A Seasonal Assistant’s Swan Song

This will be my final weekend in the role of Montrose Basin Seasonal Visitor Centre Assistant (what a mouthful!). The five months in this post have absolutely flown by and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the change of seasons and the varied wildlife each brings during, what is now, my second year as part of Montrose Basin Visitor Centre team.

I started volunteering at Montrose Basin Visitor centre in February 2016 after moving north of the wall, a sum total of 500 miles from the swampy borderlands of Suffolk. The move has been life-changing. When I first told family and friends about the plan to up-sticks to Scotland, their reactions fell into two camps. Have you got Scottish relatives? No. (Unless a very distant 19th century relative buried at Sleepy Hillock counts). Well, you must’ve visited Scotland frequently and are acting out of nostalgia for childhood holidays spent in the Cairngorms? No, again. When they discovered neither myself, nor my husband, had any discernible links to Scotland, they all agreed we must’ve gone slightly mad! But when you’ve seen the basin at first light or at sunset, it has to be a contender for one of the most picturesque places in the UK. It’s also home to some of the most wonderful wildlife and wildlife spectacles too.

Montrose Basin at dawn and dusk (© Scottish Wildlife Trust)

I had only been in Montrose for a month before taking up a Sunday morning volunteer position at the Visitor Centre. I wanted to start learning as much as possible about this unique area on Scotland’s east coast, its equally special wildlife, meet new people and contribute to the local community. I will freely admit (for an ecologist), my bird identification skills were lacking before I arrived at the basin. However, slowly but surely I have started to improve thanks to the knowledgeable staff, volunteers and regular expert birdwatchers who kindly oblige my constant queries of “What have you seen today?, Any rarities about? Or Where do they migrate from”. There have been birds that I’d never encountered, or even heard of prior to volunteering. One of my favourites has to be the Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus). In January through to March this year, we were observing a group of Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) regularly in the salt pans when visitor centre staff noticed a Jack Snipe in amongst them. Smaller than the Common Snipe, with a shorter bill, they have a very comical action of ‘bobbing’ up and down whilst feeding; almost as if they’ve got headphones in listening to upbeat music!

Spot the ‘Jack’ Snipe! (© Scottish Wildlife Trust)

The early summer months brings to the basin another favourite of mine and many of the visitors who travel to Montrose Basin; the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). They’re such majestic birds, with a rather constantly startled look. I relished the opportunity to show visitors their favourite ‘fish-eating’ perches at low tide; the piece of drift-wood and a tractor tyre. They even took to sitting on the fence a couple hundred meters in front of the visitor centre to eat their catches of flat fish, which was an amazing spectacle for both guests and staff. A regular osprey visitor to the basin was a ringed bird known as ‘FC6’. It was discovered the bird was a female, who was ringed on the Black Isle in 2015 as a nestling. It was great to learn about her history and where she’d traveled from. All in all, we had a bumper year, with 8 individual osprey spotted across the basin all at once in August.

FC6 – the 3 year old female osprey in front of the visitor centre (© Ron Mitchell)

My final autumn weekends as Visitor Centre Assistant have coincided with one of the best natural displays at the basin, the arrival of the pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus). With current counts at ~75,000 individuals, when they take to the skies at dawn and return to roost at dusk the air is filled with raucous calls and the characteristic criss-crossing ‘V’ formations. I have especially enjoyed relaying to visitors the sheer number of geese we have visiting the basin and the resulting astonished faces.

Pink foot silhouette at sunset (© Ron Mitchell)

This year I also took on a position of Teacher Naturalist, helping out at a wide range of events. I’ve taken school groups out onto the mud, talked about pond dipping (which aligns well with my passion for macroinvertebrates) and hosted evening events for retirements parties and the Rotary Club. There are not many workplaces that afford you the diversity of experiences and learning opportunities that a Scottish Wildlife Trust role offers. I have really enjoyed indulging my creative side when posting through our social media, increasing my confidence by engaging with members of the public and the anticipation of what will be seen through the Visitor Centre window. Everyday has been different and exciting.

Teaching school groups about marvelous macroinvertebrates (©SWT)

I’m not saying farewell for good though. I’ll still be in every Sunday morning and carrying on as a Teacher Naturalist, as let’s face it, I’d be mad to tear myself away from the basin for too long!

Rachel Mackay-Austin

Volunteer / Teacher Naturalist

Director at RiverWood Ecology Ltd.

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This will be my final weekend in the role of Montrose Basin Seasonal Visitor Centre Assistant (what a mouthful!). The five months in this post have absolutely flown by and …

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