During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’re joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do for the benefit of people and nature. This month we meet Jen Graham, who is working on Marine Ornithology and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) as part of SNH’s graduate placement scheme.
As a graduate placement, I am part of the marine ecosystems team, working on a project looking at novel ways of monitoring our inshore wintering waterfowl.
The project is multi-faceted, using different methods to survey our seaducks and divers. We have 35 volunteers who visit different sites along the Moray Firth coastline to do land-based surveys, and we also have HiDef’s digital aerial survey team operating alongside this – taking high-quality video of the Moray Firth birds from a ‘birds eye view’!
January and February are key months for surveying these species. As migratory species, many of these birds spend the breeding season in the arctic along the coasts of Russia and Northern Europe, coming south to the warmer climes of the UK and Baltic Sea during the winter.
In order to prepare for the surveys I have spent these last few weeks allocating volunteers to different sites and liaising with the digital aerial team about the best dates for weather. Getting everyone lined up on the same day can be tricky, especially in winter. Once the day is decided – it’s time to pack and prepare for the survey itself. We have specific equipment required for surveys: a telescope and tripod, as well as a pair of binoculars and data recording sheets. I also bring a tally counter to help me to keep track of large flocks – and lots of warm layers to be able to stand outside in the cold weather (I’ve occasionally been spotted with a hot water bottle!).
Once at the site, volunteers set up the equipment and record information about the conditions at sea, the equipment we are using and the date and time. Then the fun part begins – looking for the birds! I am always amazed how when I first look out at the sea it looks as though there is nothing there – but once I take a look through the scope, hundreds and thousands of unique and fascinating birds appear on the water. These birds are perfectly adapted to the marine environment – and are remarkably mobile underwater, using their large webbed feet to propel them to find food.
Working from left to right with the scope, we record each species that we see and count the flocks of birds as we see them. This can get challenging as flocks of scoter can be over 4,000 strong! Other species tend to be much more solitary, and can be tough to spot, like the tiny Slavonian grebe. We record various information about flocks such as the bearing to where they were seen, how far out to sea they are and information about the behaviour of the birds. All of this can be used to inform the management of the site in future.
During all of this the HiDef digital aerial survey plane is flying overhead, taking high quality video of the birds. This will allow comparison counts to be made at a later date. Five of our volunteers were lucky enough to see the survey plane at their site – this will make our comparisons of the methods much more accurate.
Once we have recorded all the birds we have seen, we record the finish time of our survey and pack up to go home – a good day of surveying complete and a cup of tea and biscuit well earned!
For me – the work has just started. All the data collected by the volunteers needs to be collated and entered into the data base. This is a part of my job I really enjoy. Getting to look through the data sheets at all the species recorded is really exciting, and it’s great to see the comments left by volunteers – many of them remark on all of the other interesting species that they have seen – like dolphins and otters! The diversity of species in our Scottish waters is truly breath-taking.