No one said it would be easy

Female Eristalis tenax (c) Duncan Hutt

Female Eristalis tenax (c) Duncan Hutt

Hoverflies are a rather daunting group of insects to get to grips with.  With 281 British species to learn you have to start somewhere. So far with 13 species recorded this year it’s not even 5% of those it’s possible to find though, of course, some are very rare and not found in Northumberland at all.

Anyway the flowering privet provided a sheltered sunny spot for a number of hoverflies to feed on the abundance of pollen, both in the flowers but also scattered across the leaves.  Some hoverflies feed by picking up dropped pollen from leaves but most do venture into flowers.

Male Eristalis tenax on privet (c) Duncan Hutt

Male Eristalis tenax on privet (c) Duncan Hutt

A number of hoverflies were, like most hoverflies, trying to be something else, that is they mimic other species.  This large bee-mimic may not be a perfect match but must be good enough for its purposes.  It’s an Eristalis, a fairly complicated group of species that look very similar but this has a few distinctive features.  The hind tibia is large, curved and hairy, it has a broad dark face stripe and, perhaps most oddly, has a vertical stripe of dark hairs down the eye.  Like other hoverflies the male’s eyes touch while those of the female do not.  These features make it Eristalis tenax, a widespread species across the UK (and indeed the world) which has a peak of activity in August.

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An Airport Built on Sand

Barra Airport terminal building (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra Airport terminal building (c) Duncan Hutt

Twin Otter waits on the beach for the next flight (c) Duncan Hutt

The Twin Otter waits on the beach for the next flight (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra Airport is quite literally built on sand; the terminal building is in the dunes and the runway is the beach.  The little Twin Otter plane provides the air link to Glasgow and while it is somewhat more expensive than the ferry it’s an amazing trip, on a fine day at least.

Dark green fritillary (c) Duncan Hutt

Dark green fritillary (c) Duncan Hutt

There can be few airports where you can take a walk over the dunes and along a virtually deserted beach while waiting for your flight.  You can walk on the airport beach too but not while the windsocks are flying as a flight is due!  Despite the weather the insect life was again tricky to spot although a dark green fritillary did provide a colourful highlight and the antler moths on the heads of ragwort were there to be seen too.  Of the plants, pyramidal orchids were in surprising abundance although mostly just a little past their best.

A vew back towards the airport (c) Fraser Hutt

A vew back towards the airport (c) Fraser Hutt

The flight itself provided for great views back down on Barra and its unusual airport.  From there we flew low over Coll, the Treshnish Isles, Mull, Iona and Jura.  Then over Knapdale and Cowal and down to Dunoon and then up the Clyde.  Like it had been from the ferry it was still possible to spot the odd gannet flying over the sea below!

Iona Abbey from the air (c) Duncan Hutt

Iona Abbey from the air (c) Duncan Hutt

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Barra and Vatersay

View south from Heaval (c) Duncan Hutt

View south from Heaval (c) Duncan Hutt

A hoverfly, Eristalis horticola (c) Duncan Hutt

A hoverfly, Eristalis horticola (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra and its smaller sister island, Vatersay, are the southernmost of the inhabited Outer Hebrides.  Further to the south, and visible from Barra’s highest hill, are the once inhabited islands of Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray but these have now been abandoned.  The same fate nearly came to Vatersay but the construction of the causeway provided the means to maintain the communities there.

Heaval is Barra’s highest point at 384m and is a steep climb out of Castlebay.  From its summit the views are to the islands to the south and Uist, Skye, Mull and Coll as well as down on the castle in the bay below.

Grayling on bell heather (c) Duncan Hutt

Grayling on bell heather (c) Duncan Hutt

While the day was bright it was also breezy meaning that it was less than ideal for looking out for insects.  However a few butterflies did brave the weather with common blue, grayling and meadow brown spotted.  A very few hoverflies were also seen in more sheltered spots and on the flanks of Heaval were a few hardy six-spot burnet moths and a common green grasshopper.

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (c) Duncan Hutt

Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (c) Duncan Hutt

Common blue on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

Common blue on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

The following day was calmer but wetter, again not an ideal day for insect spotting.  We took the bus down to Vatersay for a wander on the quiet sandy beaches and through areas of machair, with their bright mix of wild flowers on the grasslands behind the dunes.  Here the wild carrot, dwarfed by the conditions, provided bright circles of white flower clusters with a tiny spot on pink at the centre of each head.  A few common blues braved the weather but otherwise the swathes of flowers were largely devoid of pollinating insects.

While the beaches are remote and often empty it’s depressing to see so much plastic waste on the beach, particularly on the Atlantic side.

Taigh Siar on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

Taigh Siar on Vatersay (c) Duncan Hutt

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A Castle in the Bay

Castlebay, Barra (c) Duncan Hutt

Castlebay, Barra (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra from the Ferry (c) Duncan Hutt

Barra from the Ferry (c) Duncan Hutt

The weather on the journey had been less than promising but as we approached Barra on the ferry the island was silhouetted in the evening sun.  The boat took us in to Castlebay to the jetty just next to the old castle, a stronghold which when built, in the 15th century, must have seemed impressively dominant but was now dwarfed by the modest ferry.

The Ferry dwarfs Kisimul Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

The Ferry dwarfs Kisimul Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

The ferry was still there next morning when the sun rose across the bay, giving a warm glow to the boat and castle alike.  A trip out to Kisimul Castle is also by boat, although a much smaller craft, taking just a couple of minutes to the small slipway on the tiny island that has been taken over by the building on top.  Little prepares you for the surprise interior of this little castle.  Entering through the small gateway takes you into a courtyard which appears to be surrounded by little houses.

Inside Kisimul Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Inside Kisimul Castle (c) Duncan Hutt

Kisimul Castle with Castlebay behind (c) Duncan Hutt

Kisimul Castle with Castlebay behind (c) Duncan Hutt

The history of this building is a bit of an odd one, most of what is there today has been the result of work from 1937 to 1970 which turned the ruins into a home, mixing conservation with conversion.  Externally it’s a castle, internally a home.

With the ferry back out at sea the castle once again stands proud with the community of Castlebay scattered on the hillsides around.

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Where are the hoverflies?

It’s mid July and it’s not been a particularly good year so far for hoverflies, at least not in Northumberland.  On a walk around a site on Druridge Bay today only 3 were spotted; one did not stay still long enough for identification; one was a Rhingia campestris and the third was a very distinctive Volucella pellucens.  This is unusual in the hoverfly world in having an English name – great pied hoverfly.  It has a clear white or cream band around the top of the abdomen and is one of the easiest of the British hoverflies to identify as well as being common throughout most of Great Britain.

Volucella pellucens (c) Duncan Hutt

Volucella pellucens (c) Duncan Hutt

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If looks could kill

Wood wasp or greater horntail (Urocerus gigas) (c) Duncan Hutt

Wood wasp or greater horntail (Urocerus gigas) (c) Duncan Hutt

Close up of the greater horntail head (c) Duncan Hutt

Close up of the greater horntail head (c) Duncan Hutt

This fearsome looking beast is a wood wasp, although it isn’t a wasp at all; more specifically it has the name of greater horntail (Urocerus gigas).  The names refer to the long sting like point at the end of the abdomen which is actually an ovipositor, which she uses to drill into damaged (diseased, or dead) conifer wood.  The larvae develop in the wood and can produce a tunnel of about 30cm in the 2-4 years it takes for them to develop before turning into an adult.  This specimen made a surprise visit to the garden, a significant distance away from any suitable conifer woodland habitat.  Despite its looks it is completely harmless!

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Double Dandelion

Double headed dandelion in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion in Stamfordham (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion side view (c) Duncan Hutt

Double headed dandelion side view (c) Duncan Hutt

It’s not that uncommon to find plants such as dandelions or daisies with a weird elongated flower.  This effect is termed fascination and is found in other plants too and often results in a flattened stem rather than the normal cylindrical shape.  In extreme cases the flower can become extremely elongated and sinuous.  There seem to be a number of causes for this occurring including bacterial infection, hormonal imbalances and genetic mutation (that could be caused by environmental effects).

Possibly more unusual if less strange-looking is when this fascination is such that multiple but separate flowers form on one dandelion stem.  Obviously many plants do have multiple flowers on each stem but dandelions only have one.

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