Highland Diary

The last of the summer

  • September 24, 2016
Ruff with Black-tailed Godwit, 1st autumn plumage

Ruff with Black-tailed Godwit, 1st autumn plumage


Small flocks of wading birds returning to our shores are a sure sign that summer is almost gone. After what seems a like an all too brief sojourn in the far north by late July many waders have bred and are already making their way south. A few adults return still with the vestiges of their often showy breeding plumage but more often it is the young of the year making their first journey south that we see along our northern shores. Unable to build up such large fat reserves as the adults they have more need to stop off to feed on the journey south. Many have probably never encountered humans before. They can be relatively confiding and approachable with a camera. Occasionally migrants from further afield turn up. A White-rumped Sandpiper that spent some time close to the city of Aberdeen should have taken a route from northern Canada due south down to its wintering quarters in South America but ended off course on the wrong side of the Atlantic.


Late in the season male Bumblebees can present something of a problem to identify as they can be much more variable in appearance than the queens and workers that we see earlier in the season. Once the queens have mated and gone into hibernation the males seem to slow down and spend time nectaring on the last of the flowers. For a couple of weeks in September up to forty White-tailed males kept station on the iceplants in my garden. Presumably they hang on in the hope that an unmated queen might still turn up. Males of the white-tailed group cannot be separately identified in the field. Given that any queens that I encountered on the same plants a little earlier were of Cryptic Bumblebee type I assume that most if not all were of that ilk. The rather similar looking Broken-belted Bumblebee is associated with heather moorland. Early in their season the queens and workers are difficult and frustrating insects to identify and to photograph. A stealthy approach to a feeding bee usually results in it flying up in your face buzzing round your head a few times before it makes a speedy exit over the hill. On a cool morning it was a complete contrast to encounter a male that not only allowed close examination but showed no intention, even after twenty minutes, of moving on from the Devil’s bit Scabious head on which he was slowly feeding. The broken yellow band on the abdomen is very difficult to see in the field and is not always a reliable identification feature as worn specimens of white-tailed bumblebees often exhibit a broken band. What is usually apparent is the yellow hair at the sides of the abdominal band extending forward to the top of the abdomen and also the collar on the thorax is a pale lemon yellow. It is not nearly as dark as the collar in other similar bumblebees. There is also often a mixture of peach coloured hairs in the white of the tail, often appearing as a band towards the upper edge. The peach colour on the male photographed was particularly strong making field identification less difficult.