The bountiful birds of St Cyrus NNR

Simon Ritchie has been working at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve since he was 16 – initially as a volunteer, he is currently employed as a Seasonal Reserve Officer. Simon  has previously written about his passion for the wildflowers of St Cyrus.  Today he writes about another of the features that make this reserve such a special place to visit at this time of year, including the most beautiful bird he has ever seen…

I am fascinated by all of the wildlife of St Cyrus NNR, but the birdlife at St Cyrus NNR has always fascinated me the most. One of my earliest memories was coming to St Cyrus NNR as a young boy with my grandfather; I vividly remember my grandad pointing out a kestrel that was hunting over the cliffs and that memory has stuck with me for the last 18 years. Who knows, maybe that interaction with nature sparked an interest that has lead me where I am today!

Kestrel at St Cyrus NNR (c) Gus Routledge

Kestrel at St Cyrus NNR (c) Gus Routledge

I have been fascinated by birds since my mid-teens and this led to an interest in other wildlife. However, birds have stayed my main focus and St Cyrus NNR is the perfect place to learn and appreciate birdlife. I remember one of the earlier times I volunteered at St Cyrus NNR with Therese and the gang. It was winter 2012 and we were conducting a WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) count, I was amazed with the amount of wintering wildfowl on the reserve; hundreds of teal, wigeon, pintail and pink-footed Geese!

Teal - credit Steve Buckland

Teal – (C) Steve Buckland

This brings me nicely on to the estuary at St Cyrus NNR, it is a tidal estuary of the River North Esk. It is a haven for waders, wildfowl and gulls. August is one of the best times of year for waders and over the years on the estuary I have seen; ruff, green Sandpiper, whimbrel, grey Plover, large flocks of knot, dunlin, ringed plover and sanderling amongst many others. A small number of pink-footed geese also use the estuary as a roost in autumn and up to 3000 can be feeding in the fields near-by.

As I have mentioned, the estuary is an important refuge for gulls. A lot of people are not into gulls, but I for one love them! St Cyrus NNR can boast large numbers of gulls, sometimes 5000+. These are usually a mixture of herring, lesser black-backed, great black-backed, common, black-headed gull and kittiwake. Scarcer gulls have also been recorded here in recent years including glaucous and Iceland gull, which are vagrants from the Arctic. Little gull also occasionally use the estuary and these birds breed in Finland and Asia.

Gulls at St Cyrus NNR estuary (c) Paul Ross

Gulls at the St Cyrus esturay, (C) Paul Ross

The cliffs of St Cyrus NNR provide a safe nesting place for birds to use. Our 75m cliffs are home to; 42 fulmar pairs, raven, jackdaw, peregrine and buzzard. All of which can be seen at once in territorial feuds! The scrubland below the cliffs is a fantastic area for smaller birds. Gorse, broom, hawthorn, meadowsweet and a  reed bed provide nesting habitat for a large variety of different birds including; willow warbler, whitethroat, reed bunting, stonechat, yellowhammer, linnet, meadow pipit, blackcap, robin, blackbird, goldfinch and sedge warbler, among many others. St Cyrus NNR is home to over 50 species of breeding bird.

Bluethroat at Tangleha’ (c) John Clark

A beautiful bluethroat at Tangleha’ (c) John Clark

As well as supporting breeding birds, St Cyrus NNR also welcomes passing migrants on their travels. Over the years, St Cyrus NNR has had some scarce and rare birds, and 2019 has been no different. Earlier this year, a hoopoe made landfall in our cattle field. This made for some excellent viewings. Just half a mile to the north of the NNR I was also lucky enough to find a male bluethroat, the best looking bird I have ever seen! Other notable birds that I have seen at St Cyrus include; sooty shearwater, pomarine skua, red-backed shrike, yellow-browed warbler, black redstart, velvet scoter and black-throated diver.

No matter what time of year you visit St Cyrus NNR, the birds always put on a good show. If you visit in the coming weeks, keep your eyes to the skies and listen out for returning flocks of pink-footed geese. There is always something to marvel at…

Simon Ritchie, Seasonal Nature Reserve Assistant

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