This year we are joining Visit Scotland in celebrating the Year of Stories.
As 2022 progresses we hope to share our story, hear you stories and tell stories. We are even dedicating a woodland garden to explore the lore of our trees and plants and find out how stories are at the root of everythign we do.
What's been seen in Riverside? Pat Morrisey
About two years ago, on a cold, bright January day I was walking along the path towards the footbridge at Cambuskenneth and saw what I thought was a goosander diving and surfacing in the river just before the bridge. Getting closer it became clear that it wasn't a goosander but something more glamorous altogether, a male goldeneye, a winter visitor to our area and one of the most colourful migrant birds we are likely to see.
It was a special day for me, because about five minutes earlier I'd seen a goldcrest in the fir tree on the right side of the path, and a flock of gold finches in the birch trees bordering the river. Triple gold, I thought, feeling quite self-congratulatory.
Those sightings got me thinking about the number of different birds we have here in Riverside and I decided that over the next few months I'd casually jot down every one I saw. To my astonishment, by the end of March there were over fifty species.
But when you think about it, it really shouldn't have been such a surprise: we live in a place with such a diversity of habitat that it should have been obvious that birds of many a feather should flock together to take advantage of it.
One of the most popular garden birds, the Blackbird
We have moorland birds, curlews, plovers and snipe that fly overhead from their summer nesting grounds to the Forth estuary where they mix with oyster-catchers, a fair number of which can be seen in the fields at Queenshaugh during the summer. There is actually quite a lot of farmland surrounding us which provides food for at least three species of gull as well as other birds, and we have a school playground that hosts herring gulls at lunchtime.
Our gardens are perfect for blackbirds, starlings , robins and dunnocks, and house-sparrows that are making a welcome comeback in Stirling. And of course where there are small birds, there will be predators. If you're really lucky you might see the resident sparrow hawks contour flying over hedges and garden walls terrorising the bluetits who appear to be their main source of food in the autumn, when they can't get a plump feral pigeon.
There are hedgerows and gorse sheltering yellowhammers, linnets and tree sparrows, nearby rocky crags where ravens have been seen in the last few years and we are on the flight path for ospreys heading for Africa, red kites going anywhere they can to find a meal, and the many thousands of geese whose delta formations in the sky are so characteristic of winter.
This is a perfect time of year for bird-spotting: the trees have shed their leaves and those elusive little brown birds you caught out of the corner of your eye in summer can reveal themselves in all their variety - if they haven't headed for warmer climes.
Riverside is a great place to live and visit, not only for us humans but for out feathered friends also. So, next time you're out for a walk keep your eyes open, make a note, check against the list on our website ... and if you are fortunate enough to see waxwings this winter, call me, please, please, call me!
Have you ever smelt a spelt or a sparling, Darling? Pat Morrisey
The last blog I wrote was about what birds we can see in Riverside and how our area is special in having such a diverse environment. But as any ecologist will tell you, the majority of life forms on the planet carry out their day to day existence out of sight of humans - in fact 10% of the world's biomass is contained in the soil below our feet. For many of us our doorway into that world is when we turn the earth in our gardens and we bring worms and other beasties, and of course slugs, to the surface - feeling grateful for the former and if you grow lettuce, defeated by the latter. The fertility of our soil is to a great degree dependent upon these invertebrates and the huge number of microbial creatures, fungi and bacteria, whose eating, respiring, reproducing, competing, cooperating, and responding turn organic debris into a rich food source for plants.
The other part of Riverside where most of the creatures live out of sight is, of course, in the river itself. There's plenty see on the surface - ducks, gulls, the occasional otter, gray seals, and if you're really, really, really lucky the beaver which have taken up residence on the Forth. But how many of us have actually seen a salmon, a trout or a sea trout on our walks along the banks? Or the huge shoals of dace that anglers pursue in the summer months, the eels that the dabchicks eat or the flounders on the river bed. Or the even more elusive sparling?
Nope, it's not a typo.
The sparling (Osmerus eperlanus) is also known as the European smelt. It's a small fish about 20-30cm that spends most of its life in estuaries but, like sea trout and salmon, swims upstream to spawn in freshwater ... and it smells of cucumber! The spawning period is quite short, sometimes only a few days, and depends on a number of factors; water temperature, tide levels and availability of suitable sites being the most important.
They are found in the western edge of Europe and the Baltic and up until recently could be caught in many rivers where they were both a supplement to the local diet and an important component in the inshore fishing industry. In fact there was a sparling fishing fleet in the Forth until the 1970s when the decline in fish numbers meant it was no longer viable.
Despite the fact that across their range sparling are not seen to be under threat, nowadays they are only found in three Scottish rivers of which our very own Forth is one*, and they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).
Sparling are an important indicator species in identifying environmental quality as they require clean water and are highly susceptible to pollution. In the past the Forth was heavily polluted with untreated sewage and toxins from the heavy industry along its shores, but a huge investment of over £220m in water treatment plants in the early part of this century has had dramatic results which have not only benefitted sparling , but also herring, sprats and around fifty other species of fish in the estuary.
My only tenuous claim to having seen sparling was last spring when I saw a flock of goosanders corralling fish into a bend in the river at the old harbour area. They were small and silvery fish but I wasn't close to enough to either get a really good look, or check if they smelled of cucumber, but it was just after a high tide and they didn't look familiar. So maybe, just maybe, they were the rare, fragrant, anadromous** sparling.
*The Cree in Galloway and the Tay are the other two rivers.
* *An anadromous fish, born in fresh water, spends most of its life in the sea and returns to fre