Kat Jones, from RSPB Scotland, has this fantastic new blog about monitoring seabirds on one of our most spectacular and least accessible reserves.
A pyramid of grey granite rimmed with 70,000 gannets
Ailsa Craig is one of RSPB Scotland's most spectacular and least accessible reserves. Each year a small team visits the island on three occasions to monitor the birds, plants and invertebrates and to look for evidence of rats.
I've been fortunate enough to take part in the July visit and we head out on 'M.F.V Glorious', a wooden fishing boat, from Girvan under leaden skies.
Ailsa Craig rises from the Firth of Clyde, a pyramid of grey granite rimmed with 70,000 gannets rising from the waters nine miles offshore. As we get closer, the lighthouse and decrepit pier come into view, built on the island’s only flat area, and the place that will be our camp-ground for the next two nights.
As well as the usual monitoring activities, we are here to try and find out whether Manx shearwaters are nesting on Ailsa. Manx shearwaters, affectionately known as Manxies, nest in burrows on steep slopes high above the sea.
The bird cliffs of Ailsa are only visible from the sea and so we do our bird counts by boat
In the 19th century Ailsa was teeming with seabirds but when rats arrived on the island, birds could only successfully breed if they nested on inaccessible ledges. This meant that puffins, nesting on the grassy slopes, were wiped out and that Manx shearwaters, also burrow nesters, would be prevented from colonising the island.
We are visiting with Bernie Zonfrillo, a veteran of 35 years working on Ailsa Craig. In 1991 he led the effort to exterminate the rats and still spends as much time as he can on the island monitoring and ringing birds. Thanks to the work of Bernie and his hardy group of volunteers the puffins returned to breed in 2002.
At night we heard the ghostly chatterings of the Manxies as they flew over our tent. We know Manxies are around Ailsa but their nest sites are mainly so inaccessible, and they are active around burrows only at night, that it is extremely difficult to confirm that they are nesting on the island.
Last year a team camped near the summit of the rock, at 330m, to try and locate birds coming to ground. They didn’t see any land, nor have playback calls at burrows elicited responses.
This time we are here with Ruedi Nager of Glasgow University and his thermal imaging camera. The idea is to use the camera to see Manxies coming into slopes on the island to get an idea of where more effort on the ground could be fruitful. It's a major challenge. All the slopes of Ailsa are extremely steep and dangerous.
One hardly existent path leads to the top. On the first night in a gale, the only place to set up the camera was sheltered behind the derelict brick building that manufactured coal gas for the lighthouse. We pointed the camera uphill and crowded into one of our tents, also pitched in the lee of the wall, to view the pictures on the laptop.
Heading out to set up the thermal imaging equipment
The hulk of Ailsa Craig is a dull grey colour on the screen, with a jet black sky. Every now and again a hot white dot appears, a rabbit grazing on the slopes, or a gull wheeling above a small colony on the lower slopes. Every now and again we have tantalizing views of what could be Manxies on the screen. And we hear them calling as they fly above us.
We determine where it is we think the birds are and the next night we head up the hill carrying batteries, laptop and a small tent to pitch above our camp.
It is 1am when we head up the hill. The night is clear with a huge full moon. There is enough wind to keep the midges off, but it is warm, and we sit mesmerized by the view of lights moving about in the waters between Ailsa and the mainland.
A cluster of lights start at Girvan and fan out across the Clyde, trawlers headed out on the tide ripping up the soft sediments of the Firth of Clyde in search of langoustine.
But the lights on the screen are quiet. There are gulls, but no Manxies. We don't hear them calling and we don’t see them. Disappointed, we pack up and return down the treacherous slope to the welcome of our beds, convinced in our hearts that the Manx shearwaters have come to breed on Ailsa at last, and determined to return next year to prove it.
We traditionally think of spring as the time of year when new life emerges in the wildlife world, but that carries into summer too, and this is when we’re more likely to actually see it. Here are some of our suggestions for what to look out for in July.
What to see in Scotland this month VII
Being a tiny froglet is risky business at this time of year. During the summer months, when tadpoles have fully absorbed their tails and developed legs, they leave the water.
Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)
The relative safety of the ponds and lakes which formed their first homes are left behind, and these little amphibians move out en masse in to the wider world. And when we say en masse, we really mean it.
The ground comes alive with mini froglets (and toadlets) for maybe a day or two before they disperse into surrounding areas, looking for damp shady shelters, under logs and vegetation. They might not return to the pond until they are old enough to breed themselves, which can be two or three years later.
The common frog is probably our most recognisable amphibian with smooth green or brown skin, and long legs. Common frogs don’t really have defence mechanisms, other than to use these lengthy limbs to propel themselves away from danger. They’re also able to breath and absorb water through their skin.
Oystercatcher, Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
If you fancy a bit of bird spotting this month, oystercatchers are a great species to look out for and you’ll probably not have to go far to manage it. Oystercatchers are striking black and white waders with long orangey-red bills.
Their natural habitat is along the coast, but they’ll often nest in towns and cities too particularly on flat roofs, making them quite easy to see.
The name of this species is a bit ironic as they rarely, if ever, feed on oysters, tending to go for mussels, cockles, or earthworms instead. An adult oystercatcher can take a cockle every 72 seconds – and can consume up to 500 in one day! To get through the tough outer armour of their meals, oystercatchers employ great physical strength to prise apart closed shells with their bills and are also able to use a similar technique to hammer limpets clean off rocks.
Oystercatcher flock in flight, Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Unusually for waders, the young don’t feed themselves until they are ready to fledge and will depend on their parents for sustenance until that point. So at this time of year you’re likely to see oystercatchers tending to their chicks along the coast. The first young birds will also start fledging around now too and will start to become independent – so keep your eyes peeled!
Red-throated divers will also be tending to their chicks at this time of year on small lochs and pools in Shetland, Orkney, and on the mainland between Glasgow and Moray.
Red-throated diver, Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
These striking birds are the smallest and most common diver we have in the UK and are also a widespread winter visitor along the coast. However, as a breeding species it’s more restricted in range and one population estimate put numbers at just 934 pairs.
During July, and the other summer months, you’ll be able to identify them by their distinctive red throats. On land, they’re pretty ungainly truth be told, and normally only come onshore to breed. It’s really on the water where they come into their own, and are able to stay below the surface for about a minute and a half.
If you don’t live near or visit areas where you might get to see these brilliant birds, check out our diver webcam for an up close look at red-throated divers.
Happy wildlife watching everyone and we’ll be back with a new blog next month!
RSPB East Scotland communications officer, Kirsty Nutt, explains why she loves the Aberdeenshire coast and why this is the perfect time to visit and experience the spectacular seabird colonies and stunning sea views.
Discover Troup Head: Spectacular seabirds and stunning sea views
Last Thursday I went to our Troup Head nature reserve for the first time in at least a year and it wasn't long before I was reminded why I should visit more often.
The drive to the reserve alone is beautiful - along narrow winding roads between gorse-clad hillsides that flame brilliant yellow in the sunshine. The moment you glimpse the coast again, the rugged beauty of the cliffs and the vast expanse of sea stretching away for miles takes your breath away. It really is hard to beat.
The road to the reserve's small car park passes through a farm but the views soon open out again with the promise of what awaits.
On leaving the car park we were greeted by a singing skylark performing its famous parachuting up-and-down display flight. As we walked further along the rough grass path beside a farm field its song was engulfed by the sounds of seabirds further along the cliffs towards Pennan. At this distance they were no more than white pinpricks darting and zipping about over the grey sea but the noise was phenomenal.
There are two routes to choose from as you near the cliffs: up and over the hill or around the side of it directly to the main viewpoint; to the main attraction; to the gannets.
We wandered along to the viewpoint admiring the delicate flowers of spring squill and yellow rattle among the grass, excitement building but not in a rush.
Then we smelled them. There is no mistaking the oily pungency of a seabird colony. It seems to permeate your senses entirely so that you can almost 'smell' it in the back of your throat and in your lungs. It's powerful and not pleasant, but not awful either and for me it's the smell of the coast in summer and gives a hint of the amazing spectacle awaiting us at the cliff edge.
We soon start to spot gannets flying along the cliff top; strong wings out-held, their black wing tips in strong contrast to their perfect pale cream bodies and yellow caps. They're graceful flyers, even if when landing they sometimes looks clumsy, and they soar through the air.
There's so many it looks like a snowstorm until you notice that some are so close you could reach out and touch them – I would never try to of course.
As we reach the cliff edge the first group we see are sat on a muddy finger that juts out into the sea.
They do not seem to be breeding but they are of breeding age because juvenile gannets are speckled black - their colour more like Dalmatian dogs than the sleek graceful grown-ups.
The sea crashes against the rocks below creating a beautiful tableau.
We wander along to the main cliff and as we look closer we start to spot huge white balls of fluff – chicks that are already quite large.
Nestled on ledges in amongst the nesting gannets are kittiwakes and guillemots. The kittiwakes are responsible for most of the noise – their unmistakable ki-ti-waaake calls creating a cacophony of sound. They also have chicks and most have two, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good year.
Whereas the number of gannets in Scotland has increased since the 1980s, numbers of kittiwakes have suffered disastrous declines so it is heartwarming to see them apparently doing well this year.
I could have sat there for hours surrounded by the stunning flowers of red and sea campion and thrift (sea pinks), enjoying the gannets and keeping an eye out for passing whales and dolphins.
I envy my colleague who lives nearby. She grew up near here and on her first visit to Troup after starting work for RSPB Scotland recalls being puzzled and saying “I don't remember there being gannets here”. And she wouldn't remember them because they only started nesting here in 1989. Now the colony is over 3000 strong.
It is the only place in mainland Scotland where you can visit a gannet colony without needing to take a boat trip and it is spectacular how close you get to these large seabirds.
With a wingspan of nearly 2 m, they are the largest seabirds in the north Atlantic and more than 50% of all northern gannets breed in Britain. They are famous for their diving prowess and can reach depths of 20 m. When diving for fish, they plunge fast into the water with their large wings held back like an arrow. They have a special spongy forehead to cushion the impact of these spectacular dives.
There are gannets diving offshore here too but they are overshadowed by the ones soaring past at head height. It's an intense experience to be so close to such magnificent birds.
As we leave I can't help but feel slightly sad and I promise myself I'll visit again before the end of this breeding season and more often next year.
Bass Rock might be the most famous gannet colony in Scotland, but Troup is my favourite. Tucked away at what feels like the end of the world as you stare out into the North Sea, it’s a true hidden gem of Aberdeenshire’s spectacular coastline.
For more information visit rspb.org.uk/trouphead