Ronan Dugan is a research assistant at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and is one of 6 full time fieldworkers on the RSPB/SNH National Golden Eagle Survey 2015. The six-month survey of golden eagles, which started in January, is co-funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the RSPB. Surveys will be carried out by licensed surveyors from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science in collaboration with those from the Scottish Raptor Study Group.
First Impressions of eagle surveying on the Isle of Lewis
Isle of Lewis. Late January. The cold grey clouds form a low ceiling over the peatlands. The lower flanks of the mountains of North Harris are just visible and painted a dirty white with wet windblown snow. The many small lochans that cover this landscape would be better placed on the Arctic tundra.
The wind is relentless; part vandal, part thief, smashing the ice as it passes through the landscape and trying to take winters’ grip on the land away. The rain and hail travel across the land in waves, just like the water of the north Atlantic a few miles away. You can see the squalls approaching, one after another. They are armed and loaded, ready to do battle with the land. But still the golden eagles will fly.
Slowly I walk across the peatlands, dodging the lochans and bogs. My distance is probably double to what the eagle would fly. The walking is far from easy. Tussocks and the energy sapping soft ground slow my progress. The cold northerly wind numbs my face and the brief hail showers force me to stop and turn my back to the elements of the north Atlantic. Perhaps I should have packed my ski goggles. Maybe I should have swapped my camera for an extra layer of warm clothing?
However, for now I am well equipped with my wax-proof jacket - gore-tex doesn’t last in these conditions. I continue on towards a hill where I suspect an eagle might fly. It’s a lone hill protruding out of the peatlands with crags on the northern side. Ideal for golden eagles.
From a distance of about two kilometres and in between the showers I watch this hill and sure enough I am rewarded with views of a pair of golden eagles. They are hanging in the wind some 200ft above the northern side of the hill. They are an adult pair. This is exactly where I expected them to be.
In the winter when there’s no strong thermals (hot air rising) the eagles and other raptors will select the side of the hill where there is an updraft. In this case the wind is from the north so they were above the northern face. Occasionally they dropped below the hill but soon reappeared. I didn’t see them flap their wings once. They were able to hang above that hill effortlessly and watch out over their territory.
The sky behind the eagles is darkening. A squall is approaching. I expect the eagles to take shelter on the crags but instead they fly north west, one after another. They drop low to the ground but I’m able to follow them in my telescope. They quarter the ground, rising and falling but only occasionally flapping their wings. The squalls suddenly hits and I am forced to take shelter and lose sight of the eagles. I think to myself that they must have flown straight through that squall. Perhaps they were hunting together as eagles can often ambush prey more easily in poor weather.
I head home content with what I have seen and with the wind on my back. I will return to this area in a few months and hope to find a nest site on the northern side of the hill. Cold and tired and on my walk home across the bogs I keep thinking about the eagles. Did they catch something? Did they find a sheltered crag or are they still soaring above their territory? I am in envy at their ease to cope with the weather. They must be used to it, or very hungry.
Once more I turn to the now distant hill and the eagles are soaring above it again in the late afternoon sun. From dawn to dusk on these short winter days the eagles seem to fly. They are relentless, just like the wind that helps them fly.
For more information: http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/390553-golden-eagle-numbers-to-be-revealed-by-fourth-national-survey
Scottish Natural Heritage (http://www.snh.gov.uk/) & Scottish Raptor Study Group (http://www.scottishraptorstudygroup.org/)
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, is back with another blog on the For The Love Of...campaign that we are part of.
Showing the Love to Nicola Sturgeon
It was Valentine’s last Saturday. How did you show the love? I bought flowers for my wife but I also sent a Valentine’s message to Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister! Its no secret. I even spent Valentine’s day asking others to send her a message too.
I was at RSPB Scotland's Baron’s Haugh reserve on Saturday to talk to people about climate change, to explain that much of the nature that we all love is being affected by it, and that we all need to do something fast.
In Scotland, the person who can do most about climate change is the First Minister, who can commit to action in Scotland so that we keep to our domestic GHG reduction targets but also champion our example to other countries. She has the power to make a real difference and show leadership to a watching world this year.
That’s why I was asking visitors to Baron’s Haugh what they love, and what they would ask Nicola Sturgeon to protect. Everyone I asked could think of something they love and either wrote a postcard or took one away.
You can also tell the FM via the online link http://www.stopclimatechaos.org/fm-action - its easy.
At Baron’s Haugh we also had fun with a ‘For The Love Of Trees – tree identification walk’, a Love Wall of hearts drawn on by children and adults, Show the Love stickers, and the campaign postcards to sign.
Seven other RSPB Scotland reserves or teams also took part around Scotland, along with numerous other events organised by other members of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland Coalition. Each one had a different theme, For The Love Of... nesting birds, wetlands, Islay depending on what nature they show.
For the love of...nesting birds; shag on nest, Andy Hay
That’s the disaster of climate change, that so many elements of our world will be affected; but also the beauty of the campaign, that we can use the many different things that we love to highlight why we need action now.
There’s still time to get involved and show the love. www.fortheloveof.org.uk
There have been some really crisp clear days so far this month – perfect for wildlife watching. This blog is all about some of the wonderful wildlife you can see around Scotland in February.
What to see in Scotland this month II
When I was little my favourite creature to spot any time I was outdoors was a ladybird. One of my neighbours used to have a huge hedge all the way around her garden and me and a couple of friends would wedge ourselves in between the branches looking for these beautiful beetles, before collecting them up to count their spots and waiting for them to fly away off the ends of our fingers.
Seven spotted ladybird, Sebastian Knight.
There were never as many to see there in winter though, and I later learned that the low temperatures in Scotland at this time of year make ladybirds inactive. Many will tuck themselves away to avoid the cold, so you may spot several huddled together in the cracks of tree trunks or the corners of your garden shed - some even use window frames for shelter and may just invite themselves inside if given the chance.
There’s a common myth about ladybirds that the number of spots on their back indicates their age, and as I’m writing this I think my mum might have told me that when I was young. But their bright colouring and pattern is actually for protection - it basically warns predators that they don’t taste nice. Any species which eats one is unlikely to want to go back for seconds and the spots serve as a helpful reminder.
Waxing feeding in hedge of Wild privet, Andy Hay
Another couple of species you may want to look out for this month are snow bunting and waxwing. Both of these birds are winter visitors in the main, though there is a small number of resident snow bunting here. Waxwings will be around for a few months yet and normally stick to the east of the country.
These stocky little birds are pretty acrobatic when it comes to feeding and are able to catch flying insects. They’ll visit any habitat that provides them with food and are known to turn up in parks, gardens, and relatively busy public places - especially if there are berry-bearing bushes to snack on!
Snow bunting, Scottish Natural Heritage
The snow bunting is the most northerly-breeding of any land bird on earth, in some places living very close to Inuit settlements. In February look out for them on the seashore feeding along the strand-line, or on rough grassland near the coast. During the winter months there can be up to 12,500 snow buntings in Scotland, arriving here from Iceland, Greenland, and Scandanavia.
Scarlet Elfcup, www.first-nature.com
For those of you who scour the forest floor when out and about – bear in mind a fungus known as the Scarlet Elfcup. Though with its fantastically vibrant red colouring it’s quite hard to miss. This is a winter species that appears on dead sticks and branches, often buried in leaf litter and moss. You’ll usually be able to see them until early spring and they’re more common in the west of Scotland where it’s wetter.
The Scarlet Elfcup makes a tiny puffing sound when it releases its spores into the air and if you pick some of these you’ll feel the outside of the cup is covered in an almost matted coating of tiny hairs.
Happy wildlife watching and we’ll be back with another ‘what to see’ blog in March!