Birds of Scotland: a year in numbers

Each year RSPB Scotland monitors, counts and records birds like puffins, corncrakes and kittiwakes right across the country to find out how populations are doing, and to identify which species might need more help. We’ve had some good results this year, and some that are not so good as well. Here’s a summary of all the numbers you need to know from our monitoring work this year.

The good...

One of the most exciting stories to emerge in 2015 was the return of red-necked phalaropes to our Balranald reserve in North Uist – it’s the first time these delicate little waders have bred at that site for 31 years! This wasn’t the only good news for this species though; record numbers of phalaropes were counted in two other areas of the country – Shetland and Argyll. 

Shetland is the UK stronghold for breeding red-necked phalaropes, particularly the island of Fetlar where RSPB Scotland manages wetlands for these birds. The number of breeding males on the reserve increased from only six in 2008 to 36 in 2015, equalling the highest number ever recorded there. Shetland as a whole was home to 60 breeding phalarope males this year, 20 more than the previous record in 1996. Meanwhile, one breeding area in Argyll had its best year on record too with six males present; at least three broods were observed in August.

We’ve also had some positive results for seabirds in Scotland this year, with large numbers of healthy seabird chicks fledging their nests on our nature reserves. The figures are a welcome reprieve from the chronic declines seen in recent years, which have resulted in two thirds of some bird populations, like those of the kittiwake, being lost. Our nature reserve on Tiree for example saw guillemot numbers grow from 2,068 individuals in 2014 to 2,634, and at Fidra in the Firth of Forth, there were 1,026 active puffin burrows, up from only 800 in 2009.

The bad...

Unfortunately though, the seabird story has not been consistently good everywhere this year; populations in Shetland and Orkney are still struggling. Only 570 kittiwake pairs were recorded at Marwick Head - a decline of 90% since 1999, when the site used to hold 5,573 pairs. Kittiwakes were lost entirely from North Hill in Orkney, and of the 300 Arctic terns present on Mousa only 20 pairs attempted to breed and none managed to raise any chicks. 

Many of the bad results from 2015 can be summed up using just one word: weather. The wind, rain and general sogginess that have been harassing Scotland for much of this year has had a noticeable impact on some of our bird populations.

Corncrakes for example, which are one our rarest breeding birds, suffered a poor breeding season with numbers dropping by nearly a fifth. They’re found in only a few isolated pockets of Scotland, mainly on the islands, and spend the spring and summer here before migrating back to Africa in winter. An RSPB Scotland survey found the number of calling males had fallen by 17% compared to last year, with only 1,069 being counted. 

Corncrakes are counted in terms of ‘calling males’ as they stay hidden among tall vegetation, so are more easily found by hearing their distinctive call than by actually seeing them.  Nearly all parts of the country that corncrakes live in witnessed a drop in numbers this year. Our scientists say that the exceptionally cold, late spring is the reason behind the reduction in the number of males calling.

Black grouse have been blighted by a similar problem. The young birds hatch in June and July but are particularly vulnerable to cold or wet weather at this time. While numbers of this distinctive grouse were good overall, with a small population increase being recorded, the number of chicks raised in Scotland was lower than average this year. This was to be expected because of the poor weather conditions, but it is likely to have an impact on black grouse numbers in 2016.

And the downright exciting...

It’s always great to hear about birds that are doing well, and there’s one particularly charismatic little bird that’s stood out heads and feathers above the rest for us this year. Long-term monitoring has revealed that the River Tay is possibly the largest stronghold for bearded tits in the whole of the UK.

These birds are only found in reed beds, and data from the BTO has shown that the reed beds in the Tay can house as much as 45% of the bearded tits ringed in Britain. This data is gathered from tiny identification bands which are fitted to birds’ legs by ornithologists, which provide information on movements and lifespan. Surprisingly, bearded tits only colonised the reed beds along the Tay in the early 1990s. RSPB Scotland manages more than half of the area, working with landowners to conserve the habitat.

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