The colour ringing of Rock Pipits on the north Aberdeenshire coast has been mainly to study their winter movements, and to discover where they breed. Birds have been trapped on the seaweedy beaches of Pennan, Aberdour, Rosehearty and Cairnbulg. Some birds have been found breeding near to the beaches at Pennan and Aberdour, but no nests have been located at these sites, as yet. The other sites appear to be unsuitable for breeding, but can hold good numbers in the winter.
The high cliffs along the north coast make ideal nesting habitat, but it is far more difficult to locate and reach nests here, than around Girdleness. The presence of breeding seabirds, particularly Herring Gulls, with their incessant alarm calls, further hinders nest-finding attempts. I have annually monitored a stretch of coastline between Aberdour Beach and Rosehearty. There is a rough coastal path, although it is not well used. Occasional colour ringed birds have been found breeding along this stretch, but again, nests remained elusive.
In 2012 monitoring of the stretch began on 14th May. Much of the vegetation along the coast had been grazed hard by sheep, and I wondered if the birds would be able to find enough cover to nest. However, Allan and I managed to find two colour-ringed birds, and both were carrying food: a sure sign they had chicks. The first, Metal/Green Green/Orange, on the territory marked “4” on the map below, was ringed as a first-year, at Rosehearty, in Nov 2011. The other, Metal/Yellow Red/Yellow, with a nest at Lord Pitsligo’s cave, marked “2” on the map, was also ringed at Rosehearty, but was a six-year-old male. Originally metal-ringed in Jan 2007, he was retrapped, again at Rosehearty, in Dec 2009, and his bling added. He has been seen every winter since, at Rosehearty, but had not been recorded during the breeding season, until this year. Had he been missed breeding there during the last two summers, or had he moved territories?
Map showing territories and nests found along the coastline between Aberdour and Rosehearty.
With a huge amount of patience and luck, Allan managed to locate the nest of “Lord Pitsligo”, plus another nest of chicks, marked “1” on the map. Both broods had only recently hatched, so we returned six days later to ring the chicks. Allan then managed to find a third nest with chicks, “3” on the map, that we also ringed. These three nests were very different in their situations: nest 1, a hole near the top of a steeper-than-it-looked-from-the-bottom cliff-face; nest 2, a hole along an almost flat stretch of short grass; nest 3, in a fairly open rock crevice.
Locations of Nest 1 (May) and Nest 4 (July), possibly 1st & 2nd broods of the same unringed pair. © Allan Perkins
Another interesting feature of these nests was their contents: all contained five healthy chicks, and all are believed to have fledged, though only the brood from nest 3 were all seen (the others remained hidden). Although the nest of the other ringed bird was not found, on territory 4, the pair was seen feeding fledged young (number unknown). Whilst the birds at Girdleness may lay clutches of five eggs, often not all hatch, and very rarely do five survive to fledging there. Nesting success at Girdleness has consistently been 50% over the last three years. Far more nests have been monitored there (31), so it is maybe too early to compare breeding success at the two sites, but it does warrant further study.
The differences in topography and human disturbance at the sites are perhaps responsible for differences in nest survival. The birds on the north coast are noticeably more wary: one bird was observed swallowing a beakful of insects, as soon as it saw us. Only one nest at Girdleness was known to have failed as a direct result of human disturbance, but an abundance of people may encourage predators and scavengers to the area.
Since Lord Pitsligo’s female (at nest 2) was unringed, I decided to try and trap her, as I was interested to see if the pair wintered together. A few days after ringing the chicks, I returned and set some spring traps on the territory. Although I managed to catch two birds, neither was the target female. Firstly, the male of an unringed pair: I had recorded them a few times, hanging around the edge of the territory. I was uncertain whether they had a nest nearby, but they certainly were not feeding chicks. The second bird caught was Lord Pitsligo himself (Metal/Yellow Red/Yellow), trapped for the third time (a record in my study). Like the six-year-old male at Girdleness, he had unmoulted central tail feathers and tertials.
We returned to the area in July, to look for second broods, and saw two pairs feeding young. However, it soon became clear that both pairs were different from those holding the territories earlier in the season. There was no sign of either of the two original colour-ringed birds, or any of the fledged young. An unringed pair now resided on territory 4, previously occupied by Metal/Green Green/Orange. This may have been the pair from nest 1, near the top of the cliff, further along the same beach. At Lord Pitsligo’s Cave (territory 2), the male was colour-ringed, but was the other male caught on the territory, Metal/Red Yellow/Black. Although this nest was not found, it was clear that it was close to the original nest (I did check the original nest and it had not been reused).
Despite the five chicks on territory 4 being quite large when we ringed them, we found that they had been predated by the end of the month: there were chick feathers pulled out underneath the nest. Although partial predation does occur, with some chicks fledging, no chicks from this brood have so far been seen fledged.
Fingers crossed that we’ll manage to find more nests and colour ringed birds there next year. The next Rock Pipit blog will feature the movements of individuals, both local and further afield, including the adventures of Lord Pitsligo’s offspring.