Spring is really taking hold now on the reserve, and the summer migrants are starting to appear. The first chiffchaff has been heard near Fen Hide, the great-crested grebes have been displaying on the Loch, a little gull and a black-tailed godwit made an appearance on the Starnafin Pools, lesser black-backed gulls have returned, and the first marsh harrier of the year – a female – dropped by this weekend, hunting over the Savoch reedbeds. Snowdrops have given way to daffodils and celandines, green leaves are showing on the trees, and when the wind drops, it’s gloriously warm in the sunshine! We’ll soon be saying farewell to the geese until the autumn, and welcoming the terns back to Starnafin Island (the black-headed gulls and oystercatchers are already staking out their nesting sites!) and to the rafts on the Loch.
Black-tailed godwit – Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Monday 6 April was sunny enough to make the wardens wish they’d taken suncream out with them – it was Vet Day for some of the Konik ponies; tetanus jabs and for Bilbo, the colt born last year, time to lose a couple of very personal assets. He’ll soon be joining the Mosstown Marsh grazing herd, along with the fillies from last year, and we don’t want him getting frisky with his sister and half-sisters! Out on the Marsh, the ponies are enjoying the new, fresh Juncus growth and making great inroads into it. We’ll be starting this year’s series of transect and quadrat surveys soon, to see what changes there are in the vegetation, and the promise of new species is quite exciting. We’ve increased the grazing herd with some of the recent arrivals from Middleton Lakes, and with Bilbo and his relations the Mosstown herd will number fourteen; we started with six ponies on part of Mosstown, and the work they have done, reducing the Juncus and allowing other plants to grow, means that the grazing has already improved enough to support more ponies. We’ve also allowed them into a larger area of the meadow, so there is still a lot of room for improvement – which is what it’s all about!
Less Juncus means more good grazing, and more variety! Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
With summer on the horizon, the seasonal path from the Visitor Centre to the Loch hides is now open until August; the start point is in the Wildlife Garden. Please note, it’s not suitable for pushchairs or wheelchairs.
The other news is that we’re getting an overhaul! This summer will also see a new office building and toilet block, some changes in the Visitor Centre, and the volunteer accommodation is getting a complete make-over, allowing us to have more residential volunteers in better accommodation. This will mean some upheaval over the coming months, and on occasion the car park and toilets may be unavailable; we’ll let you know here and on Facebook and Twitter when there are closures. The hides will stay open throughout the building works.
Our events for the summer will be starting soon; ‘Pick out a Puffin’ walks at Fowlsheugh start in May, and there will also be a number of ‘Marvellous Meadow’ events. Keep an eye on the reserve’s events page for dates and more details!
Well... it is, really. We’re a year into the Save Our Magnificent Meadows project now, and the difference is showing. Our four-legged work party has made great in-roads into the dense soft rush (Juncus effusus) that was all over Mosstown Marsh, and has reduced both its density and height. We’ve found the most effective management so far is to cut the stuff first with the topper and then let the ponies loose on it; they really get stuck into the regrowth!
Heather McCallum (Reserves Ecologist) in the rushes - blame the weather for her long-suffering expression! The difference between uncut-ungrazed and cut-and-grazed is very clear.
We’ve already put up 900m of fencing to control the grazing, with another 900m over the next two years. It does have to go a fair way out into the loch to keep the workforce in (see the photo below)...
...although we do know where they are. Tagging some of the ponies using GPS collars will give us a vast amount of data about where they have been (and where they haven’t) – one of our original collars sent data in via email, so we’ve had the chance to look at it – there were 675 plot points before the battery ran out and get a flavour of what we may see in the future (we’re looking to get around 604,500 points by the end of the project).
Wex the Konik models his GPS tag and collar
Different days/times, different colours - you can see where the ponies were only allowed into the south end of the area at the beginning of the survey.
Students from Aberdeen University are helping us with monitoring the grazing and its effects, and we’ve already had some local schools out to see what’s happening.
Using our quadcopter-mounted camera enables us to produce scale maps of the marsh, including the grazed ‘lawns’ open water and extent of the rushes remaining. It’s also helping with other aspects of reserve management, for example enabling us to solve the question of why the reedbed hasn’t grown as we thought it should, so we can take steps to remedy this. Now everybody wants one!
In terms of wildlife, we’ve had the first record of breeding snipe on Mosstown marsh, redshanks are prospecting it already this year, over 400 curlew were using the area last autumn. More work is needed to see how the plants we want to encourage are responding, but overall the signs are promising.
National Meadows Day is on 4 July this year – we’ll be celebrating! Put it in your diary and come and join us!
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)