June, 2016

Our work

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.
  • Little gulls at RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg

    This summer we were able to confirm that the smallest species of gull in the world, the little gull, is nesting with an egg at RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg. It's the first confirmed breeding attempt for little gulls in Scotland ever. Kath Hamper, who works on our north east coastal reserves team and is based at Strathbeg, brings us this blog about them.

    Early each summer for the last few years, we’ve been cautiously watching a few little gulls (Hydrocoloeus minutus for the scientifically inclined) in front of the visitor centre at RSPB Scotland Loch of Strathbeg. These handsome small gulls are reasonably regular summer visitors to the reserve, but they haven’t tended to stay around.

    A bit like a black-headed gull in miniature, but with more defined features, they have an inky black head, very dark under-wings with a white trailing edge, a dark reddish-black bill and bright red feet, and the adults are ‘flushed’ pink on the breast in the breeding season. They’re mature at three years.

    They are migratory, spending summer in northern Europe, Asia, and in some part of southern Canada and they winter in western Europe, the Mediterranean and north-east USA. Hornsea Mere, in East Yorkshire, is a winter hot-spot for them in the UK. Some non-breeding birds have taken to spending summer in western Europe, and these are what we have traditionally seen here.

    In 2014, we had adult, immature and first-summer birds loafing around the Starnafin pools, and we noted some mating activity; I noted in the Annual Bird Report - somewhat hopefully, I admit – “one to watch for if the pattern continues!” Nothing came of it.

    In 2015, a mix of adult and immature birds returned; they were seen mating and carrying nest material onto the island. We held our breath, but they were hard-pressed by the resident black-headed gulls and common terns with which they shared the nesting site, and failed to continue their efforts. Again, nothing came of it.

    This year, two adult birds and one second-year individual (plus another first-summer bird still too young to take much of an interest) took up station in their normal preferred spot, and we – once again – held our breath. The cold weather earlier in the spring seemed to have put off most of the black-headed gulls, although the common terns had arrived in force and set up their usual noisy territories.

    The little gulls prospected around the island, settling here and there until they changed their minds and always raising our hopes, before eventually settling down precisely where we can’t actually see them from the new office window. They indulged in some mating behaviour, the female seemingly trying out both the adult male and the second-year. We kept a close eye on them, but didn’t seriously expect much more than last year.

    We were wrong!

    A comment from a regular birdwatcher led to a cautious flight over the island with our remote-controlled drone, the results of which led to as much excitement as I think I’ve ever seen from our Site Manager when I arrived at work that afternoon. He frantically beckoned me into the office and showed me the video he’d taken. (I’m not saying he was giggling like a schoolboy, but he was...!)

    We had an egg!

    And that one small olive-brown egg led to a whirlwind of activity and a lot of extra work for our staff and volunteers here at Strathbeg. We’ve stocked up on tea, coffee and biscuits to keep everyone going and we’re now on 24-hour guard duty, keeping watch over the nest. We don’t know how many eggs there are, but we’re keeping our fingers firmly crossed.

    Why are we so very, very excited?

    According to Mark Holling, Secretary of the Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) - and he should know - this is only the sixth confirmed case of breeding in Britain with the most recent record from Norfolk in 2007 and the first confirmed record for Scotland. Which makes this rarer than cranes, or red-necked phalaropes, or even stone curlews...and that is a Big Deal!

    It’s a fantastic thing to be happening – and it’s right here on our reserve!

    So we wait, and we watch – oh, how closely we watch – and we hope. They should be hatching soon....

    If you want to learn more about Loch of Strathbeg and the work that goes on there you can check out our reserve blog by clicking here.

  • Celebrating National Insect Week

    RSPB Scotland is supporting National Insect Week from 20-26 June - a celebration of some of the smaller creatures in our natural world that is organised by the Royal Entomological Society. If you haven't heard of it before, National Insect Week encourages people of all ages to learn more about insects from beetles, bees and butterflies to dragonflies, damselflies and stoneflies. In preparation here's a look back at a few of the exciting insect discoveries and stories from our nature reserves in Scotland.

    I want you to visualise a map of the world, not in detail but just enough for a rough picture. There's an incredible wealth of wildlife scattered across that map, appearing in every size, shape and colour imaginable. Now start zooming in.

    Depending on which continent or country you choose to focus on the species, or mix of species, can be very different. Especially when you consider masses of land that are completely cut off by water; any creature that can't fly has no option but to stay put. Because of this, in Scotland, it can be that some of the wildlife you find on the mainland just doesn't occur on particular islands and the same is true of the reverse.

    Island life

    Have you ever heard of the short-necked oil beetle for example? It's a rare flightless insect that's only found in two UK locations; one is Devon and the other is the Isle of Coll. But it's absent from the Scottish mainland, or at least hasn't been discovered there yet. They were actually thought to be extinct in the UK until 2008.

    The beetles are named for the toxic oil secretion they produce when threatened and RSPB Scotland and Buglife researchers counted 150 of them during recent surveys on Coll. The habitat found there is perfect for them - a mix of dune systems and wildflower meadows. 

    On the other side of the coin, there’s a day moth called the six-spot burnet which is distributed across Scotland, and is relatively common in England, Wales and Ireland. However it had never been recorded out on Tiree until last year. A team from RSPB Scotland were carrying out insect survey work on the island when they came across the insect on the ground, basking in the sunshine.

    These moths can often be mistaken for butterflies because they are so brightly coloured, with a lovely metallic sheen, and are active during daylight hours.


    But don’t get us wrong, it’s not just the islands where exciting discoveries can be made. Two rare beetles were discovered at our Abernehty nature reserve near Aviemore, and close to Aberdeen at our Loch of Strathbeg reserve during recent surveys. It was the first time either of the insects had been seen in Scotland for decades.

    The beetle found at Abernethy was a water scavenger beetle called Cryptopleurum subtile, and it actually turned out to be the most northerly ever record of the species here, having been collected from woody debris along the River Nethy. It was also only the second record for the country, with the first being from a cut grass pile in Melrose back in 1969.

    The second beetle, found at Strathbeg, was a whirligig called Gyrinus paykulli, which occurs mainly in lochs and spends a lot of time in reeds and other plants on the edges of the water. They have two pairs of eyes (one facing up and one facing down) because they live on the surface of the water.

    They are also known to gather in groups called flotillas which perform a special 'dance' when disturbed, whizzing around at high speed. Again, this was the most northerly record of this beetle to date in Scotland with previous discoveries being made in Fife and Perthshire.  

    And let’s not forget the modest caddisfly 

    While fairly widespread across lowland England and Wales, the caddisfly known as Molanna angustata had never been seen in Scotland before, until one of our trainee ecologists, Genevieve Dalley, came across two of them last year at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes in the Highlands. 

    Molanna angustata is quite a small flying insect with pale brown colouring and long antennae. They’re usually found living in lakes, ditches, ponds and canals.

    Despite their perhaps plain appearance, they have a pretty interesting lifecycle. The larvae live in water, where they create a protective case out of tiny sand and stone particles, sticking them together with silk to make a tube.

    When they have transformed to a winged adult they chew their way out of the case and swim up to the surface where they eventually fly away. However, this does have to be done quickly or aquatic predators, like fish, will eat them.

    It’s pretty exciting that new species like this are still being discovered in Scotland and there’s so much to learn about many of them. If this blog has done enough to pique your interest in insects, you can find out more about National Insect Week, including ways to get involved, by clicking here.

  • I can hear the grass grow

    Hi, I’m Bernie Bell. I got in touch with RSPB Scotland after reading a piece in the organisation’s recent magazine, Scotland news, about the importance of wildflower meadows in the conservation of the great yellow bumblebee. I live on Orkney, where gardening can be difficult, but with a bit of patience and imagination, we can produce gardens which are not only good for us, but for wildlife too. So I wanted to let folk know that all they need to do is, let the grass grow!

    I can hear the grass grow

    Well, I can't actually hear it, but watching it is a pleasure. 

    When we moved into our house (that's not the Royal 'we', that's me and my husband Mike) the front garden was just lawn, with a bank at the side containing venerable dockens and nettles which, according to our neighbours, hadn't been touched for about 20 years!

    Mike had long wanted a wildflower meadow, and I love spirals, so..... First we cut out some corners for trees, shrubs and flowers and then we drew a plan for the meadow, which included a central spiral, with paths running through the meadow to the various sections of the garden. Mike then set about clearing the bank, and, as he cleared it, I planted it up with anything that anyone would give me! 

    The first year, we just left the grass to grow, and that was a delight - so many different grasses, and so beautiful! We don't know what they are, but, who cares? They are lovely, like the waves on the sea, when the wind ripples over them.

    As the years have passed, other plants have turned up in the meadow. I throw seed about, and, as Mike clears the vegetable patch each spring, he transplants any 'weeds' from there, into the meadow: forget-me-nots, alchemilla, campions.  The bank has turned into a jungle, which is a home, and refuge, for all kinds of critters.

    A few years ago, we also made a pond, using the soil from the hole, to make a mound which gives a bit of shelter to the pond itself - this is Orkney, and it's very windy!

    So, the different plants have attracted lots of bugs, butterflies, moths, all sorts which have, in turn, attracted more varieties of small birds than there used to be. We also have voles in the meadow, which attract a short-eared owl, a pair of hen harriers (never at the same time though) and a kestrel.

    The pond means we have frogs - taddies are there, as I write!  Also damsel-flies, water boatmen, various beetles of unknown variety, gazillions of tiny, tiny things, and the neighbour's ducks - there isn't a more joyful sight than ducks enjoying a pond!

    As the meadow develops and progresses, more things arrive, some disappear - that's just how it is - gardens aren't static.

    We also have regular visits from hedgehogs. We've just installed a little hedgehog house, under a bit of hedge in what we call the 'tree corner'.  It looked lovely, then we covered it with stuff for insulation, which seemed a shame, but, the point is for the hedgehogs to live in it, not for us to look at it!

    Our neighbour gave us some pampas grass when I was planting up the bank, and that is now sometimes simply dripping with birds - sparrows or swallows. Oh, and the fungi - all sorts of fungi started to turn up, on the paths. I presume that the conditions, in between the long grasses, make a difference - warm and sheltered, and a bit more moist?

    This isn't to do solely with the wildlife, as such, although it is well worth remembering that humans are only one of many, many worldly species. Folk do like to come and walk the spiral, and the garden; this is a very soothing thing to do. It also means that some of them like the idea so much, that they go home and let some of their 'patch' go wild, too, which all helps.

    I could go on and on about this, but I think I'll leave it there. You may be thinking: "It's OK for them, they have a big garden.” But, it doesn't matter about the size of your plot - our neighbour left a patch behind her garage to go wild - it has one tree in it, and some long grass and flowers, and the bugs and butterflies like it just as much as they like our bigger meadow.

    To get some tips on developing your own wildflower meadow or creating other types of homes for nature, simply click here