June, 2014

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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.
  • Tracking seabirds and tackling the Stenness Monster

    This summer, researchers will be out and about fitting satellite tags to seabirds as part of the Seabird Research and Tracking (STaR) project. The aim is to learn more about where fantastic species like shags, kittiwakes and razorbills forage for food. This summer, STaR team member Derren Fox is back in Orkney. Read on to find out about his work.

    Tracking seabirds and tackling the Stenness Monster

    Team Orkney saw a change this year, with Tegan Newman from team Fair Isle 2013 joining me. We arrived in Orkney in late April and settled into our house in Burray, a small island connected to Mainland Orkney by the barriers.

    As with the other STAR (Seabird Tracking And Research) teams we had plenty of work to do setting up and testing the iGotU loggers we use to track the birds movements during the season.

    Some of the 140 loggers we have been setting up for the season ahead - Photo Tegan Newman

    Like last year, we are working on three small, uninhabited islands off the coast of mainland Orkney. These islands (Copinsay off the east coast of Deerness, Muckle Skerry in the Pentland Firth and Swona, to the East of South Ronaldsay) are all rat free and now uninhabited by human beings. They provide the perfect conditions for studying seabirds in their natural environments as they are undisturbed by humans and free from land based predators. These islands do however present certain logistical problems for the modern seabird fieldworker, namely no water and little shelter for the five-day stays necessary for our tracking studies. To carry out our work we take everything we need to survive on these remote islands, from tents, food and water to tracking devices and a laptop to download and store the data from the loggers.Plus enough supplies for a few extra days in case of any delays in being picked up due to weather, tides or other unexpected issues.

    Our survey work started with a recce trip to Copinsay to ascertain how the birds are faring this season and allow us to assess when to start our GPS deployment work. We begin our deployments only once the birds are well settled on eggs, or on small chicks. This makes certain that the birds are established on their nest sites and that our work will have as little impact on their productivity as possible. We were pleased to see the birds on the island doing well compared to last year, with the shags (the first species we work on each year, as they breed early in the season) laying and some already on full clutches of eggs.

    Tegan, Lucy and I on Copinsay.

    There were also tentative signs of a more positive season than 2013 for some other species like kittiwakes, here in greater numbers, and guillemots, back on some colonies in better numbers than last year too. We were joined on this trip by Lucy Quinn who was a member of the Irish contingent of the team last year- she is now working for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) on a shag research project, assessing overwintering survival and return rates of birds to their breeding grounds.

    Before we started our island stay we managed to take on the ‘Stenness Monster’ a local beast, made up of 8 scoops of Orkney ice cream and a huge waffle cone at the ice cream parlour in Stenness. All team members successfully completed the initial challenge but were more intimidated by the further challenge of eating two. A few fearless souls managed to  consume a stomach churning three, yes three of these chilly behemoths!


    Tegan and the 'Stenness Monster'.

    Our first trip to Copinsay for a deployment trip yielded some good data, with the shags proving to carry out their usual short range foraging trips, within a few kilometres of the island. We also managed to tag a few razorbills, undoubtedly the smartest member of the auk family, and these were carrying out some encouragingly short foraging trips as well. Although a little tentative at this early stage, and with only a few tracks to back up the conclusion, it made us more hopeful that the birds would have a better season as they were finding food in close proximity to the colonies that they breed in, rather than having to carry out marathon trips down to the Aberdeenshire coast as they were last year.

    Our second trip was to Muckle Skerry, the largest island in the Pentland Skerries group, to the south of South Ronaldsay in the Pentland Firth. This island, although now uninhabited by humans is never quiet, especially at this time of year. It is alive with the drumming of innumerable snipe and the displays of meadow pipits in vast numbers inland. Around the coast, the seabirds nest in burrows, under boulders and on the distinctive ledges formed by the Old Red Sandstone of Orkney’s distinctive geology.

    Fulmar at sunset from Muckle Skerry.

    The signs here were encouraging too, with razorbills carrying out short foraging trips, both around the island and into the Pentland Firth. The island is an unusual one, with no grazing for many years, the flat top is covered with large tussocks of grass, making getting around a challenging and sometimes frustrating task. It also seems to provide the perfect breeding grounds for an unwelcome creature, the midge! These tiny creatures make life unpleasant at times, and work a little interesting, trying to concentrate on moving stealthily up on a bird and quietly handling and deploying our loggers on birds is hard when it feels like you are being eaten alive!

    The highlight of the trip was a sighting of four killer whales, seen a few hundred metres off shore one afternoon. Fieldwork kit was dumped (carefully) on the ground and we did our best to keep up with them as they travelled along the south coast at speed, a few falls in the tussocks later we saw them disappear out of site to the north. Thinking ourselves lucky, we were stunned to get a very close up view of a lone male on the day we left the island, just a few metres from the boat. The closest view either of us has ever had, we could see this graceful creature below the water as the Firth was unusually calm at this time as the tides changed.

    Orca in the Pentland Firth.

    After a short stop on the Mainland, in which we had to wash ourselves (for the first time in nearly a week!), our clothes and prepare more loggers and our field kit for our next trip, we headed back to Copinsay to carry on tagging the shags and razorbills and also make a start on the kittiwakes and guillemots now that they are on eggs and small chicks. This was an encouraging time for us with more birds in the colonies than 2013 and the trips they were making to forage for food being very short compared to previous years. The highlight of the second trip, for me at least, was sending Tegan into a lovely cave whose colloquial name is unmentionable, and was referred to by Rob as ‘the cave that smells of death’. She came out a little the worse for wear and a few days later I delighted in sending her back in to recatch the shag and retrieve the logger. All in the name of bird science and Tegan’s personal and professional development of course!

    Tegan after trip two in the 'cave that smells of death!'

    We were joined on the last day of our trip by Uwe Stoneman. Uwe is reserves manager for the RSPB Tay Reserves and carrying out a sabbatical in Orkney which is an art based project, exploring heritage connections between people and seabirds on Orkney. Check out Uwe’s fantastic blog here and learn more about the Seabird Heritage Project here. Why not join in and make a bird for the ever growing flock too?

    That’s all from Orkney for now, why not check out how the other teams are doing on Fair Isle, the west coast, and in a few weeks from Colonsay.

     All the best, Derren

     Check out Derren’s blogs from 2013 here.

  • Victory in Strathy South battle but the campaign continues

    Conservation officer Kenny Graham reflects on a victory in the battle against Strathy South and highlights the next steps in the campaign.


    Photo Credit: Norrie Russell

    Beautiful, isn’t it? The Flows - arguably the biggest single expanse of blanket bog in Europe - are un-matched by anything in the UK. They are on the tentative list for inscription as a World Heritage Site; the bogs, dubh lochans and transitional mires support sphagnums and sundews, otters and water voles; and the suite of rare birds is an ornithologists dream.


    Many will remember the raft of inappropriate non-native forestry that was planted in the 70s and 80s, the public outcry that saw it stopped and the subsequent forest-to-bog restoration work that has since been undertaken. We’ve made great progress: pulling millions of pounds worth of funding in with our partner organisations, creating sustainable jobs, and learning more about the bog’s nationally important carbon storage capacity (an estimated 400 million tonnes). Our reserve at Forsinard is not only the biggest in the UK, its six full time staff and six research and/or volunteering posts represent sustainable rural employment in one of the region’s most fragile areas.


    So why would anyone put a windfarm in the middle of it? We’ve been advising developer Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) of our concerns with the Strathy South site since 2004. The windfarm is predicted to kill or displace red-throated divers, black-throated divers, hen harriers, greenshanks and one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds, the wood sandpiper. Birds such as golden plover, dunlin and golden eagle are also present and we want to improve the Flows by continuing to restore habitat lost to them as a result of forestry.


    Photo Credit: Laurie Campbell (rspb-images.com)

    Thankfully, Highland Council last week recommended refusing SSE’s planning application for Strathy South. While the Scottish Ministers will be the final arbiters, the vote by councillors of 12:3 to refuse the application - contrary to their own planner’s recommendation - is a landslide victory and a real wake up call to SSE. We need sustainable renewable energy, but it must come from developments of the right scale in the right location. SSE’s Strathy South is simply bonkers.


    Photo credit: Norrie Russell

    So what now? The Scottish Government is required to hold a Public Local Inquiry into Strathy South. This means that the pertinent areas of the application will be discussed in detail in the public domain. The PLI will be overseen by a Reporter appointed by the Scottish Government, who will collate the results and produce a recommendation for ministers, who will then determine whether to approve the application. A PLI is a very involved and costly process and we will be pushing SSE very hard to drop the application - and save the public purse massive unnecessary expense.

    But that is not the whole story. There is a second windfarm proposal adjacent to Strathy South called Strathy Wood, which is also bonkers. E.On are seeking consent to put turbines on the actual SPA/SAC and on non-designated partially restored peatland areas. Their proposal will see three pairs of hen harriers, a pair of red-throated divers and upland waders compromised if consent is granted. The application still has to come before Highland Council for their recommendation to the Scottish Government. Our postcard campaign has been encouraging folk to vote against both Strathy Wood and Strathy South and we need to keep the pressure on to get as many objections as possible in to Highland Council and the Scottish Government over the coming months. So please add your weight and object, or at the very least join our epetition. For more information please see rspb.org.uk/strathywood or rspb.org.uk/strathysouth. 

  • The gardener's saviour

    RSPB Trainee Ecologist, Kirsty Godsman, introduces us to the black snail beetle.

    The gardener's saviour

    I would like to introduce you to my June beetle of the month - a wonderful little beetle that you may not be aware of but that you might soon hope to find in your garden...the black snail beetle.

    The black snail beetle (Silpha atrata).

    This beetle belongs to the same family as the burying beetles that are better known for their habit of burying dead animals underground and laying eggs on them and for being associated with carcases in general. Not very pleasant perhaps but we all have to make a living somehow! Now the black snail beetle (although not always black) is known for having a different strategy. They eat snails.


    A greedy black snail beetle and an unfortunate snail. Photo via www.eakringbirds.com

    So gardeners rejoice! This is yet another species of beetle that can help you out in times of snail abundance (along with glow worms and many predatory ground beetles). And the larvae are known for eating snails too! (Not that I have anything against snails... I quite like them actually!)


    UK distribution of the black snail beetle via NBN Gateway.

    Their distribution in the UK looks quite patchy but some put this down to the fact that they hunt at night and less people go beetle hunting at night. So never fear, if there isn’t a yellow dot near you – this could just be down to a lack of records rather than a lack of beetles.

    A red black snail beetle.

    So aside from this beetle’s habit of devouring snails, it is fairly easy to identify and comes in a variety of colours. What more could you ask for? The colour can vary from black through to red. It can be separated from other burying beetles by its very narrow and long head (all the better to eat snails with) and because the front of its thorax (the section immediately behind the head) is completely rounded. It also has four quite distinct ridges along the length of its wing cases. It is a fair size for a British beetle – 10 to 15mm so shouldn’t be too difficult to spot. Although you may need to look in moss or under wood and bark as this is where they are reported to be found most regularly. They have been found in habitats as varied as woodlands, gardens, coasts and more. I have found them under a log on the Pentland hills and amongst sand dunes on the coast of Coll so keep your eyes peeled!