Basin Notes - April 2008

Spring is Coming

Despite the fact that it's only a few weeks ago now that the country experienced its worst/strongest storm of the year - and that there's a blizzard raging outside my window (while I write) it's official: spring is here!

Even though the weather outside is maybe still quite "unseasonal", with snow showers, strong, nippy winds and sub-zero temperatures, a close look in any of our local habitats, in or around Montrose Basin, should fill you all with lots of optimism.

For example, sand castles and sunburn may seem a long way off at present, but if you don't visit the beach or shoreline until summer you'll really miss out. Although we continue to have some really wild, stormy and high tides/seas just now, spring is already well advanced in our local rockpools.

Mid to late March usually sees some extremely low tides also - revealing all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures.

You may have noticed that many different seaweeds are covering rocks and stones with bristly new growth, and many familiar crabs and rockpool fish are again evident, i.e. shore crabs usually return early, but only the smallest edible crabs are likely to be back at this time. Number of blennies, gobies and shore rocklings will probably increase steadily - all returning after a long winter spent in calmer, deeper waters to spawn. But it's not just in the sea or salt water pools, where there's considerable aquatic action.

Our local amphibians are also very active in and around the town - with the great spring spawning frenzy well underway.

Common (or not so common) frogs are the first off the mark, gathering in feverish, wrestling crowds to lay rounded clumps of eggs. Common toads' annual "migrations" to their breeding grounds are much more obvious (so please be extra vigilant and watch out for these determined little creatures as they cross our local roads - especially on rare warm and wet nights). They lay their strings of spawn in deeper water than do our frogs.

Late March/early April also sees the start of the newt breeding season. These amphibians usually migrate to a suitable pond where the males, now in their brightest colours, seek females. However, they tend to be much more "civilised" - there's none of the unseemly scramble which characterises frog and toad courtship.

If it's not too cold, why not go out with a torch at night and you may see the male swimming around until he finds a suitable partner. He'll usually then position himself in front of her, arch his back and send his scent to her with rapid vibrations of his tail (which can be both comical and incredible to watch).

If she's receptive, he drops a small pack of sperm to the pond floor which she picks up in her cloaca (excretory opening, commonly found in birds and reptiles too) to fertilise her eggs internally. These are then laid individually, each carefully wrapped in vegetation/leaf of a water plant for protection.

Finally, we are now entering the time of year when many familiar migrant bird species will be returning to the Montrose area e.g. first back are usually the wheatear, sand martin had chiffchaff or willow warblers. Among those that follow, in the next significant "wave", are sedge warbler, grasshopper warbler and whitethroats - all advertising their return with vigorous songs.

However, with the continuation of our latest cold-snap, it's worth bearing in mind that as our summer visitors begin to arrive in the area surrounding the basin, many of our winter visitors will be getting ready to leave.

It might just prove to be worthwhile, while out and about, to look out for the last remaining flocks of redwings and fieldfares - it'll be a good six to seven months before we see these beautiful birds again.