October is a great month to see the wildlife that isn’t with us all year long. Many species head for Scottish shores for the winter, leaving countries like Iceland and Greenland behind until the warmer months, while mammals like grey seals come ashore to breed at this time of year. So grab a pair of cosy boots and a scarf, and head outside to take it all in.
What to see in Scotland this month X
“Honk-honk...” - does that sound made you stop and look up? How about: “Whoopa... whoopa”? If you’re out wildlife watching this month, you’re going to become pretty familiar with these noises.
In October, pink-footed geese and whooper swans start arriving in Scotland, to spend the winter months with us. Pink-footed geese usually fly in what we call ‘skeins’ (like the picture above); great flocks of birds moving in a V-shaped formation. More than 150,000 pink-footed geese migrate here from Iceland and Greenland, with individual flocks containing up to 40,000 birds! Good places to see this species include our Loch Leven and Loch of Strathbeg nature reserves or at the Montrose Basin, which is run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
When they arrive in Scotland, pink-footed geese remain fairly sociable creatures, moving around in large groups. At dawn, the geese leave their night-time roosts together and head for feeding grounds before returning at dusk.
The whooper swans that winter here also come from Iceland but their numbers are significantly lower, somewhere around the 4,000 mark. Whoopers are slightly smaller than mute swans, with long, thin necks and a black bill with a large triangular patch of yellow on it.
They have a loud whooping or trumpeting call which is thought to have originally given the bird its name. Both whooper swans and pink-footed geese will stay in Scotland right through the winter before departing for their breeding grounds once again by mid-April.
While many species do not breed at this time of year, some do. And that includes one of Scotland’s brilliant marine mammals; the grey seal. Seals spend most of their time at sea and could end up covering thousands of watery miles during the course of their lives, but they do come ashore to breed.
For grey seals that time is now; they gather at communal breeding beaches from October in Orkney, Shetland, the Hebrides, the Monach Isles and on the mainland around Helmsdale and at Loch Eriboll.
Pups are born on these beaches and mating takes place a weeks later when the female has finished suckling her calf. Roughly a third of the world population of grey seals breeds on the coast around Britain.
And, on the subject of mating, October is actually the peak team of year for the red deer rut. Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammal and we have a fair few of them in Scotland. This amazing spectacle is basically when male red deer come together, locking antlers in battle, fighting to gain control of the largest harem to mate with.
Mornings and evenings are probably the best time if you want to get out and see this for yourself. You’ll come across the red deer rut anywhere that you’d find deer; the Highlands are a good place to start. But do be extremely careful and don’t get too close – red deer can be really aggressive at this time of year.
Happy wildlife watching! We’ll be back with a new blog on what to see around Scotland in November.
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, gets us up to speed with the wonders of mud.
Glorious Mud – homes for nature, protection for people
In February 2003 mechanical diggers broke two large holes in the sea wall at RSPB Scotland's Nigg Bay reserve in the Cromarty Firth and flooded the land. But, this wasn’t a case of wanton vandalism, this was Scotland’s first ever managed coastal realignment project to restore saltmarsh – a habitat rapidly disappearing beneath the waves.
We have much less saltmarsh and intertidal habitats (the wet muddy bits) around our coasts than we used to have 200 years ago. In the past, many areas were walled in, drained and used for agriculture – this is what happened at Nigg Bay. If you look at the Ordnance Survey map from 1872 the project site, known as ‘Meddat Marsh’, was marked as marshland and mudflats with the description ‘liable to floods’. In the 1950s an embankment was erected to keep the sea out and the resulting field was used as grazing land.
Other areas of our coastal saltmarsh have been developed for industry or homes – think of the huge Grangemouth complex on the Forth or the oil terminal and fabrication yard just round the corner in Nigg Bay. More universally threatening is sea level rise, squeezing saltmarsh habitats by lessening the space for them between the tide and hard defences – a situation which will only get worse. Between 1946 and 1997 Nigg Bay lost 36 per cent of its intertidal habitats.
This week we published on our website a report about the success of the realignment project at Nigg Bay and the importance of it for wildlife and people; we also posted a video online. In the same week that the tides were allowed back onto Wallasea island in Essex as part of a huge new RSPB managed realignment project, it’s good to look at the success at Nigg Bay and what might happen on the Essex coast in the next decade.
Ten years after the tides returned the whole field has changed from grassland to saltmarsh and mudflat increasing the area of saltmarsh in the whole of Nigg Bay by 30 per cent. The colonisation of the site by saltmarsh plants and mud-dwelling invertebrates (snails, worms and shrimps) via the tides has been quicker than expected.
It goes to show that making space for the sea in this way allowed nature to come back in quickly and recharge the habitat. The success has been there for water birds too. In the first winter after the breach, three waterbird species used the site but this jumped to 19 species in the second winter and now stands at 25 species. On occasions, the site becomes internationally important for bar tailed godwits as well as a favoured area for whooper swans, scaup and redshank.
Perhaps the greatest value of the new saltmarsh area is that it is one of the last areas in the whole of Nigg Bay to be covered by seawater on the incoming tide. It provides birds with valuable extra space and time for feeding as the tide comes in and safe roosting areas at high tide. During windy conditions and in high spring tides it is an essential refuge for up to 2,000 waterbirds.
So a resounding success for birds but what about for people? Sea level rise is inevitable even if we turn off our carbon pollution today, so flooding remains a risk for land, property and life near our coasts. Moving sea defences inland and allowing saltmarsh to buffer them reduces the cost of building and maintaining those sea defences or embankments. Saltmarsh reduces the power of waves as they roll in from the sea and therefore makes them less destructive during storms.
Scotland’s first ever managed realignment project has been a success. More managed realignment projects are needed around our coasts to recreate essential saltmarsh habitat for birds and for communities in the face of sea level rise and extreme storm threats. This is what we will be telling Government and local authorities in the coming months and using our Nigg Bay reserve as an example of how it can be done and the difference it can make.
Jenny Tweedie from RSPB Scotland tells us about autumn migration in Scotland and some of the best places to see it in action, including at the Mull of Galloway Festival on the first weekend of October.
As autumn draws in the evenings and has us looking out our jumpers from under the bed, things are actually hotting up in the bird world, with mass migrations taking place right across the country.
Some of our summer visitors, like cuckoos, are long gone, already sunning themselves in warmer climes, whilst others, like swallows, can be seen gathering in preparation for their big journey ahead.
For most of us, our experience of these migrations is one of sudden absence. One day the swifts are screaming overhead, the next, they’re gone, and you know, somehow, that you’re not going to see them again until spring. It’s sad; it’s a sign of summer ending, and colder days ahead, but it’s also tinged with expectation, as we know that when the house martins have gone, the geese can’t be far behind.
Geese are actually one of those few birds that we can pretty much all say we’ve actually seen migrating. You hear the honks, you look up, and there they are: magnificent skeins cutting across the sky. But if you know where to go, it’s actually possible to watch most species of birds on the move. It’s even got a name: visible migration. And one of the best places to try it out is at the RSPB Scotland nature reserve at the Mull of Galloway.
The Mull, is of course, the most southerly point in Scotland, and from here it’s possible to see thousands of birds flying by, hugging the coast as they follow good feeding grounds on their way south. RSPB staffer Gavin Chambers comes to the site most years to count the passage birds, and last year in just a few hours, he saw over 3,000 meadow pipits, almost 2,000 skylarks, and over 700 linnets!
To celebrate the great migration, this year the reserve is holding a festival on October 3, offering lots of events and activities, and encouraging everyone to come along and witness one of the wonders of nature.
What they can’t offer (sadly) is a guarantee on the weather, and fog or wind in the wrong direction can affect how the birds are moving. In fact, in some conditions, the birds can actually be grounded at the reserve, and the bushes come alive with species never seen there at other times of the year!
If you do make the trip, and you’re thwarted by the weather, Dumfries and Galloway itself is still a fantastic place to visit. There are loads of other opportunities to see wildlife, including four other RSPB Scotland reserves, the Galloway Kite Trail, and plenty of other attractions, including the Wigtown Book Festival, which runs until October 4.
Even if you can’t make the journey, you can still watch the mass migration of birds taking place this autumn. The coast is a good place to go, but anywhere there are mudflats, you’re likely to see passage waders using the sites like fly-thru takeaways. Even in the busiest cities, migration will be going on all around you, and as with all types of nature watching, your best bet is simply to keep your eyes open, as you never know what you might see.
Find out more about the Mull of Galloway Experience.