10 August 2010

August butterflies

I had been hill-walking for the day, and there were large numbers of Scotch Argus butterflies on the lower slopes of the hill. These butterflies are distinctive for their very dark appearance in flight, and it is surprising to see how much colour they have when they stop to rest. On the way down, several of the butterflies settled on my skin, presumably attracted to the salt.

A Scotch Argus from Soay.

Another recent butterfly sighting, this time on the coast near home, was a Small Copper.

Lochan nan Arm

Recently Fred and I visited Lochan nan Arm, a small lochan nestling among hillocks. We had only seen it on the map, so were delighted to find such an attractive place. In the picture below you can also see Beinn Dubhchraig in the distance.

At one end, the loch was covered with yellow water-lilies.

I noticed a damselfly which was laying eggs under the water. It was climbing down a grass stem which was hanging into the water, becoming completely submerged in the water, laying a few eggs ad then resurfacing before going back down again.

There were many other dragonflies and damselflies present, including this one with wings that glinted in the sunlight.

Today we went to Rowardennan, on the east side of Loch Lomond, and saw another dragonfly laying eggs, but this one was using a different method. See the video.

09 August 2010

Soay and Gavin Maxwell

Gavin Maxwell is perhaps best known for his book, "Ring of Bright Water," about his life with otters in a remote part of Scotland.

What is less known is that, after first looking at a map of Scotland during the war in 1940, and dreaming of buying an island there, he drew "an extra red ring round the Island of Soay," an island of which he knew nothing and had never visited. Three years later, he went to Soay and had a few hours ashore. Within a year or so, he had bought it.

Soon after, in 1944, he saw a basking shark for the first time. This excited him greatly, but mostly, it seems, with the desire to kill it. This experience led him to start up a shark fishing enterprise for the purpose of obtaining oil. He built a factory in the harbour as a base for this.

Below is the factory site seen from the other side of the harbour.

The store-house

The engine

View from the store-house window.

Rather fortunately for the sharks (which were not then legally protected, although they are now), the fishery was doomed to failure, and by 1949 it had ceased.

The story is told fully in Gavin Maxwell's book, "Harpoon at a Venture"

Further links:

Gavin Maxwell (Writer) 1914-1968

Gavin Maxwell (Wikipedia)

Gavin Maxwell (Undiscovered Scotland)

06 August 2010

Soay animals

On Soay there are feral sheep, left over from former sheep farming. This year two lambs were abandoned by their mothers and had to be hand-reared.

Saffron had been abandoned at birth, and is still rather small for her age.

Arnold is much larger and quite a different character. He is inclined to butt people with his head if they don't look out.

The hens are always trying to get into the house, and tap on the window if they don't get attention.

The two geese are new arrivals, and growing fast. They are already able swimmers at this young age as they follow their owners when they go out in the dinghy.


Last week we spent some time on the island of Soay, which lies just to the south of Skye.

In the picture below, the Cuillins of Skye can be seen in the background.

In order to get to Soay, we went to Skye and our friends came in their own boat to fetch us as there is no regular ferry service. It is pretty isolated as the harbour is the other side of the island from where people live. It is only a short walk across, but not much good for carrying luggage or heavy goods so they have to walk across, which takes about half an hour, and bring the boat round, which takes about an hour. There is no jetty, so each stage has to be done by transferring to inflatables and landing on the beach. The crossing to Skye takes about an hour, and once there it is just a single-track road for about 12 miles. From September to March they expect to be more or less cut off, so they need to stock up supplies for 6 months just in case. There is no road or transport on the island and only 3 people living there plus a few houses used more or less as holiday cottages. Post comes about once a week, and once a month in winter.

There are many lochs on the island, and much of the rest is bog and heather moor.

Despite the island being low-lying, the coastline is quite spectacular.

The population used to be much larger. The school is now boarded up as there are no children.

The telephone box is no longer in use, except for storage.

05 August 2010

Cheating bees

A few days ago I visited a local garden centre and came across this plant, which goes by the name of Salvia "Hot Lips." A bee was doing the rounds of the flowers, but I noticed that it was not entering the flower through the corolla tube to collect the nectar. Instead it was inserting its tongue at the side of the tube, just above the sepals. On closer examination, I discovered that there was already a small hole in the side of the corolla tube at this point (which can just be made out in the picture above), and the bee was making use of this to gain access to the nectar. As it flew round the plants, it inspected each flower in search of a hole, and did not attempt to collect nectar from flowers without holes. What is more, the holes seemed to be only on the right side of the flowers when facing them, and not on the left.

Charles dawin noticed this behaviour by bees, and he and other writers give the most likely culprit for the initial piercing to be bumble bees, with honey bees subsequently utilising the holes.

Further reading:

Free, J. B. 1993. Insect Pollination of Crops. p.267-9

Maloof, Joan E; Inouye, David W. Ecology 2651-2661 81, no. 10 (Oct 2000): p. 2651-2661 Are nectar robbers cheaters or mutualists?

Charlton, Nicholas L. British Entomological and Natural History Society. When bees exploit plants: Nectar robbery