Saturday, 31 January 2015

RSPB volunteer work party in the snow - Campfield Marsh

Snow on the beach - only this time lots of it and it was like being in a blizzard!! I volunteer for my local RSPB group at Campfield Marsh reserve at Bowness on Solway when my work rota allows. I happened to be off on the morning of the 29th January, when snow was forecast and I thought it would be fine as the reserve is on the coast! However, the Solway is quite a large inlet and is just across the water from southern Scotland. And the forecast was snowed..quite a lot!
Trying to get the gorse burning in a blizzard - Campfield Marsh!
Stephen the Snowman!!
Dave Blackledge is the reserves manager and he decided we should go and try to burn some of the gorse that we had been coppicing. At first it kind of looked like it was going to be a long morning getting the fire going. However we did get some flames and the fire survived the blizzard better than we did! We persevered and chopped up some more gorse and kept the fire going. However as if by magic the snow machine turned off and we were blessed with blue skies.

Cuppa time - enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the fire - Campfield Marsh
The views across the Solway were stunning and we saw some pink footed geese fly overhead. I was lucky enough to also see on my drive home a kestrel and a Little Egret flying across in front of my car and over a field.
Snow on the beach - Bowness on Solway
Snow on the beach - Bowness on Solway
Most of the regular volunteers didn't turn up today and had turned back when it started snowing. I don't blame them as there was quite a bit of snow on the minor roads. However they are normally out in force and there is a good group of regulars. Below however are some pictures of a day when we did some previous gorse coppicing. There is a large stretch of gorse on the salt marsh and the idea is to cut some back to allow other species such as flowers to grow and in turn benefits invertebrates and breeding birds.

Gorse coppicing in milder weather - Bowness on Solway
The gorse has a tendency to go wild!

The big expanse of gorse to be tackled by the volunteers
As you can see from the pics there is a lot of gorse and some of it has got a bit unwieldy!! But that is the beauty of volunteer work parties. Many hands get a lot of work done in a day!
The area that was cleared after just a few days of work was pretty impressive.
The land below had a big patch of gorse on it which has now been cleared to allow new growth.
The end result after a few days hard work

And then there is always the fun bit - having a bonfire! This one was slightly more successful than the snowy one. 

Volunteer work parties are a great day out. At RSPB Campfield Marsh I am often the youngest volunteer, but not always. Most people in the group are retired and so have the time to spare, but what is brilliant is their commitment, not many of them miss a week and they work hard. I often have to leave early to go to work but it doesn't matter because every little bit of work helps. I really enjoy the variety of work we do on the reserve such as reed wiping, snipe surveys, hide maintenance, hedge laying, natterjack toad pond maintenance and even sculpture building!! You meet great people who have a lot of knowledge to share. I always learn something new on a volunteer day and always have fun. So if you have a few hours to spare there are many different conservation groups you can join in with. Here are just a few:

Cumbria Wildlife Trust 
Marine Conservation Society 
Lake District National Park 

Biodiversity in action!

I was out for a morning walk with my mum in Whinlatter Forest a week ago, when I noticed an interesting tree. I am pretty sure it was a larch tree, but I didn't pay the actual tree much attention. What had distracted me was what was growing on the bark of the tree. It was a wonderful little collection of biodiversity. There could have been some symbiois going on here - where two organisms live in harmony together - one benefitting the other in some way. But I am unsure as to what exactly the tree might be getting back from its inhabitants!! There won't be many scientific names on this post as I'm not even sure I can even identify the different species! Below is the tree at first glance and then a closer look......
Larch tree, Whinlatter Forest
A closer look at the larch tree - lichen and mosses - Whinlatter Forest
I was pretty amazed when I had a closer look at the bark that there seemed to be a variety of lichens and mosses growing on the bark. At the base of the trunk was what looked like some pretty common mosses, star moss and sphagnum moss, but I can't accurately identify them specifically. I found an amazing book in Oxfam, 'The Oxford Book of Flowerless Plants" by F.H. Brightman and B.E. Nicholson and published in 1966. It has a wealth of information on Ferns, Mosses and Liverworts, Lichens and Seaweeds and the illustrations are all hand drawn and amazing. It is a brilliant book and is separated into sections such as woodlands, pastures and meadows and what you would expect to find in these different habitats. However I need to study this book more before I can start identifying the mosses correctly!!

Star moss and Sphagnum moss
Looking higher up the tree there was more to this little ecosystem.There was some lichen that I know as Devil's Matchstick but there are quite a few different species of this and I am not sure which one it is. Have a look around for this one though, it is pretty cool and really does look like a matchstick. There was also so other 'straggly' lichen ( very scientific - I know!!) growing next to it.

The red tops of Devils Matchstick on a larch tree, Whinlatter Forest.
Higher up the tree there was more lichen that is often seen growing on branches of trees and some of it was quite 'leafy' and some of it quite long and straggly!! As you can probably tell by now I need to spend some time identifying these!! There is a lichen though that does grow on the branches of trees and is straggly and is known as beard lichen...not sure if that was my one though! Its on the second picture below.

Lichen on larch tree bark, Whinlatter Forest
And there was more.....
Lichen on larch tree bark, Whinlatter Forest
Lichen on larch tree bark, Whinlatter Forest
So apart from the fact this tree made me realise I don't know my lichens and mosses very reminded how amazing the natural world is. The fact that you don't have to go very far from home to find weird and interesting species and the fact that you can find an amazing amount of biodiversity in a very small space. There is a whole world out there of mosses and lichens and you could spend a lifetime studying one of these families alone!!

Species of the week 5 - Winter Surprise - Snowy Owl

The snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus is the only owl I have managed to photograph in the wild and it was in the UK! 

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus - Cairngorm
I was in Cairngorm in February 2013 ski touring near Carn Etchachan with my ex partner when we were lucky enough to come across this beautiful snowy owl. It sat for a moment and then I saw a blur of white wings which looked way too big for a ptarmigan! Fortunately the owl settled not too far away and I managed to quickly get a couple of snapshots. Snowy owls have a thick plumage and this is most likely a male as it is all white. Snowy owls also have big fluffy feet - but unfortunately I didn't get to see them. But hey I shouldn't complain!!

Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus - Cairngorm
 When I got home I posted my photographs on iSpot and this got a lot of positive comments and reinforced how lucky I had been to see a snowy owl in the UK. This lead to BBC Scotland contacting me and they published a newspaper article in the BBC New Highlands & Islands section. Recently when I was doing a bit more research about snowy owls I also came across this blog post on benvironment.

No its not a white blob - its a snowy owl - honest!
All this breaking news kind of made me feel quite privileged and I hope that we do get to see snowy owls in the UK again. Snowy owls normally inhabit arctic regions and are rarely sighted in the UK but as the newspaper articles above report they have been seen on the Western Isles and Shetland. Cairngorm is one of my favourite places and with the harsh arctic-like environment it is a shame we don't see more of these birds. But you never know - keep your eyes peeled and you never know what you might come across!

Monday, 26 January 2015

Tracks and signs and winter delights

This post really goes to show that looking for wildlife in winter can be great fun and very rewarding. Steve and I decided to go for a walk in the forest near Glenmore Lodge in Aviemore. This is quite a popular track that heads up to Ryvoan bothy so I didn't really expect to see any wildlife. However after about 20 minutes of walking we headed off into the trees and started looking for tracks....

Hoof print Cervus elaphus, Red Deer - Cairngorm
Hoof print Cervus elaphus, Red Deer - Cairngorm
The first thing I spotted in the snow was some tracks and I am pretty sure they were red deer tracks. They could have been roe deer but they were long and thin and less rounded than those of a roe deer and definitely not as rounded as a reindeer. Further along the trail Steve and I saw the signs of a bed.The snow had been dug out and some of the moss and grass underneath had been scraped. A little further along there was a couple more. They were the size of an average deer and they had more hoof prints next to them and droppings.
Bed most likely species - Cervus elaphus, Red Deer - Cairngorm


Having done a google search for images of deer droppings I discovered that the size and shape can vary according to diet. But the droppings above did fit with a lot of the images. Further into the forest we followed the river and there were many more hoof prints. We also came across what looked like some hare or rabbit prints but the snow was quite old and the print fairly distorted. It did look like there was two parallel back paw prints followed by the two single front paw prints. However on closer inspection considering the 2 prints at the left of the pic would be the rear paw prints the thinner snow is lying in the wrong direction. If that makes sense!! I actually think it is more likely to be some more deer prints and I am just hoping!
Possible deer prints in the snow - Cairngorm
Possible hare or rabbit prints in the snow?? - Cairngorm
Further along the trail I saw some more interesting signs of wildlife. What looked like deer tracks went up to a lichen covered tree and it looked like there had been some kind of scraping or nibbling towards the base. 

Tree with lichen and signs of scraping or nibbling
Tree with lichen and signs of scraping or nibbling

Steve found a hole which looked like it had some furry resident within - but I am not sure what. 
Possible rodent home

I found a sapling which had been totally stripped, but by what I am not sure as I could not find any tracks in the snow.

Sapling - having been stripped!
We continued on our walk and it would not be right to post this blog without a picture of the mighty Scot's Pine, Pinus slyvestris - one of my favourite trees.There were some pretty cool branch formations.

Pinus slyvestris, Scot's Pine - Cairngorm
Pinus slyvestris, Scot's Pine - Cairngorm
Steve and I then headed back to the main track and on to the Emerald Lake - a beautiful place to visit and impressive in winter. 

Emerald Lake - Cairngorm
Emerald Lake - Cairngorm
I then continued up to Ryvoan bothy. The area around the bothy is an RSPB reserve and I would suggest a great spot to birdwatch in the warmth. It's a well maintained bothy with a good fireplace - the only downside is it is only about a 45 minute walk in, so very accessible which means it can get quite busy.

Ryvoan Bothy, Cairngorm
Ryvoan Bothy, Cairngorm
View from Ryvoan Bothy
I chatted to a couple of guys who had stayed in the bothy the previous night and then I headed back down the main track. On the way back I took a picture of a domestic dog print. I now just need to find a fox print to compare it to!

Domestic dog print
I know this is a bit of a diversion from wildlife..... but earlier in the day we had stopped to talk to some Siberian husky dog sled racers. They were racing at the weekend and had got their dogs out. I stood to admire them for a while (again in the rain). As most of you will know dogs are descendants of wolves. Wolves to me are striking, intelligent animals and the huskies resembled them in both their looks and behaviours even though they had been domesticated. I wish I had got one of their paw prints in the snow to compare this to the dog print. Never mind - next time.

Siberian Husky, Canis lupus familiaris
Siberian Husky, Canis lupus familiaris

So what started out as a potentially wet walk in the woods, turned out to be a fantastic outing with lots to see. It just goes to show that there really is plenty of wildlife around in winter and if you don't see it in the flesh, it is just as good fun finding the tracks and signs of life. It really is just worth getting wrapped up and getting out there.

Species of the week 4 Winter Survivior - Reindeer

I was in Aviemore and intended to go skiing but the forecast was for high winds and rain - not ideal. We decided to have a drive up the road and see what the weather was really like higher up. It started to pour down and so we pulled into the lower car park where I was treated to seeing some of the Cairngorm Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus and I got quite excited. Suddenly the wind and rain didn't matter any more and I was out in it with my camera!
Rangifer tarandus, Reindeer - Cairngorm
Pictured above is a fairly young reindeer in fact a lot of the reindeer looked fairly young and they were also tame. I am pretty sure they were from the reindeer centre in Aviemore. They were quite happy for me to take photos, but I am guessing they were more bothered about keeping out of the worst of the weather and feeding.
Rangifer tarandus, Reindeer toughing it out - Cairngorm
Reindeer were reintroduced into Scotland in 1952 and it is estimated that there are around 150 of them in the wild. It is great to see these magnificent animals toughing it out in the arctic like conditions found in Cairngorm. There are lots of interesting facts about reindeer on a website I found composed by a reindeer fan.
The things I noticed whilst watching these animals was how thick and effective their coat looks and that they were all standing in the same direction facing the wind. I also had a good look at their feet and their hoof prints pictured below. They appear much more rounded than that of say a red deer and when they placed their feet on the snow it spread out a little. It reminded me of a camels hoof and how effective they are when placed on sand.
Hoof print in snow, Rangifer tarandus, Reindeer - Cairngorm
So this was an unexpected treat for me. I would have watched the reindeer for longer but I was far softer than them and so left them to it!

Sources of info: (Accessed 25 January 2015) (Accessed 26 January 2015)

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Wildlife of the Moray Coast

Findhorn, Moray Coast
A visit to Findhorn on the 22nd January meant I had an excuse to go wildlife spotting and the main delights were coastal birds. It was a lovely frosty morning and the first bird I spotted was a grey heron in the bay. I love the fact that there was snow on the beach!
Ardea cinerea, Grey Heron - Findhorn
Ardea cinerea, Grey Heron - Findhorn
Also on the beach in the early morning sun was a curlew, Numenius arquata. It was busy poking around in the sand probably looking for worms, molluscs or marine crustaceans. Not a great photo as I was quite a distance away but good enough for my blog. Oh and the orange blob is a buoy - the curlew is to the left of that!
Numenius arquata, Curlew- Findhorn
We headed around the coast to Burghead where there was plenty more to be seen. The first thing I spotted was a young Herring Gull, Larus argentatus. The young of this species have brown blotchy feathers with black tail feathers unlike the mature adults which have a pure white head, a grey body and black and white tail feathers. The adults also have a bright yellow bill with a red spot. I spotted this gull near some lobster pots and fishing nets and it was pecking at a crab shell. It was fun to watch the gull trying to hold the crab shell it in its beak as it kept pinging across the harbour.
Fishing nets, Burghead

Immature Larus argentatus, Herring Gull - Burghead
Immature Larus argentatus, Herring Gull - Burghead
And below is a picture of the mature Herring Gull which I took a couple of years ago in Ullapool - quite a difference in the plumage!
Mature Larus argentatus, Herring Gull -Ullapool
Walking further around the harbour I came across two lovely little birds and I had to identify these when I got home. They reminded me of a ringed plover but they did not have the ring around the neck. They are Turnstones, Arenaria interpres and this is them in their winter plumage.
Arenaria interpres, Turnstone - Burghead
Two little birds sitting on the wall.....

I was happily snapping away trying to get some close ups of the Turnstones and I unfortunately missed the Eider, Somateria mollissimia that was on the other side of the wall! Steve, however did see it and here is his photo below of this stunning bird.
Somateria mollissimia, Eider - Burghead
Having missed the Eider I turned my attention to a hooded crow, Corvus cornix that was walking along the wall. Well actually it was more like swaggering - a charming, bold and inquisitive bird.
Corvus cornix, Hooded Crow - Burghead
Corvus cornix, Hooded Crow - Burghead
Next stop was Cummingston and the first bird I saw there was an oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralgus.I have seen quite a few of these birds but I have never managed to get a close up photo as they seem quite shy. However, if they do fly off you do get to see their beautiful black and white wing pattern. As we continued around the coast I saw quite a number of them on the beach near Lossiemouth.

Haematopus ostralgus, Oystercatcher - Cummingston

Haematopus ostralgus, Oystercatcher -Lossiemouth

The other interesting find on the frosty grass at Cummingston was four snails all snuggled up together. I hope they managed to survive the cold. 

Next stop was Spey Bay, where the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society are based. I spotted a grey seal but it was too far away to photograph. The volunteers / staff at WDCS had spotted 15 bottlenose dolphins earlier in the morning. It was a great day for whale and dolphin watching with a fairly flat calm sea state. Spey Bay is an amazing place with lots of driftwood on the beach washed down from the river and amazing water flows where the freshwater mixes with the salt water.
Driftwood - Spey Bay
Tree on the beach! - Spey Bay
Looking up the river - Spey Bay
All in all a lot to see on a beautiful stretch of coast. Next it was on to Cairngorm - where there is always loads to see.