A passion for nature

Tag: Scottish wildlife

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.

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!

Just a puddle – but so full of life

It was a puddle, no more than that; a water-filled wheel rut on an upland forestry track in Perthshire, yet this little pool surged with life.

It was the palmate newts that first drew my eye, five of them lying on the muddy bottom.  One of the creatures was an unusual limey-green in colour.  I’ve never seen a palmate newt of such hue before and perhaps the shallowness of the water had caused the skin to match the shades of the surrounding algae.

As I watched the newts, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a real photographic opportunity here. So I returned the next day with my underwater camera, knelt by the puddle and with the lens submerged, snapped away to my heart’s content.

Unfortunately, the results weren’t great, the water being a bit murky and it was difficult to get the right focus. But I was pleased enough with one or two of the photographs. I also found a lone newt hiding in the surrounding vegetation and the pictures I took of it turned out reasonably sharp.

These newts had gathered to mate and the males inhabiting the puddle were resplendent in their breeding finery of heavily spotted tails.  I’m not sure why they had chosen this watery wheel rut to breed, as it will almost certainly dry-out in the months to come, thus spelling trouble for their tadpoles.

Newts are certainly most intriguing creatures. Indeed, for many of us, their mysterious nature is best remembered in the famous incantation of the three witches stirring the boiling cauldron in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where along with “wool of bat” and “tongue of dog”, the ingredients included “eye of newt”.

I suspect newts hold such bewitching qualities because of their ability to regrow toes, or even complete legs that have become lost or damaged.

Having finished photographing the newts, I sat by the puddle for a while longer. A tiny dervish of a creature whizzed across the surface in a haphazard manner. It was a whirligig beetle, the crazy dog of the insect world, which likes nothing better than to gyrate about in the most bizarre fashion. Where does it get all that energy from?

But there is reason for such frenzied activity as these wee water beasties are scouring the water for tiny invertebrates to feast upon. I don’t think there is any considered pattern in their foraging, it more being a case of sweeping the water surface randomly in the hope of finding food by chance.

Two other small creatures scooted across the water, sporting little orangey marks down their centres. They were pirate wolf spiders, which actively seek out small prey by hunting them down.  If I hadn’t stopped by the puddle to look at the newts, I could so easily have missed seeing these energetic water spiders. But as ever with nature, the more you look, the more you see.

River reflections

A spring dawn-frosted morning on the River Devon just a couple of days before the coronavirus lockdown; still air, azure sky and sunbeams brimming over the rolling horizon, spilling forth a myriad of sparkling rays.

Nature is so inspiring, life-giving and powerful in every way, and here by the river it was unfurling its beauty in such a spell-binding manner that tears welled-up in my eyes. Of course, my emotions were partly stirred by the challenges we are all facing, but in a strange way that was a positive, focusing the mind on what a wonderful world we live in.

It also brought thoughts swirling across my consciousness on how my perception of the natural world has changed over time. When I was younger my brain was more scientific in manner; nature being something to research and study. Why does a fox do this, or a lizard that? Such an approach is, of course, important, because the more we know about nature, then the better we can protect it.  But as the years have passed, my mind has also become more reflective; rather than knowing why, for me, much better to enjoy.

I wandered down to my favourite part of the river. There were signs of spring everywhere: singing birds, frog spawn in a nearby frozen-mirrored pool, and silver-furred catkins adorning the riverside willows. On the top of a high alder, a song thrush, with his pale-speckled breast catching the soft sunlight, sang his little heart out, a sweet melody of ringing notes, so true and sweet. Not to be outdone, down in among the tangled roots of a riverside alder, a diminutive wren shivered in the sheer passion of delivering his magical music.

In the distance by the flood meadow, the wonderful liquid trilling of a curlew drifted across the breeze – such a beautiful and haunting sound. Nature was busy at work, and it felt good.

Then, something remarkable happened. It was just a glimmer, a chance discovery and no more than that: a smooth mossy dome in the fork of an elder. I could have walked past it a thousand times and not seen it, such was the way it seamlessly blended with the branches. This domed marvel was the nest of a long-tailed tit – an intricate engineering masterpiece woven from moss, lichen and cobwebs, and lined with hundreds of feathers to keep it snug.

Inside, a female long tailed tit, with her tail kinked over her back, was incubating her clutch of eggs, safely cocooned in her near-invisible nest. Nearby, and out of sight in bramble thickets and hedgerow tangles, blackbirds, song thrushes and other birds would also be sitting on their own nests, nurturing and providing warmth for their fragile eggs.

Such imagery was wonderfully heart-lifting; a whole new generation was on the cusp of hatching, bringing new vibrancy and wonder to our everyday lives.

In tribute to the blackbird

It is late afternoon and I’m sitting on a garden chair soaking up the August sun; its bright warmth a soothing tonic that relaxes the very soul.

I sit so still that a male blackbird alights on the lawn only a few feet away and looks at me quizzically with a cocked head. He is unsure whether I pose a threat or not and flickers his wings nervously, uttering a couple of “tchook, tchooks”, the precursor to his full-blown alarm call.

But he soon settles and begins to forage on the mown grass, moving in a series quick hops, before pausing to examine the ground. Through such methodical searching, he begins to snap up an impressive number of worms and other small creatures; the eye so keen that the slightest hint of movement is detected, no matter how miniscule.

The rich pickings clearly make my garden lawn a good place for this blackbird to be. Indeed, the blackbird is one of those birds that thrive best in the presence of humankind and among our dwellings. If one was to create the blackbird version of utopia, then the final outcome would not be too far away from the patchwork of lawns, parks, bushes and trees found in suburbia.

Lawns are great places to find invertebrates because blackbirds are not hampered by long grass when foraging. Ornamental and native garden bushes offer safe nesting sites and provide berries in autumn to feast upon. In deep winter when the soil is frosted hard, blackbirds take advantage of windfall apples on the ground and food on garden bird tables.

It is a two-way benefit and it would be almost unthinkable to imagine our gardens without blackbirds because they bring so much, especially in spring and early summer when at dawn and dusk the melodic song of the handsome cock bird rings out all around.

The poet William Henley was certainly full of praise for the musical elegance of the blackbird’s song when he wrote: “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”.

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