Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Far North

This scene typifies the amazing scenery of the Scottish Highlands. Giant mountains disappear into the clouds, bulging granite and Gneiss outcrops act like sheets of roofing iron as they divert gushing torrents of water down into the valleys, and rugged coastlines are lashed by furious seas. The landscape oozes with water, which inspires a diversity of vegetation to decorate its surface with greens, greys and browns. It is the sort of environment that swallows you up, and the diverse animal life evokes a smile and a glimmer in your eye, no matter where you look.

I've been lucky enough to spend just over a week in this fabulous part of the world, exploring the landscape and being shown some splendid yet secretive wildlife by my friend Stuart. It's nearly time to head south again, but before I do, I thought it a good opportunity to reflect on some of the highlights with a small selection of my many photos. Enjoy!

Looking over the west cost of Scotland.

The coastal terrain near Drumbeg is truly magic, especially when you see such beautifully coloured plants and lichen.

A Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) shares a basking rock with a Herring Gull.

A pair of Oystercatchers in their slippery seaweed habitat.

A misty day in the high country.

Birch trees have such lush green foliage, especially when dampened by a light shower.

A Common Frog (Rana temporaria) is well camouflaged among the grasses in this highland puddle.

Towering rock walls are like the battlements of an ancient castle.

The symbol of freedom, a Scottish Golden Eagle soars above its highland habitat.

A wee 'burn' (Scottish term for stream) cuts through the granite in Sutherland.

The hidden nest of a Meadow Pipit can just be seen below this clump of grass.

Meadow Pipit eggs.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Ground Nesters

Can you spot the sitting bird? The crest gives it away! This is a female Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a beautiful species of shorebird that I was lucky to see today in northern Scotland. Stuart and I were driving back from an early morning adventure (more on that below) when we pulled over on the shores of a wee kyle (Scottish inlet) to search for shorebirds. Behind us in a small field were three species of ground-nesting bird, all of which lay their eggs in the open, making them quite easy to spot. Even the heavy feet of livestock, which at times come dangerously close to the incubating birds, don't seem to put them off using what would seem an unsuitable nest site.

Here are some photos of the three nests. Lapwings typically lay four eggs, Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) normally have three, and Common Gulls (Larus canus) will lay two or three.

Lapwings normally lay four eggs, which are heavily blotched.

A typical Oystercatcher clutch of three. Note the finer speckles.

Common Gull eggs often come in twos and have a greener ground colour.

So what was our early morning adventure? We had been up at first light and off to the nest site of a Greenshank (Tringa nebularia), a long-legged wading bird so named because of its greeny-grey legs. Stuart has been researching this species in northern Scotland in collaboration with other ornithologists, attaching geo-locators to breeding adults to monitor their winter migration south to Africa. This has involved catching birds at the nest to both attach and later remove the tags to download movement data. Unfortunately, when we arrived at one nest not long after sunrise, both adults spotted us and flew above calling in alarm. Stuart immediately knew this meant their eggs had hatched, and the opportunity to recapture this pair had been lost (specific adults can only be caught on the nest while sitting). Nevertheless, we were still able to locate the nest and find two of the four chicks. As with all baby birds, they are especially cute!

Two newly hatched Greenshank chicks. The other two were hiding in tall grass nearby.

The very camouflaged Greenshank nest is often placed next to a rock or decaying tree stump.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Voles and Kestrels

"What the hell is in the picture?" I hear you ask! This mass of blood and intestines is the remains of a small mammal known as a Short-tailed Field Vole (Microtus agrestis). The other shapes you can see are also field voles - but these ones are in regurgitated form, having been eaten and the indigestible parts (like fur and bones) being spat back out. By what?

The species responsible is the Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) an amazing bird of prey which hovers above fields, and, with its expert ultra-violet sensing vision, locates the urine trails of voles among the grass. It then watches for a vole to move and drops down in a fast dive to capture it in its talons. At this time of year, male kestrels will be hunting frequently to take voles back to their females, who are busy incubating eggs. When the eggs hatch, more vole food will be in hot demand from the hungry chicks. Here's what 3 newly hatched kestrels look like:

And here is a wider shot of the same nest, showing a large number of pellets (containing field vole) regurgitated by the incubating kestrel, placed in a ring at the edge of the nest. This is a typical nest site for a kestrel - an old, disused stick nest that once belonged to a crow. The nest was placed high up in a spruce tree on a Scottish roadside, and I had the privilege of being shown it by Rab and Stuart Rae, two ornithologists from Aberdeen.

A revisit to the nest 10 days later shows how much the kestrel chicks have grown. The clutch of 6 eggs has been reduced to a brood of 5 chicks, but all look healthy, and with the amount of field vole activity nearby, they all have a strong chance of survival. You can see in this picture the huge increase in the number of pellets - the kestrel chicks are sitting on a nest that is now lined almost entirely with regurgitated vole. There are also many more white scats on the rim of the nest, a sign of that the chicks defecate over the edge, as with most birds of prey.

Ok - so we've talked a lot about partially eaten and regurgitated field-voles... what does a live one look like? I had no idea until I managed to capture one in the grass a few days after the second nest visit. It's a bit of a 1950's style shot of the human hand grasping the animal, not exactly the natural look, but here is a whole vole!

Here is my last image for this post - the view looking up the ladder-like climb to the crown of the spruce tree in which the kestrels' nest site was situated. There are certainly more rungs on this tree than the Eucalypt trees I am used to climbing, and also a great deal more 'sawdust' (actually bark-covering moss and lichen) which rubs off and fills your eyes. But not in the least bit discouraging when a unique bird of prey is at the top.

Friday, 16 May 2014

More Buzzards

In the last three days exploring the surrounds of Aberdeen I've found three nest sites belonging to Common Buzzards, a European raptor which (as the name suggests!) is quite common. This wasn't always so, however, as the species was widely persecuted for many years. I watched a pair circling above a wooded area while walking along the River Don on Wednesday, and today I managed to cross the river and investigate. As I approached I heard the cry of a buzzard then noticed one perched atop a sycamore tree at the edge of a field (see the speck in the top of the middle tree above).

Here is the nest. It was about three times the size of the first buzzard nest I'd seen, and for a while I thought it could've belonged to a different species.

Getting up to the nest proved extremely difficult, and I pulled a rib muscle trying to scale the nest tree itself (I'm hoping this won't effect my climbing ability for the rest of my time in Scotland!). In the end I used a handy 'bush ladder' which came in the form of a fallen conifer branch that I used to lean up against the trunk of a tree adjacent to the nest tree, and scaling this gave me the 5 metres or so I needed to reach the lowest limbs. Then it was a relatively easy climb to the top for a closer look. Here's what I found . . . . .

The buzzard nest up close.
This buzzard nest was clearly very old and consisted of multiple stick platforms piled on top of each other, suggesting many years of use. It measured about 1 m deep and 60 cm across, and also had signs it had recently been refurbished with new branches. The nest's contents were particularly exciting: the first of the 2014 buzzard hatchlings surrounded by 4 rabbit carcasses.

A newly hatched buzzard chick is cradled in the nest, next to its two as yet unhatched siblings.
Only 540 m away, in a similar remnant of native trees at the edge of a paddock, another buzzard soaring overhead and diving into the canopy caught my attention, and I watched as it landed in a tall tree. I walked up to this tree and found another nest! This one had a stunning view over the field, and contained SIX eggs! I didn't realise this species could produce such large clutches, and later found out that it has rarely been recorded. Ornithologist Rab Rae advised that this clutch is the work of two females laying in the one nest with eggs fertilised by the one male. The photo below shows two 'sets of three': one trio being composed of two heavier marked, finely speckled eggs and an almost unmarked egg (top left), and the second trio having two more coarsely-blotched eggs and an all white one (two eggs at bottom right and one at centre top). How many chicks will survive?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Goose and a... Goosander!

These are geese! You probably know that as they are very well known, recognisable birds. I found this pair along the River Don today, and they seemed to be a male Grey Goose (Anser anser, left) paired with what looked like a hybrid female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Either way they were both very obliging for this photo!

The word 'goose' was familiar to me... but the word 'goosander' was not, until I saw some today and 'put a face to the name'. Goosander (Mergus merganser) are a waterfowl that appears to be a duck crossed with a grebe. They dive for fish but swim on the surface and bask in the sun on rocks much like a duck. Here is a shot of a pair, the female is on the left. I wasn't able to get that close, but the male's black head is actually iridescent green, a really stunning sight.

Further upstream I came across 4 ducklings, which were all by themselves, no parents in sight. From their beautiful faces and pointed bills, I thought they must be Goosander, but I'm not sure until I check their identity with my local expert! Whichever species they are, they certainly are very cute! More coming very soon!

A Nest in the Leaves

This bird is called a Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos), a species of small wader. Amazingly, it is one of many waders that breed in the Northern Hemisphere, then migrate all the way to Australia when temperatures turn cold for the winter. I've occasionally seen these birds in ones and twos along rivers and small inlets of south-west Western Australia, and was pleased to get my first photo (above) of this species in February this year. This was something... but seeing as they don't nest 'at home', I never thought I'd get to see their eggs.

Today during another exploratory walk along the River Don in Aberdeen, I was plodding through a picturesque forest scene about 20m from the water's edge, when a small wader appeared, did a 'broken wing' display, then quickly flew down to the water. The short viewing it had allowed me was enough to identify it as a Common Sandpiper. I hunted around for a few minutes, thinking its effort to distract me must have been put on because of small chicks nearby. I had no luck and carried on upstream, but decided it was worth one more look on my way back. This time I saw the bird again, and managed to glimpse it just as it stood up from among the leaf litter. THERE was the nest! Four brilliantly coloured eggs, with speckled markings serving as the perfect camouflage, were hidden among a bed of leaf litter, in a shallow scrape that barely qualified as a nest.

This was an especially exciting find - the bird and its eggs photographed within a 6-month period at opposite ends of the earth! It's hard to believe that before the end of the year, the young sandpipers that hatch from these eggs will rapidly grow feathers, learn to fly, and travel all the way to Australia. And back again. Nature sure is wonderful.

The sandpiper eggs are nestled in a shallow scrape among the leaf litter.

The barely visible nest is marked here with a lens cap - you can just see the 4 eggs above it.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Buzzards on the Hills

This morning I woke to beautiful birdsong, and was greeted by warming sunbeams as opened the curtains in my second storey room at the Staging Post pub. The weather was so wonderful that I didn’t want to waste any more time indoors, so promptly packed my camera bag and set off for a hill walk. I still wanted to find the end of Bucks Burn, but the description by one of the locals of a nearby walk heading away from town and up to the hills, which would end up tracing the source of the burn up in the hills, painted a picture too good to resist.
First stop was to climb a tree just up the road from the pub. Two days ago I’d noticed a stick nest high up and this warranted closer inspection. Half way up to the nest I noticed a bird was sitting – and as I expected, it appeared to be a Carrion Crow (Corvus corone).

The bird flushed just after I snapped this photo so I quickly scaled the last limb to reach the nest.

What a sight – one beautiful chick and a single egg, as yet unhatched! The adult birds began circling and called so I made the visit brief and returned to the ground.
I followed the hill up past a small B & B called the ‘Cloverleaf’, and headed towards some nearby fields where a walk trail took me further away from the built up zone and closer to a wooded area (see photo at the top of this page). Perfect! Another friendly local told me to keep my eyes out for deer, and described how a group of three and a group of two using follow the burn upstream at this time of morning. He also mentioned Buzzards, and pointed out some taller trees where he’d seen some last year. I surged on with enthusiasm ignited, hoping I might glimpse these animals, and kept my eyes peeled.
Ten minutes later, as I rounded a corner and followed a narrow lane downhill, a movement up ahead caught my eye, and three white tails flashed in front of me and over the stone wall into the meadow. Roe Deer! The man I'd just spoken to was dead right, and I watched the three females dash for the other side of the field, seeking cover in the trees. Not long afterwards, another two deer moving quickly along the banks of Bucks Burn, again just as the local told me. Nothing like local knowledge!

No sooner had the deer disappeared among the trees than I heard a mewing call overhead, and looked up to see this wonderful sight... a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo). At first glimpse it reminded me of an Australian Little Eagle, with a similar rounded tail and barring on the ventral surface of the wings.

The bird circled me and called several times, and when a second buzzard appeared less than 50m further down the track, I spotted a large stick nest in a tall Sycamore tree. You can see the nest high up in a fork of the centre trunk in the below photo. A quick climb up the main trunk's branches had me level with the nest and thrilled with the find - 4 beautifully marked buzzard eggs! As with most Australia birds of prey that I am used to, the nest was lined with fresh green foliage, a perfect bed for the precious eggs.

The Common Buzzard nest was very high up but by no means inaccessible.

A typical 'raptor' view of the world from the nest site - perfect for spotting prey.

The Common Buzzard is a large raptor widespread across Europe, but like many species from this unique group of birds, it was persecuted by humans for centuries. People view raptors as either pests because they kill (or allegedly kill) livestock, or as a source of competition when they take game animals (rabbits, pheasants) that we ourselves want to eat. Persecution was carried out by nest robbing, shooting, trapping, poisoning, and even (with other species such as eagles) dropping a burning torch onto a nest site. Attitudes can be very hard to change: 12 Red Kites and 4 Buzzards were recently killed in April in one of the largest deliberate poisoning attacks on raptors recorded.

When a colleague and good friend of mine grew up in Aberdeen in the 1960's, Buzzards did not nest here and sighting them was very rare. Fortunately (and despite the above link), persecution has overall declined and this species can now often be observed riding the thermals on the outskirts of town. The bulking stick nest is similar to that of a goshawk or kite in Australia, and the 4 eggs in this clutch is a good sign of a healthy female Buzzard, and therefore a healthy prey population. It looked like the female who kept a close eye on me from her perch on a nearby power pole - and she was quick to return to the nest as soon as I'd descended. Hopefully I'll get to return to check the nest in a few weeks time when it contains nestlings! 

Monday, 12 May 2014

Exploring Bucksburn

You might've read my last blog post about how I was welcomed to Scotland by a female Mallard and her ducklings within hours of landing. I was so happy about this experience and the friendliness of the locals near the Staging Post pub, that I decided to stay in this area longer. Luckily the pub had a spare room for a very good price, so I booked a few nights here and set myself up for more exploring. With the local wildlife being the target, of course!

"Life will always find a way."
What happened to the Mallard family after their safe return to the 'burn' had played on my mind since Sunday, so I decided to follow the path they would've taken downstream, and follow Bucks Burn to where it meets the River Don. Dropping over a small embankment had me right next to the water, and I found plenty of stepping stones and sections of rock wall that allowed me to carry on downstream. The first thing I noticed was how awfully polluted this waterway was - a classic example of 'out of sight, out of mind' when it comes to humanity's lack of realisation of their impacts to local surroundings. People seem to forget that everything we put onto the street ends up in our waterways, and ultimately this feeds back to us through the cycle of life (drinking water and fish stocks, for example). The thing I always notice about these situations, though, is how nature has an amazing ability to recolonise, to continue, and how some creatures have the ability to capitalise on those quiet, out of the way places. At the first given opportunity, plants set seed among rocks and corrugated iron alike, and although we humans recognise what is 'ours' and what is 'nature's', many other organisms don't.

Considering this was such a humanised setting, I didn't expect to come across the unique and wonderful animal which appeared next. After only a few more metres walking downstream, I disturbed a small passerine bird from among the rocks. Closer inspection through binoculars revealed it was a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus), a small songbird quite at home among the slippery pebbles and gushing rapids of freshwater streams across Great Britain. Here are a couple of distant photos of an adult Dipper - one minute he's there, the next he's gone! I was amazed to observe this bird and notice how quickly and efficiently it dips below the surface of the water, grabs prey (which includes aquatic insects and their larvae), then resurfaces, all in the blink of an eye!

Now you see him...
...now you don't! The Dipper lives up to his name.
I was thrilled to have seen a Dipper and had the chance to observe its behaviour, and soon afterwards another one appeared! This bird was a drab grey in colour and was clearly a juvenile, so it was pleasing to know the species was also breeding along the burn!

A little further downstream I hit a dead end. Construction work blocked my way and Bucks Burn promptly diverted below ground into a culvert. It was time to leave the water behind and climb the embankment. I passed the remnants of an old tree-house, presumably built by local children, but sadly not occupied for many years. Is this a sign of a decreasing amount of children engaging with their environment through outdoor play?

I carried on walking away from the burn, and it was then I noticed what a beautiful valley I'd just been in, and how looking down on it gave a perfect view of the trees lining the burn, and emphasised how marvelous a setting this was. The blossoms of Bluebells and a few other plants I don't know the name of also were a reminder of how wonderful this time of year is.

If you recognise either of the two unnamed plants in flower, please comment below.

Carpets of Bluebells are a sure sign of spring.
From a distance, Cherry Blossom is like snow decorating the canopy of the trees.

Despite being a weed, Golden Chain (Laburnum sp.) still creates a vibrant scene.

The tall trees lining Bucks Burn, with the construction site visible in the background.