The great exodus

Last week saw a major landmark in Forvie’s year, when the last of the terns departed their breeding colony in the south of the Reserve. For us, this means two things. Firstly, it’ll be all-hands-on-deck over the next wee while, to get the fencing dismantled and packed up before South Forvie re-opens to the public in mid-August. And secondly, it marks the start of autumn in the bird world: the breeding season is over, and the migration season is upon us. While some people may lament the passing of high summer, we’re now entering into a dynamic, exciting and most enjoyable period for the wildlife enthusiast.

The now-deserted ternery
One of the last Arctic Tern fledglings to depart

Out on the estuary, great gatherings of terns assemble on the sand-bars, perhaps arguing over where to find the best fishing grounds, or the most expedient route to Antarctica, where some of them will be headed when they leave our shores. Alongside them are the Black-headed Gulls that until recently thronged our colony, the adults looking careworn with half-moulted flight-feathers and faded brown hoods, and the juveniles wheezing and whistling in the hope of a free meal. The Eiders continue to shepherd their ducklings, though these are now almost the size of their parents, and quite safe from predatory gulls and crows. For once, we can report that they’ve enjoyed a productive season, with nearly 170 ducklings successfully reared.

Eider ducklings almost fully grown

All in all, it’s a much more peaceful scene now: gone is the urgency and stress of the breeding season, replaced instead by the laid-back days of plenty that make up the northern hemisphere autumn. The entire Reserve has a different feel to it. By some sort of osmosis, this invariably affects my outlook too – I, like the birds, often begin to feel demob-happy at this time of the year.

The autumn bird migration is a much more leisurely affair than in the spring. There’s no hurry to get to the breeding grounds to stake out the best territory or find a mate. Instead, there’s time to wander in search of the best feeding grounds, and to rest and recover from the hurly-burly of the nesting season. On the estuary, many species of waders are doing just that, and it’s a great time to go out wader-spotting. Many of the common species – Dunlin, Knot, Golden Plover etc – are still resplendent in their breeding plumage, while it’s also a great time to find something more unusual among them.

A mixed bag of waders – Dunlin, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Redshank
Ringed Plovers
Dunlin – a common passage migrant at Forvie
Wood Sandpiper – a more unusual visitor (plus a photo-bombing Lapwing)

Away from the birds, the insect world is full of interest just now. Some of Forvie’s butterflies have been more approachable than usual over the last few days, the weather having been overcast and rather cool. On days like these, butterflies need to bask in order to raise their body temperature and get their flight muscles working. Consequently they’ve been a lot easier to photograph than they were during the recent heatwave, when you couldn’t get near them with the camera!

Grayling basking on the estuary footpath
Meadow Brown doing likewise on the pickup truck!
Are we sitting comfortably?
Dark Green Fritillary

Moths are a group of insects to which many people pay little attention – chiefly because they’re mostly nocturnal, of course – but there’s also perhaps a common misconception that they’re all just brown things that bumble around the lightbulb if you leave your windows open at night. This is, of course, monumentally unfair, and there are some truly stunning species out there – and some of them surprisingly common too. Take for example the following two species, both found roosting by day on the Reserve.

Large Yellow Underwing – it’s large, with a yellow underwing. Very sensible
Garden Tiger – dull and brown it ain’t

Excitingly, we’ve just taken delivery of some spares for the Forvie moth trap – a device that uses ultraviolet light to attract and capture moths overnight, trapping them in a keeping-box (alive and well, of course) for inspection and release the next morning. This hopefully means we’ll be able to acquaint ourselves with more of Forvie’s moths over the next wee while, once the trap is repaired and up and running. However, you don’t need any specialist equipment to observe and learn about moths, and we had an impromptu ‘mothing’ session at home recently, employing nothing more than a lightbulb and an old bedsheet out on the lawn. It might generate some funny looks from the neighbours, but it’s well worth it in my opinion.

A home-brew ‘mothing’ setup
Burnished Brass – a gorgeous metallic sheen that’s tough to capture on camera

Of course, not all moths are out and about in their adult form just now, with some species currently at the caterpillar stage. One such is the Emperor Moth, a spectacular beast at all stages of its life cycle. When full-sized, its caterpillars are as long and thick as your finger, dressed in a vibrant green with black-and-white dots. To me they resemble a motorised gherkin, slowly chugging their way along the footpaths. The adult moth is even more impressive, though sadly I’ve never yet been able to photograph one. You’ll just have to look it up I’m afraid!

Emperor Moth caterpillar

As the summer begins to age and fray round the edges, don’t think for a moment that nature is done for the year. Yes, an exodus of our breeding birds is underway, and the early generations of wildflowers have been and gone. But now we find ourselves entering into a season of bounty, another new beginning in the ever-changing natural world. Exciting times for the naturalist indeed.

Now to repair that moth trap…

Flowers and flat-pack seabirds

So July rumbles steadily onwards, and with it the wildflower season at Forvie shifts another gear. Recently we mentioned a changing of the guard among the plants in flower, with the early-summer specialities having been superseded by the later species, lending variety and interest to our daily rounds. Even for a bird-brained ornithologist-type like myself, it’s hard to walk around Forvie at the moment without one’s eyes being glued to the ground, absorbed in the colourful world of plants. It’s a nice problem to have.

Ragged Robins – found in wet, marshy areas
Self-heal – growing along the path sides
Self-heal up close

Among the latecomers to the wildflower jamboree are orchids. While the familiar and locally-abundant Northern Marsh Orchids have all finished flowering now, the careful observer may be lucky enough to find one of their scarcer cousins in flower. These comprise the delicate, pinkish-white blooms of the Heath Spotted Orchid – found along the Heath Trail, appropriately enough – and the cryptic, odd-looking spikes of Frog Orchid, which occur scarcely along the estuary and coastal paths. Neither is as big or showy as the Northern Marsh, but both are worth seeking out – carefully of course, lest they should be trodden on by mistake.

Heath Spotted Orchid – note the spotted leaf, bottom right of photo
Frog Orchid – so well camouflaged, even the camera didn’t know it was there

This year has seen a particularly good showing of Scottish Bluebells, with some substantial clumps growing alongside the footpaths. Among the ‘normal’ pale purplish-blue flowers, it’s occasionally possible to find a rare white variety – same species, same shape, same size, but just lacking in the usual blue pigment – and that’s exactly what happened on Friday, when I stumbled across a patch of ‘white Bluebells’ along the coastal path. It always feels like a lucky day when you unexpectedly find something unusual and beautiful like this.

A boorach of bog-standard blue Bluebells…
And some weird & wonderful white ones.
Close up – resembling a fine china ornament

It was also mentioned in our previous instalment that the ‘heather season’ is nearly upon us. Things have certainly moved on in that regard this week, with both Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heath in full bloom, and the first of the Ling beginning to flower. It is the latter species that lends a shimmering purple splendour to Forvie Moor for a short, glorious period in late summer, and we’ve got that to look forward to in the near future.

Bell Heather – found on dry ground
Bell Heather flowers – a distinctive vibrant purple
Cross-leaved Heath – found in the wetter areas
Cross-leaved Heath flowers – a soft candyfloss-pink
Ling, or Common Heather
Ling flowers – smaller and frillier than Bell Heather or Cross-leaved Heath

OK, so that’s the flowers dealt with. So what’s all this about flat-pack seabirds then? Well, a walk along the coastal path on Friday morning revealed a strange white smear upon the cliff at Hackley Bay, almost as if somebody had dropped a large bag of flour or tin of white paint from a great height. I wasn’t the only visitor to have noticed and remarked upon it. But what had caused this odd landmark?

Odd white patch on cliff, dead-centre of photo

Closer inspection through the binoculars provided the answer: the spot comprised a mass of white feathers. It was as if a pillow had been detonated on the clifftop. But more likely this was a Kittiwake, reduced to component parts and spread out upon the sward like a flat-pack build-it-yourself seabird kit. Clearly, something or someone had enjoyed a Kittiwake breakfast at this spot within the last day or two.

Feathers!

Just to the north, wheeling around the Corbie Holes and calling noisily as it did so, was the suspect-in-chief: a Peregrine. These large and powerful falcons are frequent predators of cliff-nesting seabirds. Moreover, just around the corner was a substantial colony of Kittiwakes, including good numbers of recently-fledged young – each one plump, well-fed and not great at flying yet. Ideal Peregrine prey, right enough.

Peregrine, being mobbed by a Raven

So that white smear on the cliff actually represents the very top of the ‘trophic pyramid’, or food chain if you prefer: sunlight, to plant plankton, to animal plankton, to Sand-eel, to Kittiwake, and finally to Peregrine. And what’s left will eventually wash into the sea and start the cycle all over again. What a tale a pile of feathers can tell.

The grassland golden hour

Regular readers will perhaps have noted the absence of a blog post last week, with your author having taken a rare July week off to bask in the glorious haar. Having since returned to work – in blazing sunshine, predictably – it was striking how different the Reserve looked after such a short time away. For late July is grass season, and during my week’s absence, many of our most abundant grasses had exploded into flower.

Forvie’s grasslands in full flower

Hayfever sufferers will need no reminder that the grasses reach their peak in July. Along with the characteristic flush of colour they bring to the landscape, grass flowers also produce prodigious amounts of pollen, which is spread by the wind – resulting in itchy eyes and sneezy noses for many people. As a professional outdoorsperson, it’s a perennial cause of irritation and embarrassment that I too suffer from hayfever. There’s just no rhyme or reason to it!

One of our commonest grasses, and pollen-producer-in-chief, is Yorkshire Fog. It’s a very widespread species that occurs abundantly on roadsides, field edges, pastures and gardens, as well as natural grasslands such as we have at Forvie. It’s quite easy to recognise by its soft, fluffy stems – the latter half of its Latin name Holcus lanatus means ‘woolly’ – and by the purplish tinge to its flowers. When growing en-masse it can lend entire meadows a purple hue during its brief flowering period. It’s actually rather beautiful – if you can see it for your streaming eyes.

Yorkshire Fog
Yorkshire Fog flowerhead

Another very common grass is Cock’s-foot, and it’s another big pollen producer. Like the Yorkshire Fog, it is widespread and prolific, forming dense tussocks that can easily stop a mower or brushcutter – consequently it’s not especially popular with groundskeeping staff! Once again though, its flowers are quite attractive during their pollen-producing phase, with the stamens a delicate mauve colour (sniffle).

Cock’s-foot growing in the dunes
Delicate mauve-and-white stamens

On the more nutrient-poor grasslands of Forvie, one of the dominant grasses is Red Fescue. It too is in full flower just now, but it’s the stems rather than the flowers themselves that are responsible for the red hue to the landscape. Take a short walk from the Forvie Centre in the next couple of weeks, and you can see the Reserve in its ‘red period’ – to be followed next month by the ‘purple period’ when the heathers are in full flower. Each of these phases is brief, and there’s just a short window of opportunity to enjoy the show.

Red Fescue lending the landscape a pinkish-red hue

Among the flowering grasses, a new array of wildflowers have begun to emerge, while the early risers – Wild Pansies, Violets, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and the like – have begun to wind down and set seed. In fact you can now easily see where the last of these gets its common name – as well as its local name of ‘Craa’s taes’ (=Crow’s toes).

Bird’s-foot Trefoil seed pods – craa’s taes!

Newcomers to the wildflower party include Scottish Bluebells (or Harebells if you prefer), Wild Thyme, St John’s Wort, Tufted Vetch and various Hawkweeds, Eyebrights and Clovers, making for a cheery display among the grasses waving gently in the breeze.

Scottish Bluebell bejewelled with morning dew
Hawkweeds in the dune grassland
Wild Thyme, and a splash of Lady’s Bedstraw
St John’s Wort – please don’t ask me which species!
Tufted Vetch – glowing blue-purple like a gas flame

Forvie’s grasslands are home to a wide variety of species, from insects to mammals, which rely on the shelter, cover and feeding opportunities provided by the grasses. Butterflies are an obvious example. Suddenly, as if emerging from the grass flowerheads themselves, Meadow Brown butterflies are everywhere. Tan and ginger-coloured, with a false ‘eye’ on the underside of the forewing, they can sometimes be seen alongside the dark-chocolate-coloured Ringlet, whose name comes from the row of gold rings on the underwing. Both these species are grassland specialists, with the larvae feeding on grasses, though the adults can be found nectaring at various flowering plants such as thistles.

Meadow Brown
Ringlet

Finally, a noteworthy event is the emergence of the first Crowberry fruits of the year on the heath. We haven’t actually seen them for ourselves yet, but Forvie’s resident Woodpigeons evidently have. From now on, parking under the trees is a dangerous business as far as your paintwork is concerned. Evidently, our poor old pickup truck resented such treatment, and it promptly failed the following day with a flat battery. And I was always told that bird poop was lucky.

Crowberries, recycled into paint-stripper
It wasn’t me, honest guv…

So, pop some hayfever pills if needs be, and get out and enjoy the grassland golden hour while it lasts. Next stop is the heather season – and then the ‘A’ word is upon us. But I’m sure you don’t want to hear that just yet.

Drouthy days

“There’s nothing drier than a dry musician”, according to Scotland the What? folklore. That’s as maybe, but the current ground conditions on the Reserve must be a close second. What we’re experiencing just now at Forvie is nothing short of full-scale drought. I appreciate that in saying this, I will doubtless jinx the weather, and it will probably be chucking it down by the time you read this. And if it does, I shall remain unrepentant, because we desperately need it.

Parched footpath in South Forvie

Many of the footpaths through the Reserve are dust-dry and cracked, resembling the sort of cricket pitch that Geoffrey Boycott or Tony Greig used to poke at with their car keys during the Test match pre-amble. It’s a bad time for erosion, with crumbling surfaces combined with high footfall and occasional high winds. Wildfire is another constant concern in the backs of our minds. The vegetation is also having a tough time of it, with shallow-rooted plants in particular feeling the strain.

“Looks like a pretty hord and forst wicket, Mork”

Perhaps it’s these stress conditions that have caused an especially good showing of wild flowers this summer. Many plants are driven by environmental stress – such as drought – to produce flowers, fruits and seeds: to hurry up and reproduce before they themselves succumb to the conditions. Either way, it’s been a great time to appreciate all the colours, forms and textures of Forvie’s flowering plants.

A carpet of colour
Flowers in the desert
Bell Heather
Lady’s Bedstraw
Small Adder’s-tongue Ferns
Red Campion

It seems to be a particularly good season for Northern Marsh Orchids on the Reserve. Orchids are somewhat enigmatic in that they can be abundant in some years, yet hard to find in other years, even at the same location. For instance, when I was down at St Cyrus NNR last week, there was a notably poor showing of Northern Marsh Orchids compared to other years. Yet here at Forvie, they appear to be having a bumper season. The unpredictability of such things makes them all the more special; who knows when we’ll see another showing of orchids like this one?

Northern Marsh Orchids
Northern Marsh Orchid

On Friday morning I spent a frustrating period in the dunes of South Forvie attempting to photograph Common Blue butterflies. The upperwings of the male butterfly are a stunning clear sky blue, varying somewhat with the light – one moment purplish, the next azure, with now and then a momentary metallic glint in the sun. Such a bright blue is a relatively unusual colour in the natural world (think about it – in birds, for instance, just a handful of species on the British list have blue in their plumage, like the Bluethroat I use as my WordPress identity), and to my mind this makes the Common Blue extra alluring. But try as I might, I couldn’t find one obliging enough to perch with its wings open for the camera. So once again I had to make do with a photo of the butterfly’s underwings – which, to be fair, are still exceptionally beautiful.

Common Blue – c’mon mate, just open up!

Time spent on one’s hands and knees looking at wild flowers and insects is never wasted, and it was a delight to find the first Cinnabar moth caterpillars of the year. Having seen a good showing of the adult moths this summer, it’s good to know that they’re breeding here once again. Look out for their unmistakable black-and-orange caterpillars on Ragwort (or exceptionally on Colt’s-foot) any time from now right through into the autumn. That bold, striped livery is there for a reason – it indicates that, having assimilated toxins from the Ragwort into its tissues, the caterpillar is toxic – thereby warning off would-be predators.

Cinnabar caterpillar, replete with don’t-eat-me colour scheme

The effects of the drought are also being felt down at the ternery. In some ways, dry weather is a blessing – eggs and chicks don’t get wet and die from exposure, diseases are less easily spread, and mortality among chicks and fledglings is low. And it helpfully suppresses the relentless growth of nettles and willowherb. But it does cause problems too. Chief among these is that the effectiveness of the protective electric fence is very much reduced. Dry sand doesn’t conduct electricity, and consequently the earthing of the fence is very poor – so a potential predator doesn’t get much of an electric shock. And there’s very little we can do to improve the situation, except keep praying for rain (sorry folks).

A very dry fence line – with much-reduced growth of nettles!

Thankfully, despite the attentions of various predators, the Sandwich Terns and Black-headed Gulls have had an excellent season, with peak fledgling counts so far of 481 and 1,099 respectively – the latter is (I think) the first ever four-figure fledgling count for Black-headed Gull at Forvie. Despite the drought hindering access to invertebrate prey such as earthworms – a key part of the gulls’ diet – they’ve clearly not had trouble in providing for their young this year.

Sandwich Tern colony – parched dry, and rapidly emptying of birds

So now it’s over to the smaller species of terns, all of whom have chicks at various stages of development. By far the most abundant of these are our Arctic Terns, and we may see their young beginning to fledge in the next few days. There are currently plenty of well-grown young in evidence; at this stage they’re ‘leggers’ rather than ‘flyers’ – but that doesn’t stop some of them ‘escaping’ from the fenced enclosure. Of course, they’re much more vulnerable to predators outside the fence, so we try to shepherd them back into the enclosure if we can. But the most determined escapees have to be carefully scooped up and posted back through the fence to safety.

A well-grown Arctic Tern chick – note well-developed wing feathers
Safely reinstalled into the colony after going walkabout

So it won’t be long before the bird breeding season begins to wind down, with both adults and young departing to all corners of the world, and an eerie silence will descend on South Forvie once again. The year’s relentless march will continue – come drought or downpour.

Summer madness

We may now be past the longest day (phew), but the pace of life at Forvie hasn’t slackened off in the least. During high summer, each week seems to be packed with about a month’s-worth of goings-on, and everything happens so rapidly that it can be difficult to keep up. Go on leave for a couple of days, and upon your return it can be difficult to pick up the threads again. Such is the pace of change. Sure enough, this last week has been no exception.

The Sandwich Tern colony – white with birds, and brown with drought

Hot on the heels of our first fledged Black-headed Gulls, last week saw the first Sandwich Terns fledge from the Forvie ternery. Witnessing the first fledgling make its rather wobbly maiden flight is always a magic moment. Not only is it the culmination of a season of hard work – for us in protecting the colony from predators and monitoring the birds’ progress, and for the birds themselves in raising their chicks to the flying stage – but it’s also the start of something special as well. After leaving Forvie, this youngster may travel to South Africa for its first winter, learning its trade as an expert fisher en-route, and perhaps eventually returning to Forvie to raise chicks of its own. Indeed, it may do so for twenty or more years, accruing a vast mileage in the process, and seeing places and sights that I never will. What a life lies ahead!

Sandwich Tern fledgling – the start of an amazing journey

With the end of the Sandwich Tern breeding season rapidly approaching, many of the adult birds are beginning to lose their immaculate summer plumage. Some of them are now showing a scatter of white feathers through their hitherto-jet-black caps, a sure sign of the season wearing on. In winter, they will sport a white forehead and crown, with just a black ‘Franciscan monk’ hairdo around the back and sides. But now, in the early stages of their moult, they always give me the impression of hassled parents, balding and turning grey from the stress of raising their kids. This I always find amusing – but maybe it’s just me. Have a look at the photos and judge for yourself.

Sandwich Terns in various stages of hair loss…
This one’s clearly had a hard paper round.

Meanwhile in the insect world, everything is at full throttle just now. There has been a big emergence of Six-spot Burnet moths along the barrier fence in the past week, and they seem particularly drawn to the flowers of Northern Marsh Orchids. It’s possible that these gatherings are instigated by a female moth: when ready to mate, females release pheromones that attract potential male suitors in their droves. And looking at the numbers in this particular case, she must smell really nice.

Six-spot Burnets having a right old hooley

In other moth news, I was fortunate not to tread on a rather lovely Poplar Hawk-moth on my garden steps on Wednesday, as I was leaving the house to walk up to the Reserve. These moths rely on camouflage to keep them safe during the day, and this one was actually a very good colour match for the concrete steps (which in this case didn’t help its survival chances). Luckily though, my gaze fell upon it before my boot did, and I was able to relocate it to a safer roosting site. Despite their name, Poplar Hawk-moths are equally happy living on Willows, which grow plentifully on the Reserve and through the village, and consequently these big, spectacular moths are commoner than you’d think.

Poplar (Concrete?) Hawk-moth
You’re coming with me
That’s a better choice of roost site.

Butterflies too have been very much in evidence lately, with the year’s first Dark Green Fritillaries emerging into the world, and a profusion of Small Heaths and Common Blues skipping among the flowers in the dune slacks. So far we’ve only seen a single Painted Lady, and it remains to be seen whether 2021 will be a quiet year, or a big invasion year, for these phenomenal travellers. Watch this space – if a Painted Lady invasion does occur, it’s likely to be July or August before they reach our latitude in any numbers.

Dark Green Fritillary (the underwings are green, I promise)
Common Blue (the upperwings are blue, I promise)
Small Heath
Painted Lady

On Thursday I spent a rare day away from Forvie, paying a visit to our sister Reserve, St Cyrus NNR, where I was enlisted to assist with some botanical survey work. Much as I have to be torn away from my beloved local patch, it was a real treat to see somewhere so different, in the ecological sense. Despite being only fifty-odd miles south of Forvie, St Cyrus has a different soil chemistry and much gentler climate than our cold and windswept corner of Aberdeenshire. Consequently it supports a totally different set of plant life – and it feels like another world. What follows is a series of photos of some exotic plants – exotic at least for us ‘northerners’!

Clustered Bellflower
Wood Vetch
Nottingham Catchfly
Purple Milk-vetch

Finally, a bit of rain at the end of the week provided a much-needed contrast to the drought that we’ve been experiencing lately. It also brought about an emergence of slugs and snails – as well as those creatures that feed upon them, such as Common Toads, which have been keeping well hidden in the recent dry conditions. So it’s a case of eyes to the ground if you’re out and about after a fall of rain. That’s midsummer for you: there’s life everywhere – including under your feet.

It’s the Toad!

The summit of the year

This week’s title refers not to the high-profile talking-shop that’s been taking place down in Cornwall lately, but rather the fact that we’ve reached the top of the year – the longest day, the shortest night, the summer solstice. Peak time in every respect.

Everything we do, see and experience here at Forvie is bound up with the turning of the seasons, and consequently Reserve staff are probably more aware of such milestones in the year than most folk. In past times, when people made their living directly from the land, solstices and equinoxes were hugely significant events in the year, often lavishly celebrated. Nowadays of course, the connection between seasons and livelihoods has largely been lost – but not for those of us who work with nature on a daily basis. Yep, we’re feeling it still.

Alright me old sun

Down at the ternery, the midsummer ritual has been in full swing. Mid-June each year sees the complete census of the Arctic and Common Tern colonies, in order to establish how many pairs are nesting with us. This involves covering all of the suitable habitat on foot – extremely carefully – and marking and recording each nest. The count is timed to take place just as the first chicks are hatching, when (in theory) the number of nests containing eggs is at its highest. It generally takes a single observer about a day and a half, on-and-off, to complete the count, while ensuring disturbance to the birds is kept to a minimum.

Arctic Terns

This year’s census returned a total of 1,127 nests – not as many as the previous few seasons, but still a substantial and significant colony. At this stage, we don’t know how many of these nests are those of Common Terns and how many are Arctic, since the eggs and young of each species can look very similar to one another. We’ll sort this out later on – I promise I’ll explain how in a later blog post. But in most years, Arctic Terns outnumber Commons at Forvie by five or six to one.

Arctic Tern at the nest

Common Tern eggs can vary a bit in appearance, but the variation in Arctic Tern eggs is nothing short of staggering. The ground colour can be white, or stony, or tan, or tawny, or deep chocolate brown, or light blue, or even a pale green. Some are delicately speckled, some boldly daubed with black, and some completely unmarked, while others have a curious charred appearance rather like a burned-out lightbulb. The chicks are similarly variable. One nest may contain a set of perfectly-matched twins or triplets, yet the nest nextdoor might contain mismatched siblings so unalike that you’d think them different species. But eventually they’ll all mature into adults with exactly the same plumage. Barring a bit of variation in bill colour, you will hardly find an adult Arctic Tern that looks any different to its contemporaries. Isn’t nature brilliant?!

Baby Arctic Tern, c.2 days old

With the chicks beginning to hatch, the Arctic and Common Terns take up arms and throw themselves enthusiastically into the defence of their colony. They ruthlessly dive-bomb any intruders and potential predators – including six-foot blokes nearly 1,000 times their own body mass – striking out with their sharp bills and liberally splashing seafood-flavoured ‘whitewash’ all round the place. It’s one of the reasons the ternery is off-limits to the public during the nesting season – for the good of the people as well as the birds!

The welcoming committee

After a day and a half of such treatment, I was relieved to get the count finished and avoid any more verbal abuse, whitewashing and bashing about the head. Though I’m not sure my hi-viz vest or my poor old Aussie hat will ever fully recover.

Hi-viz – before…
…and after.
Oh dear.

The other high-summer task at the ternery is the ringing of a sample of the Sandwich Tern chicks, as part of a long-term study into life expectancy, migration routes and site fidelity. This work is undertaken by Grampian Ringing Group in partnership with NatureScot staff, and is carried out during fine evenings in mid-June. Like the nest census, it’s a noisy, smelly job, but it’s another key piece of the tern-monitoring jigsaw here at Forvie. The Sandwich Terns ringed this year may go on to teach us new knowledge about the species – and most importantly, how we can conserve them for the future.

Sandwich Terns – both adult and chick are ringed

A landmark event at the ternery recently has been the appearance of the first fledged Black-headed Gull chicks of the year. It’s always a massive relief to see the first one fledge each summer, as it means there won’t be a dreaded zero in the productivity column for the colony. But in reality, these will likely be the first of many hundreds, or indeed low thousands, to emerge from the colony in the coming weeks. It’s payback time for all the hard work put in – by the parent birds and Forvie staff and volunteers alike!

Growing up…
Nearly there…
Success!

With the young gulls beginning to fledge – and the first Sandwich Terns due to do so in the next few days as well – we will make regular attempts to count them before they disperse into the world, to give us an idea of how productive the colony has been. And by extension, how productive our efforts to protect them have been. Here at Forvie, wildlife is the currency on our balance sheet.

A productive year? We’ll see!

Getting away from the breeding birds for a while – mercifully – I was lucky enough to accompany Patrick and Mark around some of the less-visited parts of the Reserve last Tuesday, where we were surveying for some of Forvie’s botanical specialities. One such plant is the Small Adder’s-tongue Fern, and we were fortunate enough to not only relocate some known populations, but also to discover some new ones as well. During an intensely ‘birdy’ time of the year, it was most rewarding to look at the Reserve from a different angle for a change.

Small Adder’s-tongue Fern

So here’s wishing our readers all the very best for the 2021 summer solstice. I’m just wondering how long it’ll take before someone says “the nights are fair draain’ in…”

Best not think about that just yet!

High Season

Over the past few days, the uncertain and reluctant spring of 2021 has finally given way to summer, and the entire ‘feel’ of the Reserve has changed accordingly. Gone are the relentless northerly winds of April and May, the icy showers, the confusion and indecision among the wildlife preparing for a breeding season that never seemed to arrive. Now, high season is now upon us: a time of frantic activity for nature and for Reserve staff alike, set against a backdrop of almost continuous daylight.

Summer – at last

Suddenly, everything green is growing furiously. At the easternmost point of Sand Loch, the mire is now a forest of Horsetails. These are among the most ancient of all plants, growing in a form largely unchanged since dinosaurs roamed the planet, and are widely cited as ‘living fossils’. They form an almost impenetrable thicket of vegetation emerging from the shallow water, a habitat beloved of damselflies and marsh birds such as Water Rails, which are often heard but seldom seen beneath the invisibility-cloak of green.

Horsetails at Sand Loch Corner

Our flowering plants are also going ballistic just now. Certain areas of the dune heath are resplendent with colour: Bird’s-foot Trefoil, White Clover, Wild Pansy, Milkwort, Violets and many more besides. New to the party are Common Vetch, Lousewort, Tormentil and Northern Marsh Orchid, each adding their own colours to the mix. The wildflower season here is relatively brief, but this only adds to its appeal – a fleeting opportunity to see the Reserve in its party clothes, before the seasons march on once more.

If you could only smell this photo.
Common Vetch – like a miniature Sweet-pea
Lousewort – hemi-parasitic on grass roots
Tormentil
Northern Marsh Orchid

Down at the ternery, the birds’ breeding season is at its zenith. The Sandwich Terns and Black-headed Gulls are tending rapidly-growing young – we may potentially see gull fledglings this coming week – with the smaller species not too far behind.

Black-headed Gull chicks – at the cute-but-ugly stage

Reserve staff and volunteers are striving hard to monitor the birds’ progress, and to maintain the protective electric fence around the ternery. One frequent requirement is the removal of windblown debris from the fence, last week including yet another balloon (I know, one of my favourite moans at the moment). Imagine the chaos this would have caused, bouncing its way through the Arctic Tern colony, before becoming stuck in the fence!

Balloon stuck in electric fence (note finger over camera lens – plonker)

Sometimes it’s possible to see what’s been happening around the ternery fence during the hours of (relative) darkness by noting the tracks in the sand. Here, for instance, is a footprint and evidence of some rootling action from a Badger.

Badger evidence

And in the following photo, a Badger has approached the fence, had a sniff of the electrified steel wires, got a shock and legged it away again. Proof that the fence is doing its job for us and for the birds.

Ouch!

Meanwhile, there has been a promising early hatch of Eider ducklings, with at least 60 present on the estuary early last week – and hopefully lots more to come. We’ve seen several parties departing the ternery and heading down to the estuary, where they form creches comprising multiple broods in the care of several females.

Eiders on the march
Having a well-earned snooze

On the invertebrate front, we’ve noticed Six-spot Burnet moth caterpillars starting to weave their silky hammocks upon the grasses, fence posts or any other handy structures, in readiness for pupation. This means it won’t be long before we begin to see the red-and-black adult moths emerging, and they’ll soon be a common sight nectaring on the flowers alongside the footpaths. Another classic sign of high summer at Forvie.

Six-spot Burnet caterpillar
Six-spot Burnet pupa (another high-quality photo…)

We’re now past the end of the spring bird migration, with the exception of some Arctic-breeding waders that are still passing through the estuary. Their return passage begins as early as late June, and we’re now in that uncertain period where you can’t be sure which way any migratory birds are bound – north, or south, or neither. Midsummer can also be a good time for unusual species turning up, and last week was a case in point when a Rose-coloured Starling – a rare visitor from the east – pitched up in our garden on the edge of the Reserve.

All in the garden is rosy

This was the first ‘rosy pastor’ I had seen in thirteen years. At the time of its appearance I was attending an online meeting, and I subsequently had to apologise for my brief lapse in concentration and my fumbling for binoculars and camera (thankfully my microphone was turned off so my colleagues couldn’t hear the language). But as well as demonstrating one of the up sides of home-office working, it also proves that once you’ve been bitten by the nature bug, you can’t switch it off – no matter how important the meeting!

Out for the count

The month of June is upon us, and at Forvie this means it’s time for the annual census of our cliff-nesting seabirds. The first day of the month offered up some decent weather – dry, not too windy for a change, and the dreaded haar had finally lifted – so without further ado, Patrick, Mark and I ventured forth onto the cliffs to see what was what.

A fine day for counting seabirds

Forvie isn’t possessed of the same vast seabird colonies as you might find on some of Scotland’s islands, or even at other places on our North-east coast such as Fowlsheugh or Troup Head. But it does host most of the seabird species you’d expect to find in northern Scotland; the notable exceptions are Gannet and Puffin (though we do see these regularly offshore). However, it’s not the scale of things that’s important here, but rather the timescale. This same census has been carried out annually for over 35 years, feeding into a national database on seabird populations, and the long-term nature of the study makes it a vital tool for detecting population trends.

Seabirds – on the edge, literally and metaphorically

Seabirds have been in the news quite a bit in recent years, not least due to conspicuous and alarming declines in some species. These declines are significant not just in terms of the future survival of the species in question, but also as a reflection of the health of the entire marine environment. Seabirds, being near the top of the marine food chain, act as indicators for the whole system that supports them. They are the maritime equivalent of the canary in the coalmine, alerting us to the effects of climate change, pollution and over-exploitation of the seas.

So rather than being just a jolly job for a fine day, the seabird census is actually a deadly serious piece of scientific work, showing us the winners and losers in a changing environment.

The winners

It’s not all bad news. Despite well-documented declines elsewhere, some species are holding their own or even increasing at Forvie. For example, neither Guillemot nor Razorbill bred at Forvie when seabird-counting commenced in the 1980s. Both are recent colonists, occupying small colonies on the rocky stacks near Hackley Bay. This year’s census produced 54 Guillemots and 131 Razorbills ashore at the time of the survey, both typical totals in recent years.

Guillemots – the wine-waiters of the bird world
Razorbills

Occasionally during the census we’re lucky enough to see the birds turning their eggs during the incubation process, or swapping duties at the nest. Razorbills don’t bother making an actual nest, choosing instead to lay their single egg directly onto the bare rock. Change-overs between incubating birds have to be done very carefully, lest the precious egg should fall from its ledge into the sea below. Get it wrong, and that’s the end of your nesting season!

Razorbill with egg

Another species on the up at Forvie this year is the Kittiwake. These small, immaculately-smart gulls have suffered widespread declines elsewhere, but the 593 nests we recorded on this year’s census represent the highest total here for twenty-one years. In their main nesting areas either side of Hackley Bay, the cliffs resound to their name-calling voices – kitti-waaak, kitti-waaak, kitti-waaak… Listen out for them if you’re walking the coastal path on a calm day.

Hopefully the local increase in Kittiwakes is reflective of a healthy population of small fish in our inshore waters – the same fish that support the terns that nest in South Forvie each summer.

Kittiwake, shouting its own name

The losers

Forvie’s biggest loser, in the population sense, is the Herring Gull. In the mid-1980s, over 2,000 pairs of them nested at Forvie. Fast-forward to 2021, and just 40 pairs remain – a decline of over 98%. Wow.

It’s well worth remembering this when reading the frequent newspaper and media items about gulls in towns, usually featuring descriptors like ‘menace’, ‘pest’ or ‘nuisance’. Actually, the gulls’ natural marine habitat has become increasingly degraded by human activity, and their only option has been to decamp into our settlements. Here they find plentiful food (discarded by humans) and places to nest (built by humans). By entering our environment, and making a living from our profligacy, they are able to survive the huge changes we’ve imposed on their own environment. Surely we can hardly blame them for that?

Herring Gull with chicks – and lunch

Fulmars have also declined substantially at Forvie, from several hundred pairs to just a few dozen now. The reasons are unclear, but the decrease in population is likely to be related to food supply, namely the state of fish stocks, such as Herring, in the North Sea.

Fulmar pair

Fulmars are the Northern Hemisphere’s proxy for the albatrosses of the Southern Hemisphere. The family resemblance is quite obvious, with a strong bill with tubular nostrils, large dark eyes, and stiff-winged flight action. Even if the Fulmar is less than half the size of its southern counterparts! Long-lived and faithful to both nest-site and mate, Fulmars sometimes resemble an old married couple, cackling and bickering contentedly on their Thrift-fringed nesting ledges.

Having a good old blether – “how’s the fishing today?

The absentees

Three species that we’ve regularly recorded down the years failed to trouble the scorers in 2021. For the first time in many years, no Great Black-backed Gull nests were recorded, although a pair were present – these had maybe already tried and failed to breed, or were going to be late starters. As top predators, these huge gulls can usually find something to eat, so the reason for their no-show this year is hard to explain.

Great Black-backed Gull – king of all he surveys

Lesser Black-backed Gulls, by contrast, have gradually faded away here as a breeding bird, with the last pair recorded as far back as 2010. Always scarce here at the best of times, these birds occupy a similar niche to the Herring Gulls whose decline we have already discussed, so perhaps their absence isn’t so surprising. But they are missed both for their handsome appearance, and for their signalling the arrival of spring – unlike the resident Herring Gull, the Lesser Black-back is exclusively a summer visitor to our region.

Lesser Black-backed Gull – sadly missed

Cormorants have nested in several locations along Forvie’s coast down the years, their population peaking at 93 pairs in 2006. In recent years they have become scarce, with the last breeding record occurring in 2018 when nine pairs nested. Cormorants are apt to choose different nesting sites from one year to the next, and it’s likely that ‘our’ birds have relocated rather than died out. Just north of Collieston is a stack called the Hummel Craig, which nowadays hosts a notable Cormorant colony, and I suspect these are former Forvie breeders having a change of scene.

Cormorants – these have now forsaken Forvie for a move north

So that’s the current state of Forvie’s seabirds – just a tiny piece of the huge North Sea jigsaw, but an interesting case study nonetheless. And after the lockdown-enforced hiatus of 2020, it was good to be counting anything again.

About blooming time

It’s with a degree of relief that we’re able to report on some botanical news this week. Up until now, plant growth has been suppressed by the persistently and remarkably low temperatures that have characterised spring 2021. But on Thursday, the temperature reached the dizzying heights of 18oC, and along with recent rainfall, this has finally stirred things into life.

A carpet of Wild Pansies on the dune heath

The dune heath is beginning to twinkle with tiny wildflowers, the surest sign of the onset of summer at Forvie. The first few Wild Pansies appeared several weeks ago, but in certain places on the dry heath they are now really abundant. Likewise Bird’s-foot Trefoil, whose yellow and orange blooms contrast with the purple-blues and whites of the pansies. Taking in its intoxicating sweet scent on a still, warm day in the dunes is one of life’s pleasures.

Bird’s-foot Trefoil

The cliffs between Rockend and Collieston support their own distinctive assemblage of wild plants, and for the next few weeks they will be awash with colour. Most obvious among the cliff-dwelling wildflowers are the powder-pink tufts of Thrift. Low-growing, drought-resistant and salt-hardy, this must be one of the toughest of all flowering plants, and can be found eking out a living in the most inhospitable of places.

Thrift on the cliffs
Thrift flower, or ‘sea pink’
Growing in places other plants simply can’t!

Another plant specially adapted to the cliff environment is Sea Campion. Like the Thrift, it also forms dense, low-growing cushions of leaves, each topped with its distinctive white flowers. Traditionally it was considered unlucky to bring Sea Campion flowers into the household, most likely due to the dangers associated with climbing the precipitous cliffs to pick the flowers. Right enough, best to stick to the footpath and appreciate the flowers in-situ!

Sea Campion in flower
Its bladder-like flowers, with neat reticulated pattern, are easily recognised

Silverweed is another hardy species which can be found growing among the shingle at the top of the inter-tidal zone, such as on the beach at Hackley Bay. But it’s equally at home in the sheltered dune-slacks, even those that are part-flooded in winter, and can also be seen along the footpath edges. Its name comes from the silvery undersides to the leaves. Common, widespread and attractive, it’s another easy-to-recognise plant for the botanical beginner.

Silverweed – rather under-rated I reckon!

The upturn in temperatures and plant activity has meant a corresponding increase in insect activity. This week produced sightings of a couple of mystery caterpillars, the first of which turned up in the Forvie workshop, having presumably hitched a ride on a vehicle / mower / staff member (delete as appropriate). Now I am far from knowledgeable when it comes to caterpillar ID, but a bit of carefully-directed internet research threw up some images of what appeared to be the same beast. So with a degree of caution I was able to identify the stowaway as a Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing moth – a widespread species whose adult form is, I promise, rather more attractive than its caterpillar.

Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing – the name is longer than the actual caterpillar.

If you thought that was ugly, the second mystery caterpillar was downright hideous. Again, a bit of research pointed towards two closely-related moth species, whose caterpillars look identical, namely Light Arches and Dark Arches. The latter is a very common moth at Forvie, so the law of averages suggests that this caterpillar is a Dark Arches. Look out for these in grassland just now as they search for somewhere to pupate.

Dark (or Light) Arches – eeeeuuuuugggghhhhh.

At the end of the week, the first damselfly of the year appeared at the small pond outside the Forvie Centre. The Large Red Damselfly isn’t actually very large at all, but all things are relative in the damselfly world. What is absolutely indisputable, though, is how magnificent these insects look when they’re newly minted, their colours gleaming among the waterside vegetation.

Large Red Damselfly – pure eye candy.

Now that we’re moving from spring into early summer (!), we’re approaching the time when our female Roe Deer will be giving birth. Indeed, some may already have done so. A doe at Sand Loch in the week was unusually approachable, hinting at the possible presence of a fawn (or two) tucked away in the long grass nearby. I quickly moved on just in case, to avoid causing any unnecessary stress.

When Roe Deer fawns are very young, their mothers leave them hidden in a safe place, returning every now and then to feed them; consequently it’s very unusual to see them when they’re small. It’s very important that if you ever find a fawn in the grass, don’t be tempted to touch it: the mother locates her offspring by scent, and any human scent on the fawn may cause the mother to abandon it. The acute vulnerability of Roe Deer mothers and fawns is another compelling reason to keep dogs on leads throughout the Reserve at this time of the year.

Roe Deer doe – new mum?

Meanwhile, the Roe bucks are busy preparing for the summer rut (mating season). Having shed last year’s antlers, they have now finished growing this year’s set, and are in the final throes of scrubbing the velvety covering from them and exposing the gleaming ‘ivory’ below. This they do by thrashing their antlers against woody vegetation, the favoured type at Forvie being willow scrub. As well as removing the velvet, the thrashing also spreads the buck’s scent onto the willows. The resulting trail of wrecked vegetation and masculine scent leave his potential partners and rivals in no doubt as to his prowess.

Roe buck, with recently-scrubbed antlers
Thrashed willows
More thrashed vegetation

Finding these ‘thrashing-posts’ provides a small insight into the secretive world of the Roe Deer, which despite their abundance still retain a degree of mystery. They’re another example of the unseen world right on our very doorsteps. Stay curious, folks!

Sandwiches, spoons and sinistral snails

The stop-start, disjointed feel to spring 2021 has continued unabated through the past week, in terms of work, weather and wildlife. Consequently this blog post also veers this way and that, in an attempt to keep up – no neat and tidy theme this week. Fasten your seat belts please.

On the Reserve, visitor numbers have been conspicuously low on some days, a fair reflection of the unseasonable temperatures and conditions we’ve been experiencing lately. As I type this, the cold east wind and rain lashing the windows are more typical of November than May. But the year rolls on regardless; we’re now less than a month away from the longest day, and there has been the odd spot of brightness.

A rare glimpse of sunset through the clouds.

A brief window in the weather during mid-week allowed us to carry out the Sandwich Tern nest census – just in the nick of time, with the first chicks due to hatch any day now. Getting this job done was something of a relief, having previously had to write off the Black-headed Gull census due to the persistent cold weather. Compared to the gulls, the Sandwich Terns nest in a much smaller, more compact colony, and as such they can be surveyed quickly by a single observer, without the need to assemble a team. So the opportunity offered by a calm, warm couple of hours was grabbed with both hands.

Sandwich Terns. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

A total of 1,075 nests was recorded, up slightly on the 1,010 counted in 2019 (we didn’t count them in 2020 due to the lockdown restrictions at that time). An excellent result, and hopefully many of them will go on to fledge their youngsters in a few weeks’ time.

Sandwich Terns in summer 2019, with nearly-fledged chicks.

That same warm period also elicited a bit of invertebrate activity. Garden Tiger moth caterpillars have started to become more obvious, and they can often be found on the footpaths throughout the Reserve. Their orange-and-black-and-silver fur coat is very distinctive, even if the colours are slightly reminiscent of the upholstery in 1980s British Rail rolling-stock – and probably just as itchy too.

Garden Tiger caterpillar.
Curled up as a defence against predators (or photographers).

Another distinctive caterpillar which put in its first appearance of the year was that of the Dark Tussock moth. Check out those incredible tufts: there are punk aficionados would pay good money for a hairstyle like that.

Dark Tussock caterpillar – what a beaut!

One moth that’s now emerged into its adult form is the Cinnabar. These day-flying, black-and-red moths are often confused with the similarly-coloured but much more numerous Six-spot Burnets, which are yet to emerge. But while the Six-spot Burnet has spots, the Cinnabar has bars on its upperwings, and this can be a helpful way for the beginner to tell them apart.

Cinnabar moth – note red ‘bars’ along outside edges of forewings.
Six-spot Burnet – all spots and no bars.

The wetter conditions later in the week precipitated an emergence of terrestrial molluscs… or if you prefer, the rain brought out the slugs and snails. Some of the commoner species are easy to recognise. The Great Black Slug, for instance, does exactly what it says on the tin. These are detritivores rather than herbivores, eating dead and decomposing plant and animal matter rather than your garden lettuces, and as such they do a magnificent job in recycling nutrients in the ecosystem. If they looked cute and fluffy, I’m sure people would appreciate them the way they deserve. But nature’s not just about the cute and fluffy, and the world couldn’t function without the slimy and crawly as well. Here’s a shout-out for slugs then.

Great Black Slug: unsung superhero, clad in slimy Spandex.

The Garden Snail is another species that probably just about everyone has seen, but perhaps never actually noticed. These large, cryptically-patterned snails are widespread on the Reserve, where they appear in large numbers during and after wet weather, but they are equally at home in urban gardens. Common they may be, but they present me as a naturalist with a burning ambition on a par with all my rare-bird-finding fantasies. You see, I’ve never found a left-handed snail.

Garden Snail – right-handed of course.

The overwhelming majority of Garden Snails are right-handed. That is to say their shell has a right-hand twist (clockwise) from the centre outwards. This also means they carry the point of their shell to the right-hand side of their body, viz the photo above. These are known as ‘dextral’ snails. Go out into your garden and scrutinise your own snails (just ignore the funny looks from the neighbours), and you’ll probably find they all look like this.

However, a tiny, tiny minority of snails are left-handed, i.e. a mirror-image of the one shown above. These rare, almost mythical beasts are known as ‘sinistral’ snails (which would be a great name for a band, by the way, and they’d simply have to be a prog-rock outfit). I have looked at literally thousands of snails and never yet found one. If and when I finally do, there’ll be a party to remember in the Short household.

Back to a bit of bird news to finish up, and this week the estuary has been graced by a couple of Spoonbills. Not possessed of the same gravitas as a left-handed snail, but great to see nonetheless.

Spoonbill book-ends (with a Shelduck lurking in the background).

Like the recent Avocet on the estuary, Spoonbills are southern breeders which have recently begun to colonise the British Isles. We typically see them at Forvie in late spring and summer, when they overshoot their intended destination on their northward spring migration. Watching Spoonbills feeding on the estuary, swishing their remarkable bills through the mud to filter out edible invertebrates, is a special treat. They just appear so incongruous and improbable. I always have a soft spot for wildlife with the ‘weird factor’, and Spoonbills certainly qualify.

You couldn’t make it up.

That’s your lot for this week then, folks. Sandwiches, spoons and sinistral snails: an eclectic mix indeed.