Saturday, 29 May 2010

Iona's Rasping Rascal!

Lady Luck really was shining on Mull Magic’s walks on our neighbouring island of Iona this week. It may only be a hefty stone’s throw across the mile-long Sound of Iona, yet the cultural and spiritual ambience of a visit to the Holy Isle really is tangible, regardless of religious preference or none! The weather, like the island, was blessed. Having travelled from Tobermory in low cloud and rain, the dismal skies miraculously parted to reveal the Ionian port of Baile Mor bathed in glorious sunshine. Later, as the blue skies stretched to Mull, the view back to Ben More, peeking over ‘the wedding cake’ scenery of Ardmeanach was just heavenly.

Our lunch stop was at the idyllic The Bay at the Back of the Ocean on Iona’s West coast. This is one of Mull Magic’s favourite spots (yes, another one!), where contentment and relaxation are assured, far from the madding crowd. Here, over the last 8,000 years, wind and wave action have combined to produce a habitat that is extremely rare outwith the Hebrides. Built on the crushed shells of marine creatures, the fertile, low-growing, herb-rich grassland is known in Gaelic as machair and is home to a myriad of wildflowers in Spring and Summer.

The white, shell sand beach dazzled in the late May sunshine and provided a valuable staging post for many migratory waders en route to their Arctic breeding grounds. We enjoyed the intimacy of getting up close and personal with a mixed flock of Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling, as they re-fuelled before setting off on the next stage of their migrational journeys. We were enthralled by the activity of these little birds and marvelled at their ability to undertake such incredible feats of inter-continental navigation.

While walking along the strandline a member of our group found a Mermaid’s Purse, the casing that houses the fertilised eggs of a small shark, the Lesser Spotted Dogfish. Attached to seaweed by tendrils positioned at the corners, most egg cases washed ashore are empty, being doomed to perish after being dislodged from their anchorage.

The emerging sword-like leaves of the herbaceous Yellow Flag provide early cover in Iona’s wet meadows for the first returning Corncrakes in April. Sprouting irises in early Spring barely conceal these skulking land rails, yet, by the time of our visit in late May, this robust perennial is over two feet high and about to burst in to flower. Damp field margins and ditches on the island come alive with the colour of Yellow Flags in June and provide the perfect hideaway for Iona’s tenuous population of rasping ‘crakes.

Our group were hopeful of catching a glimpse of these rare and skulking birds, which have been in historical decline in the British Isles for over 150 years. Agricultural changes have banished this endearing and infuriating (in equal measure) land rail to breeding outposts in the Hebrides. The unmistakable, ratchet-like ‘song’ of a Corncrake assaulted our ears from within a patch of irises, yet, try as we might, could we see it? After much scanning with binoculars, our patience was finally rewarded when we caught sight of our target. Unbelievably, we were to enjoy watching this amazing little bird for fully 20 minutes through our telescope. Apparently, male Corncrakes can sing up to 500,000 times in a season. We reckon that our bird has only some 499,875 rasps to crake before it flies to Mozambique for the Winter!

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