Friday, July 22, 2011

Scotland: Over the Bridge to Skye

I have been maintaining this blog, so far, in strict (if tardy) chronological order, but this is a bit of a backtrack. Last September, about a month before our trip to Jamaica,  Eileen and I took advantage of a request I received to give a presentation at Oxford (no, not to the University!) to spend a lovely twelve days exploring Scotland.  I wasn't going to include it here, as it was more history- and scenery-related than a nature trip, but Eileen has asked me to at least say something about it.  She was right, of course - I really should share at least one of our stops (September 13-15), on the beautiful (and very natural!) Isle of Skye.

In times past, of course, visitors had to emulate Bonnie Prince Charlie and travel over the sea to Skye.  No longer.  Today one travels above it, over a modern span of concrete - handy, if unromantic.

Skye, though, is certainly a romantic spot. Here, through the mist and rain, is a distant view of the famous pinnacle known as the Old Man of Storr.  The landscape in the northern part of the island consists of Tertiary lava flows overlying Jurassic sedimentary rock, modified by erosion and landslips to produce the wild and rugged country tourists (like us) love.

Most of Skye (except for the more sheltered south) is treeless, bog-laden (but magnificent) moorland.

On a short visit like ours it is difficult so see much of the island's wildlife, though there is plenty of it.  Sheep, though, are easy to come by.  This rather stolid individual is, I believe a Scottish blackface, apparently the commonest sheep breed in the UK.

We all know about the heather on the hill, but on Skye heather adds a touch of autumn colour to the coast as well.  From a clifftop bed of heather surviving the stiff sea winds, this is Bell Heather (Erica cinerea).

Growing with it was the plant simply known as "Heather", Calluna vulgaris.

Dinosaurs might not be the first things that come to mind when you think of Skye, but in fact it is Scotland's premier locality for Middle Jurassic dinosaur fossils.  To see them, we stopped by the Staffin Museum at Ellishadder, housed in a picturesque old school building.

Like so much else in Scotland, Staffin's dinosaurs are a source of national pride.  Notice the St. Andrew's Cross on this (undoubtedly independence-minded) individual.

Staffin's dinosaur remains are pretty fragmentary; here is a bit of sauropod limb bone.  A full skeletal mount would knock the roof off the museum.

We didn't see them (they aren't always exposed to view), but apparently the rocks below the museum carry an extensive set of tracks left, back in the Jurassic, by unknown (and presumably ornithischian) dinosaurs.  This footprint (apparently a cast?) has been taken up to the museum itself.

It is the seacoast of Skye, of course, that gives it some of it's most magnificent vistas - particularly where the land ends in a great sea-cliff.

From the crumbling ruins of an island manor, I could look down to the sea where Grey Seals rolled tin the surf, or out to a nearby islet where Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) circled before plunging into the sea for a fish.

Where the coastline was less dramatic I could explore the beach wrack. In Victorian times seaweed-collecting was a highly-respectable pastime, as testified to by WS Gilbert, who testified to the mildness of his Reverend Hopley Porter by noting that he "In old maid's albums, too / Sticks seaweed - yes, and names it!"

I suppose I am doing the same by sticking these photographs in my blog, and pointing out to my attentive readers that they illustrate, as far as I can tell (with the help of a useful site from the Natural History Museum in Tring), Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus, the flat-bladed alga studded with bean-shaped bladders) and, I think, Channeled Wrack (Pelvetia canaliculata).

One of the features of Skye is the so-called Coral Beach - a name that seemed particularly incongruous to Eileen and I as we made our way along the trail towards it, fighting gusts of icy wind, nearly horizontal rain and even stinging ice pellets.  Anyway, the pinkish grains on the beach are not really the remains of corals but of red calcareous algae.

Ah, the weather. They say that on Skye, you can experience all four seasons in ten minutes.  It's true.

For our final departure from Skye we decided not to use the bridge, but to take the ferry from the southern end of the island over to Mallaig. On the crossing we could look out over the sea to the Isle of Rum to the south, a major nesting ground (earlier in the season, of course) for the Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus).  Numbers of the birds themselves flew across our bow as we made our way back to the mainland - giving me what I thought was going to be my closest looks for the day.

I was, however, wrong. On the way south of town we came across the unlikely sight of two Scotsmen unloading shoeboxes of shearwaters from the boot of their car, carrying the birds to the coast across the road and tossing them out to sea.

They were on a rescue mission. Young shearwaters hatched on the Isle of Rum can become disoriented by town lights, and come crashing into rooftops and gardens at night, where, without some assistance, they are unlikely to find their way back to the safety of the ocean.

Martin Carty and his friend Steve invited us back to Martin's house to see a most unusual find for the area: a Leach's Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) awaiting measurement, weighing and release.

Martin and Steve work very hard (and for free) to help the shearwaters of Mallaig.  According to their website they rescued 255 shearwaters in 2009, and I doubt that the job has gotten any easier since.  Good for them (and, if they read this, thanks!).

No comments:

Post a Comment