A Truly ‘Wild’ Birthday

Yesterday marked my birthday, my 23rd to be precise, an event that, in all honesty, would usually have been defined by copious amounts of alcohol and the bright lights of Newcastle. This year, however, that was far from the case. And instead of celebrating in typical “young” person fashion, I choose to do something a little more, wild. All be it by a different set of standards. Setting out, as the sun crested the horizon on Sunday morning for a day of hills, wildlife and much-needed wilderness.

Starting out my Highland venture at 8am, things, got off to rather promising start. The sun shone, beautifully illuminating the kaleidoscopic carpet of upland wildflowers adorning the nearby banks. The pleasant blue of Hair Bells mingling with the soft lilac of Wild Thyme and, of course, the plentiful yellow of Hawks-Bit, Bog Asphodel and, more interestingly, Yellow Saxifrage. An intriguing little plant that grows on wet flushes up here. At least four species of bumblebee were seen buzzing amid the blooms, the best of which being a number of Blayberry Bee, complete with their attractive mix of red and yellow, as well as a whole manner of butterflies. Commonplace species such as Ringlet, Small Heath and Common Blue, interspersed occasionally with the distinct patterns of something altogether scarcer. Dark-Green Fritillaries moving over stands of bracken with uncanny speed, petite Northern Brown Argus clustered around growths of Rock Rose – their larval food plant – and a handful of bedraggled Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries, clinging on to life.

Common Blue, Small Heath and Northern Brown Argus

Wildflowers and butterflies made for a wonderful start to the morning yet were far from alone. A number of moths were also seen; some brazen and vividly marked species like Wood Tiger and Six-Spot Burnet, difficult to overlook, and others, altogether more conspicuous. Twin-Spot and Red Carpets and a plethora of minuscule Agriphila species. On the ground, plump, chlorophyllic Emperor Moth caterpillars feasted upon the plentiful heather and Dor Beetles clambered slowly through the tussocks while, along the riverbank Common Hawkers moved too and throw, snatching invisible titbits from the air – clearly invigorated by the sun. Altogether, the morning got off to an excellent start – though it was to get much better.

Common Hawker, Wood Tiger and Emperor Moth

Reaching a particularly sunny spot, and stopping briefly to admire the lichen-covered ruins of an ancient stone wall, a whole new cast of critters promptly appeared – Reptiles, three species of them to be precise. First, a Common Lizard, lightning quick and, minutes later, an unusually showy Slow Worm, basking on one of the larger rocks. These encounters were sadly, all too brief, though the local Adders performed much better – three of which could be seen soaking up the morning rays. Among them, two large females, golden in colour and particularly well-marked, proved particularly approachable. While a smaller blue-black male proved somewhat more feisty. Especially when I tried to usher him off the road ahead of an approaching Land Rover, forming into a tight “s” shape and refusing to budge, at first. He did, and I departed content – I have seen too many Adders hit on the road of late but, mercifully, the chap shown below will not be counted among them. Yet.

Finally, after a few hours of constant observational pitstops, I arrived at my desired perch. A substantial hill overlooking a river valley which, on previous days, had provided some remarkable raptor encounters. Thankfully, and due, no doubt, to an ideal mix of conditions, I was not left wanting. The characteristic figure of an Osprey picked up, almost as soon as I sat down. A true Highland speciality which proceeded to delight for some time, even making a few half-hearted stoops at a small lochen, from which it emerged empty handed and soon gave up. Next, a Buzzard passed high overhead, in doing so, drawing the attention of small flock of Ravens which proceeded to harry the poor bird until it passed out of sight – in typical corvid fashion. Two species of raptor in fifteen minutes, a promising start…

Soon enough both the Buzzard and the Osprey soon found themselves forgotten, plunged into obscurity as a hulking figure drifted lazily over the hill behind me. The enormous silhouette, complete with tell-tale splayed primary feathers, soon revealing itself to be none other than a White-Tailed Eagle. And an impressive adult, for that matter. Pale-head and formidable bill clearly visible through my bins as the bird glided by, oblivious or, perhaps, unphased by my presence. A sight I have witnessed fairly often while working in Scotland, yet one I will never tire of. And the cherry on top of an already productive venture.

Heading home, the wonders kept coming. A Kestrel hovering, dropping and rising once more, with what looked like a lizard clutched in its talons. A male Ring Ouzel, tacking its disapproval as I passed by and, next, a juvenile Wheatear perched on the same section of broken wall on which the Adders had formerly basked. Whinchat, Snipe, Red Grouse and, finally, Woodcock, followed suit as I made my way home. Content and strangely, not disappointed, with spending my birthday alone, far from home. Perhaps I am growing old? Or perhaps I owe this to the wealth of great wildlife seen during what was a wholly enthralling trip.

Dor Bettle, Heath Spotted Orchid & Bog Asphodel


      1. Steady on, James. Sounds like a well managed one at that, of which there are a great number. Sadly, the indiscriminate acts of poisoning etc. create all the headlines these days. It is all about balance and doing things within the law. Yet, the way I see things moving along will be laws a-changing legislation in the wider countryside, for better or worse. We need to take account of the imbalances between prey and predator more so now than ever before. Habitat Management and Human Intervention is crucial in delivering these results as the times get tougher every year for those deemed as specialists. The Hen Harrier Action Plan will work eventually I’m sure but we will NEVER see dozens of these iconic birds in England again, there’s too much competition for nest-sites and as ground-nesters we’d have to cull a few generalists to even give them a chance, I feel.

        Oh my, I truly hope that doesn’t come across as a rant, as ranting gets us ALL absolutely nowhere, don’t you reckon.

        Best Wishes

        Tony Powell


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