Wandering around

After our arrival, we got a “welcome pack” with lots of leaflets, maps and information. One of the most interesting from them was the one with the walking paths in Montrose. As I like walking very much, it gave me the first goal to reach: to walk along all of them.

scurdie_ness

Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, the first trip – Noémi Menczelesz

My first tour led to Scurdie Ness Lighthouse, from which one can have amazing view to the sea. If you are not tired, I suggest continue the trip in the direction of Mains of Usan, along the beach. No one should miss the beach of Montrose, too. As I came from a country, where there is no sea, I couldn’t take enough pictures from it.

beach_montrose

The beach of Montrose – Noémi Menczelesz

I also had time to explore the walks of the Basin. As many of our visitors take the same road, it was quite useful to walk along it. Although that day we had typical Scottish weather with wind and cold, the walk was very interesting. It was even better, because I wasn’t alone, I went with one of my colleagues. We also had an opportunity to observe the Swan management officer moving the swans off the fields to protect them from overgrazing.

As I have said, one of my aims is to walk along as many walking paths in Montrose as I can. One of them leads to North Esk and Charleton farm. At the first time I didn’t reach North Esk, but I saw the fruit farm. In the beginning of May off course the berries were not ripe yet, but I am sure that I’ll return, when they will be ripe.

Our first trip to another town with Marika led to Dunnotar Castle and Stonehaven. Dunnotar Castle has a beautiful view to the sea. The castle is mainly a ruin, but with the information provided there, we could imagine, how they used the parts of it. After that, we continued our trip to Stonehaven, where we saw the harbour and even the bar, where the deep fried Mars bar were invented. Maybe I will miss the experience to taste it. We had some time to explore the beach, and to try our first fish and chips. It tasted so good that I think one of my plans is going to be to try it at as many places that I can. After having a nice ice cream (in hats and winter coats – but we have one life, haven’t we?), we headed back to Montrose. We also planned to visit an RSPB reserve, to see the puffins, but unfortunately, we ran out of time, it remains for the next time.

dunnotar_view

The view from Dunnotar Castle – Noémi Menczelesz

As the part of exploring new cities in Scotland, we had the opportunity to visit Dundee, and other EVS volunteers there. After spending so much time in Montrose, which is obviously a smaller town than Dundee, it was a little bit strange to be surrounded by so many people. We visited the main parts of the city, the Discovery Point, which was a ship used to explore the Antarctic. We also walked to the McManus Gallery. It is a beautiful building with many paintings and other information, too. It was a hard walk, but we managed to get to the top of Dundee law, too. I can say that for me it has worth the effort, because I like to see things from above, and beautiful landscapes. In my home country, we often went on trips to see our city from a hill nearby. We also saw many churches in Dundee. Unfortunately, none of them were open; which is a strange thing. In Hungary, we can usually visit the inside of the churches. After exploring the town, we had a very interesting international night with other EVS like us from France, Greece and Spain.

dundee_law

Dundee from the Dundee Law – Noémi Menczelesz

Now, I can feel that spring has arrived here, too, so in the following month I hope I can continue wandering around.

Noémi Menczelesz

European Volunteer

Posted in EVS, General, People, Sightings | Tagged , , |

Oh, look, it’s raining again…

Do you know when, for breaking the ice with new people, you take the “weather argument” and you feel an immeasurable loser because you haven’t found a better topic?
Well, here in Scotland it will never happen.
Here “weather” is the must, it’s the usual expression between the first greeting and the passage to the conversation’s heart; and that’s because actually about the weather you can say a lot.
Personally I’ve had a lot to tell regarding these days when I had occasion to assist to a sequence of sudden changes, alternating rain, wind, sun, snow, hail stones, sun, wind, rain, sleet, sun… all in eight hours.
I’m glad not to be meteoropathic.

"Summer is coming" they tell me...

“Summer is coming” they tell me… © Marika Davoli

Anyway, apart the quaint weather, my second month has passed through new discoveries, some trips, little personal goals and project for the future.
One thing that I love mostly of this city is its music dimension. Montrose is quite famous in Angus for hosting MoFest: a music festival which for three days will occupy squares, streets and pubs of the entire city, around the end of May. I’m speaking about bands almost purely local and pubs that give their space (and their beers!) to a mass of people who love the sensation of rumbling tympanums, of bass vibrations under shoes, of hearing guitar solos, and who cannot wait to get wild to the rhythms of rock, folk, reggae, and so on.
Then, I will be in that mass too, probably busy running here and there looking for the sound I love and, above all, groups that I’ve had the honour of appreciating and that I’ll gladly hear again.
So if you, between the 27th and the 29th of May, will have nothing to do, here there’s a little town that’s waiting for you with rivers of beer and good music!

Dunnottar Castle view © Marika Davoli

Dunnottar Castle view © Marika Davoli

In these days – aided by the more human temperatures – I’ve had the possibility to find out new sides of this land which reveal itself with delicate discretion day after day.
Our first, lucky excursion was towards Dunnottar Castle: suggesting ruins roost on a coast’s fragment, a little but fundamental fortified village which gave a very important contribution to Scotland’s history. Was there where, in fact, about the 13th century, William Wallace set fire to the chapel full of English soldiers who had taken refuge inside; and where, about three hundred and fifty years after, the Crown Jewels were hidden during the dark ages of Cromwell’s occupation.
Dunnottar Castle is a typical Scottish landscape, of those which you can find on every postcard and recognize effortlessly. North Sea hitting the bluffs, white froth cutting through by gulls, razorbills and guillemots (unfortunately I didn’t see any Puffins, sigh sigh), huge and green meadows… and romantic castle’s ruins.
Oh, moreover Dunnottar Castle has been the scenery chosen by Franco Zeffirelli for his film Hamlet (1990), which won two Oscars and, well, that’s made me feel a bit at home.

Dun Estate's path © Marika Davoli

Dun Estate’s path © Marika Davoli

Another much appreciated trip was at Dun Estate, in Montrose: a lovely building in Georgian style surrounded by an enormous green estate, crossed by lots of little rivers reached through one of many “secret” paths, and where a beautiful series of centuries-old oaks stands out and makes a wonderful impression at the sunset.
Taking advantage of imminent summer, hoping the weather won’t get weird, I wish to explore Angus, this region full of stories, ways and views that make it feel like for each threshold crossed there’s a world to discover.
As my friend told me before I left Italy: “Who knows, perhaps you will get inspired for some of your novels”. Happy to confirm that I’ve got inspired.
Yes, because one of the little personal goals which I’ve just spoken is have finished the writing of my second novel, right here in Montrose. As it may seem irrelevant for the rest of the world, writing has ever been my vocation, and to be able to “blend” it with my adventure here as an integral part of it, represents a great outcome and a big awareness for me.
I concluded my latest post with the hope for a more clement weather, and now seems that it’s gently accepted my request… sometimes.
So I’m going to close this post with the hope to improve my English – pardon, my Scottish – which keeps to be not good (damn me).

Thanks to all of you for encouraging me.

Marika Davoli
European Volunteer

Posted in EVS, People | Tagged , |

Dandelions the most undervalued wild flower

At this time of year we are bombarded with TV adverts about how dandelions are going to destroy your lawn and driveway.

What’s so wrong with an over grown lawn or a road verge full of weeds?

Why is it that everyone is so obsessed with keeping things tidy?

My biggest spring bugbear is when councils and home owners insist on cutting road verges. If it was a visibility issue then that makes sense but if that’s not an issue then why not let the vegetation grow?

What people don’t seem to realise is that road verges can be a useful wildlife corridor, offering food and shelter to small mammals and insects. One of the champions of these corridors is undoubtedly the humble dandelion. Persecuted by many as an invasive weed, most people don’t seem to understand its true value.

Loewenzahn_Taraxacum_officinale

Loewenzahn; Taraxacum officinale – wikimedia commons

The dandelion (Taraxacum officiniale) is actually a type of daisy, part of the Asteraceae family. It is commonly found in meadows, pastures, waste ground and road verges. I first noticed their abundance at the beginning of the month as they replaced the Daffodils, with an equally bright display of colour.

florets

Florets – Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen – Wikimedia commons

The flower head or capitulum of a dandelion is actually made up of lots of individual flowers known as florets or ray flowers. Each have stamen with pollen, nectar and a single petal. This is a key feature in daisies and is part of the reason why they are so vital to pollinating insects.  With continuous flowering through spring and summer, each floret provides pollen and nectar and therefore a near continuous supply of food for visiting insects.

fruit

Fruit – Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen – Wikimedia commons

However as I’m sure you know dandelions don’t actually need insects to propagate through cross pollination. Instead their flowers develop into seeds, creating the dandelion clocks that I used to play with as a child. These seeds are an exact replica of the parent plant and use the wind to disperse. So the relationship between the dandelion and the pollinators it supports is a positive neutral relationship, named commensalism. Meaning the flower doesn’t suffer or gain anything from its relationship with the insect, but the insect gains something positive.

Dandelions can supply food to a number of different pollinators including bumblebees, butterflies, hover flies, day flying moths and solitary bees.

F Green-veined White butterfly

Green veined white butterfly on a dandelion – Andy Wakelin

There is a growing need for people to recognise that our pollinators, and in particular our honey bees are coming under threat of extinction. This is no small matter as we need our pollinators to pollinate many of our fruits and vegetables.

In fact, there are already places in the world that have to transport bee colonies to and from farms just so that they can pollinate the crops. For certain crops, pollination is necessary for the fruit to develop and grow. Therefore these mobile colonies of bees are becoming big business and sadly essential.

In the UK we are heading in that direction and if we all just took the opportunity to sit in the garden and not mow the lawn we might all be better for it in the long run. Just think of all the bees and butterflies you could sit and observe on a sunny day. Of course valuing dandelions as an essential food source and not an ugly common weed can’t be the only way to solve the decline in our bee populations but it is something that everyone can do.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust are currently running a campaign to Save our bees by urging the Scottish Government to recognise that neonicotinoid insecticides are harmful to our pollinators. Click the links to find out how you can help.

Special thank you to Neil Bromhall for allowing  us to use this excellent timelapse footage. His website www.rightplants4me.co.uk is available to help with plant ID.

Go wild in June with our 30 days wild challenge

Emma Castle-Smith                                                                                                                                  Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Assistant Manager

Posted in General, Uncategorized, Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , |

Teacher Naturalist – a special kind of job

Finally, my colleagues have worn me down and I have agreed to post a blog or two. So – where to start? “At the very beginning…” as Julie Andrews tells us, “it’s a very good place to start!”
Montrose Basin Visitor Centre was declared open in June 1995 by Magnus Magnusson and I was there! I was working for the outside catering company and I felt quite honoured to serve him his glass of bubbly. Our base for sorting out the food and drink was the education room – little did I know then how much time I was going to spend there in the coming years.
The local children were keen to visit the Centre and to join the monthly Wildlife Watch group, started by the new education officer, Blair Wilkie. My son, Scott, then 8 years old, really enjoyed it and I soon began volunteering, along with a couple of other parents, to help run the many and varied activities.

BlairWatch

Wildlife Watch 1998

Late in 1999 there were a number of changes in the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Blair began working at head office in Edinburgh. Myself and a couple of parents kept the Watch group running with the help of the ranger, Karen Spalding. By this time it was my daughter, Amy who was attending along with her friends. Karen was missing Blair at the Visitor Centre and proposed a new way of delivering education at Montrose Basin – the Teacher Naturalist programme was born!

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Teacher Naturalist Team 2004

I was employed, along with 5 others, and trained to deliver occasional activities. We mainly took groups out on the estuary mud at low tide, to hunt for the creatures lurking there and learn more about them; this is still our most popular activity today.
As time went on the team, who all had other jobs, were barely able to keep up with demand from local nursuries, primary schools and groups such as Brownies and Cubs and in 2002 it was suggested that a “Lead Teacher Naturalist” be employed, one day per week from April till October. I was delighted to be chosen as the successful candidate and still hold this position today.
Currently we have 13 Teacher Naturalists (or TNs as we call them) who have been trained and employed on an “as and when required” basis. They have a wide variety of skills and interests, and all have an extensive knowledge of the natural world and in particular our estuary here at Montrose and it’s wildlife. Some of them only deliver very few activities annually but are still as valued as those who manage to cover many events. We get together for “in house” training a couple of times a year and share our knowledge and good practice as well as being professionally trained in outdoor emergency aid.
Why not come along to one of our many family fun days, wild about the basin events or other activities? You are sure to meet one of our team of enthusiastic, knowledgable TNs and have a great time while discovering more about the world around you.

Alison O’Hara
Lead Teacher Naturalist
Montrose Basin Visitor Centre

 

Don’t forget this weekend!!!

Pollinator Paradise May 2016 Optical Fair May 2016

Posted in General, People | Tagged , , , |

One step forward, two steps back

Tallinn - first day of spring

Tallinn – first day of spring 2016

I happened to be on holiday in Estonia on the first day of spring this year and it was snowing. Naturally you make excuses for such a thing due to the fact that Estonia is so much further north than Scotland. So snow on the first day of spring was acceptable. Fast forward to the end of April and what do we have here in Angus. Snow. Fortunately it is not heavy and the ducks don’t seem to mind but it certainly doesn’t feel spring like at the moment.

Despite the odd weather, we have had a number of spring migrants make their way back to Montrose and the surrounding area over the past month.

Sand Martins Wall AndyWakelin

Sand Martins at the wall (c) Andy Wakelin

Our Sand Martins returned earlier than usual on the 29th March and have been very active at the wall especially when the sun is out. Chiffchaff were also heard singing for the first time this year in the last week of March.  The first of the Swallows to investigate the eaves arrived on the 6th of April but have scarcely been seen since then.

This month we’ve also had our first sightings of Osprey, Willow Warbler, Sandwich Terns and a male Black cap eating at the feeders.

wren RM

Wren nest building April 2016 (c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

More importantly there has been a lot of evidence of nesting around the centre and on the reserve. Recently one of our members photographed a wren building its nest by the Bank of Scotland hide and one of the rangers accidentally disturbed a female Eider duck this afternoon who has begun building a nest out on the reserve.

So despite the crappy weather the birds are getting on with their spring duties and fingers crossed the weather improves soon.

Don’t forget that the centre is warm and has fantastic views across the Basin. We sell tea and coffee so it’s definitely the cosiest place in Angus to bird watch. Our next event is on 8th May, Pollinator paradise family fun day and an optics fair with an Opticron representative to answer all your questions.

Emma Castle-Smith

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager

Optical Fair May 2016Pollinator Paradise May 2016

Posted in Birds, Events, Sightings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , |

Welcome

Hi, I am Noémi, the other EVS volunteer from Hungary. I can tell you that at first it was very hard for me. Not just because I haven’t left my home country, Hungary, for such a long time before, but because I had to leave my family as well. At the same time, I was looking forward to the new experiences and adventures. I felt lucky, because this was my first opportunity to work in the conservation sector.

Where is Hungary in Europe?

Where is Hungary in Europe? – commons.wikimedia.org

The reaction of my friends was very variable, when I told them that I will be away for one year. Many of them didn’t understand, why I am doing this – I had a job in Hungary that wasn’t a voluntary work, obviously. Of course sometimes I asked myself the same question. However I still think that having an abroad experience should be a part of everyone’s life and this is a very good way for it.

I left my home very early, at 4:30am. My parents brought me to the airport. After the tearful farewell, luckily everything went well, although I was worried that the size of my handbag will be too big. At first, I landed at London Heathrow Airport, this huge building compared to the size of Budapest’s  Airport. After a short bus trip to the next terminal, I had to wait for my flight to Edinburgh, but at least I had some chance to walk around in the building. After the arrival to Edinburgh, I managed to find the bus to the train station with a little difficulty and then took the train.

Basin

Basin at sunset – Noémi Menczelesz

When I arrived to Montrose after the long journey, the first experience was the cold and windy weather. I have to admit that at first I didn’t know how I will hold on for one year. But the people who were waiting for me (Alison from the Visitor Centre, Matt, our landlord and Marika, the other EVS volunteer from Italy) were very welcoming, and soon we ended up in a restaurant. The journey to explore a new country and culture began, following with the first day, when I got a taste of a real English tea with cake. Later it turned out that it is an everyday habit here, which is very nice, because it can keep someone warm.

As I came from another country, learning a new job may be more difficult than in someone’s home country. There are many things to get used to, even little ones, like the new money. Luckily, everybody was very helpful and patient.

I think that in the first month, I have already learnt very much from the Scottish culture and food. The friendly staff in the Visitor Centre and our new friends in Montrose gave many opportunities to experience life here. In this first one month, I tried different places, bars and restaurants. Of course, one of the first meals to try here is haggis, as one of the most Scottish foods. At first I was worried about trying it, but it is a nice meal – even if a little bit spicy. As eating, I found it very similar to a Hungarian dish called hurka, which is traditionally made when slaughtering a pig. It is made from the liver, lungs and fat of the pig and rice, filled in the intestines of the pig. The seasoning is a little bit different from the Scottish one: we use salt, pepper and paprika (http://www.meatsandsausages.com/sausage-recipes/hurka).

It is interesting that ginger is used here many times – for example in beers, which I found very tasty. Of course I have tasted traditional Irish and Scottish beers, too, in the bars that I have visited. I can say, they taste different than Hungarian ones, but my favourites will still remain the sweet drinks.

sprinkling

Sprinkling – hu.wikipedia.org

As I like sweet food very much, too, I liked the traditional Easter cake, the hot cross bun since the first time. This cake has a cross on its top, which symbolizes the cross of Jesus. Hungary has traditional Easter meals, too, we usually eat boiled ham with eggs for Easter. There is an interesting tradition in Hungary in connection with women’s fertility: boys go around the town and sprinkle perfume on the girls head. Even a few decades before they used water for this procedure! (http://www.hungarotips.com/customs/locsol.html)

daffodils

Daffodils at the Centre – Noémi Menczelesz

As Easter and spring pass, the daffodils are still blooming, while walking to work, so let’s hope for a warmer weather soon.

Noémi Menczelesz, European Voluntary Service volunteer, Montrose Basin

Please see our next events on the 8th of May

Optical Fair May 2016 Pollinator Paradise May 2016

Posted in Events, EVS, People | Tagged , , |

How to put yourself in trouble

Ciao to everyone, Marika speaking.
Do you know when, for years and years, you chase a desire, an inspiration for which you feel like you could do everything, and suddenly the possibility that this desire can become a reality?
So, do you know the deadly panic that assails you when your desire is so close to becoming reality?
Well, I felt that too.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to me when the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s email arrived to my mailbox for inform me that I was selected for a twelve months project in the town of Montrose, on the east coast of Ewan McGregor’s home land.

This is the situation’s panoramic: for a long time I was looking for an abroad experience, and for a year I threw myself in the EVS’ – European Voluntary Service – world, researching a project for which I was right, and which it was right for me. After some attempts, motivational letters, emails without answer and interviews via Skype, I really was losing hopes, ‘til the news of my selection arrived.
Obviously I knew about the project length, activities and accomodation, but the step between dreaming it and doing it, is always an unknown that doesn’t respond to the logical laws but emotional ones. My emotions, reached that step, came into conflict.
An instead entire year away from everything I recognise, from everyone I know, in a new society with a different culture, new people and new things to learn, to assimilate, to discover, to create; it was about launch me out of my comfort zone and get in a totally foreign dimension.
The question that I often asked myself was: “Going there or not going there?”, accompanied by more visceral one: “Am I doing the right thing?”
If I am doing the right thing was a question that concerned only me, my attitude and my way of facing the situation; and about the first question I decided that I didn’t want tease myself. I sweated, I wrote, I engaged for months and months to obtain the result of a departure – and for a important project – backed down was like admitted that my desire was only a fantasy.
And I knew it wasn’t.
So, like it or not, I had two months for accustom myself to the idea, and little by little the departure became a fact. The news emerged spontaneously with friends, I was beginning to boast a little with acquaintances, I declined some invites because I knew that, by that time I wouldn’t be in Italy. I lived with mix of sadness, terror and excitment for the new and unknown.
At the end, I left.
First day of March started really “good”, with total anxiety because of an accident at the motorway exit and relative queue, that make me fear of missing the flight, but everything was ok, and even better: luck was with me because the not very hardworking airport employee ignored that my bag exceeds the weight for which I booked. Then, alright! I arrived to Edinburgh airport greeted by smiling operators, I took the coach for station and there I collected the ticket for Montrose, that I booked in Italy. At dusk I was on the train and the Scotland profile accompanied me while I thinking that the day went as smoothly as honey, for me, which travelling alone is always a source of anxiety, was a real satisfaction.
In Montrose I met two lovely people – Alison and Matt – and some hours later also Noemi, the girl that will be my EVS adventure mate for one year. For made us familiar they invited us out for dinner, showing a cordiality that, in that frightfully cold and windy evening, melted our hearts.

The unmistakable profile of Montrose town - Marika Davoli

The unmistakable profile of Montrose town – Marika Davoli

From the next day was started our new adventure: we did a little journey in this city of about 12.000 people and with a unmistakable profile, and then to Visitor Centre, where the project is located. A pretty, nice place full of big windows and binoculars with which to observe the Basin, where, as well as many non-migratory species, every year thousands of migratory and birds stop to rest, to relax, to moult and to feed them thanks to the circle of biodiversity.

Two frequent visitors of the Center – Marika Davoli

The Visitor Centre will be the centre of my life the for this year, hoping to learn not only English language but also the accent a bit… tough.
This first month was a global smattering of what is waiting for us: lot of information, notions, news, that I hope to can facing little by little, until the achievement of my specific goals, and for discover aspects of me that I have never met.
Only time will tell.
For the moment I just hope for a more clement climate!

Big, blue North Sea - Marika Davoli

Big, blue North Sea – Marika Davoli

 

 

Marika Davoli – EVS volunteer

Posted in Events, General, People |

Epilogue

I’ll be honest with you; a lot of my life prior to working at the Basin was spent behind a television screen. Going on walks and appreciating nature seemed to be a distant memory from childhood. Now was the time for shooting zombies and slaying dragons. It wasn’t that I disliked nature or wildlife; I think I just became a typical teenager, and lost touch with my roots.

Salt pans – Benedict G. Murray

The trouble with becoming attached to a screen is that it can impact your social life. I became terrible at talking to people. Things were so bad, that I would avoid going to the hairdressers to save the grief of talking to a stranger. Much to my horror, you do actually need to interact with people in the real world; so once I started this job, I was very out of my comfort zone.

A big part of this job is providing excellent customer service. It’s a very customer focussed role, and I’m not sure I was aware of how big a part that was when I first applied. The people I worked with over the first few months will tell you, I was genuinely terrified of manning the front desk where customers are first greeted. I would hide behind more confident workmates, letting them take the reins. I was more elusive than the bittern when the doormat or phone rang.

As time went on this became unrealistic, and I was forced to take control of the situation. Two volunteers on an internship, Meili and Aileen (whose confidence and people skills I greatly admire), left at the end of their contract, leaving me by myself. I was to either sink or swim. Although I miss them both – that was the best possible thing that could have happened.

Montrose Rail Bridge – Benedict G. Murray

This is a success story – I’m still treading that water baby! I lie – I’m not only treading, I’m diving off the side of the pool, and racing through the water… if I may say so myself.

To illustrate the change – last month, I was on par with our best sales woman, Alison, in terms of recruiting new members to the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I hear that a key component to being a successful sales person is being a people person. A what? Yes that is right Benedict, you’ve become a people person. By exposing myself to the challenge of interacting with the public, my fear subsided and my confidence grew. I realised I wasn’t going to be eaten alive by visitors just here to see the birds.

This confidence has seeped into other areas of my life. I’m more outgoing now. I can hold a conversation with a beautiful woman and not feel that the world will end if I ‘say the wrong thing’. My males friends say my posture has changed, I now speak with confidence, not shying away when we have discussions. However the pinnacle of my new found confidence was evident at a recent job interview, I spoke as if I was talking among friends, and it worked – I got the job.

I learned something else about myself when I was assisting a large group of young people with learning difficulties. Seeing the joy and happiness on each of their faces when teaching them about the kingfisher, the pink-footed geese, and how to use the telescopes was a fantastic feeling. Being able to give someone a memorable experience which left them feeling good about themselves was something that I never knew that meant so much to me.

Basin Sunset – Benedict G. Murray

I owe a great deal of this success to my job at the Basin. Being surrounded by positive people, who want you to improve and succeed, can have an astounding effect. The people I’ve met and worked with at the Basin have taught me a great deal. I want to acknowledge the fantastic bunch of people I have had the pleasure of working alongside at the Montrose Basin Visitor Centre. Every employee and volunteer cares greatly about making a difference – and not in a hippy passive way – they are actually active in trying to make a difference. I would thank everybody on here individually, but I’d prefer to do that in person – now that I can speak!

In a previous blog, I was honest in saying that I only took this job for money, but I’ll say it again, it’s become so much more than just that. I would highly recommend working or volunteering for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I take pride in working at the Basin alongside some of the kindest and best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. 6 months has passed, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that it has been the best job I‘ve ever had. I came to this job an immature, arrogant, entitled university graduate with a narrow mindset of what I liked and disliked, and what I was good and bad at. This job has been a welcomed wake up call.

Looking to the future I see myself exploring Edinburgh’s outdoors, seeking out the wildlife (and nightlife), seeing the sights, meeting new people and developing myself further. However there is one big difference in this picture compared to one of my life six months ago. The television is off.

 

Benedict George Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant

Posted in Events, General, Mammals, People, Species profile, Uncategorized, Wildflowers |

The ranger’s winter highlight: Thoughts on the visiting Bittern.  

From the middle of January to mid February we were blessed at Montrose Basin by the presence of a very scarce winter visitor – a Bittern.  This bird caught everyone’s attention and our Visitor Centre Assistant, Benedict, recently revealed in a blog that his first glimpse of the strange, skulking creature was the moment the penny dropped and he understood the fascination that goes with the birding way of life.

Benedict wasn’t alone in his excitement at seeing the Bittern on the Montrose Basin Local Nature Reserve; it was a first sighting for me too and I found myself unable to take my eyes off it on those rare, special moments when it came out into the open in the salt pans area. Checking the scope for any hint of movement in the reeds where it may be hiding became a ritual when I started my day – ‘What a fantastic place to work!’, I thought every morning.

 The Bank of Scotland Hide located at the bottom of the Visitor Centre car park was a hive of activity every day as people heard the news that travelled across the birding community and came in hope from far afield.  Many were lucky and saw the Bittern out in the open, crossing the pools of the salt pans and foraging for food, others saw a glimpse of it perfectly camouflaged in the reeds while others left disappointed.

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Bittern on frozen pool, source: Ron Mitchell

Among the visitors were amateur and professional photographers who made the most of the opportunity to take some fantastic shots of the Bittern. One photographer was granted a permit to erect a hide before dawn and leave after dusk (meaning no disturbance was caused) with the hope of gaining some high quality images. Unfortunately the Bittern hadn’t been seen and it is likely that the spell of cold weather just prior to that day, resulting in more of the pools freezing over, had caused the Bittern to move on in search of a more consistently available food source.

All staff, volunteers and regular visitors to the reserve couldn’t believe how lucky we had been and every day felt sure ‘this must be the morning where we discover it has moved on’, but the weeks passed with daily sightings much to everyone’s surprise.  According to the 2007 edition of Birds of Scotland (known in the Montrose Basin ranger office as ‘the book with all the answers’) between 2 and 10 Bitterns were recorded annually in Scotland between 1990 and 2004 with 85% of sightings between October and March and peaking in January. Though it is acknowledged that these birds may go undetected due to their evasive nature, we still all felt thrilled to be observing Bittern behaviour so regularly.

The last time I saw the Bittern was 16th February and though I was saddened that it had moved on, I felt privileged that Montrose Basin was graced with the presence of such a secretive red listed bird for over a month. Along with many who were gripped by the Bittern, I am anxious to find out if we get a repeat visit next winter and come October I am sure to find myself not only looking to the skies to count thousands of Pink-footed Geese, but also scanning the salt pans for subtle movements in the reeds that may reveal the well camouflaged skulking Bittern foraging for food among the pools.

Anna Cheshier, Montrose Basin Ranger

Posted in Birds, General, Sightings, Uncategorized |

I’m watching you.

Every week, I’m asked to write a blog about wildlife and every week I sigh and grumble for a few days. The writing game is new to me and I don’t know whether I am alone, or is it a common struggle to find novel ideas or motivation? Grumbling aside, I eventually found inspiration.

I recently made an identification sheet of Corvidae for a gentleman short of sight. It was made on an A4 sheet so that he could identify the different types of crows outside of his care-home window – big pictures, bold text, etc. I had to be clear and concise, while including enough to distinguish between the black coloured birds.

Anyway, I was asked to write a blog about this, and I objected, thinking my altruism wouldn’t be particularly interesting for readers. Who wants to read about how great I am, seriously? Nevertheless, I did have to produce a blog. I’m getting paid to work after all – I should probably do something… apparently.

I decided to look a little further into what was interesting about the Corvidae family. They’ve always intrigued me, with their distinctive course ‘craws’ and ominous demeanour. Furthermore, if you’re familiar with Game of Thrones (GoT), you’ll be aware of the significance of crows throughout the series. There is so much to say about these birds, and if I was paid lots of money, I would happily do a thesis on their behaviour. However I have other responsibilities here at the basin, so this is merely a snapshot of what I could pull together. If you enjoy and want to know more, I highly recommend watching “The Secret Life of Crows” on Youtube.

So. What I found is that some people don’t particularly like crows – more than just Wildlings, ha ha ha… (bad GoT joke). Biologist, Louis Lefebvre, gives an explanation, “We are omnivores and we’re social; crows are omnivores and social. That’s probably one of the reasons humans don’t like them, we’re too similar. They’re opportunistic, and so are we. They are invasive, and behave in a way that humans also do, but are not proud of, i.e. feed on garbage.”

Historically, it seems that the long cultural interaction we have had with crows has been a negative one. Lebebvre and others go further, illustrating how this relationship has seeped into modern culture. “Whenever anything bad happens on TV, there’s always the sound of a crow, lurking nearby!” Whoever named the collective of Corvids was also clearly influenced by the widespread negativity. The collective for a Raven is “an unkindness of”, and for the Carrion Crow – “a mob of” or “a murder of”. Charming indeed.

Feast of crows

Augustus Friedrich Albrecht Schenck – Anguish Oil on canvas, 1880

Negativity aside, there are further similarities we share with crows. Crows create mating pairs, stay relatively monogamous, have extended families that help out with the young, and have wide social groups. Perhaps similarly to how we may have acted in hunter-gatherer times, the whole crow family take turns standing guard over the young and scaring off nearby predators. Furthermore, juvenile crows spend a long time with their parents, longer than most other bird species. During this time, the young watch, learn and remember from their parents, providing them with the crucial skills that will increase their chance of survival.

Crows can also learn a lot from each-others misfortune. For example, if a fellow crow is killed in a farmer’s field, the group may change their entire migratory pattern for up to two years. I witnessed first-hand, the degrading display of a dead crow, stapled to a post in the middle of a field when roguing, done with the intention to warn off any other crows from coming near. Although I found this disturbing, it works. It’s the modern day ‘scarecrow’.

This brings me to my main point, the defining quality that really separates crows from the rest of the bird species is their intelligence.  Crows do not have the biggest brains among birds – parrots have – but crows are by far one of the most intelligent.

smart crow

Typical Raven, Source – Creative Commons, Google

For example, one study showed that the pitch and volume of a crow’s craw changed when danger approached. For the study, researchers investigated crow’s nests wearing masks, which the crows learned to identify – in a single visit. When the researchers returned without the masks, the crow’s craws seemed to be normal, a little excited, but normal. When the masks were brought out, however, things changed drastically. The researchers were not only verbally assaulted; the crows swooped and dived, to avert the researcher’s course.

Crows possess an evolutionary advantage that only a handful of other species possess also. The have the ability to teach their young who is dangerous, without the young experiencing the danger first hand. The ability of crows to recognize is so great, that the US department of defence has begun funding studies like these. The hope is that they can utilise the bird’s ability to recognize for pointing out the bad guys, in areas outside the bird world. That would really give a new meaning to the Black Watch.

Within the crow family, one bird stands above the rest for me – the Raven. I believe Ravens are underrated. They’re so distinctive and bad-ass, with shaggy throat feathers and a huge intimidating beak. Their deep, very gruff croaking call really tops off their already rocker/biker like characteristics. On top of being handsome and awesome physically, their intelligence is what makes them my favourite bird species. Anyone can be muscled and intimidating (we see this often in human society), but having brains as well is far more impressive.

When it comes to intelligence, ravens are up there with chimpanzees and dolphins. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Most ravens got the food on the first try and others within 30 seconds. Like chimpanzees, New Caledonian Crows use tools.

Caledonia crow

New Caledonian Crow using tool, Source – Creative Commons, Google

Examples from the wild also show their cunning and creativity. Ravens have been reported to have pushed rocks on people, keeping them from climbing to their nests. Others report seeing ravens pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes to steal the caught fish. One of the even more impressive behaviours reported, is when a raven wants to scare off others from a beaver carcass, the bird will play dead next to it, deterring others from approaching his/her spoils.

As pets, ravens can learn to talk better than some parrots. They also mimic other noises, like car engines, flushing toilets, animals and other birdcalls. In the wild, it’s been reported that Ravens imitate wolves or foxes to attract them to carcasses if the raven isn’t capable of breaking it open.

Fundamentally, adaptability is the key strength for Ravens, and crows. I think we could all learn a great deal from crows, especially these days. Whether I’m a closet Goth or rock star is still up for debate, but something draws me to the crow family. Maybe I associate myself with them, or more likely, envy them. They’re the outsiders and outlaws of the bird kingdom, hated by the other species but also feared and respected.

So keep your eyes and ears open next time your outside, the chances are, you’re probably being watched.

dark crow

Benedict George Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized |