Monday, 23 April 2012

Garden ringing in Sutherland

The weather in the first few weeks since arriving could not really be described as suitable for mist netting but last weekend and the before provided good opportunities to see what has been eating the food from the newly purchased feeders.

Last weekend I positioned the 30' net in front of and parallel to, a line of tall mature trees - conifers and a single beech - that serve as the southern boundary to the garden and within which the feeders hang. I had been hoping to catch House Sparrows approaching the feeders as they fly through the garden from the neighbouring guesthouse run by our landlord Geoff and his wife Liz. 

This was met with a small success for the target species with seven trapped but not much else was caught as most birds approach the feeders through the trees thus requiring the net to be set perpendicularly to the tree line. So this weekend, after a quick chat to Geoff's son Ross a pair of loppers changed hands and light pruning commenced. A rudimentary ride was created allowing the 30' to be erected such that birds filtering through the trees would be intercepted.

With the new net placement the catch was almost double and several new species were caught including five Siskins, a species which is being seen in increasing numbers at the feeders. Several smart Greenfinches were also trapped on their way to the feeders.

 Adult (6) male Greenfinch (left) and 2CY (5) male Siskin (right).

The ringing was split between the morning and evening so in the afternoon I took a trip down to Brora harbour to see what would be using the rocks at high tide and was pleased to find a small flock waders including 18 Purple Sandpipers, five of which were wearing coloured leg flags fitted as part of a study by members of the Highland Ringing Group who have gone on to fit a further sample of this species with light level geolocators. Two Turnstone and a couple of Knot were also present.

Roosting Turnstone, the bird on the right 
is coming into breeding plumage

15 April Totals - 12 new
Coal Tit - 1
Blue Tit - 2
Great Tit - 1
House Sparrow - 7
Greenfinch - 1

22 April Totals  - 20 new, (3) retraps
Dunnock - 2
Robin - 1
Coal Tit - 1, (1)
Blue Tit - (1)
Great Tit - 3
House Sparrow - 4
Chaffinch - 1
Greenfinch - 3
Siskin - 5, (1)

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Wind farm update

Survey work at the wind farm continues apace despite the odd day of really bad weather. As can be seen from this vista over the wind farm snow is still a feature in the landscape and despite capping the surrounding hills with a beautiful white blanket that contrasts spectacularly with the crystal clear blue sky, the recent spell of wintery weather seems to be badly hampering the breeding efforts of the Golden Plovers. Many are still being seen in pairs indicating that nesting has not yet taken place as the incubation is shared, with the male taking the day shift. In previous years of the project several pairs would have been on nests by this time with most starting to settle. Time will tell what sort of impact the weather will have had on their breeding success.

View looking north over the wind farm

Common Lizard basking on my Weatherwriter

Monday, 9 April 2012

And Caithness...

On Sunday a small expedition was mounted to explore the nearby town of Helmsdale and venture across the border into Caithness. Once a fish and chip lunch had been consumed in the snappily named 'La Mirage' we journeyed on the A9 out of Sutherland and into Caithness heading to the small fishing village of Dunbeath. We were looking to discover small pockets of seabirds and weren't disappointed with seeing Black Guillemots from the end of the jetty, their red feet clearly visible as they dived under the waves in search of food. Meanwhile an early Wheatear was seen hopping around the top of the beach as we set off towards the cliffs to check for Fulmars and Razorbills that had been seen coming in off the sea.

Fulmar on cliffs at Dunbeath

A loosely arranged colony was found with birds starting to pair up and some vigorous squabbling was in full swing. Razorbills were also on the cliffs but in the next bay and as the tide was high we couldn't easily get round so will save that for another day.

Other birds of note included three Red-throated Divers on the sea by Brora harbour.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Arrived in Sutherland

After a week spent near Aviemore attending hill skills and 4x4 driving courses in preparation I have finally arrived in Sutherland ready to start my summer job working as a research assistant with the RSPB looking at the impact of a wind farm upon breeding Golden Plover. The role will involve lots of surveying in the wind farm and two neighbouring control sites as well as catching adult Golden Plovers and their chicks and fitting them with tiny radio transmitters to allow their foraging behaviour to be tracked.

Since arriving the recent spell of unseasonably mild weather has broken bringing extremely poor wintery weather meaning that we have had to delay surveying as many birds and the Golden Plover in particular are spending their time feeding at lower altitude where the weather is not so harsh. Snow was not expected and will have certainly prevented the Golden Plovers from establishing their territories on the blanket bog where the wind farm is located and flocks numbering 50-60 birds have been observed feeding on sheep fields in Strath Brora though which the River Brora runs.

The down time has however, given us time to familiarise ourselves with the local area and birding hotspots. An interesting selection of species have been seen within the first week of being up here with a couple of locations being particularly productive. Brora harbour and the surrounding beaches have been good for sea birds with small flocks of Long-tailed Duck being present most days along with varying numbers of  Common Eider. There was talk of a male King Eider having been seen in the area but it proved elusive. Sandwich Terns have started arriving whilst Gannets can usually be seen offshore. A few Razorbills can often be spotted bobbing on the waves with the odd Fulmar almost touching the sea as it glides between the white horses. On one visit a large flock of over 100 Knot were seen using the rocks just north of Brora harbour mouth as a high tide roost, endlessly jostling for position as the high tide lapped the rocks they stood on. One day a Peregrine was seen hassling the Redshanks which come into the harbour mouth at high tide.

Looking north from Brora beach

Loch Fleet a few miles south of Golspie on the A9 is a National Nature Reserve and a component of the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet SPA and RAMSAR sites. The reserve consists of a fresh water lagoon separated by a sluice from an estuary with extensive tidal mudflats used by waders and a population of grey seals. The lagoon has been packed with birds on recent visits with highlights being Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Pintail and the first Osprey for the year. The river flowing through the estuary has held over 30 Red-breasted Mergansers and numerous Goldeneye.

 View towards the mouth of Loch Fleet

Ringed Plover on the beach at the mouth of Loch Fleet

A variety of inland sites have provided gems such as Black-throated Diver, Raven and Dippers which can be found on many small burns throughout the area. One of the first wind farm visits produced a female Goshawk but with small flocks of Fieldfare being seen at lower altitudes as well as the Golden Plover being seen foraging in the sheep fields in Strath Brora, it is clear that sadly, the cold snowy weather is not over just yet. It does seem odd though to be seeing Fieldfare in the same view as newly arrived Wheatears. Hopefully we have seen the worst of this brief return to wintery weather and we'll be able to start surveying up at the wind farm