Let’s hear it for Pipits!!

Angus Hogg
3 April 2017
All photos are ©Angus Hogg, 2017

Water Pipits

“Well, nobody looks at pipits!!”  An often repeated statement from birders and non-birders alike.  It’s perhaps understandable, since this little group of birds is maybe not the most glamorous.  Well, maybe I can persuade you to have a look at some of these “little brown jobs” since there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye (at least, in the first instance!).

Ayrshire currently has 5 species of pipit on its list, with the large Richard’s Pipit having been recorded on only a single occasion so far.  Of the four other species, Water Pipit is undoubtedly the scarcest, being a winter visitor from the European mainland.  Rock Pipit is the nearest to an omni-present species, with some migration taking place during Spring and Autumn, when some other races may be involved.  Tree Pipit is a Summer visitor and is usually present as a breeding bird in our upland forestry areas between mid April and September.  The one that most of us will be acquainted with is Meadow Pipit although it, too, is a migrant, with only a few choosing to overwinter.

So, let’s take two of these closely allied species to begin with and see how we can identify them.  Water Pipit and Rock Pipit used to be considered as the same species, but a recent “split” resulted in a separation – and one which seemed sensible to those of us who had suggested some time previously that their habitat choices, for one thing, were substantially different.  If we take Water Pipit to begin with, it’s important to know when to look for it in Ayrshire.  Since the first record in 1970, the bird has been well recorded within the county, and Ayrshire has proved to be one of the best counties in Scotland in which to see one.  It’s primarily a Winter visitor from its high montane breeding grounds in West and Central Europe and, while many will head South into areas like South Spain and the Balearics to overwinter, some head North-west to spend the Winter months in the UK.

Water Pipit, Girvan, December 2009

Water Pipit, Maidens, December 2010

It was initially thought to be a bird which could be found in habitats like watercress beds and sewage farms in the Southern counties of England, with any suggestion of shoreline feeding on seaweed accumulations being dismissed.  This habitat has, however, turned out to be one which is frequently used by Water Pipits in our part of the world (Scotland is not blessed with a lot of Watercress beds!).  Very often these seaweed piles lie in sheltered bays or at the mouths of burns and rivers e.g. at Maidens and Doonfoot.  Most of our birds arrive from the end of October and depart for their breeding grounds in late March-early April.  During March they will undergo a body moult in which their appearance as a “different” species will become much more apparent.

Rock Pipit, Troon, January 2009

Water Pipit, Seamill 2010

When they arrive in the late Autumn, you might be forgiven for thinking that the bird in front of you is just a bright-looking Rock Pipit. However, your attention might just be drawn initially to its unusual , flighty behaviour – quite different from most Rock Pipits, which normally allow fairly close approach. Secondly, once you’ve caught up with it, you’ll be aware of a bird which is largely white below and brown above; a contrast to most of the nearby Rock Pipits which are pretty drab with their olive-tinged grey/brown upper-parts and dull underparts, often with heavy, dark streaking in this area.

A closer look at the bird will pick out one or two other notable plumage features:- a clear white supercilium, two white wing-bars on the tips of median and greater wing coverts, a white or off-white throat, and white outer tail feathers, the latter feature showing well as the bird flies away from you again! The dark streaking on the breast can appear much finer than that of Rock Pipit, and is largely concentrated on the upper breast, thinning out on to the belly and becoming much more diffuse on the flanks. A brownish/grey back will show some dark streaking, but the rump is often a richer, warmer brown colour. The bill, which is usually more slender than that of a Rock Pipit, has a largely yellow base to the lower mandible and the legs are dark, often showing reddish brown (a useful feature if you’re unsure about a greyish Meadow Pipit perhaps?). With a lot of these features, it’s well worth remembering that light conditions will play a big part in what you perceive to be colours and tones.

Water Pipit, Pow Burn, December 2016

Most birds are fairly active feeders, and a good time to look for them is at high tide, when the seaweed will often be disturbed by waves lapping against it, perhaps unsettling invertebrate life within it. Above all else though, patience is the key, since most birds which take off and appear to fly for miles along the beach in front of you, will often return to exactly the same spot they were feeding in a few minutes beforehand.

Water Pipit, Doonfoot, December 2016

By mid March, if your overwintering bird is still around, you’ll start to see a few changes in its plumage. It starts to look quite scruffy and gradually takes on a pale greyish appearance. The white supercilium is still there, but now it’s set against a pale grey crown and ear coverts. The upper-parts become mostly pale grey and the dark breast streaking almost totally disappears, leaving plain white underparts with a pinkish breast. The top part of the head pattern can vaguely resemble a Northern Wheatear at times. It should be pointed out, however, that many birds will depart before they look like what most field guides show as typical breeding plumage.

Water Pipit, Maidens, late March 2007

Other races of Water Pipit have been recorded within the UK, and it’s possible that the closely allied Buff-bellied Pipit could be a future addition to the Ayrshire list. That would require more folk to look harder at pipits though… so, how about it?

Rock Pipits

And you thought it couldn’t get any worse!  Well, truthfully, it could.  Although we now know that Water Pipits can be identified with a wee bit of care, identification of Rock Pipits is not so straightforward as many of the field guides suggest.  An example of this can be seen in the two photos below – both show Rock Pipits, but at different times of year:-

Rock Pipit, Doonfoot, November 2013

Rock Pipit, Troon, July 2012

Both birds show many differences in plumage, and it’s hard to believe that it’s the same species you’re looking at! However, the two photos illustrate just how confusing it can be to identify what many people would regard as a “dull” bird (and not worth a second look?). So, how have we arrived at the point where we’re almost considering taking up stamp collecting? Well, the two birds look similar in size and structure: they share the same habitat: and they give the same call (OK, I know that’s cheating since you can’t hear a still photograph). The next step is to look at the plumages. The November bird looks really crisp, with a lovely olive-green cast to its upperparts, and fresh upper wing coverts with their dark centres and whitish tips. Sometime during the early autumn it would have undergone a post-breeding moult and is in excellent condition.

The July bird, by contrast, looks like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards! Its worn, grey plumage shows little or none of the neatness of the November bird. The upperparts appear very plain and lack the greenish tinge of the other bird, while the upper wing coverts have all but vanished as a feature. Even the dark streaking on the breast looks worn and almost mottled in appearance. Well, it has just come to the end of the breeding season, and the plumage has obviously just lasted long enough. Time to moult!

Most of the Rock Pipits we have, locally, in Ayrshire tend to look like the November bird for much of the year and exhibit the following features:-

  • a basically dull. olive/green upper side to the body plumage, with heavy, dark streaking on the back
  • a paler, off-white (even yellowish) underside, normally quite heavily streaked on the breast and belly
  • the dark belly streaks, when fresh, appear very dark greenish – sometimes dark brown, but become much darker (almost black) as the bird’s plumage wears
  • the head colour shows little contrast with the rest of the upper-parts, and, when fresh, it lacks the Water Pipit’s well defined supercilium. Instead, an obvious pale eye-ring can be seen.
  • dark brown legs and a slightly more robust bill than Water Pipit. This bill can vary from all black, to black with a dull pinkish colour on much of the lower mandible.

There are other plumage features but, bearing in mind that the rigours of the breeding season can alter the colour and tone of the plumage (and the timing of these changes varies from bird to bird), have a look at the two photos below:-

Bird A, Turnberry Point, 2010

Bird B, Maidens, 2011

See if you can guess the month in which the two photos were taken (click on the photos to expand to full size).  Answers at the end of the article.

Strangers on the Shore

I guess I’d be giving my age away if I referred to Acker Bilk here.  However, the point of this section is to highlight something which very few people notice during the Spring migration period i.e. many of the migrant Rock Pipits which occasionally gather on seaweed piles don’t look like our birds.  Rock Pipits are migratory, although seldom forming large aggregations – a “flock” of 20+ would be notable.  During March and April, around the time when many White Wagtails throng our shorelines, you’ll sometimes notice small numbers of odd-looking Rock Pipits.  Just why are they odd-looking, I hear you ask?  Have a look at the 2 photos below, and see what you think:-

Rock Pipit, Maidens, March 2011

Rock Pipit, Maidens, March 2011

Several features might strike the observer right away – the left hand bird is very pale, shows a clear, white supercilium, and has reasonably fresh upper wing coverts. The bird on the right is very grey, also has a clear white supercilium and also has fresh upper wing coverts. The right hand bird also shows a faint pinkish tinge (honest!) to its very white and poorly streaked underparts. To adapt a much used Star Trek phrase: “They’re Rock Pipits Jim, but not as we know them.

Much has been said and written in recent years about “Scandinavian” Rock Pipits, and I suppose that some of our migrant birds fit with the descriptions given in various field guides for these birds.  However, even specialised books dealing with pipits and wagtails fail to agree on basic identification features, moult timings and extent etc.  Within the UK, there used to be at least 3 breeding races of Rock Pipit, all of which vary in plumage tones according to most sources.  The so-called Scandinavian Rock Pipit is said to winter in the UK, but is also stated to be largely inseparable from our Rock Pipits at that period.  Confused??  You’re not alone!

Most Scandinavian Rock Pipits are said not to assume much, or any, pinkish-ness on the breast in fresh, pre-breeding, Spring plumage – yet a few have been seen in Ayrshire which were quite obviously pink on an almost clear whitish breast.  It was this feature, along with the clear white or whitish supecilium which caused some  confusion among local birders in Ayrshire during the “discovery” years of the early 1970s when the first Water Pipits were being identified in the county.  But, are these recent “odd-looking” birds Scandinavian Rock Pipits?  To be honest, I’m not totally sure, and some may not be anything more than examples of what were formerly thought to be individual races (kleinschmidti from the Faroes, and Northern Isles, and meinertzhageni from the Outer Hebrides).  Let me throw another idea into the ring here.  What if Rock Pipits exhibit the same variation in plumage as Meadow Pipits?  That’s nothing more than mere speculation, but I remain intrigued by these strangers which appear regularly along our shorelines in Spring.

No doubt, like so many other recent discoveries, work on DNA sequencing may hold the key to their true identities.  One thing is certain – Rock Pipits are most certainly not dull!

Answer to earlier bird photo question:  the bird on the left was one of a breeding pair at Turnberry lighthouse on 24th April.  The right hand bird was photographed at Maidens on 12 November.

Two more April puzzles on Maidens foreshore

 

Just a Simple Rook Survey

Angus Hogg
29 August 2016

All photos are © Angus Hogg, 2016

Rook

Some years ago – well, a considerable numbers of years ago – I decided to take part in a county-wide survey of Rooks which had been organised by the late Malcolm Castle.  This wasn’t the first such survey which he’d organised, and it wasn’t going to be his last, but it seemed so delightfully simple that I chose one or two rookeries which I would then go out and try to count.

It certainly sounded simple and, typical of its organiser, the instructions were really straightforward.  But, then, that’s the way surveys always look until you start on them!  One major obstacle with my first large rookery at Kirkmichael was that many of the birds nested in the crowns of Scots Pine trees, rendering a totally accurate count almost impossible.  However, a challenge like this was something to be tackled head-on, and, 4 hours later, I’d ploughed through just over 400 nests.  One or two rookeries later, and I was starting to enjoy it, but it wasn’t until Malcolm had pulled all the results together that I saw the real purpose in doing such a series of counts.

That was 1975, and Rooks were doing well within Ayrshire.  The survey was repeated in 1986, and it looked like the future was bright for the species.  Moreover, the survey had provided all sorts of information for observers to get their teeth into e.g. rookery sizes, favoured nest-trees and overall distribution within Ayrshire.  A further survey was arranged for 1996.  Sadly, Malcolm didn’t live to see the final results written up, but Roger Hissett placed the results in the Ayrshire Bird report of 1997.  These showed that the Rook was still faring reasonably well, despite substantial changes in the rural landscape.

In 2005 Kevin Waite took another slant on assessing the health of the Rook population in Ayrshire.  His one-man survey drew on previous survey results, and looked at particular aspects such as urban growth, nest-tree species and site faithfulness.  One urban area which seemed to have remained fairly stable was Maybole, perhaps due to the slow rate of urban expansion, and a mixed farming regime in the nearby countryside which appears to have shown relatively little change in the past 20 years.

Map of Rookeries in MayboleWithin the town itself, most of the nests have been built in Beech trees, but one or two outlying locations, which hold between 1-5 nests, can reveal the use of other tree species, the strangest perhaps being in a car park near the Town Hall where the nests in Birch trees could easily be mistaken for the Witches’ Broom infestation.  The table below outlines the count results between 2001 and 2016, most counts usually having been carried out in mid-April, at a time when most nests would clearly show signs of occupation.

Rook Nests in MayboleThe 2001 count was almost certainly an under-count since, at the time, I was not aware of the full extent of the area covered by all the nests.  However, since 2005, there has been an increase, and a period of stability, followed by a very slight decline.  It’s difficult to be certain that this decline is something to be concerned about – many Rookeries in nearby rural areas have flourished, fragmented, declined and, in some cases, disappeared during the past 15-20 years.  The reasons for these fluctuations aren’t entirely clear (there’s a job here for some keen young field-worker!), but they will almost certainly reflect the relative abundance of food locally, to some extent.  Other factors may include, for example, the increasing trend for Ravens to nest at the periphery of some Rookeries since, by nesting earlier than Rooks, they can exploit the availability of a nearby food supply.

There appears to be little problem with human interference in Maybole at present, so food availability perhaps linked to a changing climate pattern could emerge as important issues.  Either way, Maybole’s Rooks continue to fare reasonably well within their urban environment.  This kind of survey is easily carried out, and will not just provide a picture of what’s happening to a species over a period of time, but will also throw up a range of questions associated with these results e.g What are the main factors driving the population changes?  This, then, can become the basis for a related survey which can use the nesting figures as a starting point.  Is anyone up for it?

Rook2

The Maidens American Golden Plover

Angus Hogg
5 December 2014

All photos are © Angus Hogg, 2014

Why descriptions are useful

AGP 1When the American Golden Plover turned up at Maidens on 17th October, I was confronted by that thorny problem of having to write a description.  There are those among us who, for good reasons or not, prefer not to bother, in the hope that:

  1. someone else will do the job;
  2. lots of observers will see the bird (and that’ll make it OK); or,
  3. somebody will get a good enough photograph.

Maybe it’s down to an era in which I cut my teeth in birding, but I have always been a fan of the written word when it comes to descriptions, throwing in the odd sketch where appropriate.  Nowadays, the importance of the field sketch has, to large extent, been negated by the advent of digital cameras (although I still think sketches are useful).  Not everyone has a camera – nor can everyone turn in a Killian Mullarney masterpiece – but everyone can write a description of what they saw.

Leaving it to others, or going down the “mass observer” route is, of course, a matter for the individual, but I suspect that there are a few observers out there who have found a really rare bird and get more than a little irritated when the record doesn’t appear in the local or national archive.  And, that’s partly where the problem lies.  All such records of what are, after all, a tiny minority of what’s seen every year in the UK, require a description in order to be accepted as documented evidence within an area’s avifauna.  To effect this, you must submit to the judgement of a panel of so-called experts.  Not everyone likes this idea, comments ranging from “I know fine how to identify a bl*o*y American Golden Plover” to “Who are this bunch of eejits anyway?”   All well and good, but records (if submitted) have to assessed somehow.

All right, if you don’t like the idea of an assessment panel, why not become an active member of it?  “Oh, I’ve got too much to do (washing my hair that week, and similar excuses).”   Nonetheless, record assessment panels have to draw conclusions on what evidence is submitted and, as far as is possible, they do so in a democratic fashion.  Conspiracy theorists will no doubt harbour their own thoughts on why records are rejected, and the system for assessment will always contain a certain amount of subjectivity, but it is about as fair as is possible.

Anyway, I know that some observers baulk at the notion of writing up descriptions:  indeed some are not at all confident in doing it.  That really shouldn’t stand in the way of an honest submission though.  So, what should you include?  Let’s take the Maidens American Golden Plover as an example.

The initial sighting of the bird

AGP 2I first caught sight of the bird as it circled slowly, with a flock of European Golden Plovers, at Maidens on the morning of 17th October.  As the flock wheeled around in bright sunlight, there was one bird which appeared slightly slimmer and longer winged compared to the others.  Moreover, it looked like it had plain grey underwings, compared to the gleaming white underwings of the “Goldies.”  I entertained the idea at this point that this could be an American Golden Plover, but this kind of sighting would clearly be insufficient for submission as such – it could just be a “small” European Golden Plover, and bright sunlight does amazing things to your perception of underwing tones!  After 20 frustrating minutes, the first group of 10 birds landed and I managed to get a good look at the “suspect” bird.

A few seconds later and it was airborne again, not re-appearing again that morning.  However, and a lot of what follows comes down to species familiarity, the main features had been clearly seen – enough to be sure of its identification.  So, what were the key features?  Briefly, they included the following:

  • A slim, long-winged bird (c.f. European Golden Plover) – 3 or 4 primaries extending beyond the tail tip.
  • Largely greyish body tones, with very little of the golden/yellowish tones of EGP.
  • A striking head pattern with a whitish forehead and clear whitish supercilium.
  • A clearly “capped” appearance, with an almost black crown.
  • A pale greyish breast band which had a fairly clean demarcation between it and a white belly.

Additional features which could be added from the extensive flight views would have included a weak whitish wing bar and pale, grey axillaries.

It might have been useful to have heard it call, but there was sufficient here to scribble down a few notes (or, as I’ve been doing for years, put these details on to my voice recorder.  This has the advantage of not having to take your eyes off the bird as you note the details).

What next?

AGP 3What you decide to do about writing up a description is up to you, but simplicity can often be the key.  There is no need to over-embellish the text since the main thing is to set out clearly just why you thought it was a certain species.  After writing up your description, it’s a good idea to hold on to it until you’re sure the bird has gone from the area.  In this case, one, fairly useful piece of additional information was obtained – the call.  This usually stands out clearly from European Golden Plover:  a short, shrill, whistled “kleeee – ih” with the second part just audible (Transcriptions of calls can be a nightmare for some, but still helpful if you can put them on paper).

Photographs of the bird were obtained on 1st and 3rd November – all adding to the complete picture.  In addition, many observers were lucky enough to see this bird before it departed, which can be helpful for corroboration.  So, whatever your attitude is to writing up descriptions, can I encourage you to give it some thought – if nothing else, it can make the local recorder’s life a lot easier!

Ayrshire Breeding Birds Survey 1991-97

Atlas ExampleThe Ayrshire’s Breeding Birds Survey 1991-97 is the result of many hours field-work by many observers and probably even longer analysis by Angus Hogg.  Separate maps have been produced for over 130 breeding species giving their distribution and abundance, with a commentary by Angus on the latest status.  Not only is this an important historical resource, it also provides a comparison with the results to appear in the new BTO Atlas. Details on how to interpret the maps and some background information is given in the Ayrshire’s Breeding Birds Survey 1991-97 page.  The maps themselves are accessible from the Ayrshire Species List (select it from the menu) and then click on the icon beside the species name.

Ringing on Lady Isle

On 7 June I joined a bunch of ringers (I’m sure the collective noun is something obscene so we’ll stick with ‘bunch’) on a trip out to Lady Isle to do some ringing. Lady Isle is a small, privately owned island 4km from Troon that is only 6m at its highest point. For many years this has been a nature reserve and you need permission to land, which made a trip to it an exciting prospect.

The team involved Dave (Lord of the Rings), Dave (Gadget Man), Julie (Guano Girl), Stuart (Catcher in the Rocks), Chris (Eider Man) and me (Scribe). (A word to the wise: if going out ringing seabirds always volunteer for Notebook duty as this means you don’t get covered in fish paste and worse!)

Obviously we first had to get out there and this involved taking a boat from Troon. I had expected something small, leaky and dangerous so you can imagine my delight at seeing the C-Gem. She looked like something out of Monte Carlo with a satisfying collection of high-tech safety gear and a captain who looked like he knew his port from his starboard (whereas I have concentrated on just the port). We left the harbour in a decent swell (for a fully paid-up landlubber like me). Being rough-tough outdoor types we naturally headed up to the top deck for the best view. Our captain obviously liked to give his marine diesels a thorough work-out and we were soon going at an impressive speed with the result that deluges of spray smashed over the top deck leaving me drookit. I decided that a visit to the bridge to check out our position on the GPS seemed a drier and more sensible option leaving the ringers to drown. It was an exhilarating ride: people pay good money for less at theme parks. However, we soon reached the Isle and offloaded onto a fast Zodiac (piloted by Don) to reach the landing stage, passing large numbers of seals who were wondering who was disturbing the peace.

As with all sea-bird colonies your senses get assaulted. Firstly there is the sight of birds everywhere: on rocks, in the air. Then comes the noise of all the gulls screaming at the intruders. Then comes the smell…. Fortunately after an hour or so your brain gives up and just ignores what your olfactory sense is telling it. From the very start I had decided to stop at the involvement of three senses; the others pushed on with at least one more.


The island is uninhabited (by humans) and covered by nettles. We needed to be very careful as we headed for the bothy as nests and chicks were everywhere.It is a real circle-of-life place: eggs, chicks, young, adults, corpses, bones. The ground is very uneven and one has to be very careful in finding somewhere to put your feet that isn’t already occupied by a chick or a clutch of eggs.

We left our packs (with lunches) on the one piece of open ground and headed off to start ringing. We would have to move fast as the C-Gem would return for us in roughly three hours.The island isn’t very big (say 500m at its widest) but is covered by nesting birds. The major species are gulls (Herring, Lesser Black-backed and Great Black-backed), Shag and Cormorant. Each has roughly its own area and we started with the Shags. The technique involves wandering over to a nest, grabbing the youngsters and putting on a ring. Dead easy. Unfortunately they are not too keen on this and like to protest noisily and with snaps of a pointed, sharp beak. The other safety tip is not to be in line of the front or back as they can eject “material” quite a distance. Julie discovered this to her cost: it was noticeable that people kept a bit further away from her after this (see photo 6). We could also see that the birds were being well-fed as they were keen to show us what they had for breakfast – and it was a significant repast. While the ringers were enjoying themselves with their pliers, I had the onerous task of recording the details. This required writing down the ring number and an indication of the number of birds ringed in that nest. For example, 2/3 means the nest had three chicks but only 2 were ringed (the other being too small for a ring, for example). This gives a good idea of just how well the colony is doing: this year things look very promising with most nests having broods of three chicks.The ring number is used when the bird is recovered (ringer-speak for someone finding it washed up on the tide-line): you can send the number to the address on the ring and they’ll tell you its details. Roughly 1% of ringed sea-birds are recovered in this way. However the data are invaluable as it shows how birds distribute after leaving their nests.

Only the Shags, Cormorants and Eiders were ringed. There were lots of gulls around but trying to distinguish the species a chick belongs to is very tricky even when you have the little blighter in your hand. You could try to spot an adult on the nest and then assume the chick is of the same species. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work as the adult might be looking for a spot of lunch rather than being all parental; also the gulls seemed to prefer being airborne shouting abuse at the humans below.Luckily it was a hot day and so the eggs wouldn’t get chilled with the parents away on screaming-duty.


While we were doing all this, Chris was off trying to catch Eider. This is much more difficult as they like to hide in the long grass and nettles. The technique involves walking are fully through the nettles with a big net checking for birds. When one takes flight you lunge at it with the net and then curse as it flies off. You then repeat this procedure. Amazingly Chris managed to bag four of them this way. Once caught they get the usual ring but also a very attractive white stripe super-glued to the back of their head. This will last until the next moult (something Eiders love to do) but means that Chris can track sightings of birds along the Clyde as different sites get different coloured stripes.

After a few hours we had run out of rings having ringed 98 Cormorants and 111 Shags in a total of 91 nests. However, this was by no means all the nests on the island. What amazed me is how much these rings cost: each Cormorant ring costs 55p. This makes ringing a very expensive hobby as the ringers all pay for their own rings. Still, it was a good excuse to have lunch with only the worry that some enterprising gull hadn’t opened up the rucksacks and made off with the sandwiches. As we munched we could see the good ship C-Gem heading out to collect us (see photo 7): as you can see she looked superb in a tropical sea (with Irvine in the distance!). Since the tide had come in a bit Captain Zodiac needed to be careful to avoid scraping the barnacles (see photo 8). We could then load our stuff. It was noticeable that people kept a distance from us now as they had that “Ahh, Bisto” moment: apparently it washes off after a few showers.

Then it was a quick trip back over a beautifully calm sea to Troon Yacht Haven with a great view of Lady Isle behind us (see photo 10). It was a cracking day out. We’d all like to thank the captain of the C-Gem and Don for getting us out there in style.



I’d Thought You Knew?

Angus Hogg
June 2002

“The Great Crested Grebes at Martnaham, with two young? I thought you’d know about them!” Just one comment from a birder some years ago which highlights a problem facing all county recorders. Then there’s “that bird was around all spring, from mid May. Very distinctive. It kept sitting on the fence at the edge of my field, before flying off and catching a bee. Then it would return to the fence line and knock seven bells out of the insect before swallowing it.” All very frustrating! However, strange though it might seem to those of you who know me, the first comment is one of the type which frustrates me most.

The “bee-eating bird” may well have been what you’ve all deduced by now, but it’s gone and, with no back up notes to support the claim, it enters the Room 101 of birding history. It’s that first comment, though! Great Crested Grebes have always struggled in Ayrshire and only started breeding in 1912. They really have no great pressure on them from ladies with funny hats nowadays so, what’s the problem? But, before you can even get around to figuring that out, you’ve got to have some idea of the numbers, breeding success etc. And people can’t do that until birders send in their field notes. Now, doesn’t that sound just a tad obvious! In truth, there’s lots of birds which are assumed to be so common that no-one bothers to record them let alone send in comments on them. I own up right now to being one of the great “ignorers” of Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Wrens, Robins etc, unless one of them does something odd like head-butting a cat! Then, it’s a note to British Birds, and a mention of Potentially Fatal Behaviour by Blue Tit. But, there is a get-out clause for me in there somewhere with some of the species I’ve mentioned. Birds moving into and using new habitats are always worth noting. So, the next time you’re walking through the dark green vastnesses of the Galloway Forest Park, why not make a note of all the singing Dunnocks you hear? They weren’t always there and certainly wouldn’t be now if it weren’t for “those” trees.

While some bird species move into new habitats, others move out of former ones. Own up now – how many of you would have known that House Sparrow was in trouble nationally if the BTO hadn’t told you? I had no idea, but then started noticing the sparrows in my back garden going down in number in the last ten years. Similarly, Yellowhammer is one of these birds we take for granted in Ayrshire. The song is well known to the point where you really wish no-one else is going to tell you the easy way to remember it!! Some countries have experienced recent problems with their Yellowhammer populations e.g. Sweden, due to mercury used in seed-dressing. The conscientious Swedes picked up on that problem fairly early, got the seed-dressing changed and reversed the trend.

Two questions. How many Yellowhammers do we have in the county? And what’s the population trend? Nationally, it shows a big decline. Of course, the Breeding Birds Atlas field work identified areas where you could go to see Yellowhammer, but it was not intended to provide population estimates. Since the mid 1990’s quite a few folk have commented on the bird being quite scarce now in areas where they used to see lots. But, we don’t really know, do we? I recall frequent comments from farmers during the ’70’s about how Lapwings used to “carpet their fields” in the breeding season – well, not quite, but you get the idea. Asked for some kind of estimate on numbers, the facial expression would rapidly change to seriously puzzled (why would that be important?). You could quote examples of birds which have vanished from the Ayrshire scene and have done so before anyone really got to grips with the extent of the decline and its predicted extinction. Corn Bunting is one which vanished quite rapidly. It was still present around Crosshill when I moved there in 1969. By the mid 70’s it had gone, but the important (and slightly sad) thing was that I hadn’t noticed its decline elsewhere. Suddenly, people were struggling to “get it on their year list for Ayrshire.”

I don’t suggest that Yellowhammer will go the same way, but how sure can we be? And, if the species is really declining, what can be done? At this point, accompanied by lots of anxious hand-wringing and hair-tearing, birdwatchers often appear greatly concerned for the future of a species, birds generally, the human population on the planet and even the fate of the universe – something that bird behaviour students might call displacement activity, even if it is well meant. The question we should all be asking ourselves really is “What can I do about it before it gets to the serious problem stage?”

Well, how about some of the following?

  1. Adopt a species which you know to be in trouble (the RSPB’s Amber List is quite useful in identifying some of them).
  2. Choose an area as near to your home as possible where suitable habitat exists for that species.
  3. Draw up a sketch map for that area and make some duplicates.
  4. Visit that area over a succession of breeding seasons and mark on the map the position of every singing male you hear or see in your area. Over a number of years, you’ll soon get an idea if the numbers are going down, up or remaining stable.
  5. If you’re not too hot on birdsong, or find yourself busy doing something else during the breeding season, then use the map of your given area to simply record numbers or flock sizes for your chosen species.

The important thing is that, by doing this very easy fieldwork with a species (or more than one if you feel adventurous), you’re laying down a marker for that bird within a part of Ayrshire at a given period. The figures can then be used both locally or nationally, providing important comparisons. You may even find that your results disagree with those of highly esteemed organisations such as RSPB ar SNH! Now, wouldn’t it be fun to draw someone’s attention to the status of Song Thrush (rare and endangered?) in the county? But, the only way you can do that is by providing the evidence through your own fieldwork. Everyone knows that Song Thrush is still relatively abundant up here and the real problem lies down there in the land of the Sooth-moothers. Yet we don’t have any hard figures to prove it! And, it’s a wee bit perplexing when a national organisation asks you to help out in a nationwide Nightingale survey! That hasn’t happened for some time, which sort of indicates that national oragnisers are following a gentle learning curve. We could help to dispel a few more myths through very straightforward surveys.

So, how about it? Are you up for a wee challenge? Can you carry out a survey of your own, where you lay down the rules and decide on the extent of your survey? Fraser Simpson, from Kilmarnock, overturned the idea that Tree Sparrow was on the edge of extinction as a breeder, through some very dedicated work which covered the same areas between Dunlop, Irvine and Springside for several years. Baseline figures for both breeding pairs and wintering flocks in that area are now available thanks to his hard work and patience. What about the rest of the county? The species has declined seriously in the south, but there could be small pockets still surviving. Maybe somebody would care to pick that survey up?

If Seabird 2000, or Wetland Bird Survey counts, or the like doesn’t appeal to you, then here’s a way out – and you can still keep your conscience happy too! There’s no doubt about it that both the pace and type of change within Ayrshire’s countryside demands hard factual information with which to defend it. Examples of complete, political farces will still occur, witness Bogside, but the need for good basic information still exists. Now, have I convinced you that you’re all able to provide this kind of information, and that it’s relatively unsophisticated yet effective? I hope so. Oh, and I forgot to mention – it’s quite good fun too!

That Redhead’s No Lady!

Dave Grant, 2002


For the past three years, Martnaham Loch has been the site of a long staying drake Smew during the winter months. However, last year we were fortunate enough to be visited by a redhead Smew before the drake, unfortunately it did not stay, which at the time we thought was a shame. Having a pair of Smew on a loch, well who knows what could have happened! The drake Smew subsequently appeared and stayed the whole winter.

At the start of this winter we had high expectations for the return of the drake and maybe even the redhead. Checking last year’s notes we predicted that the redhead may appear early to mid November, while the drake usually appeared a month or so later. As if following a carefully laid out plan, the first sighting of the redhead was on the 9th November, would it stay long enough to be attracted by the drake to partner him for the winter?

Whilst numerous texts, such as Madge and Burn (1988), Beaman and Madge (1998), Ogilvie and Young (1998) and Snow and Perrins (1998), show both male and female adult and occasionally juvenile plumage, none show the transition of moult from male eclipse to full breeding plumage. The following are such observations of a drake Smew in moult.

Description of Redhead Smew

A number of visits to the loch rewarded observers with classic redhead views (see figure 1):

  • The crown and hind-neck were a deep chestnut;
  • The poor autumnal light made it hard to see the black patch around and under the eye to the base of the bill. This tends to blend into the chestnut on the ear-coverts, making it hard to see at the best of times;
  • The chin, throat and sides of neck were white, providing a sharp contrast with the dark parts of head, neck and chest;
  • The mantle feathers were sooty black, as were the back and centre of the rump;
  • The tail was a dark grey;
  • The chest was grey, while the sides of the chest were dark brown;
  • The flanks were a dirty white, mixed with grey.

The Confusion and Suspicion

An afternoon visit on the 26th November provided a view of the Smew but in poor light. However, something did not seem right with it. With a cursory look you would say that it was the redhead, however, on closer inspection the chestnut brown crown appeared to be split down the middle by an intrusion of white. The wings also appeared to be showing more white than previously, though their appearance gave the impression of a ‘messy’ plumage rather than any developing pattern. The previously grey chest and dark brown sides were less bold in their colour and showed a white vermiculated pattern coming through.

Figure 1: 20-Nov-01
Figure 2: 26-Nov-01
Figure 3: 29-Nov-01
Figure 4: 1-Dec-01
Figure 5: 4-Dec-01
Figure 6: 12-Dec-01

This, of course, raised suspicion that this redhead Smew, presumed female, was in fact a male in eclipse, or a first year male coming into breeding plumage (see figure 2). This was confirmed by a visit three days later, on the 29th, when after an initial scan of the loch the Smew was eventually spotted, but what a difference. No longer could it be mistaken for a redhead now, it had the distinctive drake look about it. Though not in full breeding plumage, the chestnut brown head had all but disappeared leaving a faint hint of brown on the forehead and a faint brown band extending around the back of the head from the black eye patch. There was more white appearing on the wing, now becoming more recognisable as the white patch on the scapular and coverts. The chest was a lot paler than in the previous visit with white being the dominant colour and a residue of grey and brown forming the vermiculated pattern (see figure 3).

Subsequent visits saw the eclipse moult slowly vanish and the breeding plumage come to the fore (see figures 4 and 5). A visit on the 12th December saw the drake in his full resplendent glory showing the distinctive white with delicate black lines traced across his body (see figure 6). As to whether this was a first year bird or an adult in eclipse is a matter of debate. However, the fact that last year we had a redhead which disappeared, only to be replaced by a drake a week later suggests that it may have been the same bird. This could mean that it was a second year breeding bird, though Martnaham has had a Smew for three winters now. The first winter 1999/2000 saw its arrival later and its stay shorter, which could indicate that it was a first year breeding bird then. Or perhaps Martnaham is simply a Mecca for visiting Smew!

Timing of Moult

According to Blake (1993) Smew undergo a complete post-breeding moult, into eclipse, from mid-June to September. They moult their flight feathers simultaneously from mid-July to late September, during which they are flightless for about one month. A partial pre-breeding moult, from eclipse into the more familiar breeding plumage, starts when the wing is fully grown. This usually occurs from September to November. This male would appear to be quite late in starting its pre-breeding partial moult. It is unknown whether the lateness of the pre-breeding partial moult is a common occurrence among Smew within the British Isles, as they have the furthest distance to travel, due to the British Isles being at the Western limit for Smew migration (Cramp 1998). In this case observation has shown that pre-breeding partial moult affects the head, breast, sides and upper-wing coverts.

Chronology of Moult Observed

Date Observed Plumage
20/11/01
  • The crown and hind-neck were a deep chestnut;
  • The poor autumnal light made it hard to see the black patch around and under the eye to the base of the bill. This tends to blend into the chestnut on the ear-coverts, making it hard to see at the best of times;
  • The chin, throat and sides of neck were white, providing a sharp contrast with the dark parts of head, neck and chest;
  • The mantle feathers were sooty black, as were the back and centre of the rump;
  • The tail was a dark grey;
  • The chest was grey, while the sides of the chest were dark brown;
  • The flanks were a dirty white, mixed with grey.
26/11/01
  • The chestnut brown crown appeared to be split down the middle by an intrusion of white;
  • The wings also appeared to be showing more white than previously;
    though their appearance gave the impression of a ‘messy’ plumage rather than any developing pattern;
  • The previously grey chest and dark brown sides were less bold in their colour and showed a white vermiculated pattern coming through.
29/11/01
  • No longer could it be mistaken for a redhead now it had the distinctive drake look about it;
  • The chestnut brown head had all but disappeared leaving a faint hint of brown on the forehead and a faint brown band extending around the back of the head from the black eye patch;
  • There was more white appearing on the wing, now becoming more recognisable as the white patch on the scapular and coverts;
  • The chest was a lot paler than in the previous visit with white being the dominant colour and a residue of grey and brown forming the vermiculated pattern.
1/12/01
  • There was still a hint of brown on the head coming off the eye patch;
  • The dirty white bar on the coverts had grown;
  • There were still greyish remains on the breast;
  • The broad greyish downward strip was visible in line with the shoulder.
4/12/01
  • The strip coming off the eye patch is more greyish than brown;
  • There was less grey on chest than previously;
  • The wing coverts bar had grown considerably, although was still a dirty greyish/white.
12/12/01
  • The drake was in near complete partial pre-breeding moult showing the distinctive white with delicate black lines traced across his body.

Conclusion

The classic drake Smew in its unmistakable breeding plumage is a good example of a bird that takes the focus away from its other plumage’s. This, allied with the fact that they are a latish winter visitor which we would normally have expected to have moulted prior to arrival, leaves many of us with the assumption that every redhead is a female, but as shown here this is not always the case. Clearly the arrival of early redheads warrants greater scrutiny, as they could just be a glorious drake in waiting.

References

Baker, K. (1993)
Identification Guide to European Non-Passerines, BTO Guide 24.
Beaman, M. and Madge, S. (1998)
The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palaearctic, Christopher Helm.
Cramp, S. et al (1998)
The Complete Birds of the Western Palaearctic, CDROM, Oxford University Press.
Madge, S and Burn, H. (1988)
Wildfowl: An Identification Guide, Christopher Helm.
Ogilvie, M. and Young, S. (1998)
Wildfowl of the World, New Holland.
Snow, D.W., Perrins, C.M. et al (1998)
The Birds of the Western Palaearctic (Concise Edition), Volume 1: Non-Passerines, Oxford University Press.

This article originally appeared in Ayrshire Bird Report 2001 and Birding Scotland, 5(1), 29 – 32, January 2002, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the respective Editors.

Ailsa Craig: Before and After the Eradication of Rats in 1991

Dr. Bernard Zonfrillo,
Glasgow University,
2001

It is now ten years since the rats on Ailsa Craig were completely eradicated. In this article I cover the background to rats arriving on the island, how they were eliminated and some of the subsequent changes following their demise.

Both the Brown Rat and the Black Rat are introduced species to most of Europe. The Black Rat arrived in the British Isles via the ancient trade routes from South East Asia probably around the eleventh century; the Brown Rat arrived much later, around the year 1728, via shipping from present day Russia (Corbet and Southern, 1977). While the Black Rat has largely died out over much of its former range in northern Europe, the Brown Rat has spread, sometimes ousting the Black Rat in the process. In Scotland, the Brown Rat spread rather slowly, and by 1855 was described as “recently introduced” in some remote areas (Matheson, 1962). The Brown Rat has now spread over virtually all of the Scottish mainland and, through the agency of man, to many islands, large and small. Their ability to survive and their impact on island ecosystems has until recently been little studied. The dynamics of rat populations can be of the “boom and bust” type; numbers increase then crash when food ceases to be available, but they never die out completely and their numbers can rapidly build.

Colonisation of Ailsa Craig and Predation of Seabirds by Rats

We tend to think that much attention has been focused on the problems of seabird islands and rats within the past 15 years, but it is not a recent phenomenon. In 1889 a dog belonging to one of the lighthouse keepers on Ailsa Craig killed a Brown Rat at the head of the jetty (Campbell, 1892). It was the first seen on the island. At the time a ship delivering coal was at the jetty supplying the recently built lighthouse with coal for conversion to gas for fuelling the light, (a practice which ceased around 1910, when the light was converted to paraffin). This was certainly the first rat recorded on Ailsa Craig, an island that had been inhabited, albeit seasonally, since at least the 12th century. Lawson (1895) had noted the absence of rats in the first edition (1888) of his book on the island’s natural history, but by the second edition commented on their abundance. Several large ships came to grief on the rocks and reefs surrounding Ailsa Craig in the latter part of the last century and probably added to the rat invasion. Major catastrophes included the Duke of Edinburgh in 1870, the Clan Campbell in 1881, the Austria in 1884 and the Pennon in 1889 (Crawford, 1988). Rats had only to swim ashore from any of the wrecked vessels to find probably a better food supply than that on board ship. Following the first two of these wrecks, which involved loss of life, the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses were petitioned, resulting in the construction of the Ailsa Light in 1883. The light became operational in 1886.

The Girvan family, who were tenants of the island from at least the mid 19th century along with the lighthouse keepers, their families and granite workers – about 30 in all – lived as a community on Ailsa Craig until the 1950s. Long before then, the Ailsa rats had become a problem. Campbell (1892) provides some limited quantitative data, having interviewed the lighthouse keepers then resident. On 11 December 1889, it was noted that 48 rats had been killed – “yet there seems to be plenty more about the place”. In spring 1890 it was noted that a rat weighing 18 ounces (540 grams) had been killed, and that – “it is not safe to put your hand into a hole for a Puffin, for the chances are that you will get a rat instead”. Such a heavy individual was perhaps a pregnant female. By November of that year the autumn increase in rats had lead to a light- keeper’s dog killing 59 in one day on the west of the island (under the Gannetry). Rabbits were being eaten in their snares by the rats and even the vast bird colonies were being decimated – “The eggs and young of the sea-fowl also paid large tribute to the omnivorous rodent, so much so, that fewer young, I believe, were reared than has ever been the case before.” From 1st October to the end of December 1890, the light-keepers killed over 900 rats. Around the dwellings a dog killed 100, and 300 were killed in a month – “yet they seem as plentiful as ever.”

The rats had clearly spread from below the cliffs and around the houses to occupy all habitats on the island, “They are all over the island, from the very top down to the water’s edge” This situation remained until 1991. Campbell summed up his comments by concluding – “It is difficult, if not impossible, to suggest a cure but if any such can be found there is no more favourable spot on which to operate, for the Craig – cannot, unless by a chance similar to their introduction – receive any outside accession to their numbers.” Apart from eating the young and eggs of most seabirds, the rats would also have found the many Northern Gannet carcasses below the cliffs a favourable food source. These are adult and young birds that have died from falling. Adult Northern Gannets do so when fighting and young of all ages fall when adults knock them off accidentally or, when larger, during wing exercising in windy weather. Wanless (1983) estimated over 600 Northern Gannets, young and old, dying in the course of a season below the cliffs. The Atlantic Puffin colony on Ailsa Craig, formerly described as in “bewildering numbers… so great that they darkened the sky” (Gray, 1871), had been so ravaged by rats that by 1934 their numbers were few, McWilliam (1936) described them then as “practically extinct”.

Burrow nesting seabirds such as Atlantic Puffins and petrels are very susceptible to rat predation. One of the major benefits from nesting in burrows is generally held to be the avoidance of predators, usually avian. Often this means that both adults can temporarily abandon the young chick and go to sea; this makes the young particularly vulnerable to rat predation. In contrast, surface nesting petrels such as the Northern Fulmar, which probably descended from a burrow- nesting ancestor, will routinely attend the chick for around 10 days after hatching before leaving it during foraging trips. By this age the oil capacity of the chick has developed enough to act as a defensive or offensive form of protection. Chicks either in burrows or unattended on the surface are therefore vulnerable to rat predation.

However no major steps were taken against the rats on Ailsa Craig until 35 years after they were first seen on the island.

Early Attempts to Control Rats

The invasion of Ailsa Craig by Brown Rats, and the damage they caused, prompted perhaps the first-ever attempt at rat control on a seabird island anywhere in the world. With the growing awareness of the value of conservation, and the passing of Acts of Parliament to protect wildlife, Glasgow members of the then embryonic Royal Society for the Protection of Birds took up the gauntlet thrown down during a Parliamentary session in 1924. Questions were asked in the House of Commons as to what could be done to save the Ailsa seabirds from rats (Anon., 1924). This bold step stimulated concerned individuals into action. The then not inconsiderable sum of £160.00 was spent on rat poison for the effort in rat eradication by the Glasgow branch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, 1924 and 1925). The money and effort helped reduce the numbers of rats on the island considerably. The poison used however (Ratolin) was not wholly effective. Many, but by no means all, rats were killed, (RSPB, 1925) and those surviving slowly increased their numbers once more.

Rat and Seabird interactions on Ailsa Craig and Elsewhere in the Firth of Clyde

Detailed studies undertaken during 1989 and 1990 of the breeding success of seabirds on Ailsa Craig showed that Northern Fulmars and Gulls in particular appeared to suffer heavy losses at the egg and chick stage. Many Northern Fulmar eggs went missing and all hatched chicks were similarly lost. Reasons for the failure of Fulmars to raise young to the fledging stage at most Clyde colonies were not that obvious. Since the circa 300 pairs of Northern Fulmars on Sanda Island, off the Mull of Kintyre and 25 km distant from Ailsa, were capable of regularly raising young to the fledging stage, (Clyde Ringing Group data), it suggests that the Fulmars were experiencing land-based rather than sea-based difficulties. Sanda Island has neither rats nor rabbits, and also has breeding Manx Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, Black Guillemots and Atlantic Puffins – all burrow-nesters. Habitat on several of the smaller Clyde islands appears perfect for burrow-nesting species, although only a very few have them present.

Gull chicks simply vanished from around the nest sites. These were usually less than 14 days old and a few part-eaten corpses under boulders showed gnaw marks to legs and cranium, with most tissue in between these areas removed completely. In 1989, 72 monitored Herring Gull clutches, comprising 194 eggs, produced only 11 fledged young. Gull chicks are precocious, brooded for only a few days after hatching and then are able to shelter from heat and rain by going under rocks and boulders, usually within a few metres of the nest. Adult Herring Gulls attend the chicks by day but at night when chicks were under rocks or in holes these would be vulnerable to rats, even with the adult close by. From around 2000 pairs of breeding gulls on the island the pre- dispersal, post-fledging roost sites on the island in 1989 and 1990 showed around 300 juvenile birds when perhaps three times that number could reasonably be expected.

Following preliminary discussions between interested parties it was agreed that complete rat eradication, if possible, would be of benefit to the seabirds and the island in general. The Ailsa Craig Working Group was therefore formed in November 1989 to investigate and oversee a proposed rat eradication project. It comprised the island’s owner, The Most Hon. The Marquess of Ailsa, O.B.E., Prof. Pat Monaghan (Glasgow University), John Burlison (Scottish Natural Heritage), Donald Smith (Clyde Ringing Group), Geoff Hancock (Kelvingrove Museum), George Houston (Rentokil Ltd), and the author Bernard Zonfrillo (Glasgow University).

Baiting

In 1991, 3 tonnes of Warfarin rodenticide was deployed and this was followed by 2+ tonnes in 1992 as a precautionary back-up measure. Warfarin was airlifted to the island in winter and the bags dropped at pre-determined zones on the upper slopes. Without the voluntary help from the Royal Navy Sea King helicopters of 819 Search and Rescue Squadron at HMS Gannet, Prestwick, the entire success of the project would have been in doubt. Bait was stored under tarpaulins until ready for use. Poison was placed, wherever possible, well under rocks or deep in holes to avoid easy access by non-target species. The species thought most vulnerable to the effects of secondary poisoning, e.g. gulls and Common Raven were monitored for breeding success. Bait- boxes, made of timber, were used in areas where rat activity was noted but where no suitable cover for bait laying could be found.

Monitoring

It was essential to devise a rat monitoring programme for both before and after baiting had taken place. Before baiting, hundreds of chewsticks (wooden spatulas saturated with margarine or lard that are chewed and bitten by rats) were set around the island and checked or replaced daily during October 1990 and March 1991. This showed where rats were active, since almost every chewstick had been chewed. Two weeks after baiting was finally completed, in mid April 1991, some 600 chewsticks smeared with rancid margarine had been set around the base of the island, on the upper slopes, on the accessible seabird ledges and monitored. The chewsticks showed no rats active following the initial and subsequent baiting. And after three further years of constant monitoring the situation remained the same.

Monitoring also included the breeding success of seabirds previously preyed upon by rats and the overall success of species such as large gulls was estimated from the numbers of chicks fledging. Most rats appeared to die underground, only 4 were found dead above ground post-baiting, lessening further any possible risk of secondary poisoning to non-target species. The last live rat seen on Ailsa Craig was on 15 April 1991, near the summit.

Non-target Species

Of the other animals indigenous to the island the reptiles, Common Lizard and Slow Worm, and mammal, Pygmy Shrew, were not thought vulnerable to the poison, being almost exclusively insectivores. Rabbits however were thought vulnerable, but expendable, being a deliberate introduction of man and generally damaging to the island by destroying vegetation and precipitating soil erosion. Evidence showed after baiting that rabbits had been considerably reduced by the effects of Warfarin set for rats.

Great Black-backed Gulls fed on young and adult rabbits but in two years of study there were no obvious effects to either the adult birds or their offspring. Indeed the breeding Great Black- backed Gull numbers increased, probably because rats had been eliminated from the competition in scavenging of bird corpses. The Warfarin uptake by rabbits was evident in the droppings that changed colour due to the inbuilt dye. But unlike rats, many rabbits did not take the poison.

Evidence of Success

Evidence of rats, or the lack of them, was monitored by as many means as possible to assess the success of the project. Categories of evidence fell into two main forms – positive and negative.

Negative monitoring

Negative monitoring (i.e. absence of an effect), showed no chewsticks chewed, no bird carcasses gnawed, no fresh rat droppings anywhere searched, bait uneaten in bait boxes and no sighting of rats by day or night. In April 1989 a fresh dead Northern Gannet was laid out under the south cliffs (under a large flat rock to prevent gulls scavenging). In two days it had been opened by rats, in 5 days most flesh from legs, feet, pectoral muscle and head had gone and by 12 days all that remained was cleaned bones and feathers. In April 1991 the exercise was repeated and another fresh Northern Gannet carcass was laid out in the same area shortly after baiting. This was monitored daily for 3 weeks and no sign of rat activity was found. Regular weekly monitoring thereafter showed that by June 1991 the corpse had effectively mummified, being completely intact. There were few other carcasses in the area available for scavenging at that time and it was a strong indication that baiting had been effective. Of circa 800 Northern Gannet corpses checked over the next two years, none showed chew marks to feet or elsewhere.

Positive monitoring

Positive monitoring (i.e. increased productivity of plants and animals), for evidence of rats commenced almost immediately after the spring baiting of 1991, when the first seabird eggs were laid. In general vegetation became more luxuriant, due to the elimination of rats and rabbits (Zonfrillo, 1994).

For rare plant species such as the Tree Mallow, the seed heads of which had suffered from rat activity, no immediate effect was noticeable, since it is a biennial. However in 1991 and 1992 its cliff-site plants produced abundant seed and much of the area below the cliffs had by 1993 many new Tree Mallow plants emerging. The Sea Radish, also largely confined to cliff sites, spread and provided a dense growth, beneficial to insects and caterpillars. This Brassica is a major food source for many butterfly and moth species. The vegetation on the ledges also grew more robustly and many Northern Fulmar sites formerly exposed to gulls were sheltered by the new vegetation growth.

Following the first baiting in 1991, the majority of species apparently affected by rat predation raised young to the fledging stage. The numbers of successful gull nests were estimated from the numbers of young assembling at pre-dispersal, post-fledging roost sites around the island. The peak counts of young gulls before and after rat eradication show a rapid improvement in fledging success rate. The Herring gull population was estimated to be stable during this period, but the Lesser Black-backed Gulls showed a marked decline in breeding numbers. Despite the latter, the overall numbers of young gulls showed a vast increase with peaks of up to 1200 fledglings counted.

The Northern Fulmars that hatched young also showed a remarkable improvement going from 100% failure to 100% success, perhaps best demonstrating the absence of rats.

Colonisation and Prospecting by Burrow-nesting Species

Since baiting commenced in 1991, three burrow-nesting bird species have colonised Ailsa Craig. Two were frequently seen around the island in past years, but never recorded breeding. These were Black Guillemot and Shelduck. Both were discovered on eggs in summer 1991 and bred successfully (Zonfrillo & Nogales 1992). The third species was Wheatear, a frequent passage migrant but again, never proven to have bred on Ailsa. All three species have continued to breed successfully since colonising the island and Black Guillemots now stand at around 8 pairs. The Atlantic Puffin, which had formerly bred in vast numbers on Ailsa, also made a re- appearance. One was seen ashore entering a suitable cliff crevice in 1991. Unfortunately it came to nothing. In 1992 none was ashore but at sea numbers of prospecting birds in groups of 5 or 6 were evident just offshore. In 1993 a peak of 19 together was recorded and up to 22 seen together in 1999. The process of re-colonisation of Ailsa Craig by Atlantic Puffins appears to have commenced but it will clearly be slow.

During June 1991 two dead Manx Shearwaters were found on the island, again a species frequent offshore but with no history of ever having bred on Ailsa Craig. This nocturnal species has prospected the island for many years, as calls have been heard most calm nights during July and August. The two dead birds ashore, strongly suggested a serious breeding attempt and further nocturnal calling in spring 1998 may have indicated burrow occupiers if not breeders. During the past few years European Shags have colonised the boulder beaches below the Gannetry and up to 25 pairs raised young in 2000. At one location for the first time ever, a single Razorbill was incubating a newly hatched chick under the boulders, with six birds sitting around nearby. If these ground-nesting Razorbills increase then Atlantic Puffins may follow their lead. The other species thought vulnerable to the secondary effects of Warfarin poisoning proved to have fared well. Common Ravens raised normal broods of 4-5 young during 1991-1993, showing no obvious effects through brood size reduction from secondary poisoning.

Conclusion

This project has shown that even in the most difficult terrain such as on Ailsa Craig, large populations of alien Brown Rats can, at the very least, be rapidly reduced. An inexpensive but highly effective method of monitoring rat activity (or presumed absence) is available through the use of chewsticks. The breeding success for vulnerable seabird species will show a rapid response, given that sea-based factors such as prey abundance and availability remain substantially unchanged.

Monitoring before and after baiting is essential and can be summarised by negative and positive indicators.

Negative monitoring was the absence of effects formerly evident e.g. a lack of chew marks on the chewsticks, a lack of gnaw marks on bird carcasses, a lack of fresh rat droppings, a lack of uptake of poison bait and a lack of physical sightings.

Positive monitoring included the increase and improvement in parameters formerly held low by activity of rats. It included breeding success of birds formerly eaten by rats, colonisation or re- colonisation of the island by burrow nesting bird species, recovery and growth of vegetation, particularly in areas where rats were causing destruction. Also monitored were the effects on populations of other vertebrates and invertebrates through improved habitat quality and exploitation of available carcasses by scavenging bird species.

It was particularly noticeable that scavenging of bird carcasses by rats quickly ceased. Gull- scavenged corpses of seabirds and rabbits usually finish with the skin exposed i.e. inside-out and with feet always intact. Rats were capable of killing Northern Fulmar chicks of over 1 kg in weight and probably the live, unguarded young of all species under that weight are potentially vulnerable to rat predation. Adult birds of all but the smallest species are probably immune to rat predation unless in exceptional circumstances.

The late autumn die-off of fallen and injured young Northern Gannets would have meant an abundance of meat and fat for any surviving rats and a rapid increase in their numbers. The basal areas of Ailsa Craig were particularly well-monitored and no evidence of such activity was found. Modern poisons and methods of bait distribution and post-kill monitoring also heightens the prospect of a successful outcome. It is therefore essential to monitor both before and after baiting takes place.

While elimination of rats from islands has immense conservation value, legislation is probably required to ensure that shipping is constantly checked for rat infestations. At present there does not appear to be any such compulsory activity undertaken. Rats join ships of all sizes mainly at ports and docks by climbing mooring ropes. Compulsory rope guards (cones or other devices) should be enforced to ensure anti-rat precautions are taken at source. Under Economic Community Wild Bird Directives, many seabird species require to be conserved and protected and this must be taken seriously.

The model from this study shows that rat numbers can be quickly decimated, vegetation will improve, breeding success of vulnerable species changes rapidly, lost or absent species vulnerable to rat predation will colonise under suitable conditions and adequate monitoring methods will ascertain evidence of rats, or the lack of them. The ecosystem will in essence return to “normality”.

The methods and materials are now available for the execution of such a programme to conserve important island fauna and flora. Ecosystems will re-generate rapidly when alien predators and grazing pressures are removed. Lizards, Slow Worms and Pygmy Shrews all became more frequently sighted on Ailsa Craig following the elimination of rats, suggesting competition or predation was previously constraining their numbers. From initial baiting in spring 1991 until regular monthly monitoring for rats ceased in October 1995, no evidence of rats persisting on Ailsa Craig has been forthcoming. Given that few rats live longer than 3 years in the wild, the eradication of the Brown Rat on Ailsa Craig appears to have been a complete success. Let us hope the diversity and numbers of seabirds on the island will now increase even further.

Acknowledgements

My sincere thanks are due to the present Marquess of Ailsa and his late father who funded the pilot studies and helped to oversee progress of the rat eradication work. Lord David Kennedy allowed storage of bait at his farm and Mr D. G. Gray, Factor of Cassillis Estate ensured financial matters ran smoothly. Scottish Natural Heritage at Ayr part-funded the initial baiting and wholly funded the back-up. Contributions to funding were also received from the Scottish Ornithologists Club, RSPB, British Ecological Society and Pintail Design. Mark McCrindle, skipper of M.V. Glorious, took me to and from Ailsa Craig, often in atrocious sea conditions and rat baiters and bait carriers, who worked in cold, wet and windy conditions deserve special thanks for their efforts in 1991 and 1992. They are: Andy Wilson (both years), Janet MacGregor, Alison MacGregor, Calley Perks, Andrew Loretto, Shona Quinn, Steve Terry, Thomas Daniels, Alistair Young, John Conner, Joe Conner and Donald and Annie Smith. From Rentokil Ltd. – G Houston and J Clarke joined the SNH volunteers and G. Hancock for a day’s hard work ashore. Both bait and people were transported and air-dropped onto Ailsa Craig by Lt. Commander David Duthie and his Sea King (819 Squadron) crew from Search and Rescue at HMS Gannet, Prestwick in 1991 and 1992. They made the unthinkable task of getting bait on top of a 1100 ft high island not only possible but enjoyable and memorable. Last but by no means least I am indebted to Professor Patricia Monaghan who first put the notion into my head that it could indeed be done.

Update – April 2005

In 2002 a few pairs of Puffins returned to breed successfully on Ailsa Craig for the first time in many decades. The colony is increasing gradually to 10 pairs in 2004.

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