Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Home Alone is Just a Memory

The otter family is alive and well (ish).  A few days  after we saw the cubs on their own for several hours we saw a male otter and this probably disturbed the mother on that day. 

I had the trail camera out from Nov 24th to Dec 11th by the cliff holt and picked up an otter on 12 separate occasions, mostly at night.  The cubs were seen in front of the holt on December 1st and 2nd, the first time we had seen them since the 'home alone' incident.   The cubs are around 80% of the body length of the mother, which makes them around 60 days old.   Therefore they were born at the start of October.

Otter cubs on trail camera

Otter cubs on trail camera

Otter cub on trail camera

There was quite a storm on Sunday, with winds gusting up to 50mph (I was blown over once, 40mph does not do that; 60 mph and its hard to stand up at all).  A surprise then to see the otter family fishing just before high tide, battling against the waves, and catching fish.   One of the cubs is bolder than the other and even managed to catch a fish of its own.   Its sibling is less outgoing and sat hidden in the rocks making a regular piping call throughout.   I took 6 minutes of video which I need to digitise.

Today was calmer and 3 hours before high tide  the family were out fishing quite close in amongst the wrack.  (In the past I have carelessly been imprecise about the seaweed, calling it all kelp which of course it is not - the wrack is intertidal, the kelp can only be seen at low tide.)  As on Sunday one cub showed a mark preference for the rocks rather than the water.   We also noticed that the mother has an eye wound, hard to see precisely what the problem is but there is a pink area around the left eye.  
Otter family
Mother with eye injury still able to catch fish
I will wait to be fed
A seal watched the proceedings.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Otter Cubs

Today was another fantastic day; though not very warm we had sunshine all day bringing the best out of the autumn colours.    I would never have advised anyone to visit Skye in November, but after yesterday and today, I have changed my mind.  There are two things predictable about the weather on Skye, firstly its unpredictability, and secondly the worthlessness of Met Office forecasts.
Loch Ainort and the Red Hills
Not wanting to waste a brilliant day, we spent it on the croft looking for wildlife, particularly the otter family we saw yesterday.   Around 10am I saw them in the little sandy bay west of the croft (coarse sand / fine shingle would be a more accurate description)   I went out in the canoe and saw one of the cubs camouflaged in the kelp but there was no sign of the mother or the other cub.

After a picnic lunch I went out again and this time found the two cubs and watched them for thirty minutes or more.   I took the canoe in fairly close but not too close to scare them.   In and out of the water, up and under the kelp, coming close to the canoe in an innocent, inquisitive way. And almost fearless.


All the while I was wondering where the mother was; yesterday she had never been more than 5 metres from the cubs; today it looked as though they had been abandoned.   At about 15.30, back on land, I saw the cubs still where they had been, but still no mother.  Concerned for their welfare, because they cannot fend for themselves, I had a discussion with Grace Yoxon at the International Otter Survival Fund (www.otter.org) in Broadford.   I thought they were younger than they were - Grace estimated that they are three months old (I had not had time to work out their size and hence age from the measurements I made of one of the rocks they perched on) so we concluded that they would probably be fine, but I went back again just as it was getting dark and the tide was coming in.   They had gone, so fingers crossed, just a case of a home-alone cubs.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Carpe Diem - Otters!

A bright sunny day, I had planned to shred wood from a number of garden shrubs that I had cut back. That plan was scrapped because we had another otter day.

A family of otters appeared in Loch Ainort and my wife and I watched them for over an hour.   A mother and two cubs, they fished in the kale close to the rocks.   Occasionally the mother would fish in slightly deeper water, leaving the cubs on a rock, bringing back food (young cod?) for the cubs which they tore into avidly.   From time to time the mother would catch something for herself and eat it in the water.

This year reinforces the pattern established over several years;  few if any sightings in the summer but then an appearance of an otter family in November / December.   There have been a few signs for several weeks that there was a breeding otter about - heavy spraints by the slipway for example.   I also found a spraint at the top of the croft at least 100 metres from the shore and I think the breeding holt is on Am Meall across the road.   (Incidentally the record book that accompanied the first edition Ordnance Survey in 1876 translate this hill as 'The lump', not as I thought 'The hill').

Monday, 10 November 2014

Yet more fungi, deer stalking, and a little local history

It is late autumn but I am still finding fungi; I collected another 10 this month.   Here are some of those finds.

Herald of Winter

Earthy Powder Cap
Scurfy Twiglet (Probably)
Blackening Waxcap
(Hygrocybe conica)
Mealy Funnel (Probably)

Saffron Milk Cap

Saffron Milk Cap Spores x  1000
I found the conical waxcap on the roadside, so I had to kneel, and bend over, a few feet from the traffic to get  a close-up.  I hadn't thought it through and seeing this apparently slumped body, a concerned motorist stopped to see if I was okay, fearing that I was either drunk or a road casualty or both. Scotland, mid afternoon, definitely a possibility!  She was relieved when she saw the camera, and fortunately because she too had a general interest in wildlife - and for example, gets frequent sightings where she lives of white-tailed eagles - fully understood why someone might be hunched over a small yellow fungus.   Few would, and I appreciated her concern which led her to stop, delaying a cup of tea waiting for her at Sconser.

A deer has been a regular visitor to the croft.   There are prints everywhere in the grass and droppings on most parts of the croft.  Having enjoyed the free grazing I have provided  my generosity was rewarded with damage to a few hazel bushes planted as a wind break.   I am not a fan of deer.

Nevertheless it is elusive and I had not seen it until two nights ago.   I went lamping at 10.30pm, and although there was nothing on the croft I heard something scrambling over the road and up the banking above the croft and onto the grazings. It was a modestly sized red deer stag.   I tracked it for a while, which in truth was not difficult, getting within 50 yards or so, probably close enough to recognise it on an identity parade.  It also ponged and there was a strong musky odour where it had been standing.  

Wednesday and yesterday were bright and sunny.   I saw a couple of Slavonian Grebes out on Loch na Cairidh, which though uncommon, are regular winter visitors.   There were also a few Great Northern Divers.  

On one of the intervening really wet days my wife and I went to the Council's archive centre in Portree to get some basic information on the history of Ard Dorch.   I have been reading Tom Devine's 'Clanship to Crofter's War' which describes a general pattern through the Highlands of a change to tenanted smallholdings - crofts - at the same time as larger sheep farms were established beginning in the late 18th century.  There followed a dependence on kelp for income in the early 19th century, which declined after the Napoleonic wars, so that communities were then reliant on subsistence agriculture. Potato blight in the 1840's  caused destitution with charity, clearances and emigration the mainstay of the response.   Fishing communities were not as badly impacted.  Ard Dorch, together with the nearby villages of Luib and Dunan, fits into that category, for in any case the agricultural land was not of high value.  The census data shows that the population actually grew between 1841 and 1891:

Households     Popn.
    Total  Adults Children
1841 4 21 9 12
1851 5 28 13 15
1861 8 37 19 18
1871 7 30 21 9
1881 11 42 27 15
1891 10 50 26 24
1901 7 43 21 22
      Now 11 22 18 4

Only one family moved into Ard Dorch during the famine years, and the rise in numbers later probably reflects a burgeoning fishing industry.    Almost all the menfolk were fishermen, so that the small tenanted holdings were there to provide subsistence - oats, potatoes and maybe cattle (sheep were not permitted by the landlord).     None of the villagers described themselves as a crofter until the 1880's but by 1901 it had become the principle occupation.  Then as now,  there were four crofts, ours being one half of a divided croft that was shared by two families who appear to have been related  The two halves were treated as a single unit by the landlord.   There was also a grocer's shop in the village.

The 1886 Crofting Act gave security of tenure, and heritability.  Another aspect is that it introduced a formal process of rent reviews.   The result in Ard Dorch was remarkable; in 1881 the rent payable on each 7-acre croft in the village was £4-2-0d but this had fallen by almost a half to £2-10-0d  in 1891.   It sounds a lot yet the landlord seems to have made most of his money from red deer shooting rights.   As an example the shooting rights for Strollamus (I am unsure of the boundaries, but probably it included Ard Dorch), brought in £100 per annum, and the shooting rights on Scalpay opposite brought in over £300 per annum.   Despite deer all around, crofters got no protection from the damage they caused to crops.    Responding to the same problem 120 years later, I had to build a 6 foot fence round my vegetable garden to keep deer out, having lost most of a winter crop of vegetables. 

I shall be spending a few more  hours  in the Archive Centre, when it rains, particularly to get to know more about the fishing business if there are any records.

As a final note, the Grazings landlord tells me that rather than cast them back, I should be eating the velvet swimming crabs that I caught in the creel last month.  In Spain they are commonly sold in fish markets, and his advice is to simply boil them then take the body from the shell and crunch! So a starter of crab, followed by venison and wild mushrooms might be on the cards. 


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Skygazing, fishing and spending too much time with a microscope

The last few days have been eventful.   We saw a few more birds that are winter visitors to Skye; a brambling struggled to get at the garden bird feeders against competitive sparrows, a few fieldfare settled on the remaining rowan berries, and a black headed gull mingled among other gulls .   The birding highlight though was a resident, a sea eagle, with its white tail glinting in the sunlight around a kilometre away, mobbed by gulls - it's tough being an eagle.   The same goes for the buzzard we have seen on most days, which has been regularly harassed by crows and ravens,


Aurora Forecast
But the eagle was not the big highlight.  Last Tuesday, one of several clear dry nights (for the last 10 days the weather has been superb, though it  ended at the weekend with heavy rain and today strong winds and more rain) coincided with an appearance of the Northern Lights.   The only sighting I have had on Skye was 18 months ago, and although the Kp index was a modest 5 as measured by the Kjell Henriksen Observatory on Svalbard, such that Skye was on the very edge of visibility, there was a display which lasted 20 minutes or so. With the naked eye they lights were not greatly obvious - a brightness and colouring, gentle rather than psychodelic - but the camera exaggerated the colouring and drama.

Northern Lights over Raasay
Northern Lights over Raasay
Northern Lights over Raasay

                                                                                          Back to the more commonplace.   During the period of clear dry nights I put the moth trap out a couple of times but the catches were small, (one night like a British Eurovision song entry - zero) not least because the temperature overnight was at, or near, freezing. There were a couple of Feathered Thorn and an Angle Shades.

Feathered Thorn
Angle Shades

I have spent a lot of time, probably too much,studying and identifying the fungi I have found on the croft.   Some of the earlier identifications I have made might be incorrect and I will take a look at them again over the winter.   I am reasonably confident that the examples below of recent identifications are correct to species level after using several fungi handbooks and then checking them against Fungi of the Hebrides - R W G Dennis, which comprehensively lists all the fungi recognised in the Inner and Outer Hebrides in 1986, long before the days of the NBN Gateway.

Pale Waxcap (C. berkeleyi)

Pale Waxcap (C. berkeleyi) Spores

Star Pinkgill (Entoloma conferendum)

Star Pinkgill (Entoloma conferendum) Spores
Waxcap (H. euroflavescens)

Waxcap (H. euroflavescens) Spores

Whenever I see an otter fishing I want to know what the fish species might be that the otter is eating but it is just about impossible to tell, so I have put a creel out by the kelp where otters regularly fish, on calm days when I can get the creel in and out using a canoe.   I caught 2 cod on the first day, but then things went awry on the second day.   I probably had the creel in water that was too shallow because the creel was almost literally full of crabs, 47 in total, and they took ages to pull out of the narrow necked creel.  45 were shore crabs and the other 2 were velvet swimming crabs,  The next day from deeper water I had 2 velvet swimming crabs, easily the most evil looking crab, and on the last day of fishing, what I think were two juvenile Norway pout.  None of these were eaten, least of all the fierce and threatening swimming crabs.

Velvet Swimming Crab
A Creelful of Crabs

Young Cod

Probably a Juvenile Norway Pout

Sunday, 12 October 2014

For a Change: Birds

I am not really a birder - they come after mammals, plants and even moths in my list of interests.  At this time of year though migration is underway, and there is usually something on which to focus.  Skeins of geese have been flying overhead, including brent geese, but to get a bit closer to some of the birds around  I took the canoe out on each of the last three days, getting bolder each time on the expensiveness of the camera I took with me, and the risk of a catastrophic drenching.    Conditions were perfect with the the sea flat calm, save for the occasional rain shower.  

On Scalpay, the island opposite, there is a spit where cormorants and gulls gather but there is also a small group of turnstone, perhaps 10 or so,  and by quietly drifting into where they feed I got really close - sufficient to hear the almost metallic click of stones as the birds turn them over looking for food.

Towards Scalpay there are small numbers of Black Guillemot, mainly young birds and juveniles

Black Guillemot (Juvenile)
On the way back yesterday I came across a big, pale flanked dog otter fishing midway between Dunan  and Scalpay.   It was low tide so the water was not very deep.   My neighbour, Alan, had seen this otter several times in recent days. I kept up with it for a while but got no usable pictures and as it headed off towards Strollamus I gave up the chase.  My wife saw probably the same otter this morning near the slipway, but only briefly.

Two days ago, from the canoe, I saw what was probably a different otter feeding amongst the kelp, also at low tide near the Dunan end of the village.  I think this was a female - smaller and thinner faced.    An otter is also using the cliff holt during darkness.
Long-tailed Duck

This morning where Loch Ainort meets Loch na Cairidh I came acrsoss a male and female  of a rare winter visitor to Skye, a  Long-tailed Duck.   Yesterday I saw two juveniles in the same spot. These breed in the arctic tundra and winter off-shore mainly in the Baltic though some make their way west to the east coast of Scotland and a few.   The Hebrides mark the most westerly limit of the winter migration in Europe.   I got quite close though taking photos from a moving canoe of two birds also moving and intermittently diving did not produce perfect results.

As ever I had a retinue of two seals as I paddled home.   These must be the most nosey of animals, popping up behind the canoe at frequent intervals to monitor me, the intruder in their space, with a bit of noisy splashing to create some distraction.

Common Seal
Common Seal

On the croft a buzzard has been around for several days, occasionally harassed by crows.    There is a pair of ravens and yesterday morning I had a brief view of a sparrowhawk.

Grey Pine Carpet Moth
I put the moth trap out a couple of times but the counts were low because of a full moon and low temperatures.    The count was dominated by Grey Pine Carpet Moths, though I think amongst them were a few Spruce Carpet which are very similar.    I will have to get confiration from our moth recorder.

The sun is shining again; I need to be back outside!