August, 2013

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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.
  • It’s the best time of the day...

    RSPB Conservation Manager Stuart Benn is looking forward to the Big Wild Sleepout. Will you be participating?

    It’s the best time of the day...

    I’ve always been something of a magpie, always on the lookout for pictures or words that ‘stick to the eyes’, things that I can keep in mind and refer back to. So, when I was on the Tube a couple of weeks ago and saw an advert with the tagline – ‘It’s the best time of the day, the night-time’ – it stayed with me.

    And that image neatly sums up the thinking behind the RSPB’s Big Wild Sleepout – a chance to experience being out at night, to peer into that unfamiliar world, to see things in a different light, to be a part of the magic.

    Well it’s nearly here, it’s next weekend, are you up for it?! We know that there’s loads of people coming up with their own ideas or signing up to the organised events up and down the country and our fingers are crossed that the weather will cooperate.

    Tent and moth trap.

    Last weekend we delved into the cupboard, got the tent out and headed up into the glens for a dry (hopefully!) run. We arrived mid-evening and found the perfect spot, beautiful and still, with the spotted flycatcher, redstart, swallow and house martin families having a great time trying to put a dent in the local midge population. But, a bit of repellent saw us alright as we got the tent up and set out a couple of moth traps. Soon done and then all we needed to do was relax with a cup of tea and watch the world soften and darken until the only light came from the traps and the twinkling stars.

    Spotted flycatcher (RSPB images).

    We turned in for a sound sleep as the lovely night turned into a lovely morning – up early but the birds had beaten us to it and were already on midge patrol. Quick cup of tea and then it was time to check the traps. It’s been said that there’s a bit of theatre about checking a moth catch and it does feel like that – you never quite know what you’ll find, it’s a voyage of discovery and the chance to get up close to such beautifully patterned insects is always fun.

    Brin thought so too and checked out an Antler moth – still doing OK here in the north but in big trouble further south as is the case with the redstarts, flycatchers and hundreds of other species. We need to find out why this is happening and start putting it right – pronto.    

    Brin and Antler moth.

    We were all done by 9am so could leisurely pack up as the day warmed – and there was still nearly all of it ahead of us to enjoy!

    It had been great fun - the night-time really is the best part of the day. But don’t take my word for it, join us this weekend for moths, walks, bats, campfires, stars, surprises, mystery and find out for yourself!

  • Dramatic seabird breeding failures in Orkney for another season

    RSPB Seabird Surveyor, Thalassa McMurdo-Hamilton, gives us an update on the Orkney seabird breeding season.

    Dramatic seabird breeding failures in Orkney for another season

    Welcome to the second Orcadian seabird blog (to read the first blog click here). This past month has been full of ups and downs for me as a seabird surveyor. This month, it’s been all about guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake chicks: hatching, survival and fledging.

    We’ve expanded our productivity monitoring to razorbills and shags. Shags appear to be doing well, with many fledged young visible along the cliffs at the moment. I’ve also learned that razorbills sit even more tightly on their eggs and chicks than guillemots. It makes for some long watches but it’s worth it when you get a glimpse of a chick beak poking out from the top of the adult’s wing! From both plots, I’ve had a few successful jumplings but it’s a mixed picture for this species and one that won’t become clear until the end of the season, or even after a few years of monitoring.

    A razorbill brings in some sandeels for a young chick, at Marwick Head.

    The same chick, a bit older and close to leaving the cliff ledge, looking like a mini adult!

    Guillemots are also struggling and it is shaping up to be a disappointing season. There has been quite a bit of variation between the colonies, for example, chicks began to hatch a whole week earlier on the east coast than the west coast. At Mull Head in the east, from a total of 70 pairs, less than ten chicks fledged, and the breeding tailed off dramatically towards the end leaving the cliff face empty of auks by mid-July. At Marwick Head in the west, after losing three-quarters of the guillemots on eggs within around a week, I had only one small shelf left. The birds there hung on, and with seven medium-large sized chicks, I had high hopes! In the end, only 6 chicks fledged out of 63 pairs.

    At another unmonitored location on the east coast, I was lucky enough to see 6 guillemot chicks leaving the cliff ledges! They had some loud encouragement from an adult below, and sometimes a bit of a tap on the head as encouragement on the edge.

    This year we have spent some time looking at how often food is brought to the guillemot chicks and what type it is. It’s really enjoyable as I get to see lots of fascinating behaviours and I always enjoy seeing food coming into the colony. Recently, I saw a guillemot coming in with a display fish. However, it seemed the perfect size to feed a growing chick and attracted quite a lot of loud attention from the brooding adults. Eventually it was wrestled out of its beak, but dropped to the ground on the ledge. One smart parent clocked it very quickly, picking it up off the ground and feeding it quickly to its chick. Even the interesting behaviour was not enough to distract me from the fact that very small amounts of prey were being brought to chicks.

    My final ledge of guillemots at Marwick Head that I grew quite attached to – can you tell which ones are brooding chicks?

    There really is no good news for the kittiwakes this season. The seriousness of the situation is making everyone take notice and you may have heard me talking on BBC Radio Orkney earlier this month. Kittiwakes becoming media darlings is not enough to rescue the situation however and after a very slow start, few pairs laid eggs and even fewer made it to chick stage. At this point in the season (late July) even large colonies with almost 100 pairs have been reduced to less than 5 birds. Although it was predicted that this year would be bad, it is still very sad to see so many empty nests.

    A deserted colony on the Brough of Birsay which holds just one nest with kittiwake chick in mid July (marked by red circle).

    Why are kittiwakes and guillemots doing so badly? These species are sensitive to prey quality and availability. Kittiwakes are surface divers and cannot access the wide range of food in the whole water column that other species can. Guillemots, despite being able to dive up to 60m to find their prey, can only carry one prey item at a time. Therefore if the only prey they can find is small or of poor quality, they cannot make up for this by carrying more food. Due to rising sea surface temperatures around Orkney waters, breeding seabirds’ key prey item, the sandeel, is simply not found in high numbers anymore. It is believed that poor food availability is the main driver of the long-term seabird declines in Orkney – it’s not just kittiwakes and guillemots that are suffering.

    I will be writing again soon to summarise the year, including a fulmar update and the final outcome of the kittiwake season. In the mean time, there are still plenty of beautiful wildflowers along the cliffs, as well as amazing behaviours to be observed, so put your boots on and admire our coastlines – they may look very different in the years to come.


    Marwick Head in sea fog – a landscape that may fall silent in years to come.

    All photos by Thalassa McMurdo-Hamilton

  • Station to Station

    Trainee ecologist , David Freeman, gives us an update on his summer in the field...

    Station to Station

    Since my last blog just over a month ago I have been rushed off my feet! I’ve been flitting about the entirety of Scotland, taking the train from station to station and watching country roads slide by car windows. I will attempt to describe some of the highlights here, although one blog can not hope to do justice to all the amazing places I’ve been to!

    View of the lovely Inversnaid reserve.

    The first place to mention has to be the enchanting Inversnaid. I only spent a brief time at this reserve, which is well loved by hikers following the West Highland Way. It has spectacular scenery and a fantastic assemblage of species which are of interest to both birders and botanists. This does however include a few species I was less than happy to be introduced to and Inversnaid sticks in my memory as my first real encounter with the relentless menace of midges, cleggs(horseflies) and ticks.

    Crystal and Chris survive the midges!

    Inversnaid did however teach me some valuable lessons and for my next visit to Wood of Cree I was well prepared for the biting fauna. My visit to Wood of Cree was particularly interesting as it gave me andChris (the other trainee) a chance to explain a bit about Bryology (mosses) and Mycology(fungi) to the area warden Crystal Maw as she showed us around the reserve. This was a really rewarding experience and I felt that I learnt a lot. The reserve itself is a great place. It’s a huge area of beautiful ancient woodland situated in the south west of Dumfries and Galloway filed with a fantastic range of habitats and some scenic waterfalls. Well worth braving the midges for.

    Chris and David at Inversnaid.

    The week after this I was swept off to the British Bryological Society’s field meeting on the remote island of Raasay off the coast of Skye. This time represents possibly the most enlightening and useful week I have spent during my contract. The week was spent recording the bryophyte flora of a range of habitats present on the island, with a group of experts and amateurs. Raasay proved to be a diverse place for bryophytes. I benefited greatly from seeing a range of new species and getting expert advice in identification techniques. One particular tip which sticks in my mind is the distinctive taste of Pressia quadrata an otherwise unassuming thallose liverwort. This plant, when nibbled, has strikingly hot peppery taste which lingers for a good few hours. It has proved to be a disgusting but reliable way to identify P.quadrata. The highlight of my time at Raasay has to have been seeing the rare Geocalyx graveolens. This small and unremarkable looking liverwort again has a distinctive identifying feature. It has an unusual smell of turpentine and this gives it itss common name of Turpswort. I feel I should point out while I find all these unusual and frankly at times disgusting smell and tastes fascinating, there are plenty of more appetising bryophytes about. The example that comes to mind is Frullania fragilifolia which when rubbed gives off a wholesome perfumed smell which is quiteremarkable.

    View of the Raasay coastline.

    This is really just a snapshot of the places I have been to in recent weeks. Places deserving of a quick mention include Glenborradale, Crannach, Loch Leven and Insh Marshes. Each one deserves a blog all to it’s self. Looking to the next few months I’m going to be just as active with a FSC course in Wales next week, field work at Forsinard the week after and almost the entirety of September up in Orkney.