July, 2014

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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.
  • Bee beetle bonanza

    RSPB Scotland Trainee Ecologist Kirsty Godsman is back with a new blog.

     Bee Beetle Bonanza

    I think there is just about enough time left this month to introduce you to July’s beetle of the month.

    The bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus)

    The bee beetle might just be my favourite beetle (and I don’t make a habit of statements like that if I don’t really mean it!). If ever there was a case for insects being cute and furry too, this is it.

    As the name suggests, this is a beetle that mimics bees. This is known as Batesian mimicry and it confuses any potential predator of the harmless beetle into thinking that it is a dangerous, sting-bearing bee. There are many insects that copy the yellow and black colouration of bees and wasps. The aptly named wasp beetle, for example, is a longhorn beetle that does quite a good impersonation of a wasp.


    The wasp beetle (Clytus arietis).

    The masters of this trick though, in my opinion, are the flies. It took me years to trust that marmalade hoverflies were not going to sting me and sometimes you need to get really close before you can say it isn’t a bee or a wasp (hint: they have huge eyes, shorter antennae than bees and wasps and one pair of wings rather than two – although this last feature can be difficult to spot).


    The deer botfly (Cephenemyia species) An incredibly convincing bee mimic. If this was a bee, however, there would be an obvious pair of antenna protruding from between the eyes.

    But back to the bee beetle. This particular species is a scarab beetle of the Trichiinae family. Their larvae develop in rotting birch stumps – quite a niche! The adults are often found wrestling each other on flower heads for nectar sources and mating opportunities. Look out for them on melancholy thistles, these seem to be a favourite.


    Three surprisingly strong bee beetles fighting for this melancholy thistle flower head.

    This species has a very disjointed distribution in the UK, being found predominantly in Wales and the Highlands. But if you do find yourself in the right area, they can be found from June to September so now is as good a time as any to get out there and see these incredible species for yourselves.


    The distribution of the bee beetle in the UK from NBN Gateway.

  • What a brilliant breeding season!

    Senior Research Assistant, Rob Hughes and Aberdeen University PhD student, Marianna Chimienti are back with an update from Fair Isle as part of the RSPB’s Seabird Tracking and Research (STAR) project. 

    What a brilliant breeding season!

    Here we are again, Rob and Marianna, the Fair Isle team updating you about the amazing breeding season that we have had this year!

    Despite the bad weather, the strong wind and the fog, we managed to keep our tracking work going and to enjoy the beautiful views that Fair Isle is able to give after a day of heavy rain.

    View from the harbour - Marianna Chimienti

    By the beginning of July we managed to get 17 Razorbill and 5 Guillemot tracks back. They were all feeding much closer to Fair Isle than in recent years. One Guillemot only foraged about 15 miles South of Fair Isle. Lots of fish are being brought into the colony (mostly Gadoids). It is no surprise that this has been one of the most successful breeding seasons for Auks in quite a few years. Most Razorbills at the Easter Lother and South Gunnawark tracking colonies have fledged a chick this year. The observatory has ringed more Guillemot chicks this year, than the previous four years put together! 

    Common guillemots (Uria aalge) displaying fish at the colony - Rob Hughes

    Rob is doing a Research Masters at Bangor University studying the diving behaviour of Razorbills, using the time/depth recorders. The time/depth recorders (TDR’s), record pressure and temperature every one second. A comparison is being made between Colonsay (with relatively good breeding success) and Fair Isle (with poor breeding success years). In particular, dive duration, dive profiles, diel patterns and tide patterns are being compared.

    As part of Marianna`s PhD, this year on Fair Isle we started to deploy a new type of tag on Razorbills, a 3-axis accelerometer. These devices aim to highlight the underwater behaviour and the searching strategy of these diving predators. Recording the acceleration of the diving seabirds while foraging it will be possible to have new information about how and when they look for their prey and their movements in three dimensions.

    Example of the tracking loggers that we are using. From left to right: combination GPS + TDR, GPS only, combination GPS + Accelerometer - Marianna Chimienti

    From the two tracks we have so far, kittiwakes are also feeding closer to Fair Isle, it is still a bit too soon to see if they have been successful yet. However, Rob did see a fledged bird flying about this week. Elsewhere on the island, non-tracked species such as Arctic Skua seems to be having much better success than usual. This is perhaps due to the good numbers of fish being brought into the colony by the species they parasitise.

    We are currently working on tracking fulmars. We have managed to get four GPS loggers back from these birds so far. They are feeding in similar areas to in previous years one or two may have been taking advantage of the good jellyfish numbers around the island at the moment as fulmar have been known to eat these, though I can’t imagine they taste very good! We still have another couple of weeks work on fulmars until we have to leave the island, so fingers crossed for more information to finally tell us where the birds are feeding so that we can recommend appropriate protection of these areas. 

    Check out previous blogs from the team here: http://bit.ly/1uyhPbd 

  • Warming up to moths


     I have a bit of a confession to make. Moths used to really give me the willies.

    In fact, if I’m completely honest, they’re still not my favourite beastie. But the thing about working for a conservation charity like the RSPB, is that I can’t really avoid them. So like those giant spiders that suddenly appear indoors in September (eek!) I’ve had to find a way to live with them.

    But I think it’s probably fair to say that I’m not alone in my moth aversion; lots of people seem to have a rather ambiguous attitude towards them. Unlike the butterflies that we welcome to our gardens, moths are seen as cloth-eaters, and share the same shady world of nocturnal fear that we ascribe to bats (which of course eat moths, as do spiders, frogs, toads and even owls).

    Maybe it’s the fluttering thing, or their fuzzy bodies and weird faces that have us shooing them out whenever they come indoors, or hiding under the duvet when you end up with one clattering inside your light shade.

    But moths are harmless creatures in their adult form. It’s the grubs that eat clothes, and only a tiny, tiny percentage of the 2,500 species we have in the UK do that, the rest of them preferring leaves, lichens, wood and even other caterpillars. Many adult moths don’t feed at all, and don’t even have a mouth, though a few specialists drink nectar from night-flowering plants like honeysuckle. It’s why mothers (that’s moth-ers) use a sweet mixture to attract them for study, often called ‘treacling’.

    Garden tiger moth

    If you’d like to face your moth terror, then it’s a good idea to go along to one of these moth treacling sessions, or any sort of organised moth-trapping event. I’ve been several times now, and I would definitely say that my attitude towards moths has veered away from fear towards fascination.

    When the moths come out of the trap, they’re sleepy (well, they’ve been up all night!) so they’re not fluttering about in the way so many people find freaky. And the colours of them! Wow. You can look at pictures, you can watch nature programmes on TV, but until you’ve been eyeball to mothy-eyeball with an elephant hawk-moth, or a garden tiger, nothing can quite describe how beautiful they are.

    They’re like cartoons almost, every bit as colourful as tropical birds. And they’re in your garden. And you’re hiding from them under the duvet…

    So if you want some advice this summer, while most moths are flying, get yourself along to a moth event. And maybe next time when you see a moth head-butting your window, instead of running away, you’ll be grabbing your moth book and trying to figure out what it is.

    Elephant hawk-moth

    All pics by Jenny Tweedie