Sunday, 6 December 2015

Seabirds and Seals

Mid-week I took a trip to the Seabird Centre in North Berwick. The last time I visited the centre I was only 15 years old and beginning to show an interest in working with nature. My dad took the family along and I remember chatting to the staff there and thinking “WOW! This is what I want to do”. Needless to say it had changed significantly since then with new displays, live feeds from the Forth islands and even a new marine tank complete with native rocky shore animals. It was fantastic to see the centre continuing to inspire new seabird fans just as it did all those years ago. Interested in learning more about the Seabird Centre check out their website including LIVE cameras from the Forth Islands:

Scottish Seabird Centre (photo Laura Shearer)

Hermit Crab (Pagurus bernhardus) in the marine display at Seabird Centre (photo Laura Shearer)
During the autumn months grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) give birth around the UK. As a marine mammal medic for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), we are called to sick or injured seal pups which may need specialist care and rehabilitation. As a result I joined other medics for a tour around the Scottish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) wildlife centre which has a purpose built facility for seal rehabilitation. It was excellent to see the amazing facilities they have including isolation units, specialist veterinary rooms and large pools to allow the seals to perform natural behaviours. This is the largest facility of its kind in Scotland, with the potential to support up to 100 seals at one time.

If you come across a sick or injured seal please contact the BDMLR on 01825 765546 during office hours or 07787433412 out of office hours. The SSPCA is a charity so check their website to learn more about how you can support their work:

Grey Seal pup (photo David Steel)

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Scottish Ringers Conference 2015

Last weekend was the Scottish Ringers Conference hosted by the Grampian Ringing Group at Carrbridge in the Cairngorms. This was the first ringing conference I have attended and I must admit I was a bit nervous as I wasn’t sure what to expect! Within minutes of arriving I got chatting and making new friends and that’s how the weekend continued. What an amazing experience!

Carrbridge, Cairngorms National Park (photo Laura Shearer)
The days were filled with exciting talks and presentations about a wide range of ringing projects from passerines to waders to seabirds.  A mid-afternoon break gave us the opportunity to explore the local area and squeeze in a quick birding session- the highlight being an elusive Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus). The evenings were spent chatting to some fascinating people about their ringing projects around the UK. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and can’t wait for the next conference!

Members of the Lothian Ringing Group hunting for a Crested Tit, Carrbridge (photo Laura Shearer)

To report a ringed bird, please contact the British Trust for Ornithology via their website:

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Vis Mig and Urban Drainage

It’s been another busy week in the land of Laura. On Sunday (08.11.15) I joined Visible Migration recorder Dr Clive McKay for a “vis mig” session at Lintrathen in Angus.  Looking across to the Barry Ridge, we started recording migrating Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus) travelling North-East. Flocks with a couple of hundred birds were moving through. ”Umm have you seen this new flock…” I could barely utter the words as a flock with 1,000 birds travelled right across the horizon. What an amazing sight!

Dr Clive McKay counting migrating Wood Pigeons at Lintrathen (photo Laura Shearer)
After our vis mig we headed across to Montrose to join the Tayside ringing group for their annual social event. Unfortunately as we arrived so too did the rain however I was given the privilege of releasing the last bird of the day- a beautiful blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus). Once home Clive tallied up our vis mig totals. 14,080 Wood pigeons! A new record for the site! For more details of the count see:

Beautiful blue tit (photo Laura Shearer)
On Monday morning I attended the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) conference on Amphibians and Urban Drainage in Battleby, Perth. My MSc thesis was based around amphibians so it was great to catch up with like-minded people and discover more about current amphibian conservation projects.

The morning began with talks about Sustainable Drainage Schemes (SuDS) and how many SuDS ponds act as fantastic amphibian habitats. Afternoon presentations included the effects of road deicing salts on amphibians (Pete Minting, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) and on the use of amphibian ladders in gullypots (Raymond Creemers, Reptielen Amfibieƫn Vissen Onderzoek Nederland (RAVON) and Trevor Rose, Tayside Amphibian and Reptile Group).

Marcia Rae (Highland Council) talking about SuDS ponds as amphibian habitats (photo Laura Shearer)

Improve our drainage schemes for amphibians such as this Smooth Newt, Lissotriton vulgaris (photo Laura Shearer)
It was interesting to discover how small modifications to our drainage can help to improve the conservation of many of our native amphibians. For more information see the ARC website: or become involved in your local Amphibian and Reptile Group

Friday, 6 November 2015

WWT Caerlaverock Autumnwatch

I recently visited the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) Caerlaverock reserve near Dumfries. The autumn and winter months are a fantastic time to visit as the Solway Firth comes alive with wintering wildfowl. As I approached, the surrounding fields were covered with Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) and I could feel the anticipation building!

Entrance to WWT Caelaverock (photo Laura Shearer)
Upon arrival I had a great chat with a volunteer who explained the layout of the reserve and the recent wildlife sightings. First stop- the Farmhouse tower in search of the Green Winged Teal (Anas carolinensis). It only took a few minutes before I was watching this American visitor alongside some other birders- what an amazing start to the day! 

Walking from hide to hide I was astounded at the amazing set-up of this nature reserve with regular hides providing amazing views of the wildlife! As I wandered around the Peter Scott trail I stumbled upon some bird feeders crammed with Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Siskins, Chaffinches- even a Great Spotted Woodpecker was in on the action. I could've sat there all day but there was plenty more to see. 

Into the next hide, this time facing onto the back pond. Within seconds of sitting down there was a blue flash as a Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) whizzed by! Could this get any better?!! I sat there alone, watching this gorgeous bird fishing approximately 30-40m from the hide for about 20 minutes. What a vista! 
Kingfisher fishing at the "Back pond" at WWT Caerlaverock (photo Laura Shearer)
As 2pm approached, I joined the other visitors at the Peter Scott Observatory for the daily swan feed. Explaining more about the migration of the wildfowl in the pond, the staff were on the lookout for coloured rings around the legs of the swans and the geese. Each are uniquely coded and using a special machine inside the observatory, it was possible to find out the life history of each ringed bird. What an amazing resource and highly addictive too as we all tried to read the rings!

Swan feed as seen from the Peter Scott Observatory at WWT Caelaverock (photo Laura Shearer)

Reading colour rings during the swan feed (photo Laura Shearer)
Each pond at Caerlaverock was bursting with wildfowl and wading birds including Pochard, Shovelers, Teal, Wigeon, Snipe, Lapwing- too many to name them all! As I left the reserve I was thoroughly impressed with the amazing work of WWT and how they engage the public with wildlife. I couldn't wait to visit again!

Fortunately I didn't have long to wait as several days later I was invited to be part of the audience of BBC Autumnwatch Unsprung- filmed live from the reserve. Tom Burditt from the National Trust highlighted their Sounds of the Shores project #shoresounds aiming for members of the public to record their favourite sounds from our coast. The show played several clips including my personal favourites- Kittiwakes and Grey Seals calling. Chris Packham's enthusiasm and passion for natural history was infectious and once again I left Caerlaverock with a smile on my face, itching for a return visit!

In the audience at BBC Autumnwatch Unsprung (in the red coat)
For more information on WWT Caerlaverock see their website or follow them on Twitter: @WWTCaerlaverock

Watch Autumnwatch unsprung on BBC iplayer:

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Shore Thing

I recently completed the Shore Thing training course by the Marine Biological Association (MBA) at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire. The project is aimed to generate marine records by facilitating intertidal surveys around the UK.  It also aims to raise awareness of marine conservation amongst participants and the wider community.

The day began with some classroom based work- learning more about the MBA, the Shore Thing Project; how to collect data and an overall summary of species likely to be found and species of interest. The afternoon was spent putting into practice the techniques we had learned in the morning- performing timed searches on specific species and quadrat surveys.

Quadrat surveys for the Shore Thing project at Culzean Castle (photo Jack Sewell, MBA)
The timed searches are designed to look for species which are either climate change indicators or non-native. These surveys produced some interesting results including Snakelock Anemones (Anemonia viridis) and Orange-tipped sea squirts (Corella eumyota)- new records for this area.
Snakelock Anemones- my first ever sighting of this species. At Culzean Castle (photo Laura Shearer)
The quadrat surveys on the mid-shore were of great interest. One quadrat revealed hundreds of marine snails such as topshells, whelks and limpets. We also found strings of nudibranch eggs and Sea Lemons (Archidoris pseudobargus)- a real treasure of the rocky shore.
Spiny Starfish Marthasterias glacialis (photo Laura Shearer)
Sea Lemon- note the rhinophores (left) and external gills on the hind (right) (photo Laura Shearer)

If you are interested in learning more about marine conservation in the UK please see the Shore Thing website: or Follow them on Twitter for regular updates: @ShoreThing_MBA 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

It’s been several weeks since my last blog as I have been keeping busy with work, birding, seawatching and rockpooling. It’s a tough life!

Over the last few weeks we have been experiencing some settled weather in Dumfries and Galloway and very calm sea conditions. This has allowed amazing views of Harbour PorpoisePhocoena phocoena, around the Mull of Galloway where I currently work for the RSPB. Several weeks ago, I decided to visit Corsewell point at the North of the Rhins for a session of seawatching. After only 20 minutes I couldn't believe my eyes as I spotted a triangular fin breaking among the waves- it was a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)!! This was only the second time I have seen this species and I managed to watch this magnificent fish for several minutes before losing it in the waves. One of my wildlife highlights of the year!

Diagnostic two triangular fins of a Basking Shark (photo Brian Henderson)

On Tuesday 06.10.15, at around 3:30pm I was outside the RSPB visitor centre on the Mull of Galloway when I saw a break in the water. Grabbing my binoculars, a telescope and a camera- I started running to the edge of the cliff for some better views. Over the next hour, 30-40 Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) including 3 young calves, put on an amazing show- leaping out of the water and generally having a good time. What an amazing sight! 

Bottlenose Dolphins off Mull of Galloway 06.10.15 (photo Laura Shearer)
Bottlenose dolphin calf leaping out the water (photo Laura Shearer)

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Marine Mammal Medic Training

Last weekend I undertook the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) Marine Mammal Medic training. The course began at 08:30am with some introductions to the charity and the work they do. They are a voluntary network of trained medics who respond to calls from the public about stranded, injured or sick marine mammals. The rescue teams are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and are based across Scotland, England and Wales.

The BDMLR have equipment strategically placed around the country to assist with whale or dolphin strandings, oil spills, fishing gear entanglement and assist any marine mammal which may be in trouble. The aim of the course was to train new medics which would be able to respond to calls. The morning began with some theoretical classroom-based lectures. We discussed cetaceans and seals found in the UK and common issues which can affect each species. We then found out the best techniques to help them.
Lectures from the BDMLR Marine Mammal Medic Training (photo by Graeme Davison, BDMLR)
As the afternoon approached, we all climbed into our drysuits and headed out to the nearby beach. Here we tested our new knowledge on life-sized models of a pilot whale, dolphin and grey seal pup. In groups, we re-floated the pilot whale using the specialist whale pontoons produced by the BDMLR. We also floated the stranded dolphin using the techniques shown to us before practicing how to capture and safely transport a seal pup which may need rehabilitated.

Practicing how to refloat stranded cetaceans (photo by Graeme Davison, BDMLR)

If you find a live stranded marine mammal, please note the location, tidal state and any visible injuries- without getting too close. Then call the BDMLR on 01825 765546 during normal working hours or the out of hours number on 07787433412. 

The BDMLR are currently fundraising to replace their whale entanglement equipment which was broken whilst assisting a humpback whale off Iceland. Please give generously to allow the charity and their volunteers to help more whales and dolphins which may get into trouble. Thank you!

Friday, 14 August 2015

Isle of May

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the Isle of May- the 'Jewel of the Forth'. The Isle of May is a well-known seabird colony, only 6 miles from nearby Anstruther in the Kingdom of Fife. The island boasts huge numbers of nesting seabirds including Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Shags, Arctic Terns and 120,000 puffins! These birds nest from May-July so my visit was outwith the main nesting season however there was still plenty to see. Late nesters such as Kittiwakes and Fulmars were still around in good numbers with well developed chicks almost ready to fledge.
Fulmar chick getting big (photo by Laura Shearer)

Kittiwake chicks close to fledging (photo by Laura Shearer)

I have visited the Isle of May on several occasions however this time I was staying overnight alongside some friends. With several birthdays due (myself included), the Farne Island Ranger team from 2013 met for a mini-reunion. Working around the country, it can be difficult to keep in touch so this seemed like an excellent opportunity to catch up.  As the visitors boarded the boats back to mainland, the hustle and bustle descended and we were left alone. It wasn't long before we fell into our old routines, going off for walks, doing some seawatching and generally having a good time. The team regrouped to assist with cooking diner before cries from outside shrieked "MINKE!". Within seconds the team were watching 2 Minke whales, Balaenoptera acutorostrata, feeding close to island. They continued to stay around for up to an hour- without a doubt the best show I have ever seen of these magnificent animals.

Clockwise from back Left to Right: Andrew Denton, Ciaran Hatsell, David Kinchin-Smith, Rebecca Outram, Jamie Coleman, Emma Witcutt, Jack Ibbotson, Elizabeth Morgan, David Steel, David Roche and Laura Shearer
Feeling elated, the team was buzzing as we headed to the Isle of May Observatory to assist with some overnight bird ringing of European Storm Petrels, Hydrobates pelagicus ( These beautiful birds are lured to mist nets using pre-recorded storm petrel vocalisations before being ringed and processed by licenced BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) bird ringers. During that evening 2 birds were caught and I had the privilege of ringing and processing the first bird- what an honor! Heading to bed that night I could hardly sleep as I relived the amazing wildlife encounters I had experienced throughout the day. This visit to the Isle of May is one which will stick with me for a long time!
Isle of May Bird Observatory (photo by Laura Shearer)

Thank you to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the team on the Isle of May. Keep up to date with their blog: and on Twitter: @SteelySeabirder

Sunday, 2 August 2015

White Beaked Dolphins- Northumberland

Yesterday (01.08.15) I joined Dr Ben Burville and Skipper Alan Leatham for a pelagic tour searching for whales and dolphins onboard Ocean Explorer. This tour operates miles off the Northumberian coast in an area known for its population of White Beaked Dolphins, Lagenorhynchus albirostris, a temperate and sub-arctic species ( The briefing began as Alan tried to manage our expectations "there is no guarantee we will spot whales and dolphins, we are simply exploring an area and recording what we find". After some more health and safety talk- we were on our way.
It didn't take long for us to find some diving gannets- normally an indicator of a good feeding area. Alan cut the engine as we bobbed around the North Sea in hope of spotting of a fin. "Over there- 10 o'clock from the boat" someone had spotted a lot of splashing from a pod of up to 20 White Beaked Dolphins.

The dolphins spotted us immediately and headed straight towards the boat. Ben (under licence from the MMO) slowly entered the water to collect his important research. Working with Newcastle University (among others) Ben's footage has identified individual animals and proven site fidelity of this species over several years.

Onboard we were treated to a spectacular show from the dolphins, swimming around and underneath the boat. They seemed to dominate the whole area- it was difficult to know where to look next! They swam alongside the boat, rolling onto their sides to get good views of everyone onboard. The dolphins stuck around for the best part of 20-30 minutes before eventually heading off into the horizon. As Alan restarted the engine, all of the passengers sat in awe and marveled at the amazing experience of seeing these wild animals up close and personal.

Thank you to Dr Ben Burville (@sealdiver), Alan Leatham and William Shiel- boat owner and son of Billy Sheil MBE who founded "Glad Tidings" (@thefarneislands). Interested in learning more about the trip- see

Individuals can be identified by their markings (photo by Laura Shearer)

What a vista! (photo by Laura Shearer)

The visibility allowed us to follow them under the water (photo by Laura Shearer)

Swimming alongside the boat (photo by Laura Shearer)
Here you can see their obvious white beak (photo by Laura Shearer)