Winter Wonderland at Caerlaverock

As a season, winter can be cold, wet and dark but if you can look beyond the weather there is a wonderland of wildlife out there to be observed.

Now I look forward to spring and the return of all our summer migrants (along with warm sunny days and emerging flowers) as much as anyone. But let us not forget that Scotland also has another set of amazing migrants that visit each winter. Whilst our summer migrants tend to come for insects (to eat) and mild summer (to breed), our winter migrants tend to come for winter food sources (seeds, berries, grass and mudflats) and for mild winter and to survive. And they come in huge numbers. Whilst our summer migrants are spread wider our winter migrants often gather in huge numbers close to where the food is found and that means estuaries and mudflats.

One place to see these migrants in huge numbers is the fantastic reserve at WWT Caerlaverock. This is one of my favourite places to visit at any time of year but especially in winter. Oh and the amazing (in some case heated) hides are a welcome luxury for a cold and windy winters day too.

Upon arrival we went to the main Peter Scott observatory (heated!) and were immediately struck by the number of swans and wildfowl present.

Hundreds of swans, mostly family groups of Whoopers here from Iceland for the winter but some local Mute swans too. In fact we had seen several groups on the drive up to the reserve grazing in the nearby fields. WWT sites are a great place to bring kids for the sheer proximity and quantity of wildlife it is a great way to get them engaged. To be honest it works for the adults too. The swan feed brings in huge numbers of birds very close and whilst it feels a bit like a zoo, these are wild birds free to come and go as they please.

There were also numerous ducks present including Tufties, Mallards, Wigeon, a few Teal and two Gadwall. A few Canada Geese were enjoying the food handouts too.

We walked out to the distant Saltcot Merse observatory and scanned. A Little Egret, Hundreds of Lapwing and Golden Plover, a few Shelduck. Curlew, Lapwing and Teal were present in good numbers on the Folly Field. The light was poor at this point for photos so we returned to the hide and tower over looking the Folly Pond close to the main reserve.

I needed Shoveler for my year list so was pleased to see these charismatic ducks with huge bills for feeding. They were often feeding in pairs working together spinning in circles with their heads buried in the water. My guess was that one was disturbing the mud whilst the other snapped up anything that moved.

As the swan feed was well past families of swans were relocating and moving all the time into the Folly Pond.

We climbed up the Farmhouse Tower and got several amazing views of these elegant birds flying from one pond to the other often within meters of the tower itself. It felt like we were in the air traffic control tower at a busy bird airport.

In the small garden near the entrance we were pleased to see several smaller birds, Great and Blue Tit, Bull, Green, Gold and Chaffinch. House and Tree Sparrows, and unusually sharing the same shrubs.

There was one other bird we had come to see in huge numbers and that was the Svalbard Barnacle Goose. Now again we had seen flocks of a few hundred strong on the drive into the reserve and again distant views from the various walks we had done. But Caerlaverock is one of the few places you can reasonably expect to see thousands of birds not just hundreds. And close and not just distant views. Throughout our visit I had seen flocks flying in and out beyond the north of the reserve so we headed out to the Newfield hide and there they were a flock of perhaps 4,000 strong. It was getting on for sunset and they were gathering in bigger and bigger groups. And then in one glorious noisy cacophony they lifted off to go out to roost on the nearby mudflats.

I recently read a great book on the origin of bird names “Mrs Moreau’s Warbler” by Stephen Moss. He points out that the name Goose/Gander is one of the oldest bird names we have. It has its origins many thousands of years ago and consequently is shared across most European languages. The eldest bird names tend to be associated with species that were useful to mankind. And sitting here watching thousands of geese lift off from nearby fields it isn’t hard to see how our ancient ancestors would be impressed with this spectacle and of course prized winter food source. Early man must have looked forward to the thousands of geese dropping from the sky each winter just as times were getting tough and food hard to come by. You would find a name quickly for such bounty.

That was a good thought to end with as our day with the flocks of swans and geese came to an end. One last honk lifted my eyes and a late swan was coming into the nearby pond. In the low light it stood out like a winter ghost.

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