Sunday, 3 April 2011

Enigmatic Nomads in an Alien World

Very rarely does a Mull Magic walk encompass only one of the many wildlife-rich habitats that exist on the island. In fact, very rarely do we not incorporate a bit of everything that this magnificent island has to offer on our regular wanders. However, we tend not to like walking on forestry tracks for too long, especially during the Winter months, but now that Spring has poked it’s head above the parapet that’s a different story. The plantations at Ardmore on the North of the island are beginning to shake off the lethargy of a Winter nearly past, so it was time to reacquaint ourselves with the stunning views that this part of the island has to offer.

The Larch is Britain’s only deciduous conifer. That sounds like a contradiction in itself, yet this tree obviously has delusions about being a mighty oak! To say such is rather unkind, as the Larch is a very attractive and useful tree in its own right, often being used as a nurse tree for slower growing hardwood species. The green-striped, pink ‘Loganberry’ female flowers that adorn bare branches at present are a welcome reminder that Spring is just around the corner. However, these delicate flowers are susceptible to frost damage, something that trees in plantations on the Isle of Mull have had to get used to during the past few Winters.

A bountiful supply of their favourite Sitka Spruce seeds has ensured that a healthy breeding population of Crossbills has remained on the island this Winter. Local birds enjoyed a good season last year and it appears that birds are again nesting in all suitable plantations this time around. These chunky, enigmatic finches are instilled with a wanderlust that is dictated by the availability of conifer seeds. When the cone crop of spruce, larch and pine is good, these avian nomads are happy to reside all-year-round in Mull’s forestry plantations. However, should the seasonal availability of these food resources fail (as they will do from time to time), these denizens of the dark forest will be off on their travels once again.

Sitka Spruce is the conifer of choice in forestry operations on the Isle of Mull. A native of the West coast of North America, the exposed and wet conditions of hill ground on the island are very much to this tree’s liking. When allowed to grow as a decorative tree in a park landscape, the Sitka Spruce, with its prickly, glaucous-coloured needles (here pictured like a bunch of under-ripe bananas or courgettes!) makes a striking specimen. Much maligned as a foreign import, these alien plantations provide nest sites for the ‘Little and Large’ of the island’s birds, the tiny Goldcrest (9 cm) and the somewhat larger White-tailed Eagle (100 cm), as well as the specialist Crossbill.

On rocks along the Splash Zone (above the Upper Shore) of the Sound of Mull we came across a community of Anaptychia runcinata lichen growing among the usual grey and orange suspects. This olive-green-brown lichen is readily picked out on account of its colour and its appearance, which we liken to a mass of wriggling worms on a compost heap. Another organism that appears to lack the convention of a common English name, the analogy of worms in compost is one that is likely to stick. With our middle-aged memories beginning to falter, we need every assistance conceivable to sort out the myriad of birds and beasties that we share this precious island life with!

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