Friday 30 April 2021

A Spring walk on the bog

 What's happening on Islay peatlands just now?

INHT has started its rounds on the breeding bird surveys, we have been contracted to undertake of the SAC sites adopted by ACT/CANN (Argyll countryside Trust & Collaborative Action for Natura Networks).  This gives me a great opportunity to escape the computer and emails and get out and see what stage nature is at in the season.  

It also provides an opportunity to inspire people to start exploring Islay and Jura peatlands and engage with our Community Peatlands Project either through picking up a copy of our Peatland Passport or get you cameras and pencils out and capture what peatland means to you for our photo and poetry competition.

Cast Northern Eggar moth cocoon

Our migrant birds may have only just started piling in, however our resident breeders  have been busy since the end of March.  On the bogs, waders are on territory around peatland pools, Redshank, Lapwing and a few Dunlin.  I saw the first newly hatched duckling chicks of Mallard.  A joy not to be missed is the bubbling, fluty notes of the Skylark ascending skywards into the blue expanse above.
Bleached hummock of Sphagnum capilifolium

 I like to keep note of the state of the flora, a much better marker for the season.  Despite a very sunny month, it has been tinged with cool, even chilly winds for the most part.  Most significantly for our bog/peatland habitats no rain!  Peatlands thrive on high air moisture and high rainfall to keep the peat wet, and overcast conditions to prevent too much evaporation, which is something we cannot claim for this past month.


Sphagnum cuspidatum in the edge of a dubh loch

This was sadly evident walking the bog this week, each footstep heard with a rustle and a crunch of dry parched vegetation.  Where the Sphagnums should have been soft and full of colour they are bleached from the sun and form a dry crust, particularly on the hummock forms that cannot draw moisture up so easily from deeper layers of peat. The small sphagnum pools which should have been under water were empty with a slight moist layer of Sphagnum cuspidatum, those in the edges of the dubh lochs moist and plump.  As a walker there were no dilemmas about which was the driest route or how to get over the wide soft squelchy bits without water going over my wellies!

 The drop in water levels was evident in the larger lochan pools with bare peat showing at the edges and deep overhangs which could make getting out difficult if you did not have wings.  I found one edge with many scrape marks made with 5 toed claws, obviously the sign of use by an otter.


 Amongst the dubh lochs however, the state of permanent wetness provides a buffer to the drying wind and sun.  The first of the bog bean is coming into bloom, such a pretty, lacy flower projecting from the dark pools.  This will be in flower for most of May.  Apart from this the only other flowers requiring the services of the large Buff-tailed Bumblebees at present were the isolated clumps of willow and a few Common Milkwort.

Bog Bean

Male flowers of Willow (a dioecious plant, the male and female flowers are on separate plants)


Hare's-tail Cotton Grass
You can tell that the main form of pollination for these early flowers is by wind.  Hare's-tail Cotton Grass had already had its pollination period as all the single seed head stems were developing their fluffy white cotton tails.  Common Cotton Grass however was only just coming into 'flower', they differ in that multiple heads develop from the single stem, their yellow anthers dusted with pollen dangling ready for the wind to lift it and carry it in hope of being deposited on the stigma of another cotton grass head (what are the odds?.... quite slim, which is why vast amounts of pollen are produced by wind pollinated plants).  Also reliant on the wind are the Deer Grass (not actually a 'grass')
Common Cotton Grass head
with dangling male anthers
  it too was baring is pollen on its stiff bristly stems.  The cones of Bog Myrtle also need the wind, the deeply aromatic leaves net to sprout.
Common Cotton Grass
(female stigma at top of head)

Deer Grass (actually a sedge)

Cones of Bog Myrtle

Feur Lochain pools
The sunny day provided a stunning backdrop to a working walk, counting birds.  I watched the dark clouds skirt round the eastern hills, I assume depositing a light shower over the area of Port Ellen and the Oa.

Bog bean stems stretching out of the pools

Peatland Passport

Get out and explore for yourselves, pick up your Peat Passport at the Blue Letterbox (Port Ellen); Bowmore Post Office; Museum of Islay Life (Port Charlotte); Jura Community Shop.  Tick off the animals and plants that you see and get your pages stamped.  There is much useful information and a quick and easy guide to what to see on the moss.  

The Islay Nature Centre will be open mid May with more information on peatlands and other nature treasures on our islands.