A Scottish experience

This week on Dispatches of the Field, we welcome Larissa Simulik to share her story of conducting bird surveys in Scotland – sheep and all! For more about Larissa check out her bio at the end of the post.

The beauty of field work is getting to travel and work/live in some of the most unique places in the world. An example of this was the time I spent working as a seasonal assistant warden at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in the Orkney archipelago, off the northern tip of Scotland. It is a small island (roughly 4.5 km in length), with a population of ca. 45 people and almost no trees. This was a bit of a shock for me, having previously lived in Nova Scotia with its beautiful forests! Conducting bird surveys in North Ronaldsay proved to be very different from what I was used to.

rainow over the field

Nice part about being on an island is seeing the incoming rain.

For starters, I was (and still am) a decent birder when it comes to North American birds: I can identify about 80% of the birds I come across in Canada. But identifying European birds was a completely new story. Warblers in Europe are not bright and colourful, like their North American counterparts. Instead, they are simply different shades of brown (eg. the Acrocephalus genus). And the warblers were not the only family that posed an identification challenge when I started at North Ronaldsay, as the island hosts many bird groups ranging from waterfowl to seabirds. Prior to my stay I had little practice identifying shorebirds, but as I needed to count flocks containing hundreds of birds of different species, I had to learn how to tell the difference between a dunlin and purple sandpiper quite quickly.

warbler in hand

Great example of a European brown warbler – a marsh warbler!

Since my part of my job entailed conducting regular censuses of the birds on the island, persistence and patience were key to my success. I never left the observatory without “The complete guide to the birds of Europe” in my backpack. I used the guide so much that by the end of the season it was pretty much destroyed. (Granted, though, this was at least partly due to the amount of water damage it received when I got caught in the frequent rainstorms!) I was also fortunate to have some visiting birders come out on census with me, to provide help with my bird identification. A big shout out here to Ade Cooper and Gary Prescott (current world record holder for greatest number of birds seen by bike in a single year) for heading out with me and giving me tips on how to identify tricky species.

North Ronaldsay itself was very different from the forests of Ontario or Nova Scotia. The landscape was filled with rocky shorelines, grassy fields, and coastal heathland. Unlike Canada, forest breeding birds on their northward spring migration to Scandinavia could be found along stonewalls and in grassy fields. This made finding birds difficult: I had to walk along almost every stonewall and through each field to see if any birds were hiding in the long grass, iris beds or weedy crop.

North Ronaldsay is known for its feral sheep, which live on the shoreline and eat seaweed. It was a weird experience to be counting shorebirds along a rocky coast with common and grey seals sunbathing on one side and sheep eating seaweed on the other side. The sheep could also be a bit of a nuisance, as they would sometimes run right past me and scare off all the birds I was counting. I distinctly remember the time I sat down on a rock to count some long-tailed ducks just offshore – and suddenly a curious sheep stuck its face in front of my binoculars!

An adult and juvenile sheep

The famous seaweed eating sheep.

As a seasonal assistant warden, I had the opportunity to conduct some independent breeding surveys. My first survey, and the one that was closest to my heart, focused on the productivity and habitat preference of northern fulmars on the island. I surveyed the entire island on my own, using a GPS to mark the location of each nest…all 630 of them! It was an exhausting few days. On top of that, working with the fulmar chicks was a bit of a challenge, as their defense mechanism is to projectile vomit on any intruders. I learned the hard way not to point them into the wind when handling them!

My second survey focused on the productivity of the arctic terns. Originally, I intended to ask whether colony density was related to productivity. However, due to some nasty weather at the end of June, the majority of colonies failed. As a result, I changed my plan, focusing instead on measuring productivity across each colony and creating a baseline survey technique for use in future years.

a nest right beside a stone wall

Fulmars are normally cliff breeders – I don’t understand the logic behind this nest.

Undertaking these breeding surveys taught me about the struggles of conducting research on my own with limited resources. Furthermore, during the write-up process, I realized how hard it is to access research papers or journals for anyone who isn’t affiliated with a university or organization.

But overall, working at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory was a great experience! I have so many more experiences I could write about…but if I did, this post would go on for far too long. I will say that if you ever have the chance to do field work in another country, I would highly recommend it. I doubt I will ever get to work in a place as unique as North Ronaldsay again…but on the bright side, at least I won’t have to worry about beach-dwelling sheep interrupting when I’m counting birds!

Larissa with an owlLarissa received her Bachelor of Science in biology from Dalhousie University in 2016. Her undergraduate honours thesis focused on begging call structure and stress levels in tree swallow nestlings. She has worked on projects ranging from forest birds at risk conservation to wildlife disease surveillance. Next year she will be heading to Sweden to work as a field technician at Ottenby Bird Observatory.

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