The second installment of the Crook of Baldoon story from RSPB Scotland's Jenny Tweedie. RSPB Scotland purchased a piece of land known as Crook of Baldoon six years ago and this is how we've been transforming it into a haven for wildlife ever since. Our work here could not have been achieved without the generous help of HSBC, the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dumfries and Galloway Leader, Scottish Natural Heritage, and of course, the support of RSPB members.
Crook of Baldoon: Part II
Can’t see the crook for the trees
Removing the willow from the Crook of Baldoon was always a high priority, but we wanted to harvest it as a crop, and do it in the most cost-effective way possible. And that took time.
Due to various delays with both the contractors and the weather, and having to wait for a time when we’d cause the least disturbance to wildlife, if was autumn 2014 before we could get heavy machinery on site to do the work. Willow isn’t an easy crop to cut, and you need quite specialist kit, which is in limited supply in the UK. But eventually it was all removed, chipped, and the harvest taken to a biomass plant in Cumbria owned by Iggesund, who had organised the harvesting for us.
Even once the main crop was gone, there was still the issue of what to do with the remaining stumps. Willow is notorious for re-sprouting, indeed that’s why it’s grown as a coppicing crop, and has been for hundreds of years. If we’d left it as it was, it would have come back, so the ground had to be mulched, and then sprayed to kill off the remaining growth.
But by July of last year, new contractors were able to get onto the site with massive earth moving kit, and they started work on a large lagoon and other wetland features, following a bespoke design that was put together by our colleagues in Scotland and at our UK headquarters.
The idea was to create tailor-made areas for birds that were breeding on the site, particularly farmland waders such as lapwings; birds that were passing through on epic migrations; and wintering birds, that choose to spend the colder months in Wigtown Bay, like dunlins, curlews, pink-footed and barnacle geese. The wetland areas were also designed to allow human visitors views of the birds without disturbing them, hopefully encouraging more people to visit the area, and find out just how special this sort of habitat is.
Now, as the winter rains fall, the lagoons and pools have begun to fill up with water. Whooper swans have arrived from Iceland, golden plovers are filling the skies with their displays, and hen harriers can be seen hunting over the wetland. We’ve had hundreds of redwings passing through feeding on hawthorn berries and crab apples, barn owls and short eared owls have both been seen, otters are sometimes spotted and are likely to become more regular visitors, and even little egrets have been recorded using the pools.
At the Crook of Baldoon, in only five short years, the site has been utterly transformed into a home for nature. Wildflowers are blooming once more on the saltmarsh in the spring, frogs are already moving into the new pools, lapwings are still nesting in the summer fields, and thousands upon thousands of migrating birds have been dropping in to spend the winter. We can only wait and see what else is going to pay us a visit as time moves on.
None of this could have been achieved without the support of RSPB members, or our funders, and we’re incredibly grateful for all the support we’ve had through the years. Both Dumfries and Galloway Leader and the National Lottery, through the Heritage Lottery Fund, contributed to our habitat work over our first three years at the Crook, and also part-funded our warden, Paul, along with Scottish Natural Heritage. The final elements of the work at the reserve were funded by HSBC, who kindly donated around £200k over two years.
But the work isn’t over. Next on the list are more facilities for visitors. At the moment, we just have a car park and signage, and Paul runs regular guided walks and other events, including a volunteer work party. This isn’t a reserve where we’re going to build a huge visitor centre, but we do hope to put in some more modest facilities, including viewing areas, hides and toilets.
At the moment, there’s still plenty to see and enjoy, and it’s actually a great time to come and visit. It’s pretty rare to get the opportunity to see a site like this that’s at the beginning of its, hopefully, long life as a nature reserve, and you’re very welcome to come along and experience it as it happens.
For us, it’s incredibly exciting to be at this point, seeing the birds arrive to take advantage of all the hard work, and wondering just what the future is going to bring.
For part I of this blog, click here.
Five facts you need to know about gannets
Gannets are Scotland’s, and indeed Britain’s, largest seabird. The specific type found here is the northern gannet, identifiable by its bright white plumage, long neck and beak, and distinctive black wing tips.
Northern gannets come to Scotland to nest and breed among huge seabird cities known as ‘colonies’ around the coast. They migrate south for the winter, between August and October, but travel back to our shores at the start of the year in January and February. Since you might be seeing some soon, here are five facts we think you should know about them.
Scotland is responsible for a stunning number of these birds
Our country holds over 40% of the world’s total population of northern gannets, and around 180,000 pairs breed in Scotland. That’s a staggering figure to be responsible for! The gannets are spread out across 14 colonies including Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, which is the largest gannet colony on earth. You can also find them at St Kilda, Ailsa Craig and RSPB Scotland Troup Head – the latter is the only mainland gannet colony in the country.
Gannets give a whole new meaning to the word ‘speedy’
Gannets feed on a variety of fish at sea, and to catch these fish they have to dive (makes sense). But did you know that when these seabirds actually hit the surface of the water they can be travelling as fast as 60mph?! To do this they have specifically developed neck muscles and a spongy bone plate at the base of their bill to reduce the impact. They also have special membranes to guard their eyes.
The chicks are.....unique
When gannet chicks first hatch they are featherless, as well as being blue or black in colour. They need to be fed a couple of times a day on average by the parents and will keep up this arrangement for about 90 days. When the young do fledge the nest, by around September, they are so chubby and buoyant that they’re not actually capable of surface diving! The fledglings will usually go without food for two or three weeks at this point until they’ve slimmed down a touch and mastered diving. That’s what we mean by unique...
Gannets love to dine and dash
If you’re lucky enough to see gannets feeding out to sea you’ll notice that they do so in large groups, sometimes up to 1,000 birds strong. When they dive, these seabirds swim down to around 15m, staying submerged for only a few seconds. Northern gannets don’t actually take off again with their prize though – they normally quickly swallow their fish before resurfacing, and never fly away with a meal in tow.
Colonies have quite a significant aroma
OK, we’ll be honest with you. You’ll likely smell a gannet colony before you actually see it. With so many seabirds jostling for space on the same cliffs it’s probably not surprising that the scent wafting through the air and right up your nostrils will be powerful. It’s a mix of guano, fish and fresh sea air - on trips out to Bass Rock for example the smell of ammonia can reach you about ten minutes before you get to the colony! However, it’s worth it. The sights, sounds and yes smells of a seabird colony mingle together producing a sensory overload like no other. These seabird cities are one of the great wildlife wonders of the world and we have some fantastic examples right here in Scotland – we’d urge you to get out there and see them.
Jenny Tweedie, from RSPB Scotland, brings you this blog on how house sparrows are fairing in Scotland and a helpful guide on telling the different types of sparrow apart in time for this year's Big Garden Birdwatch!
Cheerful chirps and boisterous behaviour
With their cheerful chirps, and boisterous birdfeeder behaviour, house sparrows remain one of our commonest and best loved garden birds. Year after year, they rank highly in the Big Garden Birdwatch, taking the number one spot in all but the most rural of regions. And for those of us with feeders in the garden, it would be unusual not to see the local troupe at least once a day.
But for some time now, it’s been clear that all is not well with our sparrows. Although still numerous, their overall numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, with a shocking 90% decline in some urban areas. And what’s worrying is that we still don’t know exactly why.
It’s probably a combination of factors. Gardens have changed dramatically in recent times, with more patios and decking meaning a decline in the types of plants that might support sparrows by encouraging insects in the warmer months, and providing seeds in the colder ones. Fewer chunky hedges reduce available nesting sites, and with less cover around, sparrows, with their short, stubby wings, may simply have become more vulnerable to predators.
We’re still seeing them at our feeders because any remaining sparrows in an area will naturally drift towards the offer of free food, and people who feed the birds may be more likely to have a wildlife friendly garden anyway, offering lots of things that the sparrows need to survive, like good nesting sites and shelter.
But while house sparrow numbers continue to slip (though the decline may now have slowed in some areas), a rather odd thing showed up on last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch results in Scotland. Tree sparrows, a much rarer species usually associated with farmland, came in as the 16th most common bird seen. This was a jump of four places up the rankings in only a year, overtaking birds like the greenfinch and the jackdaw.
So what’s going on?
Just like house sparrows, tree sparrows recently suffered a terrible decline in numbers, with an estimated population drop of 93% between 1970 and 2008. The population is thought to be now slowly increasing, but why are they suddenly showing up in gardens? Have they figured out that bird feeders can help them survive through the worst winter weather when other food supplies are short? Are they adapting to a more urban lifestyle, or simply finding themselves more and more in our back gardens as towns and villages expand?
It’s going to take a bit more research to figure it all out. But in the meantime, this is just one of the many, many mysteries of the bird world that the Big Garden Birdwatch can help us start to unravel.
We really want to know how many sparrows (and other birds!) you have in your garden, so please do register to take part in the Birdwatch on the weekend of January 30 and 31.
And if you’re unsure whether you’re looking at a house sparrow, a tree sparrow, or indeed a hedge sparrow, here’s a quick guide to help you out.
Immature males and females can be hard to tell apart, but adult males have distinctive markings. These are still the most common sparrows in Scotland.
With adults, the most notable feature is the cheek spot, but they’re also more chestnut-coloured than house sparrows and slightly smaller. Females look pretty much identical to males.
Hedge sparrow, commonly called a dunnock, or sometimes a hedge accentor:
Much greyer birds, with less distinct markings. You’re more likely to see dunnocks on the ground rather than on a feeder. Again, females and males are very similar.