Sunday, 22 October 2017

Volunteering for the RSPB on the Mull of Galloway, Scotland

As I headed up the single-track road to the RSPB Visitor Centre, I was both excited and nervous in anticipation of what the next two weeks would have in store for me on the Mull of Galloway. However, when I turned the corner and was rewarded with stunning views across the sea and caught my first glimpse of the lighthouse standing proud on the headland, I soon forgot about my apprehensions. 

RSPB Mull of Galloway is a small reserve but it is home to an abundance of wildlife and a delightful little place. The Visitor Centre itself is an old bothy dating from 1838 when it was constructed to accommodate the builders of the lighthouse. This sturdy building was made to withstand the stormy winds that can batter the headland. The bothy now houses the RSPB Visitors Centre and is a colourful array of information, displays, videos and live cameras all about wildlife on the Mull. The Centre is welcoming and friendly and many visitors who pop in just to get out of the ‘breeze’ end up staying for a chat and to find out more about the seabirds and wildlife in general.

My role as a volunteer was to help at the Centre and the RSPB staff Rob and David made me feel very welcome and at ease there. I learnt a wealth of information from them both, and I was soon able to pass this knowledge onto visitors. I also gained the confidence to ask visitors about RSPB membership and felt comfortable promoting the work of the RSPB.
For the remainder of this blog, rather than describing things on a day to day basis I am going to tell the story of my last day on the Mull which was a culmination of my brilliant time there…

I set off early from the comfortable RSPB accommodation in Drummore to make the most of the sunny morning. The weather had been a bit wild over the last two weeks with plenty of strong winds and quite a few heavy showers, however this morning it was almost perfect with blue skies and a “gentle” breeze. As I was driving up the road to the Mull of Galloway, I saw a grey blob on the road and stopped. Just as I did, the blob launched itself into the air- it was a Sparrowhawk – a great start to the day. I continued on my journey dodging cows and sheep until I arrived at the car park. As I set off towards the lighthouse, I saw the hare that I had been trying to photograph for the last two weeks but as ever he was just too quick for me!

I walked across the heath hoping that the stoat that had peeped out of the heather at me a few days ago might make a reappearance but he was nowhere to be seen. I did however, see five roe deer this morning. I had seen them most mornings and on one of the mornings Rob and I spent about 5 minutes photographing a buck lying in a hollow until she got up and gently walked away. The deer I saw this morning were a little startled and bounded away flashing their white rumps as they went. 

As I got closer to the willows I looked out for the gorgeous little goldcrest and wren that I had seen there the past few days and true to form they were there flitting about in the bushes. I continued down to Lagvag point to see what I could see off the headland and looked out over the sea to watch the tidal race charging past – a sight I never tired of – it is truly mesmerising. Onwards to the Foghorn, where I amused myself by trying to count all the vole holes – they are everywhere on the reserve. It was a warm morning and as I was following one of the mammal runs, I caught something out of the corner of my eye, the voles were darting about in the grass. I stopped and listened to them squeaking to each other, another lovely start to the day!

Near to the foghorn is the walled garden that forms part of the lighthouse land. It was here that I often saw the stonechat, which had also been avoiding my camera but this morning posed brilliantly for me on the white stone wall set against the bright blue sky. Across on the heath I was also able to photograph a wheatear and numerous linnets as they picked seeds out of the flowers. It was mid- September but there was still plenty of butterflies around, particularly red admiral and tortoiseshell. I also saw a couple of fox moth caterpillars, which are stunning big hairy beasts. I eventually made my way back to the Visitors Centre to help David, RSPB staff member and Dennis, my fellow volunteer set up for the day.

As I arrived at the Centre the kestrels were already out hunting on the heath. This was another daily delight for us all and something we never tired of. There are 4 resident kestrels on the Mull, which isn’t surprising given the number of voles running around. A few days previously on the guided walk that Rob leads, we saw 2 kestrels hunting in the same area and dive bombing each other. Just watching their skill and concentration when hunting was addictive.  

In the Visitors’ Centre this morning, we had a delivery of goodies to top up our tombola and membership packs. Dennis and I set about checking off the order and adding prizes to the tombola. And then as the visitors gradually started to arrive we talked to them about the wonders of the Mull of Galloway. It was an interesting time of year as most of the seabirds had finished nesting for the season, left the cliffs and headed back out to sea. However, there was still some shags and gannets around and we had also been seeing quite a few grey seals. This combined with all the activity on the heath meant that there was still plenty to talk about and enthuse the visitors. 

 During my time on the Mull I had also been conducting a mammal survey on the site and my walk this morning formed part of this. The survey involved walking a transect on the reserve to look for mammals, but also to look for signs of mammals such as tracks and droppings. I had also placed my wildlife camera out on four nights previously, but it had not been a great success. The weather had been quite wild and one set of footage was of the camera strap blowing in front of the lens, another was of vertical rain, another was just a white screen as the camera was placed too close to the ground. I did however have one successful evening and got some footage of a brown hare and a roe deer. It was not quite the badger footage I was hoping for but I was still pleased to get some successful images after subsequent nights of trying. As part of my survey, Rob had agreed that I could use his small mammal traps to see what small mammals I could find. I put these out today and on checking found a lovely little field vole happily munching away on some apple that I had put in the traps. After a couple of photos to confirm the identification, I released the vole back to his home in the wild. 
Back in the Visitors Centre, David had spotted a male and female grey seal on the live camera. They were merrily swimming around in the cave below the foghorn. As it was my last day and we didn’t have too many visitors around I asked David if it was okay to go down and to try and photograph them. It was probably the sunniest day I had spent on the Mull and so it was great to be out in the fresh air. When I arrived at the foghorn I could hear the seals calling to each other but couldn’t actually see them – they were just tucked too far back in the cave.

I spent a few moments enjoying my last view of the sun sparkling off the sea. I was just about to head back up to the Visitors Centre when I couldn’t believe my luck – heading around the headland I saw the dorsal fins of 3 or 4 dolphins. I was absolutely stunned and tried to stay calm as I quickly snapped some photos and took a short video before the dolphins headed off back out to sea. Back at the Centre David and I got out some identification guides and with the help of the slow and creaking internet, identified the dolphins as Risso’s dolphins. This was not only a first for the reserve this year but also a first ever sighting for me…what a way to end my time volunteering on the Mull of Galloway!
As the day came to an end I spent a few moments outside reminiscing over my time on the Mull. I had made new friends and met lots of lovely visitors from very close to my home and as far away as Devon and Orkney. I had enjoyed wonderful walks on the cliffs and had time every day to spend a few quiet moments bird or mammal watching. I had not just worked indoors in the Centre, I had spent time in the walled garden with Dennis, dismantling scarecrows and moving weeds. I also had some fun and went around the lighthouse exhibition and up the tower. It really was a fantastic two weeks and anyone who was hesitating about volunteering for the RSPB, I would recommend to just go for it and try it. The memories of my time there will stay with me forever.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Wild and Rural Romania and Bulgaria

Travelling through the rural roads in Romania and Bulgaria for the past 2 weeks has given me a real chance to see some of the spectacular wildlife that is found here.

I spent an afternoon by the river near to Centre Sac in Romania and I just sat there for a few hours – a rare treat for me. I saw two species of Demoiselle, a golden ringed dragonfly, and a green dragonfly that I could not identify. I watched shoals of small fish in the shallows and grey and pied wagtails flit between the banks of the river. 

In a similar river, further to the east I spotted 2 toads and a blue darter and again many more demoiselles. It is great just to spend some time sitting and watching the wildlife without having a subconscious restraint of having to be somewhere. I could just sit and watch and wander up and down the river until I had had enough.

Most days whilst riding my bike I have startled Buzzards at very close range and they have taken off and flown in front of me for a while. I have spotted many jays flying between the trees across the roads. The storks are amazing, with their magnificent nests that they build at the top of electricity pylons. They can be seen in almost every small town we pass through. All of the storks that we have seen have been white except for one that we startled by the river which was black – quite unusual.

The other magnificent sight is the brightly coloured bee hives and bee trucks that adorn the sides of the roads. I am guessing that the trucks are strategically placed near to a good nectar source that can add flavour to honey. There are many stalls selling jars of delicious natural honey or Med and I ended up getting my honey in Bulgaria. The beekeeping in Bulgaria appears very similar to that of Romania. It is something I would like to research more in the future.

The other interesting industry is that of logging. Riding on logging roads and forest trails means we have been exposed to many different methods and stages of development of the industry. In both Romania and Bulgaria we have come across one or two men working with chainsaws and 1 or 2 horses that are used with a harness to pull the logs to where they want them. They then seem to cut them up into smaller chunks from that location to then be moved on again. One of the banks I saw a horse being riding up was practically vertical and the horse was also being ridden by a teenage boy. It seems in some smaller areas that traditional methods are used together with a mix of modern machinery and advanced methods.

On a much bigger scale we have come across other forestry workers with chainsaws, but they also have tractors with chains on the wheels and large trucks that transport huge loads of logs. The workers are always very friendly wave and smile as you pass by. Again, this is another industry that I would like to research further and learn more about. 

The other tradiational method of farming in Romania and Bulgaria is shepherds moving their flocks. This is normally sheep but can also be goats. High in the mountains where we met shepherds and their flocks we were constantly chased by their dogs.But they were just doing their job and when we stopped for a chat or to share some food we always found them very friendly.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Fantastic Feathers

I've been collecting feathers for quite a number of years now and having just sorted my collection out, I'm quite surprised by how many I have. Some may think this is a rather odd hobby and I have had some strange looks when I go to pull something out of my pocket and out comes a bundle of feathers. But for me there is something enticing about a feather. Any feather found comes with an abundance of curiosity...What bird is it off? How did it get there? Was there a predator involved? Is it a flight feather, contour feather or is it downy? Have I got one of that species already?

So I pick up the feather and it gets added to the collection and here are just some of my treasures:


I have two buzzard wing feathers, one off each wing and each measuring approximately 30cm. When you lie them out and imagine the wing span - its pretty impressive. Its also hard to imagine that the feathers above are also off a buzzard as they are tiny in comparison but are much softer and downy and most likely from the breast area. Where I found one of my buzzard wing feathers, some time later I found the remains of rabbit fur and a buzzard pellet in the same area. I have never seen the buzzard but there is something that is almost more satisfying about these little finds than seeing the bird itself.
In a different woodland area I have also found pellets of a tawny owl and then finally I one day I also found some feathers. 

Tawny Owl
Tawny Owl
I have been lucky enough to spot a snowy owl in the Cairngorms, Soctland in the winter of 2013 and if I ever find a snowy owl feather I will be pretty made up! However, for now I will settle for my Barn Owl feathers of which I have a few. I often spot Barn Owls in winter but I have yet to find some pellets!

Barn Owl
Other favourites in my collection are my woodpecker and Jay feather, simply for the complexity of the colouration and design. The spots on a woodpecker feather are similar delightful and the blue stripes on one of my Jay feathers are tiny.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

I also have magpie feathers and what at first looks like a plain black and white feather actually has a lovely irridescent sheen of blue when held to the light

A favourite find of mine is my heron feather, simply because of the "fluffy but spiky" feel to it. It is also a favourite because I am not 100% sure it is a heron but it was found by the river where I often see one and it is the correct colour and design...if that is the right word!

Mallard duck

Mallard Duck Tail Feather
Another lovely feather has to be my tail feather off a mallard duck. I found this one near to where ducks often sat and I love it. It's a beautiful shiny feather and the curl on the tip is jsut brilliant.

I also have a large number of pheasant feathers, in fact they are the ones that always seem to be in my coat pockets and I had to get rid of some as they are just everywhere and I just can't seem to help picking them up. The variety of the design and colour is just fascinating.


I have also been lucky enough to find a number of feathers in the uplands and most of these look like they have been left behind after a predator attack. Although one that has me stumped is the little cluster of golden breast feathers that I found on upland heath and I am not totally sure what they are from and if they are predator or prey. Whatever they are from the golden colour is beautiful. I have also found the odd small feather and a cluster of tiny black and white feathers which were definitely from a predated bird.

Feather cluster from an unknown upland bird
Group of feathers left behind by a predator
My walks on the beach and cliff tops have also resulted in a number of gull feathers, the black headed gull feather could easily be mistaken for magpie

Typical Gull feathers
Black Headed Gull
And to finish I also have some rather colorful red and green feathers from my friends Blue Fronted Amazon, not commonly found in the UK!

Blue Fronted Amazon
And so to finish all I can say is feather collecting is great fun and once you start looking you will see them everywhere. It is great fun but be warned it is very addictive and don't forget every feather has a story to tell...