June, 2016

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Coquet Night Hide Adventures – Bringing the UK’s rarest nesting seabird to the mainland

    Guest blog by Euan Dunn, RSPB Principal Policy Officer


    Walking through a forest of decorated Roseate terns and Puffins – I wonder how we got here?


    Photo of the BALTIC in Newcastle behind the ‘blinking eye’ bridge over the Tyne:

    The story starts on Coquet Island, which sits on the front line of seabird protection in the UK. Nestled in this little haven off the Northumberland coast, amongst an impressive 44,000 strong seabird assemblage, is the sole UK colony of Roseate terns. Due to the fragility of the habitat and temperament of its avian habitants, no public landings are permitted on the island.  

    Photos of a pair of ‘rosys’:

    This elegant species had a record breaking year in 2015, reaching 111 pairs, a positive bit of news in a sad story for what was once a widespread avian feature of the UK’s coastline.


    Roseate terns threatened by egg collecting

    Regrettably, the RSPB, its resident wardens and wildlife lovers aren’t the only parties interested in this stunning tern.

    The scarcity of its eggs, and its rare status within the UK’s ‘set of terns’ makes the Roseate tern a prime target for egg collectors who would raid their nests for their own personal gratification.

    Eggs were stolen from the island in 2000, and since then a cold war has ensued between the resident wardens and the would-be collectors.


    Warden’s watch for egg collectors from the night hide

    The headquarters of this endeavour became the ‘Night Hide’, a construction erected on the jetty providing shelter for the night’s watch who guard the rosys while they sleep. The night watches have prevented many attempts over the years, as ‘mysterious’ boats approach the landing points at night – only to retreat when highlighted by our powerful torchlights.

    A recent successful police raid on an egg collector’s home also produced secret illicit surveillance of the island – an attempt to find a chink in our armour.                    

    Photo of the night hide on island

    After one such night watch, as the sun began to light the sky and kiss the whimsical disco ball installed by a fellow sleep-deprived warden, it was evident that this weathered box had become more than the sum of its parts and taken on a soul of its own. Unfortunately, the North Sea had also taken its toll on the sheltering capabilities of the hide and it was time for a replacement. Faced with its retirement, we wanted to share this structure’s story and put it out to ‘pasture’ in style.


    The Night hide is moved to Gateshead

    BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead was surely the natural home for such a unique structure.


    Photo of the night hide in the BALTIC:  

    And so it was – the Coquet night hide was transported to BALTIC, whose artists used its influence to create ‘Creative Conservation Week’ where Coquet stopped being an island for a week, and became an immersive experience in the heart of the North East.

    Coquet’s visitor numbers thus increased from 0 to 1000s as families witnessed live images from the island, still live here


    For example:  https://youtu.be/t21HjU9W1jA


    Locals get creative learning about Roseate terns

    At BALTIC - people got creative learning about Roseate terns and Puffins and what we do on the island to look after them. And the tern forest grew.

    And to witness the full immersive experience, 3 minutes of full Coquet puffindom through 360 degree virtual reality puffins filmed on the island by Edinburgh Napier University

    Photo of the VE puffin hat in action:

    This clever technology gets you as close to being a Puffin as possible – and can still be viewed here:    


    The footage is best viewed through a headset – but is also very cool using the button on the youtube video – or by moving your phone/tablet around

    Don’t forget to look behind you!           

    This adventure was sponsored by the Roseate Tern LIFE Project www.roseatetern.org and Northumberland AONB – and we hope won’t be the end of the Night Hide’s Adventures. 

  • First Ring ouzel brood leave the nest

    Guest blog by Dr. Innes Sim Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science 

    In my previous blogs 'Unravelling what is needed to save the Ring ouzel''Searching for the Super-Ouzel' and 'First Ring ouzel nestlings emerge' I introduced you to the super Ring ouzel who is raising his 13th brood. Read more about our observations from the field this month.

    Weather perhaps too dry to find earthworms?

    This summer has been one of the driest since we began studying ouzels in Glen Clunie in 1998. While this is great news for us, meaning that we can leave our waterproofs in our rucksacks, this might not be such good news for the ouzels. They depend largely on earthworms as food at this time of year, and the dry weather may have forced the worms deeper into the soil, making them harder for the adults to find.

    Average brood size at ringing in successful nests is 3.3 for 1st broods this year, compared to the 1998-2015 average of 3.5, which suggests that the dry weather may be having a negative impact on the ability of the ouzels to rear young this summer. So, it would be nice (at least for the ouzels) to have a little more rain in the coming weeks!

    Photo showing another sunny and dry day in Glen Clunie

    Time for chick ringing

    Every year we try to individually colour-ring as many chicks as possible, so that any that return to breed in future years can be identified without having to catch them. The best time to ring the chicks is when they are 7-10 days of age, before they fledge at 13-14 days of age.

    Photo of a 9 day old chick being colour-ringed. This chick can now be individually identified if it is sighted again

    GPS-tagged bird re-trapped

    The good news is that we have managed to catch one of the three males that were fitted with GPS tags in 2015, and have returned this summer. However, it looks like there has been a problem with the data recording on this tag, and so we might not be able to track it’s movements since it left Glen Clunie last autumn. This is very frustrating, but I guess this is always a possibility when you are using cutting-edge technology. Hopefully we will be able to catch the other 2 birds, and fingers crossed that their tags will provide us with crucial information on where they go outside the breeding season.

    Super-ouzel fledges another brood

    Our star bird has now fledged his 13th brood (of 4 young) in his 8th year of breeding in Glen Clunie, with no breeding failures recorded! Hopefully he and his new partner will go on to have a second successful breeding attempt this summer.

    Photo of super-ouzel watching us while we ring his first brood this year

  • Crop harvesting, traditional or modern: does it matter for birds?

    Guest blog by Dr. Mark Hancock Senior Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science 

    There are many beautiful farmed landscapes in Britain, but few are more captivating than those of Scottish Hebridean islands. In the islands of North and South Uist, in particular, you'll find open farmed landscapes between sea and mountains, created by centuries of traditional agricultural management, which support an abundance and variety of nature and wildlife now rarely found on the mainland.

    Not surprisingly, this special landscape type, widely known by its Gaelic name - machair - has long been recognised as of great value to nature conservation. But it is also very much a working landscape, where crofters rear livestock and raise crops. How can agricultural and natural values best be combined? One of our recent RSPB research projects focussed on one important aspect of this question.

    Machair in Uists is great for wildlife

    An especially valuable element of the Uists machair for wildlife are the cereal crops. During the summer, these often hold abundant wild flowers, important for special species like the Great Yellow Bumblebee. In the winter, stubbles are left behind after the cereals have been harvested. Certain stubble fields are very attractive for small birds like skylarks, finches and buntings, which feed on spilt grain or weed seeds left behind after the crop.

    Photo of traditionally grown cereal crops in the Uists machair (main picture) often have characteristics no longer widely seen on the mainland. These include abundant wild plants growing in some areas of the crop; crops made up of mixed species (e.g. oats, barley and rye); and traditional cereal varieties, based on locally-saved seed. Inset: two of the study authors in a Uist cereal crop just before harvest (Stephen Duffield, Mark Hancock; photos: Jamie Boyle).

    Does harvesting method affect the abundance of small birds?

    Our study published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, titled The effect of harvest method on cereal stubble use by seed-eating birds in a High Nature Value farming system - focussed on these stubble fields, which are so valuable to small birds. We asked the question, does the way in which these cereal crops are harvested, affect how attractive the stubble fields are to birds? The study areas were set up by my colleague Jamie Boyle, the RSPB site manager for nature reserves in North Uist, and the bird surveys were done by Steve Duffield, a local ornithologist with an intimate knowledge of the birds of the Uists.

    Photo of stubbles following cereal crops. These fields are very important for small birds in winter. Are stubbles following traditional harvesting - like this one, in our Uists study area - best for birds? Inset: corn bunting, a once-widespread small bird very much associated with cereal cultivation, which still occurs in the Uists. (Photos: Machair LIFE Project / Jamie Boyle).

    Traditional harvesting versus combine-harvesting and arable silage

    The Uists are one of very few places in the British Isles where you can still find traditional methods of harvesting being used, based on cutting the cereal crop with a reaper-binder, drying it on the field in 'stooks', then gathering the stooks to create large corn stacks for winter storage. But this method is very labour intensive, and not all Uist crops are still harvested like this. Other cereal fields are harvested using more typical modern farming techniques, either by combine-harvesting the crop, separating the grain from the straw, or else by making silage from the whole crop, to be preserved as familiar large bales wrapped in black plastic, later used for feeding livestock. Each method leaves a stubble field behind: these look much alike to a simple glance, but how do they compare for birds?

    Photo of harvesting cereals in the Uists. Top to bottom photographs show harvesting methods of increasing modernity. Top: traditional harvesting with reaper binder; middle: combine harvesting; bottom: harvesting cereals as arable silage (photos: Jamie Boyle/ Julie Gallagher).

    Perhaps as you might expect, we found that the stubble fields that had been harvested using traditional methods held really high densities of small, seed-eating birds. Steve would typically find about 70 individual birds, of small seed-eating species like larks, finches and buntings, in every hectare of traditionally-harvested stubble. But what we didn't expect, is that for some kinds of birds, the fields harvested by combine were equally attractive. Skylarks and buntings in particular, seemed to really like the combined fields. Meanwhile, the stubbles which had been harvested as arable silage held far fewer small seed-eating birds, only around 15 per hectare.

    Traditional harvesting methods leaves grain left behind which is good for birds - and so does combine harvesting

    Most likely these results reflect differences in the amount of grain left behind on the different types of stubble fields; and our simple counts of grain abundance on the stubbles supported this interpretation. Presumably during traditional harvesting, there are various occasions where grains may be lost onto the ground, during handling the crop or as the grain ripens after cutting. Clearly also, when a field of this type of cereal crop is harvested by combine, there can be significant amounts of grain left behind in the stubble. Remember that these are crops often made up of different species of cereals (e.g. oats, barley and rye): perhaps the different ripening rates of the different species result in some grain falling to the ground before harvest. Meanwhile, making silage involves baling and bagging the whole crop before the grain ripens. It seems that this leaves fewer opportunities for grain to be lost onto the ground and left behind in stubbles.

    Applying of our research to farming and conservation

    So, what next? These results help us put together a picture of how nature is responding to evolving agricultural methods in this unique area. In the Uists, where crofters choose to use combine harvesters, the resulting stubble fields should be valuable to many small seed-eating birds. But where arable silage is becoming the norm, then - under current practice - stubbles are likely to be poor for this group of birds. To help birds in these places, we will need to think about other ways of providing food in the landscape, or different ways of making silage (like cutting it later). Overall, the crofters who manage this beautiful landscape will need proper financial support for measures that help wildlife, if we are to be able to retain the immense nature conservation value of the Uists machair.