What’s that big black bird?

A question asked by 8 year old John.

That, young John, is Phalacrocorax Carbo. Or more commonly known as – a Cormorant.

Cormorant ©Wikipedia

John’s beautifully simple description aside, how else would one recognise a Cormorant?

It is semi-aquatic, meaning that it is most often found by water, along coasts, estuaries, or sand banks. On Montrose Basin, they are often seen at high tide on Rossie spit, and are easily distinguished from other common residents, such as Oystercatcher, Redshank and Wigeon.


Rossie spit (c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

Cormorants sit low in the water, with their heads raised regally. Excellent divers, they dive under the water, without a prior look into the water below. It’s been found, that Cormorants can reach depths up to 45m in search of food, such as fish and eels.

Leap diving ©Wikipedia

One of the Cormorants most recognisable behaviours, is their characteristic crucifix stance. They are not alone in doing so, with companions elsewhere such as Brown and White Pelicans, some storks, herons, vultures, and hawks (Ehrlich, 1988).

Why do they do this?

Great question John. The prevailing theories suggest the stance is an energy saving technique.

Spread wings © Copyright Walter Baxter, Creative Commons

Cormorants lack the water resistant properties that many other aquatic birds possess, and therefore must dry their wings. It requires large amounts of energy for a Cormorant to regulate its body temperature in order to dry its wings. For this reason, it is thought that cormorants use nature’s hand-drier – the wind. The wind compensates for the cormorant’s lack of water resistance, drying residual water from the birds’ plumage.

Other theories suggest that the crucifix stance assists food digestion. The stance increases the exposure of the bird’s front to the sun. Digestion requires energy, and it is thought that the heat absorbed from the sun reduces the amount of heat required to be generated by the bird itself.

Wait, is that a Cormorant or a Shag?

Excellent question John. These two black, aquatic birds can be easily be mistaken for one another. However, certain indicators of identity can aid the distinction between the two.

Shag © Wikipedia

Firstly – but only helpful if standing next to one another – the Cormorant is much bigger than Shag.

There is slightly more white found on the Cormorants plumage, primarily around the face, and a patch above the legs. Both juvenile Cormorants and Shags have white fronts, and therefore other indicators are needed to aid distinction. Cormorants always have black feet; Shags have pale coloured feet until adulthood.

The variation in head shape is a key indicator. While a Cormorant has a relatively streamlined beak to head, a Shag has a raised eyebrow or peaked crown. During courtship, Cormorants raise a tuft to rear of their head, while Shags raise the tuft at the front.

The Cormorant’s beak is thick, with a light grey colour, and a yellow patch at the base. Shag’s have a more slender beak, with black upper mandibles, and a far more distinct yellow on the lower mandible.

Finally, a more detailed difference is that Cormorants lack the green tinge of adult Shags.

Now John, if you have any more questions, you know where to go don’t you? Check out the Montrose Basin Visitor Centre. I hear its a pretty swell place.


Benedict George Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant

Reserve maps can be obtained from the Visitor centre or here http://bit.ly/1LYFzJ9

As of 1st November, the Visitor Centre will be opened Friday, Saturday and Sunday only, from 10.30am – 4.00pm until 29th February, 2016.

Reserves and hides will remain accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Posted in Birds, General, Species profile | Tagged , , |

Fantastic Mr Fox and the Salt Pandemonium

The estuary here at Montrose Basin is ever changing. Since beginning my time volunteering here I have watched with intrigue as the Basin transforms over the course of the day, as the high tide brings birds in close to the visitor centre for excellent viewing and the low reveals mudflats which attract a multitude of waders, wildfowl and seals. I have never experienced a change quite as extreme as the one we witnessed on Friday, as an extra high tide came in, backed by strong winds and the salt pans were flooded.

Flooded salt pans and field  (c) Andy Wakelin

Flooded salt pans and field (c) Andy Wakelin

Usually shallow pools normally adorned with dipping ducks and hungry herons were engulfed into the mass of the estuary. This was a spectacle in itself; however not the only one as the flooding also created an island, on which a lonely fox became trapped! We watched intently from the visitor centre window as the beautiful creature searched his small island for an escape route.

Fox in the sun  (c)Andy Wakelin

Fox in the sun (c)Andy Wakelin


Neither the ponies nor the birds who had taken refuge on this dry patch of land seemed perturbed by his presence, and neither he theirs. He seemed a lot more preoccupied with getting back home than finding himself a snack!

Fox and oystercatchers  (c)Andy Wakelin

Fox and oystercatchers (c)Andy Wakelin

Reluctant to step in to the water, our furry friend wandered back and forth for some time before eventually giving in and wading to the mainland where he joyfully dashed in to the bushes and out of sight.

Wading fox  (c)Andy Wakelin

Wading fox (c)Andy Wakelin

This unusual daytime visitor and the interest of the flooding saltpans led me to look into their history.  Beginning in the 12th century, the saltpans surrounding the Basin were vital as a part of the booming salmon export trade from Montrose. Water from the estuary was captured here during high tides and as the water evaporated and a concentrated solution of brine was created. This was then boiled to remove the rest of the water, and the resulting salt was used to preserve fish before export. When the visitor centre opened here in 1995, these salt pans were scraped out to provide shallow pools for wildlife.

salt pans  (c)

salt pans (c)Scottish Wildlife Trust

However, these pools became increasingly invaded by the surrounding vegetation and by 2007 had almost dried up. A new strategy was needed. The pools were once again scraped out and this time the area was fenced off so that a flock of Scottish Wildlife Trust’s hardy Hebridean sheep could be routinely placed in the area to graze the vegetation and keep it under control. Cattle have also been used to graze this area, but recently we have used Highland ponies, which can often be seen happily meandering around the salt pans and nearby field.

Ponies (c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

Ponies (c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

I have been blessed to see many species of bird enjoying these salt pan pools including teal, moorhen, water rail, snipe, grey herons, the occasional little egret and our wonderful resident kingfisher (have a look at our previous blog for some information about him!).


Aileen Corral- Visitor Centre Intern

Posted in Mammals, Sightings | Tagged , , |

The King of the Basin

As I prepare to write this blog, the star and inspiration of it has just so happened to appear in front of me sitting on it’s usual perch. Yes, that’s right, it has it’s very own spot here at the Basin. A beautiful sight, it sits poised, almost as if it knows of it’s many admirers watching it from the visitor centre. As if we are not already wowed by it’s appearance and overall elegance, it’s stunning display of catching fish at the ponds in front of the centre is another reason to find this small bird widely impressive.

(c) Harry Bickerstaff

Although Kingfishers appear brightly-coloured, with their signature blue-green back and orange front, they are actually brown in colour. The reason the colour we observe is different to the brown pigmented colour of the feathers is because the structure of the wings causes light to be refracted in different directions before it reaches our eye. If the light was reflected directly back to us, the kingfisher’s plumage would appear much less spectacular!  (QI- Kingfishers)

Males and females have very similar physical characteristics, however, females generally possess red colouration on their lower mandible. This is the easiest way to tell them apart in the field.

Male Kingfisher (c) SWT

Male Kingfisher (c) SWT

Female Kingfisher (c) SWT

Female Kingfisher (c) SWT

Here at Montrose Basin our frequent visitor enjoys the delightful delicacies of our brackish (slightly salty) ponds. Our sticklebacks are particularly popular with him. Swallowing them whole, he manoeuvres the fish so its head faces inwards. This is so the protruding body armour plates of the fish do not suffocate or damage the inside of the Kingfisher’s throat during consumption.

Stickleback (c) Wiki Commons


Kingfishers are generally short-lived, typically living for around 2 years (although the BTO have a ringed bird recorded as living over 4 and a half years) (BTO) . Once kingfishers have fledged (at around 24-25 days old) their parents force them our of their territory and the youngsters are left to fend for themselves.

Front view of Kingfisher (c) Harry Bickerstaff

Front view of Kingfisher (c) Harry Bickerstaff

We have seen the Kingfisher from the visitor centre window on an almost daily basis since early July, and even had a sighting of 5 at once earlier in the year. They are fantastically attractive birds and do not fail to amaze each time they are spotted. We are fortunate to have our little Kingfisher choose our reserve as its place for comfort and food, even though it was almost taken from us by a sparrow-hawk! It has returned since then, crisis averted – Phew!

Meili Oh – Visitor Centre Intern

Reserve maps can be obtained from the Visitor centre or here http://bit.ly/1LYFzJ9

As of 1st November, the Visitor Centre will be opened Friday, Saturday and Sunday only, from 10.30am – 4.00pm until 29th February, 2016.

Reserves and hides will remain accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Posted in Birds, Sightings, Species profile | Tagged , , |

What about Wigeon?

Eurasian Wigeon are a beautiful species of duck, distributed throughout Europe. Though the male and female Wigeon are very different in appearance during the breeding season, both can be identified by their short, wide and slightly hooked bill, which is blue-grey in colour with a black tip. They have short legs and a large round head shape.

Male standing (c) Commons Wikimedia

When in flight, a white belly patch can be seen on both sexes, along with their distinctive green and black hind wing.

Wigeon Harry Bickerstaff (346)

Male Wigeon (c) SWT

Male Wigeon are the more easily noticeable gender. Their breeding plumage is mostly grey on the body with a pink chest and red-brown head. They have a large white wing patch which can be seen when in flight and some individuals have a green streak behind their eye. The males’ most distinctive feature by far is their yellow forehead, however this is lost when they adopt their winter “eclipse” plumage, at which time they appear much more similar to female Wigeon, apart from retaining their large white wing patch.

Male in eclipse plumage (c) Commons Wikimedia

Female Wigeon tend to have a grey-brown to reddish brown body, head and forewing. Unlike the males’ wing patch, females have a much more subtle thin white bar on their mid-wing.

Male and female Wigeon (c) Commons Wikimedia


During the summer months,  they nest in moorland and peat bogs or boreal forest marshes in Iceland and Eastern Siberia.  A migratory species, and it is the Icelandic breeders that over winter in Scotland’s estuaries, lakes and reservoirs. They can be seen at Montrose Basin during winter months, generally between September and April.

Wigeon prefer to reside in open spaces and enjoy stretches of water for bathing and for safety, making Montrose Basin a perfect habitat. Wigeon typically stay in tight groups, and are social birds.

Wigeon at Salt Pans AndyWakelin

Wigeon in Salt Pans (c) Andy Wakelin

Enjoying a vegetarian diet, Wigeon are grazers- mostly feeding on short grass, sedge and rush stems and roots. They also eat eelgrass on estuaries, such as the Basin, and also often graze on arable fields.

Wigeon grazing  Rossie Spit SWT

Wigeon grazing on Rossie spit (c) SWT


Wigeon, along with other wetland birds, are counted monthly at Montrose Basin as part of the UK wide Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). Many wetland bird species are migratory, therefore it is important to monitor the size of their populations, trends in numbers and whereabouts they travel. Groups of volunteers count birds each month in synchronised counts so that all counts across the UK are done on the same day. The last WeBScount done here on the 11th October revealed that there were 4,287 Wigeon residing at Montrose Basin.

Here at the Basin we have the Wigeon hide, aptly named for optimal viewing of Wigeon, at the Mains of Dun, side of the Basin, a 1.5km walk from the Old Mill car park. They can also be spotted, however, at Rossie Spit, or occasionally in the salt marshes at the front of the Visitor Centre.

Reserve maps can be obtained from the Visitor centre or here http://bit.ly/1LYFzJ9

As of 1st November, the Visitor Centre will be opened Friday, Saturday and Sunday only, from 10.30am – 4.00pm until 29th February, 2016.

Reserves and hides will remain accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Aileen Corral – Visitor Centre Intern

Posted in Birds, General, Sightings | Tagged , , , , |

When is a Pink-footed goose not a Pink-footed goose?

Answer: When it is a Snow Goose…

An elegant Snow Goose was spotted on the 12th October 2-3 km east of the visitor centre in amongst a group of Pink-footed Geese.  This rare occurrence has sparked interest about it’s origin and behaviour but also raises the question: Why was it travelling with a group of Pinkies?!


Pinkies and Snow goose (centre) (c) SWT

There are two types of Snow Geese: the white-morph and the dark-morph (“blue goose”).


Snow Goose (Photo from Wikimedia)

The white-morph geese are primarily white with black wing tips and have orange bills and legs.

Blue morph Snow goose (photo from Wikipedia)

The dark-morph geese have a white head, neck and tail tip, however, their plumage are a blue-grey colour. They also possess a  similar bill and leg colour to their white counterpart.


Generally Snow Geese migrate in large groups to spend their wintering months in milder climates – travelling from their breeding grounds on the Arctic Tundra to southern parts of North America. With a minimum distance of 1,400 km separating the breeding grounds (Pinkies breed on the east coast of Greenland and Iceland), a number of possible reasons can be raised as to why this individual was found on a field with a group of Pink-footed Geese:

1. Separated from it’s family group on migration.

2. It may have met rough and strong winds somewhere along it’s migration.

3. It had found a group of Pink-footed geese to integrate with as they similar in size.

It is not uncommon for individual birds travelling in large groups to be left behind or “lost” and join other groups of birds similar to themselves. We may never definitively know why this Snow Goose ended up in the Montrose area, but we can agree that it was great and special sight to see.


For more information and updates please like and follow our Facebook page, Twitter and Website.

Meili Oh – Visitor Centre Intern


Check out our upcoming event:


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

Golden Plover

The Montrose Basin is home to many migrating birds (not just the Pink-footed Geese!).  Another species of interest is the Golden Plover, which we’ve been lucky enough to see recently.

The Golden Plover is a beautiful wading bird. They feed on worms and insects, which are plentiful at the Basin, grabbing them by running and dipping their short bills in to the ground. Golden Plovers spend the summer breeding months in solitude in upland moors and above the treeline of mountains; however in winter they flock together and migrate to warmer lowland areas, such as the Montrose Basin, where they remain in large groups. They can generally be seen here during autumn and winter months.

Golden Plover flight

Golden Plover in flight (c) Harry Bickerstaff

Plovers belong to the same family as Lapwings, and the two species are often spotted in mixed groups. Although related, the plumage of the Golden Plover varies greatly to the Lapwing. This doesn’t make them easy to spot, however! The beautifully speckled Golden Plover doesn’t just look pretty; their cleverly coloured feathers make them well camouflaged on the rocks and sandbanks of the Basin, and other habitats they occupy such as ploughed fields and pastures.

Golden Plover flock

Golden Plover flock on rocks (c) Harry Bickerstaff

The plumage of the Golden Plover changes throughout the year. In summer breeding months, the underside of the bird is black; whereas in winter, the underside turns white.  The feathers on its back however remain dark brown with golden notches around the edges, which gives the bird its beautiful speckled plumage and distinguish it from the Grey Plover.

Golden Plover body feather  (c) Harry Bickerstaff

Golden Plover body feather (c) Harry Bickerstaff

This month (October), 330 Golden Plover have been seen so far, from the visitor centre viewing window. So if you’d like to see these wonderful birds for yourself, now is a good time to come!

Aileen Corral – Visitor Centre Intern

Awesome Autumn

Posted in Birds, Sightings | Tagged , |

What flies in large V shapes to Montrose in September? Here’s a clue: Pink feet!

You guessed it! Pink-footed geese! With our upcoming People’s Postcode Lottery Goose Breakfast just around the corner, it would only be right to share some facts about these glorious birds.

Pink-footed Goose (close) SWT (21)

(c) Scottish Wildlife Trust

With a grey-brown round head, short neck and a pale chest, the Pink-footed goose may be difficult for a new bird watcher such as myself to distinguish from other geese. However, for those eagle-eyed, (excuse the pun!) budding new birders,  their most identifiable feature are the pink bill and legs that they possess. Often travelling in family groups, they migrate from mainly Greenland and Iceland to arrive in the UK to spend the winter months in a milder climate.

Pink-footed Geese Harry Bickerstaff (32)

(c) Harry Bickerstaff

The importance of the migration to the Pink-footed geese is to utilise the best ecological conditions to suit their needs for that particular time of the year.

Montrose Basin is Internationally important for Pink-footed geese, with last years count (2014) reaching a massive 78,970 – our highest ever recorded number!

Pink-footed Geese

(c) Harry Bickerstaff

The Pink-footed geese will eventually leave the UK and travel back to their breeding grounds in the Spring of next year.

For more information and updates please visit our Facebook page, Twitter page and Website.


Meili Oh – Visitor Centre Intern

Posted in Birds, Events, General | Tagged , , , , |

Moth month


Moth enthusiasts of all ages. (c) Alison O'Hara

Moth enthusiasts of all ages. (c) Alison O’Hara

Every month at Montrose Basin visitor centre has been themed this year to give a little extra to our visitors.  We started September by taking part in ‘National Moth Night’.  We were delighted to welcome Paul Brookes, our local moth recorder for the East Scotland branch – Butterfly Conservation.  Paul has been moth trapping at Montrose Basin Nature Reserve for a number of years now and continues to find new species records for the site. This year alone he has caught 12 new species of Moth, previously recorded in other parts of Angus but new to the reserve.

Early Grey (C) Paul Brookes - New to Montrose LNR April 2015

Early Grey (C) Paul Brookes – New to Montrose LNR April 2015


Moth night with Paul Brookes (c) Alison O’Hara

During our event at the visitor centre for national moth night we had 21 eager moth enthusiasts joining us to learn more about moths.

In addition to our successful night, we have also had the pleasure of hosting a wonderful exhibition by Charlotte Craig, a graduate from the Glasgow School of Art.  It has been up in the mezzanine all month and we have had lots of positive feedback from it.

Large Emerald (C) Charlotte Craig

Large Emerald (C) Charlotte Craig

Charlotte’s work explores the relationship between man-made and natural environments ‘how we mark the land and the land marks us’. As part of her final degree art show; she has made several moths, all from natural materials, such as grasses and seeds. Even her paint was made from leaf mulch, charcoal and blue-green algae. The project was initiated with the help of Butterfly Conservation, and 15% of any prints or greetings cards sold is going to the charity.

Flame Carpet (c) Charlotte Craig

Flame Carpet (c) Charlotte Craig

The exhibit will be with us for a few more days, so if you want to see them then come along ASAP! Otherwise, they are heading to the Scottish Natural Heritage Battleby Centre near Perth for exhibit next month.

We would like to thank Charlotte for letting us show off her wonderful work and we hope to do more collaborations in the future.

Emma Castle-Smith – Visitor Centre Assistant Manager


Posted in Butterflies & Moths, Events, General | Tagged , , |

September can be an exciting time to be a birder

Pink-footed Geese (45) - Harry Bickerstaff - resized & copyThis month heralds the return of the Pink-footed Geese back to Montrose Basin after a long summer in Iceland and Greenland. We were fortunate to have a large influx of Greylag and Canada geese (1350) at the beginning of September, but these are now giving way to our fabulous Pink-footed Geese. The first 7 were spotted on 10th September, with a steep climb to 253 individuals the following evening. We can only hope to match the spectacular peak number of 2014 (79,970 individuals) this Autumn. They may surprise us and surpass that number breaking our records once more – only time will tell.

Goose breakfastIf you are interested in gaining a unique experience, you might be interested in attending our famous ‘People’s Postcode Lottery Goose Breakfast’. Booking is essential as places fill up fast for this event. Call the centre on 01674 676336.


(c) Andy Wakelin – Peregrine in action pursuing a Lapwing

However, it’s not all about the Geese. Here at Montrose Basin we are very lucky to witness some stunning sights over the Autumn. In the last 2 weeks we have had several sightings of Peregrine Falcon. One afternoon, we witnessed one pursuing a Lapwing, fortunately for the Lapwing it was unsuccessful but fascinating to watch none the less.  We have had daily sightings of Osprey, many of which are now passing through on their migration south to West Africa. Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and juvenile Buzzards have also been making frequent appearances in front of the visitor centre windows.

Long Eared Owl 1-p19v3fafe31k4f367872doe118f

(c) Scottish Wildlife Trust ~ Long-eared Owl – Winter 2014

Our most exciting visitor by far this month has been the Long-eared Owl! An eagle eyed visitor spotted this shy bird hiding in a bush in front of the Visitor Centre. Hopefully this won’t be the last time we see it this autumn.

Turnstone Harry Bickerstaff (327)

(c) Scottish Wildlife Trust – Turnstone

Other less common visitors include Spotted Redshank on the Lurgies walk, Great Crested Grebe out in middle of the Basin, Curlew Sandpiper and Turnstone on Rossie Spit.


(c) Simone Keeley – Kingfisher on the Lurgies

Our resident male Kingfisher continues to visit daily and fish in the Salt pans, delighting everyone.

Emma – Visitor Centre Assistant Manager

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

National Moth Night

This week includes National Moth Night, an annual event encouraging public interest in moths.

While you may be more familiar with species of butterfly, moths actually make up the majority of species in the Lepidoptera order, with an estimated 150,000 species worldwide!

There are a number of distinctions between butterflies and moths, but the easiest way to distinguish the two is the shape of their antennae. Where butterflies have a simple, thin antenna with a thicker, club-like end, moths have much more variety in their antenna’s shape, but lack the distinct club shape tip.

A Garden Tiger moth. © Andy Wakelin

A Garden Tiger moth.
© Andy Wakelin

If you thought moths were drab or colourless you couldn’t be more wrong. The Garden Tiger moth pictured above is just one example of the moths that have been caught at the Basin recently.

The Larch Pug micro-moth, a newly-confirmed sighting at Montrose Basin. © Paul Brookes

The Larch Pug micro-moth, a newly-confirmed sighting at Montrose Basin.
© Paul Brookes

Species of moths belong to one of two sub-orders: micro- and macro-lepidoptera. Micro-moths’ size limits the number of distinctive features, making them much harder to identify than their larger relatives. However, this does mean that we’re always learning more on the territories of micro-moths, and we’ve had 8 confirmed new species to the Basin so far this year!

A day-flying Cinnabar moth. © Charles Sharp

A day-flying Cinnabar moth.
© Charles Sharp

While you may associate moths with nocturnal creatures that are attracted to bright lights, there are also a number of day-flying moths, such as the distinctive Cinnabar, which is a relatively common sight in the UK, often found feeding on Ragwort.

National Moth night

We’ll be hosting a talk this Thursday to celebrate National Moth Night, including a chance to examine some of the moths that have been caught here. Call us on 01674 676 336 to book your place, and visit www.mothnight.info for more details and events.

Posted in Butterflies & Moths, Events, Sightings, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , |