November 2011 – From Caithness to Cornwall – by Tom and Jo

Hello! We (Tom and Jo) are the new(ish) RSPB residential volunteers. No doubt you will see us with binoculars, wandering around a field near you soon!

Like many species of bird, this year we decided to migrate north for the spring/summer season and then migrate back south again to escape the worst of the winter weather. We thought moving from one end of the UK mainland to the other was quite a journey at 778 miles but, considering the incredible distances flown by many migratory species, it soon puts the length of our “migration” into perspective!

We were fortunate enough to spend the spring and early summer in the wide open spaces of the Flow Country spanning Sutherland and Caithness – based at the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve, a large blanket bog.

The sheer scale of the bog was breathtaking, and it felt such a privilege to be out working in what must be as close to wilderness as you can find in the UK. We were enlisted to assist with the reserve’s comprehensive survey season which ranged from surveying breeding waders, locating hen harrier territories, to dissecting mammal scats in order to identify what they had been eating!

Throughout May and June the skies were filled with the eerie cry of golden plover and divers, the harsh call of harriers and greenshank, and the almost comical and distinctive dunlin. Spending a day out on the bog also made it hard to believe species such as skylark and meadow pipit are in decline, such were their numbers on many of our survey plots. We were also lucky enough to come into contact with extremely rare species such as Wood Sandpiper.

A considerable amount of time in Forsinard was spent squinting down the telescope observing scoter behaviour as part of a research project, but we have now swapped the scoter for something a bit more challenging to spot – cirl buntings! Rather than observing the amount of time spent underwater by our subjects, we are trying to record the colour rings: certainly a challenge, but an interesting and enjoyable one.

The Roseland has proved to be a nice contrast in scenery and associated habitats – the landscape has an almost cosy, self-contained feel to it compared to the seemingly endless Flow Country. Having said this, it certainly felt pretty wild and windswept at the start of the week with the onshore winds bringing waves crashing onto Towan beach, watching the arctic skua and kittiwake.

There may be many differences, but an interesting similarity (for us, at least!) has been the crossover in species. For example the greenshank we’ve seen along the creek, and the flock of golden plover recently sighted north of Trewithian – we can’t help but wonder whether any of these are the same birds we spent so much time watching up north! Granted – there is now little chance of spotting a hen harrier from the house, but the firecrest we saw from a window at the weekend more than made up for it!

From it still being light at 11pm and being woken up by the sun at 3:30am most mornings, the long dark evenings here are taking some getting used to! On the plus side, we are no longer under attack from midges on still afternoons and evenings. And after walking up to 20km a day over very boggy ground, it is a change to be back on terra firma, as it were!

Our “migration” has emphasised the shifting seasons, as the air is now filled with the sounds of flocks of finches and redwing rather than breeding waders. But despite the nights getting longer, we are greatly looking forward to the next few months of cirl-spotting on the Roseland.

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