Roy's blog

Sea eagles on Sunday!

My friend Mike Crutch of A9 Birds invited me to join him and two Inverness birders, Sam and Debbie, on a day trip to Skye to photograph sea eagles. Although I have been involved in the reintroduction and conservation of white-tailed eagles since 1968 in Fair Isle, I’d never been on one of the amazing boat trips to feed them. I had seen loads of incredible photographs back to the earliest days of the 1990s off Portree.

Weather forecasts were poor in August until Steve Hooper of Wild Skye Bird Trips phoned Mike to say there’s a brief calm period on Sunday. As we drove through the Ross-shire mountains it was looking good and our arrival at Carbost pier revealed a calm sea. Soon the MV Wild Skye was heading through Loch Harport, with a distant view of a sea eagle, before passing the lighthouse and aiming for a section of the great western cliffs of the Isle of Skye. A perfect morning – we could see the hills of the Uists away over The Minch and two porpoises broke the glassy surface.

We headed to the main cliffs where very quickly we found the pair of sea eagles and their exceptional brood of three flying young. This pair of eagles, like many others around the coasts, learnt early on that fishing boats are good for scraps of fish. This was taken up by tourist boats giving people incredible views of these great birds and excellent opportunities for photography.

The boat engine was cut and we could hear the young eagles calling. The adults were looking down from the cliffs as they knew full well what happens next – Steve throws a dead fish well away from boat. “Here he comes” as the male plunged from the cliffs and in a sweep of huge wings grabbed the food from the water to the noise of camera shutters. What a fantastic sight – something I never foresaw when I released those first four young Norwegian sea eagles on Fair Isle in 1968. Close up sea eagle viewing has become one of the most exciting wildlife experiences in modern day Scotland.

In a sweep of huge wings the adult sea eagle grabbed the fish from the water (photo by Roy Dennis)

Listening to Steve’s enthusiasm for the sea eagles I thought of another era at this very same cliff. There were no sea eagles when I first visited Skye in the early 1960s but I knew of their sad history as I’d often read Harvie Brown’s county faunas written at the end of the 19th century. He detailed the sad history of persecution and extinction, as well as individual visits, such as the Victorian collector on 20th April 1868 to this very cliff, who took two eggs and shot an adult. As one of the adults circled out to sea to take a fish from the water with a backdrop of the dramatic sea stacks called Macleod’s Maidens, I thought how times have changed. There are now over a hundred pairs of white-tailed sea eagles in Scotland; they are admired and enjoyed by thousands of people, locals and visitors, and contribute remarkably to jobs and incomes in fragile rural communities.

 

 

 

Osprey translocations – one completed, one new start

We’ve have had an incredibly busy few days here in the Scottish Highlands monitoring osprey nests, ringing the young and collecting ospreys for translocation projects.   In the last month we had some pretty awful weather including downpours in the first week in June; afterwards we found that two broods of young had died from exposure and lack of fish.  Careful monitoring in late June showed me that most pairs were active and had young.

Our team came together on Thursday with Tim and me on fieldwork, our ace tree climbers Ian and Fraser; Emily took on fish preparation and feeding duties, helped by my 8 year old daughter Phoebe, Aitor arrived from Bilbao and Moira held the fort and produced great meals and hospitality. Our first day was Thursday – 7 am to 9:30 pm, 340 miles round trip to Caithness and Sutherland meeting old and new friends,  collecting five young  ospreys,  identifying some old breeding adults from their colour rings and a lovely view of an adder.

Friday was the sort of day I dread – it rained overnight and we experienced on-and-off drizzle and Scotch mist throughout the day. Nevertheless we collected 6 young in east Moray and at two nests the male birds had been having trouble catching enough fish and one chick was well below weight.  So removing a sibling resulted in saving the other.  Once the chicks were in their compartments in my garage, with the other young, they were soon eating fresh trout, courtesy of Rothiemurchus fishery.  Next day we visited Badenoch & Strathspey and nests near my home and our total climbed to 15.

Checking chicks at a nest in Caithness

Sunday saw our last day of visits. One nest was an epic climb for Ian up a great Douglas fir and my tele-photos of the ospreys overhead showed the female was different to 2016. It was white ring PE – my old friend Morven which I caught and satellite tagged in 2008 – she winters on the Mauritania coast and her stop over is in an estuary in North Spain. Now one of her chicks will be released not far away near Bilbao. This is her third different nest – I guess she moved this spring because her old mate did not return until 2nd May and she got fed up waiting!  At our next nest we found that one of young was entangled in baler wrap collected from the field as nest material by the male.  I cut it off – if we had not visited the nest for a ringing it would’ve died.  Not the first time I’ve seen this.

Expert tree climber Ian reaches another nest.

Careful consideration is given before selecting chicks for translocation.

Morven (white/black PE) circling over her nest – one of her chicks will be translocated to the Basque Country.

That gave us twelve chicks for the Basque country project at Urdaibai estuary near Bilbao and as I write Aitor and the young ospreys are at Heathrow en route to Spain. This is the completion of the translocation part of our project; five years and 60 young. It was great to learn of the first pair established at a nest this summer, as well as 6 males in North Spain and another in France. In two hours time the other eight ospreys will be taken by Tim and Emily to Poole Harbour, where Paul and Jason have the new accommodation, hacking cages, all organised. A very exciting new project, with the team in Dorset, to restore breeding ospreys to the south coast estuaries; we can say then that the “mullet hawk” has truly returned.

A brood of three young ospreys. The bird on the right will be translocated to Poole.

It’s a real privilege to work on these projects and as I say, in present-day jargon, our principal stakeholder is the osprey itself – that’s why we take such care of them. And then there is the support and friendship with so many people to make these projects work including Jane, Robert, Duncan, Brian, Derry, Alan, Malcolm, Mike, Pete, Ben, Gabriella, Jason and Paul.

The osprey collection team 2017 (Aitor, Ian, Roy, Moira, Phoebe, Emily and Tim) (photo by Mike Crutch)

Appalling rain, sodden ospreys, vulnerable chicks

Yesterday was the most appalling day of rain; it started overnight and just kept just bucketing down all day. By evening the small river across from my house was a raging torrent and as I looked out into the gloom before going to my warm bed, I just could not help but think of the female ospreys on their tree top nests trying to keep their young ones warm and alive. I was sure they would have been absolutely soaked and they would need to be really good mothers to keep the chicks sheltered. And the males would find it really difficult to find fish in the flooded waters. This morning the rain was still pouring down and everywhere was flooded. At least I knew from the weather forecast that it was due to stop at midday, but the female ospreys didn’t and they just had to sit there crouched over the young, open to the elements.

At midday it did stop, within an hour there was a nice breeze, and soon the sun came out. Late afternoon I decided I would go round and monitor the nests in the closest part of Moray to my house. At the first nest, B01 – what I still call Logie’s old nest, the male was perched in the sunshine on his favourite dead Scots pine and his mate was carefully feeding her young in the top of the larch tree. Already their feathers were dry and he had obviously just brought in a fish. The young at this nest are under a week old so I could see her putting tiny bits of fish down into the nest but I did not see her chicks. At the next site, the female was stretching her wings above the nest, quickly brought a small stick back and added it to her big eyrie and then shuffled back to keep her brood warm. Next stop it was domestic bliss in the tall tree by a barley field; female feeding young and her mate perched on the side of the nest – he again must have just brought home a fish. It was beautiful watching them through my telescope against the evening sun.

I next checked on Morven, an old well-known female. She was the last one to lay eggs in this area and when I scoped her nest from my car I could not see anything. But then just the white top of her head poked above the edge of the nest. She was sitting very tight incubating eggs and keeping very low down in her nest. At the next site, the earliest breeder in this area, the chicks must have been recently fed for they were lying quiet in the nest while their mother stood on the edge preening her feathers. My final visit was to the eyrie used for many years by Beatrice; the new female there was sitting high in the nest and she was brooding very small young. Six pairs of ospreys and all had come through the appalling weather safely. These female ospreys really have to put up with some bad weather and I’m always impressed by how well they protect their young from very heavy rain – I’m told we had 2 inches in 24 hours!  But what I do know is that if heavy rain continues for more than two days and nights, young ospreys do die in their nests. Thankfully not this time.

New beginnings

Last month I spent a few days in the Basque country to see how the Osprey reintroduction project was progressing with my colleague there, Aitor Galarza. So far this year they have recorded six translocated ospreys returning from Africa to the estuaries on the Bay of Biscay – all of them males. In April, the male which has been guarding a nest in Urdaibai reserve, exactly where the young Scottish ospreys were released, attracted a female Osprey to stop. All looked good, she was on the nest for some days and blue N1 was excellent at providing fish, but after feeding up she left him and flew on north. A big disappointment but we have seen this happen before in other projects, such as the translocation of Scottish ospreys to Rutland Water in the late 90’s. It’s always a question of patience and suddenly a female will decide to stay and the recolonisation of lost breeding areas begins. The first female to breed at Rutland Water was not one that we translocated, but one that was persuaded to stop off on her journey north by displaying males with nests.

Tim Mackrill was one of those who saw these things happen. He started at Rutland Water as a volunteer when he was at school; then went on to do a degree at the University of East Anglia and subsequently join the staff at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. By this time I knew him as “young Tim” as opposed to my great friend Tim Appleton the founder and manager of Rutland Water Nature Reserve – who to me was “old Tim” – I should have said “older Tim”. We got to know Tim better when he came north to research a dissertation on the fishing strategies of ospreys in the Highlands for his university degree. More recently, I was delighted that he researched the mass of satellite tracking data that we had built up on ospreys migrating from UK to West Africa – including the very first use of satellite transmitters in 1999 and our ground-breaking use of GPS and GSM transmitters with Google Earth mapping and immediate display on our websites. This resulted in Tim gaining his Ph.D. at University of Leicester. I was then very excited that he asked to join my foundation to help us carry out exciting projects on birds and mammals. It’s a new beginning for us and I am so happy that the future looks bright as I get older – we have changed our name to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation to reflect our broader reach and it would be great if you would like to help us continue with our bold and proactive projects. Click here to find out how you can help.

Over last weekend, I got good news from North Spain. When Brian Etheridge and I were there in May, Aitor showed us some estuaries further to the west where two males were located. We met Carlos, a local birder, at an estuary holding a single male and encouraged him to get his man-made nest up quickly. Within days we learnt that the male took it over, started adding nest material and then attracted a potential mate – an unringed female – his photo to right. Let’s hope she likes the plentiful mullet and this male, and that next spring she will return – it’s too late to breed this year. Another step in the project started by Aitor and his colleagues to restore ospreys to North Spain. We are proud to be partners.

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.