Wildlife Watching with Gadgets and Gizmos

20140706-081554-29754555.jpgIt certainly seemed like a good idea a few months ago: Let’s get more people engaged with nature using equipment and gadgets more often used for science and let’s train up my fellow people engagement staff at RSPB in the South and West of Scotland.

It seemed less clever as I travelled down to RSPB Mersehead reserve contemplating the inescapable fact that technology seems to sense my anxiety and ignorance and immediately stops working, that vital pieces of gadgets go missing when I am anywhere near them, and that even having to set up a projector and laptop to give presentation can leave me feeling sick with fear.

However we had a boot full of gadgets: go-pros, camera traps, a digital microscope, and some bat detectors; as well as some of the more traditional scientific kit of an ecologist: moth traps, small mammal traps and butterfly nets. We also had a few experimental things: a variety of recipes for treacling for moths, some ink footprint traps and a drone.

The participants came from across the RSPB’s South of Scotland region, all working in face-to-face roles with the public and the idea was a kind of do-it-yourself training. We would all contribute our experience on using the gadgets and also the kind of activities you could use to create an event, or activity to get people ereally excited about nature.

I managed to secure the help of a couple of our RSPB ecologists who could give us the low-down on things such as camera trapping, moth trapping and mammal trapping. All the rest was down to us.

The idea of the training had been born in an evening, night and morning spend in a tent with the family near to RSPB’s Loch Lomond reserve where we were partaking in the Big Wild Sleep Out. I had been involved in planning and arranging the event but wasn’t due to be helping deliver it and so I went along with the family to take part as it sounded like just about the most fun one could possibly hope to find. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was like being in an episode of spring watch, nay, it was like being Chris Packham himself.20140706-081406-29646519.jpg

We went bug hunting, set moth traps and camera traps, heard bats through our bat detectors, baited our mammal traps then finished the evening with a campfire, stories and marshmallows. In the morning we rose early for some bird ringing following by checking the traps. It was so exciting seeing what you had caught in your mammal trap and with the camera trap. My younger daughter’s camera, set under some bird feeders, discovered a hungry hedgehog snuffling around the peanut butter bait. We were hooked.

I wanted the training to recreate the feeling and excitement for people and so those who could be persuaded, camped out in the garden of beautiful RSPB Mersehead. Although, with all the distractions of teeming wildlife, there wasn’t a lot of time for sleeping.

The first night, clear and deathly still, we walked down to the shore, the air still so warm we were still in t-shirts at 11pm. There was no need for torches, the sky to the north was still bright. We were thrilled to see a barn owl quartering the wet grasslands in search of food. Later on, however, while asleep, I was less thrilled to be shocked awake and bolt upright, by the bloodcurdling shriek of the owl who appeared to be resident in the tree right by my tent.20140706-074724-28044051.jpg

We set the camera traps, the small mammal traps and an embarrassment of moth-traps (no fewer than three mercury vapour lamps within a few yards of the tents) and then we started on the moth treacling/sugaring. Everyone you ask seems to have their own secret recipe for attracting moths. So I decided that what we needed was a battle of the moth mixtures.

Everyone brought their own in jars or made them up on the stove, the heady fragrance of red wine, sugar, ale and banana wafting through the centre. They were delicious (the ones I tried) even the one that had been sitting around at RSPB Loch Lomond for a few weeks – apparently it had improved as it matured. If the moths had any sense they would be starting to queue for a taste of this moth ambrosia.20140706-073856-27536503.jpg

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While we waited for the moths to gather we headed down to the dunes to look for Natterjacks toads. Natterjacks are our rarest amphibian and you need a licence even to go looking for them, touch them or photograph them. So we were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in an official natterjack survey with our ecologists. They only come out at night and so, in midsummer, it has to be pretty late to see them and it wasn’t until past 1130pm that we found our first animal, a female, and one, according to the individual dorsal wart pattern, that had been caught by the team before.

It was an incredibly brief night before we were all up again on a (not quite) dawn walk, chatting through games and ideas to engage children with listening to and learning birdsong. What struck me was how differently people hear birdsong. The chiff-chaff which, for me, is a simple ‘chiff-chaff-chaff-chiff’ was, to one colleague, ‘a little girl skipping along with pigtails’ and another ‘a bouncing ball’

I got everyone to listen to the skylark and describe exactly what they heard and there was an amazing variety of descriptions, the best of which was ‘a video game shoot-out killing the aliens’

We picked up the camera traps as we passed; a couple by a badger set in the woods, and one on a gate post past which everything bigger than a rabbit would have to move to get from the field into the woods.

20140706-074005-27605795.jpgBack at base we opened moth traps, and mammal traps, looked at camera trap footage and ink print traps. We had deer, a badger, a fox and a tiny mouse that dashed into a badger sett entrance only to bounce out a few seconds later carrying a stick three-times it’s own length in its mouth.20140706-081406-29646850.jpg

The excitement of seeing what the results of your own camera trapping had brought was really palpable. The camera which was only few yards from the tents captured some great footage of a fox and some stills of a badger.

Later we played with a digital microscope which projects highly magnified images to a laptop screen, the go-pro cameras and our area reserves manager demonstrated the drone, a quadcopter, which creates incredibly stable ariel images and video.

When I arrived back in Glasgow that evening, utterly exhausted, a fox passed me in the street. Unconcerned, and in broad daylight, It hopped off the pavement to let me past and then eyeballed me when I briefly stopped. I pretty much ignored it and went on my way. Perhaps I should set up a camera trap here to rekindle the excitement of having wildlife so close in the city.

PS. The moth treacling mixtures might have tasted delicious to me, but the moths didn’t seem to like them. All we found, when we came back after the natterjack survey, was a red tailed bumblebee slurping the mixture off a tree. 20140706-074000-27600771.jpg

 

 

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Perfect seafood and a Sperm Whale

from bbc.co.uk

from bbc.co.uk

There has been a sperm whale (of all things) in the harbour at Oban for the past couple of weeks. I first heard about it on 1st April, and had to do a double take before I established that it was for real and not an April fool.  We popped down to see whether we could view it on Monday but the closest we got was finding a man who had viewed it a couple of minutes before we arrived.  We stood on the harbourside, wrapped up against the wind and taking it in turns at the binoculars, until the children could take it no more then retired to seek refreshment. Continue reading

Scotland’s ‘Big Five’

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Scotland’s ‘Big Five’ wildlife stars are, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, Red Squirrel, Seal, Golden Eagle, Otter and Red Deer. Today they launched a competition to ask ‘What’s your ‘Big Five?

Never being the type who shrinks from having an opinion I am entering a Cuil Bay big five.

Number 1: White tailed Eagle. These magnificent creatures, once extinct in Scotland, are making a remarkable comeback. Still rare, the best place to see them is on the Isle of Mull, just down Loch Linnhe. But sea eagles are regularly seen in the area and my best view was a juvenile flying low with a backdrop of the slopes of Garbh Bheinn as I walked around the peninsular.

Number 2. Golden Eagle. Am I allowed to have eagles for my top two? Of course! They are amazing and Cuil is sandwiched between two areas recently designated as special protection areas for Golden Eagles

Number 3. Otter. These beautiful, lithe, graceful and captivating animals can be seen right around the coast. Once when out in a Canadian canoe I saw one playing in the water not far from the boat. We stopped paddling and it dived, only to resurface on rocks a few metres from us. It then proceeded to eat a crab it had caught and we could hear every crunch and crack of the carapace.

Number 4. Gannet. I really wanted to just put ‘seabirds’ for this one but I don’t think it is within the spirit of the exercise. Scotland has the most wonderful diversity of seabirds nesting around its rugged coasts and you can’t sit for long at the shore at Cuil without seeing some. In summer and autumn huge rafts of auks: guillimots, puffins, razorbills, can be seen bobbing about in Loch Linnhe following the balls of sandeels. Mackerel are also in pursuit, and the graceful, ghostly gannets.

The gannets have come from Ailsa Craig, a hundred miles to the south, their isolated nesting rock off the Ayrshire Coast. They are perfect fishing machines, white with wingtips as if dipped in ink. They spot the fish from a height of 30m and then dive like an arrow, closing their wings to enter the water at speeds of 100km/hr

Number 5. Red Deer. It is a great experience to see a herd of red deer, especially when it is hard-won after a long mountain walk. I know that, due to the large number of deer in the highlands, they are causing great damage to trees and preventing regeneration of woodland. But I still love them. The best place to go and see red deer is to go up into the mountains anywhere nearby. Ensure you have the right equipment including a map and compass as the hills can be treacherous. Listen out for the roaring during the Autumn rut.

If you feel inspired to enter your own big five you can do it here.

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A day out in Speyside

Apart from Cuil Bay, one of my very favourite places is Speyside. When I haven’t been there for a while I start pining for the ancient forests (‘scuse the pun), the wild hill-tops, the cake-shops and the reindeer.

It’s a great day-trip from Cuil, about 1.5 hours drive to Kingussie, and this trip we took in the Autumn gives an idea of my perfect day. Continue reading