Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Croft Flora

Continuing the listing process I have been compiling a flora (vascular plants) of the croft, stretching the definition to include the garden, a bit of the road verge at the top of the garden which contains moonwort and field gentian, and the shore.  I have not included the common grazings which in any case have a limited flora, the dullest of acid grasslands.   The croft crosses a monad (1 square kilometre) boundary, NG5728 and NG5729.   I downloaded a list of records for both squares from the BSBI database, which although probably not as comprehensive as the records maintained by the BSBI vice-county recorder Stephen Bungard, gave me a starting point.   As expected NG5729 had few records, because it is only the north of the croft and a chunk of Loch Ainort.

So far I have noted around 140 plants, most found in both squares but some in only one.  I need to make some confirmations of the ferns, willows and add perhaps to the grasses but the list is just about complete.   The final step will be to add dates to each observation which means trawling through 7 years of photographs because at one time or another almost every plant has been photographed.  A few of the common plants in flower now:

Heath Milkwort

Curled Dock

While compiling the list I  looked back at some of the orchid hybrids.  Over the years we have had numerous marsh orchid (dactylorhiza) hybrids, the commonest being D. x formosa (heath spotted x northern marsh) with the occasional D. x carnea (heath spotted x early marsh).   The most exciting though because they are uncommon has been D. maculata x G. borealis (heath spotted x heath fragrant).   Stace (New Flora of the British Isles 3rd edition) does not give a binomial for this combination.   For the last two years there were three plants, and the first of these was well on the way to flowering again this year until a roe deer (the likely agent of destruction) nipped the bud off cleanly.

Roe Deer in the Kale Yard

Hybrids can be difficult to confidently attribute to the parent plants.   In the case of D. maculata x G. borealis I am fairly certain however;  the plant is scented, the labellum is spotted but otherwise looks like that of a fragrant orchid.   The leaves are keeled but not as narrow as those of fragrant orchids.   Two of last years plants had unspotted leaves but one had spotted leaves, which rules out D. incarnata (early marsh) as one of the parents, and there is no hint of early marsh in the flower shape.   The spur is intermediate - broader than a fragrant spur but longer than that of a heath spotted orchid.   And the plants are big and impressive!

Hybrid between Heath Spotted Orchid and Heath Fragrant Orchid:

For comparison, Heath fragrant orchid and Heath spotted orchid:

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Rubh an Dunain

 I went on the Skye Botany Group walk to Rubh an Dunain yesterday, covering about 10 miles.  It was led by Stephen Bungard, who has already commented on the number of new records that were made and of the more significant finds on his own blog. (Plants of Skye and Raasay)   I have been there before to see the Viking canal, the chambered cairn and the iron age fort, all very close together, but this was principally a botany trip, and in passing any other wildlife of interest.

Everyone looking down - definitely a botany group
Geologically Rubha and Dunain, close to the Cuillin ridge, is a basalt area, with  some significant dykes running through, making the scenery quite dramatic, and interesting refuges for plants away from grazing sheep.

Orchids were just coming into flower.  Many of the Heath Spotted orchids were pure white, with uncharacteristically narrow, unspotted leaves.   Indeed the only reliable characters were the shape of the flower and in particular the fan shaped labellum, and weakly keeled leaves.

We saw the first Northern marsh orchid that any of us had seen this season, while there were also the first cohort of Early marsh orchids.  On the croft 37 are in flower so far.

Certainly a highlight was Wood Bitter-vetch growing in an almost inaccessible place on the cliffs above the sea, facing south east.  There is an excellent species account (Species account - Vicia orobus) on the BSBI website, prepared by Kevin Walker and Pete Stroh.   This is a plant that is uncommon with few records on Skye.  It might be more widespread but because of its preferred cliff habitat it is far from easy to find, and the cliffs to the east of where we found it might contain more plants; another day maybe.

Nearby there was a  one very small Heath spotted orchid with the flowers upside down which is an unusual aberration in orchids, but not unknown.   In some species such as Bog orchid all the flowers look the 'wrong way' up.

We saw lots of birds, including Golden plover, Lapwing, the resident race of Wheatear
with their paler colouring (those we had on the croft were brighter and would be on passage to Iceland and Greenland), Cuckoos  and Common sandpipers.

 There were numerous day flying moths such as Common Heath but also this micromoth which one of the members of the Skye Moth Group on Facebook suggests is Clepsis senecionana. (Skye Moth Group) 

There are four or five places on Skye that are 'must see'.   Rubha an Dunain is one, with unrivalled archaeology allied to the chance of seeing some really interesting wildlife.   Oddly though, despite the seclusion and heavy sprainting here and there, we did not see any otters.

On the way there I stopped at the bottom of Loch Ainort where the pilot whales remain and have now been there for over a week.   Whilst there is probably plenty of fish there usually, because it is a good place to see seals, it is very shallow and slopes gradually.   I have no idea whether any moves are afoot to encourage the whales to a more convivial place.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015


Adding up the number of mammals that we have seen prompted me to look at how many birds, plants and so on we have seen over the years.   As my wife will confirm (or probably not) I do not make lists. Uncharacteristically therefore, I downloaded the British list of UK birds from the BTO website, and found we have reliably seen 78 species in and around the croft and of course on the water. I am sure that a keen and more knowledgeable bird watcher would add significantly to this list by careful observation of gulls and birds of passage in autumn and spring.  
Willow Warbler



Great Black-backed Gulls

The moth total in 2014 and 2015 to date stands at 147 species, while there are another 18 from 2013 not on that list but need checking for identification accuracy with the benefit of experience gained over the last couple of years.  Working through the number of butterflies, dragonflies and other insects will take a bit of time because I will have to look back through the daily journal that we keep and 12 years of photographs.   Fungi will also take a bit of work based on photographs because some of the identifications will need to be checked especially the waxcaps.   I have only ever made half hearted attempts to look at moss species on the croft whilst lichens are just a step too far, with a whole new language to learn, and a significant number of UK species, as indeed is most stuff found on the shore.

Which leaves me with plants and despite a strong interest in botany the list of vascular plants (plants that have lignified tissue to allow transport of water and minerals) is incomplete.  I cannot be a true botanist, otherwise I would have an unfathomable passion for grasses sedges and ferns (noted from personal experience on a few BSBI field trips where a magnificient show of orchids would be ignored in favour of some insignificant, but uncommon sedge) and so the records are thin on these families.   I have started to try to fill in the gaps, aided by two heavyweight and authoritative BSBI handbooks on Grasses and Sedges respectively, but less overwhelming for the novice are the keys in Collins Flower Guide by Streeter et al.  
Common Sedge

Velvet Bent

Smooth Meadow Grass

Enough of lists.   The first orchids are in flower; on Sunday there were 4 Early Marsh Orchids in the bog.   Usually we have between 70 and 90 flowering spikes in all but the first and average flowering dates are quite variable.   Temperatures in May seem to be very important.   The first flowering dates over the last 7 years have been:

2009 8 June
2010 1 June
2011 28 May
2012 4 June
2013 10 June
2014 22 May
2015 7 June

Once the complete cohort has come into flower I will compare the average flowering date with past years and look for any climate correlations.

Early Marsh Orchid

As a post script I am down south this week, working in London.   On the journey we stopped off in Cumbria at Gait Barrows NNR which is one of the reintroduction sites for Lady's Slipper Orchid, just pipped by the Ghost Orchid as Britain's rarest orchid.   There are probably 30 to 40 plants there, raised at Kew by micropropagation from seeds of the only existing plant in the wild near Grassington in Yorkshire.  (See Lady's Slipper Project at Kew).

A warm, sunny day, we got a top up of Vitamin D.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Another Mammal Added to the List


We have been watching the wildlife in and around Ard Dorch for 12 years and have seen 14 mammal species in that time.   Well now it's 15, and the addition is not one that you might expect, such as a rabbit or a hedgehog.   No, it is another cetacean.   3 long-finned pilot whales were in Loch na Cairidh this afternoon and we watched from the shore despite heavy, almost wintry, blustery showers for over two hours.    Maybe they were part of the group of 21 whales that got stranded earlier this week at Staffin island, three of which died.  See: Stranded pilot whales appear to have left Skye

Pilot whales in Loch na Cairidh
My wife saw them first; I had gone to the other end of the croft to see if any of the orchids were flowering, which was a negative.   Selflessly,  even though she feared they might disappear, she came to alert me waving a stick frantically in the air and shouting into the wind.   Eventually she managed to attract my attention and I ran up to the house for a camera, but we need not have worried because they were in much the same place for over 2 hours.

Pilot whale in Loch na Cairidh
In truth they did not do much, staying in the same patch of water no more than 500 metres or so in length opposite croft number 3 down to croft number 2.  Back and forward, surfacing every few minutes and very occasionally blowing, though nothing like as spectacularly as humpback whales which can be seen blowing from miles away.   

Pilot whale blowing in Loch na Cairidh
Nevertheless very exciting, more because it was so unexpected.   I have only seen pilot whales twice, in Nova Scotia and Tenerife respectively, so to see them on home territory was a bit special, even though we got completely soaked in frequent and unpleasant rain showers.  What's a cold shower when a whale turns up!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Moths, Bluebells and Eagles

I sent my moth records for April and May to our local recorder, Brian Neath, yesterday.  Overall the species count to date is well behind last year (22 compared to 29), and May was particularly disappointing - too wet, too cold and too windy.  Others commenting on the Skye Moths Facebook page have had much the same experience (

Nevertheless it turns out that the count of 85 red chestnut moths on a night towards the end of April was the highest recorded in a session on Skye- just a pity that it is such an unexciting moth. Despite such abundance I have never seen a caterpillar, but I read somewhere that they only feed at night.   Distributed quite widely throughout Europe, UK Moths suggests that red chestnut caterpillars feed on groundsel and bedstraw, (and there is lots of heath bedstraw on the croft) an assertion that gets repeated on lots of moth-focussed websites.  Wikipedia gives a few more host plants such as germander speedwell, again a plant which occurs on the croft.  As a general point though the certainty and specificity of moth-host plant interactions is striking and it is not obvious where this data came from.  My suspicion is that the data may be based on limited evidence, underestimating the extent of polyphagy (feeding on many different plants).  Interestingly The NHM website "HOSTS - a Database of the World's Lepidopteran Hostplants" lists Red chestnuts are polyphagous.

Red Chestnut (Cerastis rubricosa)

The bluebells now look terrific and as ever I have taken far too many photographs, still looking for perfection but it is impossible to capture.

Orchids are showing leaves and a few are in bud, but none flowering yet.  Their development is a week to ten days later than last year, affected by the cooler weather in May in the same way as moth activity.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid

Early Marsh Orchid
Greater Butterfly Orchid
We took a trip over to Minginish, the middle one of the 5 'bits' of Skye that stick out.   We know of an eagle nest there, so on a pleasant sunny afternoon we thought we could try to get some photos. We did but from half a mile a way, so the quality was not great.   Nevertheless eagles are great to watch as they make wide sweeps across the sky, riding the thermals.  Expecting this one to be a sea eagle, it was in fact a golden eagle, and we watched it intermittently for over an hour,  flying a little often mobbed by crows, but for the main part perched on a cliff top, and difficult to pick out.   There are around 12 to 15 pairs of golden eagles on Skye, and a similar number of the larger, and introduced, sea eagles, but unlike Mull there is no organised observation point.  

Golden Eagle

No sign of the otter family I am afraid.   Every year the number of otter sightings falls during the summer months, and this year is following the same pattern.   The trail camera has picked up nothing, nor are there any fresh spraints.   Roll on the winter (or, maybe not).