As seabirds leave, or prepare to leave our shores for another year, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer Peadar O'Connell brings us this new blog about seabird chicks and the future they face.
A fluffy fulmar chick on a cliff ledge on Orkney
It’s approaching the end of the season and seabird chicks have or will soon be leaving the nest to face the great blue yonder... Most seabirds are colony nesters, this offers protection from predators whilst resulting in incessant bickering among neighbours, it’s a noisy sometimes tense compromise but one that works for them.
Chicks in the centre of this maelstrom may lead surprisingly sheltered lives, cared for and physically protected by their parents who take it in turns to provide food. In good years, when seas are productive, their parents don’t have to travel very far for fish (such as sandeel or sprat), but in bad years they may be away from the nest for some time, meaning chicks are vulnerable. However, if all goes well, big fat chicks will fledge between June and August, well provisioned for their new life at sea.
Of late, there have been more bad years than good ones and shocking declines has been the result. After years of bad news stories about seabirds it won’t surprise anyone that they are still in decline. It’s worth repeating the figures however because they are truly frightening, and we shouldn’t get blasé about them.
By 2015, breeding numbers of the 12 regularly monitored species of breeding seabirds in Scotland was 50% lower than the 1986 level, a steep decline in just 30 years, makes you wonder, what will happen in the next 30? (Scottish Natural Heritage’s Seabird Biodiversity Indicator)
Lesser black-backed gull chick chasing its sibling behind a rock.
While a small number of species such as the gannet have actually increased, the majority have not, for example the magnificent Arctic skua has declined by 81% again in the last 30 years. Although the reasons for the declines can be complex and even differ across the country, they are happening largely because seabirds are not managing to produce and fledge young birds. Chicks are the lifeblood of seabird colonies but they are literally starving to death on our cliffs and coastlines.
An Arctic skua chick, Arctic skuas nest in short vegetation in upland areas.
I hesitate to use cute “baby bird” pictures for a blog about the struggles faced by seabirds, and appreciate this might be seen as a sentimental ploy, attempting to pull at the heart strings. The reality is however, that these birds are in serious trouble but they are also amazing, beautiful, stunning creatures and we are fortunate that they make up some of the spectacular biodiversity of Scotland. We are still finding out so much about the lives of seabirds including where they go to find food in UK and Irish waters (see here) and all this information is critical in planning appropriate conservation management.
Shags with two inquisitive youngsters
With your help, RSPB Scotland are tackling some of the pressures seabirds face in feeding their young and it is for this reason that we were very happy to see 15 proposed Special Protection Areas for foraging and wintering seabirds being brought forward for public consultation between 2016 and early 2017 (see previous blog here).
We are now waiting for these sites to be fully designated. This won’t solve all the problems seabirds face but these are tough birds and if we can reduce the pressures we are putting on their populations they have a much better opportunity to raise healthy well fed chicks. Therefore these sites should be designated as soon as possible and appropriate management measures put in place to ensure they provide the protection they promise. Seabird chicks are survivors, but the world they are growing up in is increasingly hostile. Without action we might lose them from our coasts for good and that would be a very sad thing.
When was the last time you spotted a hedgehog or a badger? What about a squirrel or a fox? And could you identify a great crested newt if one popped up in your garden?
During our Big Garden Birdwatch this year, we asked everyone taking part to record the birds visiting their outdoor space during a one hour slot of their choice. But we also asked people to tell us about the ‘other wildlife’ they were seeing too.
In Scotland, we got responses from around 15,000 people describing the finds from more than 9,700 gardens – a great effort! We learned that foxes are the most common ‘non-bird’ visitor, turning up in 64% of gardens, and great crested newts were the least common with only 2% recording one.
Less than half had a mole (44%) or a stoat (24%) in their outdoor space and more than a quarter (27%) reported that they had never seen a hedgehog in their garden. The decline in sightings of these prickly creatures is worrying, particularly when you consider there was an estimated UK population of 30 million in the 1950s and now there are believed to be less than a million.
Gardeners across the country are already doing a great deal to help give nature a home, but we’d love it if even more people could involved to hopefully boost the numbers of once familiar species like hedgehogs. To get you started, here are five ways you could help wildlife in your garden...
Plant a bee banquet
Growing flowers and shrubs that are full of nectar and pollen will feed bees year round. With many species of bumble and solitary bees in decline globally, small actions like this can make a huge difference. Many plants that are available to purchase don’t produce nectar or pollen so you need make sure you pick wisely! Try Crocus and hellebore in winter; Aubretia or bugle in spring; borage, foxglove and herbs in summer; and dahlias or ivy in autumn. Try and select a sheltered, sunny area to plant your chosen flowers and shrubs in as they’ll do best in those conditions. It doesn’t have to be a large patch - you could even give it go using window boxes!
Create nature corridors
This is one of the simplest ways to give nature a home. By creating little nature highways and byways you’re helping wildlife to move freely between gardens, and it’s a great activity to involve the neighbours in too. Hedgehogs can walk a mile or more in a single night looking for food and a mate, but their path is often blocked by walls, fences and hedges. By cutting small holes and gaps around the perimeter of your garden, hogs can pop in for a visit before heading safely on their way again.
Build a bug hotel
Stack wooden pallets, logs, bark, bricks, pine cones, really any natural materials you have to hand, to create a safe hideaway for creatures galore. Although it’s called a bug hotel this sort of structure provides perfect hidey holes for hedgehogs, frogs, toads, dragonflies and newts as well. You’ll get different visitors depending on where you place your hotel, some like the sun while others prefer the shade. You can make an abode to fit any space as well from balconies to large gardens.
Dig a pond
Yes they can be a challenge to make, but you’ll be amazed how quickly wildlife finds your pond when it’s done. Choose a spot with as much sunlight as possible and that doesn’t pose a flood risk. You’ll soon be attracting dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and maybe even a newt! If you don’t have a particularly large garden, you can make a little pond by using something like an old washing up bowl. Submerge it into the ground or leave it out on top – it’s up to you!
Compost heaps are a great way to turn waste material into natural compost that can be added back into your garden. To create compost quickly, remember to thinly shred the material you’re adding and alternate between green and brown layers. The green layer can be made up of things like grass clippings, weeds and vegetable peels, while the brown could consist of shredded paper or cardboard, dried grass, sticks and wood chippings. Compost heaps provide a satisfying feast for worms and woodlice, but also offer a safe space for toads and slow worms.
Of course there are plenty of other ways you could give nature a home where you live, these are just a few examples. To learn more about how to do all the activities in this blog and to find even more ways to help wildlife, click here.
This month we’re shining the spotlight on one of our rarest, most secretive birds - the corncrake. In this, the third blog, RSPB Scotland’s Stuart Benn looks at the vital role that crofters have played in the recovery of corncrakes since the early 1990s.
Crofting for corncrakes
I can still remember the first time.
Late 1970s, I’d hitched from Glasgow through the Highlands and Skye, caught the ferry over the Minch then hitched again (rather more easily) to the west side of North Uist. I’d read about the machair but nothing could prepare me for the reality – the abundance of flowers, the torrent of lark song, the racket of redshanks and oystercatchers, the fresh wind, the improbable shape of St Kilda punctuating the far western horizon. It was overwhelming.
And then there was that elusive and mysterious ‘crex crex’ coming from deep within the iris beds. If I’d been born 20 years previously I’d have heard that sound round the fringes of Glasgow but not now – it had gone from there, it had gone from just about everywhere. Except here; the far north and west.
I eventually tracked down the caller – a slim, buff, shape-shifting ventriloquist ghosting through cover with the secrecy of fog – the corncrake.
At that time, I knew nothing about why I had to go all the way to the furthest fringes of Britain to see a corncrake. Nothing about crofting, the intricate blend of ploughing, sowing, fertilising and fallowing that had kept these sandy soils so special for wildlife. Nothing about the legislation that meant I couldn’t just buy this land and do as I wished with it.
One other thing I didn’t know then because nobody did was that my visit probably coincided with the start of the lowest ebb of the corncrake in the UK, even on those far-flung islands. Yes, there were still hundreds of them but they were in decline as slow changes to traditional practices were creeping in. But, as outlined in Chris’s blog last week this decline led to research and the knowledge of how to reverse the corncrake’s fortunes.
But all this information gathering told us something else beyond that, beyond the biology – to look after corncrakes and so much else on the machair you need to work with crofters. Talk with them, listen, learn what they do, find common ground, make connections, assist in accessing funding, spend time, drink tea, help bring the harvest in, build partnerships, be helpful, fill in forms, share knowledge, discuss options, find solutions.
And that’s just the start – once there’s agreement then there’s the management. Fencing off wee corners, managing stock movements, transplanting nettles and cow parsley, fertilising with seaweed, providing cover, mowing late, mowing inside out, giving corncrakes what they need. All this has to happen every year to give corncrakes the best possible chance of survival. And we work to ensure that crofters have the support from Scottish Government that they need to do this.
And so the recovery began. Across the north-west, on Tiree, Skye, the Uists, Lewis and Harris, and Durness the declines slowed then stopped then reversed and corncrakes were on the up for the first time in decades. And that only happened because of all of those hours, days, months and years of advisory time spent working with the crofters.
Amongst those crofters are Katherine and Alexander Tindall who work their land in the north of Skye just as their parents and grandparents did. They say: “We’re doing everything we can to help corncrakes. Some might think us odd but we’re really looking forward to being kept awake all night by the call of the corncrake.”
I don’t think they’re odd at all – in fact, we need more people just like them willing to do their bit to help wildlife and giving the rest of us the chance to hear that rasping call and maybe, just maybe catch a glimpse of one of our truly special birds.
You can catch up on our first two corncrake blogs here and here. This month’s podcast is also focused on these birds.