Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Continuing Adventures of Batman!

Bats are an important component of the ecosystem of The Howe and as such are part of the CFWN monitoring project. Here, our MSc student from York University, Andy Clark, gives us a flavour of his nighttime adventures:

I have not been able to explain my research to my Dad since I told him I’ll be using a Bat-Detector. I’ll start trying and he’ll say “Wait, so you’ve got an actual Bat-Detector? That’s awesome.” And then he’s gone, Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-ing away. But what I’m doing is actually quite cool, it’s useful science, and it’s remarkably simple. And almost everything, to all intents and purposes, has ‘Bat-‘ in front of it.

Apart from being iconic inspiration for Bruce Wayne, bats are brilliant. First of all they’re the only mammals that have ever evolved the ability to fly. Their wings are made of exactly the same bones as our hands and fingers – theirs are just stretched out & have a big wing-membrane of skin between them that joins right along the side of their body to their little feet & tails. That makes the iconic bat-symbol.

We have 6 bat-species around the Howe of Cromar, and most of all they eat midges. If you go down to a river around sunset – I’ve seen them as early as 20-past-9 at night – you’ll see them flapping manically and swooping around eating the tiny little flies that bug us so much. You may know that bats ‘see’ in the dark by using echolocation – they squeak at a pitch far higher than we can hear, and then work out where things are by the way the sound reflects back. Each bat species calls at a distinct pitch & in a distinct way. Well here’s something really cool – they can do that, while they’re flying, and pick out individual midges (that are also flying) and hone in on them. And here’s something even cooler – they don’t just bite them out of the air. Bats will grab a midge with their back feet, while they’re flying, and scoop it forward into their mouths! Try doing that with your dinner!

There’s a species you’ll see called ‘Daubenton’s’ that particularly like water, and will actually pick insects off the surface of the flowing river in the same way.

Other than that you’ll most likely see one’s called Common or Soprano Pipistrelles. They’re all less than 6cm long & have a wingspan between 20 and 30cm. If you ever get a chance to see one up-close, they’re surprisingly cute.

So what do I do?
 
I’m trying to find out if any particular type of habitat or land-use is really good (or bad) for bats. To do that I have my trusty Bat-Detector, which simply listens to the ultra-sonic clicks of bats and I record the sounds on a Bat-Dictaphone. Back at the Bat-Research-Base I run those through the Bat-Super-Computer to work out what frequencies – and therefore species - I recorded. From when their calls get really excited I can even work out when they catch a midge!

The Bat-kit!

 Holy-Science Batman!” you must be thinking. With this simple little survey I’m working out where bats are most like to be, and where they’re getting the most to eat. Then we can work out how to make the most for these midge-eating heroes of the night.

I hope to see you out some night. You’ll find me blasting around in the Bat-Prius, doing Bat-Science.

A sonogram, from which we can identify species.
Andy Clark (aka Batman...).

I would just like to add that if any of the local bat enthusiasts would like to contribute their observations we would be delighted to include them and they would be very much appreciated! As with all our work we will contribute our findings to the relevant national and regional recording schemes, in this case the BatConservation Trust’s National Bat Monitoring Programme, and NESBReC.

Dave Parish, dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Acknowledgements

The Cromar Farming With Nature monitoring and research team are indebted to the MacRobert Trust for much assistance and support throughout this project, and to the farmers on their land who have also helped with our work. The keepering team at Auchnerran have also been enthusiastic supporters and of great help too.

As well as the historical information provided by the MacRobert Trust, we are grateful to the following who have also provided valuable information, historical and current: Ian Francis (RSPB); Alan Crawford (RDI Associates Ltd); Steph Ferguson, Flora Grigor-Taylor and Jamie Urquhart (The River Dee Trust); Prof Steve Redpath, Prof Xavier Lambin, Dr Emma Sheehey and William Morgan (University of Aberdeen).

Many of the above provide continuing support and advice for which we are very grateful. We would also like to say a huge thank you to Dave Butler of Perdix Wildlife Supplies for the provision of equipment to help with our research.

A project of this size would not be possible without the assistance of a large number of contributors (in no particular order):


2015 – Lydia Murphy, Andy Clark, Charlotte Ivison, Kat Fingland, Megan Rowland, Mike Martin, Juliette Dinning, Prof Steve Albon, Dr Nick Picozzi.

Poo!

Poo, droppings, faeces or scats: whatever you call it, an animal’s waste can be very informative to the keen ecologist! I remember a colleague of mine at Durham University making this very clear when he described his work on the declining Brown Beers in Greece: despite a lot of effort, he’d never actually seen the animals themselves, but was still able to work out much of their day-to-day lives by studying their droppings! We are using this approach to study some of the more elusive mammals in The Howe of Cromar.

Since April, I have been walking a number of set routes around the MacRobert Trust and Auchnerran sites, staring at the ground in search of scats – not the most enjoyable pastime but still extremely important! The main species in the area that are of interest are Fox, Pine Marten and hybrid Wild Cats. The routes are all relatively quiet tracks and paths that run through areas of farmland or woodland. Importantly these are routes that hopefully won’t become choked with vegetation in summer and so will be equally likely to be used by animals year-round, and which I can check approximately monthly.

But what can this actually tell us? Well, firstly whenever I find a scat I log it using a very helpful app on my smartphone called Epicollect+. This allows me to record some very basic information very quickly such as date, time and habitat, but most importantly location: by logging my position relative to GPS satellites (just like a Sat Nav for example) I can effortlessly record where the scat was found to a high degree of accuracy. Over time I can build up a picture of which species are most likely hanging out in each of my sample areas.
Now, this is all dependent upon being able to tell which animal has left each scat behind – not as easy as you may think. In fact a recent study by SNH showed that even experts misidentified Pine Marten scats around 75% of the time! We are trying to overcome this by developing genetic tools that will tell us indisputably which species it is, so each scat is bagged and later deposited with Dave Martin at Dundee University (who is a bit of a genetic whizz!) who will hopefully be able to develop tests we can use to identify the species. With luck, we may even be able to do all this in the field which will greatly speed things up and simplify matters. Watch this space!


Dave Parish, dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956.

Slithery snakes and lazy lizards!

A group often overlooked in projects of this kind is the reptiles. Not the easiest to survey and not particularly abundant, they are often ignored in preference for the more glamorous birds and mammals. However, the Cromar Farming With Nature project remit is to cover as broad a range of wildlife as possible, so we have been putting some effort into identifying suitable areas to start searching for our local snakes and lizards.

There are only three species of reptile native to Scotland; the Adder, Common Lizard and Slow Worm, and we might expect to find them all in and around our study areas, but how do we find them? Reptiles are cold-blooded, meaning they cannot control their body temperature internally and rely on external heat sources to warm up. This means they can often be seen basking in the sunshine in warm, sheltered spots. They also frequently shelter underneath objects such as large stones and logs, and this habit can be exploited to our advantage by providing artificial objects for them to use which can then be checked on a regular basis.

 To this end we have been laying out sections of roofing felt and corrugated iron, which have both been found to attract reptiles elsewhere. These can be checked at regular intervals into the future so we can track any changes in abundance and distribution. All of these objects are now laid out and are in the process of being marked (see photo) so that everyone knows what they are, and together with nearby basking sites will form the basis of our surveys.


Our work has only just begun but already we have seen a number of slow worms, like the female pictured here.

If anyone in The Howe sees any reptiles on their travels we’d love to hear from them. Tell us what you saw and where, and we’ll add the information to our database – every little helps!

Dave Parish, dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956. 

Squirrels, Pine Martens and Wildcats…

The Howe of Cromar is thought to be a relative stronghold for Red Squirrels, with no Grey Squirrels seen for some time.

However, the American grey is making ground nearby with significant populations to the south and east, and with sightings reported as nearby as Aboyne and Banchory, monitoring Red Squirrel populations in our study areas around Tarland is important. This was started in April by a MSc student from Imperial College London, Lydia Murphy.

The area hasn’t been formally surveyed to our knowledge so exactly where the squirrels are and how many of them there may be, is uncertain, so Lydia is trying to survey all blocks of woodland in the MacRobert Trust and Auchnerran areas to find out.
Similarly Pine Marten are currently increasing in range and number across Scotland, but their status in The Howe is uncertain. Fortunately for Lydia, Pine Marten share similar habitats to squirrels so it’s not too difficult to include them in the same project! However, whereas Red Squirrels (and greys for that matter) can be surveyed by simply looking for them, Pine Marten are more of a challenge because they are largely nocturnal and usually very secretive.

So for this species Lydia has constructed and deployed hair traps, which entice the animals into a wooden tunnel with peanut butter but which results in them leaving a little hair behind (hopefully!), and track-recording tunnels, which record footprints of any animal running through a plastic tunnel. We have also used a small number of trail cameras to try to find these animals and get some nice pictures as well (some are shown here). This project is closely connected to another we are running (Poo!) where we are trying to survey certain mammals by collecting droppings (‘scat’ samples).

Interestingly, the trail cameras have picked up hybrid Wildcats too. These are not the true Scottish Wildcats, but animals that have descended from Wildcat /domestic cat pairings. We are currently assessing whether we can formally include these in our survey work as well.

 
Now this is a huge undertaking and Lydia has been kept very busy (and has almost bought the Tarland Spa out of peanut butter!), but it is a little too early to say what we’ve found. Suffice to say there are definitely Red Squirrels in the area (no greys seen, yet…) but there seem to be more in some woods than others, and Pine Marten are turning up occasionally but they are probably present at quite low density.
 
And of course we have some hybrid Wildcats in the area too. This work will continue year-round, though the methodology will vary with the seasons, so we hope to have a clearer picture in the near future. We’ll keep you posted in these pages!
 
If any of the local Howe residents out there have seen any of these species we would love to hear from you – please do get in touch. The reports we have had already from local residents have been extremely valuable and much appreciated!

Acknowledgements – we must say a huge ‘thank you’ to Dave Butler of Perdix Wildlife Supplies for providing some of our trail cameras, and for the track-recording cards, and similarly to Emma Sheehy of Aberdeen University for much help with planning this study and equipment.
Dave Parish, dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956.


A day in the life of an over-worked research assistant!

The Cromar Farming With Nature project is an ambitious venture with a huge workload, as you will appreciate as you browse these pages, and the person who, perhaps more than any other, is charged with making it happen is local girl Alison Espie. Alison is a skilled field surveyor and land manager with responsibility for all those tasks that don’t have a dedicated project officer, so to give an idea of what this means, here is a brief description of a typical day in early summer.

The first thing on the list most days is farmland bird counts. Like all the projects CFWN is undertaking this is very important as farmland birds are largely declining across the UK. For example, some species like the Grey Partridge and Tree Sparrow have declined in number by more than 90% since records began in the late 1960s. It is crucial therefore that we monitor them in The Howe as farmland birds are, naturally, very sensitive to the way in which the land is managed and so could be quick to respond to any ‘Greening’ measures or similar that might be introduced in the future. The counts during the breeding season (spring and summer) need to start early to capture the social behaviour that is most intense at this time and which makes surveying local populations so much simpler, so Alison rises very early to be on-site around sunrise. For the next three hours or so she walks around each field on her route with eyes and ears peeled, recording everything with wings that she sees or hears. So far this effort has revealed a large number of ‘typical’ species like Meadow Pipits, Yellowhammer, Thrushes and Crows, plus a few more notable species like Red Kite and Twite.


As most people are reaching to turn off the alarm-clock, Alison is winding up the bird counts and preparing for her next job. After a quick breakfast, this often means amphibian surveys at this time of year. Most amphibians in the UK have, again, declined in the UK as their habitats have been lost. This year in The Howe we are trying to focus on identifying potential habitats that might support amphibians, rather than counting the number of individuals present, so much of the early spring was spent noting the location of ponds and various wet bits of ground that Alison is now revisiting to check for the presence of eggs/larvae/adults of any of the UKs native species.

This hasn’t proven easy because firstly there aren’t a huge number of ponds around (lots of wet patches and semi-permanent puddles and the like though) and secondly the cold spring that we’ve had has made survey work pointless much of the time: the recommended water temperature for surveys is 10°C which we’ve struggled to reach until quite recently! That said, there have been some notable exceptions with some ponds currently heaving with tadpoles.


So after a few hours wandering around checking ponds, Alison is probably beginning to flag a little, so what better way to end the working day than with some raptor watches?! This group of predatory birds is of significance for different reasons: some, like the Kestrel and Barn Owl, are declining as their habitats change and they are finding it harder to make a living, whilst others like the Buzzard and Sparrowhawk have greatly increased in number and, some would say, are a potential threat to other, less common species now. By picking a good vantage point from which a large area of land can be observed, we can assess the local populations of some of the more conspicuous species (like Buzzard) because they announce their presence when breeding with circling displays and loud calls. The more secretive species, like Sparrowhawk, will be more of a challenge…


By the time the raptor watches are done, so is Alison! It’s afternoon and the early start is catching up with her so after a quick catch-up with any admin it’s home to start preparing for tomorrow when she’ll do it all over again…

Introduction to WildCromar!

Welcome to WildCromar, the blog for the Cromar Farming With Nature project. This is an exciting new collaboration between The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), The MacRobert Trust and the local community, to investigate the needs of Cromar’s wildlife and to try and provide for those needs in a sensible way.

Cromar Farming With Nature: sustainable wildlife and rural communities
Wildlife today, especially in the UK, has to coexist alongside man. This means that if we want to have a countryside that is rich in wildlife we need to find ways of managing our farmland, forests and rural communities that are not hostile to plants and animals, but also that don’t exclude people from enjoying and making a living from the great outdoors.


This project began in early 2015 and comprises two main parts: The GWCT’s demonstration farm at Auchnerran, and the MacRobert Trust estate around Tarland (see map). The former is where we hope to research and demonstrate novel methods of land use and the latter is an area of mixed farmland and woodland run for many years now by the MacRobert Trust. In both areas we are carrying out a ‘biological audit’ to find out which species are present. This requires a massive team effort involving staff, students and local volunteers to search for existing sources of information that might tell us what’s been seen already, and to survey the area directly to fill in the blanks. (Please see the Acknowledgements section for a full list of collaborators and contributors). And there are a lot of blanks! This project is the first to have surveyed the area on this scale and will provide an unprecedented level of detail on a wide range of species (see our Project List for the current survey program).

We hope that this information will then be of use to the area’s many land managers. For example, all farmers now have to ensure their land caters for wildlife to a certain extent by complying with the new ‘Greening’ measures: our survey data will show what wildlife there is in the area and therefore highlight those options that are relevant. We hope to work closely with the area’s farmers and other stakeholders throughout the project to try and make sure we don’t miss anything, but also to provide them with information that is most relevant to their needs.

We also hope that the information collected will be of use to a variety of national and regional recording schemes, such as NESBReC (North East Scotland Biological Records Centre) for example.

In the pages that follow you will see examples of what we are doing, written by a variety of contributors, which will give you an idea of what we are trying to achieve and the work involved. If you have any comments or questions, please contact me and if you want to get involved, please shout!

Dave Parish
dparish@gwct.org.uk, 07889 891956.