Basin Notes

“HOW many ducks are out there on the Basin?” It is a question staff and volunteers are sometimes asked by visitors to the Wildlife Centre. There is not a definitive answer of course for it depends on factors such as weather, tides, time of year and how good you are at counting.

The monthly Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS) provide valuable information on this subject and from the records I have identified the main duck species and numbers which may be present in winter. These are wigeon 3,000-4,000, eider 1,500-1,800, shelduck 600-800, mallard 160-200, teal 140-180, pintail 120-180, red breasted merganser 50-70, goldeneye 40-70, scaup 40-70 and shoveler 20-40.

The eider is our most abundant sea duck but in winter we can also get long-tailed duck, common scoter and velvet scoter drifting into the Basin on an incoming tide. The long-tailed duck breeds mainly north of the Arctic Circle but over 10,000 winter around the Scottish coast. It is a small compact duck with black, white and brown plumage, only the male having the slim elongated tail feathers some 12-15cm long. A pair was spotted in the Basin just last week.

The common scoter is a more robust looking duck, the male being all black with a yellow patch on the bill. The female is dark brown with pale cheek patches; 25,000 may be found around Scotland’s shores and they form sociable flocks in firths and bays. If you stand on the dunes by Montrose golf course you will often see rafts of them bobbing up and down on the sea or flying in close formation, skimming over the waves.

The UK wintering population of velvet scoter is estimated at around 3000 and they can often be found in the company of common scoter. About the size of a mallard, the male is velvety black and the female dark brown. Both sexes have white secondaries (trailing wing feathers) not always seen when they are on the water but clearly visible in flight. Eiders are always present on the Basin but the other sea ducks are occasional winter visitors and easily overlooked. If they are there, a trawl along the river channel at low tide using a telescope at the visitor centre is one of the best ways of finding them.

Nature’s bounty has been much less abundant this year following our dreadful summer. Late frosts and what seemed like continuous rain caused severe damage at critical flowering times. Warm days with the gentle buzz of bees and other insects busy feeding and pollinating were sadly few and far between. In the Tayock part of the nature reserve the effects of the wet weather has been quite marked. Berries on trees and shrubs have often been small or diseased. Infections such as mildew on leaves have also reduced plant life production.

The rowan berry crop was poor and some trees shed their leaves early. The haws of the hawthorn are eaten by many of our birds but these too have been scarce.

The small black berries of the elder usually provide a sumptuous feast for wood pigeon, blackbird, song thrush, starling, blackcap and tits, but not this year. It was evident by early summer that there was considerable weather damage to the flowers and this resulted in poor berry production.

So, for many of our birds some natural foods will certainly be in short supply. If we have a large influx of fieldfare, redwing and waxwing from Northern Europe, there will not be a berry bonanza for them this winter.

Do keep your garden feeders well stocked as it is likely that more birds than ever will be relying on the nuts, seeds and fat balls we provide to see them through the harshest of our seasons.

On a brighter note a few red admirals were still flying in early November and some wild flowers such as ragwort, tansy, yarrow, red campion, green alkanet and viper’s bugloss were still blooming.

Ken Donald