25 kilograms of flour and 6,000 eggs.

No, this isn’t the recipe for the world’s largest Yorkshire pudding (though I wouldn’t mind giving that a try). Instead, these were the ingredients for the annual census of Forvie’s Black-headed Gull colony, which took place a few days ago – a big landmark in the bird breeding season on the Reserve.

Actually, the full recipe would also include six intrepid observers, each armed with a tally counter, and a seventh person acting as timekeeper and lookout. Plus a selection of overalls, old clothes and battered hats. The birds make it clear you’re not welcome, and use everything in their armoury to try and drive you off – including well-directed ‘whitewash’. The Forvie gull census is not a job for your best togs.

Getting tooled up

So what’s with the flour then? Well, if you’ve got one-sixth of a massive Black-headed Gull colony to census, it can be difficult to know where you have and haven’t been. All the nests look much the same. The simplest way of knowing if you’ve already counted a particular nest is to mark it with a generous pinch of flour – ideally next to the nest, not all over the eggs, of course. It’s a cheap, non-toxic, biodegradable and very effective way of making sure you have a 100% accurate count. But the amount of flour required is considerable. I am therefore known to the staff in our local supermarket as ‘the weirdo who comes in and buys twenty bags of flour and nothing else’. I don’t usually even try to explain to the checkout staff what it’ll be used for, as I’m sure they already think I’m off my rocker in any case.

The welcoming committee – whitewash ahoy

The gull nest census is timed very carefully so that it takes place immediately before the first chicks are due to hatch. This, in theory, is when the number of nests containing eggs is at its highest. Also, once the chicks start hatching, they quickly become mobile and disperse into the rapidly-growing vegetation in the colony. This would make them difficult to count – and more importantly, vulnerable to getting trodden on. So we don’t want to be traipsing through the colony once they’ve started hatching en-masse.

Of course, some gulls will continue setting up home and laying eggs even after the first of their neighbours’ chicks have hatched, and we just have to accept that we won’t be able to quantify these late nesters. Consequently, the number of nests recorded by the census represents a minimum population size only. But our methods are consistent, and the results comparable from one year to the next – so the science is sound.

A typical Black-headed Gull nest

During last week’s count we didn’t see any chicks, but we did find a couple of nests with the eggs ‘chipping’ – where the chick just begins to break through the eggshell at the start of the hatching process. This told us that our timing for the census was spot-on.

‘Chipping’ – note the small hole in the left-hand end of the top egg
Here’s what they’ll hatch into!

Of course, with hatching imminent, this is a critical time for the gulls. As a result, all the work we undertake within the colony – including the nest census – is subject to a strict set of ‘house rules’. We get a maximum of 20 minutes at a time in the colony, after which we have to depart for at least an hour (to allow the birds to settle and incubate their eggs) before we return. Likewise, if the weather is cold, wet or excessively windy, we won’t enter the colony. At all times, the welfare of the wildlife must come first, and our primary concern is allowing the birds to breed successfully. For this reason, we didn’t census them at all last year – the weather was just too cold to risk it. Thankfully, though, this year’s weather was kinder to us.

Carrying out a nest census – in strictly controlled conditions

So, what of the results then? Well, it was a big effort by the team to get the work done, with some sections of the colony requiring three 20-minute sessions during the day in order to cover all the nests. One particular section contained a dense sub-colony of some 900 nests, which was a challenge for the observer! In the end, the total for the whole colony was a whopping 2,265 nests containing eggs – a new site record for Forvie. This beats the previous record of 2,124 set in 2018.

Late in the day, Patrick ventured back into the colony to survey a sample of nests in order to ascertain an average clutch size – the number of eggs per nest. A typical complete clutch for Black-headed Gull comprises three eggs, though some stop at two, and others – rarely – will lay four. Patrick’s sample count of about 160 nests produced an average clutch size of 2.7, meaning the whole colony would have contained upwards of 6,000 eggs. Quite an establishment.

One down, 2,264 to go…

To put our numbers into context, the last UK-wide census of Black-headed Gulls revealed a total breeding population of 138,000 pairs. This means that Forvie holds over 1.6% of the entire UK population of Black-headed Gulls. And this is why we take their wellbeing so seriously!

Black-headed Gulls are considered to be a common and widespread species in the UK, and 138,000 pairs probably sounds like quite a lot, right enough. But consider that the human population in that same area is around 70 million, and suddenly the gulls don’t seem so abundant after all. All things are relative of course – but I can’t help thinking how accustomed we’ve become to being wildlife-impoverished, when we ourselves outnumber even common species by several orders of magnitude.

Abundant… but really though?

Wider context aside, the gulls here have been doing very well. In my early years working at Forvie – back in t’day, when I were a lad – the breeding population comprised 600-800 pairs. So in fifteen years, the colony has trebled in size. This could be due to a number of factors (including good wardening, obviously…). For example, other local colonies have died out in recent years, with the ‘refugees’ perhaps relocating to Forvie. Meanwhile, behind its protective electric fence and free from disturbance, ‘our’ colony’s productivity has been consistently high, meaning lots of new youngsters recruited into the population – and many of these later settle and breed here themselves. Also, the habitat within the electric fence has gradually become more gull-friendly, with former areas of sand and shingle reverting to grass and vegetation – the sort of places the gulls love to nest.

Typical gull habitat

As we finished the census, the weather threatened to close in on us, with menacingly dark skies heralding torrential spring showers. A good time to be leaving, then. But the black clouds and low sun gave a brief opportunity for some dramatic photos of the white gulls against the dark backdrop.

Weather on the way…
Light and dark
High contrast – and a thing of beauty

I have always thought Black-headed Gulls to be underrated birds, possessed of a simple elegance that most of us probably overlook – most likely because they’re relatively commonplace. In addition to their natty dress sense, they have a lively social life at their colony which further adds to their appeal. The sound drifting from the colony across the river to Newburgh speaks of vitality, energy and new life. And wherever you are in the local area, you can see the gulls plying up and down between the colony and the fields and the estuary, gathering food for their chicks – a lovely reminder that here, on our doorstep, is something special.

Elegant, attractive and underrated!

Here’s raising a toast to Forvie’s Black-headed Gulls then. Long may they require me to buy the supermarket out of flour.

Leviathans ahoy

Of all the telephone calls we receive at Forvie HQ, my favourite type is the one where a visitor / neighbour / colleague rings up to report something rare, unusual, bizarre or downright revolting. This happened last week, when a local resident phoned to report the presence of some strange worm-like creatures that had washed ashore on Collieston beach, immediately to the north of the Reserve. Now this was far too intriguing not to investigate, so down to the village I went in order to check it out. And I wasn’t about to be disappointed.

A leviathan of the deep

Here were upwards of twenty sizeable worms stranded on the high-tide mark. The largest was more than a foot long and as thick as my thumb. Though clearly not in good health – being covered in dry sand and part-desiccated – the majority of them were alive, wriggling faintly when touched.

A sizeable beast
A face only a mother could love

I decided to give a couple of these unfortunates a quick dunk in a nearby rockpool, to see whether they’d perk up, and also to have a proper look at them minus all the sand stuck to their bodies. Immersion in water revealed a different beast altogether. The sand quickly washed off to reveal hints of green and royal blue in the creatures’ bodies, which were edged with a remarkable fringe of appendages (rather like a centipede’s legs) along each side. These they moved in a rippling action, providing a means of locomotion through the water.

An entirely different creature in the water

So what were these remarkable animals? A suggestion came from my dad, staying with us at the house in Collieston for the week. King Ragworm, he reckoned. And he was absolutely right first time. Take it from me, wardens’ fathers are veritable mines of information, even if possessed of dubious taste in prog rock.

It turns out that King Ragworms live in offshore sandbanks, where they lurk in the sand and predate upon smaller creatures using their fearsome jaws (their powerful mouthparts can give a nasty nip to an unwary person’s hand). But how had these washed ashore in such benign conditions? After all, there had been no storms or strong onshore winds to stir up the sea bed. The answer, it seems, is sex. In springtime on a flood tide, King Rags emerge from their sandy lairs and swim upwards into open water to spawn, the males and females releasing their sperm and eggs respectively into the sea, whereby the eggs are fertilised. This done, and the worms having had their fun, they will summarily die. The moribund worms then wash ashore, allowing us a rare glimpse of a species that we otherwise wouldn’t even know existed.

King Ragworm – what’s not to like?

Later on, and away from the bizarre and squiggly world of ragworms, an Eider count between Collieston and Rockend allowed us to catch up with some of the more familiar wildlife of our coastline. Among the most welcome sights were the year’s first flowering Thrift and Sea Campion, two of the plants which most brighten up the sea cliffs during spring and early summer.

Thrift
Sea Campion

On the cliffs, most of our seabirds have now taken up residence for the summer. Most noticeable among these are the Kittiwakes, who enthusiastically and repeatedly call out their own names from their lively and noisy colonies on the sheer rock-faces. Last year saw approximately 600 pairs of these dainty and attractive gulls nesting at Forvie, and we look forward to this season’s seabird census (usually carried out in the first week of June) to see how they’re faring in 2022.

Kittiwakes at their precipitous nesting sites

Forvie’s Kittiwakes are just beginning their breeding season, but other birds are well through theirs. Ravens are a recent re-colonist of Forvie’s cliffs, having been absent for many years until their recent return. Our one nesting pair has had a fine season, and their huge stick-built nest can barely accommodate its four huge chicks, each on the brink of fledging.

Raven chicks

Meanwhile, the adult Ravens are never too far away, keeping a weather eye on their offspring, and a safe distance from any human visitors. These birds are really quite shy by nature, and if you see the nest while walking the cliff path, take care not to linger for too long in order not to keep the parents from the nest.

An attentive and anxious parent

Forvie’s Ravens and seabirds may be ensconced in their summer homes, but other birds are still journeying towards theirs. The rocky shore below the cliffs provides a haven for migrating waders where they can feed and rest before embarking on the next leg of their journey – perhaps across the North Sea to Norway. One such species is the Whimbrel, a close relative of the Curlew, and bearing an obvious family resemblance to the latter. But the Whimbrel is noticeably smaller and darker, with a shorter (but similarly down-curved) beak, and dark stripes along its crown. Its call is also distinctive: a rippling series of piping notes, giving rise to the old name ‘Seven-Whistler’.

Whimbrel, taking a well-earned break

Another wader on the way to higher latitudes is the Turnstone. These overwinter on the estuary in small numbers, when they can be difficult to pick out against the dark background of the mussel-beds. But in the summer they moult into their breeding plumage, and their dowdy winter attire is replaced by a harlequin pattern of black, white, chestnut and brick red. It’s as if they transform into an entirely different species for the short Arctic summer.

Turnstone, in mid-moult from winter to summer plumage

In summer plumage – phwooaaar!

On our way back after the Eider count (which, by the way, produced 60 drakes, 28 ducks and nine immature drakes), we paused to photograph the Creeping Willow along the coastal path, whose catkins have now got past the ‘fluffy’ stage and are now fully open. Diminutive it may be, but it’s no less beautiful than its full-sized relatives.

Creeping Willow
Plenty of pollen… aaaa-chooo!

Our coastline in spring has much to recommend it, whether it’s weird worms from the deep, or the familiar wildlife that surrounds us every day. Always be curious, and if you don’t have a warden’s dad to call upon for identifying things, then you can always use the internet instead. Good spotting.

A rare old time

One of the best things about life at Forvie is that you never quite know what will come your way on any given day. Last Tuesday was a case in point. While undertaking a routine fence check at the ternery with volunteer Callum, the entire Black-headed Gull colony suddenly took flight, indicating the presence of a predator. Sure enough, we looked up to see a bird of prey approaching, being harassed by a pair of crows. Its slender silhouette and feather-light flight action quickly identified it as a harrier – here then was something unusual.

Harrier incoming – photo (c) Mark Sullivan

In Europe there are three harrier species that can be tricky to separate (Hen, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers), and as the bird floated past us I frantically ran through in my head the identification features for these birds. Four ‘fingers’ in the wingtips? Check. Peachy-orange underside? Check. Complete pale neck collar? Check. Dark ‘shawl’ at sides of neck? Check. These features, much to my temporary disbelief, identified our bird as a Pallid Harrier – an extremely rare vagrant to Scottish shores, and only the fourth ever recorded in our region. What a moment!

Pallid Harrier: a rare treat indeed – photo (c) Mark Sullivan

Here, then, was another example of the transportative ability of nature. As I savoured the sight of the Pallid Harrier jinking away through the dunes of South Forvie, crows still in hot pursuit, I realised that the last time I had seen this species was in Bulgaria nearly a decade ago. I could almost taste the red wine and smell the myrtle. A little exotic piece of eastern Europe, brought here to our local patch by sheer serendipity. As I said, you never know what you’re going to get here at Forvie.

Rare also – but rather more predictable – another long-haul traveller returned to the Reserve this week. Elvis, our faithful King Eider, reappeared on the estuary among his commoner cousins. Ever popular with locals and visitors, his bright colours and comical appearance brighten up many a day on the Ythan.

Uh-huh-huh
All shook up
Thankyouverymush

Having been visiting the Reserve for twelve years now, and with his plumage having become more extravagant and colourful over time, he’s surely in his Vegas phase just now, sequins and all. A true icon.

Well hello, gulls

Needless to say, life at Forvie’s not all about the ‘yahoos’, the rarities and the headline grabbers. Protecting our regular wildlife is what we’re here to do, and besides spotting rare raptors and ducks, the daily visits to the ternery this week also revealed the first Sandwich Tern eggs of the season. In three-and-a-half weeks we’ll hopefully be welcoming the first hatchlings into the world, and a further three-and-a-half weeks will see them make their maiden flight. Thence onwards to Africa, and eventually back to Forvie to raise young of their own. Our job, of course, is to ensure that this timeless cycle remains unbroken.

Sandwich Terns – mums and dads-to-be

Many things in nature are cyclical – the seasons, the tides, bird migration, insect life cycles, and even the cycling of nutrients through the environment. Humanity has taken a long time to cotton on to this ‘circular economy’ idea, even though it’s been there under our noses all along. Thankfully we’re now a bit more proactive with recycling and reusing resources than we used to be, though we still have much to learn. In nature, by contrast, nothing goes to waste.

Recycling in action

Great Black-backed Gulls are nature’s scaffies. These, the largest species of gull in the world, can be formidable predators. But for the most part they’re quite content to scavenge instead. A dead seal is a rare treat indeed for gulls, crows, and scavenging mammals like Foxes, and all of these unsung heroes do a magnificent clean-up job in the natural environment.

I lose count of the number of telephone calls I’ve taken that go along the lines of “There’s a dead seal on the beach, what are you going to do about it?” – to which my reply is usually a polite “Nothing actually”. Things naturally die, and nature has its own agents for the resultant clean-up tasks – it’s just another part of the nutrient cycle after all. Leave it to the experts.

While I appreciate that scavengers are not everybody’s favourite creatures, I happen to think the Great Black-backed Gull is a rather handsome beast, in a brutalist sort of way. Judge for yourself!

Great Black-backed Gull – ugly-attractive

Speaking of ugly, I can only apologise for the gruesome close-up of my forehead shown below. But while working on site, I was landed-on by this small beetle, and the quick-thinking Catriona fired off a couple of photos before relocating the beetle to some more suitable habitat. It turns out that this is a Heather Beetle, a species that specialises – surprisingly enough – on eating the leaves and stems of Heather. Not rare (far from it actually), but this was the first time I had seen this particular species. That’ll be a ‘forehead tick’ for me then.

Heather beetle

While I’m aware this week’s blog has been a rather disjointed affair, we’ll finish up with something a bit more co-ordinated. With the wild flower season just beginning to take off, you might notice that many of our early flowers happen to be yellow. Yellow flowers reflect a lot of light, enabling the plants to maximise their attractiveness to pollinators during the relatively-short daylight hours of spring. It’s also been theorised that many insect pollinators early in the year are flies, which don’t possess colour vision, so bright white or yellow flowers are the most obvious to them – and are hence the best colours for plants to produce if they want to attract pollinators.

Either way, these widespread and common species brighten up a walk at Forvie, or anywhere in the wider countryside, during a spring day.

Dandelions and Lesser Celandines
Marsh Marigolds… or King-cups if you prefer
Pure sunshine by the water’s edge
Primroses – a perennial favourite
Oxlips on the cliffs

Mellow yellow indeed. And proof that things don’t need to be rare in order to be delightful – though this week we’ve been lucky enough to have the best of both worlds. It’s fair to say that it’s not been dull.

April awakening

By late April, even in the cold and reluctant springs that have characterised the last two decades, things are really starting to happen in the natural world. Following on behind the early vanguard of Celandines and Snowdrops, wild flowers are beginning to appear en-masse. Invertebrates of all shapes and sizes are emerging, some of our birds are well into their breeding season, while others are passing through on the way to theirs. All this hustle and bustle, in preparation for the forthcoming summer, makes the Reserve – and the outdoors in general – an exciting place to be at the moment.

The year’s first Violet

The sheltered dune slacks along the route of the barrier fence this week produced the first Violets of the year (…just don’t ask me which species, as they’re a bit of a minefield to separate). These are an important foodplant for the Dark Green Fritillary butterfly, whose emergence we eagerly await. Alas, no Fritillaries this week, but we did log the first Green-veined Whites on the wing. These are the first butterflies of the year to actually emerge, newly-minted; the Small Tortoiseshells that we’ve hitherto been seeing will actually have emerged last year, and overwintered as adults.

Green-veined White, newly minted
Upper side view this time

A bit easier to identify than the Violets, and no less welcome a sight, was the year’s first Wild Pansy in flower. As a child, I recall being fascinated by how nature could produce something so much more delicate and exquisite than the otherwise-similar garden version – not realising, of course, that the garden flower had been domesticated from this, the wild flower. All these years later, my opinion remains the same though – I don’t think you can improve upon the original!

Wild Pansy – just exquisite

In terms of ease of identification, there are few things more cryptic and difficult to sort out than beetles. On my way back from the ternery in the week, I crossed paths with a beetle that was unfamiliar to me, yet possessed (I thought) of a distinctive enough appearance to give me a fighting chance of identifying it. It was also a notably fast mover, though luckily it stayed put long enough for me to snap a passable photo. This allowed me to consult the oracle that is Google Lens (other identification aids are available I’m sure), which while not 100% dependable, can point you in broadly the right direction when you otherwise wouldn’t have a clue where to start.

This, plus a little extra detective work, led to a conclusive ID of Thanatophilus rugosus – a carrion beetle, one of Forvie’s recyclers, a workaday hero of the natural world. Surely it deserves a common name! A new species for me, and another reminder that you never stop learning in this job.

The carrion beetle Thanatophilus rugosus

Down at the ternery, we now have a full set of summering tern species. Wednesday saw the first Little Tern of the season hiding out among its Sandwich Tern cousins on the estuary adjacent to the ternery. Hopefully more will arrive with us in the coming days and weeks.

By Friday there was no further sign of the pioneer Little Tern (we’re hoping he’s gone off to fetch all his mates), but in his place was a newly-arrived Arctic Tern. In most seasons these are the tardiest of all our terns, arriving a full month later than the Sandwich Terns, and several days behind their nearest relatives, the Common Terns. But in their defence, the Arctics have had much further to travel in order to get to Forvie. While the other tern species have come from the coasts of South and West Africa, our Arctic Terns may have spent the winter as far afield as the Antarctic. It’s a fair old commute, so you can hardly blame them for being a few days behind their comparatively-sedentary relatives!

Arctic Tern – welcome back!
The greatest traveller in the (natural) world

Of course, for some species, migration continues onwards well north of Forvie, and for these species we’re a service-station rather than a destination. This is true of many wading birds, like these Black-tailed Godwits which will likely be bound for Iceland. The Ythan Estuary is an important refuge for them where they can feed and rest to ensure they are fit for the next leg of the journey. It’s also an important reason to take care not to disturb feeding or roosting birds when you visit Forvie – while we come to the Reserve for a nice day out, the wildlife does so as a matter of survival.

Black-tailed Godwits (and some photo-bombing Oystercatchers)
Having a well-earned snooze

Also of note on the estuary this week, we’ve been enjoying some epic Osprey viewing. Up to two or three birds have been fishing at once in the vicinity of Waterside and Newburgh, affording excellent views from the car park and footpaths. It’s not difficult to get photos of them hovering, as they scan the waters below for fish, but it’s a tougher task to capture the spectacular headlong dive and splashdown that follows.

Hovering…
Hesitating…
Stooping…

Having had a good feed of fish, Ospreys tend to like sitting on a comfy and convenient fencepost for a post-meal doze (and who can blame them?) – and this allows a rare opportunity for a prolonged view. And what a treat it is: the magnificent Osprey is surely the living encapsulation of the Scottish summer. Apart from midgies, perhaps – but mercifully they’re not out and about just yet.

Easier to photograph when they’re sat still

Our last item of bird news this week concerns the return of an old friend. ‘Sandy’, the leucistic female Eider, has been present in the local area since at least 2010, and on Monday she reappeared on the estuary for the first time since last summer. She is instantly recognisable – leucism is the lack of some or all of the usual dark pigments in a bird’s plumage, and in Sandy’s case it gives her a, well, sandy appearance as opposed to the dark brown of a ‘normal’ female Eider. Welcome back, old friend!

Sandy’s back!

Speaking of old friends, it was fine to see the ultra-familiar Garden Tiger moth caterpillars make their own reappearance this week. These will be a feature of the Reserve right through the summer, and at times they are truly abundant among the grasses of the dunes and heath. They’re as much a part of the Forvie experience as Marram grass, Skylark song and sand in your shoes. And now they’re back, all feels right with the world again.

Garden Tiger caterpillar – first of many

One more week of April left then – and thence we’ll be into Mad May, when spring reaches its frenetic peak. Fasten your seat belts everyone.

Easter eggs and new arrivals

With the spring of 2022 having hitherto been dominated by a cold northerly airflow, the pre-Easter week finally saw the winds shift to the south-east, and the temperatures pick up somewhat. OK, so we never got to bask in the 20oC sunshine enjoyed by the southern end of the UK, but nevertheless, things at last began to feel a bit more authentically spring-like. Sure enough, Forvie’s wildlife was quick to respond in kind, and the first Black-headed Gull eggs appeared in the bustling colony down in South Forvie. All being well, they will welcome their fluffy new arrivals into the world in about three weeks’ time.

Black-headed Gull eggs, just in time for Easter
Proud parents-to-be

It’s been a week for other new arrivals too, with several species of birds making their first appearance of the year. On Wednesday, as I set out for the ternery, I saw my first Osprey of the spring, perched on the fence marking the boundary of the Reserve and the neighbouring pasture. Having walked the convoluted route to the ternery, undertaken the fence check, made a few repairs, and carried out a quick count of the gulls and terns, I returned to find the Osprey hadn’t moved an inch in over two hours. It had obviously enjoyed a good feed earlier that day. Sitting on the fence digesting its breakfast all morning, it provided a good demonstration of what raptors do best – lazing around doing absolutely nothing.

Osprey – fence-sitter extraordinaire

Also freshly arrived from Africa, but at the other end of the size scale, were small numbers of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. These tiny songsters are little bundles of restless energy, hardly stopping for a moment – not for them the chance to sit on a fence for hours on end. But for all their diminutive size, they are no less impressive in their travelling exploits than the mighty Osprey. For my money, their continent-hopping journeys are even more remarkable, given their lack of body mass and their high energy demands. How a half-ounce waif makes it from central Africa to north-east Scotland – and back again – is a perennial source of wonder to me.

Willow Warbler in spring willows

Of course, all that travelling places high demands on your plumage, so it needs to be kept in tip-top condition. A regular wash-and-brush-up is essential, and migrant warblers love fresh water in which to bathe. The garden pond was just the job for this newly-arrived Chiffchaff.

Chiffchaff bathtime

Arguably the most impressive migrant of them all also made landfall at Forvie this week. A movement caught my eye along the estuary footpath; was that a cheeky flash of white? Yes indeed it was: here was the year’s first Wheatear. Always a pleasure to catch up with!

First Wheatear of the year – welcome back!

The aforementioned flash of white is actually what gives the bird its name. Nothing to do with ears of wheat – after all, this species is an insectivore, not a seed-eater – instead, the name Wheatear is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘white arse’. Sure enough, if you ever see a Wheatear flying away from you (and this is usually the first view you’ll get of one, right enough), you can’t help but notice a bold white rump. Cheeky!

As for being arguably the most impressive migrant of all, consider this. Wheatears spend the winter in Africa. In spring, they move northwards into Europe. A proportion of them span the whole continent, cross the Channel or the North Sea, and end up in the UK. A proportion of these continue onwards over the Atlantic to Iceland. Others carry on further still to Greenland. And some go one step further and press onwards into Arctic Canada. There they raise their family, and in the autumn, they turn around and do it all again in reverse. Admittedly, this isn’t as high a mileage as our Arctic Terns, which travel all the way to the Antarctic Ocean in the winter. But the Wheatear isn’t much bigger than a Robin. This is somewhat mind-blowing to say the least. I give you the Wheatear then: unassuming but awesome.

A cheeky chappie

Our Wheatear had a fellow traveller for company: a Black Redstart. These are scarce visitors to Forvie, averaging just a couple of records a year, so sightings of them are always enjoyable. Like the Wheatear, they are named for their notable rear end – ‘start’ being an archaic word for tail, and the tail in question being a fiery orange-red (best seen in flight, and not easy to see on a perched bird as in the photo below). This week’s bird was a female; males are rather more showy, with blue-black upperparts and big white flashes in the wings, contrasting with that gorgeous ‘tango tail’. Nevertheless, there’s no day that can’t be improved by an encounter with a Black Redstart.

Black Redstart

On the heath, the keen eye may pick out further signs of the acceleration of spring. Look almost under your feet and you might spot the tiny, silky-soft catkins of Creeping Willow. This, the smallest of all our tree species, is so low-growing that most folk probably don’t even recognise it as a tree. But look closely and the catkins are just like those you find on ‘normal’ full-size willows – only in miniature.

Creeping Willow catkins
An idea of scale!

Yet another first for the year was this Devil’s Coach-horse Beetle larva. We often see the adult beetles – powerful predators in the invertebrate world – patrolling the footpaths in summer. A sign that the Reserve’s insect fauna is beginning to stir into life.

Devil’s Coach-horse larva
The adult beetle in summer – what a beast!

Lastly, when the temperature gets a bit higher and the sun peeps through the clouds, it actually starts to smell like spring. While Gorse blooms throughout the year to some extent, it reaches its flowering zenith in spring and early summer. If you’ve never taken time to drink up the intense, heady, coconutty fragrance of Gorse flowers, then you’re missing out. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The path down the estuary side smells utterly heavenly on a fine day.

Flowering Gorse by the estuary
Gorse flowers – mmmmmmmmmmm…

If only there was some way of incorporating smells into the blog, the same as we do with photos and occasional videos. With just a click, you too could be soaking up the scent of Gorse flowers on a warm spring day.

That said, I don’t think you’d thank me for bringing you the smell of the ternery. Or the seals. OK, maybe we’ll shelve that idea for now.

Track and trace

The southern end of Forvie, with its dunes, broad sandy beach and wide open areas of bare sand, is a great place to indulge in a bit of tracking. This, the most basic form of environmental detective work, can be both entertaining and eye-opening. As we’ve said before in previous blog posts, a proportion of Forvie’s wildlife is cryptic and not easily seen, yet we can still see its signs – most of our mammals being cases in point. Many people simply can’t believe what’s out there – but the signs are there for the careful observer.

As well as being a bit of fun for the casual visitor to the Reserve, there’s a deadly serious side to tracking too for the Reserve staff. For the next four months, we will put a vast amount of effort – quite literally blood, sweat and tears (and occasional industrial language) – into protecting our colony of breeding terns, gulls and Eiders down near Forvie’s southernmost tip. We’re chiefly trying to protect them from predators, and tracking is a key tool in our efforts to understand what’s happening at the colony while our backs are turned.

The ternery, where tracking is a key management tool

Here, then, is a quick ‘tracker’s guide’ to a small proportion of Forvie’s wildlife.

Birds

Birds are generally more easily observable than mammals, so there’s less of a need for us to track them. Nevertheless, they do indeed leave track and signs, and some are relatively easy to recognise. The following is a small selection from the immediate surroundings of the ternery.

These footprints were clearly left by webbed feet. The wide spacing of the prints indicates that this bird walks with a quick and easy gait, rather than slow and ponderous like a duck or a Cormorant, for instance. This, combined with the small size of the footprints (though it’s not obvious in the photo) identify these tracks as belonging to a Black-headed Gull – which is hardly surprising given that upwards of 2,000 of them are present at the nearby colony.

On to the next one then…

These bird tracks are very different from the previous ones. The feet are clearly not webbed, and show a long hind toe as well as the three forward-facing ones. This structure immediately rules out waterbirds such as waders, gulls and ducks. The long hind toe shows that this is a passerine (a perching bird), and although the size is difficult to judge from the photo, it’s quite large. Also notable are the lines left by the bird’s claws as it ‘drags its feet’ while walking. This all adds up to quite a distinctive set of tracks – which were left by a Carrion Crow.

Next…

Here we have another passerine, with the same basic foot structure as our Carrion Crow. But these tracks are tiny, just a fraction of the size of the crow tracks, and as such they leave a less deep impression in the sand. There are many species of small passerines at Forvie – larks, pipits, buntings, finches, thrushes and so on – so how do we sort this one out? Let’s look nearby for other clues.

Here’s a nice sheltered spot where our small passerine has been enjoying something to eat. As well as more footprints, we can see a stripped seed-head of Marram Grass, and lots of empty seed husks. So we’re looking at a seed-eater, which immediately narrows down the field. In the dunes of South Forvie, the regular seed-eaters are finches such as Linnet and Twite, and buntings like Reed and Snow Buntings. These footprints are too large for the first three species, and the place where these photos were taken is a regular Snow Bunting hang-out – so it’s likely that these tracks were indeed left by a Snow Bunting.

Mammals

This is where the serious tracking work gets done. Most mammals are nocturnal, and most Reserve staff aren’t, so tracking is often our only way of knowing what mammals are present. We’ll start with a nice easy one.

This single print is a clear V-shape – a hoof rather than a paw. In addition, we can see two sharp marks at the top of the footprint (actually the back – this animal was walking or running downwards, as we view it on the screen). These two marks are left by the dew claws at the ‘heel’ of the foot, and the foot in question belongs to a Roe Deer. Any similar hoof tracks found on the Reserve – provided they weren’t left by an escaped sheep – will always be Roe Deer, as it’s the only hooved mammal to occur here.

A bit trickier now…

This next set of tracks is one with which we’re very familiar, and needfully so, for it’s a potential predator of our breeding terns. These neat paw prints, with two adjacent sharp claw-marks at the very front, were left by a Fox. Fox tracks are notable for being left in very straight lines, with the fore and hind paws landing almost in line astern. Foxes are very economical in the way they move around, and their tracks reflect their purposeful disposition.

Compare and contrast with the next photo…

These tracks superficially resemble those of the Fox. However, these are broader, less neat, and much more random in their placement. Nevertheless, their shape hints at some sort of family resemblance, which makes sense when you know these footprints were left by a domestic dog. In contrast to those of the Fox, dog tracks are much more ‘splashy’ and less direct, tending to weave around randomly rather than keeping to a straight line like the Fox. Think about it – this is because a domestic dog, unlike a Fox, doesn’t have to worry about conserving energy, or where its next meal is coming from. So a dog can afford to burn up energy that a Fox cannot – and this is reflected in their modes of getting around, and hence the tracks that they leave.

Next one…

At first glance these tracks could pass for those of a dog. But they’re more compact and ‘squarer’, and crucially they show five claw-marks along the leading edge – not the four that you’d expect for a dog or a Fox. If we zoomed out a little, you’d see the tracks are left in a broadly straight line, and are close together – hinting at short legs! This is another important set of tracks for us to recognise, as they were left by another potential predator – a Badger.

Here’s another tricky one…

A close relative of the Badger this time: this animal’s footprints (at least those of the hind paws – the upper two in the photo) also show five toes. The gait also gives us a clue, with the arrangement of the footprints (right hind paw almost touching left forepaw) indicating a ‘lolloping’ sort of action, rather than a smooth walk like a Fox. If these tracks had been left in really soft mud, rather than sand, they’d also show webs between the toes, and these would further confirm the identification as the tracks of an Otter.

A couple of odd ones to finish…

This peculiar set of tracks almost looks like it’s been left by something mechanical rather than natural – perhaps some sort of tracked machine or snowmobile. The answer, though, is much more straightforward. Two rows of deep claw marks, either side of a trench where this mammal has dragged its belly through the sand, indicate that these tracks were left by a seal. Forvie’s two species of seals move rather differently on land, with Harbour Seals squidging along like giant caterpillars, while Greys tend to drag themselves around with their fore-flippers instead. Grey Seal it is then!

And finally…

This is a surprisingly important set of tracks to recognise. During the long summer season at the ternery, we get very familiar with the footprints of our fellow staff and volunteers who help to look after the colony. Crucially, this allows us to identify any footprints of people who shouldn’t be at the ternery (the area being closed to the public, of course, between from April to August inclusive). That way we can be vigilant to incidents of disturbance, egg theft or any other issues. However, the above footprint is unequivocally that of a NatureScot warden!

And yes, it is possible to identify each member of the team individually by their tracks (for example, Patrick wears size 19 boots; Daryl trips over all the guy ropes, etc). But that would be another article altogether.

A Time for New Life

‘April is the cruellest month’… wrote Eliot, and this year you could be forgiven for agreeing. March has roared out like a lion, with freezing temperatures, snow showers and biting winds, that have left new lambs shivering, hunch-backed, in the lee of their mothers. It’s not great news for the wildlife either, and we are hoping it warms up before many more of the birds are on eggs.

Snowstorm at Waterside
Forvie Moor the same morning

Now we’re into April, the breeding season is in full swing and we are expecting the first gull eggs any day now. Then, three weeks after that, the first chicks…

Freshly-hatched gull chicks

It’s not just the gulls that are breeding. Our Sandwich Tern numbers have risen from two last week to in the thirties this week, and will – hopefully – eventually peak at around 1,000 pairs. The Ringed Plovers are also setting up territories, and their pleasingly musical calls accompany us around all our fence checks. We are hoping they breed successfully, if only because their chicks are utterly gorgeous and zoom around like little clockwork toys.

Ringed Plovers

Many of the ducks will be on eggs by now, too. They are often early breeders and by mid- April we sometimes see Mallard chicks following their mum across the lochs, little fluffy vulnerable balls of life.

Mallard ducklings

And the Skylarks are nesting as well. They are so obvious when they sing: a constant trill coming out of a clear blue sky, the sound of Forvie Moor, as they fill the world with their song. But their nests are incredibly well hidden; in all my years here I’ve never found one. The parent birds are very discreet: they land far from their nest, then creep on foot through the grass to the nest, so as not to disclose its location.

Skylark

The thing all these bird have in common, along with all the rest of the terns, the Willow Warblers, the Meadow Pipits, and the various wading birds and ducks, is that they all nest on the ground. This makes them very vulnerable to predators and disturbance, and nowadays, a huge proportion of disturbance comes from people and their dogs. This is why, at this time of year, we ask people to keep their dogs on a lead or at heel on the Reserve. It’s really important that they do, as dogs ranging off paths can scare parent birds off nests and allow predators to take the eggs and chicks, or chill to set in. As more and more people come into the countryside, the space for wildlife has become increasingly squeezed, and oases such as nature reserves are more important than ever. So we really need everyone to help by keeping dogs under control.

Willow warbler
Hackley Bay beach – a safe place for the dog to have a run about

We also need to make space for nature. No matter how well-behaved people are, sometimes their mere presence is dangerous to wildlife. It’s sad but true fact that people and wildlife frequently don’t mix – we are perceived by animals and birds as a predator, and therefore animals and birds see a place populated by people as an unsafe place to be. This is why the southern end of the Reserve is closed off until August, to give the internationally-important tern colony a chance to settle and breed in peace.

Barrier fence looking towards ternery
The beach barrier fence now complete

The tern colony here has been a real success story; one of the few in an increasingly wildlife-impoverished world. We think we now have the largest mainland ternery in Scotland, with over 1,000 pairs of Sandwich tern, over 1,100 pairs of ‘commics’ (Common and Arctic Tern; often lumped together due to the nests being indistinguishable from one another) and up to 30 pairs of Little Terns. Never mind the accompanying 2,000 pairs of Black-headed Gulls, the 100 Eider nests, and the smaller numbers of Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and other odds and sods. It’s a busy place to say the least!

Sandwich Tern and chick – photo (c) Rach Cartwright

Little terns are one of Britain’s rarest breeding seabirds and there are only around 300 pairs in Scotland – that’s 100 fewer than Golden Eagle. They are massively sensitive to disturbance and, being little, are on everything’s menu, from Oystercatchers (they are so-and-sos for taking eggs) to gulls to Kestrels. When your chicks aren’t much bigger than a ping-pong ball, they’re an easy swallow for any predator, and also chill really quickly in damp weather. Therefore, any year they breed successfully here is an extra-good year, and it’s been great to see the wider colony go from strength to strength over the years.

A tiny Little Tern chick

The lack of disturbance here in the breeding season is the key factor for the birds. In fact it’s hard to overstate how much we appreciate those who do respect the signs, avoid the sensitive areas, keep their dogs on leads and help make space for nature on the Reserve. It’s no exaggeration to say that you’re helping to save lives. Thank you!

Ups and Downs – Forvie NNR

It’s been a bit of a mixed week, with some significant ups and one fairly major down. So let’s start with the bad news first and get it out of the way. We suspect that avian influenza – bird flu- has arrived on the Ythan. It was actually fairly inevitable, with local outbreaks already recorded and lots of migrating birds moving north. Monday morning saw one dead and several unwell-looking geese on the estuary near the roost site on the Tarty mudflats. Like human ‘flu, the effect on birds varies hugely. Some are very susceptible to it and the Svalbard barnacle goose population has been hammered, with a mortality rate of 30 – 40% – that’s up to 40% of all the barnacle geese in the world have died this winter.  It doesn’t seem to affect the grey geese – like the local pink-feet – quite so badly and many will actually survive it, if a predator doesn’t get them while they’re weak. The risk of transmission to humans is very low but it’s advisable to not touch any dead birds and report wildfowl deaths to DEFRA.

Pink footed goose

Aside from this, it’s actually been a lovely week. The wind has dropped and it’s the calmest week I think we’ve had since about last October! The lack of wind allowed a group from NESKY out to litter pick on the upper estuary and it is now a much cleaner place than it was last week. Thanks to all involved – you could get to bits of the estuary we couldn’t and it’s great that all that litter and plastic is now gone. It definitely help counteract the ‘down’ of the bird flu. 

NESKY
Rubbish from litter pick

It has really felt like spring, with some lovely misty, dewy mornings, followed by warm, bright days. It’s lovely to see the celandines, all shut up in the morning, then all yellow and sunny by lunchtime.

Closed celandine

We’ve also seen several ruby tiger moth caterpillars on their travels. You most often spot them crossing a path, in a determined, hairy- caterpillar sort of way. They are likely looking for somewhere quiet to pupate so they can emerge as moths and get on with the serious business of breeding and producing more hairy caterpillars.

ruby tiger caterpillar

In fact, lots of things are thinking about breeding just now. It very much looks like the swans on the Sand Loch will try to nest in the marsh quite close to the track. It’s wet enough to keep most people out but not dogs, and we’d like to remind people to keep their dog on a lead or at heel during the bird breeding season. This swan is a big, obvious example of a bird that nests on the ground but there are lots of others, like skylark, meadow pipit and willow warbler too, that you might never notice – but they are there and we really need people’s help to look after them by keeping dogs under control. You’ve no idea how much we, the reserve staff, really do appreciate when folk help us by simply keeping their dogs close to, on a path, and giving the wildlife space to breed and feed undisturbed.

Swan on nest at Sand Loch

While the swan on the nest is a serene-looking example of breeding, the oystercatchers are anything but! Their ‘ker-pleep’ call is one of the sounds of spring and summer on the estuary. When two pairs have a disagreement about something, be it food, mates, territory, ownership of a single mussel, even, they will display to one another to sort out who is the dominant pair. This tends to involve the pairs walking side by side, heads down, pleeping furiously at one another. These displays are known as ‘piping ceremonies’ ( I have a mental picture of them in full Highland dress now…) and, like the bagpipes, people either love or hate oystercatchers. To some people, they are an evocative sound of the sea or their childhood. To others, they’re the damn nuisance noisy black-and-white things!

Oysercatchers displaying

Oystercatchers displaying

Meanwhile, other birds are heading north. The sanderling we see chasing – and being chased by- the waves will be heading north to Arctic breeding grounds very soon. A reminder that Forvie is just part of an international nature network used by wildlife from all over the Northern Hemisphere.

Sanderling roost

Sanderling

This smart male common scotor dropped briefly onto Sand Loch. He, too, is likely to be on his way north to breed, perhaps to Caithness (where common scoter are one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds) or perhaps even further north, to the Arctic tundra.

Common scoter

Then, on Thursday, we had another major ‘up’ of the week! The terns are back! Well, admittedly it’s only two, with the first Sandwich terns seen on the 23rd, but it’s hopefully the start of a successful breeding season. There are already around 800 to 1000 black-headed gulls on the colony and we might -maybe- even see our first gull eggs by the end of next week.

Sandwich tern (C) Ron MacDonald

We’ve also had some cracking sunsets to delight the senses. A coastal haze has meant that we’ve a had a few ‘fiery ball’ sunsets, where a light mist has blocked the glare and meant you can look directly at the sun. It looks like a huge red-orange ball in the sky as it drops over the dunes into the west. We’ll leave you this week with a picture of one of these sunsets – but they’re much better enjoyed in real life!

Sunset
Fiery ball sunset

Climate Week North-East special post!

We are delighted to offer you an extra blog post this week, courtesy of one of our Young Employees:

I am Renee Soszka and I am doing a construction contracting operation apprenticeship within NatureScot’s Property Team. Today I am dedicating this blog to North-East Scotland’s Climate Week and our recent works to improve sustainability at our office at Forvie National Nature Reserve (NNR).

Renee Soszka, NatureScot modern apprentice (Property Team)

Forvie NNR is located on the coast, north of Aberdeen. The Forvie office at Collieston often experiences strong biting winds, which made it an ideal location to install a 5kW wind turbine in 2011, but which also leave the building exposed to draughts and heat loss.  A Ground Source Heat Pump, deep loft insulation, LED lighting and secondary glazing have also been installed, but could more be done?  As Forvie is a member of the Green Tourism Business Scheme, monitoring energy use and constantly thinking of ways to improve sustainable use of the building has long been a part of managing Forvie.

The wind turbine supplements mains power at the Forvie Centre

Despite all the wind energy being generated, mains electricity use has remained higher than we would like, while staff working in the office in the depths of winter found it to be uncomfortably cool!  Heat loss was felt to be more noticeable on the windy days, especially when the breeze was blowing straight towards the office from the sea.  The concrete floor of the office sapped heat from occupants’ feet while they sat at the desks.

Energy use at Forvie 2017 to present

We record energy use every month at NatureScot offices so it was time to see what the numbers could tell us.  The graph above shows that the amount (kWh) of mains electricity used by the Forvie Centre has increased since 2018.  This is despite local efforts to cut down and the units generated by the wind turbine.  The increase is partly explained by Forvie’s gradual conversion to electric vehicles and installing a charge point that is used by visitors to the reserve.  However, we need to do much more to save carbon if the building is going to continue to use more mains electricity each year.

Electric vehicles are becoming a common sight in the Forvie car park

NatureScot has a net-zero statement, which includes that we want to achieve a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere by our daily work and those taken out by the year 2035.  Building a net zero estate strategy is one contribution, together with things like prioritising public transport and active travel for work activities, improve our spending on sustainable options and contributing to a circular economy, eliminating single use plastic at work and helping staff to cut commuting time altogether by working at home or near-by places.

Advice for the Forvie Centre was sought from local architect Stephen Brown and by national contract with Renewable Energy Consultants Ltd and both offered recommendations to reduce heat loss from the building.

Cavity wall insulation and external cladding were not options, so we started to look at how to insulate the office walls and floors from the inside.

At first, it was thought that insulating inside the building would mean losing floor space as the walls became thicker, but after taking back the plasterboard it was good news that there was enough space to put insulation behind.

The chosen material for the project is called Steico Flex 036. It is made of compressed natural wood fibres, it’s ecological and environmentally friendly as it can be recycled further.

Adding insulation to the internal office walls
Wood fibre insulation

The manufacturers state that ‘unlike conventional insulation material, STEICO wood fibre insulation boards have a negative Global Warming Potential. Thanks to carbon sequestration, they store more CO2 than the amount used for their production.’

Other improvements were to lay new carpets with thick underlay and to replace the windows and doors with modern, well-fitting upgrades.

Thanks to the dedication of the builders, KMS Construction, the project was completed ahead of schedule and the benefits are already being felt!

Now the windows that face towards the North Sea are weatherproof and the letter box no longer flaps on windy days!

The office still benefits from the warmth of the sun as it comes in through the large front windows, but on wilder days has been transformed into a cosy, comfortable, modern workspace.

We will continue to closely watch energy use at Forvie and at some point, solar panels will be considered for the building too.   Net-zero is a couple of steps closer already!

Spring: loaded.

It’s probably fair to say that for most people, spring is the most eagerly awaited season of the year. Behind us, we hope, are the cold, dark days of winter – and with a bit of luck, the relentless barrage of high winds to boot. Ahead lie the long, bright, hazy days of summer, full of adventure and opportunity. And best of all, the natural world is springing into life around us too. As we find ourselves in mid-March, with the first few signs of seasonal change already in evidence, there’s much to look forward to on the Reserve and beyond in the coming weeks.

A spring sunrise – getting earlier!

While I’m sure everyone appreciates the warmer days, milder nights and increased hours of daylight, anyone with a connection with nature will be looking forward to other aspects of the spring too. Everybody, from the professional field biologist to the enthusiastic amateur naturalist, will have their own particular favourites. While I can’t speak for everyone, here’s a quick run-through of spring’s greatest hits, as far as I’m concerned at least.

Green scene

Forvie in winter is a wild, bleak and salt-scorched landscape. The vista of bleached grass and parched brown heather appears lifeless and monochrome, relieved only by the colours of the evergreen mosses and lichens. It’s beautiful – but in a desolate sort of way. So to see this scene transformed by the spring’s new green growth seems almost incredulous. But out of the bleakest winter comes forth new life – a timely reminder that in dark times, there’s always hope.

Fresh willow catkins

Further down the line lies the wildflower season, when the Reserve will be transformed once again by the purple of the heathers and the yellows, blues, whites and pinks of the flowering plants. I can almost smell the sweet scent of Bird’s-foot Trefoil on the breeze as I type this. A feast for the senses awaits.

Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Wild Pansies in the dune slacks

Insect awakening

I always feel a bit deprived in the winter months when all our insects are conspicuously absent. Usually, the only invertebrates with which I have contact are those who inadvertently hitch a ride into the house on the firewood – perhaps a scuttling spider, a fluttering moth or even a drowsy queen wasp stumbling drunkenly across the carpet, having been rudely awakened from her slumbers by the warmth of the house and the bumpy ride in the log-basket.

A bumblebee in early spring

However, now our insects are waking up of their own volition. Among the first to emerge are bumblebees, though at the time of writing I’m yet to see my first. Even more eagerly anticipated are the first butterflies. The species that’s usually quickest out of the blocks is the Small Tortoiseshell; these overwinter as adults in cool dark places (sheds and outbuildings being especially popular with them), so they can ‘hit the ground running’ as soon as temperatures rise in the spring.

Small Tortoiseshell

A bit later on, the first newly-hatched butterflies of the year will appear, the first at Forvie usually being the Green-veined White. And after that, the sky’s the limit: the variety and abundance of butterflies will increase to its peak in late summer. It all starts here!

Green-veined White

Frog chorus

Amphibians are also sadly lacking in the winter months. They’re still with us of course, but sensibly they bed down in a ditch, grass tussock or sheltered spot under a stone or log, and wait out the winter. Now, of course, they’re on the move again, surging forth into the world on their webbed feet.

It’s the Toad!

It’s always a special moment to find the first Common Toad out and about on the footpaths, or to discover the first batch of frogspawn in a local pond or ditch. And best of all, calm spring evenings around our wetlands provide the opportunity to jam in on the amphibians’ chorus – both Common Frogs and Common Toads are remarkably vocal during the courtship season, and the gentle snoring sound that issues from their favoured lochs and pools always raises a smile. That’s if the wind drops sufficiently for you to be able to hear them!

Frogs, doing what frogs do

Birders’ bonanza

Being a hard-bitten bird brain, it’s fairly obvious that the thing I most look forward to in spring is the excitement of the avian world. Among its many pleasures, the two that I value most of all are birdsong and migration.

Birdsong quite simply lifts the spirits. What’s more, you don’t have to be a bird nerd like me to appreciate and enjoy it. It really doesn’t matter if you can’t tell your Blackcap from your Garden Warbler; birdsong is a thing of beauty that’s free for us all to partake in. You really can’t say fairer than that. Here at Forvie, the chorus currently includes Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Wren, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and of course Skylark, with many more yet to come.

Reed Bunting

Migration brings a different kind of excitement. We’re currently at the start of a great northward movement of birds, flooding into the thawing northlands for the summer. This means several things for us here in the north-east. Firstly, the departure of our winter visitors, most notably the Pink-footed Geese which are so much a part of the landscape here. They’ve got places to go – namely Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen for the summer.

They’re off!

Secondly, the return of old friends who have been absent since last autumn. The more obvious examples are our neighbourly House Martins and Swallows, traditionally the harbingers of summer, and the numerous varieties of seabirds that throng our coast – not least our four species of tern down at South Forvie. Others are less obvious – the various warblers, for instance – but their songs add to the rich tapestry of Forvie’s summer soundscape.

The Swallow of summer

Thirdly, there’s always an outside chance that the spring migration might produce a ‘yahoo’ or two – something rare or exotic, wandering from some far-flung place to end up, by happy accident, right here at Forvie. Might this be a spring that produces a glittering male Bluethroat, a sharp and suave Red-backed Shrike, or something even more outlandish? The wonderful thing is that this is impossible to predict – and this is one of the things that makes nature perennially fascinating.

Red-backed Shrike – phwoooaaarrrrr!
Bluethroat – double phwoooaaaaarrrr!

I give you the spring then: laid out ahead of us and loaded with promise. What a time to be out and about in nature. Fill your boots!