On the wild side

APRIL 25 is St Mark’s Day but it was not until May 4 that I noticed the first St Mark’s flies.

Swarms of males appeared to hang in the air with their long, hairy legs dangling beneath them. They chose the rank vegetation between lowland woods and the river near Tweedbank and Galashiels to conduct a courtship ritual – to attract the females waiting on the ground below. With cool wet conditions persisting there were few good ‘butterfly days’ and counts were low. Orange tips, green-veined whites and small whites were the usual species seen. Small tortoiseshells and peacocks were scarce.

Years of searching came to an end in May when I discovered my first rustyback fern (Ceterach officinarum) between eastern Berwickshire and the extreme SW of Roxburghshire. It was smaller than expected but no less interesting. The lone evergreen plant was on the side of a stone wall and consisted of a tuft of fronds with greatly exaggerated lobes. The underside of each leaf was encrusted with rust-coloured scales. I understand that this fern was once used to treat patients who were suffering from disorders of the liver or spleen. Distribution maps show it to be fairly common in parts of the south and west of Britain but little known in the north.

There are many members of the borage family in our area, including forget-me-not and bugloss, both renowned for their distinctive blue colours. Bugloss has wavy-edged coarsely hairy leaves and the vivid blue flowers occur in forked clusters. It was first seen on May 5 within an arable field near the Ednam monument to James Thomson (of ‘Rule Britannia’ fame). Two species of comfrey abound beside roads, waste ground and particularly on riverbanks. The tuberous species has creamy-coloured flowers and the Russian species has blue/purple flowers. These two aliens pose a threat to native species but have the virtue of attracting bumblebees.

Little grebes were amongst the sightings on small ponds at Easter Softlaw near Kelso on May 1 and near Carfraemill on the 9th. Feral greylag geese often remain to breed within the Borders whilst their wild relatives return to nest in Iceland. I came upon the first goslings of the year at wetland haunts along Kelhope Burn on May 9, saw more beside the Tweed while the largest number of family groups were gathered at the Watch Reservoir on May 24. Canada geese with young were also making use of these last two sites. I witnessed a female Canada leading a long, evenly spaced line of ten tiny yellow goslings across the shimmering surface of a sheltered Watch Water inlet. Local studies have confirmed that tufted duck are in decline whilst goosanders fare better.

As I passed the nesting site of an osprey on May 15, one of the pair flew low with aggressive carrion crows in attendance. Another was mobbed by oystercatchers when it visited Hen Poo, Duns, on May 23. In the Lammermuir Hills on the 24th I spotted an osprey sitting motionless on a post. A short-eared owl appeared and flew directly towards the perched raptor, lunging at it several times. The owl was a big, powerful bird yet the osprey merely responded by ducking its head a little. A little later the osprey made a half-hearted attempt to fish and came under attack from an oystercatcher and a lapwing.

Red grouse were plentiful in the Longformacus area, mostly amongst the heather. Adult lapwings kept close to their wobbly-legged young whilst snipe continued with their ‘chipping ‘ and drumming over Lauder Common and beside Watch Water. These upland habitats are the summering grounds for curlews, redshank and common sandpipers.