RSPB Mersehead Recent Sightings: 14th November – 20th November 2020

It’s been another rather unsettled weather week at RSPB Mersehead, but it did provide some wonderful wildlife moments and opportunity to experience the full ravages of the stormy seas.  With all these changeable conditions, it has been a week of contrasting colours from dark and gloomy, to grey and murky but finally on Thursday, the sun came out and visitors enjoyed the autumnal sun on their backs.

Dark stormy mornings. Photo credit: David Lewis

Wardens Rowena, Paul and Gavin (the new Galloway reserves warden ) and residential vol Beth were out again on Sunday carrying out the WEBS and high tide count with 13,793 birds spotted with their eagle eyes.  Top of the list were the Barnacles naturally (5495) but there were large numbers of Knot (2100) and Dunlin (2500) on the shore with impressive numbers of Pintail (616) across the wetlands.  Following on from last week’s sightings of Snipe on the reserves, 6 Jack Snipe were recorded on the count.  Not to be outdone, Lapwing (586) were outshining Oystercatchers (560) by a smidgen and nice to see Sanderling on the count list, a bird I have fond memories of on winter days in Cornwall.

Herring Gulls battling the high tide. Photo credit: David Lewis

Elsewhere, the high tide on Sunday brought in a lot of water with the additional rainfall from the skies to give access issues onto the reserve and Rainbow Lane, where even the biggest of wellies / waders wouldn’t have coped.  The flooding of the Merse itself brought in a male Hen Harrier in the morning, its striking black wing tips and long tail standing out as it headed down towards the woodland.  I had the privilege of watching this majestic bird for a few minutes, a highlight of a very wet day.

Rainbow Lane disappearing. Photo credit: Rowena Flavelle

For the rest of the week, the usual suspects have been showing well around the reserve, including Yellowhammer and Tree Sparrow.  The hedgerows down to the woodland are alive now with jousting Fieldfare and Redwings but also a bird that I been trying to see for weeks and at last …. the Lesser Redpoll.

Redwing controlling the berries. Photo credit: David Lewis

The Lesser Redpoll is a dainty little bird, just a little bigger than a Blue Tit but striking none the less with its red crown and streaky brown feathers.  In with a group of 6 birds, they were making the most of the seeds on the willow herb and sorrel. 

At last, the Lesser Redpoll. Photo credit: David Lewis

One for the camera, Lesser Redpoll. Photo credit: David Lewis

Lesser Redpoll sampling seed heads. Photo credit: David Lewis

I happily skipped away from seeing these towards the woodland where the now resident Pheasant, “Terence “, was waiting my arrival for filling up the bird feeders.  The trembling of finches has been the calling card for Terence, as they happily chuck out most of the seed they don’t like, giving him an opportunity for an easy feed.

Terence, the pheasant. Photo credit: David Lewis

Don’t miss the chance to look at the feeders near the gate at the woodland crossroads.  There’s always plenty to see from the Tit family and finches, to Great Spotted Woodpecker and the Nuthatch which is still my favourite bird of all time - what is there not to like; the colours, the character, and that beak. 

Nuthatch feeding. Photo credit: David Lewis

The woodland edges have also been providing a chance to see the U.K smallest bird, the Goldcrest.  They have been seen hanging upside down on the lichen cover hawthorn, along the newly opened stretch of the reserve (for the starling murmuration), searching for grubs and spiders. Not an easy to bird to capture on a photograph and this doesn’t do it justice by any means.  The yellow crown acts as a Mohican for the males and is used to attract females during the breeding season.  I had the pleasure of watching this some years ago with a RSPB colleague, Mr. Wilson, during an RSPB event at Sherwood Forest … Magical!

Goldcrest looking for spiders. Photo credit: David Lewis

Elsewhere in the woodland, there has been the unmistakable sounds of Mistle Thrush, defending the last of the Autumn fruits.  The “rapid fire machine gun “or “football rattle “sound is an alarm call to all around … “I’m here … these are mine “.

Mistle Thrush identifying itself. Photo credit: David Lewis

Continuing the “Shroom “ theme which has caused much detective work amongst the staff at Mersehead, Wood Ear was very visible this week on the trees stumps down the edges of the path to the Meida hide.  They mainly grow on decaying Elder trees and are translucent, thin and jelly like.  As the name suggest, they do look like some sort of listening aid.

Aha, Wood Ear I hear you cry. Photo credit: David Lewis

It has been a busy week with habitat management work, especially down the trail to the Bruiach Hide.  Rowena, with a helping hand from Eric and the digger, have been removing Japanese Rose, which is non-native invasive species which outcompetes other flora.  Previously it has been cutback by hand but this time it was decided to trial digging it out so that the vast root network can be controlled.  Hopefully next year, there will be native species making up the hedgerow to the viewing hide instead.  Alongside this, Eric has started the ground works to the trail which will allow better access to the hide next year.

Habitat management work this week. Photo credit: David Lewis

The Starling murmuration is back in full force at RSPB Mersehead.  We have opened an extension to the reserve to allow our visitors to view this wonderful spectacle from the safety of the trails (whilst maintaining social distancing).  If you get the chance to come down to the reserve, ask at the marquee (outside visitor centre on good weather days), and our friendly staff and volunteers will let you know the best spots to view from.  There have been many questions arising from this iconic autumn and winter nature event so, without further ado, lets see if we can answer those for you:

Starling Murmuration: Your questions answered!

Why do Starlings murmurate?

Around dusk, small groups of starlings come together from all directions to form communal roosts in reedbeds, in tall evergreen trees and seaside piers.  The starling is susceptible to cold weather and this mass gathering enables shared body warmth and conversations about the best feeding grounds locally.  The sheer volume of birds is enhanced during the Autumn and Winter by migrants from Eastern Europe that can swell the numbers.

The murmurations are also a form of defence.  Raptors, especially Peregrine Falcons, can be attracted to huge swarms of birds but find it harder to pinpoint an individual if there are thousands hypnotising the hunter.

Starting to gather at the reedbeds. Photo credit: David Lewis

Is it a case of follow the leader in the murmuration?

There have been many different theories and studies carried out, but the consensus is that one individual can only see another 7 – 10 birds so follows these in their movements.  This creates the wonderful swirling patterns and shapes that can be witnessed rather than just a straight line of birds.

Forming the murmuration ball. Photo credit: David Lewis

Why do only Starlings murmurate?

Other birds do come together to form flocks but the term “ murmuration “ applies to Starlings specifically, revived and popularized as a term in the mid-19th century.  Flocks of birds such as geese form V shapes to reduce energy expenditure especially on migratory routes.

There's a dinosaur on the loose. Photo credit: David Lewis

Are we overrun with Starlings in the U.K then?

Don’t be fooled though that the starling is thriving in the U.K … numbers have crashed by 66% according to figures issued by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) and is now a red listed species of high conservation concern.  There are many factors for this decline … loss of permanent pastures, feeding areas, and nesting sites.  Traditionally they rely on earthworms and leatherjacks as their main food source, but changes in modern agricultural practices have resulted in damaged soils and loss of biodiversity.  Climate change may also be having an influence with drier summers affecting food supplies.

Hammer time. Photo credit: David Lewis

I hope this goes some way in answering your questions that have been posed at the visitor centre marquee in the last few weeks.  Nature is unpredictable and we can of course, not guarantee a murmuration every night but last year the Starlings did put on a spectacle all the way through to March, come wind, rain, sleet and snow.

There is no better way to enjoy the reserve than staying at one of our holiday cottages.  Shelduck and Barnacle provide a home from home and are available to rent through Discover Scotland.  There are spaces in the calendar available before Christmas, and if you can travel (please check Scot Gov guidelines for Covid 19 restrictions on Tier’s), what better way to enjoy the wonderful nature that’s present here. You can book your Mersehead holiday at BARNACLE or SHELDUCK by clicking the links here.

I hope you all have enjoyed an insight into RSPB Mersehead this week ... it's been a wild, wet and windy one.

Take care and stay safe everyone.

David Lewis

Community Engagement Officer