Therese Alampo provides our guest blog today, reflecting on the sights and sounds around St Cyrus as autumn rolls into winter.
What a year we have had, a huge thanks to Kim Ross our seasonal reserve assistant for all her hard work over the season, she has moved on for the winter but will hopefully be back with us in the spring!
The fungi on the reserve has enjoyed the damp and mild conditions of the late autumn and the reserve is filled with colourful wax caps, blewits and other terrific fungi. A real gem to mention is the earthstar (Geastrum rufescens) which was found during our fungal foray and identified by Liz Holden. Liz who is a mycology (fungi) expert told us that they are found at only 7 sites in Scotland most of which are in the Edinburgh area. A new genus for St Cyrus and a great find!
It’s always exciting as the mild weather suddenly snaps into winter. I love the way the cold air carries the sound of winter waders and wildfowl across the reserve with such clarity. Our bird species list has shifted from our summer migrants to our winter visitors once again. The Pink-footed geese are back from Iceland and Greenland and settling on their winter roosting grounds at Montrose basin with record numbers estimated at over 85000. Large groups (skeins) of thousands can be seen feeding in fields adjacent to the bird hide, what a sight and sound as they come in to feed. Watch their perfect ‘V’ formations break up into erratic clusters as the group starts flying from side to side tipping air from their outstretched wings to allow them to loose height and land – just like a paraglider would tilt the sails to tip air out to allow decent. The Whooper swan are also back from Iceland and small groups of up to 20 can be seen near the bird hide from time to time, gently chatting to each other as they feed.
Teal, Widgeon, curlew and other waders and wildfowl are also back giving our resident mute swans some company, alongside thousands of gulls – black-headed, herring, great black-backed and common gull all enjoying the conditions at the estuary. Recently, whilst carrying out our monthly WeBS count (Wetland Bird Survey) Kim spotted a couple of ringed black-headed gull, one turned out to be a bird that was ringed in Norway in June of last year. Another excellent find that can’t go unmentioned was a glossy ibis, spotted by Simon in early autumn. This unmistakable bird is a rare vagrant to these shores, which I could crudely describe as a giant dark curlew with a beautiful green sheen to its back and wing plumage. I would have loved to have seen it as I have only ever seen them in Australia.
The real stars of the show for me though are the short-eared owls that may have taken up residence on the reserve for the winter. Arriving from the continent (Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland) some of these fine owls chose sites in Britain to overwinter, usually in the South of England. I usually see these stunning birds on passage during the autumn, but I have never seen them stay here for such a long time (they have been on the reserve since the 2 October). I see them almost every day now enjoying the diverse grassland habitats at St Cyrus. Unlike the tawny and barn owl that hunt mainly at night, you can easily watch them hunting during the day, weaving in and out of the long grasses and into the shorter grasslands where the Highland cattle have been munching away. As I type I have just received a message from a local lady to say she watched two individuals hunting by the cliffs this afternoon, magic. They crouch low in the vegetation wonderfully camouflaged and only take to the wing when you are feet away, they then stare back at you over their shoulder with intense staring faces. I accidentally startled one recently and vice versa. I also had great views of three birds hunting among the marram grass last week, flying effortlessly and silently low to the ground, occasionally chasing each other.
We have now finished our events program for this year, thanks to all who attended and helped, if anyone has any requests for next year please do contact us at the reserve office, we would be thrilled to accommodate! I particularly enjoyed the day with the Ryhnie Wifies as they connected us to our iron age past in full costume. It was so interesting hearing about the tools and dyes that our ancestors would have used and the different foods that they would have eaten. We even got to make clay jewellery beads. Our moth night was a great success as always, and a handful of children attended and stayed up late into the night with the group. The children always bring with them infectious interest and enthusiasm, it was wonderful watching them holding the bat detector to the sky (patiently taking turns) and finally as they picked up the clicks of hunting bats above their heads seeing their eyes lighting up, accompanied with screams of absolute joy! We now have 498 species of Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) recorded on the reserve so fingers crossed for the magic 500 in 2016.
Thanks to all who helped with our annual beach clean and for those who attended the tribute to the local poet George Beattie run by the George Beattie Project and accompanied by Daniel McMullan playing his guitar and singing Beattie’s poems so beautifully. Thanks also to those who joined ourselves and Angus Arts to make beach sculptures and enjoy hot soup at the bird hide.
Wildlife highlights include: Listening to the whooper swans gently chattering to each other as they feed, seeing the beautiful autumnal display of fungi on the reserve, watching and hearing huge skeins of pink-footed geese flying over the reserve. My favourite was being mesmerised by the elegant movement of the short-eared owl and the intensity of their glare, what a strange feeling to have such an incredible bird look you straight in the eye with its forward facing fiery intense yellow/orange eyes! As always too much to mention…… until next time.
Images : All Lorne Gill/SNH, except: earth star by Liz Holden; short eared owl by P Tomkins /VisitScotland.
Find out more about St Cyrus NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/st-cyrus/