Meeting Report: From Grouse, Nightjars and Geese to Kites and Tree Sparrows – how are they fairing and what is RSPB Scotland doing to help?

Date: 
12 January 2018
Speaker(s): 
Julia Gallacher (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds)

Julia Gallagher, RSPB conservation officer in Dumfries and Galloway for approaching six years, gave a talk entitled From Grouse, Nightjars and Geese to Kites and Tree Sparrows — how are they faring and what is RSPB Scotland doing to help? The title of her talk presupposes that the birds listed require special treatment.

The black grouse was a new bird to Julia when she came to Scotland to be based in an office in Crossmichael after 16 years' service with the RSPB in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and the Uists. Most of the leks are a good hour from her home as it is a bird of marginal land. Studying them represents a challenge because it is necessary to be up and at the site before dawn. Listening for the call is the first objective. As light comes up the red brows are visible. It is a beautiful bird. Fierce battles take place with much hissing and dancing. In contrast the grey hen is only spotted if flushed while walking through grass; when they freeze their cover is well-nigh perfect. Counts are being conducted in Scotland. The bird is doing well in the north of Scotland, but not so well right across the south. In Dumfries and Galloway three bad springs caused numbers to go down from 111 to 84 in 2016.

In assessing the birds' needs, catkins, willows, rowans are found to be important, as are good grass and heather, for which farmers/landowners can apply for funding to manage through Government schemes for the last five years. Grazing is encouraged, as long as it is not overdone. The land manager can't do everything and so a part-time project officer is planned to advise on management in the Galloway glens. Staff here and in the Borders meet to discuss and assess the efficacy of the various policies as part of the Southern Scotland Conservation Strategy led by Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust.

Julia had studied nightjars in Sherwood Forest. Here they are on the outer edge of their range. In the daytime their camouflage is excellent. Late summer evenings are when interested people take up positions at Longbridgemuir, for instance, to listen for the chirring and attempt to estimate numbers of this migratory bird. To her cost Julia did not listen to advice on coping with midges. A National Survey was conducted in 2004. For 15 years the estimated number was 20 birds. In 2016 numbers jumped up to 44 and the bird is coming back to the New Abbey area. Tree-felling has helped as the bird needs open glades. Good forest management is essential in the Galloway Forest Park and a dedicated core area has been set-aside for them.

Greenland Whitefront Geese, a migratory species, visit the region in winter. There are two specially-protected areas, one at Stranraer and one at Loch Ken. Numbers have declined because of poor breeding seasons. There was an improvement in 2016. Studied routes, taken by migrating birds, accompanied the illustrations to the talk.

The red kite story is one of successful reintroduction in Dumfries and Galloway. The feeding station in Galloway continues because it is a tourist attraction. The bird is spreading out into Dumfriesshire. There is a twitchiness on both counts. A project officer is no longer required as the birds are not now monitored. Wind Farms have raised worries for the safety of the birds. Studies have proved that they are better at avoiding turbines than we think.

Tree sparrows are a bird much-favoured by Julia. They are neater and shyer than the house sparrow. Their call is softer. 'Chocolate cup-cakes' was her description. Many in the audience responded positively to her question seeking to know how many claimed that the bird came regularly to their garden feeders: this proved the current situation in winter. They rely on seed provision. Ash trees, willows and Scots pine are important. Bird boxes with small holes are encouraged for the nesting season: 150 were erected last year and workshops have been held so that children and their families can help to make up boxes. Studies of bird boxes with the tell-tale dried grass and feather lining have proved that those near rivers are used more than those in drier spots. A farmer near Lockerbie, for example, engages in nature-friendly farming by leaving half of one side of a hedge uncut as cover for nesting birds and he places bird boxes on each fence post to suit this gregarious little bird. After the talk Julia noted where the bird was to be found; proof that monitoring is on-going.

A question on the fate of the bean goose brought a response from a member of the audience who said that the bird could be seen in the Castle Douglas area until the mid-1980s in bad winters. It was also pointed out that as from 18 January 2018 there are two species of this goose, the Taiga and the Tundra Bean Goose.

M.W.