Wednesday, 10 December 2014

All in due Gorse…

Now that our busy summer season is over we Rangers can finally catch up with practical management tasks. Recently we have been carrying out Gorse removal on some of our SSSI Grassland.

Most people who visit St Abb’s Head will know that we have an extensive area of Gorse. In May/June, and to a lesser extent in late autumn, it’s at its most spectacular. The headland transforms into a vibrant yellow forest. Walking the paths around the Mire Loch you are hit with the sweet coconut scent of the blooms. As well as being visually spectacular it can also support a wide range of species, providing excellent ground cover for many mammals and birds.

So why remove Gorse…
Gorse is a strong plant and a prolific invader. If left unchecked it can quickly form a monoculture and take over large areas of open grassland. More sensitive species such as grasses and wildflowers find it impossible to grow as the Gorse forms a dense layer of needles and masks out the light.
During the summer our grasslands are abundant with wildflowers including Thrift, Wild Thyme, Common Rock-rose and rarer species such as Purple Milk-vetch and Spring Sandwort. This carpet of colour in turn provides food plants and nectar for a range of interesting butterflies and moths.
Our aim is not to remove Gorse completely but to prevent the plant from invading our Grasslands.

How do we remove Gorse…
Gorse can be removed relatively easily using a number of techniques. Our chosen method is to cut the Gorse at ground level, using loppers and bow saws, and to then treat the cut stumps with an approved herbicide. This method has the least impact on surrounding vegetation or on any archaeological features. We only carry out Gorse removal outside of the bird breeding season to avoid disturbing nests.

The photos below show before and after a busy morning of Gorse clearing. Thanks to our hard working volunteers... Cheers guys.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Getting stuck in

Hello everyone, I’m Lizy the new Assistant Ranger at St. Abb’s Head and I’ll be working here for the next few months.  I’m really looking forwards to getting down and dirty with the St. Abb’s Team after spending the last two summers working as a Ranger at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, an altogether more civilised affair!  I am very lucky to have the chance to come and work here after finishing my summer contract, and this placement will hopefully help me to get some valuable experience over the winter months.  Being from Edinburgh I’ve been to St. Abb‘s Head many times over the years, and I’m keen to get to know it better, and to give something back to a place that has given me a lot of fond memories.

Most of the work Liza and Jack have planned for me will be outdoor practical tasks, as many of the wildlife surveys are finished for the year and this is the time when we catch up with improving the reserve infrastructure and doing practical habitat management.  So far I’ve already been covered in mud helping Jack to improve paths around the Mire Loch.  I’m also really looking forwards to controlling the gorse which has started to invade the species rich grasslands which are such an important part of the property.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sun, Sea and Cetaceans

Hi all, James here. It's been quite sometime since we  updated the blog (we've all been incredibly busy) so I thought I'd take some time to discuss how I'm getting on in my role as "assistant ranger" and more importantly how our seabirds and other species are faring so far this summer.

I'm currently in my third month on the reserve and quite frankly I'm having the time of my life! St Abb's Head truly is an amazing place and no two days are ever the same. I've been made extremely welcome during my time on the reserve and am extremely grateful to the National Trust for Scotland and the St Abb's Head team for the opportunity presented to me. Like I said before no two days are the same at St Abb's Head and thus far I've been presented with some of my greatest wildlife encounters to date, both in and out of work hours with some of the highlights being minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, badgers and a stunning red kite (only the second record for the reserve). The recurring nature of my current role means this position will hopefully be available for many years into the future so to anyone looking to volunteer I'd offer nothing but encouragement! It really is worth it!

As many of you may know a large part of my work at St. Abb's Head was centred around assessing the productivity of breeding razorbills and guillemots on the cliffs here, the latter of which had never been done before! Well the data is collected, the reports have begun and the auks have left the cliffs on mass with their chicks in tow! Though I'm sad to see them go after spending so much time studying them over the past months initial evidence from my surveys points towards a successful year for both species with razorbills faring much better than at the time of the last survey in 2008. As for the guillies, we have little to compare the results to but with around fifty percent of chicks fledging it appears the species as a whole has fared well.

Our auks may have left but there is still lots to see here at St Abb's Head with many of our other breeding seabird species still in the process of rearing chicks. A visit during July/August may produce views of kittiwakes, fulmars and shags, all of which still are still feeding chicks. True to the nature of the season it is the passage seabirds that are the real avian highlight of the summer though to date no rarities have been sighted from the reserve. The common species are present however with a glance out to sea potentially turning up manx shearwater, common scoter, sandwich tern and both great and pomarine skua, all of which have been noted of late. Of course there is more to see than just birds and the summer season is perhaps the best time of year to spot some of cetacean species with minke whale, bottlenose dolphin and harbour porpoise all sighted from St Abb's Head recently alongside a few grey seals. If you're extra lucky you may even turn up the years first risso's or white-beaked dolphin, or perhaps even an orca! Just remember to keep us rangers up to date if you do ;-)

Fulmar enjoying the sun on the Black Gable

Yellowhammer looking extra radiant in the sun!

Plenty of Small Copper about at the moment, can you spot one?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Seabird Spectacular...

We are now in the middle of the busy seabird season here at St Abb’s Head. Most of our species now have eggs or young (some are even beginning to fledge). See below for a short account of what each species is getting up to at the moment?

Herring Gull
An early nesting species with many nests already containing medium sized chicks.

Another early nesting species with the majority of Shag nests now containing young (some quite large). Fledging imminent.  

Some birds still have eggs although the majority have now hatched. The first jumplings* are already taking to the water.

*Jumplings. At 18-37 days old Guillemot and Razorbill chicks will leap from our vast cliffs to the safety of the sea below. At this stage they have not developed flight feathers and some birds will inevitably misjudge the leap and hit the rocks below. Jumplings are surprisingly hardy and bouncy but a few do succumb to the hungry Herring Gulls. Chicks usually jump under the cover of dusk.
As Guillemots but slightly later. Again many birds have eggs and chicks. Expect jumplings* late June early July.

Guillemot and Razorbill

Many of these solitary nesters are now on eggs. These birds will spend more than 50 days incubating eggs with a further 50 days before chicks fledge. Expect chicks early July.

The first eggs were discovered on the 30th May and the first chicks were found on the 18th of June. Chicks are still relatively small but growing fast with currently abundant food.
Kittiwakes, set for a better season than last.
It's not all about the seabirds though... Our Cygnets are growing by the day on the Mire Loch.

Friday, 23 May 2014

May I be of assistance?

2014 marks an important milestone for the team here at St Abb’s Head with the opening of a new long term voluntary placement allowing would be rangers to experience life on the reserve and gain some practical experience in the field of conservation. We were lucky enough to have a good few applications and I am delighted to announce that our new Assistant Ranger, James (pictured left), started work with us at the start of May and is currently settling into life here at St Abb’s Head. Here’s what James has to say about himself.

Hi everyone. I’m James, the new Assistant Ranger here at St Abb’s Head. For the duration of my time here I will be posting using this red colour.

Where to start? I’ve been here for a fortnight now and already I’ve found myself in love with St Abb’s Head. Must be the sea air! It truly is a great place to be and is vastly different to my previous surroundings in Cumbria where I studied BSc Animal Conservation Science for the past three years. I love a challenge however and am really looking forward to experiencing the more practical side of conservation!

So why St Abbs? Well, simply put my main interest throughout university and beyond has always been birds. What better  place to learn the ropes so to speak than a site that hosts 45,000 breeding seabirds, numerous farmland species and of course the regular rarities that send local birders into a frenzy whenever they drop in. Secondly, I’m a local lad so to speak having grown up just down the coast in Northumberland. As such volunteering at St Abbs allows me to directly partake in the conservation of the same stretch of coastline that has provided me with many fond memories since my childhood. Finally, experience! There’s only so much you can learn with your nose in a textbook. This role will undoubtedly help broaden my knowledge as well as giving me a taste of practical conservation.

This being my first real experience of a coastal reserve it seems I have arrived at exactly the right time with the first shag chicks having already hatched, guillemots and razorbills sitting tight on eggs and kittiwakes adding the final touches to their cliff side nests. Exciting times! Couple this with the steady passage of other interesting birds such as spotted flycatcher, common sandpiper and ring ouzel and the sheer abundance of butterflies and you have the makings a wonderful spring!

What next? Well the next few weeks will see me helping Liza and Jack out with a host of tasks around the reserve but also beginning to monitor razorbill and guillemot breeding productivity. The latter of which has never been done before! Obviously it’s going to be a challenge (guilles aren’t the most obliging of research subjects) but all will be well I’m sure! For now I’ll leave you with a few photos snapped around the reserve during my first few weeks.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Jack's Back!

Hello everyone,

I have returned for another year as Seasonal Ranger/Naturalist at St Abb’s Head and this time I’m in for the long haul. This year I’m looking forward to spending even longer on the reserve, I’ll be at St Abb’s Head until January 2015. I’ll be doing all manner of rangery tasks, from fixing paths and monitoring seabirds to cleaning the visitor centre and picking litter.

So what’s happening out and about on the reserve, well our seabirds are returning to the cliffs for another breeding season. At this time of year Guillemots and Razorbills come and go from the cliffs before eventually settling down to breed around late April. Fulmars and Kittiwakes are also beginning to return and Shags have already begun nest building. Soon the cliffs will once again be a busy and noisy place.

At St Abb’s Head during the spring and autumn we are lucky enough to get more than our fair share of rare and scarce migrant birds. The projecting headland provides the perfect stop off point for migrants following the coast north to summer breeding grounds. This week we have recorded our first Willow Warbler, Ring Ouzel and Wheatear of the year. Be sure to write your sightings in the Nature Centre log book.

Please take extra care when crossing farmland to get to the reserve at this time of year, ewes and young lambs have recently been moved into these fields and dogs should be kept on leads. Also don’t approach young lambs to get that perfect photo as this can cause stress.

We have some exciting plans for our summer events this year. Firstly we will be testing out a new means of engaging with the public with our newly termed ‘Pop-up Ranger’ information points, also did somebody mention boat trips... check back here for updates.

(Once again my blog posts will appear in this Dark Green font)

See you out and about on the reserve. JI.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A foot in the door...?

Do you fancy the opportunity to live and work on a spectacular nature reserve, and feel like you are making a difference in the world? If so, this position could be for you!

We are looking for an Assistant Ranger to join the Ranger Team at St Abb's Head.

Duties include: biological monitoring (including seabirds and butterfies); practical countryside management (including strimming and control of invasives); helping to maximise the visitor experience; contributing to the on line presence of the property.

What we are looking for in an applicant: A passion for wildlife and the great outdoors. Some knowledge / experience in the relevant field. Enthusiasm, flexibility and a desire to learn essential. You will need to be willing and able to undertake physical work (sometimes strenuous) in all weathers, and be comfortable working near cliffs.

What you will get from us: On-the-job training, experience & shared accommodation (including utilities).

Interested? Contact Liza Cole,, for more details and an application form (no CVs please).

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Life's a beach...

In February each year, hundreds of people all around the UK go out and walk along their local beaches looking out for dead seabirds.  This may seem somewhat macabre pastime, but what they are doing is taking part in the National Beached Bird Survey (BBS).  The results of this national survey are used in conjunction with those from other European countries to document trends in chronic marine oil pollution and to promote adequate methods of controlling illegal oil discharge to help reduce seabird mortality.  The project has been running since the 1970s, so it has an impressive data set, but the RSPB (who coordinate the project) are always looking for folk to help out on their local stretch of coast.  So if you would like to add a purpose to your beach walk, whilst also feeling like you are doing your bit to help with seabird conservation then check out this link then why not consider joining in.  Go to for more information.  I have walked 4 out of my 6 beaches so far, and am pleased to say that I have found no oiled birds.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

First Footing!

Over the last couple of months my gang of trusty volunteers (whose numbers have been swelled by a new recruit, Barnie) and I have been doing a fair amount of footpath maintenance. Winter is a good time to do footpath work as it is when the paths are at their wettest so you can see where the drainage problems are, and where more surfacing is needed. Clearing out blocked drains, topping up surfacing material and cutting back brambles and gorse are never ending tasks. Maintaining footpath furniture like gates, stiles, steps and boardwalks to ensure that they are all in working order, is important too. And also making sure that the paths are wide enough for the folk who are going to use them to be able to do so comfortably. This is especially important with our All Ability Trail, which, as the name suggest, enables folk of any ability to get to a viewpoint overlooking the cliffs at Starney Bay. The path needs to be of a prescribed width in order for wheelchairs to be able to pass along it, but grass gradually grows in from the edges causing the path to get narrower over time. So we have been digging back the encroaching grasses by hand, which is hard but satisfying work. 
Ernie and Barnie working on our All Ability Trail

Hopefully all the effort we have put in will help make people’s visits a more enjoyable experience. We take great care to make sure that any footpath work we do carry out doesn’t look too manmade or jar with its surroundings. So if you do come and visit, please don’t expect to be able to walk around without getting muddy. The best we can do is make sure you don’t get too muddy – this is the countryside after all!