Well, what a wild weather month December was. During two hours at the end of November over seven inches of snow fell in the Montrose area and overnight on December 2 and 3 the temperature at the Wildlife Centre dropped to a chilly -12°C, so you could best describe conditions as harsh!
Large chunks of ice were seen floating down the river and through the Basin like mini icebergs and the brackish pools of the salt pans still haven't completely thawed out. Conditions brought trials and tribulations to many across the country, and on the reserve we were affected too.
The most obvious immediate impact of the weather was the changes in bird behaviour. Reports came in of tens of thousands of geese flying low over Carnoustie as they moved south and west in search of uncovered fields on which to feed. When the snow was at its heaviest, the amount of geese on the Basin dropped to around 4,500 and we got reports of pink-footed geese from as far west as Northern Ireland, where pink-feet are normally a rare sight.
As well as this, many birds flocked together in large numbers and on the reserve mixed flocks of twite, linnet, brambling, chaffinch and skylark as well as 240 mute and 136 whooper swan were seen feeding on the Mains of Dun. There was a massive influx of woodpigeon, with literally thousands feeding on fields on and near the reserve.
Birds which are usually not seen around the visitor centre were forced to come into view in an effort to find enough food to survive and brambling, water rail, great spotted woodpecker and yellow-hammer were all recorded on the feeders, as well as large numbers of the usual species.
A further issue we faced was the fact that 17 of the Scottish Wildlife Trust's 'Flying Flock' were still on the reserve and although they are extremely hardy animals and coped well on their own, sheltering under gorse and finding enough to eat, we supplemented their feed with ewe nuts and an energy lick.
Unfortunately, at the start of December we ran out of extra food and getting supplies from the shepherdess wasn't an option as the main road between Arbroath and Dundee had been closed, so we had to make the perilous journey to Forfar where an army of snow ploughs had opened the roads and thankfully we managed to get a couple of bags of feed. It certainly gave me a new found respect for livestock farmers who have to manage hundreds of animals.
We humans didn't get off without a few issues either. Several staff were unable to make the journey to work a number of days, the rangers had to help people stuck in their cars on the roads around the western end of the reserve and conditions were so bad, the centre was unable to open on a couple of occasions.
The prolonged period of freezing conditions also saw the Scottish Government introduce a suspension of wildfowling right across the country, which meant no shooting was permitted on the Basin for four full weeks, only ending on January 7, and a lot of the work which was planned to take place during December was postponed, or cancelled, including the monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count, instead replaced by shovelling snow, scraping ice and spreading grit.
Thankfully we seem to have a bit of respite from the Arctic conditions and as conditions have improved, with temperatures even managing to reach a balmy 10°C at the weekend, goose numbers have risen once more. The most recent figures from counts which took place on Sunday (January 16) indicate there are around 20,000 pinks on the Basin, and with many inland lochs still encased in winter's icy grip, the amount of graylag geese has risen to 2,519 and overall there are more than 32,000 birds to be seen on the reserve.