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.
  • Wildlife watching on Lewis

    RSPB Scotland project officer for the Western Isles, Victoria Anderson, has this new blog about wildlife watching on Lewis.

    Wildlife watching on Lewis

    Any visit to the Western isles must include a trip to our hidden gem of a reserve at Loch na Muilne near Arnol on the Isle of Lewis. In recent days after a long wet and windy winter the reserve has sprung into life.  

    Loch na Muilne

    Wildlife watching on Lewis is hard in the middle of winter. It seems most birds disappear and the Uists appear to be the better place to see flocks of wintering wildfowl and farmland birds. So the arrival of spring is most welcome and it has been a great pleasure rediscovering Loch na Muilne and the wildlife it supports. 

    To be fair there is one exciting winter highlight often to be found at the reserve and that is a regular winter flock of Greenland white fronted geese. This year our flock peaked at 32. It also been great popping into the reserve over the last few weeks to find birds stopping over for a refuel while on migration to the far north. A week or so ago 23 Whooper swans were seen and just last week one lonely black tailed godwit was recorded and most days there are a few goldeneye.  

    I have also been visiting the reserve to record what is breeding there. At the entrance to the reserve are some old stone croft buildings and I have been greeted regularly by a singing blackbird in full voice and somewhat bizarrely a fulmar seems to be very fond of this spot also.  

    Fulmar, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

    The Loch is surrounded by marshy fen and it is alive with breeding lapwing and redshank. Ducks have started to arrive back and there are several pairs of teal and mallard. A Little grebe in breeding plumage has been spotted too. But the most exciting highlight so far has been a pair of red-throated divers. 

    The Loch and marsh are surrounded by coastal Heathland which supports meadow pipits and skylarks. Northern Wheatears are starting to arrive back, although I have not noted one at the reserve yet. 

    In a few weeks the real stars of the reserve arrive back. Scotland supports a small population of red necked phalaropes. Shetland is the stronghold for this dainty wader but the Western Isles also has a few birds including at Loch na Muilne.    Phalaropes are one of a handful of birds worldwide where the sexes have changed roles. In the phalarope world, the females are the more colourful of the pair. The males are drabber and are solely responsible for incubating eggs and rearing chicks and the females play no further part in the breeding process after egg laying.

    Red necked phalarope

    By the time the phalaropes are back the reserve is also ablaze with a colourful carpet of flowers to enjoy including yellow rattle, orchids and louseworts. It is also a good place to get up close and personal with sundew plants. These tiny plants are covered with red sticky hairs to catch insects which are then “devoured” very slowly.  

    This spring, RSPB Scotland staff will be on hand at the reserve, every Friday morning from 5th June to 10th July to help visitors spot the phalaropes and help you get the best out of your visit. Visitors are also welcome to take a short wander to the sea cliffs to look for black guillemots, shags and fulmars. Hope too see soon!

  • For the love of... Dunes

    RSPB Scotland Nature Recovery Officer, James Silvey, has this new blog on climate change and the wildlife that could be lost to it.

    For the love of... Dunes

    At school in the 90’s it was called global warming, the planet was heating up and cartoons showed the earth trapped, sweating in a greenhouse to illustrate the peril. We now know there is much more to climate change than warming temperatures and rising sea levels.


    Natterjack toad, Jeroen Stel

    Predictions suggest an increase in droughts and floods along with prolonged heat waves for some, and cold spells for others. Basically our weather is likely to become more extreme and unpredictable putting even more pressure on our natural places, species and of course, ourselves.

    In the winter of 2013-14 after a trip to RSPB Scotland's Mersehead reserve in Dumfries and Galloway I was shown first hand just how devastating this extreme weather can be.

    The reserve lies on the Solway coast, an incredible habitat of vast mudflats, natural saltmarsh and rolling sand dunes. In 2012 the sand dunes on the reserve stood at an impressive 4m high and protected the species-rich dune grasslands found behind its bulk from the wind, salt and spray the sea aimed in its direction on a daily basis.

    Dunes really are incredible habitats, and free from the development pressures of golf courses and caravan sites they provide a unique habitat for hardy plants, invertebrates, birds and - in the case of Mersehead - the endangered natterjack toad.

    Natterjack toad in pond, Roger Wilmshurst

    One of only two native UK toad species, the natterjack is restricted in Scotland to the dunes and saltmarsh habitats that scatter the Solway coastline. This picture had remained largely unchanged until December 2013 when the worst recorded storms of a generation battered the UK with western areas suffering the full force of the storm.

    Mersehead, like many areas was not spared the onslaught and vast areas of the reserve were left littered with debris and flooded with sea water which took weeks to fully drain away. As for the dunes, they were almost completely destroyed. Tonnes of sand, along with the plants and invertebrates associated with it were washed into the sea. So too we feared, were a good number of the natterjacks.

    It was with some relief therefore that on April 23rd 2014 the first male toads started calling to signify the start of the breeding season - somehow the toads had survived.

    It's a testament to the tenacity of our wildlife that recovery like this can happen, even the dunes are re-growing (1m tall last time I saw them in November). But how resilient can they be if subjected to a rise in these weather events? By their very nature dune systems are dynamic, unpredictable places, subject to change and with an ability to recover. Even so, full recovery on this scale will take years and if storms like the ones seen in 2013 increase in frequency, it is easy to see how some of our most special places will simply be washed away.

    If you love dunes, natterjacks or our coasts please add your voice at www.rspb.org.uk/fortheloveof or send a message to the First Minister asking her to act on climate change.

  • What to see in Scotland this month IV

    Better late than never as the old saying goes. Here's our blog on the wildlife to look out for across Scotland in April.

    What to see in Scotland this month IV

    Personally I don’t think there are many good reasons to get up and out of the house before dawn. If someone mentions it, my first reaction is usually to shudder at the mere thought.

    Black grouse, Andy Hay

    As you can probably tell I’m not really a morning person, however there is one wildlife spectacle that is capable of convincing me otherwise (even if just for that one day) - the possibility of seeing a black grouse lek.

    At sunrise, black grouse males will gather at communal ‘lekking’ grounds to strut their stuff, fight, display, and basically do anything they can to try and grab the attention of a female. The whole proud performance is accompanied by a low soothing note known as ‘rookooing’ - a sound that can carry more than ¼ mile!


    Black grouse males, Andy Hay

    Each male has his own territory to defend meaning fights can often break out between rival birds, and the closer a male stands to the centre of the lek, the higher his status. These displays happen during most months of the year but April is the peak time, and although these beautifully charismatic birds are always wonderful to see, managing to catch a lek is truly special. RSPB Scotland is running several black grouse events this year, so check them out if you’re interested.

    Now, when it comes to impressive aerial acrobatics, the blue tit might not be the first species to spring to mind but the return of some warm weather seems to inspire them. The males perform a sort of floating display with the male parachuting towards a low perch from a height to try and capture the attention of potential mates. Look out for this behaviour next time you’re out on a spring walk!


    Blue tit, Ray Kennedy

    From mid-April large white butterflies will be flitting around our gardens once again, with the females looking for suitable plants on which to lay her eggs. These butterflies are widespread and will turn up in all manner of green spaces including parks, gardens, meadows, and hedgerows including on Orkney and Shetland. Large whites have a very powerful flight and are capable of migrating over considerable distances.

    And, one final garden visitor to keep our eyes peeled for this month is a nice simple one to recognise - the hedgehog! 


    Hedgehog, Eleanor Bentall

    These prickly little creatures will start turning up again at this time of year after a long winter of hibernation, wandering into gardens and waddling around parks in search of a good meal. Hedgehogs are drawn in by lawns and flowerbeds where they can find beetles, slugs, and earthworms, making them a firm favourite with many a keen gardener looking for an efficient way to rid their veggie patches of common pests.

    When threatened, hedgehogs will roll themselves into a sharp little ball to deter predators; a single hedgehog can have as many as 16,000 spines making up this impressive coat of armour.

    Happy wildlife watching everyone and we’ll be back with a new ‘what to see’ blog in May!