With buses they say you wait for ages and then two come along at once. But special places for nature are scarce and becoming rarer.
In an exciting partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, we've secured a special part of Scotland for nature and people.
Why is it so special?
Is it the stunning views with wetlands, woodlands and snow capped mountains (yes, they were still snow capped last week)? Or is it the wintering white-fronted geese that make a 3,000 mile round trip every year from Greenland?
Perhaps it's the 200+ species of flowering plant (an eighth of the species recorded in the whole of Britain)? Or maybe the lamprey, a primitive eel-like fish, which can be traced back to 200 million years before the dinosaurs existed? Possibly it's the vast range of small beasties that exist, often out of view.
Despite having only just got to know the site, I suspect it is all of the above and more. And that is at the centre of our plans.
We want to protect what we know is here, find what hasn't already been discovered and allow existing and new visitors more opportunities to enjoy the stories and experiences the landscape and wildlife has to offer.
Making it happen
Well, the first step has been taken.
Following support form the National Park Authority, SNH, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the generous donations of our supporters through an appeal, we have secured purchase of the land. The next step will be to appoint a site manager (lucky devil!).
We have already started the important process of talking to the local communities, gathering information about the site and monitoring the wildlife. Next will be formulating a plan to improve the site over the coming years.
In the meantime, if you want to visit the reserve there is a path from the Millennium Hall in Gartocharn which will give you a flavour of the site and its potential.
RSPB Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, is back to tell us about his work with the stunning Slavonian grebe.
The weather has taken a real upturn since the weekend and the Highlands have come to life – ring ouzels piping from corries, divers wailing across lonely lochans and crested tits purring in the old Scots pines. But, for me, the sight and sound of Slavonian grebes chittering softly to each other before pumping up their gorgeous orange-yellow ear tufts to show themselves at their best, eclipses them all.
Slavs are one of those birds, like goldeneye or red-throated divers that occur in a band right round the northern hemisphere and, whilst common in world terms, are restricted as breeders in the UK to small parts of Scotland. And Slavs are more restricted than most – last year there were just 29 pairs on a handful of lochs round Inverness and the recent counts give little room for optimism, plummeting like the FTSE 100 on a bad day. But they are still with us and, by far the best place to see them is at the RSPB’s Loch Ruthven reserve, the single best site in Britain. I popped in there early on Saturday – the birds are back and looking absolutely splendid (so much so that even Beyoncé has copied the look!!).
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Slavs for the past 20 years and much as I love my days with eagles and dotterels, the times I have with the grebes stand out. But, for much of that time, we’ve been trying to work out why they have such a restricted distribution and quite why they have declined so much. To be honest, the answer has eluded us so far but a new collaboration is giving us hope that we won’t be in the dark for much longer.
In early March I spent a few days in Reykjavik talking to Icelandic and Norwegian Slav grebe workers. Interestingly, Slavs in Iceland are increasing rapidly whilst northern Norway is doing the exact opposite and, by pooling our knowledge, we’re beginning to get a clearer picture of what might be going on across their range and not just our wee bit of it. And, of course, once you know what the problems are you can start doing something about them.
It’s early days yet and we’ve still a lot of work to do but I’ll be giving a talk about what we know about the Slavs and where we’re going next at the Scottish Birdfair. Why not come along – it’ll be great to see you and there will be loads of other things to do too!
If you’re fortunate enough to work for the RSPB, you get the opportunity every seven years to take a well-earned sabbatical of up to four weeks. You can go and work on another conservation project at home or sometimes abroad, usually with Birdlife International. Or you can design your own sabbatical but it must meet strict criteria. It’s a very worthwhile employment benefit which helps to refocus and refresh valued staff. RSPB Scotland Mull Officer Dave Sexton has just returned from his third sabbatical with the Society…but this time it took a dose of winter ‘man-flu’ to get him started…
From sea to shining sea
It came to me on my sick bed. There I was on a particularly dreich winter’s day in January, propped up in bed with a mug of steaming hot Lemsip Max All in One, aching from head to foot and feeling very sorry for myself. My sabbatical had been due since last August and I’d done nothing about it. There just never seemed to be enough time to organise things, never a good time to be away from Mull, we couldn’t afford it anyway, blah blah blah.
My feverish, drug-filled mind then started to wander in an aimless kind of way – thinking of nice sunny places around the world with lots of birds - one good way to start the sabbatical planning process I’ve often found. Slowly, as the medication got to work, a germ of an idea started to take hold. With my current work revolving around the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles in Scotland, what about seeking out a selection of other endangered species recovery projects to evaluate their success – or otherwise? I could revisit some of the other bird of prey projects I’ve been involved with over the years – like bald eagles, ospreys, peregrines and California condors? Ah yes, California. That’s it! How did that old Beach Boys song go again? “The west coast has the sunshine and the girls all get so tanned…” I don’t know what they put in Lemsip these days but I was suddenly feeling much better.
And so, a sick day in bed was put to very good use. By the end of the day, my outline plan was gathering pace. We’d go into Washington, DC, be based in Annapolis, Maryland on the east coast to work with the US Fish & Wildlife Service on their osprey monitoring programme in the Chesapeake Bay; then head down to Virginia to my old university at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg where they’re working on bald eagle population dynamics and peregrine falcon reintroductions; and then start the long journey west, first to Arizona to catch up on how the California condor reintroduction project is faring since my first sabbatical there with the Peregrine Fund in 1997. Finally to the Pacific coast and California where it all began (and very nearly ended) for the condors in the 1980s when the final few wild birds were all taken into captivity to begin a bold captive breeding programme. And that’s pretty much how my sabbatical panned out seven months later…
I initially spent time in a not-very-exotic location. I was with the US Geological Survey and Fish & Wildlife Service who were taking blood samples from fledgling ospreys amidst the industrial landscape of Baltimore Harbour and the Patapsco River. They’re using the well-recovered osprey population (which nest on cement works, sewage treatment works, pylons, cranes – you name it), to monitor the health of the bay. It was inspiring to see the ospreys apparently thriving in that environment when we still tend to associate them here with remote Scottish lochs, glens and Scots pines!
Dave Sexton holding a fledgling osprey during banding on the James River, Virginia.
Then it was on to the train south and into the sweltering 100 degree + heat and humidity of southern Virginia. Here I re-visited the long-running bald eagle recovery project on the James and York Rivers which are now almost at ‘ESP’ (Eagle Saturation Point). An incredible recovery (spear-headed by the team at the Center for Conservation Biology who I spent some time with) from a low of just 30 pairs in the 1970s to a staggering 730 pairs today. Now that’s what I call a successful species recovery project! I wonder how their close cousins, the white-tailed eagles, will now fare over a similar time frame in the UK?
The descendants of the peregrine falcons which I’d helped to reintroduce to the eastern shore of Virginia in 1981 were also thriving. Many are still nesting on man-made structures like ‘hack’ towers, bridges and buildings whilst others are now colonising natural, ancestral cliff sites in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So far so good. It was all mostly good news! Quite heartening really when we hear so much about the bad news and problems many of our big predators are facing at home and around the world. Not that it’s all plain sailing.
The condors in Arizona and California are doing well too but progress sometimes seems painfully slow and the project continues to be hampered by toxic lead in the environment. The condors scavenge on hunted deer and coyote carcasses and ingest lead fragments from the bullets. The Peregrine Fund and State Game and Wildlife agencies are working with hunters and ranchers to persuade them to switch from lead to copper bullets. It’s getting there – up to 70% compliance in both AZ and CA . For the field crews in both states, it’s tough and gruelling work when you have to re-trap all the released and wild bred condors at intervals to flush the lead out of their systems.
It was quite a moment for me to see an active condor nest cave. When I last worked on that project, it was only a year after the first captive-bred condor releases and successful breeding seemed a very long way off. This year’s chick stayed well hidden inside the deep cave but it was enough to know it was in there - somewhere. One local nest cave which is in use again after tens of thousands of years without condors revealed the bones of a prehistoric condor – this Canyon Country is timeless. And then to watch an adult condor soaring over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon – well, it simply takes your breath away. For once, the word ‘awesome’ summed it all up.
But it was the visit to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana that provided the biggest surprise of the sabbatical. My target species there has been the focus of one of the most famous and controversial reintroduction projects in the history of wildlife conservation. OK, they’re not birds of prey, not even birds. I knew it would be interesting to visit this project on the ground but had no idea it would end up being even more relevant to my work back home than the raptor-related projects I’d visited so far.
Wolves bring out the best - and worst - in human nature. Grey (or timber) wolves were, like white-tailed eagles, persecuted relentlessly across their range. They became extinct in most states. At one point even the Government had a policy of eradicating them from Yellowstone itself! How times change. In 1995 and 1996, wolves from Canada were caught, tranquilised, transported, acclimatised and eventually released into Yellowstone. The top predator was back and the whole eco-system started to come back into balance: elk numbers dropped, aspen recovered, beavers returned to the rivers, more ponds were created, more wildfowl arrived, more invertebrates…the circle of life.
With US NPS & Wolf Project ranger, Rick McIntyre, radio tracking wolves in Yellowstone.
Despite huge opposition there was also huge support; the project went ahead and has gone from strength to strength. There are now 12 wolf packs in Yellowstone. So much of the US wolf saga mirrors the UK white-tailed eagle story both in historical terms and even some of the ongoing arguments today.
But just as we’ve found on Mull, one of the big bonuses of these projects has been the increase in wildlife tourism. Wolf and eagle watchers are, by and large, very similar folks. They spend locally, they return over and over and they usually behave! Both eagles and wolves bring in millions of £ and $ to their local economies.
I spent time in Yellowstone with US NPS rangers, workers on the Wolf Project and countless volunteers who give up weeks, if not months, of their year spotting, observing, radio tracking and helping visitors find wolves. I was struck by just how willing and patient they all were in dealing with the thousands of visitors – Yellowstone had an eye-watering 900,000 visitors in July alone. I’m very glad we were some of them. Here’s a taste of one fine morning in Yellowstone…
As usual, we began the day just before dawn. The scent of sage and pine filled the chilly air. We joined US NPS and Wolf Project workers Rick McIntyre and Doug McLaughlin as they located the famous Lamar Canyon wolf pack – probably the most watched and studied wolves in the world.
As the early morning mists rose from the Lamar River, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack launched her attack on a powerful cow elk. Other pack members soon raced alongside and bit at the elk’s legs as she galloped at full speed towards the river. Her head held high in blind panic, eyes wide and staring, nostrils flaring, the elk kicked out with her front hooves. She struck the lead wolf - an inexperienced black yearling – painfully in the jaw. One after the other, the elk and wolves crashed down the river bank and into the fast flowing river.
The wolves swam as they were quickly out of their depth while the elk found the deepest part of the river and stood her ground – just. With the foaming, ice-cold melt waters threatening to knock her over at any moment, the wolves knew they’d been beaten – this time. They sat panting for a while on the river bank, watching her watching them, playing the waiting game. For a while, they looked like they had all the time in the world. But they didn’t. They had five hungry pups back at the den on Round Prairie and they knew they had to hunt again and deliver food today. Eventually, after a tense stand-off, the pack started to disperse, led as ever by the alpha male and female. Their grey and black forms melted into the shadows of the aspen grove, there were one or two brief howls and then they were gone.
All this happened about 300m away from where we stood. My two young daughters who only minutes earlier had been huddled disconsolate and shivering in the pre-dawn chill, were now wide awake and staring spellbound at the dramatic, wild scene that had been played out before them. It’s a sight none of us will ever forget.
As the wolves vanished, so too did many of the exhilarated wolf watchers. We thanked Rick and Doug for all their help and we headed off for a celebratory breakfast of coffee, pancakes, syrup, eggs (over-easy) and bacon at Roosevelt Lodge. Then it was back on the road again (historic Route 66) and on to the next phase of this amazing adventure. Finally to California and the stunning but foggy Big Sur coast with its giant redwoods – ancestral home to the last of the wild condors.
And so the sabbatical concluded. Where did those four weeks go? There are lifetime memories to treasure, old acquaintances renewed and new contacts made, many lessons learned for a re-energised and fresh look at work back home. But most of all, just a celebration of all the successful reintroduction projects which colleagues from other wildlife agencies and the RSPB have been part of over many years. Righting some of the wrongs of the past.
PS. Did I mention the blue whale on our grand finale whale watch out of Monterey? Don’t get me started…
Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, reflects on the discovery of a dead golden eagle earlier this year.
A National Disgrace
Take a look at this bird. It is now dead.
The video was taken on 23 June 2011 when we were fitting a satellite tag to this golden eagle chick at its nest high in the hills above Loch Ness. It took its first flight on 20 July and, from time to time during that summer and autumn, I’d take a walk up the glen to see how it was getting on. As often as not I’d see it flying around with its parents, learning the ropes, finding out all the things that an eagle needs to know.
The GPS signals allowed me to keep an eye on it and, as the winter progressed it began to range a little further away from the glen it was born in but it would keep coming back to where it knew. Finally, on 10 February this year it left home – it was on its own. I followed its progress throughout the spring as it ranged round various parts of the Scottish Highlands and all was well until early May when I could tell from the signals that the bird was dead.
The facts of the case have been well reported and can be read here. In short, the bird was at the same location for 15 hours then shifted 15 kilometres in the dark with two broken legs to a spot under a tree where it died several days later. Now, you either have to believe a frankly improbable series of events or come to the conclusion that this young eagle died as a result of a crime. It’s clear which version the Scottish Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, believes as he tweeted “Absolutely appalling – disgusted with whoever did this”.
This week’s Scottish Farmer reports the incident under the bold headline “Game gets the blame”. It says that Scottish Land and Estates condemn the killing but that they are also calling for further examination of the evidence before conclusions are reached. The SF article also quotes the Scottish Gamekeepers Association which has decided to open its own inquiry as it believes that the case is far from clear cut.
I can’t wait to learn what these other inquiries conclude but, in the meantime, what I find most interesting about all of this is that at no point in the RSPB’s press release did it mention anything about gamekeepers, game shooting or land ownership.
Anyway, let’s not forget the dead young eagle with its two broken legs. Unfortunately, it hadn’t found out all the things that an eagle needs to know – it hadn’t learned how to avoid areas where eagles aren’t tolerated.
Over the next few months, young eagles from all over Scotland will be heading off from where they were born. They could end up as magnificent icons of the Scottish Highlands which provide one of the most memorable moments in somebody’s life or they could end up as a sad corpse with broken legs or a body full of poison. Which one of those it is depends upon the willingness of society, the legal system and the Government to deal with those who show a complete disregard for the law.
No doubt those that kill eagles feel their legitimate enterprises bring some wider economic benefit. Tourism is worth £4 billion pounds per year to Scotland. The reputation of a country is incalculable.
RSPB Conservation Scientist, Jonathan Groom, writes about fieldwork in the Perthshire hills. 4:00am starts, black grouse, hen harriers and more.
Native upland woodland expansion survey
Field work has its ups and downs. The 4:00am start so that I can be at my first survey point and ready to go at 06:00am is certainly a shock to the system. But not long after arriving at my survey site on one particular morning I was greeted by the amazing sight of three Black Grouse leks all happening simultaneously on the moorland outside my study plot. The sight of up to 20 stunning male grouse prancing and strutting with their amorous cooing calls punctuated by sharp ‘swishes’, echoing through the early morning air is one like no other. They were some distance away, as of course I did not want to disturb their display . Sadly, as much as I'd like to spend time watching them, I had surveying to do.
Two hours later and I was feeling the downside again - I had seen and heard little and this particular patch certainly seemed light on birds. Then all of a sudden I heard a sharp cry and turned to catch two large birds in my binoculars in flight over a distant hillside. It was a pair of Hen Harriers and the female was calling to the male! This is a bird that I hadn’t really expected to see here, let alone a pair of them. As the stunning pale grey male drifted out of sight over a ridge leaving the female briefly perched atop a young Scots Pine, I couldn’t help but punch the air. With a big smile on my face, I resumed my survey and finished off my last couple of hours with renewed vigour. The ups definitely more than make up for the downs!
So what am I doing up here in Highland Perthshire that gives me the opportunity for such incredible sightings? My study sites are all areas that have been used for replanting or regeneration of native woodland over the last 10-20 years under various Woodland Grant Schemes. Recent studies have shown that Black Grouse, a threatened species with a stronghold in Perthshire, prefer wooded areas that have yet to reach maturity so that there is a rich shrub layer providing food, nest sites and cover for them. Long running surveys of Black Grouse leks in Perthshire have also demonstrated an increase in numbers during the last few years, and we are interested in whether these increases are linked to the availability of these new native woodland plots. So my task is to collect data from these areas, which vary considerably in size, age and location, to assess the habitat structure and quality and to get an idea of what other breeding birds are using these plots. I will not be surveying the grouse directly, unless they happen to appear during one of my counts, as the annual lek counts are well covered by a dedicated local volunteer group.
I have been carrying out bird surveys for nearly two weeks now and despite the very changeable weather and late appearance of many of our summer migrant birds, it has been an interesting and often exciting experience. The plots have all been enclosed with deer fences to allow the young trees to survive and enable the shrub layer to regenerate without being grazed down by the large herds of Red Deer that roam the surrounding moorland (those pesky Roe Deer still seem to manage to get in somehow). The effect is clear – the heather is deep and thick and shrubs like Bilberry and Crowberry grow in deep, thick patches. It will be interesting to compare my habitat data to the areas outside the fenced woodland plots. It’s a little early to make any statements about the birdlife as I have another month and a half of surveys yet to do – but the grouse are certainly abundant and widespread and I have had regular Hen Harrier sightings from different areas. I am hoping for maybe a Short-eared Owl or a Merlin at some point and I am looking forward to the arrival of our summer visitors to see which species might use these plots –Blackcap and Redstart are newly arrived in the area so hopefully things are about to pick up! And its not just birds of course – I was lucky enough to come across this beautiful newly emerged Emperor Moth a few days ago.
And, like my fellow blogger, Nick, I have had my first adder sighting of this lovely female today on the 1st of May.
The early morning sunrises aren’t bad either!
Find out more about the native upland woodland expansion survey here.