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

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Grouse family

A hen Red Grouse and a chick up above, crouch low in the heather 

The Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica, a race of the Willow Grouse, are quiet on the moors just now as they have chicks. They spend the day walking slowly through the heather and wet flushes of grasses and sedge. That is where the chicks, which feed themselves from hatch, can find more adult insects and caterpillars, important sources of nutrients for them in their first two weeks of life.

The hen watches me closely as I pass by

I was walking up a hill towards the higher ptarmigan habitat when I noticed this family hiding in the heather. They were spread over several square metres, crouched and frozen exactly where they were feeding when the adults must have given the alarm and they all crouched down to hide from, a potential predator - me.

The cock bird peeps through the cover of a sprig of blaeberry

I have studied grouse and ptarmigan for many years and recognised the behaviour of the adult male, whom I saw first. So I stopped in my tracks until I could see that my feet were clear of stepping on any chicks. Then I slowly crept round them, counting six chicks altogether.

The chicks are well camouflaged in the heather, blaeberry and moss

If I had stepped too close to any of the birds they would have jumped up and flown downhill away from me, cheeping if they were a chick and croaking if an adult. All would then have erupted from the heather in explosive flight. Each was crouched ready to jump at the first call. Even at only a week old, the chicks are strong enough to fly for about a hundred metres to safety. In such circumstances, the adults then quickly round them up once any threat of danger has passed. A great strategy to ensure that even if one chick were caught, the others should survive.

Crouching ready to spring at the first alarm call 

Friday, 17 June 2016

Lesser Twayblade

A typical single plant of Lesser Twayblade, growing within a scattered group (out of shot)

On the long walk out from the eagle eyrie in the previous post, Adam Ritchie spotted a group of Lesser Twayblade Listera cordata plants growing right in the middle of the path we followed. These plants are not too uncommon on the wet peaty moorlands like the one we were on, but they are very easily overlooked and hence probably very under-recorded. Well done Adam for noticing them. Simon and I had already walked right over them.

The flower spikes were a pale pink/brown colour and faded into the background heather
they looked rather like dead stems of some other moorland plant

This was an added bonus to an already great day out, but the light was poor by then as it was evening, with clouds gathering for big rain on the ensuing days. Nevertheless, Simon and I pulled our cameras out of our rucksacks and grabbed a few shots.

The twin leaves growing at the base of the stem, opposite and enfolding one another - the distinctive leaf pattern of Twayblades 

These plants tend to grow in loose groups because they are more commonly spread by runners. If they are successfully pollinated, that is usually by fungus gnats. There were probably more plants growing in the moor beside the track as the habitat was similar, but these plants were perhaps as noticeable as they ever can be - growing in the middle strip of heather, blaeberry and moss between the ruts of the path.

Simon gets down low for a macro shot of the twayblade

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Eagle nests are large

A typical Golden Eagle eyrie site in Scotland
set on a broad vegetated ledge behind an old Rowan tree 
The golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos chicks are now large enough to ring and I visited this nest a few days ago with Adam Ritchie, a fellow eagle researcher. Simon Cherriman, a friend and another eagle researcher - mostly of wedge-tailed eagles in Australia - helped and gained experience of how things are done in Scotland.

The chick is about 30 cm long and 20 cm broad, so this is a deep wide eyrie 

It was good that Simon came to this eyrie, for as the two of us roped down to the nest I was reminded of the size of these nests. I don't always appreciate that when alone. But with another person on the nest the scale became clear. The nest was huge.

Simon measures the length of the chick's head and bill
there is room for two people and the chick on the nest 

The chick was ringed and measured within minutes, a minimal intrusion when the adult birds are often away from the nest for hours when the chicks are this age or older - this chick was about four weeks old. Although I am sure the adult birds would have been watching us from a distance all the time.

The trailing edge on the foreground of the nest is the birds' landing platform, they don't flop down
 onto the nest but glide and stall onto the lower edge, then walk up onto the platform.
It also shows how easily the birds can launch themselves out onto the air straight from the eyrie
- there is a lot of space below

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Misty Cotton

There has been an east coast fog recently under the continuous cool north-east wind. In north east Scotland, this mist is known as the haar. In the evenings it creeps in over the land and one evening this week it was lying low on the moors. Meanwhile, it is the season for the cotton grass Eriophorum vaginatum to set seed, and this year there has been a splendid crop of the white cotton heads. The two features together make a soft delicate landscape. A transient tapestry.

The individual plants of the cotton grass grow in tight tussocks on the wet moorland, bog really, known as mosses in the north-east. These cotton buds shine bright white in the sunshine, but in the diffuse evening light, the details of their silky tufts are the showpiece. Whether in close up detail or en masse.

When looked through from ground level,the sea of white rolled on and on, one snowflake after another, forming a fluffy bogland blanket.

The hedgerows are full of white blossom at the moment, but the cotton grass even up-staged them. This was a truly spectacular sight, a soft but spectacular sight.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Late season - Ptarmigan just laying up

A cock rock ptarmigan Lagopus muta sits on top of a rock watching over his mate as she feeds below

Although the weather has been clear, dry, sunny and warm in the Scottish Highlands over the past week, the ptarmigan are late in laying their eggs this year. A sign of how cold the weather had been before the current warm spell.

Ptarmigan habitat of short, wind-swept heath on the high ridge of Ben Klibreck

I was up Ben Klibreck in northern Scotland a few days ago, and other hills since, recording the food plants that ptarmigan were feeding on. The females should have been incubating their eggs by now as they often hatch in the first week of June, but this year they seem to be about two-three weeks behind their normal schedule. Ben Klibreck is 961m high and the ptarmigan habitat extends down to about 650m. So, any effects of a cold spring will be especially evident at that altitude, and the leaf buds of their main spring food plant in Scotland, bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus were only just opening.

A pair of ptarmigan in their mountain habitat - the cock is grey, suiting the colour of the rocks that he spends most his time amongst, as he watches over his hen. She is a dappled brown colour, suiting that of the short heath she is feeding in. 

At this time of year, the cock ptarmigan stay close to their hens, guarding them from competitors and keeping a watch for predators, mostly golden eagles in this area.

A hen ptarmigan in full breeding plumage

This hen seemed to be heavy at the rear end, she probably had an egg well formed in her egg duct which would soon be ready for her to lay. Compare the profile of her body beneath her tail with that of the cock bird's slimmer line.

A cock ptarmigan his full breeding plumage

Part of the reason for the bird's lateness in laying is probably due to the late development of the birds' food-plants. These are sparse in the north-west Highlands, and although the ptarmigan do live there successfully on what seems to us seems a scant food supply, to form a clutch of eggs, the hens might need the extra nutrients that the developing new growth brings.

Sparse food plants for ptarmigan amongst a carpet of woolly fringe moss

The bilberry was growing in short, thinly scattered sprigs, and there was a similar scattering of stiff sedge Carex bigelowii. I watched one hen picking out the flower spikes from the sedges, delicately and precisely nipping off only the most nutritious parts and avoiding eating much of the stems which are less nutritious. Another food-plant there was alpine lady's mantle Alchemilla alpina, of which they eat the flower buds as they form, but few had formed by last week.  All three food-plants were growing in a carpet of woolly fringe moss Racomitrium lanuginosum, which made up about 90% of the ground cover in places. By living there on such meagre food supplies, the ptarmigan were showing once again how well they are adapted to life on the high tops.

Flower spikes of Stiff Sedge and opening leaves of Bilberry - the two main foods that the ptarmigan were eating that day.