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  • Emily Jarvie

Stravaigins in Nature by Gordon Shepherd

Updated: 4 days ago

Stravaig /strəˈveɪɡ/ a verb of Scottish/Irish origin: to wander about aimlessly.

We are lucky, in St Andrews, that we do not need to stravaig far to find nature in all its guises. We have the East and West Sands, the Lade Braes, the Kinnessburn and the Botanic Gardens (and other parks!). And we get to walk the Old Course of a sabbath, where hares and a covey of partridges can often be seen. During and after Storm Babet, I saw and photographed two different aspects of its effect. One was from the East Sands, in which sea watchers can be seen in silhouette on the pier while the waves crashed perilously around them. The other, a day or so later, shows waders at Outhead running the gauntlet of the fast waves. When the waves retreat, the birds rush to find food in the freshly exposed sand and they become quite comical in running to-and-fro, especially the sanderling, mostly white in the winter and moves like a clockwork toy. Some leave it just a little too late and have to wing it.



Outhead is at the north end of the West Sands and the walk there, from the road barrier through the dunes, never fails to reveal various birds. The skylarks sing their familiar song from on high and the linnets twitter in small flocks on the ground and in the low bushes. There’s always at least one pair of stonechat. Skylarks often tease by preceding you on the path and it is nice to see their crest close-up – all the better with binoculars (a permanent feature around my neck). Nearer the point at Outhead, you may see reed buntings tilt the top of a reed while calling. In the spring, with a little bit of luck, you will see the sedge warbler, an annual visitor. Snow buntings are regular winter visitors to the West Sands and are seen in small flocks on the beach. A lot of these birds are small and sparrow-like to the beginner bird watcher, but there are mobile apps out there that will help you identify the different species and make it fun.


Walking west on the beach from the point, the Eden estuary takes a swerve on its south bank to form Balgove Bay where, when the tide is out, flocks of different types of geese can be seen, along with the impressive shelduck, widgeon and the omnipresent mallard duck. Look out for the following ducks: long-tailed, pintail, eider and the small, but colourful, teal. Last autumn/winter there were too many auks (guillemots and razorbills) in the river – they are normally pelagic outside their breeding season. This was thought to be the result of a combination of avian influenza and lack of food prey (sand eels and other small fish) in their usual winter habitat. Many ospreys, these beautiful fish catchers, pass through in spring and autumns migrations and can be seen eating the catch of the day on a post from the Eden Centre hide at Guardbridge which, incidentally, is open to all for quiet observation. There is also a post, way out towards the north bank, where a perching sea eagle can often be seen from Outhead too, although even with binoculars the image will be small.


Sometimes you don’t have to stravaig at all. I recently saw a juvenile sparrow hawk in our back garden and, though it looked alright from a distance, I sadly found it dead in a nearby wood the next day. It was emaciated and obviously died of starvation; its eponymous prey having eluded its inexperience. A red squirrel has come through our garden from the aforementioned wood, but our initial delight at seeing it turned into dismay as five magpies were pursuing it too closely for comfort and I feared for its survival.


In springtime, the path by the Kinnessburn – from Greenside Place to Abbey Walk – is flanked by banks of snowdrops and carpets of the yellow winter aconite. The latter’s flower only opens in direct sunlight. When the flower is closed it is round and encircled just below by radial leaves forming a green ‘ruff’, hence its nickname ‘choir boy’.


There is a pond by the roundabout by the end of Bogward Road that is worth keeping an eye on for bird life. There is at least one pair of moorhens and I recently had lovely views of a grey wagtail. It was foraging right by the still water’s edge, tail wagging rhythmically. The sight of the yellow on its upper body was supplemented by the yellow reflection of its vent (lower abdomen).


At the Carron Bridge end of the Lade Braes, there is a lovely carpet of wild garlic (actually, three-cornered leek or garlic, so named because it has a triangular flower stem) and the fragrance is unmistakable. Its small, white, bell flower complements the first sense and if you want to add a third – taste it! Carrying on over the humpback bridge by the old mill, Boase Wood displays a carpet of blue winter windflower (anemone blanda) and white wood anemone. It is thanks to volunteers from the Preservation Trust, who own this wood, that this area is looking so well. It is also nice to see the banks full of Wordsworthian daffodils and, earlier in the year, there was an unusual winter heliotrope flower seen near the bridge at Maynard Road.


As well as the green and blue landscape, there are “2,000 acres of sky” to observe. The clouds are often spectacular, none more so than the nacreous or mother-of-pearl clouds seen on a couple of evenings in December of last year. Although I saw these clouds a decade or so ago for the first time in Aberdeen, they are rarely seen. They occur in the gloaming when the sun has just set, or pre-dawn when the sun shines on the underside of the clouds, which consist of ice crystals at -80⁰C and it is these that produce the iridescence. They form in the stratosphere 20-30 kilometres high.


What joy nature can provide to us on our own or shared with others!

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