Sunday, 27 July 2014

Scottish summer summary

Walking over the tops - ptarmigan and dotterel habitat

It's now late July and I am back at the desk after my annual working tour of Scotland. Time to catch up with write ups and organise photographs. This was a quiet season for me as I had pinched a nerve in my spine in January and the sciatica is still hurting, curtailing any climbing, running and jumping. Fortunately a friend, Simon Cherriman, from Western Australia was also over in Scotland while I was there so we teamed up and I showed him around a few places and some of the special wildlife that abounds in such a small country.

While up on the high ground looking for ptarmigan we came across this Mountain Leveret

First of all we went and surveyed my long-term study site up in the hills for Ptarmigan. Their numbers vary between years following a cyclic pattern, and this year their numbers were low with only three pairs in the core area. But there were numerous Mountain Hares which was a welcome surprise. For these animals are being relentlessly killed on some estates managed for red grouse shooting in the belief that they carry parasite and act as a vector for disease in grouse, leading to fewer grouse to shoot. Such a selfish attitude at the cost of these animals which the majority of people visiting the Highlands in search of wildlife would so much like to see.

These three leverets were hiding in one form,
unusual behaviour as the mother usually leaves them in separate forms for safety 

A visit to the bird cliffs is always a tremendous experience
 - Simon rather enjoyed himself

Our next day passed quickly when we went to the sea-cliffs. The smell of guano mixed with the scent of Thrift had to be smelt to be appreciated, so so, different from anything else. 2014 was a splendid year for blossom of all sorts, but for now I'll concentrate on the animals. That day was definitely for the birds, thousands all around us and we must have fired off thousands of shots between us trying to capture the perfect shot of the birds in flight.

A Fulmar cruising past, most shots were out of focus, out of frame or wrongly exposed - hundreds of them

Simon adds colour-rings to a Redshank chick with Raymond Duncan

We spent most of our time based in the north-east and much of the field time ringing wader chicks with members of the Grampian Ringing Group, mainly with my brother Skitts, Ewan Weston and Raymond Duncan. Simon is a trainee ringer/bander in Australia, but has no experience of ringing wader chicks, or any other chicks for that matter. So he gained full-on intensive training from some of the most experienced bird ringers, not only in Scotland but the world.

A colour-ringed Lapwing chick

One of the jobs I had to do was find and fit Greenshank with geolocators as part of a study of their migration being organised by the Highland Ringing group. So we spent a couple of weeks in the far north doing that with Nick Christian and Brian Etheridge. That wasn't all we did there though, as there were so many other birds around us in that stunning landscape, but that has been covered in previous posts. And it would take too long to tell here.

Simon photographing newly hatched Greenshank chicks

The same Greenshank chicks

We ringed various birds during our travels, and as it was springtime most were chicks. They ranged from tiny Willow Warbler nestlings, Redstarts, Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Pied wagtails, Common and Black-headed Gulls, Kestrels and Common Buzzards, etc. One rather different brood we ringed were Barn Owls which were in a nest in the roof space of an old ruined cottage. 

Simon checking the old cottage for the Barn Owl nest, and Jackdaws

There were five owlets squeezed between the ceiling and the roof

But it was when we had trees to climb that Simon earned his living. As I had hurt my back I was reluctant to climb some of the trees to reach various nests, but Simon is a superb tree-climber, probably the best I have seen. He had timed his trip to Scotland perfectly. I helped him and he helped me - all happy.

Predator in his natural habitat
 - a similarity noted by Mick Marquiss as Simon skipped up a tree
 so like the film character with his dreadlocks and camouflaged gear

Simon, like all of us who climb these trees, really enjoyed the thrill
 and atmosphere of climbing ancient Scots Pines

We helped Skitts and Ewan ring Golden Eagle chicks at various nest sites which they monitor annually. Ewan and Simon would climb the trees, lower the chicks in a bag down to the ground, where they were ringed and measured safely, then they we would pass them back up. Some of these nests are over a hundred years old, in trees that are several hundred if not thousands of years old. And some of these eyries are big, really big. Who wouldn't be impressed by such an experience.

Simon nears a Golden Eagle eyrie in the crown of a Scots Pine
- even he, at two metres tall was dwarfed by the eyrie

Simon studies Wedge-tailed Eagles in Western Australia, so he was perfectly at home and adept at handling the Golden Eaglets. Although they can be big strong birds and they can be in a potentially precarious setting, mixing tender careful handling with confidence ensured slick procedure.

Talking to eaglets always helps - it might not calm the the birds,
but it does calm the handler and helps the work go efficiently 

And that was what I did in Scotland 2014, well a little bit of it, there were also Arctic Terns, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Woodcock, Sparrowhawks and....  Thanks for all the help Simon.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for such a wonderful post Stuart - you make me seem like I did all the work, when really I felt like I was just tagging along and getting in the way! It was an absolute privilege to be shown around such a beautiful country by its best local ecologist :) I can't wait til next time!