Thursday, 29 July 2010

Herpetofauna (1): Common Frog

We spotted this little chap (1-2 long cm) hopping through the undergrowth
at WWT Llanelli ten days ago.

I think he is a young but fully developed Common Frog,
with his pointed snout
and barred hind legs.

I wondered at what point a froglet becomes a frog.
My understanding is that the amphibian can be called a frog
once the tail has been reabsorbed,
i.e. once apoptosis has taken place.

A blown-up image,
to help with identification!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Demoiselles (1): Black and Blue!

Beautiful Demoiselle on stinging nettles

I have been looking at Dragonflies and Damselflies.
Today the Demoiselle comes under my spotlight.

The photograph above was taken in Llandeilo, Wales, UK, on 12 June 2010.
I thought I had missed the creature altogether,
so although this photo isn't great,
it was a bonus.

I had already failed to photograph a different one,
flitting through the stinging nettles
at the edge of the Guardian Hay Festival site in May.

The Demoiselle in the photograph above was seen
at Dunster in Somerset back in July 2005,
in very close proximity to a large Slow Worm -
yet another creature to escape my lens.

I have blown it up to a ridiculous size below,
just for the colours.

The photo below
gives a reasonable overall impression of this exquisite
and iridescent species.

I think this creature above may be a male
Beautiful Demoiselle.

Demoiselles are in fact Damselflies.
We have two varieties in the UK:

the Beautiful Demioselle [Calopteryx virgo]


the Banded demoiselle [Calopteryx splendens],

which has less hairy legs!
The latter frequents slow-running waterways.

Demoiselles display colourful courtship rituals.
The Banded Demoiselle has deep blue areas on each wing,
and it is these that transmit signals to the female.

It is worth pausing to consider the matter of iridescence.
The play and quality of light at a given moment effects the colours registered by our eyes.
The 'Explore' section of the July-September 2010 WWT Waterlife magazine
has a helpful feature in its kids' zone on p.42,
explaining how the iridescence factor
effects the colours we associate
with that other iridescent icon,
the Kingfisher.


Monday, 26 July 2010

Dragonflies (2): WWT Llanelli

A male Broad-Bodied Chaser
Libellula depressa

I shall return to my Scottish wildlife encounters soon,
but meanwhile here is a post about Wales.

It was a warm grey afternoon at WWT Llanelli.
The sun made a few welcome appearances,
and we saw a range of Lepidoptera,
including this Chaser.

Detail of intricate wing structure


The photographs above and below [detail and whole dragonfly]
are, I believe, male and female of the same species,
since they seemed to be a pair.
I think they may be Common Darters;
and if so, the top one is the female.

We also saw these ones:


The ‘threads’ here indicate a dragonfly recently emerged from the aquatic nymph phase.


Notice the wings in the shot above.

This Dragonfly was less green and more red.
It may be an immature male Common Darter [Sympetrum striolatum]

It's hard to tell whether there is a yellow stripe along the legs,
but the wing tips are marked with a rusty pterostigma [wing cell or spot].

The yellow stripe was visible in the photo below,
when I viewed it at 80%.

Click to enlarge!


My guess is that this is a male
Southern Hawker,
though it may well be a Common Hawker.
The colour is pale turquoise blue,
despite the fact that it looks a bit green here.

N.B. I have tried to give each Dragonfly a number e.g. [1],
regardless of species.
[4] and [5] may be the same creature...

My thanks to David Gill for taking these photographs for me:
my dominant arm is still sling-bound!

Meanwhile, you might enjoy these:

  • Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of Britain by Steve Brooks, illustrated by Richard Askew (Natural History Museum Publication)
  • Professor P. Brain's blog
  • Dragonfly Days [South Wales, UK] - with an excellent Dragonfly Anatomy diagram
  • The July-September 2010 edition of Waterlife [WWT] has excellent features on Dragonflies [p.30, p.41 and p.48]

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Trees (1): The Caledonian Pine Forest

Remnants of the Caledonian Pine Forests,
one-time home of the Auroch, the Grey Wolf and the Brown Bear

We left Skye and drove on up to Ullapool in early July 2010,
passing some amazing scenery around Torridan,
with blue-green lagoon-like lochs.

We were soon in the area of the ancient Caledonian pine forests.
The heights of Beinn Eighe towered above us,
with its cloud-hidden ridges and slopes of scree.

The Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve was established in 1951.
It was part of a strategy to preserve the pine forests above Loch Maree.

This is where we stopped for a picnic lunch, just above Loch Maree.
The mountain in the background is the Munro called Slioch.

The wild flowers along the shore of the loch were stunning.
Loch Maree is bordered on the Slioch side by deciduous oak woodland.
The Beinn Eighe pine forests line the opposite bank.
The water was low due to 'drought' conditions,
but the loch lines a glacial trough of up to 110m deep.

An information board informed us that the loch
boasts almost 6% of the UK breeding pairs of the Black-throated Diver.
This bird is found most commonly
in the forests of Siberia and on the Arctic tundra.

There are 66 islands on Loch Maree.
Some of these are home to Scots Pine trees of 350 years old.

It is a sad fact that a mere 1% remnant
of the Caledonian Pine Forest survives today
in 35 scattered locations in Scotland.
The appellation 'Caledonian' is thought to have come from the Romans.
They called the land of Scotland 'Caledonia',
supposedly after a Celtic word meaning 'strong'.

My ancestors come from the Kingussie area of Scotland,
so I was particularly interested to learn that 'Kingussie'
means the 'Head of the Pine Forest'.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Beautiful Birds (5): Buzzard on Skye

below the Quiraing
[Buzzard photos by David Gill, with an 18x zoom]

I have a strange relationship with the Buzzard.
When I first encountered one,
I thought it was truly amazing, largely on account of its size.

Many Buzzards later,
I began to feel that this species was less appealing.
We often saw Buzzards hanging around motorways,
waiting for easy pickings.

A bird has to eat, I hear you say, and this of course is true.

I then began to spot Red Kites (quite a lot - largely here in Wales)
and the occasional Eagle on Skye.

I felt the Buzzard lacked the grace
of these other birds of prey.

It was time to address my prejudice!

Looking up towards the Quiraing

I had to admit that the Buzzard looked quite different
when I saw it against the background
of a wild rocky landscape like the Quiraing.

Its size was tempered by its surroundings,
and I found myself admiring its ability to survive and thrive
in such harsh and inhospitable terrain.

Above and Below: the Buzzard again

I have to confess, however, that when we first caught sight
of this particular bird,
I really hoped for a moment
that it was going to be an Eagle -
probably a Golden Eagle.

But a Buzzard it was.

This species is not known
as the Tourists' Eagle for nothing!

As we drew closer, I begrudgingly had to admit
that it displayed a certain rugged grandeur:
beauty is still not a word I feel happy to use of our friend ...


But I am glad that we have the opportunity
to see these impressive creatures flying free
in their natural surroundings.

You can just make out the yellow legs.
[Sea Eagles aka White-Tailed Eagles
and Golden Eagles also have yellow legs].

The white chest with brown spots does not show up
in these pictures,
but the yellow area just above the beak is visible
in the first two Buzzard shots.

I did not know before that these birds are very territorial.
It did not surprise me to learn on the RSPB site
that the Buzzard
'our commonest raptor',
here in the UK.

Buzzards in the news:
The Quiraing

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Beautiful Birds (4): One of those Gulls again!

We were on our way south from Skye,
and about to go dolphin-spotting
at Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth
(of which more in a future post),
when I noticed this gull.

I had seen several others earlier
in the Kingussie area
some days before,
and was keen to learn what it was.

It is, of course, the Black-headed Gull
(Larus ridibundus)

in its brown summer plumage.

The oldest recorded age for one of these gulls,
according to the RSPB,
is 32 years.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Beautiful Birds (3): Herring Gull?

Juvenile Herring Gull
[I think]
on Skye

It occurred to me that we are all familiar with this fellow...
but are we?

I know a seagull when I see one
(and there are many in Swansea where I live).
I also know that there are many different gulls.

What I am just beginning to realise, however,
is that a juvenile passes through a number of phases
on its path to adulthood.

Do take a look at Jeff Poklen's amazing gallery
of the Herring Gull in its 1st to 3rd cycles.
You will also find photos of these birds
emerging as 'basic adults'.

I wonder if any reader can match my juvenile
with a particular photo in Jeff's gallery,
showing its stage of development.
Please let me know if you can!

I was amazed to find that the RSPB site
lists the Herring Gull in the RED Conservation Category.
You can read what this means here.

We sometimes take creatures for granted:
I suggest this may be particularly true in the case
of our friend, the noisy, scavenging Herring Gull.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Mustelidae (1): Otter

We saw some spectacular sunsets on Skye,
though we didn't see the Red Cuillin 'ablaze'
as we have done on previous occasions.

The Otter is a shy creature,
and often prefers to swim about
when all is quiet at dawn or dusk.

I had never 'definitely' seen an Otter on Skye before.
I say 'definitely' because I have seen several possible sightings,
but these may have been small seals
or monsters of the deep!

The 'creature' in the photo below may be just such a thing.
I thought it looked like an Otter,
but David was doubtful.
There were rocks just below the water surface,
and as the tide receded, these emerged,
looking like living creatures.

However, the creature in the photograph below
was definitely an Otter!
It swam away from us
(though I'm not sure it knew we were there),
making a spindrift 'V' as it went.

My photo was taken from some distance,
with an 18 zoom lens.

We had a few days in Wester Ross,
and were keen to have another encounter of the Otter kind.
Remarkably we were rewarded in the middle of a windy day
when an Otter appeared in the loch, alongside our car
as we ate our picnic lunch.

Never underestimate the use of the car as a functional and portable hide!
I was too busy watching the creature on this occasion
to attempt any photographs,
but the memory will stay with me for a long time.

I hope I can look forward to further sunset expeditions on Skye
and to more picnics by the loch in Wester Ross!

Otter Facts
  • Otters are largely sub-aquatic mammals and are members of the Lutrinae family.
  • It seems that the word 'Otter' shares a distant root with the word 'Water'.
Otter Links

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Medusozoa (1): off Skye

We spotted Jellyfish in three locations around the Skye area. The jellyfish we spotted were nearly all Moon Jellyfish or Aurelia aurita (Linnaeus, 1758).

1.] Sleat Peninsula
Looking out to Tarskavaig Bay from Gillean Beach;
a truly beautiful place!

It is the first west coast beach accessible by public road,
north of the Point of Sleat.

The two specimens below had both been washed ashore here.

The creature above was (I imagine) stranded upside down.
It may be another Moon Jellyfish,
but I just wonder whether it is the Bluefire or Blue Jellyfish, Cyanea lamarkii.

[For some interesting thoughts on the colour cyan, see here]

2.] Loch Carron, east of Skye

Jellyfish seen from our dolphin cruise
with Calum and his crew on the 'Sula Mhor' from Plockton

3.] Kyleakin Hrbour, Skye - Caisteal Maol (Castle Moil or Moyle). The castle probably dates from the 15th century, but the Saucy Mary version of its origin is far more compelling.

The jellyfish below were seen in the harbour
here at Kyleakin

For an insight into the underwater world and lifestyle of the Jellyfish, you may like to visit

[The creator of that amazing site mentioned above wishes to have the following citation given:
'Gershwin, L. 2002. Medusozoa Home Page. Electronic internet document available at Published by the author, web page established May 2002, last updated 30 November, 2003.']

You might also enjoy 'How jellyfish work' here.

Butterflies and Moths (3): Mystery Moth with bars

We encountered this moth in the middle of the morning in a shady corner of leaves, grass and bracken, beside the road from Newtonmore to Laggan in Badenoch, Scotland.

I have as yet been unable to confirm my identification - but I think it may be a male Gold Swift, Phymatopus hecta (Linnaeus, 1758). [P.S. 18 August 2010: my thanks to Stuart of Donegal Wildlife for confirming my ID].

The Gold Swift moth belongs to the family of Hepialidae. The males of this species supposedly have a scent resembling that of pineapple, but I cannot vouch personally for this! I saw the above moth in late June [2010], which is when the adult moths fly around, usually from dusk.

Female Gold Swifts are more muted in tone. They deposits their eggs on the wing. Their larvae feed on bracken (Pteridium aquilinum)*, mainly internally until fully grown, at which point they begin to eat young shoots.

* See factsheet 'Bracken for Butterflies'

You might also enjoy ...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Beautiful Birds (2): Great Skua, near the Summer Isles

Viewpoint from the mainland,
north of Ullapool,
to the Summer Isles

David and I had spotted two dark 'storm' birds on our visit to Neist Point on Skye. I had tried to photograph them, but without much success due to their speed and the strength of the wind.

We left Skye and headed north to the Ullapool area, enjoying glorious views of the windswept Summer Isles. Suddenly we noticed a bird almost motionless in flight, and assuming it was an eagle, we picked up our binoculars. It turned out to be the Great Skua that you see above. Those of you who watched Simon King on his BBC Shetland Diaries will know this bird as a Bonxie, a name probably of Norse origin (according to the Foula Heritage site), meaning something along the lines of 'untidy old woman'!

Adam Tilt of My Life Outside took some good photographs of the species on Mull, further down the coast.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Seals, Sharks and Cetaceans (2): Basking Sharks off Skye

I mentioned on my Coastcard blog that I had enjoyed watching the wildlife from our vantage point on the shore at Elgol. This is what we saw...

Basking sharks are large creatures. They have frequented these beautiful Hebridean waters for many years. The one we watched trawled up and down the loch in straight lines, presumably ingesting zooplankton. Each shark can apparently filter in excess of 1800 tons of water per hour.

Those who know Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell will remember that he used to hunt for these sharks off the island of Soay (just beyond Elgol) before an otter turned his life around and made him a strong advocate for wildlife conservation.