This weekend saw the monthly WeBS count, where we scatter to the corners of the reserve and attempt to count all the waders and wildfowl - it's an important national count, going on all over the country, and provides a lot of data on our wintering birds. It's very much reliant on decent weather and favorable astronomy - a brisk wind will see most of the ducks hiding in the reedbeds, and a bright moon will mean that a lot of the geese are not on the reserve when we come to count them, but have stayed out feeding overnight. (So why count them on a bright night, you may ask? So did we - it's apparently linked to the state of the tides on the big estuaries such as the Wash and the Solway, where other WeBS counters are trying to estimate the number of waders out on the mud.)
Goose numbers are slowly rising again, with 15,500 pinkfeet counted leaving the reserve or remaining on our fields, about 3000 more than last month's count. Swans remain about the same, with 123 whoopers, and 44 mute swans. Duck numbers were down this month (a situation commented on by many other count sites on Facebook, and to be honest we don't know why - last month we had ice on the Loch and pools, which may have meant more were standing out in the open, but who knows!) with 83 goldeneye, 222 mallard, 35 tufted duck, 846 wigeon, 333 teal, four pintail, and two shovelers although shelduck have gone up to nine, and we also had eight very smart red-breasted mergansers and a single scaup. Wader numbers remain reasonably steady, with 206 curlew, 25 dunlin, 411 lapwing and two golden plover - there was a large flock of around 500 golden plover south of the St Fergus gas terminal in the afternoon. Our little egrets remain on site, with two seen feeding on the Savoch Low Ground.
Many of the birds are starting to show signs of the breeding season being on its way; the teal are definitely getting frisky, skylarks are singing and the great spotted woodpecker is drumming up a storm around the wildlife garden and outside the office. Snowdrops are in bloom and - just occasionally, when the sun is shining - there's a hint of spring in the air!
snowdrops - Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Since we got our first Koniks nearly four years ago there has been a lot of discussion around the native breed issue and why we are not using native horse/ponies. Before we made the decision to get Koniks we did an awful lot of research as to which would be the best breed for us.
First and foremost we needed an animal that would cope with the very wet conditions that we ask them to put up with. The areas of marsh that we want grazing are so wet that the animals would have to thrive in areas where their feet were under water 90+% of the time.
They also needed to be extremely hardy as they are out all year round, with only a few gorse bushes for shelter. They need to be very good at finding their own food on ground where all commercial breeds of livestock would struggle, and again they need to do this all year round as we do not normally supplement their feed.
Oh, and they needed to be easy to handle for when we have to round them up for vet inspections or move them from one area to another etc. As you can see (above) they are not shy! And, one more thing, they had to foal easily and without assistance.
We took advice from many experts and consulted native breed organisations and the conclusion was that there is not one native breed of grazing animal that fulfils all of these requirements.
Koniks do. The Konik is a breed of pony that originates in Poland from the early 20th century and they are bred to resemble the ancient horse that would have been in this area at the end of the last ice age. So it can be said that all of our native breeds came from horses very similar to the Konik.
The last four years have proven that the expert advice was right – we have had only one foot abscess that needed treating in all that time, we have had eight foals born without incident, and we have only called the vet out once for an unscheduled visit. Our horses are thriving where most native breeds of livestock would starve.
And it’s not only the horses that are thriving. The areas they are grazing on the reserve are thriving too with less soft rush and an increase in flowering plants. This week we have added another five horses to our herd, taking the total to 28 and we’re looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labour this coming spring and summer.
Welcome back, and a Happy New Year to all our readers!
It’s been a while since we updated the blog, what with the festive season and folks heading off on holiday, but now we’re back it’s time to look back at last year, and forward to this one – and what a year it’s going to be!
Male bearded tit – Brian Sandison
Bird-wise, December brought us the traditional bittern sighting on the 3rd, fieldfares in the hedgerows around the wild-bird cover fields, and continuing sightings of bearded tits, in quite large groups around the Tower, and from Fen Hide – always worth checking for them if the weather is calm! Three little egrets remained around the Savoch Low Ground, although I suspect they were (r)egretting being there when the weather got worse. A firecrest was a serendipitous find when one of our visitors was going through his photos from the boardwalk, and happily it remained around until about 17 December. Farmland birds continued to increase in numbers, with 130 linnets, 20 greenfinches, and 35 reed buntings, not to mention the resident tree sparrow gang around the farmyard, which are present all the time!
Little egret in flight – Brian Sandison
Duck numbers were low-to-reasonable; 1496 wigeon, 265 teal (probably an undercount on a windy day when they were all in the reeds), 8 shoveler, 12 pintail, 413 mallard, 29 goldeneye, a few gadwall, and one green-winged teal spotted on 7 December. Swan numbers were good, 104 mute swans and 195 whoopers on the WeBS count. Goose numbers were disappointingly low in December, with only 4462 pinkfeet recorded, 1 Greenland white-fronted goose and 77 greylags. (Goose numbers did recover somewhat after the turn of the year, with 12,129 pinkfeet seen on the WeBS count of 18 January). A jack snipe was a good spot during the farmland bird survey of the fields near Starnafin on 15 December.
So, all in all, 2014 wasn’t a bad year...four new Konik foals to add to the herd, breeding bearded tits, breeding snipe, the first on-reserve record of blue-winged teal back in June, the first ring-necked duck in 22 years, the third-ever record of barred warbler, and the second-ever of Savi’s warbler. Despite the huge fire in June, the dunes are recovering well. The terns and black-headed gulls bred successfully for the first time in years, thanks to the otter-fencing and new tern rafts. A big thanks to all those involved in reshaping the island, digging the fence in and providing/launching the rafts! We said a sad farewell to Vicky Anderson (now enjoying life in the Outer Hebrides amongst the machair and the corncrakes) and a warm welcome to our new Habitats and Species warden Derren Fox. Ed Grace was promoted to Estate and Livestock warden. Our two volunteer interns, Paula Redman and Emma Parker have now left us, Paula to become a trainee with the Field Studies Council, and Emma to look for a job in conservation that actually pays her! (Good luck with the interviews, Em!) We also welcome our new intern, Isis Lake, to the team for 2015. Our regular volunteers Charlie, Pauline and Roger, continue to give their valuable time to all the odd jobs around the place; it’s thanks to them and to our residential volunteers that we can keep everything running smoothly.
The coming year presents us with quite a few challenges, notably the changes that will be happening at Starnafin. You may have seen on the RSPB main site or in the news that we have received a substantial grant from the Coastal Communities Fund, helping us to transform the visitor centre and volunteer accommodation, enabling us to have more residential volunteers and visiting researchers in better living quarters, making changes to the Visitor Centre and toilet block, and providing a new office for the staff. All this will inevitably have an effect on access to the reserve – the Loch hides and Tower Pool Hide will remain accessible, but there may be closures and changes to parking at various times; we’ll keep you posted on our Twitter feed and Facebook pages. We're not letting the changes stop us doing things though - we're planning another craft fair at Easter, and there will be a Beach Clean-up in the spring/summer. More events as plans are drawn together - they'll be listed on our Reserve Events page and on social media.
Thanks for all your support during 2014, and we hope to see you in 2015!
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