Wet.

A one-word title this week, like so many classic albums. But didn’t it rain though?! Our local town of Ellon made the national news a few days ago, with homes being evacuated as water levels rose alarmingly. The region’s roads were plunged into chaos, rendered more suitable for hulled, rather than wheeled, transport. Having had a very dry winter and spring, with groundwater levels in Grampian at almost record lows, we seem to be paying for it now with some serious rainfall.

Pouring, chucking, tipping, heaving, lashing, stottin’, etc etc. Whatever you choose to call it, it rained a lot.

The Reserve certainly won’t be any the worse for a top-up. Many of our small wetlands were in a rather sorry state until recently. The Flooded Piece (also known in some quarters as Pickett’s Paradise) wasn’t so much a flooded piece, but rather a muddy smear. Some of the footpaths were dust-dry and beginning to suffer from erosion, and for a big chunk of the spring and summer we lived under the shadow of a high wildfire risk. This all now seems a world away from the present state of affairs!

The Flooded Piece, actually flooded

Friday saw us out on the Ythan Estuary carrying out a waterfowl census. This is a regular duty during autumn, winter and early spring, and helps us to gauge the health of the estuary’s ecosystem. Wading birds and wildfowl (ducks, geese and swans) feed on the plant material and invertebrate populations supported by the estuary’s mudflats, saltmarsh and shallow waters. As such, they act as a barometer for what’s happening under the surface. Their fluctuating numbers can also tell us what’s happening elsewhere, as many are long-distance travellers, and population changes can reflect what’s happening on their breeding grounds or migration route. It’s a complex picture, but our bit, as field staff, is very simple – just observe, count and record.

Wader counting – armed to the teeth with optics and clickers
Redshanks and Teal on the saltmarsh
Curlew – one of the key wader species on the Ythan Estuary

Some fluctuations in numbers are easy to explain. This week, for instance, the waterfowl census recorded 195 Lapwings. Probably sounds like quite a lot. But just two weeks ago we counted 1,860. So what’s happened to them all?

Lapwing – easy to see how these acquired the alternative name ‘green plover’

All that rain we had in the week didn’t just disappear overnight of course, and the fields around the estuary are now dotted with temporary pools. These are great habitat for Lapwings and many other species besides. All the soil invertebrates are forced to the surface by the high water levels, and these are haute cuisine if you’re a Lapwing. So most of the birds that would normally be present on the estuary have simply relocated to take advantage of these temporary fast-food bars. Makes our count totals look a bit rubbish, but great for the birds themselves!

Wet fields – not great for the winter barley, but awesome wildlife habitat

The recent rain has also rejuvenated the wetlands forming on Forvie Moor. Earlier in the week we walked the western boundary of the Reserve (not recommended as it’s extremely hard going), and noted the increasing spread of Polytrichum mosses, rushes and sedges. All of these are thriving as the ground gets wetter, with the gradual deterioration of the old ditches and drains used by former land managers to keep the moor dry for grouse shooting. Nowadays we’re content to let the wetlands develop naturally, and are hopeful that species like Water Voles will find the new habitat to their liking.

New wetlands developing on the moor
Polytrichum moss
Water Vole – photo by Alan Ross (c) River Dee Trust

There were already a couple of Snipe skulking in the wet flushes, startling us as they exploded from under our feet before towering away in a zig-zag escape flight. When seen on the ground, however, they are bonny creatures, and exquisitely camouflaged.

Snipe – long-billed denizen of soggy places

Between the rains we have enjoyed the occasional glimpse of the sky. I’ll leave you this week with a sunrise over the north end of the Reserve. Stay safe and keep dry!

There’s a sun out there!

Feathery business at Forvie NNR

In days of old when we were working in the offices, every shelf and corner of the building would greet you with some remnant of wildlife. The skull of a grey seal, endless skeletons of arctic and common terns found after the breeding season or a box of eider down from old nests. Most reserve offices have an interesting collection of natural history items, many of which are used for educating our youth! They offer the chance to see some interesting bits and pieces of wildlife from inside the classroom which the kids always seem to love. 

The collection gathered over the years includes an array of feathers from a variety of birds, from buzzards to unidentifiable owl species. Feathers are unique to birds and set them apart from all other animals, even those that can fly or lay eggs. The Forvie Eiders have now almost finished their late summer moults and are starting to look like their old selves, so this week let’s take a look at plumage and all things feathery!

Feathers serve many functions besides making flight possible; temperature regulation and waterproofing, incubating eggs, camouflage, displaying and protection of birds’ bodies. A lot of energy goes into feather production. Many birds’ plumage weighs more than their skeleton! Birds have hollow or porous bones with struts inside the bones to help with support. This helps reduce their weight overall to make flying less energy intensive.

Humans have always also prized feathers for fashion, particularly up to the early 20th Century. Some of the earliest conservation movements in the UK and the United States of America came out of a reaction to the threat of bird extinctions for adorning hats and military apparel. However, even today, the use of down in outdoor clothing and sleeping bags remains contentious due to plucking practices that continue to be used by some sources. 

Feathers are made of a dense strong protein but are not naturally waterproof. Birds preen to coat their feathers in a waxy oil produced at the base of their tails, while waterbirds also have dense plumage to help them stay warm in the water for longer.

A robin (Erithacus rubecula) bathing in a garden pond. ©Fergus Gill.

Cormorants, however, have a different tactic and their feathers are not waterproof. When their feathers become waterlogged, the bird becomes less buoyant and this allows cormorants to dive deeper into the water and for longer periods. While they are resting, instead of preening, cormorants have to dry out their wings by holding them out in the sun or breeze which is a familiar sight to many on the coast and estuary.

Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) on a freshwater loch, Tayside and Clackmannanshire Area. ©Lorne Gill

You may find occasional feathers on the ground that have been moulted by a bird as it grows a new one. Wood pigeon and crow feathers seem to be the ones most commonly seen at Forvie! Not the most exciting find on the surface but even these feathers have unique adaptations.

The ducks of the reserve, including the eiders, moult their flight feathers all at once in the late summer, which they can safely do by staying on the Ythan Estuary where foxes and other predators cannot catch them. They spend several weeks in ‘eclipse’ where the drakes’ bright white plumage turns a much darker brown or black, which is thought to be for camouflage. This is not the case against the light sand of Forvie! Allowing the ducks to rest undisturbed during this time is critical to them saving energy and getting through the moult safely.

Eider Ducks (Somateria mollissima) moulting at Forvie NNR ©Lorne Gill

Each species has evolved their feathers to assist it in some fashion or another. This owl feather below has light feathery edging on the leading edge that allows near-silent flight. It allows the wind to glide through the wings without making a single sound. Owls are some of our quietest hunters, swooping for prey in absolute silence. Scary stuff if you’re a field mouse. 

Feathery on the leading edge of Owl feather to reduce noise in flight.
Little Tern feather for comparison – a straight fine edge for nimble flying

On the opposite end of that spectrum, many will often be familiar with the sound of mute swans passing overhead with a constant “wou wou” sound in flight. Mute swans, as the name suggests, don’t have distinctive calls but a range of snorting and angry hissing sounds. The sound they make in flight is not using their voice but is the sound of the wind passing over their powerful wing beats. This sound can carry over a mile in distance and it’s thought that it could be used as a form of communication in flight, like geese chattering constantly in flock formation.

Mute Swan powerful wing beats and specially shaped wings create flight noise

All in all, this unique aspect of birds hold seemingly endless information. Finding feathers across the reserve can sometimes be difficult, out of the context of the seeing the bird, to even know what species it has come from so a bit of research is never amiss. Every day’s a school day as they say. Anyone want to hazard a guess at the below?

Guess that feather

Migrant mayhem – and mindful moments

Regular reader of this blog will be familiar by now with Forvie’s importance as a migration service station. Whether it’s geese en-route from Iceland to East Anglia, waders heading to and from the Arctic, small birds commuting between northern Europe and Africa, or even insects undertaking colossal oversea flights, we bear witness here to some incredible journeys. We are a small but very significant dot on the globe when it comes to migratory wildlife.

You may also be familiar with the role played by the weather in all of this (see, for example, Beasts from the East a little earlier in the year). This impacts not only those species making their journeys, but also how much of it we, as observers, get to witness. Last weekend the moon, stars and surface-pressure charts all aligned in a rare event. An easterly wind, clear skies in Scandinavia and heavy rain in the North Sea were the ingredients: the stage was set for a big arrival of migrant birds – a ‘fall’, as it’s widely known.

A big easterly wind and high seas battering Collieston, just north of Forvie

Having ‘read the signs’, I made sure I was up early on Saturday. As the day broke, with an overcast sky and rain still falling, it was obvious something special was happening. Our garden on the edge of the Reserve was alive with birds, travellers from afar. Redwings and Bramblings escaping the Scandinavian winter. Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps heading for African sunshine. Yellow-browed Warblers from Siberia. Foreign Robins getting short shrift from the now-very-angry resident Robin. Everywhere you looked there was movement, life, vitality. These scenes were played out throughout the little pockets of shelter all through our village, and right across the adjacent Reserve.

Redwing – a Scandinavian breeder that spends the winter here in the UK
Female Brambling – the northern counterpart of our Chaffinch

It’s very easy to anthropomorphise wildlife, and probably not very wise to do so. Neither is it wise, of course, to assume every non-human lifeform is a pre-programmed piece of genetic clockwork. However, I couldn’t help wondering how these windblown waifs were feeling. Tired and hungry, undoubtedly, judging by the way many were frantically feeding up. It’s not uncommon for a five-gram Goldcrest to burn up a fifth of its bodyweight in a North Sea crossing. But do they feel relief at having made the journey intact? Gratitude for the shelter and food provided by our coast after hours of nothing but wind, rain and salt water below? Chances are that despite all the world’s technology and scientific knowledge, this is something we’ll never know.

An exhausted Goldcrest, freshly arrived in off the North Sea

What I do know is how it made me feel. Being caught up in a ‘fall’ like this is an incredibly visceral experience. It’s at once exciting (being surrounded with life, and not knowing what you may see next), baffling (how do they ever make it here in one piece?), humbling and inspiring. It can make you feel small – what we witnessed here at the weekend is just a tiny segment of something huge, global, complex. After a lifetime of an interest in nature, moments like these still give me goosebumps, and I don’t ever want to stop feeling that.

Blackcaps – female with the brown cap (top), male with the black cap (below)
Redstart – another species bound for Africa for the winter

Much has been spoken and written this year about mental health in the year of lockdown. A recurring theme emerging from this has been the power of nature to boost mental health; simple things like hearing birdsong, seeing butterflies and watching the buds opening on the trees in spring can have a huge positive effect. Nature can be our salvation during dark times, and that’s a proven fact. We have been big advocates of this here at NatureScot, and indeed it’s one of our key priorities as an organisation.

Having read and written about all this before, it was brought home to me this last weekend, standing in the rain surrounded by migrant birds, that nature was my salvation too. Here are the key things I have learned.

Getting close to wildlife is good for the soul. 2020 has certainly been a rum old year, but immersing myself in the sights and sounds of migration at the weekend was an incredible release. I defy anyone to spend time at close quarters with tiny Goldcrests, for instance – to watch them and admire their delicate beauty, and then consider what they’ve had to do to get here – and not be inspired and uplifted by nature.

Goldcrest – Europe’s smallest bird, and an epic traveller

I travel through my birding experiences. I suffer massive environmental guilts about travelling (and many other things besides), and while there are many places I would like to see, I cannot in my own mind justify the environmental cost. But having an interest in birds means I can travel without travelling, if you see what I mean. Within the past year, I have seen wildlife here on my doorstep that has transported me to exotic places, from North America to Iceland, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and more. Watching the Yellow-browed Warblers last weekend conjured images of the remote Siberian taiga where they breed, and the forests of China where many of them spend the winter. The same species that graced my Collieston garden might also be seen alongside Giant Pandas in their natural range. Now that’s a thought.

What links China and Collieston? Yellow-browed Warbler

It’s great to let the wildlife come to you. Sitting in the once place and waiting (heavy rain and easterly wind optional) can be very profitable, and it’s likely you’ll be surprised by the wildlife that comes your way. OK, I know we’re very fortunate to live on the edge of Scotland’s premier National Nature Reserve (no arguing please), but wherever you are, the same rules apply. If you have a room with a window, then it’s game on.

Whooper swans flying by – if you’ve got a window, you too can be inspired by scenes like this

So what was initially intended as a simple ‘what’s about’ blog post has grown arms and legs, but it’s not been a totally random diversion. With World Mental Health Day taking place this weekend, this seems like a good opportunity to reiterate the potential of the natural world to enhance our wellbeing – ALL of us.

Trust me, it works.

October: all change please

October is a month of dramatic change. Its upheavals are no less spectacular than those which are celebrated in early spring, when March is the month that we say comes ‘in like a lion, out like a lamb’. October, of course, is the month when the opposite often occurs. The opening days of the month cling on to the last coat-tails of summer, and by the end of the month things often have a decidedly wintry feel. But this is no reason to be downcast, for October has much to offer to those of us interested in the natural world.

The dune heath in autumn dress

At Forvie the heath has changed from a purple sea of heather to the patchwork shades of autumn. While it’s not as immediately striking as in the ‘heather season’, it is now possessed of a more subtle and varied beauty, and often reminds me of a fine Axminster carpet or Persian rug. It was slightly surprising earlier in the week to find the two Erica heathers – Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heath – still bearing some fresh flowers.

Bell Heather – still a few deep-purple ‘bells’ persisting into October
Likewise the powder-pink blooms of Cross-leaved Heath

The last vestiges of the wildflower season are resolutely hanging on in the sheltered corners of the Reserve. Tormentil flowers still provide a little droplet of sunshine among the now-bleached grasses.

Tormentil flower peeping from the autumn heath

While many insects are beginning to wind down towards winter, others are still very active just now. One species that can frequently be seen on the grassy footpaths over the heath is the Devil’s Coach-horse. They’re diminutive yet imposing-looking beasts, and it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how they acquired the name. I can easily picture a pair of these hauling a miniature stagecoach. But maybe it’s just me?!

Devil’s Coach-horse on the move

The Devil’s Coach-horse is a fearsome predator in miniature. They prey upon invertebrates such as spiders, slugs and various insects, capturing and dismantling them with their powerful jaws. They are very quick over the ground, and rarely pause for a decent photo, but when startled they’ll often raise their tail and open their jaws, making them resemble a small scorpion. If this doesn’t put off a would-be attacker, they can also secrete a foul-smelling liquid, or issue a painful bite with those mighty jaws. Not an insect to be messed with!

Anyway, autumn is mating-time in the Devil’s Coach-horse world, so you may see them scuttling along the footpaths looking for something other than food just now.

Not very obliging for photography though…
Would you PLEASE just keep still?!??!

Common Toads are still not done for the year either. The past week has seen some tiny toadlets still dispersing along the footpaths, while this handsome full-sized fellow was spotted on the cliff path. Late active insects beware!

It’s the Toad!

Raising our eyes from the terrestrial goings-on for a moment, and the bird migration has continued apace. Winds from the Continent in the first couple of days of October have delivered an arrival of passage migrants and (whisper it quietly) winter visitors, such as Redwings and Bramblings. On the northern edge of the Reserve, a dapper male Ring Ouzel briefly dropped in, en-route from Scandinavia to north Africa, where he may spend the winter in the Atlas Mountains. It’s always enlightening to think of Forvie being linked, by its wildlife, to such diverse and far-flung places.

Ring Ouzel – what a stoater!

October is traditionally a very busy month in the birdwatcher’s calendar, so who knows what the next few weeks may offer up. All depends what the weather does, of course. Remember Beasts from the East? [Aaaaarrggghh, stop press – Yellow-browed Warbler just popped up in the garden as I type this from my makeshift desk at home! Told you it was busy just now]

Yellow-browed Warbler

So, here we go headlong into October then. The lamb and the lion. All the year’s splendour rolled into one month of the calendar. And don’t ever put your binoculars down. What a month to be alive.

Officially Autumn.

Last weekend, a familiar sound filled the air high over Forvie, and eyes were turned to the skies to pick out its source. The distant musical babble was hard to pinpoint, drifting as it was on the north-westerly breeze, but it eventually resolved itself into a string of tiny dots against the blue sky: a party of Pink-footed Geese, heading southwards at considerable altitude. These geese, freshly arrived from Iceland, are one of the true harbingers of autumn (and indeed winter, though I didn’t dare say as much in the title), and their appearance here is an unequivocal signal that summer is past.

Welcome back!

The mornings have been increasingly chilly and dewy lately, and the air has taken on a different smell – a fresh, sweet smell that leaves you in no doubt the seasons are turning. Take an early morning walk by Sand Loch and you’ll see what I mean. Keats’ season of mists and mellow fruitfulness certainly is a feast for all your senses.

Meanwhile, the grassland of the Reserve has assumed its seasonal dress, with the greens of high summer replaced by the tawny shades of early autumn. One of the most distinctive grasses here is the Red Fescue, whose ruddy stems cause the grassland to blush pinkish in the sun. The north end of the Reserve, near the Visitor Centre, looks particularly striking just now.

Red Fescue lending colour to Forvie’s grassland

In a recent post on this very blog, I mentioned the influx of Red Admiral butterflies. This has continued apace, and they are now abundant everywhere there is a nectar source. It’s difficult to walk on the Reserve just now and not see these boldly-marked butterflies, so plentiful are they. And they’re well worth a closer look, as a freshly-minted Red Admiral is a real thing of beauty, decked out in fiery red and velvety black. See if you can spot the delicate patterning on the underwing as well – if the butterfly sits still for long enough!

A newly-minted Red Admiral -phwoooaaaaaarrr!
Subtly beautiful underwing pattern, for camouflage when resting

A further piece of insect interest this week was the discovery of some Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillars just outside the Forvie Centre. These are large, impressive and distinctive beasts, with their false eyes intended to ward off would-be predators. Their favoured food-plant is Rosebay Willowherb, which is very common in the local area, so they have plenty of habitat available. A recent chance conversation between colleagues at Forvie mentioned the increasing abundance of Rosebay Willowherb, and whether this might be benefiting Elephant Hawk-moths – well here’s some evidence!

Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar on Rosebay Willowherb
Impressive don’t-eat-me eye spots

Another insect typical of late summer and autumn is the Common Darter dragonfly. These small, lightning-fast dragonflies can often be found on the dry heath a long way from the nearest water source. During the mornings you may see one basking in the sun on a footpath or area of exposed sand, warming up its body for the day’s work ahead. As well as the red-bodied Common Darter, the closely-related Black Darter has also been on the wing in the last week, but so far one hasn’t been obliging enough to stop for a photo!

Male Common Darter

Bird migration is really picking up pace now, and shortly after the first geese arrived, our eagle-eyed volunteer Richard spied the first returning Whooper Swans of the season. Like the geese, they have travelled from Iceland, and will have hitched a ride on the same north-westerly tail-winds, easing their passage across the North Atlantic.

Whooper swans

Back on the ground, among the scatter of pipits, warblers and Wheatears making their way south along the coast, a juvenile Cuckoo spent three days ‘refuelling’ near the Forvie Centre. It would sit motionless, in a hawk-like pose, on the fence posts and scrub, before dropping to the ground to capture a caterpillar for food, returning to its perch to eat its meal. Cuckoos are one of the few species to regularly and deliberately eat large hairy caterpillars, such as those of large moths, and these will provide the energy required for this bird to make the long journey to central Africa for the winter.

Juvenile Cuckoo – photo (c) Anne Holford
Note the hawk-like appearance – thanks to Patrick for this photo!

Down on the estuary the wader passage is also in full swing, with vast numbers of Redshank, Lapwing and Dunlin passing through, among others. A sift through the commoner species can also produce the more unusual, and sure enough the Dunlin flocks contained a handful of Curlew Sandpipers, high Arctic breeders on their way south for the winter.

Curlew Sandpiper – photo (c) Ron Macdonald

Finally, with autumn officially now here, it’s your last chance to enjoy the heather in bloom on Forvie Moor before the coastal heathland drifts into its winter slumbers. Although the Bell Heather has ‘gone over’ now, the Ling is still hanging in there.

Forvie Moor in bloom

So despite the summer coming to an end, there’s still plenty of wildlife action to be had at Forvie, in what can be a busy and exciting period here. September really is a fabulous time to appreciate all the Reserve has to offer. That’s official.

Forvie’s Dune Heath

With waders flooding through the Ythan mudflats, Autumn is truly here in force. With the change over of seasons, there are always some changes on the reserve, and I can’t wait personally for the arrival of the geese. A local warden has already clocked their first skein of pink-footed geese on Saturday past!

With our wildflower boxes soon to be taken in on the heath trail, the best of the flowering season is over for most plants. Yet there is a late bloomer here at Forvie that brings the reserve to life – our heather. 

Heather – Calluna Vulgaris

Bursting to life in August/September, it transforms the stark beauty of the dunes into a landscape of gentle purples and pinks. The dune heath leaves a powerful impression when walking the trails. It is a natural landscape that can look alien in the surrounding land, an isolated place that is all the more important because of it. With it displaying its unique colours just now, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about our the dune heath.

Heather in flower with lichen carpets

With many wildflowers no longer in the flowering season, late-blooming Calluna vulgaris (heather) provides a vital source of nectar and pollen for solitary bees later on in the calendar year. The habitat itself is a protected feature of the reserve under the SAC and is also a UK BAP priority habitat, meaning it is recognized both nationally and internationally as an important place! 

You will undoubtedly in the height of summer the wildflower populations along the trails, but the heath is also home to particularly important lichen and fungi communities (embedded links to previous blogs!). The lime deficient dune heath here with crowberry colonised throughout is one of the best examples of this habitat in the entire UK. Outside the UK, this habitat is restricted to coasts northwards from Denmark, a keynote to why this habitat at Forvie is of European importance!

Lichen and Crowberry. Key elements of the habitat

The heath formed through the natural succession of the dune system. First, it starts with the expanse of sand on the beaches. The exposure to the wind dries out the sand between the tides and pushes in landward. From here, the sand is free moving until it is stabilised by specialist grasses like marram grass which subsequently slows the movement of the sand. These plants also trap more sand leading to taller dune formation. The roots of the marram will anchor the sand giving stability and eventually lead to our fixed dunes further inland. 

Dynamic dune transitioning to fixed dunes

After a period of stability, the fixed dunes give way to into dune heath! The density of vegetation gives you a good idea of the age of dune, or how long since it has moved at least. Consequently, walking from the beaches of Forvie inland to the dune heath can give you a walk-through time. An ever-changing landscape at the forefront by the sea, to semi-fixed dunes that shift slightly through the years and storm pressure, and finally the dune heath, an old landscape that likely developed over 100s of years. 

For a time, up until the late 1970s, there was game shooting at Forvie of grouse and pheasant! This also included moor burning to provide young heather shoots for grouse feeding but this has not happened for over 50 and is now a more natural habitat with plants of various density and age. 

Typically this habitat would require grazing to help maintain the plant communities and stop scrub like willow trees taking hold. And graze it we do! I use the term “we” loosely here, I mean Forvie’s wildlife. Thankfully, the heath mostly manages itself. Roe deer graze tree saplings that take hold and the rabbit population helps maintain a mosaic vegetation population for a healthy environment.

Natural habitat management – Roe deer grazing willows on the heath

This rare landscape is in its full splendour at the moment and is home to a host of wildlife. From breeding meadow pipits and skylarks, transient butterflies over the summer and ever-present roe deer. A beautiful place to walk and appreciate a timeless landscape.

Beasts from the east

The east wind doth blow, and it’s time for the show,

When insects and birds from far shores do occur.

And at our outpost, upon the east coast,

We prepare for a feast of fine fare from the east…

OK, so my dreadful doggerel would have even McGonagall turning in his grave. But it sets out, however badly, the sense of anticipation felt by east-coast-based students of insect and bird migration whenever the wind shifts into the easterly quarter.

Weather goose flying east – game on!

Here at Forvie, as in the rest of the UK, the prevailing wind is south-westerly; this generally means mild conditions, and often wet weather – ‘unsettled’, as the weather forecasters like to say. However, sometimes a shift in the jet stream can mean the usual Atlantic weather systems – the ones marked ‘LOW’ on the TV weather charts – pass to the south of us. As they do so, they can draw in an easterly airflow from the near continent. And that’s when the fun begins.

Just across the North Sea, hundreds of thousands of birds are beginning their autumn migration, pouring southwards from Scandinavia into the Low Countries and eastern Europe. At the same time, many migratory insects, such as butterflies and moths, are wandering around the continent at the tail end of their flight season, seeking potential new ground to colonise. In both cases, an easterly wind across the North Sea can cause them to make landfall on our shores in eastern Scotland. This can mean two things: an increased showing of familiar species, and a chance to encounter other species that wouldn’t normally occur here. And that’s the sort of exciting prospect that can inspire bad poetry.

Willow warbler – common migrant whose numbers are swelled by eastern immigrants

In the fourth week of August, the wind blew easterly for just a single day. Sure enough, there followed an influx of common species, plus a handful of more unusual ones. The number of Willow Warblers increased, as local breeders were joined by immigrants from the near continent. Among them lurked a handful of Whitethroats, en-route to Africa with their smaller cousins, plus a couple of lovely Whinchats, the first of the autumn here.

Whinchat – dandy eyebrows and cheeky white tail-sides

A bit of a surprise then followed, when an Icterine Warbler appeared in the willows at the Coastguard’s Pool. These birds breed across mainland Europe but not in the UK, so seeing one here is quite unusual and a real treat. Many thanks to local photography guru Ron Macdonald for a stunning series of photos of this smart ‘beast from the east’.

Icterine Warbler – all three photos (c) Ron Macdonald

Later in the day, our garden on the edge of the Reserve then played host to a Barred Warbler, another eastern species which is very scarce on this side of the North Sea. It was typically unobliging – Barred Warblers are notorious skulkers and rarely show themselves – soon disappearing into the dense cover of the garden next door. Consequently the photo below is for illustrative purposes only!

Barred Warbler – here’s one we photographed earlier (in 2015, in Orkney…)

Anyway, that’s just the birds. What about the insects?

Most obviously, Red Admiral butterflies have become a lot more conspicuous lately. These migrate northwards through Europe in spring and summer, then in early autumn their offspring begin to migrate south. Again, onshore winds can ‘drift’ these delicate yet heroically tough insects onto our east coast from the Continent.

Red Admiral

Less obvious, at least to the casual observer, has been the influx of Silver Y moths. These are so named for the bright white marking on the forewing, resembling a lower-case y, or a Greek gamma (indeed, the moth’s scientific name is Autographa gamma). These moths have been evident wherever there is a good nectar source – the Honeysuckle around the Sand Loch and the gardens of Collieston being particularly popular.

Lastly, at our home on the edge of the Reserve, we were lucky enough to cross paths with another insect immigrant. While I was locking up the shed at dusk, a low droning sound was heard, followed by a large object crashing into me. Due to its size I momentarily took it to be a small bird or a bat, but it was soon obvious that it was a huge moth – a Convolvulus Hawk-moth, no less. Residents of southern Europe, these are real rarities here, and the largest insects you’re ever likely to see in this country.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth – check out that incredible proboscis

This colossal insect spent a few minutes fuelling up at the Honeysuckle in the garden, before bombing off inland over the Reserve, leaving us excitedly poring over the hastily-fired-off photos. Of all the excitement in the last week, this was surely the most spectacular of all the ‘beasts from the east’ to grace our local area.

What an absolute A-grade beast

The weather forecast for the first week of September speaks of more easterly winds. Who knows what might make landfall with us then? Of course, the unpredictability is what makes these events all the more enjoyable. So for now it’s fingers crossed, and keep checking that weather vane!

Welcome to #NatureScot

NatureScot is the new name for Scottish Natural Heritage. Opinion will be split as there inevitably is with change, but there are good reasons for taking this decision and I am sure this will help us all settle into our brand new identity.

Not all change is good and the looming threats of climate change, invasion by non-native species and increasing recreational demands on our countryside pose problems for our nature, livelihoods, or enjoyment of the outdoors. These changes make this is the perfect time to talk differently, more widely and in tune with every Scot about their nature.

We have worked hard over the last few years to evolve the organisation – and we strive to raise our profile and demonstrate impact and value as leaders in biodiversity. Nature is at the heart of what we do – and our brand, NatureScot, reflects this.

Our new logo takes inspiration from Scotland’s nature – in colour, shape and style. We have already been using our domain name ‘nature.scot’ in some of our branding and marketing materials. Our brand will build on this.

NatureScot cannot work to create a culture of nature awareness, responsible access or influence other nations alone, we must become a brand that a more diverse range of people know about, understand and connect with.  No longer do we want to hear Scottish National Heritage, or ask which castles we look after!

Forvie never looks the same two days in a row!

Forvie is one of the best places in Scotland to observe and be inspired by change. The dunes never look the same from one day to the next, but are always amazing to wander between.

I have spent many hours at the top of the beach over many years with higher geography students, introducing them to the very beginning of dune life and the first plants that grow in a blasting, salty, changing environment.  The tough plants persist despite the conditions and even help to stabilise the dunes allowing change, or succession, to develop.  Up on the moor, purple heather and willow trees represent the further end of the scale, having passed shades of yellow and grey dunes in between.

Nature conservation in Scotland is not in its infancy, we have built on the successes of our previous nature agencies and we will continue to do so.  Look out for our new logo, keep reading this blog and most of all, consider yourself one of us: a true NatureScot.

Rare species at Forvie and they aren’t birds?

With Autumn migration starting to kick off, feels like summer is over already! Normally around this time of year we start keeping our eyes and ears open for migrant birds. A flavour of something different and occasionally, something rare around these parts. But that’s not what this blog is about, rest assured though that there will be updates on this in weeks following!

Over the last 2 weeks, we have been focussing on something rare of a different kind, Forvie’s plants. We put a lot of focus on protecting and monitoring our birdlife to conserve biodiversity. In a similar vein to this, plant diversity is no exception and is key to maintaining habitats and wildlife that can rely on particular plants. The parallels to our birds don’t end here, plants suffer the same pressures with certain species being locally or nationally rare. Without care and attention to these rare species, we could lose this distinctive piece of diversity.

Below is a quick recap of some of the plants that make up a notified feature on the SSSI of the reserve, Forvie Vascular Plant assemblage.

Small Adders tongue Fern

Small Adders Tongue Fern

This unique looking fern is fairly small in stature, between 10-30 cm tall and can take an age to find sometimes! If you have recently seen me crawling around on my hands and knees on the reserve looking a little strange, this is what I’ve been doing. Looking for this or one of the other plants below. This fern is so-called due to the tall stalk that resembles a snakes tongue. They are more common down south in England and scarcer here in Scotland. This year we have located more colonies than previously recorded which is great to see this plant prospering in places across the reserve.

Frog orchids

Frog Orchid

I won’t lie, this is definitely one of the least attractive orchids on the reserve. Compared with our northern marsh and heath spotted orchids, they are certainly not as colourful, but it’s an understated beauty in its own right. The plants have spread noticeably along the estuary with several new smaller colonies forming!

Allseed

Allseed – absolutely tiny in stature!

Ahh, the infamous allseed. Actually, I’d never heard of it before and definitely hadn’t seen it before. Typically it grows to under 10cm tall so it can be easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it, evidence below.

Utmost concentration required

Official records from 6 years previous located 2 groups of this species. We have yet to find any spread to new locations but the 2 groups previous are still present and in higher numbers which is great to see. Slow and steady wins the race eh?

Common wintergreen

Common Wintergreen at the coastguards pool

Another variable rare-ish plant that is not overly colourful. I am starting to wonder if there’s a correlation. In days past, the leaves of wintergreen were used to treat wounds and treat bladder and kidney infections as the leaves had both diuretic and disinfectant properties. I might pass on that myself. Another plant that seems to be holding its own on the reserve from the previous monitoring program.

As mentioned earlier, it might seem like a small thing but this diversity of plants boosts the productivity of the ecosystem overall. These plants may benefit some species of insects, for example, which will have downstream effects on other species that rely on said insects as a food source. Each piece of the puzzle is important so to speak. Just like our terns and eiders, these plants have an important role to play in building the overall reserve picture.

Flying in the face of adversity – Forvie’s butterflies

Forvie is a tough place to be a butterfly. On most days, the temperature here is several degrees lower than even a few miles inland; not great for warmth-loving insects. We’re often beset by the dreaded haar, that infamous dense fog that rolls in off the North Sea, coating everything in water droplets and sending the temperature plummeting. The rest of the time it’s almost relentlessly windy – even in high summer. Moreover, the winters here can be long and cold, making overwinter survival a serious challenge.

Add to that the stunted nature of the vegetation, growing as it does in harsh ground conditions, which consequently makes finding food and shelter difficult. Sounds like a tough gig, right enough. Who’d be a butterfly in this environment?

Forvie Moor – not an easy place to be an insect

Well, for all that, there are a number of species that do eke out a living here, many of which are on the wing right now. They have variously different strategies for coping with the conditions, allowing them to survive and thrive in this challenging environment. Here are some of the key players.

1. The Vanessids

Painted Lady – long-haul traveller

The Vanessids comprise four attractive and brightly-coloured species: Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral and Painted Lady. The name ‘vanessid’ comes from the Latin names of the latter two species (Vanessa atalanta and Vanessa cardui respectively). These species are all strong fliers, and can travel unexpectedly vast distances. The Painted Lady is the most celebrated in this respect, undertaking an amazing migration from North Africa through Europe to the UK each summer.

Small Tortoiseshell – tough enough to see out the Scottish winter

While the warmth-loving Painted Lady cannot survive the Scottish winter at any part of its life-cycle, the Small Tortoiseshell can and does overwinter with us. They can often be found in cool, dark places like garden sheds or garages, where they enter a state of torpor – suspended animation, if you like – before resuming their lives again the following spring. Late summer is a great time to see the Vanessids at their best – check out any tall flowering plants like thistles, Ragwort or Valerian.

2. The grassland specialists

Although the wildflower season at Forvie is short, both in terms of time and the stature of the flowers themselves, we do rather better for grasses. It’s thought that as our climate warms and becomes wetter, Forvie Moor may become more grassy, rather than heathery and, er, crowberry-y. And there are some species of butterflies that are well-placed to take advantage of this.

Ringlet – grassland aficionado

The Ringlet is a relatively recent addition to the Forvie butterfly fauna. They were absent, or at least very scarce, when I arrived at the Reserve in 2007. Nowadays, however, they can be quite abundant in the grassier areas of the Reserve, such as around the Forvie Centre and along the estuary side of the Dune Trail – look out for a dark-chocolate-coloured butterfly flitting weakly among the grass stems. While many butterfly species in the UK are declining, it’s heartening to see others, like our Ringlets, taking advantage of environmental change.

Small Heath – a delicate species requiring fine grasses

The Small Heath is another denizen of grassland, whose caterpillars feed on fine grasses like Fescues, which are plentiful at Forvie. As a result, Small Heaths are plentiful as well. If a tiny, light-orange-and-silver-grey butterfly flits past your bootlaces on the Reserve just now, it’s likely to be one of these.

3. Wildflower specialists

For other species of butterfly, grasses are no use at all – wildflowers are where it’s at, for both caterpillars and adults. The most obvious exponent of this strategy is the Dark Green Fritillary. Its name is somewhat confusing, since it is very obviously orange rather than green. But there are several fritillary species that all look very similar, and in this one, its distinguishing feature is the green underside of the hindwings.

Dark Green Fritillary caterpillars depend on Violets as a food source, while the adults enjoy nectar-rich flowers like Knapweed, Marsh Thistle and Wild Thyme. True wildflower connoisseurs, I would say.

The apparently-misnamed Dark Green Fritillary

Much more sensibly named is the Common Blue. It’s common, and blue. But even then, there’s a twist as the females are brown-with-blue-bits rather than all blue like the male pictured below. These tiny, highly active butterflies nectar on all sorts of flowers, while their caterpillars feed on Bird’s foot Trefoil – remember our recent wildflower blog?!

Common Blue

Specialist specialists…

A real specialist is the Grayling. This unobtrusive yet attractive butterfly likes a mix of short grass, nectar-rich flowers and bare, sandy ground upon which it can bask and catch some rays of sunshine. It’s perfectly adapted to this niche, and when it lands on the ground, it practically disappears – its underwings are brilliant camouflage against the sand.

Spot the Grayling – not easy when on the ground…
…much easier to spot when feeding on Wild Thyme!

Sadly, Graylings have become noticeably scarcer at Forvie in recent years, perhaps due to the effects of climate change, or maybe due to the decline in the local Rabbit population (Rabbits create the mosaic of bare ground and short vegetation beloved of Graylings). But they seem to have had a bit of a resurgence in just the last couple of summers – here’s hoping they continue to grace the Reserve in the face of continuing environmental change.

Recording butterflies

Here at Forvie, staff and volunteers undertake a weekly butterfly survey from spring through to autumn. This involves walking a fixed route through the Reserve, known as a transect, and recording the butterflies seen en-route. This has been taking place since the late 1970s – one of the longest-running surveys of its kind in the UK – and feeds data into a national archive via Butterfly Conservation’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Most of what’s known about our butterflies’ distribution and abundance (or otherwise) comes from this sort of work.

It’s not all about countryside professionals though. You, dear reader (I’ve always wanted to say that), can also make a contribution. Butterfly Conservation also organise a citizen-science project, the Big Butterfly Count, each summer, and anyone can take part. This coming weekend marks the end of the 2020 Big Butterfly Count, and we’ll await the results in due course. Perhaps something to consider for next summer then?

Red Admiral

Meantime, enjoy the rest of the 2020 butterfly season, while it lasts, and stay safe!