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Monday, 20 August 2012

The soils and seas are alive!

Apologies yet again for the long break between this and the last blog, and as there's over two months news from the island to catch up with, I had better just get on with it, so here goes!

I: Of worms and men

Since it's the summer season (or was), the programme of events have taken over proceedings and this years slightly different approach to the programme is starting to pay off (or was!). Encouraging visiting experts to talk about their research on the island has been cited as an area for potential improvement, and of course this was fine with me becasue I do get very sick of my own voice as the season gets under way (the Essex in me does slip off the tongue on occasion), and its also nice to sit back and listen for a change.

Approaching the specialists hasn't really been that difficult, as most reseachers love to talk and enthuse others about their work on the island.This is especially true of Dr Kevin Butt from the University of Central Lancashire who has been investigating Rum earthworms since 1995 and I really do think he loves them! One of the main findings from Kevin's work is that earthworm communities have significantly incresesed in number where woodland had been re-established on the island.He has bags of enthusiasm for our little slippery friends and all who attended our organised field excursion around the village and evening lecture on the 21st May got heaps from it.These events were part of the much bigger Highland Soil Biodiversity Festival (part of Scottish Biodiversity week) which aimed at getting folk understanding the importance of soil.

Due to the bulk addition of mainland soil at Kinloch, the area supports 12 species of earhworms including this one, Lumbricus terrestris

And soil is pretty fundamental, so just a quick recap if you don't know why eathworms are so good for that muddy stuff under our feet; that very stuff we humans depend upon for our own continued survival I might add. So here are some facts we should all remember about earthworms as they are an integral part of that soil. 
Earthworms have been termed 'ecosytem engineers', because they change the structute of their environment by making both horizontal and vertical burrows.These create pores through which oxygen and water can enter and by which carbon dioxide can leave.Worms are also responsible for mixing soil layers and incorporating organic matter into it which becomes available to bacteria, fungi and plants, so assist greatly with decomposition.In fact, they're so important that the man himself Charles Darwin concluded [that], ''It may be doubted if there are other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.''

Dr Kevin Butt and Dr Chris Lowe from the University of Central Lancashire stunning worms at the soil surface.Please note that no worms were harmed during the making of this science.   

A worm in the hand is worth two in the bush
Other visiting specialists over the summer included Jim Blair from the Lochaber Geopark who kindly conducted a geology walk and talk over the 18th-20th June, and all who attended appreciated an extra insight into Rum's geological past.The talk was pretty packed out, but unfortunately few took the opportunity to accompany Jim up Coire Dubh during the day.I think that maybe an open-to-all indoor geology workshop may be the answer to this next season, and will be definitely worth trying ..bring the mountain to Mohamed so to speak.

Lochaber Geopark's Jim Blair
II: The crazy summer of cetaceans

As you would expect from the height of summer, Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and seabirds have been much in evidence around the waters off the island from about the end of May onwards. Consequently, there's been much interest in the weekly two hour boat trip to the Isle of Soay aboard the MV Sheerwater this season (especially when it was free for a while).

No dolphins that day, but the 'Goddards' have been sticking with it.

A special mention to the 'Goddards', who have been on every Thursday trip to Soay come rain or shine for the entire summer.Sometimes they see a kittiwake or two, and sometimes heaps of exciting stuff (not to say that kittiwakes aren't exciting too).Anyhoo, the moral of this story is that you just never know what will be about and when, so their additude has been refreshing, and they are pleased with whatever they see.Afterall, actually seeing someting wild is a privalage that doesn't happen instanly like it does on the telly, you have to put in the hours, and even then, you may only get a glimpse.So full respect for sticking with it! As we shall see, putting in the hours does pay dividends.Check out the clip underneath when they actually do spot a pod of short-beaked common dolphins (please turn your head sideways to view, I cant work out how to correct this...the internet is a new invention and wasn't around when I went to school back in the 1980's).

 I have also been trying out our larger supply vessel (the MV Loch Nevis) for its suitability for wildlife watching (as if I hadn't already), as a near perfect opportunity arose after contacting the organisers of the first Wild Locharber Festival.They are aiming to promote wildlife and eco-tourism in this under valued area of the Highlands.All in all, it was a good first taste and a great way to scope out something special for next year when the whole event is expected to gather momentum.2012 events were all organised very quickly, as the funding package was only finalised a month before! The day was a bit of a marathon however, as I was on board for an epic ten hours seawatch and irradiated to a cinder.On the cetacean front only a few harbour porpoise were seen all day, but heaps of manx shearwaters and other seabirds were on hand to connect folk with our fantastic marine environment, so job done.Here are some of the better photos.

The approaching MV Loch Nevis on the morning of the marathon seawatch.

Rafting manxies off Cave's Bay.

Punters on the look out..

Harbour seals, Eigg.

Sanday light

Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus

Grey seal, Malliag Harbour.

Common seal with pup off Eigg
Due to the warmer sea surface temperatures and abundant plankton later on into July, the situation onboard the MV Sheerwater was totally different regarding cetacean abundance.Short-beaked common dolphins (the Italians of the dolphin world...they breech and show off quite a bit) were literally everywhere and amazed dozens of people over the last few months. An aggregation of about c.1000 individuals was first noted around the Small Isles in early June, and since then this 'super pod' divided into various smaller groups. The highlights on the Thurday Soay trip included c.60 between Arisaig and Eigg on the 19th June, and c.100 between Rum and Soay on June 21st.Here is some of the action in pictures.

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Enthusing the young about Rum's marine environment..this is what it's all about.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: waiting and watching for the blow?
Aboard MV Sheerwater: The Welsh spoil another potentially good photo opportunity!
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Red-throated diver Gavia stellata.A typical flight silhouette with the neck and head lowered.The feet projection beyond the tail is less obvious than on other divers and are perceived to be an extension of the tail.  
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Common guilemots

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Ronnie Dyer, skipper of MV Sheerwater

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Rafting manx shearwaters Puffinus puffinus.

During the breeding season Manxies assemble at sea in the late afternoon prior to going ashore once night has fallen.Formed between one and ten kilometres from the colony, these impressive assemblages, called rafts, can number thousands of birds.For example, off Caves' Bay, rafts may exceed ten thousand birds.Given that Manxies arrive in these rafts well before sunset, and therefore well before feeding is likely to be curtailed, biologists wonder whether participation in rafts could in some way benefit the birds, but the answer to this question is simply not known.  
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Rafting manxies, off Rum, July 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Adult manx shearwater, off Rum, July 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: A very close minke whale, off Soay, July 2012 (photo Ian Bolas)

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena and manxie, off Soay, July 2012.Found only in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, this small cetacean measures up to 1.9 metres and has a distinctive short, long based triangular dorsal fin.

It has to be said that the gems of the summer have been the Short-beaked common dolphins which are found throughout the northern Atlantic and most of the Pacific region.The best way to identify the species is by their behaviour, as they are usullay in large boisterous schools and can be aerially acrobatic, with flipper slapping, bow riding, breaching and sometimes somersaulting, and we've certainly been privy to most of this during the summer!Another distinguishing characteristic is the hourglass pattern on their sides.  

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Swimming almost as one organism, short-beaked common dolphins Delphinus delphis,  off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphins
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Small pod of short-beaked common dolphins and distant manxie raft, off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphin, off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Single short-beaked common dolphin (photo Daniel Campbell).
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphins (photo Daniel Campbell)
Aboard MV Sheerwater: All skuas are pirates, and none is better equipped for the part than the great skua or bonxie (meaning bully in old Norse).This bugger is not only sturdily built, aggressive and bullying, but is also the largest of the skuas, so well able to rob really large birds of their latest meals.

A Aboard MV Sheerwater: The bonxies favourite victim is the gannet.It seizes any unwary bird by the wingtip, so making it stall and fall into the sea.The gannet then disgorges its food and the spoils are snapped up (photo: Ian Sargent).   
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Safe as long as you're not carrying fish, an adult gannet

Aboard MV Sheerwater: a mean as bonxie!

Aboard the Isle of Sanday: Great skua or bonxie on Sanday..even meaner when you're walking through their terrestrial territory.
Recent sightings

Not really that recent, but still recent enough anyway....

A good late spring record of a long-eared owl at the Harris tree plot on May 22nd was a welcome change for some.2 adult orcas off Muck on the 25th June, with 5 seen again off Muck on the July 4th, also 4 bottle-nosed dolphins off Eigg that day. Basking sharks have been a wee bit more numerous this season, but still only a handful of records for Rum including singles in Loch Scresort on the 13th and 14th July,and a whopping 5 off Kilmory on July 21st. Our sea eagles failed this season, but 2 pairs of goldies were successful fledging a chick a piece.Other breeding successes include 1 pair of greenshanks, short-eared owl, hen harrier, merlin and at least 10 pairs of red-throated divers.Arctic terns did well too, with over 10 pairs nesting at Kilmory. Other notables include a possible breeding spotted flycatcher, which was seen on numerous occasions around the village in May, June and early July (perhaps breeding due to the warmer dryer conditions and abundant large insect life, which is perhaps due to the new wild flower meadow around the castle!?).Autumn migration is now underway, with a flock of 50+ twite at Harris on the 5th August and two juvenile dotterels on Barkeval on the 18th August.

Adult spotted flycatcher, Kinloch, June 2012.

As usual, some of the weather in pictures......

Oh, and I will be more regular from now on I promise (with the ranger blogs that is), so see you soon with some more Rum news and ting soon!

Big moon over Scresort

Every cloud.....


  1. We had a great time on your Island. My Blog is now up Rum is like a fine malt, you have to keep goung back for more.