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Thursday, 29 March 2012

The spring so far...

There’s been some fantastic early spring weather since the 21st and the east to southerly
airflow has brought in a good number of returning bird migrants. The first greenshank was back in from warmer climes on the 21st and joined by another on the 22nd, 2 redshanks were also present around this time.

The first greenshank of the year on the 21st

A single adult summer black-headed gull was also around Kinloch (shore and top fields) on the 21st and our first chiffchaff of the spring was recorded on the 23rd. Wheatears are back in, with the first report from Harris on the 23rd. The continued east to southerly element to the wind last weekend (24/25th March) produced a small passage of migrants namely a single house martin, 7 goldcrests, 3 chiffchaffs, 5 wheatear (1 merlin and a single great northern diver also at Kilmory).
Chiffchaff, Kinloch 23rd March

Male wheatear, Kilmory.

Goldcrest, Kilmory
All of our resident birds are getting on with the business of breeding with song thrush already on eggs. Our white tailed sea eagles are on eggs and look likely to breed this year, but all of our golden eagles are still yet to lay (3 pairs).

The unmistakable smell of manxie goodness

Manx shearwaters are definitely back in from their South Atlantic wintering grounds, as their droppings were noted around breeding burrows on Hallival, Askival and Trollaval on the 27th.

Red breasted mergansers, eider and red-throated divers were all displaying in Loch Scresort during the past week. Great to watch.

Displaying male red-breasted mergansers (female far left), Loch Scresort.

Male eiders are now fully hot under the collar and are chasing females all over Loch Scresort

Today (29th) the weather conditions were typically dismal, with light drizzle bringing in a small passage of at least 15 common crossbills, 20 redwings and 2 starlings at Kinloch.  Late bird news not included in last spring update was a single short-eared owl at Kilmory on March 18th.  

Some of todays flying dots (redwings)

Common crossbills (males), Kinloch today 
On the none birdy front, a single European otter was seen under the bridge at Kilmory on the 22nd .The first common lizard of the year was spotted around Kinloch and 2 harbour porpoise were seen heading towards Camas Pliasgaig both on the 24th March. As expected at this time of the year our bluebells are out as well as primroses and lesser celandine.
One of the earliest of Britain's wild flowers to appear is the lesser celandine

 One of the first bluebells of spring
 Some of the last few days great spring weather in pictures...

The Rum Cuillin
Hallival and Askival from Loch Scresort

Sunrise over Mallaig
Dawn, Loch Scresort 
Sunset over Canna

Kinloch Castle

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Tystie Crevice

If you’ve ever wandered around the ferry terminal in the quiet of the evening or first thing in the morning (or just when the ferry isn’t coming in), you may have noticed a striking black and white bird with blood red legs & feet sitting at the bottom of the slip or just feeding offshore.
This is why most of us didn't want a dirty great fish farm just around the corner!
The rich kelp beds around Rum's incredible coastline provide rich feeding grounds for this vulnerable inshore feeder
These awesome little birds are in fact black guillemots or better known up here in Scotland as tysties (an Old Norse name for the species).They have a circumpolar distribution, with the British Isles having between 5-15% of the estimated world population. They are one of the smaller members of the auk family which prefer to feed in the more sheltered waters around our coasts. As there’s an abundance of butterfish in the kelp beds under the surface of Loch Scresort, you can often see them successfully foraging just off shore.  

Adult black guillemot in summer plumage
As they’re a species of conservation concern which are limited by the number of nesting cavities on the island, one of my priorities of late is to help increase the number of breeding individuals in the village. In a small attempt to increase the number of cavities, I'm experimenting with a specialised nest box that I’ve designed with help from Dr George Divoky, an American scientist who’s been working with the species in the Arctic for the last forty years (check out this excellent short film about his work by following this link

Inside the crevice: tysties like an escape route so note the two ways in.They also like it dark, hence the long pipe entrances.The gravel bottom not only weighs the box down, but will provide a simple scrape for the egg and incubating adult.

A room  with a view

Nest boxes of this type have never really been tried extensively in the UK before, so we can only gain from the experience. I’m trying to entice the pair that usually feed around the slip to take up the challenge, so the nest box (or tystie crevice as its now been nicknamed) has now been installed with help from Sandy in a safe and practical place on the new pier. I must also remember to write some interpretation for it, as a few of the local fishermen from Mallaig have already commented about its function. I was given this great idea by Richard Kilpatrick a while back, so I’m glad it’s finally up. I will definitely keep you posted if we’re successful or not.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Wildlife gardening does pay!

After yesterdays chance encounter, you could definitely say that spring bird passage is well and truly underway. At a time when Rum was feeling a bit birdless,and nerdy birdy excitment was only to be encountered on our neighbouring islands, we well and truly pull it out the bag in style, and I will certainly remember the experience for as long as my faculties do. Here's the story.....
By chance I had just come back to Stable Bothy for lunch and was enjoying yet another round of cheese and marmite sandwiches (with lashings of hot tea of course).My mind was wondering off onto something random as usual,when all of a sudden Norman bursts through the door panting with excitement about a small heron-like bird that he and Derek had just seen landing in the forthcoming wildlife garden. Norman's pretty good on his birds, and thought it was a probable bittern. Something rang true in the man’s voice, so I grabbed my bins and camera and flew through the door. But was Norman seeing things, had he been fooled by the zombified re-animation of an Indian runner duck (they have a pretty upright stance I thought)? In reality, I didn’t have anything to lose as twitching from the comfort of your own home doesn't really involve much effort and comes highly recommended. In a few paces the mystery was settled as I was indeed face to face with one of our most secretive of birds, the Eurasian bittern Botaurus stellaris, a member of the heron family.

At first it stood in full view on the raised bank right next to the Community Hall.Then it moved into the boggy area in the Wildlife Garden for a minute or two before deciding to make its escape. It moved out around the back of the teashop extension and then towards the woodland between the hall and Lea Cottage. It wasn’t really bothered by our presence at all and casually strutted around unaware of any apparent danger. 


As the species spend the majority of their lives deep in a reed bed, it was a rare privilege to study the bird’s jerky movements as it moved around on its long powerful legs and large feet.

It’s amazing ‘owl like’ cryptic plumage was so camouflaging that you could hardly see it when it stood motionless pretending to be a reed.If you didn't know it was there, you would have quite easily walked straight past it.

Absolutely awesome stuff and proves without question our wildlife garden’s worth for UK Biodiversity Action Plan species! Effortlessly achieved without even a single reed planted yet (I must order more); am I fully justified in turning the whole thing into an extensive phragmites reedbed? Apart from Zapper Moppus normanskii who was luckily on a lead at the time, it was great there had been no other dogs lurking with intent around the hall that day, for in all probability, it would have been munched for having such a laid back attitude! All in all, we watched it for about half an hour (1300-1330) before it finally crept quietly into deeper cover.

Note the pale and chunky bill.Definitely not the American counterpart. 

According to our records, there has never been a bittern observed on the island before and only a handful of sightings in the Highlands and Islands ever, so good going Norman! Spoke to the Scottish Ornithologists Club’s Angus Murray to clarify their current status, and as suspected, the species doesn’t even breed in Scotland. Only three have overwintered in the whole of the country during 2011/12 including a bird from the Loch of Strathbeg, Aberdeenshire. So what was it doing here? Well, in a nutshell it was lost! It is a vagrant species. East Anglia and Lancashire is still the UK breeding stronghold for the species (c.75 breeding pairs), but you get an increase to the UK population from birds from Eastern Europe in the winter. These birds will have the migratory urge to return SE back across into mainland Europe to start breeding. Your guess is as good as mine, but this bird presumably moved NW instead of SE probably as a consequence of the south south-easterly airflow which was coming off the mainland over the weekend.

Todays whooper swans.Note the paler bill of the immatures

Other recent wildlife news includes a male otter at Bagh na h-Uamha on Sunday 18th, and at least 7 common seals hauled out between Bagh na h-Uamha and Port na Caranean. 4 starlings (a fairly unusual occurance for Rum) were a welcome change around Kinloch Glen on Friday (16th) and 30+ whooper swans were observed moving north by Sean at Camas Pliasgaig (to breeding grounds in Iceland/Faroes) on the 18th. Another 9 whoopers were spotted in Loch Scresort today (19th) (6 adult and 3 immature, see picture).They’re now storm-bound due to the atrocious weather (strong SW winds with heavy rain) and I wouldn’t be surprised if their enforced stay continued well into tomorrow or the next day by the look of things.Despite a reasonable look, the bittern was not re-located today (19th). 
Friday's starlings

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Signs of spring

In the depths of winter it’s sometimes hard to remember what summer actually looks and feels like on Rum (like elsewhere I suppose), and after a long wait it finally feels as if the island is turning a corner. The gorse is in full flower and many alder have an unmistakable kiss of life as they’re covered in male catkins.
The longer days are playing with the hormones of our resident birds also and they definitely sense the beginning of an all too short northern summer and just want to start the important business of breeding. This morning (13th March) it was fantastic to observe one of our most enigmatic moorland birds, the curlew, in full display flight around the hillsides of the northern shore of Loch Scresort.  

Displaying male curlew

A male was (is) establishing a territory by circling a wide area there, rising and falling along the way. At the same time, the bird announces his presence with a loud bubbling call. This is the best time of year to listen to the hauntingly rich song of the curlew, so check it out before April! To listen to it now in the comfort of your own home (I'm so considerate I know), please follow this link
Curlew..gliding down on quivering wings

Claire’s (and Steve for that matter) going to have one hell of an early morning wake up call for the next few weeks,but it's ultimately nicer than a rooster. Always awesome to watch and hear a displaying curlew and well worth half an hour out of the day. Stand on the road close to the second yurt for best views.

Curlew..rising steeply on rapid wing-beats

Other bird activity of note in the village environs today included singles of pied wagtail, skylark (Glen Park) and redshank which incidentally has been lurking around most of the winter. Unusual for yesterday (12th March) was Sandy’s common seals which hauled themselves out in front of Ivy Cottage at the mouth of Kinloch Burn. I’ve never seem them hauled out quite so close to the village, so great record.Fliss and Sandy's forthcoming observatory is going to make a great conservatory!

Check out the spring-like weather this morning! Awesome cloud formations over the east coast

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Kilmory's gone to Iceland

Had a nice surprise down at Kilmory today (Sunday 11th March about 2pm) in the form of not one but three Iceland gulls Larus glaucoides (2 x 1st winter plumage and 1 x 3rd winter). These are scarce winter visitors to NW Europe, but we regularly encounter them in Scotland at this time of year, especially in the north of the country.Even though they're called Iceland gulls, they don't actually breed in Iceland, but do the biz in northern Canada and Greenland, so our trio will presumable be making a trip over the Atlantic soon.

Iceland Gull (1st winter) Kilmory beach

I initially picked up one bird as it flew down the beach.They're a so called 'white winged gull', so the absence of any black in the primaries (wing tips) and tail were an obvious give away.Then all of a sudden I was seeing double and there were two 'white wingers' flying down the beach.On closer examination, both were aged as 1st winter birds. They were both very pale and had quite a lot of biscuit coloured feathering on the upperparts which is plumage retained from their darker juvenile stage from last year, so they are enjoying their first winter of life ie 1st winter birds.

Then there were two!

They landed in a flock of mostly herring and great black backs, so I scanned intently for a possible third, and as luck would have it, there it was, but this individual had no biscuit colouration to its plumage and was almost pure white on the upperparts, so an adult bird.However, this bird still had a dark terminal band on the bill and not the yellow and red one of a full adult.They take four years to mature fully, so this individual must have been a 3rd winter.

Take a close look at the photos, Iceland gulls are slightly smaller than herring gulls and rather more gentle in appearance and not as fierce due in part to a smaller head.They have long wing or primary projection so look very attenuated on their rear ends. 

Iceland Gulls, 2 x 1st winters.Note the attenuated rear end due to the long primary projection of the bird on the far left, a diagnostic feature of the species.  

All plumage variations walking right

3rd winter Iceland gull making sure I had noticed its lack of black on its wing tips!Cheers bro!

3rd winter Iceland gull (middle), 1st winter on extreme left.Note how much paler and slight these birds are compared to the darker backed heavier herring gull

3rd winter Iceland gull, only bird facing fully right

Rangering off Rum (Part 2: a pre-human paradise on Earth)

Many have described the remaining sub-tropical rainforests in the far north of New Zealand (Northland) as the nearest thing to visiting another planet whilst still being on Earth. Indeed, they are truly amazing places of incredible diversity and beauty.Everytime I visit, it’s always an emotional experience as these forests give us a glimpse into a world that existed long before humans were around. I celebrate their continued survival, but at the same time, such places give me a sense of bereavement and loss.

These forests are what would have greeted the first Polynesians or Captain Cook for that matter. Before people arrived, more than 80% of New Zealand was covered in native forest, sadly today it covers only 25%.Although I have to remind myself  that such coverage is pretty good when we consider that Scotland only retains about 1% of its native forest cover.

When Maori arrived in NZ about 900 years ago, they built dwellings, canoes and forts out of native timber and also burnt large areas of forest for farming, but it was us ‘Pommies’ who when exploring in the 18th century, considered these immense forests and the trees contained within them as commodities, as they were ideal for making ships’ masts for the Royal Navy. Kauri, with their huge tall trunks was a favourite, but kahikatea, rimu and totara were also logged in large numbers. From about 1840 more Brits settled and of course they needed building materials for their emerging towns, cities and farms; slowly but surely this primeval wilderness began to be transformed into a mirror image of Britain and much of the native forest cover disappeared quickly within a few generations.

It’s an all too familiar tale of over exploitation but at least the newly born New Zealand had the foresight to protect some of its remaining forests. This was not done in the name of nature conservation at the time, but to save a portion of the last remaining forest scenery for future tourism. How right they were, but it’s definitely not 100% Pure NZ anymore! In terms of nature conservation for its own sake, the concept of saving native forests only came into play in the 1970’s after even more had been lost in the post war years during a building boom.Protests in Northland and in the central North Island were common around this time as a consequence. Today, most of New Zealand’s timber comes from non-native forests, or from overseas.

The long geographical isolation of New Zealand meant that most of its flora is unique and there’s a wide variety of native trees adapted to all the various micro-climates.  The sub-tropical rainforest of Northland includes a mixture of coniferous and broad-leaved ever greens. The coniferous trees belong mainly to the Podocarpaceae or the podocarps as they’re commonly known. This ancient plant family originated from the former supercontinent of Gondwana and includes such species as rimu, totara and kahikatea, the latter species was growing when the dinosaurs walked the earth.

The ancient kahikatea

During our time in Northland we spent a number a days in the Waipoua Forest trying to get to grips with the identification of many of the natives found there. The forests of Waipoua cover 9, 105 hectares and are a stunning example of the best of what’s left. Together with the adjoining forests of Mataraua and Waima, they make up the largest remaining tract of native forest in Northland and since 1987, protected for future generations by the Department of Conservation.

Sun setting on the Waipoua

In the Waipoua life clings to life.The taller forest giants develop buttresses at their bases and provide support for a variety of high-perching epiphytes such as the kahakaha and the kiekie. Epiphytes are plants that normally grow on another plant for support, it is not parasitic, but uses the host plant only for support, exactly like our familiar polypody ferns on Rum.

Kahakaha Collospermum hastatum

Kiekie Freycinetia banksii
(developing fruit)
It’s a real tangle in there; it’s almost like tiger country! If you wanted to get anywhere quickly away from the tracks, you’d be walking for days.

Here are various pics of some of the many awsome  plant and tree species we actually managed to identify!

whau Entelea arborescens-
easily recognised by its spiny seed capsules

tanekaha Phyllocladus trichomanoides
mingimingi Coprosma propinqua

kowaowao Microsorum pustulatum

irirangi Hymenophyllum demissum

pate Schefflera digitata
matai prumnopitys taxifolia-
note the dark hammer-marked bark

rewarewa Knightia excelsa-
a common tree in the very north

Like many who visit the Waipoua, I'm totally blown away by the awesome  Kauri.These are among the world's mightiest trees, growing to more than 50 metres tall, with trunk girths of up to 16 metres and living for more than 2000 years.The one pictured below is about 1,500 years old!

kauri Agathis australis
kauri cones
  Unfortunately, these magnificent trees are still under threat from a strange fungus-like disease known as Phytophthora taxon Agathis (PTA), most people just call it kauri dieback disease. It is spread mainly through soil movement and within soil on equipment such as footwear machinery and mountain bikes for example. Infected trees show a range of symptoms including yellowing of the foliage and the loss of leaves, canopy thinning and lesions that bleed resin.Scientists are not sure where it came from, but believe that it was introduced into New Zealand. There’s a big DOC and Aucland Regional Council campaign going on at the moment to try and stop the spread of the disease. Any forest areas where kauris are found you’ll now see cleaning stations at the park entrance where you are able to clean you boots bike tyres with a disinfectant. It seems to be working and everyone I saw seems to be adhering to the rules.

It's the end of the blog and I haven’t even mentioned a single bird species yet, what’s going on! Sadly, although native forests such as the Waipoua are intact their bird populations are impoverished as a consequence of introduced mammalian predators. If we had been the first humans to enter the Waipoua, the noise from the dawn chorus would have been deafening. However, you still get a sense of the ‘birdland’ New Zealand once was from the electric bubbles transmitting from the odd tui or bell bird, but it’s a mere shadow of what your ears would have been privy to. 

Below are some pics of the native bird species we found in the Waipoua 

kereru (NZ pigeon)