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 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'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!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Linlithgow Loch

It's been several years since I last visited Linlithgow and despite regular rain showers, I had a thrilling afternoon. Sitting pride of place, overseeing the loch and tranquil peel (park) is Linthgow Palace- birthplace of James V and Mary Queen of Scots (Historic Scotland link). 

As usual my interest was veered by the local wildlife as I took a leisurely stroll around the loch. Within minutes I was treated to displaying Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus)- one of my favourite species! They perform elaborate courtship displays (RSPB video link) before nesting in the reed beds surrounding small sections of the loch. 

Linlithgow Palace (photo Laura Shearer)
Great Crested Grebes at Linlithgow Loch (photo Laura Shearer)
Great Crested Grebes perform elaborate courtship displays (photos by Laura Shearer)
The area is a haven for wildlife such as ducks, swans, geese, grebes and cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo). The surrounding trees were bustling with small songbirds feeding along the ground and singing their sweet melodies. 

Moorhen at Linlithgow (Gallinula chloropus) photo Laura Shearer
It is impossible not to mention the Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) - bold and boisterous they eagerly await a free meal from passersby. Many are colour ringed with unique codes to provide more information on their movements. It is a thoroughly enjoyable task reading these codes to report back to the ringers. If you see a coloured ringed bird in Europe please report it here.

SLY swans at Linlithgow Loch (photo Laura Shearer)

Reading swan colour rings is great fun! (photos Laura Shearer)
Even some of the coots were colour ringed (photo Laura Shearer)

Saturday, 27 February 2016


The latest trend of #HERpers on Twitter has gotten me thinking about herpetology. For the last 4 years I have been working with seabirds however for many many years reptiles, amphibians and fish were all I could think about.

Growing up I worked in a reptile specialist pet shop- before reptiles became popular pets in the UK. I was very fortunate to work with a wide range of herps (and other animals!) from lizards, snakes, frogs and salamanders. At college I undertook work experience placements at zoological facilities around Scotland and it was during this time I fed my first crocodile- this was definitely the career for me!
Chameleon climbing over me like a tree (photo Jade Mitchell)
Common boa's are stunning animals! (photo Jade Mitchell)
I've always been keen on amphibians! Tiger Salamander by Ryan Mutch

I've had the pleasure of working with a wide range of taxa. Horsefield Tortoise, Bearded Dragon and Red Eyed Green Tree Frog (photos by Laura Shearer)
Looking at universities I explained my herpetological interests however this was often met by confused looks or general disinterest. "Your in the wrong country for that dear" "Why would you want to work with snakes?" - actual quotes from university lecturers! Fortunately at an open day for Edinburgh Napier University I got chatting to a professor who explained that many modules would allow me to research and express my interests in herps. The university was very supportive and when studying my masters at the same institution I decided to study the aquatic and terrestrial habitat requirements of native amphibians. Turns out- I wasn't in the wrong country to work with herps after all!
Analysing pond quality for native amphibians (photo Jennifer Allan)
Male Smooth Newt (photo Laura Shearer)
I currently volunteer with the Lothian Amphibian and Reptile Group (@LothianARG) assisting with toad patrols, pond maintenance and pond surveys. At home I have a Carpet Python (aka Steve the snake), a Whites tree frog (George), Paddle tailed newt (Ned) and Tiger Salamander (Bert). Herpetology is a huge part of my life (and electricity bill) and I would thoroughly encourage young women to pursue this as a career- don't let anyone stand in your way!
My favourite herp is my pet Carpet Python Steve! (photo Laura Shearer)