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.

  • 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

     

  • Chicks galore!

    Seabird Tracking and Research (STaR) team member, Ruth Brown, gives us an update on her work tagging seabirds on Colonsay.

    Chicks galore!

    For the fifth year running the RSPB STaR team has returned to the island of Colonsay for the summer months. This year the team consists of Tessa Cole, who is well known to many local residents after four seasons on the island, and myself, who is new to the project. Colonsay is part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, lying north of Islay and south of Mull, and can be reached by a two-hour ferry journey from Oban. The dramatic cliffs on the west coast of the island are home to around 50,000 breeding seabirds, including 26,000 guillemots (1% of the entire UK population), making this an ideal location for studying the habits of these fascinating birds.

     

    Team Colonsay 2014 - Ruth and Tessa looking ‘field chic’, with the seabird cliffs at Pig’s Paradise, Colonsay in the background (photo by Tessa Cole).

     

    The rugged coastline of Colonsay (photo by Ruth Brown).

    Tessa and I arrived on Colonsay back in April and, like the other STaR teams, spent our first few weeks setting up and testing the various tracking devices that we will be deploying throughout the summer. As well as GPS tags, which tell us where the birds are going, and TDR tags, which tell us how deep they are diving, this year we will also be deploying accelerometers for a study being conducted by Marianna Chimienta (PhD student, Aberdeen University). These futuristic devices record a 3D map of exactly what a bird is doing when it is underwater, giving us the most detailed picture yet of how these birds find and collect food.

    On Colonsay we are focusing on tracking four species – European shags, razorbills, common guillemots and kittiwakes. The data we collect will be added to that from earlier years to help determine where and how these birds are feeding when they are at sea - information that is vital in order to provide long term protection for these species. This year our tracking work got off to a slow start as many birds started breeding later in the season than they have in other years. This may be due to the particularly severe weather conditions of last winter, which caused high mortality among seabirds and left surviving birds in poor condition. However, by early June the seabird cliffs were teeming with birds and breeding was well underway, allowing Tessa and I to get down to work and start recording tracks for the 2014 season.

     

    Razorbill (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

     A ledge packed with guillemots (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

    European shag (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

     Roped up and ready for action (photo by Ruth Brown).

    In recent weeks there has been an explosion of chicks on Colonsay. Walking to our study sights now means running the gauntlet with protective parents, and it feels like we are constantly being scolded by gulls, lapwings and oystercatchers who have chicks hidden nearby. Chicks are appearing on the seabird cliffs as well. We spotted our first razorbill chick on the 17th June and this was closely followed by the first guillemot chicks and then the first kittiwake chicks. The appearance of chicks, as well as prompting the ‘awwww’ response from me and Tessa several times a day, has lent a new sense of urgency to our tracking work. Guillemot and razorbill chicks leave the nest just three weeks after they hatch, and once they are gone we will no longer be able to catch the adult birds to attach and retrieve our tracking devices. Encouraged by calls from their parents the chicks jump from the cliffs where they hatched into the sea below, despite the fact that they cannot yet fly. These ‘jumplings’ then swim out to sea accompanied by their fathers, who stay with the chicks for several weeks until they are able to fly and look after themselves. Tessa and I are therefore spending long hours each day at the cliffs trying to record as many tracks as we can before ‘jump’ day!

     

    Four recently hatched lapwing chicks (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

    An oystercatcher chick pretending to be a rock (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

     A pair of herring gull chicks (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

    A shag with a large chick (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

    Razorbill and chick (photo by Ruth Brown).

     

    Kittiwakes with small chicks (photo by Ruth Brown).

    Luckily it is not all work and no play for us on Colonsay, and I have managed to find some time to explore the island and get to know some of its inhabitants. Tessa has introduced me to many of the local residents, and after two months on the island I feel like I am beginning to get a handle on most people’s names (and the names of their pets!). Colonsay is home to a close-knit community of about 130 people, and there is rarely a week that goes by without a community event to which we are invited. As well as the weekly pub quiz we have also squeezed in several ceilidhs, a 21st birthday party and the grand opening of the all new Colonsay ferry terminal waiting room, and event which turned out to be much livelier than you might expect!

    Enjoying some live music in Colonsay Community Hall (photo by Ruth Brown).

    Finally I’d like to say a big hello to the other STaR teams across Scotland, I hope the remainder of your season goes well! Check out previous blogs from our teams on Orkney, Fair Isle and the west coast and find out what they've been up to.

    All the best from Ruth and Tessa!