Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Scots Lovage and Rerwick

Another week of birdwatching classes saw us in St Andrews (2x), Rendall (2x) and Sandwick. The Rendall classes met up with Barnacle Geese, Golden Plovers and Red Grouse, the St Andrews classes met up with Great Northern Divers, Velvet Scoters, Bar-tailed Godwits and Knot while the Sandwick class saw Whooper Swans, Shelducks, Shovelers, Barnacle Geese and Pink-footed Geese. The geese and swans are just in the last throes of taking energy on board before heading off to Iceland - probably within the next ten days.

It's almost possible to see the flowers growing - certainly it is with the rhubarb in our garden - it's shot up 20" in 14 days. Along a couple of the lanes in Puldrite, Rendall the Lesser Celandines were like chrome stars on the sides of the verges and ditches, and even more so six days later along the track to the Hall of Tankerness.

Bacon Tub, Rerwick

Our St Andrews walk took us around the spectacular Rerwick coast which is peppered with geos, wave-cut platforms, arches, stacks and even a couple of gloups. Fulmars, Shags, Black Guillemots and Ravens were all either nesting or beginning to nest on cliffs that were dressed with the succulent dark green leaves of Scurvy Grass. Also evident, but only on the south facing sheltered cliffs were the first signs of Scots Lovage a plant exclusively confined in Britain to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

newly emerging Scots Lovage at Rerwick

In Orkney Scots Lovage can be found on cliffs but may also be found growing low down on shingle and sandy shores. Some conveniently grows along the Churchill barriers. You can see it quite easily at No4 barrier, the Burray end.

The finished article

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Heldale Water and Little Rackwick in March

western end of Heldale Water

Much of the walk along the northern edge of Heldale Water necessitates ploughing through Eriophorum (Cotton grass) and skipping over pools of Sphagna. Beyond the western end of the loch, there is another substantial tract of Eriophorum before drier heath becomes the order of the day. On the banks that border the Burn of Greenheads, the heather is less exposed and consequently thicker, in among it are healthy spreads of Bearberry.
Bearberry on the banks of the Burn of Greenheads with the Candle of the Sneuk in the background

On the southern slopes of the burn was a very fine Juniper clinging to an overhang

I've long known the Heldale area as one of the best places in Hoy to see Mountain Hares. In previous March visits I've seen as many as 30 animals on the side of Bakingstone Hill basking in the spring sunshine. I was disappointed with yesterday's trip in that only four animals were logged. Surely they would have survived Orkney's harsh wintry spell - they are born to it. Despite the paucity of sightings one of them provided me with a few pretty decent images. This is the best -

Mountain Hare on the slopes of Bakingstone Hill, Hoy

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Coltsfoot again

A trip out to Hoy today provided a lot of highlights. I walked from Heldale Water to Little Rackwick - the wind (a force 5/6) was against me as I headed west across the blanket bog below Bakingstone Hill. The bog was composed of Sphagna and Cotton grass but towards the west, the hill gets drier and more heathery - in among the heather was a fair abundance of Bearberry. I'm contemplating locating the Bearberry wth a backdrop of the Candle of the Sneuk for one of Anne's 'Hill' plates. Other highlights which I'll publish later included Mountain Hares and Juniper.

At Lyness, I noticed this little grouping of Coltsfoot (or Coltsfeet) by the side of the road to the pier. This picture, with the Hoy Head arriving in the background, is a good candidate for the finished volume. It'll need Anne's touch to bring it to life.

Monday, 21 March 2011


I was out with my Monday birdwatching class today at Puldrite in Rendall. Despite the blustery conditions we saw some notable birds including Barnacle Geese, Red Grouse and summer-plumaged Golden Plovers. Signs of spring included bubbling Curlews and plenty of Lesser Celandines, Coltsfoot, Daisies and Daffodils. Another indicator of the turning earth is well illustrated at the Doocot where the marshy ground heaves with the circular leaves and pink/purple flower spikes of Butterbur. Today, the south facing banks had a few flowering specimens that were at the most 10cm tall but it will be a couple of weeks before the ground looks like a Butterbur jungle, as was the case in the photos below, taken in April 2009.

Butterbur at the Doocot, Rendall - April 2009

Butterbur at the Doocot - April 2009

Butterbur at the Doocot - April 2009

Butterbur at the Doocot - April 2009

The following image was taken  at Gyre, Orphir where there is a little forest of Butterbur carpeting the Gyre woodland - a forest within a forest. The picture was taken on 18th April. Domino the Dalmatian let it be known (sit down strike) that nothing would tempt her to cross the Butterbur jungle. The lady was not for budging.

Domino refuses to walk through Butterbur - April 2009

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Links one

At last I've just finished the first Links plate.  It has taken rather longer than hoped, which seems to be the way of things at the moment.  With a return of all the snow it seems a bit strange painting Heartsease Pansy and Lady's Bedstraw which will not be flowering until at least May.  In an ideal world we would be going out to the various sites and painting the pictures in situ but with a relatively short season flowering time for most plants, and so many species to cover, a bit of pragmatism has to come into play.  I have to also confess to liking a warm room and endless cups of tea whilst working, although I fear this method might be frowned upon by more hardy painters of plants and animals.

The locations for Anne's flowers are:
Wild Pansy -  Tres Ness, Sanday
Lady's Bedstraw - Dingieshowie, Deerness
Sand Sedge - Sandside Bay, Graemsay
Marram Grass - Bay of Skaill, Sandwick
Lyme Grass - Glims Holm

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The return of wintry blasts and Coltsfoot

After a few days of calm and gentle warmth and really believing that the earth had turned, all of a sudden Orkney has been hit by icy blasts bringing sleet and snow and the promise of a little more to come. Was it only last Thursday that I was watching and listening to Goldfinches singing in a Kirkwall garden - leaning against a wall and feeling the sun's warmth flooding through my winter bones, I almost nodded off. The harshness of our winter is still being felt. I've yet to hear a Skylark singing and have walked many coast miles without bumping into a Rock Pipit. Our most recent walk was from the Point of Buckquoy to Garson in Birsay - plenty of Purple Sandpipers but not a single Rock Pipit. In recent years, two pairs have held territory down at the Kirkwall marina - not a sausage this year. And it's a similar story for the Willow burn Grey Wagtails - absent, presumed dead, since Christmas 2010.

Anne and I were part of two fantastic boat trips in Scapa Flow on Sunday and Monday. Everyone was treated to excellent views of Great Northern Divers and Long-tailed Ducks. The cliffs at the Candle of the Sale never fail to impress and a myriad of Fulmars wheeled in the updraughts.

On the wildflower front the chrome-yellow flowers of Coltsfoot are brightening up laybys, verges and the shore. They are among the earliest of plants to bloom and I recall seeing them in full flower under the Rackwick cliffs as early as 15th February. Coltsfoot (or 'feet'?) has been an important plant for previous generations. It has been used as a cure for coughs, consumption and sprains, and as a tobacco and tea substitute. It's difficult to comprehend the amount of time it must have taken to collect sufficient downy material for tinder and stuffing for pillows.

Coltsfoot at Echnaloch Bay, Burray

Coltsfoot at Echnaloch Bay, Burray