Sunday, July 8, 2012

A First Week Of Firsts

It has been a week of firsts, the first osprey, the first golden eagle, the first drive in the Land Rover, and I got my first tick.  Never having had one before I was a bit disappointed in how small it was, barely a couple of millimetres wide.  Not much to brag about there, ‘Ooh I had this tick, big as a badger’, that sounds good in the pub, but  ‘I had this miniscule dot on my leg and under a magnifying glass it was actually a tick’ sounds ridiculous.  My £8 ‘Tick Lassoo’ tool proved useless, but a pair of tweezers extracted the offending arachnid and a flush down the loo ensured it has stuck its chops into its last leg. 
The Land Rover I have christened Ffyona, after Ffyona Campbell.  The number plate is FFA and I seem to remember a woman called Ffyona Campbell who walked round the world or something.  That sounded like a good Scottish name as well, it rhymes with ‘Iona’ for a start, the quintessential Scottish island, all though apparently she came from Buckinghamshire!  I took Ffyona out for a drive (the Landie, not Ms Campbell!) and she is fine on the open road and rumbling along tracks (which, having walked round the world I suppose Ms Campbell is too). 
It was in town where I hit a bit of bother.  Into a busy Co-op car park and it was apparent Ffyona has a turning circle somewhere between a Jumbo Jet and the Ark Royal.  Doing a three-point turn to get into a space was another first!  Still she was not built for mincing about at the Co-op, but bowling along dirt tracks which she is great at.

I suppose I ought to keep a bird list for Scotland , out of interest, and a quick tot up reveals it is on 38 now.  The highlights have of course been osprey, golden eagle, and peregrine.  Some Scottish specialities have been hooded crow, and breeding goosanders, common sandpipers, and red-throated divers.  After searching various near-inaccessible Lochans as part of the survey I was finally rewarded with the sight of a family group yesterday.  For reasons of client confidentiality and keeping such information from egg-collectors I cannot obviously reveal the whereabouts of the Lochan.  Not that it would do them any good if they knew, being on private land miles from the nearest track in the middle of the mountains.  In fact I am sure the divers did not see me, I noted from afar through a telescope, but if they had would probably have thought “Where the hell did he come from?”
Seeing them there like that, even if only briefly, was like a scene from Seton Gordon’s books of my youth come to life.  I thrilled to the tales of this be-kilted hairy Scotsman striding the highlands observing what seemed like mystical birds to me.  I only had Thorburn’s paintings of these fantastic creatures in the Observer’s Book of Birds to form a mental image from.  Then later of course we are used to seeing red-throated divers around England’s coasts in winter, many Scandinavian birds swelling the population.  They are drab, grey things though, not like the pristine dandies I saw yesterday in their sleek silver balaclava and red cravat!

On the day we saw golden eagles some other interesting wildlife showed itself too.  An unusual  rove beetle (Staphylinus caesareus) raced across the path to attack a crane fly, while a green-eyed horse fly (Chrysops relictus) hitched a ride in the land rover until duly evicted.  On the flower front the hillsides were swathed in foxgloves, like Scottish versions of Flanders poppies, sprung up after the upheaval of clearfelling.  It was towards the end of Wednesday though when the most memorable sight occurred.
Foxgloves flourishing where the firs have gone!
It was a still, breathless afternoon.  The distant gronking of ravens over the hills carried down to us as if they were in the next field.  Then an osprey appeared, fifty feet above the loch, with silent languid wing-beats.  Head turned down to face the water, becalmed like a huge dark ice rink.  An eye honed to minute tell-tale signs suddenly saw something and the wing-beats stopped.  Wings folded like a fan, the osprey fell from the sky in a vertical lightning dive.  It disappeared from view in tremendous splash of spray, momentarily a creature of the water not the air.  Then it rose with massive beats of the wings to launch its newly doubled bodyweight back into the air.  There could be no second chance, all or nothing or it would become waterlogged and remain among the fishes, as food itself.  With a heave it was out and the last part to leave the water were its talons, grasping between them a fine fat trout.  Once clear of the water the osprey shook itself, like a dog from nose to tail, water drops flying off all around, and carried its prize away.  It had been a privilege to see one of nature’s greatest spectacles unfold before our eyes. 
Another of Scotland’s great natural spectacles is one I would rather not see, its celebrated clouds of midges.  How can something so tiny cause so much misery?  Avon ‘Skin So Soft’ is supposed to be the magic deterrent.  The story is that a salmon fisherman, slathered in DEET, took his wife out in the rowing boat one day and was astonished that not a single midge bothered her while he was still being bitten.  She had Skin So Soft on and allegedly the practice soon spread among the fisher-folk.  It was even on sale in the chemist’s here on the insect-repellent shelf!  I have tried it though and it works, but needs reapplying every ten minutes.  I can only guess that Mrs Salmon-fisher either had a massive tub in her handbag or some other factor was in play.  Maybe she smoked a pipe, or gargled Glenfiddich, who knows!   
Besides midges there is also the mosquitoes, and the horse flies, and the clegs, oh and of course the ticks.  With arms, legs, and neck festooned with an array of bites maybe I should keep a ‘What I’ve Been Bitten By’ list too.  I’ll see what takes chunks out of me tomorrow, then make a start!  :D
Rove beetle assailing a crane fly
Ffyona enjoying the view!

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