Conservation Scientist Jonathan Groom is back with an update from the Perthshire hills.

Weather and heather

Weather and heather. These are the two dominant subjects in my fieldwork at the moment. It would be impossible to write anything without mentioning this terrible rain that is wreaking havoc with our British wildlife this summer. I’m sure that you don’t need me to dwell on it as it’s making headlines pretty much everywhere, so instead I’ll talk about habitat sampling, which is what I am going to be doing until the end of August.

The habitat sampling consists of re-visiting all of my study plots where I had previously been carrying out bird surveys. This time I am looking at the species composition and structure (density, height etc.) of both the ground layer of grasses, heather, shrubs and rushes, and also the tree community. This will allow us to not only get a picture of how the habitat relates to the bird species found there, but also to compare the habitat inside and outside of the fenced plots.

One of the things I have valued most about my experience doing fieldwork with the RSPB in Scotland has been learning to identify the plant species of the uplands. As a younger, less wise zoologist, I remember openly dismissing having to do a Plant Biology module as part of the first year of my Zoology degree. Now, of course, it’s clear to me that you can’t really do any work with wildlife without being able to understand the habitat too. Now I’m still far from a botanical expert, but I can now confidently identify the plants that make up the ground layer and tree community of my upland study areas by sight. I can’t emphasise enough how much of a positive difference it makes to learn a new group of species and particularly plants, as of course they are everywhere. I put it on a par with first learning a range of bird songs for atlas survey work some years back.  Suddenly, you have a new perspective and a more complete understanding of the environment around you and it is immensely satisfying and rewarding.

I’m spending longer days out in the field now (but on the upside, I don’t have to get up at dawn anymore) doing the habitat sampling, which also gives me the opportunity to continue to record birds and other wildlife that inhabit these areas. The general consensus is that birds have fared poorly this spring with raising their young, but they don’t seem to have done too badly here in highland Perthshire, though of course I have no previous experience in this particular area. I have been able to record fledged young of the following species in and around my study areas: Meadow pipit, Willow warbler, robin, wren, Coal tit, Red grouse, Black grouse, Hen harrier, Tree pipit, Spotted flycatcher, stonechat, whinchat (these seem to have done particularly well with at least 8 different families seen so far), Reed bunting, and most excitingly for me my first ever young cuckoo. The cuckoo was actually fully fledged, although it was still being attended to by its ‘foster parents’, a pair of Meadow pipits. The pipits seemed torn between wanting to attend to it and taking fright every time the cuckoo moved. The youngster was making its way along the posts of the deer fence bordering one of the study plots, before eventually taking flight and heading off southwards, leaving behind its ‘parents’ who were perhaps still not quite sure what was happening.

I’d like to end this post with one more topic, that I have quite a fondness for, and that is butterflies. Traditionally, this is the peak time of year for most butterfly species, and they tend to fill a bit of a gap for birders before autumn migration gets going. Sadly, it seems that this weather will also be affecting them poorly on top of what has been shown to be a poor year last year for them too. I have been lucky enough to see quite a few interesting species whenever the sun appears including magnificent Dark Green Fritillaries, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Large Heath, Small Heath and my first ever Northern Brown Argus (though sadly I could only find one despite a bit of searching in a promising area).


Dark Green Fritillary

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary


Northern Brown Argus

If butterflies are also of interest to you, don’t forget that you can help to contribute to the ongoing monitoring of our common species by taking part in the Sir David Attenborough endorsed Big Butterfly Count. It’s fun and easy and great to get the family involved with and runs through till the end of August. Getting involved is a great way to contribute to our understanding of these wonderful animals, especially in these troubled times for them!  

Catch up on Jonathan's previous blogs here:

The results are in

Making nature count: Top 10 in the Perthshire Hills

Native Upland Woodland Expansion survey