A passion for nature

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Paradise in a nutshell at Knoydart

By Keith Broomfield

They were flowers of the sea breeze, a sweeping carpet of yellow-dazzled colt’s-foot that swept along the wild Knoydart foreshore in a shimmering celebration of the beauty of a west highland spring.

Often described as Scotland’s last wilderness, Knoydart is completely addictive, comprising an eclectic mix of wild rugged mountains offset by tranquil meadows in the glens, and beautifully benign woodlands where wildflowers shine from every corner.

It was the woodland wildflowers by the small settlement of Inverie that really caught the eye as my wife, Lynda, and I wandered along a waymarked trail signposted as ‘Knoydart in a Knutshell’.  The bright, limey-green freshness of tree leaves unfurled gloriously from overhanging branches, set against the backdrop of the sweet cascading music of willow warblers and the abrupt nightingale like song-bursts of blackcaps. On the ground, the gold-spangled blooms of lesser celandine glowed, primroses flickered in jaune splendour, and the first bluebells were tentatively unveiling themselves.

Perhaps the walk should be renamed as paradise in a nutshell, for this was a place where one could linger for eternity to revel in the soothing balm of nature. One of the plants on the woodland floor that drew my interest was wood sorrel, which has the habit of growing on moss-covered tree stumps and fallen branches. It has an under-stated, subtle beauty and it really is worth examining this flower closely, for what at first glance appear as white petals are in fact gently inscribed with lilac.

Soon, we reached the Inverie River, with its unusually crystal-clear water where trout and salmon thrive. A pair of sandpipers flew by the bank edges on quivering wings, the male trilling his love song as he doughtily pursued his mate in an elaborate courtship display. Sandpipers are all too brief breeding migrants to our shores, arriving in mid-April and most having departed by early August.

A short distance further on and we reached the shore at Inverie Bay where the swathes of colt’s-foot became the star attraction. Colt’s-foot, which look a bit like dandelions, thrive on shallow, well-drained soils such as here on the Knoydart foreshore, and are often found by gravelly track edges throughout the highlands. It is one of our earliest emerging spring flowers, and the plant is so-called because of their large horseshoe shaped leaves that develop after the flowers have wilted. The trait of flowering before the leaves emerge has given rise to the folk-name ‘son-before-father’.

The tide had receded, and out on the muddy pools of the bay a whimbrel probed its long, curved bill into the sediment for worms. Similar in appearance to a small curlew, this whimbrel was passing through, heading north to breeding grounds in Shetland or beyond. An oystercatcher ‘kleeped’ in the distance and the flute-like hypnotic resonance of a calling cuckoo floated across the air. Superlatives hardly give justice to the true magic of spring in Knoydart, for this is a place that fills the heart with an overwhelming contentment spirited from the portals of heaven.   

Gran Canaria giant lizard

The marvel of evolution

Adaptive radiation is a fascinating aspect of evolutionary biology where a common ancestral species develops into a wide variety of different others, each one adapted to the niche parameters of their specific environment.

The famous Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands are a classic example, with the individuals in each island having evolved their own unique features. It happens in Scotland, too – for example, on St Kilda where the wrens and field mice have formed their own separate sub-species, featuring slightly different morphological traits from their mainland cousins. The freshwater sticklebacks in North Uist show differences depending on which body of water they inhabit, and there are numerous other examples of such diversity.

A recent visit to the Canary Islands brought home to me this wondrous facet of nature. On the island of Gran Canaria, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a giant lizard, a magnificent reptile that is unique to the island, and which can grow up to 80cm long (including the tail), although most specimens are smaller. The one I found was about 50cm long, and was taking things easy by basking in the morning sun on a steep embankment close to the shore.

The neighbouring islands of La Gomera, Tenerife and Hierro also have their own endemic giant lizard species, the isolation brought by the islands spurring distinct differences in form. Tenerife and Gran Canaria also host the globally unique blue chaffinch, which have diverged further, so that each island has its own species.

The Canary Islands are a wonderful holiday destination for those with an interest in nature, with the flora being especially fascinating. Around 40 per cent of the islands’ plants are endemic, many of which are endangered.

The mountains of Gran Canaria are truly spectacular, and my wife Lynda and I spent much of our time hiking the high trails, whilst at sunrise I would slip into the sea with snorkel and mask to explore the underwater life. Dawn is my favourite time to go snorkelling – the rising sun delivers a magical soft-lit aura and many nocturnal marine creatures are still out and about.

One early morning snorkel brought my first ever encounter with a flaming reef lobster, a stunning bright orange crustacean with white spirals and other intricate patterning on its shell. Another intriguing discovery was a cylindrical shaped gelatinous and pink-flecked object that drifted just below the water surface, which transpired to be the egg mass of a diamondback squid.

As well as birds, reptiles and plants, the uniqueness of life in the Canaries extends to fish, and one type I encountered was the island grouper. Classified as vulnerable on the ‘red list’ of endangered species, it is only found around the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde.

This was a charismatic fish with striking blotches and stripes on the body, and a confiding demeanour that allowed a close approach.  Its beauty and brashness perfectly encapsulated the compelling nature of the Canary Islands and its boundless capacity to create new life from within.

Otter

A magical otter encounter

A piercing whistle whirls across the damp air from the far bank of the River Devon. I know it is an otter but as I peer through a tangle of alder and willow branches, I see no movement. Another whistle, even louder this time, and then I spot the otter running along a carpet of golden, tumbled leaves by the bank edge.

The otter slips into the water and swims upriver leaving a V-trail in its wake, continually calling all the while – a whistle with a pitch of such intensity that there was an air of desperation to its tone. This might have been a mother looking for a lost cub, or perhaps a male seeking out a mate, but whatever the case, the animal did not seem unduly perturbed by my near presence, despite eyeballing me several times.

Indeed, after swimming a hundred yards upriver, the otter then turned around and swam straight back down again, passing close by me before disappearing in among a twisted mass of alder roots by the bankside. The whistling had stopped, the otter was gone, and the only sound permeating the air was the gurgle of rushing water – beautiful and hypnotic music drawn from the very depths of the river.

Normally, dawn and dusk are the best times to see river otters, but this encounter was in the early afternoon, which underlines that when it comes to wildlife spotting, always expect the unexpected.

I wandered on, disturbing a diminutive wren that churred its annoyance as it swept up on brown-blurred wings from a thick stand of twisted bramble stems. Wrens are one of our most ubiquitous birds, equally at home by a riverbank or on high windswept moors, or in thick gorse by the coast. The name ‘wren’ derives from the middle English ‘wrenne’, meaning ‘little tail’.

Another whistle permeated from across the water, but rather than an otter, it was a kingfisher streaking just above the river’s surface in a bolt of electric-blue. It has been a good year for kingfishers on the river, the low rainfall in the early part of the breeding season suiting their requirements perfectly for seeking out minnows in the languid pools.

Down by my feet, a scrap of black velvet caught my eye. It was a dead water shrew, the black upperparts contrasting starkly with the white belly and chest. It is the largest of our shrews, a capable swimmer that can dive to depths of two metres in search of aquatic invertebrates.

Finding the corpse reminded me when as a boy I had found a dead water shrew by a burn that tumbled into Loch Earn, and as I cradled its velvety body in my hands, I wished it were possible one day to glimpse a live one. Since then, I have seen a living water shrew on only two occasions – but that is enough for my dream to have come true, providing a fleeting insight into their mysterious and secretive lives.

 

Glorious chatter of redwings in the gloaming

By Keith Broomfield

As the diminishing light of dusk gathered over the hill pasture in the strath, redwings swept up from the green-spiked rushes ahead of me, dancing and bobbing in the air before alighting on the top of a beech that stood proud in a nearby shelterbelt.

The air hung heavy with the redolence of autumn, and because the claggy soil was frost-free and yielding, the redwings had been foraging in among the rushes for worms and other invertebrates. These delightful winter-visiting thrushes were lively birds, perennially wary of my presence, and constantly uttering high-pitch ‘chook’ calls to keep in contact with one another.

When hard frosts descend, redwings switch from invertebrate food to avidly seek out the berries of hawthorns and hollies, quickly stripping them bare of their rich bounty. It is at this time they will often come into gardens. If the weather remains bitter and prolonged, redwings may move further south and west to seek respite in milder climes.

Redwings breed in Scandinavia and adjacent areas of northern Europe, descending upon our shores every autumn. A small number also breed in northern Scotland and I recall once finding a nesting pair near Lochinver in Sutherland.

The proximity of this sloping pasture to my home makes it one of my favoured haunts at dusk – a compelling environs where roe deer graze and buzzards soar in search of field voles and small rabbits. Indeed, as I continued my circuit of the field under the background chatter of the redwings, rabbits abounded everywhere, their white-fluffed tails glowing like beacons in the blur of the gloaming.

Despite their abundance, the future of this rabbit colony hung in the balance because myxomatosis or the highly contagious rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease could wreak devastating havoc at any time. However, rabbits numbers have been high here for several years and so far they have avoided disease.

The previous week I had glimpsed a stoat on the hunt for rabbits, its sleek, sinuous body undulating in harmony with every contour of the ground. I lost it in among a thick flush of rushes, but I imagine it would find plenty of rich pickings on this hill pasture.

Frances Pitt, the early 20th century naturalist, reflected upon the fear that stoats instil in rabbits. She wrote: “A rabbit that knows a stoat is on its tail becomes so silly with terror that it sits down and waits its doom” … although she countered this by continuing …. “yet I have seen rabbits feeding unperturbed with a stoat romping near”.

My stoat sighting was unusual, for it was the only one I had encountered over many years of walking these fields. This made me ponder – why so few stoats when there is much easy prey in the form of rabbits about?

I don’t know the answer,  underlining that there are many insidious forces at work in our environment – many human induced –  which we comprehend little about, and that is something I find deeply worrying.

A close encounter with a marine leviathan

By Keith Broomfield

A large, mushroom-shaped creature pulsed into view through the briny underwater haze like a mysterious alien from another world. I slowed my breathing through my snorkel tube and watched it glide past, awed by its size and intricate frilled tentacles that trailed behind the bulbous main body.

It was a barrel jellyfish and the first time I had encountered one under water, although I had glimpsed them several times before in Scottish seas from piers and when aboard boats. These cream-coloured monsters really can grow to the size of a barrel, but they are gentle giants, feeding on plankton and their sting is mild and not generally harmful to humans. The biggest specimens can exceed 1.5m in length and 35kg in weight.

I was snorkelling at Ardmair Bay, a sheltered backwater of Loch Broom that lies close to Ullapool in Wester Ross. It is one of my favourite snorkel haunts because of the clarity of the water and the abundance of marine life. As well as the barrel jellyfish, there were scores of lion’s mane jellyfish drifting about, which I carefully steered around because their multitude of long trailing tentacles do give a nasty sting.

I was snorkelling in a sheltered part of the bay, which was home to a host of specialised creatures that prefer a more benign marine environment, including fluted sea squirts, dahlia anemones and burrowing anemones. The white coloured sea squirts were especially abundant, growing in clusters upon seaweeds. Sea squirts have sac-like bodies with two siphons on the top (one inhalant and the other exhalant) through which they draw water and carefully filter out food particles.

A glowing nugget of orange caught my eye on the seabed about 15ft down. I took three deep breaths and dived under to investigate and was rewarded with the remarkable sight of a type of sponge known as a sea orange. It was a fascinating organism – about the size of a cricket ball and with several large pores on the body. Sponges are the simplest of all marine animals, and like the sea squirts, gain nourishment by filtering water through their bodies.

After surfacing and regaining my breath, I drifted over a forest of kelp, and was immediately drawn into the embrace of another bizarre lifeform known as sea mat, which coated fronds of kelp in a dazzling, white crystalline veneer.  While sea mats are superficially similar to the encrusting lichens found on rocks on land, they instead belong to a mystical group of colonial animals known as bryozoans. I lifted gently a frond of kelp to examine the coating of sea mats in more detail, enthralled by their intricate, embroidered shawl patterning.

I ventured back into deeper water and in a truly special moment, a harbour seal swirled past me, before taking a wide circle to inspect this strange humanoid that had encroached upon its watery world. Unsure whether I was friend or foe, the seal flashed away into the blue depths, sparking a tingling wave of exhilaration to course through my body.

Dark green fritillary

Fritillaries and fascinating fungi at Glenshee

The oystercatcher was agitated by my presence, and its piercing ‘kleep, kleep’ call rang around the grounds of Glenshee Parish Church by the Spittal of Glenshee. This bird was a concerned parent with young hidden in among thick grass nearby and was keen to see me off the premises.

The boundary wall of the church made the perfect look-out post  for the oystercatcher to remonstrate against my presence, so I conceded to its will and left the bird in peace, hoping the concealed youngsters will survive the gauntlet of predators and reach adulthood.

Oystercatchers are good parents, and this bird reminded me of an instance several years previously on driving slowly along a small road near Braemar when an oystercatcher suddenly appeared right in front of the car and madly flapped and dragged its wings as if injured. The oystercatcher was not hurt, but had chicks hiding in the grassy verge and was feigning injury to try and draw the intruder – in this case two tonnes of trundling metal – away from it youngsters.

The basic urge of parental protection is a trait found in most adult birds, and as I headed up towards nearby Gleann Taitneach, a diminutive meadow pipit fluttered close above my head as it, too, made its displeasure known at my wandering too close to its nest hidden somewhere nearby.

A heavy rain squall swept across the glen, soaking me through before I had the chance to don waterproofs, but the grey clouds quickly parted and sunshine danced across the landscape once more. The warming rays of the sun brought out a dark green fritillary butterfly, which skipped across the heather and grass in an energetic flight.

Despite the confusing name, they are beautifully patterned orange butterflies, forever on the move and hard to approach close because of their innate wariness. This one spiralled down to the ground and came to rest in among a tangle of grass. I was keen to take a photograph but knew the only possible approach was to carefully crawl along the ground so as not to disturb it.

This presented a dilemma, for the ground was a minefield of cow pats, but throwing caution to the wind, I eased myself gradually along the grass, trying to avoid the dung in the process. The ploy worked and I was able to crawl within a few inches of this tangerine dream to capture it with my camera.

As I lay on the ground, I noticed the cow pats around me were adorned with clusters of glistening toadstools, which I think were a species known as Deconica coprophila. Many types of fungi prosper in dung as it makes an excellent growing medium, rich in nutrients. The fungal spores are eaten by the cows when grazing, which are then excreted, enabling them to germinate and spread. It is a marvellous example of nature at its most ingenious, evolving clever strategies to ensure the optimal conditions for survival and the means to colonise new areas.

An extravaganza of wildflowers in the Trossachs

By Keith Broomfield

A wonderful artistic palette of blue, pink, yellow and white unfolded before my eyes in this corner of the Trossachs where the sun shone down bright and the gentlest of breezes riffled the bee-buzzed air.

As I made my way up the track from Callander to the serene waters of Loch Lubnaig, a cornucopia of different flowers beamed out from the verges, and it was hard to get any regular rhythm into my footfall because every so often I felt compelled to hunker down to examine some new beauty.

Wood cranes-bill was especially prolific, and thick drifts of their blousy violet-blue flowers adorned the track edges in a dreamy haze of colour. The flower of wood cranes-bill is a true show-stopper that features five intricately crafted lilac petals set upon a paler centre where the rich, life-enhancing nectar lies. Subtle radiating lines inscribed upon the petals act likes guides to draw bees and other pollinators in towards the plant’s sweet treasure chest.  

A member of the geranium family, cranes-bill is a wonderfully descriptive name and refers to the elongated seedhead of the plant which for those with an imaginative disposition bears some resemblance to the beak and head of a crane.

Another flower that caught the eye was germander speedwell. Sporting small sky-blue flowers, they were like aquamarine gems scattered in among the thick tangles of grass. This low-sprawling plant is also known as ‘bird’s eye’ or ‘cat’s eye’ due to the white central orb of the flower. I have heard it postulated that the origin of the name ‘speedwell’ may stem from the supposed medicinal properties of the plant. In the eighteenth-century speedwell had acquired to the reputation for being good at curing gout, with the dried leaves being used to make a herbal tea.

More likely, speedwell is so-called because it was considered a good luck charm for travellers with the vibrant blue blooms helping to speed one on your way. In Ireland, they were sometimes sewn into the clothes of travellers for good luck.

Bramble was also in bloom and on some of the tangled clusters, the white flowers appeared larger than normal and belonged to a variety I was unfamiliar with – the five petals spaced further apart and less bunched than usual. The bramble is one of our most diverse plants, there being hundreds of different varieties in Britain with subtle differences, including the taste, size and fruiting time of the berries.

As I pondered brambles, a handsome roe buck materialised in a nearby golden-speckled buttercup meadow. He looked magnificent with his foxy summer coat and two small upright pronged antlers. The roe deer rut begins in mid-July and lasts until the end of August – a time when the testosterone fuelled buck will closely follow a doe for several days, waiting for the opportunity to mate.

Once mating has occurred, egg implantation is delayed until early January and the two fawns are born the following summer, completing the circle of life for another year.

Bewitched by the natural treasures of the sea

After having forsaken snorkelling during winter, a strong hankering engulfed my soul to get back into the water and become immersed once more in the wild riches of the sea.

I had also become consumed with the wish to snorkel by a pier because such places provide shelter for an abundance of marine life. Thus, it was against this background that I found myself bobbing in the chilly waters of the Firth of Clyde by Portencross Pier in North Ayrshire. 

I chose a low spring tide, which would make it easier to dive down and witness creatures that would otherwise be hard to reach in deeper water. The visibility was reasonable and on flicking my flippers I soon reached the first of the steel piles that supported the T-shaped pier end.

Mussels and barnacles clung tenaciously to the upper parts of the stanchions. They are resilient creatures, enabling to withstand the rigours of storms, fierce currents and crashing waves without becoming dislodged from their holdfasts. Barnacles could easily be mistaken for molluscs, but curiously they are crustaceans and relatives of crab and lobsters.

While the barnacles and mussels on the upper pier supports were fascinating, my main interest lay in the deeper water below, and as my body rode the undulating waves, I peered down into the murky green depths. Just within the range of visibility, an orange glimmer shone out. I dived down and steadied myself by holding onto the pier support. Before me lay the most exquisite creation, a cluster of orange-tinged fleshy lobes. Surrounding each lobe was a soft, opaque furred fuzz that on closer inspection comprised of miniscule stalks tipped with white.

This was a soft coral known as dead-man’s fingers, so called because it is said to resemble the swollen, decomposing hand of a dead person. Each ‘finger’ consists of a colony of tiny organisms, called polyps, set upon a shared gelatinous skeleton to form a greater whole. Each polyp has a mouth surrounded by tiny tentacles, which trap tiny food items in the water column. I imagine the name ‘dead-man’s fingers’ arose from times past when people searching for survivors from shipwrecks became overwhelmed by the stress of the occasion, sending their minds spinning into overdrive and suspecting the worse.

Then, I snorkelled under the pier where on several of the supports lay a bewitching cornucopia of colour comprising large colonies of plumose anemones. Their beauty and form were breath-taking, elegant orange-brown anemones featuring long, slender tubular body columns with flickering tentacles that brimmed out over their tops like large, intricately frilled umbrellas. As a biological comparison, these anemones were single polyps, while those that form dead-man’s fingers are integrated polyp colonies that act like one organism.

I snorkelled for a while longer, but the wind was picking up and the sea rising, so I swam back to the shore. On pulling myself out onto a flat rock shelf, I barely noticed the cold such was my excitement at having glimpsed these wondrous marine creatures.

Revealing the secret life of a Scottish river

Using a pair of trail cameras, I have been monitoring a shallow offshoot creek of my local river where a diverse array of wildlife was captured on film.

Teal were the principal stars that appeared daily. They adore this little creek because the calm, shallow confines act like an oasis where they can feed safely on the rich muddy bottom by up-ending continuously. Teal are delightful little ducks that are active both by day and night. A small group of female goldeneye ducks also appeared on the camera one day. They are scarce winter visitors to this river, but when the weather gets cold and nearby lochs freeze over, a few always materialise to take advantage of the fast-flowing and ice-free water.

Herons regularly showed up, stalking in the shallow margins with slow and cautious movements as they carefully scrutinised the water for fish.

An otter briefly materialised on one of the videos, quickly skirting the edge of a pool, its back undulating in a sinuous and weasel-like movement. Otters are doing well on the river but are seldom seen because of their mainly nocturnal and secretive habits.  However, when walking river banksides, it is easy to see their scent marking sites where they have deposited their tarry-like spraints (droppings) on top of prominent locations such as rocks, tree stumps or small hummocks.

A water rail – one of our most elusive water birds – made a cameo appearance. Like the otter, water rails are commoner than one might imagine and lurk in reed-beds or among thick tangles of waterside vegetation making them very difficult to spot.

I was also thrilled to have secured several clips of snipe feeding in the shallows. The snipe, which is a small and long-billed wading bird, is a master of concealment and it was wonderful to get a glimpse into their secretive lives. In one instance, the camera filmed a pair where one bird tried to mount the other as if mating. It is far too early in the season for mating to occur, but the clip did reveal that spring is maybe not as far away as one might imagine.

The most fascinating piece of film, however, was a snipe catching a brook lamprey. At this time of year, slowly maturing brook lampreys live under the sediment of rivers and have the size and appearance of small eel, only about 10 cm to 14 cm long. This feeding snipe hit the jackpot and pulled the wriggling lamprey out from its muddy lair with its long and probing bill. The snipe wrestled with the lamprey for several seconds before swallowing it with a satisfied gulp.

I knew brook lampreys lived in this pool and had previously glimpsed them emerging as adults in early spring after having spent a few years under the mud as filter-feeding larvae. Brook lampreys are fascinating fish that encapsulate the very beating heart of our rivers – mysterious and alluring, and with a never-ending capacity to surprise.

Salmon

The miracle of salmon

By Keith Broomfield

The salmon launched itself from the churn at the bottom of the falls like a guided missile, tail flapping, and flanks glinting under the late autumnal sun. It was a powerful leap, but the angle was terribly askew, and the hen salmon landed awkwardly half-way up on a rock ledge by the margin of the powerful torrent.

She lay stranded for a moment, and then, with powerful undulations of the body, managed to wriggle her way down the ledge so as to drop back down into the foaming pool below. A surge of emotion swept my inner being after witnessing the trauma and effort this salmon had just endured.

Over the last few months, she had migrated from her feeding grounds in the cold northern seas off the Faroes, Iceland or Greenland, and by some miracle of nature had navigated back to her place of birth – the River Almond in Perthshire. Over the period, she had survived the gauntlet of seals and other predators, but now the ultimate challenge lay ahead – the tumbling falls and rapids at Buchanty Spout, several miles north-east of Crieff.

Spout is a most apt name for this narrow fissure in the rocks, where a torrent of water spumes down a drop of several feet into a cauldron pool. Above and below lie tumbling rapids, making this a truly formidable obstacle. Yet despite this, over the course of an hour I witnessed several salmon succeed this most impressive of athletic feats. The key to success was a faultless launch, with a trajectory that was true and perfect right up the middle of the spout.

From my observations, it was the larger salmon that were most likely to ascend the falls, using their powerful muscles to propel themselves upwards and over the rocky top lip. The pool they launch from has minimal underwater visibility due to the swirling churn, thus, achieving the perfect launch often relies upon luck, and inevitably many fish get their angle of attack wrong. One salmon flew straight into the rockface by the edge of the spout with an audible slap that made me wince in sympathy.

The damage these salmon suffer from – both in terms of physical injury and loss of energy – is immense, and with each passing second that I spent by Buchanty Spout, my respect for these miraculous fish grew ever stronger. Once the spout has been ascended, the salmon will seek out gravel beds further upstream, where the hen fish will dig a furrow with her tail and body to lay her eggs, which are then fertilised by the male. The eggs are covered with gravel and the following spring tiny fry (alevins) will emerge.

Of course, natural river obstacles are not the only difficulties facing salmon, and in recent decades climate change has materialised as a new foe, affecting the ocean ecosystem on their north Atlantic feeding grounds. For the salmon, life is an eternal struggle, but now it could be facing the ultimate challenge, and one from which there is potentially no return.

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