dull grey skies gave low light for photography, limiting the speed I could shoot at, but the positive aspect of the low light was the colour saturation I could capture. Photographing seabirds on sunny days can be very tricky as most of them are black and white. Under bright light it difficult to capture the details of their plumage due to the sharp contrast. The light was growing darker as the clouds thickened, but I managed to grab some shots that showed the feather details; how they lie when in flight, the different shades and colours of the fresh and old feathers, the smudges of dirt and guano on their breasts, and the fine lines on their faces, bills and feet.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

It's not easy for seabirds to keep clean when they are nesting on dirty ledges

Friday, 20 May 2016

Montane moths

The twin peaks of Spidean Coinich on the southern ridge of Quinag

After a long cold spell, last week the weather turned bright and warm, although still with a brisk northerly wind. The tops of the hills in the Scottish Highlands cleared and walking there became relaxing and warm compared with the previous week. So I headed up Quinag in Assynt, in the north-west Highlands for a short day on that magnificent little mountain.

Lochan Bealach Cornaidh in the eastern corrie of Quinag

I began my walk started from a car park set on a high pass at about 250 m, then meandered through the main corrie, past Lochan Bealach Cornaidh and up the last short steep slope to the summit ridge. The ridge splits into three, leading to the triple peaks. The shortest ridge rises gently up to Sail Gharbh, the highest top at 808 m, which is nice and convenient for a short day.

The view south from near the summit of Sail Gharbh, the highest peak in the Quinag massif. Canisp, Cul Mor and Suilven rise up behind Spidean Coinich

Down in the corrie, the heather is tall and mixed with purple moor grass Molinia caerulea, the dominant grass in these wet heaths. Higher up, the heather becomes shorter as it becomes more exposed to wind. The result is a short sward of mixed heather, grasses and mosses. A soft carpet covers the ground between the scattered boulders making the walking easy for us but living hard for all except the best adapted plants and animals. Ptarmigan are there, although scarce as their preferred food plants of bilberry, and crowberry are sparse, and other foods such as alpine lady's mantle and heath bedstraw are similarly thin on the ground. There were a few wheatears and meadow pipits, hunting for insects and those insects were hiding, such as the Broad-bordered White Underwing moth Anarta melanopa.

A well camouflaged moth sits on the prostrate heather high on the ridge, the grey mottled forewings match the colours of the mosses and the pale border of wings matches the twists of white grasses, 

The main range in Britain for this species is withiin the more central Highlands, such as the Cairngorms, so it was especially pleasing to find several individuals out basking in the May sunshine on this north-west hill. They were mostly keeping still, but when any flew they were distinctive in their low tumbling flight, being buffeted by the wind.

A Broad-bordered White Underwing moth, a true mountain moth that only lives on montane heaths

Like all animals that live on the high ground these moths have adaptations that give them the ability to survive there. Camouflage is one, and insulation from cold is another. The adults sip nectar from the flowers of the heath plants; bilberry, crowberry and bearberry, which are also the foodplants for their caterpillars. These heaths thrive better on the slopes and lower hilltops, rather than the highest summits in the Highlands, so the smaller hills in the north-west probably suit them and they might be more abundant there than what has been recorded. I'll take notes on other places I find them in future.

The moths' bodies are clad in a 'fur' of modified scales, even the scales on their wings seem to have a furry texture. All adaptations for life in a cold environment on the mountain tops.

My day was short on the tops, I had to go back to the valley and the warmer environment. Even with the best of waterproof and windproof clothing I would become cold if I stayed there overnight, and I would become hungry. I like being up on the tops, but I am not adapted to living there. That takes a special type of animal or plant, and I admire them.

One pair of moths were mating.The warm weather had encouraged them to emerge from their over-wintering state and the main purpose of any adult insect is to breed. The warm period can be short and unpredictable in the hilltops, so they must take the first chance to breed that have. It might be their only chance if a period of cool wet weather settles in before their short life ends.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Wild days on the tops

The famous outline of  Stob Dearg, Buachaille Etive Mor

While surveying for ptarmigan over the past week, I was reminded how hardy and well adapted these birds are to their mountain habitat. They endure sun, wind, rain and snow on the high tops of the Scottish Highlands, and as I wandered over the hills I thought I should write a post, not on the birds but on the wild place they live in. This blog is about wildplaces as much as wildlife after all.

Footprints on the snow-lined ridge, looking over to Na Gruagaichean in theMamores

The past winter left vast amounts of late-lying snow on the high ground in the Highlands, more than I have seen lying so late into May for a many years. Long wreaths of snow cornices lined the tops and the north faces of the high hills were deep in snow, lying as low as 600 m and rising in continuous snowfields to the summits. Yet on the windward, south and western faces there was very little snow. Some of the snow was safe to walk on, but other sections were soft and wet. I avoided any sections of cornice where I could see that there was a risk of avalanche, where there were hundreds of tons of snow teetering on the skyline, wet and heavy, ready to fall as it thawed. I would be walking in sunshine, then a few minutes later I would be enveloped by wild winds and stinging rain/snow, with poor visibility. Safety was the priority.

Ben Nevis on the skyline from the summit ridge of Binnein Mor 

The walking was very tiring for three days as the winds were so strong, then on the fourth day, there was calm and bright sunshine all day. The peaks were glistening and it was a joy to be out. That day I was up on the eastern end of the Mamores, a massif south of Ben Nevis.

The climb started from near sea-level, next to an old church in the village of Kinlochleven. The leaves were just opening on the birch trees and the summer migrants had arrived. I heard my first cuckoo the day before and there was another one calling here. Wood and willow warblers were singing and tree pipits were doing their parachute song-flight. Meanwhile the usual car-park robin and chaffinches were coming in close for the chance of a few crumbs.

It was a long climb to the ptarmigan habitat of short alpine heath; passing through birch, then oak woodland, heather moor and wet heath. All the while a series of seemingly endless panoramas opened up as I gained height. It was such a brilliant day that after walking across the hillsides looking for ptarmigan, I had to go up onto the ridge for fun, pure fun and the exhilaration of being high on a mountain on a perfect day.

Snow cornices rim the eastern corrie of  Binnein Mor. The snowy peaks of  Glencoe are in the distance, on the far side of the moors of Blackmount

 All things must end though, and after strolling along a few kilometres of high narrow-way I had to head back down, Oooh, the descent was so tiring, and sore on the legs. The route I took fell straight down a very steep ridge. Although the good thing was that I was losing height fast and I was back down by the edge of the woods before I knew it. A cuckoo was first, then I was walking past warblers and chaffinches again. And as I pulled off my boots the carpark robin came back up to me, looking for crumbs.

I gave it some.

Looking down 1000 m from the summit of  Na Gruagaihcean to  Kinlochleven.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Spring ptarmigan

Snow-laden clouds lie heavily over the Cairngorms
It's Spring in Scotland and there have been some late snow falls in the hills. Yesterday, I was up counting Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in a long-term study area up on the high summits. The wind was cold, the light was a little grey, ice stung my face, there was a tremendous feeling of being out in a truly wild place - alone in the high hills with the birds and mountain hares. I felt at home in my favourite habitat.

A cock ptarmigan looks out over his territory from a rocky vantage point

The ptarmigan were busy displaying over their territories. They made a wonderful sight as they strutted with their red combs held up high, and as they launched out down over the slopes in long parachute song flights. Their loud croaking calls rattled across the hillside, the only other sound being that of the wind rushing over the icy ground, whipping up spindrift. Then the next minute everything would stop and the air sparkled in sunshine.

Another cock ptarmigan floats down over the snowy hillside on a song flight

As I walked up the hill I left a small group of Sand Martins hawking low over the snow-free ground in the valley. They would have just arrived from, or rather been on passage north from their winter quarters, along with the single male Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits that I saw farther up the hill. There were a few Common Gulls flying around, they would be setting up their nesting territories down by some wet hollows in the peat. The only other local birds which spend the whole year in the area, like the ptarmigan, were the Red Grouse. Good numbers of cock grouse were calling to one another and chasing neighbours in defence of their territories. Meanwhile, the hen birds were busy feeding up to gather nutrients, all to make eggs soon. They seemed to ignore all the fuss made by the cock birds, keeping their heads down as they pecked away at the expanding buds of heather.

A bird descending slowly while calling

The ptarmigan live on the highest ground, up where there is not much vegetation and what there is, is short, prostrate in form on the wind-scoured slopes. The birds were mostly moulted out of their winter plumage and into their spring colours. Grey for the boys and mottled brown for the girls. The males are grey as they mostly sit beside grey lichen-covered rocks, the hens need to resemble the colours of the heath where they feed and nest. They will have to sit on their nests for about three weeks while they incubate the eggs alone. Seldom coming off the nest, lest the eggs become chilled and the embryos die.

A partially moulted hen ptarmigan keeps to the partially snow-free ground, well matched to both types of ground cover

I walked quietly past the birds and they stayed still, not moving any more than they needed to, all part of their strategy to rely on their camouflage to conceal them and to not move to save energy and warmth. I sat beside a pair and when settled down low at ground level, I was out of the wind, tucked into a hollow like the birds. They know to keep out of the wind to preserve body heat, and they have adopted all the best tricks for survival on the high tops. That's one reason I like them. Another is that we share a favourite habitat.

She holds herself in a tight round form, fluffed up and head tucked down into her shoulders - all to keep warm

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Autumn Butterflies

A Common Brown  Heteronympha mesope sits hidden in the leaf-litter

Summer is now long-passed in Canberra and the butterflies are dwindling in number. It seems not long ago that I was walking through clouds of butterflies whenever I walked through the bush. Now there are only a few flitting up from the ground as they see me approach. They are weak and cold, slow to move, yet still difficult to see and creep up on. To catch a few on camera, I had to wait til I flushed them, then watch and carefully mark the exact place where they landed. As soon as they landed and closed their wings they would just disappear from view. So good is their camouflage.

They look so much like fallen leaves

The two species I have seen in the past week have been the Common Brown and the Meadow Argus. Both have dull grey brown underwing colouring, which is all that can be seen when they lie with their wings closed. The bright orange topsides of their wings only show when they see a glimpse of sunshine and open them to warm up in the gentle heat.

A female Common Brown opens her wings to catch some soft sunshine

Even then, the soft tones of the oranges, yellows and blues merge well with the dead leaves, twigs and grass stems. Beautiful seasonal autumn tones. Something to linger on, as my next post, next week, will be on a fresh spring topic. I'll be migrating north any day now.

A Meadow Argus Junoia villida basks on a warm substrate of gravel amongst the leaf litter