Friday, 30 September 2011

The Colour of Biodiversity

Biodiversity : the existence of a wide variety of species in their natural environment, i.e. The Isle of Mull.

The problem (if there can be one) with living on such a rich island is that biodiversity means everything to some but, unfortunately, nothing to many!

Approachable Without Menace
Among the most welcome of insects, this Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) is nectaring on a St. John’s Wort flower. They are beautiful and harmless, flapping their wings several hundred times per second just to remain stationary in the air, the insect world’s equivalent of a Kestrel. Despite the fact that they are stingless, hoverflies choose to mimic bees and wasps in their colouration to avoid predation – 09/09/11

Luscious and Inviting?
The main driveway into the centre of Aros Park in Tobermory is bedecked with the dark fruits of the leafy shrub Gaultheria shallon. Initially planted as cover for Pheasants and other game birds in the heyday of the shooting estate in the 19th Century, these shrubs now form dense thickets of growth, often to the detriment of other plants. Uniquely flavoured, the berries are edible and have been used as an appetite suppressant in the past. We suspect that the uniqueness of the flavour tells you all you need to know regarding their taste! – 04/09/11

Lunar Lichen
Encrusted on the trunks of many of the island’s majestic oaks is a remarkable organism that is part algae and part fungus. The Cudbear lichen enjoys a symbiotic relationship that ensures its survival among a myriad of other lichens and mosses on Mull’s grandest trees. Look closely and the pale margins of the caramel-tinted reproductive discs take on a new life, as the rims of meteor-blasted craters on a lunar landscape. Perhaps it was here that Apollo 11 made good the first moon landing all those years ago, stoking the fires of conspiracy as it did? – 19/03/11

Consistent and Dependable
The Isle of Mull is currently enjoying its best-ever year for birds, based on the large number of unusual sightings that have been reported. Yet, ‘best-ever’ and ‘unusual’ are relative terms and should never take away from the common-place and everyday enjoyment and fascination that we derive from the frequent and usual birdlife that lives on the island. We know of so many people who forego the pleasures of what’s on their doorstep to chase after something deemed more interesting and exciting. At Mull Magic, the Meadow Pipit is the new White-tailed Eagle and the Robin is the Roller! – 10/04/11

The Bay Bolete epitomises the way that Mull’s landscapes and wildlife bombard your senses: it looks simply amazing, it has a wonderfully spongy texture, smells pleasant and tastes good into the bargain! When bruised or exposed to the air, this incredibly eye-catching toadstool stains blue, while the reticulated red-brown stem is yellow at its apex, just like the colour of its pores. An altogether super-colourful treat that we spotted on a recent foray through a woodland in North Mull – 15/09/11

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Fairytale World of Fantastic Fungi

Auto-Digest and Deliquesce

More than 3,000 species of gilled fungi alone have been recorded in North-west Europe, many of which are found on the Isle of Mull. The humid conditions that generally prevail on the island during the Autumn months provide ideal conditions for the various fruiting bodies to appear above ground. The fertile caps of these Common Inkcaps are over-ripe. The bronze bonnets shelter the decaying and deliquescing gills which store the next generation of this remarkable fungi.

Perfect and Purple

From familiar toadstools with a distinctive cap and stem to very different and unusual fungal forms with spines, tubes, pores and wrinkles, the Isle of Mull provides a breeding ground for them all. One of the most attractive gilled mushrooms on Mull is the violet-coloured Amethyst Deceiver. Not only is it a delight to look at, it is also highly edible and is known to stain omelettes purple. We knew of the Goose that laid the Golden Egg, but were previously unaware that on Mull we had the Hen that lays the Purple Eggs!

Spiny yet Soft

Widespread within both broad-leaved and coniferous woodland on Mull are two highly distinctive fungi that have soft and brittle quills instead of gills below their caps. Both Wood and Terracotta Hedgehog fungus are highly prized by mushroom gourmets and are a treasure to stumble across on a fungal foray. The smaller Terracotta Hedgehog is orange in colour, whose spiny underside resembles a mouth overcrowded with teeth.

Pseudo-Baleen and Bolete

Some of the most remarkable of all Mull’s fungi belong to a large group of organisms referred to as ‘Boletes’. These toadstools have a strong mycorrhizal relationship with particular trees and do not possess gills. Instead, like this Brown Birch Bolete, the underside is soft, spongy and porous. The spore-producing layer is contained in tubes, which resemble the baleen plates that hang from the upper jaws of plankton- eating whales, such as the Minke Whale. However, that’s where any resemblance begins and ends.

Honeycombed and Squeezable

The pores of the Larch Bolete, a sticky-capped fungi with an obvious tree association, are reminiscent of a certain honeycomb-centred chocolate bar. However, instead of being crunchy, these pores have a soft and bouncy texture that is satisfying to squeeze and is less likely to give you toothache! The spores that ripen in the tubes drop out of these pores and fall on to the ground or are dispersed by the wind.

Fecund and Fitful

Like the cavernous crater of a mini-volcano, the top of this Common Puffball has burst open, revealing a mass of fertile, olive-coloured spores. Produced in the upper body of the fungus, these spores are released through a vent which develops at the top. The fruitbody relies on rainfall to generate this. When raindrops hit the top of the fungus, spores puff out of the opening, like ash and dust spewing from a volcano, albeit massively reduced in size!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Mull Magic Mantra : Acknowledge, Appreciate, Respect and Enjoy

(Admittedly, it isn’t always that easy!!!)

Putrefaction Guaranteed

As one fly once said to another, “I’m a Bluebottle, what’s that you’re reading?” In typical Spike Milligan fashion, back came the reply : “A fly paper”. Cringe all you like, but it may be the only funny thing there is to know about these blow flies. Although they may also be found enjoying more acceptable insect past-times, such as sourcing nectar and pollen from a variety of wild flowers, Bluebottles have a distinct penchant for dead and putrefying tissue and, as such, are unwelcome visitors to most households – 09/09/11

Sloth and Slimy

Of nearly 30 different species found in Britain, the large Black Slug is the most likely to be encountered on the Isle of Mull. A garden pest of decorative flower beds and cultivated vegetables, we conveniently overlook the vital job that these ‘naked snails’ undertake in keeping our environment detritus free. As enthusiastic recyclers of garden waste and animal excrement, we should give our thanks the next time we pass a slug on the path. If it were not for the army of slugs in the countryside, we may well be up to our knees in… Yeuch! – 20/08/11

Ambivalence and Astringency

Apart from Bracken, few plants have caused such mixed emotions among farmers on the island than the Common Ragwort. Love or loathe, it is a flower of great beauty and charm, and a plant whose juice has long been used to help relieve sore throats and to take the inflammation out of insect bites. It is, however, a great enemy of horse owners and other grazing animals, who will contract an insidious and irreversible cirrhosis of the liver should they eat it. It is probably best that they do not! – 27/08/11

Aesthetic and Arresting

The Isle of Mull’s humid climate is ideal for fungi, whose fruiting bodies are currently sprouting up all over the island. From a purely aesthetic point of view, fungi are quite wonderful organisms, presenting in all manner of colours, shapes, textures, tastes and smells. This Oyster Mushroom is one of very many edible fungi that can be found in woodlands throughout Mull. The gills on the underside of this individual fungus made for an arresting subject for the Mull Magic Macro lens – 09/09/11

Scrawls and Squiggles

Like a human fingerprint, the markings on these Oystercatcher eggs are unique to the bird that laid them. Not only that, but no two eggs possess the same blotches, scrawls and squiggles. These eggs had been laid in a simple scrape, a depression in the stones of the upper shore, above the high tide mark on a local sea loch. This scrape is often decorated with the cast shells that litter many of Mull’s shores. The egg colour provides marvellous camouflage and protection for a clutch that can be left drastically exposed to the elements and predation if the incubating bird is disturbed – 04/05/11

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Magic of Mull: New Beginnings

Pages from the Mull Magic notebook

Biophilia : the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. A love of nature.

Voracious yet Benign

Looking like something that has escaped from the set of the latest Dr Who regeneration, the Golden-Ringed Dragonfly possesses marvellous visual acuity. Despite its ferocious look, it doesn’t have a sting and is harmless to humans. Its huge, multi-faceted compound eyes are made up of thousands of tiny lenses, allowing this insect to see above, below and side to side at the same time. It really is a creature that could be said to have eyes in the back of its head! – 31/08/11

Wizened and Resilient

Like a wizened sun bereft of all its energy, this Dandelion clock face has done its job, casting its burden of seeds to the wind. The Dandelion clocks of childhood are reminders of this incredible plants resilience. Relatively few of the millions of seeds scattered are destined to germinate and develop, but some will have travelled great distances in the air before falling to ground. Dandelion seeds, carried on hair-like parachutes, may relocate tens, if not hundreds, of kilometres from their parent plant – 18/05/11

Delicious if Alarming

The salmon pink gills of the edible False Saffron Milkcap live up to the name of that great migratory fish. Resembling flakes of smoked fish, this attractive toadstool is one of the most colourful fungi to be found in woodlands on the Isle of Mull. Apparently very tasty to eat, this species has the rather alarming, if harmless, side effect of turning the urine red. Not one for worriers then! – 10/09/11

Stunted and Contorted

This view across the serene coastal waters of Loch Spelve to the Central Highlands of Mull, with Ben Talaidh (left) and Sgurr Dearg (Red Rocky Ridge) (right) in the distance. The awe-inspiring landscapes of the island today have undergone cataclysmic changes over the past 60 million years, having been fired and forged by the intense heat of volcanoes, then moulded and sculpted by the immense grinding power of glaciers. What is left is a young island, full of vitality and character – 04/05/11

Obsessive and Unrelenting

These are words that best describe us, rather than the subject of this photograph, such has been the Mull Magic quest to see Ptarmigan on the island. Our search for the previously labelled ‘Mythical White Grouse’ came to an inevitable conclusion, when we stumbled across three juvenile birds near the summit of Ben Buie in early August. With an interest in birds spanning four decades and surrounded by eagles on a daily basis, the thrill of finally catching up with these ‘living stones’ was simply indescribable. With flag rooted at the summit cairn, champagne cork popped and celebratory hugs and kisses complete, we descended the hill with smiles on our faces and a weight off our shoulders! – 05/08/11