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.
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…
Alistair Baxter is completing a PhD investigating the reasons behind Dotterel declines in Scotland. Read on to find out more about his exciting work...
Dotterel declines in Scotland: Out of sight out of mind?
Over the last thirty years, National Surveys led by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have revealed dramatic declines in dotterel numbers across the UK. The most marked results have been the total disappearance of breeding dotterel from England, Wales, and many previously good breeding sites in Scotland. I am undertaking a PhD, aimed at identifying the factors leading to dotterel declines in Scotland over the last thirty years. It is easy to ignore bird species we rarely see or that are difficult to study, but I hope my work can shed some light on the reasons for declines in the dotterel and other montane bird species suffering a similar fate. Hopefully this project will be the catalyst to increasing interest and research in the uplands and I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences with dotterel and other montane bird species along the way.
Female dotterel singing on an early Cairngorm's morning.
Here’s a bit of background on all things dotterel (Charadrius morinellus for those who collect fancy Latin names). Dotterel are extremely charismatic migratory plovers (wading birds) not much bigger than a blackbird. They arrive into the UK in late March-early April from North Africa having spent the winter months basking in the Atlas Mountains and gorging themselves in preparation for their strenuous summer schedule. Some of these birds will choose to settle and breed in montane areas of Scotland, however; the main bulk will pass through the UK onto the main European breeding grounds in Norway. Dotterel can be seen on passage, most notably on several sites in East Anglia. Unfortunately, for those of you with memories long enough to recall commonly sighting large flocks (‘trips’), these occurrences are now few and far between; with dotterel declines in Norway thought to be at least as severe as those recorded in the UK.
Very snowy Cairngorms welcome the start of the field season.
After arriving in Scotland, dotterel head for mountain plateaus above 700m in altitude where they are to be found breeding until mid-August. Whatever the reasons for dotterel choosing to breed and spend their summers in some of the most inhospitable areas of the UK, this provides a researcher and outdoor enthusiast with the mouth-watering opportunity to carry out fieldwork in some truly breathtaking mountain surroundings!
A nice bright female dotterel.
The first fieldwork day dawned early and, through my inexperienced eyes, it was far too cold, misty, and ‘dreich’ for fieldwork....apparently not! I would soon find out this is actually an above average summer’s day on the Scottish tops. Unperturbed, James Gordon (my RSPB Research Assistant), Dr. Steven Ewing (RSPB supervisor), and I headed up one of the study sites I would be collecting the bulk of my data and intensively surveying over the next three field seasons. Predictably, having spent the previous month carrying out capercaillie surveys for the RSPB, James set the pace and as I puffed, cursed, and panted behind him I began to realise why the montane regions of Scotland remain so under-studied. However, as we emerged over the last rise, we were surrounded by mist and stood on a dense moss carpet which blanketed much of the summit plateau the effort became totally worthwhile and I felt privileged to have the chance to spend so much time in such a place.
With dotterel habitat use and habitat changes the particular focus of this first year, we spent most of the day on hands and knees rooting around in moss and heather and discussing teething issues with what I thought I’d so elegantly (if not slightly optimistically) planned in my office in Aberdeen. The following inevitable scaling back of my grand plans also seemed a feature of the first few days as the realisation of scale in mountain fieldwork became apparent. Despite all the changes in plans, still revelling at the possibility of effectively living in the mountains for the next four months I felt it had been an incredibly productive first day. There was however still time to see the bird I’d be studying for the next three years and a distinctive metallic “peep” had us all scanning the horizon. A bright female stood seemingly unafraid only 40m away. Partly because of their tame nature (defence mechanism to draw predators away from eggs/chicks), the gaelic name for dotterel is 'amadan-mòintich' meaning ‘fool of the moor’; presumably due the ease with which they could be caught/hunted. Despite this, dotterel can in fact be incredibly inconspicuous and not least when incubating eggs; you can walk within a metre of some incubating males and be none the wiser. It is fortunate the Scottish summer days are so long as locating dotterel, let alone incubating male dotterel, can be a time consuming and patience testing business. I have of course been lucky enough to see dotterel almost every day since and as a result of the obligatory eight to ten miles walk each day and five Munros (3000ft hills) a week the fieldwork has thankfully got a lot easier.
Incubating male dotterel- notice how dull it is compared with the female in the first photo.
Much of this year’s fieldwork is repeating ecology studies carried out during the 1980s by SNH. By re-assessing habitat availability, habitat quality, and invertebrate abundance we hope to see if changes in these factors have caused the declines in dotterel numbers since the 1980s. Even after a difficult start to this season, with huge amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures in May, the dotterel have begun to breed (better late than never!) and we are currently monitoring 11 nests across three sites. We focus nest searching on areas where only single male dotterel are present as this is taken as strong evidence of breeding. Unusually for a bird species it is only the males that incubate chicks. In fact, although on some sites females will contribute to incubating eggs there are no published records of females helping to rear chicks and they will usually leave the male about a day after laying the whole clutch of speckled brown eggs.
Male dotterel brooding three chicks.
Over the last three days we have had the first chicks of the season hatch and it seems all the nest finding effort early in the season is coming to fruition. The mountains seem thriving with life at the moment and I’ve found it amazing to see how the tops change over the dotterel breeding season, with dull grey moss turning to the deep pinky red of bilberry and the rich green of three-leaved rush. The birds are also at their noisiest and most vibrant at this time of year, with chicks of Golden plover, dunlin, and ptarmigan well on their way to fledging, parents are busy feeding hungry mouths and warding off those who get too close.
A “loafing” Ptarmigan – I’ve never seen a bird species that spends so much time sitting down!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my first instalment of this blog and I’ll bring you an update of how the remainder of this first field season panned out in August. Until then, keep your fingers crossed the stay at home dotterel dads are working as hard as we are, if so we’ll soon have juvenile dotterel on the wing and preparing for the long migration South!
All photos by Alistair Baxter.