November, 2016

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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.
  • Record-breaking yellow-browed warbler influx

    This blog on the intriguing yellow-browed warbler comes to you from John Bowler, RSPB Scotland's man on the Isle of Tiree. 

    This autumn (2016) has been a record-breaking year for sightings of yellow-browed warblers. Formerly a rare migrant to Britain, numbers of these tiny, brightly-marked warblers have been increasing here in recent years. They breed in Siberia and normally migrate south-eastwards to winter in the hill forests of tropical South-east Asia.

    Each year, however, some birds accidentally head in exactly the opposite direction, passing westwards through Europe - leading to sporadic sightings on the east coast of Britain in September-October.

    But this year, surprisingly high numbers started to appear on the east coast of England, particularly Yorkshire, in late September 2016, including a count of 132 birds at Flamborough Head. A second influx was focussed more on the Northern Isles and the Scottish east coast with day-count peaks of 72 on Fair Isle and 50 on North Ronaldsay.

    Once they hit the eastern coasts of Scotland many birds started to work their way inland, appearing at a range of sites across the country including RSPB Scotland reserves such as Lochwinnoch and Baron’s Haugh. They were often seen feeding with goldcrests and tits on the sunlit edges of woodland.

    Other birds filtered right through Scotland and some even reached the Hebrides, where a record 12 birds appeared on Tiree and up to 30 birds were seen on nearby Barra in a single day! Other sightings came in from RSPB Scotland The Oa on Islay, RSPB Scotland Oronsay and at RSPB Scotland Mull of Galloway.

    The reason for this sudden surge in YBW sightings isn’t know, but as well as the autumnal passage of birds, a few are now also seen here on spring migration as they head NE back towards their Siberian breeding grounds. This would suggest that some at least of these westwards migrating birds are managing to find somewhere to successfully overwinter, perhaps in Spain or in West Africa.

    One possible theory behind the increase is the ongoing rapid loss of their traditional wintering habitat in South-east Asia, as hill forests there are logged and cleared for agriculture.

    Keep an eye out for them next spring and autumn, as this is certainly a bird to watch. 

  • Our planet needs Scotland's wet blankets

    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.

  • Scotland's marine birds need our help

    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