November, 2015

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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.
  • Skeins in the sky: goose watch

    Jenny Tweedie from RSPB Scotland fills us in our winter visitors and good places to see them.

    Pink-footed geese (Chris Gomersall, rspb-images.com)

    Geese must be one of the most gloriously visible heralds of winter. When their massive skeins start to appear overhead, colder days are sure to follow, and a whole new exciting season of wildlife watching gets underway.

    I love watching geese, or listening to their breathy calls as they fly over in the dark. But I have to admit I often struggle to tell them apart on the wing. Luckily, the array of species we have in Scotland is not entirely bewildering, and some of those are area specific, so that does make it a bit easier to know (or at least guess!) what you’re seeing.

    Pink-footed goose (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    One of the most common geese you’ll see flying in right now is the pink-footed goose. These medium-sized brown geese, with high-pitched calls and pink legs, spend their summers in Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland, and winter in Scotland around the east and Solway coasts, as well as sites through the central belt.  

    Good places to see them are: Loch of Strathbeg, Loch Leven, Crook of Baldoon.

    Barnacle goose (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    Less common is the black, white and silvery-grey barnacle goose, which winters in two distinct areas: the Solway coast, and the Hebrides, particularly Islay. Barnies are small, neat geese which make a yappy, barking sound. The Solway birds featured heavily on this year’s Autumnwatch, which revealed many fascinating facts about their lives!

    Good places to see them: Mersehead, Loch GruinartCrook of Baldoon.

    Greenland white-fronted goose (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

    Greenland white-fronted geese (which for a while I thought were called green and white fronted geese...) are a much rarer goose whose numbers have been dropping sharply in recent years. They’re a grey goose, and the white-fronted bit refers to the white patch they have around their bills.

    Good places to see them: Ken-Dee Marshes, Islay reserves.

    Bean goose (Mark Hamblin, rspb-images.com)

    Of all our regular wintering geese, the rarest are the bean geese. Only around 200 of these dark grey geese winter in Scotland, returning faithfully every year to just a few fields on the Slamannan Plateau, near Falkirk. They’re called taiga bean geese, because of the taiga forest in Scandinavia and Siberia where they spend the summer (as opposed to tundra bean geese which are rarer visitors to the UK). Their calls are quite high pitched, and similar to the pink-footed geese.

    Good places to see them: they move around a lot and are easily disturbed, so best waiting for a guided event to see these ones.

    In fact, guided events are a great way to see all these geese! Here are some that are coming up in the next few weeks:

    Barnacle Goose Watch at Mersehead

    Return of the Geese at Ken-Dee Marshes 

    Sunrise Goose Watch at Loch Lomond 

    Tweet about your goose sightings using #goosewatch 

  • Why I'm Marching

    Rea Cris, Parliamentary Officer with RSPB Scotland, tells us why she'll be joining Scotland's Climate March on November 28 in Edinburgh.

    Why I’m Marching

    Is the swallow a British bird that winters in Africa or an African bird that summers in Britain? An elegant conundrum that serves a more important purpose of highlighting that everything in nature is interconnected.

    The swallow is adapted to take advantage of our long daylight hours, to rear one or more broods of young and feed them on the wealth of flying insects around during ‘our’ summer. It then returns to Africa, crossing the Sahara and the expanding Sahel, to catch flies around pastoralists’ camps in South Africa. So many steps, so many ways a changing climate could affect ‘our’ swallows.

    For many, climate change is an abstract concept that happens elsewhere, to someone else. Yet we all inhabit the same singular world which works similarly to a giant intricate machine, when something is put under pressure or breaks in one area, it affects neighbouring parts or causes malfunctions in the whole system. The impacts of climate change on the world are similar. What does this have to do with birds? Climate change is having an impact on our wildlife and it is only expected to get worse. Scientists have estimated that for every 1°C rise in global temperatures 10 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct.

    Birds, along with the majority of wildlife do not think in terms of borders or boundaries. The envy of the bird is that they can go where they please and winter in warmer parts of the world. Migratory birds cover a huge mileage to reach breeding or feeding grounds yet these various places are either directly impacted by climate change or human activity contributing to climate change.

    Take the spoon-billed sandpiper, a gorgeous unique wading bird threatened by extinction. It is about the size of a house sparrow with a small spoon-shaped beak, that filters microorganisms from muddy estuaries, it undergoes a migration of nearly 5,000 miles (8,000km).

    Its breeding grounds are in Siberia but its wintering grounds are in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Along the way it rests and feeds in tidal habitats along the coast of south-east Asia, but increasingly it has to fly for longer and further to find rest because coastal development has destroyed its habitat. Exhausted, stretched to its limit, this tiny bird is already rare and disappearing. What hope is there when climate change puts further pressure on this migrant? When sea level rise covers its remaining coastal feeding grounds, when water gets scarce in droughts, when more frequent and unseasonal storms blow it off course?

    Which country is responsible for these birds? My answer is what we are all responsible, just as we are all responsible for the world’s wildlife as well as wider climate justice for those most affected. A cruel irony is that climate change is already affecting countries and people in the global south who have done the least to contribute to the historic carbon emissions our industries have produced.

    In December 2015, the United Nations will hold a climate summit in Paris, where it is expected that political leaders from across the world will agree to commitments in order to avoid the worst affects of climate change, safeguard wildlife and provide money for developing countries to help them adapt. The weekend before these negotiations are due to begin is a weekend of global action, where people will take to the streets to call for the Paris summit to reach serious and ambitious commitments to tackle the problem, and so will we here in Edinburgh.

    Everyone has their own reason to march: green jobs, a low-carbon future, climate justice, and yes wildlife. I’ll be marching for all wildlife not only that found here in Scotland but across the world as well, because there are no borders when it comes to wildlife. We all have it in common in its multiple and exquisite variations and we would all be devastated if it was relegated to picture books as a faint memory.

    Mark November 28 in your calendar for Scotland’s Climate March; come and march for what you care about, for nature’s future, for our future.

  • Working across the flyway to save birds like the curlew

    Conservation Adviser for RSPB Scotland, Dan Brown, tells us about the status of the curlew in the UK and the work that needs to be done to safeguard the future of this bird.

    Working across the flyway to save birds like the curlew

    Migratory birds undertake truly awe-inspiring journeys. The long-haul flights of many species sees entire populations travel thousands of miles - epic journeys that span countries, oceans and continents. They visit different habitats in different countries at different times of the year. And in doing so, they showcase the interconnectedness of our living planet; wildlife that is shared with peoples and cultures at other ends of the world.

    In our part of the world, birds migrate along one of the three major African-Eurasian flyways. There is one special Scottish bird, the red-necked phalarope, that prefers a more Latino-inspired winter, but the rest travel across Europe, Africa and the Middle East; from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds, then back again the following year.

    Hundreds of years ago, species would undertake these annual cycles year in, year out, until they died of natural causes – like old age, starvation, or predation. Nowadays, surviving the annual cycle is a much more gruelling affair. On top of natural causes, add a whole raft of man-made hazards - like illegal hunting, collisions with power lines, or loss of coastal habitats to development. We call these possible sources of habitat loss and mortality ‘threats’.

    Some threats have more of an impact than others. Some pose threats for particular species only. Some threats are only present in certain countries or regions. But they all add up, and often, it is the combination of threats across the flyway that drives population declines. And so to stop population declines, we must act to reduce the impact of threats across the flyway. That requires international cooperation – so that all countries understand the threats, their impacts and conservation solutions. And this is what an international conservation agreement called the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement - or AEWA - is for.

    Earlier this month I attended an AEWA conference. In attendance were governments from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, alongside numerous NGOs. The meeting was to discuss, debate and agree on pressing issues facing migratory birds – such as how to reduce poisoning of waterbirds from lead ammunition and how to reduce the impact of marine fisheries on seabirds.

    In addition, international conservation plans for several species were on the agenda, from the prehistoric-looking shoebill to the stunning grey-crowned Crane, as well as a bird of particular relevance to Scotland and the res of the UK: the curlew.

    Our recent work has made us realise just how important the UK is for the curlew: we may host 28 per cent of the global breeding population – we are a global stronghold for the bird. Yet our population is declining rapidly (by 46 per cent between 1995 and 2013) and the Eurasian curlew, to give it its full name, was classified as globally near threatened with extinction by the IUCN in 2007.

    In terms of global conservation status, this puts it on a par with the Jaguar. And worryingly, many other shorebirds that the UK supports in good numbers, including lapwing and oystercatcher, have just joined that list.

    It seems only right that, where possible, countries that are most important for a globally declining species should lead the global conservation effort. And that is exactly what the RSPB is doing.

    Together with the UK’s statutory agencies, we have written a paper highlighting why the curlew is our top priority bird species from a global conservation perspective. We have also kick-started a programme of work to help save curlews in the UK. And lastly, recognising the need to work with other countries across the flyway, we produced an international conservation plan, which was adopted at the AEWA meeting earlier this month.

    At home, we need to ramp up efforts to safeguard our important breeding population. We need to identify really important breeding areas and protect them from threats, such as poorly-sited wind farms and forestry plantations.

    Conservation and farming communities need to work together. We need to target agri-environment funding - to support sensitive farming practices in important breeding areas. We are already making excellent progress on this front, through farmland wader conservation projects in Strathspey and the Clyde Valley. However, we need similar projects in other important breeding areas.

    This is just the start. We look forward to working with partners in the UK and across the AEWA region to save Europe’s largest wader. In doing so, we’ll ensure the curlew’s bubbling song continues to be heard across northern Europe during the spring and summer; that it is afforded safe passage during spring and autumn migration; and that coastal regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East can continue to provide a home for flocks of curlew during the winter.