RSPB Scotland's David Hunt shares with us his love of RSPB Skinflats and why this reserve is such an important place for nature and nature recovery
The changing seasons
Late summer is a mesmerising time in the natural world. The swallows and sand martins that swirled around me were a classic summer spectacle. The presence of juveniles in the feeding frenzy though, with their maiden Africa flight ahead of them were a timely reminder that things really don’t stay the same for long in nature. And the River Forth as it continues its journey towards the North Sea is just the place to witness this.
With the sun setting behind me over the distant Trossachs just that little bit earlier and the appearance of headlights from the Kincardine Bridge traffic, I’m struck by the sudden realisation that squadrons of pink-footed geese will be winging their way southwards, back to familiar territory in just a matter of weeks. But for now, the Forth is in full late summer mode.
Walking down the long lane towards RSPB Skinflats you can sense the river isn’t far away and an appreciation of the importance of this landscape for wildlife kicks in. Late summer paints this portrait well. A familiar sound draws my attention to a small party of curlew in the nearby field and the delightful kirrrickkk of sandwich terns drifts ever closer. These elegant terns flood into the Forth towards the end of the summer and afford superb views as they patrol the river for their next meal. The nearby flare stacks of Grangemouth one month, the west coast of Africa the next. A stunning adult common tern comes into view over the old sea wall. This way, back that way. Restless like the ebb and flow of the tide here.
And it is the tide that is the most prominent feature of today’s visit to this small corner of coastal Falkirk. Tonight’s high tide is just that, high. The usual shingle islands and muddy channels of the reserve completely inundated so that just the tops of the islands protrude. A grey heron stands on one leg watching. I must have arrived not long before the turning of the tide as in a short while, something special starts to happen. The magic of Skinflats reveals itself. In 2018, under the exciting Inner Forth Landscapes Initiative – the old sea wall was breached as part of a managed realignment. A unique tool in the battle against the twin climate and natural crises; the creation of new inter-tidal saltmarsh and space for the river. Climate change mitigation in action providing new breeding and feeding habitat for the Forth’s important birds.
In seeking a brighter future for Scotland’s nature, we need to look to nature itself. Nature-based solutions to climate change are a key component of the major new Nature Recovery Plan in Scotland and standing there at Skinflats, watching and listening to the tide ebb back out, the importance of working with nature was apparent to me. A new world was revealing itself, lost to sight just a few hours ago as the water raced in.
Teal now whizzed out from the muddy margins and snipe, like a starting gun had been fired somewhere, shot out across the saltmarsh. Two of autumns first returners. I was just starting to think about home when two shapes caught my eye in the last rays of the sun. Two bobbing shapes, navigating the deep pools of the saltmarsh. I plopped down from the bank for a closer look, most of my wellies momentarily disappearing below the surface. Two juvenile ruff. Perhaps born and raised on a Scandinavian bog just weeks earlier. Now here, on the Forth. Truly this is an international site for wildlife. Just like them, grateful for the pitstop, this has been a place of great comfort for me these past weeks. I’m lucky to have it on my doorstep and just now, at the culmination of summer, with a changing of the bird guard imminent, I’m struck by the need to make sure our special wild places to remain just that. Special.
Out beyond the breach, more and more mud is coming into view. Nothing stays the same for long here. A sandwich tern lands on a post facing downstream and the lights of the Queensferry Crossing blink brightly now that the sun has disappeared. Time for a cup of tea.
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