Friday, 20 April 2018

The not so Redpoll

It's been a miserable old day, weatherwise. No painting or mowing achieved whatsoever, though the sun has finally broken through now that I've finished work. Indeed it's a lovely evening, if still somewhat cold in the wind. As per usual, plenty of activity on the bird feeders and table including a darn fine male Reed Bunting again. No females yet, but certainly at least three different males this past month or so. I looked up from my desk and this bird caught my eye

Lesser Redpoll - presumably a female/1st year bird judging by the lack of pink
So what, you ask. Well look closer. Look at the colour above the eye... The following pics are  completely unedited, they're straight off the card. All digi-binned through the double-glazing too, which is why they're a bit naff. Just click an image to enlarge. 

Lesser Yellowpoll, nice! I did a bit of internet trawling, apparently somewhere between 10-20% of the Redpolls (presumably ssp cabaret) in NW Scotland exhibit some degree of yellow replacing red in the crown feathers. This is commonest in females (and also in captive birds, which may imply an association with diet) and there is a whole spectrum grading from standard pink through yellows, golds and oranges. It's not something I can say I've ever noticed before, but I shall be keeping my eyes open for more birds like this one. 

Chris Martin sang a song about things being all yellow, but there's not a hope in hell of me ever playing a Coldplay song on this (or any) blog. I've actually held a football that had been signed by the entire band, I should have burst it and thrown it onto a fire but it wasn't mine to destroy. Have this instead, bet you haven't heard this for a while!

Staying with Zappa and his crazy lyrics, and the yellow snow theme, have a try of this...

Thursday, 19 April 2018


With 45mins to kill before staff dinner (5pm is feeding time at the zoo up here) I ambled down to the shop, bought some munchies and settled down on a nice flat rock at the edge of the river, supping from a can of Relentless. Perfect r 'n r. 

As is my wont, I soon found myself staring into the depths for signs of life. 'Depths' in this instance being about eight inches... It wasn't long before I noticed several very small water beetles scurrying back and forth across the algal mat that blankets most of the rocks at this spot. Tiny things, maybe about 3mm long, but I could see that they were patterned across the elytra. Only one thing for it - dunk the camera and get some pics! 

These images are straight off the card, they're all a bit 'yellowed' which is probably because I forgot to switch to Underwater Mode, duh. 

It wasn't until I was back indoors and checking the images properly that I noticed that this beetle had too many heads and legs. Ooh, looks as though I've captured a pair of Oreodytes sanmarkii in cop

My first Blackcap of the year was singing from the understorey behind me and a glint of green at the base of a tree trunk soon found me looking at this fine chap

Gymnocheta viridis - a gorgeous fly with a truly disgusting lifestyle
My 1000 in a 1KSQ attempt is bumbling along quite nicely. After a couple of weeks with essentially no real additions to the tally, this past week has seen a huge improvement. I can thank the sudden warmth combined with a renewed interest in birds for this.

Bird highlights this week include a White-tailed Eagle at near-stratospheric height which went directly over the house (picked up whilst scanning the sky for hirundines - four Sand Martins being the reward), a Razorbill in the bay, an adult Gannet (very rare in the square, they normally stay miles out) plunge diving a mere 20 metres offshore (I heard the splash!) and the first returning Common Sandpiper of the year. Noisy bugger, I'd forgotten about their endless calling. 

Gannet departing NG3963 approx 30 seconds after its arrival
Common Sandpiper - noisy blighter. There were four pairs here last year
Also found this beast, new for the square and only my second ever, following my first with Tony and Stephen a few weeks back

NZ Flatworm - and I didn't even jump around waving my arms in the air this time!
Added a meagre selection of insects to the tally including the rather widespread Parasyrphus punctulatus (a hoverfly), Paranchus albipes (a ground beetle), Bibio johannis (a St Marks fly) and Othiorhychus sulcatus (the Vine Weevil) all of which were lifers for me. Shameful regards the weevil, I know. I've seen them before but this was the first time I've actually keyed one through. It was clambering up a wall which I had recently finished painting bright white. The boss thinks I've done this to help weatherproof the hotel, but in reality it's so that I can spot inverts more easily - shhhhhh! I'm on 568 species for the 1KSQ Challenge, ordinarily that'd put me way ahead of the field, but Ali and Tim are in it this year. Hence my astounding tally has me sitting at 3rd place. Meh. Time to pull me finger out....

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

From Small Beginnings...

Today was good. Actually, today was very good. I started off down in Portree where, along with several other members of the Skye Nature Group, we cobbled together a decent programme of outings for the forthcoming summer. Lots of input from everybody else, I just asked daft questions ("what's the habitat there, what species occur, how midgey is it, whereabouts is it, how do you spell that again?" etc etc) I really am completely out of my depth when it comes to knowing my way around up here. Luckily, everyone else seemed to know the entire island like the back of their hand. We now have a provisional programme of around twenty further outings which will take us into October, just need to confirm dates with a couple of leaders first. Rather excitingly, we're even doing an away day to Raasay, I think we're heading into an area of limestone which should offer some intriguing possibilities. 

Whilst in Portree I checked for birdfeeders along Woodpark, there was a Hawfinch seen at one yesterday! The only feeders I could see were two that were nailed to a fencepost and neither was hosting a Hawfinch (or anything, in fact) whilst I was there. Of course, I may not have been at the right feeder. 

Right, safely back into my own square again and I headed out across the hilltop, down through the woods and had a scan across the beach. The sun was out and temperatures were approaching warm. I had my fourfold net and a bunch of tubes at the ready. But the wind dashed my plans, gusting at 40mph. Not ideal for swishing a net about! The dead sheep held a few flies, I potted one but it's a Muscid. I really don't see myself progressing very far with that. There was one fly I could identify though

Tipula rufina - hunkered down on the leeward side of a birch trunk
I spotted the next species and gave a small groan (followed by a wry smile), this was one of the species on Tony's Hitlist that we were just too early to find when he was up here in March

Melancholy Thistle. Not at its finest yet though, Tony will just have to come back!
I wandered down to the River Conon hoping for the chance to swing my net around. Despite plenty of net swinging, I didn't manage much; a few tiny flies, a tiny spider, some seedheads.... I did spot these cuties huddled on a pebble in a shallow pond

Flat-head Mayfly nymphs clinging to a pebble
These are from the family Heptageniidae, of which there are eleven species in Britain. These mayflies only occur in fast flowing waters. The low, broad body and eyes situated to the rear of a wide, rounded head are adaptations to help reduce drag in this turbulent environment. I'm not really sure I could successfully key them to species in this stage, possibly? The adults I can do. Whatever they are, they're new for me.

Edit: the four darker markings on each femur tell us that these are from the genus Electrogena (just 2 British species). Electrogena affinis is only known from Yorkshire, whereas Electrogena lateralis is common and widespread  across most of Britain including all of Scotland. It also lacks the white markings on the front of the head as seen in E.affinis. Sweet, that was remarkably easy! 

I paid a visit to the Mitella ovalis plants that grow here. They're starting to put up flowerheads at last. Again, something Tony was keen to see but was here too early

This is the original plant I first spotted last year, still doing well by the looks of it
Freaky flowers, huh? I still recall the first time I clapped eyes on this plant. I had absolutely no idea what it was, only that I knew that I'd never seen it before. I notified the BSBI Recorder that night and the rest is history. My second 'new to Britain', cool stuff.  

Over a dozen folks have now been shown this plant in Uig Wood
I'm leading a Skye Nature Group walk through Uig Wood on August 7th this year and undoubtedly we'll be paying a visit to these plants whilst on site. So make a note of the date and come along, the more the merrier. Actually, I say that but....the very first time I ever led a walk was an eye-opener. It was a mid-May Dawn Chorus Bird Walk and I was a tad nervous beforehand. So you can imagine my astonishment when twenty-two people (and a dog) rocked up to be shown some birds. Ha, I think I almost ran away, though it was a fine walk in the end. I'd say anything up to about ten is a sensible number for one leader to handle, more than that and it's a bit like trying to herd cats. 

I continued down through the woods and found myself scanning through the gull flock. Juvenile Glaucous Gull straight away - yes! And an Iceland Gull further out but in the same field of view! Wow, nice double-whammy, not sure I've ever seen both species in the same field of view before. The Glauc got up and flopped its way closer, offering me the chance of some pics

I even managed a brief bit of shaky digi-binned video. It's not very good quality and the wind was pretty strong. The Iceland Gull never came closer than about 200 metres, pointless even trying to gain a meaningful image.

I was surprised to see budburst happening almost everywhere I looked. Hawthorn, Sycamore, Rowan and Sallow were all showing freshly unfurling leaves, joining the Hazels and Elder which have been in leaf for some time now. Ramsons is really starting to form lovely, thick carpets and Meadowsweet is popping up everywhere too. Lovely, just lovely. After a great deal of searching I gave up trying to find the first Wood-sorrel of the year. Then I stopped to get something out of my rucksack and randomly spotted a patch by my feet. Typical

Wood-sorrel with Bluebell leaf, just in case you were puzzled!
 Talking of Bluebells, found my first flower today. Lovely things

Looking decidedly unlovely in the glare of  the flash...
In other news, I've been busy with the light trap all week. It actually blew over and the eggboxes turned to mushy pap during last night's wind and rain. That aside, however it's been pretty good. 

Brindled Ochre, Hebrew Characters & Common Quaker for starters
A male Glossosoma boltoni - a caddisfly with a big 'pouch' at the base of each forewing
Philopotamus montanus - a stunningly patterned caddis of fast flowing rocky streams
Also had a few of the huge Dor Beetle Geotrupes stercoraria buzzing around the bedroom. Imagine a bumblebee the size of a spaniel - that's the sound they produce in flight. Makes you kinda sit up and pay attention as to what it is that's just flown through your open window! The whole beetle is far too large to fit into one image, so here's the pertinent features (happily located at opposite ends)

Smoothly rounded outer edge to mandibles...
...equally hairy across the entire width of the abdominal tergites
They smell awful, by the way. I know this because it bumped off my face whilst I was trying to pot it up as it bumbled around my room, knocking over books, lamps, bottles of wine etc as it went... Dor Beetles spend their lives bumbling from dung pile to dung pile. They pong. Find one, grab it, sniff it, heck you can lick it if you must! Let it go and smell your fingers. Or pot it up and see how long the stench lingers after you've released it again. Dor Beetles, a-dor-able. 

But anyway, Skye Nature Group has a programme of outings that'll keep me busy throughout the whole summer and well into autumn. Skye Botany Group is about to start up once more, hopefully we'll be doing lots of square-bashing for the forthcoming 2020 Atlas. The weather will be great, the midges will be non-existent and I'm going to see shedloads of good stuff in amazing places in the company of brilliant people! Ok, so maybe the weather and midges are out of my control, but the rest should hold true. Bring it on, this summer is going to be amaaazing! 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Mr Blue Skye...

Went out for a spin today, the weather was utterly gorgeous and my innate wanderlust kicked in bigtime. I ended up driving through Portree, across the hilltops to Struan and up towards Dunvegan before cutting back across to Portree, finishing up back in Uig where I bumped into some interesting folk. Skye is full of stunning scenery, stretches of the Struan road were especially breathtaking

I really need to get back on a skateboard and scare the heck outta myself on roads like this!
I spent a wee while scanning/listening for Red Grouse up on the moorland, no joy this time. Masses of Meadow Pipits though, the Cuckoos must love it out here! 

I've spent a large portion of my life living in London, so I've seen an unhealthy number of smashed out phoneboxes in my time. But this is Skye, they do things differently up here

Mike Edwards (of ELO fame) used this phonebox in 2009....
I'm also used to having idiots walk out in front of me as if they own the road. But of course, this is Skye...

Ghetto side of Portree, you really don't wanna be stuck out here alone after dark...
Once back into the warm, safe security of NG3963, I decided to take myself on a wander through Uig Woods. The temperature reading on the dashboard was telling me it was 23C (obviously faulty. Skye NEVER hits 23C!) when I stepped out of the car and bumped straight into the ever so delightful Joy, wife of local birder Martin (I strongly suspect she's not a birder at all, although she does seem quite into her plants). Joy was here to meet up with Ross Watson (Site Manager of the Woodland Trust in Northern Scotland) and Peggy, a rather militant professional beach cleaner. Peggy was here in an advisory capacity regards the forthcoming Beach Clean Up event which is happening on May 12th (make a note in your diaries - post clean-up pies and beer are promised. Or sandwiches for we veggie types...) I'm not entirely sure why Ross was here, unless WT deem the beach as being part of their land?

Anyway, the exciting thing is that I had a good old chat with Ross. He seems very keen for me to provide WT (site owners) with my species list for Uig Wood, in return I'll have access to their existing species list (apparently all a bit fragmented and out of date) and hopefully a definitive boundary map so that I know which species to include in the site list spreadsheet I'm about to furnish them with. I'm really quite excited by it all. My old stomping ground was Epsom Common in Surrey, comprising some 400 acres worth of mixed habitats. I designed the exisiting Epsom Common Species Recording compartment map, broken into twenty two zones. Uig Wood is far smaller and could probably be broken down into just five or six compartments, I'll see what Ross suggests.

So yeah, more useful contacts made. No sign of yesterday's Glaucous Gull, but plenty of warmth and signs that spring has finally arrived at this northern outpost

Oh. And this bad boy too...

Perlodes mortoni excuviae. Nice, very nice!
For those of you who didn't understand the ELO and hay bale reference, I shall make this easy for you. Click here

For those of us old enough to remember ELO, I give you this mighty song - it certainly summed up the weather today. If you're too young to know what I'm talking about, do yourself a favour - grow your hair, grow an Afro, grow a beard (c'mon ladies, just concentrate!) and enjoy 

Hmmmm. I've just played this through and realised that they don't do the awesome guitar solo at the end. Lemme go see if I can find the proper version for you...

Sheesh. No, I can't. But this is close enough. Hope it sends chills down your spine! It's an utterly brilliant track and well worth listening to over and over and over again

Monday, 9 April 2018

Redwing Bonanza

Skye is currently creaking beneath the weight of who knows how many thousands of Icelandic Redwings Turdus iliacus coburni. The Skye Birds website lists substantial flocks across the island over the past few days, including several hundreds on Eigg and Rum too. Birds have been arriving back in Iceland for days now, but there are still an awful lot yet to make the crossing.

I'm currently enjoying the flock that have taken up temporary residence in the ornamental conifers beside the house, plenty of communal chattering with several birds bursting forth in excited song. It's a real pity that they'll all be gone within days, they're quite beautiful birds. 

My window overlooks a steep hillside and I can see maybe twenty or thirty Redwings finding worms amongst the bracken patches, with more lining the fencelines. Plus however many are hidden away in the trees by the house. Certainly plenty dropping in to bathe in the small burn that burbles its way along the foot of my garden. 

Frustratingly, they really are quite skittish and readily fly off whenever I point the camera out of the window. This was about the best I could manage

The annoying white smears across the image are reflections on the window pane
I discovered that I was able to entice several individuals a bit closer to the house by playing Redwing song through my laptop speakers. Here's one that dropped out of the tall conifers, come down to investigate the noise

Still pretty wary, but definitely interested!
I even managed to stick my arm out of the window and record a quick bit of song

Headphones could come in handy, if you have them!

It was whilst watching the Redwings that I saw a Starling come wheeling into view, land on the overhead power cable for all of about six seconds, then fly off again. A Starling, that's a yeartick!!! Number 511 for the square so far this year. That may sound a bit daft, but they're very scarce in my square, though small numbers can usually be seen on rooftops in the village itself. Nice, almost as exciting as the Redwing invasion. 

Had another haul of moffs at the light trap when I woke up this morning, including this very fine fella. One I'm certain to never misidentify ever again...

Back dark. Front leg dark. Middle leg dark. Rear leg dark. Reckon that'll be a Red Sword Grass then!  

Early Grey Xylocampa areola - illuminated by the blue glow of the trap bulbs
Chestnut and Red Chestnut - both of which refused to keep still and settle. This was my best effort
I'm still patiently waiting for a Common Quaker, Early Tooth Striped and Yellow Horned amongst myriad others. Oh, and pugs. They'll be turning up any night soon, I guess. Poor old Nigel will be inundated with renewed pleas for help, bless him. The good news is that the whole week is looking to be pretty mild and largely dry, so the light trap should be busy.

Ok, music time again. 

The Redwings outside my window aren't the only things from Iceland filled with the joys of spring. Just get a load of this nutter!!!

It's just getting dark now, the Redwings have stopped singing and have started making high pitched contact noises. Is this it, are they about to leave already? But they've only just arrived. Maybe they're just settling down to roost, not leave. Tomorrow will tell. They have bigger ideas than Uig for their summer months. 

EDIT - less than ten minutes later there was a distinct increase in contact calls, then a quick burst of seeeeeeeee calls and they were off. Just like that...gone! Wow, migration magic happening in my own back garden. I'm pleased to have witnessed a snapshot of it all. They'll be back on their home turf in Iceland tomorrow morning. Incredible, just incredible.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Trappings of Success

I've had my light trap running most nights this past week or so. It's not exactly warm up here at the moment, but there's no frost and there's no wind either, so I guess it's about as decent as can be expected for early April this far north. Anyway, last night had that mystical 'sure feels good tonight' feeling and so I had the trap blazing away from slightly before dusk fell. I was still awake at 2am and could see several moths flitting around behind the curtains, illuminated by the trap bulbs. I caved in and had a peek...

Whaaaa??? That's not even a moth! 
This was one of those evil bastard Ophion things, the ones that rip your arms off and lay eggs into your still-bleeding stumps, thus sealing your fate to that of being eaten alive, hollowed out from within by the grubs of these evil least, that's how I see them. I knew a guy who was stung by one once, he said it was sharp and made him jump, which is all I need to know. My imagination can easily fill in the gaps (I bet he was eaten alive by the grubs...) 

However, there are several freaks academics out there who delight in these abominations. My online image piqued the interest of one such weirdo person who, upon realising that I had already secured a couple on pins (weighted down by strong chains, with garlic hung around their necks and silver bullets ready to deploy at the first twitch of an antennae...) asked for a barrage of images to firm up his suspected ID. Ok, well I can do that. As soon as I've put on my gauntlets, halberk and face shield. Always remember your PPE when dealing with ichneumons...

This shot shows the distance between the ocelli and the eyes. 
Lateral view of "T1", the bit that joins the tail to the body - apparently quite important regards ID
Hind coxa and tibia - another important ID feature apparently. Makes my own legs look positively ripped! 
Anyway, once I'd counted the antennal flagellomeres (there were 67) I whacked all of this up on Faceslap, then waited for the experts to cast their eyes across it all. I soon received the reply I was hoping for - Ophion scutellaris, dirt common everywhere at this time of year (along with Ophion obscurus with its big, bold creamy braces across the thorax) and yet entirely new for myself and for Skye! Gavin Broad runs the recording scheme for these beasts, tomorrow he's going to double-check for me that it is actually new for Skye. HBRG are going to love me when I do eventually submit my records...

Meanwhile, there were several moffy shadows flitting across the curtains; remember, my trap is situated on the inside window sill, which works quite well for me at the moment. Be a different matter once the midges start up. 

Probably the worst pic of an Early Grey that you'll see today
Hebrew Character - but a weird washed out form. Skye's beautifully odd is all I can say!
Red Sword Grass - GET IN!!!!! Brand new for me, I've never seen one of these before! 
Alright, confession time... so I wasn't sure if this was Sword Grass or Red Sword Grass, both options being new for me. It was a little after 6am when I found this bad boy in the trap. Remember that I didn't go to kip until at least 2:30am so I was tired (that's my excuse and by hell, I'm sticking to it...) You see how the hind foot is pale and the others aren't? Well, according to my copy of Waring & Townsend this is a diagnostic feature of Sword Grass, sweet! In a mad glee to share my amazing find with the rest of the world (Sword Grass is one frikkin good species up here!) I didn't pause to actually look at what I was seeing. Thankfully there's this fella, let's call him Nigel (which works well, seeing as that's his actual name) and Nigel is proper on the ball. Nigel instantly realised that the pale hind foot was, in fact, the end of an antenna poking out from beneath the moth's wings. He also knew that Sword Grass has pale middle and front legs (cheers Waring and Townsend, forgot that wee gem of info didn't we?) and therefore was able to correct my duff ID. My moff was, in fact, a Red Sword Grass. Fuckit, I'm making a right twat of myself on the FB group of late.

Also in the haul were a whole mob of Mottled Greys. I'm aware that I may be overlooking Early Tooth-striped amongst these, hence I photograph every moth attracted to the trap. Thus far I've yet to spot ETS amongst the Mottled Greys.  Best 'runner up' was this damn fine beast

Shoulder Stripe - a really rather decent moth on Skye
Seemingly only four records in the past 5 years up here, so quite the local gripper! 
Awful pic of an Acleris hyemana - new to my Skye list
Anyway, the immediate upshot to all of this was that I clearly need more literature and so only went and made a compulsive buy. Yeah, you know it...the new Townsend and Waring!! I managed to pick this up for under £25, so that's money well spent, in my eyes. 

Tonight is dedicated to Nigel. I've never even met the guy, but he's obviously a bit of an authority on moths. As such, I give you

And, because one track is never enough...

This lass completely blows my mind, her voice is sublime. I hope you're enjoying this current metal-free phase that I'm leading you through. Normal service will resume any day now, I'm sure of it :)

Also, just because it's an awesome track and you need it in your life....