Sunday, 21 December 2014

Horus the Peregrine - Childrens Book Review

The latest children's book in the 'Chick Book' series is out this winter (Dec 2014) and is named Horus the Peregrine Falcon, which follows the story of a newly fledged peregrine surviving in the city of London. The name Horus comes from a highly worshipped falcon god in Egypt 5000 years ago, with worshipping continuing by the conquering Greeks and Romans 2500 years later!

The book starts with the hatching of Horus and three other chicks at the Houses of Parliament, high up Victoria Tower, looking across to some of the cities iconic landmarks like Big Ben and The London Eye. An abundance of factual species information is included, starting from the very first page, with two examples of sexual dimorphism of peregrines, with the females being larger than the males from birth. 
Front cover
Urban peregrines main food source, feral pigeon are featured strongly in the book due to the damage the pigeons can cause to urban areas through the spread of disease, and also their droppings damaging stonework. This emphasises the important role the raptors play in controlling their numbers. Page 6-7 of the book quickly confirms why the subtitle is 'Catch the Pigeon'. 

There is a very powerful message included in the story regarding the influence MPs and Lords housed in the Houses of Parliament have dictated the life (or death) of peregrines. This is due to their participation in grouse shooting which involves managing areas of moorland just for grouse to be shot for fun. This causes instances of illegal persecution of predators such as peregrines, harriers, eagles and wildcats, to protect grouse and make Great Britain one of the worst countries in the world for wildlife crime! 
This is a vital inclusion for children and adults to learn about the serious threats to their native species and their natural heritage as a whole. Providing honesty to children from a young age is very important for their development. 

Peregrines illegally killed on grouse moors...
Towards the end of the book Horus even hunts in the back garden of Buckingham Palace and targets one of the queens fantail doves, as it just escapes the falcons grasp. Again this is a powerful message relating to the Royal families involvement and enjoyment in killing animals, and their connection with shooting estates.

Horus hunting in the queens back garden
Horus ends up visiting a number London attractions including, Big Ben, The London Eye, Trafalgar Sq, Tower of London, Canary Wharf, O2 Arena and the Victoria Embankment on his search for pigeons. The author promotes the species with clear intent that he wants peregrines to be a major London attraction of the future!

Horus preening on the London Eye
This book finishes with information about one of the most famous nature conservationists of the 20th century, Derek Ratcliffe, who helped make the discovery that agricultural chemicals weakened peregrines egg shells. This discovery enabled a major recovery of the bird that we can all enjoy today. 

The story of Horus works on two levels, enthusing and educating adults as well as children, and makes you want to go out and witness a peregrine ruling an urbanian skyline. With 80% of the UK population living in an urban environment, with the figure set to increase to 90% by 2050, the title could be an integral way to keep children connected with nature. The book of Horus has the power to inspire the next generation to 'worship' peregrines and maybe even help produce the next Derek Radcliffe! 

View more in the 'Chick Book' series here - 

Horus is available to buy here -

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Saturday on the Solway...

On the 13th Dec, myself and Dad went to the Solway for the afternoon to see what winter wildlife we could encounter. The first port of call was Skinburness near Silloth to do the short walk to Grune point which provides nice views of the surrounding salt marsh and tidal mud flats. Our first sight was a huge number of barnacle geese (3000+) all lifting in sync due to a low flying aircraft overhead. 

As we approached the point we saw small numbers of shelduck, goosanders, mallard, wigeon and redshank on the east side with groups of teal, wigeon and very active redshanks round to the west. Three small groups of very compact golden plovers flew past heading north and we flushed a male short-eared owl from the vegetation while looking for the recently reported snow buntings. 

We worked our way back east on a number of minor roads and at Anthorn we got a large number of golden plover (400+) and a small flock of lapwings (40+) in flight over the car, a great sight. 

We arrived at the Campfield marsh hide just before 3pm, with enough light left to persevere and see what we could observe. If it was a football match then we would have scored a screamer in the first 10 seconds, as we got onto an adult male hen harrier working the far side of the marsh before lifting a group of thirty teal into flight. Five minutes later we got a juv male peregrine flyby which again got teal on the wing and perched on a prominent branch in the mature birch plantation. A buzzard chased the peregrine off back to the east, swapping places with the tiersal. The next sighting would be a little egret coming in from the north, landing on the edge of the same woodland before heading back in the same direction twenty minutes later. 

As the light was dropping a few people left the hide as we stayed on for a short while longer with huge rewards. The first sighting was a female peregrine on hot pursuit of four barnacle geese as she managed to brake on away, trying to drop down on it with her talons out just missing the target as the solitary goose got away! 
Moments later while panning across the long grass I got onto a red fox! It was a dog and it was sat patiently listening for activity before he started working the marsh, potentially trying to flush snipe. He made his way to the north walking with real prowess, right past the hide. 
All animals are equal, but I have always had a real soft spot for the fox. Their beauty, elegance and iconic status are a few of the reasons along with their 'super species' status due to the one species having a range spanning five out of the seven continents! 
no one can ever refer to them self as a 'dog lover' unless they have full admiration for the top dog on the planet!

Thanks for looking...

Friday, 5 December 2014

Wild Scotland Conference 2014 - Guest Blog part 2 - Ewan Miles

The Wild Scotland Conference was held at the Concert Hall, Perth on Wednesday, November 26th. It was named 'The Nature of Change'.

Myself and colleague Cain Scrimgeour arrived at the venue for the 10.30 start and were warmly welcomed by Wild Scotland representatives. We had a look around the stalls before heading into the conference hall for the morning session. 

An introduction to the event was given by the newly designated WS chairman Ben Mardall. He encouraged all the guests to interact and engage with each other and be very proactive, as we need to be in the wildlife/adventure industries we are all involved in. He gave an example of an excellent wildlife tourism operator based in Scotland showing the high levels that the country provides along with the level that other operators can aspire towards. 

Richard Whitcomb (Associate Director of Ekosgen) was the first guest speaker and he gave an informative talk before giving delegates the opportunity to discuss and contribute to The National Adventure Tourism Research Study by working together and sharing ideas in small groups. 

The next guest speaker was Gert Nieuwboer who set up an adventure walking holiday company in Holland called SNP Nature Travel which has grown to become the leading brand in the country. He discussed the benefits of researching every fine detail within your business which could reap huge rewards. He gave an example of researching the different age categories of his customers and what they wanted to gain from the experience. He discovered that the age group 16-25 was a lot lower than the other age groups and another discovery was that those customers in the 16-25 age category were regarding 'meeting new people' as one of the major factors of going on a trip. With all this collated data SNP Nature Travel created a tailor-made trip with criteria suited just to that specific customer. A highly informative talk by Gert showing the importance of going through every statistic in a business and leaving nothing to chance. 

After the lunch break myself and Cain attended a couple of workshops with the first one being Market Data run by Mike Dennison and Katherine Taylor and the second one Industry-led Training by Sally Dowden. Excellent talks and engaging with other delegates was beneficial again in sharing ideas and business techniques in group discussions. 

The final guest speaker was Karen Darke who is the 2012 Paralympic silver medallist, 2012 Paratriathlon world champion and a ground breaking adventurer. Karen became paralysed from the waist down, in a rock climbing accident in 1992 and she discussed how she overcame her challenges in life and achieved some seemingly impossible feats. She used words like commitment, belief, motivation and inspiration and her 40 minute talk inspired me and I am sure many others in the room. She quoted that inspiration is an energy which comes in many shapes and forms. I am going to use her inspirations to help fuel my career aspirations in the future. 

Ben Mardall's closing remarks were spoken with real care, passion and determination encouraging us to digest all that we experienced on the day and to work harder and commit to our business to make it succeed.   

A highly beneficial experience and special thanks to Ben, Gillian and all at WS for their hard work in making the day happen and also for my opportunity to be a guest blogger for the organisation. I hope to see you all at the conference next year!

Ewan Miles

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Islay, November 2014

Myself and my dad went to the inner Hebridean island of Islay on the 15th November for a week. I was to assist John with journalism and wildlife tourism promotional work. Could the location famous for its whisky also be as famous for its natural heritage in the future? 

Islay is the southern most Hebridean island and has a population of over 3000 inhabitants. A major industry is the eight active distilleries which are the isles second largest employer after agriculture. In 1779 there was 23 distilleries in operation on Islay!
Tourism is also integral to the island with over 40,000 visitors a year with the main attractions being wildlife, landscapes and rural isolation. 
The isle is also known for its renewable energy options with the first wave power station in the world on its exposed west coast. The Sound of Islay has also been designated to be the largest tidal array in the world with 10 tidal turbines planned, to harness the eight knots of tide which drives in between Islay and Jura. 
Unique varied geology can be seen all around the island which is the pattern of all the Hebrides beautifully varied isles. Notably there is a fault line passing through Loch Gruniart and Loch Indaal which was formed along a branch of the Great Glen Fault called the Loch Gruniart Fault. Lewisian Gneiss outcrops are exposed on the shoreline and a stunning sea stack can be seen in the SW of the isle called Soldiers rock due named due to the linear quartz intrusions which band all the way round it.

Day one - 22nd Nov

The afternoon ferry from Kennacraig produced a raft of 18 GN diver, 15 plus RB mergansers, 100 plus wigeon, a hurry of 40 kittiwakes, 2 razorbills, 6 guillemots, goldeneye, imm gannet and a single black guillemot. As we approached Port Askaig in the Sound of Islay we saw two golden eagles over the mountainous east side of Islay and also two adult white-tailed eagles over the village with one bird dropping down in an unsuccessful attempt at fishing! 

We arrived at Coillabus Cottage at dusk, which was located in stunning isolation on the Oa peninsula in the SW of Islay -

Top left - Red Deer stag, Top right - Rubha Mhail Lighthouse, Bottom left - Loch Indaal, Bottom right - Chough in flight
Day two

Wonderful sunshine throughout the day as we headed up to the north east part of the isle parking at Bunnahabhian and walking a coastal route to the NE point. The first record was a brambling calling in a nearby garden. A 4.5 mile walk to the north coastline rewarded us with 2 BT divers, an imm WT eagle and a minke whale! We had lunch by Rubha Mhail lighthouse and had a chat with the lady that had lived their for over twenty years in amazing isolation. On the drive back home on the evening we encountered a finch flock with a solitary cock yellowhammer all feeding on stubble. We checked the head of Loch Indaal on the way home and had wonderful views of a male merlin hunting a meadow pipit and a kingfisher calling nearby.

Day three

The settled weather continued and we covered areas local to where we were staying on the Oa peninsula. A nice circular walk started with a male peregrine overhead followed by a small flock of snow buntings also in flight as we reached the south coastline. Fulmars occupying territories along with birds gliding with gannets just off the coastline and a pair of curious ravens nearby. As we were on the board walk a jenny wren kept appearing from below it as we drove it further along, but one attempt to get out failed as it got stuck in between the two panels for a second or two!
Working our way back east we got more snow buntings, small flocks of twite and three golden eagles cresting the distant skyline.
We went round to Laggan bay in the afa and on route we spotted a leucistic reed bunting, clean white showing very well roadside. When we arrived at the bay we accidentally flushed three chouch feeding on invertebrates on the exposed weed on the spring lines. Dad spotted three LT duck out on the bay and a solitary sanderling on the beach as we admired the varied geological shoreline. 6-8 bottlenose dolphins and a female peregrine were other highlights in the area. 
Clear skies on the night so I did some dark sky spots of the cottage and the surrounding area which I will donate to the cottages owner.

Day four

Setting off at first light again we headed north to the RSPB reserve of Loch Gruniart and on route we had a slav grebe north of Bowmore. A male hen harrier was the first record on the north side of Loch Gruniart and as we walked the beach on low water we saw a single dunlin resting and sheltering by a clump of kelp. groups of twite and rock doves were seen as we went to check a deserved building for owl pellets to no avail.
On the reserve itself we had a male merlin flyby over the farm and also a female merlin hunting dunlin in spectacular fashion pushing them to a great height. Large number of geese and waders which included around 50 golden plover. 
We went further north to Ardnave point where we watched big gatherings of choughs and also a juv female peregrine in flight. Two snow buntings calling along the coast and a solitary purple sandpiper and turnstone. Looking north to Nave island we had a WT eagle perched on the west side. 

Top left -Barnies on loch Indaal, Top Right - Oa, Bottom Left - Coillabus cottage, Bottom Right - GWF geese and barnies.
 Day five

We covered the SW of the isle in the morning driving along the Ardbeg road and on route the highlight was a juv golden eagle holding metres above the car and continuing to show well afterwards! We did a woodland walk around Islay estate in the afternoon and I learnt two new species of fern in maidenhair and hart's tounge fern. Also amazing seeing polypody on a mature sycamore and admired the non native Turkey oak which is host to the gall wasp Andricus quercuscalicis, whose larvae damage the acorns of native British oaks. In 1998, the Ministry of Defence ordered the felling of all Turkey Oaks on its UK bases!
We moved onto Loch Skerrols where we got a kingfisher performing its classic illusive nature. 
As we arrived back at the cottage at dusk we could not believe our eyes as two golden eagles were soaring a metre above the building as they slowly moved off and worked the surrounding agricultural land targeting rabbits in low light. 

Day six

At first light two golden eagles right by the house again working low targeting rabbits again! As we left to the NW of the isle we had a juv golden eagle just down the lane metres above the car...ridiculous! 
Dad got onto a female LT duck north of Bowmore and as we arrived at Sanaigmore bay we saw 2 adult GN divers, female sp-hawk and countless chough with lovely views of two adults preening each other. 
We moved round to Loch Gorm where we saw a juv female hen harrier working the rough grass. We did a small walk at the third RSPB reserve of Saligo where we saw an adult female peregrine, a solitary golden plover and six bottlenose dolphins heading north just off the coast. 
Our last stop was Machair bay where John heard a water rail and we recorded 28 curlew on the beach along with a flyby of a tiercel peregrine targeting starlings. 
On the way back we scooped up a brown hare which was dead on the road and left it on a nearby backing by the cottage to see what it would entice.
At dusk dad and I watched on from the window as an adult golden eagle flew past, metres away at level hight! It was getting ridiculous! 

Day seven 

I stayed local on day seven to observe the golden eagles hunting in the surrounding area. At around lunchtime I had short walk around the field and managed to observe and film two adult golden eagles riding the strong easterly wind. The video can be seen below...

Dad arrived back in the afternoon as we watched hooded crows and ravens feeding on the hare carrion with a buzzard making a brief appearance. The hoodys did a large number of caches nearby. A male hen harrier flew past the garden fence as we were watching the feeding and also two adult choughs feeding just outside the boundary fence.   

Day eight 

Hoodys and ravens continued to feed on the hare at first light with WF geese grazing nearby. On the Port Ellan - Kennacraig ferry we got two bottlenose dolphins just out of the bay and two porpoise off Gigha Isle. Dad spotted 2/3 otters on the mainland side and another highlight was 18 GN divers in a tight raft.  
We called into Knapdale to see beaver evidence on the way back, admiring the dam construction, gnawed stumps and flooded birch woodlands.

A wonderful week, thanks very much to dad for everything. 

If anyone is interested in visiting the isle of Islay I can highly recommend this cottage, in particular for the potential of life changing views of golden eagles -

Thanks for looking....

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Wild Scotland Guest Blog - Ewan Miles

Published here -

The Wild Scotland conference in Perth will be held on the 26th November 2014 and this event brings together people working in the wildlife tourism sector to share ideas and learn new ways to enhance their business in a highly dynamic industry. Workshops and guest speakers aim to inspire you to improve your existing business or start-up as a new operator.

At this time of the year a lot of our species like geese, waders and passerines will flock together in large groups as 'strength in numbers' can help decrease the chance of predation for individuals and also increase their chance of finding food source, benefiting the species as a whole. What a great chance for tourism operators to do the same at this time of the year by performing a communal gathering and benefiting themselves and their company through engaging with fellow professionals and working together to survive and to thrive in the sector. Just like all ecosystems rely on the interconnections to make it complete, I think an integral part for tourism operators is engaging with related businesses, attending workshops and corporate events to help evolve your business and it could be the missing link to your set-up. 

Working together for everyone's benefit

Visitor spending in Scotland is around 4 billion pounds annually and 1.4 billion of that is nature-based spending which works out at 40% of all tourism spending in the country. This means that anyone working in the industry has an important role to play in representing the country in a large part of its economy. By attending events like the Wild Scotland Industry Conference it can help you reach these high levels and keep up with the rising standards in the 21st century. 

Sustainable wildlife and adventure tourism can be achieved for the benefit of businesses, wildlife, customers and our natural heritage.
One of the benefits of joining Wild Scotland is to strengthen your marketing and advertising reach through the website, E-Newsletter and social media pages. Business support is also available for members through workshops and an on-line members section on the website. Wild Scotland is increasing its membership tally and on a broader spectrum this represents Scotland's outdoor tourism sector in a positive manner with a large variety of different operators available, showing a sign of a healthy expanding industry.

Below is a list of the guest speakers and workshops which will take place at the annual Wild Scotland Industry Conference on the 26th November 2014. I hope to see you there!

  • Fantastic speaker line-up with an International guest speaker and internationally-recognised British Paralympian and Adventurer, Karen Darke.

  • Chance for industry to input to the national Adventure Tourism research exercise that has been commissioned by  Highlands and Islands Enterprise in partnership with VisitScotland, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Scottish Development International.

  • A wide range of workshops including ‘Professionalising the Sector’.  We have included this workshop as Wild Scotland has been commissioned to develop the existing Wilderness Guide Training scheme into a full-blown structured accredited Art of Guiding Programme. As Wild Scotland is at the start of the development process, industry input into the structure and focus of the Programme is invaluable!

  • Leading into the Year of Food and Drink, we will also have a few success stories of businesses which have incorporated Scottish food & drink into their current package and have seen bottom line results of giving visitors a quality food and drink experience.

Book Now:

Join Now:

Ewan Miles

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Humpback whale - the Skyes the limit

Myself and Rachel twitched a 15 metre, 40 ton marine mammal at the end of October. It was a humpback whale off Skye and only the second record of this species in the Hebrides this year so it was a mouth watering prospect to go and try and see this iconic cetacean. We had a 24 hour window on the Wednesday where we both were free and the weather forecast was promising enough to increase our chances. 
So after a late night shift of stargazing/photography we were up for the first ferry off the isle at 0725 to travel the four hour journey north with an ETA target of around noon. Wonderful crisp morning light along with highland autumnal colours meant a few short stops on the way as we arrived at the Skye bridge at 1130 and onto our first perseverance point of Braes.

Within minutes of been at our vantage point looking over the Sound of Rasaay...BLOW! A humpback whale performed a surface sequence finishing off with that sublime fluke of the tail! We watched the animal for about half an hour before losing it but persevered until about 1500 as we got onto the 'humpy' again along with two minke whales all feeding in close proximity. At one point I had all three animals surface in the same field of view in my binoculars! A solitary breech was made metres from a creel boat as Rachel and I just got the huge splash. Brian Wells on the vessel got a great photo that can be seen below. A wonderful experience and made extra special as it was in British waters. Another memory that will stick with me for life.

Top left - humpback fluking, top right - Rach scanning the Sound of Rassay, Bottom left - Eilean Donan caslte, Bottom right - Creel fishermans amazing capture
For the last hour of light we decided to see a bit of the isle so headed to Portree for a forage then back south so see what was going on. We covered the south west side of the isle, having a wee drive to take in the sights. Impressive dramatic peaks of the red (granite) and black (gabbro) Cullins providing impressive geology on the isle known as 'Dinosaur Island' because of its fossil records. 

We headed back east at dusk and arrived at Fort William where we had fish and chips in a busy town on bonfire night. I try not to moan and be negative but firework displays boil me up a little bit. The fact that hundreds of folk can congregate to watch a noisy artificial display of the same old nonsense and I have spent countless evenings watching northern lights, meteor showers and the general wonders of the night sky with no one in sight! We also saw a Chinese lantern being released into the sky, which is something that baffles me as well? You can observe thousands of bright things called stars in the night sky along with everything else to provide endless learning, fascination and curiosity. This is before talking about the environmental damage they cause, as 90% end up in the sea and can be consumed by filter feeding species like whales and can lead to fatality. So it's time to get rid of every single one of them, and I don't care if there is tradition involved either....if we want to talk about tradition, our natural heritage has been performing for 4.6 billion years so let's start taking notice of that a bit more. 

Anyway we headed back to the east along the district of Morvern and sightings of interest were two roadside woodcock and a pair of barn owls looking down on us from a young ash. We made it to Lochaline at around 2300 and after struggling to find a dark area because of street lights we finally managed a dark lay-by to settle for the night and target the first ferry in the morning as Rach was working at 9am. The weather turned right on cue in the middle of the night with a force 7-8 south wind and heavy rain but the ferry was on and we made it back to the promised land on the 0700 ferry as planned!

A wonderful adventurous 24 hours and thanks to Rachel who I shared it with. What a way to spend a day, watching some wonderful marine life and a huge variety of inspiring wildscapes in the progress. The best bonfire night ever!

Monday, 3 November 2014

October review...

Early on in the month I did a couple of local school visits representing Sea Life Surveys. The first school I visited was Dervaig primary on the 3rd. I spoke to a class of about 30 children all about the marine life around the island. After about half an hour of the kids telling me about all the animals they have seen around Mull's coastline I talked about my observations and learnings in the last five years around our waters and gave them an introduction of some of the species which can be seen. After a short break we did a playground activity exemplifying the dominance of sound in the ocean and finished off with an activity sheet with them stating why we need to look after the seas and watching some youtube videos of Kasey and Knobble the minke whales! 

On the Monday (6th) I went down to Bunessan primary to talk about the pre-school class first and then the p2-p4 class. Another great experience to share our wildlife encounters, discoveries and research with the children and see such huge enthusiasm and curiosity in return. 

Dervaig primary school...

beach clean...
Wednesday 8th and Andrew Jake and I decided to head to the north west side of the island and tidy up a small stretch of the coastline which tends to have a higher concentration of marine litter due to been exposed to the Atlantic. We did a couple of hours and managed four bin liners full of smaller stuff and a lot of larger debris as well. Fascinating to see jetsam that has travelled across from the other side of the ocean with American branding. Its always an occasion of mixed feelings but overall a very rewarding thing to do, out in the fresh air, good exercise and surrounded by beautiful wildlife and seascapes....what could be better!

On the evening I lead a dark sky photography workshop with Mull camera club (MTTL). It has held at Glengorm and we had clear spells to work with throughout the evening, which was great in giving us all the opportunity to capture some starscapes. Sixteen people attended the event and it was a great success with a variety of photos captured and even a weak auroral arc to the north later on by the persistent Martin Jones. 

MTTL dark sky event

Later on in the week there was a charity event held at Garmony to raise funds for Marie Curie cancer fund-raising group and my MullRally dark sky star/traffic trail photo was auctioned off for £320. Thanks to Cheryl and MTTL for their involvement in that. Photography can be a very rewarding thing to do for your own benefit but can be powerful in other ways as well through charitable donations, kindness through gifts and also inspirational when you see an image which ignites the senses. 

On Saturday 18th I was contacted by a Country Life magazine journalist through other sources on Mull, to give him an introduction of the wildlife around the island. We met in Tobermory in mid-morning and headed south to some of the most productive raptor/otter locations on the island. Our first highlight was a male hen harrier quartering the rough grass close to the road. After a few minutes it dropped down and came up with a vole in his talons, which it took further up the hillside to feed on. 
We saw a juv (ringtail) harrier a bit later on down at Pennyghael junction and then classic skyline golden eagles going through Glen More. We approached the turn-off for Lochbuie and I told Nick that it is a sensational area down there, so we took a right turn and headed down that stretch. Within minutes we had two golden eagles metres above our head before an adult white-tailed eagle came past triggering vocal yelping from the goldies! An incredible aerial dispute as we watched on from below. 
Some wonderful sightings around raptor island and thanks to Nick for who I shared those great sightings with. He will be doing an article in Country life about sustainable scallop diving around the island and hopefully he will be inspired by those raptor encounters to do a piece on the value and belonging of birds of prey in our countryside. 

Tuesday 28th and after the worst 10 days of weather I have ever experienced in the Hebrides, there was a small window of clear skies and settled weather so I headed out to cover some mountain ecology in a central part of the island. Great to spend half a day having a whole mountain range to yourself and sightings included a single mistle thrush on the scree during the ascent and two golden eagles in flight to the north. Working the summit I had a skein of thirty pink foots overhead and around 15 whoopers flying in a SW direction. A small number of meadow pipits and a solitary wheatear briefly seen as well. As darkness started to arrive I attempted a starscape at 2000ft of hight but a lot of cloud rolled in so I gave up and headed down back to the car.
I did a short video blog post while on the summit, which can be viewed below. I am trying to keep moving forward and evolving my blog, improving it all the time, never standing still.

Beinn a Ghraig ready for the stars...

I called into Salen pier on the way home to attempt a star sequence for my MULLatNIGHT video and managed about 200 frames looking N/NW from the old pier. Later that night I did Glengorm castle (150 frames) and a traffic trail on Tobermory main street (250 frames). 

Salen old pier star-trail 60 frames complied using Starstax software
For the remainder of the month I have been keeping my self occupied with my part time Open University course as I am currently studying a module in Geology. Five further modules would reward me with an honours degree in Natural Sciences but the main reason I am doing it is because of a hunger and curiosity to learn. I never want to stop learning about the natural world and as long as that sticks I will be delighted.

Thanks for looking :)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Autumnal aurora...

True darkness has returned and at this time of the year around the Autumn equinox it tends to provide an increased chance to see the aurora borealis at a lower latitude for reasons relatively unknown to science. 
On the 14th Oct aurora activity was forecast to be increased at 1500 onwards due to a CME side-swiping earth's magnetic field. A wonderful forecast of clear skies was due throughout the night so it looked like there would be a chance of a display.
I got in position at my favourite vantage point on the north side of the isle and as dusk turned to darkness I soon began to see green as there was a pale auroral arc on the northern horizon. I got a time-lapse going before a large nimbus cloud blocked the north side before slowly dispersing over an hour later with a light southerly wind. At around 2330 the display really intensified for 10-15 minutes with green columns rippling through the sky as its strength rose to around 5kp. A spectacular display which I shared with a lovely young family experiencing the spectacle for their first time. 

Glengorm Aurora, 15 sec, f2.8. iso 2000
I headed home to charge my batteries and eat a cereal bar before heading back out in the field to a coastal level and different angle. The conditions were really in my favour tonight as the sky continued to stay clear and the solar winds continued to blow, displaying a nice arc of columns moving slowly from left to right through the sky before it eased off at around 0300. I managed another time-lapse sequence to go with my MULLatNIGHT video sequence which will hopefully be completed before xmas. 

Aurora from Croig, 15 sec, f2.8. iso2000
The next day my aurora encounter was publicised in the Scotsman, Press and Journal, The Times and the Metro -

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Merging into the mountains...

 A walk up Sgurr Dhomhnuill on the Sunday (12th) to cover the higher ground and experience some mountain ecology. lovely mosses and lichens on the ascent and a huge amount of fir clubmosses growing at 1500ft and beyond. Red deer bellowing and interacting all around the barren treeless landscapes with the odd raven passing through. Near the summit we saw a painted lady butterfly and a white-tailed bumblebee and the highlight on the way down was finding ptarmigan droppings and hearing a distant bird calling just after the discovery! A couple of common frogs in the sphagnum moss further down and jays and bullfinch in the oakwoods as we made our way back down to the car.

Ptarmigan droppings 2300ft up Sgurr Dhomhnuill
In the afternoon we headed right out to the head of the peninsula where we had a short coastal walk on Sanna and sightings were a juvenile wheatear and a couple of ringed plovers. 

We drove round to the point where we would be based for the night and it was lovely clear skies so I did some starscapes of the surrounding area and enjoyed some wonderful nocturnal connections with nature, with the sound of the waves, shooting stars and watching the moonrise over to the east. 

Startrail, Ardnamurchan lighthouse
On the Monday we slowly worked our way back to the east and back round to Morvern peninsula where we stopped at the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve of Rahoy Hills. We followed the track through the mixed deciduous woodland and the first records were common darters basking on the track along with two common hawkers further along in the opening. We soon got onto a golden eagle cresting the skyline and heading our way. It suddenly broke into a surge of flapping and display diving right overhead and as we looked over our back there was a distant golden eagle with two buzzards mobbing it! An amazing show of territorial behaviour! A great few days, thank you Andrew.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Small isles excursion...

Sea Life Surveys trips finished at the end of September and as we had a settled high pressure spell of weather in the second week of October, I was desperate to get back out to sea and observe what was happening at this time of the year when the waters are under recorded.
Myself and Andrew Jake decided to head across to the mainland on Friday evening and up to Mallaig where we slept in the car at a nearby lay-by and up early the next morning to catch the 7am ferry to cover the Small isles. 
We boarded MV Lochnevis in Mallaig harbour and the wildlife was on show from the word go as we admired hundreds of starlings emerging from their roost site 50ft high in the harbour car park lights. A raft of 40 plus eider ducks was also present with some drakes putting on a resilient display.
Moments later and we were on to harbour porpoise in small groups with a healthy number of juveniles and calves seen as we made our way to the west. A flurry of activity followed as we saw over 30 gannets in a cloud feeding hard and also a group of 40 plus harbour porpoise in a concentrated area! It seems that from past observations at this time of the year harbour porpoise can congregate in larger numbers in the autumn/winter months. A big group of kittiwakes were seen feeding to the south of us at the same time.
Minke off Rum
Our first port of call was the beautiful isle of Rum and from there we headed north, and within 10 minutes of departure the skipper suddenly announced over the tannoy that there was a minke whale off the port side, and moments later the animal surfaced again under a small group of feeding gannets and kittiwakes! Well done to the skipper for encouraging the passengers, and a well earned Mars bar for that man! 
Minutes later I spotted another minke off the starboard bow which performed 5 surface rolls in a south-easterly direction. 

An ID shot of the first minke recorded
As we made our way round the north side of Rum we spotted a cloud of hundred plus gannets feeding further north. Over thirty guillemots recorded since the start, and a group of six razorbills and a single black guillemot as we were by the east side of Canna. 
It was the first time I had seen Canna close up and I was really impressed with its isolated beauty. A tiny community of 17 people and lovely surrounding wildscapes. Andrew spotted two white-tailed eagles perched on grassy knolls on the south of the isle. A passenger told us later on that the island had eradicated rats and rabbits in the last few years and now they have lost their solitary pair of golden eagles. A difficult compromise losing one species means losing a symbolic bird of prey which could have provided a huge amount of joy and inspiration to island visitors and locals a like. 

North Rum
Approaching Canna
We got under-way again to the south round to west side of Rum and spotted another two minke whales! (both juveniles). A group of fifteen harbour porpoise was seen with animals driving at the surface, presumably chasing fish. Four barnacle geese and eleven whooper swans overhead as well turned our attentions to the skies for a while. Great and arctic skuas (dark morph) were seen harassing kittiwakes in their usual fashion and a great northern diver in flight heading south. 

The isle of Eigg
Sightings record...
We landed on the manscaped isle of Muck and then onto the stunning isle of Eigg where we had harbour seals hauled out on skerries and curlews feeding on the exposed tide.
Two more juvenile minke whales were seen on the crossing from Eigg to Mallaig as the total count was six in seven hours sea watching! A single straggling manx shearwater was seen right off the bow as well to finish off a wonderful marine excursion with a fantastic array of species and seascapes. 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Autumn excursions...

We have encountered bottlenose dolphins four times so far this season in their traditional coastal niche. We saw then twice in the space of five days during July (10th and 15th) in typical groups of around 12-15 animals performing sporadic behaviour splitting off into smaller groups and occasional bow riding and general associations. 
August again produced two encounters with the first one being on the 19th when we had just arrived back from a Whalewatch Explorer at 1630 in Tobermory and as we were getting Sula Beag ready for the next trip we noticed an animal surface roll at the entrance to the harbour so we continued to watch on as a couple of bottlenose dolphins surfaced again showing that large back, tall dorsal fin and fine spray as they exhale. The animals continued to work their way into the harbour as we watched from Sula Beag alongside the pontoon and a growing audience observing from the shore. The animals stayed in the vicinity and we managed to see them for the evenings Ecocruz and enjoyed spectacular views along with capturing some photo ID shots of individuals. 

Bottlenose dolphin close surface

On the 26th August another special encounter for this season occurred when Sula Beag was surrounded by a superpod of over a thousand dolphins! Dolphin splash could be seen panning from one horizon to the other making the sea state look choppy on a windless day. An abundance of behaviour was observed which included splinter pods driving at the surface chasing shoals of fish. Other groups were performing strong interactions which included bow riding, wake riding and social connections when we drifted with the engines off. If all aboard did not already know it was a special encounter at the time they did when skipper James announced it was easily the largest number of dolphins he had observed in a lifetime of covering Hebridean waters!

Common dolphins associating with the underwater camara. Photo courtesy of James Fairbairns
As we made our way into the month of September we welcomed a wonderful settled high pressure spell of weather lasting for over two weeks which provided increased opportunities on our marine excursions. Regular common dolphin sightings continued and personal relations with two individual minke whales was had during the month. One of the animals had a distinct white spot on the trailing edge of its dorsal fin and we encountered the animal on the 11th, 16th and 17th of September. The minke was seen in the same concentrated area on every sighting which shows strong site fidelity.
The other minke whale seen in September was identifiable through sound and the distinct noise it made when it surfaced. The animal was nicknamed 'Horse' due to the relating sound and you can watch a video here. We had two sightings of the animal in the space of three days with the first record off the island of Coll's coastline before being recorded five miles to the east off Ardnamurchan peninsula! Skipper James said that it is the first whale he has known in these waters to be identified by the distinct sound of its surface blow.

We also managed some strong photo records of the minkes dorsal fin and back which was less unique in features compared to the other whale recorded.

Minke whale with the white spot in its trailing edge of its dorsal fin

Minke whale close surface roll
On the 17th September on a four hour Wildlife Adventure we were just making our way out of the Sound of Mull and working along a strong tide line full of lion's mane jellyfish when Andy shouted sunfish! Everyone looked off the bow as an ocean sunfish was coming towards us only metres away! The sea was flat calm like a millpond and as Skipper James cut the engines, the animal swam right underneath us providing wonderful clear views. That was our third record of sunfish this season with the other two records being in the month of August.
Ocean sunfish are the largest bony fish in the world and grow from a larva stage of 2.5mm to up to three metres! That is the equivalent of a human baby growing to the size of three Titanic vessels! They also produce around three million eggs a season!

Of course we can not forget the engineers of all marine life in the ocean, the plankton! Samples were very abundant throughout September with a large variation of zoo plankton collected on a daily basis. Some of the species were copepods, arrow worms, cladocera, crab larva, lobster larva, starfish larva, jellyfish larva, segmented worms, bristle worms and phtoplankon including diatoms and dinoflagellates. The on-board microscope aims to enthuse and inspire guests about the facinating microscopic world.

Copepod under the microscope, thanks to Andy Tait for the photo.
On 13th September during a Wildlife Adventure we discovered a large piece of polystyrene floating out at sea about a metre squared so the crew and skipper managed to retrieve it as this sort of marine litter can be hugely threatening to ecosystems through species consumption and we try and 'do our bit' of tidying up on every cruise. Polystyrene is very dangerous to marine life because it floats on the surface and also easily breaks down into smaller pieces. It is the most common substance worldwide to be found in a sea birds stomach.

A sad and happy occasion, photo by Rona Mcann
Marine litter in general is an increasing threat and researchers predict that on average 1km squared of sea will contain 13,000 pieces of plastics / micro plastics, and concentrated tidal areas will have millions. These tidal convergences make certain food source more abundant as well, so it creates vital feeding grounds for species like minke whales and in turn increases marine litter consumption and entanglement risks. Marine litter is entirely a man made problem which means we are also in complete control, and can reduce or stop the highly threatening risk to our oceans.


Head Guide

BBC Wildlife magazine appearance...

My blog managed to make it into the BBC Wildlife magazine this month with the focus being that special encounter with orcas back in July. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

The rise of the sharks

Sea Life Surveys blog post...

The basking sharks arrived back in numbers during our shark charter with Kingfish Dive and Travel on the 19th July and moved further inshore to the west in the coming weeks as their numbers at the surface slowly increased. 

During a Whalewatch Explorer on the 28th July we encountered over twenty basking sharks leisurely quartering waters to the east of Coll. We observed some courtship behaviour with animals paired up in a linear position and we also observed the amazing spectacle of breaching. On the days to follow their numbers increased as we recorded over fifty in a close concentrated area on one particular cruise on the 31st July. As expected the plankton samples matched the abundance of sharks with high levels of copepods in the trawl. 

The third year of the basking shark tagging program involving the University of Exeter, Scottish Natural Heritage and ourselves got under-way at the end of July and the designated ten tags were fitted to sharks around the coastline of the isle of Coll. To follow the updated movements of these animals select the link -

A first report has been published for the basking shark tagging project which can be read here -

On the 15th August a film crew which included Martin Heyward Smith were aboard with us today filming basking sharks in Hebridean waters for an up and coming series on the wildlife in the area. We managed to track around seven sharks which included some very young animals.

The great thing about conservation research is that anyone can be directly involved in it. You can submit your Hebridean basking shark sightings to the HWDT ( Photo ID records of the dorsal fin can further add to the research, and information on how to take a positive ID shot can read here -


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Dragonfly diaries...

All wild animals have equal beauty and fascination but I must admit I do have a soft spot for dragonflies. Their vibrant colours and prehistoric history, along with their avian skills and predatory instincts are the main reasons why I stop in admiration everytime I encounter one. 
Again I have had limited opportunities to search for them this summer due to work commitments but here is the dates and records, when I focussed directly on dragonfly/damselfly observations...

Male common hawker
Female common hawker
My first field session was on June 24th covering local grounds around Tobermory. The habitat was bog and marshland around a young conifer plantation and I was rewarded with a four-spotted chaser, 5 golden ringed dragonflies, 6 large red damselfly and 5 common blue damselfly. The four-spotted chaser had very shiny wings so could well have been a new emergent (teneral). Two hours field time from 12noon - 2pm with sunny spells at about 18 degrees.

July was very busy work wise but I managed a few trips out in August starting with a day on the isle of Ulva on the 14th. My first record was a male black darter basking on the track and shortly after it a female common hawker on the wing. A male and a female common hawker followed it along with a large red damselfly. (16 degrees, overcast).

On the 24th August a day off in the sunshine as I headed down to Carsiag on the south coast of the island to cover the wildlife along that stretch from 1pm - 6pm. The first record was a dead female azure hawker on the path which is a nice record for the isle as far as I know. Other records on the day were golden-ringed, common hawker (m) and common darker (m). It was an amazing sight at about 5pm to see a common hawker in hunting mode in pursuit of flies on the wing and the speed and agility was just sensational as it caught its food source with minimum effort. (20 degrees, sunshine).

Male common hawker choosing my leg as a basking site
31st of the month and I headed down to Glengorm estate to persevere around the marshland and small ponds which provides excellent potential habitat for certain dragonflies species. I sat on a banking nearby with a bit of height and covered the expanse of marshland which was around 200 yards by a hundred yards in size. A two hour shift from 12 - 2pm rewarded me with 30 plus common darters, 18 males and 12 females. There was a lot of copulating observed with the animals in the 'wheel' position. One male common darter chose to bask on my leg and kept lifting off to chase off same species intruders before returning to the exact position on my leg over ten times. Other records were 2 black darters (m and f), 3 common hawkers and a single golden-ringed dragonflies. (18 degrees sunny spells).

A couple of trips to the south side of the island in early September rewarded me with good numbers of common hawkers very active in hunting mode. On the 7th I recorded eighteen individuals and on the 10th I recorded six. 

I have sent all these records to the BSC (British Dragonfly Society) to contribute to their ongoing sightings database -