Friday, 31 July 2015

An Ill Wind

It surely is an ill wind that blows no good. The winter storms that resulted in the devastating sea surge along the east coast during December 2013 caused extensive damage to the overall ecosystem of the North Norfolk marshlands and dune systems, the effects of which still resonate. Most of the affected areas are only slowly recovering. And yet........

At NWT Cley Marshes for instance there is more shingle now, piles of it; powered 100 metres inland by the uncontested might of the rampant North Sea. This mass of eroded rock fragments has covered some grassland where skylarks used to sing their sweet song and has smothered small pools where tiny starlet sea anemones once dwelled. But it has also created opportunities for those birds that love to nest on these exposed expanses and has allowed NWT reserve staff to fence off large tracts of the newly extended habitat to create larger undisturbed zones. To date little ringed plovers and avocets have taken advantage of these quieter areas and the carpets of yellow horned-poppies all along the shingle spit from Salthouse to Blakeney Point, sprouting from seeds dispersed by the flood are to die for.

Avocet Nest on Shingle Beach

The cinnabar moth colony that once festooned the thistles and ragwort along the south side of the raised shingle ridge was eradicated at Cley, as were small colonies of wall brown, but further east at Salthouse they thrive still to decorate the blooms of both plants. When I visited the area a couple of weeks ago every flower head had insects supping nectar, some had multiple visitors jostling for position. A joy to see.  It was also heartening to see many Essex skippers enjoying the wealth of pale purple thistle flower on offer all along the East Bank at Cley. Heartening too was an encounter with large numbers of common toadlets hopping across the footpath parallel to the coast road. Although most amphibians on the reserve were killed by the salt water inundation it seems recolonisation from those hibernating on higher ground has taken place. Good to see these tiny creatures once again. 


Essex Skipper


Six-spot Burnet


Meadow Brown


Life is Everywhere

But for me the most fascinating bonus from the storm damage can be seen at Gramborough Hill, just east of the Salthouse beach road. Here the sea has sliced a chunk off the north face of the small hillock to create a low sandy cliff which has been chosen as a nesting site by a colony of sand martins.

I spent a happy hour there watching the adults hawking insects over the grass clad slopes atop the recently formed cliff and cavorting together over the beach. Some newly fledged birds were also honing their aerial skills, whilst younger nestlings gathered at the entrance to nesting burrows waiting for the next mouthful of juicy fodder. I snapped away at these incredibly fast moving hirundines trying to capture them in pursuit of flying insects invisible to me. My hit rate was ridiculously low, but a few shots bore fruit and showed some fascinating postures, attitudes and habits. Some images captured birds preening mid-flight with their heads turned upside down to facilitate easy access for their tiny sharp claws to those awkward to reach spots. Several caught birds with throat pouches crammed full with insects showing what wealth of prey items are available to them within 100 metres of their summer homes. Others simply illustrated what graceful masters of the air these diminutive migrants are. There is no way I would have been able to properly observe these nuances without being able to freeze the action at 1/5000 of a second. Even then their movements were so swift that only a handful of my handheld efforts were acceptably sharp(ish). I do like a challenge. Lovely birds, sadly one we seldom get a chance to look at closely nowadays. However these plucky ones have shown how quickly they are able to exploit a new resource and hopefully they will be a feature here for many years to come.

An ill wind indeed blew 18 months ago, but it has, in unforeseen ways, blown much good.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

Death on Wings

Great skuas are tremendously powerful birds and the northern isles of Gt Britain holds a substantial breeding population. Here they raise their chicks on the extensive moorland, protecting them fearlessly from trespassing sheep, other skuas and humans. One of their main food sources is the vast number of other seabirds using the steep cliffs of the islands as a summer home. We watched some of these pirates harassing gannets fishing offshore, forcing these much larger birds to disgorge their catch so they could pilfer the spoils. But the more sinister and ruthless side of the Bonxie was to be witnessed amongst the throng of auks nesting on Marwick Head on Mainland Orkney. Here they would cruise along the cliff face ever watchful for unattended chicks or vulnerable lone birds fishing close inshore. Once a victim had been chosen there was no escape. Impressive birds, but deadly. 

Powerful and Fast

Harassing Gannets Offshore at Hoy

Cruising the Cliff Face

And this is what they are after, some unfortunate auk caught unawares.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


Remember the Tufty Club? No, of course you don't, you're all way too young. Well, let me enlighten you. The Tufty Club was the hub of a road awareness campaign run during the 1950s and 60s, its figurehead, inspiration and main star being Tufty Fluffytail, a red squirrel. Children were urged to join the club and received a badge for their trouble. It was very successful and certainly engendered in us kids the need to be careful when crossing the road. The fact the powers that be chose a red squirrel to connect with children goes to show what a familiar and endearing creature it once was; every wood and park had them. Tufty and his pals held sway until the introduction of that Darth Vader in the making the Green Cross Code Man, aka David Prowse. It wasn't the same.

Red squirrels are, as we all know, our native squirrel, the only true wild squirrel inhabiting our countryside. Only it is now absent from most of it. Vast tracts of lowland Britain are now populated only by the alien North American imposter, that rascally rodent the grey, who by a combination of bullying tactics and carrier of a nasty virus has out-competed and eradicate our beloved Tufty from our consciousness and canopies. The sad and sorry fact is that there are generations of young people in England, south of Cumbria and Northumberland, who have never seen a red squirrel in the wild and more worryingly believe the ubiquitous grey to be the true proclaimer to the tree rodent throne. So, finding ourselves in Speyside we determined to put matters right and find our very own Tufty, representing the first I would have seen in the wild since, oh I dunno, 1968 perhaps.

What better place to commence our search then but the magnificent RSPB reserve at Loch Garten famous for its breeding ospreys. And we didn't have to wait long before we espied one of these endearing little mammals plundering the sunflower seeds from the bird feeders just outside the visitor centre. Such a cheeky and engaging little character and so agile, able to hang upside down gripping the tree trunk only with its hind claws as it contrived to force its way into the bounty. So much more appealing than those 2nd rate usurpers that plague our southern woodlands. It’s comforting to know these lovely animals still manage to find refuge in this wonderful ancient Caledonian woodland, although we were told that greys have been sighted around Perth and are moving north apace. Unfortunately it seems the only answer in order to prevent further loss of the reds is to shoot the greys (they’re good eating apparently – slightly nutty flavour perhaps?), and licenced hunters are busy doing just that. The Scottish Natural Heritage website has much interesting information about the current strategy of control, but despite proactive intervention and the setting up of special red squirrel preserves the future doesn’t look too healthy. Squirrel pox is already hitting populations of reds in southern Scotland and could move north with devastating effect. Once more we see the damage caused by the ignorance of man when meddling with the natural world.

So Well Adapted to their Environment

What a Gorgeous Tail

Earlier in our travels around Scotland, prior to ferrying to Orkney, we went for a late evening stroll around quite lanes a few miles west of Inverness. There from a stand of pine and birch we heard a strange sound, a spitting and snarling, that could only have been made by a feline. The noise felt large if you catch my drift and came to us only twice. Despite standing stock still and scanning the dusk enshrouded slopes through binoculars we couldn’t see anything. It could have been a couple of moggies having a spat, but this was a long way from any real kind of civilisation, a couple of farmhouses widely spaced and that’s all. Or, it may, just may have been a wildcat. We will never know. But of course it is now doubtful if there is such a thing as a genuinely wild British wildcat. Most, if not all, the population has been hybridised to the point of eradication as a pure species. Even if we did hear a ‘wildcat’ it would probably have been to a greater or lesser degree tainted with genes from feral cats which far outnumber wildcats nowadays. My friend Nick is currently undertaking an around the globe search for the world’s big cats, and his recent search for a wildcat within these shores is well documented in his blog Compare the Marsh Tit (see the link to the right of this post). There within you will also find much more information about the dilemma now facing conservationists regarding wildcats, another native species we’ve sadly allowed to virtually disappear.

I find it strangely ironic that within the UK we, yes that’s you and me, do not seem capable of raising sufficient steam, awareness, money or political will to solve these problems that are happening now, here, on our doorstep. Red squirrels, wildcats, many birds and a host of other animals are in deep trouble. Badgers are culled unnecessarily, hen harriers persecuted unforgivably, hares coursed unscrupulously and now the government is thinking about allowing fox hunting to recommence unbelievably. Yet there is no TV commercials outlining the plight of these creatures, no mainstream cries of protest at the inexcusable situation we have allowed develop in this 21st century, and no countrywide campaign to generate a change in attitude and a catalyst for change. But everyone knows about the plight of the tiger, African elephant and rhino. Quite right, they should. And those causes are worthy and pressing, but let’s not forget the little things inhabiting our own island home. Once these things are gone we will never be able to bring them back. It boils down to ignorance again in that people just are simply unaware of the scale of the problems I guess. Maybe they should bring back Tufty and get the kids loving him again.

Who Could Fail to be Entranced?

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Drummer

It's been raining here in Orkney, every blasted second of this miserable, grey, cold and windy July day. Sheeting down from low thick cloud from dawn, which happened at about 1am, until dusk which will occur very soon at midnight. Everybody has been walking around cloaked in Goretex with long sleeves, long trousers and even longer faces seeking indoor means of entertainment. Not an easy task on an island that caters far more for sheep than people. Still the roses look nice.

It was a different story yesterday. Then the sun broke through around midday transforming the drab  of the moors into sheets of verdant green; the sea from steely grey to bright vibrant blue; the meadows to carpets of buttercup gold. Beautiful.

At Marwick Head on Mainland watching fulmars ride the updrafts over high sea cliffs was exhilarating. The birds stalling into the breeze at eye level, demonstrating ably their complete mastery of the air, is one of those sights that would make anyone with any sense of aesthetics stop and stare. Marauding great skuas, Bonxies as they are parochially named, cruised the cliff face looking for an easy meal in the form of unattended chicks. Huge, steely-eyed great black-backed gulls did likewise. Ravens cronked overhead and kittiwakes kittiwaked. Guillemots brayed and the stately gents of the throng, the puffins, grunted in greeting to one another on narrow ledges overlooking a sheer drop of 200 feet. But all may not be well here, for despite scanning the cliff faces through binoculars it was difficult to find any chicks. Some fulmars seemed to still be incubating, but many pairs were simply sitting in their nesting nook with no obvious sign of eggs or young. It was the same story with the kittiwakes. Times are hard for our seabirds.

Later, we watched a distant short-eared owl hunting over the heather clad slopes of the uplands whilst more great skuas and the occasional smaller Arctic Skua patrolled its nesting grounds. The RSPB have many reserves scattered around the islands all well signed, many with excellent paths and hides. From one hide we had views of a red-throated diver tending a fluffy brown chick on a small loch where wild grey-lag geese gathered and more Bonxies cruised the updrafts.

On our after dinner stroll we heard a snipe drumming over an area of wet meadow, a strange bleating sound that I last heard about 20 years ago. It was so uplifting to hear this sound of territorial dominance, more so since we have pretty much lost breeding snipe from large tracts of my home county and indeed most of lowland England. All over Orkney the skies are full of piping oystercatchers, trilling curlews and in a small wet meadow by a minor road beside a loch, a lone snipe strutting his stuff. The first time me and my boyhood mates heard a drumming snipe we couldn't for the life of us think what the heck was making the noise. We thought it must be a swarm of bees and looked around anxiously to see if we were in imminent danger of being smothered. The problem with this theory was that the noise came in short bursts of a few seconds with longer gaps between. Not a bee swarm then, maybe some kind of frog? Eventually we espied a small bird flying over the small marsh in front of us and as it executed an almost vertical dive the weird sound again reached our ears. No binoculars adorned our necks in those days, we hardly needed them, but we knew enough to identify the long billed speck as a snipe. How weird that a bird should make such an unbird like sound though; little did we appreciate that the noise is made by air vibrating the stiff outer tail feathers that are fanned as the bird dives. One of the poignant sounds of spring that sadly no longer graces the small marsh where we first heard it. Needless to say that wetland has virtually disappeared along with the snipe that made it their home. But they still find a home here in the large areas of wet meadow and bog in the low lying land around the island perimeters and it was a joy to watch this one.

We plan a trip to Hoy tomorrow. We are promised better weather.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Bass Rocks

From a distance it looks like snow. Only when you look closer with the aid of high powered optics do you realise the snowflakes have wings. Gannets. Tens of thousands of gannets. Wheeling around a tall offshore slab of volcanic rock, festooning every conceivable nook on its barren surface, carpeting the ledges, cramming onto narrow shelves and forming floating flotillas around its base. A truly awesome sight that cannot fail to impress all who make the short boat trip to experience the spectacle that is nesting season on Bass Rock.

As you draw nearer to the colony small parties of these large ocean wanderers appear close to. Some have clumps of seaweed in their beaks; males arrowing single-mindedly towards the rock to reinforce their nests. Others have possibly been fishing far away from home, perhaps off the Norwegian coast, and are returning to feed their single young. But it is only when the sheer cliffs loom close, dwarfing your tiny boat and rendering it and all its passengers insignificant, that the sheer numbers of birds on show becomes clear. It is truly breathtaking. Thousands of pristine bright white birds float around the cliff tops using updrafts to glide en masse in huge whirling clouds; more thousands litter the sloping surface sitting atop their seaweed nests placed with precision exactly a beak lunge apart from its neighbour; and more thousands still loaf on the sea preening, bathing or resting. The visual stimulation is enough to overwhelm; add the pungent aroma and the cacophony of noise and all senses are overloaded. Seldom is it possible to get so close to wild birds, but here, as in many seabird cities, we are privileged to be tolerated to within touching distance. Maybe the dozing eye may momentarily be half opened, maybe an inquiring head will be turned, possibly a beak may half-heartedly be pointed towards us in mock threat, but we are generally pretty much ignored as we slowly cruise around the base of the 100 metre high pillar. The scene is ever changing. There is constant motion. Birds are incessantly coming and going, gracefully approaching at speed to effect an awkward landing amongst the hordes, or bill pointing skyward prior to an effortless launch into the warm summer sea breeze.

Younger birds, those not yet mature enough to breed, but hopeful, are relegated to the bottom tier. Here they congregate in teenage gangs watching the antics of the older birds with envy, learning their mating rituals, watching the intimacies between bonded pairs and waiting for their plumage to morph into pristine adulthood. Maybe next year.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of birds here are gannets, there are other species exploiting the isolation of the rock to raise their young. On the narrowest ledges and in the darker coves guillemots, razorbills and shags can be found in small numbers adding their own screeches and guttural squawking to the melee.

The gannet colony on Bass Rock is one of natures true wonders, it is within striking distance folks and is so well worth a visit.  Words cannot do it justice and photographs only provide a reminiscent flavour of what it is really like, however I hope you get an idea of what it is like and I will post some pics when I return home. Next stop Orkney.