What’s been top in 2016: our highlights over the year
As the end of 2016 approaches and 2017 beckons we’re taking a moment to look back on some of the nature highlights from this year.
It's cold outside ...
Snowy conditions for many over the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend in January didn’t put you off taking part; over 36,000 people in Scotland spending an hour counting 626,335 feathered visitors to their gardens! House sparrows remained top of the results in Scotland, with chaffinches and starlings rounding off the top three. However, it was the increase in long-tailed tits numbers that really caught our attention with over a third of those taking part recording seeing these sweet, wee birds.
We also asked you about the non-bird species found in your garden and whilst only three percent of people across the UK saw a red squirrel in their garden on a monthly basis here in Scotland, the species stronghold, 22 percent of people taking part did.
Into spring ...
As the days got longer and temperatures rose we began to welcome back migrant birds who spend the warmer months in Scotland such as swifts and cuckoos, and the seabird cities along our coastlines and islands once again became alive with the cacophony of noise made by puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets and shags.
Birds began nesting again with one opting for somewhere rather unusual - a female mallard set up home on one of the busy bridges over the River Clyde in Glasgow!
Summer lovin' ...
Summer brought some great excitement at our Loch of Strathbeg reserve. In June a pair of little gulls, the world’s smallest species of gull, were found to be nesting here, the very first record of this in Scotland and only the sixth in Britain. However, there were more records to come with the eggs hatching and two tiny chicks emerging, the first ever to definitely hatch in Britain. And then with the two chicks taking to the skies their parents became Britain’s first ever successfully breeding little gulls!
Autumn farewell ...
As summer drew to a close it was time to bid farewell to EJ and Odin, the famous pair of ospreys that have been nesting at Loch Garten every summer for many years, as they left on their annual migration once again. Following last year’s drama of the male interloper and the loss of the eggs we were all waiting to see what 2016 would bring. The web-cam treated us to some great shots of EJ in snowy April keeping her eggs toasty warm and her efforts were rewarded when the first chick hatched on 14th May and the second on 19th May. Rowan and Willow, two male chicks, thrived this summer under the watchful eye and feeding of their parents, and over a nine day period from 12th August all four ospreys left individually for their epic migration journey south.
During 2016 we were treated to regular updates by our intern Charlie McMurray (see here, here and here) on the work taking place at our Mersehead reserve to monitor the population of very rare natterjack toads. We’ve embarked on a mission to identify each and every toad at the reserve using their wart patterns which will help us more accurately know how many toads there are. The pattern of these big warts and yellow stripes on each toad is completely unique and remains the same throughout its lifetime - have a look for yourself:
Days draw in ...
With winter rapidly creeping in it’s the time of year once again when winter migrants such as bramblings, waxwings, whooper swans and redwings return to Scotland and skeins of geese fill the skies. We’ve already had this fantastic photo taken by warden Michal Sur of some of the 30,000 barnacle geese that arrived at our Loch Gruinart reserve in October.
So that’s just a few of our nature highlights from the past year - what’s been yours? With another month of 2016 to go there’s certainly still time to get out exploring and enjoying the wonderful sights and sounds of Scottish nature this year.
Senior Land Use Policy Officer, Jim Densham, brings us this latest blog on the importance of Scotland's blanket bog habitats and what needs to be done to protect them.
Being called a wet blanket is not a term of endearment, far from it in fact. It refers to someone who discourages enjoyment or fun, and alludes to using a wet blanket to smother a fire. It’s funny how a potentially life-saving thing like a wet blanket is also used as a derogatory term.
At RSPB Scotland we love wet blankets - you could say we are the wet blanket champion! We love natural wet blankets that is – blanket bogs. Blanket bog is a very wet habitat dominated by sphagnum moss, home to soaring hen harriers, insectivorous sundew and splendid golden plovers, to name a few species.
The sphagnum lies like a sopping wet blanket over the saturated underlying peat. Peat is rich in carbon and with a fifth of Scotland covered by blanket bogs, often with peat metres in depth, it is estimated that Scotland holds 1500 million tonnes of carbon. Losing just 1% of this peat is equal to a whole year of Scotland’s carbon emissions. So you can see that this natural living wet blanket is also essential for our planet’s health.
To keep our blanket bogs healthy and functioning they have to be wet and undamaged. But presently, 78% of our blanket bogs in Scotland are damaged and are actually releasing dangerous amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. Damaged, bare, dried out peatland releases carbon into the air just like a dry or holey towel would be pretty poor at quenching a chip-pan fire.
We have to re-wet and restore our bogs if we are to save this unique home for nature and meet our climate targets – like a wet blanket putting out the ‘fire’ of global warming. And with the Paris Agreement being signed by the UK last week we are duty bound to step up action.
Last week the Scottish Government announced £400,000 of new funding for peatland restoration in Scotland, which is excellent news. It will be used to continue restoration projects kicked off previously with money from Government and other sources. The £400,000 is welcome and we are calling on Government to promise more in its Climate Change Plan early next year. We want to see at least 21,000 ha of peatland restored each year in Scotland, which could cost in the region of £4.2 million.
At RSPB Scotland, we are ready to do more too. At our nature reserves, such as Forsinard Flows in Caithness and Sutherland and Airds Moss in Ayrshire, we have the potential to do more restoration, but it needs financial investment. We also want our restoration activities to count towards bringing down Scotland’s carbon footprint.
At present the accounting rules for this have not yet been accepted and introduced by the UK and Scottish Governments. Doing so would recognise all the positive restoration work done over the past 25 years as on the whole in Scotland, since carbon accounting started, more peatland habitats have been restored than damaged. Accounting for the carbon benefits would, we believe, encourage private investors and give a big incentive for a huge step up in blanket bog restoration.
One year ago First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said peatland restoration was 'one of the best investments we can make as a society'. It's time to make good on this statement and commit to funding much more peatland restoration and including the carbon benefit of this in the national carbon accounts.
Peadar O'Connell, RSPB Scotland's marine policy officer, brings us this latest blog on seabirds and the problems they're facing in the UK. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has recently held a consultation on ten new Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which protect the locations our marine birds use. Many of you responded to this and for that we say a huge thank you! A new consultation has recently opened on a further five sites and, if you can spare the time, we'd like to ask for you to support these too. Read on to find out how.
Marine birds are pretty incredible. Some nest on inaccessible cliffs, blasted by storm force winds, driving rain and pounding waves... and that’s just in the summer!
Many travel long distances to find food for their chicks, like puffins which may travel over 100km on a foraging trip, kittiwakes can cover over 900km, while an amazing 2,700km return journey was recorded by a single gannet with a tracker attached in 2016. That’s a very long way to go for your dinner.
But marine birds aren’t just experts in the air; some can dive to incredible depths as well. The common guillemot for example can dive to depths of over 200m to catch fish. This is even more impressive when you consider recreational divers rarely go any deeper than 30m on a ‘deep dive’.
You might also spare a thought for the huge numbers of seabirds that spend their winters out in the Atlantic Ocean, where if you thought it was getting cold and wet where you are at the moment, well...
This is all part of day-to-day survival for these birds. They are extremely tough and resilient when you consider they range in weight between about 27g – 3kg from the smallest (storm petrels) to the largest (gannets). For context there is 35g of sugar in a 330ml can of a popular soft drink! So why, despite thriving in harsh environments have seabird populations declined by nearly half in the last 30 years?
There are many reasons for this and they will be familiar to regular readers. Threats such as invasive species, disturbance on breeding and wintering grounds and developments like renewable energy in inappropriate places can all play a part. There is also of course the enormous overarching threat posed by climate change and its impacts on marine ecosystems, where these seabirds feed.
We shouldn't lose hope though and there are actions we can take to halt and even reverse these declines. This is important because Scotland holds significant proportions of the global populations of species such as the northern gannet, Manx shearwater and great skua, as well as EU populations of the storm petrel and kittiwake.
One of these actions is designating marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs), which protect marine birds and their habitats. At the beginning of 2015 the only marine SPAs for seabirds consisted of a few extensions to cliff and coastal breeding sites.
What about the areas important to our wintering marine birds such as the long-tailed duck, great northern diver and common guillemot? Or important feeding areas for kittiwake, puffins, skuas and terns?
An important aspect in protecting these birds is ensuring areas are designated for all important stages in their life, in particular breeding, wintering and foraging areas. This was a huge gap in marine bird conservation in Scotland.
The good news is that the gap has started to close. In July, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published a list of ten proposed marine SPAs in Scottish waters. A huge thank you to everyone who responded in support of these, your voice will help show the Scottish Government that there is real public support for protecting Scotland’s seabirds.
The great news is that a consultation on a further five sites opened in October, and there is now an opportunity to show your support for these sites too. The five areas currently open to consultation are the Seas off St. Kilda pSPA, the Seas off Foula pSPA, the Pentland Firth pSPA, the Outer Firth of Forth St. Andrews Bay Complex pSPA and the Solway Firth pSPA.
Please do have a look at the SNH consultation pages (here), and if you support the designation of these SPAs for our marine birds please tick YES on those pages.
Getting these sites designated is currently the priority, but ensuring they are properly managed, protected and monitored will be the next significant challenge.
Marine birds are extremely tough, but they are also very vulnerable to many of the changes we have instigated in the marine environment, therefore they need our help to ensure a safe environment to thrive. So, as the days grow cold, the wind picks up and the rain pelts down, help seabirds weather the storms ahead.
To read our previous blogs on Special Protection Areas click here and here.