August, 2012

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.

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.
  • Is seeing believing?

    Conservation Manager Stuart Benn has been out searching for dotterel.

    Is Seeing Believing?

    A couple of times recently in Scottish Nature Notes, Alison has blogged about her work in the hills on dotterel.  Last year, I helped out with looking at some areas for the national survey and, although the final results have yet to come in, the word on the street is that numbers are a fair bit down.  However, it is known that the number of dotterel that come here each year varies depending on weather conditions and the like, so some hills are being resurveyed just to make sure that 2011 wasn’t totally unusual.

    So, last week I parked at the Drumochter Pass on the boundary between Highland and Perthshire, and took to the hills.  Years ago I’d seen dotterel with chicks up here so I had high hopes that I would bump into some.  The first excitement was seeing a young Golden eagle beating across the hill (within sight and sound of the busiest road in the Highlands!) but it didn’t stop despite there being lots of Mountain hares which scurried off as I passed them (a friend of mine said that ‘a hare running always looked like the wheels were about to come off’ and that is about right though it’s deceptive as they really can shift).  Since an eagle has eyesight twice as good as we do, I’m sure it saw them too but didn’t have enough of an element of surprise to have a go at catching any – why waste energy if the chances of success are so slim?

    Up on the tops there were plenty of peeping Golden plovers, still quite a few dunlin and a group of nine very well camouflaged ptarmigan (two females and some youngsters, I think).

    However, there wasn’t even a sniff of a dotterel.  But does that mean there weren’t any there?  Dotterel are amongst the hardest birds to survey – they’re not as noisy as plovers and they are probably even better camouflaged than ptarmigan so it is very easy to walk right by them and not even know they are there.  So, I can’t be certain that they’d gone but the chances are that they have as this seems to be happening on many hills particularly the lower ones.  This is precisely what you would expect of a hill bird in a warming climate – they get pushed higher until they run out of hill and are lost.  Which is why Alison’s work is so important – we need to find out what is going on and then try to put it right.  


  • Let's hear it for volunteers

    Weekly blog from Conservation Manger, Stuart Benn.

    Let’s hear it for volunteers

    Like everyone else, I’m loving watching the Olympics just now – the tiny margins between success and failure, the ecstasy of the gold, the pain of dreams not quite realised.  But I’ve also begun to notice that huge army of people in the background in their smart matching uniforms bringing out flowers for the medal ceremonies, carrying the athletes’ kit, directing folk – the volunteers or ‘Game Makers’ as they are known.  Bolt, Hoy, Wiggins, Phelps and co may be the stars of the show but it would all grind to a halt very quickly were it not for those volunteers.

    And so it is in just about every walk of life and conservation is no exception – volunteers are vital and the great thing is that the benefit works both ways.  Erin blogged recently about what she got out of volunteering for the RSPB and it is just the sort of thing employers are looking for on cv’s in an increasingly competitive job market.  And, of course, conservation wins as well – so much more is achieved by staff and volunteers working together.  There are dozens of opportunities to volunteer with the RSPB and you can check them out here.

    Volunteering comes in all forms.  Recently we heard about a newly married couple who spent their honeymoon walking from Lands End to John o’Groats raising money for Butterfly Conservation.  As they came through Inverness (with many miles and drops of rain behind them!) we put them up for the night.  Last week they made it – what an effort!

    Sami & Seth at the end of their epic walk.

    I’ve done my fair share of volunteering too – lots of bird surveys but, more recently, moth trapping.  The Highlands are pretty under-recorded so all info is to the good but some areas need more targeting than others.  Last weekend we got the trap out near Inverness and got a bumper haul of moths and a bumper haul of midges too!

    Bumper haul of midges!

    If you haven’t thought about volunteering before then why not give it a go?  If you do volunteer then you’re brilliant – you deserve a medal!

  • Counting seabirds: start at 1 and keep going

    Ever wonder how the thousands of seabirds that visit our coasts each summer are counted? Doug Gilbert, Head of Reserves Ecology, gives us some insight.

    Counting seabirds: Start at 1 and keep going

    Counting seabirds – start at 1 and keep going! All very well but how do you keep track of numbers in a vast colony on a vertical sea cliff? Well there are a number of different ways depending on the colony size and habitat and most importantly the species that you are counting.

    Cliff nesting birds that build obvious nests, for instance kittiwakes, gannets and shags are relatively easy. By counting the number of “Apparently Occupied Nests” or AONs in the trade, you can easily estimate the number of pairs on the cliff. In very large colonies you might only count a small plot on a regular basis to give an indicator of how numbers might be doing in the rest of the colony.


    Kittiwake and shag by Andy Hay (

    Guillemots don’t build any nests although they do defend a small section of cliff ledge as a territory. The best way to estimate the numbers in a consistent way which can be repeated year after year is to make several counts of all the individual guillemots present over a period in early to mid June. This is when adult attendance at the colony is at a peak. The number of individual birds present is then averaged, or a best estimate is made if the weather or other conditions make some counts less reliable. Converting this into an estimate of pairs rather than individuals is a bit less reliable than counting AONs but we can still compare numbers over time to look for declines or increases. Razorbills are counted in the same way but they are often hidden away in rock crevices on the cliff so are more difficult!

    OK, but what about puffins? They lay eggs and rear their young at the end of a burrow which you can’t see in to! To make things worse, lots of puffins that are not breeding visit colonies and hang around getting their pictures taken by visitors. How do you find out whether the breeding numbers are changing? The technique is not easy but it is possible with patience and skilled observation. By using photographs of sections of the colony and marking burrows that are being used regularly by puffins carrying fish, you can estimate how many burrows are occupied by breeding pairs in any one year (Apparently Occupied Burrows or AOBs). Over several seasons it is possible to follow trends in numbers in a particular colony or area. This does take a lot of time though and is only done in a few places where counters are available.

    puffin by Andy Hay (

    Right then, what about storm petrels and manx shearwaters – not only do they breed in burrows but the non-incubating adults only visit at night! Monitoring the numbers of these birds is extremely tricky and the best technique we have involves playing a tape recording of the species concerned at the entrance to their burrows and recording how many birds respond to the call. We know that not all petrels in burrows respond so working out what the numbers mean is a matter of statistics based on average response rates – and get this – each colony might have a different response rate! So using a response rate from one colony might not give you a very good estimate at another. Male and female petrels also have different response rates so it gets even more complicated!

    Many gulls and skuas nest on moorlands on the ground so surveying them is often a matter of watching from a vantage point and counting the numbers of territories you can see using the birds behaviour as clues.

    Arctic skua chick by Andy Hay (

    Counting seabirds can be smelly, exciting, cold and intriguing work but when you are back at the office and you can add a dot to a map or a point on a graph showing this years results, it all makes it worthwhile.

    Counting seabirds has never been so important a task as it it is now. With many seabirds in real trouble, all that effort by hundreds of people over the years across Scotland gives us the raw data that we need to show politicians the desperate need for better management of the marine environment, including the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and more action on climate change.