RSPB Conservation Scientist, Jonathan Groom, gives an update on the Native upland woodland expansion survey in the Perthshire hills.
Making Nature Count: Top 10 in the Perthshire hills
I reached my first milestone in the study recently. I completed my first round of Breeding Bird Surveys. It is standard practice in such surveys that two visits are made during the breeding season; one during mid-April to mid-May and then a second during the mid-May to mid-June period. Anyone who participates in the BTO Breeding Bird Survey annually or in the recently completed Bird Atlas project will be familiar with this. The main reason for the second visit is that it accounts for later arrivals of migrant bird species (and maybe also providing breeding evidence for our resident species). This I feel will be particularly important this year with the general late arrival of the migrants.
From my initial visits to each plot I can now present the bird species that were most prevalent in terms of percentage of plots surveyed in which they occurred. I am almost certain that any ornithologists or birdwatchers out there would be able to guess the top two without hesitating. They are two species that, though very abundant, probably go largely unnoticed by many. Yet anyone who has been for a walk in the hills recently will have almost certainly heard them and probably seen them in passing, maybe without even realising it. I guess the main reason is that they are probably two of the littlest brownest jobs to grace the pages of a bird guide! Yes that’s right I can now reveal the joint top two species are: Willow warbler & Meadow pipit.
Photos: Jonathan Groom, Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
These two species account for the vast majority of all my records, with the Meadow pipit perhaps edging the number one spot in terms of overall numbers, and are also the only two species to be found in 100% of the study plots. For the record, I would like to take the opportunity to champion these oft-dismissed species. Ok, I’ll admit they aren’t the most glamorous to look at (although if you do get a good look at one you may be surprised, particularly if it’s a well-marked Meadow pipit or a Willow warbler with a nice bit of yellow in the plumage) but it is perhaps their vocal contributions that make them such an enjoyable part of upland bird surveying.
First of all, the Willow warbler’s repeated descending melody is simple enough to learn to recognise and once learnt really acts as a harbinger of spring. It’s a song that I certainly tend to start taking for granted around this time of year, but as soon as it’s gone, I’m counting the days until I hear the first one heralding the beginning of next spring. The Meadow pipit (along with other members of its family) has a very distinctive style song and display, with a series of melodic cheeps and trills that perfectly match its fluttering rise-and-fall display flight and is always nice to see.
So what else makes up the Top Ten most widespread birds throughout my survey sites. Many of them are common and familiar, but there are certainly a couple of surprises there:
Joint #3 chaffinch, robin, Coal tit in 92% of sites
Joint #6 dunnock, Red grouse in 83% of site
Joint #8 wren, Black grouse in 75% of sites
Joint #10 Hen harrier (!) in 67% of sites
Obviously there is considerable variation in abundance between species, but this gives a good indication of what species are going to be most affected by this use of habitat. The most pleasing results are that the black grouse and hen harrier are so widespread throughout these areas. All my valuable sightings regarding the black grouse and hen harriers are being shared with the appropriate individuals and groups as these species are of particular conservation concern in the UK.
This seems like a good representation of upland species and it is particularly pleasing to see stonechat making a return to the hills – many other upland workers had commented on how few there were after the cold winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11, and this was a view certainly shared by myself.
I am sure that this list will change as the migrant species will be under-recorded from this set of visits and already species like whinchat and cuckoo are starting to appear. Once I’ve finished my second round of visits I will be able to see how the arrival of these species will affect the overall rankings of species and I will report this on my next post towards the end of June.
Other wildlife has been fairly scarce. Certainly, the changeable and often rather wet weather at the moment seems to have kept the reptiles and butterflies in hiding again, but I have been lucky enough to come across some Palmate Newts and managed to rescue this truly monstrous slow-worm from quite literally falling into a stream!
On the mammal front, I have been seeing a lot of brown hares on my morning drives to the study plots, a rare sight elsewhere and even managed this surprisingly low-altitude Mountain Hare on the moor outside one of my plots.
*The next 10 species to make up a top 20 are as follows (in no particular order): goldcrest, Mistle thrush, kestrel, curlew, Lesser redpoll, Wood pigeon, siskin, stonechat, Carrion crow, snipe, skylark.
Read previous posts on this subject here.
Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, reflects on the links between science and art and drawing inspiration from nature.
Back in February, I spent a week with friends in a beautifully converted old farmhouse at Buseu, high in the Spanish Pyrenees. By day, Woodlarks sang right at the door but after sunset all was still, lit only by stars of such brilliance that I’d only ever seen their like before in the deserts of Morocco and central Australia. So tempting to remain indoors by the roaring log fire with the convivial company always ready to refill my glass with the local vino tinto, yet, despite the piercing night cold, I had to keep stealing out for just one more look at that stellar show.
In fact, I was so loathe to miss any of the display that I took to sleeping on a couch upstairs below a huge picture window so the stars were the last thing I saw before I turned in. Well, not quite, for at the other end of the room sat a carved wooden head of a Lammergeier, its form and detail discernible even in the faint starlit glimmer. Simple yet compelling, its red-ringed yellow eye fixed on you, drew you in, demanded attention. It fascinated me and I would gaze on it until tiredness and sleep finally won.
I’d been captivated by that stare before.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses an impressive collection of late 19th Century French work and the van Goghs, Renoirs and Monets draw plenty of admirers. But one painting makes people pause and look and come back and come back again – The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau, simple yet compelling and, again, it’s that piercing lion’s eye that does it.
Photo: via art-wallpaper.com
Famously, Rousseau never left France and drew inspiration for his fantastical exotic paintings from the exhibits of plants and stuffed animals that he saw in Paris. But nature forms such a central and dominant theme of his art that I can only imagine that he felt a deep connection with those animals and birds, and used them, in turn, as a device to connect us with his paintings.
I always find it surprising that science and the arts are seen as somehow different. Yet our appreciation of the natural and physical worlds, art and music often does come down to the same emotional equation - that certain indefinable quality that attracts you, makes you think, makes you view things differently and all to be had by simply looking at the stars, a spider’s web, a robin or into a lion’s eye.
With buses they say you wait for ages and then two come along at once. But special places for nature are scarce and becoming rarer.
In an exciting partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, we've secured a special part of Scotland for nature and people.
Why is it so special?
Is it the stunning views with wetlands, woodlands and snow capped mountains (yes, they were still snow capped last week)? Or is it the wintering white-fronted geese that make a 3,000 mile round trip every year from Greenland?
Perhaps it's the 200+ species of flowering plant (an eighth of the species recorded in the whole of Britain)? Or maybe the lamprey, a primitive eel-like fish, which can be traced back to 200 million years before the dinosaurs existed? Possibly it's the vast range of small beasties that exist, often out of view.
Despite having only just got to know the site, I suspect it is all of the above and more. And that is at the centre of our plans.
We want to protect what we know is here, find what hasn't already been discovered and allow existing and new visitors more opportunities to enjoy the stories and experiences the landscape and wildlife has to offer.
Making it happen
Well, the first step has been taken.
Following support form the National Park Authority, SNH, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the generous donations of our supporters through an appeal, we have secured purchase of the land. The next step will be to appoint a site manager (lucky devil!).
We have already started the important process of talking to the local communities, gathering information about the site and monitoring the wildlife. Next will be formulating a plan to improve the site over the coming years.
In the meantime, if you want to visit the reserve there is a path from the Millennium Hall in Gartocharn which will give you a flavour of the site and its potential.
RSPB Conservation Scientist, Alison Beresford, tell us about dotterel surveys in the Cairngorms.
Birds, blizzards and… more blizzards: surveying for Dotterel in the Cairngorms
I’ve always been drawn to the hills. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of space and perspective you get sat on top of a big hill in the middle of nowhere, especially if you’re lucky enough to get a good view. So when I was offered the job of surveying some of Scotland’s highest mountains for Dotterel this summer, I jumped at the chance. I pictured long summer days spent roaming the high plateaus, a sort of peaceful serenity washing over me as I lay on the mountainside watching the birds going about their business… Of course what I failed to imagine were the blizzards. I stood on the top of Cairngorm in glorious sunshine in the middle of March, not a snowflake in sight. Little did I imagine that, come May, I would be spending my evenings studying weather forecasts full of phrases such as “frequent snow/hail”, “whiteout” and “will feel like minus 17 with wind-chill”, and I certainly didn’t imagine looking into my wardrobe and wondering how many pairs of trousers it was physically possible to wear whilst still retaining the use of my knees!
So it has been a slow start to the Dotterel survey season this year. Dotterel over-winter in North Africa and the Middle-East, but migrate back north to breed. Most birds that pass through Scotland will continue on to Scandinavia or Russia, but some stay behind to breed in the UK, favouring extensive open ridges and high plateaus above the natural tree line. Dotterel are on the amber list of birds of conservation concern in the UK and Scotland holds over 99% of the British population. National surveys in 1987/88, 1999 and 2011 suggest that the population may be in decline, but it’s difficult to get accurate estimates for species that inhabit such remote locations. It’s important to know how the Dotterel is faring though. As a montane specialist at the southern edge of its breeding range in Scotland, Dotterel could be particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change. They have already been shown to be sensitive to fluctuations in weather conditions in late May and early June, and have been identified as a key indicator of the “health” of montane habitats.
Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Back to my long summer days roaming the hillsides then… well the higher study sites of the Cairngorms are still covered in snow, but I have managed to get out and about and fit in a few surveys around the Drumochter hills. Conditions have not been ideal, but the odd bird has been brave enough to show itself between the snow and hail showers and with patience I’ve been rewarded with sightings of Golden Eagle, Dunlin, Ptarmigan, Wheatear and even… Dotterel! The weather is forecast to improve dramatically next week and I’m looking forward to such delights as “no precipitation”, “many summits cloud free” and “steady snow-melt”. I’m sure the birds will appreciate an end to the harsh wintery conditions too.
Find out more about the dotterel study here.
This week's exciting blog from Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn.
First find your scoter
A couple of weeks ago I set out to do something that nobody has ever done before – catch our rarest duck, the confusingly-named Common scoter, on their breeding grounds in Britain.
Photo: Andy Hay
Recently, I blogged about Slavonian grebes and there are many parallels between them and the scoters. Both actually have names that reflect how the old British naturalists first encountered them: in winter – the grebes being thought to come from the land of the Slavs (the east) and the scoters forming large flocks at sea easily seen from land or ships. But, unfortunately, both are also now confined as breeding birds in the UK to the north of Scotland, depressingly rare, declining and in urgent need of a helping hand.
Consequently, the scoters have been the focus of attention in the last few years as part of a joint project run by the RSPB, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and Scottish Natural Heritage. Lots has been learned but there are still plenty of unanswered questions – where do they nest, how many of the eggs and ducklings survive, and what are the reasons for failure. Which is where catching comes in – if you can catch a female and attach a tiny radio transmitter to it, you can begin to find out some answers.
Whilst trying something totally new is exciting, the downside is that there isn’t any experience to take advantage of. So, the team of Carl, Kenny, Norrie and I were long on ideas but short on proven methods when we took to the lochs of the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows Reserve which is about as far north as you can get on the UK mainland before you start paddling in the sea.
To cut a long story short, we tried all the duck-catching methods we could think of – swim-in traps, nets and taking to the lochs at night to dazzle the birds but, whilst we came within a whisker of success, we didn’t manage to catch a single one which is sometimes the way it goes. So, we’ll need to leave it another year before we can try again - armed with just as much enthusiasm but a whole load of valuable experience too. We’ll do it!
But that wasn’t the end of this year’s scoter activity. Traditionally, we count the breeding birds from land or by boat but this is a very time-consuming business and we are always on the look out for easier and more cost-effective ways of doing it. Which is why on Monday we took to the air on the most glorious day you could ever hope to see. One team had already counted the lochs the old way, we would count from the air, and aerial photos are also taken from underneath the plane and examined later to see if the scoters could be picked out. Crucially, each count is independent of the others so nobody knows what any other method found before they did theirs which allows a direct comparison of accuracy, cost and manpower.
Our aerial counts were pretty full-on with John, the pilot, expertly manoeuvring the plane through the hills and along the lochs - you needed full concentration to spot the scoters, count them and see if they were male or female. Which is why this wee video just shows the scene as we moved between the lochs – we were too busy counting otherwise!
So, which method was best? I don’t know yet as I don’t have all the counts back but I’ll let you know as soon as I can!