26 December 2009

Unusual birds in our garden

Around Christmas we often seem to have some unusual bird visitors to our garden. In previous years we have seen Blackcap, Iceland gull and Reed bunting among others during the Christmas period. This year proved to be rewarding, no doubt partly due to the snow which has now been lying for a week.

On Christmas morning we had visits from a song thrush and a redpoll. Although we have had both species before, we hadn't seen either since the spring.

Song thrush

In the afternoon I went out into the park next to our house on my skis and spotted this treecreeper. Although this one wasn't in our garden, it wasn't far away. We have seen treecreepers here before, but not very often.

On the 26th we noticed a large thrush-like bird in one of the trees opposite. It made a brief visit to our garden to collect a cotoneaster berry. Viewed through the binoculars, it turned out to be a fieldfare, which is a new record for our garden. I tried to take a photo, but at that moment it took off so this is all I managed to get.

In the evening we were just going out for a night walk in the snow when we were astonished to see a pair of mallard ducks approaching our house. They seemed to recognise us when we appeared, and we can only think that they were a pair that visit us in summer and could find no open water in the cold weather. They were certainly very hungry. We have ducks visiting our garden every year, but only between late March and August.

Our complete list of species for Christmas week:
Black-headed gull
Carrion crow
Coal tit
Common gull
Great tit
House sparrow
Song thrush
Wood pigeon

12 December 2009

Conic Hill

Today was a very foggy day at home. I looked at the mountain weather forecast and it said that it would be a sunny day, but only above 300m as the fog would cover the lower ground. I had already thought of climbing Conic Hill, and at 358m, it seemed like a good choice.

The fog was thick all the way until I was close to my destination. Suddenly there was a break in the fog, and I could see Conic Hill in sunshine.

I soon climbed into the sunshine, but the fog then rose and hid the view until I was at almost exactly 300m. Suddenly it cleared again and the sun shone. I was soon on the summit ridge, and as the sun cleared I saw a glory - a ring of rainbow colours - on the cloud below me.

To the west, Loch Lomond was covered in cloud, though one of the islands was peeping through.

To the south, the Campsies were sticking up out of the fog.

The fog rose again and the glory became stronger, showing my shadow, the Brocken spectre, at the centre.

The mist was still swirling round the summit.

To the north, the fog cleared off the summit of Ben Lomond.

Soon it came rolling back up the glen below me.

I went to the west end of the ridge. Normally this is a good viewpoint for seeing the Highland Boundary Fault stretching across Loch Lomond, but this was blotted out by the fog which was rising and falling below me.

I stayed on the summit ridge for several hours, as I didn't want to go back down into the fog. Then I began the descent.

There was still some frost on the vegetation in places.

I had a last clear view back to the summit, with another Brocken spectre in the foreground.

I noticed that there was also a fogbow, which is just visible in the picture below.

Then it was time to go back down into the fog.

There are two slideshows of my previous visits to Conic Hill on the hill walking pages of our website.

For more information about glories, Brocken spectres and fogbows see the Atmospheric Optics site.

05 December 2009

Another ice spike

The season for ice spikes is here again. Yesterday morning one appeared in a plastic food tray which was nearly full of water and floating in one of the large trays of water we put out for the ducks. The spike was about an inch (25mm) high. This is what it looked like at 9am.

It was filled to the brim with water, and you can see that the water is bulging with surface tension slightly above the top of the spike. This is because the water in the tray freezes until only one point is left and, as water expands as it freezes, it gets pushed out of the hole and builds up a wall around it. As ice tends to freeze in a triangular pattern, these ice spikes tend to be triangular in cross-section.

Some time during the following hour, the water must have thawed enough to break the ice seal in the box. This caused the water level in the spike to drop. The following two pictures were taken at 10:30am.

I lifted the box out of the tray and held it up so the ice spike was against the sky. You can see that the top of each wall is curved upwards.

You can see several other entries about ice spikes in this blog, and we also have a section about ice spikes in our website.

07 November 2009


We are sad to report that our beautiful cat, Jenny, died this morning. She was about 16 years old and had been suffering from chronic renal failure since last December. She died peacefully with both of us present and while she was being brushed, which was what she loved most.

These two pictures were taken on 4th November, just before she became seriously ill.

Here are some older pictures of Jenny, all dating from 2002 when I first had a digital camera.

Jenny also has her own page on our website

15 September 2009

Dragonflies and damselflies

On Saturday we visited some ponds where Fred had not collected samples before. There were large numbers of insects visiting the ponds, including these damselflies.

Male Emerald Damselfly (Lestes sponsa)

Female Emerald Damselfly

Pair of Emerald Damselflies

Pair of Darters (probably Black Darters - Sympetrum danae)

Watch a video of two pairs of Darters laying eggs.

I also found this empty larva case (exuvia) of a Common Hawker (Aeshna juncea) - one of the larger dragonflies.

One of the dragonflies even settled on Fred's head!

Many thanks to Jeanne Robinson for help with identifications.

Further information:

British Dragonfly Society - includes photos of British species
and a useful pdf document on Dragonflies in your garden

12 September 2009


On Thursday I went up Ben Venue. Close to the summit (which can be seen in this picture) there is a small pond which sometimes dries out.

Below is a photo of the pond taken early in the year, looking the other way, towards the trig point which is at the second top of the hill.

In this small pond I noticed some greenish masses and I thought this would be something to interest Fred so I tried to collect some. This proved difficult, as it kept slipping out of the collecting tube, so I used a bag instead.

Under the microscope, this turned out to be tiny protozoa, each containing green algae. We identified them as Ophrydium, though this usually grows in a much more defined greenish spherical jelly-like lumps. Maybe this was an old colony.

The creatures have tiny beating hairs at the front...

...and a long point at the rear.

Our videos:

See also:

Size dependence of composition, photosynthesis and growth in the colony forming freshwater ciliate, Ophrydium versatile. Freshwater Biol. 31: 121-130

Some notes on an uncommon colonial peritrichous protozoon, Ophrydium versatile (O.F.M.). E.D. Hollowday. Microscopy 32, July-December 1975

Hawthorn Shield Bug

Yesterday I met a small creature resembling an alien in our garden.

It was a Hawthorn Shield Bug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale).

It was very co-operative about having its photo taken, and afterwards I put it on a cotoneaster bush, as I think it must have dropped out of it while I was pruning.

When I went out again an hour or two later, there was a second Shield Bug sitting close by, which I hadn't noticed before. It must have been attracted by the presence of the first one.

These bugs go through five larval stages called instars.

This morning, when I went to the garden waste bin to add some more prunings, I discovered what I now recognised as an immature Shield Bug inside the bin. (I also made a mental note always to shake any prunings before putting them in the bin in future, so that these small creatures don't get sent away with the waste)

Later I found 2 more smaller ones. This is the biggest and the smallest at 11:50am...

...and the middle-sized one at 1:50pm, with the small one hiding under a leaf on the left.

1:50pm. The biggest and smallest. The smallest had already changed colour, so it must have gone through a moult.

17:30. I went to have another look, and the biggest one had now changed completely. I think this is the 5th instar stage.

17:45pm. Meanwhile, the smallest seemed to be moulting again.

8th October 2009

Today I found this shieldbug crawling on the lid of one of our compost bins. It is a Birch Shield Bug (Elasmostethus interstinctus) and it measured 8.5mm excluding the antennae - slightly smaller than the Hawthorn Shield Bug. Note that the projections on the pronotum (the widest bit just behind the head) are smaller and not tinged red.

16th October 2009

It has been a while since I saw any Hawthorn Shield Bugs, but I discovered this 5th instar today on the cotoneaster bushes.

More information can be found on the British Bugs website.

11 September 2009

Emperor moth and caterpillar

Yesterday I was out for a walk up Ben Venue in Perthshire.

While we were walking through a rather boggy area, I met this HUGE caterpillar. It was probably about 6cm long, though I didn't measure it.

Usually, attractive caterpillars seem to end up as rather dull moths, but not this one. It is the caterpillar of the Emperor Moth (Pavonia pavonia). I had found one of these moths on the hills on 14th April 2007, and it is truly spectacular. The larger female, shown here, is not often seen because it mostly flies by night.

05 September 2009

Bog orchids

The Bog Orchid - Hammarbya paludosa - is a rather rare orchid which grows in scattered locations throughout the UK, particularly in the west of Scotland. It flowers from late July to September.

I was keen to see this tiny orchid, and jumped at the opportunity when, on 1st September 2002, I was invited to go and look for it at a location where it had been found before. Unfortunately the arranged trip fell through, but I decided to go and have a hunt for myself in a different area, preferring somewhere less remote when walking alone.

I hadn't been walking for long before I came to a likely looking boggy area. You can imagine my astonishment when I found 14 Bog Orchids scattered along the side of a small stream! This was within a site which was already designated as an SSSI, but Bog Orchids had never been found there before. This site in Stirlingshire has continued to be a reliable location, and this year we found 51 flowering spikes there.

Bog Orchid at the site found in 2002, 8th August 2009

This was certainly a case of beginner's luck. Although we later found them at the site which we had intended to visit on that first day, I did not see them at any other location until this year despite looking out for them in any bogs I happened to be passing.

On 22nd August this year I went hill walking with a group. The pace was rather fast for flower hunting, but I can't walk anywhere at this time of year without keeping a look-out for anything unusual. We hadn't walked far before I noticed 2 Bog Orchids beside a wet flush, and 4 more close by. I could not stop to look for more, but on the way down I made sure that I was ahead of the rest and found a total of 9 flowers. This site in Perthshire was also an unknown location for the orchid.

To give some idea if the small size of this orchid, the length from the bottom of the lowest floret to the top of the spike in this picture measured 13mm. In the Bog Orchid the flowers twist through 360 degrees rather than the 180 degrees of most other orchid florets - so the florets appear upside-down compared to other orchids. The green-striped lip can be seen at the top of the upper floret on the right.

Since I discovered this site, I was asked to check on a site in Perthshire where this orchid had been found in 1999 but the grid reference was thought not to be accurate and it had not been seen since. This was a real challenge, as the Bog Orchid particularly likes growing on moss or peat where it is alongside a stream or water with some movement, and it turned out that the whole area was suitable habitat with many wet areas, small streams and bogs. Fred came with me, and we searched all the likely areas, working in a zigzag from the first stream we came to until we reached the given grid reference. We had searched for more than an hour and were about to give up when I suddenly found one.

The site was typical - a wet flush with water trickling down it into a nearby stream.

My stick marks the location of this plant.

Perhaps because it was towards the end of the season, it had quite a yellowish colour which made it slightly easier to spot, and a further search produced 7 more flowers.

The picture below shows this plant in its habitat, with a Round-leaved Sundew growing nearby on the left.