October, 2017

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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.
  • Skies alive with geese

    For many of us spotting our first geese of the autumn is a sure sign that colder days are on the way. Find out more about these annual visitors to Scotland and some of the places where you can see them in this blog by RSPB Scotland's Jess Barrett.

    Skies alive with geese

    “Honk honk!” has to be one of my favourite bird calls to hear at this time of year when out on a coastal walk, wrapped up against the crisp cool weather. It’s the call of geese and often the first thing that alerts you to their presence. How many of us have then stopped to look up at the sky to see the distinctive V shape formation of geese called a skein, catching the soft low light making their way to feeding grounds or roost sites?

    Around this time of year huge numbers of geese appear in Scottish skies, coming here to escape the colder winters of their summer homes further north, or passing through en route to settle elsewhere in the UK for the next few months.  The species to keep an eye out for over the next few months are the daintier looking pink-footed geese, the agile white-fronted geese, the distinctive black and white barnacle geese, around 85,000 migrant greylag geese (a further 20,000 are resident in Scotland all year round), and the much rarer bean geese – only around 200 of these birds spend the winter in Scotland close to Falkirk.

    Geese return to the same areas each year whether it’s a site they are settling at or just a stop off on their journey.  Huge flocks congregate in some places such as flocks of around 40,000 barnacle geese on the Solway Firth and on Islay, while the pink-footed geese seen at Loch of Strathbeg just a few weeks ago will already be moving on elsewhere.

    One of the things I love most about geese how graceful they appear in the sky but there are practicalities behind the stylish V shape of a skein. First of all it allows every bird to have a good view point – they can all see the lead goose flying at the front so know which way to go. Secondly, and very importantly on such long migration flights, it’s an efficient use of energy. As you may have experienced with cycling behind another bike, a goose behind another goose will benefit from a reduction in drag. It does mean things can get pretty tiring for the lead goose though so the leader will switch when each goose tires too much – now that’s teamwork!

    The other thing I love about geese couldn’t be more different – their waddling walk when on land! You might have spotted geese, maybe a few or perhaps a large flock, nibbling away on the ground as they feed, or bobbing about on lochs or estuaries. The sight of a large group of them coming into land or all taking off together is something truly spectacular!

    Many of our reserves where geese are found run special goose related events over the autumn and winter so you too can have the chance to experience the wonderful sights and sounds of them, including sunrise walks at Loch Lomond on 4th November and 13th January, and duck and goose walks at Mersehead on 15th and 22nd November, and 6th December. Why not come along and see our winter visitors for yourself?

  • A year of nature at Coul Links

    Coul Links is a rare duneland habitat on the Sutherland coast which is being threatened with destruction by plans to build a golf course. Here RSPB Scotland’s conservation officer Alison Searl recalls a year of nature at Coul Links and why we’re part of a coaltion of conservation organisations campaigning to save it. Details on how you can help by submitting objections are included at the end. 

    A year of nature at Coul Links

    Early on a late spring morning Coul Links is alive with bird song. Yellowhammer, chaffinches, whitethroats, willow warblers, song thrush, blackbirds, robins, wrens, dunnock, whinchat and tits are all busy in the scrub along the old shore line at the back of the links beneath the adjacent farm land.  The liquid song of a curlew can be heard as it soars overhead and snipe are drumming over the low lying marshy margins of the residual pools that have been left as the winter flooding of the dune slacks retreats.

    As I walk out across ancient grass covered sand dunes, meadow pipits flit out from under my feet, larks are hovering ahead filling the air with their song (as they have been since January) and there is the distinct accelerating pipping of a descending meadow pipit performing its parachuting display. An elusive grasshopper warbler throws it whir from a rushy area while a sedge warbler is buzzing about on a frenetic song flight. A group of teal take off from under my feet as I approach one of the pools that still retains its winter flood water and a reed bunting is calling from fence post.

    Round the corner, some shelduck are hanging out on another pool and the prehistoric form of a heron is poised ready strike at some unlucky frog. Pulling up on to heathery heath, a stonechat clacks at me and the resident buzzards are mewing overhead. Then I head down to the sandflats at the north of the site where terns have nested in recent years and oystercatchers and ringed plover are settling down to raise their families.

    Later in the summer and into autumn, the terns and osprey arrive, feeding over the Fleet and flocks of linnet and twite will be enjoying the harvest of wild seed provided by Coul Links. As winter approaches, Coul Links continues to provide a refuge for meadow pipits and larks, stone chat, reed bunting, linnets, twite and other finches, snipe, curlew, oystercatchers and other waders as well as teal, wigeon, mallard and shelduck. Meanwhile, the local kites, peregrine and buzzard all take advantage of the wide array of dining opportunities offered by Coul Links.

    Sadly this wildlife paradise is now under threat as it is proposed to construct a golf course across Coul Links replacing the rich undisturbed mosaic of dune habitats with neatly managed greens, fairways and paths. The fragmented remnants of natural habitat that will be persevered will no longer be able to support the rich plant and invertebrate diversity that the bird life depends on. Many of the bird species that currently use the links are intolerant of human disturbance and are likely to disappear during the construction of the golf course, never to return. 

    Scotland has been here before – only a decade ago permission was granted for the Trump International Golf Course in Aberdeenshire despite ours, and many others, objections due to the havoc it would wreck on the protected dunelands there. Unfortunately, the construction of the golf course has caused massive environmental damage. The same mistakes must not be made at Coul Links.

    RSPB Scotland is one of a coalition of conservation organisations, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society, campaigning to save this site for nature. Please help us by making an objection to the planning application that threatens to destroy Coul Links by emailing eplanning@highland.gov.uk quoting reference number 17/04601/FUL in the subject line. You can also submit comments on the Highland Council website here. The closing date for emails and comments is 22nd December. Visit our casework page for more information on how to make your voice heard, including contacting your local councillors if you are a resident of Highland Council. 

  • Small scabious mining bee: an angel to a devil

    This is the fifth 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 small scabious mining bee. 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).

    Photo credit: Peter Stronach

    A small bee, around 7 millimetres in length, which has a thorax covered in golden hairs sits on top of a beautifully rich, violet-coloured head of a devil’s bit scabious flower (Succisa pratensis). Here, she gathers and stores white pollen on her hind legs, making the bee look like she’s wearing white cowboy chaps.

    It’s a cool day, around 14 degrees Celsius so she takes her time due to having a little less energy. Once it starts raining she will go underneath the flower head to shelter herself before flying back to the nest when there is a moment of clear weather. Upon reaching the nest, which to the outsider looks like a small volcano-like hole in sandy soil, she will land just short and observe the entrance to her home for a few seconds – checking for danger perhaps – before entering. There, she offloads the pollen harvest, a meal for the larvae that will one day hatch out of eggs laid in the nest, before setting off again to forage.

    Photo credit: Peter Stronach

    Very little is known about the small scabious mining bee (Andrena marginata) - least of all about its distribution within the Cairngorms National Park. This bee is one of Scotland’s rarest, being found only in a small number of sites in the Highlands and is known to be threatened in the rest of Europe too. It survives by collecting nectar from a small range of wildflowers but relies entirely on Devil’s bit scabious as its source of pollen which provides protein. 

    Many insect species have evolved to be very specific in their habitat and food selection to avoid competition from other foragers. However, in a world where the natural environment is deteriorating and more of these niches are facing serious threat, it is specialists such as this bee which are suffering the most. Some ask why we should be striving to protect creatures as small and unassuming as the small scabious mining bee. However, it is the smallest and most hidden of organisms that we should be concerned about because their plight is not in plain sight, yet, may have the harshest costs.

    The bee is a component of the diverse biological network within the Scottish landscape that keeps our ecological systems going. Without this diversity and the pollination services provided by bee species, we would have a weaker, less resilient environment which can also have catastrophic consequences on human life.

    Photo credit: Peter Stronach

    As a rare species and a champion for wildflower-rich habitat, the bee made it on to the list of six insects which direct the efforts of the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC) project. Over the next three years, this project aims to find more sites where this bee exists and work closely with landowners to protect these sites. In this first year, RIC volunteers have already found three new sites for the bee and have filmed the bee entering and exiting its nest – a first in Scotland. The project is now working with land owners on which the bee was found with hopes to ensure the protection of the species.

    If you would like to keep up to date with the RIC project, you can find updates on Facebook and Twitter.