Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Flows...

On Saturday 18th I returned from Forsinard where I had completed a weeks volunteering for the RSPB at their Forsinard Flows reserve in Sutherland, North Highland. The Forsinard reserve which is approximately 20,000 hectares in size and is the RSPB's largest reserve consists of blanket bog, and is one of the largest remaining areas of this habitat in the world. Large areas of the flow country were planted up with commercial non-native conifers in the 70s and 80's due to tax breaks. This of course was a short sighted vision and people are starting to now realise that these blocks of trees not only severely damage the bog and it's biodiversity but that a functioning peat bog is a much better carbon sink for combating climate change. The RSPB's main focus at the moment is to restore afforested areas on their land back to peat bog by researching various felling techniques to find the most effective solution.

Day.1 - I left for the reserve on Sunday morning and made my way North. A fairly uneventful journey with a short stop at the Mound near Loch Fleet for a quick check which turned up nothing unusual. The weather was perfect and I arrived at the Forsinard Visitor centre at 14:00. Forsinard itself is tiny with the visitor centre / train station, a handful of cottages and a hotel. Upon arriving the place was very quiet which was surprising with the nice weather. I checked around the visitor centre but it was empty so I phoned the office number and a girl called Kirsty who is an information officer appeared at the office door across the road. She gave me a brief introduction and showed me around the cottage where I would be staying. I was told that usually my fellow housemates would welcome me but most of the volunteers and staff were on a weekend camping trip.

Visitor Centre
I spent the afternoon having a look around. A Spotted Flycatcher outside the visitor centre was nice to see and I walked the 1 mil Dubh Lochan nature trail which takes in some of the pristine bog habitat. The sun was still out but it was very windy.

The rest of the day I spent unpacking some stuff and getting familiar with the house. I thought it was clear that no-one was coming back by now so I headed to bed.

Day.2 - Monday morning started with me being woken up by a noise a lot like a smoke alarm when after a few seconds I realised it was a smoke alarm. I rushed through to the kitched to find a very tall man called Paul burning toast. Will came through not long after and I was introduced to my housemates for the week who had arrived back home at 1:30am. Paul and Will were long-term volunteers and turned out to be very nice people to spend the week with. I reported to the office at 9 and met most of the staff on the reserve. A quick induction of the office, visitor centre and house and it was time to get started. Unfortuntately the water had stopped working so that had to be fixed first which took us up to lunch. In the afternoon Paul, Will and myself were sent out to a part of the reserve which had already been felled and water levels of the bog were being monitored for research purposes. Our work consisted of finding dipwells which are essentially bits of pipe vertically in the ground with a GPS and measuring the water levels inside using a a tube and blowing through it til it hits the top of the water. The results are then recorded. The weather wasn't too great and the walking was tough for someone not used to the bog.

Day.3 - I reported to the office again and due to the weather, plans had to be re-shuffled so in the mean time Paul, Will and I went back to the workshop at Keeper's Cottage where I was staying to make some dipwells. This mainly consisted off drilling wholes in 1 metre length pipes and painting canes to mark the plots. After an hour one of the RSPB staff members called Martin came over to pick me up. We were heading out to part of the reserve to install new dipwells in areas of forest not yet felled.The weather was not great, the midges were bad (thankfully I had a midge net) and the walking tough with a metal frame full of equipment on my back. But it was good to be carrying out hard work and making a contribution. This was the job for the rest of day which was quiet in terms of wildlife although I heard a flock of Crossbills.

Day.4 - I was picked up at 9 at the cottage this time by reserve ecologist Mark Hancock. We were installing dipwells again but in a different area this time. We parked up the truck and made our way out to the first location with all the equipment. Getting near to the first location which was very wet I was following closely behind Mark when I stepped over a wet area and nearly disappeared into the bog! I was up to my chest and Mark had to pull me out. Scary at the time but hilarious later on! Whilst mark installed the dipwells and took peat measurements my job was to clear access routes by brashing the the trees. It was great to work with Mark as he is a fountain of knowledge and I learned a lot in a short space of time.

Later on in the evening a little party was held for Will's birthday and we watched a DVD on a large screen projector. The film was Paul and it was pretty funny!

Day.5 - This was easily my favourite day on the reserve. I was picked up at the cottage by Mark at the again to go out and install dipwells. Not long on the road and was explaining to Mark I hadn't seen a Hen Harrier before. Two minutes later and one appeared briefly not far from the road but disappeared behind a hill. We stopped the truck and the bird came back into view for a few seconds. It was a female or juvenile and a life tick for me. Most of the harriers that bred on the reserve had already moved on so it was nice to see one although brief. Whilst at roadside we also flushed a Snipe which was a nice addition to the year list. Later on in the morning a pair of Ravens were seen and flocks of Crossbills heard and the weather was fantastic. At lunch we headed to an area to see if we could see more Hen Harriers and bumped into Claire the assisant warden carrying out a deer count. I then spent the afternoon with Claire helping her count the deer in her assigned area. This is a count carried out throughout the reserve by several people at the same time to assist in deer population monitoring. When driving around I saw a couple of Wheatears and the highlight of the day and the week was a family group of Merlin which had been regularly seen. One of them, again a female or juvenile landed on a hummock a couple hundred yards away and I got a cracking view through the high spec scope in the truck. Another life tick for me.

Day.6 - Friday I was back out with Martin again installing dipwells. Not much variety through the week but still very important work. The weather was miserable and there was no wind so the midges were really bad. We only had a few to put in so we were finished by lunch with the afternoon spent making some more dipwells and cleaning up the cottage for new arrivals. Earlier in the week I spotted a moth trap in the cottage and asked if we could put it out at some point as I had never done it before. Paul decided to put the moth trap out on Friday night and we would check it in the morning.

Day.7 - We were up earlyish to check out the moth trap. It was already really warm by 8.30am and very still so the midges around the cottage were really bad. We couldnt put on repellent incase of poisoning the moths. There were groups of Meadow Pipits already picking off some moths that didn't make it into the trap. We unloaded the trap under attack by midges and got as many as we could into containers and lost quite a few. They were quite active due to the heat. We put some containers in the fridge and got down to ID'ing some. Paul was the moth expert I was just observing. Well over 100 moths in the end with some not getting ID'ed before I left due to lack of time. Paul and Will had to go on a supply run to Thurso in the afternoon so that was my cue to head home. I took a detour through Glen Loth on the way back which had some stunning views.

All in all it was a great week. Met some really nice people and learned a lot in a short space of time. Saw a couple birds that I hadn't seen before and a lot of moths! Hopefully be back again at some point for a longer spell this time. Selection of photos below, no bird photos though unfortunately. Next blog could possibly come from Finland as I leave next Thursday if time permits!

Year List additions:
129: Hen Harrier
130: Snipe
127: Merlin

Keepers Cottage
Silver Y

The Ben Griams
Glen Loth
The Mound

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Farne Islands...

Upon checking the weather for the week on Monday morning, Tuesday looked like it could be quite good so my girlfriend and I decided to try and book two last minute places on a boat trip around the Farne Islands on the last day of the breeding season tours by Billy Shiel ( The trip would take a tour around the Farne Islands and land for an hour on Inner Farne.

When we woke up on Tuesday morning and looked outside the weather was looking really promising with early morning sun and no wind at all. We made our way to Seahouses Harbour where the boat would depart, picking up our tickets at the booth on the pier on the way.

There were plenty of people waiting at the end of the pier (approx. 40) and the weather was just getting better and better. We sat at the back in the centre to allow for views all around. We left the harbour just after 10am and made our way out to sea!

Our boat the "Glad Tidings"
On our way out there wasn't a whole lot to see with a few Herring Gulls and Shags flying low over the water. About 30 mins into the trip and our captain informs us there are a few groups of Puffins coming up on both sides of the boat. I always enjoy seeing Puffins and they stayed on the water allowing the boat to get quite close before they flew off.

We continued on passing several more groups of Puffins out on the water and is was not long before we neared the first of the islands. There were 100's of Shags on the rocks looking impressive in the bright sunshine. Close by on the otherside of the boat was the colony of North Atlantic Grey Seals basking in the sunshine. The boat was less than 10 metres away and I couldn't believe just how big these mammals were when seen fully out of the water.

The tour carried on passing the Stacks which were very quiet with all the Razorbills and Guillemots already gone but there were still a few Kittiwake and Shag hanging around with the odd gull. We were then told about the story of Grace Darling as we passed the lighthouse.

The Stacks
Shag by the boat.
Shag on the rocks
After an hour and a half into the tour it was time to land on Inner Farne for an hour. The island was full of people unfortunately, but there were stunnings views all around. Either side of the small jetty were large numbers of Artic Terns with a few Common Terns mixed in. There were plenty of Juveniles begging for food from flyby adults. Making our way up the path (after paying a further £6.20 landing fee, another complete rip-off by the National Trust - really can't stand that organisation) there were more Terns flying overhead and a recently fledged juvenile just outside the information centre. There were Artic Terns on the walls, fences, roofs, everywhere! I have never had such great views and it was nice to take in the details and also compare with the Common Terns up close.

Adult Artic Tern showing characteristic short red legs and fully red bill.

Recently fledged Arctic juvenile waiting for food.

We made our way around the cordoned off path for visitors. There was evidence of washed out Puffin burrows from earlier in the season and a lack of Puffins still on the island with most out on the water getting ready to head off to their wintering grounds. There were a few adults seen returning with food however.

In the centre of the island was a colony of Sandwich Terns and Black-headed Gulls and what a racket they were making nevermind the overpowering smell of guano.

Sandwich Terns
Moving round to the cliff tops there were still a few Adult and Juvenile Kittiwakes and Shags giving close views.

Adult Shag with young.

Juvenile Kittiwake
Even though the islands were quiet compared to just a couple weeks ago an hour wasn't really enough time to appreciate all the action but it was still well worth it. Other birds spotted were several Starlings, Swallows and Feral Pigeons and a handful of Small Tortoiseshell butterflies. On our way back to the jetty plenty more Terns and a few Puffins flying in overhead.

Once back on the boat we made our way back to Seahouses Harbour fairly directly but on the way a few Gannets and Eiders were seen. All in all a great trip considering how late in the breeding season it is and the weather was perfect.

Black-headed Gull at Seahouses Harbour
Year List additions:
126: Puffin
127: Arctic Tern