Interns Katie (L) and Julie (R), Lorna Dow

From March to September 2019, I have been one of the Reserves Interns on the RSPB North East Scottish Coastal Reserves, based at Loch of Strathbeg. I chose to immerse myself in this voluntary internship as a stepping stone to returning to work in Scottish nature conservation after spending far too long in a city office-based job.

I can’t believe how quickly the season has flown by! I arrived at the Loch of Strathbeg on the 2nd of March. My previous visits to the reserve had been as a teenager (with my Mum, who was from nearby Macduff) and a couple of later visits when I joined a car of Speyside-based birdwatchers to travel across to see rare birds here. Viewing my first male smew on the loch left a lasting impression: beautiful!

The month of March held the tail-end of the winter season, with calls of pink-footed geese greeting me as I opened the door each morning. I joined the reserve team in counting roosting geese before they travelled north for the summer. Wetland Birds Surveys were another early morning joy – meeting at 04.30hrs to be on the spot in time to count waders, ducks and geese at first light. We even measured potential use of goose grazing areas by counting goose poo! Signs of spring included willow catkins, blossom, frogspawn and dwindling goose numbers.

We were introduced to other interns and volunteers at a northern Scotland induction day and then settled into the routine of completing the interns’ weekly maintenance jobs around the Loch of Strathbeg reserve. Checking the Visitor Centre, hides, paths and associated infrastructure are safe and fit for purpose by cleaning windows and toilets, sweeping and hoovering floors, filling bird feeders and cutting back encroaching vegetation where applicable. We were also introduced to the other team working on the reserve – the herd of Konik ponies busy munching their way through the soft rush to open up the habitat for wildlife. They are an integral part of the team here and we check daily that they’re all happily (and healthily) continuing their successful habitat maintenance.

Konik ponies at Strathbeg, Julie Ellis

Early season jobs with the rest of the team involved preparing the reserves for the wildlife and people that would visit during the summer breeding season. Waterproofs and wooly hats were much-appreciated as I settled in and was re-introduced to “waindy” weather – rainy and windy! I also enjoyed the glory of a reedbed glowing gold in spring sunshine. It was a great chance to visit or read up about the other reserves managed by the team. As well as the impressive mosaic of habitats at the Loch of Strathbeg, the North East Coastal Reserves include seabird breeding cliffs at Fowlsheugh and Troup Head and wetlands at Loch Spynie and Meikle Loch. I got my bearings around the reserves as we fixed boardwalks, filled holes in access tracks, tidied up reserve paths, cleared encroaching vegetation and put up and fixed fences.

Boardwalk repairs, Lorna Dow

In mid-April I was lucky enough to travel to Shetland to assist colleagues with building a replacement boardwalk on the island of Mousa. It was an immense privilege to share the island with drumming snipe and foraging otters, sometimes watching Great Northern Divers feeding in the bay as we walked the mile of commute to spend the day working in the shadow of Mousa broch. The storm petrels returned a few weeks later to breed in the gaps between the stones on the beach and even in the broch walls.


Mousa selfies! Kat Suchecka

Early morning entertainment in May was provided by Farmland Bird Surveys and Wader surveys. I was also trained to use reserve machinery safely – four-wheel drive, sit-astride ATV (quad bike), brushcutter and First Aid at Work. As some of the training courses were near the Insh Marshes reserve in Speyside, we paid in kind for using their volunteer accommodation by working on their reserve for a day. What a great place! Back at base, we fixed fencing and started monitoring the tree sparrow nestboxes and surveying for water voles.

From late May we also began to visit Fowlsheugh (the RSPB reserve just south of Stonehaven) at least weekly, to rope up safely and count seabirds on sections of the cliffs for the Annual Seabird Census and to monitor Kittiwake productivity by watching specific nests on visits throughout the rest of the season. In June we had late night entertainment listening for Spotted Crakes during wetland surveys – exciting as we heard some – so probably breeding on the reserve this year! I managed to get my first dunking – wellies filled with mud and water – apparently a pre-requisite for becoming a proper Strathbeg team member. I now truly belonged!

Fowlsheugh, Lorna Dow

Sunset during spotted crake survey, Julie Ellis

In July we learnt about invasive and noxious ‘weeds’ and removed both Giant Hogweed and ragwort. I was delighted to lead a work party of the Aberdeen Members’ Group for their July volunteering day, digging up ragwort from a wildflower meadow on the reserve that was being cut for livestock feed a few weeks later. Whilst continuing our breeding bird monitoring, we also surveyed for (and found) Lesser Butterfly Orchids. June and July saw an impressive influx of Painted Lady butterflies – heralding the beginning of 3 months of good butterfly numbers. I learnt some new species of moth when emptying the moth trap with colleagues. I also learnt about Damselfly and hoverfly species identification and began watching out for these on the reserves.

You need a lot of PPE for removing giant hogweed! Kat Suchecka

August marked the slowing down of the breeding season and an opportunity to return to habitat management – strimming and brushcutting encroaching reeds and vegetation around hides and tracks and fencing again. It was time to start inputting data for the season and I also had a day working at each of the Turriff Show and RSPB DolphinWatch at Aberdeen. During August I had my Season Highlight. We knew marsh harriers were breeding on the reserve and on Saturday 17th I was in the visitor centre with a local birdwatcher, scanning the reedbed when the male marsh harrier came in to view carrying prey. Immediately, THREE juvenile marsh harriers flew up to meet him. I still get goose bumps remembering that moment and I’m delighted to say that the rest of the team shared my excitement when I quickly passed the news on. Nature is amazing!

In September, autumn signalled the return of the geese and associated early morning goose counts and Wetland Birds Surveys. I took part in the Marine Conservation Society event: Great British Beach Clean by running an event on the beach just south of St Comb’s. 15 volunteers removed 94kg of litter from the first 100m of sandy beach and dunes and continued the good work for another mile or so southward, along the Loch of Strathbeg reserve shoreline.

In my time off during the season I managed to get up some great Scottish mountains either on my own or with friends in the Cairngorms, the Fannichs, Sutherland and Knoydart. I also explored the Shetland Islands a bit further than before including seeing bonxies and red-throated divers returning for their breeding season on the island of Unst. I even caught up with a bit of city-based culture (and friends!) in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh.

All in all, the summer of 2019 has been fantastic. It has been a real eye-opener as I’ve been amazed by the variety of habitats, wildlife and associated pieces of work that have been involved with working on this suite of RSPB Scotland reserves. The team – people and ponies – have been great to work with and it has been a real privilege to live on the reserve. I’ve been immersed in wildlife, full-time, for the entire season and it has been a joy.

Now we’re in the throes of a Scottish autumn and spring is beginning in the southern hemisphere so I’m migrating myself. In October I’ll be off to New Zealand to help to find yellow-eyed penguin nests, then search through beech forests to find and monitor orange-fronted parakeets before travelling to a pest-free island to survey and monitor re-introduced shore plover as well as kiwi and takahe. It’ll be a bit of a whirlwind but exciting times!

I’ll be migrating back to Scotland in March hoping to work for RSPB Scotland for the 2020 summer season, if they’ll have me. So I’ll maybe see you out and about watching Scotland’s nature next year. Please say “hello” if you see me first and, until then, enjoy getting out and watching the nature that we’re lucky enough to have all around.

All the best, Julie Ellis