Nature Notes from Argyll
(and occasionally other places)

Wed 9 Apr 2008 Loch Feochan.  Warm in the sun at first, overcast and very chilly later.

Tussilago farfara   Cardamine hirsuta

Found a fine lunch spot by the River Feochan close to where it enters the loch.  Several Spring flowers were exploiting the sand and gravel at the river's edge, including these two without any green parts: Coltsfoot, whose green leaves will arise from the ground as the flowers die down, and Popping Cress, whose leaves and stems are normally green but here were deep purple.  Other flowers visible from where I was sitting were Celandine, Gorse, Primrose, Hairy Woodrush and Barren Strawberry.  Butterbur and Wood Anemone were flowering close by.  Also seen in flower during the day were Field Woodrush, Great Woodrush, Daisy, Dandelion, Hazel, Willow, Scurvy-grass, Golden Saxifrage and Dog's Mercury.

Potentilla sterilis   Anser anser

Here's a close up of the Barren Strawberry flower.  These two Greylag Geese were among a dozen or so each of Greylags and Canada Geese at the head of the loch.  Other birds present were at least 17 Goldeneye, 5 Mergansers, 5 Eiders, 8 Wigeon, 2 Mute Swans, a few Curlew and Oystercatchers, 2 Herons, a swimming Redshank, a great many Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls, and a smattering of Hoodies.  Also saw a large and very fast lizard running across the band of reed debris between loch and marsh.

Homalothecium sericeum   Schistidium apocarpum

My moss interest will have to go into aestivation soon, as I've a programme of intensive vascular plant recording lined up for the summer.  Mosses are for the winter when there's not so much competing for attention.  Here are two very striking ones that were new to me, both on the shady side of a boulder.  The first is Homalothecium sericeum, whose long straight stems have numerous short branches which are curled over the stems in dry weather to conserve moisture, but which roll flat when it rains to soak up the water running down the rock.  The stems are tightly anchored to the rock by rhizoids along their length.  The dark moss that crosses it in a patchy way in the top half of the picture is Schistidium apocarpum, whose capsules, shown in close-up on the right, have bright red peristome teeth and such a short seta that they are partly concealed in the topmost leaves.

Sat 12 Apr 2008 Mull

A Seil Natural History Group visit to Mull.  We were taken around by David Woodhouse of Isle of Mull Wildlife Expeditions, and had some amazing sightings of big game.

Several Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles were seen.  At one point there was a male Sea Eagle and female Golden Eagle in the air together, the sexes being determinable because they were both the same size.  We were able to get plenty of practice in distinguishing the two species and telling adults from immature birds.  We would often see the eagles circling in the air to gain height, on one occasion disappearing into the clouds.  Due to his knowledge of the terrain David was able to spot eagles perched on the skyline, and could often predict their behaviour.

Through the telescope that David provided we watched a Golden Eagle perched on a hilltop.  When it eventually took to the air, it was mobbed by a Kestrel, which looked tiny in comparison.  Another time, a pair of Ravens rose up when a Golden Eagle passed through their area, to try and see it off.

David knew the Golden Eagle territories in the area and explained that the young eagles we were seeing were looking for territory for the season, but would be chased off from everywhere by the established eagle pairs.

Buzzards were more numerous than anywhere I've seen them.  We watched a dispute over territory or food between three buzzards, one of which was very pale in colour.  David told us that it had been an albino ten years ago, but had gradually acquired more feather markings with each moult.

The highlight for me was seeing Hen Harrier display flights for the first time.  Three females were in the air at once, apparently competing for the attentions of a single male skulking in the forest, whom one or two of us saw briefly.  One of the females treated us to a prolonged display of the spectacular undulating sky-dance, which is performed by either sex.  She also showed the threat behaviour of drooping wings and outspread tail, towards the other females.  While we were watching these birds a trio of buzzards, one carrying prey, flew into the midst of them.

We saw several other female Hen Harriers during the day including another one displaying.  We also saw the Meadow Pipit display flight which was the first of the year for me.  We got good views of a Greenshank, with a Redshank close by for comparison, and in another place spotted a Redshank standing on a fencepost.  Snipe were performing their chippering song.  Lapwings were seen in several places.  Other birds included a pair of Linnets, two Great Northern Divers, a Grey Wagtail, a Great Spotted Woodpecker (heard, not seen).  At Pennyghael a Sparrowhawk appeared from nowhere to land on the back of a wader on the shore; the wader escaped and the Sparrowhawk dashed back to cover.  Opinions varied as to what its intended prey had been (Oystercatcher, Redshank?) as there was only time to look at the retreating hawk.

An Otter fishing in a bay nearby frustrated us for a while as it would keep appearing above water for about a second in between lengthy dives.  David explained that it was catching Butterfish and that sooner or later it would find something larger and take it to the shore to eat.  We motored round to get closer to the point where it was likely to climb onto the rocks with its meal.  Sure enough, it soon did this and, after eating its catch, marked its territory on the seaweed, rolled around for a bit and then settled down for a nap.

We weren't near enough to anything for my camera take usable pictures, but I thought I'd give a brief write-up to a fantastic day out.  Richard told us that this year was a high point in the vole cycle, providing good conditions for Hen Harriers, Buzzards, Kestrels and Short-eared Owls.  I don't know whether the cycle on the mainland is synchronised with that on Mull, but I have noticed a few voles about.

There were 8 Black Guillemots together in Oban Bay as we boarded the ferry, and on the way back there were 2 Gannets at about the halfway point of the journey, one sitting on the water, the other flying right over the boat.  But generally speaking the ferry crossing was devoid of wildlife interest as on my last visit in July.  It is never without scenic interest though.

First Dog Violet of the year in flower noticed on Mull.

Mon 14 Apr 2008 Ford

Dog Violets a-plenty out now! 

Hyacinthoides non-scripta   Umbilicus rupestris

Among thousands of Bluebell plants I found just 3 with emerging flower-spikes, of which only this one had a fully developed flower, in a shady corner below a Great Woodrush clump.  Other firsts for the year were Wood Sorrel in flower and spikes of Sweet Vernal-grass.

Navelwort, on the right, was one of the plants I'd come to look for.  It is plentiful on a natural rockface here, close to its northern limit.

Chrysosplenium alternifolium (with C oppositifolium)   Dicranum majus

The other plant I came especially to look for was Alternate-leaved Golden Saxifrage.  After quite a search I eventually found it in quantity, but never in flower.  It must flower later than the Opposite-leaved version, which it was nearly always growing among, as here in wet leafmould.  The large leaves with notched bases are Alternate GS, while the smaller leaves and the flowers are Opposite GS, which is flowering everywhere at present, a very common ground carpeter of damp shady places.

We've had the woodland moss Dicranum majus before but this pic shows the young sporophytes growing in pairs from a single perichaetum, a feature shared by "no related British moss" (Watson 3rd Ed).  The paler moss with it is Hylocomium splendens.

Climacium dendroides   Nowellia curvifolia

The moss Climacium dendroides is like a miniature tree and quite easy to recognise: the branches are stout and stubby and not further branched.  It was on bare shady ground within the flood zone of Loch Awe.  The orange-brown liverwort Nowellia curvifolia formed a continuous mat on a fallen tree which had lost its bark.  A sporophyte is visible near the top right.

Crannog in Loch Awe

A crannog in Loch Awe (an artificial island that originally had a dwelling on it), thought to have been occupied from at least 270 BC through to the Dalriadan period and possibly as late as 1500 AD.  See Ederline Crannog Excavation for a highly technical account and Loch Awe Crannog Survey (click on Crannog 20).  General info on Loch Awe crannogs on the Loch Awe Community Website.  Today's occupants were Common Gulls and Oystercatchers, both visible in the picture, and a Pied Wagtail too small to make out.  Two Great Black-backed Gulls were also there earlier in the day.

Walking back towards Ford an adult Sea Eagle flew overhead giving good views of its white tail.  It was mobbed by a Buzzard which at about half its wing-span gave you an idea of the Eagle's enormous size.


All photos and other content copyright Carl Farmer