Joe Crossland, an RSPB Scotland media volunteer, fills us in on a magical winter morning spent at our Loch Lomond reserve in search of geese.
A winter’s morning on the banks of Loch Lomond
The setting moon.
Getting up at 5am isn’t my regular Saturday morning routine, but this weekend in question promised to be something different. It offered the opportunity to witness a natural wonder, the kind that puts a spring in your step and a smile on your face. One that makes your heart beat a little quicker.
The relatively new RSPB Scotland reserve at Loch Lomond is a special place. Being situated on the south shore of the loch with an awe-inspiring view of Ben Lomond and the surrounding mountains would be enough for some, but add to this the variety of habitats and species that can be found here, and you begin to realise that this reserve has a lot more to offer than just the view.
RSPB Scotland’s Loch Lomond reserve is home to a wonderful array of species, from otters and pine martens, to redstarts, wood warblers, tree pipits and elusive spotted crakes. In spring, bluebells fill the woodland floor as the trees begin to fill with blossom and birdsong. In summer, ospreys come to fish in the loch, swathes of orchids adorn the fields (5,000 orchids counted in previous years) and 20 acres of meadow bloom with 120 species of wildflower.
Winter sees the loch and surrounding fields attract thousands of migratory geese. Acres of pasture and stubble provide a plentiful supply of food, and the loch serves as the perfect place to roost overnight, safe from predators. No wonder large numbers of geese choose this spot to overwinter.
A record 9,800 pink-footed geese were recorded at Loch Lomond last winter (this year’s figures are still being monitored), and previous years have recorded over 1,000 greylag geese and 250 Greenland white-fronted geese, along with the local populations of Canada geese and the occasional barnacle goose mixed into the flock.
The bright moon illuminated the landscape.
Getting up before sunrise is the best way to increase your chances of seeing large numbers of geese at roost at Loch Lomond, before they move from the loch to spend their day feeding in the fields.
Creeping to the shore with as much stealth as possible for a group of 19, we hoped to take up position in advance of the geese taking flight. But sometimes getting up before dawn isn’t early enough! A waning gibbous moon was high and bright in the clear sky, and combined with the recent snowfall, visibility was much greater than it ought to have been for this time in the morning. The geese were nowhere to be seen! Scanning the loch with a thermal imaging camera confirmed that the geese had taken advantage of the bright conditions to get a head start on their intensive feeding routine.
But we could hear them. As their cackling and honking rose in volume, we realised that there were geese feeding close by, and that there was a chance we might be treated to a fly-past.
As the sky turned orangey-pink, silhouettes of hundreds of black dots in wonky lines appeared on the horizon, gradually becoming first v-shaped, and then goose-shaped as they got closer and closer.
Geese on the horizon.
Hundreds of geese flew overhead in zig-zagging, fluid lines, calling to each other as they searched for their next place to feed. And as the rising sun turned the snow-covered mountains a beautiful shade of rose, my heart quickened to witness this extraordinary spectacle.
The geese will be heading off to their breeding grounds in early spring, so there is still time to see this seasonal wonder before they depart. On World Wetlands Day (Saturday 4th February) the Loch Lomond team will be holding a guided walk at sunset, booking essential.
From Monday 3rd April, the new Nature Hub will be open 7 days, from 10am until 4pm, with a host of family activities and wildlife information on offer. Find out more about RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond here.
Get yourself Big Garden Birdwatch ready with this handy guide to bird ID in Scotland. The species included on this list were the ten most common birds recorded during last year’s birdwatch. Take a look through for a photo and simple description of each bird, to help you on your way to identifying them all with ease! Happy bird spotting and remember you can get involved with this year’s birdwatch by applying for your free pack here.
1. House sparrow
Male house sparrow
House sparrows are small, plump birds with relatively thick bills. The male has a streaky, chestnut brown back. They also have a bib, dull white cheeks and dark grey crown, with pale grey underparts.
Female house sparrow
The females are a bit paler in colour and have no grey crown. They have a distinct straw-coloured stripe above and behind the eye. Noisy and gregarious, you’ll likely see these birds feeding from the ground in your garden or from hanging feeders if you have them. They also like to loaf about in hedges giving their distinctive chirruping call.
Starlings are bigger than a house sparrow, but smaller than a blackbird. They’re stocky birds with chunky legs and a pointed bill that is yellow in the breeding season but dark in colour in winter. At a distance, they look black, but when viewed more closely, you can see that they are actually very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their wings are almost triangular, while their tails are short and square-ended. You may see them flying as part of flock, on a feeder or hopping along the ground, often noisy and aggressive.
One of the most common birds in Scotland, the chaffinch is also one of our most colourful finches. The males have a blue-grey head, pinky chest and cheeks, and a streaky chestnut back. The female is a duller version of the male, without the pink. The patterned plumage of a chaffinch helps them to blend in when feeding on the ground and so they become most obvious when they fly – revealing a flash of white on the wings and tail feathers.
Chaffinches are about the size of a house sparrow, are quite plump with a medium sized bill, and are found in relative abundance across the whole of the Scottish mainland.
Another species that can be found across the whole of the country is the blackbird. The male lives up to the name but, a bit confusingly, the females are dark brown rather than black – often with spots or streaks on their breast. Their bright orange-yellow bills and eye rings make these birds stand out though, meaning they are one of the easier garden birds to identify.
5. Blue tit
Blue tits are a relatively common garden bird species with up to 750,000 pairs nesting in Scotland. They have a blue tail, wings and cap – the latter is sometimes raised to form a small crest. They have a green back, yellow underparts, white cheeks and a black line through the eye. In winter, family flocks join up with other tits as they search for food. A garden with four or five blue tits at a feeder at any one time may be feeding 20 or more.
Perhaps the most recognisable garden bird of all and of course the UK’s national bird, as voted for by the public, the robin comes in at number six. The first thing you’ll notice is this bird’s bright red breast, neck and face, followed swiftly by their prominent, large black eyes. Robins have long dark legs and the remainder of their plumage is a mix in colour of olive-brown, grey and white. You’ll also be glad to hear the males and females of this species are identical!
The cooing call and noisy clatter of woodpigeon wings are familiar sounds in Scotland’s towns, cities and woodlands. This is the country’s largest and most common pigeon, recognisable by its grey plumage with white wing and neck patches. You’ll notice the neck also has a green and purple sheen, and the chest a pink flush. Over 600,000 woodpigeons nest in Scotland, with numbers growing to 1.5 million over winter.
These gorgeous little finches are instantly recognisable with their bright red face and yellow wing patch. Goldfinches are very sociable, usually seen moving in groups outside of the breeding season. They can be found anywhere that there are scattered bushes and trees or rough ground with thistles, although they are less common in the far north of Scotland.
Goldfinches are smaller and slimmer than chaffinches and have a particularly bouncy flight. They seem to be particularly keen on niger seeds so look out for them on your feeders if you’ve stocked up on those!
9. Great tit
Great tits are the largest species of tit found in the UK. They are green and yellow with a striking glossy black head and white cheeks. In winter they join together with blue tits and others to form roaming flocks which scour gardens for food. Great tits can be quite aggressive at the bird table though, and will often fight off smaller tits to get to the food.
10. Feral pigeon
Feral pigeons (also known as ‘town pigeons’) are descended from wild rock doves which are the ancestor of domestic pigeons the world over. They are smaller than woodpigeons and are most commonly spotted in town or city centres, hunting for scraps of food on the streets. Feral pigeons come in all shades - some are more of a blue colour while others are darker, almost black. They can also be coloured with pale grey, dull brick-red or cinnamon-brown. The feral pigeon rounded off the top ten in last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch.
To get involved in the 2017 Big Garden Birdwatch sign up for your free pack on our website.
Are you looking for a New Year’s resolution? Why not volunteer for RSPB Scotland? Here Bethan Jones, our Volunteering Project Officer, takes you through five ways you could get involved in our work across the country this year.
Five ways to volunteer and help save nature in 2017
Looking to broaden your skills in the New Year? Want to help save nature in your spare time? What better way to begin 2017 than to start volunteering with us and know you are part of something big!
Nature across Scotland is in trouble so we need to act together to save it in every way that we can. A large part of this is inspiring and engaging people in our work, and this is where volunteering comes in.
There are hundreds of opportunities for you to explore your skills and interests, whilst really making a difference to our conservation work. The RSPB was founded by volunteers, and there are currently 1,800 people volunteering in Scotland giving an amazing 120,000 hours a year. Thank you to everyone who already contributes their time to us; your support is invaluable.
Our volunteering is not just about birds and wildlife; there are opportunities in all of our areas of work whether it be office based or out in the field. Here are some ideas to get your 2017 off to a nature friendly start!
1. Become a volunteer champion
Our new Volunteer Co-ordinator roles are the perfect way to expand your experience in the charity sector whilst helping to enhance our volunteering experience. These roles will be based in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness, working with staff and volunteers to develop our work by expanding communications, championing volunteering and co-ordinating volunteer’s work.
This could be for you if you are looking for experience in volunteer engagement and would like to develop your skills in co-ordinating a team.
For more information on these roles contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Connect children to nature
Our schools outreach project, funded by Aldi, is in full swing, and we aim to connect as many children to nature as possible. Connection to nature sessions inspire children to explore the outdoors and take an interest in saving nature. We are looking for volunteers to help deliver this project, which is running in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, by teaching sessions in primary schools. You will receive training and will shadow a Schools Outreach Officer, before delivering sessions.
This could be for you if you have a passion for enthusing children about the natural world and want to expand your experience of delivering sessions to groups.
For more information contact: email@example.com
3. Make the most of nature’s gym
Making a home for nature in your garden is a great way to blow the holiday cobwebs away, get moving and enjoy spending times outdoors. We have lots of practical ideas for how to create wildlife havens on your doorstep, no matter how much time or outdoor space you have.
This could be for you if you love nature and want to see it thrive in your surroundings
For ideas and to request a Giving Nature a Home pack click here.
4. Put a pin on it
Our pin-badge scheme is a vital source of fundraising, and directly supports our conservation work around the country. We need volunteers to manage pin-badge boxes in public places across Scotland, to raise money for saving nature. All you have to do is place boxes in local cafes and shops, and collect the money for banking on a regular basis.
This could be for you if you want flexible volunteering that gets you out and about in your local area. If you like fundraising and have a head for counting change!
For more information visit here.
5. Be a visitor experience intern
We offer a number of fantastic residential volunteering internships in Scotland, giving you the chance to volunteer in spectacular locations with free accommodation, great training and wonderful wildlife on your doorstep. One of our current opportunities is at Loch Garten in Abernethy where we’re looking for someone to help engage with our visitors and give them a fantastic experience. The role also includes engaging with our online audience through blogs and social media.
This could be for you if you want to gain wide ranging experience across visitor services in a conservation setting, whilst staying at our beautiful reserve.
More on this role can be found here.
Whatever time commitment or skills you have, you can get involved in saving nature!