Serenity, storms and seasonal celebrations: why winter on Rathlin is super cool

It was already spring when we arrived on the island last year, so we’ve just experienced our first Rathlin winter. Out at the west (or the thick end as it’s traditionally known) we’ve had the place pretty much to ourselves and it’s been a wonderfully interesting contrast to the busy visitor season. It’s left us wondering why more people don’t come to visit Rathlin in the winter, and hopefully in this post you’ll see there’s plenty of reasons why you should.

Though lacking the colourful wildflowers of spring and summer, the landscape of Rathlin is certainly no less beautiful over the winter.  In fact, in many ways the low angle of the sun makes it more so, with sunny days bringing a golden glow throughout the day. The cold, crisp air brings startling clarity to the scenic views, and we’ve seen across to Islay, to Ailsa Craig, even to the coast of Ayrshire, far more clearly than during the warmer months.

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Looking across to Church Bay from Kinramer, with views extending to the Mull of Kintyre, Sanday Island and Ailsa Craig in the distance.

We’ve had just as many spectacular sunrises and sunsets as in the summer, with the added bonus that the crack of dawn occurs at a much more leisurely hour. Here with our clear views to the horizon, it’s easy to notice how the location of the rising and setting sun changes markedly with the season, contracting southwards until the winter solstice.

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These sunrise snaps were taken at approximately monthly intervals from the same location, looking across to the lighthouse at Rue Point and Tor Head beyond that. The top picture, taken on 11th December, shows the sun rising behind Tor Head. By 6th January (bottom left) the sun was rising just east of Tor Head, and a lot further east by 7th Feb (bottom right).

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Waves crashing on the shore at the west end of the island

Of course it’s not all golden sunshine over the winter. Rathlin’s rugged shores get battered by wild storms, but listening to the gales blowing outside while being safely tucked up inside a cosy cottage is one of the romantic island experiences. And Rathlin is well adapted to surviving any meteorological onslaught – many times we ventured out the morning after a big blow and were surprised to find almost no damage or other evidence of the wild weather.

 

Being an offshore island, Rathlin is relatively well protected from extreme cold. Snow or hail from the odd wintry shower doesn’t stick around for long. But the isolation does throw up a few other challenges to deal with. Rathlin doesn’t have the luxury of a road gritting service in icy conditions, so when ice does form it can make driving around the island difficult, particularly up or down the steep hills. We try to avoid driving if it’s icy, but twice this winter we’ve been caught out and been unable to drive uphill, abandoning our car to walk (or slide) the rest of the way home.

Ice isn’t the only thing making it hard to drive – the potholes in the roads have steadily got worse over the winter, and in January we made the front page of the local paper, the Ballycastle Chronicle, with our picture of disgruntled road users.

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Donkey disapproval: Rathlin’s roads making a front page splash

The worst of the winter weather came in early March, when actually it was meteorological spring, but a minor technicality like that wasn’t going to hold back ‘the beast from the east’. The severe wind chill from the frigid air blasting in from the east created some truly phenomenal ice formations on Rathlin’s loughs and cliff waterfalls.

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Frosty fleeces and frozen tongues: animals on Rathlin toughing it out during a cold snap

So, a winter visit provides plenty of opportunities to see Rathlin in a different light. There’s also been many fun events bringing the community together. The Christmas period was busy, first with the island’s choir, Rathlin Sound, performing at the switching on of the Christmas lights.

That was followed by the school Christmas play, in which the eight pupils of Rathlin’s St Mary’s Primary School played to a packed hall and put on an entertaining performance, each of them playing multiple parts. There were energetic activities to see out the year, with a 5km fun run on New Year’s Eve, before rousing choruses of Auld Lang Syne in McCuaig’s Bar at midnight. The next morning, Rathlin’s hardiest souls took to the harbour for a brief but bracing New Year’s Day swim.

And what about the birding action? Well, while midwinter is often thought of as the quiet part of the birding year, it is certainly not without interest. Despite the short daylight hours and sometimes difficult weather conditions, we found it an interesting and rewarding time to be out and about on Rathlin, particularly for the species that are winter visitors.

While many people assume that the summer is the only time to see seabirds on Rathlin, that is not really true. Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars can easily be seen offshore throughout the year, especially from the Rathlin ferry. In the shelter of the harbour, Black Guillemots can usually be found bobbing around even in winter, although at this time they are in their non-breeding plumage and mostly white. One very special winter seabird to look out for is the Little Auk, which breeds in the high Arctic but sometimes occurs in our waters during the winter months. It is most often encountered during periods of westerly gales, and this was the case on the two occasions we had brief glimpses of this starling-sized seabird fluttering over the pounding waves close to shore.

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Little Auk fluttering past Rue Point on 20th January 2018

From late December onwards, large numbers of Fulmars could be seen occupying their territories on the high cliffs. They are the earliest of the seabirds to return after leaving in early September at the end of the breeding season. By January the cliffs were busier than we’d ever seen it in the summer, with swarms of Fulmars swooping around aerobatically in strong winds.

Less predictable are the Common Guillemots, which this year began returning to the cliffs in early February. Walking out to the West Light one fine morning, it was a thrill to discover the cliffs and stacks, having been completely empty of auks since early August, suddenly covered with tens of thousands of rowdy guillemots. They must start piling onto the cliffs well before dawn, then they may stay ashore for only a few hours before they all return to the sea.  Their visits usually coincide with calm weather, but they are mysterious creatures and it is difficult to predict when they will be on the cliffs. The guillemots’ comings and goings become increasingly frequent by early spring in the build up to nesting time.

Winter has been an excellent time for watching wildfowl on the island. Pochard and Goldeneye are winter visitors to the island’s freshwater loughs, which also hold plenty of Teal at this time of year, as well as occasionally other surprises like the two Goosanders that dropped in briefly this year.  Aside from the local Greylags, other geese pay sporadic visits to Rathlin, which this winter have included Barnacle, White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese (scarce in Northern Ireland). Families of Whooper Swans have also been present on the loughs, mainly in November when they were on the move. Offshore, there have usually been a few Great Northern Divers, which can be most easily spotted with a telescope from a high vantage point, like the lookout at Knockans.

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Swanning about: Whooper Swans on Kebble Lough on 3rd November 2017

There are several other species that are winter specialities. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are occasionally seen among the much more numerous Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. We’ve seen perhaps seven different Glaucous Gull individuals visiting Rathlin this winter, based on age and plumage characteristics.

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Adult Glaucous Gull at Rue Point on 20th January 2018

Woodcocks are not uncommon, particularly in Kinramer Wood where a few seem to spend the winter. While we did see birds flying out to feed once or twice at dusk, most of our Woodcock views were of birds flushed by chance, noisily exploding into flight practically from under our feet. Common Snipe are numerous in marshy areas and, in a period of very cold weather we were lucky enough to find a Jack Snipe.

Raptor lovers won’t be disappointed either, with good views of resident Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, and Sparrowhawks throughout the winter. To spice things up, there’s always a decent chance of Hen Harriers, Merlins and Kestrels (quite a rare sight in Rathlin).

We are yet to see an eagle here on Rathlin but with numerous records of Golden and White-tailed Eagles in recent years we live in hope. Perhaps the most likely time for them to show up is March/April so watch this space.

We’ve loved winter on Rathlin. But that’s not to say we’re not looking forward to things warming up a bit, migrants arriving and the seabirds returning to nest again in the coming weeks. Bring on the spring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On the case: investigating the mermaid’s purses of Rathlin

During our beachcombing adventures along Rathlin’s shore in January and February, we’ve found quite a few shiny hollow capsules which we recognise as ‘mermaid’s purses’ – the eggcases of a shark or skate. Rathlin islanders also know these as ‘crowbie’s purses’, crowbie being a local name for the Raven.

On finding our first mermaid’s purse, we followed the instructions in our beachcombing bible to soak the capsule in water to rehydrate it before trying to identify the species. It grew quite considerably in size, with the capsule length reaching just under 6cm. The book indicated our eggcase belonged to a Spotted Ray, which is widespread in the north-east Atlantic.

We were able to confirm this using a fantastic eggcase identification key provided by the Shark Trust. We were super impressed with the information and resources available from the Shark Trust’s website, which has a dazzling range of beautifully produced species factsheets – a great way to start getting to know these enigmatic elasmobranchs.

For landlubbers like us, sharks and other denizens of the deep are rarely encountered and little known, living out of sight and mind in their own secret domain. Eggcases washing up on the beach are a good reminder of these animals living in the waters that surround us. Indeed, sightings of mermaid’s purses from beaches all over the country can be submitted to The Great Eggcase Hunt to help to build up a clearer picture of the distribution and abundance of our oviparous sharks and skates.

Armed and encouraged with all the information we had found about eggcases, we were soon back on the beaches of Rathlin and searching for more. At the end of February, in just a couple of beachcombing sessions we were thrilled to find 12 mermaid’s purses belonging to four different species. It must be hatching time for little sharks!

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Eggcases from the four species we have found on Rathlin so far: Thornback Ray (A), Spotted Ray (B), Small-spotted Catshark (C) and Blonde Ray (D)

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Eggcases from the Small-spotted Catshark can vary in colour. The one on the left has been rehydrated.

The most abundant eggcases we found were the small, elongated ones with long twisty tendrils at the ends. These are made by the Small-spotted Catshark, and the tendrils serve to tether the eggcase in position on the sea floor.

This species is also commonly known as a dogfish, and we can’t help finding it slightly ridiculous that a catshark and a dogfish are exactly the same thing!

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Spotted Ray eggcase

The second commonest eggcase type belonged to the Spotted Ray (which, taxonomically speaking, is really a skate rather than a ray  – true rays don’t lay eggs), the same as our first specimen.

We’ve found four of these so far, on beaches in different parts of the island.

 

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Thornback Ray eggcase

Then came two others that were different. Similar to a Spotted Ray eggcase, but slightly larger and with a broad, flattened keel along the edges, was this specimen belonging to a Thornback Ray (again, not really a ray). We were excited to see this one as we had previously found the remains of a Thornback Ray on one of Rathlin’s beaches.

And finally, we found one absolute whopper..

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Blonde Ray eggcase

This eggcase is made by the Blonde Ray (yes, once again, really a skate), and is much bigger than the Thornback Ray eggcase which it otherwise resembles.

Sadly, many species of shark, skate and ray are declining alarmingly in European waters and around the world. Two of the species whose eggcases we found on Rathlin – the Thornback Ray and Blonde Ray – are now classified as near threatened. Finding and reporting eggcases washed up on the beach is one way of adding to our knowledge of where these creatures breed, which may help the efforts to conserve them. So if you are lucky enough to come across a mermaid’s purse, make use of the excellent online resources to identify it, and don’t forget to submit your find to The Great Eggcase Hunt.

 

#WashedUpOnRathlin: a littoral interpretation of the secrets of Rathlin’s shore

This winter, the environmental emergency of plastic in our oceans (and everywhere else) has been getting more attention than ever before. Here on Rathlin, like any coastal community, we’re acutely aware of the rubbish that washes up onto our scenic beaches with every tide. Almost all of that rubbish is plastic, and we’ve discovered plenty of surprises along our sandy and rocky shorelines. In this post we’ll take a look at some of our most interesting finds so far, and also how we’ve been turning them into a big work of art!

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Trash or treasure? Turning beach litter into a work of art

On Rathlin recently we’ve found everyday plastic items that are decades old. These remind us that, unless we do something about it, every plastic item will continue to blight our beaches for decades or centuries to come.

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This Spanish ketchup bottle appears to have a best before date of January 1987, making it at least 31 years old at the time of finding in December 2017. Another old item was a bottle of antibacterial hand soap, ironically labelled as ‘marine fragrance’, and with a best before date of 2003.  We can probably assume a long shelf life for soap but in any case this must be at least 15 years old.

We’ve found items from countries all over the world, and these make us think of how the oceans connect us all, and that our plastic pollution can, and does, reach every corner of our planet – from the middle of the Arctic Ocean to the stomachs of fauna living in the deepest ocean trenches. We wonder about the pelagic journeys these items have been on, how they came to find themselves upon the shores of Rathlin, and how they found their way into the sea in the first place. This map shows the countries of origin of beach litter found on Rathlin so far.

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Clockwise from top left: message in a bottle from Portrush, laundry liquid from Canada, sweetcorn in Spanish packaging, bleach from Turkey, toothpaste from Japan. We’ve also found medication from South Africa, deodorant from Russia, and caffeine pills from the USA, among other things from overseas.

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An immature Shag trails a tangle of fishing line that threatens its survival, seen just offshore from Rathlin Island on 8th May 2017.

The evidence for plastic pollution impacting on marine wildlife is growing, ranging from potentially benign incorporation of plastic materials into seabird nests, to deadly ingestion of plastic particles, or catastrophic entanglement with discarded fishing gear or other items. A recent study of beached Northern Fulmars found almost all had plastic in their stomachs, as these birds, like many other seabirds and other marine animals, can easily make the fatal error of mistaking plastic debris for food. This winter we have found several dead seabirds along Rathlin’s shore – no more than we might have expected, since all seabirds face harsh conditions and misfortune in their lives out at sea – but more and more we wonder how many of these seabird deaths might be due to ocean plastic.

Thanks to a wonderful book by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher called The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline, a fascinating fieldguide to many of the natural and human-made objects that can be encountered on UK beaches, we’ve learned a lot about things we’ve found on the shores of Rathlin. We now recognise many objects that are detritus from the fishing industry, like components of traps used to catch lobsters and crabs, or hooks shaped like a number two (not that sort of number two) sold for attaching to oyster bags , or other equipment frequently used on fishing vessels. These items can easily be cast adrift into the marine environment, either accidentally, or deliberately thrown into the deep at the end of their useful life.

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We’ve frequently found fishing-related items on the beach, including floats, rope, hooks, toggles, lobster tags and fish-sorting devices.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the paraphernalia of the fishing industry makes its way into our oceans to litter our beaches. But we have encountered some other weird and wonderful things that were completely unexpected to find #WashedUpOnRathlin.

First came a doll baby, which we originally found – somewhat frighteningly – lying face-down and naked, with scurvygrass threatening to overgrow it.

We’ve found toys quite frequently, including a nice horse that has lost its rider, and a cheeky piece of a doll that has lost almost everything.


Then came a creepy plastic finger, curved in a beckoning gesture, with a flattened end that we initially thought must be for attaching to a wall as a novelty hook. Thanks to super sleuth Jessica Bates, we’ve realised this detached digit is designed for training in nail art, as you can see here (and possibly then see again in your nightmares).

Next we found a sachet of emergency drinking water, manuractured in Norway in 2010, with an expiry date of 2015. The fact that it is ‘out of date’ most likely explains why it became beach litter, unless it has a much more adventurous story behind it.

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Emergency drinking water sachet, still intact and most likely still potable – but we didn’t sample it

Another set of items that has intrigued us are blue plastic bullets. Every time we visit Rue Point we find them along the strand line, so far up to five on a visit. We think they are ‘training’ bullets – Patrone AM32, 7.62mm × 51, DM18A1B1, Übung (“Practice”)

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Why do plastic bullets keep washing up at Rue Point? We have now collected at least 13 of these.

Of course, unusual things must have been washing up on Rathlin’s beaches since forever. Islanders Alison and Liam McFaul told us a whale of a tale about spotting what they thought was the dark shape of a stranded cetacean on the beach one day while offshore in a boat. When back ashore they approached to investigate, and as they got nearer they became more and convinced that it really was a dead whale. It was only when they got up close that they realised they had been fooled by an inflatable orca – presumably swept across from Ballycastle or a nearby beach but who knows!

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There are some interesting records of whales washing up on Rathlin , but this one was something special! Thanks to Alison McFaul for this photo.

(Re-watching Father Ted recently, we realised this inflatable orca is very similar to the one the Fathers pack in their trailer to take on holiday!)

We quickly became addicted to beachcombing on Rathlin. We began to collect the most interesting items – the quirky things, objects from other countries, things that were colourful and had pleasing shape – and started to display them in the nooks and crannies of the dry stone wall outside our cottage so that other people could see them too.   The more we looked on the beaches, the more interesting items we found, and our collection quickly grew into an absorbing new hobby that was part art project, part environmental action. The more we added to the wall, the more eye-catching it became and we enjoyed the playful incongruity of bright plastic among the dark grey basalt of the wall stones, completely out of place, as of course they are on the beach.

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A literal littoral litter wall! This plastic fantastic is at the Camping Barn, on the inside of the wall facing the cottage. Pop in for a look, or even bring along your own piece of Rathlin beach treasure to add!

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Why on earth are tampon applicators made of plastic now? There are non-plastic alternatives, or go a million times better and switch to a reusable cup such as this.

We hope the absurdity of some of the items, and our growing collection as a whole, gently provokes outrage that our oceans have become a giant dumping ground for all of this rubbish. Each item tells a story, about the interactions we have with our environment, and the impacts of those interactions that we might otherwise not see. And more than that, each item displayed in the wall represents so many more items of rubbish that persist in our oceans.

Taking inspiration from the #2minutebeachclean movement, each time we go beachcombing, we take a binbag to fill with rubbish and remove it from the beach. This is a small but manageable effort, and it is ultimately rewarding –  we know there will always be so much more rubbish left on the beach, and more arriving on each tide, but each bag we collect is one removed forever from our precious marine environment. As we hope we’ve shown, beachcombing is also incredibly interesting, educational and satisfying, and we’d encourage everyone to join the #2minutebeachclean movement on each visit. Happy beachcombing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twit-twoodunnit? The curious case of the silent feathers*

On 6th February we stumbled upon an avian crime scene. Piles of feathers lying on the ground close to Kinramer Wood indicated that an unlucky bird – and clearly quite a large one – had recently met a sticky end here. We tried to examine the feathers from the road using binoculars. A goose, perhaps? No, that wasn’t right. So who was the victim, and what had happened to them? We went in closer for a stickybeak…

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Evidence at the scene. Left: two large piles of feathers on the grass. Right: a closer view.

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The velvety texture of the wing feathers

When we got closer, we could see lots of large wing feathers, orange, grey and white with bold black bars. In addition, these feathers were incredibly soft, with a fine downy texture. Immediately we knew they had to belong to an owl, and from the size and distinctive markings, it didn’t take long to conclude that they had to be from a Long-eared Owl, one of Rathlin’s most secretive residents.

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This clump of material contains the sharp, pointed front teeth of a mouse.

Mingled with the feathers, we found another piece of evidence – the tail and teeth of a mouse, which we can only assume the bird had been holding or eating when it died.

We gathered up the feathers (and the bits of mouse) and took them home for closer study.

Intriguingly, we found that these remains included an almost complete set of beautiful flight feathers from the left wing, but very few from the right wing. There was an assortment of fluffy body feathers, but not a single tail feather.  Not to mention the almost complete absence of any other parts of the unfortunate owl.

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We found nine out of ten primary feathers from the left wing of a Long-eared Owl. Only the outermost primary is missing.

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The comb-shaped fimbriae reduce air turbulence, and thereby noise, at the front edge of the flying owl’s wing.

Owl feathers really are worth a close look. One unique feature is this intricate barb structure along the outer web of the outermost couple of primaries. These feathers form the leading edge of the wing when the bird is in flight, and the distinctive saw-tooth shapes (technically known as fimbriae) along the front edge muffles the noise of the air rushing over the wing, allowing the bird to approach its prey silently. Another sound-muffling adaptation is the soft fringing on the trailing edge of the feather. These features and how they reduce noise are described in detail in this paper by Pulkit Sagar et al.

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The soft fringe on the trailing edge of each wing feather also help an owl fly silently

LEO feathers ageingWhat else can we tell from these feathers? Well, based on a fantastic information sheet by Javier Blasco-Zumeta & Gerd-Michael Heinze (available here), we think we can fairly confidently determine the bird’s gender and age:

  • The large pale area on the inner web of each secondary is plain white (A). This makes it a male, as females would have darker buff colouring in this area.
  • The pattern of barring on all these feathers is quite sparse, with just four strong black bars per feather (B), and the outermost bar is set well back from the feather tip (C). This tells us that the bird was an adult; i.e. at least three years old.

So, it’s an adult male Long-eared Owl, but how did it die, and why was most of one wing and a pile of body feathers left behind at the scene?

Our suspicions turned immediately to Ferrets, the feared feral foe of much of Rathlin’s wildlife. These non-native mustelids are ferocious predators of ground-nesting birds and many other animals, and consequently a huge conservation issue on Rathlin. Perhaps the owl had pounced on a mouse, and in the process of eating that was itself pounced upon by a fortuitous ferret. But the other evidence didn’t seem quite right for a ferret kill. The bird had clearly been plucked, and that would be more typical behaviour of a bird of prey.

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Predators of Long-eared Owls, and the number of records for each predator. Species occurring on Rathlin are in bold. Adapted from Mikkola (1976).

But would any birds of prey kill a Long-eared Owl, itself a top predator? We managed to dig up this eye-opening paper by Heimo Mikkola, who gathered together records of owls preying upon, and being preyed upon, by other owls and raptors. One of the findings was that, of all European birds of prey, the Long-eared Owl is by far most frequently preyed upon by other birds (46% of the 934 records, see table). Its main enemies are Northern Goshawks and European Eagle Owls, which we certainly don’t have here on Rathlin, but it has also been known to fall prey to Common Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons and even (on just a couple of occasions) Common Sparrowhawks, all of which do live here. From the data in that paper, the buzzard is the most likely of these three raptors to eat a Long-eared Owl, but it would still be a fairly rare occurrence.

One final theory is that the owl injured itself, perhaps by colliding with overhead power lines during the night, and was then found, plucked and carried away by a scavenger. This is possibly the most likely scenario – there were overhead wires nearby, and there are lots of Hooded Crows, Common Ravens and Common Buzzards around to take advantage of such a mishap.

We’ll never know for sure what happened to this bird. It is always a thrill to catch a glimpse of a live Long-eared Owl, but even finding these few remains was exciting. It gave us a rare opportunity to study its beautiful plumage, take a close look at its unique adaptations, and to learn more about one of Rathlin’s most elusive inhabitants.

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Boo!

*Ok, we know Long-eared Owls don’t really go twit twoo (that’s Tawny Owls), but this was the punniest title we could think of.

Hello halo!

IMG_4463The night of 29th January was a chilly one on Rathlin, but the moon was shining brightly and almost full. We happened to look up to admire the night sky, and noticed a big ring of white light around the moon.

It was a 22 degree halo, which occurs due to the refraction of light in small hexagonal ice crystals high in the atmosphere. The 22 degrees refers to the radius of the ring.

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Actually there were two rings around the moon at the time – the 22 degree halo and also the corona, which circles the moon more closely, and which we observed as a ring of orangey-red colour showing against the thin cloud surrounding the moon.  The corona differs from the 22 degree halo in being the result of refraction of light in water droplets or ice crystals of a larger size.

We’d seen the solar version of this phenomenon before, both on Rathlin and in Kamchatka, as shown in the photo below.

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22 degree halo around the sun

Splitting Hares: getting to know Rathlin’s intriguing leporids

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As evening approaches, quietly grazing mammals hop cautiously out into the meadows of Rathlin, their long ears, twitchy noses and large hind feet identifying them as leporids – members of the rabbit family, Leporidae. The island has both European Rabbits and Irish Hares and, although neither is truly native to Rathlin, this is a good place to compare the two species side by side. Not only that, but the island is home to the mysterious and beautiful ‘Golden Hare’, a rare genetic variant of the Irish Hare that is unique to Rathlin.

European Rabbit

Originally native only to Iberia and northwest Africa, European Rabbits were brought to Britain and Ireland by the Romans and they soon proliferated as only rabbits can. They have since been introduced to many other parts of the world where they have generally made a serious pest of themselves with their tunnelling, grazing and phenomenal fecundity.

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An adult European Rabbit with a kit, showing the characteristic rusty-coloured patch on the back of its neck.

Rabbits were brought to Rathlin sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Past outbreaks of myxomatosis have kept the population in check, and they are a common prey of the local Buzzards. The introduction of ferrets to Rathlin in the 1980s was intended to control the rabbit numbers but, while these rapacious predators undoubtedly do prey on many rabbits here, they also indiscriminately kill other animals and are disastrous for the island’s native wildlife, particularly burrowing and ground-nesting species like the Atlantic Puffin, Manx Shearwater and Northern Lapwing.

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European Rabbit keeping a low profile

 

Irish Hare

The Irish Hare is a subspecies of the Mountain Hare, which occurs naturally right across a vast area of northern Europe and Asia. Unlike the Mountain Hares in other countries, the Irish Hares do not turn white in winter and remain largely gingery brown, with just a white tail and underparts, all year.

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Apparently, the collective noun for a group of hares is a ‘drove’. Gatherings of grazing hares, with their quiet, alert mannerisms, remind us of wallabies (with which they share a similar ecology).

Irish Hares are much larger and more striking animals than the rabbits, with longer ears and longer hind legs giving them a lankier appearance. They also have a richer gingery coat and black tips to their ears. Hares can look beautifully elegant and stately, but they often come across as amusingly gangly and dorky when they burst startled from the undergrowth. Unlike Rabbits, Hares don’t make burrows, living instead in a small depression in the ground, usually hidden in vegetation. The proper name for this depression is a ‘form’, but we like to call it the hare’s lair.

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Irish Hares doing what they do on Rathlin

According to Philip Watson’s book Rathlin Nature and Folklore (a fascinating and highly readable introduction to the island’s natural history), Irish Hares were first brought to the Rathlin for sport by about 1784, much earlier than the rabbits. A second introduction in the 1950s replenished the population which had by that time been wiped out by shooting for sport and for the pot. Currently, little shooting occurs on the island and the hares seem to be thriving here.

Rathlin Nature and Folklore also mentions old tales of Rathlin hares sucking the milk of cows. We have not yet observed this behaviour ourselves, but we’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for that!

 

Golden Hare

Among Rathlin’s population of Irish Hares, a small minority of animals have a very striking appearance. They have stunningly pale blonde fur all over and, when seen up close, bright blue eyes. ‘Normal’ Irish Hares can be quite variable in fur colour, but a true ‘Golden Hare’ is unmistakeable. To see one is a special thrill indeed. These highly distinctive Golden Hares only occur on Rathlin Island, and it’s most likely their insular separation that has given rise to this unique population.

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What a blonde bombshell!

When mammal populations become isolated on small islands, the low number of individuals creates a genetic ‘bottleneck’, which can result in reduced genetic diversity or distorted gene frequencies. Genes that were common in the original mainland population could happen to be rare or absent in the small sample of animals released on the island, while mutations that were rare in the wider population can find themselves disproportionately common within the small new community. This may explain how characteristics that are generally very rare, such as pigment deficiency (leucism), can be more prevalent among small and isolated populations. It’s likely that Rathlin’s Golden Hare arose in this way, perhaps facilitated by the relative lack of predators here.

There are multiple other cases of mammals on small islands having unusual colour forms. Check out the white wallabies on Bruny Island off Tasmania, or Alderney’s blonde hedgehogs. Or, at the other end of the pigmentation spectrum, there are large numbers of black European Rabbits on several Scottish Islands.

The first sighting of a Golden Hare was around the early 1970s, when islander Liam McFaul recalls noticing an unusual pale hare and, after creeping close enough, being surprised to see that it had blue eyes. He also recounts that, soon after this first encounter, the unfortunate animal was shot by a neighbour for dinner. Despite the demise of this individual, its blonde genes must already have become established among Rathlin’s Irish Hare population because the blue-eyed blondes popped up again in later generations and have been a noted feature of the island ever since.

Golden Hare collage

Haring around – blondes have more fun

We are greatly intrigued by Rathlin’s Golden Hares. Can they be male and female, or are they always of one gender? Do Golden Hares produce golden leverets? Several very close encounters with our local Golden Hare left us wondering if they have impaired vision, particularly as poor eyesight can be associated with pigment deficiencies. Are they otherwise weaker, more susceptible to disease, more likely to be caught by predators than the normal hares? Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any published studies of the Golden Hare, so we have no answers to these questions so far.

A visitor to the island who manages to see a genuine Golden Hare has been very lucky indeed, as there are never more than a handful of them in existence. In 2017 we knew of at least four, and perhaps five, different golden individuals on the island, but in some years it seems there are no more than one or two.

 

Silver Hare

Silver Hare

The ‘Silver Hare’

We were intrigued to see this lovely leporid lolloping around in 2017. It’s an Irish Hare, but it’s very different to all the other hares on the island. In fact, it looks very like a (non-Irish) Mountain Hare wearing its mostly white winter coat. Jokingly, we call it the Silver Hare. Presumably it is a mutant, another genetic anomaly of the sort that crops up so easily in isolated mammal populations.

We expect the Silver Hare is a one-off but, who knows? Perhaps it will breed successfully and give rise to a whole lineage of similar-looking Silver Hares, living here alongside its Golden cousins and all the other more traditional bronze-coloured ones – a full podium of Rathlin hares.

Curly wurly

Anyone for a Curly Wurly? We saw a lot more of this exhibitionist Hare than we were expecting!

A memorable seal meal

One evening last spring, we were out for a stroll along the scenic Kinramer permissive path, which always offers some of the most spectacular views of anywhere on Rathlin Island.  But the view we had that evening, taking a casual look over the cliff edge down to the ocean below, was certainly something we’d never seen before. Check this out:

Not only were we enthralled by the struggle between the hungry Grey Seal wrangling to get its dinner down, and the feisty fish valiantly fighting for its life, we were intrigued as to what species of fish that was.

Our first thought was that it was an eel, but after closer inspection of the video we weren’t sure – judging by the body colour, could it be a Ling? But the body was so long, so that didn’t seem right either. We posted the video on the local Facebook group for some help. That led to a lot of debate, but quite quickly we had an interesting answer that it was a Sea Lamprey (thanks Paul Graham!). We searched online for more information and found terrifying close-up images of their circular tooth-filled mouths, and pictures of lampreys latched onto other fish, rasping at their skin with those rows of teeth to feed on their blood.

Lamprey_anatomy

Lamprey anatomy By LadyofHats [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lampreys are primitive fish, and are distinct in having gill slits, like sharks and rays, rather than gills covered by an operculum, like bony fish.

We checked the video again, and yes –  at certain points you can clearly see the seven round gill openings. That was unmistakeable – it had to be a lamprey.

seal eel meal3

Seven gill openings clearly visible

What a surprise! And what a whopper! Imagine encountering that beast on a swim.

We’ve another interesting video of a seal meal, this time a big eel – https://youtu.be/Ee2qjwOHTjc