Category Archives: natural history


8:30 AM, January in Aberdeen: the brightest stars are still clearly visible, the eastern sky red and black with long strings of clouds torn to tatters from their long journey from the Atlantic, across the Cairngorms, to the cold North Sea. It’s unusually warm this morning, 5°, and I stood out back with a steaming cup watching the birds. There are no surprises this far north—there simply isn’t enough diversity for there to be anything unexpected. Once one’s eyes have learned to distinguish rooks from crows, greater seagulls from common, dunnets from sparrows—well, that’s about it. The vagrants really stand out, and most species are recognizable from their outlines.

After a few months back in North America, the sheer paucity of life in northeast Scotland really shocked me. Toronto was a brutally vibrant human place; all the dogs were purebreds and it was hours on the bus out of town before one shook free the infectious tendrils of housing tracts. But in the markets and back gardens of the groin of the city there was a staggering diversity of food unfolding, and as Bhāwanā observed, this was the northern limit of Three Sisters agriculture. One could, were one so minded, grow maize and beans and squash in one’s back garden right in the middle of the city. The research community was welcoming in a way that we have not encountered for many years. As for Florida, walking and canoeing around the rivers and sandy forest in the company of like-minded, broad-hearted folk there was bliss. It helped, certainly, that we were among friend gathered from all across the world to work on shared interests and altruisms—but the coyote, the oaks, the vultures, the oranges, the jays and armadillos were signs of home. Feeling, hearing, smelling, seeing the quantity and variety of life-forms showed me how numb and disconnected I have become in the past few years.

One pigeon this morning, perhaps a member of the homing pigeon stable that lives two streets over, was playing against the wind. After turning into the wind it would fall and draw its wings together with an audible slap, then rise, turn, and prepare to loop again. My eye was drawn to a more distant black blob moving with the wind, fast, past our suburb and out over the dunes. No matter how I strained I couldn’t scry out its wing shape or the rhythm of its flight. Was it a lone duck, obscuring its wings with the bulk of its backside? Eventually I gave up: it was too far away now, my eyes had failed me, I was getting old and blind. From over my shoulder came another oddly lumpen shape, this one pink, dragging a string along, then one more. Three balloons, foolishly truant early on a Sunday morning, were stolen by the wind and hurled into the wrathful sea.


Summer in Aberdeen.

Our garden has achieved a near-perfect balance between weeds and cultivation. Bhawana and Śraddhā Jyoti brought in two big tubs of fresh strawberries yesterday evening. The apple trees have got plenty of fruit on, but show no signs of bending after last year’s pruning. A cat has moved into the long grass growing in front of the house—perhaps hunting the fieldmice? or the occasional rabbit?— and there are a few unusual weeds out there. We’ve actually got a well-established ant colony, though only in the west-facing garden; it’s just too cold anywhere else. The Buddleia still hasn’t really taken off; but the Himalaya Birch trees, savagely attacked by caterpillars, were rescued by sparrows who came and ate most of them. The Orange Hawkbit has taken off in the back, and the Tansies are thriving. The real reward: tonight a bat, probably a pipistrelle, came and hunted happily for about a half-hour. When we first arrived here I remember the occasional bat would pass by our garden and given it one or two disdainful loops; now we’re good for quite a few plump moths and beetles and a good long stay.

Compared to the riotous biodiversity of a ranch in the California hills, with hundreds of bird species to choose from, or the nocturnal acoustic chaos of Nepal, it’s not much. Every day I look out from this place and see, very clearly, that Aberdeen is a frightened, brutally industrial city in the far north of the world, politically sterile, cold and sullen and not much given to life. The trees in summer scramble to get their leaves out before the bitter blasts return. But for a cool grey summer’s evening in a cold, barren place, a good harvest of strawberries and one happy bat is adequate riches.

Bats in motion

This morning’s trawl of news items about bats turned up a wonderful article in Science News reporting on work by T Kunz on how bats use their wings to move. The arguments are interesting, but the wonder of the article is the videos: bats flying, running, swimming. Great stuff.


Last week, Sunday 24 August, we had a gang of bairns round to test out the new trampoline. About mid-day on a hot day the shout went up: flying ants. I was delighted. After three years of woeful absence, I had seen a few ants wandering around the front garden—so we must have a nest somewhere nearby—and this means that the queen has perhaps bred and flown. I will be watching very closely in the next few days in the hope that we have’t lost our nest to the neighbours.

I honestly don’t know why there are so few ants here in Aberdeen, though my guess is that there simply isn’t enough solar radiation to sustain an underground nest. I’ve been trying to create a constructively messy garden, with trees and usefully lost bits of rubble for sheltering larger animals, but had no idea we might get ants in. These look like ordinary little brown ants, though I’m no specialist. Upcountry in the old Scottish woods we do have wood ants as well as slavers.

Yesterday, to add to the bounty, I found several new mushrooms. The Inkcaps that come up every year in the old Gordon Barracks have come up again, but I think I may also have found a Boletus sp. around as well as small rather spikey, globular mushroom that I haven’t yet identified. The small size of the N95 meant that I could actually get some great photos from ground level, “gnome’s eye view” so to speak. I’ll put them up over at Flickr later this week.