Thursday, 23 April 2015

Nature wins everytime...

Explosive period of aurora borealis at midnight!! Venus setting to the west providing a stunning reflection over Hebridean waters
On the 14th, myself, Rachel, Richie and Ciara covered Loch na Keal in the fading light and got rewarded with the sight of 4 otters together interacting on the south shore line! Another record was a second year Iceland gull and also the stunning sight of the ISS overhead at a magnitude of -4. 

A memorable evening/night was had on the 16th April which started with two short-eared owls and two female hen harriers on the open moors with lesser redpolls and willow warbler providing the soundscapes. We moved onto Loch Torr where we had 4 goldeneye with 2 displaying drakes and also 2-3 otters on the far side of the loch. As the light dropped we got a roding woodcock and saw a tawny owl leave its roost site.

Auroral arc with Venus and Pleiades in conjunction!
On our way back to the east we stopped high up above loch Frisa to look in a SE direction to observe the spacestation appearing at 21:55. It was a weak magnitude of around 3 but still great to see again! 

We moved onto Ardmore in low light to listen for long-eared owls and had success within 15 minutes with a female bird calling from the young plantation! Just to add to the spectacle we had a stunning auroral arc on the north horizon while listening to the owl! The sight of venus in conjunction with the young star cluster Pleiades was also immense! We headed straight up to a prime vantage point and observed the auroral display intensify to spectacular levels to produce my most memorable display to date! What an evening, although I worry what I might have missed if I had sat inside a pub instead and had a conversation about politics and the general election...nothing beats nature!!
Basking shark alongside Sula Beag - photo courtesy of Sam Jones
I crewed on a Whalewatch Explorer on the 19/04/15 and we had our first minke whale of the season as the animal surfaced directly behind a basking shark we were observing at the time! We managed a couple of photo ID shots of the whale before we lost track of it. Around eight basking sharks seen with some full body views showing through the mirror calm sea state! Harbour porpoise also seen along with abundant seals and a white-tailed eagle. Another memorable encounter was drifting with the engines off and been surrounded by feeding manx shearwater competing over the food source and producing their eerie heckling calls. An arctic skua turned up and caused chaos with the birds which added to the spectacle. Gannets, kittiwakes, puffins and great northern divers also seen on the cruise to cap off another inspiring day at sea!

Great to be back guiding on board Sula Beag, best memories of my life are on the fine vessel
I will be providing land-based trips on Mull and Ardnamurchan by the end of the month, starting a new business venture with Cain. You can look out for the website launch here -

Thanks for looking...

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Migrating north back to the Hebrides...

Here are my recent wildlife/geological discoveries from the last fortnight back on the Isle of Mull...

Shark soup on Easter weekend
I am guiding for Sea Life Surveys throughout April and on our first Whalewatch of the season on the 4th April we encountered up to ten basking sharks feeding in a concentrated area off the isle of Coll! We recorded a smaller number the following day on Easter Sundays trip and a few days after we observed a solitary breach by an animal west of Coll's landmass. It was little surprise that the plankton samples were highly concentrated with copepods and crustacean larvae (preferred basking shark food). As far as records and observations go this is a very early sighting for the species, and the little understood animal always keeps enthusiasts on their toes as they continue to provide wonderful unpredictability. 

Basking shark surface feeding off the isle of Coll - image courtesy of SLS
Abundant copepods and crustacean larvae in the plankton trawl - image courtesy of SLS
Reading the Rocks
Stuart and I spent a full day in the field on the 7th of the month with most of the time spent covering Carsaig on the south coast immersing ourselves into the spectacular geological surroundings. I am always fascinated when covering the exposed sedimentary Jurassic coast to see what fossils I can find and try to visualize what the planet would have been like in that time period. The key thing I wanted to see was big congregations of belemnites which I noticed last time but after discovering why they are are embedded in big concentrations I wanted to see it again with a fresh understanding. As you can see from the photo these ancient squid died in large numbers and in tight groups. This was in fact not a catastrophic climatic event but a species orientated natural fatality after a sexual gathering had taken place, in the same way present day squid do. Other fossil records of interest were ammonites, bivalves, Brachiopods and tree bark. An amazing geo-excursion! 
The shallow Jurassic seas - What Carsaig would have looked like 145 - 200 Ma years ago
Brachiopoda fossil
Fossilized Tree Bark
Buff-bellied Pipit?
A potential buff-bellied pipit was seen by Stuart and I on the 7th April at the north head of Loch na Keal. It was showing next to a meadow pipit metres from us on the shoreline and Stuart pointed out the diffused tinge to the breast of the bird with a nice comparison to a meadow pipit alongside. No photo records though as the bird had moved on by the time I went to get camera.

White Wingers
A nice number of white winged gulls encountered in the last fortnight with three Iceland gulls recorded roosting on Calve island opposite Tobermory. Records on Sea Life Surveys trips were an adult iceland gull of Bloody Bay on the 8th and a 1st year glaucous gull off the north end of Coll on the 9th. Stuart and I found the remains of an Iceland gull in Carsaig on the 7th in the heart of a white-tailed eagle territory (See photo).

Iceland Gull remains
Owl be back
Two male short-eared owls haunting the low light on the north side of Loch Frisa (09/04) with wing clapping and calling heard. Drumming snipe, piercing redwing and roding woodcock also providing wonderful soundscapes.

Moth Trap Discoveries
Rachel has a new moth trap which she has had in action when the forecast has been sufficient for it. An exciting record she had in March was an oak beauty which was the first record for the island since 1975! Rachel put the trap out on the 9th and moth records were Hebrew Character, Early Grey and Twin-spotted Quaker. 

Hebrew Character Moth
Early Grey
Twin-spotted Quaker
Amazing Ant-ics
Rachel and I were in the field on Sunday 12th and after checking under some corrugated sheets we were privileged to observe the busy world of a yellow meadow ant colony. This species amazingly 'farm' aphids on the roots of grass to obtain the rich honeydew. Ants are the only species apart from humans that manage livestock to provide food source. Another lifted sheet revealed a colony of small black ants carrying larvae down to their networked tunnels. I cant wait to research more on these species and go back again to observe their complex behaviour to have a bit more of an understanding on this fascinating animal group. 

Yellow Meadow Ants
Spot the Snake?! - female adder
Reptile Encounters
On the 12th April Rachel and I encountered two neighbouring species of reptile in a female adder and a male common lizard out sunning them selves. Always a thrill to encounter the most successful phylum that has ever lived on the planet.

Thanks for looking

Friday, 10 April 2015

Geltsdale Aurora Time-Lapse 18/03/15

Here is my short time-lapse film of the aurora borealis at its most intense last week up on Geltsdale's moors...