Saturday 19 January 2013

The Rum Ranger winter work plan (part 1 of 2)

Again, apologies to anyone following this blog, it’s always the first thing that suffers when things get busy. Although in reality, I haven’t been busy! I've been off-island taking the majority of my annual leave around hogmany, and just before that it was Christmas with report and programme writing to be done; the three months before that I have no excuse! In terms of time off the island and ones sanity, it’s never a good idea to violate the three month rule on here (taken from Dr Dunbar’s survival guide to island living Volume II), as you eventually turn into Jack Torrance from the Shining if you decide to. And then when you do go off to the mainland, you realise that everyone is just as crazy and sun deprived as you are, but it’s still reassuring to know the world is still out there!  

Yes, yet another year is upon us (a very happy new year by the way), and there is much to do before the season starts again in earnest; more on that later (in part 2!). So what’s new for the 2013 Rum Ranger season? I’ll still be here delivering a slightly modified programme of events, but will be continuing with the usual evening talks, eagle walks and the mini pelagic wildlife cruise to the Isle of Soay aboard the Merchant Vessel ‘Sheerwater’ with Ronnie.Oh, and of course the 'Discover Rum' guided walk, which will still be organised in partnership with Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries (Ltd!). In fact, I really like the way the programme has evolved over the past four years, as we now know what works and what doesn't, so this is probably what we’re going to try and run with for the next wee while anyway.

However, as its Year of Natural Scotland this year, we've added a few more events to the already bulging monthly programme. In fact, it’s looking like it’s going to be very busy indeed!  So what’s the  Year of Natural Scotland all about I hear you ask? Well, it’s a Scottish Government Initiative that’s being led by Events Scotland, Visit Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, and is aimed at celebrating Scotland’s natural environment, its conservation and responsible use. Undoubtedly it will help the tourism industry, but will also play a key role in encouraging our youngsters to enjoy Scotland’s outdoors, so I’m all for it! Heaps of events up and down the country all summer. For further information please check out   

So with that in mind, we've a few YoNS extras this year, which  include two night time expeditions up to our nearest sub-colony of Manx shearwaters on Hallival.This will be a very very privileged opportunity to observe these fascinating birds close at hand as they try to find their burrows within the grassy boulders. It really is an awesome experience due partly to the fact that many adult birds wheel overhead in the darkness calling like asthmatic wheezy chickens, or even Trolls, if you know what one of these sounds like! I’m selling this eh! Anyway, there’s one trip running in April and one again in September. Come along, it’s a truly awesome wild experience not to be missed, and in my humble opinion, one of the craziest things you’ll ever see in the Scottish birding world.

Adult Manx Shearwater

Also to come, George Logan from Scottish Photography, and myself believe it or not (who does he fink he is, David Bailey?), will be here delivering a wildlife photography workshop in June, and this will involve indoor and outdoor sessions aimed at the beginner. And as the island is full to the brim with biological activity at that time of the year, we should experience an extravaganza of interesting photos. Thank god you don’t have to splash out on 35mm film anymore and now you can just go berserk with that trigger finger; this may be especially true down at Kilmory where I may get a little carried away.  

As you know (and even if you didn't), I’m always harping on about quality outdoor learning experiences that really cut through the general humdrum.  It really is the only way we’re going to connect people to the environment on a lasting level, so on that very note, I’m very pleased to announce that we’re organising a midsummer camping trip to Kilmory, which will not only take into account the next generation of red deer, but hopefully also an opportunity to observe all things further down the food chain.However it will focus on the work of the Kilmory Deer Project, which has monitored the red deer here for just over forty years. Basically there will be some choice in what you want to take a closer look at, as all will be pretty flexible on the day and plenty of staff on hand to answer questions. The sunsets are great from Kilmory at that time of the year due to the long (hopefully) sunny days, and as we’re out in the wilds for quite a prolonged period, we will most definitely see many seabirds, hopefully a sea or a  golden eagle, plus the usual common seals, otters and arctic terns.Dragonflies are pretty prolific at this time of the season and who knows, we may even see a basking shark. For more details on this and all the other IRCT Ranger Service events please check out our website on

More on the work plan and general news in the next installment!Cheers for now..oh and I've started tweeting, please check me out on Twitter on Rum Ranger@RumRanger

Friday 7 September 2012

Mother Carey's chickens and Dr Watt's ponies

Before the autumn is out and 'Stormie Season' has officially ended, I want to write a short piece about a mysterious little bird that's found around the island - the European storm petrel Hydrobates pelagicus, Europe's smallest seabird.In fact, the bird measures only 15-16cm in length, and weighs 25 or so grams, so stormies (as they are affectionately known) are about the same size as a house martin to which they superficially resemble because of their white rump.The stormies are in fact one of our 'tubenosed' species which are related to albatrosess, shearwaters and gadfly petrels, and belong to the scientific Order Procellariiformes.They're definitely not a chicken either! Mother Carey is a supernatural figure representing the sea, and as these birds were sometimes thought to be the souls of perished sailors, they were commonly called her chickens in the 19th century (an interesting fact that you may well use in a pub quiz one of these days).

Our smallest 'tubenose'

European storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 

The species is totally marine, feeding mainly on crustaceans and other small marine organisms and nests in colonies close to the sea in burrows or rock crevices.Unfortunately the species is not thought to breed on the island anymore (on the extreme and inaccessible western tip of the island at a place called A' Brideanach) due to brown rat predation.Although saying that, Peter Wormell (Rum's first Warden) was the last to officially investigate the area for petrels way back in 1962, so it's probably time for another look (a future project for next season perhaps?)!

Although thought to be declining, the European population is estimated at at least 1,500,000 individuals with the largest colony situated on Nolsoy in the Faroe Islands.In Scotland the largest colonies are situated on Mousa off mainland Shetland, but the nearest known colonies to Rum are on the Treshnish and Summer Isles, the stacks and islets off North Uist and St Kilda.

The island of Nolsoy in the Faroes has the worlds largest concentration of breeding stormies.The island lies just a few miles from the capital, Torshavn.
Like our familiar Manx shearwater, stormies are nocturnal at their breeding sites and this helps them avoid predation by gulls and skuas; they'll even avoid coming ashore on clear moonlit nights.However, in the autumn when many wandering non-breeders are prospecting potential habitat during their return migration to the waters off South Africa, individuals are flying close to Rum's coastline during the night, and it's here that I take the opportunity to catch and ring as many as possible; something that I've been doing with variable success since 2007.Ringing birds i.e., fitting a uniquely numbered tiny aluminium ring (or band as our colonial cousins call them) to the birds legs, helps build a clearer picture on survival, movements and subsequent health of any given population.The information collated from this activity is now considered THE most important conservation tool that the scientific community has at its disposal for assessing the state of our birds.All this is done under a British Trust for Ornithology license of course, as you have to be trained.Please check out or for more information on bird ringing.Sean Morris who lives and works on Rum also rings on the island, and information on his recent ringing recoveries can be found on the news page of our website at

A tiny light weight A2 sized ring is fitted to the leg.It's the equivalent weight of you or I having a pound coin in our pockets.
Through July and into August, stormies were caught using mist nets which were situated on top of the lower lying sea cliffs.This is professional equipment used by trained field biologists and is usually made from fine nylon mesh suspended between two poles.When erected the whole thing resembles an oversized badminton net.However, unlike a badminton net, a mist-net is shelved along its whole length, usually four or five times.When a bird flies into this wall of invisible netting, it falls straight into one of these shelves or pockets and becomes entangled.But this is the easy part, as you still need to entice them towards the net!This is achieved by playing a tape lure (or CD lure) of a calling stormie, so that any passing bird will get curious and fly towards the noise, and of course the tape is played directly under the net.And stormies make some noise, a strange bubbling mix of squeaks which drives you slightly insane after a while, especially when you're out catching all night.

A mist-net in action (note tape lure in corner by pole).
After processing, these birds were released in one group.Although one bird flew off with my head-torch still on with absolutely no hesitation!I simply left them on the top of a grass covered cliff (pictured below), and walked away with my light off (don't worry, all H&S aspects were considered fully!).This allowed them sufficient time to adjust to the darkness once again.When I came back ten minutes later, all had vanished safely into the darkness.

Adjusting to the darkness 
If you want to experience this for yourself next year, I will be organising some public storm petrel ringing demonstrations (depending on whether insurance matters severely restrict outdoor environmental education for good), so you could get to see these secretive little birds for yourself.I did advertise an event this year, but for too many reasons to go into here, I had to cancel at short notice.

From a cultural perspective, one event that did go ahead this autumn was 'A Pony Insight' on the 28th August, which took an up close and personal look at the island’s favourite four legged friend, the Rum Pony. This was a bit disapponting as only a handfull of locals turned up, and was in all fairness due to the fact that few visitors are actually 'overnighting' on the island at the moment, despite all being open for business at the moment (I suppose we had all better get used to it eh). Thanks to Dr.Lesley Watt (Reserve Officer, SNH) for the overview, and as you weren't there, I'll just recap on some interesting Rum Pony facts.

 Lesley and the group on the day
Did you know that the Rum Pony is the oldest Highland Pony stud in the world and one that had a much wider distribution over the Hebrides and North West Scotland in the past. However, over most of this area the distinctive features of this ‘island type’ have gradually been diluted and lost due to the influence of a strain of grey Clydesdales and other foreign breeds, which were introduced to increase the stature in the Highland Pony for agricultural work. Fortunately, on a few remote islands such as Rum, these small ponies survived much longer in a form closer to their original endemic type which was largely due to Rum’s isolation and lack of agricultural intensification.

Recent research has shown that the silver colouring evident in the Rum breed evolved in pre-historic Northern British ponies, around the end of the last ice age. So the Rum ponies almost certainly originated in their current homeland in the North West of Scotland, and not in Southern Europe or Scandinavia as previously thought. Therefore, the Rum pony is a truly Scottish animal, once wild and now domesticated, but still retaining many original wild characteristics.The abundant silver coloured manes and tails common in the Rum ponies are an evolutionary adaptation to help break up the ponies outline. This feature, along with their coat colouring, served to blend the ponies into the browns and russets of a Northern European landscape – camouflaging them more effectively from predators.

SNH's policy is to maintain the stud true to type by careful breeding, and at the same time to make the ponies work for their living. In this way they will never lose their physique and hardy constitution, which had evolved to cope with the rigours of life on Rum. So SNH introduced a management plan some years ago which includes the regular handling of foals, so that they will become more accustomed to humans. These are wintered around Kinloch village in their first two years so that they are not disadvantaged by the severe Rum climate, and are regularly trained for their use as stalking ponies. 

The latter activity not only keep the ponies fit and active, but is for economic value to the nature reserve as they are currently used to carry deer carcasses from the hills during the stalking season. Using ponies as the method of deer extraction is particularly beneficial on a National Nature Reserve as they make little impact.

Recent sightings

Not much in the way of cetacenas lately as its coming to the end of the season.Plus the waters are invariably chopping during these autumnal days, so it's harder to spot stuff.Ronnie Dyer (skipper of MV Sheerwater) did see a couple of of minke whales in the Sound of Rum on August 29th, and a single Risso's dolphin was spotted off the Uig-Lochmaddy Calmac ferry on September 2nd.Records of this species are mostly confined to September, so it may still be worth venturing to Soay on a Thursday.

Sea eagles have been much in evidence around the island of late, including 2 young birds over the new pier on August 30th.Other notable sightings include a single 1st winter black headed gull in Loch Scresort on September 2nd and a cormorant on the 5th.

Sea eagle, IOR August 30th. 
More on this later, but early indications suggest that our shearwaters have had a good breeding season this year, and chick weights (end of August) are pretty healthy.Some were 800g of so, which is almost twice the weight of adult birds (who ate all the pies!).

As they're less secretive come autumn, European otters have starting to put on more of a show in Loch Scresort lately. Doug spotted one at the mouth of Rockery Burn on August 29th, and even the otter hide is coming up trumps with a single seen there yesterday (Sept 5th).    

Monday 20 August 2012

The soils and seas are alive!

Apologies yet again for the long break between this and the last blog, and as there's over two months news from the island to catch up with, I had better just get on with it, so here goes!

I: Of worms and men

Since it's the summer season (or was), the programme of events have taken over proceedings and this years slightly different approach to the programme is starting to pay off (or was!). Encouraging visiting experts to talk about their research on the island has been cited as an area for potential improvement, and of course this was fine with me becasue I do get very sick of my own voice as the season gets under way (the Essex in me does slip off the tongue on occasion), and its also nice to sit back and listen for a change.

Approaching the specialists hasn't really been that difficult, as most reseachers love to talk and enthuse others about their work on the island.This is especially true of Dr Kevin Butt from the University of Central Lancashire who has been investigating Rum earthworms since 1995 and I really do think he loves them! One of the main findings from Kevin's work is that earthworm communities have significantly incresesed in number where woodland had been re-established on the island.He has bags of enthusiasm for our little slippery friends and all who attended our organised field excursion around the village and evening lecture on the 21st May got heaps from it.These events were part of the much bigger Highland Soil Biodiversity Festival (part of Scottish Biodiversity week) which aimed at getting folk understanding the importance of soil.

Due to the bulk addition of mainland soil at Kinloch, the area supports 12 species of earhworms including this one, Lumbricus terrestris

And soil is pretty fundamental, so just a quick recap if you don't know why eathworms are so good for that muddy stuff under our feet; that very stuff we humans depend upon for our own continued survival I might add. So here are some facts we should all remember about earthworms as they are an integral part of that soil. 
Earthworms have been termed 'ecosytem engineers', because they change the structute of their environment by making both horizontal and vertical burrows.These create pores through which oxygen and water can enter and by which carbon dioxide can leave.Worms are also responsible for mixing soil layers and incorporating organic matter into it which becomes available to bacteria, fungi and plants, so assist greatly with decomposition.In fact, they're so important that the man himself Charles Darwin concluded [that], ''It may be doubted if there are other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.''

Dr Kevin Butt and Dr Chris Lowe from the University of Central Lancashire stunning worms at the soil surface.Please note that no worms were harmed during the making of this science.   

A worm in the hand is worth two in the bush
Other visiting specialists over the summer included Jim Blair from the Lochaber Geopark who kindly conducted a geology walk and talk over the 18th-20th June, and all who attended appreciated an extra insight into Rum's geological past.The talk was pretty packed out, but unfortunately few took the opportunity to accompany Jim up Coire Dubh during the day.I think that maybe an open-to-all indoor geology workshop may be the answer to this next season, and will be definitely worth trying ..bring the mountain to Mohamed so to speak.

Lochaber Geopark's Jim Blair
II: The crazy summer of cetaceans

As you would expect from the height of summer, Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and seabirds have been much in evidence around the waters off the island from about the end of May onwards. Consequently, there's been much interest in the weekly two hour boat trip to the Isle of Soay aboard the MV Sheerwater this season (especially when it was free for a while).

No dolphins that day, but the 'Goddards' have been sticking with it.

A special mention to the 'Goddards', who have been on every Thursday trip to Soay come rain or shine for the entire summer.Sometimes they see a kittiwake or two, and sometimes heaps of exciting stuff (not to say that kittiwakes aren't exciting too).Anyhoo, the moral of this story is that you just never know what will be about and when, so their additude has been refreshing, and they are pleased with whatever they see.Afterall, actually seeing someting wild is a privalage that doesn't happen instanly like it does on the telly, you have to put in the hours, and even then, you may only get a glimpse.So full respect for sticking with it! As we shall see, putting in the hours does pay dividends.Check out the clip underneath when they actually do spot a pod of short-beaked common dolphins (please turn your head sideways to view, I cant work out how to correct this...the internet is a new invention and wasn't around when I went to school back in the 1980's).

 I have also been trying out our larger supply vessel (the MV Loch Nevis) for its suitability for wildlife watching (as if I hadn't already), as a near perfect opportunity arose after contacting the organisers of the first Wild Locharber Festival.They are aiming to promote wildlife and eco-tourism in this under valued area of the Highlands.All in all, it was a good first taste and a great way to scope out something special for next year when the whole event is expected to gather momentum.2012 events were all organised very quickly, as the funding package was only finalised a month before! The day was a bit of a marathon however, as I was on board for an epic ten hours seawatch and irradiated to a cinder.On the cetacean front only a few harbour porpoise were seen all day, but heaps of manx shearwaters and other seabirds were on hand to connect folk with our fantastic marine environment, so job done.Here are some of the better photos.

The approaching MV Loch Nevis on the morning of the marathon seawatch.

Rafting manxies off Cave's Bay.

Punters on the look out..

Harbour seals, Eigg.

Sanday light

Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus

Grey seal, Malliag Harbour.

Common seal with pup off Eigg
Due to the warmer sea surface temperatures and abundant plankton later on into July, the situation onboard the MV Sheerwater was totally different regarding cetacean abundance.Short-beaked common dolphins (the Italians of the dolphin world...they breech and show off quite a bit) were literally everywhere and amazed dozens of people over the last few months. An aggregation of about c.1000 individuals was first noted around the Small Isles in early June, and since then this 'super pod' divided into various smaller groups. The highlights on the Thurday Soay trip included c.60 between Arisaig and Eigg on the 19th June, and c.100 between Rum and Soay on June 21st.Here is some of the action in pictures.

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Enthusing the young about Rum's marine environment..this is what it's all about.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: waiting and watching for the blow?
Aboard MV Sheerwater: The Welsh spoil another potentially good photo opportunity!
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Red-throated diver Gavia stellata.A typical flight silhouette with the neck and head lowered.The feet projection beyond the tail is less obvious than on other divers and are perceived to be an extension of the tail.  
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Atlantic puffin Fratercula arctica
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Common guilemots

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Ronnie Dyer, skipper of MV Sheerwater

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Rafting manx shearwaters Puffinus puffinus.

During the breeding season Manxies assemble at sea in the late afternoon prior to going ashore once night has fallen.Formed between one and ten kilometres from the colony, these impressive assemblages, called rafts, can number thousands of birds.For example, off Caves' Bay, rafts may exceed ten thousand birds.Given that Manxies arrive in these rafts well before sunset, and therefore well before feeding is likely to be curtailed, biologists wonder whether participation in rafts could in some way benefit the birds, but the answer to this question is simply not known.  
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Rafting manxies, off Rum, July 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Adult manx shearwater, off Rum, July 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: A very close minke whale, off Soay, July 2012 (photo Ian Bolas)

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena and manxie, off Soay, July 2012.Found only in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, this small cetacean measures up to 1.9 metres and has a distinctive short, long based triangular dorsal fin.

It has to be said that the gems of the summer have been the Short-beaked common dolphins which are found throughout the northern Atlantic and most of the Pacific region.The best way to identify the species is by their behaviour, as they are usullay in large boisterous schools and can be aerially acrobatic, with flipper slapping, bow riding, breaching and sometimes somersaulting, and we've certainly been privy to most of this during the summer!Another distinguishing characteristic is the hourglass pattern on their sides.  

Aboard MV Sheerwater: Swimming almost as one organism, short-beaked common dolphins Delphinus delphis,  off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphins
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Small pod of short-beaked common dolphins and distant manxie raft, off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphin, off Eigg, June 2012.
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Single short-beaked common dolphin (photo Daniel Campbell).
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Short-beaked common dolphins (photo Daniel Campbell)
Aboard MV Sheerwater: All skuas are pirates, and none is better equipped for the part than the great skua or bonxie (meaning bully in old Norse).This bugger is not only sturdily built, aggressive and bullying, but is also the largest of the skuas, so well able to rob really large birds of their latest meals.

A Aboard MV Sheerwater: The bonxies favourite victim is the gannet.It seizes any unwary bird by the wingtip, so making it stall and fall into the sea.The gannet then disgorges its food and the spoils are snapped up (photo: Ian Sargent).   
Aboard MV Sheerwater: Safe as long as you're not carrying fish, an adult gannet

Aboard MV Sheerwater: a mean as bonxie!

Aboard the Isle of Sanday: Great skua or bonxie on Sanday..even meaner when you're walking through their terrestrial territory.
Recent sightings

Not really that recent, but still recent enough anyway....

A good late spring record of a long-eared owl at the Harris tree plot on May 22nd was a welcome change for some.2 adult orcas off Muck on the 25th June, with 5 seen again off Muck on the July 4th, also 4 bottle-nosed dolphins off Eigg that day. Basking sharks have been a wee bit more numerous this season, but still only a handful of records for Rum including singles in Loch Scresort on the 13th and 14th July,and a whopping 5 off Kilmory on July 21st. Our sea eagles failed this season, but 2 pairs of goldies were successful fledging a chick a piece.Other breeding successes include 1 pair of greenshanks, short-eared owl, hen harrier, merlin and at least 10 pairs of red-throated divers.Arctic terns did well too, with over 10 pairs nesting at Kilmory. Other notables include a possible breeding spotted flycatcher, which was seen on numerous occasions around the village in May, June and early July (perhaps breeding due to the warmer dryer conditions and abundant large insect life, which is perhaps due to the new wild flower meadow around the castle!?).Autumn migration is now underway, with a flock of 50+ twite at Harris on the 5th August and two juvenile dotterels on Barkeval on the 18th August.

Adult spotted flycatcher, Kinloch, June 2012.

As usual, some of the weather in pictures......

Oh, and I will be more regular from now on I promise (with the ranger blogs that is), so see you soon with some more Rum news and ting soon!

Big moon over Scresort

Every cloud.....