RSPB Conservation Scientist, Alison Beresford, tell us about dotterel surveys in the Cairngorms.
Birds, blizzards and… more blizzards: surveying for Dotterel in the Cairngorms
I’ve always been drawn to the hills. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of space and perspective you get sat on top of a big hill in the middle of nowhere, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a good view. So when I was offered the job of surveying some of Scotland’s highest mountains for Dotterel this summer, I jumped at the chance. I pictured long summer days spent roaming the high plateaus, a sort of peaceful serenity washing over me as I lay on the mountainside watching the birds going about their business… Of course what I failed to imagine were the blizzards. I stood on the top of Cairngorm in glorious sunshine in the middle of March, not a snowflake in sight. Little did I imagine that, come May, I would be spending my evenings studying weather forecasts full of phrases such as “frequent snow/hail”, “whiteout” and “will feel like minus 17 with wind-chill”, and I certainly didn’t imagine looking into my wardrobe and wondering how many pairs of trousers it was physically possible to wear whilst still retaining the use of my knees!
So it has been a slow start to the Dotterel survey season this year. Dotterel over-winter in North Africa and the Middle-East, but migrate back north to breed. Most birds that pass through Scotland will continue on to Scandinavia or Russia, but some stay behind to breed in the UK, favouring extensive open ridges and high plateaus above the natural tree line. Dotterel are on the amber list of birds of conservation concern in the UK and Scotland holds over 99% of the British population. National surveys in 1987/88, 1999 and 2011 suggest that the population may be in decline, but it’s difficult to get accurate estimates for species that inhabit such remote locations. It’s important to know how the Dotterel is faring though. As a montane specialist at the southern edge of its breeding range in Scotland, Dotterel could be particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. They have already been shown to be sensitive to fluctuations in weather conditions in late May and early June, and have been identified as a key indicator of the “health” of montane habitats.
Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Back to my long summer days roaming the hillsides then… well the higher study sites of the Cairngorms are still covered in snow, but I have managed to get out and about and fit in a few surveys around the Drumochter hills. Conditions have not been ideal, but the odd bird has been brave enough to show itself between the snow and hail showers and with patience I’ve been rewarded with sightings of Golden Eagle, Dunlin, Ptarmigan, Wheatear and even… Dotterel! The weather is forecast to improve dramatically next week and I’m looking forward to such delights as “no precipitation”, “many summits cloud free” and “steady snow-melt”. I’m sure the birds will appreciate an end to the harsh wintery conditions too.
Find out more about the dotterel study here.
This week's exciting blog from Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn.
First find your scoter
A couple of weeks ago I set out to do something that nobody has ever done before – catch our rarest duck, the confusingly-named Common scoter, on their breeding grounds in Britain.
Photo: Andy Hay
Recently, I blogged about Slavonian grebes and there are many parallels between them and the scoters. Both actually have names that reflect how the old British naturalists first encountered them: in winter – the grebes being thought to come from the land of the Slavs (the east) and the scoters forming large flocks at sea easily seen from land or ships. But, unfortunately, both are also now confined as breeding birds in the UK to the north of Scotland, depressingly rare, declining and in urgent need of a helping hand.
Consequently, the scoters have been the focus of attention in the last few years as part of a joint project run by the RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and Scottish Natural Heritage. Lots has been learned but there are still plenty of unanswered questions – where do they nest, how many of the eggs and ducklings survive, and what are the reasons for failure. Which is where catching comes in – if you can catch a female and attach a tiny radio transmitter to it, you can begin to find out some answers.
Whilst trying something totally new is exciting, the downside is that there isn’t any experience to take advantage of. So, the team of Carl, Kenny, Norrie and I were long on ideas but short on proven methods when we took to the lochs of the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows Reserve which is about as far north as you can get on the UK mainland before you start paddling in the sea.
To cut a long story short, we tried all the duck-catching methods we could think of – swim-in traps, nets and taking to the lochs at night to dazzle the birds but, whilst we came within a whisker of success, we didn’t manage to catch a single one which is sometimes the way it goes. So, we’ll need to leave it another year before we can try again - armed with just as much enthusiasm but a whole load of valuable experience too. We’ll do it!
But that wasn’t the end of this year’s scoter activity. Traditionally, we count the breeding birds from land or by boat but this is a very time-consuming business and we are always on the look out for easier and more cost-effective ways of doing it. Which is why on Monday we took to the air on the most glorious day you could ever hope to see. One team had already counted the lochs the old way, we would count from the air, and aerial photos are also taken from underneath the plane and examined later to see if the scoters could be picked out. Crucially, each count is independent of the others so nobody knows what any other method found before they did theirs which allows a direct comparison of accuracy, cost and manpower.
Our aerial counts were pretty full-on with John, the pilot, expertly manoeuvring the plane through the hills and along the lochs - you needed full concentration to spot the scoters, count them and see if they were male or female. Which is why this wee video just shows the scene as we moved between the lochs – we were too busy counting otherwise!
So, which method was best? I don’t know yet as I don’t have all the counts back but I’ll let you know as soon as I can!
Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, has been out and about in the Monadhliaths searching for ring ouzels.
In praise of the Monadhliaths
Loch Ness and the Cairngorms are two of the most famous places in Scotland, yet sandwiched between them lie the largely unknown and unloved Monadhliaths (think Mona Lisa without the S). This range of hills hardly rates a mention in walking books and when they do they get universally panned and dismissed as dull, featureless, boring. But I love them; their solitude, their hidden corners, their sense of space – 30 minutes from Inverness and I can be amongst the quietest places in Britain. So, when the areas for this year’s national Ring ouzel survey were chosen and some fell within the Monadhliaths, I was first in line to volunteer.
photo: Andy Hay (RSPB-images.com)
Good survey days have been in short supply this topsy-turvy spring but last Saturday looked good and I was away up the glen bright and early. There’s a lot of suitable country out there and the ouzels can be elusive so we shorten the odds of finding them by playing a MP3 of their song – the male, thinking an intruder is in his territory, sings back or comes to check out the rival and allows us to mark it down.
Save for the white crescent on their breast, ring ouzels look very like Blackbirds and are really their upland equivalent. Their songs are similar too, though whilst a Blackbird’s strikes us as mellow and homely, the ouzel’s is wilder, more piercing, further carrying and this is no accident, they have to be to be heard over the winds that blow most of the time up in the hills.
Several hours of MP3 broadcasting, puffing up and down slopes resulted in a grand total of five ouzel territories - I could well have missed some but there’s another visit scheduled in a few week’s time so I’ll see how that compares. But, even five would have made it one of the best areas in the previous survey, in 1999, so at least in this part of the world Ring ouzels seem to be doing well though we’ll need to wait and see if that is borne out nationally.
Survey done, I ambled back down the glen on a lovely sunny afternoon – Oystercatchers yelped from a field, a Red squirrel ran across the track and Common sandpipers skittered away along the river. The sandpipers are really hyper and it doesn’t take much to set them off and, once they get going, they don’t stop – the Joe Pasquale of the bird world! All in all, a great way to spend a day.
And speaking of good days, no surveys for me this coming Saturday as I’ll be at the Scottish Birdfair – hope to see you there!
You can find out more about ring ouzel surveys here.