Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Aurora borealis in Dumfries-shire

My bat survey this evening ended in the most incredible way as I watched in amazement the flickering aurora borealis or Northern Lights from the top of a hill in Dumfries-shire. By lucky chance my work this evening had brought me to a high vantage point in the north, miles from the nearest habitation, with vast wide open views and completely free from light polution, in otherwords just about as good as it could possibly get for seeing this wonderful display.

The sky was black and full of stars, the kind of sky you just never see in a town or city. I was looking up admiring the stars, and ironically I didn't even know there was likely to be an aurora display tonight until I saw it. There was a huge arc across the sky which looked like pale green cloud, but as I watched it flickered and parts of it went out until eventually it was completely gone and the sky was black again. Suddenly another cloud formed as quickly as the first had vanished and I realised then that I was looking at the aurora.

I looked to the north and there was a pale green haze on the horizon with what looked like a flickering spotlight pointing vertically up.  A single dead straight beam of light appearing to shine up into the sky and terminating in what looked like small clouds of dust right above me, which danced across the sky and then disappeared. Then more spotlights appeared and they moved across the horizon and occasionally the intensity would diffuse and the beams would merge, only to split again, moving from right to left across the horizon and then back again, like some giant  distant rock concert which covered most of south west Scotland, while all of the time overhead the clouds of dust danced across the sky. Sometimes there were so many of these clouds that they covered half of the sky, at other times they looked like an airplane trail, the kind you see when the airplane has long passed and the trail has begun to dissipate, but it moved and wriggled like a giant snake across the heavens, and then it would split and the trail would begin to disappear and then in a second it was gone, and the sky was black again, except for the stars. I can't say that I saw the deep colours which some people have reported, just pale greens for me, but then I am partially colour blind so that doesn't help! An awesome experience!

Sitting on top of that hill, I couldn't help but think what a great descision it was to change careers a few years back. My office this evening was south west Scotland with the dark skies of Dumfries-shire lit by the aurora borealis, and soprano pipistrelle bats flying around me, and thousands of geese just a few miles away on the saltmarsh.....

Earlier I had called in again at Caerlaverock WWT in the hope that there might be a few more barnacle geese back by now. I noted yesterday that there had been a snow goose reported flying over with barnacles, but apparently not seen again, and I hoped to connect with this bird as well, though I did have my doubts, since there are at least a couple of leucistic (white) barnacles in the area which could easily be mistaken for a snow goose by inexperienced observers.

There were several thousand barnacles spread across the  saltmarsh, but by luck, right in front of the hide was the snow goose with about 1000 barnacles. While I watched, more and more barnacles dropped out of the sky and landed on the saltmarsh, and it really did feel like these might be new arrivals all the way from Svalbard. Of interest, the entire population of Svalbard barnacle geese over winters on the Solway, whilst the barnacles which spend the winter elsewhere in the UK, notably the Hebrides are from Greenland and these do not winter on the Solway. This perhaps casts some doubt on the origins of the snow goose which would be more likely to arrive with Greenland barnacles.

Year: 260 (Snow goose)

I love seeing snow geese with wild flocks like this, I find them really exciting birds, probably because one of the first rarities I ever saw was a snow goose with a huge pink-foot flock at Martin Mere when I was a kid. Easy enough to see straight away that it's not a leucistic barnacle, notice the monsterous pink bill compared to the dainty bill of the barnacles, the pure white plumage and the black primaries. There was a leucistic barnacle in the next field but too far for photography.

The bittern is still showing very well, though I had to be content with distant views today. I like this photo though!

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