June, 2017

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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.
  • The Flow Country – five reasons to be thankful

    The Flow Country, located in Caithness and Sutherland, is home to the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe - so vast that it can be hard to take in!

    To celebrate the start of a Flows to the Future touring exhibition, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, taking the Flows to people across the country we have a guest blog from Professor Des Thompson, Principal Adviser on Science with Scottish Natural Heritage, which pays tribute to this incredible landscape.

    The Flow Country – five reasons to be thankful

    The Flow Country is an amazing, special place. For those of you that know it you’ll understand how awe inspiring it is. This touring exhibition is an exciting way to connect people who haven’t experienced the Flows to this unique part of Scotland. While we have much to be thankful to the Flow Country for, here are five reasons I feel deserve celebrating.

    First, the Flow Country is vital for staving off the insidious impacts of climate change. It’s a massive carbon store. Binding up far more carbon than all of our forests, it is essential that we conserve and hold onto the carbon. However, some of the Flow Country has been damaged by forestry planting, reducing its ability to act as a carbon store. That’s why we are devoting so much graft to restoring the bogs, removing the trees that should never have been planted, and using the very best of engineering, science and traditional know how in the process.  And here we should also give thanks to the many who have contributed funding for so much peatland restoration work, especially to the millions of people who buy lottery tickets, and to the political movers who have made this possible.

    Second, the Flow Country is vast – in fact it is so big in extent that you sometimes need several Ordnance Survey maps simply to get to one mountain spied on the horizon! Studded with hummocks, hollows, pools and dubh lochans, it is no wonder that the Gaelic language has more than 100 words to describe ‘peat’. Nowhere else in Britain, can you be so alone yet so absorbed by the landscape

    Third, it can be silent, it can be buoyant with the sounds of special birds, it can be ferociously windy, and often incessantly rain drenched -  and on many days all of these things. The dreich, oceanic climate is perfect for blanket bog formation. No wonder only a tiny 3% of the world’s land surface is peatland, with blanket bog forming small outliers of that -  with 15% of it here in Scotland. And in the Flow Country we have what the great peatland expert,  Professor Hans Joosten,  of the University of Greifswald, describes as ‘primus inter pares’ – a first among equals. That’s something to be thankful for 

    Fourth, this is a peopled land, and people and nature work exceptionally well here. For thousands of years, imperceptibly as the bog mantle has grown a millimetre or so each year, people have lived off the land and water - nourished and nurtured by the peat. The Flows to the Future Project, launched three years ago, has done tremendously well to harness everyone’s energy to secure a strong future for this area, which is captured in the new exhibition.

    And fifth, we should lift our eyes to the truly international realms of what we have here. Surely, this totemic place must become a World Heritage Site – not simply placed on the so-called ‘Tentative List’, but instead declared as a World Heritage Site. There is excellent science carried out here, much of it in superb new facilities.  More and more people are coming to the Flow Country to experience it for themselves, and the new walkways and viewing tower installed as part of the Flows to the Future project help them immerse themselves even more in the landscape. And, of course, there is the extraordinarily important landscape with its distinctively special wildlife. Despite these fantastic riches there are still threats to it which is why we must appreciate and value the wider ecosystem benefits. This is a special inspiring place, steeped in culture and nature, it deserves to be proclaimed as a World Heritage Site.

    So, we have at least five reasons to be thankful for the Flow Country. Why not come along to the exhibition as it makes its way around the country and discover more for yourself?

    The Flow Country Touring Exhibition can currently be seen at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh until September, before moving on to Glasgow, Stirling, Aberdeen and Annan, with more locations to be confirmed. 

  • Five facts you need to know about starlings

    If you’re a fan of feeding the birds in your garden I imagine you’ll know a starling when you see one, but there’s more to these beautiful birds than meets the eye! Starlings are noisy, gregarious and can be found in pretty much every part of Scotland, expect for some of the most northerly areas of the Highlands. They’re one of our most common garden birds – they came in at number two in our Big Garden Birdwatch this year, pipped to the post only by the house sparrow. But how much do you know about them? Here are five starling facts we thought you’d enjoy.

    Starlings are excellent mimics

    Birds learn to build up the vital repertoire of songs they need to attract a mate or defend their territory by copying sounds that they hear. Starlings are particularly good ‘mimics’ and have been known to pick up and incorporate the songs of other bird species. However, it doesn’t stop there. Birds can also mimic other sounds such as whistling or the screech of a car alarm. There’s an evolutionary advantage to all this too, as female birds will choose males with the most complex songs.

    They like to get lost in the crowd

    In winter, starlings will gather in huge flocks which are amazing to watch as they whirl, swoop and dive in unison across the sky. This is known as a murmuration. It’s believed starlings do this for a number of reasons: grouping together offers safety in numbers, helps them to keep warm and provides an opportunity to exchange information such as good feeding areas. Whatever the reason, it’s breathtaking to witness.

    At mealtimes, starlings cover all bases

    Starlings have a nifty little adaptation to keep themselves safe when feeding. When probing for food, they will swivel their eyes forwards to see what they are eating, but they can also swivel their eyes backwards which allows them to watch out for any possible danger that may be approaching without having to lift their head.

    Juveniles wear many coats

    The coat of a juvenile starling goes through quite a few changes. Young birds that are just out of the nest are mouse brown in colour with a dark ‘mask’ and black bill. By late summer, they begin to grow new glossy wing feathers and spotty body feathers. By winter they are spotted all over, but still look dark. Look out for juveniles during different parts of the year and see if you can identify these changes!

    They don’t mind hand-me-downs

    Starlings nest in holes in buildings or trees and old woodpecker holes actually make the perfect home for them. To attract a mate, the male will start to build a nest, using dry grass and leaves, before singing from a nearby perch to advertise his wares. An interested female will then complete the nest ‘cup’, usually by adding fine grass, moss and feathers. 

    If you enjoyed this 'five facts' blog check out some of our other ones:

    Five facts you should know about puffins

    Five facts you need to know about gannets

    Five facts you need to know about red squirrels

  • In search of a six-legged jewel: the shining guest ant

    This is the second post in a six part blog series about rare insects in the Cairngorms. A new project launched this year to save six endangered invertebrates in the north of Scotland and project officer Gabrielle Flinn will take a closer look at one of these species each month. This time, it's the turn of the shining guest ant - a six-legged jewel. The Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project is a partnership involving RSPB Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

    Smaller shining guest ant (R) sits next to its wood ant host (L)

    Famed for its minute size and extra shiny coat the shining guest (Formicoxenus nitidulus) is a real gem to behold, particularly when you spot one in amongst a group of larger, acid-spraying wood ants - which the former treats as its 'hosts'. 

    The shining guest ant is special for more than just its appearance; this particular ant chooses to live within the thriving, busy and potentially dangerous environment of wood ant nests. So why choose to live in a wood ant nest? There are a number of reasons the species could have evolved this strategy.

    Firstly, wood ant nests are very warm places that maintain an average temperature somewhere between 25 and 30°C during their 'active season'.This is achieved by the ingenious thatched roof structure of the nest, which captures sunlight like a solar panel, keeping the inside nice and toasty.

    Secondly, the wood ants provide a feisty and steady defence, spraying formic acid at enemies and coordinating attacks on intruders using alarm pheromones to communicate. Finally, the wood ants also bring in a continuous supply of food, including honeydew from the aphids they farm on pine trees and invertebrate prey that they manage to hunt.

    There is clearly a huge advantage to living in wood ant nests, so much so, that over 100 other invertebrate species, including everything from specialised wood lice to cleverly disguised spiders, have been found living inside nests of this type. 

    It is a risky game, living in a nest full of easily enraged and well equipped flatmates, so ‘guests’ must be well prepared to survive. This can be achieved by a variety of means including imitating the ‘colony smell’ or simply by being agile and elusive.

    The shining guest ant, however has evolved a slightly different strategy. It produces a distasteful substance on its body so that when a wood ant worker investigates its presence and picks it up in its jaws, the wood ant is quick to release it again. This adaptation has proven so effective that several shining guest ant colonies can often be found living in a single wood ant nest at any one time.

    Other than what we've already outlined here, very little else is known about this ant species, least of all its distribution across the Cairngorms and the rest of the UK. This is mostly due to the fact that they live within deadwood or bracken inside nests which makes them hard to observe.

    However, during the months of July through to November, in ideal conditions, these minute guests can be observed shining on the surface of nests and with some patience it can be rewarding to spot them amongst the busy wood ants. We look forward to heading out with volunteers this summer and autumn to try and spot this sparkling yet elusive ant.

    The shining guest ant is a priority species and where wood ants are at risk, this species will experience a knock on effect. Wood ant nests are threatened by loss of woodland habitat, loss of woodland diversity (they love bright glades where they can access the sun!), climate change and various other pressures.

    Through the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project we hope to better understand this species and gather more information about its distribution within the national park. The more we know, the more we can help land owners and managers to protect it.

    To read our first blog post in this series, which focused on the Kentish glory moth, click here.You can also follow the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project on Facebook and Twitter or sign up to our volunteer mailing list by contacting gabrielleflinn@rspb.org.uk