Friday, 29 July 2016

Our guillemots and their chicks have now left the cliffs, but today a couple of visitors made comment of the likeness of guillemots to penguins, and asked the difference between the two species. The first thing I could think of is the fact that penguins can't fly. This then lead to an obvious follow up question; why can't penguins fly, but guillemots can?

Biomechanical research has shown that whilst in flight, guillemots expend the highest amount of energy reported for a bird! The energy demands are 31 times greater than the energy they expend when at rest. These little birds are clearly at home in the water, as they use substantially less energy than most other birds when they are diving.

 It appears that for penguins, the story is a similar one. At some point in history, flight simply became unsustainable due to the very high energy costs, and the birds became flightless. Perhaps one day the guillemot will also be flightless? Who knows.

To quote an energetics researcher, "Good flippers don't fly well". Jill

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

This very obliging young Cuckoo was hanging around on the road to the lighhouse yesterday morning. It was also spotted by a visitor who reported it to the St Abbs Visitor Centre on Monday, so hopefully it will hang around for a few days. Last seen on the stretch of road just before the second cattle grid, above the Mire Loch. Lizy.

Cuckoo Cuculus canorus

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The vast majority of the guillemots have left the cliffs now, and headed out to sea until next year. Those that remain are the ones that will have lost their first egg early in the season, and re-laid which means they now have chicks that are not old enough to leave the cliffs even though all their neighbours have. They are definitely missing the safety in numbers that guillemots usually enjoy, crowded together on ledges. Its rather sad to see these birds isolated and out in the open, desperately trying to protect their chick from being predated by gulls and crows.

The white guano shows where all the guillemots were until they left the cliffs in the last few weeks. Can you spot the four lonely birds left behind?

The middle bird is hiding the chick under its wing. You will often get groups of birds protecting a chick, and sometimes you will see one bird with more than one chick under its wing.

The chick is now out in the open - not too far off being able to leave the cliffs by the look of it, but it could still be got by a gull which has hungry chicks of its own.

It must be incredibly stressful for these birds. The guillemot lying down has a chick under its wing, and the standing bird is literally fighting off the herring gull which is many times its size.


Friday, 15 July 2016

Have you heard of Pokémon Go? No, me neither until today when Jill told me she'd bumped into some folk who had been hunting down Pokémon characters using this new app, down by the Mire Loch. After some patient explaining and a demo from both Jill and Lizy (they are of the Pokémon generation) I am now much enlightened! For those of you who are intrigued - its a is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game. The app lets players roam a map using their phone's GPS location data and catch Pokémon to train and battle. Here's the girls in action - catching a Pokémon right outside the office! It looks like a great way to get the younger generation to explore places that they might now normally want to visit. I wonder if we'll get lots of folk loitering outside the office though! Liza.

Fulmar-ks for observation...

I had my first sighting of a fulmar chick today, which is exciting. Fulmars are the seabirds that spend the longest time on the cliffs - you can see them from February, when they are prospecting for nest sites, right the way through till Ocotber. However, they are the last of our seabirds to breed, laying eggs around the end of May, which hatch in mid July. As they do not build a nest, and spend quite a lot of time sitting about on ledges suitable for nesting, it is often ...difficult to tell whether they are breeding or not until later in the season when the chicks are large. I suspected that the bird in the first two pictures was breeding. It has been sitting tight on the same ledge since May, as the splatters of guano attest, so I have been checking it out regularly. Today I spotted the egg shell next to this adult bird, which was also holding its wing in a way that suggested it had something underneath it. So I sat and watched and waited. My patience was rewarded with a brief glimpse of a chick. 

So, now I had proof of the presence of chicks, I checked out some other apparently occupied fulmar sites, and the second chick I spotted was much easier - as it was sitting next to its parent rather being brooded under it. As you can see, even when young, they are just a mini, fluffy version of the adults, with the tube on the beak already.

Keep your eyes peeled! Liza

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Up until recently, our knowledge of seabirds has been mostly restricted to studies and monitoring carried out at their breeding colonies. As many seabirds spend more of their life out at sea than at the colonies, there is more about seabirds that we don't know, than we do. However, with advances in modern technoology, scientists are now able to find out more about where the birds go when away from the colonies, and its fascinating stuff. Springwatch viewers will be aware of the tagging of arctic terns on the Farne Islands, and look what has been discovered by the Alderney Wildlife Trust during their work with gannets. Liza.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

One of the reasons that St Abb's Head sports numerous nature conservation designations is because of its species rich grasslands. Now is a great time of year to get out there and see the huge variety that the reserve has on display. Just in case you cannot get herein person, here's a wee virtual tour!

Lots of splashes of yellow about; some with be bird's foot trefoil, which you can find in lots of different areas on the reserve. Thick carpet is on the clifftops at Foul Bay, you can see a blush of thrift (which is past its best) in the background. Bird's foot trefoil is a pretty common plant, but is rather beautiful with its splashed of red from which its alternative name of bacon-and-eggs arises.

Its really worth checking out any splashes of yellow you see on the reserve, because a lot of it will be this wee beauty at this time of year. Called the common rock rose, its actually not at all common, and its one plant that we take great care to manage the grasslands in favour of. Because it is a scarce plant in its own right, but also because it is the food plant of the caterpillar of the nationally scarce Northern brown argus butterfly. This picture was taken on the south facing side of Kirk Hill.

On similar well drained slopes you may come across carpets of purpley-pink plants, Wild Thyme. With their beautiful aroma when crushed they are a wonderful feature of the Head. Also common for the Northern brown argus, as they provide a nectar source for the adults. The yellow plant in the bottom right hand corner of this picture is ladies bedstraw, another flower you will see a lot of at this time of year.

Often mixed in with the wild thyme you may find this exquisite little flower, eyebright. This plant grows in lots of habitats from lowland moors to mountain tops and survives by being a semi-parasite - attaching its roots to and stealing nutrients from the roots of other plants. It gets its name from the fact that the flower looks like an eye, and in days gone by it was also thought to have medicinal properties for the eyes.

In the shorter grassland at the top of the cliffs you will also see patches of low growing white plants. These will most likely be heath bedstraw, a close relative to cleavers or sticky willy. You will find this in most grasslands that are not overgrazed.

In some areas of the reserve there is taller vegetation, much of which is a mixture of different varieties of grassland and also common sorrel. The sorrel's red flowers give these areas of the headland an orangy red hue at this time of year. In Tudor times common sorrel used to very prized for its sour taste, which was used in cooking very much like lemon is today.

Not all plants are so abundant and easy to spot from afar. This fluffy plant, Hare's-foot, clover, takes a little more finding. It likes to grow in sandy and rocky places, I came across this one at Horsecastle Bay. Its a plant that scarce in Berwickshire.

The wildlflowers of St Abb's Head are not only valuable for nature conservation reasons, they are also the icing on the cake - carpeting the stunning landscape with colour.


Thursday, 7 July 2016

Now is a great time to come to St Abb's Head to see the chicks as all of our seabirds, except the fulmars, have young at the moment. They are at all levels of development from recently hatched to on the verge of fledging, depending on the species and their breeding biology. Here's a few pics to give you a flavour. 

The shags are our first seabirds to lay eggs, but the chicks stay at the nest for longer than other species before they fledge. Some have fledged already and can be seen in gangs on rocks down towards the bottom of the cliffs (their plumage is brown rather than greeny-black). The chick in this shot are not quite there yet - pretty big, but still a lot of downy feathers. Look for shag nests toward the bottom of the cliffs, often on pretty wide ledges.

Herring gull chicks have amazing camouflage and if sitting still, are incredibly difficult to see. Look for herring gulls dotted in amongst the colony, or on the flat toped rocks around Horsecastle Bay.

Most of the guillemot chicks have jumped off the cliffs already, and the number of adults has thinned out a lot too. This makes the remaining chicks much easier to see, but don't delay, they won't be about for much longer! Look on the ledges with lots of birds that look a bit like penguins on them.

Razorbill chicks are very difficult to get shots of as razorbills tend to nest in crevices around the edge of the colony, and the chick is either hidden away in the crevice, or under the wing of a parent as in this shot - the bird on the left. But as they as pretty big at the moment, now if probably your best chance to see them. I will keep trying to get a decent shot!

The kittiwake chicks have just about all hatched now, and are big enough not to be hidden away under the adults. Look on the vertical cliff faces where they build their nests.

Fulmar are the most enigmatic of our seabirds - they sit and sit for ages, from February on till July, with nothing apparently happening. If you're in the right place at the right time, you might catch a glimpse of an egg, which are laid from late May. The chicks hatch in mid July, and so nows the time you might see some action! Look for fulmar dotted around the top and the edges of the colony.

Happy chick spotting! Liza.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Jean, Ernie and I were out thistle thwacking this morning. And what a beautiful morning for it, warm and hardly a breath of wind. There are four species of thistle on the reserve - spear, marsh, slender and creeping, and it is only last of these that we control. This is because, left unchecked, it would take over our species rich grasslands. Ceeping thistle is amazing - reproducing in two ways; via thousands of downy seeds carried on the wind, and also by putting out runners underground. We use a very simple tool called a dashel basher to cut the thistles down before they set seed. After a few years repeated thwacking it makes a real difference. Its also really satisfying, quite addictive and a really good stress buster! Here's a shot of Jean and Ermie in action! Liza.

Monday, 4 July 2016

I was out on the cliffs this morning and I spotted 2 puffins on Crooked Carr. That may not sound very exciting, but we have spent most of the seabird season seeing not a single puffin, however hard we looked, not even on the water. So I was fearing the worst - that puffins have ceased to breed at St Abb's Head. We have seen more on the water in recent weeks, but these are most probably failed breeders from the Farne Islands or the Isle of May. But to have them up on the cliffs is a sign of possible breeding. I even managed to get a couple of pics. Liza.

Friday, 1 July 2016

It's nearing the end of the chick rearing period for our guillemots! I went up to Foul Bay one evening to watch the chicks jump off the cliffs, and despite not managing to get a photo of this nail biting moment, I did witness this incredible sunset which set Foul Carr ablaze. Absolutely stunning! Jill