Springtime, when fresh green leaves shove their way through the damp soil and spring flowers begin to put in an appearance. Everything that appears is bright and glorious, from the early Gorse with its strong scent reminiscent of Coconuts, to the tiniest snowdrop.
The other week Dunvegan Castle & Gardens hosted a Snowdrop open day. Wow, what an array of Snowdrops too, huge drifts of them cascading down to the burns and through the woods. Large ones, with bold green skirts contrasted with diminutive species, yet all amazed and delighted the eye.
Snowdrops weren’t the only flowers in evidence at the gardens either, there were beautiful Hellebores, delightful Crocuses and even a Rhododendron or two in flower, plus Narcissi great and small.
Enter the hot house in the walled garden and your senses were assaulted by the scent of Jasmine. Strong and beautifully coloured Passion Flowers plus tiny oranges on a tree. It was a feast for the eyes and nose.
Elsewhere on the Island there are Horsetail Ferns emerging in damp and soggy places, looking more like miniature Triffids than any plant you can readily identify. Bluebell leaves are pushing through in woods and Primroses wink from sheltered nooks and crannies wherever they have managed to gain a foothold.
Even the birds have changed their songs to a more melodious version of their usual repertoire, especially when the sun shines and the day warms up as it did last weekend. An unusual few days of almost balmy temperatures that not only cheered us humans up, but put an extra zing into every creatures’ day. Robins sang heartily, Chaffinches proclaimed their new spring plumage and even the Eagles called relentlessly as they climbed and drifted and played on the thermals.
It wont be long before the grass starts to grow, when the hills change from yellow to bright green and trees that are presently merely dark branches and twigs will suddenly begin to come to life again as the sap rises. Especially obvious will be the Larch, that will suddenly change from appearing to be dead to turning lime green as new leaves emerge. Catkins are on show already.
So, despite Storm Freya which has spat salt all over my windows as she sucked water from the sea on her journey across the Atlantic, Spring is here on Skye. Long may it continue!
Well as promised my results from the above survey. For those unfamiliar with this event, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) holds an annual survey where everyone is encouraged to count the birds in their garden, park or playground over a three day period. All that’s asked is that those who take part, watch and count the various species of bird that land or feed in their chosen area for the period of an hour each day. It’s easy and fun and actually its a great way to learn about birds and wildlife in general.
I personally like to note both male and female of various species if possible (although this isn’t necessary) so I get a good idea of who is who at the feeders. It’s fun to watch the interaction between species, the hierarchy within flocks, the power play and if lucky the predators. With their sudden appearance it’s interesting to watch how all the birds behave as a result.
Here we go then: Big Garden Bird Watch was held over three days from 26th January 2019. I watch the birds in my garden on Skye every day – when I’m eating my breakfast and lunch – from the breakfast room of my B&B . Although there are also feeders located in the back garden these, located in the hedge, are more sheltered and easier for the birds to hide when a predator appears.
First the species where there is no recognisable difference between male and female: Starling – a flock of 20, Goldfinch – 6, Robin – 3 – generally very territorial, both males and females will share territory at this time of the year when food is scarce and before the breeding season , Coal Tit – 3, Great Tit – 2, Blue Tit – 2, Dunnock – 3 and Hooded Crow – 2 (there were three last year but one was killed on the road).
Next come the rest of the winter crowd: Blackbird – 1M, 1F a lot less than last year when there were several immature males in the group, Chaffinch – 14M, 12F (always a large flock), Siskin – 2M, 1F (mostly these birds fly further south where food is more plentiful), House Sparrow – 6M, 5F and best of all Sparrowhawk – 1M, 1F.
My favourite photo’s, of all I took during the survey, are of the female Sparrowhawk. There was a moment in time when both her and her mate were on the small hill behind the garden but visibility was poor, obstructed partially by a tree, so no photo sadly!
During the year I have also seen scat from a Pine Marten behind the bins in the back garden (my neighbour has actually seen this beautiful creature in her garden), Rabbit footprints (all over the garden) and Common Toads (in the compost heap) – which are also added to the survey. All in all it wasn’t bad, not as good in numbers or variety of species (last year there were Greenfinches here that stayed after the summer, but each year is different and so worth doing.
Moreover, in May last year there was a serious forest fire in the glen so a large part of the habitat of these birds has been wiped out, which would explain the slight downturn in numbers and varieties of species this winter.
Short walks – a bit of snow and fun for the “girlies” – that about sums up the past ten days.
We walked a different path in Eynort Forest the other day. Past our usual stopping place and on towards the end of the track – a gate stopped us from going any further. We needed a change really from the predictable. The weather had been foul previously but the day we decided to do this walk was relatively ok – as mid January days go.
There’s an old track best followed in winter/spring if you are here then, as at any other time this is too overgrown to even find. Right now all the understory vegetation has died down so its a wee bit of an adventure really.
This “path” is off the main circular trail so if you find yourself on it – go on – explore! Its fun wandering about where no one else goes.
The sheep have finally been moved out of the field behind my house. So after a couple of very rainy days and a wee dump of snow we ventured into this gloriously free and open space! Wee note for dog owners: if when you visit there are sheep in this field you may only be able to use it if your dog is kept on a leash.
One of the sweet joys of winter – yes there are some – are the late sunrises. When we’re not wrapped in low cloud, these can be quite spectacular even when the cloud layer is relatively low. Whats more, you don’t have to get up early to see them either as they happen around the 09:00 mark – really quite civilised I think.
The other joy is snow, beautifully cold and dramatic, it can sweep in over the hills, draping everything in a cool white blanket. It transforms the mountains into a winter wonderland and the forests and fields into alien landscapes where you get to see things you normally wouldn’t, due to the sharp contrasts between light and dark.
There are rabbits footprints that wander up and over my lawn, and when the snow is thick enough on the ground, and if I can beat the dogs outside, the light and delicate tracks of birds can also be seen as they search for food – Hooded Crows, Blackbirds, Robins and Thrushes especially! (There will be more about the birds in this garden in my next blog as this weekend is RSPB – Big Garden Bird Watch)
Come Sunday it was very cold but dry and sunny so I drove the “girlies” to Dunvegan Woods. These are just off the carpark at Dunvegan Castle – you can’t miss the entrance and it’s a nice walk, whichever route round you end up taking.
Again, as in Eynort Forest, if you see a path off to the left or right, follow it. One such path leads down to the Castle River and then back up to the main path which turns into a forest track and goes for some way across the managed Haelaval Forest. If you look at an Ordnance Survey map for Dunvegan you will see the path clearly marked. Another such path on the way back to the car park via a right hand fork, leads off to the left and takes an indirect route through trees and eventually opens out onto the road that passes the Castle. Turn right and it leads back to the car park.
Of course you can carry on walking along the main path and it will bring you out onto a road to Dunvegan Farm and then, turning left, onto the road that leads back to the car park, it’s slightly longer that’s all. Whilst your dog may have been off the lead in the woodland, dogs do need to be put back on the lead once the path itself runs out as cars etc. can be travelling quite fast along the lanes and there are several bends, so keep your dog close.
This walk like many others can be as long as you wish it to be more or less. But it’s a nice wee walk if you have a dog who has been walking patiently with you through the Castle Gardens and now needs a decent run.
On a hot summers day it is beautifully cool through here and the woodland smells of damp earth and warm grass are quite soothing. Watch out for a photo blog exclusively about this lovely, ever changing woodland through the seasons.
Well last week wasn’t the best for walking with the girls. Not much sunshine, rather dreich and a tad breezy, but we were not to be deterred. I just had to plan a bit better to get the best out of it.
So I chose to do a walk that I hadn’t done for a wee while. Combining a food shopping trip with a wander for the girls and I. We went to Scorrybreac. Its just on the northern outskirts of Portree from the Staffin Road (well signposted). Drive down to the bottom of the slope and just past the sign that directs you to the Cuillin Hills Hotel, to a parking space facing Loch Portree and the harbour.
A wee note for dog walkers, remember your pooh bags (there are bins to put them in at the beginning of the walk and please do not dump pooh bags in the undergrowth, it’s disgusting and they don’t degrade)
The footpath leads you along by the loch side and takes you past the boathouse and slip way, up towards a gate.
If you decide not to do the whole walk, or take the diversion to the Dun (as we did), there is a sign here that directs you up a wee path to the hotel where there’s the chance to enjoy tea/coffee and cake!
Through the gate you soon arrive at a lookout point, on a mound to your left. Walk up the path to see fabulous views across the Loch. There are several information boards up here, and a memorial to the McNichols who have owned this land for several centuries. On a better, sunny day these views can be spectacular.
Today we followed a path up behind the lookout to see what was up there. I must point out that this path is steep, although stepped, some of the steps are very deep – so not for the faint hearted – coming back down might prove to be a bit of a mission.
At the top of the path there is a bench and if you’re like me, a nice sit down to catch your breath and take in the view is not to be missed. On this day the view wasn’t quite as magical as it would be on a warm sunny day in spring but it is impressive none the less.
From this point the girls and I walked along a very narrow, steep path up through the copse and on towards the top of the hill. It can be quite slippery in places after rain, so be careful. From here if you wish you can follow what is essentially a sheep path that takes you to Dùn Toravaig. It is advisable to take a map so you don’t get lost. But we had a good wander about, following sheep paths here and there, with Lila charging about the place like her life depended on it.
Note: sheep are grazed on the hill so keep an eye out for them if you have a dog and put it back on its lead if you see them. However, wandering about following sheep paths is great fun and not to be missed – after all this is meant to be an adventure.
The light was beginning go by now, after all it was 15:30 in the middle of January, so we decided not to go as far as the Dùn. We had to get back to the main path safely and my lovely Tali needed to be “assisted” on the way down due to some of those very steep steps. This had been our first wee adventure up here and the girls had loved it.
The actual path we started on, goes much further along the coast towards a raised beach, and then, whilst becoming quite rough, leads on up towards Toravaig and then back down past the hotel after taking you through another small wood. It’s a lovely walk which could take a couple of hours to complete (depending on how fast you walk and how many times you stop to take in the views) but is full of all sorts of interesting things to see and ponder on. Being a circular walk also means you don’t have to retrace your steps to get back to the car.
These two photo’s were taken when the sun was shining – looks quite different doesn’t it?
Today is Sunday, a good day for a walk with the “girls” (Lila and Tali). The weather is dry and mild (This time last year we had snow on the ground and it was flippin’ freezing), the skies clear so there’s the promise of a few more hours of daylight.
Park at the carpark just below the Sligachan Bunkhouse, just before the Junction if you’re coming from Broadford. This way there are no roads to cross with dogs and kids- always a plus, especially during the tourist season.
Make your way down towards the old bridge and go through the gate. There are wonderful views of the North End of the Black Cuillin here. Follow the path up the slope past the Sculpture site and then through a wee gate with a nice new path to follow, which replaces the previous bog and rock obstacle course that was there before .
Follow the path – it meanders its way above a deep gully where you can hear the River – Allt Daraich – as it tumbles down to flow into Loch Sligachan
Near the head of the path, to your left is a waterfall which cascades into a nice cool pool. In Summer it is possible to get down the slope to the pool a wee bit further along – its obvious when you get there. The path divides just past this point and either takes you around the mound on your right or continues along above the gully. Your walk, your choice.
From the wee gate there is no real path, you have to follow where others have walked on your hike up to Drum na Ruaige and on to Beinn Dearg and beyond. However, we didn’t want to go up there today, we were going to walk south above the glen (its very boggy, with deep pools, just below where we passed through the gate), carefully wending our way around the less boggy bits and eventually landing back down on the path that runs through Glen Sligachan. Watch out for rills that are partially covered in grass – some are very deep.
From here it’s a slow walk back (Tali who’s not too keen for our walk to end so takes her time). But its a good path along which we often meet other dogs out for walks with their hiking owners. The entire walk took us one and a half hours, but it’s a walk that is as long or as short as you want it to be.
One last treat is in store for us before we pass through the gate and back to the carpark and the inevitable snacks for the “girls”. As we walk up to the Sculpture Site once more, we turn left reading the notices about the site (with images of how the actual sculpture will look from the various angles), then follow a different subsidiary path down towards the River Sligachan – which today is more babbling brook than it’s often raging torrent.
A sheltered semi-circle set with a stone bench, before which is a beautiful relief of the Cuillin Hills. There’s always time to sit here to enjoy THAT view, the sounds of the river and soak up the atmosphere I believe.
Notes for a safe and enjoyable walk:
The new path is somewhat uneven as it is newly laid with large pieces of gravel, it might be advisable to have walking poles with you if you are unused to rough hiking.
The gully is at least 20-30ft deep, make sure that dogs and children (especially) stay away from the cliff edges.
As mentioned before, there are a number of rills (deep, very narrow cuts that water has made in the hills. These are full of water. Be careful to watch out for these as they are often partially covered by long grasses.
One of the perils of dry weather in the Highlands is the almost constant threat of wildfires. Some start naturally, a tiny dewdrop acts as a magnifying glass intensifying heat onto a small area of grass or other vegetation and it can catch fire spontaneously.
However others are started either by carelessness or pure stupidity. May 27th 2018 will be forever etched in the memories of a great many people not least, those of us that live here in the small settlement of Crossal, Glen Drynoch.
A wildfire that started off as a small fire to burn paper by a camper located in the wrong place, turned nasty within minutes. It had been dry on Skye for several days, the sun had been hot, so everything was tinder dry. Before long the fire was WILD! Leaping towards the foothills of the Black Cuillin, fanned by a North Easterly breeze, it grazed the edge of the forest on the south side of the glen.
By lunchtime as the smoke cleared it was evident that the entire hill behind the forest had been burned. Where would it go now?
Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was here in force – 6 tenders in total – trying hard to control a fire that was fast racing away into the hills. Suddenly the wind stopped – would it die down now? But just as suddenly the wind did a full 180 degs turn and began fanning the flames into the top of the forest. By 14:30 huge towering flames could be seen in the south east of the forest, and before long it poured over the hill and down, burning trees as it went – huge billows of black smoke and great towering flames. That part of the fire was out of reach of the fire service yet fast racing down the hill toward Crossal.
As each copse went up in flames the fire divided like forks following the lines of least resistance, following the burns and the dry under storey, then appearing further down the forest in a completely new area, closer and closer into the bowl of the glen.
It was one of the most shocking sights I have ever seen, certainly the most terrifying. Fire Fighters methodically tackled the fires that came close to the road and extinguished those on the far side of the River Drynoch, thus stopping it from crossing the river and setting light to the meadow across from the houses that was full of grazing sheep and cows. Yet still it came too close for comfort.
There were new trails of fire everywhere and at one point the flames did manage to cross the road, right opposite the forest to the east of Crossal. How it missed the power lines is still a mystery today, but it raced up the west side of that forest with Fire Fighters beating it out to prevent it from spreading into the meadows that surround the houses.
But still the wildfire made serious inroads into that forest, with flames higher and more terrifying than I have ever seen as trees were literally gobbled up by the fire. You could hear the roar as each tree succumbed.
How the Fire fighters coped, not just with the intense heat of the fire but also the intense heat of the day – as they had to wear full protective gear -simply leaves me with so much respect for these volunteers who worked tirelessly all day and most of the evening to extinguish the fire.
As the fire near us was brought under control, fires in the glens closer to the Cuillin were still raging and in fact wildfires were still burning the following day until the wind changed direction again and they burned themselves out.
We watched the flames late that night as they tumbled over the hill towards Drynoch falls. It was spectacular in the dark of the night but terrifying at the same time… would it continue down the falls following the scrub and bushes or would it die and burn itself out? Thankfully it did the latter.
Today these forests are dying! Great swathes are burned black as you’d expect, but trees that immediately after the fire appeared untouched, are dying. Turning copper, daily as their roots fail them. Either because they were damaged during the fire or because the fire is still travelling beneath the ground in the peat. Smouldering away until it gets a little oxygen then flares up again – sending smoke billowing into the sky (there have been several flare-ups over the past 10 days that the Fire Service has been called to attend).
And what of the wildlife that suffered as a result of this carelessness, this abject stupidity? The Buzzards lost their young, they would have been almost ready to fledge. The adult birds called and called throughout the day of the fire, circling constantly, clearly distraught and for days afterwards they called and circled. They are gone now! Countless finches that nest in the copses in that forest have lost their young. The Cuckoo – a bird that, whilst plentiful here on Skye, is endangered elsewhere, would also have lost young. I can hear them each day with their distinctive call searching for their mate so they can start again.
Whilst its early enough in the season for most of these birds to start again, the loss of wildlife and habitat is criminal! Over time I will post follow ups of this blog so all can see not only the progression of the devastation to the forest itself, but also the regeneration of the land – the under storey mostly, which will change the way it is used and also the types of wildlife that will inhabit it.
Freezing cold weather in other words. Wind, straight from Russia “with love”. Boy was it cold, everything froze – yes I mean EVERYTHING!
We’ve already had a cold and snowy winter; December 27th brought our first real snow, enough to make snowmen and throw snowballs. Then a couple of weeks later, after everything had thawed below 500m, back it came with a vengeance, covering everything with a thick layer of the white stuff for several days – although, noticeably whilst everything slowed – nothing and nobody actually came to a grinding halt here on Skye. Mind you, I have to say, it has definitely been colder than previous winters since I have lived on here (2011 was my first winter on this Hebridean Island)
England suffered with blizzards and deep snow when the “Beast from the East” hit the UK – complete mayhem was the result, but here on Skye on the warmer west coast, we had no new snow, we just had ice…… and lots of it.
We had days where having a log burner was a real treat, all that concentrated heat – because whenever we poked our noses outside, the contrast in temperature was phenomenal. Minus 10 degs C and less, was nothing in the wee small hours and my weather station measured a wind chill of -5 degs C during the day. I know that doesn’t seem madly cold but the sun was shining so that took the edge off it. The weather had been dry for a couple of days before the “Beast from East” struck so the ground was already dried out enough to freeze solid within hours.
Waterfalls froze, becoming huge works of art over night.Layers upon layers of ice formed as the waterfalls continued to flow. Even those in the forest, where you would think it would be sheltered, were frozen. Where water sprayed over branches and twigs, it formed beautiful ice sculptures. It was very cold but oh! so beautiful just for a few days.
What I did find interesting was the way that the new shoots of bulbs and spring flowers (Daffodils, Narcissi, Crocuses and Tulips) all ceased growing. They simply stopped until the ground thawed again when they resumed their ascent. Buds on my daffodils all ready to burst open didn’t unfurl, it was strange and bizarre and utterly, utterly amazing.
Now today, its warmer than it has been for a while, although we awoke to a frost. The sun shone, the birds sang and the air had an almost balmy quality to it by mid day. What a difference! In another month – four short weeks – the grass will begin to grow, lambs will be born and birds will start nesting and raising their young. I wonder what sort of Spring we will have this year. The only way to find out?! Is to watch this space!
Winter can be a difficult season in the best of years, and this winter has turned out to be more “difficult” than any I have personally experienced here. Not that that is much of a line to draw under as I have only lived on Skye since autumn 2011, but it is what it is.
Its as if suddenly winter has remembered what she is supposed to do: BE COLD – especially so, throw in snow and a few nasty storms – of the thunderous variety. You know the ones with heavy hail and gale force winds? Well, that is exactly what winter has been like this year to date.
I think Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he wrote his poem “Winter”:
When all the snowy hill,
And the bare woods are still;
When Snipes are silent in the frozen bogs,
And all the garden garth is whelmed in mire,
Lo by the hearth, the laughter of the logs –
More fair than roses, lo, the flowers of fire!
My wood burner has certainly seem a fair bit of action this winter.
January bought much more snow than December, repeating the same format of post Christmas day with three or four inches of the white stuff. More than enough to cause the roads to become slippery with slush and the tracks to turn into ice rinks once a single vehicle had travelled along them preventing most from getting back up any hill unless they had four wheel drive and/or winter tyres.
The end of January saw “The Big Garden Bird Watch” take place. Organised by the RSPB, this is a weekend when anyone and everyone watches the birds in their garden, school field, park etc. and logs what they see over the period of an hour. Its great fun and if you’ve done it regularly over a period of years you can see just how the avian population in your area has evolved. However, when the much anticipated weekend arrived, we had storms, howling gales and torrential rain.
What right minded bird was going to venture across Glen Drynoch, from their roosting perches to the other side of the glen to their very well stocked feeding grounds…. the multiple feeders in my garden and gardens along the glen (just three that I know of)? Well quite a lot actually and the fact that you can choose the hour you monitor the birds, means several things may well have changed since the last hour that you monitored them. to cut a long story short, it was an interesting experience this year. The stalwarts of the garden, i.e. Blackbirds, Robins, Dunnocks and House Sparrows, Coal Tits and Great Tits were undeterred by the weather. However, when the winds dropped, out came the Blue Tits, Siskin’s, and quite strangely the Chaffinches (I thought they were hardier than that) and our resident murmuration of Starlings all 20 of them.
Then, to add to the days drama, once the wind had dropped and the small bird population had expended, the male Sparrow Hawk came hunting – well it was pretty easy pickings to be fair!
So here we are in February and winters vengeful spirit has struck again, this time with thunderstorms accompanied by massive hailstones – so big you feel they could come through the velux windows. Then there’s the gales we were subjected to last week – 40pmh gusts here in Glen Drynoch, that’s not counting the ones that rocked the house and made the tiles clatter as it swept across the roof during the night.
So all in all its been a pretty difficult winter so far. There have been a few bright spots though:
Although I have to say that today is almost still and misty as well as quite mild. Wonder how long that will last.
Amazingly despite all this – the spring bulbs are starting to show their fresh green tips. The Snowdrops are flowering as are the Crocuses and even a few miniature Iris’. The days are getting longer too so its actually light when my alarm goes off at 7 a.m. and its still light at 6pm. Roll on Spring!
Well time simply flew by in December. Did anyone else find that? I had so much to do, planning Christmas with my daughter and her children, buying presents and goodness knows what else. Stair gate! bed guard (does anyone know how to take one of those apart? Its a nightmare. Answers on a postcard please!
Having a seven year old grand daughter staying was quite a delightful experience.First there was tree decorating – she’s a natural. They had bought loads of new handmade decorations for the tree here on Skye. It looked fab once we had finished.
One the one decent day we had before Christmas, we took a trip down to the beach! Shell collecting, wellie walking and searching rock pools with Lila!
Have you ever had one of Santa’s elves in the house over Christmas? We did! We placed him in the tree coz he looked good there, and in the morning …. where’s he gone? Generally somewhere where he shouldn’t be and definitely with something he’s not supposed to have.
We had snow, up on the hills on Christmas day and then bingo. We had snow on the lawn. The grandkids were ecstatic. Once it stopped snowing and we were well and truly trapped at home – couldn’t get up and down the driveway – it was snowman building time! Wilfred III (apparently all their snowmen are called Wilfred, don’t ask my why its a mystery) was not great on stature but he was certainly portly. Once supplied with a carrot nose, eyes and teeth from the gravel on the driveway (located after a bit of digging) he was duly anointed with a wooly hat and a cozy scarf.
After an impromptu snowball fight everyone came in rosy cheeked and decidedly exhausted. It made for a very quiet afternoon I can tell you.
Work in the garden is coming along a treat. Now the trellis is up to filter the wind from the west (the prevailing wind) its amazing how well it works. There are raised beds now with Iris, Crocosmia and lots of bulbs all ready for spring…. whenever that decides to grace us with its presence. Later more plants will be added but for now this is it!
And now its January 2018. How did that happen? Fourteen days in and we’ve had gales and rain almost constantly, which meant walks in Eynort Forest, and then there were a couple of very very cold frosty days.
January 1st we celebrated New Year by pootling off down to Genbrittle Beach (more or less my favourite beach on Skye) and absorbed the fabulous views.
November – a pretty dead month really. Guy Fawkes night then nothing ’til Christmas. Dark nights closing in, shorter and shorter days, cold nights, dull days – maybe even a bit of snow – if we’re lucky? Well we were certainly lucky this week!
Meanwhile across the Highlands towards Aviemore, daughter Hayley was modelling, and my favourite – in fact only rose was found to be flowering …. still.
By the next morning – the 23rd, it was snowing ….properly! Yes! Proper snow, here on the lawn, Thrilling!
The wildlife was pretty impressive too. Evidence of a Fox, Rabbit and loads of the resident birds too! Wish I had a photo of the Sparrow Hawk!