World Wetland Day

Loch Lomond NNR

Today is world wetland day! And what better way to celebrate this fabulous habitat than by transporting you to the bonnie banks, where we recently conducted our first wetland bird survey.

Wetland Bird Surveys – WeBS for short – monitor non-breeding waterbirds in the UK, with a focus on internationally important species. They are conducted once a month throughout the year, and involve recording all sighted ducks, geese, swans, waders, divers, grebes, rails, cormorants and herons. Gulls and terns can be included too, and we tend to do so as the numbers of several species are decreasing.

Behind us, the low-lying clouds kept rolling past. Conic Hill kept appearing and disappearing from view.

Even before we reached the Loch we were clambering for our binoculars. The drawn out call of a siskin could be heard from the car park, and we wanted a look! Then, walking down the road and surrounded by huge old trees, we heard the unmistakeable screech of a jay. I’m still very limited in my sightings of this bird, and so just had to spend a few minutes watching them scamper about the branches right in front of us, their blue wings flashing in the morning light. Another treat – this bird was sharing the tree with two great spotted woodpeckers! But we needed to get into position, so we moved on.

Overlooking Crom Mhin, we had perfectly calm waters and no wind. Ideal weather for a WeBS count.

We clambered over the stone wall by the road, and walked across the frosted fields to a beautiful view of still waters and misty island shores. We could hear the mallards cackling, and the occasional faint splash of a diving duck. We set up our ‘scopes, and begin our first scan of the landscape. Our biggest surprise was the sighting of great-crested grebes, in brilliant winter plumage of contrasting black and white. These grebes are not a rarity in the UK, but they are not so regularly seen on Loch Lomond – they must have known we were coming!

A great-crested grebe having a prune

We moved on to the next point, away from our viewing platform and closer to the water. The shriek of a grey heron could be heard, and we looked up to see one soaring overhead, now silent. Disgruntled by our presence perhaps, as they landed not too far away, and seemed to give us a stern stare. Whereas the ducks at Balmaha may have learned to rush to us in hopes of food, this bird would rather give us a wide berth and continue fishing in peace. We tallied up everything we could spot – tufties, goldeneye, goosanders and more – and headed on to the final spot.

One of several grey herons we spotted, sometimes perched high in the canopy

This required some walking through longer grass, which predictably bothered a (jack?) snipe or two – flushed out into the open, but not before we found ourselves practically on top of them! Downy grey feathers are dotted all around – a reminder of the numbers of geese that inhabit this space overnight. Looking over the River Endrick, we held out hopes for a flash of blue – a kingfisher! – or a pattern of bubbles to indicate an otter swimming beneath. Alas, the waters remained still and there was no blue to be seen. But there will always be a next time.

Goldeneye swimming and diving

After two hours of highly enjoyable and productive birdwatching we made our slow way back, stopping to double check on those flying and swimming about us – just in case we missed anything or saw something new. Lapwing danced overhead, and a flock of teal that had previously been well hidden in the long grasses made themselves known. Four whooper swans arrived, two adults and two cygnets, chattering away in the water. A fallow deer grazing on gorse was too busy munching to pay us any attention. A sparrowhawk flies from fence post to forest. Feeling an incredible sense of satisfaction at the immersion of nature we had experienced, we headed back to the beginning…and to lunch.

At times the mist hid even the closest of islands from us, but the water remained clear enough to spy rafts of birds in the distance.

WeBS counts are run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and occur on a national scale across the UK. This survey in particular is rather special, as the majority of surveyors are made up of a large group of dedicated volunteers – over 3000 of them to be (sort of) exact! Because of this, the allocated ‘priority count day’ is generally always a Sunday. We have a fantastic wetland bird expert on hand for Loch Lomond, who has been conducting WeBS counts for over a decade. But naturally, there are going to be occasions where one simply isn’t available, and this is where NatureScot steps in.

A wall of cloud between Loch Lomond and the distant mountains

We record the date, time and weather conditions, and then make a note of the number of each bird species we can see. This data is then fed back to our local expert, and to the RSPB – a partner organisation of the BTO for WeBS, who then return it to the BTO where all the data from every count is collated, analysed and summarised. This is then used to produce a yearly report on how our wetland birds are faring across the UK. Another example of how what can seem like a singular event is actually part of a long-term collaborative and collective goal. The more we know about their numbers and movements, the more efficiently we can act on a local and national level to protect them.

A grey heron and ducks in the distance

Wetlands are a vital component of our world. They keep us safe from flooding, help to regulate climate change, provide us with food and water and, of course, give nature a home. Human overconsumption threatens all of this. It is now, more than ever before, that we must recognise the true value of these places, and protect the species that inhabit them. With surveys like WeBS, with the dedication of volunteers and the efforts to make their results accessible to all, we can use this information to rectify some wrongs, and reclaim our balance with nature.

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1 Response to World Wetland Day

  1. Anne says:

    It is always interesting to learn how individual sightings get fed into a national grid of information that proves to be so useful.

    Liked by 1 person

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