Birds of Scotland: a year in numbers
Each year RSPB Scotland monitors, counts and records birds like puffins, corncrakes and kittiwakes right across the country to find out how populations are doing, and to identify which species might need more help. We’ve had some good results this year, and some that are not so good as well. Here’s a summary of all the numbers you need to know from our monitoring work this year.
One of the most exciting stories to emerge in 2015 was the return of red-necked phalaropes to our Balranald reserve in North Uist – it’s the first time these delicate little waders have bred at that site for 31 years! This wasn’t the only good news for this species though; record numbers of phalaropes were counted in two other areas of the country – Shetland and Argyll.
Shetland is the UK stronghold for breeding red-necked phalaropes, particularly the island of Fetlar where RSPB Scotland manages wetlands for these birds. The number of breeding males on the reserve increased from only six in 2008 to 36 in 2015, equalling the highest number ever recorded there. Shetland as a whole was home to 60 breeding phalarope males this year, 20 more than the previous record in 1996. Meanwhile, one breeding area in Argyll had its best year on record too with six males present; at least three broods were observed in August.
We’ve also had some positive results for seabirds in Scotland this year, with large numbers of healthy seabird chicks fledging their nests on our nature reserves. The figures are a welcome reprieve from the chronic declines seen in recent years, which have resulted in two thirds of some bird populations, like those of the kittiwake, being lost. Our nature reserve on Tiree for example saw guillemot numbers grow from 2,068 individuals in 2014 to 2,634, and at Fidra in the Firth of Forth, there were 1,026 active puffin burrows, up from only 800 in 2009.
Unfortunately though, the seabird story has not been consistently good everywhere this year; populations in Shetland and Orkney are still struggling. Only 570 kittiwake pairs were recorded at Marwick Head - a decline of 90% since 1999, when the site used to hold 5,573 pairs. Kittiwakes were lost entirely from North Hill in Orkney, and of the 300 Arctic terns present on Mousa only 20 pairs attempted to breed and none managed to raise any chicks.
Many of the bad results from 2015 can be summed up using just one word: weather. The wind, rain and general sogginess that have been harassing Scotland for much of this year has had a noticeable impact on some of our bird populations.
Corncrakes for example, which are one our rarest breeding birds, suffered a poor breeding season with numbers dropping by nearly a fifth. They’re found in only a few isolated pockets of Scotland, mainly on the islands, and spend the spring and summer here before migrating back to Africa in winter. An RSPB Scotland survey found the number of calling males had fallen by 17% compared to last year, with only 1,069 being counted.
Corncrakes are counted in terms of ‘calling males’ as they stay hidden among tall vegetation, so are more easily found by hearing their distinctive call than by actually seeing them. Nearly all parts of the country that corncrakes live in witnessed a drop in numbers this year. Our scientists say that the exceptionally cold, late spring is the reason behind the reduction in the number of males calling.
Black grouse have been blighted by a similar problem. The young birds hatch in June and July but are particularly vulnerable to cold or wet weather at this time. While numbers of this distinctive grouse were good overall, with a small population increase being recorded, the number of chicks raised in Scotland was lower than average this year. This was to be expected because of the poor weather conditions, but it is likely to have an impact on black grouse numbers in 2016.
And the downright exciting...
It’s always great to hear about birds that are doing well, and there’s one particularly charismatic little bird that’s stood out heads and feathers above the rest for us this year. Long-term monitoring has revealed that the River Tay is possibly the largest stronghold for bearded tits in the whole of the UK.
These birds are only found in reed beds, and data from the BTO has shown that the reed beds in the Tay can house as much as 45% of the bearded tits ringed in Britain. This data is gathered from tiny identification bands which are fitted to birds’ legs by ornithologists, which provide information on movements and lifespan. Surprisingly, bearded tits only colonised the reed beds along the Tay in the early 1990s. RSPB Scotland manages more than half of the area, working with landowners to conserve the habitat.
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So here we are, the final month of the year. Everyone’s probably focused on Christmas by now but surely there’s time to squeeze in a spot of wildlife watching too – maybe even during a relaxing Boxing Day walk?
What to see in Scotland this month XII
Have you ever noticed the fascinating adaptations many animals have developed in order to survive and thrive in the places they live? From forests and floodplains, to deserts, oceans and the peaks of mountains, birds and other wildlife around the world have managed to inhabit them all. And to do this successfully, many have evolved or changed their behaviour in some way - over time.
The species that we have here in Scotland are no different. And these ‘changes’ are probably most apparent during the winter months. For wildlife, survival is the top priority and that’s the main reason behind the modifications that we can see.
Take the ptarmigan for example – a plump bird belonging to the grouse family which is by no means large, but extremely hardy. Ptarmigans live in arguably one of our harshest habitats, the mountains of the Highlands. Here, they can be found at altitudes of up to 4,000 feet! And they’re perfectly adapted to it.
Ptarmigans are usually a lichen-grey colour, but during the colder months of the year their feathers change so they are completely white; they are actually the only British bird to grow completely white winter plumage. To protect them from the cold they have feathered legs and thickly feathered feet which act like little snowshoes for walking expertly on even the softest snow.
Ptarmigans also have a brilliant ability in that they can dig out little hollows in the snow, which they sit and hunker down in – this helps to keep them snug and protect them from howling winds.
Not all wildlife opts to deal with cold conditions in this way though. Hedgehogs, bats, queen bumblebees and butterflies all hibernate during the Scottish winter, while plenty of birds migrate to warmer climes. Look out for pink-footed geese and whooper swans at Loch Leven and Loch of Strathbeg or long-tailed ducks around the east coast – these birds come to Scotland from places like Iceland and Greenland and stay here until spring.
December is also a good time to look out for wildlife in your very own garden or local green space. When the weather turns chilly and frosty at this time of year, it can be more difficult for birds to find food in the wild. So any seed or scraps that you are able to put out for them become that bit more valuable. Look out for sparrows, blackbirds, finches, blue tits and of course a festive robin or two!
Shortages of natural food are also known to bring some more unusual wildlife into our lives while they search for their next meal. Bramblings, siskins and blackcaps are becoming more regular visitors to feeding stations and people have previously reported kingfishers, American robins, little buntings and a black throated thrush turning up in their gardens too.
But if it’s a spectacle you’re after then a starling murmuration is one you definitely don’t want to miss out on.
Thousands upon thousands of these birds gather together just before dusk, wheeling, swirling and swooping in sync across the sky as part of one giant feathered cloud. The result is mesmerising. It’s like they’re all taking part in one precisely choreographed dance routine. Starlings join forces like this before going on to select their evening roost to stay warm, exchange information on good feeding grounds and because there is safety in numbers. One of the best places in the country to watch them is at Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway.
Happy wildlife watching this month everyone, and have a brilliant Christmas and New Year when the time comes!
Welcome to the third instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from RSPB Scotland's Phil Taylor. 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. It 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 three: bedding in for the winter
RSPB Scotland is not known for shying away from a challenge, and the Shiant Isles Recovery Project is no exception.
The Shiant Isles are a set of three main islands between Skye and Harris, fortified by high cliffs and massive boulderfields and moated by six miles of the stormy Minch. They are one of our most important seabird colonies, 10% of the UK’s puffins breed there every year, along with a hundred thousand other seabirds (razorbills, guillemots, bonxies, fulmars and shags). Such is its importance that the site is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and is protected by European law. However, they are also home to a population of non-native black rats which exist across each of the three main Shiant Isles (and possibly the adjacent sea stacks, which are well within swimming distance). Studies of the stomach contents of rats and role in the food chain suggest that the animals are consuming seabird eggs and chicks on the islands. They are also thought to be the reason that Manx shearwater and storm petrels are not breeding on the islands.
Seabirds on the Shiants (video by Phil Taylor)
Island eradications are not something which we conservationists are quick to jump to. However, the RSPB has led a handful of eradication operations over recent years and has seen significant recoveries in seabird populations following; in the ten years since black and brown rats were eradicated from Lundy numbers of breeding Manx shearwaters increased ten-fold, and on St Agnes and Gugh in the Scillies Manx shearwater successfully fledged chicks immediately after the rats were removed, with storm petrels following two years later.
The Shiants project was first thought about in 2008 when an RSPB study showed that the islands were the highest priority seabird colony to be restored for Manx shearwater and storm petrels. In the six years that followed, we have been collecting and considering the evidence around the islands, the seabirds and the rats, ultimately taking the decision, in consultation with SNH and the islands’ owners, that an eradication would provide benefits to both the SPA and to the potential for Manxies and stormies. With support from Tom Nicolson, SNH and with European Union LIFE+ Nature funding we therefore began a project to eradicate the rats from the islands in October last year.
We have spent this year studying the islands’ ecosystem and creating a baseline to monitor how the islands change and, although the islands’ ecology this year has been hugely influenced by the wet weather, have already found some interesting trends and relationships.
The eradication itself will happen this winter, when the rat population is at its lowest, and I have just returned from helping the team from setting up ready for what is going to be a very challenging six months.
Although RSPB experience in eradications is building and will be built yet further by the Shiants project, the sheer complexity of running an operation on the islands meant that we have sought expert advice in leading the eradication. Kiwi experts Wildlife Management International (WMIL) have been recruited to lead the work on the islands. We have been working closely with them and learning from the expert guidance of Biz Bell and her team.
The first stage of the set up was to establish two camps for the winter teams to live in. Whilst Garbh Eilean and Eilean na Tighe (Rough and House Islands) are connected by a causeway, and therefore can both be accessed by a team living in and around the bothy on Eilean na Tighe, Eilean Mhuire (Mary’s Island) is separated by 500m of treacherous sea and therefore needed its own separate living quarters. This accommodation was provided in the form of Expadacabins, flatpack sheds we helicoptered in from Harris. We started on Mary, where the ground was uneven and the learning curve steep.
Setting to with the world’s largest spirit level Robin quickly overcame the uneven ground but, as with any flat pack build, we all stood about for some time reading the instructions and trying to understand the diagrams. The first cabin took around three hours to build and more than a little brute force. Meanwhile we took delivery of a couple of tons of bait, a few hundred bait stations, and four thousand stock cubes. Four quarter ton concrete blocks had been brought in to anchor the cabin down, something very necessary on Mary, where the geography allowed very little natural shelter.
Helicopter dropping off supplies (video by Phil Taylor)
Almost as soon as we were done constructing the cabin on Mhuire, we all ran down to the boat to be shipped across to Garbh Eilean where the chopper had also delivered another two cabins in flatpack. By now the daylight was fading and so we raided the summer team’s remaining stores and settled down for dinner.
Day two was devoted to building these two cabins behind the bothy. By this time we knew the tricks of the trade and were actually able to build them both fairly rapidly – the third took just 47 minutes. As if we hadn’t had enough flat pack fun, we then also furnished one of the cabins with bunk beds, and the other with a fortress of bait buckets. Ever level headed, Robin also put together some perfectly flat decking.
Up goes a cabin! (Video by Phil Taylor)
On our final day another helicopter brought in the remaining food stores, bait, and a lot of coal. It also helped carry some of the heavy bait and equipment to caches on the top of Garbh Eilean to save everyone’s back later in the operation. By the time we left the camp was looking neat and robust, with everything lashed down and in its place - exactly what you need going into a winter in the Western Isles. We left only for a fortnight, but returned in strength. At the end of October we arrived on the islands with our colleagues, Jaclyn Pearson and Paul St Pierre from the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project and the full Wildlife Management team. This trip’s objective was to establish the bait station grid, including the rope access points. Luckily the weather for this trip was better than we even saw in the summer; we were able to make full use of the shortening days and do so without several layers of thermals.
Whilst the rope team investigated the cliffs, deciding which ledges needed visiting and which were too unsafe to have been accessed, the rest of us chased Kelvin from Wildlife Management, around the islands. He was setting up a grid of canes throughout the islands indicating where the bait stations need to be placed to effectively be accessed by rats.
The bait stations, though a fairly basic design, provide an important service. They are made of short drainage tubing, with an access hole and a spare piece of tubing used as a lid to allow baits to be placed around the islands in a way that can only be accessed by rats, out of the way of the gulls or sheep or other birds. Several hundred of these bait stations were carried around the islands and wired into the ground to stop them being blown away.
A bait station (photo by Phil Taylor)
I have spent a lot of time on the islands now, but this took me to places I’d not visited before and gave an interesting perspective on how the rats must have been using the islands. We haven’t ever recorded rats on the Galtachan, the sea stacks off Garbh Eilean, but given they are well within rat swimming distance leaving them untreated is too great a risk to the project. On a calm day we took a trip across. They are a magical spot, the tides tear through the gaps between and the soil underfoot crumbles and falls away because of the burrows dug in the summer, now vacant until next year. We placed around 30 stations through the chain.
Having done a shift as the human Stenna Stairlift, I left the team on the islands to head back to my other duties. Although this project is a real challenge, and will undoubtedly become more challenging as our days’ shorten and our weather becomes stormier, I was disappointed to be leaving and miss out on seeing the islands through the winter. These islands are a special place, and though the work can be tough at times, protecting and recovering them is always rewarding.
The team will be working on rotation for the next six months, two weeks on, one week off. Those on Mary will be sheltered in the single cabin through the winter’s storms. These are the people protecting our seabirds. I know you’ll join me in wishing them luck.