The ever-changing Dumfries and Galloway weather keeps us on our toes here – oddly warm and sunny one minute, freezing cold with snow on the hills the next. The solar panels don’t know what to do… mind you, they have taken on a new role currently as shelter for our latest guests, four Texel tups, borrowed from a neighbour to graze down the long grass in our ‘wild’ area. I find them irresistibly entertaining and have to restrain myself from getting too friendly!
Another regular visitor has been a red kite. We’ve put large numbers of pheasant carcasses out in our field, thanks to the generosity of the local shoot (I skin and de-breast the birds first) and the kite is getting increasingly brave as it negotiates with the local buzzards and crows over who gets the richest pickings. I’m hoping to get a good photo one day but it’s hard to concentrate when a bird of such multi-coloured magnificence is so close overhead.
Other good sightings locally have been a dozen or so golden plovers in the high stubble fields, plus literally hundreds of skylarks rising from the same stubble as we walked the perimeter. Today’s moment of magic happened just as I’d puffed my way back up the road after a run, to find Steve at the top of the top field enjoying the view. We both stood in the sun, registering how lucky we are to live here when what sounded like a pigeon being fired out of a cannon shot over our heads … milliseconds later we recognised the local peregrine on the hunt and just caught sight of it again as it narrowly missed its prey – a genuine and supremely lucky pigeon. Phew!
Finally – an image I caught just now and one most of us take for granted.
Wonderful news – our adopted whooper swan McMurdoston is back at Caerlaverock for his Winter sojourn. I saw a group of about 10 whoopers flying over this evening and checked the website. http://www.wwt.org.uk/news/all-news/2016/10/wwt-caerlaverock-sightings/latest-sightings-29th-october-fog-named-whooper-swan-update. Just the excuse we need for another trip down to the reserve for a piece of cake. Whoop whoop!
After a very busy few weeks here at McMurdoston, we decided to do some further exploring locally in a bid both to relax and to learn. It paid off massively – what’s more the weather has been incredibly sunny and warm.
A climb up to the top of the ridge opposite us brought excellent sightings of goshawk and peregrine. A scenic drive up to the top of the Scaur Water meant that we were able to watch a female hen harrier hunting for a good 5 minutes and then see a merlin dashing off into the distance. Yesterday’s trip to Loch Ken gave us innumerable fly-pasts by red kite and 3 great views of red squirrels. Oh – and earlier in the week we drove over to Eskdalemuir to the Samye Ling Tibetan Monastery, where the sensation of calm and serenity is almost good enough to taste. On the way back we visited the Lockerbie memorial to the terrible Pan Am 103 disaster – sombre, moving, thought-provoking.
However, of all the sightings this week so far, I have to say that the above was my favourite (obviously): a herd of Galloway Belties in their element, grazing happily on the beautiful banks of the River Scaur.
Apologies to anyone who has been trying to get in touch with us via our website’s Contact page. It turns out that it broke and I failed to notice. Please get in touch via the usual numbers/email addresses.
Well, the couple of sticklebacks which Steve put into the pond have turned into several large flotillas. So far no major predators appear to have cottoned-on to their presence but we’ve been aware of herons flying over in pterodactyl-like style and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of migratory birds to see if any have kept up to date with the blog (the pond seems huge to me but might just be more teal-sized than whooper swan!).
There have only been a few sightings on the wildlife cameras to get excited about but occasional badgers, foxes and hares show up to remind us of their existence. Cottage inhabitants last week saw two squirrels together at the feeder and Steve spotted a deer down the track. If Facebook is your thing you might have seen the magical piece of taxidermy a guest showed us last week – a tiny still-born roe fawn which he’d found moments after its mother had given birth and which he couldn’t bear to see going to waste. It’s been given a new life in the most extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive way – https://www.facebook.com/mcmurdostonhouse/photos/a.425158434356521.1073741834.413650192174012/511422652396765/?type=3&theater.
Another, rather different, camera to get us excited has been the Camera Obscura in Dumfries which turned 180 years old last week. It’s a fascinating bit of kit which is well worth the minimal entrance fee and provides a fantastic spy’s eye view of the town and its surroundings – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36940561. It’s housed in the old windmill dominating the skyline above the Nith and you’ll get free entry to one of the best museums in the country to boot. I hadn’t visited since I was a child and it reminded me again of the many unique aspects of Dumfries and Galloway which have drawn me here all my life.
It’s the last day of May already and – as often seems to happen here – the late Spring has brought amazing weather. Along with lengthening hours of sunshine has come a vast and rapid growth… of grass in particular. We’ve taken turns wearing a pedometer and it appears that between us we do 6 miles when cutting all our various different patches of lawn/meadow. I’m not complaining really (!?) – as Steve says, when we are mowing it means the weather is good.
Over the past 5 years I have improved my knowledge of the local wild flowers and trees, and even begun to be able to identify them prior to flowering. At the moment we have the following in full bloom: campion, pink purslane, buttercup, stitchwort, cow parsley, broom, hawthorn, yellow rattle, speedwell, bistort, cuckoo flower, chive, forget-me-not, tufted vetch, thyme, Welsh poppy. It looks as though the meadowsweet and willowherb are going to take off very soon, which the bees will love. The latter are well-behaved and industrious, and are the subjects of endless speculation and cautious admiration.
I think my favourite sighting recently has been the chimney sweeper moth which accompanies the blooming of pignut. It’s a dainty little black day-flying moth with a delicate white rim on its wings.
Steve has been busy with the pond, turfing the edge and planting wild flowers and grasses. He has added a couple of sticklebacks and some weed but we were delighted to find that this new source of water was found almost immediately by whirligigs, pond skaters, water boatmen and several varieties of beetle, without any need for road signs or sat navs!
I know undoubtedly what Steve’s favourite sighting recently has been – the swallows dipping in the pond and demonstrating enthusiastically the joys of Spring.
For some time now Steve has been planning to install a larger pond at McMurdoston, mainly on the pretext of attracting swallows to dip in it.
After a great deal of barrowing, shovelling, huffing and puffing on behalf of the pair of us and several helpers, the ‘pond’ is now complete. My reaction is a bit like Tabs’ in the picture… “good grief – call that a pond?!” My cunning plan is secretly to re-route the solar panels and convert it into a heated swimming pool!
Having said that, however, the swallows, house martins and – surprisingly – sand martins are all hurtling over it at speed as I write. I may have to fight off the wildlife if I’m ever to get my dip.
We have tadpoles in the small pond (I mean puddle), I saw a wheatear up the lane this morning and heard a blackcap in the trees at the top of the drive an hour ago. The stichwort is starting to appear with the dog violets in the hedgerows and the blackthorn is in full frothy bloom. Despite there being snow on the top of the Lowthers it’s a beautiful sunny evening and we have happy Dutch guests in Swallow Cottage eating the gorgeous trout they caught today at Alderneuk Fishery.
About this time of year I am usually writing the same rather predictable stuff, celebrating the arrival of avian visitors from overseas. For once it seems I have got in early, so I can tell you simply that we are waiting…
Steve claims he saw a swallow amongst a mass of sand martins we saw over Loch Ettrick this afternoon and I definitely heard a chiffchaff. But until we see any of these birds at McMurdoston they don’t count. With luck they know we’ve been making preparations – Steve has put up several new swift boxes and even stuck up some old swallows’ nests which had fallen down in the barn. I’ve been chucking out my old apples, stored over the winter and now starting to become deliciously rotten. I’m not sure who likes them best – the pheasants or the blackbirds, but even some of the latter are migratory, so need a treat on arrival.
On a more long-term note we are in the process of building a much larger pond at McM. The one we put in a couple of years ago is tiny and yet attracts an impressive array of wildlife. Currently it has 5 lots of frogspawn in it, masses of snails, beetles, whirlygigs and other little creepy-crawlies. Who knows what the bigger one will bring…? I’m just hoping for one bracing length of crawl before the critters take over!
We are also going to get some bees – quite a challenge for novices, but learning is always good (if terrifying!). Watch this space…
Fortunately today’s high winds held off long enough that yesterday’s RSPB bird count was feasible – anything flying today was moving so fast it was virtually impossible to identify!
Anyway, without further ado, here is McMurdoston’s list:-
Chaffinch – 45, coal tit – 6, great tit – 3, nuthatch – 1, blue tit – 4, robin – 2, blackbird – 3, greenfinch – 7, jackdaw – 6, tree sparrow – 7, crow – 4, dunnock – 1, magpie – 1, goldfinch – 5, pheasant – 1, buzzard – 2, wood pigeon – 1, raven – 2, house sparrow – 7, stock dove – 12, starling – 1, wren – 1, goldcrest – 1, fieldfare – 1.
Nothing spectacular really, but particularly pleasing to see increasing numbers of sparrows. My other joy was the distraction of red squirrels visiting throughout the hour – lovely to see them out of the kitchen window but difficult to keep up with the chaffinch count!
Sorry, but I’ve just got to brag about this one…
Steve and I had something to do in Dumfries last week and parked on the Whitesands in the middle of the town. We did what we had to do and decided on a walk along the West side of the Nith, down towards the Solway Firth, just as the sun (yes, sun) was starting to go down. After a mile or so the path veers away from the river and crosses a small, rather swampy tributary. We stood on the little bridge, looking at ripples in the water and wondering if there might be water voles around. Suddenly Steve hissed ‘otter’ and we took up stations on each side of the bridge to attempt another view. Neither of us could quite believe our eyes when the delightful little creature surfaced just under our noses, looking carefully at each of us head on, chattered a quick ‘hello’ from a pink but impressively well-fanged mouth and dived under. We followed its progress down the little burn and I even managed a distant and rather poor photo as it shimmied sinuously off towards an evening meal.