Tuesday, 24 January 2017

My 2016

It has been far too long since my last blog- not due to lack of material, in fact quite the opposite- it has been a struggle trying to fit everything in!

With that in mind I thought I would summarise and share some photos of my favourite wildlife adventures of 2016...

Ailsa Craig:
Last summer I had the pleasure of joining other RSPB staff on a trip to Ailsa Craig for several days to undertake various seabird surveys. We had blazing hot sunshine, slow-worms and thousands of seabirds- my idea of heaven!
Ailsa Craig
Mighty seabird cliffs of Ailsa Craig
Guillemots on the cliffs of Ailsa
June is a busy month for seabird population counts, monitoring and ringing and not coincidentally my favourite time of year!
Lots of seabird ringing in 2016!
In 2016 I tried to undertake as much bird ringing as possible, building on my restricted BTO C-permit. Lots of 'new' species for me in 2016: Meadow Pipits, Gannets, Twite, Reed Bunting, Redwing but one of my favourites was Barn Owlets.

Ringing and processing barn owl chicks- a birthday to remember
Scar Rocks, Mull of Galloway
In July I had a trip to the Scar Rocks (6 miles offshore from the Mull of Galloway) to ring Gannets- one of my dreams come true!
2,500 pairs of Gannets nest on the Big Scar. Mull of Galloway on the horizon

Living the dream- I smiled like a Cheshire cat for days!
One of the other highlights from 2016 was joining a small team to colour ring Gannet fledglings on Bass Rock- my dream come true!

My dream come true! Ringing Gannets on Bass Rock
Vis Migging at the Mull of Galloway:
I am so fortunate to work in such a fantastic wildlife location- the RSPB Mull of Galloway. Thousands of birds travel through the reserve as they head South to their winter grounds. In 2016 we recorded some high numbers of various species such as Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Linnets, Goldfinches and thrushes. Phenomenal experience!
One of the thousands of Skylarks travelling through the Mull of Galloway in Autumn 2016
With thousands of birds migrating through it is inevitable that something more unusual will turn up. You can imagine my surprise when I found a Red-breasted flycatcher- an Eastern European breeder. This was only the 4th ever record for Dumfries and Galloway!

Red breasted flycatcher on the Mull of Galloway
Looking forward to seeing what wildlife adventures 2017 holds!

Monday, 8 August 2016

Scar Rocks

I've had an incredibly busy few months as the seabird breeding season was in full swing. As well as working on a seabird colony at the Mull of Galloway, I have spent my days off on other colonies, mainly assisting with various ringing projects.

Over my next few blogs I will revisit some of the amazing opportunities I have had this year. I will begin with my favourite trip of the year... a visit to the Scar Rocks- islands several miles East of the reserve I work on at the Mull of Galloway.

The Big Scar is home to a small colony of Gannets. The last count in 2014 indicated that 2,376 pairs nest here and at less than a hectare in size, the island is at maximum carrying capacity. Each year staff from the RSPB aim to visit the Scars to ring the chicks and monitor the health of the colony. Unfortunately the weather put a stop to all plans in 2015 however this year we were very fortunate to be able to make the journey.

The Big Scar (photo Laura Shearer)
The Big Scar is home to 2,376 pairs of nesting Gannets, Mull of Galloway in distance (photo Laura Shearer)
Alongside 3 other licenced BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) ringers, we placed metal rings on the legs of the chicks, each bearing a unique number. The rings are lightweight- similar to humans wearing a piece of jewelry- and do not cause any harm to the birds. These rings however can provide scientists with valuable information on the movements and life span of birds.

Gannet chick adoring a new BTO metal ring (photo Laura Shearer)
Working our way through the colony we ringed chicks as they sat in their nests. Gannets have been ringed here for many years and it was encouraging to see several ringed adults. One of the adult birds remained by its nest and was caught to read the ring number. It was later discovered that this bird had been ringed on the big Scar in 2005 as a chick- this bird was 11 years old! This shows site loyalty- these birds are returning to the same nesting sites each year. With a whopping 145 gannets, 5 shag chicks and 7 Guillemot chicks ringed; we look forward to gaining further insight into the gannets of the Scar Rocks! 

This adult bird ringed here as a chick 11 years ago (photo Andrew Beilinski)
Gannets are incredibly striking birds! (photo Laura Shearer)
Gannets have incredible eyesight (photo Laura Shearer)
Little and Large: Gannet and Guillemot chick (photo Laura Shearer)

Monday, 13 June 2016

Forth Island hopping

It's been a busy week in the land of Laura as I took a busman's holiday from working on one seabird colony to do some work on others. I joined a small team attaching BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) metal rings to shags on the Forth Islands. We also attached larger coloured plastic rings with a unique code. These can be read from a distance using binoculars or telescopes and provide scientists with important information about the movements of these birds. If you spot a shag colour ring, please report the colour, code and location to shags@ceh.ac.uk to contribute to the project. Thank you!

Shag with full breeding crest (photo Laura Shearer)
Grooming after copulation (photo Laura Shearer)
Newly hatched Shag chicks look very prehistoric (photo Laura Shearer)
Shag chick patiently waiting to be colour ringed (photo Laura Shearer)
Shag chicks showing off their new rings (photo Laura Shearer)
Leaving Fidra (photo Laura Shearer)

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Seabirds and Slow Worms- my visit to Ailsa Craig

Its been far too long since I last blogged- not due to lack of material but rather a result of trying to cram in far too much! The seabird breeding season is well underway and I have been busy visiting many seabird colonies as well as working on one at the Mull of Galloway.

Last week I had the pleasure of joining the RSPB on a trip to Ailsa Craig to perform essential seabird counts and monitoring. Upon arrival we set up our tents beside the old gasworks, seeking shelter from the elements inside the compound walls. We began our counts scanning the scree slopes on the hill-side with our telescopes to search for nesting gulls. Moving slowly around the island we continued to count the gulls whilst searching for signs of nesting Peregrines and Ravens. After a quick lunch break we walked around the other half of the island towards the North end, counting as we went. Reaching an area known as 'barestack' we counted Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars from fixed points looking up the cliff. The rock was far from bare however as the seabirds incubated their eggs on the cliffs above. Getting back to camp we came across a Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis)- my first ever sighting of our native legless lizard. Seabirds and reptiles- this trip was shaping up to be a dream come true! 

Home for a couple of nights on the mighty Ailsa Craig (photo Laura Shearer)
Gull nesting in one of the quarries on Ailsa Craig (photo Laura Shearer)
My first ever Slow Worm (photo Laura Shearer)
Black Guillemot taking a rest on some rocks (photo Laura Shearer)
Day 2 got off to a fantastic start with more slow worms whilst my camp mates emptied the moth trap. We took a walk up the hill of Ailsa Craig- eventually ending at the summit 338m above sea level. Slowly making our way up, we counted the gull colonies as we traveled. The island was covered with wildflowers in full bloom such as Thrift, Sea Campion and Bluebells. What a vista! 

The remains of the tower house which was used as a watch tower (photo Laura Shearer)
Wild flowers in bloom on Ailsa Craig (photo Laura Shearer)
Summit of Ailsa Craig (photo Laura Shearer)
The trip was completed on Day 3 with cliff counts of nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and Fulmars. Sailing around the island several times it was simply breathtaking to see the sheer cliffs filled with Gannets and other nesting seabirds. This was definitely the trip of a lifetime!
The cliffs of Ailsa Craig are breathtaking! (photo Laura Shearer)
Some of the 36,000 pairs of Gannets that nest on Ailsa Craig (photo Laura Shearer)
1, 2, 3, 4... cliff counts (photo Laura Shearer)

Bull seal keeping an eye on us (photo Laura Shearer)
The marine life around Ailsa Craig is spectacular- Lion's Mane Jellyfish (photo Laura Shearer)
Gannets are magnificent birds! (photo Laura Shearer)
Saying goodbye to Ailsa Craig and its thousands of seabirds (photo Laura Shearer)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Seeing red....

I recently visited Historic Scotland Threave castle- well known for its breeding pair of Ospreys (in nearby trees I hasten to add!). Walking along trails maintained by the National Trust for Scotland, I came across the jetty and landing area for the small boat journey across the River Dee- the only access to the castle. The amazing tower creates a formidable scene and transports your imagination back to the 14th century when it was home to the Earls of Douglas.

Threave Castle (photo Laura Shearer)
Ospreys on the nest at Threave (photo Laura Shearer)
Continuing on the trails I came across a viewing platform for the Osprey nest. A lovely NTS volunteer was on hand, explaining more about their incredible migration and feeding techniques whilst offering views through a telescope. Soaring in the sky above them was 3 Red Kites- a common sight in Dumfries and Galloway after their reintroduction in 2001-2005. Agitated by their presence, a pair of Common Buzzards swooped and dive bombed the kites until they flew off into the distance. This was shaping up to be an amazing visit!

The marsh hides at the far end of the reserve provided excellent views onto the River Dee which was covered in wading birds such as Lapwings, Curlew, Redshank and Oystercatchers. Outside the trees were buzzing with singing Willlow Warblers- my first sightings of this species this year.

Suddenly I caught a glimpse of red- a Red Squirrel running up a tree. As if this wasn't exciting enough- another 2 Red Kites flew overhead. This was definitely a trip to remember!

Driving along the A75 I decided to visit Kirroughtree ran by the Forestry Commission. Known for its long walks through the Galloway forest park, it is an excellent place to start a nature hike. One hide situated close to the car park is surrounded by tall trees and feeders. Within seconds of sitting down I could hear some shuffling up one of the trees. Down came a Red Squirrel which nibbled on some peanuts mere feet away from where I sat - I was literally frozen to the spot with awe!

Red squirrels at Threave (left) and Kirroughtree (right)- photos Laura Shearer
Birding around Dumfries and Galloway, I am always surprised with what I see. On Thursday night whilst out with friends, we stumbled across some Red Deer- my first sighting of this species in the region. Admiring them from the car, they started rutting and playing with each other before jogging off into the horizon. What an amazing fortnight of wildlife sightings I have had!

Red deer, Dumfries and Galloway (photo Laura Shearer)

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Hi ho, hi ho...it's off to work I go...

The Mull of Galloway with the Isle of Man in the distance (photo Laura Shearer)
Heading back to work on the Mull of Galloway, my mind was swirling with images of all the amazing wildlife sightings I had in 2015. Even with high hopes I was not prepared for the amazing spectacle of feeding Harbour Porpoise only 15 minutes into the new season! Performing my usual loop around the reserve I caught a glimpse of some fins underneath the Foghorn. Dashing down for a closer look it was obvious the pod were feeding along the tidal race where the gulf stream meets the tides from Luce Bay. Over 20 porpoise were seen for over 40 minutes however I only managed to capture a few pics and videos before my camera battery died- doh!

Harbour Porpoise- Mull of Galloway (photo Laura Shearer)
Elsewhere the Guillemots, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags are busy reinforcing their pair bonds as the seabird breeding season begins. Preening and nest building, its a busy time of year as they slowly settle onto the cliff ledges to nest.
Razorbills pairing up as the seabird nesting season begins (photo Laura Shearer)
Around the reserve, various migrant birds have been recorded including Snipe, Jack Snipe, Sand Martins, House Martins and Swallows- spring is on its way! The star of the show at the minute though are the pair of Stonechats singing and displaying around the RSPB visitor centre- I have an office with a view!

Female Stonechat- Mull of Galloway (photo Laura Shearer)
After work I've been birding around the Rhins of Galloway, checking out the Geese and Swans that are on the move. The highlight of my week came from a walk down a local glen as a friend and I came across a very noisy bird calling from behind some shrubs. As we approached it shot off- it was a Ring Ouzel! A good record for Dumfries and Galloway and an excellent record for the Rhins! What a great start to my 2016 season!

Monday, 21 March 2016

What a hoot!

It's been a busy week preparing to begin a new season with the RSPB on the Mull of Galloway. In between packing and saying my goodbyes, I've managed to squeeze in a few wildlife adventures along the way!

Visiting the east coast I had magnificent views of waders such as Turnstone, Redshank and my personal favourite- Oystercatchers. As they fed along the tideline, I went beachcombing however found very little of interest. Returning to the car I caught a quick glimpse of a Short Eared Owl before it dipped behind a hill in the terrain. Continuing along the trail I suddenly came across the same owl- this time perched high in a small tree. I could barely contain my excitement as I sat admiring this magnificent bird only metres away- what an encounter! The following day I continued to birdwatch along the coast, seeing my first Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins of the season. Again the highlight of the day came from more sightings of Short Eared Owls- what an amazing species!

Short Eared Owl perching on a tree at Elie, Fife (photo Laura Shearer)
Short Eared Owl seeking shelter from the mist and sea fret (photo Laura Shearer)
Birding closer to home uncovered the 'usual' passerines however with a hint of spring in the air the local forests are buzzing with activity. I even managed to squeeze in some bird ringing this week including Robins, Wrens, Chaffinches and Blue Tits- a great way to spend your Saturday morning!