Slash and burn

Conservation work is a messy business. Conserving species and habitats involves an awful lot of dirty work, and – to the uninitiated – a surprising amount of what appears to be wanton destruction and violence. As professional conservationists we spend a lot of time cutting things down, mowing things flat, fencing things out and even setting things on fire. Life at Forvie is no exception, and it’s no coincidence that many of your author’s professional qualifications involve some sort of destructive capacity. Chainsaw, knapsack sprayer, flail mower, brushcutter, that sort of stuff. These are the tools of our trade; contrary to popular misconception, a working life on Reserves isn’t all rare birds and roses.

One of our biggest conservation tasks at Forvie is the protection of the breeding birds in the south of the Reserve, namely terns, gulls and Eiders. Obviously this is chiefly a spring and summer assignment – indeed, the terns will still be on their winter quarters in distant parts of the world as I type this. But the work to ensure they have the best chance of success has already begun. And unsurprisingly, it involves a degree of destruction. First though, a bit of background.

The ternery in early summer

As regular readers of this blog will already be aware, the ternery in the south of the Reserve is home to about 5,000 pairs of breeding birds each summer. They come here to make their nests on the bare ground within the four-hectare electric-fenced enclosure, where they are safe from predators like Foxes. Now as we all know, seabirds produce a lot of droppings – guano – and that which doesn’t get deposited directly on the Reserve staff ends up fertilising the soil. With thousands of birds doing this each year, the ground at the ternery is incredibly fertile, meaning the vegetation grows at a fearful rate. By the end of the summer, it’s a dense jungle of Stinging Nettles, Rosebay Willowherb, Ragwort and thistles, all of which thrive on the nutrients being provided by the birds.

The ternery in August – a mass of pink Rosebay Willowherb and yellow Ragwort

By the time the vegetation is at its highest, the birds have finished raising their young and departed, leaving the insects to enjoy the bounty of flowers. However, as winter approaches, the leaves die back, leaving a vast forest of dead stems – pale, brittle and woody, ghosts of the long-gone summer season.

Birds don’t much like landing among these dense stands of tall stems. In fact, if left standing, the dead vegetation renders much of the area unusable for the birds. That’s where the destructive stuff comes in useful. Step forward Simon and Cat to help me out and man the brushcutters. Over the course of a couple of days, we managed to razz down the worst of the dead vegetation, clearing the ground ready for the birds coming back.

Brushcutting in progress
Before and after!
Plenty more to do…
Job done!

That wasn’t quite the end of it though. With all the cutting done, we were left with a dense thatch of cuttings on the ground. Though the Black-headed Gulls will contentedly use a proportion of these for nesting material, the volume of cuttings produced is huge. In order to prevent the buildup of excessive amounts of dead vegetation from year to year, we rake up and burn the worst of the cuttings. This then leaves a large area of open, bare ground, the favoured nesting habitat of our Sandwich Terns. This year we were indebted to SRUC’s Rural Skills group, as well as regular volunteers Richard and Hugh, for their hard work in getting the job done.

Fire going nicely
Some of the workforce keeping warm

But why do all this? Surely the birds got along fine for thousands of years without us doing this for them? True. So what’s the story here then? Read on…

Terns are notoriously itinerant. Given the choice, they often tend to flit between different breeding sites from year to year. When conditions at a site become unsuitable, e.g. the vegetation becomes too dense for them, they simply move on and nest somewhere else. So they might go up or down the coast a bit, and choose another suitable-looking site nearby. But due to the impacts of the ever-growing human population on our coasts – development, recreation, disturbance – the birds simply don’t have anywhere else to go. And this makes what we do here at Forvie seriously important. This is a stronghold for several species on the edge.

The ternery at Forvie – a stronghold for the birds in a changing world

Over the last three or four years we’ve been gradually expanding the area that we’ve cleared of dead vegetation prior to the gulls and terns arriving. The birds have responded really well, with the Black-headed Gull population rocketing to a whopping 2,124 pairs in 2018, while in 2019 we recorded over 1,000 nesting pairs of Sandwich Terns – the best total for many years.

Hopefully the birds will appreciate all our efforts this year, and will nest in large numbers once again. Here’s hoping for a productive season at the ternery in 2020 – watch this space!

Wild winds, white gulls…

OK, that title may sound a bit like a track off Santana’s classic 1970 album Abraxas (giving away my predilection for Latin blues there). But it’s been the story of a week when the weather seems to have been in permanent high spirits. Following on from Storm Brendan earlier in the year, this week it was Ciara who battered us with high winds for what seemed like days on end. By the time you’re reading this, Dennis is probably doing likewise. It’s been a rough few days, right enough.

I reported that at the time of Storm Brendan, the local Fulmars remained ensconced on their future nest-sites on the cliffs. But when Ciara arrived they decided enough was enough, and abandoned ship. We might not like gale-force winds, but Fulmars love them – no need to waste energy flapping your wings when the wind can provide you with all the lift and power you need. So Storm Ciara provided a great opportunity for travelling and feeding, rather than mooching around on the cliffs. Consequently the Corbie Holes was eerily devoid of birds. Have a game of ‘spot the difference’ with this pair of photos.

Corbie Holes, with Fulmars on their ledges (see the white dots?)
…and abandoned during Storm Ciara (look, no dots!)

It’s a scarcely believable fact that Fulmars – brilliant fliers who cover vast distances and demonstrate a complete mastery of the air – actually have smaller flight-muscles than Puffins, which fly like a thrown brick. But while the Puffins buzz along with wings whirring furiously, the Fulmars simply let the wind do the work for them. Feel free to amaze your friends with that fact; thank me later.

The high winds were accompanied by some monster high tides, and the amount of flotsam washing up on the shore was remarkable. This consisted of vegetation flushed down the estuary by the high water levels, and a tangle of grasses eroded out of their footings by wind and tide.

Storm-washed debris on the beach…
…and on the estuary, all over the footpath

Among the stuff washed up was this colossal crab claw. Its owner must have been a fearsome beast for sure.

Huuuuuuuuuge crab claw
Must have been a ‘Barry McGuigan’
(i.e. a big ‘un)

While a lot of the wildlife tends to keep its head down in stormy weather – or pushes off out to sea like the aforementioned Fulmars – one group of birds does become more obvious when the winds pick up. Gulls enjoy the rough weather, as it churns up lots of edible goodies for them along the coast. All week we’ve been seeing big flocks of gulls patrolling the surf, dip-feeding in the swell and loafing in the coastal fields and estuary between feeding bouts.

Most of the gulls we see here are familiar species that are present all year, such as Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull. But sometimes in the winter they’re joined by scarcer species, distant cousins of theirs from the far north. One such species is the Iceland Gull, and one of these pitched up at Forvie earlier in the week.

Iceland Gull

Contrary to their name, Iceland Gulls actually breed in Greenland (though a lot of them do spend the winter in Iceland). Compared to our resident Herring Gulls, Icelands are stunningly ghostly pale birds – check out the photo above. Unlike all our resident gulls, they lack any black in their wingtips, and consequently the flight-feathers transmit the light, giving a beautiful translucent effect. They really are fabulous birds, and light up a grey winter’s day if you’re lucky enough to cross paths with one.

Trust me, gulls are a thing of beauty. Royalty among birds, even. And none more so than these white-winged invaders from the north.

This being the Year of Coasts and Waters (have I mentioned that before?), I’m going to leave you this week with a photo of a coast, and some very angry water. Have a good week, but keep the hatches battened down now.

Collieston harbour in a storm

A day in the life

Working on Forvie NNR day-in, day-out is undoubtedly a special privilege, and one for which I am very grateful. Since taking up the role as reserve officer / estate worker (= ‘jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none’) thirteen years ago this month, I have learned a huge amount and amassed a vast collection of amazing experiences and memories. It is, however, no different to any other job, in that it has good days and not-so-good days.

The bad days – when the public toilets have backed up and overflowed, you’ve sprayed yourself with dog poo while strimming the footpaths, there’s an endless burden of bureaucratic functions to attend to, and the office technology makes you want to scream – are thankfully outnumbered by the good ones. I’ll give you a recent example.

Take an ordinary weekday in February. First start off with a cracking sunrise over the Forvie Centre…

Look at the colours on that!

…and follow this up with a sighting of a Hen Harrier from the office window. This was the first one I’d seen here in ages – they’ve got really scarce here in recent years. A moment to savour. So, a good start to the day – now what?

Hen Harrier

After dealing with the daily office tasks (yawn), head out onto the Ythan Estuary for a wader and wildfowl count (don’t forget your packed lunch, mind). The estuary is looking good today in the winter sun – you could almost forget it’s February, but the temperature soon reminds you.

Ythan Estuary

For future reference, the rear windscreen wiper of the car makes an excellent place to keep the clipboard during the count, and also stops the paperwork blowing away. Add that one to the knowledge bank.

Tooled up for wader-counting

On the estuary, all the usual suspects are present for the count – Shelduck, Wigeon, Dunlin, Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit. But among them are the occasional scarcer birds, like an overwintering Greenshank on the Foveran Burn at Newburgh…

Greenshank

…and a couple of pairs of Pintail at Waulkmill bird hide, with the drakes looking particularly handsome in the sunshine.

Drake Pintail

Halfway through the count, my eye is drawn to an odd movement in the water near Waterside road bridge. To my delight it’s an Otter. In thirteen years at Forvie, I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve actually seen an Otter here. We know they’re here – you can often find signs of them, like tracks in the mud and droppings (spraint) at favoured spots – but they’re very seldom actually seen. Like the Hen Harrier earlier in the day, this is a special treat, and well worth taking five minutes out of the working day to enjoy.

Otter tracks on the mud
Otter

The wader count ends at Logie Buchan bridge, which lies at the top end of the estuary’s tidal reach. Here the reedbed is looking fabulous in the winter sun, and a Water Rail is pottering about at the water’s edge. Like the Otter, these birds are ever-present yet seldom seen, so this again is worth taking a moment to appreciate.

Logie Buchan reedbed
Water Rail

Count finished, it’s time to head back to the office. Upon driving past Cotehill Loch, I notice some swans – surely too many of them to be the resident family of Mute Swans? I take a closer look, and right enough, these are Whooper Swans, probably already beginning their journey northwards for the impending spring. (You can read more about the lives of these brilliant birds here.)

Whooper Swans

Back at the office, the wader count data are entered into the computer while thawing out over a cuppa. A while later and the light is fading, the office duties have mercifully been completed for the day, and it’s time to close up the visitor centre and head for home. But not before taking in the sunset over the Reserve.

Sunset over the visitor centre

So, that was definitely one of the better days at work. Certainly makes up for the not-so-good ones described at the start of this post. And I promise not to publish any illustrated articles about those, by the way!

World Wetlands Day 2020

Today marks forty-nine years to the day since the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, an international agreement signed at the Ramsar Convention in Iran. The aim of this agreement was to safeguard the future of wetlands, promoting their conservation and sustainable use. Since then, over 2,300 sites across the globe have been designated as ‘Ramsar sites’, covering more than 2 million square kilometres. Here in the UK, we have a world-leading total of 175 Ramsar sites, and I’m proud to say that Forvie is one of them.

The Ythan Estuary at Forvie – a Ramsar site for its importance to waterfowl

There are a number of criteria for determining whether a location qualifies as a Ramsar site. One such criterion is that the site ‘regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds’, and we certainly qualify on that one. With the food-rich water and mud of the Ythan Estuary, plus the freshwater lochs and pools, the Reserve is a haven for wide range of waterfowl.

Some species are resident, such as Grey Heron, Cormorant and Eider, and can be seen throughout the year. Others, like Wigeon, Teal, Pink-footed Goose and Shelduck, visit us for the winter. A further group of species use the wetlands of the Reserve as a motorway service-station, breaking the journey on their long migration. These include waders like Knot, Dunlin, Greenshank and Whimbrel.

Mallards and Teal preening on edge of Foveran Burn
Shelduck feeding
Greenshank on the estuary

Throughout the year, the Reserve plays host to birds from literally all points of the compass. Though for example we see Curlew and Redshank at Forvie all year, we’re actually seeing individuals from different populations passing through at different times. Which helps to illustrate that Forvie is part of a global network of wetlands, helping to sustain a vast web of life.

Curlew – a species in decline in Europe
Redshanks on the mudflats

World Wetlands Day occurs every year on 2nd February, the anniversary of the Ramsar Convention. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the value of wetlands, for wildlife and indeed for humanity. So, besides being great places for birds, what exactly are the benefits of wetlands?

Well… they provide us with clean water, flood protection, carbon capture, food such as fish and rice, and consequently opportunities for employment and recreation. It’s reckoned that over 1 billion people worldwide make a living from wetlands. And that’s just some of the benefits to us, a single species. When you take into account that wetlands are home to a whopping 40% of all the species in the world, it’s obvious that these are special and precious places, deserving of our respect and care.

Wetland habitats at Forvie – freshwater pools…
…the reedbed at Logie Buchan…
…and the mudflats and creeks of the Ythan Estuary.

And besides all that, they’re stunningly beautiful places as well. There’s something special about big skies, water, wet mud, reflections and vast flocks of birds. The late Peter Scott spent a lifetime painting such scenes, and who could blame him?

The Ythan estuary, with waders feeding on the mud
Redshanks in flight
Redshank flock
Ythan Estuary sunrise

There’s no doubt that we’re lucky here to have a world-class wetland, brimming with wildlife, right on our doorstep. Why not get out for a walk on the Reserve this next wee while and experience it for yourself?

Walking through history – Forvie to the Rescue

Today, guest blogger Ellie Ingram takes us on a journey back in time, with rockets, shipwrecks and some seriously impressive cloth caps. Enjoy!

In the 21st century we are used to seeing and hearing helicopters flying over Collieston and the Forvie NNR, mostly transporting personnel to and from the oil and gas rigs in the North Sea. Search and Rescue helicopters, although less frequent, often carry out training exercises in the area as well as actual missions. In the early part of the 20th century, however, the skies were much quieter and less busy as the oil and gas fields had yet to be discovered and rescues at sea were carried out mostly by lifeboats and coastguards.

Until the end of the 1920s the Rocket Pole stood at the western end of the old Coastguard Station (now Cluny Cottages) overlooking the Sand Loch, where it was used for breeches buoy practise by the Collieston Coastguard Company.

After the lease for tenancy of the Coastguard Station expired on Whitsunday 1930, new Coastguard houses were built in the village, in close proximity to the harbour. The Rocket Pole was relocated to a site on the Forvie Moors overlooking the Peerman (Puirman) Braes. As you can see from the photo taken in the 1950s, it was very popular with both children and adults for showing off their climbing skills – Merchant Navy headgear optional! I tried to climb to the top of the pole myself on a number of occasions but, having no head for heights, had to admit defeat every time.

Unfortunately you won’t see any sign of the Rocket Pole now as you walk along the coastal path, so what happened to it? Quite simply, old age took its toll. 

As the years passed, the wooden structure began to rot inside.  One day a couple from Collieston were out for their usual walk on Forvie NNR when something highly unusual happened. They stopped at the Rocket Pole to admire the view and, while the man was leaning against the structure , it suddenly toppled over and crashed to the ground, giving them both the fright of their lives.

Thankfully there were no injuries but, sadly, the Rocket Pole was no more.

The Collieston LSA (Life Saving Apparatus) Company are making their way back to the Coastguard Station from the Forvie Moors in the late 1920s. In the distance (top left) is Hackley Head.  The life saving equipment is being hauled through the open gate which is still there today, well, maybe not the original gate, bearing in mind the fact that wood rots.  Remember what happened to the Rocket Pole!

The Company held regular exercises on the Forvie Moors and near the Sand Loch to ensure that the equipment was well maintained and that the coastguards were kept up to speed with rescue procedures. 

One such rescue in August 1947 involved the SS Holdernook which had run aground on rocks approximately a quarter of a mile north of Hackley Head.It looks like a beautiful ‘taps aff’ summer’s day in the photo but we all know how quickly the weather can change in north east Scotland and conditions earlier had been very stormy indeed.

As soon as the Collieston LSA Company received the alert that a ship had run aground they quickly rushed to the scene where they had to battle fierce winds to set up their rescue equipment. In fact conditions were so bad and there was such a heavy swell that the crew were reluctant to leave the ship by breeches buoy, preferring to stay on board and take a chance that the storm would abate. Thankfully the potential tragedy ended well. Sea conditions soon improved enough for the crew of the Newburgh Lifeboat to attempt a rescue. The crew on board the steamship were eventually rescued and landed safely at Collieston.

All photos and text (c) Ellie Ingram. Thanks Ellie!

Life's a ditch…

Unless you’ve just returned from a twenty-year holiday in outer space, you’ll have heard in the news that the climate is changing. Here in the UK, milder and wetter is the new order of the day. We’re tending to get more rain these days, and even on the relatively dry east coast of Scotland we get our share. Here on the Reserve, there’s been a definite increase in standing water over the last 10-15 years.

Wetlands forming along the Heath Trail

Generally speaking, we’re happy to let these new wetlands develop naturally. In the past, when the Reserve was managed as a sporting estate prior to its sale to Scottish Natural Heritage, a network of drains kept the moorland dry. The aim of this was to maintain good habitat for Red Grouse, a popular quarry species for field-sports enthusiasts. Red Grouse like dry heather moorland and don’t much enjoy getting their feet wet. So, with the exception of a couple of artificial flight-ponds (which were built for the purposes of duck-shooting), most of the Reserve was kept dry. The heather was even burned from time to time to produce fresh regrowth for the grouse to eat.

Red Grouse

Heather-burning and maintenance of the drains ceased here in the 1970s, and the Red Grouse population gradually declined as conditions became less favourable. There have not been any grouse seen at Forvie for a number of years now, though they remain plentiful in the hills of inland Aberdeenshire. As the Reserve ‘wets up’, the grouse have been replaced by a range of species that favour a more watery landscape.

Snipe – a wading bird that likes flooded ground
Reed bunting – breeds in scrub around shallow wetlands
Common Hawker dragonfly laying eggs in a moorland pool
A pair of Large Red Damselflies egg-laying

There are a few bits of the Reserve where we still have to maintain the ditches and drains. These are the areas where the footpaths or vehicle tracks are prone to flooding or getting excessively muddy, and even then, we only ever drain the bits that we absolutely have to. It’s a case of putting on your overalls and waders, rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck into some good old-fashioned hard yakka.

Your author trying not to get stuck in the Mealy Burn, south of Collieston on the coast path

This week we turned our attention to a bit of the Rockend Track – the one that bisects the Reserve from Waterside car park to the beach – which has flooded badly in recent times. As well as being one of the principal footpaths on site, it’s also our only means of getting the 4×4 vehicle onto the beach. This is crucial for collecting beach litter, transporting all the fencing gear to the ternery, and maintaining vital infrastructure in the south of the Reserve. It’s our equivalent of the M6 – a critical transport link!

Rockend Track flooding – it gets a lot worse than this!

A bit of closer investigation revealed an old overgrown ditch, to the right of the track in the photo above. It was completely choked with rushes and other vegetation, and the water level was higher than the track – hence the flooding. Time to get our hands dirty again then.

Old ditch totally overgrown and choked up
Almost like digging a new ditch from scratch!
Check out the amount of spoil piled up to the left of the ditch!
That’s more like it – plenty of water flowing

Over the course of an afternoon, I manually cleared about 25 metres of ditch, but the bad news is that there’s another 50 metres to go! At least it’ll help me burn off some of the excess calories enjoyed during the Christmas holidays. And once completed, it should improve the condition of the path markedly. It’s actually remarkably satisfying work, and by carrying out the work by hand rather than hiring-in a machine, the environmental impact is kept to a minimum. Because we’re only clearing the essential bits, the surrounding wet areas are left to continue developing naturally.

While ditch-clearing yesterday, the weather was remarkably mild, and the mist periodically came and went. It was surprisingly hot work with the humidity being so high, though it did make for some attractive vistas over the Reserve.

Mist over the estuary in the distance
An atmospheric scene on the Reserve

All this talk of wetlands is a handy reminder that 2020 is the Year of Coasts and Waters. Here at Forvie we do a good line in both coasts and waters, so stay tuned for some more watery-themed blog posts this year. Added to that, it’ll be World Wetlands Day on 2nd February – once again, watch this space for more.

Meanwhile, I’m heading back to my favourite ditch…

Storm force

One of our highest-profile visitors to Forvie so far this year made his entrance earlier this week. Storm Brendan had already wrought chaos on Scotland’s west coast, knocking out power supplies and throwing transport into disarray. Brendan’s mood hadn’t improved much by the time he reached us here on the east coast either. Consequently, this week we’ve endured probably the highest winds of the winter so far, whipping up the North Sea into a frothy fury. It was awesome to watch, that is if you could actually stand upright in the gale.

Waves smashing in
North Sea in a bad mood
The ‘Poor Man’ rock, getting battered by the elements

Storm Brendan’s visit corresponded with the highest tides we’ve had since October. The onshore gales and low atmospheric pressure, combined with these high spring tides, led to very high water levels on the estuary, where most of the saltmarsh and the low-lying island of Inch Geck became submerged. Naturally this doesn’t bother the flora or fauna there – they’re all adapted to these occasional extreme conditions. The plants are hardy and salt-tolerant, and the birds simply push off into the neighbouring fields to roost. For them it’s just another day at the office. Meanwhile, on the seaward side of the Reserve, the ‘foam monster’ was at large, smothering all the beaches and inlets.

Sea foam – waist deep if you were daft enough to go there!

The tide height is of course linked to the phases of the moon, and before Brendan’s appearance we’d enjoyed a spectacular full moon. The January edition is known as the ‘Wolf Moon’, which is thought to stem from Native American culture. In the past, wolves would also have occurred across northern Europe, including the UK, before being widely persecuted by the growing human population. Alas, no wolves at Forvie these days (though one or two of our visitors sometimes bring lookalike husky type things); nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider that there was once a time where we weren’t the top predator here.

Full moon
Moon behind wind-blown hawthorns
Moon setting behind the Forvie Centre

In spite of the high winds and low temperatures, some of our wildlife is already looking ahead to the spring. At the end of last week the Fulmars were back on the cliffs at the Corbie Holes, just north of Hackley Bay, and looking very much at home. These seabirds, northern-hemisphere cousins of the albatrosses, are already setting up home among the crags and ledges, preparing for the long breeding season ahead.

Corbie Holes, with Fulmars in attendance – can you see the white dots?
Zoom in a bit, and there they are – already paired up in January!
Staking claims already for breeding territories!

Note the ‘digiscoped’ photos (more on this exquisite form of photographic bodgework here).

So the Fulmars are thinking spring thoughts already. Storm Brendan has passed, the skies have cleared and things have settled down a bit. The sun’s even out as I type this. Our usual post-high-winds routine is being carried out – round up the wheelie bins, remove all the plant pots and associated debris from the hedge, and recover next-door’s garden furniture from halfway up the sycamore tree. And all the while, the wildlife just carries on as if nothing’s happened. Storm – what storm?