Conservation Scientist Jonathan Groom is back with an update from the Perthshire hills.
Weather and heather
Weather and heather. These are the two dominant subjects in my fieldwork at the moment. It would be impossible to write anything without mentioning this terrible rain that is wreaking havoc with our British wildlife this summer. I’m sure that you don’t need me to dwell on it as it’s making headlines pretty much everywhere, so instead I’ll talk about habitat sampling, which is what I am going to be doing until the end of August.
The habitat sampling consists of re-visiting all of my study plots where I had previously been carrying out bird surveys. This time I am looking at the species composition and structure (density, height etc.) of both the ground layer of grasses, heather, shrubs and rushes, and also the tree community. This will allow us to not only get a picture of how the habitat relates to the bird species found there, but also to compare the habitat inside and outside of the fenced plots.
One of the things I have valued most about my experience doing fieldwork with the RSPB in Scotland has been learning to identify the plant species of the uplands. As a younger, less wise zoologist, I remember openly dismissing having to do a Plant Biology module as part of the first year of my Zoology degree. Now, of course, it’s clear to me that you can’t really do any work with wildlife without being able to understand the habitat too. Now I’m still far from a botanical expert, but I can now confidently identify the plants that make up the ground layer and tree community of my upland study areas by sight. I can’t emphasise enough how much of a positive difference it makes to learn a new group of species and particularly plants, as of course they are everywhere. I put it on a par with first learning a range of bird songs for atlas survey work some years back. Suddenly, you have a new perspective and a more complete understanding of the environment around you and it is immensely satisfying and rewarding.
I’m spending longer days out in the field now (but on the upside, I don’t have to get up at dawn anymore) doing the habitat sampling, which also gives me the opportunity to continue to record birds and other wildlife that inhabit these areas. The general consensus is that birds have fared poorly this spring with raising their young, but they don’t seem to have done too badly here in highland Perthshire, though of course I have no previous experience in this particular area. I have been able to record fledged young of the following species in and around my study areas: Meadow pipit, Willow warbler, robin, wren, Coal tit, Red grouse, Black grouse, Hen harrier, Tree pipit, Spotted flycatcher, stonechat, whinchat (these seem to have done particularly well with at least 8 different families seen so far), Reed bunting, and most excitingly for me my first ever young cuckoo. The cuckoo was actually fully fledged, although it was still being attended to by its ‘foster parents’, a pair of Meadow pipits. The pipits seemed torn between wanting to attend to it and taking fright every time the cuckoo moved. The youngster was making its way along the posts of the deer fence bordering one of the study plots, before eventually taking flight and heading off southwards, leaving behind its ‘parents’ who were perhaps still not quite sure what was happening.
I’d like to end this post with one more topic, that I have quite a fondness for, and that is butterflies. Traditionally, this is the peak time of year for most butterfly species, and they tend to fill a bit of a gap for birders before autumn migration gets going. Sadly, it seems that this weather will also be affecting them poorly on top of what has been shown to be a poor year last year for them too. I have been lucky enough to see quite a few interesting species whenever the sun appears including magnificent Dark Green Fritillaries, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Large Heath, Small Heath and my first ever Northern Brown Argus (though sadly I could only find one despite a bit of searching in a promising area).
Dark Green Fritillary
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Northern Brown Argus
If butterflies are also of interest to you, don’t forget that you can help to contribute to the ongoing monitoring of our common species by taking part in the Sir David Attenborough endorsed Big Butterfly Count. It’s fun and easy and great to get the family involved with and runs through till the end of August. Getting involved is a great way to contribute to our understanding of these wonderful animals, especially in these troubled times for them!
Catch up on Jonathan's previous blogs here:
The results are in
Making nature count: Top 10 in the Perthshire Hills
Native Upland Woodland Expansion survey
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer (Climate), has been travelling to our reserves via green transport. Read on to find out how you can do the same!
Green Travel to Green Places
Have you ever seen a golden eagle in your garden? Have you heard a corncrake’s rasping call as you laid in bed at home? Do you wander through a nature reserve on your way to pick up the morning paper? I’ll bet the answer is no (but do reply if yes). Most of us in Scotland live in the Central Belt or in other cities far from Scotland’s iconic wildlife. But if you love nature and want to spend time enjoying it how do you get to experience it?
The obvious answer is to grab the car keys, jump behind the wheel and drive to a nature reserve. Easy, but is it the best option for the nature we are going to visit? Burning fossil fuels is the major cause of climate change and climate change is the greatest long-term threat to wildlife. So if you desire to save nature, experience nature and reduce your carbon footprint what’s the alternative?
After 7 years hard work, the RSPB allows staff a month off to do a sabbatical - something a bit different to normal work. I am taking mine this summer and splitting it into weekly chunks. My hope is to find some solutions to the above problem – I am travelling to RSPB reserves in Scotland without a car, travelling by low-carbon transport only. While I am there I will be looking for examples of the impacts already being experienced on RSPB reserves because of the changing climate and what our staff are doing to help wildlife and people to adapt to the impacts.
I recently finished my first week of visits - all day trips within the Central Belt from Glasgow. I visited Baron’s Haugh, Lochwinnoch, Loch Leven, and Skinflats and the Inner Forth Futurescape. I travelled 246 miles by train and 50 miles by bike. Baron’s Haugh and Lochwinnoch are very close to train stations and Skinflats and Loch Leven only need a short cycle from the train. Bus links are also easy to all these reserves. So far I can say that, yes, you can visit nature and cut your carbon footprint.
Riverbank and path along the Clyde washed away at Baron's Haugh.
I have also found why it is important to travel by low-carbon means and cut your carbon footprint. I saw birds nests washed out by unseasonal flooding and high water levels on the Clyde. I was shown the work Loch Leven staff have done to store and manage water on the reserve to compensate for low summer rainfall. I walked along the banks of the Forth where sea-level rise is eroding the protective saltmarsh habitat and how reserve staff are working to create new areas of habitat for birds and to protect against flooding. I also heard about the movement of the nuthatch north through Renfrewshire. All these examples are consistent with what we know of the impacts of climate change and the further change we are likely to see in the future.
You might not have a golden eagle nest in your back garden or nature reserve on your doorstep but it’s good to know that you can experience nature whilst at the same time helping to save it. If you want to discover more about my travels you can at http://greentraveltogreenplaces.wordpress.com/.
Trainee Ecologist Helen Dickinson reminds us to appreciate the small things.
The little things at Lochwinnoch
On a recent visit to Lochwinnoch nature reserve I came across far more than the ground beetles I had been looking for. The damp weather has been a real treat for the amphibian world and whilst lifting logs in search of beetles I came across several juvenile Palmate newts (Lissotriton helveticus).
The day was a mix of sunshine and showers and with the sunshine came the Common Red Soldier Beetle (Rhagonycha fulva) out in abundance congregating on umbellifer flowers.
The Common Blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) was also in its element in the sunshine around the marshy edges of the loch.
Most people come to reserves for birds but if you keep your eyes peeled and have a go at looking for the smaller things, you never know what interesting creatures you may come across.
Find out more about life at Lochwinnoch on the blog.
Trainee Ecologist Gordon Bryden is out and about on our reserves searching for flies!
On the other wing
Searching for flies on reserves might seem like a strange activity for an employee of the RSPB, but flies and their maggots are essential to the ecosystems which all birds depend on. They provide food for birds and their young, they pollinate the flowers and break down waste. In the UK we have well over 9000 species (compare this to the 300 or so bird species). It is a massive job to work with them, so I focus on the groups of flies that are ecologically the most important.
Craneflies are a great example of this. Most people are familiar with “daddy long-legs”, the large awkward flies which bumble about and lose their legs at the slightest touch. In fact there are well over 300 species of these flies and, despite the persistent urban myth, none of them have a deadly venom.
Many gardeners will have encountered leatherjackets while digging around. They are the larval stage of some of the most common cranefly species. They live peacefully in the soil eating roots and decaying plants until pulled up and eaten by a hungry bird. Other species have different needs, and their larvae can be found in a huge variety of habitats, from pond silt, under the bark of trees and inside wild mushrooms. They really are hugely important in the environment as well as being a big food source for many birds.
Pictures: Mounted Tipula irrorata and a standing trunk of deadwood at Abernethy
Finding the right species on reserves is a good indicator that things are on the right track. For instance at Abernethy forest I found Tipula irrorata. This species is an early deadwood coloniser, and reflects well on the deadwood creation at the reserve. Later in the year I’ll be looking for rarer and more specialised species on the reserve.
Wetlands too have their own community of specialist species. When a new area of wetland is created on a reserve it takes time for these species to move in and colonise, but once they have we’ll know that the wetland is in good condition with plenty of leatherjackets for the birds to eat.
Over the next few months I’ll be surveying a number of reserves to look for flies and hopefully, with a little luck, I’ll get some good photos to spice up future posts as well.
Weekly update from RSPB Conservation Manger Stuart Benn.
The Scottish Open golf championship was held just along the road from us at the weekend and, gladly, there was no repeat of last year when torrential rain caused landslides, floods and massive disruption. This year, the weather was OK but still not the best and, since I had started a heavy cold, I didn’t venture any further than the moors near Inverness. It was good to find a pair of Stonechats feeding their young – they took a real hit in the two hard winters of 09/10 and 10/11 and disappeared from this hill but they can produce several broods each year and the numbers soon bounce back. But the main excitement was seeing a Short-eared owl.
In our popular imagination, owls are birds of the night, the familiars of witches, heard but rarely seen but not so the Shortie which doesn’t conform to type and is out and about during the day. It’s always a real treat to see one (when else do we get the chance to get a really good look at an owl?) and admire their languid flight - the authors of The Nature of the Cairngorms put it brilliantly “its shallow wing beats silently patting the air, as if testing a hot stove.”
Short-eared owls have an amazing world distribution – much of the Northern Hemisphere but South America too as well as remarkable outposts in island groups like the Falklands, Hawaii and the Galapagos. Unfortunately, they are becoming a rare sight in the UK with numbers declining for reasons that aren’t yet clear. But let’s hope their decline is reversed so they don’t just become a bird of our imagination.
I think the weekend bird was just passing through because I hadn’t seen them on the moor earlier in the year and don’t believe they nested although they can be surprisingly inconspicuous. So, no repeat of 2011 when I did find a nest and saw that, if anything, the chicks are even more endearing than their parents!
Photo: Andy Stronach
As regular watchers of Springwatch may remember, owl chicks don’t all hatch on the same day so show quite a size difference and, if hunting is poor, the younger ones don’t survive. But this nest did well with the adults keeping them well-fed with a regular supply of voles and at least five of the young flew – brilliant!