Tuesday, 16 July 2019


Last days in the Highlands - 2019


                                       

Two images of Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms. The shot on the left above was taken in the first week of May this year when I first arrived in Scotland. The second was taken in the first week of July, just before I left. I spent the last few days of my trip counting broods of ptarmigan in various hills in the area, as part of a long-term study of ptarmigan breeding numbers.

Most of the ptarmigan chicks were about three weeks old, like the one above. It looks well feathered, although there is still a lot of downy feathers beneath the newly grown body and flight feathers. They grow a set of juvenile wing feathers in their first week, which enables them to fly short distances away from predators, even at such a young age. The feathers on their back help to keep them waterproof; hence warm and dry.


This adult female was watching over her brood as I approached. Three of the chicks flew about 100m around the hillside, three remained hiding in the herbage. Different adoption of tactics, which in itself is a good strategy for at least some of a brood to escape a predator. Once I moved on, she began calling them up and the whole brood were soon gathered together again and carried on feeding.

This was one of the chicks that stayed in hiding. It was only two metres from me, and so were the other two. They were very difficult to pick out as they lay motionless, watching me all the time, ready to fly if they had to.

Watching, relying on camouflage, seemingly casual, but underneath its legs would have been ready to jump and its wings ready to burst into rapid flight.

So I left them all to carry on as they were. They seldom wander more than a few metres from rocks. Such is their well-adapted lifestyle. By sitting close to rocks they blend in so well, looking like just another moss-covered rock.

And there are lots of moss-covered rocks in the hills.


Like those in this high spring above a corrie. The mosses drape down the waterline for over 100m, creating a rich wet flush of plant growth. This is a good feeding habitat for ptarmigan chicks which eat the moss capsules, the flower and leaf buds of waterside herbs and insects that live in the rich ground and water cover. There are two dominant colours in this spring, green and red.

The lush green cushions are of Philonotis fontana, the well-named Apple Fountain Moss.

The bright green of this moss stands out bright on the hillsides, always attracting my eye. Yet when looked at more closely, the details of the moss leaves and capules are even more enchanting.

And its partner, the red liverwort, Scapania undulata, Water Earwort. Such a wonderful name. Those folds of lobes are full of water and the whole, both the green and red cushions, are very spongy.

There were lots of cranefly, Tipula monata, walking over the mosses and liverworts; excellent food for young ptarmigan.

A wonderful little piece of specialist habitat in a special place, the Cairngorms.


Monday, 1 July 2019

Miscellaneous Finnmark wildlife

Following on from the previous post, here is a selection of other wildlife bits and pieces that I photographed while wandering about Finnmark. This opening shot is a general one of the landscape. There is a mosaic of large and small lakes nestled in glaciated hollows. These lakes are fringed with various types of mire, or the basins can be entirely filled by mire. The lakes are used by diving ducks such as Tufted Duck and Goldeneye and the mires are used by breeding waders such as Wood Sandpiper, Reeve and Broad-billed Sandpiper. The hills and ridges are clothed with Birch woods and are typically used by breeding Willow Warblers, Red-spotted Bluethroats and Willow Grouse.

The Birches, Mountain Birch Betula pubescens ssp. tortuosa, are twisted and grow as if coppiced at the base. They are well spaced with dwarf birch and willow, and lichen-rich heath between.

Some of the birches have grown into marvellous shapes, and they must be very old. Perhaps it is hundreds of years since the seeds germinated.

There were lots of these Cranberry Fritillary Bolaria aquilonaris butterflies sunning themselves on the lichen covered gaps between the trees. Or I think that is what they are, if anyone knows better, please advise.

The butterfly's body was covered with long hairs, an adaptation to life in high northern forests, where it can be cold at any time of year.

Another butterfly that was flying at the same time was this Arctic Ringlet Erebia disa. Several of these were flitting over and landing on the mires, the type which was dominated by a carpet of sphagnum moss with abundant stems of Hare's Tail Cotton Grass Eriphorum vaginatum, a food plant for the larvae.

Another plant that grows in the woodland is Juniper Juniperus communis. These small trees are probably as old as the birches if not older, but not all those grey stems are juniper, there is a Greenshank Tringa nebularia sitting on its nest at the base of this one.

Down in the valleys there are hay meadows, and most have a rich yellow cast of buttercups. And some also have stands of Globeflower Trollus europaeus. They like the rich wet soils on the flat open fields.

And next to one field rich with Globeflower, I found a large stand of Tall Jacob's Ladder Polemonium acutiflorum, a stunning plant of wet rich soil, and typically found in old hay meadows in northen Scandinavia. It reminded me of Himalayan Blue Poppy.

Simple beauty.

Finnmark birds

A Common Crane strides with ease through dwarf birch and willow scrub on the edge of a mire in  Finnmark, arctic Norway.

I was there to continue helping with surveys and monitoring of birds. For more information, follow this link to the main part of the project, Broad-billed Sandpiper study. The study is still ongoing, as we have deployed geolocator tags on the sandpipers and aim the retrieve them next summer when the birds return from their wintering grounds. So, this post gives only a brief sample of some of the other birds I saw while in the area.

Whimbrel are one of the larger waders that breed in the tundra, especially on lichen-rich heaths or as in this case, cloudberry-crowberry dominated peaty heath next to a mire.

There were a few rainy days when all was quiet. This Ringed Plover was sitting tight on its nest next to a road. The birds colouring fitted well with the lichen-crusted ground.




















Out on the mires, there were numerous Red-necked Phalaropes on the open water of tiny pools in the extensive swards of sedges and mosses.

These are great birds, my friends, as they eat hundreds and thousands of mosquitoes, picking them off the water surface or the leaves of waterside vegetation. The mosquitoes make working in the mires extremely difficult due to their incessant biting and swarming around face and hands.

This female Lapland Bunting was feeding on insects, hopefully mosquitoes, in a patch of peat hummocks covered with Labrador tea, cloudberry, crowberry and bilberry.

Her mate was close beside her all the time she was out in the open. The patterns of their markings are similar, but that of the male is much bolder. The flower beside him is Labrador tea.

Down in the valleys, where there are taller trees, woodland passerines are more common, like this female Common Redstart in a Scots pine wood.

Her partner might be more brightly coloured, but he still blended in well with the reds and greys of the pine bark.

It might seem that there is not much to see in the vast landscape of apparently endless mires and woods of Finnmark, but there are plenty, lots, of birds nesting and rearing their young there every summer. Just look a little more closely.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Otters in the Western Isles

Luskentyre beach in South Harris, one of the finest beaches in the world, backed by rugged mountains and edged with weedy rocks which are rich feeding grounds for otters.

I recently spent a week on the islands either side of the sound of Harris. Golden Eagles and White-tailed Sea-eagles aplenty, and there were Red-throated Divers, Corncrake and other rare birds famously found in the islands. Although I like to see and hear the abundance of the more common species, Oystercatcher, Redshank and Snipe. And I spent hours watching otters. They are so adept at hunting, agile, quick, such well adapted animals, I could only sit back and admire them. The one in the photograph above is lying asleep on the seaweed in the background. They are so easiliy overlooked when lying quietly on land.

One clue to their presence can be the behaviour of the birds, like this Herring Gull that had spotted an otter eating a fish. They are probably easier to see from the air. The gull hung around from any scraps, but there were none.

Otters are not much easier to see when swimming at sea either. Look for a head, slimmer and more pointed than a seal's. Seals abound in these seas and every one has to be checked not to be an otter.

Another clue to spot an otter at sea is the flick of a tail. Like the one above, as the otter bobbed in the waves keeping in balance as it munched on a Butterfish.

This one was diving to hunt through the fronds of seaweed fringing the tide zone in a bay. It brought some items onshore to eat, others it persisted in eating while treading water. However, their forepaws are not adapted to gripping and Butterfish are incredibly slippery, hence their name.


But when you have strong jaws and very sharp teeth, you can do it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A rain day

Yesterday was little bit wet. It rained all day and the hills in north west Sutherland were blanked out, as seen in this view from the Kyle of Durness.

At high tide the waders on the Kyle were sheltering behind clumps of seaweed, like these four Dunlin. Water is good for saturation, colour saturation, and the richness of the greens and yellows of the seaweed were stunning. These dunlin were probably birds that breed in Iceland and they had been prevented from travelling across the Atlantic by the constant north winds. A Knot, a Sanderling and several Whimbrel were also on the shore, all north1en breeding birds. There were about 400 Dunlin waiting in the Kyle.

The rain was heavy, splashing all around and the wind was strong. Yet the birds kept low, tucked in their bills and fluffed up their feathers to keep warm until the tide went back out and they could begin foraging again.

A Ringed Plover rested with a couple of Dunlin, taking time to preen its feathers while they all rested.


A single Greenshank was resting farther along the shore, standing knee deep in weed and rustling its feathers to shake off the rain drops. This bird would have been one of a local breeding pair. Its mate would be incubating their eggs up in their nest hidden on the moorland above the Kyle. This bird would have flown down to the shore to feed on the rich invertebrate life and small fish that live on the edge of the weed.


But the Dunlin are the species that attracted and held my attention. Their breeding plumage of dark bellies and rich red backs are so delicately toned. And their trilling flight calls as they fly over the wet sands are so evocative of the northern heaths and tundra.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

A few Highland butterflies

A Chequered Skipper Carterocephalus palaemon sunbathes on a patch of Highland grassland. May is one of the best times to visit the Highlands and it is the month when these marvellous little butterflies begin to fly.

Loch Arkaig, Lochaber, in the west Highlands of Scotland. And the road into the general area where I found these rare and protected skippers.

Glen Dessary at the head of Loch Arkaig. The slopes of the upper glen are clothed in moist grassland, dominated by Purple Moor-grass Molinia caerulea, the main food plant for Chequered Skipper caterpillars. The butterfly's stronghold in the UK is in the western Highlands, where this habitat is abundant.

A site shot of where I found the skippers. The butterflies were making short flights over the grassland on the edge of the woodland, landing frequently to disappear into the herbage. If they hadn't flown I would not have noticed them. There were four of them flying and chasing one another.

Fortunately they all settled with open wings after their short flights, so identification was easy by the chequered pattern on their wings.

A Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi rests on a clump of sphagnum moss. They are named after the faint white line across the underside of their wings. There were three of these in the same little sheltered patch as the skippers. The main food plant for their caterpillars in the area is Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus. These are more common and widespread in the Highlands, and mostly fly in May or June. 

And there was also a Large White Pieris brassicae flying over the area. They are abundant over most of the country.