RSPB Mersehead Blog 11th -17th June 2022

Following a period of unseasonably windy weather, things finally settled down this week at Mersehead.  We have been treated to prolonged periods of warmth and bright sunshine, which has made it possible to finally get out and complete some of the survey work that requires such pleasant conditions.

One such survey involved an idyllic sunrise walk across Kirkconnell Merse, to assess the progress and extent of breeding Curlew, Redshank and Oystercatcher. Although it was fairly quiet, one pair of Curlew were behaving as if they may be protecting chicks, with one bird calling and approaching an area from which another then flew off, keeping low across the Merse.  These diversionary tactics, combined with vegetation and terrain make it exceedingly difficult to spot young.  Therefore, as with many avian species, it is the behaviour of the adult birds that is the key factor in determining breeding success.  Of course, sometimes they make it easy for you, as was the case with a family of five oystercatcher who were enjoying the muddy shoreline at the southern boundary of the merse.

Sunrise at Kirkconnell Merse. Photo credit: P. Radford

This was the first of two visits to Kirkconnell on Wednesday, as a return trip was made with our reserve ecologist.  One of the motivations for seeking employment with the RSPB, was the opportunity to work daily with people who are infectiously passionate about nature and conservation.  Such individuals have the power to expand and enrich your world, and it is impossible not to be inspired and fascinated by the knowledge that they are all too happy to share.  The aim of the visit was to assess the condition of the habitat, and the likelihood that it could support a variety of breeding birds.  A grassy field became a mosaic of specialists Saltmarsh species that favour different zones, be this upper, middle or lower marsh.  With their presence and spread indicating the extent of these zones and the frequency of tidal inundation. Red fescue, Saltmarsh Rush, Scurvy Grass, Thrift, Reflex and Saltmarsh Grass and Parsley Water-Dropwort were just a handful of the many plant species that were identified during our visit.

The visit included an introduction to the fascinating world of snails, a particular passion of our ecologist, who went hunting at any opportunity in the creeks and under tide debris for species of these tiny and under-recorded molluscs.   After a number of unsuccessful searches, we finally hit the jackpot (not that I can take any credit), when scouring through some tide debris on the northern boundary of the reserve.  Three species were discovered, with the largest (Myosotella myosotis) being just 7mm long.   This was also the most exciting find, as the Mouse-ear snail (it’s common name) is a saltmarsh specialist which is very rare in Scotland, but something we could possibly also find at Mersehead.  The two snails in the centre of the picture below are Assiminea grayana (dun sentinel), another rare find in Scotland (with this only being the 13th record), where it is pretty much restricted to the Solway coast.  The final species (seen on the right of the image) is Columella edentula (toothless chrysalis snail), which is much more common and can be found in many habitats across Dumfries and Galloway.

Myosotella myosotis, Assiminea grayana (x2) and Columella edentula. Photo credit: C. Walton

It is exciting to be able to be the first to record a species in a particular region, but a lot of the time it might not be the case that it has only just appeared, but just that no one is actively looking.  With so many under-recorded invertebrate groups in Dumfries and Galloway, we all have an excellent opportunity to get our “name up in lights”.   If such fame and fortune (ok maybe not fortune), sounds of interest, take at look at the South West Scotland Environmental Information Centre website, and get hunting!

We were fortunate to be joined by another enthusiastic and knowledge group on Thursday night: the Dumfries and Galloway Bat group.  They had arranged to visit the reserve, with a focus on looking for the rare (or at least under-recorded) Nathusius' Pipistrelle bat.  By doing so, they would be contributing to a national project being led by the Bat Conservation Trust, which aims to determine the resident and breeding status of nathusius pipistrelle and its migratory origins in Great Britain.  The first task was to put out some AudioMoth and Anabat recorders in strategic locations, which will record any bats echolocating nearby.  We then headed out with various portable bat detectors to try and identify bats flying by, based on the frequency at which their echolocating clicks are clearest.  Whilst no Nathusius’ were encountered during the evening, a number of Common Pipistrelle and Soprano Pipistrelle were present, and it will be interesting to discover what the recording devices picked up.  The best time to see bats is an hour before dawn – when they often swarm around their roost sites – or when they emerge at around dusk.  So, if early mornings or late nights are not a problem, I’m sure the D&G bat group would love to hear from you!

Mersehead volunteers and members of the D&G Bat Group setting up an Anabat detector. Photo credit: A. Bielinski

Although we regularly survey for moths at Mersehead, our weekly location stays the same – the Sulwath Garden.  This is important for recording population and distribution trends for the Garden Moth Scheme, but is also convenient given the requirement for a nearby plug socket!  With different species favouring certain habitats, this means there could be some interesting and under-reported treasures right under our noses out on the more remote areas of the reserve.  However, obstacles such as no electricity can be overcome, and so we headed out to the reedbed with a moth trap and mobile generator.  After one failure (with the generator stopping unexpectedly), the second attempt the following night led to around 20 species of moth finding their way into the trap.  Some we had seen in the garden, including Buff-tip and Green Carpet, but some were new (for this year at least) including Coxcomb Prominent and Shoulder-striped Wainscot – a species that favours reedbed habitats.  This won’t be the last time the moth trap goes on safari, and I’m sure we will make some interesting discoveries as the summer progresses.

Moth trap in reedbed and the haul from the evening. Photo credit: P. Radford

Regular butterfly monitoring – as part of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme – also continues, and the newest species to be seen on the wing this week include Large Skipper, Common Blue, and Ringlet.   However, the Bumblebees are still stealing the show, with colonies of worker bees out busily collecting pollen and nectar from the expanse of flowers that are also enjoying the sunshine.

Despite the increased evaporation of the pools that will result from longer, sunnier days, the Natterjack Tadpoles are making the most of the warmer conditions as they increase in both size and number of appendages.  The penultimate stage of development, before they emerge from the pools as toadlets, is to develop front legs, and a more prominent characteristic yellow dorsal stripe.  It is really exciting that some tadpoles were found with these features in the lagoon this week, as it means we are highly likely to get toadlet emergence in the next couple of weeks.

Natterjack tadpole with four legs and a dorsal stipe. Photo credit: R. Flavelle

Just beating the natterjacks to it, there has been significant emergence across the reserve of fledged hedgerow and woodland birds, who have been leaving the relative safety of the nest to take their first flight and feeding trips. I have been lucky to witness daily visits of a family of three Great-spotted Woodpeckers to my garden feeders.  The youngster still isn’t quite up to feeding itself, but is quite happy for mum and dad to take it tasty morsels from the peanut feeder.  This acts as a good reminder that, at this time of year, peanuts should only be given in feeders where birds can only break off small amounts at a time.  This prevents adult birds attempting to feed whole peanuts to their chicks, which could result in asphyxiation.  Many chicks also won’t be quite as mobile as this woodpecker, and may be found on the ground at the bottom of hedgerows and trees.  The RSPB publish some really good advice on what you should do if you find a bird in this situation, which you can find here

Juvenile woodpecker being fed by mum. Photo credit: P. Radford

Continuing the theme of emergence, it has been a momentous week, as produce has been harvested from the polytunnel for the first time since raised beds were installed earlier in the Spring.  Thanks to the tireless efforts of many volunteers, we have come a long way since the days of the bramble jungle.  Despite some of the current beds expanding far beyond their wooden boundaries, there is still plenty of space for more, so do get in touch or come down and talk to one of the staff at the reserve if you would like to turn your green fingers to polytunnel growing.

Mersehead polytunnel then and now. Photo credit: P. Radford

Finally, living and working at Mersehead puts some of us in a unique and privileged position, and it is both fantastic and important that we have the opportunity to inspire future generations of nature conservationists through the RSPB Residential Volunteering program.  After two weeks – which have flown by – we say goodbye this weekend to Phil, who contacted us to see if he could spend a short amount of time with us to get a flavour for what work and life is like on a nature reserve.  During these two weeks (with a constant smile and unshakeable enthusiasm), Phil has experienced a tiring, yet awe-inspiring, 4.30 am walk across a saltmarsh to survey Curlew, been elbow deep in muddy water removing skunk cabbage, helped prepare a water trough and fence for thirsty Belted Galloways and even renamed a moth (the Buff-tip will be forever now known as “Twiggy”).    We wish him all the best for his masters degree, and hope to see him back at Mersehead in the future.

Paul Radford, Assistant Warden

Phil see all sides of working as part of the Mersehead team. Photo credit: P. Radford

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