April, our residential volunteer, has been with us here at RSPB Loch Lomond for the last 6 months and has kindly written an evocative account of her adventures on one particularly cold winter's morning! April is now off to Rum for more fun in the Scottish sun (or lack of) and we wish her all the best! Read her piece below.
I am here over winter, so I wake up in the dark and the sky turns from black to deep blue while I eat breakfast. The moon is waning and hangs above the remnant Sitka spruce plantation outside the kitchen window, looking watery and indistinct as though seen through tired eyes. On clear nights Ben Lomond’s white cap glows in the moonlight outside my bedroom window. Wintering geese from Greenland fly over the house each morning in their hundreds, calling to each other like a pack of dogs. They roost on the loch, or lately on the flooded parts of the reserve, and take off in skeins to graze in fields all day. Sometimes when they fly over you can see the democracy at work within the flock. A small number will tilt towards a field they prefer, and then others will follow until the whole flock has landed, or else they will wobble with indecision as some individuals make as if to land, pulling back up to re-join the flock when they realise no one else followed them.
The geese are lucky — this winter has been mild. There has been hardly any snow, barely any frost, endless rain. The only time my feet don’t sink in the mud is when it has frozen enough to hold my weight. Sometimes the air is so warm that it feels like spring; often I can’t feel my toes.
The moon at 7am doing its best sun impression (Photo: April Newton)
Today there is sleet and graupel and I am up to my hips in water and up to my armpits in waders, making my way across the flooded Snipe Flats towards the river, to check a mink trap that our monitoring app told us was activated during the night.
Earlier in the year, when the waters were high but the weather was nicer, I waded the same route. The water and the rushes and the hills on the horizon were all lit up in sunshine, and the grey sky seemed very far away. A whooper swan, from Iceland, landed on the flooded field, skidding across the water. It called to its mates on other ponds and I stopped to count. There were 23 of them sailing around the floodwaters, shining white in the sun, all going “whoop!”
Estate worker Craig taking advantage of the low tide and trying to walk to Balmaha (Photo: April Newton)
Now the weather is pish and the cold water constricts my waders tight against my legs. I carry a long stick and push slowly forwards like some thick khaki heron. In September when there was still plenty of daylight after work, Craig and I dragged a dinghy across the grass and rush in this field to launch it on the Endrick. The water is so high and muddy now that I can’t even see the path we followed, and you could launch a boat 50 meters from the office and paddle all the way to the ocean without grounding out.
The wind is at my back so the going is relatively easy, and I reach Snipe Flats Bridge and check the raft (full of sticks and debris) and take a moment to enjoy this small patch of dry land. There isn’t much around: branches bobbing in the river and a flock of gulls in the sky.
Waves on the Loch and snow on the hills (Photo: April Newton)
I step off the bridge back onto the flooded path. I hear a splash and three meters in front of me a smooth, grey back breaks the surface and something charges through the water, ramming into my shin and skirting around me to disappear amongst the rush. I yelp and brandish my stick but it’s gone. There is still another raft that needs checking, and I spend the next half hour up to my hips in what I now know is pike-infested waters. In my first week here, wading through the same field in water that was barely over wellies but which was still deeper than any flood water I’d walked through before, I joked about how there aren’t many places in the world where you could wade through such murky water without fear. Now I worry that joke has come back to bite me.
I make it to the second raft and shut it down — the flooding is expected to continue for weeks and the trap is deemed too difficult to access. This flood comes after a weekend of over 50mph wind gusts and sideways rain. The first of three storms to bring such relentless weather has just passed, and by the time the wind calms and the skies clear it will be almost spring. By now I want out of this water, but I’m ages from dry land in every direction. I consider turning north to get into the woods, but a particularly fierce gust of wind blows my cap off and changes my mind. Behind me enormous fish lurk; the only other option is to go along the Southern Bund, which borders the Aber Burn and would necessitate me walking directly into the wind and squeezing through the branches of a fallen willow. There’s nothing else for it, and during the gaps between the wind that blows small pellets of ice into my face, this stage of my trek isn’t too bad. The sun even peaks from behind the clouds as I finally emerge, dripping, into Schoolhouse field. There are no geese in this field today, so I make a beeline towards the house. After an hour of moving against the water and the wind, my body feels light. Within ten minutes I am back home, out of the waders and waiting for the kettle to boil. Outside the sky clears, the sun shines and water drips from the tips of the trees.
Assistant Warden Luke Wake looking back at the reserve from Cashel (Photo: April Newton)
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654