Allan Whyte, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer, tells us why May 21st is his favourite day of the year.
It's the most wonderful time of the year...
You’re probably reading this bleary-eyed, clutching a cup of coffee. I too was kept awake by excitement knowing that today is Natura 2000 day (it’s also International Waiter/Waitress Day and International Memo Day). The day when people all over the world feast, drink, embrace merriment and good will, celebrating a landmark piece of European legislation passed in 1992.
So what exactly are we celebrating? In May 1992 EU Governments adopted the Habitats Directive, a pivotal piece of legislation which complemented the 1979 Birds Directive. Central to both of these Directives was the establishment of a network of protected areas to safeguard the most vulnerable species and habitats, this network is known as Natura 2000.
The Birds Directive requires Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to be established to protect birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are required under the Habitats Directive.
Today, around 20% of European territory is protected, quite a feat when you consider how densely populated the continent is. However, for all the good offered by protected areas, biodiversity is still in decline, the main caused mainly by human activity.
Seabirds are the group of species under greatest threat in Scotland. We’ve lost half of our internationally important seabird populations since 1986 with kittiwakes, Arctic skuas and Arctic terns suffering some of the steepest declines.
Climate change is the biggest factor driving the drop in numbers due to the impact of warming seas on the marine food chain. Many seabirds like nothing more than a tasty sandeel, a small fish found in our cooler waters. The food that sandeels eat has become less abundant, which has affected sandeel populations and ultimately the numbers of seabirds.
Although many of Scotland’s seabird breeding areas are protected by the Natura 2000 network, the areas they go to feed on sandeels have been left unprotected (since 1979!), thereby exacerbating a significant problem.
Last week RSPB Scotland produced a report suggesting a list of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which should be urgently designated to protect seabird feeding areas. This is an action we feel is essential for building a network of both SPA sites and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect seabirds along our coasts and out to sea.
We are expecting an announcement on which MPAs (set up to protected species and habitats of Scottish importance) will be designated in June. If our proposed SPAs are established and additional MPAs are designated for nationally important seabird feeding areas, we can hope seabird populations will begin to recover. When, and if, this happens is a decision to be made in Holyrood, but time is scarce. Decisive action must be taken soon.
Having national designations (like MPAs) and international designations (like SPAs) are important to ensure that wildlife and habitats across Europe are properly protected. We need our Government to make sure that the right sites protect the right species and this is done in a timely manner.
The Natura 2000 network protects much of the wildlife we hold dear, so, celebrate tonight, treat yourself to meal and remember to send your waiter a memo wishing them a happy Natura 2000 day.
Stacey Adlard, a member of the Seabird Tracking and Research team (STAR), tells us about preparations for the upcoming season.
Seabird tracking project takes flight
Over the Easter weekend, the 2014 Seabird Tracking and Research (STaR) team descended on the RSPB Inverness office for first aid and rope training, getting to know each other, sorting and packing enormous amounts of kit, and an Easter egg hunt. Afterwards, the four teams dispersed across the country to their designated sites; this year, teams are based on Orkney, Fair Isle and Colonsay, with the new addition of a roving West Coast team - us.
We are made up of Stacey and Emily (Emily worked on the project last season on Colonsay, and Stacey has years of expertise from working with seabirds in the Antarctic!). Our role this season is to try and fill in the gap in the tracking data that currently stretches along the West coast of Scotland between Colonsay and all the way to Orkney, and to do reconnaissance surveys of a number of island sites which have the potential for use later in the season or in the future. As mid April is too early to start seabird tracking, we began with the reconnaissance part of our project.
After leaving Inverness, we drove South West to our first Island recce. Island number one was Ailsa Craig; the remains of an old volcanic plug, about 10 miles out to sea from the coastal town of Girvan in South Ayrshire. This steep-sided lump of granite is probably best known as being the island from which curling stones are produced, and remains of the quarrying could be seen in a number of places.
Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Curling stone quarry remains (photo: Stacey Adlard).
We spent two days on Ailsa Craig, in which time we circumnavigated the island and climbed to its summit. Although very dramatic and a fantastic place to visit, the seabirds were mainly very inaccessible, and as a result we are unlikely to be able to use the site for tracking later in the season.
The West Coast roving team (Emily and Stacey) on the summit of Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Cliffs on Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
After Ailsa Craig we headed to Oban and caught the ferry out to the Outer Hebrides. Our next adventure was to recce Berneray and Mingulay, which are the two southernmost islands in the Outer Hebrides. We packed our camping gear and chartered a boat. First stop was Berneray, where we were dropped off and left to explore. Berneray is a steep sided wedge shaped island with dramatic cliffs to the South and lower lying land stretching gently down to the sea to the North. As a result, some areas are great for seabirds, but totally inaccessible for us to reach them, whereas other areas are well within our reach, but too low for the seabirds to consider nesting on them! Despite this, we passed a pleasant couple of days; the highlights being watching a couple of otters playing along the shore, and the inquisitive grey seals that followed our every move as we traversed around the island.
Mingulay, as seen from Berneray (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Next stop was Mingulay, and the plan was the same; traverse around the island looking for suitable sites. In comparison to Berneray, Mingulay felt very civilised as we were able to sleep in the small converted bothy, occupied by the National Trust for Scotland warden and his two companions who were working on the old chapel house ruin to stabilise it. I spent my birthday on Mingulay, and in addition to my human companions, shared it with 4 sea eagles, several hundred grey seals, two corncrakes and a lot of seabirds (although only the humans shared the chocolate cake!).
The Old School House bothy on Mingulay (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Grey seals enjoying a day at the beach on Mingulay (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Next destination on our road trip was the Flannan Isles. This remote group of islands lies 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis, and we enjoyed an exhilarating ride aboard a very powerful RIB to get us there. The dramatic arches and stacks are evidence of the fierce Atlantic storms that batter the islands during the winter months. An unsolved mystery surrounds the Flannan Isles; just over 100 years ago, all three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared from the island without trace. These days the lighthouse is automated and tended by helicopter. The Flannans appear to be summer breeding grounds for vast numbers of puffins, razorbills and fulmars, many conveniently positioned for us to track later in the season. I suspect the trickiest part of working here will be finding a space big enough to pitch a tent that the puffins haven’t already claimed!
The Flannan Isles (photo: Stacey Adlard).
After these reconnaissance surveys, the time came for us to get ready for the tracking part of our season. This meant we needed electricity and a base to work from, instead of living in a van and tent, so we headed for Skye for a couple of weeks to charge, discharge, test, recharge and test again (!!!), all of our 169 tracking devices and get everything else ready for the season.
Tracking devices discharging at night (photo: Stacey Adlard).
When tracking commences, the first stop for us will be the Shiant Islands (between Skye and the Outer Hebrides), where we intend to start with Shags and Razorbills. The other STAR teams will also be starting their tracking work around now so best of luck to them, and here’s hoping for a good and successful season for both human and seabird alike!
Trainee Ecologist, Genevieve Dalley, introduces us to the world of freshwater invertebrates.
Through the looking glass
Water is a mysterious thing. When looking at it, most people see nothing more than a reflection. But, if you slip past the surface, there is a whole other world waiting, with its own stories and an alien set of characters.
Here, there really are fairies, dragons and monsters of the not-so-deep...
Blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans).
Emperor dragonfly larvae (Anax imperator).
Water Scorpion (Nepa cinerea).
My new job as a Trainee Ecologist, specialising in freshwater invertebrates, allows me to delve into this secret world. And I would like to bring others with me.
So, let me introduce you to a lesser-known star of the stream. This is the story of the Orange-striped stonefly.
The orange-striped stonefly. Taken at Dovestone RSPB reserve by Ken Gartside. Photo via www.WildaboutBritain.co.uk.
Stoneflies (Plecoptera) are ancient insects, with the first fossils dating from 250 million years ago. They live as larvae in freshwater, sometimes the formidable top predators of their habitat, until they reach the correct size and emerge as flying adults. However, unlike more familiar insects, such as butterflies and moths, stoneflies do not have a pupal stage between young and adult.
Stoneflies require high oxygen levels and so are very sensitive to organic pollution in freshwater, which reduces the amount of oxygen available to them. They are therefore very good indicators of water which does not contain organic pollution. Interestingly, many species are not so sensitive to heavy metal pollution, with healthy populations found downstream of disused lead mines.
The Orange-striped stonefly (Perlodes microcephalus) is widespread throughout Europe. It was previously believed that all stoneflies identified in Britain as P.microcephalus were the same species. However, recent work has revealed that Britain in fact has its own species, the British Orange-striped stonefly (Perlodes mortoni), now classified as a new, separate species found only in the UK. This exciting discovery means that the distribution and conservation status of both P.microcephalus and P.mortoni in Britain is thrown into question.
The two species look very similar. It is not yet possible to tell the larvae apart. In fact, the only way to distinguish between them is by differences between the structure of the eggs and the length of the wings on an adult male. P.mortoni adult males are flightless, with their wings reduced to stubs, while P.microcephalus males have a range of wing lengths, some with fully formed wings. To confuse things further, females of both species have fully formed wings.
These stoneflies can be seen as adults between March and July. However, the peak emergence period is May, so now is the best time to see them. Orange-striped stonefly adults are quite big (males: 13-18mm, females: 16-23mm) and, as the name suggests, the adults have a very visible orange stripe running from the top of the head and across the prothorax (the first body section after the head). You can look for them beside rivers and streams, sheltering under rocks, crevices and other structures such as bridges.
Adult male Periodes mortoni, the British orange-striped stonefly. Photo via www.riverflies.org.
It is important to learn more about the species so we can protect them. If you come across an Orange-striped stonefly it would be very helpful if you could collect it and send it to the Riverfly Recording Scheme. For more information on this, visit the Buglife website, the Riverflies Trust website, or contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By doing this, you will be giving vital information on the status of the species in Britain and helping to conserve this beautiful and important animal.