Urban Tails

Encountering wildlife on the streets of Edinburgh

January 4, 2013
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A Year in Trees- part I

Since moving to Scotland and hearing about the majestic Caledonian Pine Forests I have rediscovered my love of trees. Learning about trees is possibly one of the earliest memories I have of the nature studies class I took at primary school. A few years ago I realised that I had lost all of that knowledge. The Royal Botanic Gardens and the Midlothian Ranger Service at Vogrie Country Park often hold tree identification workshops but they always seem to be booked out well in advance. So with the help of a brilliant key to common trees by the Field Studies Council and a DK pocket nature guide to Trees of Britain and Europe, I take whatever opportunity I can to reacquaint myself with our common tree species.

Spring Blossom in Pilrig Park

Spending a week working with the inspirational charity Trees for Life back in September 2010 really opened my eyes to the devastation of Scottish forests. I knew that deforestation was a major problem but I was utterly ignorant of just how crippling currently accepted land management practises are to forest regeneration. I had long thought the Scottish Highlands to be both beautiful and bleak in equal measure but had no idea that this appearance was largely man-made. Many forests have been cleared in the Highlands to make way for agriculture, sheep and deer and for timber but even in areas that have not been cleared, natural regeneration was found to be impeded by the voracious appetites of the highly overstocked deer population. Deer eat young saplings long before they have time to mature and as a result the pine forests of Glen Affric are dominated by 200 year old trees nick-named Granny Pines. Without any younger trees to replace them, once these old trees die, this special habitat will be lost forever. Read this Trees for Life webpage for further information on deforestation. Thankfully Trees for Life have saved this pine forest through planting and erecting deer-proof fencing. But sadly because of the age gap between the old trees and those recently planted, there may be a generation of Scots who won’t get the chance to experience a mature pine forest in Glen Affric! The Cairngorms are home to other major stands of Calendonian Pine Forest although these have quite a different character to Glen Affric due to local climatic conditions.

Between deforestation and the spread of diseases such as Ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea) we should take every opportunity to appreciate our beautiful native trees. Through 2012 I studied the different life stages of some of the more prominent tree species in Pilrig Park. This is by no means a comprehensive list and I suppose my first new year’s resolution should be to fill in the blanks! Please use this fantastic online guide to British trees hosted by the Woodland Trust for more expert information.

HawthornCrataegus monogyna

This tree is incredibly important for wildlife, particularly insects and birds, both for forage and for shelter. It is an important component of hedgerows. In the top left corner, the distinctive small lobed leaves of the Hawthorn can be seen with the first flower buds in April. This tree is also known as the Mayflower as in this month the flower buds eventually unfurl into simple white five-petalled blossoms furnished with pink-tinged anthers (pollen producing part of the flower). By autumn, these flowers become bright-red haws, great bird food!

RowanSorbus aucuparia

The compound leaf of the Rowan is comprised of up to 15 leaflets arranged in pairs and terminating in a single leaflet at the end of the stem. The leaflets have a serrated edge. It is so similar to Ash that it is often referred to as Mountain Ash. The bunches of tiny flowers that appear in spring/early summer can sometimes smell a little unpleasant! The subsequent bright red/orange berries are unmistakeable and good for making Rowan jelly as well as for wildlife.

Lime - Tilia x europea

Lime trees flower later than others. This year in Edinburgh Lime flowered in July although I am sure they flowered earlier in previous years. The flowers are unassuming and easily overlooked but they have the most beautiful subtle smell. This is one of my favourite summer aromas.

OakQuercus Robur

There are several species of Oak in the UK although I believe that this species of Oak, pedunculate, English or common Oak, is the most commonly occurring species. The catkins can be seen hanging from under the leaves in spring/early summer. These turn into acorns in autumn and apologies for not photographing that stage! Either I totally forgot or they weren’t accessible to me and my very simple camera phone. Oaks are famous for supporting the most insect species of any British tree and contribute hugely to our cultural and natural heritage. After some very stormy weather last October/November I enjoyed watching half a dozen grey squirrels busy themselves with burying every single acorn that had been blown down from a large oak tree.

SycamoreAcer pseudoplanatus

The flower clusters of the Sycamore tree are technically referred to as a raceme. These appear in Spring, sometimes even before the leaves as in the first photo. Eventually they produce seeds know as helicopters, which always remind me of my childhood!

Following the annual life cycle of trees is such a lovely easy way of keeping in touch with the changing seasons. I recently found out about a website called Nature’s Calendar. It allows you to record significant natural events such as when you see your first butterfly of the year or swallow etc. and then the data is used to determine the impact of climate change on our wildlife. This year I hope to use it in a bid to stay more aware of how nature is constantly changing around us.

Autumn bounty

October 27, 2012
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Pollinators in Pilrig

A couple of months ago I discovered that Pilrig Park had been chosen to host a special wildflower meadow as part of the Urban Pollinators Project. Ecologists from four major universities in Bristol, Reading, Leeds and Edinburgh are collaborating with city councils and wildlife conservation charities to understand more about pollinating insects in the urban environment. Pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies have been declining drastically over the last several decades, largely due to landscape level changes in the wider countryside, such as changes in agricultural practices and loss of suitable habitat. Ultimately these researchers would like to know how the urban environment can be made more attractive to pollinators, to act as a refuge for those species that can survive in our towns and cities.

Wildflower meadow in Pilrig Park, September 2012

Bumblebee on Yarrow

To help answer this question, wildflower meadows have and will be planted in 15 amenity areas in each of the four cities over the course of 2012 and 2013. Two types of seed mixes rich in nectar and pollen producing plants will be tested, an annual and a perennial mix. Surveys will then be carried out in 2013 to test whether pollinator numbers have benefited from the creation of these additional wildflower areas. Please follow this link for a fuller description of the experimental protocol. A perennial seed mix was already planted in Pilrig Park earlier this year much to my annoyance (follow this link for more details). Somehow its existence had passed me by until recently when I finally noticed the multiple signs which had been put up around the park! When I did make my first visit I was pleasantly surprised to see many flowers still in bloom and attracting many insects such as those pictured here.

Eristalis spp on Oxeye daisy. There are over 200 species of Hoverfly in the UK and several of them such as this one mimic bees and are easily mistaken for them.

Alas in most places in the UK pollinator lifecycles, including those of bumblebees, are coming to an end. By this time of year the male and worker bumblebees have died, leaving the once busy nests deserted. Only the new queen bumblebees survive by hibernating in loose soil over the cold winter months. I haven’t seen a bumblebee in Edinburgh for a few weeks now :( It makes me sad to think that I won’t see them again for five long months but I’m looking forward to seeing the new urban wildflower meadow in full bloom next summer. And although the bees, butterflies and other insects are hunkered down for the winter, there is still plenty that we can do at this time of year to help them such as planting spring bulbs (please read Anthony’s blog for tips).

Buff-tailed queen looking for a nice hibernation site for the winter, Pilrig Park, October 2012 (my last bumblebee of 2012!)

August 27, 2012
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2020VISION exhibition

Beautiful lilies by the Giant Redwoods

Despite the weather being wet and dreary as we have almost come to expect, I had a lovely morning at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The rain and damp really brought out the green in everything, so all the vegetation looked lush and vibrant. The waterfall was in full spate. Most of the wildlife was having a duvet day apart from the ducks and moorhens.  I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a dunnock fledgling harassing a parent and a few busy bumblebees. The atmosphere was sombre yet peaceful in the gentle drizzle.

Male common carder bee busily foraging (sorry for the blurry pic, he wouldnt sit still!)

It was a great time to catch the 2020VISION exhibition as I pretty much had the place to myself. This is a nature photography exhibition with a purpose. It is more than just another bunch of pretty pictures, although the photography is outstanding. It showcases ambitious projects that are attempting to restore degraded native habitats back into vital, healthy and  functioning ones. The exhibition is laid out according to habitat and explains very clearly how each impacts on our lives. It highlights very well that nature isn’t just for recreation and enjoyment but is where our fresh air, clean water and rich soils come from.

I enjoyed the fact that the text was informative but not overwhelming. My only criticism is that some of the photos could do with fuller descriptions of their content. I think it very eloquently conveys the message that saving nature isn’t just for the benefit of treehuggers but benefits us all.

The exhibition is on until the end of September and I highly recommend it.

August 19, 2012
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Record-breaking Seabirds

I will admit straightaway that the link between seabirds and the olympics is extremely tenuous. I am writing this as I travel to and from the London games where I have been thrilled and astounded by athletes pushing themselves to their very limits. It prompted me to think about all the spectacular feats that animals have evolved to perform in order to simply survive. Seabirds have adapted in amazing ways to survive in what can often be an extremely hostile environment. Stuart Housden, director of the RSPB in Scotland pipped me to the post with his similarly themed blog entry.

Scotland is a superb place for seabirds. The majority of British seabirds breed in Scotland. There are three excellent seabird colonies accessible from Edinburgh, one being on our very doorstep. The Isle of May is a national nature reserve off the coast of Fife, accessible by boat trips from Anstruther and North Berwick. St. Abb’s Head is another national nature reserve in the south-east of Scotland. But did you know that the islands of the Firth of Forth, mere minutes from Edinburgh by boat, are part of an EU Special Protection Area (SPA) for seabirds? The Forth Islands SPA includes the iconic islands of Bass Rock and the Isle of May and the smaller islands of Inchkeith, Inchmickery, Craigleith and Fidra.

Launch point from under the iconic Forth Rail Bridge.

The Maid of the Forth

In mid-July I joined one of the RSPB’s ‘Aren’t Birds Brilliant’ cruises around the Inner Forth islands aboard the Maid of the Forth. Not only did we have excellent commentary about the bird life but we were also joined by the Marine Conservation Society, who kept us informed about the local marine mammals and invertebrates. This three and half hour cruise left from South Queensferry and first travelled passed the small island of Inchgarvey, not far east of the Forth Rail Bridge. Dozens if not hundreds of Herring gulls and Lesser black-backed gulls were the main inhabitants here. These gulls nest very simply on the ground, in large colonies. Although these birds predate upon the eggs and chicks of other seabird species, it was still delightful to see grey balls of fluff running about, which are the extremely well camouflaged juveniles.

There were many young Guillemot floating on the water here and around all the islands. These have to be the first of the contenders in the Seabird Olympics in the Cliff Jumping event. Guillemot nest on unbelieveably narrow ledges on coastal cliffs. They deliberately choose the most inaccessible sites, in a bid to protect their chicks from hungry land predators. However the chicks face great difficulty when the time comes to fledge. Unlike most young birds, they can’t wait until they are ready to take their first flight because there just isn’t enough space on the narrow ledges for the adults as well as a fully grown chick. Instead, when these chicks are only a few weeks old and still unable to fly, they have to propel themselves off the cliff and hopefully onto the water far below. These jumps can be incredibly dramatic and treacherous when they are made from sites hundreds of feet above the water, as I witnessed last year at St. Abb’s Head (read my related entry from last year on the St. Abb’s Ranger blog).

Inchcolm Abbey


On the way to the largest island on the itinerary, Inchkeith, we passed Inchcolm Island, which is famous for Inchcolm Abbey. On several occasions we observed some Common terns fishing in the distance. There is even a tern colony based on the mainland in Leith. Although we didn’t see them on this trip, Arctic terns also breed alongside the common terns and these are true record breakers, famed for undergoing the longest migration in the bird world. They breed in the northern hemisphere during our summer as far north as the arctic circle. At the end of their breeding season they then fly all the way to the southern hemisphere to enjoy another summer. A one-way trip can be as long as 11,000 miles!

Gannets swooped by the boat as we continued on to Inchkeith. In this part of Scotland Gannets only nest on the famous Bass Rock. I highly recommend a boat trip from North Berwick to see the Gannet colony or a visit to the Scottish Seabird Centre, where you can view the colony through the centre’s remote cameras. To see Gannets plunge-diving head first into the icy North Sea in order to catch their prey, is one of the most exciting wildlife-watching experiences. They can reach speeds of up to 100 km/hr before hitting the surface and possess many adaptations to cope with the huge force this exerts on their body. For instance, special air sacs in the face and neck provide cushioning to lessen the impact on their bodies when hitting the water.

Puffin on Fidra with Craigleith and Bass Rock in background, 2010 (my favourite puffin photo!)


Kittiwakes, St. Abbs Head, June 2012

Although we had seen loads on our trip already, on Inchkeith we witnessed the largest concentration of breeding seabirds. As we approached the island, dozens of puffins were bobbing about in the water. As we drew closer, we saw dozens more all standing to attention outside their burrows. Puffins are everyone’s favourite seabird, mine included, and I was relieved to see them as they can start to  migrate back out to sea from the end of June. A puffin has been recorded carrying a staggering 83 sandeels in its mouth! Their raspy tongue can hold this many fish by pressing against special spines in the palate. We also had great views of a Kittiwake colony. These are the pretty cousins to the less well-loved Herring gulls and they build their nests of mud and dried grass on sheer cliff faces, often hundreds of feet above the sea. These islands and surrounding waters are not only home to thousands of seabirds but also to two species of seal, the Grey seal and the Harbour seal. Grey seals form large breeding colonies on the beaches here each winter in order to give birth to their fluffy white pups and then to mate. There were plenty in the water keeping an eye on us as we invaded their territory for a short while.

A pair of Shag, St. Abbs Head, 2011

As we headed back to shore we made a final pit stop by Inchmickery. This island has a strange array of abandoned and decrepit military buildings (some even date back to Napoleonic times!) that give it a slightly eerie feeling. Thankfully we weren’t landing, as there isn’t time on this tour for landings. Some of these buildings are taken over by nesting Shag in the summer. Adults and huge fat chicks alike were lounging about on the large window ledges enjoying great views of the setting sun. These birds are a favourite of mine, as I had a chance to study them last year at St. Abb’s Head (read another entry from last year on the St. Abb’s Ranger blog). Unfortunately I can’t think of an Olympics-style event that Shag are famous for. Although they do a great Charlie Chaplin impression! I do think that Shag are without doubt the comedians of the seabird world. They get up to all sorts of funny antics at the beginning of the season when they are nest-building. I highly recommend a visit to a seabird colony. Apologies that I haven’t posted this in time, as this year’s breeding season is mostly finished at this stage. But do check them out next year, when it will all begin again by the end of March.

A huge thank you to Debbie for organising this lovely evening and to Judy and the Bird Friendly School’s volunteers Janet, Elizabeth and Angela for their great company. 

July 29, 2012
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Edible delights

What a season it has been so far.  I don’t think we have seen rain like this since Noah’s flood! According to the Met Office summary, June was the wettest in the UK since records began in 1910. So it didn’t come as any surprise when Matthew Oates, the conservation advisor for the National Trust, announced that the rain has been ‘almost apocalyptic’ for wildlife. Insects such as bees and hoverflies have been very scarce this summer. Butterflies are particularly vulnerable to wet weather, which is a cause for concern as they were hit by poor weather last year too. According to the Butterfly Conservation Trust, butterfly numbers counted during last year’s Big Butterfly count showed a 10% decline on the previous year. Bats and birds have also struggled. Apparently there have been more calls about grounded bats to the Bat Conservation Trust. Bats raise a single young in the summer and are susceptible to the cold weather and lack of insects.

Lime trees in bloom in Pilrig Park

Lime tree flower

Thankfully there is some good news. As anyone who owns a lawn will know, plant life has been thriving according to the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Countryside and urban greenspaces alike are looking lush and burgeoning with life. I was delighted to witness this for myself today when I made a long overdue visit to Pilrig Park. I was particularly interested in seeing the Lime Trees, as they are currently in full bloom. I should say I was interested in smelling them as the blossom gives off the most  subtly sweet aroma. I have recently heard anecdotes about bumblebees becoming drunk on the nectar of lime flowers. Bumblebees have been scarce in Edinburgh since the heavy rains at the beginning of July but I was fortunate enough to see a few individuals buzzing about the place, although none seemed to be under the influence!

Older section of the Edible Hedge, Pilrig Park

I was surprised to see how much fruit had already developed in the edible hedge.  There were beautiful displays of both white and pink wild rose flowers as well as Scottish thistle. The Rowan trees were dripping with orange berries, the wild rose hips were developing well and there were plenty of wild raspberries! Even the new section of the Edible hedge, which was only planted last year was impressive. Well done to Pilrig Park school and Greener Leith. Jam makers get ready, we could be in for a bumper crop this autumn.

Wild raspberries

Buff-tailed queen on Scottish Thistle