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.

12694840_917499364994405_2157792779793430690_o

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 |

It’s all about me.

This is an honest blog and it’s all about me.

You would assume that an employee at a wildlife reserve would care about his job, I did not. I needed money, therefore I took whatever job I could, and this position was available. To add to that, when I first started at the Montrose Basin Visitor Centre, I felt like I was surrounded by very different people. Moth enthusiasts, bat-people, people interested in the differences between plants… and Birders. ‘Birders’ are avid bird watchers, some of whom travel very far distances and to remote locations to spot birds, from the rare to the beautiful. To me, they seemed far too over-enthusiastic. That’s genuinely what I thought.

HOWEVER (before you send hate mail) – my opinion has changed, and much to my surprise, I would now openly say that I… Benedict Murray, am a birder. If I was told I would be saying this 6 months ago, I would have laughed and asked for what they were drinking.

As it turns out, birding is more than just scratching another name off a list, and I don’t mind telling you on occasions – multiple occasions – I have felt the adrenaline pumping with anticipation and excitement when finally spotting a rare or peculiar bird.

One occasion stands out in particular, contributing to the change in my opinion of the hobby. Those of you who are members of the trust or follow the Basin’s social media will be familiar with the goings-on over the past few months. For those of you that don’t know, we had on our reserve a very rare bird – a Bittern. Hoards of birders from far and wide started arriving at the visitor centre to see this prehistoric looking ‘skulker’. This definitely peaked my curiosity, I mean, what is the big deal?…

Bittern by saltpan - 13 Jan 2016 R Mitchell

Skulker (c) Ron Mitchell

The reason is – Bittern’s haven’t been spotted at the Basin for around 18 years. Not only that, they are evasive, elusive and extremely well camouflaged. Over the three/four weeks that the Bittern was resident at Montrose Basin, only around half of the visitors saw it – the rest, only saw a flash and then the reeds waving in the wind. The day I became part of that lucky half, I was manning the desk, welcoming in the visitors. I was listening to the rising sounds of excitement by the viewing window. The “ooooh is that it?” and the “no… just reeds.” This continued until there was crescendo of ‘oh my god its there!. I raced to the window and I saw. Dear god, it was weird, all long legged and prehistoric looking, standing in the open with the sun beating down on it. After the build up of the crowd and weeks of waiting, it was finally there in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it almost felt a little surreal. It was then that I knew what I’d become. The shame…  or so I first thought.

Back when I started, I had little knowledge about birds and therefore it was part of my job to learn the species whose home or seasonal break is at the Basin. I needed to know so I could teach and assist visitors with bird identification. This seemed, at first, mundane and tedious – it felt a waste of time. Then I learned about the resident Kingfisher and his mate. Did you know, that the difference between the male and the female Kingfisher can be determined by their bill colour? The female appears to be wearing lipstick. She has an orange lower mandible, while the males bill is entirely black. That might not seem mind blowing, but when I began to teach others about this, their faces lit up with interest, and something began to stir within me. This began to happen more and more, and with everything I learned and taught to another, the greater my interest became.

Kingfischer AndyWakelin

Kingfisher (c) Andy Wakelin

Researching for my previous blog fascinated me immensely and perhaps was a defining moment. Realising the similarity in mating behaviour, rituals and evolutionary biology between bird and man absolutely enthralled me. There was so much I didn’t know before, and there is so much I wanted to learn! I was enthused like a child climbing a tree.

The point of this blog was not to ruffle feathers. It was to give an honest account of my experience working at the Basin, what I have learned and how my perspective has changed. As I’ve already said, I never would have envisaged myself talking about ‘feathered’ birds at dinner parties or in a bar with my friends, but somehow, it has become a part of me – a part I am becoming increasingly proud and passionate about. I take pride in my work at the Basin and I genuinely care about making a difference for wildlife – even something as little a filling the birds feeders.

I’ve learned a lot working at the Basin. I’ve learned over 50 birds species, the mating calls and behaviour of wildfowl. I’ve learned that I’m amazing with a sledge hammer (see future blog on pond), and the thrill of seeing creatures thrive directly because of my help. I’ve also learned a lot about myself in 6 months. I’ve realised that I can be too swift to judge, without taking a closer look. I love learning and I love to teach people.

The most important thing I have learned, is that I need nature. We all do. Without opening a can of worms or another blog – nature is absolutely critical to the survival of us all. I invite you, the reader, to bring your friends and family and give birding a go. Like myself, you might come and be surprised. You may love it, you may hate it – but I guarantee you won’t regret giving it a try.

Benedict George Murray, Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Assistant

If you really enjoy your experience at the Basin and appreciate the work that the Scottish Wildlife Trust does for our wildlife, I highly recommend becoming a member.

For more information please visit Montrose Basin Visitor Centre, we are open 7 days a week, 10:30 – 17:00.

Click the link below to see our events guide.

Montrose Basin Events Guide 2016

Our next event is Wild about the Basin 30th March. Wild about the Basin Spring 2016

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

It’s a perfectly natural normal thing

Lover Mute Swans, Source – Google, creative commons

Following February 14th, I’ve had time to reflect upon the universal celebration of Valentine’s Day and what it represents – love. This celebration can come in many forms – grand gestures, a candle lit dinner, a shower of gifts; or maybe a combination of all three if you’re lucky.

Working at the basin, love isn’t far from view. Similarly to the picture above, mute swans can be seen gracefully swimming side-by-side, and ducks pair off from within the group for an afternoon of grooming. Watching this behaviour, I couldn’t help but wonder; how similar are we actually to our feathered friends? As it turns out, surprisingly, we are in fact very similar on deep biological and evolutionary levels.

Typically, humans as a species are monogamous. Similarly, about 90 percent of bird species are monogamous, meaning a male and a females form a pair bond and stick together over their lifetime. Approximately 81% of bird species pairs equally contribute to feeding and guarding the offspring. Birds like blue tits, swallows and sand martins share the parenting responsibilities evenly. They both help build a nest, feed the young together, and take turns in protecting the young. This is a common type of parenting in humans nowadays, and the domestic role can now be a choice, to either parent.

Mentioning choice brings me to my next and more crucial point. Before we get to monogamy, we have to find a mate, and for birds, this has a lot to do with just managing to stay alive. Survival is a means towards reproduction, and is only available after getting past the challenge of female choice (Max, 2015). Females throughout nature favour effective males. In biology, effectiveness is called fitness. In other words ‘the statistical tendency across the whole breeding pool to survive and reproduce successfully’. For example, by adapting to the challenges of the environment, the chances of survival will increase.

In the human world, we no longer face imminent challenges of survival that birds do on a daily basis. So for us, ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t apply to the same degree as it once did. However, we still are animals, and although there is a lot of mystery and confusion surrounding human love, truth to the fact remains that fit means far more than just being able to do 10 push ups.

Who we have a romantic relationship with is down to choice (and so it should be). Whether birds feel romantic love as we do, is up for discussion, or perhaps a later blog. For now, I’d like to discuss the similarities that we do share with birds, and hopefully give an insight as to why we choose the valentine we do.

Tackling the bull by its horns, I’ll start with a big question – what is love? In the most concise definition I could find, love is the culmination of a complex interplay between biology, cultural, and environmental influences. In other words, it has a lot to do with your natural biological behaviour as a human being; the way in which you were brought up and where; and how interacting with the world around you has shaped and influenced your experiences – past and future. Don’t worry, we’re going to delve a little deeper.

According to Pinker (2008), emotions like love were preserved in human biology because they identify and prioritize goals based on human needs. In other words, emotions appear necessary in order to motivate an individual to accomplish basic tasks – such as feeding, fleeing, defending, and reproducing. Some disagree, suggesting that love is evolutionarily ridiculous and irrational. They suggest that love is a combination of lust and obsession, and those ‘in love’ can be compared to people suffering forms of O.C.D. (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I’ll let you decide what you believe.

For the arguments sake, we shall assume that birds are only operating through the primal influence of love, biology. We can never know exactly whether animals feel love in the same way as we do, but what we do know, is that they follow the same basic love driven behaviours – courting displays, sharing resources with one another – food, shelter, etc., and the all-important bond of union, mating.

In humans, most people are fundamentally searching for someone to share their life with. In chic-lit and rom-coms, this person is known as the one. Romantically, this is the person who completes you, who understands you, who makes you feel alive, your soul mate. Biologically, this is the person best suited for you to have babies with. It is biologically hardwired within us, to seek, choose and be chosen by a mate, a suitable healthy effective mate. Because fundamentally, finding a mate is what we were born to do (and how we were born).

Females are consciously and subconsciously assessing certain things about a male when considering him for a mate:

  • Does he carry good genes
  • Will he be a good partner
  • Will he be a good dad

It could be one, two or a combination of all three, or it could be none of the above, depending on her age or experience. But typically, the healthy human female is considering these three factors when you’re introducing yourself, even if neither of you know it.

I’m going to follow that structure, and show where I can where the two species cross paths – considering the importance your genes, or your ability to be a partner or a dad.

Let’s start at the top – good genes.

In many of the bird species, females only pay attention to just one thing, one key sexual ornament that can sum up the male’s genotype and phenotype. In the bird kingdom, one species stands out for me above the rest – the peacock.

Male pheasant exquisite tail, source – Google, creative commons

According to Darwin, the peacock’s tail is probably the most famous example of sexual selection. It has one sole purpose – to attract a female. The exquisite abundance of extravagant detail aims to catch the females gaze, which according to the Journal of Experimental Biology, is difficult. The peacock’s tail provides no benefit to the bird against a predator, and if anything hinders its chance of survival. When courting a female, the male extends and exposes its grand tail, requiring a lot of energy. This shows the female two things.

  • The bird is fit, he is healthy; therefore, he has good genes.
  • The bird has a colourful extravagant tail; therefore, he has good genes.

Imagine how demoralizing it would be to have only a mediocre tail? It’s hard to fake good genes and health, and the peacock cannot enhance his display by stealing feathers from another. In nature its survival of those the fittest and those with the best genes; and to a degree, the same applies in the human world. Humans want a healthy, intelligent, attractive partner, who is likely to pass on good genes to their children, increasing their chance of survival. That’s the simple biology behind it.

The second and the third – partner and father ability – come under the same discussion, as one becomes the other once young appear.

Different female species look for different qualities or skills in males. Male hawks can offer a variety of fish, crabs and mammals for mother and young; Red-crowned cranes are well-known for their carefully orchestrated courtship dances; Bee-eaters engage in courtship feeding, helping to keep the female and her eggs healthy; to the grand puffing red chest and distinct love song of the male frigate bird, appealing to both the eyes and the ears of the female.

In some species, demonstrated performance is a must if a male is attract a female. The signal of some male bird’s suitability as a mate is seen in the skill of building a nest, in which he invests a huge amount of effort. Male European house wrens build up to 12 nests to attract a female, and will continue to build and perfect their craft until chosen. The male satin bower (famous from Sir David Attenborough shows) creates a beautiful nest display to charm the female. These birds find colourful items found near the nesting site, ranging from twigs, to berries, to colourful stones – all meticulously placed.

satin

Male satin bower mating display for female, Source – Google, creative commons

From the female bird’s perspective, the survival of her young is paramount; therefore the nest with the best display of security will not only win her heart, it will win her young.

This is exactly transferable to the human world. Women want effective men. If you have no way of demonstrating how and why you would be an effective partner or father, then you have little chance of attracting a female.

Finally, Adelie Penguins display a perfect example of the equivalent of one of our grandest gestures. Female Adelie Penguins live in small nests made of stone, and therefore it is of importance to her to be surrounded by carefully selected stones. During courtship displays, the males attempt to win over their chosen females with a single carefully chosen stone. This stone is a gift, intended to enforce the bond between the pair. Doesn’t that sound familiar? What is given when a human pair wishes to sanctify their bond? Did someone say…Tiffany’s?

The similarities are clear watching birds. We as animals are all seeking a mate. Perhaps you were like me and spent this Valentine’s Day by yourself. Don’t feel down. You are not alone. In the wise and simple words of my father (I’m sure the birders among you will appreciate this):

“There’s plenty of birds out there. You’ve just got to find them.”

Mandarin ducks, Source – wikipedia.org

 

Benedict George Murray, Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Assistant

 


References:

Pinker, S., 2008, Crazy Love, Time Magazine, New York, Time Inc, January 28, 2008.

Max, T. and Miller, G., 2015, Mate: Become the man women want, Little, Brown and Company, New York, Boston, London

Love as an Evolutionary Adaptation, online resource – http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2442

Posted in Birds, General, Mammals, People, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , |

Living among the beasts of the basin

In an attempt to get closer to wildlife, volunteers at the Montrose Basin Visitor Reserve have set a series of camera traps. A camera trap captures motion up to a distance of 10 metres, in day or night. The aim is to get an insight into the behaviour of wildlife around the basin, closer than usually achievable in person. Attempts were made in two separate locations, using different methods for each. The results of which highlighted certain dos and don’ts for subsequent traps.

Attempt number one was a success. Hidden within a large bush, the trap’s field of vision was open but sheltered. Furthermore, the trap was close to the ground, with bait (seeds) scattered in front of it. After a week the camera was recovered, and footage reviewed. It was found that after three days of recording, the memory card was completely full – there was a LOT of activity. As shown in the video (link below), among those captured were – pheasants, blackbirds, robins, mice, rabbits, blue tits and more. The abundance of activity was due to the plentiful supply of food, and the calm conditions below the shelter of the shrubbery.

Capture video: https://youtu.be/LBse7AOXRjc

Location one – large sheltered bush.

Unfortunately, attempt number two was extremely unsuccessful. Why the method leading to the success of the first attempt was not followed in the second is beyond this author, even though he was the trapper. The second location was far more open and lacked any sufficient shelter. The only trigger of activation was the tree to which the camera was attached. The tree waved ferociously in the winter winds, as did trees in the field of vision. Among the errors, the second location wasn’t as strategically placed as the first. This attempt was more ad-hoc and opportunistic.

Lessons learned.

  • Capture in shelter
  • Provide bait
  • Set up in areas of known activity (animal wise)

Going forward, the camera has been located in accordance to the above lessons. Watch this space for some more Montrose Basin action!

 

Benedict Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant

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

Natural Flood Management, the Witch, and the Basin.

After Scotland experienced some of the worst floods it has seen in decades (if not centuries), questions are being raised in many communities on the effectiveness and sustainability of hard engineered flood protection schemes. As a result, alternatives are being sought in the UK and around the world, and a measure appearing to be increasing in popularity is Natural Flood Management (NFM).

NFM is the alteration, restoration or use of landscape features in a way to reduce flood risk. Already, reports have emerged of the success of NFM in mitigating the recent flood events. An example of a few methods can include upstream water storage – field flooding, leaky dams – tree planting and woodland creation, and the re-meandering of artificially straightened river systems.

While some communities are developing projects to enhance the natural landscapes ability alleviate flooding, others are lucky enough to have these features in place already.

During the winter flooding, Montrose remained relatively dry; in comparison to Marykirk or Brechin. Similar to these two places, Montrose sits adjacent to a river – the South Esk. However, several natural features help separate us from the water.

Marykirk flooding

Snapshot of drone footage of Marykirk flooding – 30 Dec 2015, PaceProductions UK

The river South Esk enters the Montrose basin from the west, and discharges to the North Sea, draining a catchment area of 564 km2 (SEPA). The river reached its highest ever peak flow record of 3.733m on 30/12/2015 (A record of 21 years), and over-topped its banks.

As seen below, before reaching the basin, the river floods adjacent land due to the low gradients of flat surrounding fields and meanders in the river system.

SEPA flood map basin

South Esk Flood extent – Low likelihood scenario, SEPA flood hazard maps – 2016

The meanders in the river system help slow the flow of water. In these areas of constriction, such as corners or the base of bridges, the water level rises, and eventually spills out onto the floodplain. The fields act as temporary storage for the surplus of water, reducing the amount of floodwater travelling downstream and into the Basin. This is one of two components of flood alleviation which Montrose benefits from.

The second is the Basin itself. Montrose Basin is a unique example of an enclosed estuarine wetland. Wetlands are among the world’s most important environmental assets, containing a vast number of plant and animal species compared with other areas of the world. In light of the recent flooding, their value has just gone up.

When the tide is out, floodwater from river channel or sea entering the Basin will spread out across the surface, dissipating energy and decreasing in velocity. The same applies for sea waves when the tide is higher; waves lose energy when travelling through tidal marshes or mudflats due to increased bottom friction (Smolders et al. 2015). However, attenuation is dependent on wetland properties, such as the size and elevation.

The Basin effectively acts as a natural buffer from an influx of floodwater and storm surges not only by dissipating wave energy, but also by providing flood water storage (Smolders et al. 2015). The name itself gives away its function; the large basin fills with water.

The point to be made is the importance of the Basin and its location, and the consequences that Montrose may face if it wasn’t there. Had Dronner’s Dyke of 1677 been a success, the current flood situation in Scotland may have been even closer to home. Luckily for us, nature (or the witch) was stronger, as the dyke perished in a storm (1678).

Reflecting upon the widespread damage left by the recent flooding, my appreciation has never been greater for the Basin, and more generally – wetlands.

Benedict Murray, Visitor Centre Assistant


Help spread awareness about the importance of wetlands, and celebrate Worlds Wetland Day this February 2nd 2016. Check out the site at http://www.worldwetlandsday.org/en/

“Wetlands are vital for human survival. They are among the world’s most productive environments; cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival”

#WorldWetlandsDay #WetlandsForOurFuture


References:

S., Smolders, Y., Plancke, S., Ides, P., Meire, S., Temmerman, 2015, Role of intertidal wetlands for tidal and storm tide attenuation along a confined estuary: a model study, Natural Hazards and Earth Sciences, Copernicus Publications, European Geosciences Union


Posted in Events, General, People, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , |