The wildlife at Mersehead has been braving this week’s bizarre weather and even flourishing despite it.
Bluebells are out in the woodland and young are emerging. Nine mallard ducklings can be seen from the visitor centre. We hope it won’t be long before oystercatcher chicks join the nursery: a pair has decided to nest in perfect view, directly opposite the window. We’ve seen them swapping over incubation duties to allow the other to eat.
The lapwings have kicked off their brooding too. They’ve been showing off their nesting behaviour and we think there are at least eight nests so far. They’re under frequent, yet nifty, bombardment from the rooks, crows and buzzards, each trying to scavenge an egg or two for their own young. Have no fear because it’s not a one-sided battle – lapwings gang up to mob predators, seeing them off with a bosh on the head and a high-speed chase.
It’s been a big amphibian week. On Saturday, the first natterjack spawn string was found, freshly laid the night before. Newly-hatched common toad and frog tadpoles are wriggling in the pond. The weather hasn’t been a welcome start for them, but hopefully they’re not at too much of a disadvantage.
Photo credit: Catherine Weir
That’s not all of the amphibian-related news either! We’ve learnt that young newts like our woodland, thanks to school children building shelters there on Thursday. They found too many to count.
Migrants are still arriving. For example, a considerate whitethroat made itself known to our warden on Saturday morning. The male arrives before the female and starts building a number of potential nests. On her return, the female chooses her favourite and completes it, compacting their agreement.
We expect our most famous Svalbard migrants to be off on their travels soon too. The barnacle geese are particularly flighty at the moment, making goose counts mighty challenging. If they haven’t fooled us, we still have over 7,000 individuals.
We think they’ll be off this week, so quick – visit before they go! You might be lucky enough to see a whimbrel passing through from Africa to Shetland too, like a visitor did this week.
My first full day here had fallen on a Sunday. I remember it well. It had consisted mainly of horizons; the Solway was all sky and water and shifting light. The week’s work still lay ahead of me, and I had no idea what to expect. I’d gone for a walk around the reserve with Charlie, a volunteer heading up the natterjack toad project. We’d walked along the beach, where she pointed out the various prints and impressions wild animals had left behind in the sand. Had she not been there, I know I would never have noticed them. Charlie could identify most of the marks: badgers, foxes, rabbits. They were all there, and so were ours now – the prints of our boots trailed far behind us, already vanishing as the wind picked up.
RSPB Mersehead Reserve
‘People come here expecting a natural wilderness, but it’s not like that really. Everything has to be managed.’
This is something Eric, the farmer of the RSPB Mersehead reserve, said to me a few days into my artist-in-residency here. His words have stuck with me throughout these ensuing weeks. As they should do: Eric has worked on the Mersehead farm for fifty years now, long before it ever became a reserve, so his words carry quite some weight around here. And when Eric says ‘everything has to be managed’, he really does mean everything.
Mersehead is still a working farm, so the fields need to be ploughed and sowed and limed and rotated, just as they would for any other farm. Crops need harvesting. Fences need building. Machines need maintenance. But as well as this regular farm work, there are also wildlife surveys to attend to – of nesting lapwing, waders, farmland birds, barnacle geese, foxes, badgers, butterflies, moths, natterjack toads – all happening any time after dawn right through to the heart of night.
Moth trap (which we accidentally set up wrong… oops)
There’s a lively visitor centre to staff, its revered whiteboard listing all the sightings of the week. All sorts are up there, from swallows to hen harriers, buff-tailed bumblebees to painted lady butterflies, hares to roe deer – even a frog that bore a rare, scarlet pigmentation. Eric and the site warden Rowena compete with each other to see who can first spot the most wildflowers of the season. You can catch glimpse of reptiles, too; once, when doing the rounds of a butterfly survey, I saw the flash of a lizard’s tail vanish into the scrub of a sand dune.
Even things I thought were natural features of the landscape are meticulously managed for the sake of habitat optimisation. Take the water, for example. Mersehead is a reserve of wetlands, salt marsh, ponds, merse, and vistas of intertidal sand and mudflats. Creeks run like capillaries through the land. During my first week, myself and Charlie followed Rowena around the reserve’s ditches and sluices, removing and replacing blockades in order to control the water levels of specific field compartments. Ephemeral pools for natterjack toads have been ‘scraped’ into existence by Eric’s machines. Here, water isn’t just a presence in the landscape; it is the landscape, and so much relies on its proper regulation.
The Solway Firth
The reed bed on a windy day
I was surprised to learn that people have actually complained about the visible presence of farm work going on in the fields, but then it is just as Eric already said: a lot of people come expecting the wilderness experience – tractors spreading fertiliser don’t tend to sustain such illusions. But that word. Wilderness. It keeps cropping up. By its very definition it suggests somewhere that remains unaffected by human activity, as though our influence can only ever be a negative and contaminating thing, as though as a species we are somehow historically separate from nature. It seems to betray at once a sense of our deepest self-contempt and our profoundest narcissism.
Mersehead is no wilderness, though it is certainly a place of wild things. Neither is it an instance of our so-called mastery of nature, albeit for a noble cause. It is all much more nuanced than that – a space of complex dialogues, collaborations, tensions, and negotiations between ourselves and our precarious position within the natural world; a place that says we get to choose the marks we leave behind us.
Eric in his tractor, oat sowing
Roseanne Watt, Mersehead Artist in Residence
The first round of wildfowl and wader surveys have been completed this week. Initial surveys are looking good with 28 lapwing and 5 oystercatcher recorded at Mersehead. A pair of redshank have been seen displaying in the wetland field directly in front of the Visitor Centre whilst on Saturday night a drumming snipe was heard from Rainbow Lane. Surveying Kirkconnell Merse is always a challenge but extremely good fun as there are small winding creeks to jump, holes to fall down and oozing mud to get stuck in with the possibility of losing your wellingtons! Good numbers of redshank and oystercatcher were recorded this morning on the southern section with 5 displaying curlew recorded on the northern section. Around 850 barnacle geese were busy feeding on the merse whilst 2 eider and 4 red-breasted merganser were spotted leisurely floating along the River Nith. Although there is no visitor access to Kirkconnell Merse, great views of the reserve can be obtained from the quay at Glencaple.
The River Nith Photo credit: Eric Neilson
Around Mersehead a very late skein of 300 pink-footed geese were seen flying low over the sandflats and at least 3 (as many as 7) little egret are making a daily appearance out on the wetlands. Although the first wheatear was recorded 3 weeks ago, they had been keeping a fairly low profile however this week, male wheatears have been spotted all over the reserve. A single sighting of marsh harrier was reported to the Visitor Centre at the beginning of the week so keep an eye out for this spectacular bird of prey. Barnacle goose numbers have been high on the reserve this week with 7240 recorded on Wednesday’s count. Great news from the Sulwath Garden is the visual confirmation of a tree sparrow carrying nesting material after chirping was heard on a survey last week.
The dust and cobwebs have been brushed off the moth trap after spending the winter months on a shelf in the shed. The still fairly chilly nights have meant a slow start but a start has been made with 4 hebrew character and 1 common quaker recorded so far.