Kat Jones, from RSPB Scotland, has this fantastic new blog about monitoring seabirds on one of our most spectacular and least accessible reserves.
A pyramid of grey granite rimmed with 70,000 gannets
Ailsa Craig is one of RSPB Scotland's most spectacular and least accessible reserves. Each year a small team visits the island on three occasions to monitor the birds, plants and invertebrates and to look for evidence of rats.
I've been fortunate enough to take part in the July visit and we head out on 'M.F.V Glorious', a wooden fishing boat, from Girvan under leaden skies.
Ailsa Craig rises from the Firth of Clyde, a pyramid of grey granite rimmed with 70,000 gannets rising from the waters nine miles offshore. As we get closer, the lighthouse and decrepit pier come into view, built on the island’s only flat area, and the place that will be our camp-ground for the next two nights.
As well as the usual monitoring activities, we are here to try and find out whether Manx shearwaters are nesting on Ailsa. Manx shearwaters, affectionately known as Manxies, nest in burrows on steep slopes high above the sea.
The bird cliffs of Ailsa are only visible from the sea and so we do our bird counts by boat
In the 19th century Ailsa was teeming with seabirds but when rats arrived on the island, birds could only successfully breed if they nested on inaccessible ledges. This meant that puffins, nesting on the grassy slopes, were wiped out and that Manx shearwaters, also burrow nesters, would be prevented from colonising the island.
We are visiting with Bernie Zonfrillo, a veteran of 35 years working on Ailsa Craig. In 1991 he led the effort to exterminate the rats and still spends as much time as he can on the island monitoring and ringing birds. Thanks to the work of Bernie and his hardy group of volunteers the puffins returned to breed in 2002.
At night we heard the ghostly chatterings of the Manxies as they flew over our tent. We know Manxies are around Ailsa but their nest sites are mainly so inaccessible, and they are active around burrows only at night, that it is extremely difficult to confirm that they are nesting on the island.
Last year a team camped near the summit of the rock, at 330m, to try and locate birds coming to ground. They didn’t see any land, nor have playback calls at burrows elicited responses.
This time we are here with Ruedi Nager of Glasgow University and his thermal imaging camera. The idea is to use the camera to see Manxies coming into slopes on the island to get an idea of where more effort on the ground could be fruitful. It's a major challenge. All the slopes of Ailsa are extremely steep and dangerous.
One hardly existent path leads to the top. On the first night in a gale, the only place to set up the camera was sheltered behind the derelict brick building that manufactured coal gas for the lighthouse. We pointed the camera uphill and crowded into one of our tents, also pitched in the lee of the wall, to view the pictures on the laptop.
Heading out to set up the thermal imaging equipment
The hulk of Ailsa Craig is a dull grey colour on the screen, with a jet black sky. Every now and again a hot white dot appears, a rabbit grazing on the slopes, or a gull wheeling above a small colony on the lower slopes. Every now and again we have tantalizing views of what could be Manxies on the screen. And we hear them calling as they fly above us.
We determine where it is we think the birds are and the next night we head up the hill carrying batteries, laptop and a small tent to pitch above our camp.
It is 1am when we head up the hill. The night is clear with a huge full moon. There is enough wind to keep the midges off, but it is warm, and we sit mesmerized by the view of lights moving about in the waters between Ailsa and the mainland.
A cluster of lights start at Girvan and fan out across the Clyde, trawlers headed out on the tide ripping up the soft sediments of the Firth of Clyde in search of langoustine.
But the lights on the screen are quiet. There are gulls, but no Manxies. We don't hear them calling and we don’t see them. Disappointed, we pack up and return down the treacherous slope to the welcome of our beds, convinced in our hearts that the Manx shearwaters have come to breed on Ailsa at last, and determined to return next year to prove it.
Kirsty Potter, RSPB Scotland's Support Relations Officer, fills us in on her day at the official opening of the tree nursery at our Abernethy reserve.
An exciting event at RSPB Scotland Abernethy!
Having just joined RSPB Scotland in March, I was lucky enough to visit our beautiful Abernethy reserve last month for a very special event; our official native tree nursery opening. Along with donations from the public, several trusts and organisations have supported the project and have helped make the tree nursery possible: ScottishPower Foundation; Laing O’Rourke on behalf of Scottish Water; Cairngorms National Park Authority; Awards For All – Scotland; Speyside Wildlife, Scot Mountain Holidays; Walkers of Aberlour; and Abernethy Conservation and Fundraising Group.
Abernethy Primary School children officially open the tree nursery (Photo by Kirsty Potter)
The tree nursery opening marked an important stage in our visionary forest expansion project on the reserve and we were delighted to welcome children from Abernethy Primary School who officially opened the nursery. The lucky pupil who cut the ribbon seemed really chuffed to have this responsibility, especially because it involved a pair of shears!
It was fantastic to meet our guests from our supporter organisations who have helped to fund the tree nursery. Being so new to RSPB Scotland, this was my first opportunity to speak face to face with many of the people I’d been exchanging emails and phone calls with. I was struck with how enthusiastic they are about RSPB Scotland and the project and how pleased they are to be involved. It made me very proud to work here!
Abernethy is a really special place for some of Scotland’s most iconic species and the forest expansion project will ensure that it remains this way for years to come. It was so interesting to learn that many of the original tree species in the Caledonian forest at Abernethy are currently found at very low numbers and far below what they once would have been. The forest expansion project will regenerate and expand the ancient Caledonian forest by around 3,000 hectares, almost doubling its size over the next 200 years.
All of our guests got stuck in and helped to sow the tree seeds that had been harvested from the reserve (and stored in the fridge at Forest Lodge!). Reserve volunteers and staff took charge of small but exuberant groups that helped prepare the soil, measure out sections for planting, and finally to sow the tree seeds. It was very fitting that Abernethy Primary School children were involved in this process because it will be their generation and those to come who will see the long-term results of the forest expansion project of which the tree nursery is an integral part. They all had a lot of fun getting their hands dirty and enjoyed being outdoors instead of in the classroom. A few of the pupils seemed to be having a competition to find the biggest worm at one point....
Thanks to the help of our guests, and many more volunteers to come, the planted trees will re-establish some of the forest’s missing diversity, and the forest at Abernethy will continue to expand towards its natural limit, and connect with other native pinewood remnants.
Ann Loughrey, Trustee and Executive Officer, ScottishPower Foundation helps Abernethy Primary School pupils to plant tree seeds (Photo by Kirsty Potter)
We were all treated to a lovely reception at Forest Lodge afterwards as part of the official opening ceremony. Many of us were torn between naming the highlight of the day as visiting the forest edge to see where the regeneration and enrichment planting is taking place and helping out or the incredible tree nursery celebration cakes, kindly brought along by Sally Dowden, of Speyside Wildlife.
I was also lucky enough to have the chance to explore some parts of the reserve and came across red squirrels and also some Scottish crossbills that were absolutely beautiful. I’d seen neither species before and so it was a fantastic experience. There wasn’t time to visit the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten however. In the short time I’ve worked at RSPB Scotland, I’ve become engrossed in the feathered soap opera that the ospreys give us so I’ll be making sure to go to Abernethy again as soon as possible to catch a glimpse of an osprey or two. There is also so much more of the reserve to explore because it covers such a large area and the changing seasons mean that no visit is ever the same.
Every time I visit Abernethy I will be really keen to see the progress of the seeds that were planted that day and I’m sure that there will be many more opportunities for our generous funders to visit the tree nursery again to see what a positive impact their funding has allowed us to have on the forest.
Allan Whyte, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer, gives us an update on MPAs in Scotland.
A Quick Update about Marine Protection in Scotland
I’m really glad to say we have some positive news on Scotland’s marine environment. Some of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that were designated last year have just had their management measures published, and they’re looking good.
Puffins, Derren Fox
Management is what makes MPAs more than just lines on maps. The measures put restrictions on what can happen in an MPA and stops activities that damage the wildlife the MPA has been set up to protect.
So, it was great when Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, announced that the first batch of MPA management measures would be strong, would ban or severely restrict damaging fishing activity and would protect some of Scotland’s best wildlife.
This is fantastic news for all the RSPB supporters who have campaigned over the years with RSPB Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK, through our ‘Don’t Take the P (out of MPAs)’ campaign.
Marine Scotland and the Government have done a great job to make sure that these sites are well managed. Let’s hope the next group of MPAs to have management measures assigned are equally good, especially as these will include MPAs for black guillemots.
Black guillemot, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The new management measures mean that scallop dredging, the fishing practice that can tear up the sea floor, will be banned or heavily restricted from areas where there is sensitive marine life.
An important measure for seabirds is the ban on set-net fishing throughout all of the MPAs. Seabirds that dive into the water in search of food can get trapped in nets and drown, so it’s great to hear action has been taken.
All of this is good news for wildlife and coastal communities. Protected areas can be a big boost for tourism and a healthy marine environment is good for recreational marine users and can help recover fish-stocks.
There will be some out there that will argue that this news is bad for fishermen, particularly scallop fishermen. However, these new measures will only displace 1.6% of the scallop fishing effort in Scottish waters. The measures don’t stop anyone from fishing, they simply keep the most damaging fishing activities away from the most sensitive sites. This is a sensible approach, required to protect and recover Scotland’s seas.
We’ll be keeping an eye on the impacts these new management measures have and working hard over the summer to make sure that we secure the 14 Special Protection Areas for seabirds the Scottish Government announced in summer 2014.
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