Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus). Photographed by Mike Beard.
Over the winter we have mostly been busy in the office learning business skills, writing up survey reports and giving presentations on a range of native mammal species but we have also been over to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Cathkin Marsh reserve to help with snipe counts.
James and Adam discussing ecological consultancy business ideas. Photograph by Mike Beard.
We first visited the reserve in December and recorded 77 common snipe and 32 jack snipe. As well as many other species including water rail, grey wagtail, fieldfare and teal.
The 32 jack snipe in December was a new record high for Cathkin Marsh and suggests that the marsh is an important overwintering site for this species. This is likely due to the small herd of cattle present on the marsh over the summer months. The cattle poach the ground and graze the vegetation, creating a more favourable mixed habitat for the jack snipe that require both areas of long vegetation to shelter in and areas of open ground for foraging.
Dess team, Cathkin ranger and local volunteers counting snipe. Photography by Mike Beard
Several of the team returned to the reserve to help Iain Livingstone from the Clyde Ringing Group with ongoing research in migration patterns. 10 jack snipe were ringed on this visit and 14 on a previous visit in November. From these ringing sessions it is clear that a large number of first year jack snipe (born summer 2013) are using the reserve and it was also found that jack snipe were putting on weight in preparation for migration. Future recaptures of these ringed jack snipe will provide valuable information on their migration patterns.
This was also an excellent opportunity to see these beautiful birds up close and to learn about their fascinating plumage and moult patterns.
Jack Snipe wing. Photograph by Anthony Taylor.
We learnt that the white tips on the flight feathers on this juvenile jack snipe are the result them being bleached by the continuous 24 hour sunlight in their distant Arctic breeding grounds.
Up close we could see that the jack snipe had spectacular iridescent purple/blue feathers on their rumps. It is thought that these bright feathers help pairs of jack snipe to locate each other during the breeding season. Furthermore, we saw that snipe have flexible tips to their bills which is an adaptation that lets them feel in the mud for prey items before pulling them to the surface.
The team returned to Cathkin Marsh again in January to conduct a second count and to further hone our surveying skills. This time we recorded 36 common snipe and 18 jack snipe as well lots of other interesting wildlife including water rail, sparrowhawk, kestrel, field voles, brown hare, fox and otter signs and a weasel!
Snipe numbers are recorded at Cathkin Marsh monthly throughout the winter by the ranger and a dedicated team of local volunteers. This data is submitted to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) as part of the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBs).
Follow this link to learn more about Cathkin Marsh
Surveying for beaver signs from the boat.
Back at the start of the October, the DESS team travelled to Knapdale to help carry out surveys for the Scottish Beaver Trial.
“The Scottish Beaver Trial is a partnership project between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and host Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) to undertake a time-limited, five-year trial reintroduction of Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) to Knapdale, Mid-Argyll.”
The 5 year trial started in 2009 when the first beavers were released in Knapdale and the project will be coming to an end in 2014. To read more about the success of the Scottish Beaver Trial and all that has happened over the past years, visit the excellent Scottish Beaver Trial website at: http://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk/
Beaver foraging signs
While at Knapdale the DESS team learnt how to conduct beaver activity surveys and riparian sweeps for field signs from the Field Operations Manager Roisin Campbell-Palmer and Field Officer Robert Needham.
Conducting these surveys allowed the team to practice using rugged Trimble PDA devices for digitally mapping field signs in ArcPad. Typical field signs include foraging activity as seen in the photo above, as well as; feeding stations, tracks, scent mounds, burrows, lodges and canals and many other signs of activity.
Frank the beaver swimming off with his newly attached satellite tracker.
We were also lucky enough to observe one of the beavers (Frank) being captured for a health check, fitted with a satellite tracking device and released again.
The satellite tracking device records GPS locations as well as temperature and pressure, this information gives insight into the beavers behaviour and habitat use and allows the staff at the beaver trial to keep track of the location of the beavers.
During the week at Knapdale the team also carried out surveys of beaver canals in order to compare the diversity of aquatic invertebrates and plants found in older and more recently formed canals.
While conducting these surveys we found many species of aquatic plants including broad-leaved pondweed (Potamogeton natans), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and marsh pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) as well as many interesting aquatic invertebrates such as this beautiful black darter dragonfly (Sympetrum danae).
Black darter dragonfly
The team are already looking forward to putting the skills learnt during this week at Knapdale to good use in August 2014 when we will be surveying beavers in the Tayside area.
After our hard work at the beaver trial the team ventured over the Atlantic Ocean to the Isle of Seil, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s internationally renowned reserve, Ballachuan Hazelwoods.
Liz looks back over at the Scottish mainland after crossing the Atlantic Bridge onto the Isle of Seil.
The reserve is famous for its high diversity of lichens. This beauty is Degelia plumbea, a lichen that demands high levels of humidity and clean air that is in abundance on the west coast of Scotland.
We also found the incredibly rare hazel gloves fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri). This fungus is only found on dead hazel stems in ancient hazelwoods, and in Scotland is restricted to a few remnant habitats on the west coast. It parasitises another specialist hazel fungus, the glue crust (Hymenochaete corrugata), which catches falling deadwood and glues it to the hazel tree.
Hazel gloves fungus
As well as lush lichens and fungi, we were also lucky enough to spot an otter (Lutra lutra); the perfect end to the week!
Hi! My name is Adam Butler and I’m the latest entry to the DESS team. I left my home city of Belfast in 2008 to study Zoology at the University of Glasgow. I got through a lot of subjects I was passionate about while at university but eventually landed on my original fascination for wild biology and more importantly the threats that it currently faces.
I spent the spring and summer this year volunteering with SWT as assistant ranger and seabird monitor on Handa Island (Thomas had laid the groundwork for me!) and as reserves assistant at Loch of the Lowes. I took these opportunities to learn as many botanical and surveying skills as I could and as a result I had the privilege of joining the DESS team late in the course this September. I was totally overwhelmed to receive this opportunity and I mean to carry the skills it gives me through a career in consultancy, policy advising and maybe even one day taking advice as a policy-maker myself.
I’m very impressed by the knowledge and experience of everyone else on the course and I have been doing my best to catch up!
View from one of the survey transects at Creag Meagaidh.
Last week, the DESS team travelled to the Highlands to carry out Highland scrub habitat surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The results from these surveys will be used by the BTO as part of a long-term study looking at the effect of the natural regeneration of woodland on the populations and diversity of breeding birds found there.
It is thought that overgrazing by large herbivores such as red deer and sheep has been the primary cause of the lack of tree regeneration in Scottish uplands in the past 150-200 years. As a result, by the late 20th century, most of the remnants of forest consisted only of old trees, because all of the seedlings were eaten before they could grow to more than a few centimetres in height.
The population of red deer has increased drastically over the past 50 years, and in the absence of any natural predators to control the growing numbers, the only tree seedlings to grow successfully have been those inside fenced areas or in remote locations inaccessible to grazing animals.
In response to this, conservation efforts have been made to enable the natural regeneration of woodland in a number of areas of upland Scotland. Populations of large herbivores have been managed in order to reduce grazing pressure so that saplings may, once again, have the opportunity to grow into healthy, mature trees.
Since 1996, the BTO has undertaken periodic censuses of breeding birds in sample areas of regenerating pine and birch in eastern and central Scotland. Over time, data from the bird and vegetation surveys will be analysed and reviewed with the aim of discovering what effect the natural regeneration of woodland will have on the changes in birds, habitat, and their associations.
James Bray from the BTO joined the DESS team for a couple of days surveying. We used GPS devices to locate precise points along transects at 100m intervals and then recorded the vegetation within a 25m radius of these points.
James hasn’t quite mastered the art of posing.
At each point, we recorded what species of tree were present and what size they were. In addition we gathered data on the presence of other vegetation such as heather, blaeberry, bog myrtle and bracken.
Estimated ground coverage of bracken was recorded at each point on the transect.This particularly striking individual was a nice find!
Helen and Ben estimating the percentage cover of heather and blaeberry at a point on the Inshriach transect.
Not part of the survey, but this garden ‘cross’ spider (Araneus diadematus) was worth taking a moment to check out!
A week of clambering up and down heather-covered hillsides left the team in need of a good weekend’s rest!
Radio-tracking Leisler’s bats on Arran
Two days after returning from Handa Island the team quickly prepared for what was to be an adventurous and nocturnal two weeks on the Isle of Arran assisting with The Scottish Leisler’s Project. The species’ presence on the island was only discovered in 2012 so the aim of this visit was to find out more about their ecology, including their movements, what roosts they use, and importantly, whether they are breeding.
On route to the ferry terminal, news had reached the team that bat experts John Haddow, Stuart Spray, Tomasz Kokurewicz and Sam Dyer (who had all arrived one day prior to the team) had already caught two male and one female Leisler’s bats right outside Brodick Castle. The bats were successfully fitted with radio transmitters and it was the DESS team’s job to start radio-tracking as soon as possible.
'Brodick', the first male Leisler's caught. Both the males had unusual white tips on their ears (photo credit - John Haddow).
As soon as the team arrived, introductions were made and those new to radio-tracking quickly learned how to use the equipment. The team then worked through the night until 7am. Thereon-in there was no rest for the wicked!
Mike and Liz shows us how it’s done having had previous radio-tracking experience (photo credit - Mike Beard).
Tomasz, James, Thomas and Helen track the tagged female Leisler’s bat until dawn (photo credit - Stuart Spray).
The bats were also allocated appropriate names. The first bat caught was named Brodick; most fitting as he roosts right outside Brodick Castle. The next two bats caught (another male and a non-lactating female) were named Glen and Rosa respectively, as they appeared to feed in the Glen Rosa campsite.
As the radio-tracking continued so did the efforts in trying to catch a lactating female Leisler’s bat. The bats that were already tagged were not leading the team to a maternity roost and so, if the team were to catch a lactating female, it would be provide strong evidence that there would be a breeding population of Leisler’s bats on Arran. Mist nets were erected every night, including a very successful triple-high net and smaller ones complete with sonic lures to attract the bats. The triple-high net proved most effective as on the first night three male Leisler’s bats were caught, they were marked and released as there was still hope of catching a female.
A number of other species were caught and released during the mist netting: Brown Long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus), Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri), Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii), Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmeus) and Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). This gave those on the team working towards a bat license a chance to practise handling techniques and for the team to learn how to identify and sex bats in the hand.
Badger and Ben tracking ‘Rosa’ at Glen Rosa campsite.
Helen takes a photograph of one of the male Natterer’s bats before releasing it.
One of the male Natterer’s bats caught and released (photo credit to Helen Simmons).
After a week of tracking, the male bats’ movements appeared to be fairly predictable and the transmitter on ‘Rosa’ was intermittent before it stopped working, or likely, fell off. Eventually the bats didn’t seem to move at all and it was concluded that all the transmitters had fallen off. This assumption was proved correct when Anne Youngman from BCT spotted Brodick’s transmitter at the bottom of his tree whilst looking for bat droppings!
The team also completed a number of transects around the island - results of which were analysed on the last two days (pictured above) with a little help from caffeinated hot beverages.
Despite no maternity roosts or lactating females being found, the fieldwork on Arran was a great success. Important data on the behavioural ecology of Leisler’s bats has been collected and the team gained valuable skills in bat fieldwork and radio-tracking techniques.
The team pose with the minibus before departing the island, hopefully not for the last time!
From the 12th to the 20th of July the team travelled to one of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s more remote reserves; Handa Island, off the west coast of Sutherland. Handa is famous for its spectacular seabird cliffs, but we were going to investigate some of the other interesting plant and animal groups on the island, including unconfirmed reports of hedgehogs.
Our first challenge was getting to the island. The ferrymen did a great job of managing to transport all of us, our survey equipment, tents, bags and food for the week in one trip.
The team took part in monitoring for notable plants on the island, including these small adder’s tongue ferns (Ophioglossum azoricum).
Some interesting lichens were found in the sheltered parts of the island, such as this Lobaria amplissima. This lichen (lichens are symbiotic organisms, usually consisting of a fungus and alga) has grey-green lobes containing an alga, and brown outgrowths containing photosynthetic cyanobacteria. The brown outgrowths are called cephalodia, and they can drop off the parent lichen and continue a separate existence as a different lichen species, Dendriscocaulon umhausense.
While the rest of Scotland sweated in a heat-wave, Handa’s weather was decidedly less clement with rolling mists, drizzle and strong winds. We’re a hardy bunch though, and the weather was not enough to put us off of botanical surveying.
Our portable moth trap caught 11 species of moth despite the rough weather. This beauty is a green carpet (Colostygia pectinataria).
No visit to Handa would be complete without having a look at the seabird colonies. These puffins (Fratercula arctica) and razorbills (Alca torda) were often seen at the tops of the cliffs and stacks.
Handa is also an important breeding ground for great skuas (Stercorarius skua) and arctic skuas (Stercorarius parasiticus). This bonxie, nicknamed Betty, was a regular visitor to the ranger’s bothy.
Despite having hedgehog tunnels (which collect the footprints of any animal that wanders into it) distributed across the island, we were unable to detect the presence of hedgehogs on Handa, though we did get some pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus) tracks. Nor did we have any luck with small mammal trapping. However we did get some great data on notable plants, some new lichen records, a recording of a common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) on our Anabat, and the team got some excellent experience of seabird monitoring from the volunteers on Handa.
Many thanks to Handa’s ranger, Paul MacDonald, the hard-working volunteers and the ferrymen for getting us safely on and off the island.
Firstly, apologies for the quiet blog space recently, the survey season has swept us all up in style. Updates on our recent week of surveys on Handa Island as well as our upcoming adventures with the bats on Arran will be coming soon.
Before all of that began though, the team carried out a Mountain Transect Survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in June to record upland birds. The survey is done by volunteers and is designed to help understand where species are and how their distribution might be changing, particularly in relation to issues such as climate change and land use.
The BTO provided us with two transect routes near Bridge of Orchy. One covering Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh and the other on Beinn Achaladair, which are all Munros between 1000 and 1100m. The team split into three groups to cover the transects and the day gave us all an opportunity to practice using maps and GPSs to follow our routes.
Claudia and Thomas discuss the transect route on Beinn Achaladair.
In true Scottish fashion we started the day plastering on the sun cream and ended up in waterproofs! Thankfully we got a lot done before the weather closed in and were treated to some fantastic views.
James scans the area.
The bird species recorded on the survey included Meadow Pipit, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel (a first for some!), Raven, and some of the team were even lucky enough to spot that iconic upland bird, the Ptarmigan! Helen managed to snap a picture of the well camouflaged duo.
Spot the Ptarmigan! (Lagopus mutus)
They are the only birds in Britain which turn completely white in winter and are referred to as ‘Snow Chickens’ in North America. Next time you’re in the hills keep an ear open for their recognisable croaking call which you can listen to here http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/p/ptarmigan/index.aspx
Would you like to try an upland bird survey? The BTO Mountain Transect Surveys are done by volunteers and you don’t have to be a skilled birder to do them! If you’d like to combine some walking in the beautiful highland landscape and help record important sightings of our upland bird species then maybe you’d like to try a transect of your own next year. Here is a link to more information on how to take part and free resources including simple bird ID guides for upland species http://www.bto.org/national-offices/scotland/our-work/whats-up/mountain-transects
Whilst making our way to the start of our transects we spotted a few nice plant species too such as Dwarf Willow, Stag’s horn Clubmoss, Alpine Meadow-rue and lots of Alpine Lady’s-mantle.
Some Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea) showing off it’s startling red seed capsules, a food plant for Ptarmigan.
Badger and Thomas pass a patch of Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpine) which was widespread on the mountain slopes.
We also came across a little bit of Juniper (Juniperus communis) on Beinn Achaladair. Juniper is under serious threat in Britain and Plantlife Scotland is calling on people to take part in a Scottish Juniper Survey. If you’re interested in getting involved there is more information on the Plantlife website at http://www.plantlife.org.uk/about_us/news_press/scottish_juniper_survey
Don’t forget to check up on the blog again soon to find out about the team’s week on Handa Island!
One week spent on the Isle of Arran practicing bat surveying techniques and it’s safe to say the ‘Experts for Nature’ have all gone ‘batty’.
The team were joined by bat experts John Haddow and Stuart Spray of The Scottish Leisler’s Project and taught how to use bat detecting technology such as the Anabat & Songmeter aswell as how to identify recordings of particular species. They recorded the rare Leisler’s bat (Nyctalus Leisleri) and some of the team even got a clear view of the species itself during a dawn survey (pictured below).
Thomas with the teams Anabat and attached BatNav which gave each bat recording a GPS location.
Helen puts out the Songmeter for the night and the team still worked on despite the rain.
It is a bat, honest.
At the beginning of the week the team watched Andrew Dobson from Titley Scientific (the company that produce the Anabat) and Stuart Spray setup a remote sensing Anabat; powered by an external battery and recharged by a solar panel. This new piece of technology will be left within the grounds of Brodick Castle for just over a month allowing those involved in the project to download bat recordings from the comfort of their office without even being on the island… clever eh? This equipment has already proven its worth; recording the rare Nathusius pipistrelle (Pipistrellus nathusii) just one day after leaving the island! A first for Arran!
Stuart and Andrew (Titley Scientific) get a helping hand erecting the remote Anabat system.
It seems the system may have found the proximity of at least one roost not far from the castle; James spotted a bat flying from the tree when the system was being set up. Stuart Spray got his endoscope out to investigate, but only time will tell if this is in fact a Leisler’s roost.
During the week Corinna Geockeritz, a National Trust for Scotland Ranger at Brodick Castle, was on hand to help us out; even taking the team to visit Brown Long-Eared roost. It also turns out the Leisler’s bats seem to like hanging around her cottage, looks like the team have found base camp for their next visit ;-). The team will be back on Arran for ten days in July to try and radio-track Leisler’s bats; they hope to find a maternity roost and to confirm a breeding population on the island.
The team practiced erecting harp traps (pictured above) and mist nets in preparation for the July trip.
Other highlights of the training week included spotting a Badger (Meles meles), Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus), Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and the rare endemic Arran Whitebeam (Sorbus arrenensis)!
Badger with endemic Arran Whitebeam (Sorbus arrenensis).
Red deer (Cervus elaphus)
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos).
Beautiful Sunrise at the pond where Leisler’s were witnessed by the DESS team.
The team are excited to return to the Island after such a successful week; with scenery and wildlife like this it’s no wonder.
Rare Bat Species Recorded on the Isle of Bute.
Two weeks ago Helen took the team’s Anabat (an advanced piece of bat detecting equipment) to the Isle of Bute where she recorded the island’s first ever Leisler’s Bat, Nyctalus Leisleri. Leisler’s bats prefer open habitats with old woodland and bodies of water such as rivers and lochs, which the Isle of Bute has in abundance. Helen suggested that there was a good chance the species could be present, and hopped on a ferry to investigate. It transpires that her theory was correct; she recorded Leisler’s Bat samples at Loch Fad (pictured below) and Loch Ascog.
Loch Fad (photograph by Kirsteen Connor).
This is exciting news for the island and moreover the Scottish Leisler’s Project, as Helen’s record has significantly extended the known range of the species in Scotland. She also recorded Daubenton’s and Pipistrelles at various locations around the island.
As part of the bird surveying element of the course, the DESS team are taking part in the BTO/GWCT Woodcock Survey. This national project aims to calculate a robust population estimate for the woodcock - a bird that is thought to have suffered a considerable reduction in range over the past few decades.
The woodcock is the only species of wading bird in the British Isles that has adapted to breed in woodland, both broad-leaved and coniferous. Therefore, the team travelled up to two woodland sites near Loch Tay and Loch Tummel to carry out the first of the surveys. Things looked promising as our survey areas looked like prime woodcock territory!
We used our GPSs to record the grid coordinates of our survey sites:
We found other things along the way, such as (suspected) pine marten scat, a red deer skull (modelled here by Rachel), and a very distant view of an osprey!
The nocturnal and cryptic nature of woodcock make this species particularly difficult to monitor using traditional survey methods. Therefore, a special survey method is used which involves counting the territorial ‘roding’ flights (undertaken by male woodcock at dusk and dawn) to estimate the number of males present.
Roding woodcock fly in circuits at a height of 3-30m above the woodland canopy whilst making repeated whistles and grunts. The sound can carry up to 300m and is thought to attract the attention of females in the area. (Click here to listen to the woodcock’s amazing call on the RSPB website.)
As dusk approached, the team split in two and each sub-team made their way to their survey sites.
The surveys last for 75 minutes, starting 15 minutes before sunset. Thankfully, each sub-team recorded woodcock roding at their site, and there were a few other fantastic sightings including: common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle bats; roe deer; a fox; a badger that stumbled within 10m of one of the sub-teams; and two palmate newts that decided to migrate across one of the woodcock recording forms!
We’re all really looking forward to our next woodcock survey!