Roy's blog

The New and the Old

Today, I was out early in a beautiful May morning to see one of my favourite sights and that’s the spring gathering of Arctic ringed plovers at my local estuary, Findhorn Bay. The reason I enjoy it so much is that they are so vibrant and full of life. Today’s flock numbered about 1000 birds mainly ringed plovers but also a good scattering of summer plumage dunlin and four sanderlings. They allow quite a close approach and you can see them feeding busily at the surface of the mud and every now and then one of them would jump up with a few flutters of its wings like kids wanted to get started with the race. I know that tonight or a few nights time the flock will take off, head north up over Scotland and then out over the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland and on to their Arctic breeding grounds in Greenland. It’s a privilege to see them on migration as it just gives me a lovely feeling of the world on the move and freshness of new life.

When back home at breakfast I received a phone call from a friend who told me that his father died overnight. His name was Reay Clark, he was 94 years old, and for me it has been a privilege to know him over the years. He was a farmer in Easter Ross and Sutherland, but much more than that he knew so much about farming and trees and land-use and people. He was one of my mentors in the 1980s and 90s when I wanted to know more about farming in the Highlands – I remember talking with him about the importance of cattle in improving the land in so many different ways when I was writing a document about cattle and conservation. In fact, Reay knew exactly what ‘keeping a farm in good heart’ really meant; sadly far too few farmers know what that means nowadays. A couple years back, when he was over 90, I called in at his farmhouse at Edderton and found him surrounded by books with boxes of papers on the floor. He was researching and writing a book about Cheviot sheep and his ancestors in north Sutherland. When published it was a fascinating history of that era in Highland life. I and many others will miss his wise words and friendship.

White Stoat Green Grass

Through February, I’ve been watching a most beautiful ermine, white stoat, visiting our garden. Talk about sore thumbs, the poor stoat is so obvious in a landscape lacking snow.  Long ago I remember winters with snow cover from November to mid March, when ermine were in their element.  This year the grass is growing long enough to harvest for my eight year old daughter’s guinea pigs.  Not surprising since there has been a series of beautiful sunny days since the New Year, in fact better than last summer!

I’ve been trying to photograph the stoat and finally managed the other day, albeit a long distance shot because just when I thought I’d get a close photo a wood lorry sent it scuttling over the bank. The other morning I saw a weasel darting across the garden, but then I’ve spent more time gazing out the window as I rest after an operation. It’s also given me time to read and think.

One thing that caught my mind in the papers was a forward look, by a Microsoft think tank, at jobs our children will be doing in ten years time. One of the ten “new jobs” was ‘Rewilding Strategist’. Good to see the need for ecosystem recovery being mainstream, but surely we should be doing that now rather than wait. And some of us could say “isn’t that what we are doing now!” But then may be it’s because we don’t call ourselves a “Strategist”. Oh well, I better redo my CV.

One book I’ve really enjoyed was The Neanderthals Rediscovered – a really fascinating read about them and our ancestors. It added ancient history to my two beautiful prehistoric stone axes, I found when a teenager birding along the Solent coast. Although in my work of restoring species and ecosystems, the problems are usually to do with modern human exploitation and damage, I’ve always been fascinated by our original role within natural ecosystems. For most of our history on earth, we’ve just been a very efficient apex predator in nature; the tipping point to becoming over-dominant is relatively recent. So can we and should we try to emulate our original role?

Yesterday I read an article in the Guardian magazine about the ‘wolf problem’ in Finland and the arguments about how many wolves there should be. Some say there are far too many and others say they have a right to be there and we should leave them alone. But it’s incorrect to think that 20,000 years ago we ‘left them alone’, the difference is that when numbers were high we threw spears and rocks at them, and hunted their young for furs, and when numbers were low it was not worth the effort. A sort of natural system, unlike the recent millennium with metal traps and poisons, and high powered rifles.

It’s very encouraging that conservation and legal protection can restore species, even the big predators in Europe, but what if our efforts are so successful that they may cause threats to other species or rural people. The ‘Rewilding Strategist’ is going to have to learn how to regulate species that boom in present day conditions to the detriment of others. Where I live in northern Scotland, the middle-guild predators, fox, badger, marten and otter, are thriving under societal changes and/or legal protection, and in the absence of the top predators like lynx, wolf and bear there are few natural checks on numbers.  As a great supporter of restoring species I can see the dilemmas ahead. I want to see beavers restored over much larger areas and the lynx brought back home, but I also recognise the need for robust management. To me the conservation of the species, as a whole, in as big a range as possible is more important that the conservation of an individual of the species. We are in interesting and challenging times, but the important thrust is to massively increase the areas of natural ecosystems.

New Year’s Day and our debt to Nature

I went out birding today trying for a New Year’s Day list but knowing that I will never again see 100 species on Ist January in the north of Scotland, as I did in 1975. Despite a surprisingly long period of mild weather there was a strong cold northerly wind blowing on to the Moray coast. There were big waves breaking over the harbour walls, so when I looked out from Burghead I didn’t manage to see any scoters or red-throated divers in the rough swell. For a ‘big day’ the weather was against me, I did not start at dawn, I stopped to first-foot friends and I’m not as good a birder now as then, especially hearing small birds. My last one at dusk was a woodcock giving me a total of 64 species.

A lingering flock of 48 waxwings in my local town, Forres, and eight bramblings feeding under the beech trees near Elgin were nice finds.  But the most poignant was the covey of 5 grey partridges just inland from Findhorn Bay. It is as though I now know them by name as these are the only ones I know on my usual birding route – they could be the last here of what was a common bird in the 1970s. And once those five die they are all gone! There were so many species that were easy to see then but have disappeared or become rare. Of course there are a few others that have become so much commoner, like pink-footed geese, and those that we have restored, such as red kite. But the general trend in species and abundance is downwards and it’s a stark reminder of the huge task we have to restore nature.

My wife often pulls my leg by saying “I guess you like that person because he agrees with you”. Don’t we all? But the real find is someone with an even greater vision. I’ve always said that 30 to 40% of our lands and seas must be for nature, if we and the other species on planet earth are to have a long future. So I was very encouraged, and concerned, when I recently bought and read Edward Wilson’s new book  ‘Half-Earth’. Prof Wilson argues that we need to dedicate half the surface of the Earth to nature. It’s a convincing argument and concurs with my view that nature conservation needs now to be about restoring and conserving very large functioning ecosystems, I mean very, very large, within which the conservation of individual species is achieved and the earth’s life processes are maintained. Even in Britain this is a mammoth, but essential, task.

All of us who enjoy, use or work with nature must stand up and fight for it, because at the moment it’s future is woefully insecure, despite sterling efforts by many people and organisations. Raise the issue politically, socially and economically. Demand a real change. We owe it to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, so that they will live on a good Earth. Why not buy a copy of ‘Half-Earth’, read it and then loan it to your MP, MSP or AM, with a note saying you want to meet them, once they have read it to find out what they intend to do. As Humboldt said 150 or so years ago,”The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” So please take on the challenge.

Just before Christmas, I read a very enjoyable book – “Bobby the Birdman” – an anthology celebrating the life and work of the Shetlander Bobby Tulloch. A great friend to many and the finder of the first breeding Snowy Owls in Scotland. See www.birlinn.co.uk

Thanks for following our conservation projects, website and blogs; and I wish you a very happy New Year and an excellent 2017.

 

Osprey summer time

Yesterday twelve young Scottish ospreys arrived at the reintroduction project at Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve in the Basque Country, after a British Airways flight from Scotland. They were placed in the special translocation release cages overlooking the estuary and will be fed fresh mullet daily until ready to be released in early August. From the cages the young ospreys will be able to see a 2013 returning male who has taken ownership of a nest but has not yet attracted a mate. This is the fourth year of our five year partnership project between Spain and Scotland to restore breeding ospreys to northern Spain. We collected the young, under a Scottish Natural Heritage licence, from nests in Moray, Nairn, Inverness and Caithness.

 It’s been a rainy summer in northern Scotland so breeding success has been very variable. Continuous rain, day and night, in mid June caused a number of failures with whole broods of small young dying. Once there are three days of continuous rain it is difficult for the females to keep their young warm and dry. In east Moray there were five rainy days which caused five out of eight nests to fail while twenty miles or so to the west most nests were successful with broods of three and two young at an ideal age for ringing. In Badenoch & Strathspey it was also a better picture although one nest had failed with small young, one nest tree was washed out by the flood and two are very late.

This summer the ages of the young are also very varied because the first adults returned as usual in late March and early April, and got on with egg-laying on time or even early, as with the Loch Garten pair. Then we had a period of cold strong northerly winds in the UK and western Europe which delayed the late returning adults. The latest young, this year, may not fly until the early days of August. It will be a long season before we can have an accurate account of how well the ospreys up here have done in 2016.

 

Wildcat & Lynx – always remember the bigger picture

Earlier this year, I started cataloguing over 60 years’ worth of field notebooks, diaries, lectures, papers and reports in the hope of writing books. Its time-consuming work, made more so by the number of fascinating letters and wildlife records which draw me back over the years. I’m surprised how often wildcat comes up although it seems I saw as many hanging dead from fences as I saw alive. In the 1960’s and 1970’s they were pretty widespread, whereas the other mid-sized carnivores were surprisingly scarce. Between 1960 and 1963, working as a full-time field ornithologist in the Scottish Highlands I failed to see a single pine marten despite actively searching for them. Badgers and otters were scarce, and I well remember an old crofter telling me that a fox he’d killed in 1952 was the first seen on the Black Isle for nearly a century.

I’m a great believer in history as an important part of successful wildlife management and essential to ecological restoration, nowadays called rewilding. It’s clear now that hybridisation with domestic cat has been at the root of the recent decline of the wildcat, but what of the other problems. My diaries don’t tell me, but I think I remember that the wildcats I saw, 50 years ago, whether alive or dead, all looked like wildcats rather than hybrids. Could it be that when wildcats were common, there was far less chance of them breeding with feral cats? Or catching diseases from them?

Clearly, in those days, killing by trap, snare, poison or gun reduced the numbers of mammals but that persecution seemed somehow to have a greater impact on the other middle-guild predatory mammals than on wildcats. May be because the others had more easily found resting and breeding dens. This almost certainly changed later in the century, when spotlights became an effective way of shooting predators at night, leading to the killing of more wildcats. Nowadays badger, pine marten, otter and fox (in some areas) are probably commoner than they have ever been in northern Scotland, yet wildcat is in serious decline. Could there be a link? Could the high numbers of its competitors put the wildcat at a disadvantage? I have a sneaking suspicion that it could.

With that thought, I believe it’s necessary to look at the bigger picture, not to concentrate solely on individual species but to think of those species’ place in larger ecosystems. We need to recognise that successful restoration of iconic species may be very difficult unless we think and act in a more holistic way. This brings me to the debate about lynx.

When I hear people say that we cannot bring back the lynx for fear of putting paid to the wildcat, I wonder if they really understand the functioning of ecosystems for wildlife conservation. I remember one winter riding through deep snow in a Carpathian forest and coming across a wildcat eating the remains of a roe deer under a hazel tree. I had earlier followed the footprints of a lynx along a forest track for maybe 2 km. My hosts, experts on large carnivores, knew exactly where I had seen the wildcat because they had seen it with its kill in the snow several days earlier. To them, lynx and wildcat were both simply part of the wildlife community in the mountains of Romania.

The return of the lynx to Scotland truly is an essential part of restoring nature to our country and re-establishing a functioning ecosystem to show the real benefits of rewilding. Instead of posing a threat to wildcat, the impact of lynx on fox and badger would undoubtedly, in my view, benefit the wildcat by reducing the numbers and ranging behaviour of its competitors. In the very long term, true recovery of wildcat may not be possible without restoring the lynx. Time to get on with it?

Bearded Vulture, bones and the importance of calcium

Over the last week Britain’s first ever recorded bearded vulture (lammergeier) was seen in Gwent and then on Dartmoor. It seems likely it was the young vulture seen in Belgium on 9th May and thought to be a wild bird from the mainland European population, which is increasing. It must have had a shock in our country because its natural food is large dead mammals and our farm regulations now insist on all dead livestock being cleaned up from the countryside. A bit like us going to the supermarket and finding all the shelves empty. The bearded vulture is the last species in the chain of vultures which eat and clean up large animal carcasses. After the griffons and black vultures have feasted on the carrion, the bearded vulture is the ultimate scavenger by breaking the large bones and eating the marrow. Nowadays in our sanitised countryside there’s not much opportunity for bearded vultures, nor burying beetles or bone fungi.

In fact the removal of calcium, in the form of bones, from the countryside is a major change in the last hundred years. This is particularly problematic in the uplands where calcium is scarce, and the annual loss in the form of sheep and cattle bones is massive, as stock go to market. It must be thousands of tons per year, and nowadays even the bones of most red deer are carried off the hills. But is this loss of calcium a problem for the ecosystem? I learnt recently that a scientist had shown that the eggs of the ring ouzel, the mountain blackbird, had become thinner and thus more vulnerable, probably because of acid rain causing losses of calcium in the uplands. I’m not suggesting female ring ouzels could eat bones, before laying their eggs, but there’s no doubt that any bone or deer antler left in the countryside is quickly gnawed by creatures seeking calcium.   It’s all part of the web of life in which we live.

My personal view is that no calcium should be removed from nature reserves and protected areas, so that the carcasses of culled deer are left in situ. This would be a major contribution to carrion eaters whether invertebrates, birds or mammals, and then for fertilising plants or hosting fungi. This may run counter to our fixation on health and cleanliness, and I’m also told by my reserve manager friends that it would cause a problem by increasing the numbers of foxes and badgers. But that leads on to another issue about large functioning ecosystems, where high numbers of middle-guild predators require control from the return of lynx and wolf. It’s interesting where thinking about a lost bearded vulture takes us – I just hope it finds a big dead animal in Dartmoor National Park. Or for goodness someone put out a couple dead horses! You never know it could become the first step in vulture recolonisation of Britain.

Green J is back again!!!

Earlier this month, I had a phone call from a friend telling me that an osprey nest on his land, which had not been used for nearly a decade, was being rebuilt by a pair of ospreys. A few days later, we were amazed to identify, with our scopes, that the female was in fact the 25-year-old named Green J. I had ringed her as a chick in Easter Ross in 1991, and she had bred at a nest near Carrbridge in Strathspey since 1995. She was a good breeder producing many young, some of which were translocated to Rutland Water and later to Andalusia and most recently to the Basque country. She was the very first osprey in the UK to be fitted with  asatellite transmitter. That was in 1999 and we learned that she wintered at a reservoir in central Spain and did not go to Africa. The transmitter was removed after a few years but in 2013 we satellite tracked her and her mate blue XD, and after all these years she was still returning to the Gabriel y Galan Reservoir in Extremadura. Last summer, Green J was suddenly kicked out of her nest by a large young female osprey and she also lost her mate. We tracked her wandering up the River Spey and then lost contact and were worried that she might have died. But we were wrong because the Spanish ornithologist, Javier Prieta, was sure he saw her at her favourite reservoir this past winter. Clearly he was correct because she returned again to Strathspey and yesterday when we monitored the nest we could see that she was incubating eggs. She was with a new mate and we hope they have a successful summer. I also checked her old nest where last year’s intruder had also found a new mate, because blue XD died in Senegal last winter, and it looked as though she was just ready to lay eggs for the first time. Yesterday we also visited Red 8T, a very well-known male osprey to the bird photographers who regularly visit the Aviemore fisheries; he was circling with an intruding male Osprey close to his usual nest, while his regular mate was incubating eggs. Near my home in Moray, the old female Morven has also returned for another year and has mated to the same male as last year and is incubating eggs in the same nest. Last year she had two late young which were below weight when we went to ring them. One of them I collected under licence for the Swiss Osprey reintroduction project while the other rapidly thrived on his own and was successfully reared. I’ve followed the fortunes of these ospreys for well over 50 years, watching individuals start breeding and disappear, some lasting just one year or a few seasons while others continue on into old age like the veteran Green J breeding at 25 years. It’s funny really because it should teach me that I should accept that I’m also getting old and can’t climb trees like I used to when there were just a few pairs breeding in Scotland. Oh well, I can’t climb the bigger trees any more but I can enjoy beautiful sunny days like yesterday in the company of ospreys.

 

Peregrine memories of an old friend

This evening, in memory of an old friend, I pulled out an old red Ordnance Survey map – number 9 – which Bernard Hendy sent me, long ago, with all his peregrine nests marked on it – a total of 15 sites with breeding pairs in one summer.I learnt this week that Bernard had recently died during a visit to Zambia. I first met him in the 1970s when I was Highland Officer of the RSPB. It was a time when we spent huge effort protecting peregrine falcons from egg and chick thieves. It was not long after the pesticide era had decimated the bird through the UK but numbers were still good in the Highlands. Unlike today, the north-west corner of Sutherland had high numbers of breeding peregrines and these birds brought me into contact with Bernard. He had moved to the Balnakeil craft village as a candle maker. He had a great love of falcons, in fact, his son was called Merlin. I really enjoyed spending time with him in the Durness area and remember vividly one time when he phoned in great excitement to tell me he had found two nests well under a mile apart south of Rhiconich. A few days later I was with him – we looked at the pair on a cliff above the loch – they had young – and then hiked across the other side of the road. There was the second pair. It was a high point for peregrines in the north-west corner of Scotland and we were lucky to have such an enthusiast living there and keeping an eye on them each summer. Bernard left Scotland and we lost contact until a few years ago when he returned with his wife Irene to live at Durness. Immediately there was that old friendship again and I learnt of his great interest in the conservation of tigers in India. My sincere condolences, of course, go to Irene and his family.PeregrineFalcon

Great news – Cromarty’s back on track

Early morning check of my emails gave me three lots of data from Cromarty’s transmitter. I was really disappointed when the transmitter stopped working on 14th March and I wondered whether he had been lost over the Sahara desert on migration. But I was wrong and it seems that either the transmitter went on the blink or the local mobile phone mast has been out of action for a month. Anyway today’s data showed that Cromarty was still living at the same wintering site in southern Senegal and each day 5th to 10th of April he had flown out to fish in the Atlantic Ocean. It is really fantastic that the transmitter is working again, and fingers crossed that it continues to do so, because then we should be able to track his return migration to Scotland. This bird is coming up to 3 years old so should be looking this summer for a nest site and mate. It’s about time that he started his northwards migration so I’ll be checking regularly to see when that happens. On Saturday I checked his favourite roosting area near Aviemore where he spent time last August, but there was nothing on the most likely roost tree. Not surprising as he was still in Africa after all. It’s a reminder that when satellite transmitters fail it doesn’t necessarily mean that the bird has died.

I’ve had a great few days monitoring the osprey nests in my study area and just over half of the birds back at their nests. For once there have been no nests needing rebuilding after the winter – no severe wind damage this time.  I always enjoy finding old regulars back at their nest sites and many of them were there. The male Osprey Red 8T was back at his nest with his regular female, and on the previous morning I watched the female named Morven perched beside her nest with her last year’s mate. Both of those transmitters are old and no longer work. I was looking at the weather forecast last night and it didn’t look very good for the Bay of Biscay, with a nasty low pressure giving strong easterly winds likely to blow a lost migrating ospreys well out into the Atlantic Ocean. Definitely weather conditions to hug the French coast and then there will be a battle against northerly winds through the United Kingdom. Oh well that’s what’s living in nature means. Survival of the fittest and the luckiest.

Loss of an old favourite – Osprey Beatrice found dead in the Basque Country.

I was getting very worried about Beatrice as no signals had been received since 13th March. The weather was still very wet in Northern Spain and she would have found fishing very difficult in the turbulent rivers. This morning my worries were confirmed by an email from my Basque friend, Aitor Galarza of the Urdaibai Osprey Reintroduction Project telling me that Beatrice had been found dead.

This afternoon Aitor emailed again with the following message

“Hi Roy

The body was found yesterday by a birdwatcher (Carlos Area) on the banks of the Urumea river close to Hernani (UTM 586604, 4785491) and passed to the gamekeepers of the area. I have just talked with the head of the forest guards and he has told me that the bird was without the head and looked extremely weak. They did a x-ray in order to rule out that it had been shot. He thinks it died because of weakness and later the head was eaten by an small carnivore. He will send the transmitter and the rings to the Aranzadi Society of Sciences in San Sebastián. From there they can send you the transmitter by mail or I can take it with me when going to Scotland this summer. Attached some pictures by Carlos Area.

Best wishes,

Aitor”

Beatrice found dead by river

Beatrice found dead by river

What a great pity. I thought something might go wrong when she abandoned her normal stop-over location on the River Adour because her favourite fishing areas were no good because of heavy rain. She tried to find alternative fishing sites including going to two small estuaries in North Spain but again fishing was no good – cold water and floods. Turning into the mountains to find the smaller rivers was unfortunately unsuccessful and she starved to death.

Beatrice was an old experienced osprey coming into her 16th year but it shows that even old experienced ospreys make mistakes. She should not have left her wintering site in southern Spain so early and then she could have missed the worst of wet weather. Running into very wet weather in north Spain and south-west France is a hazard for UK breeding ospreys returning north in spring. Remember the old female Logie which got stuck for two weeks in 2008 in Urdaibai estuary and the young osprey, Fearna, died in Rioja region in bad weather in May 2013.

Beatrice was ringed as a chick in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire on 8th July 2000 by Ian Francis and Stuart Rae, and was one of three chicks. She arrived at nest B16 near Forres in Moray in 2003 and was joined later in the summer by a male. She then bred successfully for 12 summers, 11 times at this nest while in 2010 she bred at an old nest K02 in East Moray. She raised a total of 24 young in her life time – 8 broods of two young, two broods of three and two broods of one young. She paired with three different male ospreys.

I caught her in July 2008 and fitted a GPS transmitter which gave us amazing data into the eighth year. Beatrice was a slightly unusual osprey in that she did not migrate all the way to Africa, but wintered in southern Spain, an area which is only a stop-off point for most Scottish ospreys.  On her migrations she had a favourite stop-over location on the River Adour in south-west France. Beatrice became a firm favourite to many people, especially my Scottish friends who could watch the nest from their house, and the local people who searched for and found Beatrice at the River Adour and the River Guadiaro in Spain. On one occasion she also visited Rutland Water.  We will all miss her. I hope a new female will take her place at nest B16 and I hope that bird may look forward to as long and as successful life as Beatrice’s.

Beatrice at Eyebrook 2008

Beatrice at Eyebrook 2008