Nature Notes from Skye
(and occasionally other places)
Tue 31 May 2005, Talisker. A gloriously sunny day on which to explore the wetlands, then visit the shore, and finally climb up into the hill country that overlooks the bay.
This early morning picture shows some of the variety of habitats to be found here. The path down to the bay gives good views over this extensive flat area which is a mosaic of dry, damp, wet and very wet patches, ranging from close-cropped sheep turf to lush Water Horsetail meadows.
Your walk down to the shore is accompanied by the chippering of Snipe from fence-posts and the abrupt chirps and trills of Sedge Warblers from any perch they can find. Twite were also seen.
Two plants of dubioius ethnicity that flourish along the edges of the watery bits, Bistort and Tuberous Comfrey. Both are native to Scotland but whether they are native to Skye is an open question. Certainly alien is the Montbretia whose spear-like leaves the Comfrey is trying to grow through. The Comfrey was proving very popular with Carder Bees (Bombus pascuorum), as its pendent tubular flowers gives them the chance to work from the position they like best, upside-down. Most of the flowers visited by the bees were well past their prime, but the bees didn't seem to mind. As the picture shows, the plant is going over and the flowers are beginning to fall off leaving the long white styles.
Other plants that abound along the "causeway" that gives an alternative but rather squelchy route to the shore are Reed, Wild Iris, Meadowsweet, Cuckoo Flower, Water Avens, Water Horsetail, Hemlock Water Dropwort and Valerian, while dotted among them in smaller numbers are Bluebell, Wild Garlic, Common Sorrel, Broad-leaved Dock and Pignut. Lady Fern is frequent right on the edge of the banks overhanging the water.
Still haven't seen any dragonflies this year other than the Large Red Damselfly, of which I showed a male on 12 May, so here is a female, resting on a Montbretia leaf to devour a fly that she has caught.
On reaching the shore, the Shags guard the way to the open sea.
The sea cliffs are hung with Roseroot and also have good amounts of Sea Campion, Red Campion, Early Purple Orchid and many other flowers. I watched a Rock Pipit doing its display flight, similar to that of the Meadow Pipit, in which it flies up and then "parachutes" down uttering a repetitive single note.
I walked back along the base of the hills on the northern side of the bay. Here were numerous Wheatears, the males (left-hand picture) hopping from rock to rock making their "click click - zee" call. On the right is a juvenile, probably two or three weeks out of the nest, which made a single-note call, jerking its head each time it did so.
At the first place where it wasn't too steep I began to climb the hill. The lower slopes are closely grazed and dotted with low-growing plants such as Daisy, Tormentil, and the Heath Speedwell, above left. At the top it is more boggy and I made my way towards a loch which was shown on the map not far away. On the heather around the loch I found this beetle which appears to be Ctenicera cuprea, the same species shown last year on 23 May, but this time it was all black, with blue and purple iridescence. Like the previous one, it was a male. It frequently flew short distances, and was fond of climbing up plant stems.
The loch had good quantities of the long-stemmed underwater moss Fontinalis antipyretica or Willow Moss. It also provided the venue for a gripping struggle between a Horse Leech and a young newt (almost certainly a Palmate Newt). The leech has hold of the newt's foot, but the newt made heroic efforts to shake itself free, including sudden violent jerks and walking along dragging the leech behind it. Although the newt was strong enough to determine where the two of them would go, it seemed the leech must win in the end since all it had to do was to cling on. I watched them for several minutes. You can see the newt's gills just in front of the front legs. Young newts retain these until they leave the water in autumn.
Some other mysteries of this loch. For some reason which I can't remember I grabbed a handful of moss from some ground near the bank, and where I pulled it out there was a smallish toad sitting hunched up in a sort of mossy nest, looking very scared and shocked to be exposed in this way. It was an extraordinary sight and I hurriedly put the moss back. It seemed a very odd coincidence that my random act had opened up this hole with the toad dead centre. Wonder how many thousands of goes it would take to get that result again? Or are the moors teeming with hidden toads?
What looked like a small moth, but was probably something along the lines of a caddis fly, "swam" across the water surface using its wings. At first I assumed it had fallen in and was struggling, as moths do, but it frequently flew up clear of the water and then dropped back down again. I'm so used to thinking that wings and water don't go together that it took several repeats of this performance before I accepted the obvious fact that the return to the water was deliberate. Then at times it would swim to a plant stem and climb it to the top, at which point it would fly down to the water surface and swim around looking for another plant stem to climb. To see moth-like wings used as swimming aids in this way seemed very strange.
Finally, what small bird has a whirring flight like that of a Puffin? It seemed to come out of nowhere and dropped down into the loch vegetation, where it was impossible to see or to get to. After waiting for some time I had to give up hope of it reappearing. When it landed, it must either have landed on the water surface like a duck, or clung to a plant stem like a Reed Bunting, as there was no land there for it to land on. It seemed about the size of a Pipit. I've been wondering if it was a Little Grebe, which are frequent on lochs like this but which I've never seen in flight anywhere. Though they look small on the water, the book measurements show that they are actually larger than a thrush, and my bird certainly didn't seem that size. But it had to be something, and if it turns out that Little Grebes fly in that manner - which I have yet to find out - then that's probably what it was.
From here you can see the black top of Preshal Mor which is actually on the other side of the valley from the grassy area in the foreground.
Follow the burn that flows from the loch to the clifftops and soon the views begin to look like this.
When the burn reaches the cliffs it becomes this 110 metre waterfall. The clifftop sward was of great floristic interest as ever. From a botanical viewpoint I'm not a fan of sheep grazing, but on cliff edges they produce more interesting effects than elsewhere. These days I always look for the Small Adderstongue Fern in such places, hoping to be the first to find it on Skye proper following its recent discovery on Raasay. It's got to be on Skye somewhere; it is very hard to spot. On this occasion I had no luck with that, but I did find plenty of this unusual Pearlwort. A couple of years ago I found a population like this in Glenhinnisdale and decided they were Heath Pearlwort, but now I'm inclined to backtrack and put them down as Procumbent P.
They are just like Heath Pearlwort (Sagina subulata) except that they have no hairs and no glands. The books do allow Heath P to be like this, though such a form is very rare. Another difference, that I noted carefully this time, is that these flowers have 3-7 stamens, with 5 the most frequent number, whereas Heath P should have 10.
As for Procumbent Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens), Clapham Tutin and Warburg only allow it to have "petals minute or 0". Stace however does allow it to occasionally have full-size petals. It should have only 4 stamens however.
Procument P is supposed to have the point at the end of the leaves less than 0.2 mm long, while Heath P has it 0.3-0.6 mm long. These plants have it 0.2-0.5 mm long.
I doubt if these are the hybrid as it is very rare and is said to have hairs. My plants show no sign whatever of the missing characters from either parent. There is no tendency for any of the petals to be dwarfed in any way, nor is there any hint of a hair or a gland.
So far, on balance, you'd be inclined to go for Heath, but what swings it for me I think is the habitat. They grow among grass, not on bare ground. All the Heath P that I've found on bare ground, rock, gravel etc has glands, and all the Heath P that I've found with glands has been on bare ground, rock, gravel etc.
So there you have it. In a place as beautiful as Talisker, even the normally petal-less Procumbent Pearlwort opens its eyes.
All photos and other content copyright © Carl Farmer