Geese, Squirrels and Bare Branches

Hi folks! I expect everyone is gearing up for Bonfire Night; so don’t forget to check for sheltering hedgehogs and other creatures, seeking shelter in the log piles. I’m noticing most of the leaves have fallen here, much to my dissapointment. I really wanted to get more autumn colour shots, but alas, that’s it for this year! It’s a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. I’m sure we’re all noticing the nights drawing in faster and getting colder, especially since the clocks went back. We’ve still not experienced any harsh frosts. I love the freshness associated with frosty mornings, it’s perfect for setting the festive mood. Although, I’m sure many of our readers are glad it hasn’t become too cold yet, especially when considering the vagaries of this cost of living and energy crisis.

Looking west over Loch Kinord from Oak Bay.

Anyway, we recently conducted a goose count for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). This is to monitor the migration movements of Icelandic and Greenlandic Greylag Geese (Anser anser). In the decades gone by, lochs Kinord and Davan were the winter refuge for hundreds of Greylag Geese. They migrated here from Iceland and Greenland, to take advantage of the milder climate and food on offer, which would help them survive the leaner months, before their spring migration back to their breeding gounds.

A skein of Pink-footed Geese.

But nowadays you would be lucky to see one migrant, as most of them are wintering further north, as the climate continues to warm. This phenomenon is called ‘range shifting’. We obviously have Greylag Geese here, but these are year-round resident birds, which breed in the spring, and it is thought that they originate from feral stock. Still, watching a family of resident Greylag Geese, feeding in the fields during June, is a lovely scene to witness.

As for the survey, well, the objective was to count how many birds took off from their dawn roost site. It yielded limited results at best, as I only saw 15 birds. It’s hard to say whether these birds are residents or genuine migrants. This national survey also encourages participants to look out for Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) migrating from Greenland or Iceland. Although, we had been instructed to specifically look out for Greylags only, as it is assumed Pink foots won’t be about. But ironically, I did spot and record a very lost and lonely looking ‘Pinkie’, that had probably become separated from its skein. This bird, alongside the Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus), which enjoy overwintering on Loch Davan, were the only birds on the survey which were 100% winter migrants. As Pink-footed Geese breed in Greenland and Iceland exclusively, no feral birds breed in the UK, and only 22 pairs of Whooper Swans breed in Scotland, which are all confined to the Northern Isles and occassionally in Caithness.

Greylag Geese on Loch Kinord.

Thanks to the deciduous tree branches becoming progressively barer as the autumn gradually transitions into winter, it is getting a lot easier to spot Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). It also helps, that Red Squirrels become considerably more active at this time of year, as they begin to cache hazelnuts and other food sources to see them through tougher times. I have been getting some decent squirrel action on one of our camera traps recently, but I also enjoy going to specific ‘hotspot’ locations to photograph and film these endearing mammals. Did you know that Red Squirrels have an exceptional sense of smell? They’re capable of finding food buried underneath a foot of snow and can sense a rotten nut without having to open it. What sorcery is this!

A Red Squirrel searching for its winter stash in 8 inches of snow.

Even more quirky, they can be left or right-handed and even ambidextrous! Left-handed squirrels hold a pinecone with the top towards the left and use the left hand to rotate it. Right-handed squirrels do the opposite. What especially surprises me, is that their average lifespan in the wild is only 3 years. This is mostly since they live very high stress and high-risk lives, and unfortunately present themselves as a rather appealing snack for many predators. But apparently, they can live over 10 years in safer, enclosed environments. They tend to build more than one drey (a nest), to ensure that at least one isn’t found by predators, and in case one gets damaged, there’s always drey number two. Pretty smart!

Once a common site across the UK, as most will already know, Red Squirrels have undergone a devastating population decline, primarily due to competition for food and living space from the highly invasive, non-native, American Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Greys have another deadly weapon in their arsenal, in the form of the Squirrel Pox Virus, which is lethal to Reds, but not to themselves. Current estimates put the UK Red Squirrel population at approximately 160,000 individuals, 75% of which are here in Scotland. Thankfully, Scotland’s population is increasing steadily, for now. However, without continued and effective action to protect them, even Scotland’s Red Squirrels could disappear within our lifetime.

In recent years, Reds have become particularly associated with pine forest, which of course, we have in abundance in Deeside. But what some readers might not know, is that they can exist in higher population densities in deciduous and mixed forest, in the absence of Greys. As deciduous and mixed forest can provide them with more food options (i.e., a greater variety of tree nuts such as hazelnuts and acorns) than coniferous woodland. Reds are becoming increasingly confined to coniferous woodland more down to necessity than preference, as Grey Squirrels aren’t very good at extracting pine seeds from pinecones, and prefer to go for the easier option of readily available, easily extractible, nuts and berries. A bit lazy if you ask me!

Interesting research from the Republic of Ireland has shown that as Pine Marten (Martes martes) increase and reclaim their former haunts, Red Squirrels are bouncing back, and Greys are decreasing rapidly. In a rather ironic twist of fate, what appears to be happening, is that the Martens, an all too common foe of the Reds, are favouring the Greys as prey, because Greys are less arboreal, slower, and heavier, and find it harder to run along the finer tree branches. Red Squirrels just take acrobatics into their stride. And prefer to spend more time in the higher, thinner branches. So, essentially, being smaller, skinnier, and more athletic, is literally saving their lives! Could we witness the same exchange beginning to develop in Scotland? Could other predators, such as Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) have a similar role to play in preferentially hunting Grey Squirrels over Red Squirrels? We just don’t know yet, and more research is required to answer these questions. But this sort of research is very encouraging for ‘Squirrel Nutkin’!

I really do love filming and photographing these beautiful creatures. That’s all for this week. Hope you enjoyed the read. Take care everyone, chat again soon, Danny.

About dannyfabianharvey

Danny works for NatureScot as an Assistant Reserve Officer, at the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, in the Eastern Cairngorms National Park. He graduated in 2019 with an MSc in Ecology and Conservation from the University of Aberdeen. This has provided him with the scientific rigor required when dealing with issues of Ecology and Conservation, coupled with a profound respect for wildlife and habitats. He directs his own short films, two of which were Highly Commended in the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2018. Currently, he is co-directing and filming a documentary feature called, 'The Bough Beaks', with independent production company, Mousehole Films, due to complete in the summer of 2023. Danny is regularly booked for his lively talks on Wildlife Filming, where he discusses the joys, challenges and techniques. Recently he has started working as a freelance bird surveyor, having conducted multiple farmland bird surveys for the James Hutton Institute for their Framework program. Previously, he has worked with the RSPB, Trees for Life and Aquila Ecology.
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