Saturday, 16 January 2016

Stormy seas

On Wednesday with a few hours to spare, I took a wander down the beaches of North Berwick to assess the impact on marine life from recent storms. Walking along I came across an eggcase from a Lesser Spotted Dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula). Small species of shark, skates and rays lay their eggs in these protective sheaths (also known as a Mermaid's Purse) which remain well camouflaged, attached to seaweed. The young embryo develops inside and once free the eggcase often detaches and can wash up on local beaches. Using the identification guide on The Shark Trust website (Link) it is possible to determine which species the eggcase belongs to. Please also record your sightings via the page in order to allow the charity to analyse the distributions of sharks and rays in the UK.

Eggcase of a Lesser Spotted Dogfish found on a beach at North Berwick (Photo Laura Shearer)
Continuing with my walk I found large chunks of marine life washed up along the shore. Huge clumps of Laminaria kelp littered the beaches and many marine snails had dried up during the low tides. Hundreds of desiccated Dead man's fingers (Alcyonium digitatum) could be found evenly dispersed along the shore. This soft coral is brutally ripped from rocks and boulders during stormy weather and is named after their appendage-like appearance once they become dehydrated. This species can be found along the Northern Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America and comes in various shades of pink, orange, yellow, white or grey. 

Dead man's fingers washed up around North Berwick (photo Laura Shearer)
Winter storms causes the demise of many marine organisms however the consistent bad weather of recent weeks means even healthy animals struggle to cope. In the last fortnight Little Auks (Alle alle) have been well documented becoming lost and stranded around the UK with the SSPCA reporting record numbers requiring rehabilitation (SSPCA blog). Travelling South from North Berwick I came across an adult Little Auk (around the size of a Starling) which had succumbed to the weather laying at the side of the road.

Dead Little Auk, found on roadside at North Berwick (photo Laura Shearer)
Back on the beach I continued with my hunt for seabirds. Walking for almost 2 hours I seen small numbers of roosting Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) however none were ringed and therefore we are unable to determine if they are local or visiting birds. Good numbers of Eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) rested on the surface close to the shore alongside a handful of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). Walking back to the car I stumbled across a dead Guillemot (Uria aalge) with a ring from Heligoland, Germany (awaiting feedback from study group).

Dead Guillemot found on beach at North Berwick (photo Laura Shearer)
Guillemot found on North Berwick beach was ringed in Germany (photo Laura Shearer)
If you find a ringed bird please report through the following website:

Friday, 8 January 2016

My 2015

Wow- has it really been over a month since my last blog?! Unfortunately life has gotten in the way with my time being occupied by work, the festive period and what feels like a never ending dose of the common cold! The joys of winter in Scotland! 

As a new year begins I have been reflecting on 2015 and all of the amazing adventures I had so I thought I would share some of my highlights:

When the year began I was volunteering at the Scottish Owl Centre in Whitburn, West Lothian ( The centre is shut to the public over the winter so we could perform essential maintenance tasks and build new aviaries for the start of a new breeding season. One of our main projects was to build a raised aviary for the Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) which included a nest box camera to gain more information on their nesting behaviour. This proved to be a great success with the public enjoying excellent views of the eggs and incubation feeding live from underground during the summer months. For more information follow @ScotOwl or on Facebook Scottish Owl Centre.

Burrowing Owls enjoying their new aviary (photo Scottish Owl Centre, Facebook page)
In March I was appointed the Community Liaison Officer for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) on the Mull of Galloway- Scotland's Southernmost point. The reserve boosts good numbers of seabirds including 5,000 nesting Gannets (Morus bassanus) on the Scaur Rocks several miles offshore.

The Mull of Galloway (photo Laura Shearer)

RSPB Mull of Galloway team 2015: (left-right) Iain Houston, Robert Conn and Laura Shearer
Counting Manx Shearwaters (photo Gary Prescott @bikingbirder16)
With a keen interest in bird ringing I took a bus man's holiday in June and transferred from one seabird colony to another. I joined a group of other bird ringers aiming to colour ring Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) on the Forth Islands over a few days. These rings can be read from a distance and therefore makes it easier to collect information on the movements of these birds. Aiming for 400 birds over 4 islands we knew we had our work cut out for us. With a lot of determination however we ringed 626 birds including 505 with coloured darvics. Data from these birds has shown young chicks travelling as far as the Netherlands over this winter!

Colour ringing shag chicks on Craigleith (photo Laura Shearer)
Proud as punch ringing an adult shag (photo Elizabeth Morgan)
Back on the Mull of Galloway things were settling down as the seabird season and the summer holidays drew to an end. For migrating birds though- things were just getting started! Because of the location of the reserve, birds travelling South for the winter are filtered down the Rhins and eventually pass overhead. This makes it an excellent spot for visible migration during the correct weather conditions. The highlights were 1,441 Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) on 28th October observed by Pete Berry and myself during a 2.5hr count- the 8th highest UK record. Other highlights included 3,571 Meadow Pipits, Anthus pratensis, (highest site record) and 979 Linnet, Carduelis cannabina, (second highest site record) observed by Dr Clive McKay on the 30th of September. Unfortunately I had picked the wrong day off that week! Check out for full counts.

Juvenile cuckoo on migration (photo Laura Shearer)
Meadow Pipit passing through the Mull of Galloway on migration (photo Laura Shearer)

Other wildlife highlights from my year have been posted previously on my blog so feel free to check them out. My favourites include a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) at Corsewell Point, Dumfries and Galloway, White-Beaked Dolphins (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) off the coast of Northumberland and Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Mull of Galloway in October.
I'm excited for 2016 and look forward to continue sharing my wildlife encounters!