Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Love of Field Guides - Part 1

For many years, I have been a bird watcher.  I have kept it at the casual hobby level.  I don't get all hard core about it.  I have never actually gone to a place to see a specific bird.  I will take my binoculars with me on most outings.  I keep a small pair of binoculars in the car and I have a host of bird books in the house. 

I have kept a life list of birds I have seen.  The life list needs to be revisited at some point and add a few birds in there.  I know that the bee eaters I saw in Egypt aren't in there.  I have a small stack of bird books from my years in the US.  When I moved to the UK, one of the first things I did was get some field guides to birds in Great Britain.  Almost every bird in the UK was different to the birds in Iowa.  There are some that are the same, sparrows, starlings, morning doves, Canada geese  and a smattering of other ones.  There were birds that looked very similar to US birds but were just a bit different.  For example, coal tits look very similar to chickadees.  

There are some that I really miss.  It was weird that I would miss redwinged black birds.  I miss those and Great horned owls.  Great horned owls have the best hoot of all owls in the world.  We have Loons over here, but they are called Divers.  I don't get to hear the lonesome cry of Loons on a summer night though. They breed north of us.  Loons are good.

One of the things I really miss is the way I could identify birds by the song or call in the US.  I can't do that as well here in the UK.   I can recognise a few birds by the song, but not the vast bulk of them as I can back in Iowa.

My favourite bird book was the Rodger Tory Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds.  My folks had an earlier edition and I got one for myself in the 1980s.  The first book was left on a picnic table  over night while camping and got rained on.  The pages stuck together and I had to buy a new book.  In the front of this book is a tick list of all the birds in the book and you could tick them off as you identified them.  I transferred my ticks from the old book into the newer edition and carried on. 

I'm looking at the old list now and I'm smiling. There are so few seabirds ticked on that list.  Iowa is just about as far as you can get from the sea in the US.  It is the geographical centre of the continent and I was 19 before I ever saw an ocean.  It isn't surprising that I can be found in the sea most weekends.

I'm sure that if I grew up near the sea, all these gulls with their confusing feathers would make more sense.  Gulls have winter plumage, breeding plumage,  the 1st year juveniles and then older juveniles . . . .and not all gulls have all these phases.  Forget it!  I'll take the occasional photo and nail the bird identification that way.  It usually ends up being some form of a herring gull.  :-)

When ever I see a bird, I like to know what it is.  I like to know what it is that I am looking at.  After asking a local person, a good field guide is the next place to go.  I have a couple of guides for the UK and Europe (note to self: add in storks to the list from your visit to Hungary a couple of years ago).  These guides covered enough of Europe to be of some practical use when we went on family holidays to France and later on Greece. 

They were not good enough when we went to Tunisia and barely any use at all for Egypt.  I could identify egrets and the bee eaters but I could not identify one of the hawks that few over the hotel complex in the morning.  I need another book.

I was in South Africa about 10 years ago. I bought a bird book when I went there.  That was an exciting trip.  Not only was Africa a new continent, I was in the southern hemisphere for the first time.  I was there in February. I said hello to all the swallows that would eventually make their way back north to Europe to breed.  The thing that struck me about seeing the swallows there, was that they were so quiet.  Up here they make a whole lot of chattering, friendly noises as they breed and raise their families.

Sun birds, sugar birds and ostrich!!  All the birds down there were so exotic to me!  A malachite kingfisher was a flying jewel and the oystercatchers on the beach were completely black except for their tell-tale orange beaks and legs.

The bird book I am hunting for at the moment is one that covers Egypt.  We've been there four times now and I'd like to have a better bird book for it.  I've got the fish of that country covered . . . .

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


We have lived in this house for almost 17 years.  In the near future we will be finished paying for the mortgage.

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When we arrived here - our youngest was about 18 months old.  We have some photos of him stomping round in the garden and back yard in tiny little yellow wellies.  He is now at Napier University.  I love that he doesn't remember living anywhere else.  It is the longest I have ever lived in one spot in my life.  It's a good thing that I love living here then.

When I see this most recent satellite image of the place, I can see that it is a few years old.  We have since put all new gravel on the drive.  The chicken coop and run were taken down in August.  I haven't had chickens since then.  I may get a new hen house and re-install a chicken run.  At this point, that seems like so much effort!

The car in the drive is the one I crashed last winter.  I see that the vegetable patch is all dug over nicely.

I love to compare it with what the place looked like when we first moved here . . .   A link to the big extension project is found HERE.  I can see George's little yellow paddling pool in the front garden.  The raised vegetable beds in the front have become smooth lawn.  The big plastic tunnel (poly tunnel) had just been put up when this was taken.  The plastic that is only guaranteed for 2 years really should be replaced 16 years on.

Well . . .insert sentence full of nostalgia here.  I just thought I'd share that.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Frogs in Love

I rarely  heed what the calendar says, I go by what is going on in the garden . . . .  but even then I have to be on my guard.  The first day of spring isn't until the 20th of March .. . .but with lambs in the field and frogs in the garden, spring has most definitely arrived in my garden.

Experience tells me that the risk of frost is going to hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles so I had better not plant a single thing in the garden until the end of May.   I've been lured by balmy breezes in the past only to have my tender plants killed.  They are knocked right back by a late frost or burned by the high winds that always show up for a few days at the end of May.

On the 28th of February, The Man of the Place showed me a frog that had found its way to a log on the top of the woodpile.  We usually find toads hibernating in the firewood, but this was a frog . . . .We let the frog hop away into the garden.  Naturally I went down to the bottom of the garden to check the pond for more frogs and possibly some frogspawn. . . . .There was nothing.

A few weeks later and the activity levels have picked right up.  I was in that part of the garden filling the bird feeders and heard the low, gentle croaking of frogs.  Squelching over to the pond (the ground is sodden and it is almost too wet to walk on) I heard panicked frogs leaping into the water to hide from me.  I also saw this!

Evidence of frogs wantonly breeding in my garden.  I walked around the pond, inspecting things.  I found my old pond sieve in the water.  I reached in to get it and banged it on a rock to get rid of the blanket weed that was inside the sieve.

Inside were two little newts!  I'm so glad I didn't hurt them!  They are such delicate little things.  These looked to be last year's babies.  I hope they survive the horrid great diving beetle larvae that predate tadpoles in our pond.

When things dry out a bit more, I'll be able to give the lawn a cut.  In the meantime, I'm tackling the greenhouses.  There are panes of glass to replace and an awful lot of scrubbing to do.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Don't Smash Me!

Scottish Diver is the magazine for the members of the Scottish Sub Aqua Club.   I submitted the following article a little while ago.  Today it was published.

On holiday in Corfu many years ago, I had my first try dive. During the dive, the guide smashed a sea urchin to get some larger fish to come closer to feed on the soft insides. These dive guides were in the same spot every day during the holiday season. Urchin smashing must have happened a lot. The fish were so conditioned to this practice that you didn’t have to actually crush an urchin; the sound of two rocks clacking together was enough to get the fish to come closer.

Smashing urchins happens all the time in the UK. A diver will smash a few large urchins to get a shy wrasse to come in closer for the inside guts of an urchin. Though I haven’t done any urchin bashing myself, I have been on dives where I have been entertained by the site of fish mobbing the broken remains of urchins. You can get a good close up view of fish that wouldn’t normally risk getting so near divers. The lure of a free meal is more than these fish can resist.

I have been thinking about why I was feeling uncomfortable about the practice. I can be a bit of a tree-hugging nature lover. I guess it’s the act of killing something for my own amusement that bothers me. Urchins are really fascinating if you look at them closely. They have such delicate tentacles between the spines.

Smashing urchins can be justified in many ways; there are hundreds of the things around, urchins inhibit the growth of kelp and other seaweeds by eating them before the plants can get established, Urchins can even create underwater deserts if they get too plentiful. There are places in the Mediterranean where urchins are so plentiful that it isn’t safe to swim. A hand or foot in the wrong place will result in a bit of urchin spine in your skin. If you step on one or get one in your finger, it HURTS. The spines are painful and it is quite tempting to think that their kind deserves to die.

When my family and I go diving in Egypt, we are told how precious the marine environment is. Coral is as delicate as it is beautiful. A hand on the coral is enough to crush and kill the fragile polyps and leave a big dead bleached handprint on the coral. Divers are not even to wear gloves, bring along sticks to steady one long enough to take a photo. If you have to put your hand somewhere, it had better be on completely barren rock or sand. The thought of smashing an urchin in that climate is naturally completely forbidden and could land you in some trouble.

Along the west coast of Scotland, there are no delicate corals or restrictive diving practices. Things are a bit more robust up here in the north. Does that mean that we don’t have to mind our diving manners? Is it right that urchins get smashed? Is it okay that an octopus is yanked out of a hole and played with (stressed) until it squirts ink? Is it okay to stress out some crabs if you’re not going to eat them?

We’ve got our very own no-take-zone in Lamlash Bay on Arran. You can’t go smashing urchins there. You certainly can’t kill them in the Marine Reserve near St Abbs.

In a conversation I had recently with somebody from a conservation group it was thought that the few urchins that are broken open during sport dives in Scotland really wasn’t going to make a dent in the population or alter the balance of any ecosystems

I have thought about proposing a policy of no killing urchins for fun during dives to the club. I am sure there will be eyes rolling heavenward on that one. I know I will be asked to justify that request with the fact that I will pick up a nice fat King scallop if I see one and pop it into my pocket. My husband and I have dined on some particularly fine (if gritty) mussels collected during a dive. I have the same rule for shellfish and crustaceans collected on a dive that I have for hunting and fishing. I’ll only catch and clean fish or fowl that I intend to eat.

I hope I find that I have more support for the no-smashing policy than expected. The couple of divers I have floated the idea to have agreed that it is a good idea.

I have always been unwilling to smash any urchins. It upsets my nature loving sensibilities. As a diver, I’m there to groove on the sea life below the waves, not to smash it up. Urchin smashers please consider why you are diving in the first place. Respect our sea life. Don’t smash any more urchins.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Under the Sea

I am a bit of a diving slut.  I'll dive with anybody and anywhere.  Need a dive buddy for a boat trip?  Pick me!

Going on a trip to Loch Fyne?  Can I go?
From a boat . . . from shore . . . I don't care.  As long as I can get in and out without damage to myself and my gear.  I am not very graceful so I don't even consider loss of dignity an issue.
There were a couple of dignity stripping episodes on Sunday.  As we checked prospective dive sites, I managed to slip and fall on my backside.  I managed to land in peaty, sour mud.  Bleh.
That dive site not only had dangerous access to the water, there were four other vehicles filled with divers (crowded).  The second site was more of the same . . . . .  The third site was much better.  It wasn't a site that anybody had experience of diving - so an added risk was that we didn't know what was under the water.  But with a sloping rocky beach into the sea and having been diving just up the shore from this area, we had a pretty good idea what was under there.
With the third site being the site of choice we set up camp.  We parked near the top of a big bit of bare rock that sloped down into the sea.  The rock had been scoured smooth by glaciers then cracked by weather and the sea.  If you were a nimble, goat-footed type person you could make your merry way down One of our party works for a company that fells trees for the power company.  He had a good climbing rope.  He tied this rope to a tree.  The rope was stout and long.  It  spanned the entire rock face and the free end went almost to the water.  We used it to steady ourselves as we made our way down with the gear.    Even with that, I still managed to crack my shin on a rock - ouch!
We had arrived at high tide so the little bit of beach at the bottom of the rock kept getting more generous as the day progressed..

We had two delightful dives! Again, I saw a couple of things I have not seen before.

The first new species for me is the olive squat lobster.  You can see the red claws of a long-clawed squat lobster sticking out in the centre of the above photo.  If you look up and to the right you'll see smaller claws sticking out from some little rocks . THAT is the olive squat lobster.    Exciting, huh?
The red cushion star isn't new, but it is always pretty and worth mentioning.  Here is one delightful specimen sticking to some fluted sea squirts.
This looks like wood lice or pill bug or slater depending on where in the world you come from.  It is a chiton. Near enough to a limpet.  Did you know that limpets can be aggressive toward each other?  I discovered this fact in a book I've got on UK marine life.  I think to discover this fact you would have to be 1. dedicated to 
the study of marine life and 2. have lots of spare time as limpets don't move much .
There was a carpet of sea squirts and feather stars..  These are feather stars (members of the star fish and urchin family)  Common feather stars and Celtic feather stars that are only found on sea lochs on the west coast of  Scotland (woo hoo!)  

Do you remember the old Batman series from the 70s?  The one with Adam West as Batman?  Remember when they were scaling buildings and holding onto a rope?  Getting back to the truck meant  getting up that (not steep) rock with my tank and weights still on and using the rope.  All I could think of was Batman and Robin scaling those walls. . . . .It was a full on workout.  Forget pilates and Zumba - do this!
Among the other many things we found . . . we found scallops!  

I didn't get home until just after 9 last night so they're in some brine in the sink . . . waiting to be turned into dinner.

Here's a thing about the affects of pressure on a wound.  It can make it worse.  If you have a fresh bruise, the bruise will get bigger.  If you crack your shin before a dive.  It will look a bit more dramatic afterwards. I needed a leg wax before the dive and now I have to wait until my leg is no longer scabby.  They won't wax legs that have broken skin.  I'm fine - I can have lovely scallops for my dinner and I have some terrific diving memories.
Rest and be Thankful 
Here is one more thing I love about diving in Scotland.  Driving to the dive sites can be spectacular!!