Forvie’s purple sandpipers

Ron Macdonald, local birder and photographer supreme, writes about a subtle Forvie visitor :

This morning I’m off to photograph purple sandpipers on Forvie’s wild eastern shore,  where the North Sea pounds against the high cliffs.  Here on the rocky shore below the cliffs I find 16 Purple sandpipers foraging amongst the rock pools, gradually being pushed higher and higher as the tide comes in.  Soon they’ll call it a day and head for their high tide roost on a nearby islet.

I’ve always been drawn to purple sandpipers.  Compared to other waders they’re much more confiding, usually allowing me to get within 3-4 metres before they edge away keeping that minimum distance between us. They are slightly larger and dumpier than a dunlin with an overall grey looking plumage with yellowish legs and beak.  On the face it you would think  their grey plumage might make them, err, grey and uninteresting but the grey set against the yellow orange bill and legs results in one smart looking bird. This morning I’m lucky enough to come across a bird with the last vestige of its purple summer plumage which adds to its beauty (see below).

The Purple sandpipers that winter on Forvie probably breed in Canada. Research on birds trapped and ringed in Eastern Britain (Kincardineshire to Yorkshire) are mainly short-billed and come from the Norway breeding population.  North of this and on Scotland’s west coast, long-billed (almost certainly Canadian breeders) dominate. Northeast Scotland has populations of both and there appears to be no clear boundary line between the two populations –  rather the percentage of small billed birds decreases as you go north.

Purple sandpipers have fared badly in the last while.  Research* in the Moray Firth found that from from the mid 1980’s, the total population fell from 400-600 birds to 200-300 in the late 90’s, which represents over half the population. The decline in the Moray Firth has been replicated elsewhere in Britain with a similar 50% drop in the purple sandpiper population.  In the Lothians the decline has even been greater. Nowadays the UK wintering population is around 10,000 birds.

What has caused the decline?   Research* has shown that the recruitment of young birds has been insufficient to maintain the numbers.   Exactly why this should be the case is open to question but climate change has been put forward as a possible reason with birds preferring a colder winter climate.  Increasingly, young birds are choosing to remain in Iceland, rather than migrate as far as UK. Adults are very site faithful so they keep coming to traditional wintering areas. As they die off numbers will drop – hence the decline.

Another reason responsible for the decline is the improvement in sewage treatment and the relocation of outfalls into deeper water which in turn reduces the amount of invertebrates found in rocky pools close to settlements.

It’s now nearing high tide and the birds have stopped feeding. The occasional squabbling between feeding birds stops and most tuck their heads under their wings.  Suddenly, as if on cue, a large wave breaks on the shore and they flit across to their high tide roost.

All photographs (c) Ron Macdonald.

* Summers, R.W., Butterfield, D.P., Swann, R.L. & Insley, H. 2005. The decline of Purple Sandpipers Calidrismaritima in the Moray Firth, Scotland – an effect of recruitment. Wader Study Group Bull. 106: 34–38.

Sunshine, rain and paint!

I’ll start this week’s post with the obvious bits in the title. Specifically, we’ve actually seen the sun here for the first time it what seems like ages. It was like someone had switched the lights on over the Reserve after a week of perpetual darkness.

Sunshine at the Forvie Centre – WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Reserve looking golden again, as opposed to grey
First shadow I’ve seen in over a week
But what’s that on the horizon?

However, it wasn’t long until that familiar pattering on the top of my head started again – no, not tern droppings, but rain. A half-hearted rainbow appeared on the horizon before the sun hid away again. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

A brief rainbow – while there was some sunshine to make one!

All the rain we’ve had in the last couple of months has certainly had an impact on the Reserve. We record water levels through a series of dipwells – basically long tubes sunk into the ground – and recently these showed a six-inch rise in groundwater levels within a week. We’re now starting to see plenty of standing water on the moor, especially along the Heath Trail footpath. If you’re planning on visiting us soon, wellies are advised for certain bits of the trails!

Seasonal pools now brim-full
Flood water next to the Heath Trail footpath
Great habitat for wetland species though!

Though we may not like having to put on our wellies, or splashing through ankle-deep, muddy water to go for a walk, some of the wildlife quite enjoys the wet stuff. It’s great feeding habitat for dabbling ducks like Mallard and Teal, and also for wading birds like Snipe. The latter are really well camouflaged, their plumage resembling the golden rushes and sedges where they hang out, and you often don’t see them until they take off from almost under your feet. At which point you usually fall on your backside in the flood.

A pair of Teal enjoying the floodwater

Anyway, now to the less obvious bit of the title. Earlier this week, somebody decided to randomly paint a massive boulder at Waterside saltmarsh with the Scottish flag. Now while none of us here have got a problem with the flag, what we DO have a problem with is people thinking it’s OK to paint bits of the Reserve as they see fit – it’s basically vandalism. So it had to go.

‘Graffiti’ visible from the coast road!
Absolutely massive up close!

So, what to do? We could paint it over with a neutral colour, but it might just get painted again afterwards. Besides, that would involve using more toxic petrochemicals on the Reserve, which we always try to avoid for obvious reasons. So we opted for a more ‘direct’ approach.

Step in two of our colleagues – Catriona from Muir of Dinnet, and ‘Mr Tirfy Wirfy’, our well-loved Tirfor winch (other brands are of course available). By carefully rigging Tirfy between the painted rock – which probably weighed between 1 and 2 tons – and a convenient tree, we were able to tip it over. And all with nothing more than a bit of old-fashioned muscle – no engines, no electricity and no chemicals. Job done.

Catriona and rock. Mr Tirfy Wirfy just out of shot.

At some point we’ll run a blog post comprised exclusively of things that people have done on our Reserves that they shouldn’t have. Believe me, some of it is utterly mind-boggling. All of us in Scotland have a degree of ownership of these special places, and we therefore owe it to each other to treat our National Nature Reserves with respect. Many thanks to all of you out there who do just that!

A visit from Jack Frost

Jack Frost has paid Forvie a call this week. Not David Jason’s irascible detective off the telly, but rather a snap of cold weather brought about by high atmospheric pressure and clear skies. And the results have been beautiful.

The Forvie Centre on Tuesday morning
The frozen pond at the Forvie Centre

Temperatures dropped to -4 degrees centigrade on Monday night into Tuesday morning, leaving the grass underfoot brittle and crisp, and the landscape rimed in ice crystals. The vegetation seen up close made for a wonderful sight.

Intricate frost crystals
Sparkly frost
A Teasel head with its dusting of ‘icing sugar’

Obviously the wildlife has a hard time of it when temperatures drop this low – especially if the cold snap continues for more than a couple of nights. The frozen ground prevents invertebrate-eaters from accessing worms and grubs, all the fresh water is locked up as ice, and even the remaining fruit in the trees is frozen solid. It’s a case of tough it out, or move on to somewhere milder.

Bittersweet berries in the frost on Tuesday morning
Tasty and edible for birds and small mammals – but not when frozen solid!

Bittersweet, also known rather poetically as Woody Nightshade, is a small berry-bearing plant. While it’s not as toxic as its more-famous relative, the notorious Deadly Nightshade, eating its berries would still give us a nasty stomach-upset. It’s curious therefore to think that two other members of the nightshade family are actually staple foods for us – Potato and Tomato. Look at the flowers of these, and of Bittersweet, and there’s an obvious family resemblance. But though Bittersweet isn’t good for us to eat, its berries are a favourite among birds and small mammals. They just need to be thawed out first!

Rose hips
Looking beautiful with a coating of frost

Rose hips are another fruit that tends to persist into the winter, long after other fruits have rotted or been eaten. The tough fleshy capsules contain a mass of seeds, and they sustain species like Wood Mice, Greenfinches and Blackbirds through the cold days. Their bright colours also help to liven up the monochrome icy landscape now that the leaves have all fallen.

Ythan estuary sunrise, on a perfectly still morning

The other lovely thing about frosty mornings is the stillness of the air. High atmospheric pressure produces clear nights, cold air and little or no wind. And this means fabulous sunrises, unruffled water and great photo opportunities. The Reserve arguably looks its finest on these mornings.

Frosty grass – you can almost feel the crunch!

So next time the forecast indicates that Jack Frost is on his way, it’s well worth making the effort to get out and experience it. The crisp cold air, the crunch of the grass under your feet and the ‘ice art’ are just rewards for leaving your warm bed a bit earlier than usual. And you’ll enjoy your morning cuppa all the more when you get back. Wrap up warm, mind!

Seabird Season 2019

Another update about the breeding season from some of our key species! This one focusing on our cliff nesting seabirds in 2019. For those of you who might be less familiar with the reserve we have a small number of seabirds on the cliffs from Collieston all the way down to Rockend where the cliffs give way to beach.

The number of Kittiwakes nesting at Forvie has varied considerably over the years, with a steady decline in the late 1990s/early 2000s being followed by a partial recovery, since then numbers have fluctuated from year to year. This year we identified 387 nests which is a drop from last year but overall a fairly average total for this site in relation to the previous few years!

Fulmar numbers have also fluctuated widely at Forvie from one season to the next, with a breeding population of between 180 and 360 pairs in most years. The long-term trend has been for a slow decline since the late 1990s. This years census found only 56 fulmar sites the lowest total since recording began on site in 1986. The previous lowest total has been very recently in 2016 with 73 nest sites. There were higher numbers than previous years of fulmars loafing around on this cliffs not on nests so perhaps there was a chance for some late breeding attempts here to boost these numbers.

Both Guillemots and Razorbills breed at Forvie in small and relatively recently-established colonies. Both species increased steadily in numbers from the late 1990s up to 2012, and have fluctuated slightly from year to year since. 2019 seen an increase in both species over the previous year with 148 razorbills and 59 guillemots!

The Cormorant colony was first recorded at Forvie on this monitoring programme in 2002, with numbers increasing to a peak of 93 nests in 2006. Since then the population has become very variable between seasons, and the colony was abandoned altogether in 2017. 2018 seen the return of 2 nests but this season recorded no Cormorant nests in 2019. It would appear that there is an exchange of birds between local colonies each year, including one just to the north of Collieston village (personal observations of Daryl Short) so no nests this year does not mean that cormorants are not having a good year overall.

Two pairs of Shags nested at Forvie in 2019, both at the traditional nesting site on the stack at the Corbie Holes (unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of shags). This particular site has been occupied by a single pair most years since at least 2000! A second pair has been present in recent years since 2014.

Herring gulls on site have undergone an alarming decline between 2010 and 2011 (315 to 144 nests). Although the herring gull population somewhat recovered in the subsequent seasons the decline continued reaching the only 37 nests in 2019, and sharp decline from the 63 nests in 2018. Similar to Fulmars, this is the lowest breeding population recorded since surveying began in 1986, exceeding the previous low in 2016 of 45 nests. Since surveying began at Forvie in 1986, the breeding population of Herring Gulls has declined by some 95%.

For the ninth consecutive year, no Lesser Black-backed Gull nests were recorded, and no adults or immature birds were noted on the day of the survey. Although loafing birds can still occasionally be seen at Hackley Bay this species has become locally scarce in recent seasons.

One Great Black-backed Gull nest was located pictured above! We were lucky enough to see the little chicks around their nest area on top of a sea-stack, taking its place at the top, definitely an apex predator in the colony of seabirds. The numbers of GBBGs have been low at Forvie for some time, back in 2007 there were 7 nesting pairs but this year and in 2017 seen only one nest. Like with the other species the reason for the species relative scarcity in recent seasons is unclear, but there has been a distinct decline since seven nests were recorded in 2007.

All in all, the census for the seabird season provided some positive news but mostly a continuing trend of worrying news. Some of the species are holding their own, but species like fulmar and herring gull suffering further declines, peaking with their lowest nesting season yet. With the proximity of the tern colony on the south end of the reserve which overall is doing extremely well, food supply for the cliff nesting seabirds was likely not a problem as it seems to pose no issue for the terns which share much of the same food supply. When looking at these population trends like our loss of cormorants on site for example its important to take in the bigger picture. While it is a decline for cormorants at Forvie, further north along the coast might see an increase, so that bigger picture needs to be taken into account. We send all our data into JNCC as do other sites so that a full image of how the seabirds are doing can be assessed! This will help us understand how our seabirds are really doing looking into next season.

Forvie eiders season

Eiders and the Ythan estuary have a steep history. As many of the locals know, there was a time that Forvie hosted the largest population of breeding eiders in the UK! Back in 1991 the spring peak population of eiders on the Ythan reached over 5000 birds.

Dating even further back the spring population of eiders grew from 3500 in 1961 to a maximum of 6700 in 1984. Since then the population fluctuated, sometimes substantially, but the dramatic decline of our sea duck began in 2005.

The eiders synonymous with Forvie

In 2005 there were over 5000 birds which by 2008 had dropped to just 2130 eiders. Since then there has been an overall steady decline. But where are we now? Having just prepared the 2019 eider report, we have had the chance to summarise the data gathered during surveys.

The 2019 breeding season has seen the lowest spring population of eiders in at least the last 58 years (could not find any older reports!) with only 1323 eiders. The last 6 or 7 years has seen on average a 5% decline year on year and this year and on the face of it this year has continued on this trend. The eiders of Forvie are still struggling to stabilize at a sustainable population. They are an iconic species on the reserve and it is sad to think the cooing along the estuary will continue getting quieter and quieter.

But is it all doom and gloom?

Part of the monitoring for eiders on reserve includes not only counting the peak population on the estuary and along the coast from Collieston to Newburgh but also nest searches and duckling/fledgling counts.

A nesting female counted as part of the annual census

We found a total of 97 nests and later in the season 86 eider ducklings reached the fledgling stage. From here they will have a high survival rate, capable of flight to protect themselves. While Forvie had the lowest spring peak population, the breeding output and the number of fledged eiders in 2019 is marginally better than the previous three years. 86 fledged birds from 97 nests is actually quite a positive result! Particularly for long lived birds like eiders.

Some of the ducklings from this year

On top of this, although the spring peak population in total was at its lowest, the number of potential breeding females was higher than the previous three years! Normally the males outnumber the females quite heavily but this ratio can fluctuate quite a lot between years and this year seen then low end of that ratio. Likely a large portion of the missing males have been further north or south around other colonies.

So all in all, the eiders at Forvie had a promising year compared with the past few seasons. Coming into next year, hopefully we will see the return of many of the same eiders, the colony bolstered with the 86 ducklings fledged in 2019.

On a final note, food for thought on the eiders at Forvie. 86 fledged birds from 97 nests is an excellent result but why are there so few nests? This year seen almost 400 adult females on the Ythan at its peak. Skipping a breeding year for an eider is not uncommon to improve its own survival but only 1 in 4 decided to nest. This has been happening for a number of years consecutively. Considerable research has gone into the eiders at Forvie studying body condition of individuals, ringing projects, studying food supply etc. but unfortunately there hasn’t been a conclusive problem identified. This is undoubtedly a complex problem, and the the underlying stress around the future of the eider colony.

Puffballs!

Catchy title, eh? Contrary to popular belief, ‘puffballs’ aren’t some sort of cheesy corn-based snack, or a lightweight expletive that you can use in front of Granny. No, we’re talking about fungi here. And anyone that’s walked the footpaths at Forvie during late autumn has probably seen a puffball, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.

A puffball beside the footpath
A cluster of puffballs
Close up

Puffballs, like other more familiar mushrooms, are the fruiting bodies of a fungus. These are the means by which the fungus releases spores (broadly speaking, the fungal equivalent of seeds) in order to reproduce. In most cases, the fruiting bodies are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the actual fungus being very much bigger, and hidden from view in the soil or dead wood. Consequently, we only ever see a fraction of what’s happening in the world of fungi.

Fungi have various strategies to release and spread their spores. In the case of these puffballs, their strategy is to produce a rounded fruiting body with a small hole in the top through which the spores are propelled when pressure is applied. This pressure may come from falling raindrops, trampling by wildlife and people, or simply the breeze blowing over the ground. Once released, the spores are dispersed by the wind.

Puffball with pressure about to be (artificially) applied
Spores beginning to be released
There they go!

The spores are tiny and dark brown in colour, and resemble a puff of smoke when they are released. This fairly obviously gives puffballs their common name. Their scientific name is rather more bizarre – the Latin name Lycoperdon translates literally as ‘wolf flatulence’. I can’t even begin to suggest an explanation for this; I imagine you would require a better working knowledge of wolves than I have.

There are several species of Lycoperdon puffballs in Scotland, and not being expert mycologists here we struggle to identify them. But we think the ones currently visible on the Reserve, along the edges of the footpaths in the dune heath and grassland, are Lycoperdon lividum. Their altogether more prosaic common name is the Grassland Puffball. But for any readers out there with a better knowledge of fungi, please do get in touch and correct us if necessary!

Launching more spores skywards
All puffed out now

While it’s generally not advisable to touch fungi – some species are poisonous, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution – it’s hard to resist the temptation to have a quick prod at a ripe puffball. And it’s nice to think that the resulting little puff of spores might help to produce more puffballs in future. Who knows, maybe these have evolved to take advantage of our (my) curious and easily-amused nature?

Anyway, do keep an eye out for these next time you’re out and about walking the trails. They’re another little piece of the massive jigsaw of life here at Forvie. And by the way, if you can explain the wolf thing, please do give us a shout…

Cleaning beaches for the BBC

It has been a long day at Forvie. Daryl, Finn and myself have been filmed from all angles down on the beach and back up at the Forvie Centre today for the Landward programme. They have been finding out about our Great Forvie Beach Craft challenge (see here) and what we are suggesting people can do with the rubbish off the beaches.

It seems like it might go out in December but we will let you know the time and date when we know it. It will be well worth watching just for Daryl’s “Jack Hargreaves” impression (kids just ask your grandparents) !