Alistair Baxter is completing a PhD investigating the reasons behind Dotterel declines in Scotland. Read on to find out more about his exciting work...
Dotterel declines in Scotland: Out of sight out of mind?
Over the last thirty years, National Surveys led by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have revealed dramatic declines in dotterel numbers across the UK. The most marked results have been the total disappearance of breeding dotterel from England, Wales, and many previously good breeding sites in Scotland. I am undertaking a PhD, aimed at identifying the factors leading to dotterel declines in Scotland over the last thirty years. It is easy to ignore bird species we rarely see or that are difficult to study, but I hope my work can shed some light on the reasons for declines in the dotterel and other montane bird species suffering a similar fate. Hopefully this project will be the catalyst to increasing interest and research in the uplands and I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences with dotterel and other montane bird species along the way.
Female dotterel singing on an early Cairngorm's morning.
Here’s a bit of background on all things dotterel (Charadrius morinellus for those who collect fancy Latin names). Dotterel are extremely charismatic migratory plovers (wading birds) not much bigger than a blackbird. They arrive into the UK in late March-early April from North Africa having spent the winter months basking in the Atlas Mountains and gorging themselves in preparation for their strenuous summer schedule. Some of these birds will choose to settle and breed in montane areas of Scotland, however; the main bulk will pass through the UK onto the main European breeding grounds in Norway. Dotterel can be seen on passage, most notably on several sites in East Anglia. Unfortunately, for those of you with memories long enough to recall commonly sighting large flocks (‘trips’), these occurrences are now few and far between; with dotterel declines in Norway thought to be at least as severe as those recorded in the UK.
Very snowy Cairngorms welcome the start of the field season.
After arriving in Scotland, dotterel head for mountain plateaus above 700m in altitude where they are to be found breeding until mid-August. Whatever the reasons for dotterel choosing to breed and spend their summers in some of the most inhospitable areas of the UK, this provides a researcher and outdoor enthusiast with the mouth-watering opportunity to carry out fieldwork in some truly breathtaking mountain surroundings!
A nice bright female dotterel.
The first fieldwork day dawned early and, through my inexperienced eyes, it was far too cold, misty, and ‘dreich’ for fieldwork....apparently not! I would soon find out this is actually an above average summer’s day on the Scottish tops. Unperturbed, James Gordon (my RSPB Research Assistant), Dr. Steven Ewing (RSPB supervisor), and I headed up one of the study sites I would be collecting the bulk of my data and intensively surveying over the next three field seasons. Predictably, having spent the previous month carrying out capercaillie surveys for the RSPB, James set the pace and as I puffed, cursed, and panted behind him I began to realise why the montane regions of Scotland remain so under-studied. However, as we emerged over the last rise, we were surrounded by mist and stood on a dense moss carpet which blanketed much of the summit plateau the effort became totally worthwhile and I felt privileged to have the chance to spend so much time in such a place.
With dotterel habitat use and habitat changes the particular focus of this first year, we spent most of the day on hands and knees rooting around in moss and heather and discussing teething issues with what I thought I’d so elegantly (if not slightly optimistically) planned in my office in Aberdeen. The following inevitable scaling back of my grand plans also seemed a feature of the first few days as the realisation of scale in mountain fieldwork became apparent. Despite all the changes in plans, still revelling at the possibility of effectively living in the mountains for the next four months I felt it had been an incredibly productive first day. There was however still time to see the bird I’d be studying for the next three years and a distinctive metallic “peep” had us all scanning the horizon. A bright female stood seemingly unafraid only 40m away. Partly because of their tame nature (defence mechanism to draw predators away from eggs/chicks), the gaelic name for dotterel is 'amadan-mòintich' meaning ‘fool of the moor’; presumably due the ease with which they could be caught/hunted. Despite this, dotterel can in fact be incredibly inconspicuous and not least when incubating eggs; you can walk within a metre of some incubating males and be none the wiser. It is fortunate the Scottish summer days are so long as locating dotterel, let alone incubating male dotterel, can be a time consuming and patience testing business. I have of course been lucky enough to see dotterel almost every day since and as a result of the obligatory eight to ten miles walk each day and five Munros (3000ft hills) a week the fieldwork has thankfully got a lot easier.
Incubating male dotterel- notice how dull it is compared with the female in the first photo.
Much of this year’s fieldwork is repeating ecology studies carried out during the 1980s by SNH. By re-assessing habitat availability, habitat quality, and invertebrate abundance we hope to see if changes in these factors have caused the declines in dotterel numbers since the 1980s. Even after a difficult start to this season, with huge amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures in May, the dotterel have begun to breed (better late than never!) and we are currently monitoring 11 nests across three sites. We focus nest searching on areas where only single male dotterel are present as this is taken as strong evidence of breeding. Unusually for a bird species it is only the males that incubate chicks. In fact, although on some sites females will contribute to incubating eggs there are no published records of females helping to rear chicks and they will usually leave the male about a day after laying the whole clutch of speckled brown eggs.
Male dotterel brooding three chicks.
Over the last three days we have had the first chicks of the season hatch and it seems all the nest finding effort early in the season is coming to fruition. The mountains seem thriving with life at the moment and I’ve found it amazing to see how the tops change over the dotterel breeding season, with dull grey moss turning to the deep pinky red of bilberry and the rich green of three-leaved rush. The birds are also at their noisiest and most vibrant at this time of year, with chicks of Golden plover, dunlin, and ptarmigan well on their way to fledging, parents are busy feeding hungry mouths and warding off those who get too close.
A “loafing” Ptarmigan – I’ve never seen a bird species that spends so much time sitting down!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my first instalment of this blog and I’ll bring you an update of how the remainder of this first field season panned out in August. Until then, keep your fingers crossed the stay at home dotterel dads are working as hard as we are, if so we’ll soon have juvenile dotterel on the wing and preparing for the long migration South!
All photos by Alistair Baxter.
Ellie Owen, RSPB Conservation Scientist, celebrates an important milestone with her team...
1000th Seabird Mystery Solved
The seabird tracking team 2013 celebrating an important milestone...
This week I have been thinking back to April 2010 when I, along with the rest of RSPB’s FAME seabird tracking team, headed out to my remote island sites to start the first season of catching and tagging seabirds on a scale and in a way that had never been attempted before. I remember the nervousness I felt. We had been given the opportunity, through EU funding, to solve one of the remaining mysteries in natural history – where do seabirds go when they leave the cliff to feed – but could we do it? It was urgent that we succeeded because seabirds are in trouble and in order to help we need to find out what they need to survive.
The task sounds near impossible on paper: (1) Catch a seabird using the age-old techniques used by St Kildans, where the bird is caught using a loop on the end of a 10m long pole. It is a careful, painstaking game of cat and mouse as the bird could fly away at any point if we make any sudden movements. (2) Attach a small ‘satnav’ style GPS tag to the plumage on its back using special tape. (3) Release the bird and leave it for a few days to record where it goes on its feeding trips. Sounds not too impossible so far... but then the hard part (4) Refind the same bird, which we do by catching birds on their nest sites so we know where to look for them, (5) Hope that the weather stays dry and calm so that we can (6) Recatch the same bird. This is tough because they remember us and are good at learning how not to be caught (...did I mention that the tags fall off after a few days so the clock is always ticking??). Finally, (7) Hope that the tag has functioned properly so that we can download the precious data so that it can be fast-tracked for conservation.
The first few weeks of tagging were difficult. Birds tested us, the weather battered us, and the technology failed us. We worked long hours trying, but failing to get any tags back. But gradually, we learned how to tweak the chances of being successful ever so slightly in our favour and the tags started to trickle in, almost to our surprise. Had we cracked it?
It is still a tough job and at times nerve-wracking but today is a very special day for anyone involved with the project, including all our supporters who have willed us on. We are in our 4th summer of tracking and have just managed to recatch and download our 1000th GPS logger. In a way we have just solved our 1000th seabird mystery. The 1000th bird is a Razorbill nicknamed ‘Sierra’ she was caught on the West of Scotland on the island of Colonsay where she nests on a secluded thrift covered cliff about 25 metres above the crashing Hebridean waves. From there, she was tagged and three days later our researchers Tessa and Emily saw that she was back. When you see a tagged bird is back and ready to be caught, it immediately starts your heart beating double time. As you rope up and then peer over the cliff, trying to be calm and quiet, you often catch a glimpse of the tag itself still attached to the bird. Being so close to the tag is tantalising as you are so near, but yet so far, the major test is still to come – would Sierra be caught? Luckily she would, but it was by no means an easy catch. As the loop touched the bird it started to close itself and the only thing keeping it on the bird was the curve at the tip of her razor sharp bill! After taking the tag off and releasing Sierra she returned to her egg and nestled down to incubate. It is a great feeling to see a bird looking settled after being caught. In 10 days time this egg will hatch revealing a mini razorbill chick, surely one of the cutest things in the whole of nature, but perhaps I am biased.
Razorbill with chick (RSPB Images)
When you get back to base you can download the data from the tag. It is a pure form of instant gratification because the data pops up on google maps, showing you exactly where the bird has been in great detail. Sierra’s map shows that she flew East over an amazing natural whirlpool called the corryvrekan and then flew over the north of Jura and spent time feeding in the water between Jura and the mainland of Scotland. Her clever backpack also tells us that she made over 400 dives of up to 25m depth while she was feeding. We have seen other Razorbills from Sierra’s colony feeding in the same place, especially in the area close to the whirlpool. It is likely that the fast flowing waters of these areas bring fish close to the surface so that the birds can save energy by only needing to make relatively shallow dives. I’d love to see them underwater, where they are truly in their element, whizzing around corralling fish. At the moment it is a mystery how they manage to do this in such fast flowing water. Perhaps soon we will have the technology to find this out too.
Sierra’s feeding trips
By the way, Sierra got her name after the ‘S’ that makes up the acronym of our new project ‘STaR’ – Seabird Tracking and Research. STaR builds on the findings of FAME, bringing in more sites, more species and more conservation! The data from FAME and STaR are already making a difference and if the weather, birds and technology allow it we will keep on tracking! Now that we have the data from 1000 birds safely in our possession I can admit that there were times when part of me thought that this project was impossible. Thanks to the skill of the team and our incredible birds, we’ve made it this far. But this is just the beginning. STaR is already making more progress by tracking birds at new sites up and down the British Isles. Only this week we managed another world first: we have worked out how to track the elusive black guillemot for the first time ever. But that is another story...
You can see more tracks by visiting www.FAMEproject.eu
Watch this space for more news on the STaR project!!
RSPB research assistants Chris Taylor and Derren Fox, give us an update on tracking seabirds on Orkney...
Tracking seabirds on Orkney
Seabird communities are great indicators of the health of the marine environment. This summer myself (Chris) and Derren Fox have been given the fantastic opportunity to assist with the monitoring of where seabirds are foraging for food. We have been attaching small GPS devices onto shags and razorbills and will soon be moving onto fulmar, kittiwake and guillemots. This information is crucial at a time when Marine Protected Areas are being discussed more and more.
Actually doing the tagging though is a small part of the process. In order to carry out this work there is a lot of preparation.
Training – we need to ensure we cause minimum disturbance to the seabirds to avoid affecting their behaviour. We have spent a lot of time with other experienced researchers to learn the ropes. We also need to make sure we can attach the devices securely to the birds so that we can recover the device.
Ellie Owen, Chris Taylor and our dummy Shag to refine our catching techniques. Photo by Derren Fox.
Preparation of tracking devices – GPS loggers need to be stripped down to minimise weight and charged and numbered so we can keep track of them.
GPS loggers being prepared for deployments. Photo by Chris Taylor.
Monitoring – we need to regularly observe our species so that we know how they are behaving. This is important so that we know what stage in the breeding season each species are at. If we try and deploy on a seabird too early there is a chance of the bird abandoning the nest. We also monitor the productivity (number of young each species are having) so that we can work out whether the seabirds are having a good or poor season. This can be compared against foraging tracks from similar species in other years when productivity might be higher or lower to see how foraging strategies may alter between seasons.
Razorbill by Chris Taylor
Arranging boats – We are currently working on three islands around Orkney. Copinsay, Muckle Skerry and Swona. We have to visit these three islands in rotation making sure that our timings fit in with how the seabirds progressing. Each time we go out to an island we also need to set up camp.
Field Station Base Camp on Muckle Skerry. Photo by Chris Taylor.
Catching the seabird – this can take a long time of stealthy fieldwork.
The actual tagging – this usually takes around 6 minutes then the bird is released either back to its burrow or out to sea. We then wait to watch the bird back on the nest and guard the area from gulls. Taking the device off a few days later takes about 5 minutes and we also take basic measurements from the bird (weight, etc.)
After razorbills we shall be tagging fulmar, a species with a long incubation and chick rearing period which is a little later than the Auks.
Fulmar by Chris Taylor.
Read more blogs from the STAR team here: