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Rare Birds – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

fieldfareIf you were  considering  listing the rarest breeding birds in Scotland, including the Highlands, then the birds of prey would come to  mind such as golden eagle and sea eagle.  The golden eagles stand at around 400 pairs whilst the re-introduced sea eagles are at around 100 pairs.  Then there are a few birds that are even rarer such as the Slavonian  grebe with around 25 pairs that only breed within a small area around Inverness with their base at Loch Ruthven, a few miles south of Inverness where there is a RSPB Hide.    One of the ducks, the common scoter is very rare as a breeding bird at 80 pairs.  Looking at the small birds, one that readily comes to mind is the snow bunting that nest on the high tops with only 50- 60 pairs.

One group of birds that would  not readily  come to mind are the thrushes as after all there are an estimated 100,00 to 150,000  fieldfares wintering in Scotland and there may be around  1.5 million on passage.  Occasionally fieldfares will come into the garden in winter like the one I photographed here.   The same can be said of the redwings although the numbers are less  at 90,000 wintering birds, mainly from Iceland but also Scandinavia.    In contrast there  are up to 1 million  breeding pairs of blackbirds in Scotland and around 250,00 pairs of breeding song thrushes.  So where do the rare breeding thrushes come from?

There are only up to five pairs of fieldfare nesting in Scotland each year and, at 40 to 80 pairs, not that many more redwings. It always intrigues me as  to whether the few breeding birds of both species just ignore their relatives flying over.   Or do they join in and leave it to others to stay and breed, almost on a rota basis?   These thrushes migrate at night and you can imagine their call notes from the darkness above and the breeding birds on the ground  and choosing to ignore them!   Even when the redwings and fieldfares arrive on migration from Iceland and Scandinavia they only stay in the  Highlands as long as the food supply shuck as rowans hold out.  Once the berries  are gone they move on but do the residence breeding birds just ignore them again?

Redwings fascinate me the most perhaps because they bred a few years back just outside the garden in a line a dense blackthorn.   Their jumbling notes that go for its song seemed strange mingling with the song of the blackbirds.  I wondered at the time just how many such isolated pairs go undetected in the Highlands.   The nest in the blackthorn was several feet up but in Iceland,  where I have seen them, more often than not the  nest is on the ground.   Not only that but they also nest in colonies. Presumably this is because in Iceland there are far fewer predators.  The cup shaped nest  is built by the female and is of grasses, twigs and moss.  Only the female incubates the 4 or 5 eggs but both male and female feed the chicks.  If the female  decides on a second brood, that often happens, then  the male will carry on feeding the young on his own.   With so very few suitable berries available in the summer the birds feed on worms, snails, slugs and insects.   The first known pair to nest in Scotland was in Inverness-shire in 1932 and the numbers have grown gradually since that time.  The very low numbers make it difficult to assess any trends.

Moths – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Friday, June 24th, 2016

emperor mothGarden tiger, peach blossom, beautiful golden Y,  vapourer and Hebrew character are some of the names of the most fascinating  group of insects namely moths.   Despite the fact that there are over 800 types of larger moths we rarely see them as the majority are nocturnal.    Whilst all the butterflies are seen in daylight taking nectar or egg laying, the moths take over at night.     Whilst some of the moths, such as the ones listed above, are attractive, the majority are small and drab and we tend to overlook them.     Some get their names from the markings on their wings and two of these can be found in readers’ gardens.  One is the antler moth and the creamy markings on the wings really do look like miniature  deer antlers.   They have another interesting  feature in that they fly both during the day and at night.   The silver y moth gets its name from the tiny white mark on each of the forewings.  This can be read as a Y or as the symbol for the Greek letter gamma (y).  Like the antler moth they are unusual in flying both during the day and at night.  However, what is even  more fascinating about the silver Y is that, despite its sometimes very large numbers, it cannot survive our winters.  This means it relies on immigrants from the continent every year which seems incredible as the moths are only about 40 mm across the wings.

One of the most unusual  of all the moths is the attractively named emperor moth that is an impressive 83 mm across the wings. The adults have false eyes on their wings  and this acts as a defence mechanism in two ways.  If a predator such as a bird or a mouse approaches and the moth flashes its wings in annoyance the predator  may well  be put off by the flashing eyes.  If the predator persists it may think the eye on the wing is a vulnerable  part of the moth, namely the eyes on the  wings.  This means that if only that part of the wing is taken the  moth can still fly well so it is not a disaster.  The other feature of the emperor moth that is even more amazing is that only the males fly by day  whilst the females fly at night.   If this was not unusual enough, the moths have their own special way of attracting each other.  The  female, see the photograph, sits in the heather on open moorland, which conveniently is the food plant of the caterpillars, and emits a strong smelling hormone.   This attracts the male from some distance.  In some circumstances you can actually see the male quartering the ground to find the receptive female.

Although some moths do not feed at all as adults, others will gorge themselves at night from nectars rich flowers such as honeysuckle.  You can use this attraction to your advantage if you want to attract moths to get a closer look at them.   It is called “sugaring” and involves mixing various items to attract the moths to feed.  To make the moth mix take some brown sugar, molasses, a little red wine or beer and boil it up in a  large pot.   The end result is a sweet, sickly fluid and you paint this on trees or fence posts.  At night use your torch to look at the sugar and the surrounding  vegetation for any  moths that are attracted.    The first night may not be successful so try several nights application and then move to another site.  Good hunting!

Tracking Scottish Wildlife – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

pine martenIn the last two weeks there has been a dramatic change in the countryside with the trees coming into leaf and the grasses and other vegetation flourishing.    The different shades of green on the trees are fascinating and my favourite is the grey green of the aspen leaves but this may be because they are always trembling in the slightest braze.   Legend has it that the trembling is because it can never rest as it was cursed as the tree on which Christ was crucified.   In fact the leaves are trembling because they have long, flattened leaf stems. The “greening” of the countryside means  one major thing to a range of wildlife – cover and shelter.   At a time when many mammals and birds have young it means that it is relatively easy to hide from predators and disturbance.

However, to the field naturalists it can be frustrating and the only way forward is to become more of a nature detective.  This means that instead of looking for wildlife  you look more for the signs of where they have been and, hopefully, what they have been doing.   However, wildlife  has the advantage that there is so much cover that even if you see fresh signs it can still stay hidden.  Interestingly as far as the nocturnal  mammals are concerned such as fox, badger and pine marten the nights are so short that they need to be out in some daylight hours  just to feed enough. Droppings are a good  way  to see if any of these three mammals are present and it may surprise people to see just how many gardens are frequented  by them.  For example, with the pine marten, the droppings  are conspicuous being about ten centimetre’s long,  twisted  and twirled.   If you are lucky enough to see a pine marten ( see photograph) you can often tell individuals apart by the size and extent of the creamy yellow throat.   Droppings in general are best left where they are as more often than not they will be marking territory which is important.

Signs of feeding can tell you a great deal as I found out in my last visit to the tall pines at the road  end of Loch Farr in Strathnairn. I was looking for any scattered pine cones under the trees as they are a giveaway.  Some of the cones had been just stripped to the centre of the cone which is the work of a red squirrel.  In other  cones each scale had been split down the middle.  This is the work of the crossbill that has a beak that is crossed to extract the seed.  Interestingly a reader had reported  small parties of crossbills in that area a few days  before.  These would be family parties as if the cone/seed harvest is good the crossbills  will have already bred this year.   Tracks are also important but it needs to be a good print such as in mud to make identification easier.  River banks, gateways and roadside verges  are good tracking areas.   Once you find  that mammals are frequent the you can go back and look from a distance.  Remember it is important  that mammals should not be disturbed.

Considering how important  tracks and signs are  for the naturalists it is surprising just how few books have been written on the subject.  To my mind the best is “Nature Trackers Handbook” by Nick Baker published by Bloomsbury Natural History in 2013 at £14.99. The Nature Trackers Handbook is available direct from the RSPB.