A one-word title this week, like so many classic albums. But didn’t it rain though?! Our local town of Ellon made the national news a few days ago, with homes being evacuated as water levels rose alarmingly. The region’s roads were plunged into chaos, rendered more suitable for hulled, rather than wheeled, transport. Having had a very dry winter and spring, with groundwater levels in Grampian at almost record lows, we seem to be paying for it now with some serious rainfall.
The Reserve certainly won’t be any the worse for a top-up. Many of our small wetlands were in a rather sorry state until recently. The Flooded Piece (also known in some quarters as Pickett’s Paradise) wasn’t so much a flooded piece, but rather a muddy smear. Some of the footpaths were dust-dry and beginning to suffer from erosion, and for a big chunk of the spring and summer we lived under the shadow of a high wildfire risk. This all now seems a world away from the present state of affairs!
Friday saw us out on the Ythan Estuary carrying out a waterfowl census. This is a regular duty during autumn, winter and early spring, and helps us to gauge the health of the estuary’s ecosystem. Wading birds and wildfowl (ducks, geese and swans) feed on the plant material and invertebrate populations supported by the estuary’s mudflats, saltmarsh and shallow waters. As such, they act as a barometer for what’s happening under the surface. Their fluctuating numbers can also tell us what’s happening elsewhere, as many are long-distance travellers, and population changes can reflect what’s happening on their breeding grounds or migration route. It’s a complex picture, but our bit, as field staff, is very simple – just observe, count and record.
Some fluctuations in numbers are easy to explain. This week, for instance, the waterfowl census recorded 195 Lapwings. Probably sounds like quite a lot. But just two weeks ago we counted 1,860. So what’s happened to them all?
All that rain we had in the week didn’t just disappear overnight of course, and the fields around the estuary are now dotted with temporary pools. These are great habitat for Lapwings and many other species besides. All the soil invertebrates are forced to the surface by the high water levels, and these are haute cuisine if you’re a Lapwing. So most of the birds that would normally be present on the estuary have simply relocated to take advantage of these temporary fast-food bars. Makes our count totals look a bit rubbish, but great for the birds themselves!
The recent rain has also rejuvenated the wetlands forming on Forvie Moor. Earlier in the week we walked the western boundary of the Reserve (not recommended as it’s extremely hard going), and noted the increasing spread of Polytrichum mosses, rushes and sedges. All of these are thriving as the ground gets wetter, with the gradual deterioration of the old ditches and drains used by former land managers to keep the moor dry for grouse shooting. Nowadays we’re content to let the wetlands develop naturally, and are hopeful that species like Water Voles will find the new habitat to their liking.
There were already a couple of Snipe skulking in the wet flushes, startling us as they exploded from under our feet before towering away in a zig-zag escape flight. When seen on the ground, however, they are bonny creatures, and exquisitely camouflaged.
Between the rains we have enjoyed the occasional glimpse of the sky. I’ll leave you this week with a sunrise over the north end of the Reserve. Stay safe and keep dry!