A passion for nature

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The plight of Scotland’s guillemots

Something didn’t seem right, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was on an early morning visit to Peterhead harbour and the inner basin was full of guillemots, their black and white forms bobbing out on the water.

I had never seen so many guillemots in the harbour before and their occurrence in such numbers seemed strange, especially since there had been no recent storms, which might have been one reason for these auks to seek shelter within the protective embrace of the port.

Then, I noticed something even more worrying – the bodies of several dead guillemots floating in the water. What on earth was going on? I wasn’t sure, but perhaps these birds were starving and had sought the harbour as a calm place where to seek out fish. Two days later, I was down on the foreshore at Elie in Fife, where I found more dead guillemots on the strandline – these engaging little seabirds were experiencing calamitous turmoil that was causing mass mortality.

This is a phenomenon that has been noted up and down the North Sea coast this autumn, with hundreds of dead guillemots having been recorded. The issue is currently being investigated by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), who have found the birds to be emaciated. The guillemots are certainly behaving strangely, and some birds have even been spotted up rivers, which is most unusual.

CEH has ruled out bird flu but is investigating other possible causes, which include a lack of suitable fish in the sea for the guillemots to feed upon or poisoning by toxins from marine algal blooms, which is affecting their behaviour.

Whatever the cause, the phenomenon does illustrate the fragility of our marine ecosystem and the dangers presented by pollution and climate change. In my new book, A Scottish Wildlife Odyssey, which will be published by Tippermuir Books later this year, I highlight the plight of Shetland’s kittiwakes, which are experiencing tumultuous population decline.

I write: “The underlying problem is related to our warming seas, which has led to planktonic ecosystem shifts resulting in a decline in the abundance and size of sandeels. Kittiwakes are especially vulnerable to food shortages as they can only take prey such as sandeels, sprats and juvenile herring when they occur at or near the surface of the sea, unlike deeper diving species such as gannets.”

A few years ago, I attended a science conference in Aberdeen, which explored the marine impacts caused by climate change. The evidence from the speakers, all of them experts in their field, was compelling; our warming seas are having a real and discernible impact on the distribution of many marine species. With the COP26 conference to discuss global action on climate change due to convene in Glasgow soon, it is more imperative than ever that it delivers a strategic plan for addressing this ticking timebomb that is already beginning to wreak havoc upon our precious marine life.

Scotland’s amazing cetaceans

By Keith Broomfield

I adore travelling on ferries between the Scottish mainland and the Hebrides, and on embarking upon a CalMac ferry for a recent voyage from Uig in Skye to Tarbert in Harris, I immediately hurried to an outside viewing deck – for I knew I was in store for a spectacular wildlife treat.

I was especially excited because the sea was unusually calm, a flat reflective mirror, which dramatically increased the chances of detecting whales, porpoises, and dolphins. The Minch abounds with these marvellous animals, but when the sea is wave-crested, their rolling backs and fins are hard to discern.

My anticipation soon bore fruit, and before the ferry had even passed Waternish Point in Skye, several porpoises had materialised, their shallow arch-backed rolls only gently breaking the water’s surface. Porpoises are the commonest whale and dolphin species (collectively known as cetaceans) found off our shores, as well as the smallest, being less than two metres long.

Although reasonably common, it is thought that porpoise numbers are in decline, a sad testimony to the many threats facing our precious marine environment, including pollution and climate change. Porpoises are not as sociable as many other cetaceans, tending to hang around in small loose groups, individually, or in mother and calf pairs, hunting for shoaling fish such as sandeels, sprats and herring.  

Porpoises are undeniably attractive creatures, and I recall once finding a dead porpoise on Balmedie beach, north of Aberdeen, and being blown away by the sleek beauty of the creature. The skin was like polished ebony, the rounded face benign and attractive. It was a silken torpedo, perfectly designed for its oceanic life in search of fish. 

As the ferry – the MV Hebrides – left the Skye shore in its wake and began its traverse of the Minch, a much larger rolling back suddenly broke the water off the port bow – a minke whale. As quick as it had surfaced, the animal disappeared. ‘Please reappear’, I intoned silently.  Thankfully, it did so once more, this time astern of the vessel. Minkes are smaller in length than most other whales.

Minkes are the most frequently encountered whale off the Scottish west coast, and on calm days can even be spotted from the shore – rocky headlands offering the best vantage points.

My return journey a week later was on the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry. The sea was rougher and for most of the way I was unable to spot any cetaceans due to the conditions. Then, as the vessel approached the Summer Isles at the mouth of Loch Broom, the water quickly calmed.

The signs were looking good – and so it proved, for a short while later, the ferry swept past a large pod of common dolphins, their pale flanks catching the sunshine each time they breached the water, sending my mind spinning with enthralled excitement.  Whales and dolphins are an oft-forgotten part of Scottish nature and I felt truly privileged to have had a glimpse into their secret lives.

Snorkelling with jellyfish in Harris

There is something strangely hypnotic about gliding over a kelp forest, the large brown-green fronds swaying in gentle unison with the tidal current in such a beguiling manner that one is drawn deep within its alluring embrace.

I had only been snorkelling for a short while in this sea loch near Cluer in Harris, but already I had glimpsed several types of fish, including shoals of saithe, as well as corkwing and rock cook wrasse using their pectoral or side fins to scull through the kelp with ease and agility. This kelp bed was as rich in life as any tropical rainforest, and within its realm lay hordes of creatures, including anemones, sea urchins, sea squirts, sponges, lobsters, and a vast array of different molluscs.

Kelp forests provide a three-dimensional habitat, providing shelter and places for creatures and plants to gain tenure. In many ways, Scottish kelp forests are our very own equivalent to coral reefs, providing the same kind of essential ecosystem benefits to the inshore marine environment.

I flicked my flippers a few more times and drifted into a deep fissure that cut into a rockface by the sea edge. It was a dark and eerie place and a wave of apprehension swept over me; probably for no other reason than I had entered the unknown, which made me feel uncomfortable.

I slowed my breathing and relaxed the mind; that was better, I must be getting soft, for I had never felt angst before when snorkelling. I began to look about me, marvelling at the colorful sponges on the sides of the rock cleft. Below me, a pair of brown crabs scuttled across the seabed. Then, a movement near where the crabs had scurried – a stunning blue jellyfish, which began to move slowly to the surface, its umbrella-shaped bell pulsing like a slow beating heart.

The purple-blue of its cap contrasted starkly with the white trailing stinging tentacles, which shone and luminesced like a glowing beam.  The jellyfish hung near the surface for a short while before slowly descending again. I have noticed this behaviour before with blue jellyfish, rising up and down the water column, which is possibly a feeding strategy to glean plentiful plankton.

On manoeuvring out of the rock gully to continue my snorkel, several other blue jellyfish appeared, along with an impressive lion’s mane jellyfish, with a massive red-hued umbrella top and long hanging stingers.

On the final approach to my exit point on a nearby sloping rock shelf, a swarm of moon jellyfish appeared before my facemask, so distinctive with their shallow saucer-shaped bodies, with four rings in the centre of their bells. There had been strong winds the previous day, and this was a raft of dead and dying animals that had been consumed by the surge.

Moon jellyfish are fringed with tiny tentacles that are harmless, so I slowly glided in among the creatures, wallowing in what was effectively a thick jellyfish soup, a marine graveyard and a stark reminder of the deadly power of the sea.

Haven on our doorsteps

A queen buff-tailed bumblebee hovering low over the ground in search of a nesting hole, while on a nearby ash, a treecreeper spirals its way up the trunk, before flying over in a short undulation to an adjacent tree.

Wonderful and so relaxing to watch; nature going about its business and brimming with spring abundance. But this is neither wooded glade nor forest edge – instead, I’m sitting on a seat in my garden, soaking-up its wildness and beauty.

For those of us lucky enough to have a garden during the coronavirus lockdown, then it is a wild sanctuary we must all appreciate for the sake of our mental wellbeing.  In many instances, a garden can contain more diversity of life over a small piece of ground than a similar area of wild land. If you don’t own a garden, any local park or urban green space will hold a similar variety of wildlife to enjoy.

Think a typical garden, then think open lawn, flowering shrubs, perhaps a hedge, and certainly numerous nooks and crannies in the paving stones for invertebrates to seek shelter. A blackbird could be nesting in that laurel, or a dunnock in the berberis. And then there is the miracle of those daisies that keep on popping back into their white-flowering magnificence each time the lawn is cut.

My garden is small, but I love it like no other place in the world, for there is so much to see. In recent days, I’ve seen comma butterflies with their vibrant colour and scalloped wing-edges, blue tits prospecting a nest box, and a little bee-fly with an impossibly long proboscis hovering in the air.

As dusk takes hold, I prowl the garden like a restless soul looking for flitting bats and scuttling hedgehogs. And, as night falls, I’m reluctant to head indoors, such is the peace and tranquillity of this gentle blanket of darkness.

One garden bird which has become a great favourite of mine over the last few weeks is the woodpigeon. They are so charismatic, and it is wonderful to watch their courtship. Sometimes the male flies above the garden in a wide looping flight, clapping his wings together on the highest part of his trajectory, as if to say to a nearby female – look at me, I’m the perfect mate.

At other times, the male and female sit together on the bough of a sycamore as he gently nibbles her neck. They have now built a nest in the neighbour’s ornamental conifer, and every so often, the female will appear by the edge of its green embrace, to watch the world’s happenings down below whilst having a short rest from the chores of incubating eggs.

Woodpigeons are ubiquitous and one of those creatures we tend to take for granted, but by taking a closer look, a most fascinating bird is unveiled that enthrals at every turn.

Dawn’s sweet music

A sweet note, and then one more; a musical couplet, followed immediately by another, hesitant at first but gaining in confidence as the music from this song thrush drifted across the cold dawn air of the strath.

It was wonderful sound and a herald of spring, sparking thoughts of warm days and yellow-dazzled primroses bringing sparkle to our hedge banks. It will be several more weeks before this cock song thrush even thinks about mating, but for now, he is content to mark out his territory and advertise his presence to nearby females.

Besides, singing so early in the year will give him an advantage over other nearby males who have yet to tune-up. But on hearing his music, they will soon be galvanised into action, and in no time at all, the air will ring to the melody of several song thrushes each dawn. Even when it is cold and frosty, the throaty thrushes will sing, such is their zest for life and hunger to attract a partner.

Blackbirds linger behind in this early season chorus, with most not starting to sing until the end of February or the beginning of March. Both birds are superb songsters, but for me, the diverse repertoire of the song thrush just about edges it. But perhaps I’m being unfair, for the blackbird’s song is more liquid and smoother in quality; the ultimate in natural chill-out music.

The poet William Henley was certainly a blackbird fan: “The nightingale has a lyre of gold/The lark’s is a clarion call/And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute/But I love him best of all”.

Other creatures, too, are thinking about breeding. In my local wood, the vixen’s traditional cubbing den has been freshly dug-out in preparation for giving birth in March, and outside a nearby badger sett I found discarded bedding from the animals’ spring cleaning in anticipation of their new arrivals.

This clan of badgers had a traumatic time last year because much of their home forest was felled. One can only imagine the stress the noise of power-saws and heavy vehicles must have caused. The foresters deliberately left the trees around the sett untouched, for which I am truly grateful.

This felled woodland now has the appearance of a desert wasteland; grey tree stumps and twisted branches. But nature’s powerful embrace will soon take hold, and by the summer the first green sprouts of pioneering plants such as foxgloves and rosebay willowherb will miraculously take hold. Invertebrates and fungi will busy themselves on recycling the tumbled wood and new life will spring forth.

I like that; the power of nature to bounce back. For the badgers, their home territory will once again become a tranquil place, where they can safely forage in search of earthworms and other small creatures. And in time, new trees will take root and the woodland will be on its way to returning to its former glory.

On the cusp of change

The lime-tinted glimmer of catkins adorning the bare branches of this hazel by Rumbling Bridge in Kinross-shire. By my feet, more green verdant freshness: the emerging spears of snowdrops heralding the approach of a new season.

I heaved a sigh of contentment, for the countryside is on the cusp of remarkable change; a time of renewal and anticipation. It might only be January, but winter’s grip is yielding, albeit reluctantly. Frosts, snow and bitter winds might still lie ahead, but in an imposing battle of wills, the lengthening days and stronger sun will eventually gain the upper hand.

I examined the catkins and brushed my fingers across a cluster. They were hard and smooth to the touch, but over the coming weeks will lengthen and become fluffy, by which time they are so appropriately known as ‘lamb’s tails’. These dangly green catkins are the male flowers but look closer at the branches and the tiny bud-like red female flowers can be seen too.

There were other signs of spring, a soft warbling breaking above the noise of the tumbling water: a dipper, his white-breasted body bobbing on a rock as he spilled forth his gentle notes to proclaim this stretch of river as his breeding territory.

The cycle of life revolves so quickly. It only seemed like yesterday when the autumnal leaves turned copper and the first arrivals of Arctic geese etched their v-shaped formations across the heavens.

I was in a melancholy mood and reflected upon the winter so far.  It has been unusually mild and very wet. Is this all part and parcel of climate change? Yes, I think it probably is. Of course, Scotland’s geographical position on the edge of the north-east Atlantic makes our country prone to climatic flux dependent upon the pattern of the weather systems sweeping-in from the west.

But there is so much more to it than that, and the last few months are just but one piece in a highly complex jig-saw puzzle. Human-induced climate change is happening; it is real and cannot be denied. In my garden last spring there were tree bumblebees and comma butterflies – two species that have moved-in from the south in recent years.

When a youngster, I was addicted to frogs; a boy thing, I suppose. Back then, in my local patch, the first spawn occurred in the middle of March. Now, it is the end of February. That shift in days might not seem much, but in nature terms it is gargantuan.

As the river gurgled over the rocks here at Rumbling Bridge, I wondered about the future and the implications that climate change will wreak upon our varied and diverse wildlife. Nature is adaptable, often incredibly so, but there will always be losers. In our small world, every species diminished or lost is an unforgivable tragedy, and a damming indictment of humankind and where our skewed priorities lie.

Plastic peril in our seas

It had been an enjoyable snorkel, having taken to the water by this remote rocky cove on Waternish in Skye, with the distant hills of South Uist twinkling on the far horizon.

Marine life abounded at every turn; shoals of young saithe flashed over flat-fronded kelp beds and the saucer-shaped form of a crystal jellyfish pulsed past me like a beating heart. The water was remarkably clear, but it was well into October, and with the lateness of the season, I knew this would probably be my last snorkel of the year. As such, I stayed in the water for as long as the cold would permit, totally absorbed by nature’s undersea tapestry of life and colour.

On emerging from the sea, shivering and dripping, my exhilaration turned swiftly into despair, for on the strandline an atrocity lay before me. Plastic, and it was everywhere. It was an abomination that struck at the very heart of the respect we should have for our planet; a proliferation of plastic bottles, cartons, fishing net fragments and the like.

I walked slowly along the shore and started examining this plastic perversion, depressed and shocked in equal measure.

Typically, several thousand items of marine plastic pollution are found per mile of beach in the UK, and it is thought that more than eight million tonnes of plastic enter the world oceans each year.

The end-result is horrifying with recent studies showing that every single seal, whale, and dolphin washed-up on British shores had traces of plastic in their stomachs, as did every fulmar. Plastic is ingested by fish and shellfish and has even been discovered in our deepest living marine organisms. It is everywhere, an omnipresent threat that is choking the lifeblood out of our precious marine environment, and with that, threatening humanity, too.

Our addiction to single use plastic is largely to blame – over half of plastics come under that category, and one just to has to think of a typical supermarket basket shop and the amount of plastic packaging involved. In 2018 alone, UK supermarkets and their suppliers produced one million tonnes of plastic. Does that cucumber really need to be shrink-wrapped? I think not.

So, what can be done? Well, Governments, of course, must act with urgency to legislate, and set and enforce targets to reduce our reliance on plastics. Manufacturers need to innovate and develop alternatives, and, of course, every individual has a responsibility, too.

Four simple steps can make a real difference: where possible, refuse to buy inappropriately packaged products, consider non-plastic alternatives, reuse plastic, and, of course, recycle it.

Who knows, if such action is taken by us all, maybe in the not too distant future, the only objects found in among the seaweed on this remote strandline on Skye will be crab shells, gull feathers and other natural debris. Now, there’s a wonderful thought.

Roar of the stags

By Keith Broomfield

Swirling rain swept across the flanks of this remote Deeside glen, and along the banks of a nearby gushing burn, newly arrived fieldfares cackled and bickered as they gorged upon the ripened scarlet clusters of rowan berries.

Then, the air was broken by a strange echoing noise; a deep roar in the distance that carried far into the wind. The more you listened the more the sound became apparent.

Fumbling for my binoculars, a quick scan of the far side of the glen revealed one of Scotland’s greatest natural spectacles – rutting red deer. A proud stag with many prongs to his antlers bowed his head and let rip his deep-throated bellow. He then rushed towards another stag that was beginning to edge upon his small harem of hinds. The message was unequivocal – keep off, these females are mine!

It was a tiresome task, and as soon as the stag engaged with one male, then another would suddenly encroach into the other side of the harem, causing the stag to charge back again in anger and snort his defiance. It was apparent that this Monarch of the Glen would only be able to cope with such pressure for so long and he will soon have to mate with the hinds to ensure that his genes are carried through to the next generation.

For a stag, the aim of the rut is simple, to try and mate with as many hinds as possible. To do so, the older more mature stags round up a harem of hinds, and the bigger and stronger he is the more he can get and protect for himself. But it is impossible to keep an eye on all of them all of the time.

This has resulted in different mating strategies with some of the younger and less dominant males waiting for the opportunity to quickly rush in and mate with a hind when the attention of the harem master is otherwise diverted. One of my zoology lecturers at Aberdeen University dubbed these hit-and-run stags as ‘sneaky copulators’.

A successful stag may be able to protect a harem of up to 20 hinds, and because so much time and energy is spent on the rut, they are often lean and in poor condition towards the end.

Red deer management is a controversial and complex issue. Where the populations are too high, their presence can be damaging to the environment, most notably through the prevention of the natural regeneration of trees. However, deer are a vital and iconic part of our landscape and deer carrion is an important source of food for a variety of upland wildlife, especially golden eagles. 

Indeed, a red deer carcass has the potential to support a pair of eagles for a significant period in the depths of a Highland winter, especially in western areas, where other prey such as mountain hares are scarce.

Mountain hares are the soul of our uplands

I trod carefully across the boulder field on this high plateau in the southern Cairngorms, scanning the ground for life.

To the north, the high Cairngorm massif was etched against the horizon and I reeled off the names of their summits in my head; such familiar tops and each one the source of happy memories from the past in search of eagles, dotterel, ptarmigan, and snow buntings.

Then, a long-eared head popped up before me, followed by another – mountain hares!  They watched me warily, and I was unsure whether they would permit me to approach close or would instead lollop away under the power of their incredibly long hind legs. Individual mountain hares have different personalities, some are confiding and sit tight, others are skittish and flee at the slightest hint of danger.

I unslung my camera from my shoulder and managed a quick couple of shots, before the hares decided that caution was the better part of valour and took flight. Mountain hares are such special animals and these ones looked magnificent in their smoky-blue coats. When winter takes hold, their fur will moult to white, providing seamless camouflage in the snowy expanses of the Cairngorms.

As they bounded away, I pondered how such beautiful animals could be the source of so much controversy. Until this year, up to 25,000 hares were thought to have been shot annually by grouse moor managers on the grounds they carry ticks and  diseases which harm red grouse, and because they may damage tree saplings.

But to me this was no more than mindless mass-slaughter of one Scotland’s iconic animals, for they are part of the very soul of the mountain environment. Recent research has indicated that hare numbers have plummeted  since the 1950s due to this large-scale unregulated culling, and as such, recent legislation to ban the unlicensed killing of mountain hares and make them a protected species is to be welcomed. A healthy landscape needs a natural balance between predators and prey, not an unnatural one controlled solely by the hand of humankind.

 

Hoverfly marvels

Relaxing in the garden and enjoying the sun is a great way of getting close to nature, as I so discovered when lying on our lawn on a sun mat. Ahead of me the grass stretched like an expansive green sea but it was the abundance of tiny invertebrates that really caught the eye.

The daisies in particular were attracting a number of pollinating insects but the stars were undoubtedly the multitude of small dark hoverflies. Less than a centimetre long, these wee hoverflies were like mini-helicopters, moving forwards in a surge, before hovering for a second or two by a daisy, and then suddenly zipping off sideways to inspect another flower.

Their manner of flight was almost robotic and always in a straight line, with angular changes in direction rather than being executed in a smooth turn.  Soon, I saw a different type of hoverfly advance towards me, but still in this strange and controlled linear flying pattern. This hoverfly was slightly larger than the other ones I had been watching and had paler markings on its abdomen.

There are more than 250 species of hoverfly in the British Isles and many types can be mighty tricky to identify because they are so similar to each other. Using a specialist insect reference book, I tried to identify the small dark hoverflies that abounded in our garden, but in the end could only narrow it down to several different possibilities.

As an amateur naturalist, I find this most frustrating because knowing what things are is a keystone of my being. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the end, for hoverflies are such a joy to watch and so very important to our environment. They are also little marvels of natural engineering being able to beat their wings several hundred times per second when hovering by flowers on the search for pollen and nectar.

Hoverflies are sun-loving insects and play an incredibly important role in pollination. The larvae of many species feast upon aphids, making them the gardener’s friend. Larvae of other types may eat plant matter, rotting wood and fungi, or are scavengers. Some are even aquatic.

One species that is relatively easy to identify is the marmalade hoverfly, which sports an orange body with thick and thin black bands across it. These hoverflies just love dandelions but will feed upon the nectar and pollen of a wide range of other plants too. Hoverflies are harmless, but many are patterned to mimic a stinging wasp or bee – a most useful ploy for deterring would be predators.

Another hoverfly worth seeking out is the Heineken fly, often found along hedgerows, in our gardens and by woodland edges. It has a distinctive long orangey-brown snout that enables it to probe deeply into long flower-heads.

And why called the Heineken fly?  Well, for those who can remember the old beer adverts, it is because they can reach the nectar which other hoverflies can’t reach!

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