It’s Olympics time and this set me wondering about the extraordinary feats of our wild birds. Who flies the furthest, longest or highest? Who is the heaviest or has the longest wingspan? Or more subjectively which bird is the gaudiest or most beautiful? Whose song is the purest or loudest? Which bird is the tastiest? Clearly French President Mitterand knew the answer to the latter as his dying wish to eat a dish of Ortolan buntings was reportedly granted – despite the birds being legally protected!
Migration throws up all sorts of surprises. I remember as a school boy I saw a dainty Pallas’s warbler in a small wood on Beachy Head. A tiny leaf warbler less than 4” in length with a lemon rump, wing bars and a flashy head pattern. It seemed so exotic and the thought it should have been wintering in the foothills of the Himalaya’s and the forests of Northern Thailand just seemed so amazing to me those 40 years ago – just as it does today.
Modern technology in the form of GPS satellite tags is revolutionising our ideas about the distances and speeds birds travel. The great albatrosses are now known to circumnavigate the Southern Oceans – effortlessly riding the storms of the roaring 40’s. From such data we have discovered a bar-tailed godwit has flown from Alaska over 11,000km non-stop across the Pacific to land in its wintering quarters on North Island, New Zealand. This must rank as one of the most phenomenal journeys regularly undertaken by any living creature and the energy reserves needed to sustain days of continuous flight over the Ocean sees the birds weight drop substantially in the process. How do they do it! It must be like one of those sequences in a wartime film as the needle on the aircrafts fuel tank sits on zero. You can see bar-tailed godwits on British estuaries in the Autumn and Winter. Some certainly pass south to West Africa – and I have seen them on coastal lagoons in Namibia – so these are immense travellers.
Wandering albatross by David Tipling
The Arctic Tern is also a prodigious migrant. It nests around Scotland and as far North as Northern Norway. Arctic terns winter around South Africa and some venture even further South to the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf. They are long lived birds, so they may make the round trip twenty or more times in their busy life times. Researchers estimate that with stops for feeding they fly at least 70,000km each year!
It is the mysteries of birds, their ability to travel seemingly at will, such vast distances that fascinates us, and in times past we set our yearly clocks by them. The arrival of swallows or storks in Europe greeted Springtime. The calling Turtle dove mentioned in the Bible heralded a time of plenty, as the sound of the “turtle” was heard in the land. Geese migrating from the Arctic to our shores always excites me – the first pink-feet over my Edinburgh home in mid September tells me winter is coming.
There are lots of other record-breaking species. The world’s heaviest flying bird is the great bustard-a fully grown male tipping the scales at 40lbs.
Great bustard by Gordon Langsbury
The worlds fastest (in level flight) is thought to be the needle-tailed swift at 105mph, but a diving peregrine falcon clocks speeds of some 200mph.
The biggest eagle is the Philippine eagle, but the Stellers sea-eagle is heavier and the Harpy eagle pushes both close. I have seen Harpy eagles in Brazil-and would love to see the other two. The Philippine eagle is teetering on the edge of extinction though and a trip to Japan in winter is needed to see a Stellers.
The most common sea bird is the Wilsons petrel. And, the bird with the biggest wingspan is the Wandering albatross which can sport wings up to 3.7m(12ft 2”)! What other champions can you name?
You can get hung up on these statistics – and birds are just such a joy that does it matter if your favourite is not a podium winner? What matters is that people care about conserving them, something I have done from my earliest memory.
Its about this time of year that the first hard evidence of how the season has been for our priority bird species begins to arrive in our offices. Warden staff on our reserves across Scotland are updating this year’s breeding season data, and off our reserves the conservation staff are now beginning to get a snapshot of what’s been happening in wider areas. This is always something I await with keen interest, because its ‘bums on nests’ and successful fledging we are after! Birds are amazingly resilient and are adapted to withstand bad weather, predation or other causes of nest failure. But prolonged cold wet weather is about as challenging as it gets for most of our birds. So at best 2012 is going to be a mixed picture.
Early in the season cold, drying winds from the high latitudes swept the North and West and kept grass growth in check, and this delayed the arrival of corncrakes. We now know these birds winter in West Africa, and migrate back across the Sahara and up the western seaboard of Europe to reach their breeding grounds in the Hebrides. On arrival the cold conditions and late grass growth on Tiree, Coll, Islay and Colonsay meant that corncrakes struggled. I anticipate 2012 will not be their best year – but it’s certainly not a disaster. In contrast – and somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Lapwings have done well. Many of the early broods of waders survived and fledgling rates on places as diverse as Loch Leven, Loch Gruinart on Islay and the reef on Tiree have seen plenty of chicks fledge, including this very cute ringed plover with it’s chicks. My visit to Alastair Robb’s farm in June confirmed this as he had plenty of lapwing and redshank broods.
Photo: John Bowler
Seabirds have had a mixed season. Once again Arctic terns on Shetland have struggled, with sandeels so scarce many did not bother to even lay eggs. In contrast reports from Argyll indicate healthy and active colonies. On Tiree our warden John Bowler was delighted to find over 50 pairs of Little terns nesting, producing plenty of young. This scarce species is now a rare breeder in Scotland and elsewhere, and Tiree is a stronghold.
Choughs seem to be faring well with 11 fledged chicks on our Oa reserve on Islay, with a further 3 pairs (up 1) on Smaull farm which we also manage with a local grazier.
On Shetland the beautiful red-necked phalaropes on Fetlar and nearby islands have increased this year – especially on areas we are managing for them. The totals are not yet in but it would look to be over 25 breeding males –the best for a while.
But the bad weather has had serious impacts. Red grouse across Scotland lost eggs or young broods to the cold wet weather, so there are fewer fledged broods at Abernethy this year. Similarly we anticipate Black grouse in the Highlands will have suffered. Reports of Capercaillie broods are also few and far between – hit by the heavy rains in early June which is a critical time for them. At our reserve at Loch Leven great crested grebes had their nests flooded out, as did many coots and other species on the Loch shore.
At home in Edinburgh I have seen fledged Song thrushes in the garden, family parties of Long tailed tits and even saw a roving family group of Crossbills (which are early breeders), so some of our passerines are doing better than expected. At our offices in the Gyle Edinburgh a pair of Pied wagtails fledged two young in a flower pot! A small brood – and late - perhaps a second attempt?
Birds of prey have had mixed fortunes too. In the North and far West, where it has been drier things have gone well. But the cold wet weather in the East and South has made life tough. Broods are small, or nests have failed. At Loch Garten one Osprey chick succumbed early on, though two healthy chicks remain. At the RBGE our Sparrowhawks only have two young left with a bigger bird eating its smaller sibling! A sign these dashing hawks are finding hunting difficult.
The Red kite monitoring indicates early broods have done fairly well, but brood size seems down on past years. Watch the Aberdeen Red kite web cam here.
So that’s an early taster – hard work managing habitats, working with farmers and graziers, guarding sensitive nest sites and liaising with land owners can all be swept away, literally in an instant, by the weather. But our job is to give birds and all the species we care for their best shot.
Protected areas: our “jewels in the crown”
Neither our countryside nor our seas are uniform. Some areas are better for wildlife than others. For conservation, it is important that these ‘hotspots’ are given more attention than the rest. This does not demean the ‘wider countryside’ – we will never secure our wildlife for future generations in protected areas alone,which is why the RSPB is championing landscape scale conservation through our Futurescapes programme. Nevertheless, protected areas have been the cornerstone of conservation policy and legislation since before the Second World War. This has, of course, developed over time – but, currently in Scotland, the main building blocks are the EU’s two conservation directives, one for birds and one for habitats and other wildlife, and the 2004 Nature Conservation Act. As you would expect some wonderful areas are protected in this way, such as the Flow Country or the oak woodland at the Wood of Cree.
Forsinard Flows. Photo: Eleanor Bentall
Wood of Cree. Photo: Andy Hay
About 12% of Scotland, give or take, is included in the so-called Natura 2000 network of sites protected by the EU directives. That sounds pretty impressive – but, compared to many other EU member states, we are hardly out of the blocks. Look at the ‘Natura barometer’ and you can see many countries have a much bigger commitment. The figures are presented at a member state level of course – so the EU lists the percentage for the whole of the UK rather than Scotland.
When challenged about why the UK overall doesn’t protect a bigger percentage area, its common to hear the retort “well, we look after these areas properly....”, with the unspoken implication that others don’t. But that line doesn’t always hold water.
One of the most effective ways to secure the required management of such sites is to support the farmers and crofters responsible for that management through schemes such as agri-environment – for example, the “Rural Priorities” scheme in Scotland. These schemes are part of the pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy and are paid to farmers to positively help wildlife. But, if we look at the money spent on supporting wildlife management through these schemes, then the UK doesn’t look so great and Scotland is the worst of all (see graph below*).That means our schemes aren’t very generous, and are harder to get into in contrast to the rest of the UK.
Some of the reason for this poor level of support is historic - how the funding share was calculated by Brussels and Westminster –but it also reflects the priority afforded to conservation – and Scotland was a late adopter. Our failure to climb the league table and invest in these schemes is now down to decisions made at Holyrood. The Scottish Government has cut the funding.
Perhaps the most important thing is to look at what’s actually happening to the sites. Is all well? Are they flourishing? Well, I’m afraid, it doesn’t appear so. SNH report that only 73-75% of the habitat or species features for which protected areas are selected are in favourable condition and the situation is not improving, and the indicator in the Government’s National Performance Framework is not moving in the right direction. Recently, Labour’s Shadow Environment Spokesperson, Claudia Beamish MSP, asked some Parliamentary Questions about all this. The answers confirmed the depressing picture of the number of features in unfavourable condition. This means wildlife is under threat.
The reported state of affairs worries me a lot, In essence it’s easy to stop bad things happening to special sites such as ploughing them up, or draining wetlands. But a whole lot harder to get the grazing right, or prevent agricultural run off, manage disturbance or restore woodland management. I am rather proud that the features on RSPB Scotland sites are doing very much better – 95% are in favourable or favourable recovering condition (of those we can control of course). What we need now is better advice and well targeted funding to help farmers, crofters and land managers address the declining state of our protected sites. If I was Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson I think this would be one of my top priorities. So would launching a Scottish equivalent of England’s Nature Improvement Areas.
*Graph compiled from European Commission figures on EAFRD funding per MS (RDPs 2007-2013), Scottish Government figures on division of EAFRD funding between UK Countries (RDPs 2007-2013) and UAA figures from Eurostats (2005).