RSPB Mersehead Recent Sightings 5th June – 11th June 2021

Discussing the weather is a favourite British pastime, but when it comes to working in conservation, it often dictates what we can do throughout the week.  Weather apps are constantly checked and compared, and even when all seems to be going to plan, a sudden change in conditions can catch us out and leave heads being scratched.

We aim to conduct butterfly surveys once a week, as part of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS).  The methodology for this survey states that, to ensure butterflies are active, the minimum requirement is that the air temperature should be above 13 degrees Celsius with a good amount of sunshine.  As you can imagine, with the cold and unpredictable Scottish weather since April, a number of survey weeks have been missed.  However, the start of the week provided the ideal opportunity for a survey, with a number of different species being recorded.  These included Green-veined White, Small Heath, Small Copper, Wall Brown, Speckled Wood, Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell.  A Painted Lady butterfly was also spotted in the Sulwath Garden, having presumably completed its epic journey from the region encompassing North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.  Migration for species found in the UK is an exception, rather than the rule, with most being resident, and overwinter in one of the egg, larva, pupa or adult stage of the life cycle.

Painted Lady Butterfly. Photo credit: P. Radford

We also took the opportunity to complete the monthly BeeWalk along the same fixed transect.  It was noticeable that, since the last survey, a lot more worker bees are out foraging.  The species that dominated the count on this occasion were: Buff and White-tailed, Red-tailed and the Common Carder Bee.

Weather and the time of day influence bird activity, and therefore breeding bird surveys must be conducted around sunrise and when winds are fairly light.  When it comes to surveying Kirkconnell Merse, the tide also has to be low to ensure creeks can be safely crossed.  Fortunately all these factors aligned in our favour at the start of the week, and we were able to conduct the 3rd survey for monitoring the waders who breed on the salt marsh.  Curlew is a key species that are known to breed here, and even better than witnessing the circling display flight that suggests there are active nests, was stumbling across a nest with four eggs!

Curlew nest at Kirkconnell. Photo credit: R. Flavelle

Tides are not an issue for conducting territory mapping in the reedbed, but the wind still needs to be light.  With the forecast (rightly) suggesting wind increasing throughout the week, the final survey was squeezed in early in the week as well.  Activity was lower than on previous visits, suggesting most of the Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler could be reaching the end of their breeding season – at least one fledgling reed bunting was present, being closely followed by a proud dad.  A number of Reed Warbler were still in good voice, which gives vital information that will now be used to calculate the number of territories held by each species.

Surveying the reedbed as the sun rises. Photo credit: P. Radford

Although we are looking for specific species during these surveys, it is hard not to be distracted by the other delights that mother nature has to offer.  This is especially true of the flora that is coming into bloom in the habitats we are surveying.  Marsh Orchid and Yellow Flag Iris are now in flower over the wetlands, and Sea Milkwort, Sea Pink and Scurvy Grass are just a few of the plants that are adding a sea of colour to the creeks at Kirkconnell.  A closer look at Sea Milkwort reveals that what appears to be five pink petals are actually sepals (that primarily protect the inner parts of the flower when in bud).  It is well adapted to life in the salty environment of the merse, and can store fresh water in its fleshy leaves.

Yellow Flag Iris and Marsh Orchid. Photo Credit: P. Radford

Clockwise from top left: Scurvy Grass, Sea Pink and Sea Milkwort. Photo credit: R. Flavelle

As well as identifying wild flowers, determining the species that haver reared the fluffy balls that are starting to emerge from nests across the reserve presents another interesting challenge at this time of year.  Fortunately, the location and general appearance of the inquisitive creature that stared at me from a reed top perch left little doubt that it was a fledgling Sand Martin.   The iconic grey bill gives little help in identify the juvenile Rooks who are emerging from the woodland, which have more of the appearance of a carrion crow at this stage of their development.  In contrast, the three Oystercatcher chicks in one of the fields adjacent to Rainbow Lane are starting to give away their identity, as their bills start to take on an orange hue that will eventually develop into the bright carrot their parents wear with such pride. The feathers that gradually replace fluffy down can also offer some help with ID, as was the case with a rather well-fed looking greenfinch that was enjoying sunflowers at the bird feeder.

Sand martin, Greenfinch and Oystercatcher young: Photo credit: P. Radford

It is at this time of year that many people discover baby birds below trees, hedgerows and on paths, and understandably want to know what is best for the welfare of the bird.  In the majority of cases, the right thing is to do nothing.  The chances are that it was time for the bird to leave the nest, and that the parents are still nearby keeping a watchful eye.  For more information, the RSPB have published some very useful advice for what to think about and do if you find a baby bird.

We often encounter day-flying moths whilst surveying the butterflies, and a common one seen for the first time this week was the Cinnabar Moth. The caterpillar of this moth feeds on Ragwort, which makes it toxic to birds and other animals that may mistake them for a succulent meal.  Any creature that does think dinner has been served cannot claim they haven’t been warned, as the caterpillar’s black and yellow striped appearance suggests it may leave a bitter taste.

Cinnabar Moth. Photo credit: P. Radford

Whilst the presence of ragwort is good for the cinnabar moth, we are legally obliged to control its spread due to its status as being harmful to grazing livestock.  Whilst cattle and horses will avoid eating this toxic plant, they wouldn’t be able to do so if it is mixed up in a bale of hay.  We therefore focus on hand-pulling ragwort and other harmful plants (broad-leaved dock and spear thistle) from the grassland fields that will be cut for hay.  We couldn’t hope to complete this work without our brilliant volunteers, who continued this back-breaking and time-consuming task this week.

Recent visitors to the reserve would have spotted (and heard) that the cows are back, and have spent the last week and a half enjoying the grass in the field alongside the main track.  Regular movement of the cattle is important to ensure there is always enough grass for the cows whilst not letting it grow in other areas to the point that it will no longer be palatable.  This week they were moved out to the field immediately behind the sand dunes, where an electrified fence stops them being tempted to venture onto the beach.  At this time of year, it is therefore more important than ever that dogs are encouraged to enjoy the vast sandy expanse, and stopped from heading up and over the dunes.

Cattle grazing the dunes. Photo credit: P. Radford

Daily checks are made to ensure the cows are healthy, where they should be and have a constant supply of water.  It was during one such check on Friday, that 2 Peregrine Falcon were seen emerging from a bush at the far end of Rainbow Lane.  A visitor also reported seeing a Marsh Harrier in a similar area, out over the merse, earlier in the week.

It has not only been the cows on the move recently, with Lapwing being spotted appearing to encourage their young away from the safety of the fields enclosed within the anti-predator fence, through the oat fields, and across the track to the wetlands.  This behaviour is indicative of the warmer weather and lack of rain, which is resulting in many of the wet, muddy pools drying out.  Fortunately, we have arrived at this point much later than last year, and the large post-breeding flocks of both adults and fledglings means that most have successfully completed breeding without feeling the need to make this treacherous journey. 

The most interesting discovery of the week (for me at least), was what appeared to be hairy shells spread across the beach.  A little research revealed that these are the brittle remains of a burrowing urchin known as Sea Potatoes, which have tube feet for feeding on dead animals and plants.

Sea potatoes. Photo credit: P. Radford

Just a reminder that more of our facilities are now accessible:  hides are now open for limited numbers in keeping with social distancing rules, and the festival hut will be open with a staff member/volunteer on hand to welcome you to the reserve, point you in the right direction and answer all those questions! Please note that the car park charge of £3/car for non-RSPB members has returned to help the RSPB to continue to protect the wonderful wildlife at Mersehead. Come and chat to us at the festival hut if you are interested in becoming an RSPB member.

Although the Visitor Centre will remain closed, the toilet will be available from 10am-4pm

Would you like to be here to see the Barnacle geese return to the Solway? There are just a couple of weeks left vacant at Shelduck Holiday Cottage in October only.

Paul Radford, Assistant Warden