Sunday, 31 August 2014

Mesozoic magic...

My curiosity of the natural world is growing all the time with every direct experience in a wild environment and after my fascination of geology in the Hebrides the last five years I have extended my reach to focusing on the living organisms that can be recorded in the rocks.

One of the great things about searching for fossils is that weather conditions is not an issue, as our target species have been there for up to two hundred million years they are not going to be going anywhere in a hurry. Myself and Rachel had a rare day off together and as it was lashing with rain in the morning we thought what perfect conditions for some fossil hunting. 

We decided to cover the south side of the isle which is very much under explored by ourselves so worth the long journey down to do so.The heavy rain continued on the trip down but the timing was excellent as on arrival it cleared up nicely as the forecast had said. 

We worked our way to the east and soon came across some stunning basaltic dykes and sills around 65 million years old heading in a south east direction away from volcanic impacts to the north. Parts of the coastline were made up of ancient sedimentary rock of the Mesozoic era dating back 248 million years. Our next discovery was very special, it was an ammonite fossil imprint as big as a size five football at nearly 30cm wide. We discovered more smaller ammonites the harder we looked which included one very well preserved in fine detail which was only 1cm long. 
Ammonites were a very successful species which covered the worlds oceans in the Jurassic, Triassic and Cretaceous periods. They had hard coiled shells and could go to depths of 100m mainly feeding on plankton.

30cm Ammonite
1cm Ammonite
We discovered a Belemnite fossil as well which was a bullet shaped marine animals closely related to the modern day squid. They lived between 65 and 208 million years ago during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods becoming extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs.

Another discovery was what I think is a part of a Trilobite, presumably its tail. This is a species dating back 550 million years, from the Cambrian period.  

Tail of Trilobite?
Of course we could not ignore all the present day living organisms all around us as we recorded a close flyby of a female sparrowhawk and also saw a male common darter on the wing. Around fifty harbour seals hauled out on a nearby skerry and ringed plover and grey wagtails calling nearby. Wild flowers included devils-bit, knapweed, bell and ling heather, birds-foot trefoil, purple saxifrage, grass-of-parnassus, bog myrtle, bog asphodel and tufted vetch.

On our way back north we stopped at Pennyghael and enjoyed views of a juvenile hen herrier quartering the rough grass and hunting a meadow pipit unsuccessfully. We took the scenic route to Salen and timed it well at a well known golden eagle territory as we watched three birds in flight overhead with this years juvenile very vocal as they soon disappeared into the mountain mist. On Loch Na Keal we had drake eiders in eclipse and red-breasted mergansers. 

A wonderful day connecting with some true wildscapes on Mull and their all round natural heritage. 

A very fitting end as when we arrived back home Jurassic Park 3 was just starting on ITV!!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Orcas - Always expect the unexpected

A moderate rain shower as we got under-way from Tobermory harbour for our Whalewatch Explorer on Monday 7th July. The natives would call it 'dreich' but the forecast said things would improve as the day went on. 

We were making our way through an area of sea nicknamed 'the middle grounds' which is a little bit more exposed and it was a bit of a bumpy crossing going into a force 3-4 westerly wind. Due to the welfare of all the passengers on board, the skipper (James) was contemplating turning around and focusing on more sheltered waters, but he did end up committing to the crossing to reach the leeward side of the isle of Coll. 

As we were approaching the sheltered coastline two French passengers shouted out in great excitement at something they had seen at eleven o'clock to the boats bow. Knowone knew what was seen for sure so we all persisted for a few minutes and then suddenly a huge black sail surfaced with two smaller fins surfacing just afterwards!...Orca!! After capturing some ID shots of the bull it was confirmed that it was the dominant male John Coe! Along with JC there were two cows and they were travelling on a direct course to the north at a good 6-7 knots with real intent. They surfaced with such arrogance like they own the sea, as is the case with the behaviour of all apex predators in their own environment.   

 A special encounter and while we were watching the animals the skipper James recalled how he remembered seeing John Coe when he was a 'wee boy' in the early 90s and he was so small he was looking through the railings as the bull surfaced metres from the boat. 

John Coe and three other orcas were reported off the isle of Harris the next evening (8th July) by Christian Latham to the HWDT so the animal had travelled eighty miles in twenty four hours! 

Wonderful observation skills and persistence by the French gentlemen to track the orca in challenging viewing conditions. It represented the rewards you can get from hard work, commitment and dedication to the natural world and I certainly remembered to thank them for helping provide a life changing moment in nature for all on board. 

John Coe was first identified in 1980 and named after a character in a poem in the early 1990s partly by Sea Life Surveys founder Richard Faribairns (Popz). He was mature when first recorded so he is at least 40 years old with wild orca recorded living until over 60. 

There are only nine individuals identified in the isolated pod of orca and they are known as the West Coast Community, which patrol huge areas of sea having been recorded down the entire length of Ireland's Atlantic seaboard, the southern Irish sea and also last year (2013) on the north east coast of Scotland in the Moray Firth. That is over five thousand miles of coastline so the odds of striking an encounter with the king of British seas and the rest of the group is slim, but the exciting thing is that you always have a got a chance!