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Saturday, June 30, 2001

Red Kites in Scotland

             In 1989, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) began a programme to reintroduce Red Kites to Northern Scotland. A total of 93 young Red Kites were imported from Sweden between 1989-1993. This has led to the establishment of a healthy breeding population.
            The first successful breeding attempt was made in 1992 with one young reared and fledged, this was the first for Scotland for a 100 years. Since then 297 young have been reared in the wild and the present population (2001) stands at 32 breeding pairs.
            The re-introduction of Red Kite has been such a success that, starting in 2001;12 young Kites will be taken from the North Scotland population and 12 from the Chilterns population per annum. These will then be put into a release programme in the Dumfries and Galloway area. This will be the first time native-born kites from Scotland will be used to colonize other areas. In addition, in 2001, this new release program was boosted by the unplanned import of thirteen Red Kites from Germany. These birds had been confiscated from illegal collectors.
            The majority of the kites in the area have been wing-tagged, so their movements can be closely monitored from a distance, and a vast amount of information has been gathered. During the winter, most of the Kites form communal roosts and stay in the local area. However, there have been some astonishing movements. One individual was ringed and tagged on the Black Isle in June 1998, and was found dead in Spain in May 1999, a distance of 1598 kilometres. Another impressive record was a kite seen on 28th January 2001 in north Devon. It was then seen again at 04:00 p.m. on the 30th January 2001 at a communal roost on Black Isle; 735 kilometres in two days!
            Most Red Kite pairs are monogamous and usually nest year after year in the same area, often in the same nest. The bulk of nests are found in Scots Pine, though other trees are also used such as Douglas fir and Oak. The height of the nests can range between 30-80 ft.
            Each site is visited on a number of occasions; this is to identify the occupying pair and confirm the date of incubation, so that the date of hatching can be determined. The young kites are ringed at about five weeks old. Biometrics are taken such as weight, wing length and tarsus thickness, which can often determine the gender. Body feathers are also taken for DNA analysis to validate gender and parenthood. Finally, tags made of PVC are attached to the upper side of each wing; tags have a unique colour code and symbol or number. For example, the left wing will have a blue tag, which refers to the area it was born, and the right wing will then be changed annually to indicate a year code. The distinctive symbol or number refers to that particular individual.
Red Kite nest
The North Sutor / Sunday 17th June 2001
            The week started with seabird ringing with some members of the Highland Ringing Group (HRG). This took place at the North Sutor, which is located at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth. There is a large breeding colony; mainly consisting of Guillemot, Shag, Razorbill, Kittiwake and Cormorant. Group members had already visited the Cormorant colony on the previous day.
            To reach the colony we first had to walk across a couple of fields and then climb down a steep embankment to the shoreline; two broods of Shags and one brood of Great Black-backed Gull were ringed there. Once at the main colony the group split into two teams; one team hooking birds  (Dave Butterfield, Davey Aiton and Simon Foster), the other ringing (Bob Swan, Ronnie Graham, Sheenac Graham, Richard Mooney and Christopher). Both adults and chicks were lowered off the stacks in sacks to be ringed on the ground.
            It took about four hours to ring and process all the birds from four stacks; 656 birds in all. The majority of these were Guillemot, but also a few Shag, Kittiwake, Razorbill and Great black-backed Gull.

Wing-tagging Red Kites / Mon 18th-Weds 20th June 2001
            The next three days were spent ringing and wing-tagging Red Kites in the vicinity of the Black Isle and Dingwall with Colin Crooke, Brian Etheridge and Dave Butterfield. Roy Dennis and Kim Dawson joined us on the 20th June.
             Coincidently, the first nest visited on Monday was the site of the pair that first bred in 1992. This was the tenth consecutive breeding season that this pair of Red Kites had successfully raised young. They have, including 2001, raised a total of 25 young, making them the most productive pair in North Scotland.
            Over a period of three days, 30 Red Kite were ringed and 28 wing-tagged from thirteen broods. There was one brood of one, seven broods of two, four broods of three; one of which, had one chick that was too young to ring and the other two were ringed but not wing tagged. There was also one brood of four; this is only the third record of a brood of four young; and all have been in Scotland. A total of twelve young were taken from the thirteen broods to go into the release program in Dumfries and Galloway. These individuals were tagged with different colour codes, so as to distinguish them as release birds from Northern Scotland.
            Though the three days of wing-tagging were primarily spent going around the Red Kite sites, the evenings were left free. Monday evening was spent checking a Common Gull colony and Common Tern colony with Andrew Ramsay. Unfortunately, the Common Gulls had all failed. Disturbance had dramatically increased at this site; and egg theft for human consumption has not been ruled out. One Lapwing was ringed.
            Two broods of Common Buzzard, one brood of two young, and one brood of three, were ringed on Tuesday evening en-route back to David’s home. Some birding in the evening produced a Capercaillie near Tain, and two Hen Harriers at Strathrory.
            Wednesday evening Ronnie Graham, Simon Foster, Dave Butterfield and I checked a Peregrine eyrie at Loch Glass. The eyrie is situated about 1500 ft above sea level. After parking at the south end of the loch, there was a 1½ kilometres walk to the site. The female Peregrine was present, and she was obviously agitated, soaring and calling above our heads. Regrettably the nest had recently failed; the most likely reason for this was that the site was north facing, and exposed to the extreme wind and driving rain the previous week.

Wing-tagged Red Kites
Waders and Terns / Thursday 21st June
            Portgower is situated between Brora and Helmsdale on the northeast coast and was the first site to be checked. Five Arctic Tern nests were found, all with eggs, and one brood of Oystercatchers; 3 were ringed. The second site at Brora had 16-20 pair of Arctic Tern; 3 ringed, 7-10 pairs of Little Tern; 4 ringed, and 3-4 pairs of Ringed Plover; 3 ringed.
            Next was Skelbo, which is on the south side of Loch Fleet. A ten-minute detour brought good views of an Osprey nest. Skelbo is also one of the HRG cannon net areas and large numbers of waders and ducks have been caught there. There were 15-20 pairs of Common Tern and 5-7 pairs of Arctic Tern present; all still on
eggs.
            The final site to check was the North Sutor to make a count of the Kittiwake nests. Unfortunately, the tide was too high to gain access, so some time was spent looking for Herring Gull chicks; eight were ringed from four broods.

Red-throated & Black-throated Divers / Friday 22nd June   
            Today was spent monitoring the progress of Black-throated (BTD) and Red-throated (RTD) Divers along the length of Loch Shin and as far as Loch Merkland. Listed below are the ten territories visited with a brief summary.

1. Loch Dola, Lairg: No BTD seen, possibly away feeding, but probably failed.
2. Loch Beannach (Dalnessie): BTD nest deserted, one cold egg. The most probable cause for this is angler disturbance. Had a good view of Black Grouse here and also a flock of twenty Common Crossbill.
3. Loch Shin (Overscaig): Three BTD seen, one single and a pair. Possibly failed. Good view of an adult male Cuckoo.
4. Loch Merkland: One BTD seen quite a long way from nest. Anglers were in the vicinity of the nest and it has possibly failed but this site may now be unoccupied after several years of persecution from egg collectors.
5. Loch a’ Ghriama: One BTD preening on the water right next to the nest.
6.Ghriama lochan: RTD nest deserted, with a broken egg shell in the nest. Predation by Great Black-backed Gull or Hooded Crow suspected.
7. Loch Shin (Fiag Bridge): No sign of BTD though last year the chick was taken by the parents down to Lairg. 17 kilometres.
8. Two roadside ponds were checked and one had a pair of RTD. No sign of a nest but there is still a good chance of breeding this year.
9. Loch Shin (Shinness): This BTD was on its nest, which was just a mud patch near the waters edge on an island.
10. Loch Shin (Colaboll): A single BTD seen, possibly feeding or a non-breeding bird.
           
            The Lochs that have been highlighted are sites where a raft has been provided for the divers to nest on. Rafts, or artificial floating islands, have been used since the 1970’s though the rafts that are predominatley used now are a new design; they are made from polystyrene blocks in a wooden frame. These frames are then covered in netting and turf from the local area is placed on top. Because Black-throated Divers nest so close to the waters edge, a third of all natural nests are destroyed due to rising water levels. The rafts help prevent this by rising with the water level and thus increase the productivity. Raft nests will typically fledge twice as many chicks on average compared to nests on natural sites. After checking all the sites, David and I returned back to David's house. After some supper we spent the evening ringing three broods of Tree Sparrows (15 individuals ringed) and one brood of Common Buzzard (1 ringed)
            Saturday was the last day of the trip; some birding at Scotsburn Hill pushed the species list to over a hundred, with some great views of Capercaille; seven altogether.
            Thank you to everyone involved, especially to Brian and Colin, for letting me participate with the ringing of the Red Kites and making me feel so welcome. To Dave’s mum who kept me fed, watered and sheltered for the week. But mostly to Dave Butterfield, whose hospitality, friendship and extensive knowledge of the highlands and its birds made the trip, not only possible, but also educational and memorable.