RSPB Conservation Scientist Alison Beresford is on the trail of the elusive dotterel.
I would walk 500 miles… the search for dotterel continues
“So, what, you just walk about until you find one?”
“Well, pretty much, yes.”
“And then what?”
“And then the waiting begins…”
I’m never quite sure what to say when people ask me what I do. When I try to explain my particular line of employment, the response is usually interest, followed by confusion, followed by a slow backing away as they come to realise that I spend all day by myself wandering in zig-zags across open mountain tops, looking for birds.
I walk, I stop, I scan, I walk, I stop, I scan… the average encounter rate for montane surveys is about 1 bird an hour, and that’s any bird, not just dotterel! Often, the first you’ll see of a dotterel will be a curious head peeking over the horizon, or maybe just a tell-tale white eye-stripe amongst the vegetation. If it’s not too windy you might hear their faint calls, described in the books as a repeated, song-like “pwit”, but to me, they sound more like a squeaky bike wheel.
Photo: Mark Eaton
But wait, what’s that I see on the horizon? A shape has caught my eye. I lift my binoculars to have a closer look. Is that a dotterel head I see? No… it’s a rock. Nine times out of ten, the thing that’s caught my eye is a rock. Sometimes it’s a piece of old fence post, sometimes a bit of vegetation moving in the wind, sometimes it might even be a Golden plover, but sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a dotterel… and then the waiting begins. Invariably, by the time I’ve seen it, it’s seen me (I am, after all, considerably larger and far more conspicuous than a dotterel – I think this gives them an unfair advantage!). So there’s nothing to do but retreat, wait, watch and hope that the bird will eventually give away its nest.
Dotterel are unusual in that in almost all cases, the male alone is responsible for incubation and parental care, whilst the female moves on to mate with other males. 80-90% of females that lay a clutch for a male in Scotland will then continue on to Scandinavia or Russia to look for further nesting opportunities. Dotterel nests are little more than a scrape on the ground, sometimes lined with a few bits of lichen for insulation, and it’s surprising just how well camouflaged the males are when they settle down. The first eggs are usually laid around the end of May, but the late snow on higher sites this year means that many of the birds have been a little slower than usual in getting started. The males incubate the clutch (usually 3 eggs) for 24-28 days, with hatching timed to coincide with peak emergence of the crane fly Tipula Montana, an important food source. It’s a real challenge and a fine balance for the males to continually keep eggs warm whilst also finding enough food to sustain themselves in this cold environment. I can’t help but be strangely impressed by the exposed and windswept places in which these birds choose to breed.
Find out more about our work with dotterel here.
Read Alison's previous blog on dotterel surveys here.
RSPB Conservation Manager Stuart Benn has been out satellite tagging Golden eagles with the One Show.
One Show, Two eagles
I blogged recently about filming Black-throated divers with the One Show in the north of Scotland, well they have been up again this week – this time for Golden eagles.
Eagles have always held a fascination for us and are often used as symbols of national pride – in fact, three of the sixteen countries competing in Euro 2012 had depictions of eagles on their shirt badge (three lions and the French cockerel completing the animal set). But, there is much to learn about even such apparently well-known birds and some of that is now coming to light with the help of the same GPS technology as we have in SatNavs.
In a joint project with Scottish Natural Heritage, Roy Dennis, Natural Research and the Cairngorms National Park, the RSPB is fitting satellite tags to Golden eagle chicks to learn more about what they do and where they go between the time they leave their place of birth and set up their own territories in maybe four or five years time. The project also has a crime prevention/detection angle because eagles and other birds of prey are still being illegally killed with sickening regularity in some of our hills, and having tagged birds helps locate these crimes. Finally, there is raising public awareness – the birds’ movements are plotted on satellite maps like Google Earth and they can be followed on the different organisations’ websites (RSPB’s pages will be ready this autumn). When the opportunity arises we get on the telly too. Thus the One Show!
As ever, setting up the filming day takes lots of time – locating suitable nests with chicks of the right age, getting landowner permission, checking everyone’s availability and, finally, hoping the weather is decent! But everyone couldn’t have been more helpful and last Friday saw the BBC, Davie and Josh from the estate, and Brian and myself from the RSPB, heading into the hills to the nest.
It was a steep pull up from the glen which Josh on his 21st birthday made short work of despite his hefty celebrations the night before - the rest of us to whom 21 is a rapidly receding memory had to take it rather more steadily! Anyway, we got to where the filming would take place not far from the nest and Mike, Brian and I went to get the twins which were soon safely down in front of the camera.
Brian expertly fitted the satellite tags to both chicks then Mike got to hold one of the eaglets – he looked well pleased!!
Before long we’d got both the chicks back in the nest and they were totally settled – so, we were a happy band that packed up and wended back down the hill.
Not yet sure when the piece is going to broadcast but I’ll be sure to let you know – should be a good one!
View more photos on RSPBScotland's Facebook page!
Weekly update from RSPB Conservation Manger Stuart Benn.
The Scottish Open golf championship was held just along the road from us at the weekend and, gladly, there was no repeat of last year when torrential rain caused landslides, floods and massive disruption. This year, the weather was OK but still not the best and, since I had started a heavy cold, I didn’t venture any further than the moors near Inverness. It was good to find a pair of Stonechats feeding their young – they took a real hit in the two hard winters of 09/10 and 10/11 and disappeared from this hill but they can produce several broods each year and the numbers soon bounce back. But the main excitement was seeing a Short-eared owl.
In our popular imagination, owls are birds of the night, the familiars of witches, heard but rarely seen but not so the Shortie which doesn’t conform to type and is out and about during the day. It’s always a real treat to see one (when else do we get the chance to get a really good look at an owl?) and admire their languid flight - the authors of The Nature of the Cairngorms put it brilliantly “its shallow wing beats silently patting the air, as if testing a hot stove.”
Short-eared owls have an amazing world distribution – much of the Northern Hemisphere but South America too as well as remarkable outposts in island groups like the Falklands, Hawaii and the Galapagos. Unfortunately, they are becoming a rare sight in the UK with numbers declining for reasons that aren’t yet clear. But let’s hope their decline is reversed so they don’t just become a bird of our imagination.
I think the weekend bird was just passing through because I hadn’t seen them on the moor earlier in the year and don’t believe they nested although they can be surprisingly inconspicuous. So, no repeat of 2011 when I did find a nest and saw that, if anything, the chicks are even more endearing than their parents!
Photo: Andy Stronach
As regular watchers of Springwatch may remember, owl chicks don’t all hatch on the same day so show quite a size difference and, if hunting is poor, the younger ones don’t survive. But this nest did well with the adults keeping them well-fed with a regular supply of voles and at least five of the young flew – brilliant!