Friday, 22 March 2013

The Northern Lights Come South

As old age creeps up,and one's face begins to look depressingly skeletal, mortality starts  to become a consideration   I am told its a bit morbid but I have my list of 10 things to do before I die.   The list is a bit fluid because I cannot always remember what they are.   As an aside, forgetfulness is also a sign of old age, and is now recognised as a psychiatric disorder, minor neurocognitive disorder, by the recently revised practice guide of the American Pyschiatric Association, but I am not sure whether that is good or bad news, as it is not even an -ism, just a disorder.   

But back to the list.  It contains the idea of seeing in the wild the Scottish wildcat, and both the European and Iberian lynxes amongst a number of other animals. 

I also wanted to see the Northern Lights, the Aurora borealis, with its spectacular colours, waves and ripples.   Caused by geomagnetic activity in the upper atmosphere brought about by solar radiation, 2013 is expected to be one of the best years for seeing such events, as we are at the top of the poorly understood 11-year cycle of solar flares.

We went to Iceland 2 years ago, one of the more reliable places to see the aurora but after watching another 250 tourists standing around taking pictures of each other in the dark (no, I don't know why) but with no light show overhead, we came back disappointed to the UK.

The extent of geomagnetic activity is measured by the Kp index which has a scale from 1 through 10.   At low levels the aurora is seen only at latitudes approximately equating with the Arctic circle.   But if the activity is high then the aurora can be seen at lower latitudes.    Skye is at around 57 degrees north and for there to be any chance of the aurora being seen the Kp index has to be at least 6 which happens only a handful of times a year.  Then add in the requirement for as a minimum some breaks in the cloud looking north, and the odds against a sighting lengthen (rain and cloud are climate features in which Skye excels).

I get an alert from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks ttp:// which shows the Kp index and predicts where the aurora will be seen - essentially how far south.   Last Sunday, a Kp of 6 in the evening. Terrific.   I raced as far north on Skye as I could, up beyond Uig.   As there was too much cloud I came back, and then magically at 10pm looking out to  Raasay, which is due north, there was a partial break in the cloud enough to see the green colour of the aurora. Not the most spectacular view but a view nonetheless.  So I  have now seen the northern lights and the best part was that they came to meet me not the other way round.

There are a lot more aurora photos from Glendale, in north west Skye at which is definitely worth a look for all other aurora obsesssives.

So back to the other 9, if can remember what they are.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

When the Sun Shines

We had some bright calm weather in spells at the weekend and some early ground frost before cold north easterly winds set in.  There was snow above 2,000 feet on Marsco and the hills around.

It was Spring-like in the sun, and the Lesser Celandines are now properly in flower.  They pop up everywhere, because the croft is very damp.  They are underrated, I guess because they are regarded as a weed, and in sheets they look terrific, if a little gaudy.  I have literature to agree with me:  Wordsworth was sufficiently impressed with the plant that he wrote an ode  "To the Small Celandine".

There was no wind so that the sea was flat calm which is not a very common and the cormorants and other sea birds were easy to spot.    There were several Great Northern Divers and a total of 5 Red-throated Divers at some distance away.   Their summer plumage was emerging.  I saw 9 Red-breasted mergansers which have just about paired up but males predominate so there was lots of aggressive behaviour between the males.

In the warmer interludes small clouds of midges erupted in the damper areas particulaly near to trees and other shady areas.   This one was around 5mm long (body length) and I think it is a Chironomid fly - a non-biting midge, based on the wing pattern, the angled wings over the body, and the lack of a proboscis.   But I could well be wrong!  In Britain alone there are at least 7,000 species in the Diptera Order (True Flies), and if I am right and this belongs to the Chironimidae family there are 608 species to choose from.  It does illustrate how specialised the study of insects is, and how inadequate a digital image taken in the field is for species identification.

There is plenty of otter spraint around, but had no otter sightings.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Caterpillars, Otters and an Eagle

Quite a weekend.    

On Saturday we had a first, a brief sighting of a golden eagle.   It came up Loch na Cairidh, circled over the croft then flew over Am Meall (which simply means 'the Hill' in Gaelic) and disappeared off towards Blaven.   We are pretty sure it was a golden eagle rather than a sea eagle because there was no white around the tail.   Twice before we have seen sea eagles but this is a first and sadly rather brief sighting of the true native eagle.   I understand that there are an estimated 12 pairs of golden eagles on Skye, and according to Bob Macmillan, the local expert who runs the Skye Birds website and is the author of the really useful book, 'Skye Birds', they have fared less well in the face of the larger, introduced, sea eagles, whose numbers are increasing.   The breeding success of golden eagles is lower than that of sea eagles.  Competition for food may be a factor so maybe we should start putting deer carcasses out regularly!

We had some sun on Sunday, which brought out the first of the Lesser Celandines, surprisingly looking rather battered rather than full of zest.   Also in flower is a willow, probably an Eared Willow though I am still uneasy about a positive id, and it is always amongst the first in flower.   The Bog-myrtle already has male flowers.   This plant is dioecious - there are separate male and female plants.  The female flowers are tiny and I have not found any so far this year. Primroses have been seen elsewhere on Skye, but ours are nowhere near to flowering.    

There were a couple of caterpillars of the Drinker moth on the grass.   The moth flies in July and August.

Late in the afternoon, the otter family showed up - a mother and two cubs.  Fishing just off the slipway at low tide we picked them up just as they came onto the rocks.   They then went back into the water fishing some distance out, well beyond the kelp.   A common seal interrupted their progress on two occasions.   One of the cubs immediately made for the shore when the seal came near, and the mother and second cub both followed suit on each occasion.   

Later the family made their way west into Ainort, fishing close to the shore, quite effectively and coming out onto the rocks several times.    In all I watched them for about 2 hours before I lost them as they went further towards the bay.

Finally the pine marten box is installed 4 metres up a pine tree.   We wait with some interest to see if it gets a resident!   It is possible that the pine marten pictured may not be real.