Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)

Sun 20 Mar 2005

Erophila verna agg   Saxifraga oppositifolia

Two early Spring flowers from opposite ends of the habitat spectrum, though as they both like rocks I suppose they're not so far apart really.  The street weed Spring Whitlow-grass from Portree, and the montane Purple Saxifrage from the Quiraing.

It was a scorching hot day that felt like midsummer, so I thought I'd see what was doing in the Quiraing area.  It wasn't long before I saw my first summer bird visitors of the year, two male Wheatears.  There was a Wren singing lustily, and more surprisingly two Robins singing not far apart among the boulders, laying claim to territories that contain no tree or bush of any kind.  Also heard a Meadow Pipit's display song.  A pair of Teal were on one of the lochs, perhaps intending to stay and breed there, though they could be winter visitors who will move on to some other breeding ground.  There was plenty of frogspawn in evidence too, in the bog pools.

Apart from the many Purple Saxifrage flowers, the only other plants in bloom were a couple of Primrose clumps and one Barren Strawberry.

Rhodiola rosea   Cladonia subcervicornis

These young Roseroot shoots were almost as bright as flowers, and certainly as cheerful.  The confused scene on the right is the lichen Cladonia subcervicornis, growing on moss on top of a rock.  Unlike most Cladonia species, this one has the squamules well developed and the podetia ("stalks") usually absent.  In fact the squamules are so erect and incurved they are almost like lacerated podetia, but with the cortex on the inside.  The white that dominates the picture is the underside of the lichen thallus, and the slaty blue "upperside" gets less light than the underside as it is on the inside of the curves.

Spider that makes webs between rocks   Rock feature, Quiraing area

There were a great many insects about, including the first Bumblebee I'd seen this year, and another Drinker Moth caterpillar.  And an incredible number of spiders, both in webs and running along the ground.  The species that was common in webs spun between rocks is shown above but will only be recognised by anyone very familiar with spiders and their habitats.  The fact that it makes webs in early Spring is probably an important clue for those in the know.

The rock feature on the right is bigger than it looks in the photo.  I assumed it to be a layer that was once horizontal but got turned through 90 during earthly upheavals.  But Gill Smith has the following explanation: Think of a large well of liquid magma at some depth, filling up and thus producing pressure.  The earth above cracks and the cracks fill up with the liquid rock.  Later the lava cools and forms a roughly vertical sheet of rock, known as a dyke, which is very often harder than the surrounding material and therefore weathers out as a wall.  Your picture is a fine, text-book example - you can even see horizontal "columnar joints" (like the giant's causeway on its side) where the cooling stresses have produced cracks running at right angles to the crack's sides in the cooling process.

In the evening the trees and bushes around Portree were a veritable symphony of birdsong.  Spring has arrived!

Wed 23 Mar 2005

A minibus ride around Trotternish led by local bird expert Bob MacMillan.  On the Storr Lochs we saw a couple of female Goosanders, 4 Goldeneye and 4 Whooper Swans.  At the Kilt Rock there were 2 Black Guillemots that came and sat on a rock on the shore, a few Fulmars about including at least one already on a nesting ledge, and Gannets plunging.  At Bornaskitaig more Gannets, a Great Northern Diver and a pair of Eiders.  The highlight of the trip was good views of Hen Harriers in two separate locations.  In each of these we were able to watch the bird quartering the ground.  One of the birds twice picked up what appeared to be prey from among the rushes and then seemed to deliberately drop it.  I'm not sure what this behaviour meant.  We also saw Greylag Geese in several places.  We were hoping to see Short-eared Owls as apparently there are a number of them on the island right now.  Their return as a breeding bird is long overdue and hopefully the vole numbers have risen enough for this to be their year.

Fri 25 Mar 2005

A lot of toads on the road tonight making their annual pilgrimage to the Portree Millpond to lay their spawn.  At 10 pm this evening there were several of them just sitting in the middle of the road, reluctant to move even when touched.  Although they're not programmed to be aware of traffic, I would have thought this a poor spot to choose to rest from the point of view of visibility to predators.  Fortunately it is a very quiet road, but still there were several squashed specimens.



All photos and other content copyright Carl Farmer