As well as working for the RSPB, I am a volunteer too. Along with my parents and some friends, we have just started up an RSPB Wildlife Explorer group in Shetland. November's meeting was yesterday at the Virkie Pool for "Winter waders." We intended to learn about Shetland's shorebirds, what they look like and how they behave, but we thought the youngsters would most enjoy getting out on the sand and discovering what curlews, redshanks and turnstones like to eat.
Volunteer Sarah and I thought we ought to do a trial run on Saturday. So on with the wellies and off down the road we walked with a shovel, trowel and sieve. I haven't lugwormed since I was about eight, when I have vague memories of digging in the same place with my father. After a few attempts of digging around wormcasts, we thought we were striking it lucky, finding skinny pink worms. Sarah said how she'd never expected to enjoy digging for worms, but it beat doing housework. I paddled out to sea a little, to see what creatures might be swimming in the water. Absoloutely nothing.
What did catch my eye was a bristly form protruding above the sand. I didn't know if it was animal, vegetable or mineral but my curiosty got to me. I think it reminded me of when I was diving and saw those peacock fan things, which live beneath the sand and send up what looks like branches to filter feed. I was quite amazed at what was revealed to me. The 'marine thing' I found at Virkie had created a sort of tube to live in - a solid but fragile coat of sand, reminding me of a caddis fly. The creature turned out to be some sort of worm, and a scary looking one at that. It had something like thorns (I suppose barbs is the right word) sticking out from its head end, extending down its body an inch or so. It wasn't beautiful I have to say, but its cast was quite amazing.
Sunday was a cool (well, cold) day but at least it was dry and not blowing a gale. After a quick detour to look in a neep field for some redpolls, we wandered down to the Pool of Virkie. Situated right next to Sumburgh Airport, it is a shallow tidal inlet which was once deep enough for herring boats to enter. It is a great place to look for waders. We saw a flock of a dozen or so dunlin, a few redshank, curlews but not as many birds as I had hoped. As the tide fell, we explored the sandy shore that was being revealed.
Young Callum soon found a cockle, someone else found a green leach-type creature, and a ragworm and various other wormy things. I heard some time ago that a cubic metre of sand and mud can contain as much energy as a Mars Bar, but the children didn't fancy snacking on worms. We stuggled to find lugworms, but instead discovered that they leave an orange colour lining their hole. After some time Tom (AKA my dad) struck gold and dug up a lugworm 7cm long. It was totally different to what Sarah and I had found the day before (who knows what they were), and had been deeper in the sand. Basically, it had the look of a sand-filled intestine. After a moment, someone pointed out that my hand was becoming yellow. It appeared that the lugworm's mucus was staining my hand, like the rusty stains we found in the sand.
Marine life is so different to what we see day-to-day. You have to open your mind to a whole new world and way of life. Also, some marine animals are absolutely stunning to look at it, whilst others turn the stomach a bit. When we were back indoors, we took some time to look through books, discuss what we'd found and which birds would eat what. Sharon wrote out species lists, so to help us all remember what we'd been looking at. We hope to get the WEX group to start keeping nature diaries and I am sure marine life will feature highly. It was a really interesting day, where all ages were learning together. Wormtastic.
I was fortnate yesterday to join local Scottish Natural Heritage staff, Kevin and Max, on a trip to Mousa. SNH undertake an annual survey of grey seal pups in Shetland and usually find around 100 pups each year on Mousa.
The photos below can only provide a glimpse into what a beautiful morning it was.
Alan and Norman make the boat ready, whilst Kevin and Max look forwards to their first autumn/winter trip to Mousa.
Harbour seal (also known as common seals) leave Mousa for the winter, having had their pups and moulted their coat. These were hauled up in Aithsvoe (where the Mousa ferry was departing from this year)
Mousa silhouetted by the 10am sun. Unfortunately, my camera (and skills) didn't allow me to photograph the birds we saw on the way. In autumn/winter, Mousa Sound is home to black guillemots (in their dapper winter plumage), shags, fulmars and large rafts of eider ducks. In many years a visiting king eider might spend its winter with the local, less dramatic looking eiders. Unfortunately, the rafts of 50+ birds were too far away for me to check.
For those who have visited Mousa before, you may recognise this West Ham area, where the ferry arrives between April and September. I have visited Mousa often at this time of year, but I always get a deligthful surprise seeing the seal pups where, in summer, there are usually children and visitors. The mother seals may be on land next to their pup or can be found in the sea nearby. A large bull, or beach baron as I've heard them referred to, usually patrols the area. Whilst he waits to get his "moment" with a female, he's not afraid to take on another male in a scurmish.
Now for some extreme "aaaaah" moments.
Thanks hugely to Max for the last three photos.
Long-term monitoring is ever so important to get an idea on how various species are getting on. Seals, like seabirds, can serve as an indicator to the health of the marine environment. Visit SNH's website to find out more about grey seals in Scotland. To find out more about seals, studies, identification, conservation and more visit the Sea Mammal Research Unit's website
Whilst SNH undertook their seal survey, I used my time to look for lumps of brown candlewax along this rumbled down wall.
This may sound a bit bizarre, but back in spring I found myself melting candles and stirring into them... cocoa powder. Well, being a chocoholic, this was difficult enough in principal to do (a crime against chocolate!) let alone make sure the wax blocks were smooth sided and that I didn't wreck my kitchen utensils in the process. After a wee while, I mastered it (knackering my pan, lasagne dish and spoons). The tried, tested and successful idea has been devised to determine whether rodents are present in an area. Rodents have a habit of sampling potential food and have a taste for chocolate. Should they gnaw on the chocolate wax, their teeth mark would be left.
Should rats or mice be on the Mousa... well,I don't like to imagine the consequences. Mousa is a very important breeding site for storm petrels. Surprisingly, some chicks may still be on the island waiting to fledge. It is almost impossible to imagine that a seabird, smaller than a starling, is still raising its chick in November! You may have heard recently of the rat eradication work that RSPB are doing on Henderson Island (near Pitcairn Island), to help seabirds like petrels. Rat eradication uses a lot of resources, but the time, money and effort put in is well worth it. I wish everyone involved in that project the very best of luck.
Having located the wax (all were in pristine condition), I took a moment to walk around the north end of Mousa. We usually avoid the area in breeding season, to give the birds a bit of peace. I visited the Catti Geo area and was reminded of a visit made in spring with the Ness Under 14 football team.
Back in early spring, this area was a mess. It was covered in rubbish driven by the sea and wind, but we removed around twenty sacks (of mostly plastic), some wheels and large containers. The team and their parents did a great job. I wonder if the storm petrels which nest within the area appreciated it?
It was quite strange for me walking around the north end of the island at this time of year. In breeding season, the air is thick with the sound of skylarks, meadow pipits, terns, skuas, wrens, snipe and more. Yesterday, it was totally quiet except for the sea, the distant sound of seals, and the odd snipe or redshank that flew of alarming. As with a visit to so many RSPB reserves, Mousa always creates a lifelong memory.