Sunday, 16 February 2020

Treecreeper on a tree

I've been lucky enough to have enjoyed some really great wildlife encounters in Scotland, some of which have featured here on the blog.  Multiple White Tailed Eagles, incredible dolphin encounters and huge numbers of Grey Seals  all fall into the "spectacular" category.  But, fascinating wildlife encounters are also to be had on a much smaller scale.

On a regular walk near the village of Monymusk we'd noticed that a number of small depressions in the bark of several Sequoia or Wellingtonia trees Sequoiadendron giganteum) at about two to three metres height.  Having recently read Sir John Lister Kaye's "Gods of the Morning" I suspected that I knew what had made these depressions, but to be sure we had to return after dark.

Sure enough, tucked tight in against the bark of one of the trees was a tiny ball of fluff and feathers - a roosting Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris).  Not just one either; there were two birds roosting on the first tree we came to and two more on a tree just ten metres away.  These tiny, unobtrusive birds gave us a really intimate glance into their lives; to avoid startling them we used a head torch on low power rather than the camera flash to illuminate them, none of them seemed to notice us at all.

Wellingtonia bark is very soft and fibrous and Treecreepers have discovered that they can easily excavate roosting sites which are roughly egg shape and size into the trees.  The choice of height appears to be fairly consistent, and also convenient for observing them.  Thermal images of the trunks of these trees shows them to be significantly warmer than the surrounding air and woodlands after dark and the birds take advantage.

Wellingtonia trees were first planted in Britain in 1853, so they're a fairly new opportunity in evolutionary terms.  What fascinates me is - how did Treecreepers first discover they could excavate roost sites in the trees - they don't seem to use other species of tree in the same way, opting for natural fissures and loose bark.  Even more fascinating is how this knowledge propagated through generations of Treecreepers - the birds live for approximately two years, so if Wellingtonia are roughly 150 years old then that's roughly 75 Treecreeper generations.  Given that these endearing little birds seldom move more than 500 metres from where they hatched, and the distance between individual Wellingtonia trees, it's unlikely that the knowledge of how to use them spread so rapidly from individual to individual and yet use of Wellingtonia for roosting is widespread in the UK.  Maybe it's an inbuilt trait in Treecreepers, or learned in some way - I'd love to know more!

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

A January sunrise

December 2019 gave some superlative skyscapes, and the "dark days" of January have continued the theme. We were up and about before dawn on one morning in the middle of the month and noticed a pink flush to the sky - the show was about to commence....

Flotillas of cloud were moving slowly overhead and were being lit from below with shades of pink and purple; the skyline trees were sharply silhouetted in contrast.  Beautiful as this was, what came next was totally unexpected.

Almost suddenly the whole distant sky fired up in a stupendous riot of colour from intense gold through ambers and purples - it was absolutely stunning.

Overhead the skeins of geese moving out across the Aberdeenshire farmland trailed wild music to accompany the sunrise.

The effect lasted for less than ten minutes before fading to an "ordinary" morning, but what a treat it had been.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Last sunset of the year

On the last day of 2019 Allan and I took advantage of a some sharp, clear weather and set out on on a walk across one of the local hills, Cairn William.  In fact, this hill is so local to Allan and Lorna that we were able to set out from their back garden!

After a pleasant traverse among the pine woods Allan showed me the former Corennie Quarry - despite having lived in the area for many years I wasn't aware that this was concealed on a rocky hillside within the woods.  Now filled with water, it made a great reflecting pool on this still and clear morning.  The quarry was active in the late 19th century and was quite a hive of activity, there was a smithy and steam powered machinery in place and a trackway linking to the railway which linked Alford to Aberdeen.  Granite from the quarry was used both locally and much further afield - some being exported as far as Australia.

After exploring the quarry we climbed out of the forest and onto the open hillside.  Straight away the views begin to open up....

...especially out over the Howe of Alford , across the village itself and beyond to the Correen Hills.  I could just make out where my house is in the view too!

This last day of the year was bright with a low winter sun.  We'd chosen a route to put the sun at our backs and were glad of it.  Ahead the moor dips slightly before heading over to Cairn William.  We enjoyed striding out on a good path with wide views.

We were soon at the great domes of granite which form the summit of Cairn William.  At 448m/1470ft this isn't a high hill at all but does have good views, and as a bonus it's on our doorsteps!

The view across to Bennachie is really fine, the distinctive shape seen from much of Aberdeenshire is one I instinctively look for in any skyline view.  We didn't loiter on the summit because a chilly breeze had started up, so we headed to the bealach between Cairn William and Pitfichie Hill to have a rest stop.  A quick climb up to the summit of Pitfichie Hill had us warmed up again - and at early afternoon we started back, the sun already low in the sky.

The low winter sun through the trees of the forest was creating some lovely light and shade patterns.  Lorna had walked out to meet us and found us taking a half step left and right to get the best image - as anyone who spends time with me on the hill or water will know, taking photos can take eat hours over the course of a day!

Walking back across the fields near Allan and Lorna's house we were treated to the most delicate of sunsets.  The last day of the year had started gold and blue, it would end in pink and lilac.

We stood until the cold moved us on, the colourful sky enhanced by a soundtrack of thousands of Pink Footed geese heading to Loch of Skene for the night.  What a superb way to end the year!

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Skyscape spectacular

The skyscapes above Aberdeenshire have been really spectacular over the last week, providing colour and drama in equal measure.

The last sunset of 2019 was a thing of delicate beauty washing the sky with mauve and pink - on a Hogmanay walk we stopped often just to watch as the quiet shades subtly changed.

On 2nd January the palette seemed the same at dawn, but this is looking west - away from the sunrise.  To walk around the house was to experience something really special...... absolute riot of pyrotechnic colour and dramatic cloudscape.

Unusually, the colour deepened as the sun rose and began to be diffused by horizon cloudbanks.  It was an absolutely gorgeous sight and seemed unbeatable.  Sunrises here in the northeast can be more spectacular than sunsets as we're closer to the east coast and have less high ground to block the view.  But this sunrise was to be matched in glory by the sunset of 5th January. 

The western and southern parts of Scotland were generally overcast but over Aberdeenshire the edge of a weather front was really clearly defined in a cloud edge.  We were driving home from a trip south and watched as the sun fired this cloud front, colour raging across the sky......

It was almost apocalyptic!  This series of images were taken on a smartphone and like those above have had no post-processing at all, they're just as they came from the camera.

It's hard to put into words the sheer majesty of this skyscape.  We pulled to the side of the road to watch and to take photographs, as did most of the other cars travelling at that time, it was such a special sight.  Turbulence in the cloud was picked out by the low sun and the whole thing seemed to pulse and ripple with fiery intensity.

As the sun sank lower the colours changed subtly but the scale didn't diminish at all.  Flocks of Rooks wheeled up off the farmland as dusk rapidly approached and started to head for their tree roosts, which sparked a thought.  We drove on a little and stopped where we hoped to enjoy the last of the sunset.

By the side of Loch of Skene we stood and watched the intensity of the colour burn from gold to copper to deep bronze and then to purple, all reflected in the water.  Then, the sound we'd hoped for to go with the visuals: geese in small groups and then hundreds and then in their thousands winged in from the surrounding countryside to roost safely on the water.  Long after the light had dimmed we heard their wild calls and splashes as they flew in.  Although too dark for photographs, the last of this exceptional sunset was still a wash of deep bronze an hour after sunset.  In these two sunsets and one glorious sunrise we'd been treated to a real show of Solas (light) in the middle of winter.  Nobody can convince me that this season is a dark and dreary time!

Saturday, 28 December 2019

A short day's sea kayaking

Unusually, the winter solstice fell on 22nd December this year rather than 21st.  The forecast was for a cold and sunny day so Allan and I planned a short paddle on the Moray Firth coast.  We met up at Sandend having driven up on quite icy roads; the temperature was barely above freezing when we got onto the water.  Our relaxed planning for the day extended to not having decided which direction to paddle until we actually got into the boats!  We settled on a round trip west to Cullen, a favourite paddle and one full of interest.

The forecast had been accurate with regards to the weather, and also with regard to the swell, which was over a metre with a 10 second periodicity.  These longer period swells are long distance travellers and they carry enormous power.  The Moray Firth is rarely completely calm, and even with no wind and a deceptively flat sea state the swell deserves respect.  Almost straight away we experienced the energy and noise of surging swell thundering across the jagged rocks near Sandend

We managed to get into some of the wider channels which thread behind stacks and cliffs just west of Sandend, but not comfortably.  It all looks serene in this image but the swell was magnified in these confined spaces....... this narrow gap we estimated a 3 metre rise and fall - and felt disinclined to investigate more closely!

Clear of the channels we were able to enjoy the kayaking with bright sunshine on our backs; welcome if not bringing much warmth.

At Sunnyside beach the breakers were "smoking" as they rolled onto the shore.  This beach looks to be an idyllic place to take a break but landings here are rarely straightforward.  There are reefs and boulders studding the gently shelving approach and the surf has a tendency to break quite late.  Even on the calmest of summer days this beach can spring a surprise!

It took us a little less than two hours to make our way around to Cullen where we pulled in to the harbour to take luncheon.  The iconic railway viaduct is a feature of the town but no longer carries a railway.

The outer harbour has a small sandy beach which is an ideal stop.  Benches on the harbour wall face the afternoon sun and there are public toilets close by.  Another very attractive feature of this harbour is the proximity of an excellent fish and chip shop!  We'd brought our own lunches on this day - featuring mince pies of course, given the proximity to Christmas.  After a leisurely lunch it was time to head back to Sandend.  An advantage of doing a winter trip heading west first then east is that we wouldn't have the sun in our eyes for much of the trip - with one significant exception.

Heading back along the eastern side of Cullen Bay we were treated to a nice view of a group of Long Tailed Ducks (Clnagula hylemalis).  these sea ducks appear in small numbers to winter on the coasts of eastern Scotland and north east England and always seem to be very elegant.

Although we saw no other leisure boaters during our short trip, we weren't the only ones out on the water.  This creeler was working a line of creels close inshore near the Logie Head which is near to the boundary between Morayshire and Aberdeenshire.

We enjoyed a steady paddle back to Sandend, arriving at mid afternoon.  This tiny harbour is really difficult to locate in mid-winter when it's a sunny day - the sun streams directly into one's eyes and makes for locating the correct line of approach surprisingly hard work.  We landed in deep shade with the temperature still hovering around freezing, so we wasted no time in unpacking our boats and loading them onto the cars before heading around the corner into bright sunshine for a warming cup of tea above the beach.

The swell hadn't diminished at all and was being enjoyed by numerous surfers, like us they were getting the best of this winter solstice.  Short it may have been, but we'd enjoyed our paddle on this shortest of days.  From now until mid June 2020 the light will increase day on day - now there's something to celebrate!