Friday, August 16, 2019

Red-throated divers.

I am fishing a small highland loch, absorbed in the hallucinogenic wattles of tin-foil water, casting a fly somewhat distractedly.  Two RAF jets roar up Little Loch Broom and dive up Strath Canaird, grey ghosts moving silently ahead of their roar, half a mile behind them. As if in echo of the jets, a rapid quacking sound is followed by a low-flying clockwork bird, arrowing off ahead of me to fish another lochan. The red-throated diver: Gavia Stellata.

The red-throated diver is an elusive highland treasure, especially in breeding season when its pining call haunts the hills and lochs, along with its cousin the black-throated diver, Gavia arctica. Their sleek profiles, and submersible fishing abilities, are serendipitous moments of any day hill-walking or fishing the highland lochs. It's usually silhouetted against a low silvery water, but if you catch the sun on it, you may see the red throat and blood-blister eye. The young are dull and take on the colour of the peaty waters, so can be hard to spot. They nest on secluded highland lochans and, like the roaming fisherman, their quarry is the common brown trout. There are around 1,300 pairs in Britain, confined to the northern isles and the west coast of Scotland, with smaller populations in north-west Ireland. In Donegal they were once called 'Mooney's Duck', and whilst we don't know who Mooney was, he obviously thought they sounded like a duck. Indeed, its regular mallard-like quack is very much like a duck, but has a little more of a rattle and threat to it, and its sabre-shaped bill gives it a martial appearance, especially in full summer plumage, with its burgundy cravat and black and white neck-striping.

I move on from the lochan I'm fishing and head downhill to a low, hidden defile in the Ullapool hills, pooled with yet another dark lochan. Two brown silhouettes on the water crouch like hunting cats when they see me, paddling up the far side of the loch in a slow a profile as they can muster. I put the rod down and hunker into a rock outcrop to hide myself, get the binoculars out of the sack. Just as I do so, a jet-like whoosh brushes my head and announces the arrival of the adult. She must have been in the clouds and wheeling, no doubt saw me, thinking a quick buzz over the rock outcrop might do the trick. I'm suitably admonished and back off to a distance with the binoculars. The adult bird circles and  then clatters into the water. It is carrying clamped in its bill, a substantial half-pound brown trout, viced around the gills. One of the youngsters noses low towards her in a paddling sprint and is first to receive its bounty, gobbling down the free lunch. I am kind of glad I haven't caught anything today, happy to sacrifice any trout for the greater good of the red-throated diver.

Red-throated divers on Loch Bad a Ghaill, 2019

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Ben Lawers:a montane habitat

Ben Lawers is the parent peak of the Breadalbane mountain range, which stretches like a breaking wave in an east-west tumble between Loch Tay and Glen Lyon. Indeed, geologists often refer to the metamorphosed schistose mass as a vast 'recumbent fold' from the Caledonian Orogeny, a Highland mountain-building era of unimaginable slow-motion collision and uplift, between 490 and 390 million years ago. The rolling plateau landscape is now a long-eroded echo of this era, when continents collided on an earth oblivious to conscious observation. Walking the rubbed-down ridges, it is easy to imagine you are walking the crumpled edge of a fold on the planet's discarded origami.

The summit peak of Ben Lawers is a southern highland giant and the 11th highest peak in Britain. It has many subsidiary peaks on its long snaking ridge, from the south to north-east: Beinn Ghlas (1,103 m); Ben Lawers (1,214 m or 3,983 feet); Creag an Fhithich (1,047 m); An Stuc (1,117 m); Meall Garbh (1,123 m); and Meall Greig (1,001 m). On the flanks of this high ridge, the corries tumble into craggy rich silts and grassy swards. The high Lochan nan Cat is the remnant melt of a glacier bowl at 700m elevation in the eastern bowl under An Stuc, a dirty ice-cube which has long dissolved into an espresso-coloured pool.

Ben Lawers is managed by the National Trust and is a National Nature Reserve for very good reason, as in summer it explodes into flower with masses of arctic-alpine plants over the 1,000m contour. From the car-park a path leads into the fenced-off gully around the old shieling colonies on the Burn of Edramucky, a fertile defile now full of regenerating montane-willow, birch and alder,  and vibrant summer colonies of tormentil, speedwell, avens, hawkweeds, thyme and bedstraw. It is a sheltered haven very distinct from the sudden exposed corries above, still grazed by sheep to a tolerated degree to allow room for the alpine plants to remain free of the colonial aspirations of other plants. The higher you go, the effect of shearing winds allows only hardy sedges and low alpine plants to grow. The sheep meander between the crags, where great mats of pink moss campion, alpine lady's-mantle and alpine mouse-ear grow, shivering feverishly in the winds but finding a window of light and heat long enough to flower, pollinate and seed. In the snow-churned gullies and on the steeper cliffs you can find  hairy rock-cress, alpine forget-me-not, alpine fleabane, roseroot, mountain pansies, and various rare saxifrages.

All mountain ecologies around the planet are undergoing some degree of climate change. Like an ice cube in a glass of water, we can't see the melt directly, but it is happening before our eyes nonetheless. Rational people agree that climate is now more volatile and hotter than any time in recorded meteorological history, and it cannot just be called weather anymore. Anyone observant who has lived more than a few decades will now have noticed environments subtly different to how they first knew them. Many changes in our environment are indisputably due to long anthropogenic influences, to the extent that geologists are tempted to rename this period of the Quaternary beyond the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs as a new 'human epoch' called the 'Anthropocene'.

So what does it mean for our montane habitats, those mountain biomes above the tree-line where most fast-growing and invasive plants cannot manage to crowd out their more specialised tenants? Recent surveys on Cwm Idwal in Wales and Ben Nevis in Scotland, have revealed rare alpine plants moving up the contours to a point they are running out of contours and blinking into local extinction due to a loss of their bespoke habitat requests. Plants such as tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga cestiposa) and Highland saxifrage (Saxifraga rivularis) are being restricted to higher corries and inaccessible cliff locations as their snow-screes are colonised and stabilised by warmer winters and more common and aggressive plants.

Mossy saxifrage

Moss Campion

Alpine Forget-Me-Not

Highland Saxifrage (Ben Nevis photo)
Alpine Mouse-ear

Hairy Rock-Cress

Saturday, March 02, 2019

The wood of Allt Broighleachan - a remnant

Caledonian Forest Reserve: 
Tèarmann na Coile Cailleannaich – Allt Broighleachan 

Glen Orchy is well known for its roaring falls and kayaking challenges, and in spate the dramatic Eas Urchaidh boils through a narrow gorge, which in quieter conditions reveals great swirl-holes full of pebbles. The bedrock schist geology of Glen Orchy here peeps through, the cliffs smoothed along layered lines which are the tortuous echoes of our Caledonian Orogeny, when ancient sandstones were metamorphosed into a glittering rock, uplifted and finally eroded to the twinkling mica sand we see today in the river’s gravel banks. Whilst the river is the audible and visible focus of the glen, the quiet hills on each side are steep and cloaked in a noise-cancelling patchwork of Sitka spruce – trees which are often characterised (unfairly?) as a vegetal form of vermin, their pernicious seedlings sprouting everywhere by the roads and tracks, creeping up the hills amongst the moor-grass clumps. These close-packed and claustrophobic trees dominate the lower slopes of Glen Orchy and from the river the remnants of the older Caledonian forest cannot be seen, as they lie hidden in the bowls and gorges of the higher corries. Hogging the slopes of the glen, the Sitka finally gives way to the natural alder, birch and Scots pines of an older, higher ecosystem. 
A steep but short hike up the gorge of the Allt Broighleachan (‘the breasting burn’) leads to a pleasant clearing by the river with a picnic table provided by the Forestry Commission. A short walk through the last of the Sitka plantation leads to the fenced-off reserve, with the remnant pines in various states of youth, maturity and decline, spread generously over the slopes around the Allt Coire Thoraidh (originally this was spelled Allt Coire Ghoridh, meaning ‘the brief corrie’). At some points through the old pines you can sense how Scotland may once have been experienced in the typical ‘open-plan’ airiness of a Scots pine forest. 
Just before the exit gate at the top of the reserve, about 100m to the left of the track, stands a three-pronged sentinel pine, centuries old, keeping watching over her flock below, though gendering a Scots pine is anthropomorphic and pointless, as pines bear both male and female parts (the male pollen-bearing catkins are low on the tree, so they do not self-fertilise the higher female cones). A lone pine in these remnant forests is always a poignant spot to absorb the generational fragility of an old pine forest – lone pines sit like exiled elders, whereas younger trees huddle round mineral-rich ‘morainic mounds’, in which the wind-borne seeds love to germinate. It is invigorating to imagine an earlier, post-glacial landscape of moraine piles and gravelly scrub, with the forest spreading quickly over the mineral soils, perfect ground for seeds caught in ancient winds. 

The higher reaches of the Broighleachan reserve exhibit some of these colonised glacial humps which have caught the downwind spread from this mother pine. From its higher stance it seems to have generated stands of younger kin and some lonesome, rebel pines. How it got so high above the others is invisible history, likely a bird or mammal ingested a seed and excreted the resilient nut further uphill to begin the process of upwards colonisation. Then this pine cast its winged pollen to regenerate further trees, and so the Caledonian forest grew. The older ‘hill-climbing’ generations are often in senescence and the ‘younger’ remnant forests fill themselves in with density and kinship, perhaps one day to reclimb the hills, if only they could exist beyond the enclosure they require from the inquisitive lips of red deer.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Cairnhead Bouldering

Nice find from Stewart Cable, near the Andy Goldsworthy sculptures near Moniaive. Looks like a really pleasant bloc for a little solitude in spring, are there any more out there in the woods, Stewart?