David Adam Gallery
David Adam ..... Scottish creative artist ...... author of Wildsketch ..... social realist in Postcard from Brechin
Studio and Wildsketch journal
Studio and Wildsketch journal
The feeling of Summer at a fading end, with the inevitable fall into Autumn, comes as a sensation felt rather than as a dramatic change to nature and the landscape. These seasons merge through gradual changes in the flora and fauna of the land until they assume a definitive cloak that marks their very nature.
The spiky tips of Soft Rush tingle with burning bronze, and the once bright fronds of Bracken darken into an acrid frown, and the purple flowers of Ling flush with seedy intent until buzzy bees bumble no more to their sweet attention.Nature draws breath as living continuance falters and a rosy yawn fills the hills and glens of Scotland.
The sense of breathing in that expired excitement of life and reproduction stills the frantic mind into thinking about what has come and gone. The gregarious Sand Martin has vacated its burrowed 'warren' in the sandy cliff by the burn, and dozens of House Martin gather alongside the twittering Swallows as they ready themselves for the cloud dancing flight southwards.
Curlew, Lapwing and Oystercatcher have long since left the moors of Angus, but a pair of Golden Plover still view the hospitable coastline, some twenty miles away, from the lightning scoured hill tops that have been home during the past few months. On my approach, they skirt low over the moor in fast flight then land to wait, as if reluctant to depart until that instinctive, launching moment of migration comes along; push comes to departing shuv for most wildlife on the high moors but some residents thole the hardships all year round.
Our Angus based Golden Eagles endure many hardships but have a healthy population that occupies most but not all of the possible territories available for nesting. These eagles are at the geographical margins of existence in Angus yet defy all statistics by producing more young eagles than in other parts of Scotland. In my opinion, their absence from available territories or suitable habitats can indicate historic or ongoing persecution or disturbance due to changing use of the land like mountaineering or hill track construction or wind-farms.
Wheatears have, in the main, gone but some are still to be seen on the highest tops during passage migration. Ring Ouzel are still about feeding on Rowan berries, and the ubiquitous Meadow Pipit gathers in the lower haughs of the glen but again some are still on the high moors. Adders are still to be found basking in sunny spots and today, as I was crashing through the sheep trodden Bracken, a very handsome, grey coloured male was coiled in bask mode but rapidly vanished into the undergrowth with a rasping hiss; they have over one hundred ribs that flatten in order to absorb more radiant heat ..... luv 'em.
The glow from a late lingering dawn tinted the sky with warmth and from within that serenity came a perpetual call from a raptor of sorts; a yelping, begging call that lasted for minutes but nothing was seen. Lengthy gazing finally revealed a Hen Harrier breaching the skyline with wings held in that crucified shape ..... how appropriate. Whether the call was actually a young harrier's begging call or not I am unsure, but implied hunger and loneliness marked the atmosphere in the glen.
I hear and read enough about carbon release from peat affected by muir-burn but, in my opinion, the cumulative effect of naturally caused peat exposure far outweighs any man-made problems. I frequently visit an area of peat erosion of at least one hectare in size that has been exposed naturally by wind and weather over the centuries, but another contributing factor is the 'hoof-fall' erosion from Red Deer herds that frequent this area. Hundreds of gouging hooves trample the tender peat surface, no doubt releasing much more carbon than your average year's muir-burn on this highland estate.
The pointed beasts of the hill have changed too, from rounded, growing antlers covered in velvet skin they now sport burnished bone ready for the battling rut a month or so away. Stags have put on weight, and just seem to wait for something that comes like an express train over the hills ..... the hormone rush that sets the hills alive with booming roars ..... can only come too soon!it.
During August the moors of Glen Mark are dyed purple with the flowers of Ling heather and the unrelenting hum of busy honey bees fills the air. This year's show of heather colour seems to be the very best, as far as my memory recalls, and every footstep through the heather releases a cloud of pollen dust. Nevertheless, the healthy heather seems to betray the welfare of its main resident, the Red Grouse, and today very few birds flush at my feet.
My middle of nowhere destination is Naked Hill with its ancient, ruinous bothy and then finally Braid Cairn, the bulky, domed neighbour of Mount Keen. Fog cements the higher moors in a disorientating grey murk that hides my line of sight to the bothy and a wait for an hour in dew filled cloud and biting midgies drew my patience out to the limit of endurance until, finally, the occluded sun-god accompanied by a light wind burned the fog off to reveal acres of bog entrenched purple and the tiny granite bigging a mile or so away; a wet slog ensued.
Miles from anywhere, this bothy is hewn from the land. The roof, long since absorbed by nature, would have been log joisted and covered in heather turfs. The door aperture is small but the lintel is still standing and the only evidence of what it was used for is drilled into a granite wall block ..... an iron ring cleat for tying a pony or dog to. Stalking comes to mind first of all, but then the extensive wrought iron fencing in the surrounding area may imply another use as a worker shelter, or maybe it was used for illicit whisky distilling but there is no ready water supply and the stonework finish too laboured.
Many of the granite blocks are dressed but no fireplace or chimney flue is now obvious. The blocks may have been brought in by pony sled or brought down from the rocky exposures on nearby Naked Hill then dressed on the spot. This bothy in the middle of boggy nowhere has always intrigued me and can be seen from the south, east and west on this open area of rough moorland for miles around, but this is my first visit. Two neuks are in the wall next to the door maybe for candlelight and a massive, door sized granite slab lies astride the door aperture outside, all strange and mysterious to me ..... what hermit had dominion here ..... I wouldn't mind, far from the madding glen crowds, and in for a bothy nicht.
Braid Cairn has several tops to its domed bulk and those tops are scoured flat like the granite boulders that deck the surface heath of Crowberry. Very healthy looking Mountain Hare love this hill that sits at just under Munro level and many of the tumbled slabs shelter the beasts from the foraging attention of the eagles that live nearby. The hill is an attractive stop-over for Wheatears and Golden Plovers during migration, and I have wondered if Dotterel also pay Braid Cairn a visit during arrival in May or departure in September. Ptarmigan have frequented Mount Keen but I have never seen them on Braid Cairn despite finding feathers here.
Well nothing was really interested in flying around today except a distant sighting of a Golden Eagle, an inquisitive Red Kite, a Kestrel, several Wheatears and Meadow Pipits plus one Kestrel sized falcon that looked like a slender Peregrine with long, narrow wings. I am convinced that I saw a Hobby in this glen a few years back, but my record was thrown out by the Angus rare birds panel. I think that the Hobby has bred further north so vagrant birds might appear in Angus and expert 'birders' have confirmed that with independent observations recently.
There are areas of moorland in Angus that just seem barren of life. If there are no Red Grouse or Mountain Hare present then foraging raptors are not present. This area east of Braid Cairn rarely sees a hunting eagle because there is nothing to hunt ..... why waste time. The Mountain Hare are atop Braid Cairn and the Red Grouse, to my ken, are just absent. Eagles are more likely to be seen where grouse populations are higher and I do know that resident eagles in this area frequent neighbouring 'grouse only' shooting estates, in fact the breeding eagles from a 'rewilding principled' Glen Tanar estate in Aberdeenshire pop over the boundary, more often than not, to cadge prey from a 'grouse only' estate in Angus.
The history of moorland is fascinating and how it changes at nature's and man's behest. Near our bothy lie the twisted bars of wrought iron fencing, some five feet high, that run for miles around various estate marches and the purpose was to keep deer out or, indeed, in. Many of the iron bars are drilled into large boulders then hot leaded into place, unfortunately the boulders have to be set on unstable peat foundations, so no matter how strongly built the iron work is, the fence continuity is fugitive when one boulder topples or sinks; a very time consuming and costly fence no doubt and presumably originating from the Victorian era. One disused deer jump allowed deer out, but not into a fenced off enclosure or estate, and I do get the impression that deer evacuation to protect grouse populations from disease vectoring Tick is nothing new ....
A blue and purple hum surrounds my outstretched soul. I feel singing space all around with no visible source. The heathery glen becomes a cathedral of space where cosmic voices utter sweet melody. Peer the purple Ling for busy bees but nothing shows. The hum grows in the stillness until it cushions out all sense of hurt or regret or love or hate. A thousand thousand wings buzz the ethereal blue hum for miles around as nature's honeyed voice calms the land.
And I imagine, a paper boat, on a sea of purple sound becalmed yet soaking in the ripples of the scented hum, and the flora and fauna float amidst the aromatic mists of celestial, hot blue ..... blue melts into purple and then hazy heather becomes miraged sky. Mother nature gives the Scottish moorland an engorging magic in August which fills the rolling hills with sublime, coloured music in a worldly unique experience never to be forgotten. Chromesthesia is a term for those unusually gifted souls who transmogrify sound into colour.
Across that landed sea roam herds of Red Deer. The stags are on the high moor drifting with the wind to flee the flechs, and the hinds with their piping calves are on the lower slopes where succulent grass feeds the young venison. The stags move like a dishevelled army over the peat hags, their bony antlers adorned with ripped velvet skin that tickles at the spiked seed heads as they nibble squeaky grass with trophy heads bowed low.
Ling pollen dusts my boots and snuffs my nose but high above, riding filtered blue, soar the eagles in tandem beauty and feather swishing silence. One is clearly in a moult process where pairs of wing feathers are renewed over an extended period. Both slip into the landscape effortlessly, no wing flaps, no effort, just rock steady flight ..... the mark of a Golden Eagle on a hungry mission.
Heading up steep slopes can be Adder tricky, heading down slopes is better as one can see more, but the eye level ledge where the snake basks can sometimes be out of sight from below and my boot is always too late in finding out. Leather meets scales at an awkward step near a rocky burn and the dark, snake head venoms back to launch an attack, forked tongue flicking.
The slinky beast escapes after licking Vibram sole and my heart stabilises back down from a thousand beats a minute to assimilate that snake infused pint of adrenaline ..... phew. By the way, big Adders are usually quite calm but the wee ones are the feisty ones to watch out for. When I was a wee boy, sixty years ago, I mind of stepping on one in Glen Lethnot ..... it rose like a stick on its tail, mouth wide open with white fangs dropped while launching at me like a missile, missing my nose by petrified inches.
Under the heat of blue, the glen surrenders itself to a lazy haze and the shorn ewes sprint into a new lease of life, minus their pounds of worthless, claggy wool of-course. Nearby, a Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Meadow Pipit and Reed Bunting congregate amongst the scorching Bracken fronds to fiddle around for caterpillars and insects. The bitter sweet smell of spores mixes a perfume with the soapy stench of lanolin from the sheep, and there we have it .... the Angus glen in August with no mention of Red Grouse or the Glorious Twelfth.
The noose around nature's neck seems to tighten each time I visit the Angus glens and hills. Munro baggers by the score besiege Scotland's mountains with eroding footfall to tick yet another summit that was much the same as the last one they ticked. Dog walkers transport their mutts for miles in order to besmirch the landscape with bagged up dog shite left like a gift to the gods to last forever by the path side, and 'couldn't give a monkey's fart' neds carry drink cans from their designer cars to drink, then dump on the glen's grassy verges.
Folk visiting the glens of Angus who usually would not throw down banana skins or orange peel or boiled egg shells or apple cores onto the town pavements think it fit to chuck it into the heather where no-one will see except their negligent consciences. And, it is not only townies on a visit to the glen that do this, estate workers cowp stuff as well, grouse beaters are famed for chucking their bottles of 'highland spring' into the great outdoors.
I have even picked up cannisters of rodenticide used by game-keepers to control rats, just thrown down or stuffed into rabbit burrows ... and I won't even start on spent shotgun cartridges or bullet casings. Fencing contractors hired to erect moorland fences are just as bad, off-cuts of wood and wire are left and old fences are knocked down onto the moor to rot; the number of times I have tripped on discarded or old fence wire. Flow in nature's footsteps, let's be sympathetic to raw creation and not throw discarded damnation into Mother Nature's future.
The delight that all nature can bring to the human heart is immeasurable and today my heart swelled to find something new ..... a Northern Brown Argus butterfly and its larval food plant is confined to the Rockrose that is flowering right now at certain locations. I also discovered what I presume to be a Mason Wasp; one of these beasties floundered on the track after recently emerging from pupation. The Syrphid family of flies are those that imitate wasps and one that I find on the higher moors is the Bog Hoverfly, a big, bumbly black and yellow job that buzzes like a bee.
Ah, if all else fails, excitement wells up inside when seeing a Golden Eagle, and I've seen a few. The feeling is always majestic and awe inspiring for some inexplicable reason, but I do have to work hard to get results. Today, with fifteen miles under my belt, this beauty creeps up behind me in surprise and the bird looks like a three year old that is moulting as some wing primaries are missing and the tail has vestiges of the white ring.
The eagle gives a growly look at me when performing a fly past, then cuts into the strong westerly to side-glide along the ridge. After a scouting soar over some peat hags, that declare Mountain Hare territory, it flaps heavily into thewind stopping for a breather on a grassy slope, then restless with nagging hunger flies on. My heart flies on its wings for moments then lonely sadness tugs a tear into the winds of farewell.
Later, high above the madding crowd in the glen car park, an eagle soars ..... no-one saw ..... and that just about sums up the shortcomings of many visitors to the Angus glens.
My favourite wildlife combination is the Golden Plover and the Dunlin. Both are tag partners in the game of survival on the highest moors. The tiny Dunlin is clever because it uses the taller Golden Plover as a lookout and guard. Where the watchful plover goes the shadowing Dunlin is there busy foraging over the moor for insects maybe one or two metres away, but when the plover calls then takes flight the Dunlin also calls then flies in a knee-jerk, synchronous movement.
I love this show of dependency that one bird has on another, but is it interdependency. The plover doesn't seem to benefit from the Dunlin but occasionally the plover does dart forward to pick up a missed grub or insect from the busy, bill proddings of the Dunlin, so maybe 'large' does gain from 'little' in some 'parasitic' way. An interesting extract from British Birds states that the Dunlin is also named the Plover's Provider or the Plover's Page or, in Iceland, the Louthrall (Plover's Slave), and, otherwise, locally called Ox-bird or Sea-snipe, Stint and Red-backed Sandpiper.
Here on Invermark estate, and also on Gannochy and Millden, in the Angus glens there has been considerable activity on the tree planting front with many young plantation areas fenced off to make them deer proof but that fencing also deters the marauding Red Fox which just might be attractive for nesting Hen Harriers and Merlin or, as it is now, suitable for Stonechat, Ring Ouzel, Wheatear and all grouse. The plantations here seem to support some native tree species and are of a small size that will not be detrimental to the foraging needs of the rare Golden Eagle or be a blot on the landscape.
I saved a Slow-worm from the madness of ignorant souls and untrained dogs that were following me down the track today on the road back to civilisation. (yip, Brechin more civilised than the glen today!) It seemed frozen in its tracks so a nudge and a shuv coaxed the beastie to escape certain death as I have seen many whacked to death by stick wielding yobos in the misconceived and ignorant notion that Slow-worms are venomous Adders, or chewed by uncontrolled dogs, or carelessly run over by vehicles.
Vehicles were parked up everywhere today, and yesterday seemingly. On Invermark, cars were parked on blind bends, over field entrances, even abandoned in the middle of the road so a tight squeeze was necessary to get past ..... just as well no heavy vehicles, farm or fire appliances needed access. The problem has been exacerbated by the Retreat museum closing as it acted as a tourist divergance and car park.
The solution ..... requies more parking space at alternative walking venues like Millden and Gannochy further down the glen. The bottle neck at the glen road ends, like Invermark and Glen Doll, will continue to increase until other areas are offered up for parking and recreational access ....
Full blog at davidadamsketchbook
The cradle of the glen nestles many sleeping babes, for the stillness of morn belies the rustling of life. Sheltering in the twisted kows of the shadowy heath cower the Red Grouse with their chicks, unseen by many but providing prey to the few. A Common Buzzard hawks the heath above, then slams talons into a fidgety chick and that chick's first flight rises in bleeding spirals over the glen void, until stripped bare of life by a hooked beak on the high slopes of the glen.
Higher still, the Mountain Hare bonds with sooty peat in a cavernous hideaway and, again, is unseen by many but is prey to the few. A hag perched white carcass from Winter wrestles with the heath bound, green fingers of the Blaeberry plant and no doubt this hare fell prey to the eagle that occasionally raids the moor here. Ironically, the carcass has two shotgun cartridges decorating its bones; a symbol for the past methinks as Mountain Hare are now legally protected in Scotland.
Certainly a vestige from the reptilian past scuttles like quick-silver through the burnt ashes of some recent muir-burn and it too buries its presence within the bouldered peat. I wait, and wait, until the scaly revelation comes in the shape of a Common Lizard. Cautious wonder peeps forth a dinosaur snout, then dragon legs and tail, then eye to eye predatorial exchange; and, in another age, would we be its prey?
Lush heath, now peppered bright mauve, darkens with every passing cloud and borders slopes swaying with all sorts of grass and, like a sea, the land moves with fresh green and last year's crippled beige. From within those coils of grass the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary flies an orange dance o'er the glen and the Northern Eggar caterpillar creeps a rhythmic, sequential flow along the Ling shoots, and then onto a sunny boulder to dream of busy flight o'er the moor next time around.
Back on the wind ravished plateau a hidden Golden Plover seeps a piping call into the breeze where the sound dissolves to the moorland world. Perceived predator I am and the diverting call pulls me this way ..... then that way ..... leading on to nowhere; a place we all know too well. Somewhere in nowhere a churring and tiny Dunlin rises at my feet to flit and twist in time with the bowing grasses that wave their stalks at the ubiquitous moor.
My great grandfather was a shepherd in the glens of Lethnot and Effock, just over the hill from here, so the land must be familiar to my soul and that maybe is why I am here, ignorant of the need for the undiscovered elsewhere; here is just fine. At the crooked head of Lethnot lies an old stalker's path which leads onto the Shank of Donald Young revealing the site for the Battle of Saughs that took place between the good men of Fearn and the Cateran cattle raiders.
History lends its name to all the hills and gullies hereabouts; Bank of Robert Shiell presumably refers to the one time factor of the northern part of Dalhousie estate, of which Hunthill estate was once part. The name of the aforementioned Donald Young who died during the battle is commemorated by naming the hill shank after him and the hill called Gibs Knowe no doubt refers to the surname, and strangely enough my great grandfather was a Gibb ..... ah, my claim to geographical ancestry might be in that missing 'b'.
As morn grew thin the waking Kestrels rose in a clamour of vocal hysteria and jousting play-fights. An aerial spectacle of dive-bombing, chasing and mock attack thrilled the skies over the glen. I reckoned that three families have been successful in the upper glen which is very good considering the downturn that the Kestrel has suffered in many lowland places. My sketch is from a promontory overlooking the glen and a favourite perch for raptors.
My search for Merlin was fruitless at one of the usual nesting locations but a surprise was in store for a new location revealed itself by the copious amount of prey plucking sites, good Ling coverage for nesting and a late remaining Merlin fledgling that took to the glen voids with that ear piercing, characteristic 'ki-ki' call. This tiny falcon has proven to be very fickle, not only are they hard to find but they willingly move nest locations making traditional recorded locations seemingly void therefore yielding inaccurate monitoring statistics.
A wandering Peregrine Falcon sailed past the sea of grass where I stood, took a look up then down at me, then scratched its head and continued westwards on a peregrination. I expected, in an optimistic way, to find young Peregrines at a certain crag where I observed occupation in the Spring but nothing showed except fulfilment of my growing pessimistic attitude that certain grouse shooting estates have little tolerance for the falcon's presence ..... prove me wrong please.
And on that subject, I discovered that rank heather banks on the steep slopes near the crag where Peregrines were seen in January this year have been burnt out. Whether this is categorised as indirect raptor persecution under disturbance or not, springtime muir-burn so close to any raptor nesting location must be suspicious when it is undertaken when birds are incubating eggs and are at their most vulnerable to disturbance.
.Full blog at davidadamsketchbook
So, Mike Groves and I have been out adventuring for two days now in the Angus glens checking on Merlin fledglings and Golden Eagles (under licence) in a post lock-down squeeze to monitor breeding success ..... yet I am constantly thinking of snakes in the grass and creepy-crawly blood suckers as a divergence from raptor study ...... emm, raptor study, snakes in the grass and blood suckers all seem to group together to ring bells from the nefarious, slander soiled past offered up by some local raptor study group members
Anyway, Mike has worked relentlessly to obtain his licence to monitor Merlin, Hen Harrier and Golden Eagle through conscientious hard work and the drive to walk miles in exploration to find new breeding sites for raptors in Angus. I am proud to say that one new site has now been added to the breeding list for Merlin after I came across a male Merlin defending territory against a Golden Eagle earlier this year.
Merlin fledglings are now flying well at most Angus sites with their dispersal into the big, bad world close at hand but parent birds are still catering for the increasingly adventurous juveniles. The young falcons tend to group together for the first days after leaving the nest, then slowly their ability to maneuver air around feathers increases until independent departure of the natal area is tempted. Fate is tempted, for only a small number will survive their first winter.
Below a shady Rowan tree we find the plucked and stripped carcass of a young crow that has probably been taken by one of three Golden Eagles seen today. Eagles will eat anything that crawls, flies or indeed swims this amazing Earth of ours; Badger, Red Fox, Water Vole, Rabbit, Salmon, Roe or Red Deer, Mountain Hare and, of course, the Red Grouse forms the staple diet when eagles are feeding their chicks. I mind investigating one eyrie (out of breeding season) many years ago to find a neat stash of grouse wings stuffed around the back of the eyrie.
The crow had been plucked by a raptor and gauging by the amount of grey feathers mixed in with black I am guessing that this crow may have been a hybrid between the all black Carrion and the half grey Hooded, as I have seen the odd Carrion with grey patches of plumage in this area. Some of the feathers are at the pin stage of development which means that they are still in the quill growth sheath indicating a juvenile or a moulting bird.
The Tick population in this glen area must be enormous this year as I have never seen so many cling to my trouser bottoms as I trudged through heather or grass. Time was consumed in picking off hundreds of nymphs every fifty paces, or so, along a deer track and I can only surmise that most deer, hare and grouse on this moor are covered in the wee blood suckers that can vector Lyme disease in humans and Louping Ill in hare and grouse. As I have experienced, fenced grouse moor shooting estates with no deer have substantially fewer Ticks and, consequently, many more grouse.
On day one of our Merlin counting the weather was untypical of July with foul sleet showers ending in frozen hands, wind beaten eyes and a bashed moral but day two gave us reasonable weather while lowland areas, from hence we came, were drenched in stormy cloud bursts that washed thundery grey over the land ..... Scotland always lives up to its reputation for grandstand weather.
Full blog at davidadamsketchbook