Shiants episode seven: An enchanting summer
Welcome to the seventh instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Iain Maclean. 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.
In our last instalment we filled you in on the survey work that had started on the islands and now with autumn on its way Iain, a research assistant in the project, reflects on his summer spent on the Shiants.
Our seabird surveys carried on throughout July and early August much as they started; puffins, guillemots, razorbills and shags were all monitored for chick productivity and it has been a real pleasure to see the chicks develop from small downy balls of fluff to adult size. Although the numbers have yet to be analysed it seems (fingers crossed!) like a good year for seabird productivity on the Shiants. Sitting in the late July night twilight and hearing the calls between adult razorbills and their newly fledged chicks has been touching as has seeing puffins arrive with mouthfuls of sandeels to provide for the thousands upon thousands of hungry chicks.
It’s been exciting to see the Shiants so full of life this summer. We’ve witnessed an abundance of birdlife, cetaceans and some memorable otter sightings. Most days diving gannets can be seen all around the islands and curious seals are an ever present enthralling accompaniment to our work on the coast. It’s a reminder that while the removal of the rats will have positive effects on the seabirds, their continued survival is also linked to the health of the surrounding seas.
On the coast lots of young oystercatcher chicks have grown steadily to adult size alongside a smaller number of more hidden common sandpiper chicks. Large waves spill over the causeway at high tide, where we watched the young eider chicks catching food in the surf. Despite being hit by wave after wave these young birds always seem to bob back up to the surface unharmed, and seem truly at home in the sea. Among the rocks the shags seem to be having a good year: upon leaving the island many of the chicks were close to fledgling, and had started to scold us in a threatening manner much like the adults have been doing all summer.
On the top of the hill many bonxie chicks were approaching adult size, and the birds are impressively fast and powerful as they chase auks across the causeway. The bonxies also seemed to enjoy pulling apart our invertebrate traps in their spare time! Large flocks of twite would gather on fence posts and young meadow pipits, wheatears and pied wagtails also bumbled about, not quite as cautious of our presence as their parents. It was incredibly special to see a pair of peregrine chicks flying above the island regularly testing their powers of flight.
During July the islands were host to the annual visit of the Shiants Auk Ringing Group. This dedicated group arrive every year in order to catch and attach identifying rings to the legs of the seabirds. Once ringed the movement and lifespan of the bird can be more easily monitored, revealing valuable information which aids in conservation efforts.
Tagging along with some of the ringers outings was a great experience, and the enthusiasm with which the group goes about their work was energising during a wet and cloudy week on the islands. Although the group works with many different species, the highlight for me was the storm petrels. Setting a loudspeaker next to nets during the Hebridean twilight, storm petrel song was played luring in many of these small ethereal birds. The storm petrels seem to appear out of the night, fluttering excitedly around the speaker and occasionally flying around us.
Our more regular storm petrel loudspeaker lures, playing each night over the summer months in order to encourage the birds to nest, have also been popular with the petrels. While no evidence of nesting was found this year we’re confident they will be breeding here in the near future.
Much of July was also spent surveying the botany of the islands. It’s one of the pleasures of this work that we have had the opportunity to carry out such varied surveys – invertebrates, plants and birds. Identifying plants requires you to get up close to the ground and really gives you a different perspective on the island. An area of ground scarcely noticed on our way to carry out bird surveys upon closer inspection becomes rich and fascinating, with many different elegant grasses, tiny mountain flowers stretching out in abundance, and a whole diverse range of fascinating insect life roaming through what to their scale must seem like a vast forest. On sunny days many blue butterflies were found along the coastline. These surveys will allow us to monitor how the flora and invertebrate species of the Shiants respond to the removal of the rats.
So all in all it has been a great summer, with a lot of enjoyable work, much time appreciating the amazing beauty of these islands and hopefully a successful year for wildlife. It is humbling to have been a small part in this story over the summer and I hope it can lead to the islands being a secure haven for more of Scotland’s fragile seabird populations.
The Shiant Isles Recovery Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson Family, it is funded by EU LIFE+ Nature [LIFE13 NAT/UK/000209 – LIFE Shiants] and private donations. The eradication is being led by Wildlife Management International with the support of Engebrets and Sea Harris Ltd.
A particularly unusual plant called yellow bird’s nest has been found growing at RSPB Scotland’s Skinflats reserve, which sits on the edge of the River Forth. This is only the fourth time that it has been seen in Scotland since 2000 and all of the previous records were at sites near Glasgow.
Yellow bird’s nest is interesting because of the complex relationship it holds with its surroundings. The flower is pale yellow in colour because it lacks the green pigment chlorophyll, which is essential for photosynthesis - the process by which plants convert the sun’s rays into energy. Because yellow bird’s nest doesn’t have this pigment it needs to look elsewhere for energy. It does this by stealing nutrients from a certain type of fungi which is, in turn, gathering its own food through a mutual relationship with nearby trees – as fungi do.
We think this complicated relationship may well be one of the reasons yellow bird’s nest is so rare in Scotland – there are a lot of elements that need to be in place for it to thrive. However, it may be that a lack of the right type of habitat is likely to be another factor.
This particular plant was discovered in an area of scrubby woodland at Skinflats. The reserve is relatively small with its expanse of salt marsh and mud flats providing a rich winter feeding ground for wading birds like oystercatchers and curlews, especially in autumn and winter