Wildlife sightings 21 December 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Isle of May: A few weaners play along the straddle line; a contented rotund pup draped over boulders; the occasional reassuring twitch of the flipper; close by a cow also asleep. Earlier in the week a pair were seen mating. It looks like we will have activity over the festive period.

Several years ago a pup was born this week so do always scan around. Dave was on the island this past week. We don’t see the devastation caused to the vegetation from the hundreds of seals that haul out to breed on the north of the island. Gone are the guano covered rocks, the carpets of thistle and nettles flattened and mud churned. The high winds and seas were evident with tree trunks and debris washed ashore, rocks and boulders covering pathways. An occasional weaner was spotted not quite ready to take to the seas. 

Keep a watch for returning auks and pan around the fulmar sites and please do note the dates.

Craigleith: Very quiet now but an occasional young seal still being seen. Excitement in the Discovery Centre as Barbara spotted a shag with its breeding crest just showing and indeed past reports show this is the week we start to see this. I almost mentioned this in last week’s report but much it’s more fun to spot these changes in the seasons! The munching rabbits have been enjoying themselves with plenty spotted in the glen area.

Fidra and the Bass: Any peregrines? Check Fidra stacks early morning for auks.

Viewing Deck: Stormy is an understatement for this week, but in the calm and sun of last Sunday, Mary spotted a couple of puffins off-shore (winter plumage). Spending a little time on the Viewing Deck really can bring rewards. You never know what you may see!

Brief end-of-year update: A new report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) confirms results from previous years showing that Scotland’s seabird numbers have continued to decline, although there are some species that have fared better than others. The report covered 25 years from 1986/2011. The numbers of seabirds breeding in Scotland has dropped by around 53%.

It is all quite complex. If we just think about the Forth islands, we saw seabird numbers increase in a dramatic fashion with the May puffin colony almost peaking to 70,000 pairs around 2000/2. Dunbar kittiwakes had three chicks per nest; the Bass, likewise, has increased dramatically.

From 2003/4, something dramatic happened across the whole of Scotland. Step back to the 80s/90s to islands like Handa, Canna and west coast colonies. Rats were a major problem devastating some seabird colonies; mink, another predator, was rife. All this before we mention climatic changes affecting the seas, over-fishing, and more recently devastating weather patterns There is no question that there have been major fluctuations during this 25 year period but this last decade has certainly given grave concern.

A range of measures have been put in place to help combat pressures on the seabirds. Voluntary reductions in sandeel fisheries mean that very little if any sandeel fishing now takes place within the foraging range of kittiwakes, a species which has seen a particularly sharp drop in numbers in recent years. The control of non-native predators, such as the brown rat and the American mink, has also been carried out on various parts of the Scottish coastline and islands and is now starting to show some benefits.

The Scottish Government’s Marine Bill also includes measures to improve marine nature conservation to safeguard and protect Scotland’s unique habitats.

The SNH report was prepared using data from the Seabird Monitoring programme. The SMP is a partnership project, led and coordinated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and involving a range of conservation partners.

Scotland’s sea duck populations are threatened with extinction as the UK loses more than one million individual birds every year. The velvet scoter and the long-tailed duck, both wintering sea ducks, are dwindling in such rapid numbers experts are worried for the survival of the species. Neither of the two threatened species breeds in Scotland, but both are winter visitors particularly to the east coast and are vulnerable to oil pollution at sea on their journey from northern Europe. The velvet scoter has also been suffering from depleted fish stocks.

Massive declines have been recorded in the Baltic Sea and have been mirrored in Scotland, where the bulk of the UK population is found. Richard Hearn, head of species monitoring at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, said: “Sea duck numbers in Europe have crashed and they urgently need conservation. Velvet scoter overwintering in the UK has gone from several thousand birds to less than a hundred in just a few years, and the picture for long-tailed duck is similar’.”

Counts at the Scottish estuary, the Moray Firth, show that in less than a decade velvet scoters have gone from several thousand to less than 100 and long-tailed ducks have plummeted ten-fold, to fewer than 1,000.

The report is published by a coalition of conservation organisations and charts the ups and downs of the nation’s bird populations over recent decades. Their warning is contained in the State of UK’s Birds 2012 report. The experts who compiled the survey have called for increased international cooperation to reverse the trend, with pollution and climate change seen as likely causes.

The torrential rain of this season has affected the breeding season. Previously reported, despite the positive start to the season and that food appeared to be available locally we saw puffin burrows flooded, fulmars abandon sites but spare a thought for some of the passerines that have also been affected. The cold wet weather meant that species that rely on insect, caterpillars, etc to feed their young were severely challenged. Blue tit and great tit produced fewer fledglings and all warbler species had their worst breeding season in 30 years (from BTO, British Trust for Ornithology).

Although these reports paint a rather gloomy picture it shows the importance of monitoring and research. Through conservation, protection etc hopefully populations can recover.

There are always wonders! (from BTO site)
In foggy condition a sanderling migrating over the Alps came low enough to be caught in the mist nets. This is the highest attitudinal record for this species in Switzerland and probably the highest sanderling ever ringed at 1,925m above sea level!


Wildlife sightings 14 December 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Isle of May: It’s looking very positive that visitors over the Christmas holidays will have the joy of pup spotting on Pilgrims Haven. Several will be moulted, others on the cusp of being left to fend for themselves. There was a newborn last weekend and hopes that there may be other late breeders will add to the excitement and anticipation.

We should now be seeing the odd fulmar gliding along the clifftops, perhaps even sitting at a nest site? Fulmars had a dreadful breeding season on the May this past season and figures for the other Forth islands were not much better.

Dare I say it? Perhaps just a little early, but as soon as the cameras are switched on have a quick scan on the Angel and Pilgrims stacks. Any guillemots? They quickly disperse, but it’s not unusual to see them first thing! Please do note dates that any are seen.

Craigleith: Much quieter now but on calm sea days, moulted pups will often haul out on the low rocks and sleep! A flock of over 30 finches (possibly linnet) were spotted flitting over the island. Any sign on the graylag?

The harsh frost is sitting on the island today. Perfect for killing off the tiny mallow seedlings! With cuts undertaken in Sept and October it cleared ground allowing small seeds to flourish. This kind of weather is such a bonus. It takes out that layer and when milder weather returns and growth resumes the spring cut should hopefully be sufficient to see it through the breeding season.

Fidra: Fairly quiet. Keep a watch for the peregrine and for any wildfowl that may graze on the island or be feeding in sheltered waters.

Viewing Deck: On these still frosty mornings conditions are perfect for spending a little time on the viewing deck. Scan the rocks for purple sandpiper, turnstone, redshank, oystercatcher, heron, occasionally knot, ringed plover, dunlin and sanderling are seen, and scan the bay for seaducks, eider, long-tailed duck, red-breasted merganser, scoter, along with the familiar shag, cormorant and auk . You never know what may be passing through!

Spare a thought for the small passerines that frequent parks and gardens. Even just a small amount of fats and seeds scattered can make the difference of survival for them.

Keith Brockie and Derek Robertson
Being in a fortunate position, I’ve bumped into Keith and Derek over these last couple of years as they have sketched and painted on the May. It is such a pleasure to see their books in the Centre.

Keith gave us a wonderful presentation a couple of weeks ago as part of the Reading Hour, for Book Week Scotland. His images were breathtaking in detail, all captured along with notes and information of his experience as he watched the particular subject.

Derek too, his puffin images are stunning and delicate, again with background notes. Although we don’t have otters on the May I found myself purchasing this for a gift.

I do know as I turned the pages, the beauty of these images me left me with a yearning for the first sign of spring and the first May visits.

Owls: Tawny, barn owl. Do you ever hear a tawny owl calling or spot the majestic barn owl hunting at night? This was part of the discussion at the SOC discussion group last night. I know at certain times of year I hear a tawny owl calling from the Lodge grounds and another in the distance. Although there are substantial records, updated information is always welcomed. To save an army of strange people skulking in woods or fields at night, if you do hear a tawny calling or know of a barn owl in your locality, please do let me know and I will pass this info onto the SOC. Thank you.

Wildlife sightings 7 December 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Isle of May: The season is winding down but still plenty to captivate viewers watching the activities on Pilgrims Haven. Our attention was drawn to a scavenging gull with thoughts it was feeding on afterbirth. Scanning around there was no sign of a newborn. On closer inspection we realized it was picking at a carcass. I rather like Dave’s description of them; ‘the environmental cleaners’.

Around the island many moulted pups (now having to fend for themselves) are being seen lolling in shallow rock pools or ditches. An update on the May blog http://isleofmaynnr.blogspot.co.uk shows one enjoying a puddle in a ditch, in the background the lighthouse is visible. They really do move around the entire island. The challenge at times is to find the sea! Although they have a good starter layer of blubber, they eventually have got to brave the sea and learn how to fish and care for themselves.

Craigleith: A similar update for Craigleith. I watched this frantic head thrashing from one little fattie. From the undergrowth, a piece of plastic flew into the air, followed quickly by the pup. We watched as the mouth opened (look at those teeth!) and he gently gripped the plastic, head again frantically moving from side to side. The plastic flew out his mouth into dense scrub. Frantic burrowing, almost puffin-like as it looked as if he was burrowing. After a few moments his head emerged triumphantly, plastic gripped in his mouth and the head thrashing began again. Although it looks comical, this is all probably part of the natural instinct and training for catching prey. We see similar behaviour in young gannets.

Fidra: The Peregrine has been seen frequently. Keep a watch for the displaying male as he proves to the female what a good provider he is.

Bass Rock: On a perfect winter’s morning 4 years ago, our tactics already planned, we landed on the Bass and Maximus became probably the most photographed guga ever. I’m sure he survived! He certainly had the best opportunities and the finest of diets. With the weather so against us this year we have been unable to land to check around the island.

Inchkeith: Our second seal count was undertaken last weekend by the Fife Seal Group. It looks to be a record season there for pups with 396 now in total and still the breeding season is ongoing. Although this sounds very positive it has been relatively calm weather with possibly less being washed away in stormy seas. I know, rescue-wise, we have had a very quiet time this year. It is still early days and we sit with the seal bag and cage at the ready!

It was reported that a juv sea eagle has been spotted recently. A call from Bill Bruce alerted me that it had been spotted at the east end of the island and was heading my way. I had been watching a pair of peregrines displaying on the north west of the island. There was also a pair of buzzards around. I was scanning, but it was the buzzards that alerted me. And this is where it all went wrong.

In shot, two peregrines, two buzzards and the sea eagle …….. and my camera froze! Can you imagine five raptors in one frame! The dilemma, fight with the camera or enjoy the moment …. I enjoyed the moment. It was frustrating. The others did get a shot and good views. The satellite transmitter was easily seen, but no tag was spotted as I watched it power away, heading toward the Forth Bridges.

Wildlife sightings 30 November 2012

Sightings from Maggie

Isle of May: The cow lay contented presenting herself to her recently born pup. The uncertainty was obvious. The skinny-faced straggly bundle had not yet mastered the art of feeding. A gasp of horror from our visitors as we watched the mother roll over slightly. The frail white bundle in danger of being squashed. These huge mirror eyes, the fragility at this age. Thankfully it moved and finally, with a little flippering from the mother, locked itself on and had a good feed.

If everything goes well this little fellow may still be on Pilgrims Haven over Christmas. Although the season has peaked, it still good to note the date of newborns. It is also much easier now to keep an ongoing count.

In previous years, at this time, we have seen numbers drop from 80+ to approx 35, a challenge for the visitors perhaps. Without these records, we have nothing to compare in future years. Records are vital. Will we have a Christmas pup? We have had on occasion. Rock pipits are regularly flitting around the boulder beach feeding on insects.

Craigleith: The second round of seal counts on the upper Forth islands are due to take place this coming weekend. Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to land on Craigleith this season so I attempted the second count again using the cameras. White fluffy pups are easily spotted, although they do hide behind rocks or in dips, or under trees! With many now moulted, it is a challenge!

On counts we break it down to moults, part moulted, pups etc. In the brilliant sun it is sometimes difficult to have that clarity, especially if the face is not visible. I counted moults, but there were a couple of uncertainties. Without the cameras we would not have any of this information to pass on to the Fife Seal Group. In turn, excluding the May, these figures are passed on to the Sea Mammal Research team in St Andrews. Please do keep a note of any newborns. A flock of ‘finches were spotted. Pan around, zoom in on the bushes.

Reports: At this time of year reports filter through from the breeding season. There have been a few rather disquieting ones recently. I was going to touch on some of these this week but with the arrival of the Seabird journal and Isle of May update, I will defer the other updates until next week.

Isle of May – The Seabird Journal
The 2012 breeding season proved to be very mixed. Adverse weather played its part.
‘The season started well with return rates for colour marked adults of all species being consistently above the long term average: shag (93%), guillemot (92%), razorbill (93%), puffin (90%) and kittiwake (80%).

As with 2011, breeding was again earlier than in recent years particularly for guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. However, the 2012 season was dominated by unusually high rainfall which affected the breeding success of some species particularly puffins. Flooding of burrows appeared to affect puffins severely as their breeding success was one of the worst on record at 0.57 chicks fledging per pair.

Razorbills also had a poor season at 0.56 fledged chicks per pair, which was an improvement on 2011 but still one of the worst on record. Guillemots had an above average season with 0.79 chicks fledging per pair.

Kittiwakes were the biggest success story of 2012 recording their highest breeding success since 1989 with 0.98 chicks per completed nest and several pairs raising three chicks. Shag productivity, although slightly above average, was down following four highly successful years at 1.18 chicks per pair, with many broods succumbing to the heavy rainfall.

Fulmars recorded their worst season on record of 0.13 chicks per apparently occupied site with most losses appearing to occur at the chick rearing stage, which may have been a result of the high rainfall chilling downy chicks.

In terms of diet, prey composition varied considerably among the species. Guillemot chicks were predominantly fed clupeids (85%) while razorbills brought in sandeels in 92% of loads with small clupeids making up the rest of the chick diet. Sandeels made up 90% of fish brought in by puffins, the remainder being small rockling and clupeids. Kittiwakes fed their chicks largely on sandeels (99% of samples) but clupeids were recorded more often than usual. Samples collected from shags indicated that sandeels dominated the diet (77% of samples).

For more information on the Isle of May study look up the website:

Thanks to Mark Newell, Mike Harris, Sarah Burthe and Carrie Gunn.

The East Coast Seabird Wreck – Maggie
Early in September a call was passed on to me from a lady reporting an unusual amount of dead auks at Cruden Bay. Shortly after, another call came into the Centre with a similar report at a different location. I contacted Dan Turner from Save the North Sea group. This had the feeling of a wreck with such numbers being reported. It is not unusual to find young birds perish at this time but this appeared to be more serious. The public were alerted to this through an article in the Press and Journal and I received many more calls which I forwarded onto Dan. There had been heavy storms during that period. With only one showing signs of pollution it pointed to birds having expired due to lack of food.

What it did show is the care and concerns the public have. And for us we can then forward information onto the relevant authorities.

One last piece of good news (although not in our area):
Leach’s storm petrels successfully nested in artificial burrows on St Kilda for the first time this year. This year the National Trust for Scotland, which owns and manages the St Kilda World Heritage Site, joined forces with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Inverness College to find out what is happening to the petrel population by constructing wooden nest boxes.

Carpentry and joinery students at Inverness College took up the challenge and crafted a set of flat-packed nesting boxes in kit form that, when assembled, provided a much better facsimile of a cosy petrel burrow. The kits were sent out to St Kilda for immediate field-testing.

The petrels have taken to the new-style nesting boxes with a vengeance, and the result is the first successful hatching of a very fluffy chick. This is thought to be the very first record of a Leach’s Storm-petrel breeding in an artificial burrow.

How wonderful is that!

Wildlife sightings from 23 November 2012

From the Discovery Centre

Fidra: Peregrine been seen sporadically, possibly hunting. Curlew sat on cliff top for an hour or so.
Bass Rock: Not a gannet to be seen; last sighting was on 16 November (nothing recorded after that).
Isle of May: Young seals all fattened up and leaving daily. Fewer cows and not many sightings in the water either. There are still around 20-25 young pups around. A couple of sightings of a bull up on the bay patrolling!
Craigleith: Still a few young pups, possibly a few cows still to give birth. Bull sitting lording it up on the island all week. Numbers are similar to that on the May.

Main excitement is on East Beach with the resident flock of turnstone and oystercatcher on show daily. Flock of purple sandpiper seen throughout the week, mixing with turnstone as are the redshanks.

From Maggie Sheddan

Bass Rock: Spartacus and Brutus have left the Rock! Their journey has begun. Unfortunately we don’t have the exact date of their departure but there has been no sign of either of them since Tuesday, perhaps even earlier in the week?

Their journey to the cliff edge will have been without the trauma of attack as the earlier fledged gugas endure when they have to run the gauntlet through occupied territories. From there, alone, they will have made that faltering first flight, hopefully to the safety of the sea.

Unpredictable weather and tides have prevented a visit this week but we’re hopeful for next week? A sweep of the Rock will be made, just in case they have become trapped and to check there are no others in need of care. Although conditions are not ideal for survival, in the past we have seen a few gugas spend the winter in the area. Come April/May there is always a double take on these birds when you spot them flying past and you quickly realise it is not an early fledged guga merely, one that has survived the winter here.

Maximus – it is 4 years this week since he was alone on the Rock but still being cared for. Below an extract from the 2008 Bulletin:

The lone chick has been named and is capturing the attention and hearts of visitors. Alone on the Rock with only an occasional herring gull for company, it braves whatever the weather throws at it while it waits, and waits, for that next feed. Records are showing that a pattern is beginning to develop in the feeding regime. A parent is returning mid morning to feed, and returns again around the 15:00 mark, when, on occasion, both adults have been seen.

What is of concern is this weekend’s weather report. Strong northerly winds bringing snow down the North Sea, and coast could present a problem. We know last year the lone chick on the north of the Rock survived into early December but appeared to have been abandoned. A very icy windy snap had preceded this. We have the advantage this year. The Discovery Centre staff are doing a brilliant job of keeping an eye on Maximus! But they need help please. 

He was abandoned that weekend and the rest is history. Just this morning an email from Canada was forwarded to me. The BBC Coast Programme, with the Centre and the Bass Rock had been shown last night. From there they went on to the website and saw the story of Maximus. It does show how the Centre and the Bass Rock reach an international audience.

Isle of May/Craigleith: Looking on the webcam you can see the breeding areas becoming less crowded. No updates from the Discovery Centre but looking back at this week in 2008 there were 82/26 pups at each colony. How many are there this week on the islands?

Seal pup rescue not reported in last week’s Bulletin. The first call came in about a pup on the East Beach. It was a text book rescue thanks to the very clear and precise information we received.

Immediately we were told it was a white coat (so important, that way we know we must have a look at it) No it wasn’t injured, just sleeping tucked in a dune. Location was very well explained and with further questioning as to where was the Bass Rock if looking out to sea, what was in front/behind them we found that week old pup easily. It had obviously been there some time as the high tide had washed away the trail it leaves when it hauls itself up the beach. Sound asleep among the grasses it wasn’t at all phased as we lifted it carefully in to the SSPCA seal sack. It was a joint rescue with the BDMLR (British Divers Marine Life Rescue with James, Hannah and myself) and the SSPCA. The pup is being well cared for now but would have died had it not been found. This is why location is so important. Advice was given a few weeks ago and good to pass on to our visitors.

Locally: A long-tailed duck was seen flying past Dunbar Harbour. Look out for purple sandpiper on the rocks at low tide. Waxwing from West Barns to Barnton. They are being seen on the berry bushes/trees.

Thanks to all at Lothian Bird News.