Monday, 24 March 2014

The North

Another expedition this week, venturing further north than I've ever been before - to Wick, Caithness, in the very top right corner of Scotland.  Being mainly from the southwest, I'm always taken aback by the sheer size of Scotland, and even after flying into Inverness there was still a two-hour drive north to get to Wick itself.
My recording footprint, up to the 20/3/2014
The reason for this long-haul trip was, as ever, insect-related, though again it was more concerned with talking about them than spotting them.  My day job is running the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's bumblebee-monitoring schemes (check out and to take part!) and I was in town to give an hour's talk about bumblebees, their current decline, and how monitoring them can help, for the Caithness International Science Festival.  Caithness and the Scottish islands are the last remaining refuge of the Great Yellow bumblebee, Bombus distinguendis, and thus are a priority area for BBCT's conservation efforts - hence my invitation to talk.

As it's around six weeks into the bumblebee season at home in Oxfordshire, before I set off I'd been hopeful that there might be the chance of spotting an early queen - unmistakeably huge, yellow and fuzzy, the general effect is like a flying tennis ball.  However, my hopes of seeing the species for the first time ever were quickly dashed as I drove north through heavy rain and snow showers:  despite the 18C temperatures in the south, March is clearly still winter in Scotland!
Pictured: the view a few minutes flight time south of Inverness.  Not pictured: spring, giant furry bumblebees
After a long Saturday of talking and manning the stand, followed by a wander along the seafront in the teeth of the wind, I gradually defrosted my face and fingers and wondered what to do with myself.  I had a couple of hours free on Sunday morning between breakfast and having to leave for Inverness and the long trip south, but clearly there would be no bees: even sheltered spots by the shoreline had only turned up a couple of chilly-looking carabids.
The Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society caused some serious stand envy
The name Wick was ringing a distant bell marked 'rare species', and a quick search revealed the existence of Wick Sedge, Carex recta.  With only three British populations, this unassuming plant was one of Britain's rarest species - and it had a huge population less than a mile from me!  That was Sunday morning sorted...

Sunday dawned bright and clear, but -3C and blowing a gale.  I checked out and headed over to the Lower Wick River SSSI.  I had been expecting a struggle - this was a very rare plant, after all - but as soon as I reached the river, the mudflats were covered in sedge shoots - this must have been the vast single-species stand mentioned in the site description!  Sure enough, the grid references matched and the remains of last year's plants checked out.  I'd utterly failed in my first attempt to find a vanishingly rare bee, but vast numbers of an even rarer plant made a pretty satisfactory substitute!  I walked back to the car, and started the long, long trip south.
Mudflats: Unprepossessing 

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