Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Save our Marine Station!

This week started in a sorry way here on Cumbrae, with the announcement of a massive cut in HEFCE funding. This huge drop in income has derailed the proposed joint management venture between the universities of London and St Andrews, and put us in distinct danger of closure in the next 12 months. As well as directly affecting staff, the closure of the marine station will have a massive impact on the fragile island economy. It is also unclear as to what will happen to the hyperbaric chamber located here, one of only four in Scotland; its loss would represent a worrying and potentially fatal reduction in the national network.

Announcing the removal of funding will also have negatively impacted the chances of bringing in grant funding that may otherwise have supported us. A huge blow after the visit of Danny Alexander last week, to announce £100'000 in coastal communities funding.

The marine station has faced closure before, and fought back; this year we have our biggest ever number of students booked in, and for us its going to be one hell of a year. I know for definite that those students looking forward to their field trips this year will see things they've never seen before, they'll be helped by knowledgeable and friendly staff, and they will leave better biologists because of it; I can tell because I've spent 18 months experiencing it for myself. It's a travesty if it should end here. Students will either have to go to more distant courses at greater expense, or miss out altogether.

I'll keep you all in the loop.

You can show your support and keep up to date with the goings on by joining the facebook group here (I'm not sure who the masked avenger was that set it up, but cheers!).

If you would like to help further, please message me!

In the mean time, or if you don't know what we do, check out some of the snaps I've taken in the last 18 months of living here.

Students enjoying one of the rare sunny days aboard the research vessel Aora

American students from Colgate University carry out a shore survey (RV Actinia in background)

A Glasgow student watches as a net is prepared for a sample tow

Your's truly, showing off the local wildlife

Lesser spotted dogfish in the aquarium

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Holiday - Part 2 (delayed by two weeks due to blog f-up)

A few hours at Attenborough with Dad, finally posted!

It was damp out. After complaining about the weather all month, Britain seemed set to show me what it can really do when it puts its mind to it. But, thankfully on the 23rd it was sunny in Notts. So Dad and I bundled into the car and headed for Attenborough nature reserve. Which was very, very wet. So much so that half of the trails were un-passable, so we went for the "new" hide - which is on stilts.

Well it was, as they say, nice weather for ducks. As well as the usual tits and finches and a few rogue redwing, we racked up pochard, wigeon, tufted duck, goldeneye, gadwall, shoveller, mallard, red crested pochard, ruddy duck, goosander and GC grebe. The usual egyptian geese were loitering round the carpark, a GS woodpeaker was calling from a treetop, and at the hide we had a great flight view of a snipe that just couldn't settle on one spot.

All in all a nice few hours birding, shame the flood made us miss the waxwings.

RC Pochard

Distant Shoveller


I swear its a ruddy duck!

Car park scavenger

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Holiday - Part 1

Well, I didn't make it to Mexico... but more about that later. Instead I have dodged down to England for a few days holiday.

Friday - 
Leaving the zebra finches in Tracy's capable hands I set out for Yorkshire, first nipping in at Baron's Haugh in Motherwell. Its a great site, set in mixed woodland opening out onto marsh and a large lake. A nice stock of wildfowl occupied the far side of the lake, including a couple of snoozing shovellers and a group of whoopers. These mixed with teal and wigeon, and greylags could be heard a way off.

I got chatting to a regular in the hide, great guy called John, who was very knowledgeable about the area. Proving the benefits of getting to know the locals, after disappearing for 15 minutes, John returned to take me to an area of the path that I'd completely missed, and pointed out a pair of roosting Tawnys in a nearby pine. He's got good eyes, as they were so high and tucked into the pine, that I would have never found them alone.

Looked down on

Heading back onto the M6 I picked up and Aussie hitch-hiker called Matt who was heading for Birmingham. I said I'd get him as far as Gretna before I turned for the east coast. Good thing I did too, as I also picked up my first waxwings of the autumn at Gretna filling station.

Grenta Waxies

Saturday - 
After a long lie in Matt and I headed over to Farr Ings near Selby, a cracking RSPB reserve boasting a number of nice hides and well set up pond dipping areas as well. As we got out of the car and approached the centre a GS woodpecker was sat at the top of a nearby birch.

After what felt like an epic trek we found settled into the hide to enjoy the remaining daylight. Again, plenty of wildfowl, tufties, goldeneye, wigeon, pochard, teal, around 80 coot, a great crested grebe and 11 mute swans.

Heading back along the path we were surrounded by 15 LTT's and a little egret flew over.

Sunday -
I put my Sunday birding in the hands of Andy of AWBirder, trusting in his local knowledge to get me to the birds; I wasn't disappointed. Starting off at Aughton Ings we were treated to plenty of teal and widgeon, and a nice mix of waders including lapwing, around 30 Ruff, and a small host of snipe - feeding out on the waterlogged field edge despite passing marsh harriers and sparrowhawk.

After about an hour we headed over to check out the bittern that was still showing over at North Duffield. On arriving we were told that the bid had last been sighted an hour before, and, after a quick shuffle of people in the hide, we were both seated and waiting for the bird to emerge from the reeds.

We didn't have long to wait, although I was thoroughly distracted by a hunting barn owl and the hide banter. But in less than 30 minutes Andy had spotted it, sat not 20 feet away, crouched in  front of the reeds.

One of the best Bittern views I've had!

After bagging itself a nice fat frog, it retreated back into the foliage, and it became a game of track the birdy as we strained for glimpses of its head amongst the leaves.

There was more than the bittern to entertain me hear, another marsh harrier passed over as we scanned the reeds, and we had a second, much closer sighting of the barn owl. Off on the open water there was a mix of wildfowl including a very striking black swan.

Its a great site and I'll definitely be back across when I'm next haunting York.

Monday - 
In the car by 7, I was off to Spurn. I knew the wind was going the wrong direction and the clouds were threatening rain, but I was looking forward to catching up with old friends. Bird wise, the day wasn't amazing. I drank a lot of tea and coffee.

Sea watching turned up around 30 scoter and 3 great northern diver, a couple of gannets and kittiwakes, and some passing waders. A few waxwings were passing through whilst Andy was ringing, and I caught a glimpse of a rail's backside on Canal Scrape.

I'm hoping to get in a bit more birding tomorrow before I head to Derbyshire this weekend to see the family, hoping the rain holds off.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Lunchtime Callers

A new face on the feeders this lunchtime. To find out who it was, take a look here.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Needing a Getaway

Just a quick question, am I the only person that hasn't seen a waxwing yet this autumn? Their supposedly everywhere. All up and around the Clyde and Ayrshire areas the reports are coming in; but here on Cumbrae? Nada. Zip. Granted, having 5 minutes daylight a day isn't helping the odds. And to make matters worse, the cloud seems to have cut out the Rain middle-man and just decided to sit right on us.

The best thing I've seen for a week is a few kittiwakes from the back of today's ill timed trip on the trawler. Plenty of prawns, no birds. With that in mind, I'm escaping. This Friday I'm taking a week off, and heading to Yorkshire, then to the ole homestead in Notts. A whole week without thermals... It'll be ace. Maybe that bee-eater'll still be around for me to swing in on as I go past, it seems to have hung around forever now...

... a girl can hope.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Nothing like work to ruin a holiday... (Pick up your plastic)

My Mum hates beaches and swimming pools. She used to be a lifeguard and still teaches swimming and kayaking; she says she can't relax watching everyone throw themselves or their children into stupid and dangerous situations. That's how I see plastic pollution. Fortunately for Mum, she can stay out of the way; unfortunately for me, plastic pollution is EVERYWHERE. Take, for example, this picture that I snapped whilst on the "blonde birders" trip with Tom. 

Are you following me?

How am I supposed to get a quiet weekends birding in when all I can think is, "I wonder where that came from?" or "this beach must be suffering the combined effects of prevailing wind and enclosed topography". It's just not fair.

Or how about this little doozy, take at the shag colony on Wee Cumbrae. "How many other nests are like this?", "does it impact chick survivorship via entanglement?". 

Durability is key in nesting materials
Well I'm fed up, I don't want to be surveying beach litter when I should be scanning for divers, and I definitely don't want to be checking out polymer ropes when I should be checking my footholds. So please, for me, for my hobby, for our wildlife: pick up your plastic, pick up someone else's plastic. Then maybe I can relax on my weekends instead of thinking up research methodology.


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Blonde Birders

Blondes with Bins

Its been an odd week or so here, I've barely been on my wee island. First of all I've been playing in Glasgow - planning my trip to Mexico, learning about new analytical techniques, and fiddling with the FT-IR spectrometer (I still can't believe they let me loose with it) - and on my off days I've been birding with an old friend.

By now I should have learned not neglect my friends for long periods, it leads to silliness. So when I suggested that Tom - a uni friend that I've not seen for 2 years - join me for some birding during his first visit to Scotland, I should have expected something manic.

This took the form of a lightning rattle around the country, hitting some cracking birding sites, glancing at the scenery as we tried to spot migrants from the car, and eyeing up likely lochs for ducks and divers. FYI, camping gear, scope, bins, rucksack, food, and camera gumpf = incredibly heavy. We saw some cracking birds and were treated by sights of harbour porpoise surfacing behind longtailled duck, and a feeding otter.

In total we racked up 95 species. Here are some of the highlights...

Great Northern Diver





Mallard and a Stripey faced female (Thanks Nick!)

Lesser Spotted 1

Lesser Spotted 2

Slavonian Grebe
Trip List:
  1. Longtailled Tit
  2. Great Tit
  3. Blue Tit
  4. Coal Tit
  5. House Sparrow
  6. Dunnock
  7. Shetland Wren
  8. Wren
  9. Chaffinch
  10. Brambling
  11. Twite
  12. Lesser Redpoll
  13. Siskin
  14. Goldfinch
  15. Greenfinch
  16. Goldcrest
  17. Reed Bunting
  18. Blackcap
  19. Chiffchaff
  20. Redstart
  21. Wheatear
  22. Swallow
  23. Treecreeper
  24. Song Thrush
  25. Black Bird
  26. Redwing
  27. Fieldfare
  28. Starling
  29. Collared Dove
  30. Rock Dove
  31. Wood pigeon
  32. Jackdaw
  33. Rook
  34. Raven
  35. Carrion Crow
  36. Hooded Crow
  37. Magpie
  38. Kestrel
  39. Merlin
  40. Sparrowhawk
  41. Buzzard
  42. Rock Pippit
  43. Meadow Pippit
  44. Herring Gull
  45. Common Gull
  46. Kittiwake
  47. Lesser Black Back
  48. Greater Black Back
  49. Black Headed Gull
  50. Bonxie
  51. Fulmar
  52. Gannet
  53. Guillemot
  54. Black Guillemot
  55. Shag
  56. Comorant
  57. Grey Heron
  58. Mallard
  59. Teal
  60. Wigeon
  61. Pochard
  62. Tufted Duck
  63. Goldeneye
  64. Scaup
  65. Eider
  66. Gadwall
  67. Longtailled Duck
  68. Pintail
  69. Shoveller
  70. Moorhen
  71. Merganser
  72. Goosander
  73. Great Crested Grebe
  74. Slavonian Grebe
  75. Great Northern Diver
  76. Greylag Goose
  77. Pink Footed Goose
  78. Canada Goose
  79. Mute Swan
  80. Whooper Swan
  81. Greater Spotted Woodpecker
  82. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
  83. Turnstone
  84. Redshank
  85. Golden Plover
  86. Ringed plover
  87. Lapwing
  88. Dunlin
  89. Sanderling
  90. Curlew
  91. Snipe
  92. Oystercatcher
  93. Pheasant

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Out of My Area: The Tiree Office

This week was viva week for the MSc students, much drinking done by all; or so I assume. I decided it was a good idea to get out of the final week chaos, first to Glasgow for a couple of day's work, and then to Tiree. Ridiculously early in the morning Kathy and I hopped on a ferry from Oban, and set up an office in a little cottage in Vaul. Best. Idea. Ever.

Not only did I manage to get a tonne of loose ends tied up (not to mention a mass or reading and writing done), but I got some wonderful walks and birding in. On the ferry we had sightings of feeding otter and common dolphins, as well as plenty of gannets and kittiwakes, and a great northern diver on the way into Gott Bay.

Once on the island we were greeted by fields of lapwing, starling and golden plover; and as we pulled up to the cottage two ravens were mobbing a buzzard over the cliff. A good start. We took a trip over to Loch a Phuill; Kathy went running, I went to the hide. After an hour I'd had a few whoopers, wigeon, tufties, mallards teal and pintail. Then the wildfowlers arrived and everything left. So we carried on round to Hynish (male hen harrier, mippits, wheatear, starling, pied and alba wags, barwits, sanderling, raven, hooded crow, cormorant and shag).

On the way back to the cottage I spotted sanderling huddling behind seaweed on the beach at Vaul. So off I went again. An hour lying on rocks at the beach as the tide came in gave me sanderling, ringed plover, redshank, turnstone, curlew and little stint.

Next morning the wind had dropped and I took the van around to Loch a Phuill again. More golden plover, lapwing, ducks, swans, greylags, alba wags... then something landed beside the hide. Another alba wag, but, no black bib. Funny looking grey wag? No yellow rump, and big wing bars. A citrine wagtail!!! I'm not often so conflicted, I'd found a great bird, but I had no phone signal, and I had no one with me to confirm my ID. Camera out I snapped as many pictures as I could, then headed for the cottage.

As soon as I got in, I tried to ring a few of my birding mates, and showed my pictures and the Collins guide to Kathy to get someone else's opinion. No reply on the phones, I tried the RSPB on Coll... No answer.
Kathy decided she was going to go snorkelling and, too excited to work, I pick up my camera and followed her to the beach. Half way across we came across a stranded guillemot, and as I herded it down the beach I spotted a figure with camera and binoculars climbing over a gate... A BIRDER!

Ditching Kathy I went over, ditched any idea of feeling foolish, and asked if he'd check my identification photos. Well, I was greeted with very polite disbelief, it would be a first for the county - apparently the first person I'd run into was Jim, the rare bird recorder for the region. I pressed on, offering a coffee in exchange for 5 minutes of his time. 20 minutes exciting minutes later, my ID was confirmed, phone calls had been made, and we were on our way back to look for my bird. Which was gone. But, phone numbers, bird pictures, and email addresses were swapped, and we went our separate ways.

30 minutes later, Jim was on the phone. Buff bellied pippit on the way to Caoles, another county first! I hopped into the van again. Luckily the bird remained until both John and myself made it the the scene, before vanishing over a fence. Still, a fab little bird. And a great day. In the evening Jim was on the phone again, my bird had been relocated at the edge of the loch; Kathy and I celebrated with wine and chess, and I went to bed happy!

I made a pact with myself to confine activities to the cottage as much as possible to work. However, I did spend an hour on the beach Friday morning, sea watching whilst Kathy snorkelled in the Gunna sound. More gannets, shags, and eider, a big Grey Seal and - as I stood to take pictures of Kathy - I flushed a female hen harrier. And a quick trip to Loch a Phuill on Friday evening saw me run into both Jim and my wagtail again, true to form, the little bird was sticking to the reedy beck that led to the beach.

There wasn't much action for the rest of the stay, and I was so cream crackered that I didn't step outside whilst on the ferry back, but it really was a great trip! You can look at the pictures now...

Base Camp

Citrine Wag


Kathy in the Gunna Sound

Mobile Office

Sanderling at Vaul

Little Stint

Scap view

Passing Mull

Sands at Hynish

Wheatear at Hynish

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Smoooooth Newt

Okay, so I didn't get round to posting these when I said I would, but, Ive been super busy demonstrating on the MB1 course at the marine station. But here I am with one of my more secretive neighbours, a fab smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris)! Please forgive my sleepy demeanour, it was still early, but I'd been up for hours...


I have been up since 5 am... hence hugging my coffee and looking half asleep.

Remember that newts, should you come across one, are protected by law (and prefer to be left alone); however this they don't do too well on salty roads, so I gave this little gem a lift into the nearby marsh field.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Conservation in a Conference Centre

Apologies for my absence, I've been scaring myself silly, presenting at this years European Congress for Conservation Biology; it was a lot of fun and much discussion and boozing was done by all (well, myself and Chris Parsons).

There were some great talks on all fields of conservation science, ranging from the broad to the broadly incomprehensible; and I'm sure I went to more on birds and birding than on marine science, but, hey, what are these things for?

I'm back on my island now anyway - and its raining - but, just for you, I did manage to find some previously unphotographed island inhabitants. Tune in tomorrow for pictures of the wonderful newts in the field next door! Looks like I'm back in the saddle already.

"this Nephrops is, of course, to scale..."

Monday, 27 August 2012

Boatman's Holiday

Kathy and John were diving of little Cumbrae this Saturday. Guess who was on boatman duty... in the rain.

We sped out to Trail Island in the early afternoon, and I watched the birds as Kat and John went through their buddy checks. Then we tucked in close to Little Cumbrae and the guys "gracefully" dropped into the water.

This grey seal was alerted by our approach and slipped into the water as I dropped off the divers.

Kathy makes friends easily...
And then, they were gone. And I was left alone with the feeding seabirds. There must have been plenty of fish about as the birds were going nuts. These were joined by plenty of harbour porpoises. I kept my eyes open for minkies, but no such luck.

The real stars of the day were the manxies, around 400 circled the diving gannets and bobbing guillemots.

The little rib is great for watching shearwaters, which streamed past, oblivious.

Kicking the boat from drive to neutral I was able to inch into the path of the Manxies

On the way back, We were passed by a party of harbour porpoises. Probably the same group that had been feeding around the birds earlier.

A mother and calf pair

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A little sun at lunch

Sunshine at lunchtime saw me throwing the camera in the car for a second look at my WEBS patch this week. There had been a few Lapwing, Curlew and Barwits around on Sunday, and there were far too many tourists around to do "the point". At high tide everything is pushed up to the vegetated out crop around the Clashfarland end of the bay, I only had an hour, so I high tailed it to the nearest car park...

...tourists; everything was up, trying desperately to find some shoreline not occupied by dog walkers, picnicking cyclists, or daft blondes with cameras *cough*. Confident in my limited chances of sneaking up on anything today, I tucked myself into the scrub in Clashfarland and waited for the circling birds to overfly me.

And they did, in some numbers. Here's what I snapped on the way past...

Lapwing, the were about 50 around

Curlew (200 odd), accompanied by around 20 Barwits

There were a couple of eclipse Eider, six shags, a greater Black Back, and four common gull too. All in all, a bit disappointing, but a nice sign that the winter waders are on their way back. Maybe if it rains I'll have a better chance of seeing them.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Out of My Area: a weekend of my own

It is hand in for the MSc student dissertations on Monday. To avoid the general sense of panic, I've gone and hidden in Yorkshire for the weekend. It may seem a little extreme, but I get to go birding. It's BLISS! A few nights in the obs at Spurn, a couple of nights drinking Guinness in the pub with friends, and the chance of  some migrants.

I rocked up late with only a few hours of daylight to work with, so I started at Canal Scrape, ready to work my way south before dinner.

First birds of the trip, feeding on Canal Scrape

After Canal it was getting close to high tide so I sped on down to Chalk Bank to scope out the high tide roost.

Away from the Humber I miss the big wader flocks. It was fun to start dusting of my skills.

After grabbing some pasta Adam S and I headed toward Kew and ended up at the newly created wetlands; the terns were starting to stream over and the Avocets were busily strutting about in the margins.

New for 2012: Juvenile Avocets, right in front of the shiny Kilnsea Wetlands Hide

Sitting around at the Warren I heard Pete W shout a Marsh Harrier coming over from Canal; I got great views but awful pictures!

Great bird

As the clouds cleared and the light shone through I headed out on the beach at by Beacon Ponds to check out the little waders moving through. The wind was strong and many flocks were whipping past with the terns.

Cracking (and apparently blind and deaf) juv sanderling let me get really close up

In the evenings the tern passage was fantastic, providing plenty of commons and sarnies, with arctic, little and black thrown in.

My squeaky nemesis of 2010; I miss their sound...

Highlights from this trip include Barred Warbler, a great view of Ortolan Bunting, the cracking Avocets, catching up with the Obs folk in the pub, and putting on the air conditioning in the car in the blazing sun.

All in all, another fun trip, now just a 5 hour drive home!

Trip List (in no particular order):

  • Common Gull
  • Black Headed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Lesser Black Back
  • Greater Black Back
  • Med Gull
  • Yellow Legged Gull
  • Arctic Tern
  • Common Tern
  • Sandwich Tern
  • Little Tern
  • Back Tern
  • Gannet
  • Arctic Skua
  • Shag
  • Cormorant
  • Grey Heron
  • Little Egret
  • Knot
  • Sanderling
  • Dunlin
  • Turnstone
  • Curlew Sand
  • Common Sand 
  • Wood Sand
  • Redshank
  • Spotted Redshank
  • Greenshank
  • Curlew
  • Avocet
  • Grey Plover
  • Golden Plover
  • Ringed Plover
  • Shoveller
  • Mallard
  • Teal
  • Shellduck
  • Mute Swan
  • Coot
  • Moorhen
  • Swallow
  • House Martin
  • Swift
  • Winchat
  • Wheatear
  • Robin
  • Wren
  • Blackbird
  • Linnet
  • House Sparrow
  • Tree Sparrow
  • Blue Tit
  • Great Tit
  • Coal Tit
  • Gold Finch
  • Green Finch
  • Reed Bunting
  • Ortolan Bunting
  • Pied Wagtail
  • Grey Wagtail
  • Meadow Pippit
  • Pied Flycatcher
  • Reed Warbler
  • Barred Warbler
  • White Throat
  • Sedge Warbler
  • Willow Warbler
  • Wood Pigeon
  • Collared Dove
  • Kestrel
  • Sparrowhawk
  • Marsh Harrier
I've probably forgotten something, but oh well!