Saturday, 13 October 2012

Highlands and back

A Dreadful Scene...but one we endured - with reluctance
Five months away should suffice, and anyway, that chill in the early morning air has roused the autumnal hunting urge

The spring and summer were not totally wasted, I might add, three weeks sunlit bliss in the West Highlands of Scotland were some of best times we've ever had, and that while the Midlands were doused in the wettest summer we could have imagined...or wetter

Filming a white-tailed eagle and orca were firsts, and underwater filming in the clear clean shallow sea was a real eye opener, as was rock-pooling in remote locations, with every other species uncovered having to be looked-up on our frugal holiday book shelf given the lack of web access

Male orca blowing off the isle of Canna
 When we first arrived for a week in early June, knowing that to be the historical peak for good (dry) weather, it hadn't rained since March. Then when we returned for two weeks in August (usually a significant risk weather-wise) it hadn't rained! "Too good to be true", we thought as we anticipated two weeks of torrentials to follow, but, follow it did not

The August list was not as long as previous years, nor did it extend to many more lines than the preceding May list. The breeding birds had dispersed by then and, most noticeably, there wasn't a common sandpiper to be seen, whereas in spring it was difficult to avoid them

Twite were quite numerous in various places, with one even spotted in the garden where we stayed, together with a regularly seen adult common lizard on spare roof tiles which we had spread around in the hope of seeing an adder basking on them early morning but what I find most surprising about our regular visit to this part of the world is that the books and distribution maps of various (particularly bird) species suggest that some of our encounters don't actually exist there. A number of these are what we in England might consider relatively common species, such as yellowhammer; there is one specific location in the West Highlands where these buntings can be guaranteed and a handful of pairs appear to breed quite happily and yet finding any suggestion of them in the text books is another matter. There seems to be a missing link between observers records and the available written word

 This flags up an issue with distribution maps. The ranges of various mobile species, be they birds, mammals, insects, etc., are changing so rapidly that is is impossible to produce up-to-date maps covering, sometimes, any more than a one or two year period. Global warming or not, this is nothing new as species spread and contract their ranges in response to whatever triggers apply

That truly great ornithologist James Fisher produced a series of bird recognition books back in the 1940's the maps from which would make your hair curl, nay fall out!, if you were to compare them with the distribution of certain species today. Okay, one is inclined to question the validity of mapping from so long ago when one presumes less birders might have actively been pursuing the pastime with the level of commitment and detail demonstrated by the likes of the BTO and it's members today but nevertheless there must be some truth it

So what are we to make of that? Well, going to an apparently different extreme for a moment, we do know that 99%+ of the species ever to exist on earth are now extinct and that there have been five great extinction events since life first appeared. There is also a strong suggestion that we might now be in the throes of a further extinction event and that this one might be caused by man, although that is another matter; whether the extinctions occurring these days are caused by man or not it is clearly perfectly normal for them to occur
And how is that related to distribution maps? For those of us who try to rely on them and credit them with some kind of certainty we have to understand that this is not actually possible for many species. Obviously we can easily say that the carrion crow, for instance, will be widespread and present year-round in the Midlands but the less stable species, for those which ebb and flow in terms of population and number, tree sparrow is a good example, it is simply too much to ask to be able to view accurate mapping from one year, or even decade, to the next

Spring sunset over The Small Isles. West Highlands of Scotland

The point of all this has only recent fully dawned on me...I've always been one to be keen to check out an area I am visiting before I leave so that I know what to expect but available information is only a guide and often the greatest source of information will be local knowledge and discussion with recent visitors. We are too keen these days to view things over too short a period when fuelling our concerns about an array of subjects, be they a certain declining animal or, so called, austerity measures in recession. In the same way that I can post this piece with the touch of an icon we expect instant results and fall into perceived crises with equal speed

When I was younger I would target 30 fish in an evening competition on the Oxford Canal knowing that anything over a pound of fish would put me close to a framing place on the night if one or two of them were, as we used to say, 'netters'. But some bright spark had decided to introduce, what is now considered, an invasive species into the Great Ouse Relief Channel and the rest is history...but it doesn't have to be bad's just different, and we have to get used to change and deal with it, take advantage of it and learn new skills in the same way in which it would, frankly, be a miracle to catch 30 small fish from those same venues these days, you could catch three or four cracking fish by contrast. Both scenarios were/are perfectly enjoyable in their own way but we could choose to moan about it if we analyse it too closely or close our eyes to change

To conclude, it isn't lost on me that there are numerous situations demanding our urgent concern, the currently obvious one being the state of the turtle dove population in these islands (one could extend this to cover any species maybe having to survive the extensive batteries of explosive hardware in the Mediterranean at migration time!) but there are some gains to set-against the losses through global warming, again an obvious one is the little egret which has recently started to colonise from the south coast. As for those species which man is wiping-out more directly, and possibly more quickly, than via CO2 emissions and the like, well, yes, they need help if we value them, but do enough of us appreciate this value? We might, but how many people you know have even heard of the majority of them...then multiply that worldwide and into some less enlightened zones...the consensus is against us. So I for one will be enjoying the change and looking forward to an increased likelihood of being able to view species, which maybe we haven't even seen here yet, before my days are up; and catching bigger fish; and seeing wild polecats...if I am lucky...and hopefully The Dog and Parps will get to see even more in their long lifetimes ahead, assuming it is still possible to walk on the ground without asbestos shoes

It may be the beginning of the end, who really knows?, but we can try to enjoy it!

[15.10.12 Update: Oblique Jimmy Saville reference removed after a severe ear-bending from The Lady Burton. "It's too soon", she said. "Not for those it allegedly happened to it isn't", came the reply. Anyway I'm sure she's right, she usually is]

Hostile Habitats, Scotland's Mountain Environment, Scottish Mountaineering Trust (2006)
Bird Recognition - 3/4 Volumes, James Fisher, Pelican (circa 1947)
The Sixth Extinction, Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin, Doubleday (1995)
British Trust for Ornithology,

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