I knew it: I shouldn't have taken leave last week. We've been expecting to see great swathes of birds passing through the Mull on their annual migration southward and it all got going last week while I was away. My colleague Paul had the good fortune to be on the reserve and we were very lucky indeed to have a visit from Clive McKay who is a Bird Migration expert who spent a long weekend watching out for migrating flocks. Clive had an outstanding day on Saturday and put the Mull of Galloway well and truly on the Migration map.
It was a foggy day last Tuesday and through the mists poured thousands of meadow pipits, all heading south. The following day there was a repeat performance albeit in smaller (but still significant) numbers. The spectacle began just before 8am and continued beyond 6pm - it must have been extraordinary. Paul also reports that a flock of golden plover flew over last week.
As well as the fly-overs, there were many feathered visitors in transit, stopping off for some R&R, before continuing on their annual journey to the south. Some will be moving to the south of the UK for the winter, some will be going further afield. We have a sheltered hollow just below the Visitor Centre which contains willow scrub and is ideal for small birds to shelter in and feed on the abundance of insects in and around the scrub. Last week Paul saw willow warblers, chiff chaffs, a pair of whitethroat, stonechats, a whinchat, reed buntings, great and blue tits, robins... Now, I know that some of these don't sound unusual but we don't see birds like chiff chaff and willow warbler for example very often here at the Mull.
Now that the Mull's glorious show of flowering plants has mostly given way to seed heads, the seed eaters are having a field day. More than 300 species of flowering plants here equals a diverse and delightful menu for the wildlife of the reserve, Flocks of goldfinches have been dropping in to feed on the thistle seeds and our resident linnet numbers have been swelled and mixed flocks of linnet and twite are present, making the most of the banquet. Little tinkling calls from the goldfinches and slurred zwees from the linnets help me to pick them out amongst the seedheads, wonderful stuff. Kestrels have been regular visitors over the last few weeks and last week there were two pairs fighting for vole hunting rights. It seems to have been a bumper year for the voles and the kestrels have been taking full advantage.
Out on the sea, porpoise sightings are regular just now, with six or so pods of 30+ porpoises seen last week in the calm sea and another pod seen today in the very rough seas. The auks have made a reappearance with razorbills and the odd guillemot feeding on the tidal race. There are still good numbers of gannets to be seen and both red-throated and black-throated divers have been sighted beyond the foghorn.
To top it off Clive McKay's monitoring work at the weekend yielded amazing results, on Saturday in particular. He counted no fewer than 1433 skylarks which is the highest recorded total for anywhere in the UK. These numbers seem incredible but as Clive pointed out skylarks are in decline. Their population halved during the nineties and are still declining. Just imagine what the spectacle must have been like before the decline!
For further details of Clive's work over the weekend, click on the link below:
As usual, I am responsible for the brilliant? pun in the title but this time I have handed over to one of my residential volunteers to write this blog. Our volunteers come in all different 'shapes and sizes', with many different skills and backgrounds. However, they invariably have one thing in common: a real passion for nature and a strong desire to make a difference. So, I am delighted to introduce Robert, a marine biology student, and here is his blog on this week's Beachcomber Walk at New England Bay. His enthusiasm and knowledge is here for all to see:
The seashore is my favourite wild habitat to explore. It is such a complex habitat with countless nooks and crannies hosting an enormous diversity of life. About two thirds of animal diversity is found only in the sea and the seashore at low tide is one of the easiest ways to find many of these animals in the wild. It is one of the toughest habitats on earth. The animals and seaweeds that live there have to face extremes in temperature, salinity and moisture with fluctuations on a twice-daily basis. This leads to lots of unique and interesting adaptions and behaviours, many of which we saw on the latest RSPB beach combing walk which was guided by RSPB staff and volunteers and included lots of young explorers. Here’s my account of what we saw and learned.
Many of the inhabitants of the seashore are small and you have to look carefully to see them. At the start of the walk we turned over a dried piece of seaweed and watched the sand around it come alive with dozens of tiny sandhoppers all leaping like fleas. Sandhoppers are tiny crustaceans which use their tails to spring away from predators and clutching hands.
Nearer to the sea, the muddy sand was covered with the burrows and castes of the lugworms. Lugworms are found under the sand in U-shaped burrows and eat sand, removing the organic material before excreting it back to the surface. At the head end of the burrow the worm leaves a small pit where it has eaten the sand, at the tail end it leaves behind a caste. Every gardener knows how valuable earth worms are for turning over the soil and lugworms to the same for the sand on the beach, keeping the soil full of oxygen for animals to breath. This reminds us that many of the most important species in conservation are often the smallest and most easily overlooked.
At first glance the rocky shore can seem dead. It is littered with empty shells of all shapes and sizes. Topshells, periwinkles, whelks, mussels, clams and scallops are testament to the startling diversity of molluscs alone to be found on the sea shore, all the other animal groups.
However closer inspection revealed that many other organisms were still hanging on in this unforgiving habitat. Many of the scattered shells were in fact still occupied with a whole host of snail varieties from the harmless herbivores such as periwinkles and topshells to the ravenous predatory dog whelks and common whelks, which use their tongues to drill holes in the shells of other snails. All marine snails have a trap door which seals their shell shut when they retreat into it, helping them to avoid drying out at low tide.
Strands of seaweeds can be seen holding on tight to the rock with holdfasts and egg wrack and bladder wrack use gas filled floats to stay up near the sun when the tide is in. One type of seaweed, called Polysiphonia, looks like a red fuzz on the egg wrack. It hangs on to the much larger seaweed and uses it to shelter from the sun and stay moist when the tide is out.
Plenty of crabs could be found buried in the sand, sheltering from the birds. As we caught them, we learned to distinguish between male and female crabs by looking at the underside. We also found plenty of discarded crab shells and found out how crabs grow by regularly moulting their armour.
By lifting rocks we found beadlet anemones, sheltering from the sun. When the tide comes in, the anemone will spread its tentacles to capture drifting food, resembling a colourful marine flower.
There is not nearly enough space here to describe all of the exciting marine animals we saw on our beach walk, suffice to say that in a great team effort, a group of young explorers managed to catch a huge shore crab at the end of the walk. After admiring his large claws we returned him to his rock pool.
If this has got you interested, why not join our next RSPB beach walk at New England Bay - Wednesday 14 August, starting at 11am from the entrance to the caravan park.
As I write this all UK schools should now be on their summer holidays. We’ve already had some Scottish and overseas school children and families visiting us of course and now we’re preparing for an invasion from the rest of the UK. We’ve got lots of fun things for you to do here at the Mull. Just at the moment, while it’s such beautiful weather, we’ve been putting out a 6 point trail for you to follow. There’s an activity for you to try at each ‘station’ – the photo shows some of the works of art that we’ve gathered so far. One of our current brilliant residential volunteers, Regina, created this trail.
We’ll have plenty to do in the visitor centre if the weather is not behaving itself. There will be things to make and you can contribute to this year’s collage. Kath (another one of our wonderful 'resi-vols') is just putting the finishing touches to the backdrop. It should have dried by this weekend so that you can add your contribution. A fish, perhaps or sheep in the walled garden, birds, Mr Grindling the Lighthouse Keeper...
The guided walks continue at the Mull (Tuesdays and Thursdays , 1pm) and we are now starting our Beachcomber Walks from New England Bay caravan site. Meet at the caravan site entrance on Wednesdays 11am.
This year we are taking part in the 12th annual National Whale and Dolphin Watch. There are two free events at the Mull - the first is Thursday 1 August, 11am - 1pm and the second is Sunday 4 August, 1pm - 4pm. Come and spend as long or as little time as you like helping us to spot whales and dolphins. We'll provide some 'scopes and binoculars and help with identification but we need your eyes!
It's going to be an eventful and fun summer holiday at the Mull - hope you can come and join in the fun!