Learning the trade

There was a time when nature-reserve staff more or less fitted a pre-determined description. Male, luxuriant beard, wax jacket, collie dog, hand-rolled cigarette. With an option on ancient ex-military binoculars and boots to match. Curiously, you never saw a youthful warden, leading to the widespread belief that these remarkable people were born already aged 50. Where they came from, nobody could say.

But this, of course, is ancient history now. Nature reserves are no longer the preserve of grizzled men with grizzled collie dogs, and staff now come from a much more diverse mix of backgrounds. Not all of them have beards, or smoke rollies either. What most of them do have in common is a lot of volunteering and contracting experience, usually combined with some sort of academic qualification in biological sciences. Here at Forvie, we do what we can to help people onto the wobbly, rickety career ladder of the conservation sector, and this includes assisting with academic field trips such as this week’s visit from the University of Aberdeen.

Students ensconced at the ‘tin hut’
Deep in concentration – how many Eiders was that?

In order to develop their field skills, students had to design and implement a system for surveying waterbirds on the Ythan Estuary during the course of their day’s field trip. Mark and I, as Reserve staff and ‘bird experts’ (sic), were on-hand throughout the day to assist with the identification side of things (“It’s a Knot ‘cos it’s Not a Dunlin”), as well as answering general questions about the Reserve and even offering career advice for would-be conservationists (“Really, go and take your banking exams…”). In all seriousness though, it was a real privilege to meet so many switched-on, enthusiastic and capable young people, and to help out in whatever small way we could. After all, the future of conservation, of nature, and by default humanity, lies in the hands of this up-and-coming generation. No pressure, guys.

Grey Heron – one of the easier species for a beginner to identify

The previous day, we had been out and about on the estuary carrying out our own waterfowl census, as part of the regular monitoring regime. Once again, apprentice Mark was present to assist ‘old-timers’ Catriona and myself, allowing him the opportunity to further develop his own rapidly-improving identification and counting skills. All of us, however grizzled and crinkly we might be, had to start off the same way, learning by experience and repetition. As I repeatedly told the students the following day, you’re not born knowing this stuff.

Mark helping out with a bird survey

We were lucky enough to get a fine day’s weather for our fieldwork – at times too fine, as the bright sunshine made for some awkward glare off the water and wet mud, rendering many of the birds into colourless silhouettes. But this is part of the learning process, since in the absence of any plumage detail, you learn instead to recognise them by their shape, movement and feeding action – their character.

Redshanks – I promise!

By far the most numerous species on our count was the Golden Plover, with nearly four-and-a-half thousand recorded. Most of these were present around the bend of the estuary just downstream from Waulkmill bird hide, and they made for a really impressive sight and sound – especially when stirred up by one of the local Sparrowhawks or Peregrines.

Golden Plover, with a few Lapwing admixed
Back on the estuary – briefly!
Try counting that lot!
Settling back down again

These days the sunlight is distinctly ‘wintry’, with a low angle and golden hue that really accentuates the colours of birds like Lapwings. On a dull day these look black-and-white and fairly nondescript, but in the sunshine they’re transformed into burnished, green-glossed, be-crested exotics.

Lapwing in late-autumn sunshine

One of the less welcome ‘finds’ on our bird count was the leftovers from somebody’s impromptu fireworks display in the lay-by overlooking the estuary. Let’s be clear here, folks – letting off fireworks without the landowner’s permission is illegal. Never mind the disturbance of birds on an internationally-important wetland. Or the littering (there was a bin within twenty yards of the rubbish, yet it was still left on the tarmac). In my fifteen-or-so years at Forvie, one thing I’ve learnt is that I’ve much still to learn about people. How come some are extraordinarily generous, selfless, kind and respectful, yet others are so inconsiderate and uncaring? Answers on the proverbial postcard please! But if I could teach up-and-coming conservationists anything, it’s to try not to take this sort of thing personally; down that road lies madness.


Away from the estuary, the last few dregs of insect life are seeping out of the landscape, bedding down for the forthcoming winter. The wader count did, however, produce a late sighting of a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly hurrying past us near Logie Buchan bridge. With the first light frost having occurred that morning, this tardy individual would be well advised to find somewhere to hibernate, and quickly.

Small Tortoiseshell – past your bedtime!

The other late Lepidopteran news concerns the hairy caterpillars of the Ruby Tiger moth, which have recently been in evidence perambulating along the footpaths looking for somewhere to spend the winter. Smaller and fluffier than the familiar Garden Tiger caterpillars which characterise the summer months, these still provide a tempting-looking takeaway for a hungry insectivorous bird. Sure enough, we watched a Stonechat at Collieston capture a caterpillar, then spend a while puzzling over how to separate the fuzz from the tasty bits.

Ruby Tiger caterpillar
Stonechat with a fluff supper

They say the early bird catches the worm, but at this late stage of the year, all it gets is a beakful of fluff. Perhaps it won’t bother with this particular type of caterpillar in future. Just like us, the Stonechat must also learn from its experiences in order to make its way in life. But with autumn ebbing away fast, it’ll need to learn its trade quickly in order to make it through the winter ahead. Good luck!

What am I supposed to do with this?