Basin Notes - December 2004

A Winter Walk

A popular walk starting by Montrose Basin is the 2km from the Old Montrose Pier meandering along the south bank of the South Esk river up to Bridge of Dun. The path is comfortable to walk on and there is always wildlife around you.

One afternoon in late November I parked the car at the Old Pier and stood for a couple of minutes just to look and listen to the sounds of nature. I heard a blue tit's call then the "tic tic tic" of a robin. A wood pigeon cooed from a distant beech, then at the edge of the Lurgies a moorhen gave its throaty call. I was also on the lookout for a kingfisher, sometimes seen around the burn by the pier, but I was not in luck this time.

I proceeded cautiously towards the pier as birds are often in the water close by. Suddenly to my left the "teu teu" of a redshank taking flight gave my presence away. Its, nickname, "the sentinel of the marsh", is an apt one for this wary bird.

Across from the pier a heron took off from the shore and floated lazily away, while at the river mouth half a dozen little grebes dived for small fish and Crustacea. As I started along the path a common seal popped its head out of the water and further out two cormorants were perched on an old tree branch, which has been stuck in the mud for years. Ospreys use this as a perch and feeding post in the summer.

Small hawthorn trees by the path are now bereft of leaves but have a healthy crop of dark red berries. The broom still carry some of their black seed pods and many gorse bushes are alive with their bright yellow flowers. The only signs of life were some oystercatchers and a buzzard passing through.

A skein of some 70 pink footed geese flew overhead, cackling as they went, and landed well out in the water. Further along a female red breasted merganser winged her way down river. Along with the eider duck they can reach speeds of 84kph during level flight.

Up river a dozen goldeneye took off when they saw me, the white bodies of the males standing out as they wheeled away. Across the river over 100 mute swans munched contentedly on their winter diet of oilseed rape

Just then Ian Shepherd, a fellow bird watcher, caught up with me and we discussed what we had seen so far and commented on the influx of waxwings two to three weeks ago. Ian then glanced back and said: "What's on that tree?" A flock of around 25 birds was on a hawthorn tree some 70 metres from where we stood. At first I thought they were starlings, silhouetted against the failing light. Then, almost in unison, we said "waxwings" and raised our binoculars to confirm this.

Ian then continued his walk and I made my way back to have a closer look at these striking and attractive birds. They can be quite tame and I was able to walk right under the tree and was as close as four metres from them - amazing! They were quite unperturbed by my presence and continued feeding on the hawthorn berries. I cautiously made my way to the other side of the tree and with the light behind me, along with the last rays of the winter sun, I was able to view them clearly.

They have pinky-brown silky looking plumage and their most striking features are the swept back broad crest with a rusty coloured base and black mask and throat. As they flitted from branch to branch I could see the red tips on their secondaries and the yellow tip on their tail.

I watched them for a good 10 minutes before I realised that my fingers were freezing. I then reluctantly retraced my steps towards the Old Pier. What a pleasure it was to see those handsome birds at such close quarters.

I had just entered my car when I noticed a movement in a conifer across the burn. I raised my binoculars and there was a goldcrest flitting around in its quest for insects and spiders. Rotund and tiny, it is the smallest and lightest bird in Britain and weighs in at around five to the ounce. Often difficult to see in the high branches of conifers, they nonetheless widely distributed throughout the UK. Migrants from Scandinavia supplement their numbers in winter.

Encounters with nature are often unexpected but always rewarding. It is not every day that you see Britain's largest bird - the mute swan - and the smallest within a 15-period and, in between, get up close and personal with waxwings.