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.