Monday, 13 July 2015

Corncrakes, Great Yellows and Flying Otters!

One of the species I was keen to see on my recent trip to the Outer Hebrides was the great yellow bumblebee. This species used to be found nationwide, however in just my lifetime, it has become extinct across much of the country, now only occurring on the northern Scottish isles in any number. 

You do not have to be on South Uist for long to see why this species has retreated to these remote islands, despite the often inclement weather, because the Machair (they pronounce it Mac-ear) will soon stun you with its sheer scale and beauty. This habitat is a blend of low-lying coastline, sand partly consisting of shell fragments, the effects of strong winds combined with just the right amount of rainfall and, most crucially, the involvement of people and their grazing animals.

The Machair flowers over a long period of time as it consists of a wide range of flower species including excellent pollen and nectar plants such as red clover, yellow rattle, knapweed, vetches and bird’s foot trefoil. Add to this numerous surrounding flower rich hay meadows and you begin to see why this is such a magnet for the great yellows. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust do a factsheet on this species if you are interested in finding out more:

As I wandered around these stunning landscapes looking for great yellows and listening to the “crek, crek” of corncrake, it dawned on me how these two species had done exactly the same thing in retreating to these distant shores, simply to find suitable habitat in order to survive. It makes quite a statement on how the quality of flower rich habitats have changed across the rest of the country does it not?

Strangely, this very thought was then pointed out to me a couple of days later in Dave Goulson’s book “A buzz in the meadow” which I happened to be reading. Dave is professor of biological sciences at Sussex University and set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006. I can highly recommend this book and believe that ALL school leavers should have to read chapter fifteen as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. (now you will have to buy it to find out what this chapter is all about!)

I could not find a great yellow and suspected that the very late spring had resulted in the impressively sized queen bees remaining in their over-wintering hideaways.

I was due to fly out from Barra Island’s airport which uses the beach as a runway. This is the only airport in the world that has a constantly changing flight schedule to take into account the tides. On arrival I was told that the flight from Glasgow still had not taken off and so there was going to be a delay.

I took the opportunity to walk onto an area of Machair, backed by large sand dunes, which is situated directly behind the airport. The day was sunny with just a light breeze, perfect I thought for encouraging a slumbering great yellow queen to finally emerge from her long winter’s rest. I had only been wandering for five minutes when there she was, a stunning large yellow feeding on her favourite plant – red clover.

I eventually climbed onto the little twin-engine Otter plane, a very happy man – for once in my life I really had not minded suffering a flight delay one jot!

South Uist - a profusion of wild flowers 

Barra airport with the small area of Machair showing middle left where I finally encountered a great yellow! 

A twin Otter plane coming into land on the beach....

with a bit of a splash!

Ready for boarding!

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