Shetland Porpoises in the Spotlight: volunteers and drone footage give new insight into porpoise behaviour

Our brilliant volunteers have now been completing surveys for Harbour Porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) since September 2021 at dedicated survey sites in Quendale Bay, Mousa Sound and South Nesting Bay as well as reporting sightings from all areas of Shetland. The Shetland Porpoise survey is led by UHI Shetland through the Shetland Community Wildlife Group in collaboration with WDC Shorewatch and NatureScot.

Site Focus- South Nesting Bay

  • Volunteers have undertaken over 50 watches
  • Out of those watches porpoises were seen on 41 occasions
  • They were seen every month from October to March
  • with groups of over 50 individuals being recorded on occasions.

An amazing effort considering the weather and short daylight hours we have over the winter here in Shetland.

During the surveys we have seen and managed to capture on film, some really interesting behaviour which has not been documented in Shetland before, and very rarely elsewhere in the world!

From the shore we had often been seeing individuals ‘rushing’ at other porpoises creating a fair bit of motion and splashing. Thanks to Richard Shucksmith and Nick McCaffrey, who managed to capture drone footage of porpoise groups, we have been able to see this behaviour more clearly and can see that the porpoises are performing behaviours linked to mating – males rush towards females in mating attempts and flash their undersides to the females as a form of display.

Rachel Shucksmith from UHI Shetland says;

“porpoises around Shetland can often be overlooked, but at locations like South Nesting Bay, Mousa Sound and Quendale Bay we are seeing large aggregations. The effort-based shore observations and drone footage can provide important insights into porpoise behaviour. Observations from outside of our watch sites are also important and we encourage reporting of sightings across Shetland. We are also really keen to get further drone footage, particularly at South Nesting Bay and at our site overlooking Mousa Sound, so if you are a drone pilot and have experience filming wildlife we would love to hear from you!”

The work being undertaken by our volunteers at our porpoise survey sites will help us gain a better understanding of porpoises around Shetland and how they use different areas during different times of the year.

It will be used as a preliminary dataset for PhD student Sophie Smith, who will be starting in October 2022. Sophie will be based at UHI Shetland, supervised by Rachel Shucksmith, Prof Ben Wilson (SAMS UHI), Dr Lauren McWhinnie (Heriot Watt University), as well as benefiting from the expertise of the UHI team behind the Shetland Community Wildlife Group, Emma Steel and the team at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Marine Scotland Science, and from Shetland based marine mammal expert at NatureScot, Karen Hall. The studentship is funded via the SUPER Doctoral Training Programme.

The Shetland Community Wildlife Group along with Whale and Dolphin Conservation will be supporting the project by continuing to undertake surveys, reporting one-off sightings and helping to capture drone footage and images of porpoise behaviour.

The studentship will then explore the use of these data collection techniques to further investigate porpoise behaviour, and spatial and temporal use relevant to their conservation and management.

If you are interested in getting involved in undertaking porpoise surveys or have one-off sightings records to submit please get in touch via email at Shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com or take a look at our Porpoise Survey page for more details


A Plaice for Skate at the Ness

By Rhiannon Jehu

A friend and I went to the Discover Shetland’s Sharks and Skates event at the Ness Boating Club a few weeks ago. We both enjoy nature, but I don’t know that much about individual marine species lifestyles, so this felt like a great opportunity to learn more.

Before I went I decided to swat up on flatfish since they are superficially so similar to skate but are really very different. They are a great example of convergent evolution – being flat and living close to the seabed is a good niche and has been selected as a strategy by many species through deep time. So, here is some of what I learned before and during the event.


Bony fish (Osteichthyes) & Bony flatties:

The bony fish ‘standard’ model has bilateral symmetry and use their whole bodies as one big muscle to drive through the water in a streamlined way – fast, efficient and sort of rocket shaped. They move up and down in the water column through the use of a swim bladder which is essentially a built in buoyancy aid.

Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) are a good example of a bony flatfish. They start life with the standard symmetrical body shape, but then gradually their left eye migrates round their head, and the fish lies on its side and flattens out so it has 2 eye’s on the top (right side) of its body. This means that when a flattie beats their tail they are beating up and down, rather than the more usual side to side. Plaice have white undersides that are hidden from the world, but the topside becomes the colour of the seabed. This camouflage varies a lot in colour, usually a grey/brown base with a range of stars and spots – white, yellow, orange.

Atlantic Cod- Richie rocket CC-ND 2.0
Plaice- Gentiane CC-BY-2.0

So what are skate?

Skate are cartilaginous fish (chondrichthyans) and are related to rays and sharks. Cartilage is resilient, rigid, flexible, and light weight. Chondrichthyans don’t have swim bladders but their pectoral fins are rigid enough and large enough to allow the fish to move around the water column as easily as bony fish do. Bony fish have an active pump system for pushing water through their gills however most (pelagic) chondrichthyans need to keep swimming to keep breathing. Bottom living (demersal) species (generally) have a small hole found behind each eye (a spiracle) where they take in water before pushing it out through their gills. This better suits their lifestyles, and, their mouths are on their undersides, unlike flatties whose mouth is at the front.

Skate are flat like plaice but instead of their body providing the power to swim, they flap their large, pectoral fins (wings). They then use their long thin tails for direction and balance (bony fish use their fins to steer). Essentially skate have strong arm muscles and use their tail as a rudder while plaice have strong tail muscles and use their arms to steer.

Bony flattieSkate
Mouthat front, sideways openingunderside
Propulsiontail musclespectoral fins (rigid)
Guidance systempectoral fins (flexible and fan like)tail (flexible with fins on top)
Breathing stylein from the front, out from the top and undersidein from the top out from the underside

Types of skates

We have a range of batoides (skate and ray) in Scottish waters. Including the common skate which is one of the largest species in the world – it has a wingspan that can reach almost 3m. In recent years this species has been divided into 2 separate ones – flapper and blue, with the flappers being more common in our northern waters.

Flapper Skate caught and released as part of the Skatespotter project
Flapper skate eggcase (c) Sally Huband

These giants of the marine world produce egg cases ‘mermaid’s purses’ up 28cm in length that are tethered to the seafloor. The young take around 18 months to hatch and then take a long time to reach sexual maturity – on average, females mature at 21 years of age, while males mature at around age 14. Marine Scotland Critically endangered flapper skate study – Marine Scotland (blogs.gov.scot) These factors and the skate body shape make them very vulnerable to disturbance and over fishing.  Ultimately, this has resulted in the once common skate being one of our rarest sea creatures.

Though flapper skate were overfished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries they are now protected and there are ways that fishermen can avoid accidentally capturing them, for example, some fishing vessels use nets fitted with skate panels which allow juvenile flappers to escape without the fisherfolk having to release their entire catch Home – Orkney Skate Trust

In 2021 our neighbours in the Western Isles got a site within the Inner Sound of Skye temporarily listed as a ‘Marine Protected Area’ (Red Rocks and Longay MPA). The aim was to protect the largest flapper nursery found in Scottish waters by prohibiting some marine activities (fishing, diving and construction). This temporary designation was under review earlier this year – do people want the site to become a permanently protected? RIFG


The event

The skate event was great fun. There was a 5-6 foot paper skate for people to leave their mark on – ‘skate art’. It’s only when I think about it now, that I realise that the model skate was a realistic size. To imagine something so big gliding through the water – it’s spectacular.

There were interesting and fun videos showing some of the chondrichthyans that visit or live in our waters and also showing how skate embryos develop in the safety of mermaids purses. We then saw a range of egg cases that we tried to identify from shape, size and features – including a flapper ‘purse’ that was bigger than my hand.

The event had 2 microscopes that we could play with; a small digital one and a traditional laboratory type.  We spent quite some time chasing and identifying different micro beasties in a few drops of sea water.

I had one question – What is the difference between a skate and a ray? They are all lumped together as chondrichthyans. Sharks look very different to skate and ray, but these last 2 have very similar body shapes. It turns out that skate lay eggs while ray’s lay live young. But that is for another time.


Conclusion

We know very little about our local marine species and their lifestyles. It’s only in recent years that we have come to identify 2 separate (un)’common skate’. And learning about their slow development suggests to me that we need to take special care to protect them as a species. By protecting the flappers, other species are given respite too. Experimenting with new fishing technology to allow fisherfolks to harvest the seas, whilst at the same time reducing bycatch seems so important for us to find ways of living with nature, supporting it as it supports us.

Links

Surveying for flapper skate eggs | Scotland’s Nature (scotlandsnature.blog)

Become a Skatespotter

Eggcase hunting in Shetland


Calling all swimmers, divers and snorkellers!

We are looking for records of rare and important marine life. In Shetland we are very fortunate to have a long and varied coastline, home to a wide variety of marine life. Compared to other parts of the UK, the Shetland coastline is relatively well studied thanks to survey work undertaken to support the building of Sullom Voe, work UHI Shetland to map important marine habitats and continued government agency survey work. But there are still large amounts of coastline yet to be surveyed.

All the species in the guide have been included as they are either rare, provide a vital habitat for other marine species or provide an important function such as storing carbon, stabilising sediments or maintaining water quality.

To be able to monitor and record these species we need to have accurate and up-to-date information on their distribution around Shetland. This information is used by the marine spatial planning team at UHI Shetland to create maps which are then used by developers, policy makers and local decision makers.

That’s where we need your help, we are asking wild swimmers, divers and snorkellers to report sightings of these key species. If you think you may have spotted one of the species in this guide please send us thew following information:

  • WHAT species you found
  • HOW many or how large
  • WHEN you found it
  • WHERE you found it (including coordinates if you have them) and at what depth.
  • Any PHOTOGRAPHS you may have

To download your copy CLICK HERE

We would also welcome records of any unusual species or invasive species (Shetland’s Marine Non-native Species), or shark and skate eggcases you might spot when diving (Shetland Shark and Skate Eggcase Hunt).


Shetland’s Marine Meadows

Under our shallow seas are hidden meadows of grass, these seagrasses play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems. But more recently, these unassuming plants of the sea have been noticed by scientists and governments as a natural solution in the fight to mitigate climate change.


What is Seagrass?

Seagrasses are a type of flowering plant known as an angiosperm belonging to the same family as terrestrial grasses. They have leaves, roots and rhizomes and in the same way as land-based grasses, take up nutrients from the sediment and energy through photosynthesis. Seaweeds, in comparison are a type of algae and do not perform these same functions.


Shetland Seagrass Species

Historically, Shetland had many areas of seagrass but some have been lost and the extent of others unknown. We are aiming to collect records of seagrass beds and map the current extent of the known beds around Shetland.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina)-

a subtidal seagrass growing to depths of 5m. It is the most common species of seagrass in the UK. In Shetland however, Eelgrass is restricted to only a handful of sheltered bays on the western coast such as Whiteness Voe. Historically, there were large beds in The Vadills SAC but these have now been lost.

Dwarf Eelgrass (Zostera noltei)-

the smallest British seagrass species. It is most commonly an intertidal species found in sheltered shallow muddy areas which become exposed at low tide. However, here in Shetland it is more likely to be found submerged in lagoons such as Loch of Hellister.

Beaked Tasselweed (Ruppia maritima)-

mainly found in sheltered brackish water within lagoons, lochs and salt marshes. In Shetland it is found in areas such as as Loch of Strom, Loch of Hellister and The Vadills SAC.

Zostera marina (c) Ben Jones
Zostera noltei (c) Ben Jones
Ruppia maritima. Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 US

Why is Seagrass Important?

Seagrass provides a number of important functions for humans as well as other marine life…

(c) Shetland UHI

Threats to Seagrass

In the UK we have lost approximately 44% of our seagrass since 1936. The primary threat to seagrass is Eutrophication. Excessive nutrients entering the water through run-off cause blooms in phytoplankton reducing light travelling to the seagrass and restricting their ability to photosynthesise.

Climate Change has also put multiple stresses onto seagrass beds through:

  • Rising sea temperatures
  • Increase in storm events
  • Rising sea levels
  • Changes in chemical concentrations in the water

Once damaged a seagrass bed can take a considerable length of time to recover and once lost, may never recover.


How You Can Help

We really need your help to record and map Shetland’s important seagrass habitats, you can get involved-

  • By submitting records of seagrass you may spot whilst swimming/ snorkelling/ diving/ kayaking etc.
  • By join us on a shore based seagrass hunt around our lochs and lagoons
  • If you are a drone pilot you can get involved by helping us map the extent of known seagrass beds using video footage.

To find out more and to get involved please contact us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com

To keep up to date with all news, events and projects sign up to become a member and receive regular updates via email. You can sign up here.



Sea mammals and Shorewatch- a beginners perspective

By Rhiannon Jehu

Despite living in Shetland all my life, I know very little about the sea mammals that live so close to us. I decided to fix that and have written a few notes on what I have learned so far.

For many generations people have hunted whales. Commercial whaling started in the Middle Ages and by the 1750’s most Scottish ports were involved in the industry. Whales have provided us with oil for our lamps and meat for our stomachs. The hunting of cetaceans in Scotland stopped in the 1960’s and has reduced significantly worldwide. However, other challenges, such as increasing levels of pollution and underwater noise and by-catch from some fishing methods, has led to a crash in global whale, dolphin and porpoise (WD&P) populations.

Baleen whales (Mysticeti) who have baleen plates to filter their food; mostly plankton and small species of fish e.g. minke whales

(c) WDC

Toothed whales (Odonotoceti) which includes all species of dolphin and porpoise, such as the Risso’s dolphin and harbour porpoise. As the name suggests, these sub-order species all have teeth and often eat larger prey than the baleens. Most have cone-shaped teeth for grasping and holding their food. However, porpoises have flatter, spade-shaped teeth. Though porpoises and dolphins can look quite similar, porpoises are smaller and chunkier. This allows them to stay warm despite their smaller size and the cold water– short and round is easier to heat than long and lean. Also, porpoises can be heard to ‘puff’ through their blowhole while dolphins whistle through theirs.

(c) WDC
(c) WDC

One unique role that larger species of whale play is the ‘whale pump/poop pump’. Some species move between the low pressure of the surface and the high pressure of the depths when hunting. As they do this they cycle nutrients, taking it from the depths and carrying it to the surface where they release it. These mega-poops help to feed open ocean ecosystems.

Whales also create ecosystems in the ocean’s deepest darkest parts. Deep seas were once believed to be almost lifeless due to their extreme conditions; high pressure and eternal darkness. More recently explorers have discovered a wide range of strange and beautiful lifeforms. Many of these feed on marine ‘snow’ that falls from above. This is made up of the decaying bodies of plants and animals that are sinking to the ocean floor. A ‘whale fall’ is an extreme example of this. It occurs when a dead whale falls to the deep ocean floor. The body becomes a feeding ground and ecosystem for a multitude of other extreme survivors. One fall can support an ecosystem for years, even decades before becoming completely consumed.

To find out more about the role whales play in marine ecosystems, take a look at WDC’s Green Whale Campaign Website

The other week I attended a 1 day online training course run by Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC) so that I could take part in their ‘Shorewatch’ citizen science project here in Shetland. Shorewatch volunteers gather presence and absence data on cetaceans which is uploaded into the WDC database. This information is used for research purposes and to provide evidence of what is happening in marine ecosystems. For example, to advise our government on the most effective locations to put ‘Marine Protected Areas’ and on how effective these are. Shorewatch data and data currently being collected by the SCWG’s Shetland Porpoise Survey will be used locally by the Marine Spatial Planning team at Shetland UHI to fill knowledge gaps in the Shetland Islands Regional Marine Plan, to assisting marine management and planning decisions in the isles.

WDC Shorewatch

Shorewatch has been running since 2005 and has trained over 1000 volunteers, who carry out on average 9,000 surveys every year around Scotland. Each Shorewatch involves 10 minutes of intensive watching from a specific location.

We record:

  • The environmental conditions (sea state & visibility)
  • What boat traffic is on the water
  • What marine mammals we see
  • Any other interesting sightings.

For more info:

Shorewatch – Watching out for whales and dolphins in Scotland – WDC (wdcs.org)

I am discovering that WD&P’s are fascinating and awe inspiring. They also play important roles keeping our oceans fit and healthy – we are all dependent on each other. If the whales thrive, the seas thrive and if the seas thrive, we thrive. In Shetland we have a long history of connecting and valuing WD&P’s and we have easy access to them. There is so much more we can learn about individual species and their lifestyles. The more we know and understand them the better able we will be to live alongside them in harmony, to be able to be a small part of that process, is so exciting.


Woodland Areas in Shetland

Shetland is not known for its trees, but you may be surprised at how many plantations and woodland areas there are doted around the isles.

We have created a guide to help you find and explore many of the accessible woodland areas in Shetland. The guide describes the types of tree species, features such as burns, information boards and seating areas, and accessibility. The map below shows the location of all the woodland areas detailed within the guide.

Click on the image to download a pdf copy of the Woodland Guide


Verging on Beautiful

By Rhiannon Jehu

I walk on single track and other unpaved roads as a part of my daily routine. Stepping into the verge and waving ‘Hi’ to passing traffic is normal for me and gives me the opportunity to really enjoy the beauty and colour of our wild flowers; this year’s verges have been blooming beautifully.

In the world of flowers, verges provide a habitat for grassland and meadow species (as well as for scrubland and forest plants in some places). This is essential since we have lost 97% of our meadows since the 1930s. They are now home to almost half of UK wild flower species (over 700) and nearly 45% of our total flora. They cover over 1% of UK land and about 500,000 kilometres. All this makes them crucial habitats for rare and declining plants.

Roadside conditions are relatively undisturbed and the soil is low in nutrition and high in salt (from winter gritting). In areas with heavy traffic there are also high levels of nitrogen and other pollutants. Together, these conditions make verges good for coastal, saltmarsh and cliff species, and also for nitrogen-loving plants.

Nitrogen loving nettle
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Wild flowers attract insects which have a wide range of lifestyles. There are herbivores, such as caterpillars, and predators, such as wasps and spiders. Pollinators – bees, hoverflies and the like – are especially important to us humans since they are essential for the growth of many of our food crops. For more on pollinators; Pollinators | Buglife.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Vegetation and insects draw amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds, creating a food-web, and in some places, thriving ecosystems. Verges can act as corridors that reconnect, repopulate and restore sites. They give species the opportunity to travel, mix and feed, improving their life chances and genetic diversity. This leads to healthier, less vulnerable populations; social isolation is as bad for other species as it is for us.

Verges are mown for our safety so drivers can see clearly at junctions and curves in the road. Mowing is also needed to maintain an environment that best suits our native species. It prevents annuals being overwhelmed by more vigorous types and, for best results, it needs to take place late in summer once plants have set seed. These seeds then feed the local food-web and visitors such as migrating birds. They also provide the next generation of flowers.

After mowing, grass clippings need to be removed from a verge. Leaving them in situ makes the soil more nutritious so bigger plants thrive and more delicate species become overwhelmed. Clippings can also act as a blanket preventing some species’ seeds from germinating. Over time these conditions reduce the biodiversity of the verge.

Eyebright- a semi-parasitic plant that struggles if soil nutrients improve too much
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

As our climate changes species are evolving, and on the move. Verges are one place where this happens, but there are downsides to having vibrant roadsides. Animals die in RTA’s and verges can be highways for invasive species and weeds as well as plant pests and diseases. These need to be controlled so they don’t spread. However, with care, they can be a powerful tool for conservation and coping with climate change. Indeed, the charity ‘Plantlife’ estimates that if all verges were managed for nature there would be 400 billion more flowers in the UK.

Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and the Wildlife Trusts have come together and produced a guide to caring for and developing verges where nature can thrive; Managing road verges for wildlife | The Wildlife Trusts.

Several local authorities have produced interesting projects and initiatives:

References:

Why road verges are important habitats for wildflowers and animals | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)

Road Verge Campaign (love-wildflowers.org.uk)

Kidney vetch
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Red clover
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Otter Eye View

By Rhiannon Jehu

The European otter, or Draatsi as it is known in the Shetland dialect, is one of Shetlands most popular mammals. Our combination of soft peat for holts, freshwater pools for bathing and offshore kelp beds for feeding make Shetland a des res for otters. In many areas of Europe they feed in rivers. However, ours have adapted to salt water hunting but need regular fresh water baths to clean their fur. We have around 1,000 individuals living with us from a total of 8000 across Scotland making Shetland an important and relatively safe home for the species.

My interest in otters was peaked in December when my neighbour reported that in the last few years he had found 8 dead near Henry’s Loch . I am used to finding dead bodies on the road, especially in autumn and winter, but it saddens me. Otters especially are valued by us locals and visitors alike, so we decided to see if there was a way to reduce the death count.

Henry’s Loch from above. The road can be seen to follow the entire length of the loch. Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Otters are non-migratory but can frequently travel 10’s km as they move between feeding grounds and fresh water pools. Our local otters are using Henry’s Loch to bathe, but have to cross the main road to get to and from the sea. The A970 has a steep semi-blind bend, and it can be hard for cars travelling at 50 mph to stop in time if they see an otter. It can also be hard for otters, who have poor eye sight to see a car coming in time.

The problem of non-human species being road casualties is a world-wide problem and there is a wide range of ways of reducing road deaths. Each situation and species has to be looked at individually and is unique. Here are some links of examples from around the world:

Buffalo in USA

BBC Word Service Podcast-People Fixing the World.

Helping animals cross the road and other obstacles

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09ck4dp


Some areas have animal pathways or ‘ecoducts’ that go under or over roads giving species a safe way to cross highways and railways etc. However, they can be very expensive and the animals may not feel safe using them.

LED systems are used to warn drivers about, for example, deer on mainland Scotland, and otter crossing signs can be seen in some areas here in Shetland. However, people often habituate to these signs if they use a route frequently.

Davy Govaert, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The SIC roads department acted quickly and enthusiastically and decided to opt for a visual otter reflector system. These work by directing car headlights down to otter eye level warning them of danger. However, just like humans, otters could habituate to these, though the hope is that this won’t happen since the reflectors won’t be working consistently all year. They will be most powerful when nights are dark and days are short; the times when otters and cars are most likely to meet. No solution is perfect but they have been effective in reducing otter road fatalities in Mull and Skye , so we are hopeful that they will be effective here too and will be keeping an eye out for bodies this autumn and winter.

More information on these projects can be found on the International Otter Survival Fund website and the Mull Otter Group website.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

An ‘otter reflector’ attached to a ‘human reflector’. There are ones attached to each human reflector along this length of road. They direct car headlights across the road and into the verge.

Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

Shetland Porpoise Survey

Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are the smallest of the cetaceans to be spotted around Shetland. They are generally shy creatures and do not often approach boats but can be easily spotted from the shore. They are regularly spotted in Shetland waters in small groups and sometimes in large aggregations that are not seen in many other areas in the UK.

Despite them being commonly spotted we have limited records and do not fully understand seasonal variations in the areas they congregate and for what purpose. To fill this knowledge gap we are undertaking porpoise surveys in areas porpoise are commonly seen.

Copyright WDC/Charlie Phillips

In collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation we have created two new Shorewatch sites, one overlooking Quendale Bay and one at South Nesting Bay. We will also be surveying from the already established Shorewatch site at Mousa Sound. The survey involves undertaking a watch and recording the presence of marine mammals. If porpoise are present further information can be collected on number of individuals and their behaviour. This data will be used by the NatureScot and the Shetland UHI to update the Regional Marine Plan and will assist in protecting areas that are important to these wonderful creatures.

To gather as much information as possible we need your help! Are you interested in marine mammals and have time to undertake a short watch from one of our survey sites? All equipment needed is in survey kits which are available at the survey sites in lockboxes 24hrs a day so watches can be done at your leisure. Don’t worry if you have limited experience as full training on marine mammal ID from experts Whale and Dolphin Conservation is provided! A great way to start your marine mammal spotting journey.

We are also looking for experienced drone pilots who would be willing to come out and drone over our survey areas when we know porpoise are present. This will allow us to gain more accurate counts of individuals, see any calves present and observe behaviours such as mating. If you would like to help, please get in touch.

Contact us at shetlandcommunitywildlife@outlook.com for more information or head to the Shorewatch website for more information on the Shorewatch project.


Everyday Nature: Starling Surprises

By Rhiannon Jehu

Last month I wrote about how spending time with nature is good for our wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation describes ‘everyday nature’ as the moments of pleasure that we can snatch regularly throughout the day. Taking a moment to look out the window; stopping to breath in the smell of the sea; chatting to a houseplant while watering it. For me, starlings are a brilliant example of this. They are a common sight; gregarious, argumentative, flapping, squawking and imitating, multi-coloured and shimmering as adults; dazzling with sharp beaks.

Yellow summer beaks. Males have a blue beak base & a females pink one.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
Self-care is essential for survival. Copyright
Rhiannon Jehu

In gardening they say that a weed is a successful plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. Equally so with animals; friend or foe depends on context and perspective. Starling’s probing beaks, agility and size mean that they can slip into barns for a quick top up on sheep or hen feed and raid essey bags for our wasted food. They used to be a rare country species but that changed in the 1900’s when they started colonising urban areas and their population boomed. In the evenings, especially in winter, thousands of starlings could be seen gathering together forming clouds, ‘murmuration’s’ which fly in formation before roosting communally. However, when I post photos on Facebook, friends from mainland Scotland tell me that they haven’t seen one in years, and, how much they miss them.

Starlings can live up to 5 years and usually produce 1 or 2 broods a year. However, their numbers are declining dramatically. Between 1995 and 2016 Britain’s breeding population crashed by 51%, though Shetland is still a stronghold. Parents are successfully rearing chicks, but these are failing to survive and thrive. There seems to be no single cause of this. However, laboratory studies suggest that pollutants such as anti-depressants & flame retardants in food and water badly affect starlings so it’s possible that these are reducing the fledgling’s survival rate.

(https://www.birdguides.com/articles/conservation/the-decline-of-british-starlings/)

Lunching with the neighbours. They all have black winter beaks.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

This year the first babies that I saw were in Lerwick. I was passing time waiting for my bus and came across an enormous, very loud nursery. There were fledglings everywhere, all at the same stage of development; chocolate feathers, black beaks and yellow gaping mouths. They were chasing their parents around demanding food and practising much needed flying skills. I saw one try to land on a washing line. It caught hold with its feet, but failed to stop, This resulted in the peerie fellow doing a gymnastic loop before landing (on his feet) on the ground.

Waiting hopefully.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu
A nutritious breakfast for the nestlings.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

I saw my first Quarff chicks a few days later. They were unfledged but enthusiastically waiting to be fed, the bravest ones putting their heads out of the safety of the nest. The parents returning again and again with beaks full of nutritious insects and grubs. A week or so later, now fledglings in the trees, total panic and lots of flapping and crashing as a hooded crow flies overhead. The youths have recognised the danger but still have a lot to learn.

Waiting loudly with training wings working.
Copyright Rhiannon Jehu

It can be awesome to see the unexpected in everyday life; an otter fishing outside the supermarket, a goldcrest feeding at the side of the road, but there is something special about starlings and having the opportunity to live side by side with them and watch their lives unfold with the seasons.