November, 2015

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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.
  • 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 

  • What to see in Scotland this month XI

    OK, so the weather might have taken a turn for the worse but are you going to let that put you off? There’s lots of wildlife to see in November and you might just be rewarded with a rarity if you wrap up warm and brave the outdoors at this time of year.

    What to see in Scotland this month XI

    Did you know that barn owls used to be thought of as a ‘magical defence’ against thunder and lightning? There is a lot of historical folklore associated with this bird, probably due to the fact they are nocturnal and, we’ll admit, they can look a tad ghostly flying silently through the darkness with their wings outstretched. 

    During the 18th and 19th centuries people believed that the call of an owl meant a terrible storm was coming or, if flying past the window of a sick person, imminent death. However today, they are probably one of the most popular bird species we have in Scotland.

    Barn owls are mainly nocturnal but may hunt before dusk and around dawn when feeding young and they can be seen out during daylight hours too, more so at this time of year. Rodents like voles and rats make up about 90 per cent of a barn owls diet, and it's thought there is less of this type of prey around in winter so owls need to spend more time hunting. However one study did suggest barn owls in south-west Scotland can hunt during the day as a matter of course, and the behaviour isn’t always linked to poor weather.

    Owls fly almost silently and they have phenomenal hearing, enabling them to pick up even the slightest sounds made by prey hidden on the ground. The barn owls heart shaped face, which many people are so fond of, is also particularly practical in this sense. It ‘collects’ sound, in much the same way as human ears, and funnels it towards the inner ear.

    The ear openings are also shaped differently and placed asymmetrically, with one higher than the other. This means that sounds reaching the ears are heard differently by the owl, allowing them to pinpoint exactly where it is coming from – an excellent skill to possess when you want to home in on a tasty vole.

    Or how about heading to the coast this month to see some of these beauties? Long-tailed ducks are winter visitors to the north and east coasts of mainland Scotland, as well as Orkney and Shetland, and will usually stay with us from now until March. They’re quite small, neat sea ducks with elongated tail feathers and steep foreheads.  

    Long-tailed ducks are usually seen in flocks, and these can be quite large in winter – reaching several hundred birds. In total about 15,000 spend the season off the coast of Scotland, feeding on mussels, cockles and crabs, which is equivalent to about 95 per cent of the UK population. Come spring, long-tailed ducks return to countries like Svalbard, Russia and Finland to breed.

    The redwing is another species which is most commonly encountered as a winter bird, however this one can be found across far more of the country, including in Fife, the Scottish Borders and the north-west Highlands. 

    Redwings arrive mainly in October and November and stay until March or April. They won’t visit gardens very often but can be seen more readily out in the countryside, feeding on berries and worms, in fields, open parks and hedges. The redwing can be identified by its rusty red flanks and the creamy white stripe over its eye.

    Although we’re referring to this as a wintering bird, it’s thought that there are a small number (between 40 and 80 pairs) nesting in Scotland north of the Great Glen, although they have proven quite difficult to monitor, so reports on figures vary! Redwings first nested in Scotland in Inverness, back in 1932.

    Happy wildlife watching everyone! We’ll be back with our final what to see blog in December.

  • Shiants episode two: bird metropolis alive again!

    Welcome to the second instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Davide Scridel - the project is an initiative to remove non-native black rats from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies. The project is part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme and is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations. 

    Shiants episode two: bird metropolis alive again!

    Imagine a large, busy and noisy capital full of unusual smells and interesting feathery inhabitants - each of them exhibiting truly individual personalities.

    Shags are fascinating pre-historic looking creatures which occupy the dirtiest district in town; razorbills are the cops - always wearing shades - policing the big city; puffins are the silent, innocent looking citizens and guillemots are the bankers in their smart little suits. Dominating from above are the white-tailed eagles and golden Eagles, living the high life, looking for opportunities from above. This was me, Laura and Niall’s metaphorical view of the boulder field seabird colony after months of intense work in one of Europe’s wildlife wonders!

    As spring progressed, those large early-season rafts of auks showed vivid interest in visiting the boulder field and the grassy slopes of the island. After a few weeks of constant courtship, here it comes; the first shag egg followed by the razorbills, guillemots and at last the puffins! Walking must be done with extreme care here due to the slippery snowy guano which covers the rocks, but more importantly because every square metre can hold one, two or even three eggs or little chicks!

    Wildlife in bad weather

    Dr. Eddie Graham of the University of Highlands and Islands wrote in his blog: “Overall, the May and June 2015 period was the second wettest on record since 1873 in Stornoway, the fourth dullest and tenth coolest since 1900. Put altogether, these are by far the worst weather statistics for May and June combined since records began in Stornoway in the mid-1850s.”

    Having experienced the elements from May to August, the RSPB Scotland Shiants team couldn’t agree more! And if wildlife could speak I am sure they would agree too… For example, we noticed that puffins breeding in areas faced by strong wind and rain did worse than birds breeding in more sheltered well-drained sites.

    After days of intense searching in puffin burrows to find puddles and mud instead of the eggs and chicks we were hoping for, it become very obvious just how vulnerable seabirds can be and how important this project is. Climate change and unsustainable fishing are, in the long-term, complex challenges for these birds to face and whilst we are fighting to provide better policies, we also need to act in the short-term. Providing seabirds a safer breeding site, free of invasive ground predators like rats, will surely help in increasing the resilience of these and other species in our seas.

    Blooming Shiants and stormy days

    As the season progressed, the surrounding sea felt richer in life. Puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes were returning to their youngsters with mouthfuls of sand eels bigger than before whilst the “local” pod of 20+ common dolphin became more of a regular sight in front of the bothy. Usually you see them slaloming along line of Galtachan rocks. While, minky whales and basking sharks were familiar visitors for whoever was working on the south of House Island; the views from that spot over to Skye are superb!

    It is at this time of the year that the Shiants Auk Ringing Group comes to island for two weeks. Under the professional supervision of David Stevenson, Jim Lennon and Alister Clunas the team ringed non-stop for two weeks; any and all species that they could. We also worked together to survey our primary target species - the mysterious storm petrel and the stunning Manx shearwater. For the latter we played the sound of a male stormy purr call on potential breeding sites, continuously from an mp3 player, but with no positive response. And we got similar results when surveying for Manx shearwater. This confirms the absence of both birds as breeding species here.

    The potential for them to colonise the area however is huge. Not only have we managed to ring hundreds of stormies in the space of only four or five nights, suggesting that the Shiants function as important feeding grounds, but Claire also found the first breeding evidence of Stormies on Fladda-chùain - an island very close to the Shiants.

    Manx shearwater bones were also discovered by archaeologists excavating a 17th and 18th century midden heap on one of the islands, supporting the theory that they were once present on the Shiants. Similarly, surveys in the 1970s found storm petrels around the islands with brood patches. However, systematic surveys to find breeding birds on the islands have been unsuccessful. Evidence from global studies demonstrates that the current absence of shearwaters and storm petrels on the Shiants can be attributed to the presence of rats.

    Goodbye Shiants

    It is on this note - whilst remembering storm petrels moving across the water's surface in a series of bounding leaps - that our last journey back from Shiants to Stornoway is framed in my mind. By now razorbills and guillemots have abandoned their terrestrial behaviour, and are floating amongst their youngsters in the surrounding sea. Only the silent puffin and related pufflings, with some late breeding shags are still present in the boulder field.

    The Shiants have taught us a lot about life and wildlife and our thoughts go out to the next team that will experience the Shiants in the dead of winter!

    If you missed out on our first installment of the Shiant Isles project you can read it here.