Species of the month – Manx shearwater

Andy Douse is Scottish Natural Heritage’s senior ornithologist. He has recently been working on Rum National Nature Reserve counting and observing the Manx shearwater colony. Here he tells us what that work involved.

 

Manx shearwater

Manx shearwater

Despite the fact that it was June, a cold mist blew in off the summit of Hallival, enveloping me temporarily and distancing me from the sanctuary of the hut below.

My routine was well-established : the digital recorder set to the right recording, clip-board and recording sheet ready, and so I pressed the play button. The discordant, demanding call of a male Manx shearwater blared out and I directed it down the open burrow entrance. The recorded call itself lasted for 25 seconds. However, within ten seconds of the start, a high pitched call sounds from deep down the burrow, similar but noticeably different to the recorded call I used.

 

Playing a recoding helps with the count

Playing a recoding helps with the count

The response was carefully logged, I packed-up and moved on to the next burrow, only 10m away and started the process over again. Over the month of June I repeated this nearly 2,000 times, different calls directed down 60 burrows. Each burrow got one of four different call types on a rotating cycle. The reason for all this?

Well, I’m trying to work out how best to count breeding Manx shearwaters. Counting shearwaters is harder than you’d think. Yes, you can count the holes in the ground but not all holes in the ground are occupied, and most of the burrows are too long and may have passages so convoluted that seeing what’s at the end is almost impossible.

So we have to ‘encourage’ the occupants to tell us that they are at home. Again that is harder than you might think. They don’t always respond and it’s believed that males only respond to male calls and females only respond to female calls. We need a method that will tell us what how many burrows are actually occupied, one that takes account of the fact that it could be occupied by the male or female of a pair, or possibly both.

A raft of Shearwaters taking off with the Isle of Rum NNR beyond.

A raft of Shearwaters taking off with the Isle of Rum NNR beyond.

Why do we need to know this? The colony on Rum is BIG, indeed very BIG probably, but counting it has always been a challenge and previous counting methods may not have given as accurate figures as we can compile today. We are developing a method to count all the burrows (a challenge in its own right over an area the extent of the Rum Cuillin), but in addition we need to know how many of those burrows are actually occupied, and that’s where I come in.

A month on Rum in June gave me the data I needed. Colleagues in RSPB will do the analysis but it’s clear that we’ll need some combination of male and female calls, but we also need to know when is the best time to this – early incubation or later, and does time of day have an effect on likely response probability? All this is leading up to another census, but hopefully with a result that we can really look upon as being definitive.

Manx shearwater

Manx shearwater

The Manx shearwater colony on Rum is undoubtedly of international scientific importance for its size. But beyond that I have to admit a fascination, an admiration and deep respect for a bird that spends about seven months of the year flying down into the waters of the South Atlantic and back again, before settling back again into a burrow, deep on a rocky hillside on Rum, and aiming as they do every year, to raise a single chick.

 

Find out more about Rum National Nature Reserve @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/rum/

 

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Aberdeen reds

One of our most popular posts on the SNH facebook page recently was a story highlighting how Aberdeen residents were thrilled to see red squirrels make a comeback to the city. It shows the affection that is widespread across Scotland for this most engaging of mammals. Steve Willis, Project Officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project (SSRS), provides a guest blog today looking at the significance of the work to save red squirrels in Aberdeen and beyond.

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

Residents of Aberdeen have been pleasantly surprised by a new addition to the wildlife in their gardens – the red squirrel is making a comeback. In recent months Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels have received a flurry of records from members of the public seeing this charismatic mammal in parts of the city where they have not been seen for many years.

The native red squirrel has been a feature of many a garden in some areas of the western edge of the city, especially those adjacent to some of the bigger conifer plantations, but until recently they were still missing from the urban landscape. It’s early days, but the signs that reds are really back in the city are very promising.

This news is music to the ears of the SSRS team and their many volunteers. SSRS staff trap grey squirrels across both Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire and the public get involved too, indeed SSRS runs a successful trap-loan scheme which has made a huge difference across what is after all a huge area. As the non-native competitor is removed, reds are free to flood back in to former haunts.

The grey squirrel is not native to Scotland. They were brought over from North America in the late 19th and early 20th century by people who thought they would make an attractive addition to our parks. Grey squirrels are a tough competitor for the reds. They survive well, out-competing the smaller, more specialised red squirrel across much of its range. Once found right across Britain, red squirrels have subsequently been lost from most of England and Wales. Scotland now has the largest proportion of the UK population.

Grey squirrel

Grey squirrel

A further complication of the grey squirrel’s presence is a disease that is prevalent within their population. Squirrelpox virus does not affect grey squirrels, but is fatal to red squirrels in a matter of weeks. It is currently found only in South Scotland but this virus has proved very hard to contain and the rest of the Scottish population could be at risk very soon. For now though, it is a long way from the northeast of Scotland and simple competition for food remains the greatest threat posed by the grey squirrel.

Some people may be upset that we trap grey squirrels, but this really is the only way to ensure the long term survival of our native reds. Trapping the non-native grey squirrel is helping to right a wrong made by our ancestors many years ago.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT). As well as grey squirrel control collecting information on the distribution of red and grey squirrels across Scotland is a high priority. Detailed survey is carried out across the region- not only by the local SSRS team but also by a huge number of volunteers. This allows SSRS to identify areas of importance where habitat management or grey squirrel control will benefit red squirrel populations, and also to understand natural changes in their populations. The data will be shared with local biological records centres and the national database of squirrel records.

So next time you’re out for a walk in the woods, or even see a squirrel in your garden, please report your sightings to us at

http://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/scotlands-red-squirrels/squirrel-sightings/

 

Further reading: http://www.scottishsquirrels.org.uk/

 

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Satellite tagging

Using tracking devices to find out more about our natural heritage is an increasingly popular and important approach. In Scotland a range of projects using this technology look set to further improve our knowledge of species that would otherwise be extremely tricky to monitor.

Mapping and GPS receiver

Mapping and GPS receiver

Few dramas are more interesting in the natural world than migration. A tiny tracker, weighing less than a paperclip, has revealed that the red-necked phalarope can travel an astonishing 16,000 miles during migration.

In 2012 the RSPB and Shetland Ringing Group fitted tiny geolocators to ten of the birds in Fetlar, Shetland, with the aim of finding out where they went in winter.

The data gathered recorded a truly epic trip that took in crossing the Atlantic, heading south down the eastern seaboard of the United States, journeying across the Caribbean, before ending up off the coast of Peru.

After wintering in the Pacific, the little bird returned to Fetlar following a similar route. The outward journey for the phalarope (which weighs no more than a golf ball and in the UK is found only in Shetland and the Western Isles) is even more admirable when you consider that it heads into the prevailing weather when travelling towards North America.

Using tracking devices to find out more about our natural heritage is an increasingly popular and important approach. Here in Scotland a range of projects aim to further improve our knowledge of species that would otherwise be extremely tricky to monitor.

Lightweight transmitters sending out signals to satellites have allowed us to glean both new knowledge and confirm what we suspected to be the case with many species.

It was around the turn of the century that advances in size and weight of transmitters allowed tracking to become a viable tool for studying wildlife. Be it migratory species or monitoring movements of mammals and birds that don’t leave these shores, the benefits quickly became apparent.

Osprey

Osprey

Ospreys were amongst the first birds to be tracked in Scotland. Roy Dennis famously travelled to Spain to pick up signals of migrating ospreys with the millennium just around the corner. Over the years the use of transmitters has allowed the RSPB and others to carefully track the flight paths that ospreys take when heading to west Africa. Routes, total mileage, daily mileage and preferred stops are all able to be recorded. Our knowledge today of osprey migration is hugely better thanks to the little transmitters.

Our marine team working with the University of Exeter have been tagging basking sharks. The aim of the project is to help to solve some of the mysteries about basking shark behaviour.

  • How long do basking sharks remain feeding in certain areas in Scottish waters?
  • How are the sharks using these areas which are important to them for feeding and potentially breeding?
  • Where do basking sharks go after their summer feeding in Scotland’s seas?
  • Do the sharks remain in deeper waters off Scotland over winter?
  • Do the sharks return to the same area year after year?
Basking shark

Basking shark

Satellite tagging is revealing the answers to these questions and Scottish Ministers are now considering a Marine Protected Area for basking sharks in the Sea of the Hebrides

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been tracking cuckoos using this technology since 2011.. Cuckoo numbers in the UK have halved over the last 20 years. To establish why, the BTO has used satellite-tracking and has gained lots of vital information which will go some way to help save our cuckoos.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Knowing where our seals go and what they do when at sea has always been a dream. The first attempts to establish if seals returned to the same haulout sites, or whether they moved around, involved attaching small coloured/numbered caps to their heads that allowed individual seals to be visually identified. Useful and interesting as this was it did not reveal where they went when at sea.

Grey seal

Grey seal

With the development of mobile phone technologies the Sea mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University has been attaching GPS phone tags to seals, providing a wealth of information about where seals go when at sea, the depths to which they dive, the time they remain underwater and the temperature of the water, etc. We’re learning so much more about these fascinating animals with this technology, such as how long they spend hauled out on land, how long they spend at sea, the distances they travel and how loyal they are to particular feeding areas and haulout sites, and much more.

Further information at:

Osprey : follow the fortunes of the Loch Garten ospreys @ http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/tracking/lochgartenospreys/

Basking sharks tracking information is available @ http://www.wildlifetracking.org/?project_id=1022

Cuckoo – you can read about the BTO project @ http://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking#

Seals – find our more about the CMRC work here http://sealtrack.ucc.ie/

 

Images :  Osprey (c) Peter Cairns/2020Vision, basking shark and seal (c) Alex Mustard/2020Vision and Cuckoo (c) Mark Hamblin. GPS & map image (c) Lorne Gill/SNH

 

 

 

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Creag Meagaidh update

From the wild and windswept mountain plateau to a woodland that’s slowly finding its feet again, Creag Meagaidh feels like the Highlands compressed into one nature reserve. Rare mountain plants like woolly willow and Highland saxifrage battle against the elements, whilst black grouse flourish in the combination of woodland and open moorland. With Munro summits, an exposed whaleback ridge and ice carved gullies, Creag Meagaidh is the complete mountain experience.

Loch Laggan

Loch Laggan

The reserve has proved extremely popular this year. Visitor number at Creag Meagaidh have rocketed, jumping from 8000 to around the 20000 mark. Arguably the key to this has been new tourist signs, a further 3,000 metres of all abilities paths, and a new car park that helps people to pull in easily and soak up what Creag Meagaidh has to offer.

Creag Meagaidh is home to a variety of insects

Creag Meagaidh is home to a variety of insects

Reserve Manager Rory Richardson keeps a swipe-board at the reception area up-to-date with all the recent sightings and he was able to reel off a very impressive list of things seen by visitors. “We’ve had a huge range of birds of late,” he explained “including oyster catchers, curlew, ringed plover, stonechat, mallards, golden eagle, merlin, peregrine, osprey, kestrel, black grouse, red grouse, ptarmigan, and snipe.”

Stonechat

Stonechat

The reserve isn’t just a haven for a rich variety of birds. There are plenty of mammals about too and Rory mentioned that red deer, roe deer, otter, and pine marten were all spotted over the last few weeks.

Stoat

Stoat

Making sure that people can enjoy the reserve is a huge element of what staff aim to do at Creag Meagaidh. It isn’t just the provision of paths and car parks that contributes to that work. Each April Scottish Natural Heritage staff stage a black grouse safari which features an early morning viewing of the courtship ritual of the grouse known as ‘lekking’. This daily display takes place just before sunrise hence the early start of 6am at Creag Meagaidh.

However there is a reward of a mug of tea and bacon rolls back at SNH’s Aberarder base for all participants.

Black grouse

Black grouse

Rory is keen to welcome people along to the free event. “The black grouse numbers on Creag Meagaidh have been increasing in recent years – we do annual counts in spring and it is always interesting to see the numbers are like each year”, he said. “It is a real delight to be able to share the beauty of the black grouse display with other people, though they are absolutely stunning birds to look at and some of the noises they make are out of this world.”

Spot the ptarmigan

Spot the ptarmigan

Volunteers are vital to the success of Creag Meagaidh too. This year saw a record number of ten volunteers staying on the reserve at one time. They came from all over the world to experience working on a National Nature Reserve and spent fifty percent of their time on their conservation projects and the other fifty percent helping with estate maintenance. They all get free accommodation, cooking and washing facilities, they also get the chance to learn and experience life on a highland Nature Reserve.

Grazing

In 1790, the Statistical Account recorded 20,000 sheep in the Parish of Laggan, which included Creag Meagaidh. By 1840, just fifty years later, the New Statistical Account recorded the presence of 40,000 sheep in the parish. Thus, like much of the Highlands, vegetation has been heavily grazed for centuries, so it was decided to reduce the number of grazing animals by removing sheep and culling red deer.

The aim was not to eliminate grazing animals altogether, but to keep numbers at a level that allowed the habitats, especially the woodland, to recover. Although controversial in some quarters initially it is now recognised that the vegetation around Creag Meagaidh NNR has benefitted hugely form this, then innovative, approach.

Wild flowers at Creag Meagaidh earlier this year

Wild flowers at Creag Meagaidh earlier this year

The reserve was designated in May 1986 and in 2011 celebrated its 25th anniversary. On the evidence of this year it has many more years of popularity to anticipate.

 

Find out more about Creag Meagaidh NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/creag-meagaidh/

 

Images: Rory Richardson / SNH and David McKenzie (Loch Laggan and black grouse)

Posted in Birds, National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , , , ,

News from St Cyrus

Therese Alampo is the Reserve Manager at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. In today’s blogpost she looks at the links being forged between National Nature Reserves and education.

Picture 014Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (NNRs) are selected as the best examples of nature in Scotland. The first was Beinn Eighe, designated in 1951, and we now have almost 50 NNRs. These are scattered all around Scotland, and how lucky we are to have one so close to the towns and cities of Aberdeenshire and Angus for all to enjoy and experience.

NNR’s like St Cyrus are special places for nature. But they are also places for people. All have facilities to allow the public to enjoy, experience and learn why they are special. Many are also an educational resource, offer research opportunities, or show examples of specialised management.

All these uses can knit together in harmony with the common philosophy that we must all enjoy and protect the things that make St Cyrus so very special. A good example of that in the current year has come from local dog walkers who have behaved very responsibly by keeping dogs on their leads and respecting the sanctuary area to the south of the reserve where we have ground nesting birds.

St Cyrus NNR

St Cyrus NNR

The world has changed so much for the birds returning to breed at St Cyrus; some of which are returning from extremely far flung shores. The human population in Aberdeenshire and Angus has doubled in the past 40 years, and along with this there has been a huge growth in dog and cat ownership, habitat loss, intensification of farming, challenges from use of pesticides and a plethora of other obstacles.

Pressures on wildlife at times seems daunting, so thank you to our local dog walkers for ‘leading’ by example and protecting our ground nesting birds.

Outdoor learning

I think it was Nelson Mandela who said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

I’d like to thank all of the schools who use St Cyrus as an educational resource, particularly for having the drive and ambition to bring school groups on outdoor expeditions to this wonderful place. Last year we had a very impressive 50 school groups, and an additional 22 other educational groups, visiting the reserve.

DSCF5381

It is never easy to single out individuals but I would like to say a special thanks to the inspirational local nursery school teacher Pamela Karner, her assistant Bev, and the volunteers and parents who bring the nursery children down to the reserve every two weeks. They regularly visit here come rain, shine, hail, snow, ice and everything in between.

Pamela approached SNH three years ago about the possibility of enhancing the outdoor learning already taking place at St Cyrus to incorporate a ‘forest school’ for the children. A brilliant and unusual concept, especially as we are a beach, dune and grassland reserve. We do however have a small area of self seeded alder ‘woodland’ behind the office on the old river bed. The trees are only small (about 10-12ft) but to a four year old I’d imagine these areas are ‘proper’ forests!

The programme we developed with Pamela gives great opportunities for learning about all the aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence. Pamela and her team have been doing some amazing things – things that it’s wonderful to see young children doing. For instance, they listen extremely carefully to the sounds on the reserve during silent walks and some of the children are only three! Then, they record their findings in imaginative ways. They also learn about numeracy through collecting sticks, grading them, sorting, matching, grouping, measuring and comparing.

DSCF6052

The activities occur in the same place at very regular intervals, so that children experience the great depth of learning that can be found in the same space over time. The challenge and stimulation of being outdoors also has wider benefits for child development, and allows children and parents to develop positive attitudes to risk and natural environments too.

Pamela is an inspirational teacher and really values our National Nature Reserve here at St Cyrus. When we met recently she told me “I would like to express a big thank you to St Cyrus National Nature Reserve staff. Without their vibrant enthusiasm and support we just could not have started ‘Forest School’ at the reserve. They allowed and trusted the process. Everyone at our ‘Forest School’ takes this awareness, respect and care seriously. It is an arc of connections.”

As part of our work at Scottish Natural Heritage, we endeavour to educate about the connections between people, their environment, their local landscape, ecosystems and biodiversity. Issues like sustainability, values and attitudes arise and it’s very important that children grow up learning about these, as part of their education, in real life situations. It is part of our heritage.

 

For further information about this work see http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/resources-for-teaching/learning-outdoors/

 

Posted in National Nature Reserves, Projects | Tagged , , ,

Heading for the hills ?

Taking a walk in the Scottish hills is one of life’s great pleasures for many of us. But we’d like to give you a friendly reminder that with the some of the best public access laws in the world in Scotland comes some responsibility as well. Fiona Cuninghame, of our Access and Recreation team, explains how to get the most from the Heading for the Hills website.

Upland landscape in the Glenshee hills.

Upland landscape in the Glenshee hills.

‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ website helps you find out where deer stalking is taking place on participating estates over the busy stag stalking season (1st July to 20th October). This helps you to plan routes which minimise the chance of disturbing stalking, in line with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.  But, luckily, it isn’t much of a chore with the Heading for the Scottish Hills website, which is a quick and easy way to check that you won’t disturb deer stalking.

The service covers over 70 estates in popular hill walking areas, mainly in the Cairngorms National Park, the Breadalbane area and on the west coast. Most estates begin stalking in August and September.

Family hillwalking on an upland footpath

Family hillwalking on an upland footpath

You can find general information about stalking on all participating estates and contact details for further information at www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/hftsh. Some estates provide detailed information on the site up to a week in advance, describing where and when stalking will take place, as well as suggested walking routes. There is also information about responsible behaviour for land managers and walkers.

The service, started five years ago, has received positive feedback from walkers and has demonstrated that there is demand for the service from both walkers and land managers.

We’re working with partners to consider how we can re-design the system to make it more user-friendly and cover a larger area, and are hoping to launch a new, improved service in 2015.

The website helps walkers follow the advice in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code to try and find out where stag stalking is taking place because it was not always easy to find out who to contact. The Code also encourages walkers:

  • to follow reasonable alternative routes on days when stalking is taking place
  • not to cross land where stalking is taking place
  • to avoid wild camping where stalking is planned for the next day
Hillwalker in Glenshee,

Hillwalker in Glenshee,

The web page takes its name from the ‘Heading for the Scottish Hills’ book, which was a collaboration between landowners and mountaineers. It was published between 1988 and 1996. For the first time, this book provided hill walkers with an easy way to identify and contact participating estates to find out where stalking was taking place.

 Find out more @ www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/hftsh

Posted in Access | Tagged , , ,

The Tay Landscape Partnership

The Tay Landscape Partnership was the brainchild of David Strachan and Paul McLennan, managers for Perth and Kinross Heritage and Countryside Trusts respectively.  An application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to support 28 projects was successful in 2013 and by 2014 the group were able to begin work on a raft of plans.  Shirley Paterson, who works with the group, gives us an insight into some of the projects they are currently working on.

The River Tay and Kinnoull Hill from the slopes above Newburgh.

The River Tay and Kinnoull Hill from the slopes above Newburgh.

The group basically aims to celebrate and enhance for future generations the landscapes where the rivers Tay and Earn meet. A key principle is to reconnect residents and visitors with the natural, built and cultural heritage of the area.

Water voles

One recent project has really caught the eye. There have long been tantalising reports of remnant water vole populations hidden away in quiet corners of Perthshire’s waterways, but confirmed sightings have been hard to verify.  The group are currently seeking the help of locals and visitors alike to test the rumours and hopefully confirm that lowland Perthshire has these beautiful but elusive creatures.

Water Vole

Water Vole

Results from the survey will help target future management for these mammals.    So, if you think you’ve seen water voles within the Carse of Gowrie, Sidlaw Hills, Perth or lower Strathearn, between Forteviot and Abernethy, then let the Tay Landscape Partnership know. Call Catriona Davies on 01738 475379 or email her at catriona.davies@pkht.org.uk.

Green ambitions

Of course, water voles are only one aspect of the natural heritage that the Tay Landscape Group is interested in. They seek to improve access to a range of natural features and in so doing encourage many more people to learn about their landscape. There is also a desire to provide training opportunities for people in local, traditional skills and in so doing link with public and private investment in Dundee, Perth and Fife, to support sustainable economic development.

The Tay Landscape Partnership also works with the built environment

The Tay Landscape Partnership also works with the built environment

The future plans of Tay Landscape Group are many and varied. They will seek to involve local school children, provide new roost sites for a range of birds, plant over 1,000 trees and focus on creating and improving wildlife corridors. Add to this mix biodiversity surveys, delivering workshops and maintaining an informative website and it is clear that the group have bold ambitions and are set to make a real impact.

 

An apple tree at Port Allan, Carse of Gowrie Orchards

An apple tree at Port Allan, Carse of Gowrie Orchards

You can help the group by joining them as they create wildlife corridors by planting hedges and trees, assist with restoring declining historic orchards or learn about bee keeping, hedge laying and coppicing.

The Tay Landscape Partnership is made up of 28 projects so there’s something for everyone!

For more information about the Tay Landscape Partnership and upcoming events and activities visit www.taylp.org. You can also follow on facebook and twitter.

Images – (c) Lorne Gill / SNH except built environment image which is courtesy and (c) George Logan and water vole (c) Laurie Campbell.

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