During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ll be joining SNH staff across Scotland who work in a huge variety of roles along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do for the benefit of people and nature. This month we meet Nature Reserve Officer Adam Murphy at Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve(NNR), on the Solway Firth.
This year I’ve just returned to a permanent role as a Nature Reserve Officer following a secondment. I’m currently based in SNH’s Dumfries Office, where we work to ensure a balance between the maintenance and monitoring of habitat and wildlife on Dumfries and Galloway’s NNRs while encouraging people to enjoy and engage with these unique places.
As you can imagine with such dynamic sites, there’s no such thing as a typical day at the office! A quick look at my calendar shows I’m booked up with tasks as varied as meeting a farmer to discuss salt marsh management and creating new natterjack toad breeding pools to planning a volunteer work party for woodland path maintenance and catching up with peatland restoration work at Kirkconnell Flow.
Today I’m at our flagship reserve, Caerlaverock NNR, where together with my colleague Andy, work placement student Malcolm and volunteer Stephen, we are heading out to do the Wetland Bird Survey, a national survey of waterbirds co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. Today’s survey is part of what is called core counts, which are undertaken once a month at high tides, following the full moon.
We focus our resources on autumn to spring as numbers of wildfowl and waders visits peak from August to April when Caerlaverock and the wider Solway turns into a real avian airport, with more than 100,000 duck, geese and waders either spending the entire winter here or using it as a pit stop, roosting and re-fuelling on their long flight to warm winter climbs in the south or heading back north to artic breeding grounds.
The section we are covering is 6km of saltmarsh (merse) and mud flats. We split into two teams, walking towards each other and counting birds at predetermined roosting spots along the route. If we are discreet and fleet of foot we can get in front of the birds and wait for them to come inland towards our hidden positons and count them as they settle down to rest on the edge of salt marsh, to wait out the hide tide.
The challenge today is that winds are persistently gusting at 50-60 mph plus – not uncommon on the reserve as there is very little shelter out on the exposed estuary. Wind burn is as much of a hazard for reserve staff in south-west Scotland as sunburn! The south-west wind makes a relatively straight-forward task a little bit more interesting, as it pushes the tide into the estuary quicker with more wave action, or “white horses”. For a task were stealth is important, we struggle to communicate with each other and lose count of the number of times the telescopes nearly blow over. See the video below for an idea of the conditions!
When we finally get a sheltered enough position to try and count the main wader roost unfortunately the birds won’t settle, flying repeatedly from the merse to an inland rain-flooded field halfway through each count and leading us a merry dance. Eventually we manage to identify and count most of the usual suspects, but struggle with one exceptionally restless flock. Finally the birds settle briefly in the field long enough for us to confirm the species as the rather confusingly named Knot.
With the main identification work complete, I was just taking one final photo out to sea when I heard Stephen shouting excitedly “Kingfisher!” As we usually survey away from fresh water a kingfisher is extremely rare for us and I had missed it! However I often say to visitors that’s all part of the magic of wildlife watching – if you saw what you expected to see every time you stepped out into nature you would soon get bored. This surprise element of a walk in the wild is certainly part of what keeps me coming back for more, and makes my job such a privilege.
Find out more about SNH and the Year of Coasts and Waters.