Friday 31 December 2010

Father Lasher

This is one of the stranger names for this fish which my dog found on the beach today. It's rather dead but then that's probably what attracted him! My regular walks along the beach with him are rarely without interest! Other names for this fish are Short-spined Bullhead or Short-spined Sea-Scorpion. Its scientific name is Myoxocephalus scorpius which agrees well with those English names. There are a handful of past records for Islay, mainly live specimens seen or caught during marine surveys carried out in the early 1980s.
I've added a photo of what the fish would look like when a little less dead.

Identifying swans

Suppose you were confronted by a sight like the family of swans in the photograph. You could, of course, wait for them to surface and show their bills thus revealing whether they are Whooper Swans or Mute Swans. Or, you might be in too much of a hurry to wait, or only have the photograph to rely on, on maybe even want to impress someone with your identification skills!
Well, compare the family with the single bird and from now on you are in possession of the invaluable (?) knowledge that Whooper Swans have rounded tails and the Mute Swan have pointed tails, and thus you need never have a problem with swan identification again (except with the Bewick's Swan, of course - another rounded tail, though smaller!)
This may well come under the heading of "Not many people know that", not to mention being one of the top 50 facts about birds you didn't really need to know, but maybe one day it will come in useful. What about including it in a bird quiz, for example?
Of course, you have to take it on trust that I know what I am talking about :-))
Have a good Hogmanay!
Whooper Swans
Mute Swan

Thursday 30 December 2010


Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) on the left with pairs of bladders on the leaves and Spiral Wrack (Fucus spiralis) with the inflated pale green tips to the fronds. Not all seaweeds are as easy to identify!
Over the holiday, I've been working on a database of records of seaweed found around the shores of Islay, Jura and Colonsay by various surveys carried out since the 1970s. Most of Britain's coasts have been surveyed at least twice by teams from the former Nature Conservancy Council and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, looking at what is growing on the shores and diving to see what is further out. There are over 5,000 records of at least 250 different seaweed species in the database from over 100 different locations round the three islands. A little more work is needed to get the records into standard format, but when completed, this database will join others on the INHT website.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Ageing geese

No, not that they are getting older but the term used for discovering how many young birds there are in the flocks, something I do every autumn and early winter. Breeding success varies considerably from year to year, because of adverse weather on the breeding grounds at critical times, like the hatch, or because the birds fail to get into good enough condition in the spring.
The percentage of young birds is important information to gather, but in order to do so it is necessary to distinguish between adults and young. In the Whitefronts, that is comparatively easy as the young birds lack the black belly bars of the adults while the white forehead is absent or smaller. In Barnacles, the differences are more subtle, with the adults having clear black and white feather edgings on their wings, while on the young they are browner and more 'messy'. As in all geese and swans, the birds stay in family parties throughout the winter, which means one can gather information not just on the percentage of young, but also the average size of broods.
2010 was a very good breeding season for the Whitefronts, with just over 20% young, while the Barnacles did slightly better than average, with c.11%.
A Barnacle Goose family. The male parent spends more time looking for danger than the female, who is following him, while the young bird brings up the rear

A Whitefront family. Three young are on the left. The male parent is alert, the female feeds.

Tuesday 28 December 2010


In 2009, a pair of Choughs bred in a dilapidated stone barn forming part of our garden boundary and reared five young. It was quite something to be scolded by the pair every time we went into the garden! Sadly, some of the barn roof collapsed last winter and, although the Choughs came back to have a look in the early spring, they chose to nest in an empty farm building about half a mile away. The rest of the roof was taken down for safety reasons, but every so often the pair come back to check it out, as they did yesterday for the first time since last spring. The photos are of the pair and of the five young sitting on the roof calling loudly. They are very noisy birds and we could hear their begging calls when inside our house.

Monday 27 December 2010

Gardening on Islay

One of the pleasures of an Islay garden is that one can grow a variety of plants which are susceptible to frost and so aren't as easy to grow away from the west coast. This photograph, taken last week, shows two New Zealand Cabbage Palms (Cordyline australis). They are not fully hardy in much of Britain (as one of their other common names - Torbay Palm - confirms). In a short but intense period of frost and cold easterlies in winter 1995-96, several on the island died back to the ground, though most then resprouted. We acquired these after 1996 so I will be watching them to see what happens in the coming weeks. Below them to the right is one of a number of Hebes in the garden (they are also southern hemisphere plants). We lost some in the cold last January-February as we did in 1995-96. Sometimes they resprout from the ground, but more often they are killed off completely. To the left with the long strap-like leaves is a New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax). These have a reputation for being tender and some books recommend protecting them from hard frosts. Like the Cabbage Palms, we didn't have it 15 years ago. So, we'll just have to wait and see whether we can continue to grow frost-tender plants in our garden or whether we will have change to hardier kinds. But then gardening wouldn't be so much fun if it was easy!

Sunday 26 December 2010

More thaw

What a difference a couple of days make. This is just outside my house looking north to the Paps of Jura, two days ago and today. And, yes, that lamppost really does lean!

Saturday 25 December 2010


Temperatures rose rapidly overnight and the snow is disappearing fast.
Yesterday lunchtime, the airport weather station recorded +3 degrees Celcius, but it fell again as it got dark, down to -1.6C at 6 pm, but by midnight it had shot up to +4.4C, and by 6am this morning, it was up again to +5.0C, and then to +6.0C by 9am. Also, during the night, the wind swung round from SE to W bringing this much milder air in from the Atlantic. The forecast is for a bit of a battle between the warm air and the existing cold air blanketing much of the country, so there may yet be more snow if not here then elsewhere tomorrow and Monday.

So, can we celebrate the end of the cold weather for this winter - or would that be a little premature, not to say unwise??

Anyway, Happy Christmas to all our readers from all at the Islay Natural History Trust and from a rapidly greening island.


Friday 24 December 2010

More snow and a few geese

I went to the Gruinart area this afternoon and took a few more photos of snow and geese although that wasn't my main purpose in going, which was to collect a dozen oysters from Craigens, as these, washed down by a bottle of champagne, form part of the traditional Christmas Eve supper for Carol and myself! On the way, there was extensive ice on Loch Indaal off the Strand. This is not, though, the sea itself freezing, but the layer of fresh water which forms on top of the salt water in very calm weather such as we've been having. It comes from the small rivers and burns running into the loch.
Today, there are the first signs of a slight thaw. It's been a balmy +3 degrees Celcius at the airport (where there's an official met station whose figures are published hourly on the web). Recent night-time temperatures have been regularly below -5 degrees, the lowest -7.2 degrees, though this has been exceeded in other places on the island according to people with outdoor thermometers.

Ice on Loch Indaal

The Gruinart Flats - where is the grass, where are the geese?
Well, here are a few Barnacles seemingly pecking in the footprints of the bulls whose field this is.

When all else fails for the Whitefronts, there's always the roadside verges! This was taken through my car windscreen so not totally sharp

The birdtable

One Black-headed Gull equals 15 Starlings (or it might be 16).

Thursday 23 December 2010

Geese in the snow

Barnacle Geese roosting on the snow at Carnain
Barnacle Geese sitting on a snow-covered field near Tallant

Barnacle Geese on a snow-covered field at Gartmain

Most of the geese in the fields were sitting down like this

A few Greenland Whitefronts sitting on the snow.
With such an even blanket of snow over the island - something I've never seen before, as usually the snow comes with a wind and at least some fields or parts of fields are showing grass which the geese quickly find - I was interested in where they were feeding. I went out this morning not long after dawn and found about 8-9,000 Barnacles sitting around on the merse at Bridgend and along the beach around Carnain. Some were flighting inland and I followed these to find a couple more thousand sitting in snow-covered fields pecking rather desultorily at what I suppose were blades of grass that were uncovered, though I couldn't see much from the road. Another group were in a very "shaggy" field with old grass stems and leaves poking through the snow but there's no nutrition for the geese in brown grass, it has to be green to contain the starches and sugars that they can extract from it. Anyway, here are a few photos of what I saw.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Geese at dawn

These Barnacles came over Bruichladdich this morning just as the sun was rising. They seem to have found a field not completely covered by snow behind the village.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Happy Christmas Everyone!!

Happy Christmas everyone - I hope to be back in Port Charlotte on 30th December. 

Many thanks for taking the time to follow this blog - we enjoy your company...

Best Wishes
Carl Reavey

The Shorefield bullocks - and a rook


Thanks to George Jackson for these shots of the Shorefield Highland bullocks in the snow - and a Rook helping itself to a big lump of fat from George's bird table...

Eclipse of the Moon

Eclipse of the moon as seen from a bedroom window in Port Charlotte.  There was a thin ice cloud covering it unfortunately but we still got some nice effects.

Monday 20 December 2010


Tracks of Brown Hares in the snow above Port Charlotte

Whooper Swans

I just love to see these, our winter swans, swimming gracefully, heads held high, on Loch Indaal, seemingly unpeturbed by freezing temperatures, whilst the human race don numerous layers, put our heads down and hustle and shuffle along to the Co-op, muttering under our icy breath about how terrible the weather is! (Don't expect me to engage in such muttering though - I love it!, though I still might hustle and shuffle!)


Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)

There are those of us who think that the most useful feature of the Sitka spuce plantations that carpet much of the Rhinns is as a source of Christmas trees...

Another bitterly cold morning in Port Charlotte

Sunday 19 December 2010

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)

A couple of shots of a Fieldfare that has been feeding on the rotting windfall apples in Sally's orchard.  I had scraped the snow off some of them to see if it would attract them down - and it worked...