Sunshine at last!

Hello from the Ross of Mull!  You haven’t heard much news from me lately, as I’ve been out and about away from the office making the most of the good weather which has arrived at last after a cold, wet windy spring (including some unseasonable snow and hail!).  This is my busiest time of year so here’s a glimpse into some recent activities.

May and early June were busy with nature clubs at both Bunessan and Iona primary schools – finding out about bumblebees and other insects, insectivorous plants, herons and foraging.  Also this morning I took Bunessan early years class on an exploration of their school grounds to investigate how living things depend on other things for survival – with the help of some friendly animal puppets who showed us their favourite places to find food and shelter.

Iona young nats walk June 2015 2butterwort Iona Iona YNs May 2015 2Bunessan YNs May 2015 2 Iona YNs May 2015 3animal puppets

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear about more of one of our favourite conservation tasks – beachcleaning!  In late May I led a free guided walk to see the mysterious rock carvings at Scoor Cave, along with Catriona Joss from the Ross of Mull Historical Centre, in return for participants helping to clear the beach while there.  A great effort resulted in a human chain bringing up two pick-up loads full of rubbish, luckily I could deposit this in the skip at Bunessan primary school, hired for their own fantastic beachcleaning efforts a few days later, by the end of the weekend it was full to overflowing!  Then more recently the lovely NTS Conservation Volunteers (Glasgow group) arrived for a weekend visit, they cheerily collected rubbish in the rain, and next day in very welcome sunshine, make short work of adding the final coat of paint to our handrail stanchions on Staffa.  Thanks guys!  Thanks also to the hardy Thistle Campers staying on Iona earlier in May who started the job, alongside ditch clearing, cutting back vegetation at Tireragan nature reserve, and you guessed it, yet more beachcleans!  For information on outdoor volunteering with the NTS, have a look here: http://www.nts.org.uk/Volunteering/Outdoor and of course at Mull and Iona Ranger Service we always welcome local as well as visiting volunteers 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScoor cave beachclean human chain4 Scoor cave beachclean rubbish 2015

kilvickeon beachclean with glasgow cvsstaffa painting

So environmental education, leading guided walks and practical conservation tasks keep us busy at this time of year, but there’s always a few more unusual things happening just to add to the mix!  Rachel mentioned the NTS cruise in her previous post, well I was lucky enough to get invited to work on the ship as an onboard ranger for a week, spotting wildlife, giving commentaries as we passed seabird colonies and leading a tour to Iona, quite strange to take part in the daytrip that brings so many visitors our way!  Wildlife surveys are in full swing, and for me that could mean wandering Iona with a clipboard at midnight mapping corncrake territories (thanks to the night owls who help with that task and let me sleep on their floors afterwards!), or chasing brightly coloured moths around the hillside at Burg!  I also hosted a visit from Simon Goodall (NTS Wildlife Filming Editor), with the Google Trekker, although it looks like an alien hitching a lift it’s actually the same camera from the Google Car, but mounted on a backpack, so by the end of the year you should be able to take a ‘streetview’ style virtual walk to the fossil tree at Burg, around Staffa or on a circular route around Iona!

google trekker sara google trekker simon emily

To prove that summer has arrived at last, I’ll leave you with these sunny photos of Iona, taken on my way back from monitoring a seabird colony down at Pigeon Cave yesterday afternoon.  Hope this inspires you to get outdoors and explore your own patch!  You could try the ‘30 days wild‘ challenge as featured on BBC Springwatch, or have a look at our events page on this blog for some walks and activities you could come along to.

Emily

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Woodland Wonders

Wild woods

Woodlands are places that catch your imagination. Woodlands are the home of fairytales and folklore, they inspire. Free play in a woodland encourages children to explore and develop. Trees enrich our senses – whatever the season. But springtime is surely one of the most enchanting times to visit a wood; your senses will be overwrought with sounds, smells and sights. Luckily for me I lead guided walks and can share the experience with others.

Bluebell magic

Bluebell magic

Aros Park

Last Friday the National Trust for Scotland cruise ship, the Saga Pearl 2 made a last minute change of plan and arrived in Tobermory rather than Oban. I ran two short walks in Aros Park for some of the passengers. We started out on the coastal path from Ledaig car park and strolled along the track looking for woodland wildlife. This is a great walk and offers a very different perspective on Tobermory Bay and Aros Park itself, as we so often drive in to the main car park. The park is owned by Forestry Commission Scotland and is a great asset right by Tobermory.

Flower power

Wildflowers are only just starting to come to life, everything seems to be clinging to winter, emerging later than normal this season – probably due to the colder temperatures, it feels more like January than May! Along the coastal pathway in Aros we relished the smell of wild garlic, also known as ramsons, an edible woodland treat. Bluebells were looking brilliant too, here in the UK we have 50% of the worlds bluebell population. We also spotted yellow archangel – a species of dead nettle, opposite leafed golden saxifrage and water avens. Another plant we see a lot of in Aros is called Tutsan which is thought to mean “all-healthy”, linking in with healing properties. We also spotted some dor beetles on the move; we looked at these guys through a hand lens and were amazed by the small details and metallic colours.

Water avens (Geum rivale)

Water avens (Geum rivale)

Dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

Dor beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

Ancient woodland walk 

This week I ran another woodland guided walk which was open to the public. We began the walk at the Loch Buie/Croggan turn off from the main road, south of Craignure and enjoyed some of the protected woodland nearby. Ardura and Auchnacraig are both listed as a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) primarily for the large area of ancient oak woodlands, geological interests and a small section of salt marsh. The largest area of ancient atlantic oak woods in the Hebrides remains here, most of the woodland across the islands is lone gone.

Osprey encounter 

There is a footpath through some of the woodland which emerges onto the shoreline of Loch Spelve. We were lucky enough to catch a great view of an osprey, a species which doesn’t breed here on Mull. This individual bird has been hanging around for a few weeks now though and will maybe return to breed in the future. Due to the leg ring we know this male bird was ringed in 2012 at Loch Lomond. We also saw plenty of greylag and canada geese, oystercatchers and common sandpipers.

Invasive non-natives 

Within the woodland itself we spotted some worrying non-native invasive species, very concerning when walking in such an important site. Japanese knotweed and rhododendron were both present. The third was skunk cabbage, an American bog plant that is readily available in garden centres in the UK. Also known as the swamp lantern this species is spreading from gardens to interfere with our native wildlife.

Native wildflowers 

Plenty of lovely native wildflowers and plants to be seen too though. The main tree species in this area are silver birch and oak, with holly, rowan and hazel making up the threadbare understory. We were pleased to see some successful saplings but overgrazing in some sections of woodland was apparent. Wildflowers included:

Opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage

Primrose

Lesser celandine

Tormentil

Marsh marigold

Yellow pimpernel

Wood anemone

Wood sorrel

Greater stitchwort

Selfheal

Bluebell

Heath milkwort

Lousewort

Cuckoo flower

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa)

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some and this doesn’t even consider all the lichen and moss species, out woodlands are teeming with life. Well worth an hours exploration, take the time to get lost in a wood and encounter some new wildlife.

Thanks for reading as usual! Check our events page for upcoming dates to join us soon. Rachel 🙂

Where did April go?

We’ve recovered from the busy Mull Music Festival weekend and now we’re busy again for the bank holiday weekend. There’s plenty for us to be preparing for as we’re nearly into May, a great month to visit the isle and join one of the many events we run and hopefully we’ll have some lovely weather to enjoy too.

Countryside Code

We’d just like to remind everyone about the countryside code, this helps everyone enjoy our wild areas and ensures livestock and wildlife are safe. Please keep all your canine companions under close control. Dogs should be on short leads in areas with sheep during the lambing period. In areas with cattle please use your discretion, but often owners are safer when dogs are off the lead if cattle are looking unhappy. Many of our protected bird species are nesting right now and many of them are ground nesting, including species like lapwing, curlew, redshank, hen harrier and short-eared owl so please be aware of this, your actions could determine the success of a nest. If you have any issues regarding this please contact us on 01680 300640.

Mull Eagle Watch & Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Unfortunately due to tree felling and timber extraction we have had to temporarily close Mull Eagle Watch. Due to disease the Larch trees have to be removed as soon as possible. The forest operations mean we lose access to the hide and our parking area. It would also give us considerable concerns over health and safety and it would deter from our usually peaceful experience. We are hoping to open again by Monday 11th May. We’ll keep you all up to date with progress, along with Iona and Fingal news – we’re expecting our first egg to hatch around the 6th May.

In the meantime I’ll be running drop in ranger sessions at the Fishnish Community Wildlife Hide. I’ll be there every morning from Monday 4th May – Friday 8th May between 10am and 1pm. If you were disappointed to miss out on Mull Eagle Watch come along. We’ll look for a variety of wildlife including a nearby pair of white-tailed eagles, otters, seabirds and marine mammals like harbour porpoise and seals. I can help you spot wildlife, answer questions you may have and point you in a good direction for other sights! This is free but we’d appreciate donations to the Mull and Iona Ranger Service.

Oystercatcher - lots of seabirds to see from the Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Oystercatcher – lots of seabirds to see from the Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Bioblitz Detectives – Nature Club Numero 2

We’re nearly ready for the second nature club of the season! Last time we enjoyed an hour learning all about bats. This time we’ll be up close and personal with some small mammals like voles and mice. We don’t notice them often but they’re found in big numbers anywhere with grass and they’re so important for lots of other wildlife. We’ll check out harmless mammal traps to see if we caught any critters, play some games and look for mammal signs.

Come along to Aros Park, we start at 5pm (please be early) and finish at 6pm. Meet me in the main car park.

Children aged 5-12 are welcome (£3 per child) and parents are encouraged to stay for free, especially with the wee ones.

Call me on 07540792650 for more information, but booking isn’t necessary.

Mammal Bio Blitz - Nature Detectives

Mammal Bio Blitz – Nature Detectives

Ulva – Guided Walk

Join the ranger service on Wednesday 6th May for a guided walk on the Isle of Ulva. Enjoy a tranquil wander around part of the island, giving you a taste for future visits. We’ll learn about the island’s history and look at island life now whilst looking out for wildlife too. Please wear sturdy footwear and weather appropriate clothing. Bring binoculars if you have them. We’ll stop for lunch at the Boathouse.

Meet at Ulva Ferry for 10am. Ferry fare and lunch per menu are required plus £5 per head to the Mull and Iona Ranger Service. Booking is essential (20 places), call 01680 300640 or 07765898600.

Staffa Stuff – Puffins

If you’d like to be slightly more adventurous and head out to sea, why not take a trip to Staffa to meet our Ranger out there, also on Wednesday 6th May. Make you own way to Staffa via one of the boat operators (boat trip fare required) and meet the ranger who will be on hand to answer your questions and guide you to the best place to see puffins up close.

Puffin - head out to Staffa or Lunga to see these comical birds

Puffin – head out to Staffa or Lunga to see these comical birds

Bio blitzing & Beach cleaning

Easter has sped on by and the island enjoyed a rush of visitors for the break. The weather played ball on Easter Sunday and Monday thankfully although the beginning of the weekend was a little doubtful! The last few days have given us all a taster of summer and we’d love it to hang around. Wildlife has been booming. Basking sharks arrived and were seen in nearby Hebridean waters over the weekend; often they aren’t around till July in any numbers! Hopefully this is an indication of a great year for our wildlife. My family spent the weekend here too and we had a great few moments along the shores of Loch na Keal with lovely views of a golden eagle above the skyline. This was followed by an otter fishing nearby, despite my water loving dog splashing around!

Nature Detectives

Aros Park played host to our first Nature Detectives club in the evening yesterday. This is aimed at children aged 5-12 and will give them a fun and hands on way to love nature. So many children these days have a real disconnection to the outdoors and nature, often thanks to TV, computers, smart phones and tablet devices. Alongside the technology we’ve developed a fear of natural play thanks to health and safety and worry of stranger danger. As a child I was extremely lucky and on weekends rampaged about getting muddy, climbing trees and catching frogs. I have no doubt that my childhood created my love of nature and shaped who I am now.

I’ll be running five more Nature Detective clubs for children over the season. Last night we focused on bats and learnt all about them, how to listen in on their world of echolocation and what we can do to help them out. Over the next five sessions we’ll meet some small mammals face to face, dip into the crazy world of pond life, the night time life of moths and the creepy crawly creatures in the undergrowth. This fun and active approach will be great for the kids and maybe spark a lifetime love and respect to our natural world. The next club is Tuesday 5th May; this one is all about mammals. We’ll start at 5pm for one hour, so please be prompt!

Mammal Bio Blitz - Nature Detectives

Mammal Bio Blitz – Nature Detectives

Beach clean

Looking for something to do this Sunday afternoon? Head to Calgary beach to lend a hand in tiding it up! Help get this busy beach ready for the summer, as well as beach clean the paintbrushes will be out for tables and we’ll generally spruce the place up. Litter in our oceans is an ever growing issue unfortunately, with plastic waste being top of the list. Plastic does not degrade, ever. It ends up as tiny little micro beads or nurdles, which looks exactly like plankton or fish eggs – food for many animals which then works its way up the food chain. So all that plastic we use once and throw away ends up in the ocean and will remain there forever. Unless it washes up on our shores, we can then collect it up, but even then it’s likely that once again it’ll end up in our waters. If you can, every time you head outdoors please bring a few pieces of litter home with you, even if it isn’t yours! We can all help a little. It doesn’t cost anything, it takes very little time and it’ll make you feel good! Here is a brutal photograph just to demonstrate the issue; it isn’t nice to look at but a great way to make us wake up on plastic.

Albatross deaths due to plastic waste

Albatross deaths due to plastic waste

The Calgary Beach clean and work party is on Sunday 12th April, 2-4pm. It’s a free event but donations to the ranger service are appreciated as is any home baking for tea and coffee afterwards.

Calgary Beach

Calgary Beach

Mull Eagle Watch

Don’t forget you can now book your trips to Mull Eagle Watch. We are open from next Monday, 13th April and will be running two trips per day. Please call 01680 812556 for more information or to book in. You can also head over to the Mull Eagle Watch blog page to catch up.

 

Thanks for reading, Rachel 🙂

April showers?

Another couple of weeks have flown by and it’s April tomorrow, although it certainly doesn’t feel like it should be Spring with the wintery weather we’ve not been enjoying the last few days. I found myself putting out extra bird food first thing today whilst it attempted to snow! It feels like the showery month of April has arrived early, minus the warmer temperatures we’d expect. Hopefully this bad weather snap won’t last long and our wildlife will be able to bounce straight back. We now have all of our events planned out for the season, head to our events page to have a look, we have a few coming up in April including Bunessan Birdsong and a Calgary Beach work party.

Bat Bonanza

I’m running my first event of the season tomorrow evening in Aros Park. Come along to do some bat detecting and to enjoy a nice evening wander around the loch. If it’s clear we’ll have a lovely view over to Tobermory from the old pier. Bat detectors allow us to hear the complex system of echolocation that our bats depend on, not only to catch their prey, but to ensure they don’t crash into an obstacle. You might be surprised to find that here on Mull we have a few bat species, including the most familiar the common pipistrelle. We also my favorite, the daubenton’s bat, also known as the water bat. No need to book, just turn up – I hope to see some of you there.
Where: Aros Park, meet at FCS notice board
When: 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Cost: £5 adult £3 children
Bring: Waterproofs and warm clothing

Bat Bonanza Event

Bat Bonanza Event

Mull Eagle Watch

Mull Eagle Watch is open from Monday 13th April 2015 and you can now book in by calling the Craignure Visitor Information Centre on 01680 812556.

Sula and Cuin’s nest site from last year is now playing host to another brilliant bird, the raven! Corvids like crows and ravens happily move into larger disused nests. As our eagles are nesting at another eyrie within their territory, ravens jumped at this highly desirable housing opportunity and are now incubating their own eggs. Ravens aren’t often a favored bird, especially by the farming community as they do regularly cause issues within lambing season but they are a fantastic species. They’re one of our most intelligent birds and can have a repertoire of 70 different vocalisations.
So Mull Eagle Watch will leave the ravens to it. We’ve been welcomed back to Tiroran in Glen Seilisdeir with open wings by Iona and Fingal and we look forward to working with this wonderful pair of eagles again.

Fingal - seen through the telescope at Tiroran

Fingal – seen through the telescope at Tiroran

Geocache galore

The ranger service have now hidden over 40 geocaches around the island, so give it a try if you haven’t already. Or, if you thought you’d found them all, think again! Jan and I had a lovely, albeit very blustery morning at Loch Buie and Croggan to hide a few. This is such a great area with a range of habitats for Mull’s wildlife. If you do head down that way think please think about taking a couple of pieces of litter home with you to recycle, the beach and coastline around here has accumulated debris over the winter. Look out for eagles and otters, I found a well used otter track and some spraint full of fish scales and crab claws.

Fishnish Wildlife Hide

Don’t forget about the community wildlife hide at Fishnish. This is open at all times so drop in to enjoy your lunch or shelter from the weather. We don’t yet have a visitor book or white board for your sightings yet, so if you do spend some time there, please let us know what you see. The location is great for seabirds, otter, harbour porpoise and white-tailed eagles. Look out for the tiny dab chick in between it’s feeding dives too.

Thanks for reading again and check back soon for more, Rachel 🙂

Bugs, birds, & red nose day

Geo-caching

On Tuesday last week I went down to the Forestry Commission Scotland walk at Scallastle (just outside of Craignure) to check the footpath and signs and to place two new geocaches. I’d never been to this site before and the walk was lovely. Despite being quite steep and rough in places its well worth it for fantastic views over the Sound of Mull. The surrounding mountains are stunning too and this is a good place to see golden eagles. The woodland is mixed, with a lot of native species including birch and hazel, I caught sight of long-tailed tits working among the huge variety of lichens. I laid out two new geocaches along the trail, this is an ever growing interest and hobby around the world and a great way to encourage people to walk outdoors. Scallastle is also home to a fairly new addition to Mull, the pine marten. This carnivorous mammal is a controversial species on the island, but is hopefully here to stay and will add to our wonderful wildlife. I managed to find some pine marten poo (scat) on the trail – they often leave signs in obvious places.

Pine marten scat found in Scallastle woodland

Pine marten scat found in Scallastle woodland

Mountain Wildlife

On Wednesday last week I got to meet some of Bunessan Primary School, I didn’t manage to visit them last season unfortunately. I joined Emily, our ranger for the Ross of Mull, Burg, Iona and Staffa to run a session on our mountains. We thought about how we can prepare ourselves for a mountain hike, and what to pack in our rucksack. We learnt that this can make all the difference when things like weather, accidents and midges can cause dangerous problems. This led us onto the adaptations wildlife needs to survive and why each animal or plant lives in a particular zone on the mountain.

This is where the eagles came in; both our golden eagle and white-tailed eagle have some fascinating adaptations which could mean the difference between life and death in the harsh Scottish mountains. The kids enjoyed seeing our stuffed golden eagle up close to look at the talons, feathered legs, powerful beak and large eyes. We then focused on how all the mountain wildlife links together and what would happen if one animal or plant were to disappear. Overall we had a great day!

Bug hotel renovations & brand new bird box builds…

I also visited Lochdon Primary who are working hard to develop their very own conservation area. We wanted to create some bird boxes to encourage garden birds like blue tits, great tits, robins and pied wagtails to set up home. We all got stuck in with the hammers and built four bird boxes, two with open fronts and two with smaller holes. These will be installed outside and help increase the wildlife onsite.
We also got our hands muddy outside despite the weather. We started some renovation work on their bug hotel, which was looking a bit forlorn and unloved. Old pallets are great for bug homes, so we added a few extra pallets to the pile. We then found lots of materials to fill in all the gaps, creating homes for bees, beetles, slugs, woodlice, spiders and more. A great way to collect up unwanted garden items lying around too, if you don’t want it, the bugs will! The children will keep adding to bug hotel and I’m sure they’ll investigate the insects living there when the weather improves.

Red nose day fun

Finally on Friday last week I ended for the weekend on a great note. Tobermory primary school children (P5/6/7) were doing a sponsored walk along the coastal route to Aros Park so I met them there to run an activity. Thankfully the weather was great, so the kids seemed to have a lovely time. I hid loads of items out in the trees for the children to find in pairs, but the catch was one of them must be blindfolded! This was harder than you’d think, but they did well, I only had to help with the last few. Once we had everything, the kids realised we could make a person. We created a fisherman, complete with his own red nose. I left them to enjoy another game, but managed to leave my sunglasses hidden in a tree, they’re still there someone now.

Thanks for reading! Rachel 🙂

Looking over to Loch Tor under stunning blue skies

Looking over to Loch Tor under stunning blue skies (mobile phone photo)

Rain, rain go away!

I’m waiting with baited breath for my first butterfly or slow-worm of the season, but I think we’ve forgotten what sunshine looks like. Whilst we swim about in mud and rain, with gale force winds, the rest of the country seems to be relishing the coming of spring with red admirals, small tortoiseshells, bees, adders and slow-worms emerging. It feels more like autumn than the start of spring and temperatures are still on the chilly side. The only inkling I’ve enjoyed so far of wildlife waking from winter slumber is in the pond. One evening the sound of mating frogs emanated from the depths and with a brief respite from rain yesterday I went to investigate.

Amphibians

Frog spawn surrounded the pond edge, lying dejectedly on the grassy banks. Frogs in their excitement can go a little overboard but this only means a tasty meal for others like otter and heron. Eyes peered back at me from the water but with any movement they would disappear. On the opposite side of the pond toads were at home, moving around below the surface. Frog and toad spawn differs; toad spawn is less familiar, long thin strings rather than clumps; I couldn’t see any in the pond yet. I did see a newt though! These small newts are really difficult to spot unless they move and spend most of their time looking like vegetation. Palmate newts are the UK’s smallest amphibian. The name comes from the black webbing of the males hind feet in the mating season, making them look like over large palms.

Common Toad

Common Toad

Stargazing – Pennyghael Hall

Come along to enjoy an evening of stargazing with the ranger service at Pennyghael Hall. It’s a great time of year for looking up at the night sky with lots of planets in view. You should be able to see Jupiter and its moons. Venus, the “evening star” will rise just after sunset but disappear at 9.30pm and Mars will be showing too, not from Venus.

Pennyghael Hall; 7-9pm
Cost: £6 adult/£3 child
Learn how to find your way around the night sky with Seamas Westland and Emily Wilkins.
18th, 19th, or 20th March – weather dependent, clearest night will be chosen so please register your interest and we’ll let you know

Call 01681 700659 or 07717581405

PennyghaelWreck Ewan Miles

Pennyghael Wreck – night sky (thanks to Ewan Miles)

Easter Events

Bat Bonanza -Come along to Aros Park for an evening bat walk. Bat detectors on hand so we can ID the species & hear them in action. We’ll have fun facts, activities for children and ending at the old pier for a lovely view of Tobermory.

Wednesday 1st April, Aros Park
6.30pm – 8.30pm
Meeting at FCS notice board in main car park
£5 adults, £3 children
Call 01680 300640 or 0754079265

NEW – Bioblitz Nature Detectives

New Nature Club for 2015 – every four weeks, 6 sessions across the season – Aros Park
Tuesday 7th April – Bioblitz Nature Detectives: Bat Bioblitz
First session of six, open to children aged 5-12
Come along to the first session to Bioblitz Aros Park and the bats that live their!
We’ll have 1 hour to record as many bats and different kinds of bats as possible.
Learn lots of cool facts, hear bats echo location and have a later night than usual!

6.30-7.30pm (please be prompt)
£3 per child (parents encouraged to stay for free, especially with the wee ones)
Aros Park, FCS notice board in main car park
Appropriate footwear and warm clothing. Notebook or camera if you like
01680300640 or 07540792650

Brazilian Reflections

As Jan has mentioned before, for us rangers it’s sometimes difficult not to have a ‘busman’s holiday’, and as I’ve recently been lucky enough to visit friends in Brazil, I thought I’d share some of what I noticed of wildlife and conservation during my travels.

What comes to mind when you think of Brazil?  For a lot of people I suspect it would be ‘Rio’ and ‘rainforest’ or perhaps ‘football/world cup’…but Brazil is a huge and extremely diverse country, a true melting pot of many cultures, different landscapes and in the coastal Atlantic rainforest some of the most species-rich habitat in the world.

Rio de Janeiro is a city built among mountains.  Steep, forested mountains which present some challenges for the road network with its long tunnels and crazy traffic jams, but also intersperse greenspace and forest wildlife throughout the city.  Street trees are popular in Brazil, often sprouting tropical fruits, and to my surprise it’s not unusual to look up from an ordinary street to see huge brightly-coloured butterflies, hummingbirds or capuchin monkeys right there amongst the towerblocks, shops, vehicles and people.  I enjoyed spotting my first wild toucans in the treetops of the Botanic Gardens (backing onto an area of native forest)  and the coastal path around the base of the Sugarloaf, with its joggers and climbers, waves crashing on boulders as huge cargo ships pass nearby, large birds gliding high up on the thermals and close-up wildlife encounters (and an idyllically-sited nursery school with access to forest and beach right from the gate!).  Of course, looking up it’s impossible not to notice the favelas, shanty towns straggling up the steep hillsides…

Rio 2014 View from SugarloafCapuchins in Rioprotest 102

Recycling is widely promoted in public areas – it is common to see a row of several different bins encouraging waste separation – although another side to this also commonly seen in residential streets as people from the favelas work their way systematically through domestic rubbish bags, looking for plastic bottles or cans to sell.  A degrading sympton of poverty built on others’ wastefulness…or a useful source of income with environmental benefits?

Travelling west from Rio, it was easy to see why this area is known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast) with mile upon mile of forested mountains, white sandy beaches, small towns (and the odd nuclear power station…just like Scotland!).  Crossing by boat to Ilha Grande in the misty drizzle I wondered if I had been transported back to the Hebrides!  The whole of this lovely island is a car-free protected area, with reserve staff giving information on walks and wildlife, running a tree nursery to restore degraded areas of forest, trying to control invasive species and providing environmental education for local young people.  I enjoyed staying in a guesthouse on the edge of the village with giant lizards, squirrels and lots of birds visiting the garden, and making use of forest trails and brightly-painted wooden boats to get around.

protest 116 protest 123 protest 125 protest 136 protest 160 protest 164

After a couple of days in another lovely car-free coastal town which made good use of horses and wheelbarrows for pollution-free transport of tourists, supplies and rubbish, it was time to head inland to the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) and my friends’ home city of Belo Horizonte.  As the name suggests, evidence of open-cast mining was everywhere, long trains filled with iron-ore producing constant background noise, and many hillsides on fire, presumably to stop the forest from re-colonising areas of farmland.  Perhaps this is a familiar picture, as we are used to statistics about the rate of rainforest destruction, but it’s still a shock to see it up close, and not hard to see why only 7% of the original Atlantic rainforest still remains…though the fact is this is what provided the wealth to build many of the beautiful buildings I’d just been admiring in the town of Paraty.

However, government policies are changing and there is now much more support nationally for protected areas and for the land rights of indigenous people.  Alongside this is the work done by environmental charities, many of which are international and undertake high-profile campaigning in the UK.  It’s unlikely you’ll have heard of the next place I visited though, staying there was a unique experience like nowhere else I’ve been.

Caraça is a true sanctuary, an old monastery in the hills which used to be a school from which emerged several influential Brazilian leaders.  Since the school building burnt down in the 1960s it has functioned as a guesthouse with the aims of integrating hospitality, spirituality and mission, culture and education, environmental conservation, leisure and tourism.  The church and residential buildings are part of the Catholic church, and are set in a huge private nature reserve of forest and grassland habitats full of wildlife such as tapirs, anteaters, jaguars and many birds.  My particular favourite was the guaço, building intricately woven hanging nests dangling from the fronds of palm trees.  We hired a knowledgeable guide for a mountain walk taking us up to one of the rocky peaks from where it was clearly obvious the contrast between protected natural habitats within the ring of mountains, and development outside…it felt a little like a scene from the end of Lord of the Rings!!  The guesthouse grows some of its own food, composts and recycles waste and meals are taken communally in a huge old refectory.  There’s an education centre where local school groups come to learn about the surrounding nature reserve.  It attracts many visitors and provides about 70 local jobs, but the whole place still has an air of quiet contemplation about it.

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In the 1980s one of the priests discovered that the local maned wolves were raiding bins and had the idea to start feeding them.  These wolves do not hunt in packs but are more solitary – one family needs a large area to sustain them, and they are omnivorous eating small mammals, birds and fruits.  The priests have gradually gained the wolves’ trust, to the extent that it’s possible to sit on the church steps in the evening where a plate of food is placed on the ground, and wait…sometimes for several hours…until someone spots a shadow slipping across the terrace and suddenly the wolf is padding cautiously up the steps, ears constantly scanning for danger, grabbing a mouthful of food and running to the top of the steps to check for safe escape routes, it could return several times and seems oblivious to the camera flashes and hushed excited whispers at being so close to a wild animal.  It is truly wild, free to come and go as it chooses and sometimes may not turn up for several days…a beautiful symbol of trust and respect between humans and another species which surely gives hope that our relationship with the planet is not all doom and gloom.

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I was recommended other hopeful projects that I didn’t have time to visit, for example the Guappi Assu Bird Lodge integrating ecotourism with conservation.  Then there’s the success story of the golden lion tamarin.  Having been a member of the pioneering Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (who breed and re-release endangered species) since I was four years old, and then studied the issues surrounding these tiny golden monkeys during one of my university courses, I was delighted to read of a local farm hosting a programme of environmental education and ecotourism daytrips from Rio based around a population of captive-bred golden lion tamarins reintroduced to the wild, see this website for more information.

My final travel destination was the Iguaçu National Park in southwest Brazil where it borders Argentina and Paraguay.  In fact the park spans the border with Argentina and it’s possible to visit both sides to view the magnificent waterfalls, largest in South America and a sight I’ll never forget.  Although the well-developed tourist infrastructure created a slightly theme-park like atmosphere at times, and is not without its problems – signs everywhere reminding people of the dangers of feeding the coatis and monkeys – again it was great to see so many people looking for an up-close-and-personal experience of wild nature. Tiny swifts were darting through the curtain of water catching insects.  Part of the area was closed off due to walkways being washed away in a flood earlier in the year, seeing the remains of large iron supports wrapped around rocks was a reminder of the power of floodwater, that there are some things humans can’t control!

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Rangers were very much in evidence here, with a moving memorial to one who was killed while on duty.  Sadly there many similar stories of deaths during clashes over land development versus protection, with Chico Mendes, one of the most famous, giving his name to the Brazilian Institute for Biodiversity Conservation which administers this park.  Interpretive signs drew visitors attention to different issues, for example the fact that the water often runs red with the evidence of soil erosion in the river catchment area.  I loved the informative visitor centre explaining all about rainforest wildlife and ecological niches, and the history of the local Guarani people, with a vision for sustainable small-scale agriculture and selective harvesting of forest products alongside conservation, very inspiring!  While in this area I also visited Itaipu, the largest hydro-electric power plant on the planet and an impressive engineering feat, but source of another controversial debate as Brazil is currently constructing another huge dam in the Amazon…is all of this clean renewable electricity generation worth what is lost when large numbers of people, wildlife, forest and waterfalls are displaced or destroyed?  Is that a question we can ask in today’s energy-hungry world?  Itaipu were keen to show off their many environmental and social responsibility projects and it’s certainly good to see what has been achieved in terms of mitigation 30 years on.

After enduring temperatures of up to 42°C, part of me is quite glad to be back to autumn in our small temperate country, even though the weather has been causing ferry disruption all week!!

So, I hope this post has inspired you to look beyond the ‘doom-and-gloom’ headlines, to look for signs of hope on your own travels, or even to ask a few questions about landuse here in Scotland.

(PS – yes I will be carbon offsetting all of those flights, with Climate Stewards)

Seeing Stars

Wednesday evening this week I ran my final event of the season at Ulva Primary School. We were extremely lucky as it turned out to be a fantastic clear evening with an almost full moon for “Seeing Stars”.

I started off quite early, well before dark to run some activities for the children. We learnt some interesting facts; did you know that one million Earth’s could fit inside the sun because it is that big? Or that Saturn has 62 moons? Then we enjoyed some hot chocolate and played with some clever apps, a great way of getting kids interested in all things wild. You can download things like Sky Walk or Star Walk and Moon Phase for free – these help us to find constellations, planets, individual stars and satellites in the sky.

By around 9pm adults were welcome to join and we had a great turn out of both locals and visitors to the island. We watched as the moon rose from behind the rugged hills of Mull and it was looking absolutely stunning at 86% full. The telescope provided an amazing detailed view of the moon’s surface, even allowing us to pick out craters.

Stars began to emerge, with the key constellations easy to find – the bright moonlight drowning out some of the less obvious stars. We found some familiar constellations to begin with, like the plough. This well known shape in the sky actually makes up part of Ursa Major, the Large Bear. Above is Ursa Minor, you guessed it, the Small Bear. The end star of the smaller bear is Polaris – the celestial North Pole. Draco the dragon wraps around Small Bear, the head curving around to point toward Vega and Lyra. Others we looked at include Aquila, the eagle, Cygnus the Swan with the Northern Cross showing very well, Hercules and Cassiopeia the vain Queen. Plenty of satellites passed through too, and last night I caught the International Space Station passing overhead! 

As with wildlife and the natural world, space and stars give us an unlimited amount of learning opportunities. With 88 defined constellations plus many of the smaller lines or individual stars we can always find something new. Autumn and winter are the best time to get out there and enjoy our dark skies, something we are lucky to have.

Thankyou so much to Ulva Primary School for allowing us to run Seeing Stars there and for the hot drinks and biscuits!

Girl Guides & Wednesday Event

Last night I went along to the girl guides to run a session on white-tailed eagles and wildlife watching. Hopefully I’ve sparked an interest among some of the girls to work towards a few badges and to develop a new hobby!

We covered the timeline of white-tailed eagles and some of the other species we lost like Beavers and Lynx and talked about the reintroduction of the eagles and the beaver.  Some of them were keen on the idea of a wolf reintroduction too!

Working with the girl guides

Working with the girl guides

We had a look at some online apps you can use now to help with wildlife watching – less boring than the guide books and you have the added benefit of sounds and calls at the touch of a button. These apps are available for everyone on a smartphone or a tablet and most are free. Great to help ID something out in the field. The iRecord butterflies app and mammal tracker apps are really good too, allowing you to submit a sighting record and help out with conservation too.

The girls had a try with a telescope and binoculars, something that could be important if they take the interest further. Binoculars are a wildlife watchers best friend and come in a range of prices and qualities too – my first ever pair were probably not even £10!

Getting our younger generations involved and interested in the natural world is so important and even more apt when we live on a spectacular island like Mull. We’re spoilt with stunning scenery and amazing species.

EVENT! Wednesday 10th September

Seeing Stars
Seeing Stars

Seeing Stars – 7.30pm – 9pm school group                                                                             9pm-10.30pm everyone else!
Meeting at Ulva Ferry School, come along to enjoy a night of stargazing, learning about constellations, aurora alerts and more.
No need to book but call or text me on 07540792650 for more info!