On the peatlands of Islay each year, a team of surveyors is tasked with monitoring the birdlife around restoration sites. Our student intern, Mathilda Digby, talks with ACT bird surveyor Tom Dunn about the 2023 season.

Bog pools on an Islay peatland, by Angharad Ward/ACT

From the vantage point: surveying birds on Islay’s peatlands

When looking for bird activity on a peatland restoration site during bird surveying season - roughly April to July - ACT surveyors will be observing activity in key sites using two different ways, by walking through and by watching from afar. Walkover surveys involve walking through key areas and noting the location of birds and what they are doing as you pass through. Vantage point watches require spending a few hours observing the site from a raised point such as a nearby hill or outcrop of rocks. Noting behaviours then gives us an indication of how many birds are breeding on the site.

Building a picture of bird activity across potential and current peatland restoration sites, and how this changes over time, is a vital part of ACT’s peatland work. It helps the team to monitor how restoration influences, and benefits, bird populations.

A long-term resident of Islay, Tom is one of ACT’s new surveyors for 2023. But he is not new to monitoring wildlife. With over 30 years of land management experience, having worked at Islay’s Ardtalla Estate, Tom has a huge passion for wildlife. I was excited to chat to him about his experiences of surveying birds on Islay. From hunting to defence tactics, Tom tells me about the fascinating world of birds you encounter while surveying.

Mathilda Digby, 
University of Bristol, MRes student
ACT intern, May to June 2023

Tell us about a memorable bird survey day

My first vantage point survey was one of my most memorable!  It was 8am when I headed out into the field and getting to the chosen location  was a 15-minute walk. Although this isn’t part of the survey time, as you walk to your vantage point you’re already listening to hear which birds are out. Getting a feel for bird activity as you arrive, can tell you a lot about what the upcoming survey may  be like.

At the vantage point, I found a comfortable spot to sit as I’d be there for the next three hours. It was the start of a hot day, but with a gentle breeze to keep the midges away. I had a good view down over the sweeping valley, with a small  loch located in the middle. This location  gave me a good line of sight for a few miles in all directions that would come to be a perfect spot for what was about to unfold

 within 10 minutes of arriving, I was lucky enough to witness a dynamic hunting scene between some greylag geese and a young white-tailed eagle. 

What did you see or hear during that survey?

The geese versus white-tailed eagle.

There were ten greylag geese on the loch and, when the white-tailed eagle came over the ridge, other bird species began  alarm calling his presence. It pushed the geese up off the loch and they began to fly into the wind for a while. They then turned downwind, the eagle following close behind. For around 200 to 300 metres, the hunt was on. The eagle, immature and maybe inexperienced, eventually gave up  after giving it a good try.

From my vantage point, I had a top-down view of the whole interaction, just like you see on a David Attenborough documentary . I imagined the chase scene on TV and as I watched intently, I could almost hear the suspenseful music playing in the background.

The eagle came and perched on a rock around 300 meters from me. I set my telescope with the perfect close-up view and watched him preening himself for 20 minutes, relaxing after the  burst of energy.

Juvenile white-tailed eagle, by Angharad Ward/ACT

Were there any other special moments during the survey?   

During the day I saw some interesting behaviour from a curlew on its nesting territory. It was walking about, padding and scratching looking for the perfect nesting spot . A white tailed  eagle landed on a rock about 100 metres away and it didn’t bat an eyelid! The eagle wouldn’t stand a chance of catching the agile curlew in this situation and I think they both knew that so didn’t bother one another. A while later a hooded crow came over and battle ensued for around 15 minutes. The curlew obviously fancied its chances and eventually saw off the intruder. Later again, a raven circled overhead showing an interest and the curlew flew straight out of the nesting area, clearly more wary of the larger corvid. 

It was interesting to see these three different interactions with different species. I would have to see this occur a few more times to know whether these reactions are specific to interactions with these predators.

Curlew on Islay, by Angharad Ward/ACT

What do you look out for?

Vantage point surveys are good for spotting larger  species like hen harriers, buzzards, hooded crows, ravens, and eagles, as well as  wader  species like golden plover and curlew. The walking surveys are best for spotting smaller species such as grasshopper warblers, skylarks, meadow pipits, wheatears and stonechats, as well as dragonflies and butterflies.

Always look to the sky! Hen harriers and birds of prey can be circling way up and can be hard to spot. Always listen out for other species, they will signify when a bird of prey or threat is present. They will be your guides when looking out for species you may not initially spot.

During another vantage point survey, something spooked a hen harrier on a suspected nesting site. This was a good opportunity to identify where hen harriers were nesting as the disturbance pushed them up into the skies. They then flew very high above, circling around the survey area, before diving right back down to where they’d previously been among bog myrtle and scrub, giving an indication of a possible nesting site that they were protecting. I didn’t see the female again after that, but I assume she is sitting on a nest. If they successfully hatch, I’ll hopefully be able to witness some  food passes between the male and female in the coming months.

What are the challenges around bird surveying?

The heat has been difficult the past couple of weeks. For the walking surveys, uneven terrains of rough tussocks and heather is hard work when it's so hot. The heat also creates a haze which can make long-distance spotting harder. Picking the right day for the survey is essential. It is best if it’s a clear day with no rain and a gentle breeze. But not too windy, as that affects your ability to hear bird calls.

Ants and ticks are also troublesome! With ants, you can usually identify their nests because the mound your about to sit on has a very fine, dusty soil, so these are easiest to avoid. Ticks, however, you don’t know you've sat on a nest until you're covered in ticks!

Bog asphodel at a bird survey site, by Tom Dunn/ACT

What is the best time of day to monitor birds?

They are a lot more active in the morning. Especially as the weather is heating up, they tend to be less active in the heat of the day. I think sometimes birds of prey are more active when it’s cooler. And, if deer are present on site, they  are always more active in the mornings too.

Any changes in behaviour I make note of to keep an eye out for it next time. It takes time to build up a picture of what their responses are to certain conditions. I’m always learning! 

What behaviours do you look out for?

You look out for different species' activities or behaviours, such as singing, alarm calling, flying through, landing at the potential nest sites, hunting and defence flying. It’s useful to be aware of what all species are doing, it's not just about what you see. Hearing is a big indicator, as that will point out things you haven’t noticed. It takes time to pick out specific bird calls and what they might mean  – you’re learning their language. 

What do you enjoy about bird surveying?

I love learning from nature and being outdoors. It’s an opportunity to sit in one place for a prolonged period, which allows you to see species that you might not see when you are passing through. You also come to view behaviours over time, like the curlew's response to different predators. It’s a great way to spot wildlife of all kinds and witness many interactions you’d only usually see on natural history TV.

Tom's tips: what to bring on a bird survey

My main advice is that you travel as lightly as possible. Here are my essentials for a bird survey:

  • Light pair of walking boots, light trousers and long sleeve top.
  • Hat, sun cream, insect spray and midge net.
  • Binoculars, telescope and tripod.
  • A light lunch and plenty of water!
  • Notepad, pencil and ID guides for recording sightings.
  • Stopwatch for time (time flies in the field!).

A final note from Mathilda

Aren’t Tom’s stories gripping?

I loved hearing about Tom's experience surveying and how his knowledge of the island enriches his surveys.

These surveys are a great opportunity to experience behaviours that you don’t see when walking or visiting somewhere for a short time. The findings will contribute greatly to the research and assessment of peatland restoration and will hopefully showcase the benefits of restoration on the wider biodiversity on the island of Islay.

Islay has a lot to offer in terms of different habitats, wildlife and historical land practices that act as rich educational resources for habitat restoration and land management. Tom also plans to start up wildlife tours that will provide opportunities for visitors, locals, and schools to get out into the field and experience Islay's rich diversity.

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