What I missed while I was home

Almost every time, when I am on holiday, I feel like I miss something, while I am not in the Visitor Centre. It was the same in the beginning of November, when I was lucky enough to spend a week in my home country. As soon as I opened my computer after my arrival home, I saw that colleagues from the basin were talking about the first sightings of waxwings.


Waxwing in rowan – Montrose ©Paul Brooks

Waxwings are winter visitors in the UK. They arrive first to the east coast of the country from Scandinavia, and usually move inland as food is getting scarce. They feed on rowan, hawthorn or cotoneaster berries, and can quickly strip a tree. If these berries are fermented enough, they can also get intoxicated!

They start to return from the wintering grounds in February or March and nest mainly from mid June to July. During courtship, the male will pass a small item; usually a berry to the female and then she will pass it back to him. After that they continue to pass this berry back and forth a few times.


Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) ©WikiMedia

There are three species of waxwings; the Bohemian waxwing, the Japanese waxwing and the cedar waxwing. In the UK, it is most likely to see the Bohemian waxwing. Bohemian waxwings are around 20 cm in length and reddish-brown in colour. They have a very distinctive head crests and yellow-tipped tails. Their wing has black, white and red markings; they also got their name from their red wingtips, which look like sealing wax. On the head you can see black mask shapes around their eyes and a black throat underneath. Their wing shape is triangular, so they can be easily mistaken for starlings.


Japanese Waxwing (Bombycilla japonica) ©WikiMedia

The Japanese waxwing breeds in coniferous forests in Russia and in north-east China. They lack the row of waxy red feather-tips on the wing. Another difference is that they have reddish-brown stripe across the wing. The third species, Cedar waxwings are a native of North and Central America and are smaller and browner than the Bohemian waxwings with a yellow belly. Their under tail is white, whereas Bohemian waxwings have an orange under tail.


Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) in Montrose ©Paul Brooks

In Montrose, there are several places to see the waxwings. On my route to work, I pass a few Rowan trees but I only saw that the waxwings were there (one of the trees was completely stripped). I have not seen them yet, I hope that next time I will be luckier.

Noémi Menczelesz – Volunteer Visitor Centre Assistant, European Voluntary Service.

Posted in Birds, Sightings, Species profile | Tagged |

How do you take a photograph of 80 thousand geese?


Every year at Montrose Basin we are fortunate enough to have an influx of one of natures most spectacular sights and sounds. In late September, Pink-footed geese begin to arrive from Eastern Greenland and Iceland, a journey that can take them 2 days to fly.

They choose to land in the Basin for a number of reasons. One being that they have a bountiful supply of food nearby and they are also safe from predators, when they roost in the north east part of the Basin. Whether the tide is high or low, tens of thousands of ink-ing Pinkies will descend on the Basin, much to the delight of the residents of Montrose. A sure sign that autumn has arrived.

So with such a spectacle how do you capture the beauty as an amateur photographer? We asked one of our dedicated volunteers to give us a quick guide on ‘how to photograph large flocks of geese’. He was the man responsible for the widely publicised photo below, so I’m sure you will agree that I asked the correct person.

Pink-footed Geese (45) - Harry Bickerstaff - resized & copy

Mass take off ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

  1. First thing to remember is: no one really wants to see pictures of the rear end of geese flying off, so you want to have them approaching you, or flying across your camera view.

    Geese taking off away from the photographer ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

    Geese taking off away from the photographer ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

  2. In general, geese try to take off into the wind, as it gives them ‘lift’ and gets them into the air more easily. So, you need to be upwind of the geese, or possibly a wee bit to either side of the wind direction, but definitely with the wind blowing on to the geese, whether they are on the Basin, or in a field.
  3. The other essential is the position of the sun, relative to the geese. If the sun is right behind them, there’s a good chance your camera will darken down automatically, to compensate for the bright light shining into it. You will not like your pictures if the geese are all big black shadows, because the sun’s behind them.  So, you need the sun behind you, or at least, generally lighting up the front of the flock as they fly past you.


    Flock lit up by dawn sunlight ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

  4. So, with the sun, more or less, behind you and the wind blowing on to your back or side, how do you know when they are going to take off and give you that picture? You have no control over that and this really is the difficult bit, as it can take hours of waiting.  You must be prepared to wait for the magic moment, when it happens and if you don’t have your camera out and ready to go, it will all be over so quickly, and you will not be very happy if you missed the shot. Too late to check camera settings after they’ve gone.
  5. You need to think about getting close to where you want to be, as soon as it is light enough for the pictures. 8 am is early enough in autumn/ winter, when the birds are here as the sun isn’t all that high – and you need light!
  6. Be prepared for failure, as the geese do what they want. They aren’t taking off and landing all the time, to give you another chance of getting it right, so you need to be ready. Sometimes a large group gets up and simply flies around a wee bit and then just settles back down again in a slightly different part of the Basin.


    Geese at Tayock all moving in different directions. ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

  7. Best lens for the job, is NOT a wide angle lens, as it makes the birds appear to be further away than your eye sees. A standard, or telephoto type lens, has the effect of ‘compressing’ the geese and showing how dense the flock is.
  8. Best place for all this is at Tayock, where the Scottish Wildlife Trust has a hide. Best views are definitely from the hide area and it is well worth going there.


    Practice and patience ©Scottish Wildlife Trust

Best general advice is: wrap up warm and be prepared for a long wait and no success. However, when it all comes together, it’s worth all the cold, frustration and early rise.

Writing and photographs by Montrose Basin volunteer – Harry Bickerstaff

Prelude and editing by Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Assistant Manager – Emma Castle-Smith


Posted in Birds, reserves, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , |

Of wicked trees and autumnal stuff


Pink-footed Geese everywhere.

Traditionally Autumn is the time of the year when Montrose Basin experiences an influx of Pink-footed Geese.
It is also the moment of the year when the trees turn red, yellow, orange and brown, when days get shorter and nights darker, and for the smaller birds that inhabit the Basin, their feeding pattern changes because the view gets full of their favourite berries.
These little red berries come from Rowan trees, and right in this period you can admire them in all their splendour from the Visitor Centre’s viewing area… along with the birds occupied to enjoy them.

The Rowan is a very important tree in European folklore: it is associated to white magic and is the runes’ tree, since it was on its wood that the Druids traced their formulas in the ancient language.
From the berries of this lavish shrub it produces jams, chutney and wine. In Wales they were used to produce beer and cider, and the bark was used to dye dark the wool that kept .warm in winter. Rowan was also planted nearby cemeteries to ensure a peaceful rest to the dead.
It is said moreover that they keep away the witches, but Emma, Alison and I are still here so maybe it is not true in view of our Halloween event, on the 29th of October, we hope not!

Sorbus aucuparia

Details of Sorbus aucuparia. © via Wikipedia.it

Rowan is a small-medium sized, deciduous tree, it tolerates harsh climates and conditions, so much that in Scotland we can find them growing on cliffs, steep stream-sides and on top of large boulders.
It is also known as Mountain Ash because it is capable of growing at altitudes till 760m (2500ft), and because of the similarity between its leaves and the Common Ash tree’s leaves.
The Latin name is Sorbus aucuparia, and in my country – Italy – is known as “Sorbo degli uccellatori” (literally translated: bird catchers’ Rowan), just because people used to hunt in the vicinity of it to catch the birds attracted in big number by Rowan’s berries, an important source of sugar and nutrients that birds “store” for the winter.


A Goldcrest (is lovely, isn’t it?) © Andy Wakelin

In these weeks I’ve seen for myself the changes of our Rowan tree, situated right in front of one of our windows. A great observation point, indeed.
If until ten days ago it was full of the famous berries, now you could find just three of them!
Blackbirds, Blue tits, and Chaffinches are common visitors that shake the branches, and in the last few days we had the pleasure to spot a couple of Song Thrushes. Warblers of different species wander around (and trying to find out which species is always a challenge), and a pair of lovely Goldcrests have appeared. I spotted a Redwing, some Blackcaps, and we hope to soon see Mistle Thrushes, Fieldfares and Waxwings.


A Fieldfare

All of this reminds us that winter is coming (brrr) and while some birds that inhabit the Basin – and our gardens – are going to leave Scotland towards warmer countries, most of them will stay here and keep us company. So it’s appropriate to think about support feeding them.

Essentials to know when feeding birds;

  1. Situate feeder in places away from predators – like cats or dogs;
  2. Not too much food at the same time but refill regularly;
  3. Avoid feeding bread, it is better to choose seed mixtures as they are generally fit for most of the birds;
  4. For insectivores – Robins, Tits, Blackcaps and Blackbirds – we can offer small pieces of apple, raisin, hazelnuts and walnuts, and biscuits’ sweet crumbs as well.

Listening to the songs of these little creatures for me is always a joy, they make me feel at home, and I wish to continue to spot new and exciting species. Perhaps on the Rowan, our wicked tree that always has a surprise in store.

Marika Davoli – EVS volunteer


Posted in Birds, EVS | Tagged , , , , , |

The sound of October

In September I was away from the visitor centre quite a lot. When I came back at the end of it, a nice surprise awaited me, the first geese had arrived. Although I knew that they would be here, it was hard to believe that it is already that time of the year.


Pink-foot family ©Andy Wakelin

I think that the arrival of the geese can have a different effect on people. You can associate it with the cold and rainy weather and dark, early nights, but also it can mean beautiful coloured leaves on the trees. I personally have mixed feelings about autumn. Almost always I am a little bit sad that the summer is away, but sometimes I look forward to Christmas and New Year’s events.


Pink-footed geese at Tayock © Ron Mitchell

At Montrose Basin, we have the Pink-footed geese in high numbers. Last year their numbers were a new record for the reserve, 85,632! They are medium-sized geese with dark head and pink legs, as their name suggests. Since the 1950’s the number of these overwintering geese have increased in the UK. In October 2015 the UK census count recorded 536,871 Pink-footed geese. However, they are not the only species of geese that can be seen at the Basin.


Pink-footed goose at Tayock ©Ron Mitchell

Pink-footed geese are similar to Greylag geese, except that their head and neck is darker and their bill is pink compared to the orange of the Greylag geese.


Greylag geese ©Glyn Lewis

Barnacle geese and Canada geese are also similar. Canada geese have a smaller white patch on their head (a chin-strap), whereas the head of Barnacle geese have a white face mask.


Barnacle goose ©en.wikipedia.org

Canada Geese ©WikiComms

Canada Geese ©WikiComms

The Pink-footed geese arrive here from Iceland and Greenland in September. Usually they spend a couple of weeks feeding in the area before moving further south, most of them to Norfolk area. They leave to feed in the stubble fields in the area at dawn, travelling up to 20 km to get there. At dusk, they come back to the Basin to roost. However, sometimes a few of them stay at the Basin during the day. They can be seen well from the Tayock Hide, because their roosting place is near to it. At this time of year this bird hide is well worth a visit.


The Tayock Hide on the Reserve

Now, while walking to and from work, I can hear the sound of the thousands of geese. The next challenge for me is going to be, to distinguish between the sounds of the different species. I hope that after listening to the Pink-footed geese for months, I will be able to recognise them. Until then, I will fall asleep to their sound every night.

Noémi Menczelesz – European Volunteer

Posted in Birds, EVS, People, Species profile | Tagged , , , |

Interpreting Montrose Basin

In the last 20 years Montrose Basin Visitor Centre has had a few minor and one major refurbishment. Some worked very well, others not so much. Many of you may remember what it looked like when we opened on the 27th June 1995.

The original reception desk

The original reception desk

Visitor centre entrance

Visitor Centre entrance

The mud man of the Basin

The mud man of the Basin

Then in 2004/5, we were lucky enough to be granted more funding and the Centre changed again. Mud man was removed and in went world of tides and the history drum.

World of tides and the history drum

World of tides and the history drum

In 2007 improvements were made to the children’s corner by former Scottish Wildlife Trust ranger and artist, Jan Hendry.

Local artist Jan Hendry repaints the children's corner

Local artist Jan Hendry repaints the children’s corner

Fast forward 8 years and Regional Visitor Centre Manager, Caroline Hendry has been working tirelessly on getting funding for the latest enhancement project. Fortunately Heritage Lottery Funding granted us the bulk of the funding in November 2015. So with this new grant funding we have been able to kick start the process of redesigning the interpretation in the Centre.

Personally I have been on my own journey of learning about what makes good interpretation.

What do people want from a visitor centre? How do people learn? Is there a place for high tech interactive learning in a Centre like Montrose Basin?

What lives under the mud - Microscopes

What lives under the mud – Microscopes

My first professional experience of interpretation was my attendance at a Sharing Good Practice event at Battleby in Perthshire. Run by Scottish Natural Heritage it was aimed at people like me who  had designing interpretation as part of their job description. From this experience I learned that knowing your audience was a key element of designing interpretation. Not an easy thing when there are so many different types of people that use our Centre.

So my first challenge was to redesign our annual Visitor Centre surveys and add in questions about the current interpretation and the visitor demographics. I wanted to see if there was anything that was really loved by our visitors and that would be a mistake to remove. The migration globe was in the forefront of my mind as it is such an imposing piece of kit and it actually turned out to be the most liked by the visitors. So surely that means that it has to stay, doesn’t it?

Migration globe

Migration globe

I also found out who uses our Centre; tourists, locals, amateur birders, twitchers, amateur photographers, families, school and community groups. The list is long, a huge range of people all looking to get something slightly different from their experience. How do you cater for everyone? Can one size fit all?

From the surveys I now know who uses the Centre, what interpretation is used and what age group needs more encouragement to visit but how can new interpretation in the Centre benefit the staff?

Fortunately, our design company has been very good at helping us realise the Centre’s full potential. To begin with, they asked the staff some simple questions. Where do you sell memberships? Where do you tell people about the walks on the reserve? How do you currently use the Visitor Centre? These simple questions got us thinking about what we currently do and where there was room for change. Not such easy question to answer when you have worked in the same environment, with the same interpretation for a long time.

However, we quickly realised that this was our chance to dramatically change the Visitor Centre and bring it into the 21st Century.

Watch this space for more developments…

Emma Castle-Smith

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager



Posted in Events, General, Uncategorized | Tagged |

Where are the summer migrants?

Yes, it is that time of year, when we start to ask that question. As looking on the calendar, I realised that it is the end of August, and it means also that I have been here since six months. It is quite unbelievable.


Common Terns breeding on the raft. ©Andy Wakelin

One morning we noticed that there were almost no terns on our raft and the chicks had fledged. This was probably the first time that I realised that summer is almost gone and autumn is coming. Our tern raft has been very successful this year. There were more than a hundred terns on it every day. Now, most of them are feeding up and preparing to depart for West Africa.

Sand Martin wall © Andy Wakelin

Sand Martin wall © Andy Wakelin

Also, the Sand Martin wall, which I liked to show visitors in the summer, has only a few birds left. They also started their migration to the South of Sahara. With about 25-30 nests, plenty of them raising two brood this year, it has been a good year for them, too.

Kingfisher © Scottish Wildlife Trust

Kingfisher © Scottish Wildlife Trust

This year, when I arrived in March, one of the most famous birds was the Kingfisher. We saw him every day at that time. Then spent the breeding season at the Lurgies part of the reserve and now he is back. Our visitors like him very much, when he is here, almost everybody watches him. Although we don’t see him every day now, I hope, he will be back every day this winter.

Osprey on the Basin © Ron Mitchell

Osprey on the Basin © Ron Mitchell

This time of year might be the last chance to see Ospreys here. This week, we saw two of them! All of their chicks have fledged now, but they still might be around here with their father, before they start their route to West Africa.

White-rumped Sandpiper © Scottish Wildlife Trust

White-rumped Sandpiper © Scottish Wildlife Trust

There was a bit of excitement in the centre recently, when the White-rumped Sandpiper was around. Members and Non-members came here to see it. It was hard to spot it, as it was feeding by Rossie spit. It took me a few attempts to see it in the telescope but at the end I could see something moving around. It is often mistaken with other sandpipers. The upper part of its body is dull grey- brown with white eye stripe. The main distinguishing feature is their white rump, which is visible during flight. We have also been lucky to see Curlew Sandpiper on Rossie spit and in front of the centre over the last few days.

There are already a few geese on the Basin, but I’m looking forward to the arrival of the Pink-footed geese in September, which will definitely be an amazing sight.

Noémi Menczelesz – EVS volunteer and Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Assistant

Brilliant bats1

Posted in reserves, Sightings | Tagged , , , , |

Working outside

I like to be outside since my childhood. With my family, we often had trips to the surrounding area of Budapest. I guess, my interest for nature started that time also. I was also very lucky, because I had the opportunity to be outside, and work in a garden, despite of living in a flat: we have had a weekend house for that. I always felt that I like working outside more than sitting in an office, that’s why I was more than happy to accept the offer to help Anna, our ranger in her work from May. It is also an advantage that during work you can be on the fresh air and physical work keeps you fit.

There is always lots to do around the centre. As there are many of them, you can always remove weeds and cut bushes. To avoid the soil to contain too many nutrients and allow wildflowers to grow, the daffodils need to be cut down after flowering. As time passes, I can see more and more wildflowers in our car park. Unfortunately, we cannot see our Bluebells anymore, but the Red Campion, Daisies and Vipers Bugloss are blooming.


Daisies and Clovers – Noémi Menczelesz

I also had chance to help around our dipping pond. This pond had been restored for children’s activities. I watched the beginning of the work from inside, but I helped at the end of it: we needed to move the soil near the pond.

During my outside work, I had opportunity to visit other Scottish Wildlife Trust reserves. One of them was Seaton Cliffs near Arbroath, where we had an interesting task of testing the benches and doing some beach cleaning. During walking you can see many seabirds, like herring gulls and fulmars, as well as a beautiful view to the sea. These two birds are very similar, except that fulmars don’t have a black wingtip and a red spot on their bills. At first it surprised me, how urbanised the gulls here are. It is very usual here they take food from the bins.

While walking on our reserve I could see many flowers. The Shelduck Hide and Wigeon Hide walk both lead near a farmland, where I could see thistles, daisies, forget-me-nots, white clovers, and buttercups flowering. The gorse that had many flowers in early May, now only has its leaves.


Thistles – Noémi Menczelesz

I can feel that summer is here: the visitor centre often becomes very hot and the windows and doors are usually open. The first chicks of birds also appeared in the Basin. First the Eider chicks, then the tern and Sand Martin chicks hatched. Our visitors love them, too. They grow very fast and are almost the size of the adults now. The Sand Martins are probably in their second brood this year.

2016 Common Tern around the Raft - July - 06

Common terns and their chicks – Ron Mitchell

Apart from the usual bird species, sometimes, you can see interesting and rare visitors. A few weeks ago, for example, we spotted a spoonbill on our reserve. As the breeding pairs in the UK is very low (about 0-4 pairs), it was quite an event for us. In Hungary, it is a more common bird, with about 1000 pairs. Another rare visitor these days was a little grebe in the pond in front of the centre. It has slightly bigger numbers in the UK than the spoonbill. This bird likes freshwater, can swim and dive very well. They use vegetation for hiding, so it may be difficult to spot them.

2016 Spoonbill - Maryton Ditch - 4

The famous spoonbill – Ron Mitchell

I can just encourage everybody to get outside and enjoy wildlife. Even if you don’t have a garden to work in, you can go for a walk and be a little bit on the fresh air. Maybe you will see something that surprises you.

Noémi Menczelesz – Visitor Centre assistant/EVS volunteer

Don’t forget that we have “Wild about the Basin” every Wednesday.

Book a place now for this weeks activities – 01674 676336

Wild about the Basin summer2016


Posted in Birds, Events, EVS, People, Sightings, Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , |


Here at Montrose Basin we’re all about the mud, and rightly so – in which case why on earth am I about to sing the praises of our dipping pond? Well, it has been a fantastic addition to our repertoire since it was created by the then ranger, Karen Spalding, in 2002.

We are only able to safely take groups out on the mud two hours either side of a low tide, restricting us, in effect, to roughly two weeks in each month that school groups can explore the mud. Karen’s idea of a specially constructed / designed dipping pond that groups could use to discover the creatures that live in that environment would give us another option.

The proposal was accepted and Karen received Heritage Lottery Funding to create the pond along with it’s boardwalk and tables – specially designed to take the trays, the clipboard to make notes on finds and of course the identification key sheet.


Finished dipping pond May 2003

Once filled up with water, creatures quickly started to colonise it. We added a few aquatic plants and it soon began to look as though it had always been there. Better still – when teachers called to book for their class to visit they were delighted that while half of the class could still go out on the mud the other half could now take part in pond dipping and compare the creatures found in the different habitats, before swapping over.


Invertebrate identification chart

As well as this advantage, the teachers were no longer restricted to the times when the tide was low to come for their visit. The pond was available for their groups to use at any time, so they could do an outdoor activity learning about the creatures that live in the pond and then after a tour of the Visitor Centre have time to look through the telescopes and binoculars and watch birds such as Sand Martins and Swallows catch insects that were recently living as larvae in our dipping pond!

The pond proved increasingly popular over the next few years with both school groups and organisations such as the Cubs and the Brownies that were able to make use of the Visitor Centre and its facilities on specially booked evenings. We also began to run holiday activities for families, looking for the creatures in the mud, the pond or in the grounds and a number of holiday clubs came along too.

Dipping pond tray


In the Winter of 2006 there was a prolonged cold spell and a group of well-meaning volunteers thought they would help the wildlife by breaking the ice on the pond. However, once the thaw arrived, it soon became clear to us that they had been a bit too vigorous with garden tools when puncturing the ice and had unfortunately punctured the pond liner too! Our then ranger, Neil Mitchell, did his best to save the remaining pond water in buckets which were lined up along the side of the fence and another, stronger pond liner was ordered. The boardwalk had to be taken up so that the new liner could be fitted properly by the team of volunteers which was quite a bit of work and even trickier to replace them in the correct places afterwards!

In Spring 2007 we had our pond back and optimistically returned contents of the buckets in despite not knowing what, if anything, might have survived. Very soon it was recolonised by a wide variety of tiny species for more children to study and enjoy. Since then I have annually placed a float in the pond throughout Winter, so that if it ices over there will always be a little area not frozen, which is much better than breaking up the ice for both the creatures and the liner.


Wild about the Basin

Over the years many young people have enjoyed our dipping pond and been fascinated by seeing a variety of species, including hoglice, beetle larvae, pond skaters, waterboatmen, tadpoles and froglets to name but a few. My personal favourite are the phantom midge larvae, but you’ll just have to take my word that they exist as they are pretty difficult to see in the tray and I have no decent photos of them at all!

We find stonefly and mayfly nymphs which are particular indicators of clean water; which is unsurprising since our dipping pond is purely rainwater, occasionally topped up from the hose if we have a long spell of dry weather (not too often to be honest!).

Last Summer, when I returned from my holidays, I arrived back on my first day and was dismayed to see that the water level was quite low. As I had been abroad I asked if Montrose had enjoyed a sunny spell during the previous weeks, apparently it had been “mixed weather” as ever! So – why was our dipping pond looking somewhat sorry for itself? Well, in the next day or so it became clear that the nine year old pond liner had started to come apart.

bt work party

Removing the mud from the bottom of the pond

We have such a large, man-made pond (11m x 4m) that back in 2006 the most affordable option of liner was one that had two pieces bonded together. After nine years of not just sitting there stopping the water from leaking away, but also taking a battering from many pond nets jabbing at the bottom, it had started to literally come apart at the seams!

So began the most recent task of replacing the pond liner. We were lucky that our current Ranger, Anna Cheshier, managed to get a team of volunteers from British Telecom to help us to remove the mud at the bottom, followed by pulling up the old liner. It was messy, smelly work and we are extremely grateful for the hours that they put in that day, and for the donation that they subsequently sent us.


Staff and volunteers reshape the pond

It was a tough job for Anna preparing the area again, removing and cleaning the boardwalk, measuring and purchasing a suitable replacement liner – which alone cost around £700! Now it is in place we hope to get many happy years of dipping out of our fabulous, newly lined pond.


Pond liner in, just the board walk to lay



Pond and mud activities June 2016

Alison O’HaraMuddy

Lead Teacher Naturalist

Why not come along and experience a spot of pond dipping yourself? This Wednesday (13th July) our Wild about the basin event is “Pondamonium!”

Call now to book your place. 01674 676336

Wild about the Basin summer2016

Posted in Events, General, People, pond dipping | Tagged , , , |

When Countryfile came to town

“Hello, can I speak to your ranger please? It’s James from BBC Countryfile…” this was the request one morning in early May when I answered the telephone at Montrose Basin Visitor Centre, and the first that I was aware that the BBC were considering filming in our area.

Over the coming few days our ranger, Anna Cheshier was in high demand on the ‘phone, the researcher had many questions about what sort of Local Nature Reserve we are, what activities take place, whether we might have a “practical opportunity” for their presenter to help us with and so on.

Sand Martin wall ©Ama

Sandmartin wall ©Amanda Thomson

Monday 9th May dawned bright and sunny; the BBC Countryfile researcher and a cameraman visited our Reserve for the first time – they were delighted with everything they saw, the glorious view, the wildlife, the estuary and the welcoming staff and volunteers. They filmed a little at several locations, including our Sandmartin wall and were led on a tour of the area by Anna. They stayed in Montrose overnight and learned more about some of the interesting activities in the town.

Filming crew

Film crew with ranger Anna Cheshier and volunteer John Anderson

The following Thursday, 19th May, by 9am a larger Countryfile team of 5, including presenter Anita Rani, were ready to film. Typical however of the fickle Scottish weather, it was a dull, grey day – actually the first day in May when we had any rain in Montrose! The team all headed out for a morning of filming in the mist, which turned to a thick drizzle as the day went on. Just as well they had some lovely footage of our Sandmartins taken the previous week! Personally, I was happy to be indoors and just supplying teas and coffees between takes and chatting to Anita and the crew, turns out that Anita is a big fan of our traditional Scottish shortie.

Mallard nesting tube

Mallard nesting tube

In the afternoon Anna and her volunteers were to create a duck nesting tube – the first one on our reserve. Anita had to pull on her wellies, waterproofs and woolly hat again to help with this practical work. We hope that in future Mallard will use the tube of chicken wire and straw to make a nest which will be safe from predators, as these have proven successful on other reserves. This was then mounted on a post which was placed in a pond in front of our Visitor Centre – the sediment at the bottom was rather uneven, and we thought that the water might go over the top of Anita’s boots, but all was well with her – although Anna did return with a wet sock, it was due to a wee hole in her wellie!

© Coastguard Angus & Mearns

Mud rescue with Anita Rani © Coastguard Angus & Mearns

We said goodbye to the by now somewhat soggy BBC team and made plans to meet them again the following morning, much to my surprise Anita gave me a big hug and thanked me for looking after her. They headed off to a nearby hotel and then to meet up with our local Coastguard who was bringing them back to the estuary in the evening to take part in a demonstration of a mud rescue, at this point the weather cleared and everyone actually enjoyed a pleasant view of a Montrose Basin sunset.

Basin sunset © J Harrison

Montrose basin sunset after a rainy day filming © J Harrison

At 6.30am on the Friday the team met Anna once again for the final piece of filming, when I came in it was already half way through their day. Fortunately it was a more pleasant day weather wise and not so many waterproofs were required. Everyone involved had an early lunch, left us about 1pm and went down to the town to join the other film crew with Matt Baker at the rugby ground before flying back from Aberdeen later in the afternoon.

BasinViewsAWW017It seems to me that there is quite a lot of waiting around while the camera and sound person do various checks and that filming requires a great deal of patience. I am happy to tell people all about our fantastic nature reserve, but wouldn’t want a director to keep stopping me in mid flow or asking me to repeat the last bit of information in a different way! The researcher, James, told me that he and the crew were envious of our everyday view.  I replied that they must see some great places in their work, but James said that Montrose Basin was “up there” with the best, and I wholeheartedly agree with him on that!

Anita and myself

Anita and myself

If you missed the BBC Countryfile programme when it aired on Sunday 5th June you can still catch it on BBC iPlayer until 3rd July.

Alison O’Hara – Lead Teacher Naturalist






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My visit to Handa with Scottish Wildlife Trust


I had looked across to Handa island from the mainland a number of times and promised myself that one day I would visit the island as I heard it was a wildlife reserve and a great place to visit, however with work commitments time passed and I never managed to visit.

Once I retired from work I became a volunteer with Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) at Montrose Basin  and I discovered that Handa Island (one of 120 SWT reserves) is one of the largest seabird colonies in north west Europe.

A year later I was helping refurbish the dipping pond at Montrose Basin with Anna, the reserve ranger who asked me if I would be interested in volunteering for a week on Handa and if so I should go and see Emma, which I did immediately and she soon had me fixed up for a week’s volunteering on Handa Island along with Chris a European Volunteer (EVS) from Malta who is volunteering for one year at Loch of the Lowes.

On the Saturday, the day for the trip, we travelled to Tarbet in the far north west of Scotland.  On arrival, we introduced ourselves to Rodger the ferry master who operates the ferry which takes all volunteers and visitors to the Island.

With Rodgers help we loaded our bags and our food for a week’s stay on Handa on to the ferry and we set off up Handa sound heading for the island, on the way we saw a few Red-throated Divers and Shags in the water and a White-tailed Eagle above us.


The ferry approaches

As we approached the island we could see that it was going to be a beach landing and the two 2016 season rangers were there waiting for us on the beach, one pushed up a portable jetty to the boat and the other held the boat steady so we could disembark safely. Just along from the boat in the water was a Black-throated Diver and on the beach some Oystercatchers and a Ringed Plover.

handa bothy

Welcome to Handa

The rangers Tom and Danni welcomed us to Handa and helped us with our luggage up a very steep hill to the bothy where we would be staying for the week. On the way to the bothy we saw two Wheatears and a number of Skylarks plus a few rabbits running about on the hill just above the shelter.

The next day (Sunday) was a day off and Tom and Danni accompanied us around the visitors walk which is about 6km and took us about 3 hours.

On the Monday morning we put on thigh waders and the rangers Tom and Danni took us to the visitors shelter where we would be each day from 9am to 5pm.  They gave us an introduction to our job on the island, which was to work with the ferry, we were given a radio each for communicating with Rodger and a mobile phone for contacting the rangers.

Rodger would radio us when he was bringing visitors to the Island, we would then go to the beach where one of us would operate the portable jetty and the other would steady the boat, once the jetty was in place then whichever of us was working the jetty would also steady the ferry boat and ensure the visitors disembarked safely.

the beach

The beach

It wasn’t long before we received the first radio message from Rodger telling us he was on his way with a number of visitors and would be landing at the Lockie which was the name of one of two beaches used to land visitors on the island the other was Chapel bay but was simply known as The Beach so we headed down to the Lockie to meet the ferry.

safety talk

Me giving the safety talk

Once the visitors were safely on the beach we then accompanied them to the visitor shelter where Danni welcomed them to Handa and explained that the island was owned by Scourie estate and managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust.  She gave them some information about the island and about their safety while on the island including providing them with a map showing points of interest and the rangers phone number in case of emergency.

Tom and Danni helped us with landing the visitors up until 2pm and then said they were happy that we were working well and left us on our own for the rest of the week. The 2pm ferry brought Kate and Andrew, the new assistant rangers that would be staying on the island for four months. Tom and Danni the season rangers stay on the island for six months.

Handa team

From left to right: Chris (EVS volunteer), Tom (Handa ranger), Danni (Handa ranger), John (SWT volunteer), Kate (assistant ranger), Andrew (assistant ranger)

 The Visitors Walk

After leaving the shelter visitors head up hill and the first point of interest is a ruined village which consisted of 6 black houses and 64 people and was occupied until the mid-19th century when after the potato famine in 1845, followed by two years of failed crops the last remaining people approached McIvor one of the Duke of Sutherlands factors and asked him to ask the Duke if he would pay their passage to Canada (Nova Scotia) which he did and spent around £200 on biscuits for their voyage.

Once the people left, sheep were then put on the island and sheep were the occupants right up until 2003.

visitors walk

Keep on the path

The walk continues north and visitors were advised to stay on the track for their own safety and so they don’t disturb nesting birds or damage the habitats. They pass an area of heath where the Great Skua (Bonxies), Red Grouse, and other birds nest, then arrive at the cliffs and Puffin Bay, where on sheer cliffs, with a vertical drop of around 120 metres and a small needle stack, they can see Puffins and Fulmars soaring in the wind. Artic Skuas, White-Tailed Eagles and Gannets can also be seen flying.

Also on the heath you can see flowers such as the Spotted Orchid and Lousewort, Bell Heather, Sea Mayweed, Roseroot, Thrift, Bluebell and numerous mosses and lichens, common lizards, newts, Magpie and Garden Tiger Moths.

Heading west along the cliffs the next place of interest is the Handa Great Stack, a huge tower of torridonian sandstone reaching up from sea level to the height of the cliffs some 120 metres high, the stack is almost impossible to climb and it has been said that more people have landed on the moon than have reached the top.

On the stack at times there are thousands of Guillemots which at times can reach some 66,000 plus there are Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Shags, Cormorants and Fulmars.

Heading south you can see the great wall, a huge torridonian sandstone wall, again with Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars and Puffins. Continuing south you come to Poll Ghlup (pronounced Paul Gloop), what a great name for a sink hole! This is a huge sink hole caused by a collapsed sea cave hundreds of feet below. The torridonian sandstone is also the bedrock of the island, over 1,000 million years old and provides perfect ledges on the cliffs for nesting birds.

handa 2

Clear day with a view of the mainland

As you continue south and look west towards the Western Isles of Harris and Lewis, in the ocean if you are lucky you can see whales, dolphins, Porpoises, Basking sharks and seals.

The next place of interest is Boulder Bay here it is possible to see Otters and seals, further along are some more sandy beaches.  The track then heads east and visitors arrive back at the shelter, we then radio the ferry and once it arrives we again operate the portable jetty and get them safely back on board for their trip back to the mainland. We do this several times a day and each visitor is informed that the last boat leaves at 5pm, also as visitors arrive on the island we keep a record of how many adults, children and under 5’s arrive on the island, how many leave and how many are on the island at all times insuring that everyone has left at the end of the day.

Once the last visitors are safely back on the ferry, that’s it, our days’ work is done, we complete the paperwork for the day and head back to the bothy for a meal after which we are free to explore the island or do whatever we want to do.


Handa sunset

In the evenings you can hear numerous Snipe drumming with their tails, a very strange eerie sound and one I had never experienced before and sunsets on the island are simply amazing.

Sadly, Saturday come all too soon, our week on the island was over and it was time to leave but thanks to Scottish Wildlife Trust a great experience on an amazing Island, new friends made and after a few photographs and goodbyes we boarded the ferry as the next weekly volunteers disembarked.

On the way back I took Chris on a tour down the west coast to Ullapool and showed him the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve before heading back to Inverness and on to Perth stopping in Aviemore for Fish and Chips.

John Anderson – Scottish Wildlife Trust Volunteer, Montrose Basin

Handa Island recently featured on BBC One: Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart 
























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