Friday, 23 June 2017

Terns Fishing

Last weekend I went for a walk along the beach at the Ythan estuary, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where there were a flock of arctic terns chasing after a shoal of tiny fish in a shallow bay. There were about forty terns in the flock and all were dipping and flitting in their determined efforts to capture fish to bring back to their chicks, which were in the ternery on the northern shore of the estuary, about a kilometre away.

I stood less than fifty metres away from the birds as their repeated diving drove the fish into shore.

All their eyes were focused n the fish, not me.

Not all dives were successful.

But every dive was spectacular.

The fish were several centimetres below the surface, so the birds had to partially submerge to catch them.

And breaking free from the water required strong wings.

Many of the birds were ringed, most probably by members of the local Grampian Ringing Group, with rings supplied by the British Trust for Ornithology. Ringing these birds helps to determine where they migrate to, what waters they fish in - need to fish in when on migration, and how long they live. All of which helps to assess the viability of the local breeding colony and the general conservation of the species.

Dashing, splashing, paddling.

Then one last push with their webbed feet and they had their reward.

Oh, what a feeling.

The fishing was good and there were well fed chicks that afternoon.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Wild Places in the Highlands

Climbing Stob Ban in the Mamores
(Model - Nigel Raven)

Over the past few weeks I have been in some wonderful wild places in the Scottish Highlands. Too many to document here, so I will just give a little selection of shots taken during my wanderings. These are mostly of hills where I have being studying ptarmigan and the habitats they use on the high tops. The vegetation is all very short, although it varies in species composition across different massifs. The hills in the west are wetter, snow lies longer on the highest hills and even lower hills are windswept, so hold suitable hill-top vegetation.These really are wild places to live.

The northern buttresses of Stob Ban.

The summit ridge of Mullach nan Coirean, in the Mamores.

The north-eastern corrie of Carn Eighe, north of Glen Affric.

Sgurr na Lapaich, Glen Affric.

The distant snowy top of Ben Nevis, seen from Carn Dearg, south of Loch Ossian.

Another distant view of Ben Nevis, from a lochan on Beinn Pharlagain, Rannoch.

The remote railway station at Corrour, seen through the mist from Beinn na Lap.

The rain-washed slopes of Beinn nan Aighenan, seen from Glas Beinn Mhor, Glen Etive.

A waterfall on the Allt Mheuran, Glen Etive.

Creag an Duine, seen from Seana Bhraigh.

The northern cliffs of Creag Riabhach, Cape Wrath.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Original House Martin nests

A house martin looks out from deep inside its cliff nest; the original site for these birds to build their nests before we built houses with eaves for them - artificial rock overhangs.

This colony built their nests in the cave left of the sea stack, at the back of a sheltered bay on the north sea, near Aberdeen.

A closer view shows that it is more of a large overhang of rock rather than a deep cave.

Their are five completed nests in this photograph, and a few that have either fallen off or are only just begun to be built. There were twelve complete nests altogether. Each nest is well placed in a corner or rock within the whole larger overhang. A perfect safe site for a colony.

A house martin looks out from its nest, the entrance hole is open onto the rock roof, like they are on buildings.

Then the bird dropped out of the nest and whizzed by, too quickly to photograph without flash - which I prefer not to use on wildlife.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Spring Ptarmigan

The air has warmed up rapidly in Scotland over the first weeks of May and the winter snow is melting away. I have been on several hills during this time, studying ptarmigan Lagopus muta and although the cock birds can be quite vocal when displaying to and chasing neighbouring birds, when quiet, they can be very inconspicuous. There were six cocks in the area of the Cairngorms shown in the above photograph, all with a hen, one with two hens.

In spring, the cock and hen ptarmigan are coloured differently. The cock birds have grey backs and necks but retain their bright white winter feathers on their bellies. The hens moult into a mottled brown, yellow and russet colour. Both merge well into the rocky landscape and I only saw them because they were so active; the cocks disputing over territiry boundaries and guarding their hens from neghbouring cocks.

The hens' plumage merged extremely well with the dappled colouring of the heath plants; in this case mostly short wind-clipped heather. Soon they will rely on their colouring to hide on their nests in the heather which is too short to hide beneath.

The cocks' grey plumage blended well with the lichens that grow on the mounatin boulders. While the hens are incubating, they sit on nearby prominent look-out posts, usually a rock, so they too are perfectly coloured for their duty. And while the hens are incubating both sexes can be very inconspicuous indeed.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

 Autumn walk - Bundanoon

It's autumn now in Canberra, a good time for bush-walking as it's not too warm. So last week I went for a walk in the Morton National Park, well a tiny bit of it by the village of Bundanoon. There are various short walks through the forest there, with lookouts over the depths of the Bundanoon Creek valley.

The route I took started down the Fairy Bower Access Trail, then along the Bundanoon Creek Walking Track, down to the creek in the floor of the valley, then straight back up Tooths Lookout Walking Track. I took a few hours and walked several km, but spent a lot of time looking around, exploring and taking photographs. And I walk quickly, so this is not a guide: for details of time and length of walks in the area please refer to the Bundanoon/Morton NP website here.

The stream that forms the Fairy Bower Falls slips slowly over the cliff.

Then cascade down in two vertical drops.

Tree roots stretch down the cliff looking for soil below, somewhere.

Orange lichens grow on the south-facing walls of sandstone - the shaded aspect.

Hand-cut and placed stone steps lead down the escarpment, winding through the trees.

Autumn is mushroom season and there were several varieties of fruiting bodies. However, I do not know the species, I merely admired their colours and forms. These white ones had wonderful veils around their caps.

These white ones shone like porcelain in the deep shadow of the tree trunks they were growing on.

This sky blue gem, I have tried to identify - Entoloma virescens ?

A giant staircase led back up to the plateau, through split rocks.

And up past another split rock - one cleaved by a tree that had seeded and grown in a crack in the sandstone. Over many many years, it has opened up the crack. Just how old is the tree I wonder?

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

How to avoid predators in a rock pool

I was snorkelling at Murrays Beach (Booderee National Park, Jervis Bay, New South Wales) last weekend and it was fabulous with warm clear water and a blue sky. The rocky shore dips into the bay creating ribs of reefs where a multitude of sea-life live. The highlights on this trip were cuttlefish hiding under ledges and huge schools of small fish of various shapes and colours.

But I don't bother taking photographs when snorkelling, I like to just watch the life go by. It was only when up top-side and walking along the shore afterwards that I took a few shots of life in the rock pools.

At first, things looked quiet and as though there were no animals living in the pools, until I saw a little movement in the green seaweed. A Sea Hare Aplysia dactylomela was slowly munching its way through the algae. It was only when it crossed a relatively open patch that I noticed it. If it had stayed in the thicker fronds, I would not have seen it.

So, I sat quietly and sure enough other creatures began to move.

A small shrimp twitched. The sea hare depended on coloured skin as camouflage in the weed, the shrimp had evolved a mostly transparent body for hiding from predators. That method allows it hide on any colour of substrate.

Then several shells began to walk across the bottom, but not with molluscs inside them, hermit crabs. They have adapted to use shells for protection.

And lastly, I noticed a school of small fish. As they were swimming up near the surface they should have been the first things to detect. Their bodies too, were quiet transparent and it was their shadows on the pool bottom that attracted my predator's eye. But, their schooling and safety in numbers appears to be their main defence tactic, which is fine as long as there are others in the school slower than oneself. There are twelve in the photograph, how many were there the next day, or the day after. There were White-faced Herons about.