adventure, Birds, Ecology, Scotland

Isle of May

The Isle of May is in the North Sea, 5 miles from the mainland of Scotland, off the East coast in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, we visit it in May and the ocean is like a mill pond.

Looking back towards the mainland and Anstruther.
Our boat lands in the natural inlet amidst a colony of artic tern.
Arctic Tern with attitude
The grey seals in the inlet can’t be bothered to move. This is where they come to breed but most have gone now.

As we head off up the footpath to the side of the island favoured by the seabirds, because of the high cliffs, a cloud of kittiwake announce themselves — lots of birds say their name but none as clearly or as often as the kittiwake! There are two species of Kittiwake in the world — the black-legged and the red-legged. They are thus easily spotted and identified and are enchanting little gulls.

The British Kittiwakes are Black Legged

There were more than 3000 breeding pairs on the Island at a recent count but they do not restrict themselves to off-shore Islands — we saw them on cliffs in Dunbar.

There are about 200,000 seabirds on May which is less than a mile long and 1/3 mile wide, and we have come to see some of the ones that we do not see on the mainland, up close, and to appreciate the scale of the seabird colony.

Puffins

The puffins, there are about 40,000 pairs, nest on the grassy tops and that is where the rabbits come in. They dig the holes that the puffins populate.

Puffins looking out to sea, waiting for their mates to return from sea with their bills loaded with sand eels.

They are very alert — their young pufflings are very vulnerable until they can fly and swim. Airborne predators can reach the island like this Greater Black Backed Gull.

Opportunist Predator

The next layer down in this colony are the auks — the Razorbills (about 3000 breeding pairs) near the tops of the rocky cliffs and the Guillemots (23,000 breeding pairs), lower down nearer the sea.

Razorbills with the heavy duty bill.
Guillemots nearer the water — the one on the left is a Bridled Guillemot
Guillemots

On the sea, bobbing along in twos and threes are Eider drakes like these fine fellows, we stepped over a number of their mates incubating eggs in rocky crevices along the foot path.

Eider duck
Near the harbour inlet some Shag are nesting.

As we leave, the boat circumnavigates this magic isle so that we can see the dramatic sea cliffs from below and we can really appreciate the safety they afford to the hundreds of thousands of nesting birds. Nobody climbs them to collect eggs any more. But, no longer manned, the lighthouse and the foghorns still protects shipping in the Forth as they has since 1635!

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adventure, Birds, Scotland

Mull

Mull is one of the nearer Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of Scotland and must have had a long, lonely winter with travel restricted and it’s normal waves of challenging weather piling in from the North Atlantic. As we had travelled northward, although already mid-May, there was snow on the tops of the hills from the Lake District onwards.

To reach its weather scoured hillsides we took the ferry — sadly confined to our vehicles — we could only look up at the sky but the skies in Mull say everything!

View back towards the mainland.
Greeted by the harbour hoodie!
We pass the photogenic hulks and the Sun comes out for a moment!
Generally it is chilly — but the restless climate is never the same for more than 20 minutes!
This red dear stag is waiting for his antlers to grow and is the reason the fences are all six feet high!
There is an icy blast — here’s Linda, dressed appropriately and keeping moving…
Looking brighter?

So we attempted a long held ambition of mine to visit Iona, a smaller island off the southern most tip of Mull, famed for its spiritual intensity (and corn crakes –double whammy!)

Waiting for the ferry — actually they are pretending not to be interested in Robson Green in his new fishing togs (over Bill’s left shoulder) about to be tossed in the elements to make a film about lobsters.

The area on Iona covered by iris beds where the crakes used to hide and make the tourists jump with their strange calls seemed, to our birders, much reduced from their previous visits — there seemed to be very many sheep and the sward everywhere we looked had been grazed to within an millimetre of its life during the long winter. Doubly disappointed we did not stay long.

Bill, having given up on the corn crake, looks for something more transcendental!
Back on Mull — every cloud… the kiosk on the quay — note the 1/2 lobster and chips — we had scallops and chips (to share) — very good!
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adventure, Travel

Scotland awakes!

Just returned from a long awaited tour of Scotland and the North-east — booked 2 years ago and generously kept open until restrictions were lifted — we were on tenterhooks until the very last minute as Miss Sturgeon would not give the go ahead until a couple of days before we were due to leave — in consequence it was very quiet, no one else seemed to have realised it was open. Under the circumstances that suited very well!

First to Troon to stay with old friends and to look for the black guillemot in Troon Harbour, and what did we find? Seals — one luxuriating in the warm fishy shower provided by a fastidious fisherman cleaning out his hold —

— disporting herself in the soft foam like a L’Oreal advertisement only pausing to snap up the occasional lump of dead fish.

Harbours are strange magical places — full of ghosts that drift in and out on the tides –always looking towards the weather which usually threatens ominously.

Only partly materialised — the phantom crane in Ayr harbour — come to think of it there was a strange chill in the air!
The skeleton dock and the mysterious black guillemot, that somersaulted like an Olympic swimmer doing a turn, showing his scarlet legs then disappeared for ever.

That night, storm clouds gathered over Arran as four adults from two households (and from 3 different nations of the UK — which complicates things enormously) gathered and without guilt or fear of prosecution — the future was bright!

Next stop: Mull.

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adventure, Birds, Climate

To the Alamo and Beyond

Here we are, a group of intrepid British bird-watchers hunting the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brasillium) in Texas last month, in perishing conditions as a freak cold front swept the US. All wearing everything we had and me with socks on my hands we searched a ranch 1/6th the area of Wales for a little tropical owl at the far north of its range. Our guides were tenacious and cunning with their recordings of Pygmy calls and inside information about recent sightings, they had no intention of letting us go until we had seen this timorous beastie.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium brazillium)

Here he is, about the size of a starling (but all puffed up), as intrigued by our strange appearance and beguiling calls as we were by him.

It had been even colder the day before when icicles were spotted dangling from the air-conditioning vent at breakfast. Here are the more robust members of the party looking for icebergs on Corpus Christi Lake.

As the more feeble fled for shelter in adjacent woodland we were treated to a view of this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) who had had the same idea.

As we climbed back into the minibus and fell upon the last of the emergency Worther’s Originals (the beauty of travelling with Grandads) a little bird flitted frantically in the bare branches above, looking for something to eat — a Black Throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) — a late migrant caught short by the Arctic blast.

Black throated green warbler — juv (Setophaga virens)
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adventure, Birds, Wales

Bardsey Island Chough Hunt

I really want to see choughs in the wild. Delicate crows with fine scarlet beaks and feet. There are choughs on Bardsey Island, Enlli in Welsh .

Here is a wikimedia map of Wales to show the location of Bardsey Island, in the Celtic Sea, a couple of miles from the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.

Below is what you see as you set out from Porth Meudwy.

I had waited 4 days for the sea conditions to be suitable and now they were — I was off to hunt the chough.

Colin the boatman, a local farmer, told us that this year was the first for thousands of years in which no one had overwintered on the island. Not so many years ago the population was about 80 — now they are mainly summer visitors.

As we arrived the tide was coming in and the grey seals on the beach were starting to bob around in the rising water, the larger ones, I guess male, lolling in the ripples making a soulful siren call which reminded me of the spiritual reputation of the island where 20,000 saints are said to be buried — Celtic saints.

Until the time of Henry VIII there had been a monastery on the island and it was a place of pilgrimage, three visits to Bardsey were equivalent to one to Rome. Presumably punters paid well for such potent indulgence and being buried there was de rigeuer for anyone with ambitions of canonisation!

The boatman told us to climb the mountain for the views and I did — no one else did. It was steep and painful and the only other people I saw there were two separate elderly ladies who were staying on the island, both walked with sticks and addressed me in Welsh, pointing out the landmarks. You can see the Mountains of Wicklow and the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland on a clear day. I could see Cardigan Bay all the way to Pembrokeshire and the nearby Llyn peninsula with Snowdon in the distance and the burrows of the Manx shearwaters but no choughs. “What, not seen a chough! They are usually here — must be nesting.”

View of the island from halfway up the mountain

By 3pm the waters around the island were getting choppy and the trusted boatman would not risk our precious lives to view the puffins from the sea but seeing our disappointment he kindly took a detour and showed us the Ynes Gwylan Puffin Colony on the two little isles off Aberdaron.

As we approached the plump little birds started whizzing overhead showing the white flashes of their flanks as they flew ahead of us to land in the water and dive for sand eels.

Safely back on land I drove to the tip of the peninsula where I had been told that choughs hang out but all I found was a hungry herring gull and a farewell view of Bardsey Island.

Bardsey from Mynydd Mawr
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adventure, Hill Farming, lifestyle

Diminished Responsibility!

 

 

Today we wanted an adventure so we set off to test the roads and our new off-road tyres.

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So far so good!

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Up the cwm and into town — the Co-op shelves were almost empty — their lorry was missing, presumed lost — come to think of it we saw a lorry stuck on the hill.  We got our pills and enough ginger wine to last until spring and sped homeward.

We thought we’d avoid our dangerously steep cwm with its sheer drop one side and all the inconveniently placed oak trees, unyielding in a slippery situation.

We went the other way — we were trying to be responsible.

It was odd that there were no tyre marks into our turning — just beautiful virgin snow (powder, if you are a skier) about a foot deep.  We chose this route as it has steep banks (quite a lot of roads here are narrow tarmac strips suspended between precipice and ditch) — we could see which way the road went.  As we drove higher we could see the drifting — ridges of white dunes crossed our path from bank to bank — deeper and deeper as we got higher and higher.  Now we remembered seeing the drifting starting two days ago, before the 20cm of last night’s dump.  There are no houses up here and no lights — just white drifting snow and wind.

‘Shall we go back?’

‘Not yet!’

The technique was — drive as hard as you can until the drift stops you, then reverse and do it again.  Each time we got a little further using our makeshift bulldozer — back and forth — higher and higher — deeper and deeper!

Amazingly we reached the crest and it became slightly easier as we descended into the dip — into the unknown.  We turned at the bottom and could see the tracks where a quad bike, coming the other way, had given up, and turned for home.  That cheered me up.  I was being very quiet and brave! We followed in it’s tracks.

Now we had about half a mile of a straight, steep rise which Alan took at speed (relatively) drifting and sliding, sometimes almost travelling sideways but keeping going, then suddenly we had crested the hill and could feel the road, solid again , under our wheels.

Downhill for a couple of miles, and we could see where our young neighbour had come out of his track and headed down our way –‘hope to God we don’t meet him coming back!’  We did not.

It’s going to be minus 15’C tonight and maybe snow some more — where shall we go tomorrow?

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