Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Insh Marshes - National Nature Reserve, Kingussie

The Insh marshes are the largest area of transition mire in the UK (a habitat that is half-way between acidic bog and alkaline fen), containing several species-rich oligotrophic and mesotrophic lochs (low-medium nutrient levels) and areas of alluvial alder-ash forest. Around 50% of all British Goldeneye nest here in the Spring and this is a good place to see Wigeon, Lapwings, Curlews, Redshank, Whooper Swans and Otters.

When the winter sun shines on the rushes, the marshes become a shimmering expanse of gold:

From Kingussie I followed the B970 across the railway line and up to the Ruthven Barracks. The Barracks were built in 1721 by the British Government after the Jacobite Uprisings and were subsequently captured and destroyed by the Jacobites in 1746.

Ruthven barracks

Ruthven barracks

Small flocks of Redwings foraged in the forest around the barracks and I continued walking across the marsh til I reached the banks of the River Spey (disturbing some Whooper Swans and Goldeneye), where I sat down for awhile with my binoculars. In the far distance I could see a large group of Wigeon grazing underneath the A9 at the point it crosses the River Spey. As I sat still I spotted a Stoat disappearing into the rushes on the opposite river bank.

Afterwards I checked out the hide at Invertromie, but saw nothing but a pair of Mallards and a lone male Tufted Duck.

Alluvial alder-ash forest

Alluvial alder-ash forest
Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Abernethy Forest - National Nature Reserve, Aviemore

Abernethy forest is the largest remnant of ancient Caledonian pine forest in the UK and it's a stronghold for Capercaillie, Scottish Crossbills, Wild Cats, Pine Martens, Crested Tits, Ospreys (Summer only!) and Red Squirrels. Winter brings an influx of Whooper Swans to Lochs Garten and Mallachie.

On this trip I took the Citylink bus from Glasgow to Aviemore which cost me £21 (Apex ticket) and I stayed at Aviemore Youth Hostel (SYHA). The only complaint I have about this hostel is that the old man who runs it harbors a great dislike of young people. I was told off for drinking a cup of tea and reading a map quietly in the kitchen area as there is a 'curfew' at 10pm, after which they put up a barrier rope! This man (who has been there for a number of years) is incredibly rude and I was later told to stay out of the kitchen til 7am (which I completely ignored). I find this 'rule' entirely unreasonable since the first bus is at 7am and I need to eat my breakfast etc before I go hillwalking.

I took the local bus from Aviemore to Nethybridge and then walked along the track to Loch Garten and back, with frequent detours into the forest.

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)are beautiful trees: the branches are warmly russet and the bark is broken into thick scaly crusts, overgrown with pale green lichens. They have an elegant and rounded shape, more like deciduous trees than typical pines. Somehow they remind me of Japanese woodblock prints.
Take a deep breath and enhale the aroma of pine-sap and the peaty, earthier smell of bog-moss...listen and you may hear the cork-popping call of the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus).

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvaticus)
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Abernethy forest with Scots Pine (Pinus sylvaticus)
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
Scots pine (Pinus sylvaticus)

Weatherwise it was miserably cold with frequent rain and sleet showers but I was well prepared with thick winter clothing, plenty of chocolate and a flask of strong coffee to get me through :)

Red Squirrels have disappeared from most of their former range in the UK but are still very numerous within Abernethy forest itself, in fact, you can almost guarantee seeing them. In winter they grow a thicker, darker coat and their ear tufts become more prominent, which can be seen in the photos below:

Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Norway spruce (Picea abies)
Norway Spruce (Picea abies) cone, a non-native pine species


birch (Betula sp)
Birch (Betula sp.) bark

Bracken (Pteridium aquilum)
Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)

When I got to Loch Garten I sat down to have a coffee and spotted a couple of Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) right out in the middle of the loch as well as a family group (2 adults and 4 juveniles) of Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus). The Whoopers were flighty and I couldn't get close to them to take a decent pic.

While I was sitting down I suddenly heard something behind me and turned round to discover a big fierce dog coming towards me. The dog was alsatian sized and stopped within a metre of me, barking and growling. At first I thought I could talk to it calmly and it might magically transform into a more friendly beast. After a few attempts at a squeaky "nice doggie....", I was forced to use my tripod to fend off the animal as it began jumping at my throat and snapping. Since no owner seemed to be around (for about 10 minutes) I started to fear that this might be a feral dog and that I would have to fight to the death in order to escape :(
Eventually an owner did appear and did not even come over to apologise or ask if I was ok! I was so shaken that I was afraid to go over and confront her, especially since there was noone around to back me up. I have found dog-owners in the UK (in general) to be very disrespectful of other people: this is not the first time I have been attacked by a dog in a public place (often as a child) and many dog-owners find it perfectly acceptable to let their dogs shit all over the place or attack random strangers/wildlife, it makes me very angry!

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)
Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus), the juveniles have pinkish bills and are slightly greyish. 

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Broadford to Luib, Isle of Skye

As the weather was horrendous (torrential rain/sleet) I thought I'd take a short, easy walk... a walk without any possibility of getting lost or stranded in the middle of nowhere....but it still ended up being a miserable trudge :(

The shoreline from Broadford to Luib borders the narrow strait between Skye and the isle of Scalpay and is mostly pebble-beach with swathes of yellowish-brown fucoid seaweeds further out. The main road is close to the shore but is almost undetectable due to the small birch wood that lies between the two. Because there is no footpath and few houses nearby, the shore is very quiet and undisturbed. The birch wood has a great variety of fungi (I was unable to identify most) including Lactarius sp., Leccinum sp. and lots of Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus).

It rained so heavily that I was unable to see through my glasses so I probably missed a lot of birds, but I did see a lone oystercatcher, a young heron and I could hear curlews merrily curlewing away through the pluvial onslaught.

At some point (after being soaked to the skin), I'd had enough and decided to walk to the next bus-stop and hopefully catch a bus back. I walked/sloshed to Luib and as there was no other shelter, I stood in the phone-box at the edge of the road for an hour til the bus came. That was a long hour I can tell you: by that time I was starting to feel cold, most of my stuff was dripping wet (maps included) and a combination of walking and wet boots/slipping socks had really blistered my feet.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Elgol, Isle of Skye - Special Area of Conservation

Limestone pavements are uncommon in the UK, especially so in Scotland. The most extensive limestone pavement with the greatest diversity of plants in Scotland is the Strathaird region of Skye. The grey limestone here is of the Cambro–Ordovician Durness type.

Limestone pavement is formed by the gradual corrosion of exposed limestone by rain-water (limestone is composed mainly of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which is water-soluble) leaving slabs of rock called 'clints' divided by deep fissures called 'grikes'.

limestone pavement elgol

limestone pavement elgol

limestone pavement elgol

limestone pavement elgol

limestone pavement elgol

limestone pavement elgol

Small ponds had formed at places on the limestone surface and that is where I found this very plump toad.

toad (Bufo bufo)
Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

I disturbed a group of young Red Deer stags (Cervus elaphus) that were resting in a hollow. Neither the deer nor I knew of each other's presence until we were within 3 metres of each other and then we both got a terrible fright! I was momentarily worried that the startled deer would stampede toward me, as they are pretty large animals, but after a few confused steps they turned and ran up the hillside with great haste.

red deer (Cervus elaphus) elgol
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) stags

Herds of cattle also wander freely around Elgol and I took care to put as much distance between myself and the resident bull as humanly possible.

A strange fucoid seaweed I found on the beach

cushion star (Asterina gibbosa)
Cushion star (Asterina gibbosa)

This cushion-star (Asterina gibbosa) is a scavenger and predator of molluscs, worms and brittlestars, but will also consume decaying seaweeds. These animals are protandrous hermaphrodites: they begin life as males and eventually become females as they mature.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Lochain Dubha, Isle of skye - Special Area of Conservation

Lochain Dubha is one of a series of small lochs located between Broadford and Kinloch, just off the A851. This is a Special Area of Conservation because it has undisturbed 'blanket bog', a habitat which has disappeared from much of its former range in the UK as a result of peat extraction, forestry plantings and land drainage. Just as deciduous forests change colour in the autumn, so do peat bogs, and the colours are infinitely more varied and unusual!

lochain dubha

lochain dubha


heather (Calluna vulgaris)
Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

cross leaved heather (Erica tetralix)
Cross-leaved Heather (Erica tetralix)
lesser bladderwort (Urticularia minor)
Lesser Bladderwort (Urtricularia minor)

At first glance, Bladderworts seem like quite inconspicuous, unassuming plants, but under the surface they are methodical and heartless killers! There are a number of carnivorous plants native to the UK and most of them are to be found in bogs. Sundews and Butterworts produce sticky secretions which entice and trap insects but Bladderworts use a completely different mechanism. Water is pumped out of microscopic underwater 'bladders' which creates a vacuum within the bladders. When a Daphnia or similar sized animal bumps into the trigger hair which holds the bladder door closed, the vacuum seal is broken and both water and animal are sucked inside the bladder. Once trapped, the animal will be gradually dissolved by the plant's digestive enzymes.

yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea)
Yellow Water Lily (Nuphar lutea)
yellow water lily (Nuphar lutea)
Yellow Water Lily (Nuphar lutea)

Bright orange Blackening Waxcaps (Hygrocybe conica) are fruiting along the road margins.
Other bog-plants worth noting are: Thyme-leaved Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia) and Common Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia).


herring gull (Larus argentatus)
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) juvenile

This forlorn-looking bird is a young Herring gull (Larus argentatus) that is moulting into adult plumage.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Dunvegan, Isle of Skye - Special Area of Conservation

Skye is a large island, covering more than 2 OS landranger maps (639 square miles), with rugged rocky shores and a moody, exceptionally scenic landscape. In the centre of the isle are the Mordor-esque jagged Black Cuillins and to the North are the erosion-carved pinnacles of The Quairaing and The Storr.

I bought an Apex Return ticket (Citylink) for £34.80 and booked 4 nights at Broadford Youth Hostel (Scottish Youth Hostel Association). The bus service in Skye is especially poor, so if you miss the first bus of the day there is almost no point getting the bus at all, you might be waiting several hours! Likewise, the last bus back from some locations is about 4pm and I had some dread-filled moments when I feared I had missed the last bus back to the hostel :(
On Sundays there is no bus service.

I visited Dunvegan mainly because it is home to a large population of Common Seals (Phoca vitulina) but I thought I might as well visit Dunvegan Castle too (the seat of the clan MacLeod). The seal colony was disappointing: too crowded with people for my liking (a boat carrying tourists circles the colony once every hour) and the shore was strewn with litter.

Highland cattle with rich-ginger, black and cream coats, wander the shore-side and seem friendly enough. Interestingly, it is the cows not the bulls, which have the more impressive horns.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Tay Reedbeds, Perth

Today I visited the Tay reedbeds on the east coast (near Errol), hoping to see a Marsh Harrier.

Unfortunately, it rained heavily throughout the day and I was scarcely able to see through my glasses or use my camera.

On the banks of the river Tay, there were Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus) and Little Grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis), both with almost full-grown young (still sporting the juvenile striped plumage).

At the edge of the reedbeds Musk Mallow (Malva moschata), Hedge Woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) were in flower.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Later, I heard furious squeaking and discovered a pair of Common Shrews (Sorex araneus) fighting on the path.

I had to watch my feet as the ground was swarming with tiny toadlets (Bufo bufo).

Monday, 11 June 2007

Kildonan, Isle of Arran

My flatmate's schoolfriend came over from France to visit her and I suggested we visit Arran because in many ways it's 'Scotland in miniature'. The Highland Boundary Fault divides the island into highlands in the North and lowlands in the South and it has dramatic mountains, open moorland/sheep, unspoiled beaches and most importantly, is an easy day-trip from Glasgow.

The train from Glasgow to Ardrossan takes one hour and the Arran ferry takes an hour to sail from Ardrossan to Brodick harbour, from there you can catch a bus to anywhere on the isle. On the ferry you can get a decent fried breakfast and coffee (although the black pudding isn't great) and the chance to see gannets, various sea ducks and porpoises.

Arran is famous for its varied geology and this is reflected in the amazing diversity of its beaches. Corrie has red sea-sculpted sandstone rockpools, Brodick Bay and Whiting Bay have golden sands, Largymeanoch and 'the Fallen Rocks' at North Sannox have spectacular boulder-beaches and Blackwaterfoot has interesting sea caves.

Kildonan lies on the Southern coast of Arran and the beach has white sand intersected by rugged walls of rock, groups of Grey and Common seals bask on the shore and there are excellent rock pools. Along the coastline is a dramatic raised beach and above this there are green sheep-fields which abound with Brown hares.

From the coast there are excellent views of the tiny islands Pladda (flat, green and possesses a lighthouse) and the Ailsa Craig (further away, a sharply conical volcanic plug which was once quarried for the production of curling stones and also has a lighthouse - now automated).

Isle of Pladda
Isle of Pladda
In summer the rocks are a riot of colour: encrusted with lichens in clashing shades of parking-paint-yellow and minty-green, and with tufts of candy-floss-pink thrift (Armeria maritima).

Thrift and lichens Armeria maritima
Thrift (Armeria maritima) with Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) 

Thrift Armeria maritima
Thrift (Armeria maritima

Thrift Armeria maritima
Thrift (Armeria maritima

rock Kildonan Arran Tertiary Igneous Basalt dyke
This slab of beach-rock strangely resembles an elephant's skin:

rock Kildonan Arran Tertiary Igneous Basalt dyke

red boat
The Arran ferry has an entourage of very photogenic Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus). There is something distinctly velociraptor-ish about their faces, with their pale stern eyes and fierce blood-drop bills.

Herring gull Larus argentatus head
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring gull Larus argentatus
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Herring gulls (Larus argentatus)
Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus)

When a group of gulls are this close together, you can be sure that a squabble isn't far away! The bird second to the left is a juvenile in second summer plumage.