Friday, 29 July 2011

Wowed by Scottish beauty

THE north western corner of Scotland may not be a secret, but I was totally amazed by its unexpected beauty.  Loch and lochans, huge imposing hills rising steeply like jagged teeth, open moorland and beaches that the Caribbean would be proud of - its could not have been nicer.

A working croft on the Assynt Estate, Sutherland
As you might have guessed we recently took a weeks holiday there.  We stayed in a former croft owned by a friend's family, only minutes from the coast, and surrounded by a rolling, rocky landscape...we had a ball.  It was situated near Lochinver (in Sutherland), which is north of Ullapool, in an area designated as a Geopark.

The area has been crofted for many years and in 1993 was bought from the absent landlord by the local people - this is the Assynt Estate.

Many houses and crofts stand alone amongst the hills.  Almost all of the older crofts have been build right next to (or even abutting) the ruins of previous crofts, presumably lived in my the same family.

Much of the moorland is covered with heather, rough grasses, rushes, moss and rarer acid loving plants such as the heath spotted orchid (above), bog asphodel and sundews (below).

Lesser butterfly orchid
One of the many places worth a visit is Handa Island, only a short boat ride from the mainland.  It is a wonderful, if not somewhat exposed, island managed exclusively for its wildlife.  It supports tens of thousands of breeding birds on its sea cliffs and amongst the grassland\moorland.  The breeding birds include great and Arctic skuas (which sometimes like to dive bomb you), razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, Arctic terns and everyone's' favourites - well as the usual gull species.  We also saw a red throated diver in a sheltered bay.  It is a fabulous place and the fishy smell that you sometimes get is worth the visit in itself!

A bay on Handa Island where a red throated diver was seen

Great Skua
The sea cliffs were packed with nesting birds - some accompanied balls of grey fluff in the form of chicks.  The bird droppings paint the rock white and the fishy smell is quite intoxicating - its not wise to lean over the edge...

Birds nesting on the cliffs

Puffins near their burrow
Sky full or birds

Large unidentified egg shell
Another local beauty spot are the cliffs near the Old Man of Stoer - a sea stack.  There is an impressive lighthouse and a van owned by a local woman doing great refreshments!  It was from here and other cliff tops, that we spent some relaxing evenings (when it wasn't too cold) dolphin watching.  I saw quite a few common dolphin pods and some harbour porpoises too.  Practically all were too far out to get decent photos, although I do have a few pictures of black specks with fins.  Gannets were also common.

Herring gull begging for my sandwich
View of fishing boat moored in a quiet inlet
A beach near where we stayed
We also had an enjoyable day out near Loch Assynt ,walking along a glen to some river caves, quite high up the side of the hill.  The river was dry after only half a mile, with the water at that point springing from the ground.  The flora reminded me of something that you would find in the Alps, with lady's mantle and thyme.

There are many ruined crofts in the area as a whole - this one had a particularly wonderful view.  The only inhabitant now was a pair of nesting swallows.  One of the adults can be seen flying out.

In pursuit of an otter one day, we had a really fabulous walk along Loch Glendhu.  In spite of the copious seaweed fringe, which would have made perfect hunting habitat, there were no otters only great views.  We were treated to a screaming fighter plane overhead and lots of biting things when the breeze was not blowing, plus a few seals and swooping terns.

This shrew was the only other mammal seen that day, not so exciting as an otter, but quite unusual to be able to catch it out of cover.

We paid a visit by boat to the romantically named Summer Isles too.  On the way we spotted loads of common seals hauled up on the rocks, plus a few families of eiders ducks.  We did not spot any male ducks strangely. The sun beat down on us that day and when the boat stopped we quickly took off our many layers to cool down again.


Heath spotted orchids on a Summer Isle
One final photo - the sunset on the first day...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Alpine splendor in Somerset

A couple of weeks ago, an evening out in the countryside near us, reminded me of just how rich our grasslands can be.

A marbled white butterfly in the long grass
This year seems to have been the best one that I can remember for flowers, perhaps because the dry spring reduced the vigour of the grasses.

Its quite hard to show the beauty of that I found in this quiet valley, but the photos are an attempt at recording it.  There were bird's-foot trefoil, small scabious, bedstraw, self-heal, red and white clovers, oxeye daisy, etc. plus a number of different grasses.  With the butterflies floating around in the warm evening air, it was quite idyllic.

This bee orchid was the best one around and was in the first group that I have seen this year.

There was also a good number of pyramidal orchids, including this large one being swamped by a bindweed.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

High summer meadows, butterflies & moths

THIS time of year can be a bit quiet on the birding front, so for a change I diverted my focus away from the honeypot nature reserves and wandered around the lanes and droves of the Somerset Levels instead....and WOW - it proved well worthwhile.

I must admit that the area in question is mainly a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), but is farmed for a profit, not for nature per se.  Being an inquisitive sort of chap I did venture into an old derelict set of buildings, including a cattle feeding barn.  I could see the tell-tale bird droppings on the rafters and who should fly out of a quiet nook, but a beautiful barn owl.  It was about 2m from me but it did not make the slightest sound vocally or with its wings - we were both surprised.  On the floor were regurgitated pellets with the usual remains of small mammals and fur.

Back outside, the track leading to the barn was overgrown with wet-loving plants and flowers, and enjoying these were numerous butterflies and dragonflies.  In fact the whole day seemed to be spent coming across clouds of insects.

In my obsessive (-ish) drive to photograph flying insects I did try to catch a few, including these ones below, of the abundant ringlets butterflies feeding on the thistles.

Around the area of the barn there were a number of wonderful flower rich meadows, still uncut.  These were packed with black knapweed, meadow sweet and vetches - they really were a sight for sore eyes and such places are quite rare nowadays

 Black knapweed meadows
 Old stone gate post with its own flora

Whilst walking along the track I was amazed to see flashes of red and black.  There were hundreds of Scarlet Tiger moths.  It appeared to be males mobbing the females.  These day flying moths are no less spectacular than most butterflies.

Although its hard to show on the image below the rhynes were full of meadow sweet and valerian.

The brambles were being enjoyed by the small skippers

I did not totally shun the reserves.  My hunt for amphibians came up trumps with four slow worms, three adders and a grass snake. This female adder can just be seen amongst the foliage.

Adder (female)


Young grass snake

 Dragonfly in flight

A real stunner on the reserve are the white admirals. This species is wholly dependant on honeysuckle for its caterpillars to eat.

 White admiral