May is a great month to take up wildlife watching in Scotland. With summer migrants arriving from overseas and the days (that are supposed to be) heating up there is plenty to look out for along our coasts, in our woodlands, and even in our back gardens!
What to see in Scotland this month V
Peppered moth, Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Be honest, how long did it take you to notice the moth in that photo? Peppered moths are masters of disguise, blending almost perfectly with the lichen upon which they land.
This camouflage helps them outwit predators by allowing them to stay hidden; but it hasn’t always been so straight forward. During the nineteenth century pollution killed off some of the lichens in the UK and soot deposits caused bark to appear darker. This spelled disaster for light coloured moths as they could no longer rely on their camouflage and were picked off and eaten by birds.
Darker moths however, were now at an advantage – they were better hidden so more likely to survive, have offspring, and pass on their genes. Dark coloured peppered moths became more dominant at this time, which shows well the phenomenon of ‘industrial melanism’.
Peppered moths can be seen throughout Scotland with their active flight period starting in May and lasting until August.
This stunning image of a dolphin was taken by Walter Innes at RSPB Scotland's Dolphinwatch in Aberdeen this year
This time of year also signals the start of RSPB Scotland’s Dolphinwatch project; an altogether different type of species to look out for. Perhaps surprisingly, Aberdeen is one of the best places in the whole of Europe for spotting dolphins – and you can see seals and otters along the coast too.
We have members of staff down at Torry Battery from 11am until 6pm Thursday to Sunday right through the summer if you want tips on dolphin watching or some information on these brilliant creatures!
Spotted flycatcher, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
But perhaps one of the best wildlife events to look out for right now is the arrival of summer migrants. Bird species like spotted and pied flycatchers arrive in Scotland after making the hazardous trip from Africa. Both species will spend the summer here before leaving on their return flight come September.
Spotted flycatchers are one of the latest migrants to reach our shores because of their specialised diets. With their agile, twisting flight flycatchers are adept at catching larger species like moths and butterflies, as well as bees and wasps – they remove the stings of these insects by thrashing them against a perch. You’ll likely spot these birds in woodlands, gardens, parks, and church yards – basically anywhere with a good perch.
Pied flycatchers meanwhile, are shyer and will tend to stick to woodlands where there is thicker cover on offer. The male of this species has a quirky little habit of flicking up one or both of its wings vertically when they are alarmed.
Happy wildlife watching everyone – and we’ll be back with a new blog on what to see in Scotland next month!
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!
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.