Sunday, 10 April 2011

A Spaceman Came Travelling…

As we grow older and take an occasional retrospective glance over our shoulders, we often recall the games that we played as children. Spotting shapes, of animals or famous people, in the clouds of a Summer’s day is something that we’ve all done from time to time. Dancing cats or Elvis Presley looking down upon you may take a certain amount of imagining, yet the clouds that hung (apparently motionless) over Tobermory Bay recently had only just arrived from another universe…hadn’t they? Altocumulus lenticularis are flying saucer-shaped clouds that regularly form when air cools as it is forced to rise over a mountain. Regardless of their relative frequency or where they’ve come from, these are one of the most dramatic species of cloud to occur in the skies over the Isle of Mull.

With their bottle-green heads and exotically ornate tail feathering, cock Pheasants are currently busy strutting their stuff in the hope of catching the attention of any passing females. Most common in the north of the island, Pheasants are frequently encountered by many on Mull, but largely overlooked by most. Not regarded as the most intelligent of birds, having more beauty than brains, Pheasants often end up as road kill on the island, providing takeaway for Hooded Crows and Buzzards. However, such a close encounter may do little for the good looks of either bird or vehicle, as it has been estimated that hitting a Pheasant at 35 mph is akin to having a brick thrown through your car’s windscreen. Ouch!

As a precursor of those shady days of Summer, when sunlight struggles to filter its way through the canopy of Mull’s mighty Oaks, local woodlands have exploded into life under an April carpet of Lesser Celandines, Wood Sorrel and Wood Anemones (below). Long regarded as a relic of ancient woodland cover, the juice of this plant was formerly used to dye Easter Eggs for children. It is interesting that other authors depict every part of this rhizomatous perennial as being poisonous. Here, at Mull Magic, we prefer to err on the side of caution and stick to the big name brands, like Cadbury’s and Rowntrees, when it comes to choosing our Easter munchies!

One of the earliest ‘Spring’ moths that we have come across during our recent walks in North Mull is the Twin-Spotted Quaker. As a noctuid, its pale tawny-coloured forewings are substantially longer than they are deep. The double black spots near the base of each forewing give rise to this moth’s common name, but, as if some throwback to the 1960’s, its attraction lies in its Beatles-esque mop- topped appearance. The only generation of this moth is on the wing during late March and April, when it takes full advantage of the early nectar of emerging Willow catkins.

The felted ‘pussy-willow’ catkins of some Willows get their name on account of an apparent resemblance to cats’ paws - the ‘cat’ in the photograph below is of an endemic seven-pawed variety! Willows are among the first trees to burst bud in Spring on the Isle of Mull, when their flowers are a welcome source of sugar for any insects awakening from their Winter slumbers. Early flowering Willows are extremely important ecologically, serving as a food plant for a large number of adult moths and their larvae. It is, however, unknown whether they are a source of attraction to the occupants of any interplanetary craft that hover in the skies over the Isle of Mull at this time of the year!

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!