RSPB Conservation Scientist, Nick Wilkinson, tells us about fieldwork and searching for ring ouzels near the Cairngorms.
Rain, rain, and more rain (with the odd snow and hail shower thrown in for good measure); probably not quite the summer jaunt that some people envisage when they hear that you’re departing the confines of office life for a few months of fieldwork near the Cairngorms. More frustration than fieldwork just at the moment. And I’m sure this adder found earlier in the week is none too impressed just now either. At 450m may be one of Britain’s highest altitude adders?
We’re ten days in to the second and final field season of a research study on ring ouzels, also known as the mountain blackbird. They’ve recently returned from spending the winter in the juniper forests of North Africa and we’re trying to find out why there are many fewer ouzels arriving back in the uplands of the UK these days than 20 or so years ago. Specifically, we’re testing whether a shortage of food during the summer may be reducing the number of chicks fledging in good condition. We know from previous work that the survival of young (first-year) ouzels in general is quite low, but that fatter, heavier chicks at fledging time tend to have higher survival subsequently. So we’ll be dividing the pairs of ouzels in to two groups and providing one group with extra food during the period of chick rearing but not the other group. Then we’ll weigh the chicks at fledging time and measure their survival over the following weeks, having fitted some of them with miniature radio tags, and compare the two groups. Simple, on paper anyway.
Photo: Andy Hay
First, find your ouzels - a blackbird with a striking white crescent at the top of the breast should be pretty easy to find, especially when the males are singing their distinctive, slightly mournful tri-syllabic song. But when you are scanning amongst the patchy, snow-covered hillsides strewn with dark heather, crags and scree, and you’ve still to get your ‘eye-in’, many a small rock with a bit of snow or pale lichen far off in the distance can look convincingly ring ouzel-like. And still he sings, taunting your senses to pinpoint him. Most importantly, has he found a mate, or is he still singing to attract one? Is he one of the birds that have been colour ringed previously, allowing us to identify him individually?
Ring ouzels easily blend in to this wintry landscape.
So far we’ve found quite a few pairs in the glen but also a good number of seemingly single males. Consequently, there have been a fair few scraps when these males check out neighbouring territories until being booted out by the resident male or pair. Some females have started nest building, closely guarded by their mate, and it looks like one female is using a nest site used last year by a different pair. A few of the same adults are back again, though with different mates, along with several of last year’s chicks, most of which are from late season nests. This is more than we might have expected so they clearly haven’t been paying attention to the ouzel rulebook! But for many birds we’ve still to get a good enough glimpse of their legs to check whether they’re ringed or not, let alone the opportunity to record the sequence of coloured rings on both legs. Maybe tomorrow when the weather improves, or next week, but certainly by the time they’re nesting....
Find out more about the ring ouzel project here.
Stuart Benn, our Conservation Manager for the Highlands, discusses the elusive Scottish wildcat.
Despite a quarter of a century walking and travelling throughout the Scottish Highlands, I reckon I’ve seen fewer than a dozen wildcats. Most were animals crossing the road at night or at dawn, caught in the headlights, but the last sighting was the best. I was eagle surveying in the hills east of Loch Ness and heard a bird of prey alarm calling. Looking across the glen I saw a kestrel repeatedly divebombing something on the ground which turned out to be a wildcat. I watched it for a while before it slunk off into a juniper thicket. I wondered if it had a den in there with kittens but I chose not to investigate further and left it in peace.
At least, I think they were wildcats – they looked like wildcats, they behaved like I imagine wildcats should behave and they were in the sort of country that ‘felt’ right too. But it’s not as simple as that. This week, I was at the closing conference of the Cairngorms Wildcat Project, a three-year effort to find out more about these animals, raise awareness and deal with some of the problems they face. But one of the problems we face is to find an elusive and largely nocturnal animal in the first place. Fortunately, camera traps can do much of the work for us and have given us information that would otherwise be impossible to gather.
However, by far the biggest problem we have is working out what a wildcat actually is. Wildcats can mate with domestic cats producing a bewildering variety of hybrids some of which are practically indistinguishable visually and even genetically from totally pure wildcats. So, the best we can do is to decide what a ‘pure’ wildcat looks like and then try to protect it. But, with wildcats, that very quickly leads you into discussions about responsible pet ownership, neutering cats, potentially illegal activity in remote areas, captive breeding and the rest. Conservation can be a very difficult and complicated business.
Fortunately, conservation can be very simple too. Despite it still feeling more like winter than spring up here, a bee soon found the recently planted scabious/span>" target="_blank">scabious but we await some warmth before its mates join it. As I drove to the conference, the sleet slithered down the windscreen as Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring came on the radio. I think it may be a while before I hear mine.
After reading Stuart's blog about selecting flowers to attract bees to the garden, we thought we'd ask our Twitter followers for their suggestions. Here's what they came up with:
Lavender, buddleia, sedum, scabious, coneflower (Echinacea), globe thistle, verbena, rosemary, thyme, knapweed, cotoneaster, sunflowers, asters, wallflowers, zinnia, sea holly, laburnum, borage, Japanese ornamental quince, cuckoo flower, fruit trees, mahonia and Clematis cirrhosa.
Thanks for all of your suggestions and please let us know if you think of any others.
There are more tips on wildlife friendly gardening on our website. And, if you are in the area, come along to the Gardening with Wildlife workshop at the first Scottish Birdfair 19th-20th May at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh. The experts will be sharing their favourite gardening tips and tricks. See you there?
In a new series, Stuart Benn, our Conservation Manager for the Highlands, shares what inspires him about nature and our plans to protect it.
What makes us change?
I’ve been a birdwatcher all my life but never gave rooks a second thought. Then I read Mark Cocker’s Crow Country and I’ll never look at or think about them in the same way again. I love watching their ragged winter flights to roost staying out until it’s too dark to see. But, I’ve also started counting the six rookeries local to our house for no other reason than I want to and enjoy it though, no doubt, somebody in the future will find the information useful. In North Scotland, now is the perfect time to count – no leaves yet on the big beeches that they favour but the rookeries are in full flow.
One of these rookeries sits right next to a garden centre so gives a good opportunity to combine trips. I know absolutely nothing about garden plants but I do know that I want flowers that are good for bees and butterflies. Trouble was, how would I know what to buy? Step forward Sarah Raven who’d thought about the problem too but did something about it. I’d watched the programme so knew to look for the Bee Friendly or Perfect for Pollinators logos and, right enough, there they were - each little pot with its own idiot-proof symbol (or not). No delving through books or the internet, no asking the staff in the hope that they might know, just having the information available in the quickest, easiest way possible.
Two ‘Butterfly Blue Beauty’ Scabious, a ‘Heavenly Blue’ Lithodora and a Ceanothus later we were back home and preparing the ground. It’s still too cold for insects to be out here in any numbers so it could be a wee while before we see what the flowers attract but I’m sure they will prove popular and make a bee or butterfly’s life that little bit easier. In the meantime, the robin certainly appreciated our efforts!
In future blogs I’ll talk about the ambitious plans that the RSPB and others have for large scale changes in the countryside to reverse the massive declines of wildlife that have taken place. But, for now, let’s celebrate the little but important changes that we can all make - go on!
Climate change is a major threat to wildlife in the UK and across the world. We urgently need to take action to reduce its effects. That includes the development of renewable energy, such as windfarms, to reduce our green house gas emissions. We know that badly sited or designed windfarms can be harmful to some bird species. That's why RSPB assesses individual windfarm proposals to ensure they would not harm important bird populations and carries out research to improve our understanding of the effects of windfarms on birds.
New research led by RSPB and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage has found that wind farm construction can prompt local reductions of up to 50% in breeding numbers of Curlews and Snipe. These losses persist after the wind farms become operational, but do not occur on nearby sites without turbines. The results support previous work which found lower densities of both these species and Golden Plover in the vicinity of operating wind farms than on nearby moorland.
These findings confirm that regulatory authorities and developers should avoid locating wind farms in areas of high value for upland breeding waders where possible, and should invest in research to test ways to reduce the disturbance impact of construction activity at sites where these species do occur.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, considered onshore, upland wind farms in 18 locations in Scotland and England, and studied ten gamebird, wader and songbird species, comparing bird numbers in the area before, during and after construction of the turbines. The study did not focus on birds of prey or migrating swans and geese, where collision with turbine blades is more often a damaging impact of wind farm development.
Some species such Red Grouse showed temporary declines during construction with numbers later recovering, whilst others showed little or, in the case of Stonechats, even increased during construction. However, the change of greatest concern was the effect of wind farm construction on local Curlew densities, given the severe wider declines of this species across the British Isles.
This important study will do a great deal to inform how we deliver renewable energy whilst protecting nature at the same time. In particular, it shows that we need to ensure that wind farm developments do not add further pressure to nationally declining Curlew populations.
Climate change is a huge threat to wildlife and we must do all we can to tackle it by pushing forward with clean renewable energy technology. But equally we must minimise the potential impacts on wildlife of the wind farms that are being built in the UK. This research helps to strike that balance.
This study shows that the real threat for some species is not from the turning blades of the turbine itself, but from the construction work which happens before they are even switched on. The good news is that there is plenty we can do to minimise this impact, and armed with this knowledge we can start to develop new guidelines for wind farm developers to ensure that when they are putting wind turbines up there is a minimum of disruption to the local environment.
To find out more:
An earlier RSPB study published in 2009, also in Journal Applied Ecology is published online here.
The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey report for 2010 showing national declines of Curlew populations of 30% (England), 53% (Scotland), and 49% (Wales) can be found here
The RSPB engages with most major windfarm proposals in the UK. We do this because we know that badly sited or poorly designed windfarms can be harmful to some bird species. However, the majority of windfarms in the UK can be developed without unacceptable impacts on birds. This is illustrated by the fact that we ultimately maintain an objection to less than 10% of the windfarm proposals we engage with.
You can find further information about the RSPB’s work on climate change and our approach to wind and other renewable energy is available on our climate blog and on our website. Information about some of the specific windfarm cases we are involved with is also available on our website, here.