Wildlife sightings 26 Mar 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Alex

Puffins have officially landed! If you haven’t already heard or seen, we saw our first glimpse of puffins on land on Wednesday morning. We spotted several groups of puffins on all three populated islands (Fidra, Craigleith and Isle of May). Several of them have already been sighted entering their burrows on Craigleith and doing a bit of spring cleaning before they breed. The Discovery Centre will be full of excitement now that we have these colourful characters back and already we have had many visitors coming down and specifically asking about seeing the puffins on the cameras.

The rest of the islands are still full of excitement, too.

Bass Rock continues to show gannets returning to the island and many have been seen preparing their nests and bringing back fresh seaweed from the sea as well as other building materials. The peregrine is now making more occasional visits to the lighthouse and is becoming more of a regular sight on the cameras.

Craigleith cameras are showing the best views of the returning puffins and at the moment as well as the cormorant nests with eggs. At the time of writing we have three nests with eggs, one with four eggs and the other two we believe have three. There have been incidents of fighting between the nesting pairs with other cormorants with the latter stealing nest materials. However as the parents have eggs to protect they are unable to leave their nests and fight off the thieves.

Isle of May continues to show the nesting shags with two established pairs in Charlie (Blue ZCA) and Juliette (Red XIJ), as well as Portia (Green UAP) with an unringed partner. The island is also showing large groups of guillemots and razorbills on the ‘Chatterstone’ and main stack, as well as puffins on the wall.

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan 

Isle of May: Silhouetted against the first dawn glimmer, the 5 figures purposely walked toward the cliffs where the advance team had dropped the nets. As ever it is such a privilege to join the CEH team for the first ringing session of the season. A harsh NW wind was blowing. As I leaned over to drop the bags (attached to a rope) to Mark and Rich 30 feet below, the up-draught of the wind was bitter and intense. I understand now how fulmars have that uplift when swooping around the cliff tops. It was like a funnel! The team working the small ledge extracted the birds with care, each being bagged and I would haul them up to pass on to Mike where they were boxed until all the birds had been brought up, the nets taken down and the team safe on the cliff top. Nothing like the 40 from last year but still a successful visit. Metal rings and colour combination rings are attached, feather taken and all this carefully logged.

Eclipse: We had been sitting at 05:00 waiting for that first glint of day. Now it was almost 08:00. Back for a quick breakfast and colanders, yes, colanders, at the ready for the eclipse at 09:35. Would it be really dark. Would the behaviour of the birds change? The colander wasn’t that successful but the binoculars gave excellent images onto the white bin lid propped on the table. There was no significant change in behaviour. Puffins still whirred overhead, kittiwakes’ calls echoing around, and although perhaps it felt a little quieter, I suspect it was more that we were subdued having been up since 04:30 and the morning excitement now passed.

Staying on the subject of light affecting the birds, walking home from dinner/ banquet at the Bird Observatory (yes the May is quite a sociable place at times) it was a beautiful night. The lighthouse beams oscillated across the dark sky. I kept switching off my flashlight and just enjoying the stars. The beam of the lighthouse was quite high and powerful, so I switched the flash light on and mimicked the beam but lower, only to awaken all the gulls above Mill Door their calls filling the air. The following night just watching Jupiter through the binoculars above the crescent moon, so bright amongst all the constellations. It is lovely not having the light pollution we have in towns.

I spotted kittiwakes mating, the occasional butterfly, dozens of seals on Rona, and the rabbits! Looking much healthier this year, but what is interesting is the number of the darker brown bunnies. They certainly appear to have gained in numbers over the winter. On the last day Pharos (the NLB ship) sat offshore. Boats were in and out all day – helicopters, ATV training ongoing, it was like a small village. People everywhere each with a purpose! The May Island is almost ready for the first visitors next week.

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Wildlife sightings 19 Mar 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Alex

Puffins!!! Our first puffins of the season were spotted by members Joe and Susan Douglas at the weekend. They are being seen in small groups on the water on our Craigleith cameras and, as of yet, none have been spotted on land. We also spotted our first cormorant egg on Craigleith, with the potential of several others in the same nest. The guillemots and razorbills continue to shelter amongst the cormorant nests as well as on the cliff ledges. An individual peregrine has also been spotted more frequently just below the south camera. It is yet to be seen whether this individual is from our pair on Fidra or is entirely unrelated.

The gannets continue to return to the Bass Rock and the island will soon will be completely white with their presence. The Bass Rock was host to a special event as spotted by Alex and a number of visitors with the peregrines performing a food ceremony. The female peregrine was spotted perching on the lighthouse railings, and after several moments was joined by the male. The male however was not empty handed, and had what looked like a pigeon in its talons. The male dropped the carcass on the platform and retreated, slightly bobbing its head in front of its prey. This food ceremony often occurs when a pair reunites following winter months and re-establishes their bond before breeding. A rare sight on the cameras that got quite a lot of the visitors excited, as well as intrigued, with our two resident peregrine pairs.

Dunbar harbour is seeing more and more kittiwakes on the two stacks with several nests beginning to appear. Sammy the Seal is also making more appearances on the surface of the water.

The peregrine pair is being seen less on Fidra but the island is still host to many other seabirds at the moment. Lower cliffs are being populated by guillemots and razorbills, as well as shags on the lower rocks. Fulmars are also still present on the grassy cliff ledges as are curlews.

Both Isle of May cameras are now up and running thanks to Andy, and are fully operational. So now we can get full views of the shags on their nests as well as the guillemots on the stacks and ‘Chatterstone’. With both cameras now online, we will get great views of the puffins once they return to the island!

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan

Heading out to Craigleith at the weekend several dozen puffins were spotted on the sea. They dispersed very quickly but the occasional lone bird was seen later in the day. Rafts of 20+ razorbill were also offshore along with a few kittiwakes and guillemots, fulmars swooping around the island and of course the gulls with their beautiful white heads with summer plumage now so obvious. Shags in abundance, a couple looking quite settled and one egg was seen, but the bird was flighty. From a distance I watched and didn’t see it return. Another close to that nest looked very settled. The first cormorant egg was also spotted, on camera, which is excellent. We kept well away from that end of the island but the ringers have been told of the egg. As more are laid the information we pass on really helps them gauge when to plan the ringing of the chicks. Too small and you can’t ring, so please note dates of eggs seen and then you have an idea of the hatching dates. It’s such excellent coverage from that camera.

I scanned across to the Glen where in 2000 when the Centre opened I spent many weekend hours desperately trying to 1) spot a puffin. It was easy to see something, but what? 2) Trying to learn their flight and the differences between razorbills and guillemots and just how difficult it was. I was a complete novice. It was a short season as the Centre opened late May and the auks had virtually gone by mid-July.

By 2002 season I had improved and my Saturday ritual on the Scope Deck winter and summer was bringing benefits, and by 2003 I could easily spot a puffin, they just kept disappearing into the ‘weeds/the undergrowth.’ In 2004, landing with the Forth Seabird Group the magnitude of ‘the undergrowth’ hit home. This was a tree mallow jungle! The fight began. Why did it happen and how could the island be returned to its former glory? The puffin count proved that year that thousands had deserted.

So, last Sunday morning from the scope deck as I scanned across the empty rocks, and panned around the glen with the viewing deck camera, not a mallow stem to be seen. What a joy! An island awaiting the return of its star summer residents. Without the dedication and drive of John Hunt and the enormous effort from all the volunteers (and of course a little help from these winter munching rabbits) it could have all been so different.

Solar Eclipse what effect does this have on wildlife/birds. In previous total eclipse, birds did start to roost. Robins, blackbirds may well start singing with a dawn/dusk chorus. Seabirds, generally settle and a noisy colony becomes near silent, as it does at night. If at home why not watch on the webcams. Unfortunately too early for the Bass and Craigleith cameras but if out and about, watch the gulls. Do they head back to their roost sites, many of which are on the islands? Or just go outside into your garden and watch and listen for changes. It would be good to hear your observations.

I’m on the May! The CEH team hopes to be ringing at first light if auks are in so it will be interesting to watch any changes that happen at these colonies. The thinking is that it may not be completely dark, but we’ll certainly be watching the stacks if the kittiwakes, guillemots etc. are in.

Wildlife sightings 12 Mar 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Alex

The gannets continue to return to the Bass Rock in their droves! Soon there will be very little bare space left as it becomes covered in new nests. The peregrine falcon is appearing more often on the lighthouse.

The peregrine also continues to appear on Fidra as well as the occasional sighting on Craigleith. Fidra continues to host large numbers of guillemots and razorbills, huddled up together in dense groups, with the latter often hidden within the groups of guillemots. Fulmars and shags can also still be seen on the island.

Craigleith has increased in activity lately with more and more cormorants beginning to build their nests, as well as shags. Guillemots and razorbills also are increasing in number and popping up amongst the cormorants and shags. Winter waders such as curlews are also being seen on the island.

Dunbar Harbour has been host to eiders over the winter months as well as Sammy the Seal who also makes appearances. However the kittiwakes have now returned! Beginning on Tuesday night where they made a short appearance, they are continuing to grow in number and today (Friday) we were able to count approximately 40 kittiwakes, several of these in pairs on their nests. A welcome sight on the Dunbar camera!

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan

Dunbar kittiwakes: On the 10 March in the warmth of the afternoon sun 2 were seen at separate nest sites on the castle wall. They have also been spotted most mornings this past week but have gone by the time the cameras switch on. As with puffins they too will come and go so keep checking at various times of day as, here one minute, gone the next. It is lovely to see the return of this delicate but very noisy gull. Once settled the castle wall is a hub of activity with that unmistakable call alerting all, as it echoes around Dunbar harbour.

Craigleith: Puffins have also been spotted at various locations off the east coast generally early morning so if you’re out and about it’s worth a scan on the sea to see if they are rafting off Craigleith. Pan around when the cameras switch on but often they are away by that time.

East Beach: I spotted 9 purple sandpipers, 19 turnstones and 7 redshanks on the shoreline just below the pathway to the Centre, each species in their own group. The purple sandpipers were all roosting close together on a pile of seaweed, the water just lapping the fringes. The turnstones, spread out busily feeding and turning over the seaweed just a couple of meters from the purps, and the redshanks gathered together on the sandy shore escaping the incoming tide. I also spotted a black headed gull, now sporting its beautiful brown cap of summer plumage. Many of these birds will soon be heading off to their breeding sites.

Bass Rock: A sea of white! Every day more return, pairs renewing their bond, that intense bill fencing, jabbing and stabbing ongoing as sites are reclaimed, the constant bowing letting all around know that the site is theirs. With the strong westerly winds I watched them on the webcam, hanging in the air, approaching their nest site with such precision to drop gently in. Take off is so easy in this wind but how different and how much energy they use when on calm days you hear the wings flapping as they try to gain momentum and if they are heading your way, you duck!

The Hidden Bass: A few weeks ago when cleaning the pathway on the Rock, in the mud a strange object was found that was possibly a logger. It is indeed a logger from way back when Stefan Garth (Bob Furness’s team Glasgow University) were deploying loggers. Bob and Stefan both in Berlin at the moment are delighted to hear about it and it will be mailed out to them. Whether the data will process after this period of time, we have to wait and see.

Finally I’m still awaiting update on the eggs I collected last year (under License) for CEH in Leeds. A sub-set of the egg contents were then sent to their colleagues in Spain who were to analyse them for per fluorinated compounds. These chemicals, used in Teflon and textile, coatings have been shown to accumulate in bird eggs. The report would then give an up to date status report on contamination in the gannets for SNH and SEPA. Watch this space!

Wildlife sightings 5 Mar 2015

Notes from the Discovery Centre team – Claudia

We have had a great week! The gannets are back and every day we can spot more coming in. They bring seaweed and have already had disagreements with their neighbours even though there is plenty of space. Still a long way to go to full capacity but we’re sure they will keep enchanting the visitors. A lot of members are coming back to see them up close on camera.

In our tank we have spotted the baby blenny again. It has grown considerably and is now nearly an inch long. And our hermit crabs have eggs! Unfortunately it is not possible to breed them in captivity, so we didn’t mark the crab in question. However the biggest hermit crab (Charlie) has now a full size sea anemone on his back which wobbles around like jelly when he is walking over the sand.

The peregrines are making a regular visit nearly every day to the ledge on Fidra. We have now seen the pair of them on the same spot so the female is definitely back! On the other side of Fidra our reliable fulmars are sitting in between the puffin burrows. The guillemots and razorbills have disappeared over the weekend but they will come back soon.

Sightings from Maggie

Reading back on sightings from previous years 2009/11, this calendar week has always been an exiting week. Kittiwakes may return, the odd sighting of puffins, on land and sea. The Bass went from a chalky white to gleaming in a short space of time, (although all the afore mentioned are still likely to come and go). The peregrine pair mating on Fidra (as in the Discovery Centre footage) two others on the lighthouse on the Bass. Guillemots on packed ledges, cormorants and shags displaying.

Of course, return dates are never absolute, but keep an eye on Dunbar Castle as the kittiwakes often come in on a warm afternoon. In 2011 we saw the first ones on 28 Feb. Puffins on the other hand are more likely to be spotted early morning so really only the May camera but always worth checking the sea in front of Craigleith as they may be rafting, but their first visits are usually fleeting, a quick peruse of their habitat, and they head back out to sea.

With all the exciting news of the Bass, first in case you missed it?.. now the largest Northern gannetry in the world, with 75,259 AOS, then the first gannets spotted on camera on 26 February and now voted the Nature Reserve of the Year by BBC Countryfile Magazine. This is indeed a special year for the Bass, and the season has only just begun.

Spotted the lesser black backed gull by the yachting pond last week!

On Craigleith we watch the fantastic spectacle of cormorants displaying to each other. They are establishing their nests at the moment and pairs are starting to form.

Wildlife sightings 26 Feb

Sightings – Maggie Sheddan

The Bass Rock – Yes, the gannets have landed!

It’s like a countdown each morning waiting for the 10:00 switch on. Have they landed yet? We’ve been seeing them out there, most of the week but just wonderful to finally see them sitting on site. As I’m watching at home I can’t see how many have come in but the ones down by the railing are quite often the first birds we see with an egg. Obviously, they have just returned so they await their partner. Will they return? It’s a waiting game for them but they will defend their site if challenged. I remember several years ago watching two birds engaged in a relentless skirmish, that lasted over 20 minutes, which can be quite normal as they defend their territory but they were the only two birds on the rock! The fun, displaying, disputes and devotion, we shall see it all unfold. The season has begun.

They will come and go but this is an excellent time to look for any that have darvick rings. Most are blue and start with B followed by three letters. Please if you see any note them and let me know. These are the study birds. We know there are only about 60 now which I why it is so important that this study continues particularly in light of today’s news confirming that the Firth of Forth wind farm has been awarded UK government contracts to supply electricity.

For whatever reason some birds will not return. Two years ago there were several lone study birds. Their partners had not returned. That was a ferocious winter, first the shag wreck and then the puffin wreck.

Last summer was just observation and noting the returns, but this year the researchers will be adding more darvicks (which is important as the population ages.) They will also deploy more loggers. This is vital as analysis of three-dimensional foraging behaviour, (just completed) shows that gannets fly higher when they’re actively foraging than when they’re simply commuting between sites, therefore placing them at much greater potential risk of mortality from offshore wind turbines than people had previously thought. It is also hoped that for the first time in many years that young will also be ringed to try to find out where these birds will locate to given the limited space now available on the Rock.

Fulmars Fulmar studies continue. Recently I recounted the autopsies we undertook several years back showing the plastic ingested. Very briefly from a paper just received and undertaken by Norwegian Polar Institute, IMARES, Texel, The Netherlands and University Centre of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður, Iceland: “Plastic pollution is of worldwide concern; however, increases in international commercial activity in the Arctic are occurring without the knowledge of the existing threat posed to the local marine environment by plastic litter. Here, we quantify plastic ingestion by northern fulmars, Fulmarusglacialis, from Svalbard, at the gateway to future shipping routes in the high Arctic. Plastic ingestion by Svalbard fulmars does not follow the established decreasing trend away from human marine impact. Of 40 sampled individuals, 35 fulmars (87.5 %) had plastic in their stomachs, averaging at 0.08 g or 15.3 pieces per individual. Plastic ingestion levels on Svalbard exceed the ecological quality objective defined by OSPAR for European seas. This highlights an urgent need for mitigation of plastic pollution in the Arctic as well as international regulation of future commercial activity.”

I can’t help but recount a paper I read by W.J Bourne identifying that plastic in the oceans could become a major concern for the future. Written in 1976!