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The Scottish Ornithologists’ Club Annual Conference 2022

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Being based largely in Scotland, we have been members of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) for some years now. As well as being a club for birdwatching enthusiasts, the group’s volunteers also contribute vital survey information to organisations like the BTO. We try to attend the annual conference and AGM when we can. These combine a series of talks on a different theme each year with a chance to meet other members and get out on excursions. There is also an opportunity for attendees to let their hair down at the annual Saturday night ceilidh! We were especially looking forward to this year’s recent event in Pitlochry, Perth, the first for three years due to COVID-19. The theme this year was raptors, a fitting topic in the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme’s 20th anniversary year.

SOC Conference
The conference was well attended after a break of three years due to COVID-19

Monitoring Raptors

Sadly, we weren’t able to attend Friday evening’s opening events. We took advantage of the free morning on Saturday to do a local circular walk that took in Black Spout Waterfall. The surrounding woods were lush with moss and lichen. After lunch, the day’s talks began with an insight into the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme from its coordinator Dr Amy Challis. Over the 20 years of its existence, the scheme has gathered a wealth of information about the state of Scotland’s raptor populations in order to inform conservation efforts. In addition to monitoring Scotland’s birds of prey, the scheme also investigates raven populations in recognition of the fact this large corvid is ecologically very similar. Breeding success, clutch sizes, brood sizes and number of fledglings are all recorded by the scheme’s army of volunteers across 12 regions each year.

Kestrels are facing worrying declines in Ireland

The afternoon’s second talk was a fascinating, if worrying, look at the kestrel in Ireland by Dr Kez Armstrong. Their large range globally means that the kestrel’s conservation status internationally is one of Least Concern. This, however, masks some alarming local declines. In Ireland, the kestrel is declining by more than 3% each year and it is now Red Listed. Dr Armstrong is investigating the cause of this population fall in light of the fact that most of the country contains suitable habitat for this species. Possible factors include agricultural intensification leading to a reduction in prey availability. Kestrels predominantly hunt rodents during courtship and incubation but switch to small passerines once the chicks hatch. More work on the availability of prey at each stage of the breeding season needs to be done. It is also clear that there is a high mortality rate during a bird’s first year.

From the Effects of COVID-19 to Goshawks in the UK

The penultimate talk of the first full day centred on an ongoing project exploring animals’ movements in relation to successive COVID-19 lockdowns. Dr Rob Patchett of the University of St Andrews is part of the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative. This global collaboration is investigating the sudden change in human activity caused by COVID lockdowns, dubbed the ‘anthropause’. While we often think about the ways humans physically transform the landscape, we may not be as aware of how our activities affect wildlife. The study aims to explore whether human lockdowns of differing intensity had any affect on how wildlife moves and whether these effects were positive or negative. Dr Patchett’s sub-project is focusing on raptor movements, but the project is looking at a range of other species including marine mammals.

Raptors like this buzzard are one subject of the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative

Aberdeen University PhD student Katie August took the day’s final talk. She is studying ecological traps, an important topic at a time when climate change and human activity are changing environments at unprecedented speeds. Ecological traps refer to situations where organisms choose to occupy prime habitats but are then caught out by rapid environmental changes that result in the territory becoming poor quality. One such example relevant to raptors is their attraction to a site with good nesting prospects and food availability that then becomes sub-prime due to high persecution levels. Katie’s work is focusing on goshawks in the north of England. One of the most interesting aspects of the talk was a look at the ways Katie attempted to identify individual birds, crucial to assessing survival rates. DNA samples were taken from moulted feathers and camera traps helped record ringed birds. In addition, the project began to explore the possibility of using artificial intelligence to identify individuals from camera trap images, something that sadly wasn’t accurate enough.

Bad News for Merlins, Good for Goldies

Ian Johnstone of RSPB Cymru began Sunday’s proceedings. Just as Dr Armstrong is researching kestrel declines in Ireland, Ian’s team is using Raptor Study Group data to find out why merlins are in decline in the UK. This small falcon is a heather moorland breeder and suffered as a result of pesticide use in the middle of the 20th century. Despite bans on chemicals such as DDT, however, there has been little sign of a recovery, with a 54% decline in site occupancy between 1993 and 2017. The team aimed to look at possible links to a range of environmental changes including habitat loss, climate change, land use changes, and changes in prey and predator abundance. Early indications are that modification of upland landscapes by farming and forestry could have an impact, but more research needs to be carried out.

Merlin chicks
Merlin site occupancy declined by 54% between 1993 and 2017. Chick photo taken under licence

With more positive news, Dr Cat Barlow then gave an update on the first five years of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project. Despite research showing that the south of Scotland should be able to support between 11 and 16 pairs of golden eagles, until the project began, the number remained stubbornly at 3 pairs. The Highlands and Islands, meanwhile, have around 500 pairs. It was decided to attempt an ambitious translocation scheme to reinforce the southern population; this is not a reintroduction as eagles were always present, just in very low numbers. In 2018, chicks from the Highland population were brought to the region and released once old enough to fend for themselves. Later on in the period, seven subadult (free flying but non-breeding) birds were translocated from the Outer Hebrides as an additional boost. So far, the project has been extremely successful with 18 out of 20 of the chicks still alive, along with all 7 subadults. None have been subject to persecution and four have established territories. One of the most important factors in the success of the project has undoubtedly been engagement from the start with local stakeholders including landowners and farmers.

A Toxic Time Bomb and Urban Goshawks

The SOC conference’s final session presented two talks highlighting the different fortunes of our raptor species. Dr Gaby Peniche gave a wonderful talk focusing on how raptors can reveal the health of the wider Scottish environment. We have long been aware that due to their position at the top of the food chain apex predators accumulate any toxins present in an ecosystem. This was, of course, brought to widespread attention by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, which celebrated its 60th anniversary earlier this year. Although we have banned some chemicals in light of the work by Carson and others, there are many still out there. Dr Peniche’s work aims to find out if lower, non-lethal levels of these contaminants are accumulating in raptors’ systems and affecting their long-term health. And what does this mean for the wider environment? The talk contained some worrying early results and shows that the supposed victories of the post-Silent Spring era have not been as convincing as we might hope.

Ospreys’ long-term health may be affected by accumulating toxins

Professor Christian Rutz of the University of St Andrews closed the weekend with an uplifting look at Hamburg’s urban goshawks. Unlike the mysterious and elusive birds of the forest we met the day before in Katie August’s talk, these birds are remarkably tolerant of humans and often very visible. For the last 30 – 40 years, goshawks have been colonising a number of European cities, including Hamburg, Cologne and some parts of the Netherlands. Between 1996 and 2004, Prof Rutz studied Hamburg’s birds partly to find out what was driving this move. He found that one of the factors was likely to be a period of legalised killing of rural goshawks in Germany which pushed them into urban areas. The abundance of food, especially feral pigeons, was also involved. Indeed, in Hamburg, pigeons make up over 40% of their diet. Interestingly, some urban birds now behave differently from their rural cousins. Although some still hunt by flying low over the ground, jinking between cars and buildings instead of trees, some now use thermals to gain height and then stoop onto their prey as peregrines do.

Following this uplifting reminder that even some species we assume are highly specialised can be adaptable, if necessary, the conference closed. The talks were all fascinating and balanced the importance of highlighting the perils our raptors face with some success stories. As always, the Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry was a wonderful venue, and we were very well looked after.