Biology

Published on June 9th, 2014 | by Sara Brady

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The Wonders of the Ythan Estuary

We’re continuing our look back on issue 10 here on the blog, this time with a wonderful piece by Sara Brady — an undergraduate in Zoology — on one of our favourite Aberdeenshire nature reserves. So here are Sara Brady’s ‘Ten top reasons to visit your local National Nature Reserve’.

1. Escapism

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Escapism. Image by Anlace (CC BY-SA 3.0) at Wikimedia Commons.

Teeming with wildlife, Ythan Estuary is a hidden gem right on our doorstop.  It is the perfect place to escape the noise and greyness of Aberdeen and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature. Exchange the sound of sirens for the distinctive calls of Eider ducks, cries from the orange-legged oyster-catchers and the wonderful sound of seals, grunting at each other from the other side of the bay.

2. Accessibility

 It is easily accessible from the city centre; buses are available on a regular basis or it is only a 12 mile drive. You will alight in the picturesque town of Newburgh. A track next to the bus stop will take you through the gorse and into the sand dunes. If you have time for a longer walk, follow the road across to the other side of the estuary and explore the Forvie National Nature Reserve.

3. Walks

There are three different options for walking. A short walk takes you onto the beach, which is the best viewing point for seals. A medium length walk is around the nature reserve and in between the sand dunes. The third walk, for the sportiest of you, is a 12 mile walk from the mouth of the River Don, along the entire length of the beach — best at low tide — and returning by bus from Newburgh.

4. Bird diversity

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Eider duck (male). Image by David Iliff (CC BY-SA 3.0) at Wikimedia Commons.

There have been 225 species of birds recorded at Ythan Estuary, creating a rich, diverse environment for everyone, not just bird-enthusiasts. There is the largest breeding colony of  found in the UK. The males have the more colourful plumage, with black and white patches and a yellow beak, making an impressive sight displaying to the females. Females are a more drab brown compared to the males.  During the summer, the numbers of these ducks can build up to an astonishing 4000 to 5000 birds.

5. Dunes

There is a spectacular sand dune system, reminiscent of a North African desert. Bare sand dunes starkly contrasted to the heathland behind them, with ripples of sand constantly changing shape and patterns. This is a highly unusual environment as generally sand dunes are covered in Marram grass. This is one of the best examples of a mobile dune system in the UK, as the sand dunes are not rooted together by plants they are constantly shifting with the wind. The unpredictable nature of the sand has led to a village and church being consumed by it during the 15th century, giving the Ythan Estuary cultural importance.

6. Terns

Along the sand dunes and beach four species of terns can be found using this habitat for nesting. It is a lovely sight, watching terns spiralling through the sky and agilely plucking fish from the sea. The most common of these is the sandwich tern, with an average of 1000 breeding pairs every year. Unfortunately other species of terns do not fare so well. The little tern is the rarest species of tern in the UK, Ythan estuary contains 25% of the entire UK population, which is just 15 to 35 pairs each year.

7. Seals and otters

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Happy seals enjoying the Ythan Estuary. Image by Iain Cameron (CC BY 2.0) at Flickr.

Ythan Estuary is also home to one of our most charismatic marine mammals, the seal. Both grey and common seals can be found here in large numbers, sometimes over 500 seals, and the noise they make is extraordinary. The large empty expanse of beach at the very mouth of the river Ythan provides an excellent haul-out site for the seals. They are extremely curious animals and will pop their heads out of the water as close as they can to observe you — and for you to observe them. The estuary is a perfect haul out site for seals because they are easily disturbed and require easy access to the open sea. The seals haul-out for resting, reproduction, moulting and giving birth.

The river Ythan also hosts a healthy population of otters and, if you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of one. Otters can live happily in the river and in the sea. Although they can be referred to as ‘river’ and ‘sea’ otters they are actually the same species.

8. Wild

Ythan estuary has escaped the impact of human interference and is claimed to be one of the least modified estuaries in Britain. A day trip to the Ythan estuary can give you a true sense of being in amongst wildlife and nature. It is worth the journey to this estuary rather than taking a walk in the more urban environment of the Aberdeen City beach. At Ythan estuary, pollution and litter is controlled and kept to an absolute minimum to prevent damage to the wildlife.

9. Conservation

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Mobile sand dunes at Forvie. Image copyright Martyn Gorman and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Forvie is internationally recognised as one of the best places in Britain for close encounters with wildlife. As such it is protected by a plethora of legislation and included in the European Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which includes bird life and habitats. There are also laws which protect certain species that can be found on the reserve. It is an example of an area which is of high conservation value and management strategies which help to maintain the high levels of diversity.

10. Reconnect

In a culture where being indoors in the norm, it is easy to forget the benefits of being outside and connecting with nature. Studies have proven that nature benefits our mental health and well-being. When you are struggling with deadlines or assessments, being in the outdoors can help to reduce your stress levels. There is nothing more enjoyable than being active outdoors in a beautiful place, and according to Natural England, people who live near a green space can actually live longer.

So if you have a spare day at the weekend, take a pair of binoculars, a flask of coffee, some lunch and go and explore the wonders of nature at your local nature reserve.

Featured image copyright Martyn Gorman and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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