Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)
Sat 1 May 2004
Copy of Wild Skye posting - Birds before breakfast
A group of us met at 4.30 this morning for the Highland Council Ranger Service dawn chorus walk, listening for birds in the Lisigarry woods, Portree. Earliest birds were Robin, Song Thrush and Blackbird, with Cuckoo soon after. We were also able to make out Blue Tit, Wren, Willow Warbler, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Greenfinch, Goldcrest, Collared Dove and Chaffinch. I was surprised to find that singing Chaffinches were very scarce at that time of day whereas in the middle of the day the place is full of Chaffinch song. Highlight for me was hearing the song of the Treecreeper, I've only ever before heard them say a weak "sip" sound. We also saw a pair of Bullfinches busy at their nest site. We all learnt a lot about bird song and got a free breakfast in the SNH office at the end of it. Lots more walks coming up (mostly at civilised times!) - leaflets in Tigh na Sgire.
Well, it was a fine summery day, showing just how different May is to April on Skye, so there was nothing for it after breakfast but to amble around a bit more seeing whatever there was to see.
Today's theme (among others) is wildlife behaviour. I find it's often much easier to identify a bird or other creature than to understand what it is doing. I mentioned the odd behaviour of the bee recently and saw more odd behaviour from bees of this kind later on today. But first, birds.
This Blackbird (left) was pulling up beakfuls of rotted seaweed from the strandline. Birds often do this to catch the small creatures that live inside, which are very plentiful. In fact they are so plentiful that I don't understand why birds don't make constant use of this resource. There is no easier place on sea or land to find vast quantities of small invertebrates than by turning over the strandline seaweed. But miles of it lie untouched most of the time. Perhaps a bird's diet needs a lot of variety and can only take a limited number of this particular kind of creature. Starlings and Pied Wagtails are among the birds that do tap into this larder from time to time.
Anyway, the more I watched the Blackbird, the less I was convinced that it was looking for food. It would grab as large a chunk of the stuff as it could fit into its beak, and then stand there or hop around with its beak still full, not the best position to make a quick stab at any small crustacean scuttling for cover. The bird seemed more interested in the material itself than in what was beneath it, so perhaps it was thinking about using it to line its nest. It was picking the seaweed from an area where it was particularly squelchy and sodden.
The House Sparrow, above right, was also enjoying a trip to the seaside with his mate. They were hopping about on the stones, perhaps looking for the occasional small item of prey of the kind that is found by the thousand beneath the strandline seaweed.
The Gorse makes a bright splash of colour on the hillside (above left) and the trees are now greening up at last. Up on this slope I found a Puffball (above right). The whole of the smaller specimen has a papery covering, but in the older one this has split to reveal a brown mass of hyphae which releases a cloud of brown spores when touched. The fungus has no smell and was at the foot of an Eared Willow in an area of Hazel scrub.
The Wild Garlic (above left) and the Yellow Pimpernel (above right) both seen in flower for this first time this year today. The Cuckoo Flower has also blossomed at last. Wood Avens and Lady's Mantle are in bud and very close to flowering.
This male Siskin (above left) was pecking about on the moss of a roadside bank at the edge of some bramble and raspberry scrub. Wonder if that means they're nesting in the conifers nearby. The female Mallard (above right) quickly led her 8 or so ducklings to safety when I appeared and then tried to lead me away with this distraction display in which she hobbles forward with wings outstretched, pretending to be injured.
Those bird behaviours are easy enough to understand, but what of these? Rock Pipit stands on rock with small food (presumably) item in its mouth. Keeps looking this way and that, but doesn't move from the spot for several minutes. What is it doing? Two pairs of Common Sandpipers flying up and down the river in their usual way, but often overlapping with each other, so that if they have territories then they must be flying into each others' as well as their own. No aggression is apparent. Later, after all four birds have been out of sight for a while, three of them return and fly around together as if they were a pair. Nothing at all unusual in the behaviour of either the Pipit or the Sandpipers, it's just that I'm beginning to realise that a lot of the time I don't understand what birds are actually doing.
Some of the brackish saltmarsh pools were teeming with these creatures (above left). They hang by what is presumably their tail from the surface at about 45º into the water, and they all face the same way. But at any given moment several of them will have abandoned these positions and be moving about underwater with a jerky spring-like motion. When your shadow passes over them they all dive beneath the surface at once, but they are easy to catch if you approach them from the opposite side to the sun. Have since been told they're mosquito larvae (thanks Gill), and have their heads hanging down to feed in the water.
The tiny red mite or tick on the right was crawling over the mossy stones of an old ruin. It has 8 legs, two on each side arising from a sort of pouch on the underside of the body, and another two on each side arising from near the head.
Click here for microscope pictures of the mosquito larvae and the mite.
Nothing in flower up on the moorland yet except a few sedges such as the Deergrass (below left). Encountered several of those White-tailed Bumblebees (presumed Bombus Lucorum) up there, searching for suitable nest sites.
Dropped down to the sandy bay at Camus Bàn. The soil is sand for some way back from the beach, but does not form dunes and has little of botanical interest as it's closely cropped by sheep. The area of sand that's bound together by close vegetation has a clear margin, with a little drop from there to the beach proper, which has isolated plants or patches of vegetation in what is basically loose sand.
It's still too early in the year to identify everything, but the following plants were growing in the "loose sand" zone, in approximate order of frequency starting with the most abundant: Silverweed, unknown Grasses (impossible to identify at this stage), Curled Dock (cropped to the ground by sheep), Sea Mayweed, Daisy, Sheep Sorrel, Babington's Orache (1 patch with dozens of seedlings), Mousear (probably Common M, 1 patch with many plants), Hairy Bittercress (c 6 scattered plants), Bracken and Field Horsetail (c 3 stems each), Ribwort Plantain and Procumbent Pearlwort (c 2 plants each), Spear Thistle (1 rosette), and one each of two unidentifiable species. The picture above right shows the Orache seedlings still wearing the seed-covering which is plainly diamond shaped and has the sides united to the centre line of the diamond, characteristics confined to Babington's Orache among the Skye species.
The Dutch Rush is a strange plant. On the road to Penifiler there is a large stand of these horsetails, made up almost entirely of last year's stems. There is virtually no sign of this year's growth yet, just a very few shoots dotted here and there in various stages of advancement, some of them already quite long, and one of them as long as the old stems and with a cone to match (above centre). I take the cone on the left above to be from last year's stem, and the colourful one in the middle to be this year's, but it is difficult to work out the calendar of this plant. The picture on the right is meant to show how rush-like the plants appear, though it doesn't show this very well. In actuality they are strikingly like a clump of rushes, much more so than other horsetails.
Walking home along the forestry track, the mossy edges are lined with Dog Violets in great profusion, in places mixed with Bog Violets as in the picture above left, where the difference between the flowers and the leaves is plain to see (Dog = large dark flowers, pointed leaves; Bog = small pale flowers, round leaves). A typical weed of felled areas is the Thyme-leaved Speedwell (above right).
Sun 2 - Tue 4 May 2004
Only time for quick evening strolls at the moment. These Coltsfoot seedheads (above left) look like white flowers in the grass from a distance. The Song Thrush (above right) is quite approachable when foraging along the road verges, where it finds plenty of worms and snails in the short turf. Looks like a snail in its beak in the picture.