Autumn and Winter are my favourite seasons. I love the colours, the sunsets, the feeling of the cold air on my face, the crunching of the ground beneath my feet, and the sights and sounds of visiting wildfowl. It’s also a time when I get to see more of my family and friends. So while I have a lot that could go into this diary entry – here are some of my highlights!
In late October 2019 I went along on a foraging trip to Lunan Bay with friends from work. Even though I have worked in Aberdeen before, and often been to Montrose, I’d never before visited this beautiful part of the East coast. Even on a rather chilly day, the beach was dramatically beautiful, with areas of rocky shore and a picturesque walk along the river beneath a castle ruin.
I must admit I arrived a bit late and had missed the morning’s seaweed foraging, but a friend kindly took me round again and told me a bit about each seaweed and what it’s useful for. Had I written this entry sooner I could have relayed this to you, but sadly I will now need to look it up again! It was very interesting, and I was looking forward to trying some later in the day.
As we walked along the beach we did come across a sad sight – a dead juvenile gannet. Gannets are large seabirds which can dive at around 60mph for their fish. Unfortunately, this young bird may have got confused and dived into shallow water. I don’t know that’s what caused its death, but it’s my assumption.
Back at the hostel where we were staying, everyone laid out the items they had found and labelled them. It was great to see how many species there were along one patch of the coast! Some people had also foraged for mushrooms, so these went out on display too. My favourite was the Hedgehog mushroom – purely because I love hedgehogs!
In the evening we had what can only be described as a foragers’ feast! People had brought in things they had made at home from foraged items, and we tried some of the stuff people had found on the beach. It was all delicious and an incredibly fun way to learn new things!
If you would like to have a go at foraging I would highly recommend it – but please, be careful and go with someone who is knowledgeable and experienced. Our work friends who organised this trip know what they’re doing – and I wouldn’t have eaten anything unless they advised it!
I often go back to my local sites, particularly for birdwatching, but sometimes I just want to explore somewhere new! I got a bit stuck for inspiration, so used a new app on my phone called Where to Watch Birds in Scotland, created by the Scottish Ornithologist’s Club. It is incredibly useful – with maps, species lists, and directions for how to get to each site. By using it I selected Blackness Castle as a place to visit.
It was a freezing cold November day, so I wore layers and packed my hat to keep warm. When I got there I was lucky as there was one car park space left, so I squeezed my car in, put my boots on and headed along to the castle.
The castle itself is owned by Historic Environment Scotland and there’s a small entry fee to go and have a look around. I didn’t have time on that day (I had birdwatching to do!) but I will definitely go back another time. I followed the path shown on the app, walking round the back of the castle and ending up at the shore which looks out over the Firth of Forth.
It was an amazing view – the water was really still that day and I could see the bridges clearly. I tried to take a few photos, but I’ve yet to get a photo of the bridges that captures how impressive they look with the eye! Anyway, bridges aside, I was here for the birds and the noise of one particular species snatched my attention straight away: wigeon!
I like swans and ducks, and my favourite duck is the wigeon. I love the male’s toffee coloured head stripe, the dainty blue bills and most of all I love their whistles! Once you hear a whistling wigeon, you’ll have that sound identified for life. I watched the wigeon moving around and interacting with each other and as I did so enjoyed watching the other birds that were resting on the rocks along the coast.
I was just about to say I can’t remember what I saw – but I appear to have made a list in my phone! So, here is what I saw at Blackness Castle:
- Eider duck
- Great crested grebe
- Knot (I think)
- Black headed gull
- Greylag geese
I was having a great time, but sadly I was getting very cold! I searched in my bag for my gloves and realised I had made a very silly rookie birdwatching error – I’d forgotten them. I couldn’t hold the binoculars anymore because my hands were so cold! So I decided to say goodbye to the wigeon and head back to the car.
If you would like to give the “Where to Find Birds in Scotland” app a try, you can find more information about it here.
In late November I headed up to the Moray Coast for the annual Christmas Social, held by the Shorewatch team from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, for whom I’m a volunteer. While I was there I stayed with a good friend of mine and we decided to have a go at some birding – we were going to try and find some waxwings!
Waxwings are occasional winter visitors to the UK, migrating from colder countries, like those of Scandinavia and Russia. I first saw them in 2013 in Reading and I had not seen them since. I knew they had been seen in Moray, so I was hoping we would be able to find some during my visit.
My friend knew exactly where to look, and with this bird the trick is to go where the berries are! In this case, that was two housing estates in towns in Moray. We headed to the first of these, but could not see any waxwings anywhere. So off we went to the next town and we parked in the middle of a quiet residential area.
We waited and waited and waited. Then we could see a little flock of birds that my friend thought were waxwings, but they wouldn’t stay still! So we drove around the different streets. We waited some more. We followed some more and then eventually we found the tree they were resting in (we had actually been right in front of it earlier on, but it was behind us so we couldn’t see!).
I watched the birds happily through my binoculars, taking in their colourful feathers and listening to their distinctive sound. I even managed to get a few photos (although they aren’t great, you can at least tell they are waxwings!).
Now, sometimes, when you have binoculars and big cameras and you’re parked in a quiet residential area, people get a bit suspicious. We did have one concerned member of the public approach us, and we simply explained that we were looking at the birds in the tree (and we pointed to the tree). I’m not sure if he believed us…but there’s not much more we could say! It’s something to be aware of when you’re birding, but at the same time if you’re not disturbing anyone or getting in the way, then if you can cope with the slight embarrassment of attracting attention then it’s worth sticking it out!
I definitely felt that way on this occasion – we had pulled off a bit of what I call ninja birding, and I was delighted to have seen these birds again after 6 years!
Visiting Nature Reserves
I like to visit nature reserves all year, but on my holidays I like to go with my family. On these occasions I like to pick ones that everyone can easily enjoy – it helps if they have a visitor centre, cafe, toilets, and paths for example. So, over Christmas, we headed to The Wolseley Centre (Staffordshire Wildlife Trust) and Attenborough Nature Reserve (Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust).
The Wolseley Centre is always a treat. There are a few very simple walks, with garden, wooded, and river habitats to enjoy. I always like walking over the boardwalks and seeing the swans and ducks! We also saw lots of chirpy robins – perfect for the festive season. You can buy safe bird food from the centre and feed the birds, which is a really nice idea. We had a lovely short walk, as we had my Grandma with us, and then we headed for a yummy lunch at the cafe.
Attenborough Nature Reserve is a place I hadn’t been to before, but it’s only about 40 minutes from where my family live, so it was easy to get to by car. I was really looking forward to going – I always like exploring a new place!
We firstly headed through the visitor centre to one of the hides which looked out over the water. I couldn’t believe how many different species of ducks and other waterbirds I was seeing! We were having fun watching and counting the different species, when some other birders came into the hide. My Dad has developed the nifty skill of asking other people if they’ve seen anything interesting – I sometimes joke with him that it’s cheating, but actually it’s a very useful way to make the most out of your birding trips and people are usually friendly enough to have a chat and let you know of any sightings. Surely enough, they had seen a Slavonian grebe, and they had seen it just in front of the centre. So, we quickly thanked them and said goodbye and then hurried along to the front of the visitor centre!
Slavonian grebes do breed in the UK, in parts of Scotland, but there aren’t many of them and they are a fairly rare sight. In winter, they can be seen around the UK, usually along the coasts – so it’s quite unusual to see one on a reserve in the midlands!
Without even trying at all, I saw the bird. I didn’t even spot it – I was alerted to it by my sister’s calm statement of “there it is” and followed the direction she was pointing in. It all felt like a very easy sighting, but I wasn’t complaining. I got the binos out and had a look – it was beautiful. The winter plumage is a lot less colourful than the summer plumage, but you could still see its winter colours and shape, and its bright red eye! It was also quite fun watching it dive and trying to guess where it would pop up next – just like other grebe species.
We continued our day with a walk around one of the trails and a nice lunch in the cafe. Before we left, we headed out to the fields to see if we could spot another bird that people had been talking about – the Cattle egret. I have seen both Little and Great white egrets in the UK before, but never a Cattle egret. They are starting to visit the UK over the winter in increasing numbers and now was my chance to see one!
As we approached the field we could see a cluster of birdwatchers. We stopped near them and pointed our binoculars in the same direction as theirs (again, it feels like cheating but it increases your chances of success!). One of the birdwatchers with a scope kindly asked us if we had seen them, and if we would like to look through her scope. I obviously said “yes please!” and had a look – there they were, two cattle egrets, picking about in the mud for worms. They look quite like little egrets, but they are smaller and have a yellow beak and yellow legs. There was no mistaking them and I felt the thrill of seeing a new bird for the second time in one day!
Going to nature reserves like this is a fun and accessible way to have a go at wildlife watching. There are always people to ask about sightings, whether it’s the staff and volunteers or other friendly birdwatchers. Reserves with centres usually have toilets and are easy to get to, and there’s often somewhere to warm up and get a bite to eat or a drink. So if you’re looking for a simple wildlife watching day, a way to start your hobby, or a place to take the family for a day out they’re a great place to go. Check the Wildlife Trusts’ website for a reserve near you.
Now, I’ve given you a bit of a clue about this bit in the title. In January lots of otter sightings were being made along the Union Canal in Edinburgh. This canal comes right into the heart of the city centre, so it was incredibly exciting to know that there are otters there, both from the point of view of being able to see them and also the fact that they’re able to make their home in our urban environment!
I had to go and see them, so I set off with a friend along the Union Canal to give it a go. I knew that there was a family with three cubs and I knew where abouts they had been seen, from sightings that had been posted previously on social media. As we were walking along we kept an eye on the water, but also along the towpath and the plants on the other side of the canal.
As we were approaching the known sighting area, we could see some people trying to take photos of something on their phones. They were in the bushes along the side of the towpath, so I thought they must be looking at the birds and said we should carry on. Almost as soon as I said this, my friend said “No look! There it is!” and a little baby otter scurried across the towpath and plopped into the water!
The young otter was calling out for its mum, making a repetitive squeeking sound which, had I not seen the otter, I might have mistaken for a bird. I managed to take a photo of it, and a short video, while it travelled back along the canal to the bank on the opposite side. I presume it found its family and/or its holt, as it did not come back out.
I was absolutely thrilled. I have seen adult otters in the wild twice before, but it’s still a rare sighting for me and I’ve never seen a cub before! It was simply adorable and a sighting that I will always remember.
I’m very conscious of not wanting to disturb wildlife, and I would never advise following an animal into a place it has retreated (such as the bushes) for example, in pursuit of a photo or a sighting. However, these otters have taken up residence in a busy urban canal and are used to people walking past. Therefore, walking along the towpath (as we did) and quietly watching the otters is unlikely to cause disturbance.
Otters used to be a rare sight in UK waterways, after population declines caused mainly by polluted water. As our rivers and canals have become cleaner, they have begun to provide the habitat that the otters need and they are returning to sites, even in very urban environments. It is a positive turn of events, and one that will hopefully continue.
Find out more about otters in the UK on the Wildlife Trusts website.