The bountiful birds of St Cyrus NNR

Simon Ritchie has been working at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve since he was 16 – initially as a volunteer, he is currently employed as a Seasonal Reserve Officer. Simon  has previously written about his passion for the wildflowers of St Cyrus.  Today he writes about another of the features that make this reserve such a special place to visit at this time of year, including the most beautiful bird he has ever seen…

I am fascinated by all of the wildlife of St Cyrus NNR, but the birdlife at St Cyrus NNR has always fascinated me the most. One of my earliest memories was coming to St Cyrus NNR as a young boy with my grandfather; I vividly remember my grandad pointing out a kestrel that was hunting over the cliffs and that memory has stuck with me for the last 18 years. Who knows, maybe that interaction with nature sparked an interest that has lead me where I am today!

Kestrel at St Cyrus NNR (c) Gus Routledge

Kestrel at St Cyrus NNR (c) Gus Routledge

I have been fascinated by birds since my mid-teens and this led to an interest in other wildlife. However, birds have stayed my main focus and St Cyrus NNR is the perfect place to learn and appreciate birdlife. I remember one of the earlier times I volunteered at St Cyrus NNR with Therese and the gang. It was winter 2012 and we were conducting a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count, I was amazed with the amount of wintering wildfowl on the reserve; hundreds of teal, wigeon, pintail and pink-footed Geese!

Teal - credit Steve Buckland

Teal – (C) Steve Buckland

This brings me nicely on to the estuary at St Cyrus NNR, it is a tidal estuary of the River North Esk. It is a haven for waders, wildfowl and gulls. August is one of the best times of year for waders and over the years on the estuary I have seen; ruff, green Sandpiper, whimbrel, grey Plover, large flocks of knot, dunlin, ringed plover and sanderling amongst many others. A small number of pink-footed geese also use the estuary as a roost in autumn and up to 3000 can be feeding in the fields near-by.

As I have mentioned, the estuary is an important refuge for gulls. A lot of people are not into gulls, but I for one love them! St Cyrus NNR can boast large numbers of gulls, sometimes 5000+. These are usually a mixture of herring, lesser black-backed, great black-backed, common, black-headed gull and kittiwake. Scarcer gulls have also been recorded here in recent years including glaucous and Iceland gull, which are vagrants from the Arctic. Little gull also occasionally use the estuary and these birds breed in Finland and Asia.

Gulls at St Cyrus NNR estuary (c) Paul Ross

Gulls at the St Cyrus esturay, (C) Paul Ross

The cliffs of St Cyrus NNR provide a safe nesting place for birds to use. Our 75m cliffs are home to; 42 fulmar pairs, raven, jackdaw, peregrine and buzzard. All of which can be seen at once in territorial feuds! The scrubland below the cliffs is a fantastic area for smaller birds. Gorse, broom, hawthorn, meadowsweet and a  reed bed provide nesting habitat for a large variety of different birds including; willow warbler, whitethroat, reed bunting, stonechat, yellowhammer, linnet, meadow pipit, blackcap, robin, blackbird, goldfinch and sedge warbler, among many others. St Cyrus NNR is home to over 50 species of breeding bird.

Bluethroat at Tangleha’ (c) John Clark

A beautiful bluethroat at Tangleha’ (c) John Clark

As well as supporting breeding birds, St Cyrus NNR also welcomes passing migrants on their travels. Over the years, St Cyrus NNR has had some scarce and rare birds, and 2019 has been no different. Earlier this year, a hoopoe made landfall in our cattle field. This made for some excellent viewings. Just half a mile to the north of the NNR I was also lucky enough to find a male bluethroat, the best looking bird I have ever seen! Other notable birds that I have seen at St Cyrus include; sooty shearwater, pomarine skua, red-backed shrike, yellow-browed warbler, black redstart, velvet scoter and black-throated diver.

No matter what time of year you visit St Cyrus NNR, the birds always put on a good show. If you visit in the coming weeks, keep your eyes to the skies and listen out for returning flocks of pink-footed geese. There is always something to marvel at…

Simon Ritchie, Seasonal Nature Reserve Assistant

Posted in Birds, coastal, Flowers, gulls, National Nature Reserves, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Staff profile, Uncategorized, Volunteering, wild flowers, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Working together to help nature tackle climate change

A message that seems loud and clear in the current climate discussions is that to tackle the emergency we all need to work together to address the common goal – and this is on the national and international scales as well as on the local level.  A good example of ‘people working coherently’ can be found in our recent EcoCoLIFE project.  It was a project producing nature-based solutions to biodiversity loss and climate change – having local people at the heart of the whole decision-making and implementation. Phil Baarda, who worked closely on the project, tells us more about it…

EcoCoLIFE was all about improving habitats and creating stepping-stone connections across Scotland’s Central Belt to benefit people as well as wildlife.  It focused on improving ecological coherencethat is, making habitats more abundant, bigger and of better quality, and making better connections between habitats.

EcoCoLIFE, though, went beyond this – it looked at restoring and creating new sites in the very best places to improve linkages across the project’s 10,000 square kilometres.  And, most importantly, these places were identified by local people and groups to also provide the most additional benefits, such as preventing flood risk or locking up carbon into the soil, or a range of other social and ecosystem benefits.

For example, local people decided that the Slamannan Plateau – a once vast peatland in the hills near Falkirk – was a key place for peatland restoration.  Using a range of data and maps, and local expertise, specific hotspots were identified where management could improve the Plateau’s overall quality and resilience – allowing key heathland species such as the large heath butterfly to spread and thrive as our climate changes.  Additionally, the blocking up of drainage ditches retains water on the site, and so prevents flooding downstream in Falkirk, and the management also locks up a vast amount of carbon – in this case, an estimated 350 million tonnes.

The project also came much closer to people’s lives in, for example, creating some fabulous green roofs.  Not only are these new jigsaw pieces of green infrastructure in urban areas benefiting bees and other pollinators under threat, they also help to better insulate the buildings they’re constructed on – and so reducing heating emissions (and bills).  Also, depending where they’re situated, green roofs can be fantastic places for people to get up close to wildlife and to appreciate the benefits we get from it.

The Central Belt is Scotland’s most populated area.  It’s where the majority of Scotland’s industry and urban centres sit – and it’s also where wildlife is particularly at risk. But, we’ve seen through EcoCoLIFE that people working together, coherently and with nature, can produce big and positive changes – which is exactly what we need today, for the future.

Here’s a short and engaging summary of the project.


Posted in biodiversity, climate change, Community engagement, conservation, Ecology, meadow, peatland restoration, Projects, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, Uncategorized, Volunteering, wildlife management | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Stormie nights on Fair Isle

Fair Isle sits at the southernmost point of Shetland and its name derives from the Old Norse name Friðarey, meaning ‘island of peace’. Fair Isle is famous for its knitwear, historic shipwrecks and its diverse bird life, so what better place to study the Atlantic’s smallest seabird, the European storm petrel (herein stormies for short)? Helen Gunton spent a month on the island this summer, as part of her Masters degree in marine environmental management at the University of York, working on a project supported by SNH, in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO).  Helen tells us more about her first visit to Scotland…

My journey to Fair Isle included two days in and around Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, where I saw my very first Orca! I ended up spending 8 hours in a stranger’s car driving around the coast to get the best view of the pod swimming by.  What a start to my time in Scotland!


Orca pod with its male leader ‘Busta’ chasing some eider ducks. Photo credit: Helen Gunton

It was then time to board the tiniest plane I’ve ever been on and get my first aerial view of Shetland. The views were stunning and the plane ride was smooth, but very noisy. I was greeted at Fair Isle’s small runway by FIBO warden, David Parnaby, who drove me to my home for the next four weeks, the Puffinn (the name made me chuckle).

My first week in Fair Isle was spent getting to know the land and seeking out potential stormie nesting sites. Fair Isle is about 5km long and 3km wide, with cliffs that rise to almost 200m, so my legs were in for a treat! Dr. Allan Perkins, a senior conservation scientist for the RSPB, and I needed to find out where and how many stormies are breeding on the island because no formal population estimates have been made on the island yet. Stormies are nocturnal birds that nest underground in crevices or in cliffs, so they’re incredibly hard to study. Their vulnerability to invasive non-native predators restricts their breeding distribution, making them a conservation priority.


My first glimpse of a stormie on a ringing session. Photo credit: Helen Gunton

On my second day FIBO staff invited me to one of their stormie ringing sessions where I got my first glimpse of these tiny seabirds. My heart melted – nothing could have prepared me for this cuteness overload! I helped release a few birds after they’d been ringed and I couldn’t help but notice that they smelled quite nice, for a bird that spends most of its life out at sea. FIBO staff and volunteers ringed around 250 birds that night and they ring a maximum of around 4000 annually! One bird was already ringed revealing that it had travelled around 300km across the North Sea from Norway.

At the end of the first week we were invited to a Sunday night concert at the community hall, where the local band played songs by the likes of Tom Petty and Jonny Cash (which stuck in my head for a whole week after). They were really good and I witnessed how the community really gels here and how welcoming everyone was.  This was a great introduction to the islanders and over the following weeks people I met at the concert kindly offered my grateful legs lifts around the island!


Dr. Allan Perkins from RSPB playing stormie recordings into a dyke. Photo: Helen Gunton

The real footwork began in week two as we sought out potential stormie nesting sites by using recordings of their calls. If we got a response from a nearby stormie, we set up motion sensor cameras in the area and searched for evidence of predation. We played the recordings at several locations across the whole island and we calculated that we racked up over 2km worth of playback transects.

At the end of week two, as I was starting to doubt whether they were breeding here at all, I finally heard my first response from a stormie nest among a pile of boulders. Over the next few days we started to hear more and more stormies in different locations across Fair Isle, catching some glimpses of the birds flying over our heads at night. Unfortunately, we also found some discarded wings and carcasses of little birds, indicating that they are being predated on.


Puffin and fulmar with chick.

To find out what could be predating them, we set up motion-sensor camera traps in known and potential nesting sites. As well as some amusing images of curious sheep, we did manage to capture images of potential predators in nesting areas, these included cats, mice, ravens and great skuas, known locally as bonxies. We also deployed flavoured wax blocks around the nesting sites to get an idea of mouse activity in the area and to confirm the absence of rats on the island. Rats would be a major problem for the island. They’ve caused population declines and local extinctions of some seabirds and other species on islands and eradicating them is a lengthy and costly mission. Much better to avoid them being introduced in the first place and regular checks through the Biosecurity for LIFE project will help to prevent this. Around 25% of our wax blocks showed signs of mouse activity at nesting sites and, because mice can still predate on chicks and eggs, it’s important these mice populations are also regularly monitored.

My final week in Fair Isle mainly involved checking the camera trap images and setting them back up after sheep had knocked them over. We now have almost 24,000 images to review! The day of my departure I was scheduled to leave on the small ferry, the Good Shepherd, but it unfortunately sprang a leak (which I believe has been fixed now so you’re alright!) The rest of the morning was spent waiting for the fog to lift so I could fly instead, and still catch my flight home from Aberdeen.


Sheep selfies were a common occurrence. Images taken from camera traps.


My first experience in Scotland was hard work, but Fair Isle is a magical place. It’s one of the best places to watch seabirds at close range, to enjoy lazy seals bathing on the rocks and, with some luck, to catch a glimpse of some whales and dolphins. We found around 60 occupied stormie sites, which is likely to make the overall population estimate in the low hundreds (the data is yet to be analysed).  This made all the hard work worthwhile! If we come back for next year’s breeding season, we hope to find more birds establishing themselves on this beautiful island. And quite frankly, who wouldn’t want to call this place home?

blog photo 2


Posted in Birds, coastal, Marine, Marine Protected Areas, MPA, MPAs, Non-native species, Scottish Natural Heritage, sea life, seals, Shetland, SNH, survey, Young people | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bringing butterflies and bees back to Skolie Burn SSSI

Since starting a Community Woodland group, Ian Records’ life has changed completely – dropping leaflets, knocking on doors, writing up woodland management plans and doing flower surveys.  Here, he tells how a protected area can galvanise a local community to take action to improve their local area for people and wildlife.

I was moving house in 2017 and my wife was looking for a bungalow.  I had stipulated I wanted somewhere to walk the dog.  So while my wife was examining the inside of a bungalow, I took Skye for a walk in the adjacent field.


Greater Butterfly Orchid (a nationally rare species) was discovered by the local community at Skolie Burn SSSI.

There was hardly a butterfly or bee in sight. I have had a keen interest in butterflies and insects since childhood. I felt the urge to do something about it. What ‘it’ was going to be, I had no idea, but the thought kept coming back.  A cold winter passed and I had heard rumours that there was a rare orchid in the field.  I kept an eye out but only saw one single specimen of an orchid which I knew was common.

I found out from a neighbour that this field was a meadow called Skolie Burn Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), special for its grassland and geology.


An area where the local community want to introduce conservation grazing, in partnership with the local farmer to restore the grassland diversity.

I went out with my camera trying to photograph and identify every flower in the meadow. I have recorded where they were found as well as the date, with 69 distinct flowering plant species recorded so far.  This does not seem like a bad number but when you consider that it previously held over 160 species, you can see that there has been a considerable loss.


Flowering knapweed provides an important nectar source for insects at Skolie Burn SSSI.

My neighbours and I formed a community group (Skolie Burn Community Meadow and Woodland Group) and have developed a management plan with West Lothian Council (the main owners of the land) and SNH. This plan aims to restore the grassland and improve public access.  We have already completed botanical surveys. These surveys will tell us what we have and give a measure of success or failure in the future.

Next spring we shall start this exercise again in accordance with the National Vegetation Classification getting college science students involved and, yes, the orchid we were looking for was found: the greater butterfly orchid.  There were just five of them in a very small area of the meadow.


Lesser Celandine, a relative of the buttercup, adds some colour to the grassland plant community.

So what about the butterflies and bees? Well, there have been a lot more this year, but I have noticed that a few species are missing despite the abundance of their caterpillar food plants.  So why are they missing? There is nectar and food in the meadow and they should be there! The answer slowly dawned on me: the meadow is not in the right condition to support these species.  Dead grass is reducing the sunlight and smothering their food plants at the points of the year when they need them most, and there is not enough nectar to feed the adults. But many of the desirable flowers are still there and, with a return to traditional meadow management, Skolie Burn will bloom again and the butterflies and bees will return.


Skolie Burn provides an important habitat for Marsh Orchids

Thank you to Mike Thornton from SNH and Hannah Crow from West Lothian Ranger Service for all their support, advice and patience. Furthermore, I need to acknowledge the amazing bravery of my fellow trustees of the community group; the students of Edinburgh College, where I work; and finally, neighbours who have given up their time to help start this project.

SNH is currently working with the local community group, the main land owner (West Lothian Council) and a local farmer, to develop a Skolie Burn management plan which aims to restore the SSSI grassland, improve public access and provide environmental education. 

Posted in Access, bees, biodiversity, citizen science, Community engagement, conservation, Ecology, Flowers, Insects, Land management, meadow, Orchids, plants, Projects, Scotland's Protected Places, SNH, SSSI, Uncategorized, Volunteering, wild flowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Very superstitious – nature and folklore in the spotlight

Explore Scotland’s natural environment and you will soon discover that it is packed full of folklore and superstition. Down through the years a close connection with nature led people to interpret its signs and symbols in many weird and wonderful ways. This Friday the 13th we take a look at a few of the best known tales.

White heather ©Lorne Gill SNH for web

White heather ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lucky white heather

One of the best-known Scottish superstitions is that of lucky white heather. The old Celtic story goes that a young woman, discovering that her lover had died in battle, turned the heather white with her tears. As the legend tells, she declared that while white heather was a symbol of her sorrow it should bring good fortune to others. While purple heather is often abundant across Scottish moorland sites, the white variety is much less common. White versions of different coloured flowers crop up from time to time due to genetic mutations. Sometimes these are very rare which makes finding one a “lucky”. experience.

Rowan berries.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan berries ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Rowan for protection

Heather isn’t the only flora that is associated with luck. Many say planting a rowan tree near your house will ensure a happy home and keep evil spirits at bay. Where a rowan grows on its own, good fortune will be bestowed upon the home but those who cut down a rowan tree will bring bad luck upon themselves. Rowan, also known as mountain ash, has brilliant red berries in the autumn and as the colour red was considered to be the best defence against magic or enchantment, this may have contributed to the reputation of the tree as having protective qualities.

Fungi, Cragbank wood NNR, Forth and Borders Area.©Lorne Gill/SNH

Woodland fungi ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Fungi fairy circles

If you’re planning a woodland walk, one thing you might come across is a fairy ring. Should you believe the ancient legends, these supernatural spots are where the woodland fairies dance and play and if you were to stray into the ring it might be the last you are ever seen. In fact, these “fairy rings” are actually naturally occurring loops of mushrooms spreading out in all directions. Eventually, nutrients in the central spot are used up and the spore network dies out leaving the circular pattern as it continues to expand outward.

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill

Grey Seal ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Selkies from the sea

Scottish folklore tells of shapeshifting creatures that can change from a seal at sea to human form on land by casting off their seal skin. In many such stories one of these “selkies” or seal folk is forced to stay on land when their seal skin is stolen and hidden. The folk tales are said to originate in Orkney, where both harbour and grey seals can be found around the shores, although grey seals are more numerous. There are Special Areas of Conservation and designated haul outs for both species around the islands to recognise their importance.

Magpie (Pica pica).©Lorne Gill

Magpie ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Magpies for sorrow

Some birds and animals are said to have the powers of foresight. Magpies have often been associated with prophecies and many will know the old rhyme based on counting the black and white birds: “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told.” Another tradition is the practice of saluting magpies. Whether a simple “Hello, Mr Magpie” or a full conversation, some believe that if a lone magpie is spotted it must be greeted with good wishes or sorrow will lie ahead. It’s not clear where the ‘bad luck’ superstition arose, but magpies have gained a bad reputation for supplementing their diet by taking bird eggs and fledglings. However there’s no evidence that they have an adverse effect on song bird populations.

Posted in Folklore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Foraging Fortnight – a celebration of Scotland’s wild food

Elderberries, brambles, crab apples, hazelnuts and chanterelles are just some of the delicious wild finds of early autumn.  The first Foraging Fortnight, supported mainly by EU LEADER funding, coincides with this season of abundance – it runs from 31st August until 15th September across five areas in Scotland.  Becky Shaw, our Rural Development Officer, tells us more…

The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” of  John Yeats’ ‘Ode to Autumn’ will soon be here, bringing a rich natural harvest of fruit, nuts and fungi.

berries - rowan

Rowan berries

This celebration of food from nature is a great chance to explore the interesting tastes and flavours of wild food as well as spend some time outdoors, getting to know your local patch better.

Wild sushi

Wild sushi

In Forth Valley and Lomond, Fife, Lanarkshire, Moray and Orkney, there is a varied and wide-ranging programme of events to encourage people to find out more about responsible and safe foraging.  Long-table dinners, tasting menus, cookery sessions and wild beer workshops are among the ways you can enjoy the local flavours of the season during Foraging Fortnight.


Loch Fleet seaweed

Loch Fleet seaweed

The first and golden rule of foraging safely is being 100% certain of the identification of the plant or fungus you are planning to eat. Coastal and hedgerow foraging walks, fungi forays and workshops on medicinal herbs are all on offer throughout Foraging Fortnight to help give you confidence in knowing what is good and safe to eat and knowing how to forage in a responsible way that minimises any impact on nature.



Wild mint

The walks and talks will focus on the abundant and common seasonal plants, fungi and seaweeds that are all around us.  Foraging Fortnight events will hear from chefs, herbalists, brewers, foragers and food producers who’re exploring this local, seasonal and regionally distinctive food to create a ‘taste of place’.

A highlight of the last weekend of Foraging Fortnight is the Scottish Wild Food Festival, taking place at Cardross Estate, Port of Mentieth. The busy programme will include foraging workshops, wild walks, plant folklore, tasters and cookery demos, family activities and long-table dining.  Twelve local businesses, which are taking part in an international project to develop foraging skills and knowledge for use in their own enterprises, will lead some of the workshops, foraging walks and food experiences. It’s a day not to be missed!

See the Foraging Fortnight website for further information about all the events.


Posted in Festival, foraging, Fungi, mushrooms, Outdoor learning, plants, Rowan, SNH, Uncategorized, wild flowers, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Find autumn gold in Scotland’s National Nature Reserves

Autumn, with its depth of colour and light, is a fantastic season to get out and explore our mountains, forests and coasts, especially if you’re looking for ideas to get the kids active during the school break.

Scotland’s wonderful National Nature Reserves are a great place to start. With fantastic opportunities to get away from it all and connect with nature, whether you’re looking for a short stroll, an adventurous day out or simply want to sit and watch the local wildlife go by, they never fail to impress.

Here are 10 top nature experiences for autumn and where you can enjoy them across Scotland.

1. Hear the Monarch of the Glen roar


Rutting red deer Stag, Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve, ©Laurie Campbell/SNH

The roar of red deer stags across a Highland glen is one of the most evocative sounds of the season and hearing it for yourself is an experience not to be missed. The red deer is Scotland’s largest land mammal and stags can be seen and heard roaring from late September onwards on nature reserves from Ben Wyvis in the north to Cairnsmore in the south, and from Mar Lodge Estate in the east to Beinn Eighe in the west. For a really special experience, take a walk out to Kilmory Bay to watch rutting stags on the coastal grasslands on the Isle of Rum.

2. Fun with fungi


Chanterelles fungi and moss, Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, ©Lorne Gill/SNH

With autumn comes cooler nights and frequent showers, making it the best time of year for fungi to thrive. See how many different colours of mushrooms you can spot as you wander through the woods. Many nature reserves hold fungi forays during the season at locations including Muir of Dinnet in Royal Deeside and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross. Or explore Glen Affric, regarded by many as Scotland’s most beautiful glen, with its stunning lochs, mountains and Caledonian forest – a wonderful mix of pine, birch and oak. The area is golden brown in autumn with the ochres, oranges and yellows of the birch and aspen leaves. Fungi, such as huge penny-buns, golden chanterelles and bright red fly-agarics, appear like magic overnight in the damp woodlands. Learn more with SNH’s guide to Scottish fungi.

3. A riot of colour


Looking over Loch Lomond from Duncryne Hill, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

At this time of the year Scotland’s west coast temperate rain forest transforms with the vibrant hues of russets, reds and ochres of oak, birch, willow and alder. Bracken and ferns add muted hues of brown and gold to create a feast for the eyes. Enjoy a scenic walk at Taynish in Argyll, Ariundle Oakwood on the Sunart Peninsula or The Great Trossachs Forest in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Explore Scotland’s oldest and richest forest of oak, ash, rowan and hazel hidden in the dramatic gorges of the Clyde Valley Woodlands or visit the ancient, gnarled Cadzow oaks near Chatelherault.

4. A gaggle of geese


Geese at dawn in Loch Leven, Perthshire © Lorne Gill/SNH

Rise and shine to experience the dawn flypast of thousands of geese returning from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Huge numbers of barnacle geese from Svalbard are a highlight in October as they arrive at Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth. Or you can explore the wonderful Loch Leven Heritage Trail on foot or by bike, which encircles Loch Leven National Nature Reserve. Stop by one of the many hides and listen out for the distinctive “wink-wink” call of the pink-footed goose. Visit early in the morning to see the spectacle of huge flocks heading off to feed or in the evening when they return to roost.

5. A feast of nuts and berries


Waxwings feeding on rowan berries © Lorne Gill/SNH

In autumn the rowan trees at Creag Meagaidh will be laden with vibrant red berries – look out for migrant thrushes such as fieldfares and redwings, or even waxwings newly arrived from Scandinavia. There may also be locally-breeding ring ouzels filling up before they migrate south to the mountains of North Africa for the winter. Walk a trail in the Glasdrum or Glen Nant woodlands further west which will be dotted with the bright red of holly berries, and the yellows and browns of hazelnuts and acorns as they ripen.

6. Winter is coming


Looking over Lochan an Ais to Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh, Knockan Crag, Assynt © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland’s mountain landscapes are amongst the most scenic in the world, whether you want to photograph the view from the roadside or have the itch to embark on a challenging hike. Short trails and a visitor centre at Knockan Crag provide a spectacular panorama of Assynt’s hills, while Craigellachie offers one of the best views of the Cairngorms National Park. For keen walkers it’s hard to beat the glaciated, ice sculpted landscapes of Glen Coe near Fort William in the west, or Corrie Fee in the Angus Glens further east. You might even spot a ptarmigan or a mountain hare changing colour from summer grey to winter white as the hills are dusted with their first sprinkling of snow.

7. Stunning coastlines


Hermaness on Unst in Shetland is Scotland’s most northerly National Nature Reserve © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland has a long and incredibly varied coastline, which you can celebrate as part of our  Year of Coasts & Waters 2020. From wide sandy beaches to towering sea cliffs, this diverse coast supports amazing wildlife and is great for exploring during autumn when gales can drive huge waves ashore, making reserves, such as Hermaness on Shetland, exhilarating places to appreciate the power of nature. If you’re really lucky you might even see whales like orca from Noss on Shetland, or a humpback from St Cyrus or Forvie on Aberdeenshire’s east coast.

8. Waders and wildfowl


Evening light on Forvie Sands, Aberdeenshire © Lorne Gill/SNH

Scotland’s estuaries come alive in the autumn as summer birds get ready to leave and winter birds arrive. Look out for vast wheeling flocks of waders, like knot, which have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds. Listen for the evocative whistling call of wigeon as they start to arrive in big numbers from their Russian wintering areas. Visit bird hides at Loch Fleet on the North Coast 500, at Forvie on the Ythan Estuary (where you’ll also find a half-buried 12th century church ruin and large numbers of basking seals) and at St Cyrus at the mouth of the River North Esk.

9. Squirrels get ready


Red Squirrel, Royal Deeside © Lorne Gill/SNH

Who could resist watching red squirrels preparing for winter, hiding food in scattered places to prevent it being pinched by other animals? In autumn these charismatic characters also grow their bushy winter coat ready for the cold nights ahead. The woodlands of Muir of Dinnet on Royal Deeside are home to red squirrels while at Tentsmuir on the Fife coast, visitors to the squirrel hide at Morton Lochs have an excellent chance of seeing and photographing their antics.

10. The last days of summer


A beautiful Scotch argus, Cairngorms National Park © Lorne Gill/SNH

Take a walk in grassland or through woodland clearings at Glasdrum or Beinn Eighe and look out for the last flight of the Scotch argus, a local specialist with the ability to survive cooler temperatures than other butterflies. Elsewhere butterflies such as peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells will be feeding up before hibernating over the winter in cool sheds and outbuildings in places as far flung as the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth.

These are just a few of the wildlife treats in store this autumn, find out about some of Scotland’s key species in this wildlife calendar. Pick up some ideas on what to do with the kids in Visit Scotland’s autumn breaks in Scotland guide, or why not become a leaf peeper in our colourful woodlands?

Posted in Argyll National Nature Reserves, beaches, Beinn Eighe NNR, Birds, coastal, deer, Flanders Moss NNR, Glasdrum NNR, green health, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, mushrooms, National Nature Reserves, Natural Health Service, Noss National Nature Reserve, photography, Rum NNR, Scotland's Protected Places, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH, St Cyrus National Nature Reserve, Taynish NNR, The Flow Country, trees, Uncategorized, woodlands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Faoileagan nan Seanfhaclan / Seagulls of Many Proverbs

Tha na faoileagan a’ nochdadh ann an mòran sheanfhaclan is abairtean / Seagulls appear in large number of Gaelic proverbs and observations about nature

Faoileagan nan Seanfhaclan

Herring Gull and Thrift ©Lorne Gill

Herring Gull and Thrift
©Lorne Gill

Tha e iongantach na th’ againn de sheanfhaclan co-cheangailte ri faoileagan. Bidh sibh eòlach, tha mi cinnteach, air an abairt cho còir ris an fhaoileig. Tha feadhainn dhen bheachd, ged a tha i dha-rìreabh an-diugh, gun do dh’èirich an abairt à ìoranas. Cia mheud faoileag a chunnaic sibh, agus i a’ toirt seachad biadh gu saor-thoileach gu creutair eile?! Agus tha samhlaidhean eile ann nach eil a’ toirt meas do bheusan an eòin – cho faoin ris na faoileagan, cho gòrach ris na faoileagan agus – à Eilean Leòdhais – cho faoin ri faoileag ann an Ach (a’ ciallachadh an Acha’ Mhòir, an aon bhaile anns an eilean aig nach eil cladach!)

Thathar ag ràdh mu neach òg a tha a’ feuchainn ri dèanamh a-mach gu bheil iad nas sine na tha iad ann an dha-rìreabh gu bheil guth na faoileig ann an beul na sgairig no gu bheil guth na faoileig aig an sgliùbraich (faoileag òg). Nuair a nochdas faoileagan ann an achaidhean air falbh bhon chladach, thathar ag ràdh gu bheil sneachd air an rathad. Ach, mas iad sgaireagan a tha a’ tighinn cruinn, ’s e uisge a tha san amharc. Tha an seanfhacal ann – faoileagan manadh an t-sneachda, sgaireagan manadh an uisge.

Bidh sinn a’ gabhail faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin air feadhainn a bhuineas gu làidir don choimhearsnachd againn, agus ma tha feadhainn a’ leantainn ann droch shuidheachadh nuair a bu chòir dhaibh gluasad air adhart gur e faoileagan an droch chladaich a th’ annta. Bha beachd aig na seann daoine nach biodh na faoileagan a’ falbh fada on dachaigh. Ged nach eil sin buileach fìor, tha iad rim faicinn fhathast ann am mìosan a’ gheamhraidh, eucoltach ri mòran eun-mara eile.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir  ‘the seagull is on the sea’ 
Ness lighthouse, Montrose ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Agus ’s ann tric a chithear faoileag air a’ mhuir. Chan eil sin a’ ciallachadh nan eun fhèin, ach na barran geala air muin gach stuaigh air latha gaothach no stoirmeil.

Seagulls of Many Proverbs

Non Gaelic-speakers might be surprised by the number and variety of Gaelic proverbs connected to our native seagulls (the generic Gaelic term for the various species is faoileag). Perhaps the proverb most commonly encountered in conversation is cho còir ris an fhaoileig ‘as generous-hearted as the seagull’; it’s been suggested that, while the sentiment in today’s language might be genuine, the origin of the simile might be based on an ironic observation (given the selfish behaviour of gulls who are scrapping for food!) This is perhaps supported by two other sayings with a largely negative flavour – cho faoin ris na faoileagan ‘as vain as the seagulls’ and cho gòrach ris na faoileagan ‘as silly as the seagulls’.


Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus), ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus),
©Lorne Gill/SNH

A young seagull (in its first year) is called a sgaireag. It is said of a young person trying to sound older than they really are that they have guth na faoileig ann an beul na sgairig ‘the old gull’s voice in the young gull’s mouth’. When the young gulls appear in numbers in inland fields, it is reckoned to presage wet weather – but when older gulls gather, it is said that snow is on the way. This is summed up in the observation faoileagan manadh an t-sneachda, sgaireagan manadh an uisge ‘adult gulls foretell snow, young gulls foretell rain’.

It might be said of people who belong to our own community and are unlikely to venture far from home that they are faoileagan a’ chladaich againn fhèin ‘the seagulls of our own shore’. If they persist in staying in a poor situation, when they should really move on to better things, they might be termed faoileagan an droch chladaich ‘seagulls of the bad shore’. These sayings arise from the traditional observation that gulls are not as strongly migratory as some other species of seabird – or, at least, many of them can still be seen locally during the winter months.

Bass Rock from Belhaven Bay, Dunbar.©George Logan/SNH

tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir  ‘the seagull is on the sea’
Bass Rock from Belhaven Bay, Dunbar.
©George Logan/SNH

And what is the Gaelic equivalent of the English ‘white horses’, referring to the white caps on waves on a windy day? It is also biological, but refers, not to horses but to seagulls – tha an fhaoileag air a’ mhuir ‘the seagull is on the sea’; the singular, of course, is collective!

Posted in Gaelic, Uncategorized

The fruits of Snapberry

Caroline Anderson has been coordinating the Snapberry project since 2009.  Snapberry uses photography to connect school pupils with the natural landscape of Argyll. It is a collaboration between local Scottish Natural Heritage staff and Lochgilphead High School.  Under the expert guidance of our award-winning photographer, Lorne Gill, students are encouraged to take a closer look at their surroundings and explore different aspects of photography.  A talented wildlife photographer herself, today Caroline reports on the 11th year of the project.

The 2019 Snapberry Project was a little different to the previous 10 years.   This year Lochgilphead SNH staff and Katie, from the Argyll & Isles Coast and Countryside Trust, took 10 pupils with additional support needs (ASN) out for the day to Taynish National Nature Reserve.  We have always included ASN pupils in previous years but never before had we taken out a whole group.


The 2019 Snapberries

The day was glorious with the sun breaking through by mid-morning, and the midgies were almost bearable too!  As usual Taynish provided lots of photo opportunities for the pupils who explored a range of habitat types, from the bog at the boardwalk, to the woods and the shore, snapping away as they went.  The Art Trail is on display at the reserve just now,  so that added an additional dimension to the day. Our national nature reserves are just the most perfect places for this type of project!


Midge protection for better focus

After lunch at the picnic area down by The Mill we enjoyed a treasure hunt and played a pollinator word game.  We then headed up through the woods to the hut circle, as one of the pupils was particularly interested in archaeology.


Measuring out the hut circle.

In previous years we have seen remarkable responses from ASN pupils when they are taken outside of the classroom and into nature.  One year a boy whose responses were pretty limited in school interacted with his peers in a way never before seen by the teachers.  We have also seen pupils discover a natural talent for photography that they never knew they had.

DSC_9574 (A2968602)

Exploring art at The Mill

This year was no exception and the highlight of the day for me was a teacher expressing her delight that one pupil was so comfortable that he had removed his earbuds for the first time in two years.  Because of his condition he is very sensitive to noise and wears earbuds to cancel it out.   Another great example of the positive benefits of nature for young people!


Connecting young people with nature.

An exhibition of the pupil’s photographs will be on display at Taynish Mill during Artmap Open Studios – from 27th August to the end of September.


Posted in Argyll National Nature Reserves, art, National Nature Reserves, Natural Health Service, Nature and technology, Nature in art, photography, SNH, Taynish NNR, Uncategorized, Young people | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Terns of Forvie

At Forvie National Nature Reserve (NNR) the breeding season for the terns is coming to an end. It has been another mixed year for one of Scotland’s biggest colonies of terns and a time when the NNR staff and volunteers can breathe a sigh of relief. After much hard work, most of the species have delivered another cohort of youngsters into the wide world to swell the tern population. Read on to find out more about the Forvie terns from Reserve Manager, David Pickett. 


Terns are just amazing birds. They are the greatest of travellers despite some only weighing the same as a blackbird. Many terns winter off the coast of Africa but the arctic tern heads to Antarctica, forever chasing summer. At the colony, terns are so noisy, frenetic and stressed that you could imagine them burning themselves out quickly. But, at Forvie, we have recorded the two oldest known arctic terns in the UK. At 31 and 32 years old they have survived long enough to have a million miles on the clock, despite their frantic life.

The success of breeding terns can be affected by many different factors so no year is ever the same. At Forvie we put up an electric fence around a four hectare area to protect these ground nesting birds from foxes. We also keep visitors out of the ternery during the breeding season to avoid nests from getting trodden on and birds disturbed. But crows, kestrels, gulls and even oystercatchers can still take eggs and chicks. Heavy rain and cold weather can also decimate young chicks and, crucially, the fish that the terns need to grow strong chicks need to be present and healthy.

Forvie Sandwich tern adult and chick both with darvic rings © Cat Reid

Forvie sandwich tern adult and chick both with darvic rings © Cat Reid

This year at Forvie the terns have mostly found these requirements to their liking. To work out how well the terns are doing each year we count the number of nests, the clutch size and, most importantly, the fledged youngsters that have left the nest. This number gives us an idea of how successful breeding has been. We have four species of terns breeding here. The highest number is of sandwich terns, 1100 pairs of them and they have a peak fledged chick count of nearly 700 – one of the best years yet. The arctic terns and the common terns look very similar to each other so for monitoring purposes we combine their totals. This year, 1600 pairs bred but we have a peak fledged chick count of only 350 chicks. This indicates that either predation of some sort was higher than normal or the fish weren’t as plentiful. Our rarest tern is the little tern; there are only about 2000 pairs across the UK. At Forvie, 27 pairs attempted to breed but it appears that they have all failed. Awful weather in June didn’t help them but we have also evidence from trail cameras that black-headed gulls and oystercatchers have been eating eggs and chicks.

Besides nearly 3000 pairs of terns at Forvie, other birds have been taking advantage of the excellent nesting conditions provided. We have some 2000 pairs of black-headed gulls, 100 eiders, a few pairs of ringed plovers and oystercatchers and, remarkably, one pair of hole-in-the-ground nesting jackdaws! This all makes the seabird breeding colony at Forvie exceptionally important.

Forvie tern colony terns in flight ©David Pickett

Forvie tern colony terns in flight
©David Pickett

The success of here is down to a partnership. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) staff work tremendously hard to perfect the protection system and then monitor the birds afterwards. The fence has to be checked every single day of the breeding season and our fantastic team of local volunteers play a really important part in this, as well as doing the grunt work of putting up and taking down of the fence and clearing the site in the winter.

A key part of the Forvie tern project is gaining an understanding of the importance of Forvie in the context of the North Sea. For many years the Grampian ringing group, led by Ewan Weston and Raymond Duncan, have been ringing young and adult terns and, by monitoring returning ringed birds, a better picture is emerging. Some terns have darvic rings put on which have an obvious and unique colour and letter combination that enables the rings to be read as the birds go about their lives. From these, the ringers have found where some Forvie birds winter – for example, yellow ECB has been seen twice off the coast of Namibia. And there are indications that Forvie exports birds to other colonies that may be doing less well while still supporting the strong colony here. Also, birds from across the North Sea head to the Ythan estuary and Forvie after they have finished breeding to fuel up before starting on their seasonal ocean wanderings. So it appears that Forvie is important on a much wider European scale. The Forvie colony continues to thrive thanks to the partnership of SNH, volunteers and the bird ringers but also thanks to the visitors who follow the signs and leave the birds in peace.

Forvie tern colony ©David Pickett

Forvie tern colony ©David Pickett

However, we can only help the terns from egg to first flight. After that, they are on their own until they return three to four years later to breed again. For tern populations to survive they need more than just a safe place to breed, they also need healthy oceans with good fish populations to feed chicks and feed themselves. At a time of climate emergency with changing oceans and more extreme weather this is something that everyone has to play a part in.

You can find out more about the Forvie terns and Forvie National Nature Reserve on their dedicated blog:

Posted in biodiversity, Birds, Ecology, National Nature Reserves, Scottish Natural Heritage, SNH