I’ve seen quite a few spectacular colours in the UK this year, but a couple of weeks ago they were all blown away by the magic machair. The year's floral bonanza started in March with the white snow of blackthorn blossom covering hedgerows. It was more white in May with verges dressed in cow parsley and hawthorn took over in the hedgerows. Summer fields of red common poppies were next, followed by downland painted purple with pyramidal and common spotted orchids and knapweed. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as a grand finale before autumn’s colours take over, I was exposed to one of nature’s finest displays of colour. This was a sight I had never seen before. And here it is...
The legendary Balranald in full bloom with great yellow bumblebees loving that red clover (Mark Ward)
Machair Grassland is a rare coastal habitat of low-lying grassland and shell sand unique to the north-western fringe of Europe. Over 90 per cent of the world’s machair is in Scotland and Ireland. The Gaelic word "machair" means an extensive, low-lying fertile plain. Machair supports an incredible array of wildlife, including a large percentage of the UK's corncrakes, the highest densities of breeding waders in the UK, a large number of rare invertebrates and many rare wildflowers.
If I was a sheep, I'd be pretty happy with that view - and the sun came out soon after! (Balranald by Mark Ward)
I was on North Uist with some of my colleagues from RSPB Scotland: Jess Barrett from the Media and Communications Team, Jamie Boyle, Site Manager for Balranald and Vallay and Dan Tomes Reserves Manager for North Scotland. I was there to learn about the incredible work going on there, which includes working closely with local crofters to ensure the traditional, low intensity crofting methods intrinsically linked to machair is encouraged and maintained.
I was blown away by the amount of wildlife and the enthusiasm of everyone involved in living and working here - the passion of everyone I met on North Uist was infectious. What a place! In fact it was so good, as was the other place I visited, Islay that my blogs for the next few weeks are going to be about the trip.
Bee is for Balranald Balranald is a place that I have longed to visit for a very long time. I have always fancied trying to catch the spectacular May passage of long-tailed ad pomarine skuas, but visiting in July gave me a chance to see the machair at its best and see one of the iconic species of the machair and another of my “most wanted”: the great yellow bumblebee. The Western Isles are one of its very few remaining strongholds.
Imagine this multiplied at a grand scale - red clover dominates in July and is fabulous for bees (Balranald by Mark Ward)
The day dawned grey and wet - very wet in fact. To be honest, it was raining cats and dogs and all thoughts of bumblebees were washed away. The local lads new the changeable weather though and promised that it would brighten up.
We took a walk around Aird an Runair Point (the skua spot!) where I could not take my eyes off the displays of red clover and corn marigold that stretched as far as the eye could see with dozens of other species mixed in. It was good to see the scarce Scot’s lovage on the rocks and some frog orchids in the dunes, as well as a flock of Arctic waders: Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone, singing corn buntings with their “jangling” song and Twite twittering around.
Scot's lovage - a "goodie" restricted to Scotland and growing here at Aird an Runair Point (Mark Ward)
As promised the grey gave way to pale grey then blue and suddenly it was warm. We headed back to a sheltered spot in the machair where it cast its magic spell on me again. Bumblebees suddenly appeared, quite a few of them including the gorgeously ginger moss carder bee, one of the new cryptic species of white-tailed bumblebee and yes, you’ve guessed it two or three big yellow ones! To see the great yellow bumblebee in such surroundings was truly special. Jamie had briefly heard a corncrake while we were in the dunes and by heading deeper into more wildflower-rich crofting land, we heard three, maybe four in a small area with the song of one ricocheting off a barn.
Later in the day, Jamie drove us out to another fantastic area of machair at Vallay where an impressive compass jellyfish was washed up. There were more special bees here and colours that just went on and on. I can't wait to come back and plans are already afoot for a holiday here. Maybe I'll see you there! There'll be much more on North Uist, and Islay, over the next few weeks so make sure you keep coming back on Mondays!
Plan your visitI hope you’ll start making your plans to visit next spring and summer. Start by taking a look at the RSPB website entries for Balranald and check out the "Extend your stay" links at the bottom left of the page.
I can’t remember a bank holiday weekend where I’ve seen more species of bird in finer weather. Heading to the North Norfolk coast was a superb last minute decision. It’s a part of the world I remember fondly from many childhood visits and holidays, and Titchwell – well, the beach if I’m honest – was a regular feature as my mum was an RSPB member.
It’s that time of year when you’re kind of half expecting some unexpected birds. After arriving at the ample Titchwell carpark we were thrilled to hear from the extremely friendly volunteer at the welcome desk that there had been some good sightings today already. Several birds, such as Sandwich terns, grey plovers and spoonbills I hadn’t see this year, and an Arctic skua had been sighted from the beach. After a quick cuppa from the pleasant café, we headed towards the beach intent on seeing as much as we could before we settled in the dunes and had a swim.
RSPB Titchwell Marsh comprises freshwater reedbeds, salt lagoons and a stunning sandy beach. With wheelchair accessible hides, a well-stocked shop and café, and big Norfolk skies, Titchwell has become extremely popular. It’s a nationally important reserve for avocets, and an internationally important reserve for other waders that winter there. A lot of work has been put into conserving the reserve's habitats and improving the site to ensure that everyone can come to Titchwell and enjoy the nature it protects.
RSPB Titchwell didn’t disappoint. We saw 17 species of wader on our hour-long walk to the beach, and saw many other spectacular birds such as the soaring and graceful marsh harrier. Here are some shots of my bird highlights, and some of those stunning views and endless skies.
The beach approach (Photo: Jack Plumb)
I love the little stumpy beaks ringed plovers have! (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Ekaterina Chernetsova)
Flying on the coast can get pretty tiring if you're a Sandwich tern... (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Sciadopitys)
A beak full of mud for this grey plover - hopefully whatever it ate was worth it (Photo: Flickr creative commons, Tony Sutton)
And now it's time for home (Photo: Jack Plumb)
This week, Direct Marketing Officer: Publications Emma Lacy guest blogs about what you can do in your garden to help pollinators, and yourself, get the most out flowers and the food they provide.
With summer drawing to a close we enter the height of pollinator season. But our bee, hoverfly and butterfly friends don’t stop feeding over autumn. As novice beekeepers, my partner and I have been working hard to make our garden a pollen and nectar haven year long. We also plant a lot of our garden based on things we can eat too, and even better, help feed birds as well. Based on what I’ve been learning I thought I’d share with you five plants that are edible to bees, birds and us into the autumn months.
The happy sunflower is a plant that brings a smile to my face and a hint of nostalgia too. This big headed flower is a must grow for any child, which is why we recently sent our family members a pack of seeds to grow their own sunflowers. These plants are also the king of the botanic world! Standing at up to 4m tall and with a flower bigger than your face it’s hard not to be impressed.
But the sunflower is so much more than just a competition with your family and friends (we’ve really enjoyed seeing your competition entries by the way). It’s also, unexpectedly for most, a great source of food for not only birds and bees, but for us too.
You can use nearly every part of the sunflower. The head of the flower can be cooked up like a Jerusalem artichoke, the petals and stork can be used in a salad, you can throw the seeds out for the birds, and just by the act of growing this royal specimen, you’re helping a wide range of pollinators get the food they need in the early autumn months.
(Photo: Flickr creative commons, Andy Hay)
Up there as one of my favourite smells of all time (beaten only by the smell of the tomato plant), various lavender species can be seen blooming into early autumn. Our recent honey harvest was filled with notes of lavender and buddleia and it makes for a lovely light treat. It’s clear that bees love these purple buds, but the seeds of the lavender flower also make a delicious lunch for our bird friends. You’ll also see butterflies and other pollinators making use of these hardy shrubs.
We too can get a huge amount of these spectacular plants, whether drying the lavender out for potpourri, using the flowers to decorate cakes, or extracting the essence for cosmetics and baking. Once the birds and the bees have had their fill, why not use what’s left in your kitchen?
(Photo: Flickr creative commons, Mary)
This beautiful and quirky climber looks great in a planter, and in baking. Yes the flowers are edible on these too, but don’t eat the berries as they are poisonous to humans. Birds, however, will munch these up, and apparently the occasional southern hawker will have a nibble too (see below).
Pollinators of honeysuckle include elephant hawk moths, honeybees and bumblebees. I really hope that we can get an elephant hawk moth on our plants soon as I’ve never seen one up close and they really are stunning.
(Photo: Flickr creative commons, Dun.can)
Our recent discovery of self-seeding lemon balm came as a pleasant surprise in the garden. We had already planted some at the front of our house as we heard it was great for our bees, but mowing the lawn we could suddenly smell a beautiful lemon scent. Confused by the smell I carried on pulling up what I assumed to be weeds, only for my partner to say “Can you smell lemon balm?” On closer inspection there were three small lemon balm plants. We attempted to save them, and one survived in a little pot. It’s now growing in abundance around the base of our beehive. The bees are buzzing for it.
It’s not only good for the bees though. Goldfinches love the seed produced by this fragrant mint species.
And, as this can become invasive, you can pick it and use it for your culinary and medicinal exploits without feeling bad. I myself will be popping it in some Pimms this weekend.
“Oooo! I think I’ve spotted some delicious lemon balm! Nom!” - Nigel Blake (rspb-images.com)
Another delicious treat for us! A broad bean salad is a summer favourite. But you might need to get to them before the birds do. Pigeons, sparrows and blackbirds seem to love these as much as I do.
The flowers also help out pollinators like honeybees and garden bees. Many bees’ proboscises aren’t long enough to pollinate broad bean flowers, so they may well cut a hole in the back and get to the nectar that way instead. This can be a nuisance but at least your feeding an important population.
(Photo: Flickr creative commons, Rob)
Thanks for reading, and a gentle reminder that if you planted your sunflowers, be sure to enter the competition by submitting a photo of you standing next to the tallest and what it measures. You can send your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org or upload them to Wild Challenge by going to www.rspb.org.uk/sunflowers. You can also find the terms and conditions there too.
Enjoy the rest of summer!