Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Chicks all over!

I have been out surveying the seabirds all day and can proudly announce that we now have chicks under all our species except for our fulmars, which always breed much later than any of the others. Today I saw my first razorbill and kittiwake chicks, which are again about a week earlier than usual, and last week we had our first herring gull chicks. So if you want to come up and see the seabirds here at St Abbs, now is a great time, but don't leave it too long as the first guillemot chicks could be jumping from the cliffs in about a week, and I would guess that by two weeks time the vast majority of our guillemots will have gone. There will still be plenty of other seabirds about but when you remove 30,000 plus, it makes a big difference to the seabird experience!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chewing things over..

Last week we had a rarity at St Abbs; not only did we manage to get all the people we needed together on the same day for a site visit, but we also got good weather so that we could explore the property (or should I say properties) in comfort! The reason for the gathering was to discuss future grazing management for the Trust's land at St Abb's Head and on the length of coastal slope that the Trust owns to the south east of Fast Castle that we call the Lumsdaine Strip. Both areas of land are within the wider St Abbs's Head to Fast Castle Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a designation which reflects the area's importance for wildlife, not least the grasslands.

Now, contrary to what many people believe, grasslands to not just manage themselves. Depending on what you want to manage them for, you may wish to exclude grazing, or graze them just at certain times of year, or use different types of grazers (because different animals eat different things and in different ways). So the object of this meeting was to discuss ways in which we might tweak the grazing management of these two parcels of land, as surveys have shown that we are mostly getting it right, but there are some areas where we might want to try a different tack.

The grazing management of both areas is tricky. In the picture at the top left you can see, behind the group of lunch munchers, the sort of slopes that we are talking about at Lumsdaine - not terribly horizontal, and also the land that we own is an island surrounded by land owned by others, over which we have no right of access. Then at the Head the underlying geology has produced a mosiac of small hillocks with thin soils (known locally as knowes) which where you find the flora of interest, surrounded by areas of thicker, more nutrient rich soils which promotes the growth of tall grasses which smothers any of the small herbs species. The photo on the right shows this quite nicely, the knowes have a flush of pink from the thrift and the areas with thicker soils show up bright green. But there is no way we can fence out each one of the knowes to exclude grazing on them but allow grazing in between, so we have to decide what is the best way of managing the flora rich areas.

Then there are additional issues such as plant species that are invading the grasslands, like bracken, gorse, thistles and nettles, and the best way to control them. Not to mention rabbits which impose a not inconsiderable grazing pressure (just four innocent looking bunnies can eat as much in a year as a sheep), and they breed like...well, rabbits, and their burrows cause a lot of damage. But in some areas the bare soil caused by their burrowing is a good thing for butterflies.

So all in all, quite a complicated business. But luckily we have considerable experience and expertise within the Trust that we can call on, and combining this with advice and support from Scottish Natural Heritage, and a good relationship with our tenant graziers we seem to be doing OK. Hopefully this meeting will help us put together a grazing management plan, including the way in which we will monitor whether we are getting it right or not, and this will not only guide our future management, but also help us apply for funding to help support this work.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Sounding things out...

Early May saw the launch of the St Abbs pARTicipate Project; pARTicipate being new initiative from the Trust's Education department, which seeks to explore and engage people with the Trust's conservation work, through the arts. At St Abbs the Trust is working together with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) and Scottish Borders Council’s Arts Development Team towards a new music composition. Composer, Howard Moody is being commissioned to write a piece that celebrates the significance of the coastal and marine nature reserves at St Abbs.

Enagagement of the local community is a fundemantally important part of the project and on 10th May P6 pupils from Coldingham and Eyemouth Primary Schools spent the morning in the classroom with Audio Artist, Pippa Murphy, learning how to make field recordings and then I went in to introduce them to the various seabirds we have at St Abbs. Then in the afternoon we all went up to St Abb's Head (picture top) to explore and capture the sounds of the seabirds and other environment sounds. The pupils will then create their own ‘Sonic Postcards’ of St Abbs and the sounds they have recorded will be encorporated into the new composition by Howard Moody. The composition will be performed as part of the SCO’s South of Scotland Tour in 2012.

The weather for the site visit was challenging as it was pretty windy, but we spent some time up at the Head recording the seabirds as best we could, and then sought the shelter of Starney Bay and recorded some of the sounds of the shore from sea level (picture below...recording the sound of scrunching pebbles). Pippa will be spending two days with the pupils next week working on their raw recordings, and I, for one, am rather excited to hear the end result of all their labours!

Later in the summer, it will be the turn of local visual artist, Sarah Riseborough, to enage the wider local community in the project. But more of that nearer the time...

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Get set for the Splash In!

The St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve (VMR) is holding its annual underwater photography competition, The Splash In, which this year will take place on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 27th and 28th August.

Now a well established event on any diver’s calendar, the St Abbs and Eyemouth VMR Splash In is in its 24th year and every year the competition attracts hundreds of pounds worth of prizes from our generous sponsors.

There are 45 places in the competition and to take part divers must register in advance by completing the entry form available on the VMR’s website www.marine-reserve.co.uk or from the VMR Ranger Georgia Conolly (gconolly@nts.org.uk) and returning it no later than 1st August. Alternatively registration will be available on the morning of 27th August at The Old School, St Abbs from 8am – 10am, although divers are encouraged to register in advance as the places will be allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Registering for the competition in advance will speed up the check in process on the Saturday morning, giving competitors the maximum time possible to capture what they hope will be a prize-winning image.

The competition categories will be: Marine Life Portrait (close up photos of the Reserve’s inhabitants); Reserve Atmospheric (showing the VMR’s spectacular scenery at its best and these shots can include divers in the frame) and The John Goldie Most Humorous Shot (use your imagination!). Competitors will be spoilt for choice in terms of subject matter as the coastal waters off St Abbs and Eyemouth and teeming with wildlife. There are kelp forests; soft corals; wrecks; reefs and grey seals to photograph.

The entry fee for the competition is £20 which includes entry into the slideshow of all the images on the Sunday evening. Full details, competition rules and the advance registration form are available from the VMR website.

Clair Jubb's close up of a shanny won 2nd prize in the Marine Life Portrait category and best overall image in show in last year's competition.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Looking at St Abb's Head through rose coloured specs!

St Abb's Head is covered in a pink haze at the moment which is due to the amount of thrift that is in flower. And what is really lovely is that the sea of pink is not restricted to the cliffs, it extends a bit inland as well so you get the rather surreal experience of seeing a carpet of sea pinks stretching down to the Mire Loch (pictured above), which is freshwater! Also on the cliff tops you can see the other common maritime specialist, sea campion, as well as the splashes of yellow bird's-foot-trefoil, and a handful of early purple orchids. But the very special plant to look out for on the cliff tops is the somewhat diminutive purple milk vetch, which is just coming into flower now. It may be small, but its perfectly formed (see below) and is a nationally scarce plant and we have the best populations of it in Berwickshire.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Congratulations...It's a baby Shag.

I was very surprised today to observe the first Shag chicks on the reserve, poking out from under their parents' wings. Although they aren't the cutest of offspring, just grey furry lumps with a head, it was a delight to see the seabird breeding season getting under way. Hopefully these will be the first of many.

As part of my widlife monitoring duties, I observe the breeding activity of Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) at four particular plots every 7-10 days or so. This is to monitor their reproductive success over the season, which helps us to judge the health of the population.

About half of the nests at one of my plots had chicks today, while the other three had none as of yet. These chicks are three days earlier than last year so more evidence of this year's early season.

Friday, 6 May 2011

New St Abbs and Eyemouth Dive Guide out now!

A new dive guide covering the coastal waters off St Abbs and Eyemouth has been produced by the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve.

Some divers may remember ‘The Grey Dive Guide’ which was first published in the 1980s by Carol Warman and the Berwickshire Divers club which at the time was considered to be an invaluable tool for exploring the marine reserve. ‘A Guide to Diving the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve’ captures the information contained within the Grey Dive Guide and updates it for modern usage. The guide is also illustrated with stunning photographs of local marine life and scenery which were donated by a number of talented underwater photographers.

The new dive guide is a 32 page A5 booklet printed in full colour throughout. It describes 18 dives within the marine reserve and has maps of all the locations. In addition the guide contains useful information about the local area including background information about the Voluntary Marine Reserve; a description of the habitats and marine life divers might expect to encounter in the coastal waters off St Abbs and Eyemouth; details on how divers can help protect marine life and get involved in the work of the Voluntary Marine Reserve and practical information such as what local diving services are on offer and useful websites to help you plan your trip.
The guide contains a large amount of information in a compact size: it will fit into most divers log books making it the ideal companion on your next visit to the Voluntary Marine Reserve, whether you are just visiting for the day or planning a longer trip.

The guide is on sale for £7 directly from the Marine Ranger or local establishments. To order your copy by post please send a cheque for £7 (+ £1.50 postage and packaging) made payable to ‘St Abbs and Eyemouth VMR’ to The Marine Ranger, Rangers Office, Northfield, St Abbs, TD14 5QF.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

All ship shape and bristol fashion?

Wednesday is volunteer day, and we have a team of 4 regular volunteers who come out and help us out as often as they can. Today, however, only John could make it, so he and I went out and polished off some jobs that needed doing but didn't need a group of people to do them. Things like shoring up a waymarker post for the all ability path leading from the visitor centre to Starney Bay, and getting the reserve boat ready for action.

Now, as you can see from the picture of the left, our boat may is not huge, but it is just what we need here at St Abbs. It is small enough to strap onto the top of the truck and drive across the fields to Burnmouth Harbour, where we then have to lift it over a barbed wire fence and carry it down the beach to launch. And its big enough (just!) to fit two people in it, one driving the boat and the other counting the nesting seabirds in the blind spots that we cannot see from the top of the cliffs. All we need to do now is have a test run on the Mire Loch to make sure everything is how it should be, then we are ready to take it out on the sea and count the birds.

I think this picture could be a contender for a caption competition, and as a clue I can say that John could be heard mumbling something about scrubbing bottoms!