A hawk-moth haven

Hawk-moths are indisputably impressive beasts. They’re a small group of species – here in the UK we only have nine resident species and a further eight that occur as immigrants from abroad. But they’re large, often strikingly marked, powerful fliers and, in some cases, great travellers. And we’ve had a bit of a purple patch for them lately at Forvie.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

We’ll start off with the resident species. You may recall in a recent edition of the blog that we found one of these caterpillars at the ternery. It’s the larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth, so named because the caterpillar’s head resembles an elephant’s head and trunk when it’s stretched out. The one in the above photo has retracted its head into its body, thereby causing the eye-spots on its body to swell up, to warn off a would-be predator. In this case the ‘predator’ was probably the person with the camera that startled the caterpillar!

Elephant Hawk-moth is resident year-round at Forvie, with the caterpillars feeding on Rosebay Willowherb, a very plentiful food source. The adult moths can sometimes be seen feeding at nectar sources at dusk.

Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar

The other resident species we’ve encountered recently is the Poplar Hawk-moth. This striking green caterpillar was found feeding on a willow tree in your author’s garden on the north-eastern boundary of the Reserve. Willows are common across the Reserve and its surroundings, so this species does very well locally, and the adult moths sometimes turn up in the light-trap at the Forvie Centre.

Adult Poplar Hawk-moth

The adult moths are large, attractively-marked beasts with a patch of fox-red on the underwing – just visible in the above photo. Look out for these striking moths if you have willow trees in your garden at home.

Now onto the really exciting ones – the long-distance migrants…

Bedstraw Hawk-moth

This Bedstraw Hawk-moth showed up on the north edge of the Reserve a couple of weeks ago, and was the first one that any of us here had seen, despite each of us having a lifelong interest in nature! This stunning moth is an immigrant from south-east Europe, and probably hitched a lift across the North Sea on warm south-easterly winds. It was spotted feeding on the flowers of Honeysuckle, fuelling up after its long trip.

Bedstraw Hawk-moths only occur in very small numbers in Scotland, with usually just a handful of records each summer. So to see this one was a special treat.

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

Two days after the excitement of the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, the very same Honeysuckle bush played host to a Hummingbird Hawk-moth. Another immigrant from the south-east, this too is a spectacular sight, resembling a tiny hummingbird as its whizzes from one flower to the next, sipping the nectar through its long proboscis while hovering on the spot. In fact the likeness is so remarkable that many people, upon encountering one, believe they are seeing an actual hummingbird.

These are quite a bit more plentiful in Scotland than the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, and we see Hummingbird Hawks in most summers here at Forvie. Check out any nectar-rich flowers like Buddleia or Honeysuckle; note also that these moths are active by day as well as at dusk, so you may see one in bright sunshine as well as evening gloaming.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth

The final species we’ve recently recorded is the mighty Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Like the previous two species, this comes from southern shores off the back of a warm southerly airflow and settled weather. This huge moth – with a wingspan of 4 inches (10cm) and a body as long and thick as your thumb – is a powerful flier and loves the same sort of nectar-rich flowers favoured by other hawk-moths. This one was discovered roosting by day on our neighbour’s washing(!) before being relocated to that same lucky Honeysuckle bush. Later on, after warming up its wings it flew off into the night over the Reserve, and onto the next leg of its epic journey.

So if you’re lucky enough to have nectar-rich flowers in your garden or in your local area, keep an eye on them just now, especially at dusk as the light is beginning to fade. You too may be lucky enough to cross paths with one of these fabulous insects as it goes about its nightly rounds – an experience to savour!


The Little Terns of Forvie

With the arrival of our arctic, common, sandwich and little terns it’s all hands on deck here at Forvie. The breeding terns here are of international importance and this is no more true than for the Little Terns. They are currently identified as a conservation priority under both national and international directives.

The tern colony overall has had a successful year. Sandwich Terns have had an excellent year with approximately 700 fledged birds with our Commic terns (Common and Arctic Terns) having an average year with a peak fledgling number approx 370.

Our little terns have on the other hand had an unfortunate year. A species that is struggling historically in the UK, the colony continued on this path this year and had a sad downfall predominantly due to predation and unfortunate weather conditions

We monitor all the species and ensure all due protection is given from ground predators, using an electric fence, and from human disturbance, using another fence.

Little Terns settled in on there nests here at Forvie NNR
A quick meeting for a chat during the breeding season

Early on the little tern nesting success had promising signs with 28 pairs settling in. The nests were monitored closely throughout the season and it was a happy moment to see chicks on the way and good clutch sizes.

Some of our first little chicks

It was a short lived moment as with the heavy rain and stormy weather over the summer, Little Tern nests starting to empty without any chicks. In the midst of this eggs were lost to avian predation as well. An Oystercatcher with chicks was caught on camera stealing an egg from a Little Tern nest.

Adult Oystercatcher stealing Little tern egg to feed its own chicks

Of the original nests few survived the predicament they were in but was a ray of hope. There were 10 new nests identified on the outskirts of the original colony. Many of these were likely a second clutch attempt from the birds who earlier lost their eggs and chicks.

Although it was possible for success of a fledged Little Tern, the season was getting on. Their chances were getting lower and lower by the day as birds they rely on for protection clear out of the colony leaving the leaving the Little Terns to fend for themselves.

As with the first clutches there was some hatching success but again bad weather and further predation decimated the final nests in the colony.

A Little Tern chick being cared for by a parent
Moments later, snapped away by a Black Headed Gull

This Little Tern chick is easy pickings for an adult Black Headed Gull. Although it was sad to see, it is a normal part of colony life for the terns. While this chick was lost and might seem bad, the Black Headed Gulls presence in the colony early on would have offered much needed protection and deterrent to bigger avian predators.

In the end, after a long season the Little Terns had no success this year. They are naturally poor breeders with low productivity but with less than 2000 nesting birds in the UK all efforts will be given again next year so they have the best possible chance at putting young new birds back into the world.

The terning of the year

A frequent mention in this blog goes to the rapid turning of the seasons. Here at Forvie this is felt most keenly at either end of the bird breeding season. In early spring there is a huge volume of work to get through, with the erecting of the electric fence around the ternery to protect the birds from predatory foxes. Now in August, the birds have flown and it’s time to dismantle all that fencing again. It only seems like five minutes since we were putting it up!

Volunteers Jim and Richard with a heap of fencing materials

The ternery fence runs to 950 metres of mesh netting, 1,900 metres of steel wire, 400+ insulating fence posts and lots of ancillary bits and pieces. It’s a Herculean effort to erect, maintain and dismantle it all, and we owe a massive debt of thanks to our volunteers who take on a big share of the work. Without them, we – and more importantly, the terns – simply wouldn’t get by.

We hope to have the fencing all removed by the end of the month, after which the seasonal access restrictions will be lifted. People will once again be able to walk in the south end of the Reserve, without the risk of disturbing sensitive ground-nesting birds, or indeed being attacked by Arctic Terns defending their nests! Of course there is still the seal haul-out to consider, and we’ll cover responsible access in a future blog post.

Fencing under a brooding sky

This week’s weather has been somewhat hit and miss to say the least – check out the colour of the sky in the photo above. We all got a bit wet while dismantling the fence on Tuesday, though we were compensated by some warm sunshine and a fine rainbow later on.

Is there a pot of gold at the end? I’d settle for a rare bird or two…

While working at the ternery we were lucky to cross paths with this rather magnificent beast. It’s the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth, a large and spectacular species of moth which is resident at Forvie. The larvae feed on the leaves of Rosebay Willowherb – the tall, pink-flowered plant that grows in dense stands by the roadsides in late summer – and there’s certainly plenty of that at the ternery!

Elephant Hawk-moth larva
The adult moth – apologies for the pic; this one was photographed at Muir of Dinnet NNR having been caught in a light-trap there. But you get the idea!

We also happened upon quite a few butterflies during the sunny spells between the downpours. As some species’ flight-season ends, others are just beginning. This newly-minted Red Admiral was enjoying the Ragwort flowers…

Red Admiral on Ragwort

…while these Small Whites were busy, errm, making the next generation of Small Whites.

A mating pair of Small Whites

So the long days are shortening somewhat, the terns are away, and the fences nearly packed up for the season. But there’s still an abundance of wildlife to see; it’s the variety through the year that makes this place so special. Come and experience it for yourself – we’ll maybe see you out and about on the Reserve.

In the meantime, I’ve got some fence posts to collect…

Natural dyeing and food gathering at Forvie

Elaine Sherriffs, who previously worked at Forvie as the seasonal reserve officer and is now one of our stalwart volunteers, writes about how children visiting the reserve learned about some of the plants of Forvie and what they were used for:

The John Muir Award gives children a great  opportunity to learn more about their natural environment and develop outdoor skills with others.  The award consist of 4 challenges: 

  • Discover a wild place
  • Explore it
  • Conserve it
  • Share the experiences 

With this in mind a group of children from a nearby school have visited the reserve at Forvie to meet these challenges.  They tried natural dyeing on strips of wool.  The colours were beautiful – greens, yellows, reds and purples.  We used plants found at Forvie as dyes – crowberry, heather, blackberry and lichen.  Without using the chemical fix, alum, the dyes do not last very long but give an insight into how the plants can be used to produce subtle shades.

Testing out the dyes
The resulting colours

Another activity we tried was gathering wild food – berries, wild thyme, nettle leaves to make teas and also oats and kale and to make broth.  In the past when people still lived at Forvie, meat and fish and herbs would have been added to the broth. Some local people continue to gather the natural food resources from the water and land around Forvie – shellfish, salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, whitefish, wild fowl, rabbit, venison, pheasant, edible plants, honey and herbs.

We tried was milling barley and oats by grinding the grain between two stones, a lower, stationary stone called the quern stone and an upper, mobile stone called the handstone.  The flour was then mixed with water to make oatcakes, baked on a hot stone next to the camp fire on the beach.  The nettle tea and oatcakes went down well with some children, while others still preferred their sandwiches and crisps!

Grinding barley the old way

The night life of Forvie

Once it gets dark on the reserve there is a lot going on out there that we don’t know about. No, this isn’t going to be that sort of post but is actually about some of the wildlife that only comes out under the cover of darkness and that you wouldn’t know was about the reserve.

I was very lucky the other night to go along with a local bird ringer to find out about another nocturnal local visitor. We stumble up to the cliffs just a hundred yards form the reserve in the very last light of the day and made ourselves comfortable looking down towards the sea. Phil the ringer set up 2 specialist mist nets and a tape playing the weirdest call you could imagine. All we then had to do was sit and wait for the night time ocean wanderer who passes this coast on a nearly daily occasions but is hardly even seen. The storm petrel.

These are tiny (the size of a house martin) seabirds that breed in a few places in the far north, usually rocky islands. They are small and slow fliers so are easily caught by gulls so to stay safe they head far out to sea during the daytime and only come closer to the coast once the gulls have gone to bed at night. So to be able to catch them we have to be set up for night. By playing a tape of the call of the storm petrel the birds are attracted in to the shore to investigate and get caught in the mist nets. They are then quickly taken out, have a ring put on and released again. But why do this?

Well there is still much to learn about storm petrels. Being small, secretive and nocturnal means that it can be difficult to learn about their ecology. By ringing them we can find out much more about where they go, how long they live and what places are important to them.

After a bit of waiting suddenly there was a bird in the net. Once in the hand they are lovely birds to look at. Of the 9 we caught one had a ring already on its leg. The number was recorded and put into the data base so that we can find out where it was first caught and if it has been recaught since. The birds that we were catching were most probably young birds, they don’t breed till they are 5 years and until then they wander the oceans. Our catching this bird gives us one more piece of information in the jigsaw of data that creates the bigger picture of a species. After being processed the bird is taken away from the nets and place on an open palm. In the dark it is left to decide when it wants to leave and when ready patters getting across the hand. Being black with just a white rump it makes them seem almost like a wraith, flitting silently and invisible back to the sea. A special chance to see a bird that is a regular visitor to this coast but that we hardly ever see.

A few nights ago in a garden right on the edge of the reserve another nocturnal wanderer turned up. The bedstraw hawkmoth is an immigrant. A few each year come across the North Sea from Europe and this one that turned up in Collieston was delighted to take advantage of some honeysuckle in a garden where it was filling up with nectar from the flowers. So if you have honeysuckle in flower in your gardens it is worth having a look at it on a still, warm night, partly because the perfume is at its best but also because you might get to see moths and other insects that you never expected to see in your gardens.

Photo by Cat Reid
Photo by Cat Reid

The story of a migrant Redshank?

On the Ythan, various different species of use the estuary as a pit stop pre/post migration. It’s an important spot to rest, preen and feed for passage birds. An incredible number of Redshank pass through the Ythan in the Autumn and at the moment their numbers are increasing rapidly!

After having seen a juvenile Spotted Redshank earlier that day on reserve and reports that the juvenile bird was on the estuary we were rifling through the flocks of Redshank for any differently marked birds we came across this guy below with a yellow flag with the number 112.

Yellow flagged Redshank 112

Needless to say, I got excited what story this little bird had to tell. We sent off the sighting information to ringing groups and heard back shortly after from our local ringing expert. This Redshank was ringed as a juvenile 5 years previous on the Ythan in late August. We have breeding Redshank in the local area so it was quite possible it was a juvenile bird of a resident pair. Or did it originate from further afield?

After overwintering on the Ythan during its first year there were routine sightings of the bird in 2014 and 2015 from mid July to mid/late August but no sighting here during the breeding season until May 2016. There was a confirmed sighting of the bird photographed at Brekkusker Iceland! The remote North East reaches of the country.

It was then shortly after sighted again on the Ythan mid July 2016 so most likely the Ythan is and will continue to be a favoured stop off point for this little bird. It really is fascinating what we can learn from ringing so if you are out and about doing a spot of bird watching, it pays to keep a close eye for any tagged birds.

All around the blooming heather

Now I love Forvie as much as anyone alive. But even I’m forced to admit that for a large proportion of the year, the coastal heath looks a harsh, bleak environment. Arid, salt-scorched and monochrome, you could be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any life there at all. However, in August, all that changes. The heather is in full bloom, and that bleak landscape is completely transformed into a palette of vibrant colour.

The coastal heath, brown and forlorn in midwinter…
…and transformed in summer.
A mosaic of colours and textures, like a fine Persian rug!

For most folk, ‘heather’ is a a bit like ‘seagull’ or ‘beetle’, in that many people assume there’s just the one kind. But in each of these examples there are actually a number of species, not just one, and they can be recognised quite easily with a bit of practice. In the case of heather, there are three species at Forvie that make up the mosaic of colour seen in the photos above.

Ling (Calluna vulgaris)

Ling is the commonest type of heather at Forvie – its scientific name is Calluna vulgaris, with ‘vulgaris’ fairly obviously translating as ‘common’. It has dense sprays of small, frilly-looking purple flowers, though you may occasionally spot a rare white version, in which case maybe buy a lottery ticket – white heather is considered lucky in Scots culture!

Bell Heather Erica cinerea

This is Bell Heather, which is found in clumps among the commoner Ling at Forvie. It is a rich purple colour, not unlike the wrapper on a well-known type of chocolate, and each individual flower resembles a tiny bell, or Chinese lantern if you prefer. Bell heather favours the drier areas of the coastal heath, and can often be found near the footpaths.

Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix

The third species of the trio is Cross-leaved Heath. It is closely related to the Bell Heather, but its scientific name Erica tetralix refers to its tiny leaves, which occur in fours up the stem (tetra = four). Each set of four leaves forms a cross – thereby giving it its common name in English as well. The Bell Heather, by contrast, bears its leaves in sets of three.

Cross-leaved Heath can also be recognised by its clusters of powder-pink flowers, borne at the very top of each stem. Another clue is the location – Cross-leaved Heath likes to have its feet wet (unlike the drought-loving Bell Heather), and can often be found in marshy ground and around lochs and drains.

So next time you’re out at Forvie, enjoy the colours and have a closer look at the heathers – see if you too can spot the differences. Besides, is there a better time to appreciate the Reserve’s natural beauty than now?

An August sunset over the Flooded Piece and coastal heath at Forvie