Time for another update on the building works! With the Big Shed and Dutch Barn now gone, the work on the new office has begun. The back wall, overlooking Starnafin Pools had to come down (which meant moving some rather inquisitive ponies to the adjacent field), and there are any number of diggers and lorries and mounds of earth and great big holes in the ground! (All building works photos by Ed Grace)
footings for the new office and toilet block
Visitor Centre - new door and window going in!
The yard is extremely muddy, and – as can be expected – the track is taking a beating, so if you’re visiting please take care as there are some large potholes.
Recent sightings: The latest WeBS count took place on Sunday 15 November; there were around 10,500 pink-footed geese, 2,569 wigeon, 278 goldeneyes, 37 gadwalls, 1675 golden plovers, 163 mute swans, and a terrific 966 whooper swans – our third highest count ever! A stonechat was also seen, and a couple of ring-tail hen harriers over the marsh. Other than that, it’s been pretty quiet, but you never know what these Atlantic storms may bring in!
Male stonechat - photo by Paul Cameron
We've got some news for you from some of our other reserves in Aberdeenshire. Derren Fox and Kirsty Nutt describe the seabird breeding season success at both Fowlsheugh and Troup Head and why Scotland's seabirds are still struggling.
On a day like this, summer feels a long time ago... but it’s nice to think back to those long, bright days when a walk along cliffs in Aberdeenshire was filled with the sounds of calling seabirds. From the kittiwakes repeatedly calling their own names to the strange laughing arrrs of guillemots.
Two of Aberdeenshire’s seabird colonies are also RSPB Scotland nature reserves – this reserve Fowlsheugh and Troup Head near Pennan, which is also home to Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony.
Each year we monitor how the seabirds that breed on the cliffs are doing by making accurate counts and observations in specific sections of the cliffs or ‘plots’. The changes in these counts give us an index of how the birds are faring from one year to the next.
We had some good news from our plot counts this year. The number of nesting kittiwakes at Troup Head’s plots was up from 395 last year to 414 and these pairs produced 460 young. Kittiwakes at Fowlsheugh had a great breeding year too with 394 pairs in the plots there producing 545 chicks - a record!
2015 saw all the reserve staff out counting seabirds Fowlsheugh and Troup Head. This is because every three years we count every single bird on these two huge colonies, and, as you can imagine, it’s a challenging job! This year between us we counted over 100,000 birds and nests! After several weeks of counting, checking and recounting we have some final figures to share with you and the news is encouraging for some species.
The spectacular cliffs at Fowlsheugh (Derren Fox)
There appears to be some good news for both guillemots and razorbills this year, with numbers at Fowlsheugh up significantly on the last count back in 2012: guillemot numbers (recorded as individuals rather than nests) increased from 44,922 in 2012 to 55,507 in 2015. Over the same period, the number of razorbills (the second most numerous of the auk species here) went from 5,260 to 7,426.
Kittiwake numbers had a very slight increase too, with numbers of AONs (Apparently Occupied Nests) going from 9,439 to 9,655. This may not seem like much of an increase, but following on from a massive local and national decline and poor productivity (the number of chicks raised each year) this is still encouraging.
Kittiwake by Grahame Madge (rspb-images.com)
We’ve got even more comforting news about Fowlsheugh’s kittiwakes. Our productivity studies this year – we follow a number of nests through the breeding period and seeing how many chicks each nest fledges – have shown they had a brilliant year!
From the nine study plots scattered through the colony, we found that on average productivity was 1.38 chicks per nest, which is the best we’ve had here since we started collecting data on productivity in 1993!
They aren’t out of the woods yet, and numbers wise they’ve got a long way to go to get anywhere near the numbers in the early 1990s, but it’s certainly nice to have some better news to spread about our kittiwakes.
Seabird numbers at Fowlsheugh (1992-2015)
Kittiwakes and gannets at Troup Head (Kirsty Nutt)
Up at Troup Head on the north coast, there has been a similar story with the auks, with guillemot numbers increasing from 14,030 in 2011 to 20,539 this year and razorbill numbers going from 1256 to 2147. Fulmar numbers are also up a little on the last count.
But, it’s not all good news I’m afraid from Troup, with kittiwake numbers declining again, down to 7,180 AONs from 7,961 in 2011.
Seabird numbers at Troup Head (1969-2015)
The rest of Scotland
In 2015, other RSPB Scotland nature reserves recorded increases in seabird numbers and lots of healthy seabird chicks fledging their nests, despite the exceptionally wet summer we had. On Tiree, guillemot numbers increased from 2,068 in 2014 to 2,634 individuals this year, while at Fidra in the Firth of Forth, there were 1,026 active puffin burrows, up from around only 800 in 2009.
The figures are a welcome reprieve from the chronic declines seen across Scotland in recent years, but don’t pop the champagne cork just yet.
These short-term increases are often coming after a period of phenomenally fast decline, like with Fowlsheugh's kittiwakes. And seabirds in Shetland and Orkney continue to struggle. Only 570 kittiwake pairs were recorded this year at Marwick Head on Orkney – a decline of 90 per cent since 1999, when the site held 5,573 pairs. Guillemot numbers at Marwick Head also dropped from 34,679 to 8,645 over the same period. Devastatingly, this year saw kittiwakes being lost entirely from North Hill in Orkney. The bottom line is that across Scotland, since 2000, we’ve lost two thirds of our kittiwakes, Arctic skuas and Arctic terns.
What’s gone wrong?
We don't have all the answers – the marine environment is complex – but we are beginning to understand the subtle connections of the marine food chain and how they can be unravelled. Warming seas creates changes in the plankton (the bottom of the food chain) which results in fewer sandeels which are an important food for chicks. Fewer sandeels means fewer chicks survive and if this is repeated year after year, it plays a big role in the devastating declines we have witnessed.
What can we do?
Scotland has already designated more Marine Protected Areas than any other part of the British Isles, but the Scottish Government could help do more. They have already identified 14 potential Special Protection Areas, which are internationally important parts of our sea; unfortunately, they are dragging their feet when it comes to designating them.
You can find out more about the problems facing seabirds and how you can help safeguard sealife at rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp/donations/campaigns/sealife/
Works update: Demolition work is almost complete – the Big Shed and Dutch barn are no more, and there are huge holes in the sides of the Visitor Centre where the new bird-feeder viewing window and connecting door to the toilets and office are to go. The interior of the VC looks rather forlorn, with all the roof cladding ripped out! There are alternative toilet facilities round the back of the byre, and car parking is at the end of the house or in the field behind; this is getting rather muddy as the autumn goes on, so please be careful if you are visiting. All the hides remain open during building works.
(De)construction work – all photos by Ed Grace
Recent sightings: The geese are back in full force, with around 31,000 pinkfeet counted on the morning of 5 October, and up to 1000 barnacle geese, although a figure of 5000 of the latter has been reported. Most of the activity seems to have been at the Rattray end of the Loch, where the geese are feeding on the stubble and grass behind the old Kirk. A small number of greylags were also around. Visitor Gordon Biggs spotted this gorgeous jack snipe on the track near Rattray on 13 Oct.
Jack snipe – Gordon Biggs
A kingfisher was seen at Starnafin on 16 October, looking for a convenient perch overhanging the water. Goose numbers had fallen to just over 18,000 pinkfeet by the WeBS count on Sunday 18 October; many of the geese seem to have headed south, with SWT’s Montrose Basin having record numbers of 85,000 on the same day. Some other figures from the WeBS Count are: barnacle geese-239, wigeon–2931, gadwall–64, pochard-80, mute swans-171, whooper swans-312, snipe-31, water rail-4.
Water rail – Paul Cameron
More excitement was caused at the end of the count, when a white-rumped sandpiper was spotted on Starnafin Pools – this was viewable from the field behind the house. Autumn migrants such as redwings and fieldfares have been seen, and there are some good wader flocks, - curlews, lapwings and golden plover- many of which are using Mosstown Marsh and the Save Our Magnificent Meadows project area - looks like the combination of grazing and recent Softrak cutting is producing favourable habitat! Our volunteer intern has been kept busy logging the cut areas on GPS, measuring the height and density of the sward, and recording the plants across a set of quadrats on the marsh, which we can compare from year to year. The first set of GPS collar downloads has been done, and the re-set and refurbished collars are back on the ponies to collect more data on their movements. The vet was back to finish inoculations on 7 October, picking the one wet day in an otherwise fine week; the ponies are starting to grow their thick winter coats and will soon look much fluffier, ready to face whatever the weather throws at them!
There is also an impressive starling murmuration over the airfield in the evening at the moment, which goes to roost at dusk in the small reedbed at the southern corner of The Loch. The nearest viewpoint for this is Rattray Kirk, as there is no access to the airfield.