Like for everyone else, life on our reserves changed very suddenly earlier this year. We started working from home, the reserves team taking in turns to do the daily checks on the ponies at Loch of Strathbeg and making health and safety visits to the different reserves we look after.

Being folk who normally have an extremely varied workload, and although we do have office work, we are lucky enough to be able to mix that up with work outside on the reserves, and adjusting to working at your dining table 24/7 takes a bit of time. I’m not grumbling, I have a job and I was able to do it safely but it was a huge change from the norm. Some of our team were furloughed and the others at least had the chance to get out to check the ponies and reserves every few weeks. For me at least, I felt privileged to be able to do this and to have the chance to get out and get fresh air, regardless of the weather, feel more connected to nature again and blow the cobwebs out my brain made a big difference to me. 

Normally reserve life is dictated by the seasons and spring normally brings lots of survey work, involving early or late starts. For safety, RSPB cancelled all survey work, which has made for a very odd spring and summer. Personally, I’ve been with the RSPB for nearly 15 years and it’s the first year within that time that I haven’t had to get up for an early morning wader survey. I’m not naturally an early morning person but once I’m up and out, I love experiencing that special time of day when the reserve seems to be waking up all around you.

Our survey season starts with the first passerine (songbird) and wader surveys. At Strathbeg that can involve navigating the wetlands early in the morning, a few of us completing a transect survey, picking a route carefully through and over squidgy mud and rushes, trying not to come back with wet feet if you have to take the route over the floating matt of vegetation that covers part of Mosstown, all while taking note of the birds singing and calling around you. Our interns (who were sent home at the start of lockdown) start the nest box surveys, we complete surveys of the farmland birds on the reserves and then at the end of May, seabird season starts. This is just a taste of what we do but, it gives you an idea of some of the work we complete during spring.

Not having these normal markers through the year and the amazing experiences that they bring have meant a very long prolonged season, that in other ways seemed to have gone very quickly. I can’t quite believe it is August already.

I think I can safely say that all of us here have really missed the seabird season. One type of survey that we normally complete at Troup Head and Fowlsheugh is productivity monitoring, which involves following lots of individual nests of various species and seeing how they get on. It’s lovely getting an insight into the little family units. You are drawn into a short period of these individual birds lives and it’s difficult not to feel connected to them. I’ve missed not having that this year and it’s reminded me how lucky I am to normally have that as part of my job.

It’s been good to be able to welcome more people back onto the reserves, even if it’s not quite in the same way as normal. At Troup Head, it’s easy to enjoy the reserve as usual and at Fowlsheugh much is the same, apart from the shelter is closed. At Loch Spynie the hide is closed, although unfortunately the hide has been broken into recently. At Loch of Strathbeg the hides and visitor centre are closed but the toilets are open and we’ve been able to create a couple of open air viewing areas, to at least allow some bird watching over the wetlands without causing disturbance.

Although we haven’t been able to do surveys, some activity on the reserves have been difficult to miss when we’ve been doing checks.

Although avocets are not a species we see every year, a wide variety of waders use the pools during the migration season. So, when the avocets stayed for a bit longer, we didn’t think too much about it at first, until they started displaying and one of my colleagues, Ed, spotted they were nesting. The first egg had been laid by mid-May.

One of the avocet pair busy preening, Lorna Dow

As a team we were obviously quite excited by this news, as were our wider colleagues. This was only the second time that a pair of avocets have attempted to breed in Scotland.

For anyone who doesn’t know Strathbeg, the reserve is tucked up in the far north east corner of Scotland, we are beside the North Sea and if you head east, Scandinavia is your next stop. So we are not maybe the first place you would expect a pair of avocets to choose to breed, despite the high quality habitat on offer. We are in the region of over 250 miles away from the nearest regular breeding site.

Another reason we were excited about where they had chosen to nest is because over the winter a new predator fence was erected around the Starnafin Pools areas and they had picked this newly protected area.

Avocet sitting on the nest, Lorna Dow

The avocet pair had settled on a fairly exposed spot within the pools, but they were on their own wee island and they were defending it fiercely. All we could do was wait and hope that they would keep progressing and the chicks would hatch. Unfortunately, that was not be. I was on duty on the 30th May and I noticed the pair were behaving strangely, with both birds off the nest for a long time, with one returning occasionally, seeming a bit spooked and then leaving their island again. One did eventually settle down again and start incubating again. When I returned the next morning for pony checks, there was no sign of either of the birds in the area at all and I realised they had abandoned the nest and had failed for some reason. A quick check of the nest site to make sure no foul play was involved, it seems likely that the eggs had been predated by another bird.

A success story for the year was the fledging of three healthy marsh harriers juveniles from the reed bed, the second year in a row. They had been very well fed by their parents…… 

The common terns returned to the island at Strathbeg, the numbers built slowly. The eggs had started to hatch and although the numbers were less than last year, things were going well until suddenly they were gone and all the adult birds had abandoned. The female harrier had been seen hunting on the island, including dropping on to it and walking around and we’re guessing that it was her presence that caused the terns to leave. We’re hoping this won’t impact on next years breeding attempt by the terns.

The tern platform at Loch Spynie did well with good numbers of black-headed gulls and common terns nesting. We don’t have exact numbers as it’s difficult to see into the platform and we were unable to fly the drone due to travel restrictions.

More positive news from Strathbeg is that for the first time within around 10 years, 3 lapwing pairs held territories on the Savoch Low ground and chicks were seen.

We had the safe arrival of four foals this year, three so far have been named Holly, Hazel and Henry. Each year a different letter is used and we also wait until we are happy that the foals are healthy before we name them, our late arrival is still to get her name! We also had other new arrivals on the reserve, four young Koniks from Wicken Fen, in Cambridgeshire. They were meant to arrive a bit earlier in the year but until the travel restrictions were lifted, they stayed a bit longer at Wicken than was originally planned. They travelled in style, we use a horse transport company who are more used to transporting prize racehorses across the country!

One of our mares, Nadja, with her late arrival, Lorna Dow

It often takes a wee while for horses to settle into new herds and they have been doing remarkably well on that front. One in particular is special, Hector, as he has been brought in to be a new stallion on the reserve. Birch, our current resident stallion is still here, looking after his group of mares but the hope is that from next spring we will have more foals, some to stay in our herd, and some that will eventually travel to RSPB Insh Marshes, to increase the small herd they have there now. Next year the names will begin with I, we’re not looking forward trying to find potentially up to 9 names that begin with I, that we all agree with! Suggestions welcome!

Darwin and Hector, relaxing a few weeks after their safe arrival at Strathbeg, Lorna Dow