Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A wave from St Abbs...

There have been tremendous seas followed by high onshore winds over the last couple of days, so I thought I would head down St Abbs harbour at high water to see what was occurring; and as I suspected there were some spectacular waves breaking over the harbour walls. I was particularly keen to see how the repair works on the sea wall are going, as these have involved taking down sections in order to completely rebuild them. As you can see to the right of the photo, there are still some holes in the wall, and the sea is getting through, but not apparently causing any havoc when it does.

The repairs being carried out to the sea wall are part of the project to build a Marine Research Station at St Abbs. If you would like to find out more about this project then please check out their website at http://www.marinestation.co.uk/StAbbs.html.

A call for support for Marine Protected Areas for Seabirds

The following is an excerpt from the Seabird Group Newsletter which I thought would be of interest:

"...there has been a recent whirlwind of activity around the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK’s seas. Much of the impetus for this comes from the passing into law of the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act and the Marine (Scotland) Act in recent years.

The creation of this legislation has been much welcomed by the environmental NGO community – the culmination of over a decade of campaigning supported by a huge swathe of the British public. One of the major successes of these laws was the legal duty placed on Ministers to designate a network of protected areas at sea – particularly for nationally-important habitats and concentrations of species which receive no protection through EU legislation (the Birds and Habitats Directives).

The processes for selecting these sites differ across Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland, the process is science-led, with proposals for nature conservation MPAs brought forward by SNH, JNCC and Marine Scotland. In England, four independent stakeholder-led groups were convened to nominate Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) for protection. In Wales, given the high level of territorial waters already designated under EU legislation, the Welsh Government is leading on the selection of a limited number of ‘highly protected’ MCZs. These national level sites will prohibit any extractive or depositional activities, and aim to compliment the existing network of MPAs in Welsh waters.

As you would expect, the RSPB hoped that these MPAs would fill in the gaps for our nationally-important seabird colonies – presently protected on land through SSSIs but lacking protection in maintenance areas adjacent to their colonies and at important foraging sites offshore. In particular, we expected that black guillemot – the only seabird species in the UK which cannot be protected by marine Special Protection Areas – would be protected by the new national level designations. Without pre-judging the outcome of the site selection process, we hope that key areas for this species will be protected in Scotland, the UK stronghold for tysties – particularly the far north.

It is thus a major disappointment that, in England, seabirds – as well as some other mobile species – have been largely excluded from the ‘nationally-important’ site designation process (though one site for black guillemot is currently proposed in the English MCZ network at St Bees Head in the north west). In Wales, the restricted number and size of MCZs will offer very little in the way of additional protection for seabirds or other mobile species. In both cases, this is in spite of the relative simplicity with which colony extensions to protect maintenance activity areas could have been identified using agreed methodologies already applied to identify these extensions for SPAs across the UK (albeit that only those in Scotland have thus far been classified). Identifying key seabird foraging sites is admittedly more difficult – but not without precedent, and tracking technology is already revolutionising our understanding of seabird foraging – RSPB, working with partners across Europe (as part of the FAME project - www.fameproject.eu - see SGN115 Oct 2010), is using GPS technology in an attempt to proactively inform such designation. How key areas for seabirds are included in the Scottish site selection process remains to be seen – but we are continuing to engage with Marine Scotland, SNH and JNCC through workshops and consultation responses in the hope that seabirds will be actively protected through the process.

It is especially frustrating that much of the rationale for the exclusion of seabirds from the national MPA selection processes has been the fact that all species bar black guillemot qualify for protection within SPAs classified under the Birds Directive – 30 years after the deadline for implementation of the Birds Directive in the UK, we have only three truly marine SPAs (all in inshore waters), maintenance extensions to SPA breeding colonies – although identified and agreed some years ago have thus far only been classified in Scotland, and there are no areas protected for foraging seabirds in the breeding season.

Many members of the Seabird Group have been actively engaged in MPA work as it relates to seabirds – and we hope that you share our concern about the creation of the UK’s first MPA network being a massive missed opportunity for our seabird colonies. If you have time, we’d appreciate your show of support by signing our pledge at www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition or by contacting your local elected representatives."

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Home grown

I was out with two of our volunteers, Ernie and Dave, today, planting trees to the west of the Mire Loch. For Ernie, this was the culmination of a many years patiently waiting as he collected the acorns several years ago, planted them out in his garden and then dug up the resultant trees yesterday in order for us to transfer them to their final resting place on the reserve today. They are in the shelter of the more mature trees that are already growing around the Mire Loch, and have been staked and encased in tree tubes to protect them from browsing deer, so hopefully folk who visit St Abb's Head in a hundred or even several hundred years time will be able to enjoy the fruits of our labours.

Seabird Summary 2011

I am pleased to say that 2011 was a good year for the seabirds - its been a while since we've been able to say that. We must be careful not too read too much into this though, population numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year because there are so many factors effecting the seabirds, but nevertheless, it is nice to be able to report good news for once after all the years of doom and gloom.

You may remember me reporting that the breeding season caught us on the hop somewhat this year, with the birds starting to lay eggs more than a week earlier than ever recorded before. So we had to start early with our monitoring too.

The first monitoring to start is the shag productivity monitoring which the Seasonal Ranger carries out, starting in April and carrying on through until all the shag chicks have fledged, which can be as late as September some years. Basically this involves following the breeding activity at nests on a series of fixed study plots throughout the whole season, recording the number of nests built, the number of eggs laid, chicks hatched and eventually the number of young fledged per nest. This means you can then calculate the breeding success which was 1.85 chicks per active nest for shags this year, the second highest on record! Picture top left - a shag, looking resplendent with its shag (from which it gets its name) all fluffed up.

Next off is the whole colony count of herring gulls and shags, and yes, this is what it seems - we count every single nest we can find of each species. This is quite time consuming as it involves walking all of the cliff tops, scanning the cliffs from every possible angle and vantage point in order not to miss any nests. The count has to be done over several days as it is pretty physically tiring going up and down all the cliff tops, and out onto all the headlands, but also mentally - it takes an awful lot of concentration! Then we go out on a boat (weather permitting) and count the areas that cannot be seen from land. Both shag and herring gull numbers were very similar to the last few years (with 220 pairs of herring gulls and 160 pairs of shag . Picture right, a herring gull chick and an egg - it is best to count them at about this stage, any later and all the chicks start to run all over the place and its difficult to work out the number of active nests!

Then I start the kittiwake productivity monitoring - which follows the same principles as the shag productivity. Again, the kittiwakes had a good breeding season this year, with 0.95 chicks being fledged per active nest. This may not sound very high, but it is significantly above the 25 year average of 0.63.

Next up I start on the auk monitoring - now as we have something like 33,000 guilliemots it would be madness to try and do whole colony counts of these each year, so we only do total counts every five years. But each year we count the number of guillemots and razorbills on a series of fixed plots, doing a series of counts in the first three weeks of June and then taking an average. This gives an indication as to whether numbers are increasing or decreasing from year to year, this year counts of these two species were up on last year. Picture bottom left, a razorbill chick, oft overlooked.

Then comes the whole colony counts for fulmar and kittiwake - again, following the same principles as the counts for gulls and shags...but much more mind boggling as there are so many kittiwake nests! Again counts have stayed about the same as the last few years with 4,688 pairs of kittiwake and 205 pairs of fulmar.

Then last, and very much least, is the puffin count. This involves counting the number of birds seen ashore on one evening in late June. This count doesn't take long as there are so few puffins at St Abbs, this year there were just 7 birds ashore.

So, all in all, the seabird monitoring is a pretty major undertaking and keeps us pretty busy. All the data we gather doesn't end up on a shelf in the Rangers' Office, but gets fed into a national database and so helps to add to the picture of how seabirds are faring in the UK as a whole. And as the UK is the breeding site of nearly half of Europe's breeding seabird population it is pretty important that we know what is going on, and if possible, to work out why, and is there anything we can do about it. Also, seabirds are excellent indicators of the health of the marine environment as a whole, so another good reason to justify all our hard work!

An Inspector Calls...

Last week we had the dam inspector visit us - and no, I'm not being rude, what I mean is that an engineer had to come and inspect the Mire Loch dam to make sure that it is sound. It is only a small dam, but under UK law at present, all dams must be inspected annually, and have an extra rigorous inspection every 10 years. This is to ensure that they are solid enough to hold back the water they are impounding and also any once in a century flood incidents that could possibly occur, so making sure that the dam is not causing any threat to either lives or property. It does seem a little over the top for dams such as the one at the Mire Loch, as if it did burst, the worst you would get would be a few paddling cows! But nevertheless, the law states it has to be done.

This year it was one of our 10 yearly inspections, so the whole of the top and the downstream surface of the dam had to be visible to see if there were any wet areas suggesting a breach. This is why we had to clear all the lovely scrubby vegetation off the dam before his visit - not just me getting carried away with the strimmer! And then he took measurements of the height of the dam (accurate to the nearest millimetre) at intervals along the crest to see if there has been any settlement since 10 years ago ie any places that were lower than others so might allow water to flood over.

I am pleased to report that all seems to be well, so Northfield Farm's cows can remain dry for a while yet!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Missing Links...

I knew there was something missing...a list of useful links. Well that was relatively easy to rectify - if you look on the panel to the right hand side of the posts you will see a list. I have also added a link for our Artist in Residence, Sarah Riseborough's, blog and flickr page for your perusal.

So now you can enjoy St Abbs any time of the day or night with just a click of a mouse!

Theres gold in them there woods...

If you go down to the woods today... then you might well come across people very intently peering into the tops of trees with binoculars. What they will be looking for is a bird called a yellow browed warbler which is a species that migrates south-west from its breeding grounds in Siberia, and often stops for a meal and a break in coastal woodlands en route. We see them most years at St Abbs, but there have been a good number this year so we have also had a migration of groups of birders searching them out. They are tiny, and dot about a lot in the tops of trees so its a pretty neck aching job to find them. Luckily there are also large numbers of goldcrests (picture left) about too, so even if you cannot catch sight of the YBW then you will be able to watch these beautiful little birds instead. This is Britain's smallest resident bird (weighing in at a mere 5-6g) and breeds in pine forests, but large groups of them get together and roam further afield in autumn and winter. They are about the same size as a YBW so a good way of getting your eye in whilst you search too!

But not everything that glitters is a goldcrest...there are also flocks of goldfinches flying around out there too (picture right). Most people are more familiar with these delightful looking birds as they are a relatively common site on farmland and open ground in the breeding season and regular visitors to bird tables in the autumn and winter. Your attention is usually drawn to flocks of goldfinch by their lovely twittery calling as they fly around, and they love to feed on thistle seed heads in late summer and autumn.

So, its an exciting time of year to be bird watching, as you never know what you might see. And St Abbs, being a headland sticking out into the sea, is a great place for birds to make first landfall, and refuel before carrying on with their mammoth journeys. So why not get out there and join the gold rush?!