Last week Steve and Ellen took a run out to the islands that are part of Loch Lomond NNR. There was hardly any wind, the loch was flat and they noticed strange birds dotted over the surface of the loch. Guillemots. Which is not what you would expect. Guillemots are birds of the sea, only coming ashore to maritime cliffs to nest in the summer. These birds seemed to be fishing though it wasn’t clear if they were actually catching anything. Also they were in their winter plummage with white patches on their checks and under the chin.
They weren’t the only people to notice strange guillemot happenings as there have been reports of dead guillemots washed up on shores all along the South West coast of Scotland. And Mark Stephens, the Radio Scotland Out of Doors radio journalist even found a dead one while walking on the West Highland Way at Crianlarich. So something was going on and though we didn’t know what, I knew people who did.
UK CEH are one of the top seabird research organizations in the world and they have been carrying out most of the seabird researcher on NatureScots’ Isle of May NNR. They have been doing this for nearly 50 years and researchers come from all over the world to see it. So I aksed them.
The word from their top researchers is that this is what is called a “wreck”. Sometimes in the autumn there is a combination of bad weather and a food shortage and this can catch out young and moulting birds. Some will starve as they can’t find enough food in rough seas while others are driven in land. These birds that Steve and Ellen saw were luckier than some and hopefully will find enough fish to keep going and eventually find their way back out to sea.
A single “wreck” isn’t an indication of climate change, they have probably always happened. However there is a worrying trend that they are happening more often as a result of there being bigger and more frequent bad weather events. More wrecks increase the death rate of the seabirds like guillemots and then their breeding rate can’t make up the difference and the population goes down. For some seabirds this is already happening.
So this is an indicator, just as David Attenborough was explaining on his latest TV programme, that everyone’s lifestyles can affect wildlife. Carbon-rich lives causing a changing climate that reduces wildlife populations is something that is happening right now across the planet.
With the turning of the year, the colour schemes of Flanders Moss are spectacular at the moment. A close look reveals the flowering heather, the leaves of blaeberries, bog asphodel and bog myrtle, and cranberries are glowing like embers and the fully hydrated sphagnum set a light. I think that paint manufacturers and their fancy names could get some inspiration from a bog at this time of year.
I was out at the lochan in the middle of Flanders Moss recently and suddenly a right argument kicking off high above me. I looked up at the screeching and saw two peregrines giving a spectacular flying display. With a lot of noise the two birds dived at each other, at times facing off with talons raised until they separated and one followed the other off to the south. Peregrines are a regular sight out at the lochan, principally I think, because hanging out there are a group of feathered coated, food parcels called teal – the smallest of duck. If the teal take off in a flock it often doesn’t take long for a peregrine to appear and see if it can get one.
At this time of year young peregrines are dispersing from nests and trying to find their own territories and my guess is that this disagreement was a youngster intruding into an older birds space. Exciting to see but I hope the expelled bird finds somewhere safe and with plenty of food to set up shop.
Yesterday was Ellen’s last day working with the Stirling NNRs team. She has completed her year on the student placement but has now done extremely well to get a permanent job in NatureScot working in Argyll. Steve and I are very sad to see her go as she has been a brilliant team member on the 2 bogs… NNRs
At the interview process Ellen really stood out, she was head and shoulders above everyone else which is why she got the job. Being tall was the main selection criteria as it is so useful working in wetland sites. Since then she has done brilliantly, taking on the huge variety of tasks that are thrown at you when working on these sites. Standing on the marsh in the dark waiting for sunrise to count geese, sitting in midge cloud identifying moths, listening to me wittering on about the old days, putting up with the bog dog and his unusual habits – she has met all of these challenges with enthusiasm, an inquiring mind and a golden smile.
It hasn’t all been easy. She had to deal with lockdown and the difficulties of reserve management for a desk and has also had some unfortunate incidents on the reserves. Getting locked in the Isle of May visitor centre toilets for an hour was really unfortunate and it was just malicious gossip that this was done on purpose to avoid having to unload a freight delivery at the jetty. It was also just bad luck to get lost on Flanders Moss with Marijke, another one of the student placements, when slipping off for a comfort break. These things happen.
But despite these difficulties Ellen has made a brilliant contribution to the Stirling NNRs and left them in a better state than when she arrived and has been an absolute pleasure to work with. So Steve and I would like to thank her and wish her all the best with the new job, though I hope and expect that we haven’t seen the last of her. Thanks Ellen for everything and all the best for the future.
And as they say on some of those programmes here are just some of her best bits. (Mostly her hands featured in loads of blog posts holding all sorts of insects but we found enough pictures of the rest of her working away on the reserves to make a gallery.)
In the last few days I have been round our water level monitoring devices recording the changes in the water table in the mound of peat that is Flanders Moss. A 7 miles, 6 hour stomp right round the Moss. And unsurprisingly it is wet and getting wetter. In Scotland we seemed to have seen a lot of rain and little sun in the last 6 weeks or so. After a very dry spring and early summer it is very good to see the bog filling up again. At times during the summer we have had rain and the surface of the moss looks nice and wet. But it isn’t how wet it is at any one time but how long it stays wet. Because the water table had dropped in Spring, the surface water just drained down and the surface dried quickly. But now that subsurface gap between the vegetation and the water table is filling up and when it rains it stays wet.
You can see this is the water level monitoring kit. These measure the maximum and minimum water levels in the peat over a period of time and the gap between these over the last 2 months is not very much – just a few centimetres in places. A water table close to the surface means vigorous sphagnum growth and good conditions for bog vegetation. So with my bog managers hat on all this rain is a fine thing. But I do have to be careful how loud I say it as the farmers trying to harvest hay and crops on the surround clay ground are having a tough time and have my sympathy. Carse of Stirling farming on heavy, wet clay is a difficult job at the best of times and too much rain at the wrong time makes life very difficult.
Like places all over Scotland, we are noting the pink footed geese have returned after their summer in the far north of Iceland and Greenland. Across our NNRs, NatureScot staff are excitedly reporting the return of their ‘heralds of winter’ here and here. And on the Stirling NNRs we are just as pleased to see and hear them. At Flanders Moss yesterday there were small groups criss-crossing the sky, the vanguard of the masses that come later in autumn. These geese will provide the sound track of our winter with a constant background burble as the flocks feed in the fields, punctuated with occasional clamour as they lift off en masse and fly over. At Loch Lomond they use the reserve as a night time roost so their arrival means that it is soon to be goose roost count time – very early, cold mornings on the marsh watching the sunrise and the geese start their day.
When I think what the dark months would be like with no geese I release how much we look forward to hearing them and how lucky we are to be working places where they stay.
The bog book has only been out on the moss in the bog box for a couple of weeks but visitors have been finding it and sharing in it. No poems yet, or rap, but certainly some poetic writings.
Here are just a few of the comments written in the book.
The NatureScot team spend a lot of time on Flanders but we don’t always see people or hear positive feedback on their visits. So for us it’s incredibly rewarding to find how much people like and enjoy the Moss.
And it is clear that people really appreciate Flanders Moss. They have enjoyed being there, seen loads of wildlife and benefited from a visit. Peace and tranquility are regular themes, as is escaping from everyday life. The comments also reflect that it is a place that family members of all ages can visit together and enjoy the natural history with each other – children, parents and grand parents. And people keep coming back: it is a regular on people’s annual programme, with children knowing Flanders as they growing up. Let us hope that these children are able to bring their children to Flanders in the future and find a bog in even better state.
Many thanks to all those that have commented so far.
It was one of those moments when something made me look up. Maybe a moving shape caught the corner of my eye or subconsciously, wildlife activity triggered my attention. But as I trudged across a wet, ditched part of the moss, watching my feet carefully so I didn’t end up with a welly-full, I spotted a whip quick shape hurtling through the air across the Moss. Black silhouette, long, sickle-shaped wings bending and curving with the strain put on them, incredibly rapid flight jinking across the sky. It was a hobby – the most dashing of falcons.
Hobbys are one of the most exciting birds to watch. A small falcon about the size of a kestrel, it is unusual as it is a migrant – the birds summer in Scotland and winter in Africa. Part of the reason they only spend the summer here is their food is only about in the summer. Hobbies feed on the fastest of fliers, dragonflies and other aerial insects, and swallows and house martins and other small birds. To catch these prey on the wing hobbies are very fast and very agile, racing across the sky pulling breathtaking maneuvers in pursuit their fast moving food.
Hobbies are gradually moving into Scotland to breed though they are still a rare bird here. At this time of year migrants that breed in Europe during the summer pass through the UK on their way south to Africa. This bird could have been either resident or migrant. Flanders is a good place for hobbys: it is a giant hobby food factory, producing large numbers of dragonflies and other insects that then draw in swallows and more insect feeding birds. So it isn’t a surprise to see a hobby here, though as it was my first at Flanders it was an absolute pleasure. Maybe this is them discovering Flanders, so next spring, when they make the return journey from Africa to Scotland, I will be keeping an sharp eye out for them.
This hobby was too fast to photograph but here is one, below, seen on the Isle of May.
We recently set up a box next to the bench on the stone slab at Flanders. In the box is a book for visitors to record their thoughts about Flanders – creatively if they want. In this way we hope that it will be a way of capturing the flavour what what people think about Flanders and how it makes them feel.
To catch people’s eye we wanted to have an interesting box by the bench. We could have bought one or got one made but seeing as it was lockdown and we had some time on our hands we decided to go for home made. At our NNR workshop we have loads of stored wood and fittings as you never know when the day might come when they could be used. And this was the day. So with the aim of making the box entirely out of reused and left over material wood was used from an old dismantled bridge from the other side of Flanders plus some old fence posts and a spare old step tread. The hinges were dug out of the bottom of a box with loads of saved odds and ends and the screws were either recycled from old rail fences or were left overs from the building of the viewing tower.
And the sign on the top of the box was carved using my Granddad’s old carving chisels.
So we hope you enjoy the box when you come across it on the contemplative spur and feel inspired to write some prose, or words, or poems, or rap or whatever in the bog book itself.