August, 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.
  • Hoverflies at RSPB Loch Leven

    New blog from trainee Ecologist, Gordon Bryden. He's been out and about looking for hoverflies at Loch Leven.

    Hoverflies at RSPB Loch Leven

    Hoverflies are one of the most distinctive fly families, and definitely the most popular. They are mostly big and colourful bee and wasp mimics with a distinctive hovering flight around flowers and sunny spots. Many of the species have larvae which eat huge numbers of greenfly, making them very popular with gardeners too and they are vital cogs in ecosystems. A significant number of the UK’s hoverfly species are rare, making the group really important for conservation as well.

    I took advantage of a brief break in the weather to head out to RSPB Loch Leven in Kinross to look for hoverflies. Loch Leven has an interesting mix of wetlands, woods, flower patches and hills so there are lots of habitats for a wide variety of species. Flowers are usually the best place for finding hoverflies since the adults will gather around them to stock up on nectar and pollen.


    Far and away the most common species on site was Eristalis pertinax, shown above feeding at a flower. As you might guess from the picture, hoverflies are important pollinators since they visit so many flowers. Bizarrely this is one of the species whose larvae are the “rat-tailed maggots” which live in oxygen free sludge filtering out microbes to eat.  I think that’s a much more dramatic change than any butterfly.

    This is one of the aphid eating hoverflies. It’s hard to be sure from just a picture, but I believe this particular species is Platycheirus albimanus. Like Eristalis, the adults are completely vegetarian and feed on nectar and pollen. The larvae are important predators of greenflies and other aphids. Little flies like this probably eat far more aphids than ladybirds do, but get almost none of the credit.

    Although it’s not a hoverfly, I just couldn’t resist taking a (blurry) photo of this Garden Tiger moth. Once a very common species, it’s numbers have dropped massively in recent years to the point that it’s becoming rather rare. It’s good to find one at Loch Leven.

    Just to be thorough I climbed all the way up to the top of the hill in the Loch Leven reserve to check for hoverflies. It was much taller than I thought it was (much to the dismay of the volunteer I had shadowing me), but the view of the wetlands was spectacular. Sadly there weren’t any hoverflies up there but I made sure to snap a photo as a souvenir. In the end I found 13 different species of hoverfly on the site in just one day. No rare species this time, but it does give us a clearer picture of the ecology of the reserve.

  • Loose ends

    Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, with a roundup of his season on the hills.

    Loose Ends

    No, not the Radio 4 chat programme nor the 1980s R&B group but time for an end of season tie up of some threads left hanging from previous blogs.

    I always get mixed feelings at this time of year when all the surveys have been done – relief as it marks the end of a really busy time but sadness too as it marks another hour of the clock ticking by.  Each year, I make sure I get out as much as I can and I’ll keep doing that whilst I’m still fit and able for “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

    To begin at the beginning, my very first blog was about planting for insects – little did we know back in mid-April that we were set for a cool, wet spring and summer, one of the worst on record for butterflies.  But, just in the last few weeks as it’s warmed, Small tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Small whites and Speckled woods have come out and made straight for the pollen.  Hornets, hoverflies and bees didn’t seem to be as bothered by the weather and right from the start made a bee-line for the flowers - so much so that the garden can be heard  just as much as seen and smelled.  I get real satisfaction from knowing that those insects wouldn’t be around us without those specially chosen scabious, bugloss and the like.  Talk about getting a buzz!

    Small tortoiseshell butterfly

     At the weekend I was taking a look around some of the glens that I’d done Ring ouzel survey this year – very quiet and all I saw was one fledged youngster where before the air had been filled with their ringing songs and most seem to have now headed south en route to their winter home in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.  But the surveys went well and, in the end, my four areas produced 0, 2, 6 and 7 territories so in the Monadhliaths, at least, they seem to be doing just grand and it’ll be fascinating to see how my figures fit into the national picture.

    Last week also saw the final trip to the Common scoter lochs and gave a very disappointing lack of any adults or young – lots of work still needs to be done on what’s going on here and how it can be turned around.  In my previous blog on the scoters, I talked about trialling different count methods (from land/boat, from the air and taking aerial photos) – looks like the land/boat counts are by far the most accurate though we may do another trial ‘cos, if we can get the air surveys to work it’ll save a lot of time and money too. 

    I’ll come back to Slavonian grebes in a future blog as there’s lots to say and there’s still no word on when the divers or eagles are going to be on the One Show but we’ll let you know as soon as we do!  But I can say that those eagle chicks are doing well and have flown the nest – I took a wee look at them a couple of week’s back and they’re looking good!

    Prime Ring ouzel habitat.

    But I’ll finish this short look back with my two stand-out moments from some great memories of the 2012 season.  The first was in early June when I was out ouzel surveying and taking a wee breather.  When I’m in hill country I make a habit of scanning ridges just to see if anything is about.  On this occasion, I picked up a young pair of eagles some 5 kilometres away and the male was doing a bit of display which consists of a series of steep dives.  I kept looking through the binoculars and followed them as they came towards me – how quickly and effortlessly they covered those kilometres!  Before long they were looking pretty big in the bins –no wonder, they were right above me!  Then, and I’m sure the bird did it for fun, the male started displaying by stooping right towards me before pulling up (still a couple of hundred metres above me) and then starting over again.  The sight of an eagle heading right towards you at speed is quite a thrill and not something I’ll forget in a hurry!!

    And my second top moment was just at the weekend there.  I was almost back at the car after a few hours on the hill and noticed there were a lot of Black darter dragonflies about.  Rather than just walk by, I stopped and watched them for a wee while.  The way the sun glinted off their wings and turned them to molten copper was just beautiful and every bit as arresting as that displaying eagle.

    So, just two of mine - I wonder what your favourite moments with nature have been this year?  

  • Oasis

    Brand new blog from Conservation Manager Stuart Benn.


    No blog from me last week because I was well away from my usual habitat - travelling round the south of England on a fact-finding tour.  The idea behind the trip was to meet up with RSPB staff and talk to them about how they go about their jobs.  The Scottish Highlands and, say, East Anglia could scarcely look more different yet the principles of conservation and communication are the same and it’s good to pick up fresh ideas and think how they can be applied back home.

    No need to go into any of the details of the chats here but, instead, I’ll just highlight a couple of places that made a big impression.

    First up were the RSPB Reserves at Lakenheath Fen (near Cambridge) and Ham Wall which sits on the Somerset Levels under the shadow of Glastonbury Tor and which is twinned with the Shapwick Heath National  Nature Reserve next door.  A visit to any of those places in 1995 (during the heyday of Britpop – Pulp and Oasis were amongst the headliners at Glastonbury) would have revealed either carrot fields or worked-over peat diggings with a distinct lack of wildlife.  But, since then, those places have been taken on and managed by conservation organisations and the transformation has been nothing short of monumental.

    The main form of management has been to get water back on site and then let either nature take over or give it a helping hand by planting reeds and such like (these words do not even hint at the level of work that this entails!).   Today, these are fantastic wetlands – the home of cranes, bitterns, otters, dragonflies, egrets and hundreds of other species.  As a testament of what can be achieved with a lot of vision and a lot of work, I can’t think of better examples and they are truly inspirational places to visit. 

    The other wonderful places that we took in were the chalk grasslands at Denbies Hillside (a National Trust site near Dorking in Surrey) and the Dorset Coast between Durlston and Lulworth (owned and managed by the County Council and a private estate, respectively).

     These were alive with butterflies – Chalkhill blues, Silver-spotted skippers, Lulworth skippers, Gatekeepers, Walls, Marbled whites and a dozen or more other species.  The variety was great to see but it was the numbers that got me – clouds of them flitting over the hot turf and I’m sure I saw more butterflies there in a couple of hours than I have ever seen in total in my entire life.  Absolutely magical.

    We need more oases.