Scottish Nature Notes

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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.
  • Carpets of white

    Snowdrop season is here! Jess Barrett celebrates the reappearance of these beautiful flowers. 

    Carpets of white

    It’s been a rather cold start to 2018 so far with snow for many of us and temperatures lingering below freezing. Yet, despite this there are signs of spring creeping in with the return of snowdrops to many of our gardens and woodlands. These delicate white flowers, the first to bloom while we’re still in the grips of winter, herald to us that warmer weather and longer days are on the way.

    For me there is a magical feel to this time of year; rather than heading home in the dark after work I see beautiful sunsets,  I catch sight of my own breath in the cold, crisp days, and have a desire to be outside bundled up in lots of layers seeing how nature all around is changing week to week.

    Nothing though can compare to seeing a carpet of snowdrops while out on a walk. From afar they look like a blanket of snow while closer up you can see each individual one and the way they gently sway in a fresh breeze. Yet, the scientific name for snowdrops Galanthus is a bit different from the wintery connotations we associate with them; it comes from the Greek words gala for "milk", and ánthos for "flower". You can certainly see how such a name is also appropriate as they could be said to look like droplets of milk.

    Name aside it’s easy to understand why these small flowers have become such an integral part of our seasonal calendar when they can not only survive but thrive when the trees are still bare and other flowers are yet to be seen. It’s always so exciting to see the first ones of the year growing up out of the ground and makes me think of the spring days to come when nature will be in bloom.

    The Scottish Snowdrop Festival is currently taking place across the country until 11th March celebrating these lovely flowers. Our Loch Leven and Lochwinnoch reserves are two of the places taking part – why not pay them a visit to see these beautiful flowers for yourself? 

  • Show The Love – what is climate change?

    Climate change is happening now and affecting the things we love. As part of Show The Love week we are looking at how nature, in particular seas and seabirds around Scotland’s coasts, is being affected. In this first blog Peadar O’Connell unpicks exactly what climate change is and why it is such a threat to our much loved wildlife. Keep an eye for more blogs over the next week.

    Show The Love – what is climate change?

    Weather is something that changes daily. Climate, however, is the longer term weather patterns for a certain place during a particular period – Scottish winters should be cold and summers warm. You can scale this up to the global level where the average temperatures can be measured and compared to other years, which is important for monitoring global temperatures.

    In the past the climate has changed many times causing cold and warm periods over thousands of years. The difference between these natural fluctuations and what is happening now is the unprecedented speed it is happening at. Wildlife has been able to adapt in the past to the slow changes but now we’re incredibly worried for our species and habitats ability to keep up with the pace of change.

    The last great ice age ended when the global temperatures rose over a period of millennia (1000 years), and meant the life that existed in the colder parts of the planet had some time to adapt: some, like reindeer moved north, others, like the mammoth, became extinct (although hunting may also have played a part in this) whilst many adapted to cope under milder conditions over time.

    Today the average global temperature has increased by about 1 degree C in the last hundred years with most of that happening in the past 50 years (Fig 1). Depending on how we respond it is predicted to increase by between 1.5C and 5C degrees in the next 80 years! It would be an extreme challenge for nature to adapt this quickly, especially as habitats are far more fragmented and isolated due to previous losses. The disaster currently faced by polar bears in the arctic as their habitat changes is similar to the problems faced here in Scotland by mountain hare, common scoter and delicate alpine flowers. All could be lost from Scotland in years to come if they can’t adapt or move.

     

    Figure 1: Average global temperatures since 1850-2017 showing a 1 degree increase since the 1900s

    Credit: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/monitoring/climate/surface-temperature

    Speed of change

    So why is the climate warming so quickly? The short answer is greenhouse gases.  CO2 or carbon dioxide is the one we hear most about because there is so much of it. Greenhouse gases occur naturally but the more greenhouse gases you have in the atmosphere the more heat that gets trapped and hence the more the planet warms. If we look again at the last ice age, temperatures increased after a rise in the CO2 in the atmosphere from 180 parts per million to 260 parts per million before the industrial revolution.  CO2 levels in the atmosphere have now topped 400 and are still rising! (see fig 2 and 3). As seen in fig 2 this increase is particularly evident from the 1950s onwards when there was an increase in industrialisation.

    Fig 2: Indirect measurements of the fluctuations and recent huge increase in CO2 in the atmosphere over the last 400,000 years - Data source: Reconstruction from ice cores.

    Credit: https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/

     

    Fig 3: CO2 increase between 2005 and 2017

    Credit: https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/

    The excess CO2 that is being pumped into the atmosphere on a daily basis is coming primarily from the burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas. Fossil fuels include the remains of organic life (all life on earth is carbon based) that lived millions of years ago and release large stores of CO2 when burnt. Burning these fuels has given our ancestors and now us the energy we need to build and maintain our current lifestyles, but if we continue to burn them our children and grandchildren will live in a much different and more challenging world.

    Image by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

    Impacts of climate change – what can you do?

    In addition to the trends, such as warming oceans and sea level rise, climate change is causing  more extreme weather events as the warmer atmosphere and oceans hold more energy and create more powerful weather events – remember last year’s massive hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria?  

    Warming and extreme weather are leading to changes in the farmed and natural environment. The food we can grow will change, as will the fish we catch and eat. Wild animals and plants will have to adapt or risk extinction, disease and alien pest species are predicted to become more common, including those affecting commercial industries like forestry and farming. This could all lead to societal changes including mass migration from areas in the world worst affected.

    The bottom line is that the impacts are already happening and are set to get worse so there is a genuine and urgent need to take action now. All the things we love are affected - we don’t want to lose the things important to us because of climate change.  Over the next week why not show the love for the things you hold dear? Go to www.showthelove.org.uk to find out what you can do.

     

  • When Skye met Frisa – a love story

    Dave Sexton, our Mull officer, brings you the tale of Skye and Frisa, a pair of sea eagles on Mull who over their 21 years together have successfully raised 22 chicks. Of course we could have just reported that a sub adult 1994 male paired with a mature 1992 female in Territory 18 and have fledged 22 chicks. But it is February, the month of love, after all…

    When Skye met Frisa – a love story


    Skye and Frisa by Debby Thorne 

    It was the bleak mid-winter of 1997. He was the raffish young sea eagle from across the sea on the misty Isle of Skye. She was the older regal eagle from the Isle of Mull and born into sea eagle royalty. From their first encounter on a dreich, wind swept headland in January they became inseparable.

    He wasn’t fully adult at just three years old, still mottled and scruffy with just a hint of the fine pale head, yellow beak and sparkling white tail to come. At five years old, she had it all and she knew it. She’d hatched into a sea eagle dynasty headed by her mother Blondie, who had raised that historic wild chick in 1985; the first to successfully fledge since the reintroduction of these birds 10 years before.

    Known as Skye and Frisa they are still together today 21 years later. It must be love.

    Skye and Frisa on ice by Debby Thorne

    It was to be a whirlwind romance but that first spring brought them both joy and heartache. The intricate art of nest building initially defeated them. Sticks were too big or too small; they fell from the tree at the slightest hint of a breeze in the Hebrides. Frisa’s frustration was beginning to show. She knew the clock was ticking; she would soon have eggs to lay and as yet, no safe place to lay them. Finally Skye’s efforts began to bear fruit and within a few weeks, working together, they had constructed their first nest, a vast eyrie. Softly lined with white moor grass, Frisa settled down one stormy March night.

    By the time the early morning sun warmed her proud head at 5am, she had laid her first ever egg. The Mull dawn chorus seemed to herald its arrival.  There would be another to follow a day or so later. With no one to teach them a thing, they slipped comfortably into a routine of incubating those eggs for the next 38 days and nights. Despite his youth, Skye did his fair share but Frisa would always take over as dusk fell, shuffling the eggs under her cosy brood patch and keeping them warm through the long chilly nights.

    Skye seeing off an intruder by Debby Thorne

    What happened next must have been hard to bear. Only one egg hatched but their precious chick thrived and grew on the generous offerings brought in by Skye. But suddenly one day in mid-June Frisa could not get her chick to raise its head to feed. She gazed down sensing something was badly wrong. She tried again and again but her chick, her first born, was lifeless. Unaware of the unfolding sadness, Skye flew in with fresh prey and he too tried to feed. By now, her mother’s instincts told Frisa it was all over for this season. She sat motionless on the edge of the nest, gazing into the distance. Eventually Skye joined her. They called frequently to each other and then flew far and high, their desperate calls echoing through the glen.

    In 1998 they would experience the joy of raising their first chick to fledging. They moved and built a new nest many miles from the first. Maybe they had learned lessons and did things differently? Maybe Mother Nature was just kinder to them that year? Their beautiful female chick took her maiden flight on 13 August aged 12 weeks and was seen flying strongly nearby in September. Skye and Frisa had finally done it.

    But the course of true love never did run smooth. The following year tragedy was to strike them again when their healthy five week old chick fell from the nest. In 2007 again in a freak accident, the nest slipped sending both chicks just a few days old, tumbling through the branches to their deaths on the forest floor.

    Left: Skye by Iain Erskine; Right: Frisa by Debby Thorne

    Yet, all other years Skye and Frisa have successfully produced young, often two chicks a year. To date they have raised a remarkable 22 chicks and many of them are now breeding far and wide across Scotland. Their first chick from 1998 has fledged many chicks of her own, last year from a cliff nest on a remote stretch of Mull’s rocky coastline.

    Skye and Frisa are already building up this year’s nest ready for eggs next month. Just this week they were perched close together, their wings touching, occasionally preening each other. Their unbreakable bond endures. Love conquers all.