Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)
Tue 7 Sep 2004
The fantastic weather continues. Not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind, not a midge to be seen. Decided to drive to Glenbrittle and then walk out to Rubh'an Dunan in search of Spiral Tasselweed.
Glenbrittle has a fascinating flora, being the only place on Skye with proper sand dunes, but I was determined not to linger there on this occasion, and, leaving the sand to the small group of Turnstones who were busy turning over the clumps of washed-up seaweed scattered across the beach, I strode out along the moorland track that heads south between the Cuillins and the coast.
The Meadow Grasshopper is quite frequent on the moorland here, but difficult to photograph well. These are both females, one a green-winged and the other a brown-winged form. In this species the female has very short wings and cannot fly, hence the exposed abdomen in the pictures, which in other grasshopper species is covered by the wings. However, at times of population explosion, females with full-length wings occur so that they can swarm and find new areas to colonise. The one on the rock seemed to be panting in the heat, but was obviousy basking happily as it showed no inclination to move. The other one was hopping around among the heather.
There were many dragonflies around, and also a few Red Admiral butterflies. Insects seemed much harder to get close to in the heat, which suggests that when it's not so hot they take a calculated risk and let you come a bit nearer before they decide you're dangerous, in order to save a needless waste of energy. This theory assumes that, unlike me, they feel more energetic when the weather is roasting.
This dragonfly must be an elderly female Black Darter whose yellow areas have turned to dark brown. The insect on the right looks like a bee, and even buzzed like a bee, but it's a hoverfly, an Eristalis species.
At one point I put my hand around a rock to clamber down a bank and saw something move away. I realised that I'd nearly put my hand on an adder! Out came the camera but in went the adder. I searched all the rocks in that area intensively on my way back, but no more sign of snakes.
And so we reach Loch na h-Airde, the object of my visit, an extraordinary place with many secrets. The sea runs into the loch at high tide, so the salinity of the water is constantly changing.
Plants that specialise in brackish conditions thrive here, such as the Sea Clubrush, on the left, and the Spiral Tasselweed, down in the depths, the only place on Skye where this plant is known. Ordinary freshwater plants such as Common Reed also grow in the loch, and if you've arrived there across the moors you have no sense of being at sea level. So it's quite a surprise to peer down into the water and see sights like these...
It seemed bizarre to see large crabs crawling among the stems of the Common Reed! It was even more of a shock to see this huge fish patrolling the loch edge. At a very rough estimate I'd say it was 70-80 cm long. I've never seen anything like that close inshore in either fresh or sea water. An exciting place, where you can watch creatures like this close to, and never know what's going to appear next.
The only dragonflies around this loch were Highland Darters, which were numerous enough to suggest that they might use it for breeding - an example of the loch's freshwater persona.
The curly strands of Thongweed, a brown seaweed, are also found in the loch. Around its shores are low-growing seashore plants such as Sea Milkwort and Buckshorn Plantain, together with non-marine marsh plants such as Marsh Pennywort, shown above breaking through a cowpat to hoist its sunshades for any dung-eating beetles that might be feeling the heat. This plant is unusual in that the stalk joins the leaf-blade in its middle instead of at its edge.
On the way back to Glenbrittle I kept closer to the coast, where there are many interesting gullies, and was rewarded with the discovery of some Royal Fern in one of them, although I could not get close to it (not after a hard day's hiking anyway!) and, as so often with this species, had to make do with a long-distance record shot (right-hand photo).
All photos and other content copyright © Carl Farmer