February, 2012

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Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.
  • Trolls on the Isle of Rum

    We've saved the best for last! Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, recounts his incredible visit to the Isle of Rum.


    In August last year I fulfilled an ambition I’ve had for some time: to visit the Isle of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. Rum is a National Nature Reserve – a concept that appeals to me greatly. The SNH website says these sites are ‘areas of land set aside for nature, where the main purpose of management is the conservation of habitats and species of national and international significance‘. Perfect.

    Rum is a truly wild place, and you feel that from almost the minute you arrive. It rains more on Rum than anywhere else in the world (apologies, I can’t actually back that up with any hard facts except from coming home from a couple of days there soaked to my very core). It is also home to the world’s most voracious, insatiable midge population. I spent days hidden underneath a headnet, lathered in repellent, shouting expletives at the tiny terrors. The ‘wildness’ of the island is also added to by the very small human population – the 2001 census found that only 22 people lived on Rum. This place is pretty remote.

    Rory does battle with the midges.

    But the real reason I went to Rum was for shearwaters, and it is the world’s biggest colony.

    Unusually, the shearwaters on Rum nest predominantly on the slopes of mountains - the oddly-named Hallival, Barkeval, Askival and the most curiously named of all – Trollval. These names are not Gaelic – their origin is Norse, and they were thought to be named by Vikings in the 11th century. It is quite possible Trollval is so-called because the Vikings believed there to be trolls living under the soil, making the bizarre noises that the shearwaters are actually responsible for. Similar troll-related names exist on shearwater islands in the Faeroes, lending credence to this theory.

    So, after arriving on the island, my compadres and I dutifully hiked upward, through bog, rain and midge to reach a small wooden hut, halfway up the mountain. This hut was to be home for a couple of nights – a welcome shelter, kitchen and place to sleep. From here, late on our second night, we ventured out to the shearwater colony on Hallival.

    Home sweet home.

    Being in amongst a massive shearwater colony is incredible. At first you wait – for what seems like an age – for it to get dark. It gets to the point where you wonder what you’re doing sat on a mountain at midnight, perfect midge fodder...but then the calls start.

    If you’ve never heard a Manx shearwater call, you’re missing out. It’s a sort of otherworldly screech, and you start to hear birds circling over head – just a few at first, rising to thousands – blasting it out (listen to it here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/m/manxshearwater/index.aspx). Some get so close you can feel the whoosh of air as they glide invisibly over your head. Then the calls start to come out the ground – their partners shouting at the bird that’s been out feeding all day to hurry up and dive down the burrow to feed the chick they’ve been looking after. These birds have been on incredible journeys – Manx shearwaters have been recorded undertaking foraging trips from Rum of thousands of kilometres to find food for themselves and their young. These are truly some of the wildest birds I know of, on one of the wildest places I’ve been to.

    Shearwater on the Isle of Rum.

    The UK has the vast majority of the world Manx shearwater population – around 80%. Most of that is concentrated on three islands – Rum, Skomer and Skokholm (the latter two are both in Wales). This hasn’t always been the case. It is thought that, in Scotland alone, at least 12 island colonies have vanished in recent centuries. The impact of invasive non-native predators – particularly rats, which feed on chicks and eggs – have been the major driver for this. It is important that we take action to restore shearwaters to islands where we can, to build resilience into a global population which has been hacked back to, essentially, three islands.

    Since the nocturnal behaviour of shearwaters makes them difficult to count, we don’t have a very good idea of what their populations are doing. But it is quite possible that they will be vulnerable to some of the same changes in the marine environment that we have seen affecting other seabirds. This is the species, excepting the Scottish crossbill, for which we are most internationally important. With great international importance, comes great conservation responsibility...

    Another way to build in resilience to our seabird populations? Set up a network of marine protected areas at sea that properly support our seabird populations – sign the pledge here: www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition.


  • The tale of the great auk

    Our Seabird Policy Officer, Rory Crawford, is back with another seabird saga.

    The tale of the great auk – Scotland’s great extinct penguin

    After what I was saying Tuesday about taking our internationally-important seabirds for granted, I felt it important to re-tell a story that should serve as a cautionary tale. The tale of the great northern hemisphere penguin that was once common as muck – but is now exctinct.

    Great auks were once found right across the North Atlantic – from Newfoundland, where the largest known colony was found on Funk Island (nothing to do with James Brown, as far as we know) to Iceland, across to Scotland and as far south as Madeira.

    These birds looked a lot like big razorbills or guillemots. Standing at around 85 centimetres tall, their tiny wings made them look rather unwieldy. Not that it mattered too much to the great auk – these birds were flightless, built to pursue prey underwater.

    It’s a huge disappointment that all we see of these birds now is the awkward-looking stuffed museum specimen you can see in the picture below. Just as penguins look slightly ridiculous waddling around on land, take one look at them shooting around underwater with nothing but the tiniest flick of a wing and you’ve got a much better insight into the true majesty of the great auk.


    Great auk in the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Photo: Mike Pennington

    Being flightless, as well as being rather unafraid of humans, led ultimately to their downfall.  Without the ability to fly away from hunters, great auks were easy pickings for humans seeking an easy meal. It is rumoured that sailors were even able to anchor their boats next to colonies, lay out planks and herd great auks directly on board, where they would inevitably meet their end.

    The last great auk in Scotland was killed on Stac an Armin, St. Kilda, where three islanders captured the bird and kept it alive for three days. When the weather deteriorated, they were convinced the auk was responsible, and killed it, believing it to be a witch.

    As global numbers dwindled, the last few were sadly killed as specimens for collections – and the very last northern hemisphere penguin was killed on Eldey, Iceland between the 2nd and 5th of June, 1844.

    It’s too late for the great auk – but it’s not too late for some of our cracking modern-day seabirds. Do your bit and sign our marine pledge and get everyone you know to do the same. If you haven't already, please watch our video and share the message

    These guillemots still have a chance! Sign the Marine Pledge.

  • An archaeological jewel: the fairy knowes of Oronsay

    Many of our reserves feature fascinating archaeological sites along with spectacular wildlife. Crystal Maw, a Project Officer at RSPB Scotland, tells us about some of the prehistoric sites on Colonsay and Oronsay.

    The Hebridean islands of Colonsay and Oronsay boast a wide range of prehistoric sites, including early shell mounds, three cairns, eight standing stones, eight hut circles, five ancient field systems, nine forts and an impressive medieval priory.

     The medieval priory on Oronsay. Photo: Andy Hay

    Perhaps the most mysterious and telling archaeological remains are the shell middens of Oronsay, known locally as Sheeans, or fairy knowes.

    These middens are mountains of kitchen waste and blown sand left in hollows along the coast.  They were created by Mesolithic hunters who started to arrive here around 7500BC, and carbon dating shows that these people were using the island for at least 700 years between around 4100BC and 3400BC.

    The mounds are composed mainly of limpet shells, but an array of other items has been found, including pierced cowries shells (presumably used for jewellery), bone pins and the remains of a seal, otter, red deer, pig and dolphin that no doubt were used for food and for clothing.

    Bones of cormorant, shag, goose, shelduck, water rail, ringed plover, tern, gull, razorbill, guillemot, gannet and red-breasted merganser were found. Most exciting of all, eight bones of the now extinct great auk were discovered.  This prompted the naturalist Symington Grieve to write The Great Auk, or Garfowl: Its history, archaeology, and remains in 1885.  The auk must have bred on the skerries around Oronsay and been hunted for food.

     The Chough is on the Amber list due to small population size and historically declining population. Photo: Andy Hay

    Oronsay is one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Europe.  RSPB Scotland has been managing the island as a reserve since 1996, in a farming partnership with the owner, to increase the populations of species such as chough and corncrake.  But our role includes protecting the heritage of the island for future generations.

    The fairy knowes still hold some mystery.  We do not know whether the midden sites were permanently inhabited by those ancient, hardy communities or intermittently visited from the island interior or other nearby islands.  Another question that springs to mind is why people suddenly stopped living here all that time ago.  Perhaps there is much more to be discovered on Oronsay....

    Fancy a visit? Oronsay is accessible from Colonsay at low tide and you should follow local advice before crossing.  The crossing is only suitable for 4x4 vehicles.

    For more info visit: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/o/oronsay/index.aspx