Mersehead Recent Sightings 23rd - 29th March 2019

The short dark days of winter are all but a distant memory now. It is refreshing to think that daylight hours are now longer than the nights, and the thermometer regularly creeps up into the teens. The verges of our entrance road are adorned with gorgeous Lesser Celandines and Wood Anemones.  Often regarded as a symbol of the ‘joys to come’ the yellow hues of Lesser Celandines are a classic herald of the returning spring. Regular sunny spells have also seen the appearances of Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, awoken from their winter hibernacula.

Wood Anemones flowering on the entrance road. This beautiful white flower is named after the Greek wind god Anemos, who sent his namesakes, the anemones, in early spring to herald his coming. Photo credit: Jack Barton

Along Rainbow Lane the gorse is looking and smelling divine, with dozens of bushes in full flower. From these bushes many birds are proclaiming their territories and warming up for breeding season ahead. On Saturday morning the male Yellowhammers started singing. Their sunny ochre plumage looked glorious in the warm glow of the morning light, accentuated by the excess of flowering gorse.

'Little - bit -of - bread - and - no - cheeeeese!' sings the Yellowhammer! Photo credit: Jack Barton

In our last blog Lana speculated that the Chiffchaffs might start singing this week, so I set out early on Saturday morning with my ears well pricked. Lo and behold, I heard the characteristic onomatopoeic ‘Chiff – chaff’ song emanating from the hedgerow near Bruiach Hide. Since Saturday this song has been heard daily around the reserve, suggesting there has been a considerable fall of these warblers arriving on their breeding territories having spent the winter further south.

It’s not only the Chiffchaffs that have arrived. On Sunday evening at least three Barn Swallows were watched hunting over the wetlands. This was by far the earliest spring record for Mersehead, trumping the 2016 record of 3rd April by 10 days. The Barn Swallows were also joined by a few Sand Martins showing off their aerial agility. Barn Swallows and Sand Martins are both members of the Hirundine family and they have travelled from as far as South Africa to breed here, often returning to the place that they were born! It certainly seems that the migrant floodgates are now well and truly open. On Monday a smart male Wheatear was sighted jauntily flying along the beach. Unfortunately, this male didn’t quite make the record books, the earliest spring record being the 11th March in 2014.

One of the first Chiffchaffs to arrive at Mersehead this spring. We are expecting many more! Photo credit: Jack Barton

It was certainly exciting to welcome back all these spring migrants, but nothing quite beat the thrill of seeing a very unexpected visitor to our wetlands on Monday – a Green-winged Teal. The credit for finding this bird goes to Ed Tooth, D&G’s Black Grouse Officer, who painstakingly checked though hundreds of Eurasian Teal in the hope of finding the odd one out! Green-winged Teal and Eurasian Teal used to be considered the same species but have been split into two separate species based on behavioural, morphological, and molecular evidence. The Green-winged Teal breeds throughout North America and the main distinguishing feature is the distinctive vertical white bar at the front of each flank. Once you know what you’re looking for it really stands out!

Green-winged Teal. Note the white vertical bar near the front of the bird. Photo credit: Jack Barton

It wasn’t just the birds that exceeded our expectations this week though. A Grey Shoulder-knot moth (Lithophane ornitopus), found on Saturday, was the second ever record for D&G and the whole of Scotland. It would be interesting to know whether this moth has been overlooked in this area in the past or whether it is a new arrival, pushed North by a warming climate?

On Monday we conducted our reserve WeBS count. One highlight of this count was 7280 Barnacle Geese, 6280 of which were all packed into one field at the far end of the reserve. That sure was a mighty headache to count! Totals for the count were as followed: 1 Mute Swan, 5 Canada Geese, 112 Wigeon, 7 Gadwall, 350 Teal, 20 Mallard, 24 Pintail, 60 Shoveler, 3 Tufted Duck, 1 Little Egret, 3 Grey Heron, 880 Oystercatcher (at the high tide roost), 1 Grey plover, 36 Lapwing, 13 Snipe, 114 Curlew, 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls and 1 Herring Gull.

That evening 41 Whooper Swans dropped into the wetlands to spend the night, before departing the following morning. This congregation, a mixture of family groups, was probably gathering ahead of their spring migration to Iceland, which involves a cross-sea journey of at least 800km!

Whooper swans gathering ahead of their migration. Photo credit: Jack Barton

In other news we visited our Kirkonnell Merse reserve on Wednesday for the annual fence check. The fence runs around the entire perimeter of the reserve to prevent cattle and their calves from straying too close to the River Nith when they graze during the summer. We walked the entire length of the fence removing any logs and debris that had been deposited by the tide and addressing any breakages. Kirkonnell is riddled with muddy creeks which made navigating the reserve all that more exciting. Some of us came back much muddier than others! The birdwatching was decent on the day too. We flushed a Jack Snipe and saw two freshly arrived male Wheatears!

One of the many muddy creeks we managed to navigate during our visit to Kirkonnell. Photo credit: Jack Barton 

If you’re coming to Mersehead in the coming week then look out for our next batch of spring arrivals. Will you be the first one to spot a House Martin hunting in the skies or a Willow Warbler singing its wistful tune?

Blog written by Jack Barton. Trainee Assistant Warden.