From cetaceans to cross-country birds

April 12th 2018

As Shorewatch volunteers with Whale and Dolphin Conservation we are frequently at Stoer Head Lighthouse, our designated Shorewatch Site.  A ’Shorewatch’ consists of a ten-minute effort based survey for cetaceans which is repeated an hour later, and so on, for as long as the tea lasts!

It was 29th March 2018 and we had completed a watch at 12.30 so went for a short walk around the lighthouse to warm up a bit before having our sandwiches.  As usual at this spot the rocks below and to the west of the lighthouse were being used as a low tide roost by Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and the occasional Cormorant (P. carbo).

We were having a look at these birds, and a small group of Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), which were all looking superb in the sunlight and especially with the waves crashing over the rocks around them when we noticed one Shag with a blue ring with letters on its left leg.  It’s always exciting to spot a colour ringed bird as you know that you will be able to report it and obtain its history.

The best and quickest way to get details about a ringed bird, whether alive or dead, is to look at this website  This site contains details of all the ringing projects which are being or have been carried out across Europe along with the contact details of the ringer(s).

First thing identify your bird, then note the type and location the of ring(s) and any code inscribed on it.  This Shag had a dark-blue ring with white letters on its left leg, the letters read from the top down (the correct way to read them) DZS. It also carried a metal BTO ring on its right leg but it was too far away to read the code on it.

We tracked ‘our’ bird down to Mark Newell the Isle of May field Manager with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Edinburgh. A couple of days later Mark got back to us and this was his reply –

“Many thanks for the email, I am trying to catch up with emails having been inundated with reports of dead seabirds so a delight to receive one alive and an incredible record too. 

To my knowledge this is only the second live record of an Isle of May Shag on the west coast (after one at Kinlochbervie about 20 years ago).  Your one was ringed as a chick (BTO ring: 1472259) on 10/6/15 and seen at Scotstown, Aberdeenshire 24/9/15.  It was again on the Isle of May on 12/5/17 but no further sightings.  It was one of a brood of two but its sibling has never been seen.

The intensive colour ringing scheme on the Isle of May first started in 1996 but birds had been metal ringed since the 1960’s.

The recent poor weather on the east coast has caused a lot of the shags which were back on their territories in late February to scatter down the east coast but many have failed to survive.  Maybe this one has been successful in finding sheltered feeding conditions.”

We are both originally from Fife but, despite several attempts, we never made it to the Isle of May which sits in the outer Forth estuary so, to record a bird from that Isle here in Assynt was quite special. Now we just need to keep looking for it and the whales and dolphins!

D and A Haines

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