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!

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