Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Spring in Aberdeenshire

 After the best part of five months spent away from home, it's good to be back.  Waking up to sunny and warm mornings has been a bonus; often there is lying snow at this point in April.  Spring is everywhere - the first sounds heard on waking are birdsong; the wild bubbling call of Curlews and the metallic "kleep" of Oystercatchers which come inland to breed on higher moors and farmland add to the more usual garden birdsong.

Spring flowers are much in evidence too...

The woods alongside the River Don are carpeted with beautiful drifts of Wood Anenomes (Anenome nemorosa)

By the riverbank and in the damper areas, Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) makes a cheerful sight, the bright yellow flowers set against the glossy green of the leaves.

Amongst the banks of Celandines is a patch of Butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a plant found mostly near rivers and unusual in that the cone-shaped inflorescences develop well before the leaves, in fact it often seems to flower when everything else is dormant.

Back into the woods and the first of the Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is flowering in sunny open areas.  The leaves of this plant can be chewed to freshen the mouth, they have a pleasant lemon flavour.  Like the Wood Anenomes it's an early Spring flowering plant, taking advantage of the light before the spreading canopy of the trees puts the woodland floor into shade.

Wood Sorrel flowers are things of delicate beauty, and it has one of the loveliest and most descriptive of Gaelic names - Feada-Coille; "Candle of the Wood".

On sunlit banks, Speedwells are beginning to brighten the grass.......

......while above them, Birches in full sunlight are just starting to open brilliant jewel-green leaves less than a centimetre long from the buds which have blushed the wood with purple throughout the winter.

Returning along the riverside, a meadow area is covered with Cowslips (Primula veris), more common here than in many parts of Scotland where its close relative the Primrose is abundant.

Even our garden has small Spring flowers - Cuckooflower (Cardemine pratensis) - also known as Lady's Smock, has sprung up from newly cut grass.  Most years the snow shovel is a more useful garden tool than the lawnmower in mid April!

...and if the frosts stay away for a while, the abundant blossom on our Plum tree bodes well for late summer fruit.

There will no doubt be some harder weather to come before Spring moves into early Summer, but the new growth and life everywhere is so uplifting.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The remarkable plant communities of a Florida saltmarsh

Our journey through the saltmarsh channels around Dutton Island was full of interest, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect was the remarkable plants which inhabit this ecosystem.

Seb resting with the stern of his kayak in the Spartina grass (Spartina alterniflora).  The dense stands of this grass appear, at first glance, unremarkable......

 Our guide Matt is highly knowledgeable and has a real passion for this environment.  He explained that the Spartina Grass is a "keystone" species, one which actively alters its environment.  The development of a saltmarsh is dependent upon seeds of the grass floating to a place where it can take root.  It spreads asexually by rhizome systems and, over thousands of years, builds up a dense matrix of vegetable matter which in turn allows sediments and mud to build up, eventually forming areas of drying ground.

Any species in a coastal marsh has to be incredibly tough, tolerant to salt, wind and extremes of both moisture and temperature.  This colonising species allows the growth of other less tolerant plants and, eventually, dry land which can support stands of trees.  The trees provide nesting sites for many of the birds in the marsh as well as opportunities for land animals.

Below the water, the shelter and diminished flow allows the deposition of mud, perfect for the rich invertebrate life of the marsh and for Oysters.  The oyster beds filter the rich water and also provide a barrier to damaging storm surges.

All this from an unremarkable looking grass!

Along the edges of one of the man-made channels adjacent to the marsh the raising of the spoil banks has provided a leg-up for a surprising variety of trees, including Junipers adjacent to small Palms.

The trunk of a long-dead pine made a striking shape, and was drilled with holes drilled by a woodpecker, the standing dead wood still a valuable part of the whole ecosystem

Back out along the Intracoastal Waterway, we stopped on a tiny beach for a short break.  A fallen tree here gave us a close-up view of another remarkable plant which festoons trees, particularly Live Oaks all across north Florida - Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

It isn't Spanish in origin, nor is it a moss.  Resembling "old man's beard" lichen found in norther boreal forests, it isn't a lichen either.  This fascinating flowering plant is an epiphytic species - it takes all its nutrients and moisture from the air and from rainfall. Related to Bromeliads, the plant forms hanging pendants up to 6 metres long and does particularly well in the high humidity of Florida.  It doesn't harm the host tree, merely using it as a frame on which to grow, though sometimes the weight of Spanish Moss pendants can break off branches from trees.

The saltmarsh of Florida is a superb environment, and home to some truly remarkable plant species.  I'm very grateful to Matt for sharing his deep passion for and knowledge of this special place.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Paddling and Pizza - a day at Dutton Island

A visit to north Florida provided a great opportunity to break a long spell of work with a day paddling. Having convinced a group of colleagues that this would be a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon and booked the trip, we then had a week when the weather was most untypical of Florida - single digit temperatures, a bitterly cold wind and lashing cold rain were the themes - in fact for most of the week Scotland was warmer than Florida!

 The forecasts all agreed that the weekend would see much better weather, and so it proved. Saturday was a fine, pleasantly warm day - perfect for a paddle. We met Joe and Matt from First Coast Outfitters at the Dutton Island Nature Preserve and got sorted out with boats and kit along with the other folks booked on the tour.

Soon we were out on the water and away from the attentions of "no see um" insects, midge-like pests which bite, but fortunately without the ferocity and lasting marks of the Scottish Midge!  At this time of year the water was surprisingly "bracing" despite the warm sun.

I've done this tour previously and it proved to be just as enjoyable as I'd remembered.  Our flotilla made a colourful sight in the bright sunshine as we paddled out......

...into the Intracoastal Waterway, the 3000 mile man-made channel along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the US eastern seaboard.

We made our way along a channel leading around Dutton Island, passing under the bridge carrying the small access road to the nature preserve - which required some contortions from the taller members of the group!

The intricate series of channels behind the island are interesting to paddle with plenty of wildlife too.  We saw Ospreys, Great Grey Heron, Black Vultures, Egrets and several species of wildfowl. 

The channels were often narrow but sometimes widened out to give spacious views - the huge radio mast was a useful navigational reference point!

Taking a break from paddling involved simply reversing the boat into the Spartina Grass lining the edges of the channels :-)

All too soon we were back out onto the ICW and heading back to the boat launch from where we'd set out.  It had been a great afternoon with good company, lovely weather and an interesting route; a perfectly paced and informative trip.  If you're in the area and want to experience paddling this special environment, First Coast Outfitters are really recommended.

Of course, after all this outdoor activity, we felt that the only way to round off the day would be to refuel with pizza and a glass or two of wine at Al's Pizza in nearby Atlantic Beach - not really a sea kayaking restaurant, but highly rated all the same! 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Monument to an unknown craftsman

Just beyond Eilean Dubh there is a small stone jetty sloping down into the water. The construction is very robust and solid; it appears to have been associated with an estate "big house".  At high water it made a perfect landing place for a short break prior to crossing back over the Kyles to the Bute shore and then to Rhubodach.

Above the jetty there's a road which has been levelled along the shore and is now in use as a footpath.  Perched next to the road are these beautifully crafted stone blocks.  The larger of the two must weigh well over a tonne and is worked with corners and edges carved back from rough featured faces.

But the smaller of the two blocks is a thing of real craftsmanship.  The faces of this stone have been incised with an intricate inlaid pattern which is both complex and graceful.  The individual inlays are still sharp and clear.

The upper face of the block is equally ornate.  A Scottish saltire is etched across the length of the stone, while the pattern of the vertical faces is repeated to accentuate the saltire.

The craftsmanship on display here is striking and despite the lichens which are slowly colonising the surface the whole is quite beautiful.  Who made this I wonder?  It was presumably a piece commissioned by an estate landowner and meant to demonstrate wealth and status.  Well, it does that, but much more tellingly it demonstrates the skill and artistry of an unknown stonemason.  It has outlived the landowner and the time of the great estates but the skill in the making of this stone lives on

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Kyles of Bute, Loch Riddon and Eilean Dubh

Back in October whilst visiting relatives on the Isle of Bute I had an opportunity to do some paddling on the Kyles of Bute, the narrow strait of water which separate the island from the Argyll mainland, into which the north of Bute fits like a ball and socket.

I set out from Rhubodach on a clear and calm morning, waiting until the ferry to Colintraive, MV Loch Dunvegan, departed on her short voyage.

My route took me up the east Kyle and then into Loch Riddon, which is a shallow sea loch lined with maritime oak woods.  Autumn's full colour was still to develop but the trees were laden with acorns.

After paddling to near the head of the loch on the east shore I came back down on the west shore and arrived at Eilean Dubh (the dark island) behind which is a popular if small anchorage for yachts.  Remains of estate infrastructure stands in remarkably good condition near the island, this crane looked as if it could be put back into service with a bit of work

This small but distinctive lighthouse stands on a small point on the shore, Eilean Dubh is to the right with the entrance to the anchorage between.  In spring Eilean Dubh is a noisy place as there is a large heronry in the big trees.