Davide Scridel, Research Assistant with RSPB Scotland, gives us a final update on his research work in the Outer Hebrides. Catch up on his previous posts here and here.
The second and third visits to the assigned 1km2 survey squares occurred from late May to early July. The latter was probably my favourite period here on the Hebrides, as the weather was exceptionally good after a comparably cold spring. Sunny, hot and long days were spent walking transects in search for the elusive twite; from heather-thick moors to flowering yellow-white-red Machair, ending in sandy beaches and turquoise-blue water.
Twite family group.
For the majority of squares surveyed during my initial visits, twite were found in similar locations. As the season progressed, however, small family groups with up to three juveniles were spotted seeking cover in thick heather, and occasionally feeding communally on road margins.
Road margins Hebridean style.
Road margins, which are sometimes overlooked in wildlife conservation, can benefit many species including twite. In June, these “disturbed” sites are heaven for different species of ruderal plants such as dandelions, which are an essential source of seeds for twite raising their young. By July, most dandelions have lost their seeds to the winds to be dispersed across the landscape. This is synchronised with another important food source for twite - common sorrel – which gets into fruiting just as the dandelions fade and is used to feed second and third broods. These plants, together with other favourites, such as Autumn hawkbit and common knapweed, are even more frequent in the machair, where a low-input system of agriculture allows rare European wildlife to flourish here. By mid-summer, the rich assemblage of breeding waders (oystercatcher, ringed plover, lapwing, redshank, snipe and dunlin), terns, corncrake, corn bunting, Belted Beauty moth and Great Yellow bumblebee, are surrounded by a rainbow of colour provided by the flowering Kidney vetch and Red clover present within the fallows of the machair.
While the data collected over the summer is currently being collated and analysed to re-assess the status of Twite within the UK, it seems clear that the Outer Hebrides remain one of the major strongholds for this finch in Britain due to the extensive system of farming.
After leaving the Hebrides in July, I was lucky to return at the end of August to assist with the Machair Life+ Conference. Machair Life+ is a four-year project that aimed to demonstrate that traditional crofting practices have a sustainable future. Machair habitat is extremely rare, and changes in local agricultural practices are now threatening the condition of the habitat and the conservation status of key flora and fauna populations. The conference was a great opportunity for the Hebrides where crofters, schools, local and national policy figures and academics gathered together to reflect on the importance of the machair.
During a lunch break I just could not resist going out to check on how twites were preparing for the approaching autumn. With a bit of surprise, I found over 30 adults and juveniles already assembled in a classic winter flock formation along the shore...just a perfect end to a twite-tastic season.
You can read Davide’s previous posts here:
All photos © Davide Scridel.