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.
  • A new species for Scotland

    RSPB Trainee Ecologist Genevieve Dalley tells us about her discovery of a new flying insect species for Scotland. 

    A new species for Scotland

    In June this year I went to RSPB Insh Marshes in search of freshwater invertebrates. And I wasn’t disappointed! Amongst a wealth of interesting and local species was the star: Molanna angustata, a new species for Scotland.

    Molanna angustata

    Sometimes the most unassuming little creatures can turn out to be the most interesting. A small, pale brown caddisfly with long antennae; Molanna angustata would normally be one of the first to escape a moth trap unnoticed on a sunny morning.  But a closer look will reveal a sweet little insect with an interesting story.

    In Britain there are 2 species of Molanna: Molanna albicans and Molanna angustata. M. albicans is a species largely associated with small lakes. It is found in Ireland, Wales, 2 sites in West Yorkshire then, after a big gap, scattered sites in Central Scotland northwards. M. angustata, on the other hand, is a species of lowland lakes, ditches, ponds and canals. This is fairly widespread across lowland England and Wales, up to the Lake District and Yorkshire. However, it has never before been found in either Ireland or Scotland. The two species have never been found together in the same place.

    Molanna albicans distribution

    Molanna angustata distibution

    In order to identify caddisfly adults to species, the genitals and wing patterns must usually be inspected under a microscope. And it was to my surprise when sorting caddisfly specimens taken from the ‘moth trap’ at Insh Fen that I had two male Molanna, both matching the features of Molanna angustata.

    Molanna angustata adult

    This was exciting as, looking at the current distribution map, this would only be the second record for Scotland. I sent the specimen to the National Recorder for Caddisflies, Ian Wallace, and it turned out to be even more exciting: the ‘first’ record (Rannoch Moor, 1900) turns out to have been a mistake – a check with the museum revealed the specimen does not exist and was probably a data entrance error. This makes the Molanna angustata I found at Insh the first ever record of this species in Scotland.

    Molanna angustata male genitals

    This discovery raises more questions than it answers: why has it never before been found in Scotland? Is the species moving north or has it simply gone unnoticed until now? What habitats is the species truly associated with?

    There has been a number of examples in the invertebrate world in recent years showing the move of southern species northwards (e.g. Southern Hawker Dragonfly) potentially at the expense of specialist upland species (e.g. Upland Summer Mayfly). Is this the case with the Molanna species? However, this still wouldn’t explain the jump from the current distribution all the way up to Insh. Further investigation is clearly required.

    Finding Molanna angustata has reinforced to me the excitement, interest and importance of investigations into understudied species. Whether moth trapping for caddisflies or kick netting in upland streams, you never know what is going to turn up next. There is so much to discover and learn and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough!   

  • Do insects make good parents?

    RSPB Trainee Ecologist Kirsty Godsman explores the parenting skills of insects after finding out some fascinating facts about carrion beetles.

    Do insects make good parents?

    Last month, I discovered something fascinating about a closely related group of species commonly known as the carrion beetles or Sexton beetles (all belonging to the genus, Nicrophorus). This is a group of beetles that anyone with a moth trap might be familiar with as they are attracted to light. But if you have never come across them before, here is a photograph of one of the 6 species that occur in the UK.

    Nicrophorus vespilloides (www.eakringbirds.com)

    At first glance, these beetles may seem a little gruesome. They are known as carrion beetles because they feed on carcases as adults and larvae. As a result of this association, they can be covered in mites and usually smell unpleasant. However, delve a little deeper into the lives of the carrion beetles and you might find yourself warming to them.

    In order to find a mate, adult beetles must find the carcass of a small vertebrate. This can be a difficult task in itself as it is a very limited resource. Once a carcass has been located, they will then need to fight off any competitors. Once there is only one male and one female left, they remove the hair or feathers of the carcass and bury it in the ground. This is an incredible feat for something that is no bigger than 3cm. What is possibly even more amazing is that, if the ground is unsuitable for digging in to, they will drag the carcass to a more suitable substrate. They will also form a sphere or brood ball with the carcass, onto which they secrete a liquid which is thought to preserve it. The female then excavates a corridor from here where she will lay her eggs.

    Then it gets really interesting.

    At this point, the male and female wait for the eggs to hatch and continuously guard the nest from predators and competitors. Once the eggs hatch, the males of some species leave but the rest continue to guard their nest. The females begin provisioning the brood and will not leave until her offspring have left. Initially, the female has to lead the newly hatched larvae to the carcass by “chirping” or stridulating her wing-cases on her abdomen. She then must feed her young directly by regurgitating. It has been suggested that many species must do this after every larval moult or the young will never make it to adulthood.

    Although the circumstances may seem grisly, this behaviour is far more sophisticated and complex than most people would expect from an insect. However, they are not the only insects to provision their offspring in some way. For example, the tiny pot beetles (Cryptocephalus species) build a case for each egg that they lay which prevents predation of their offspring. It is very common for herbivorous beetles such as leaf beetles and weevils to lay their eggs on the larval host plant so that, as soon as they hatch, the larvae are able to feed. Some weevils even go as far as to roll a leaf up to protect their eggs. The care provided by Nicrophorus mothers, however, is the most involved of any non-social insect.

  • Where have all the kestrels gone?

    The latest Breeding Bird Survey (published 29 August) shows kestrel numbers decreased by 65% in Scotland between 1995 and 2012. Louise Cullen met up with Senior Conservation Scientist Staffan Roos to find out why.

    Scotland is a spectacular place for watching wildlife – especially birds. Whether it’s seabirds in summer or migratory geese in winter, there’s always something to look out for. Some of our resident bird species however, aren't doing so well. 

    Steve Round (rspb-images.com)

    Kestrels used to be a common sight in Scotland, often spotted hovering above road verges looking for prey like voles, but between 1995 and 2012 we lost more than half of our kestrels; a whopping 65% decrease to be exact. That’s the largest drop of any monitored bird species in the whole country.

    The figures came out at the end of August in the Breeding Bird Survey and it made me wonder what was sending these beautiful birds of prey into such steep decline. To help answer that question I went to Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, with Senior Conservation Scientist for RSPB Scotland, Staffan Roos.

    We decided to take a mini road trip round the area to look at some kestrel habitat so Staffan could explain what might be going on. While on our way to the first spot he told me an unusual fact that stuck with me. Apparently kestrels  can see in the ultraviolet light range, so when prey species like voles use urine to mark their territory kestrels can see it from the air, follow it, and bingo – a tasty snack! Interesting. It also made me appreciate the fact that I don’t have to employ a similar technique to find what I need in the supermarket.

    Anyway, our first stop was an ideal location for kestrels and indeed there were a few nesting among a small clump of trees.

    Staffan told me the key things kestrels need are an abundant food source, like voles and songbirds, and a good nest site. Kestrels are opportunistic birds and don’t actually build their own nests – they use the disused nests of other species like crows.

    So all they need is food and somewhere to call home, sounds simple right? Wrong.

    The second place we visited was a farmer’s field which had just recently been ploughed. When a field is ploughed it pushes all the left over seeds and grain down under the soil which means species like songbirds can’t access the food when they need it most – in winter. And if there’s less food for prey, there’s less food for predators like kestrels too.

    Early research by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science suggests the intensification of agriculture could be the main reason for the significant drop in kestrel numbers. Specifically, preliminary results suggest that kestrel numbers have fallen at times when there has been a change from spring-sown barley to autumn-sown wheat and oil seed rape. 

    Our final stop was an abandoned farm in Bridge of Allan. The reason? Staffan told me the increasing use of second generation rat poisons could possibly be playing a part in the decline of the kestrel. If an effected rat is eaten by a kestrel, the poison is passed on to the bird as well. They’re often used in buildings for storing grain and food, to keep out rodents.

    There are several other possible contributing factors that are being investigated too, including competition for nest sites and climate change. RSPB conservationists are currently carrying out this vital research to identify what is causing the decline, so solutions can be created and put in place to hopefully increase populations of kestrel in Scotland once again. 

    Kestrel chick ringing

    Brookfield Drinks, the owners of Kestrel Lager, is supporting the RSPB in those efforts. The money they provide is used to fund the research programme set up to help save the kestrel, as well as increased monitoring of kestrels in Scotland through the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme and to advise landowners, land managers, crofters and farmers on wildlife friendly practices that will benefit these beautiful birds.