The Montrose Basin: A bird-watchers Paradise

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the Montrose Basin, a local nature reserve just an hour and a half away from Aberdeen by car. The reserve itself is enormous, incorporating a plethora of different habitats; saltmarshes, freshwater streams, extensive reedbeds and arable land. The basin is perhaps most famous for the bird species that feed, breed and roost here – most notably migrant waders and wildfowl. This year the reserve had a record breaking number of wintering pink footed geese: over 78, 000 individuals were sighted, which drummed up a wealth of media attention!

So, naturally, I arrived at the basin with my birders head on. I was most excited to see a Kingfisher, a bird I’ve always wanted to see in the wild. I’d been assured montrose was the place to spot them, and, sure enough, there was one perched with a rather regal air right outside the visitor centre. Conspicuous in his vivid uniform of turquoise and burnt orange, he kindly stayed there long enough for me to grab a quick photo before flitting off to complete the days business.

Other spots included a huge variety of garden birds (great tits, tiny blue tits, and a multitude of sparrows or “spuggies” as they are known back in geordie-town) and Mrs Pheasant, who wandered about rather forlornly until the slightly more flamboyant Mr Pheasant appeared…

One of the most important habitats on the reserve is the reed bed, a great, rippling sea of rushes that provides vital hiding places for many wetland species. A pair of bearded tits have been spotted in this area, and although they didn’t show their faces to me, it’s greatly hoped that they’ll start nesting at the site.

Another key ecosystem is found within the mudflats that border the estuary. Ideal estuarine conditions support an abundance of invertebrate life, namely lugworm, Hydrobia (miniscule marine snails) and Corophium: tiny shrimp-like creatures that belong to the crustacean subphylum. This in turn attracts a great number of shorebirds and waders; spots of the day included oyster-catchers, curlews, widgeons, redshanks and eider ducks. I have long had a soft spot for the latter, since we became well acquainted during the field work for my dissertation on the Ythan estuary (another fantastic site for wildlife). Their call sounds rather like a portly builder cat-calling a passing woman, and has to be one of my favourite bird calls (second only to the African grey ‘go-away’ bird, whose disdainful and distinctly snobbish call can be heard from nearby trees).
There was also a grey heron, pictured here stalking the shallows.
One of the most interesting aspects of the reserve for me is that it’s existence was brought forward by the wild-fowlers, who regularly use the area for their sport. They enforce strict regulations to ensure the wild-fowl populations are kept healthy, and other wildlife is allowed to thrive. It’s a great example of how a reserve can be managed so that both conservation and recreational objectives can operate alongside one another, as long as a mutual respect for nature is withheld.
Similarly, I was fortunate enough to have a chat with a local farmer, Grant. He offered an alternative perspective on the reserves management, having allowed certain conservation measures to be put in place on his land, often loosing land in the process. Although subsidies have been provided in return, Grant’s family have farmed the land for generations and much of it has deep-rooted sentimental value. However, he firmly believed that working alongside wildlife – not removing it – was a necessity, and was an advocate of compromise. 
An unexpected problem came in the form of a group of mute swans. Naively I had no idea of the damage these beautiful creatures can do to crops; how can something so elegant have the same impact as two sheep? But a combination of grazing and tearing up crops with webbed feet has resulted in enormous costs and the employment of a professional ‘swan scarer’, who apparently is extremely inventive in his methods (one of which was having an imaginary dog called ‘Queenie’!)

But perhaps the most rewarding moment of the day came when two brown hares came tumbling out of the undergrowth in the field next to us. Having never seen these animals in the wild, I was surprised at how big they are, and how relatively easy they are to spot with those tall, black-tipped ears to serve as defiant flags admist the grass. As we watched, they even began to box – a fantastic sight. It’s not quite boxing season for hares – which mainly occurs in Spring – so these males must have simply been using one another as practice.

The bouts lasted for about 30 seconds before one would chase the other, their bobbing white tails only seeming to taunt the pursuer. It was a brilliant end to a wildlife-filled day. I would certainly recommend the basin to anyone – it’s one definite place where the wild things are!

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