Scottish Nature Notes

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Scottish Nature Notes

Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.
  • Orkney: Where to go and what to see

    James Silvey, RSPB Scotland's Nature Recovery Officer, has this fantastic new travel blog about the wonderful wildlife sights of Orkney.

    Orkney: Where to go and what to see

    This June I was lucky enough to visit the Northern Isles of Orkney with the aim of carrying out a spring survey for the rare great yellow bumble bee. 

    This species has seen a dramatic decline in the UK in recent years with just a handful of areas (including Orkney) still boasting a population of these fantastic insects. 

    Unfortunately due to the late spring of 2015 my searches for great yellow bumble bees (a late flying species at the best of times) were in vain. So rather than write a blog detailing species I didn’t see, I thought it may be better to write a travel blog of species I did, and also let you know some of the best places to go in Orkney to see some of the islands most iconic species.

    Scottish Primrose: An endemic species to Scotland and, as a friend of mine described it “a wee cracker”. For anyone interested in plants this is a must see and for others this could be the plant that gets you hooked on botany for life. 

    The species prefers short vegetation so is often found in areas with quite heavy grazing, or cliff top sites where the constant wind and salt spray help to suppress plants that would otherwise shade the primrose out. Yesnaby on the mainland’s west coast is a great place to see Scottish primrose and a short walk from the car park can yield hundreds of tiny, yet perfectly formed, plants.

    The plant flowers twice a year, first in May and then again in July - although this second showing is never as prolific as the first. A top tip at Yesnaby is to search back from the cliffs in the small earth hollows where the plants gain some shelter from the brutal autumn and winter weather.

      

    Whales and dolphins: The waters around Orkney are rich in whales and dolphins (cetaceans) and sightings of risso’s dolphin, minke whale and harbour porpoise are not uncommon. However the star of the show on anyone’s must see list is the Orca. Like any cetacean watching there is a good measure of luck involved in seeing orcas however, timing your trip with calm sea conditions and choosing a good vantage point will dramatically improve your chances. Top spots for whale watching include, Yesnaby, Marwick Head and Brough of Birsay.

    Great yellow bumble bee: The peak time for seeing this rare species is July-August when workers and the next generation of queens and males are on the wing. 

    Walk the RSPB Scotland track around the Ring of Brodgar for a chance of seeing one feeding on the abundant wildflowers in the area. Look for a large yellow bee with a black stripe across the back linking the wings, if you see this, you’ve spotted a great yellow.

    Hen harriers: Orkney is famous for its hen harriers with sightings almost guaranteed if you’re in the right place at the right time of year.

      

    I saw hen harriers and short eared owls every time I drove along the A966 on the eastern side of the west-mainland. However, if you prefer watching their sky dancing antics from the comfort of a hide then head to the RSPB Scotland hide at Cottascarth for some fantastic views in the spring.

    I’ve deliberately kept all my recommend sites to the Orkney mainland but to visit Orkney and not visit the other islands would be a real disservice. So I’d also recommend a visit to Hoy for white tailed sea eagles, a walk through the native woodland at Berriedale with mountain hares on the hill tops, Shapinsay for great yellows and Papa Westray for the aerial displays of great and Arctic skuas in May, as well as a Scottish primrose spectacle you’ll never forget.

  • Earth, Wind, and Tyres

    Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, is back with an update on the For The Love Of campaign, following his mammoth cycle from Edinburgh to London!

    Earth, Wind, and Tyres

    One month ago, four staff from RSPB Scotland (including me) arrived by bicycle at Westminster for a climate rally – we called ourselves team Sky-lark. 

    It was the end of a mammoth 530 mile, six and a half day ride from the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to get there and to raise awareness of the impact of climate change on wildlife. 

    We were also aiming to raise money for RSPB Scotland’s climate change work – we are still gathering your donations here.

    It was a long way and very tough at times. There was definitely sweat, a few tears but thankfully no blood (although there was a wheel-buckling accident with a taxi and a lot of painful muscles and tendons). 

    Looking back, it was one of the best adventures I have ever had and would have been even without the climate change theme, and the chance to meet my MP and talk to her about my concerns for our natural environment in the face of climate change. See the ‘Best of Speak Up’ page here for a review of the day. (Our picture is the first one below the video).

    The weather was good to us - my greatest concern was that we would have to battle down the length of the country into a headwind. Thankfully the winds were generally in our direction and the rain mostly held off. 

    Seabirds at Bempton Cliffs

    The fair conditions meant that when we arrived for our daily RSPB nature reserve visit we were afforded great views, for example, thousands of seabirds nesting at Bempton Cliffs and the wetland wonders of Saltholme and Frampton Marsh. 

    In total we listed 86 species along the ride, the highlights (for me) being lapwing, curlew and redshank on the North York Moors, and barn owls, turtle doves and a little owl as we raced the fading light through the Fens into Wisbech.

    We chose to do this epic cycling journey to show the lengths we will go to call for action on climate change. It is so important that our MPs support a strong and binding global climate deal signed by all nations at the UN conference in Paris in December. 

    Redshank, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    We also want the Scottish Government to commit to strong action on climate change to meet our domestic targets and to really make Scotland a low-carbon country. 

    We also need help for our special wildlife struggling in the face of changes brought on by global warming and extreme weather events. We saw some examples of these pressures at the nature reserves we visited along the way. 

    Our earth and its nature needs us to fight for it and be its voice. If we don’t stop climate change, habitats will become degraded and lost forever leaving vulnerable wildlife with nowhere to go. Add your voice here.

    Read more of what we found at each reserve on our Team Sky-lark blog post: https://teamskylark.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/homes-for-nature-in-the-face-of-climate-change/

  • Discover Troup Head: Spectacular seabirds and stunning sea views

    RSPB East Scotland communications officer, Kirsty Nutt, explains why she loves the Aberdeenshire coast and why this is the perfect time to visit and experience the spectacular seabird colonies and stunning sea views.

    Discover Troup Head: Spectacular seabirds and stunning sea views

    Last Thursday I went to our Troup Head nature reserve for the first time in at least a year and it wasn't long before I was reminded why I should visit more often.

    The drive to the reserve alone is beautiful - along narrow winding roads between gorse-clad hillsides that flame brilliant yellow in the sunshine. The moment you glimpse the coast again, the rugged beauty of the cliffs and the vast expanse of sea stretching away for miles takes your breath away. It really is hard to beat.

    The road to the reserve's small car park passes through a farm but the views soon open out again with the promise of what awaits.

    On leaving the car park we were greeted by a singing skylark performing its famous parachuting up-and-down display flight. As we walked further along the rough grass path beside a farm field its song was engulfed by the sounds of seabirds further along the cliffs towards Pennan. At this distance they were no more than white pinpricks darting and zipping about over the grey sea but the noise was phenomenal.

    There are two routes to choose from as you near the cliffs: up and over the hill or around the side of it directly to the main viewpoint; to the main attraction; to the gannets.

    We wandered along to the viewpoint admiring the delicate flowers of spring squill and yellow rattle among the grass, excitement building but not in a rush.

    Then we smelled them. There is no mistaking the oily pungency of a seabird colony. It seems to permeate your senses entirely so that you can almost 'smell' it in the back of your throat and in your lungs. It's powerful and not pleasant, but not awful either and for me it's the smell of the coast in summer and gives a hint of the amazing spectacle awaiting us at the cliff edge.

    We soon start to spot gannets flying along the cliff top; strong wings out-held, their black wing tips in strong contrast to their perfect pale cream bodies and yellow caps. They're graceful flyers, even if when landing they sometimes looks clumsy, and they soar through the air. 

    There's so many it looks like a snowstorm until you notice that some are so close you could reach out and touch them – I would never try to of course.

    As we reach the cliff edge the first group we see are sat on a muddy finger that juts out into the sea. 

    They do not seem to be breeding but they are of breeding age because juvenile gannets are speckled black - their colour more like Dalmatian dogs than the sleek graceful grown-ups. 

    The sea crashes against the rocks below creating a beautiful tableau.  

    We wander along to the main cliff and as we look closer we start to spot huge white balls of fluff – chicks that are already quite large.

    Nestled on ledges in amongst the nesting gannets are kittiwakes and guillemots. The kittiwakes are responsible for most of the noise – their unmistakable ki-ti-waaake calls creating a cacophony of sound. They also have chicks and most have two, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good year.

    Whereas the number of gannets in Scotland has increased since the 1980s, numbers of kittiwakes have suffered disastrous declines so it is heartwarming to see them apparently doing well this year. 

    I could have sat there for hours surrounded by the stunning flowers of red and sea campion and thrift (sea pinks), enjoying the gannets and keeping an eye out for passing whales and dolphins.

    I envy my colleague who lives nearby. She grew up near here and on her first visit to Troup after starting work for RSPB Scotland recalls being puzzled and saying “I don't remember there being gannets here”. And she wouldn't remember them because they only started nesting here in 1989. Now the colony is over 3000 strong.

    It is the only place in mainland Scotland where you can visit a gannet colony without needing to take a boat trip and it is spectacular how close you get to these large seabirds.

    With a wingspan of nearly 2 m, they are the largest seabirds in the north Atlantic and more than 50% of all northern gannets breed in Britain. They are famous for their diving prowess and can reach depths of 20 m. When diving for fish, they plunge fast into the water with their large wings held back like an arrow. They have a special spongy forehead to cushion the impact of these spectacular dives.

    There are gannets diving offshore here too but they are overshadowed by the ones soaring past at head height. It's an intense experience to be so close to such magnificent birds.

    As we leave I can't help but feel slightly sad and I promise myself I'll visit again before the end of this breeding season and more often next year.

    Bass Rock might be the most famous gannet colony in Scotland, but Troup is my favourite. Tucked away at what feels like the end of the world as you stare out into the North Sea, it’s a true hidden gem of Aberdeenshire’s spectacular coastline.

    For more information visit rspb.org.uk/trouphead