Fast forward

Without wishing to sound like your grandad, it strikes me that time has been passing by rather rapidly of late. One minute you’re raising a dram to welcome in the new year, and the next minute it’s February. For whatever reason, it felt like January rattled past at 100mph this year, and now we find ourselves in the last month of meteorological winter. Around the Reserve, and in the wider countryside, there are already plenty of indications that spring isn’t far away.

Snowdrops at Sand Loch

Snowdrops are perhaps the most obvious heralds of the approaching spring. Although strictly speaking non-native, they have long been naturalised in Scotland, and in common with other introduced species of long-standing such as the Rabbit and the Brown Hare, they have found themselves a niche and are very much part of the landscape now. They are perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of all flowers, emerging at the darkest time of the year, with the promise that warmth and daylight are on their way back to the northlands.

Other plants won’t be far behind them, and the diligent observer may also spot the glossy, dark-green, heart-shaped leaves of Lesser Celandines in the same areas. Like the Snowdrops, these also favour wooded and scrubby areas, hedge banks and rough grassland. Before long, their shiny yellow flowers will also begin to appear – easy to recognise, and a sure sign of the seasons turning.

Lesser Celandine leaves…
…and flowers

Certain songbirds are quick to pick up on the lengthening hours of daylight. One of the earliest to act upon this, and to start singing in earnest, is the Mistle Thrush. This is our largest species of thrush, somewhat resembling a giant Song Thrush but with colder tones to the plumage; it also has a distinctive call which sounds rather like an old-fashioned wooden rattle, of the type that used to be favoured by football supporters before the invention of the vuvuzela.

Mistle Thrush – full of the joys

The Mistle Thrush’s song is something of a paradox. On the face of it, it sounds rather sad and melancholy, almost like a subdued Blackbird, singing in the minor key rather than the major. Yet it also conveys a vibrant optimism. As well as being one of the earliest harbingers of spring, Mistle Thrushes are renowned for singing not just on the fine days, but also through the grimmest of winter weather, the likes of which would put off any other early songsters. This gives the species its old, evocative, alternative name of Stormcock.

Mistle Thrush belting it out

Meanwhile, the regular Grey Heron at Sand Loch has started to assume his spring finery. His bill has already begun to change from dull yellow to bright pinky-orange, and his plumage from the subdues greys of winter to the more striking black-and-white contrasts of the breeding season. Right enough, the herons at Waterside Wood are likely to be on eggs later this month, barring any major storms or severe cold snaps in the meantime.

Grey Heron getting glammed up

The wildlife may be getting geared up for spring, but the Reserve staff have a few more winter tasks to plough through yet. One of these was some drainage work to repair a flooded and very muddy section of path at Hackley Bay. Regular readers will already know how much we love being up to our eyebrows in mud and ditchwater, so it’ll come as no surprise that we undertook this particular task with great relish.

Path repairs ‘in progress’, as Dirty Harry would say
Drain-cutting nearly finished…
The final turf being cut
Drain complete; path already drying out
Happy Deez… note the ‘make-up’

Of course, this wasn’t done purely for the enjoyment of the staff, and we hope that once it’s had time to dry out and re-vegetate, it will help make the footpath more resilient in readiness for the high levels of footfall we will expect in the forthcoming summer season.

Having completed the drainage work on a very fine evening, the walk back to the office and workshop yielded some fabulously clear views across the landscape towards Bennachie, our nearest hill of any note.

Bennachie looking moody

With spades, boots, hands and faces having been thoroughly scrubbed, rinsed and oiled (delete as appropriate), the walk home in the last of the daylight produced a wonderfully colourful sky over Sand Loch as we passed it by.

Sunset at Cluny Cottages, Sand Loch
Sundown over the loch

Then, after sundown, we were treated to the rare spectacle of nacreous clouds high above the south-western horizon. These clouds are a natural phenomenon found only in the polar regions. They are composed of fine ice crystals in the stratosphere, and require a temperature of around -80oC or below to form – and this means they only do so at high latitude, high altitude, and during the winter months. Because they occur at such great altitude, they reflect light from the sun even though it has already set below our horizon; this makes them stand out remarkably brightly in the darkening evening sky, as if artificially lit from behind.

Nacreous clouds make for a beautiful sight, yet this is oddly difficult to capture in photographs such as these below. They possess a stunning iridescence, comprised of every colour you can think of; indeed, the term ‘nacreous’ is derived from the old English word nacre, meaning mother-of-pearl – and it’s not difficult to see why.

Nacreous clouds at dusk
Mother-of-pearl-tastic

Sundown is a great time to enjoy a quiet moment in the outdoors (nacreous clouds an optional extra, of course). While it’s a great deal of fun to live life in fast forward, it’s also fine to press the pause button every once in a while.

All change please

Change is our constant companion at Forvie. Seasons, tides, weather, wildlife and even landscape are all in a constant state of flux, with a consequential influence upon the day-to-day tasks inherent in the running of the Reserve. With this in mind, we recently took a trip down to the ternery in South Forvie, with an eye on the forthcoming breeding season (the first Sandwich Terns could be back in as little as seven weeks, which is a bit scary to say the least).

We undertake such reconnaissance trips in January and February every year, to allow us to make plans for the season ahead – not least where to site the electric fence that will have a critical role in protecting the nesting birds from predators. The one thing you can guarantee is that it won’t be in the same place as the previous season: Forvie is too dynamic for that.

Planning for the electric fence: make-or-break time

This is a restless, shape-shifting landscape. The wind and the tides, relentless and immensely powerful, see to it that nothing stands still for long. As we are fond of repeating, this is one of the Reserve’s special qualities, not to mention one of its protected features, and one of the things that sets it apart from just about anywhere else. It’s something to be celebrated, even if it does present us with substantial problems in trying to look after any infrastructure here. Maintaining a functional electric fence in this landscape is no light task, and its positioning needs to be carefully chosen at the outset. Get it wrong, and the following six months becomes a recurring nightmare of sand-blow, short-circuits to earth and endless digging and hauling. The pre-season recce is a crucial part of the process to prevent this from happening – we hope.

Overnight sand-blow: eroding…
…and accruing – not helpful either way!
A wrecked fence – the joys of a dynamic landscape

Sure enough, we found that since the end of the 2022 tern breeding season, the topography of the ternery has changed yet again. Gone is much of the shingle at the north end: either buried under deep drifts of windblown sand, or grown over with the ubiquitous Marram grass, which probably appreciates the extra nutrients deposited by the birds each summer. This is a blow to our morale; the exposed shingle is sought-after nesting habitat for many of our terns, and it’s likely that the lack of habitat will have a bearing on the size of the breeding population in the coming season. Worse still, the birds might all go over to the beach and try and nest on the strand-line instead, creating another serious management headache for us. If maintaining an electric fence in the windblown dunes is difficult, doing so on a tidal beach is practically impossible.

Brows now furrowed, we thought we’d best have a look at the beach, in the hope that it didn’t look like brilliant tern habitat. Our mood was lifted somewhat en-route when we happened upon a flock of Twite twittering and twanging musically in the high dunes.

Twite in the dunes

These cheery little finches spend the summer on Scotland’s west coast, raising their families in Gorse thickets in the crofting country of the Hebrides and Wester Ross. Rather than heading south for the winter, they undertake a west-to-east migration, and come to our coast where they eke out a living on the seeds of grasses and weeds. The Twite’s neat yellow beak and orange flush to the breast and ‘face’ are two features that help separate it from its nearest relative, the Linnet; these two species often form mixed flocks at Forvie allowing a handy side-by-side comparison. Do keep an eye out (and an ear cocked) for them if you’re wandering the dunes of South Forvie in winter.

A friendly and sociable species
Yellow beaks and orange faces

Distraction over, it was back to the job at hand. Upon arriving at the beach, we were relieved to note that it didn’t look like first-rate tern habitat after all – small mercies and all that. But we were astonished at the change that had taken place. Having cut through the dunes ‘cross-country’ to avoid disturbing the Grey Seal haul-out at the very end of the Forvie peninsula, we suddenly found ourselves at the top of a forty-foot sand cliff, which dropped precipitously down to the now-much-broader beach. Clearly there had been some serious erosion here over the winter.

Newly-formed sand cliff

Even more surprising was the beach itself. The lower shore had eroded right back to rock, with an extensive boulder-strewn shoreline stretching away to the low-tide mark. Just to the north of this rocky beach, an array of old posts had become exposed by the eroding sand, presumably artefacts from the salmon-netting trade many decades previously. In my sixteen years at Forvie these had never before been visible. It was an almost-unrecognisable landscape, as if somebody had swapped the beach for a new one while we weren’t looking. On the positive side, it does provide a useful visual clue that you’re approaching the seal haul-out: when walking south down the beach, and you see the posts and rocks appearing ahead of you, it’s time to cut into the dunes and give the seals some space.

A new rocky shore
Boulder beach at the seal haul-out
Net posts now exposed

As we’ve said before though, the elements take with one hand and give with the other. The massive loss of sand at the southern end of the beach is counterbalanced by accruals at the ternery (unfortunately right on top of the best tern habitat) and along the southern section of the Dune Trail. The latter also causes us some problems, especially when it comes to maintaining the footpath and signage, and we’ve had to rescue several of our waymarkers from oblivion in recent months. The next series of photos is a fair illustration of the problem.

Oh dear – that’ll be accruing then
Time for some honest toil
Oot ye come!
Think that’s just about deep enough
Reinstated – all’s right with the world again (for now at least)

All this change takes a lot of keeping up with, and at times a lot of digging too. At least it means life and work here is never dull and predictable; things simply never get the chance to become that way. Suits me fine – and I wonder how different the place will look in another sixteen years.

Life in the freezer

With the climate becoming ever more erratic and unpredictable, it’s hard to know what to expect of our seasons nowadays. In recent years, Scottish winters have tended to become milder, wetter and windier, the previous one being a case in point – remember Arwen, Malik and Corrie, anyone? This time around, however, we have experienced a couple of ‘proper’ wintry spells, and consequently had to hunt down our usually-redundant gloves, scarves and ice-grips for our boots. This past week, while not as viciously cold as the pre-Christmas period, delivered to Forvie another icy blast from the north-west. Fair to say that the Reserve has looked very photogenic, and felt very inhospitable.

Snow on the way

Mid-week saw a light snowfall over the course of a couple of days and nights. The resultant covering of icing-sugar transformed the landscape into something resembling a Christmas cake. This was the sort of powder snow that gets kicked up by your boots as you walk through it, feather-light and fine, sparkling in the low sun. Being out and about in conditions like these is another simple pleasure to add to the ones we listed in the previous week’s blog.

A fresh dusting of snow
Marram grass, snow and sky
Sparkling crystals

For reasons I don’t fully understand, snowy conditions often produce a beautiful pink hue to the sky. This may be an effect of light refraction by the ice crystals in the clouds, which results in more of the longer wavelengths of light (i.e. the red end of the spectrum) reaching the earth’s surface. Either way, this is a uniquely wintry phenomenon. It’s made all the more spectacular by the snow-covered landscape below, which reflects the rose-pinks and powder-blues of the sky above.

A snowy sky
Rose-pink and powder-blue
A pink winter dusk

A covering of snow means different things for different species of wildlife. For small mammals such as Field and Bank Voles, a bit of snow can be really helpful. They can continue with their everyday lives eating seeds, grasses and other vegetation, but can do so away from the prying eyes of predators. They construct a series of tunnels through the snow, where they can operate in complete safety unseen by aerial predators such as Kestrels and Short-eared Owls.

Of course, they still need to be wary of the presence of a Stoat or Weasel, which could easily follow their tunnel network – or a Fox, which could punch through the snow layer to reach them. But at least they have a bit more privacy than usual! Often, when the snow has thawed after a prolonged period of snow-cover, you can see the now-abandoned runs and tunnels chewed through the grass by the voles – evidence of a world beneath our feet that would otherwise go completely unnoticed.

Bank Vole popping up for a look around

For many species of birds, though, the snow is a serious impediment rather than a help. For seed-eaters like Yellowhammers, for instance, it means their food supply is buried under an impenetrable layer of ice, and they must change their tactics in order to survive. Abandoning their usual haunts in stubble fields and hedgerows, they gravitate towards animal troughs where the hooves of the sheep or cows disturb the ground and break up the snow, or instead head for garden feeding-stations where they gratefully accept our handouts of bird-seed.

Yellowhammers at a garden feeding-station

Meanwhile, fruit-eaters like Fieldfares also try their luck around human habitation – as we’ve said in our previous postings this winter, they have a voracious appetite for apples, and have practically eaten us out of house and home over the course of the past few weeks.

Another hungry Fieldfare

In between the snowfalls have been some clear, sharp, frosty nights, placing extra demands on our wildlife which must burn a lot of energy just to keep warm. Just about all the fresh water on the Reserve has been frozen over at least some of the time, including the lochs and all the flooded areas on the heath (including the footpaths in places!). This creates another problem for mammals and birds – where to drink and bathe?

Frozen Sand Loch
Ice patterns
Heath Trail – get your skates on

Down on the estuary, even the brackish water (i.e. the slightly salty stuff) was threatening to freeze, with ice accumulating on the high-water mark, and a fine coating of frost on the seaweeds along the strand line.

Frosted seaweeds

However, the salt influence and twice-daily tidal movement prevents the estuary from freezing over altogether, even in really cold conditions. The estuary therefore becomes even more important than usual, not just for the masses of wildlife it normally supports, but also for the additional cold-weather refugees from frozen inland waters. These include swollen numbers of ducks like Mallard and Teal, waders of pasture such as Lapwing and Curlew, and occasionally – as we did recently – we might chance to meet with a Kingfisher frozen off its usual freshwater haunts.

Waders on the estuary – how many different species can you spot here?
Kingfisher – hard-weather refugee

Another big positive about the cold and frosty nights is that the crystal-clear air allows for some great opportunities for star-gazing. Or if you’re really fortunate, a glimpse of the Northern Lights. We’ve had a few nights this winter when the aurora alert has sounded; most of the time it’s been too cloudy to see anything. But when it corresponds with a clear night, it’s well worth staying up late for.

Aurora at Forvie…
…and over the village of Collieston

If you’re planning on venturing out onto the Reserve during a cold snap, wrap up warm and be sure to take care in the icy underfoot conditions – but don’t forget to spare a thought for nature during these hard times, and please allow wildlife to feed and rest undisturbed. A little consideration goes a long way when the freeze is on.

Simple pleasures

‘Please enter your WordPress password’, said the on-screen message when I attempted to begin this week’s bloggage instalment. Oh no. Please no. It never normally asks me for that. What could the password possibly be? I set about trying a scattergun mix of words – names of birds, favourite bands, former car number plates, locomotives I remember from my childhood (which are a great source of name-and-number combos, if like me you’re nerdy enough to remember them); all kinds of random stuff. Surprisingly enough, none of them worked.

Redsh@nk1? Nope, try again

Oh well, yet another forgotten password to reset then. It’ll be exactly the same situation when I next have to pay my electricity bill, or top up my mobile phone, or try and book some leave from work. ‘The username or password you have entered is incorrect’. Maybe I ought to write these things down – though of course this is the one thing we’re repeatedly and emphatically told never to do. Sigh.

I don’t usually look as cheerful as that when this happens.

I must confess that my relationship with technology is a fractious one at the best of times. In some ways, maintaining this blog is like a form of exposure therapy, making me front up to my electronic phobias. Life in the 21st century, of course, is increasingly and unavoidably bound to technology. Many (most?) of us spend our working lives at a screen, or on the phone, or both. Home lives are no different, with endless gadgets and gizmos to make every aspect of our hectic lives easier and better (in theory at least). Your phone knows every last detail of your life, your car practically drives itself, and even the washing machine sings a song and sends you a message when it’s finished its spin cycle. Fifty years ago this was the stuff of sci-fi, and yet here we are. Love it or loathe it – and I know people on both sides of that divide – technology is here to stay.

This car is a thousand times cleverer than the bloke driving it.

Technology has helped to give humanity a huge amount of power and influence over Planet Earth. With such great power, of course, comes great responsibility, and balancing these things is is the foremost challenge of our time. In the current age, our relationship with the world in which we live can be difficult for us, as individuals, to reconcile. How we live our lives, and the choices we make on a daily basis – even down to the really small stuff – will have an effect on the planet, its lands and seas, its atmosphere, its climate, its biological diversity and not least upon our fellow humans.

Most of us (I hope, speaking as an eternal optimist) try and do our best to be considerate. But it’s all so complicated. The seemingly intractable tangle of issues and problems that face the world are difficult for most of us to get our heads around, and result in a great deal of anguish, stress and mental unrest. This is something that isn’t easily fixed by recourse to electronic gadgetry.

A dark and brooding sky

Fair enough Daryl, but you’ve gone off-piste a bit here – what’s all this got to do with Forvie? Well, quite a bit actually. Nature reserves – or any wild places for that matter – are crucially important in today’s world not just for the habitats and wildlife they support, but also as a refuge for people. Forvie is a fine example. Its starkly beautiful landscapes and vast skies are balm for the soul, a perfect antidote to the breakneck pace and hideous complexity of the man-made world of 2023. A walk through the dunes or along the estuary on a clear winter’s day – or even in a force eight and sideways rain – has a restorative effect far beyond the burning-off of a few excess Christmas calories. This is one of the ways in which nature is of critical importance for us – the simple pleasures of a sunrise, a crisp winter’s morning, a skein of geese, the first wild flower of spring.

Sunrise at Forvie
A flawless day on the estuary
Pink-footed Geese at sundown
Lesser Celandine – one of the earliest spring flowers

I suppose there is an amusing irony here. The natural world is so complex that we’re only just beginning to understand how some of it works. Everything within it is linked to everything else, like a vast machine with billions of different components; our knowledge of it barely scratches the surface really. Last Monday I gave an illustrated talk to the Collieston and Slains SWRI, and during my introduction I explained that I had worked at Forvie for sixteen years and was only just starting to get to know the place – absolutely true. But while nature itself is inherently and immensely complex, our enjoyment of it is one of life’s simplest pleasures of all.

A still and frosty morning – a universal pleasure

One of the most brilliant aspects to this is that it’s free of charge. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you live, or how much money you have. Nature is a great leveller because it belongs to – and is accessible by – each one of us. You don’t need to be able to climb a mountain, or take a three-week cruise to Alaska, or fly to the Serengeti, to appreciate nature. It’s all around us – it’s just a case of taking the time to tune into it.

There’s a sunrise to enjoy wherever you are in the world (OK, unless you’re at the North Pole just now)
A simple walk along the shore can cleanse the mind
A rose-pink dusk – a pleasure available to all

You don’t even have to know anything about it. Yes, I like to put names to the things that I see while I’m out and about in nature, and have a decent(ish) knowledge of some species groups at least. And while this gives me a great deal of pleasure, it certainly isn’t essential to appreciating nature: expertise and enjoyment are two different disciplines. You don’t need the former in order to have the latter.

You don’t have to know what something is in order to simply enjoy it!
A moment shared with nature

In conclusion, nature can provide us with exactly the kind of uncomplicated and guilt-free pleasures that at times we all need – a safety valve to relieve the pressures and complexities of 21st-century life. There are many compelling reasons for conserving what’s left of the natural world, and not least because our own mental and physical wellbeing is bound up with its fate.

For now at least, nature is there for all of us to enjoy and appreciate – and best of all, you don’t need a password.

Not-very-dry January

Welcome to 2023! Let’s hope it’s a good one for us all and for the natural world. I suspect a lot of people will be heading out into the countryside to walk off the Christmas excesses (I know I will) so can we start the year with a plea? Please – respect nature. You’re just trying to get fitter because you ate too much (I know I did, and enjoyed it, too). But that’s not a problem wildlife faces; rather it’s the opposite, a constant challenge to find enough food to stay alive. So, when you’re out there, enjoy the countryside but respect it – try not to scare or move on birds or seals – give wildlife a wide berth and let it continue to feed or rest. Maybe we need the extra exercise, but these wild creatures definitely don’t!

Curlew in flight

In terms of getting fitter, many people will also be doing ‘Dry January’. But the weather certainly isn’t, with quite a bit of rain already. Most days have been pretty mixed – often, we’ll start dry and clear and frosty, with a spectacular sunrise. With being on the east coast, the sun rises over the sea and lays a line of liquid gold right across the horizon. Even the waves come ashore barred with molten gold.

Sunrise
Broadhaven dawn
Sunlit waves

But, by afternoon, it’s often clouded up and we’ve seen quite significant rainfall even in the first few days of the year. This has created a lot of wet ‘flashes’ in the fields, and consequently we often see the numbers of wildfowl on the estuary drop after heavy rain – because they are all away feeding in the wet fields. We’ve even seen Oystercatchers in the fields – a sure sign of spring on its way!

Oystercatcher in a ploughed field

The ducks also love the wet flashes. They have moulted into their finery now and already the males’ thoughts are turning to breeding. By January, you will start to see the males posturing and displaying – look at me, I’d make the best mate. And they do look gorgeous.

Teal
Eider displaying

I’m always hard pushed to decide what may favourite duck is, but I think it’s actually more the spectacle of wildfowl I love. The colours, the sounds, the sunset light and the smell of the wet ground all add up to a specific and special experience. There is definitely a place in my heart for ducks!

Teal, Wigeon and Mallard

Another bird that has captured our hearts this winter is the Fieldfare. We’ve never known a winter like it for these thrushes. They arrive in autumn from the Continent but often disappear for most of the winter, maybe only appearing during hard weather. And, right enough, they did appear in gardens during the pre-Christmas snow, and throughout that series of mid-December days when we had eight or nine degrees of frost overnight. At times like these, with the ground frozen as hard as iron and invertebrates like worms unavailable to them, Fieldfares are grateful for any fruit on offer.

Fieldfare in the snow
Grateful for a feed of rosehips

Here at author’s HQ nextdoor to the Reserve, we had a bumper crop of apples in our garden this year. In early December, we vowed that once we’d finished work for the year and had a bit more spare time, we’d harvest the apples and wrap them up in newspaper so they’d keep for the rest of the winter. No more buying apples for us for a few weeks! However, the cold weather and thus the Fieldfares had other ideas. Within about three days, our best apple tree, which had about 100 bonny red eaters hanging from its branches, had been stripped bare. Nothing but apple skin and pulp remained. The Fieldfares had descended and destroyed the entire crop – back to supermarket apples for us then!

Oi, that’s mine!

Not that we begrudged this one little bit. Firstly, for the birds this was a matter of life and death. They needed this fruit to keep them alive during the freeze, whereas we can always just pop to the shop and buy more apples. Their need is unequivocally greater than ours!

Secondly, the entertainment they provided was worth all the fruit we could grow and more. Fieldfares are usually wild and wary, painfully shy and unapproachable. It’s difficult to get within 120 yards of a Fieldfare without it taking flight. Feeding flocks even post sentries to look out for approaching danger, alerting the rest of the flock with their rattling calls and a flash of white underwings at the first sign of trouble. These are not creatures that are easy to observe at the best of times. Yet here they were, just a few feet from the window, so close you could almost extend a hand and ruffle their plumage. What a special treat at this lowest ebb of the year.

Fieldfare at HQ
So much for the apple crop

Their antics also cause some degree of amusement. While they may be shy around people, they’re certainly not backward in coming forward when it comes to their own kind – and even their other relatives in the thrush clan. When they weren’t actively decimating the apple crop, they spent most of their time squabbling with one another, or instead decking the local Blackbirds (who were most put out by the whole thing). Typical Viking invaders – no manners!

Blackbird – way down the pecking order!
Fieldfare – top of the tree!

These close encounters with special wildlife prove that January, and the midwinter period in general, needn’t be dry in terms of interest – there’s plenty going on out there. Yet already the days are starting to lengthen, reminding us that the seasons are constantly changing – and with them the cast of wildlife. There’s much to look forward to: roll on the rest of 2023!

Lang-leggedy Beasties

Or, more correctly, wading birds. Thousands of these come to Forvie every year as the Ythan estuary is an internationally-important service-station stopover, especially in the spring, autumn and winter. It’s all that glorious mud, you see, and most ‘waders’ are long-legged birds, often with long beaks, that wade (hence the name) to find food. For the most part, this is small shrimps, shellfish, worms and other invertebrates that thrive in the mud. In fact, until you look closely at Ythan mud, it’s hard to get your head around just how much life there is in it. Skim the surface off the mud into a tray then rinse the worst of the sediment away, and you’ll be left with a wriggling, writhing mass of invertebrates – or ‘food’, as the birds call it.

Mud, glorious mud!

And the birds come in their thousands to dine here. Some will overwinter here, while some will only drop in on their way to or from their breeding grounds. Others will breed locally and use the estuary as part of their daily commute. Our wader numbers usually peak in the autumn, but different species will peak at different times of year – all depends on what they are using the estuary for.

Waders on the estuary at sunrise

In early winter, there are often high numbers (3-4000) of Golden Plover on the estuary. From a distance, they can appear as a gold smear on the mud, but look closer – there are thousands of birds, all tightly packed together. They are quite a small wader, and therefore very edible to raptors, so they stick together for defence. Their other form of defence is to feed at night, often in neighbouring fields (if you ever see a golden plover up close, they have a big eyes to help them see in low light). Because they feed overnight, they spend most of the day using the estuary as a safe place to roost and most of the time we see them, they are asleep – or have been startled into the air by something.

Golden plover
Golden Plover: note the big eye – photo (c) Ron Macdonald

Their cousin, the Lapwing, is a familiar sight – and sound – to many country dwellers. They have lots of local names – green plover, teuchit, peesie, peewit – the last two after their mewling call. But their scientific name Vanellus means ‘little fan’, after the sound and flapping of their wings. They are a fantastic sight in flight, flickering black and white, as the flocks rise up into the air.

Lapwings in flight
Lapwing up close

Another familiar sight and sound is that of the Curlew. They have one of the most evocative calls in nature, a bubbling, drawn-out rendition of their common name, while their scientific name calls them the ‘bird with the new-moon, bow-shaped bill’. They are the largest of all our waders and the female usually has the longer beak, up to 16cm long. That’s a good tool for getting worms out of deep mud! They defend small feeding territories on the estuary and can look quite ridiculous, having a spat with a neighbour when there isn’t another Curlew for miles around. It almost never comes to a fight, but favoured posturing techniques are:

Shaking some seaweed around in a provocative kind of way…

Wrack and ruin for you if you come any closer…

Parallel pacing…

Walk this way….

And the Hard Stare.

Crossed swords – well, beaks.

Our other commonest wader species are Redshanks and Oystercatchers. Redshanks, named for their bright orange legs, are perhaps a little overlooked with their grey plumage and middling size, but are present in large numbers. Their ‘teu-hu-hu‘ call is one of the signature sounds of the estuary.

Redshank

And, in among the Redshank, it’s easy to overlook the Godwits. These are a bit larger than the Redshanks but have long, straight beaks rather than curved like a Curlew. We get two kinds here – Bar-tailed and Black-tailed – and they look a very different bird in summer and winter. In summer, they have brick-red plumage, while in winter, they are a non-descript grey colour. Their name comes from Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘good eating’, from a time when wild birds were far more frequently on the menu.

Black-tailed godwit

You’re never in any danger of overlooking Oystercatchers. These are large black and white waders, with pinky legs and a big orange beak. Come springtime, they’re probably the noisiest wader around, as pairs compete with one another in what are known as ‘piping ceremonies’. Unusually for waders, they carry food for their young (most baby waders feed themselves after hatching) which has allowed them to colonise rooftops in cities. There were several pairs on the university buildings at one time and my memories of exams there are of stomach-churning fear and Oystercatchers yelling at one another!

Oystercatchers displaying

Whereas it’s easy to miss one of our smaller waders, the dunlin. Some of these birds breed in the uplands of Scotland, but most come here from their high-Arctic breeding grounds. There can be a few thousand of them out there but, with their small size, they are easy to miss until they take flight. Then they make for a lovely spectacle as they flash white and dark, turning and dodging in the air. It’s thought this may help confuse predators like falcons and hawks. They can be surprisingly confiding with humans if you stay still though, and it’s entirely possible some of these birds have never seen people before.

Dunlin flock in flight
Close-up dunlin

Sanderling, too, can be very confiding. Walk on Forvie beach and you’ll see them, forever racing and chasing the waves, up and down and along the beach. These are another bird of the high Arctic, fleeing the cold winter. When they go north again in the spring, their first tundra meal may well be insects frozen by the ice from the previous autumn.

Sanderling

Turnstone, too, spend the winter here. As their name suggests, they are likely to be found on rockier shores and do indeed turn stones over in a quest for food. They are quite eclectic and unfussy in their tastes though, and we’ve seen them scavenging dead seals – or from the barrels of fat that washed ashore one winter, which must have been in the sea for over 50 years.

Turnstone

One wader that does stay to breed, often in with the terns, is the Ringed Plover. ‘Ringos’, as they are affectionately know to the staff, are an rather smart wader with broad black breast band and a typically dot-dash form of locomotion. Their stop-start running often makes them look like a clockwork toy but is often the only way you see them – they blend into a rocky background very well.

Ringed plover

And these aren’t even all the waders we’ll get here in a year. The estuary will also hold small numbers of Greenshank, various Sandpipers on passage in spring, Knot and Ruff as well as rarer waders like Spotted Redshank or Little Stint. You never quite know what’s going to turn up and, while waders aren’t the easiest group of birds to identify and separate, in some ways it doesn’t matter. You’re often just best appreciating the sight and sound of them on the estuary.

Little Stint with Dunlin
Redshank flock

What better way to start the New Year than taking in the sights and sounds of an estuary full of waders? Happy 2023 folks – here’s wishing our readers all the very best for the year ahead.

The Twenty-Twenty-Two Review

While lying prone in front of the fire recovering from the post-Christmas-dinner food coma, it’s become something of a tradition here at Forvie to reflect upon the past year. Like any year, 2022 has had its ups and downs, its cosmic highs and its mind-numbing lows. But for the purposes of this summary, we’ll forget the not-so-good bits, and focus instead on the highlights of the past twelve months. Fasten your seat belts, folks: your whistlestop tour of twenty-twenty-two starts here.

January

A series of clear nights gave us some spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and even some auroral activity. Two major storms during the last weekend of the month caused considerable damage to trees and structures, but compared with some places we got off lightly!

January sunset
Aurora borealis
Clearing up after the storms

February

The estuary teemed with wading birds and waterfowl, with the ducks displaying furiously and looking their best. Among these was a Green-winged Teal all the way from North America! Footpath improvement works took place along the coast path, with another 180 metres repaired. We began to look ahead to the preparations for the forthcoming bird breeding season, with spring just around the corner…

Wigeon displaying
Green winged Teal (left) with his European cousin
Helicopter airlift for footpath works

March

The ternery fence was put up at the beginning of the month, marking the official start of summer at Forvie(!). The first Sandwich Terns returned from Africa on 23rd, a date so reliable that you could set your calendar by them. Seal numbers at the Ythan mouth built up towards their spring peak, providing a real spectacle for observers viewing from Newburgh beach.

Electric fence time
Sandwich Terns (and three Black-headed Gulls, if you can spot them)
The Grey Seal haul-out – photo (c) Lorne Gill

April

The remainder of the terns arrived, and along with the Eiders they all got down to the nitty gritty of the breeding season. The first butterflies began to appear, and the trees and plants burst into life. A Pallid Harrier seen at the ternery was just the fifth of its kind ever to be recorded in north-east Scotland.

Arctic Terns arriving in April
Green-veined White – early butterfly
Pallid Harrier – photo (c) Mark Sullivan

May

The bird breeding season at Forvie was in full swing, though the spring migration season was very quiet due to the westerly airflow. Wild flowers began to become more prominent, and insect activity also increased as spring merged into early summer. A ‘wreck’ of King Ragworms on the shore provided an unexpected wildlife highlight!

Small Copper – phwooaaar!
Black-headed Gull and chick
King Ragworm – what a beast

June

A month of endlessly long days, relentless daylight and constant activity on the Reserve. The first young gulls and terns started to fledge from the ternery, while our wild flowers and butterflies began to approach their zenith.

Dark Green Fritillary
Six-spot Burnet moth on Northern Marsh Orchid
The first Black-headed Gull fledgling

July

A packed summer events programme got underway, with illustrated talks, guided walks and a family fun day on offer. Attendance and feedback each exceeded our wildest expectations! The bird breeding season began to wind down, but Forvie’s flora was at its best. The ongoing dry summer produced many beautiful sunlit days for exploring the Reserve.

Flowers in the dune slacks
Oxeye Daisies – photo (c) Lorne Gill
The family fun day in full swing

August

This is the ‘heather season’ at Forvie, with the heath in full bloom – a treat for all the senses. Bottlenose Dolphins put on a show offshore, with a Humpback Whale also sighted. Warm southerly winds brought an influx of Hummingbird Hawk-moths from southern Europe.

Heather in bloom, with attendant Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies
Bottlenose Dolphin and a mass of seabirds
Hummingbird Hawk-moth nectaring at Honeysuckle flowers

September

The first month of autumn proper brought the biggest September ‘fall’ of migrant birds since 2008, with foreign warblers, chats and flycatchers all over the Reserve. At least two Minke Whales were present offshore mid-month.

Male Redstart at Forvie during the big September ‘fall’
Wryneck – scarce visitor from the east
Minke Whale off the North Broadhaven

October

The heart of the autumn, and harvest time in the natural world. Fruits and berries served to provide sustenance for wildlife, both locals and immigrants alike. A great time for migration at Forvie, with swans and geese arriving for the winter, and oddities like Long-eared Owls passing through.

Bittersweet berries
Long-eared Owl
Geese at sunset

November

A couple of sharp frosts proved the exception to the rule in a remarkably mild month. Frequent rainfall helped top up the Reserve’s water table after the drought summer, while we were also battered by some violent storms from the North Sea. Wildlife highlights included a Dusky Warbler from Siberia – like the Pallid Harrier in the spring, only the fifth of its kind ever to be seen in our region.

Frosty morning
Storm force
Dusky Warbler – a rare treat

December

The weather finally turned cold, and mid-December saw a significant snowfall. This made for some beautiful scenes on the Reserve, but was tough for the wildlife. Duck numbers on the estuary soared as they were frozen off the inland waterbodies, while parties of Fieldfares raided local gardens and hedgerows for any remaining berries and fruit. Down on the estuary, two Grey Seal pups were raised at the haul-out site (where they could be viewed from across the water at Newburgh), thereby ending the year on a high.

Grey Seal pup
Snowfall!
Fieldfare
A fine December sundown

And so another action-packed year on the Reserve comes to an end. Get back in the saddle and do it all again next year? You bet. See you there!

The Bleak Midwinter?

Just now, we are in the heart of the darkness. This is the darkest month, with very few hours of daylight every day, and long nights that begin before you get home from work, then don’t end until you are at work again the next day. Some people struggle in the winter because of the lack of light, and there’s no doubt that it is an even greater struggle for wildlife, with cold temperatures draining body heat and a lack of food. So it’s very easy to think of winter as something negative – the bleak midwinter – cold, damp, dark, with nothing to recommend it. But that’s not true, and winter can provide us with some real wildlife spectacles, not to mention some beautiful crisp days. Let’s have a look at some of the good things about winter here at Forvie.

Frosty view over the reserve

One of the first things to say about Forvie is, as a coastal reserve, we don’t actually get a lot of frost and ice, certainly not compared with inland. It is a source of extreme annoyance and frustration for the local kids – most of the country is off on a snow day, and they aren’t. And they can barely find enough snow to run a sledge down the favoured slope in one of the neighbouring fields (though it’s quite handy, as you’ll find your car scraped clean, in a desperate attempt to find enough snow to make a snowball or mini-snowman!). But it is not uncommon for our sister reserve at Muir of Dinnet to look like this….

Snow at Burn o’ Vat

….while we look like this… a smattering of snow, mostly blown into hollows or ruts in the track.

Light snow

Because Forvie – and other coastal sites – often remain frost-free, they are a haven for wildlife in the winter. The estuarine mud very rarely freezes – the salt and twice-daily tidal movement take care of that – and the estuary is a food-rich haven for wading birds. These birds really struggle with frozen ground. When getting your dinner is dependent upon being able to stick your beak into the mud or soil, you will go hungry if the ground freezes hard. So, move to the coast and you can solve that problem.

Redshank in flight
Estuary birds

We also often see high numbers of ducks during hard weather. These get ‘frozen off’ inland water and they, too, come to the coast where they can use the estuary and river for feeding and roosting. Our highest counts of Teal are always during harsh weather and we get the odd treat, like a small party of Pintail arriving too.

Teal
Pintail

The short days can bring their bonuses as well. If nothing else, it means that sunrises and sunsets happen at a time of day that you see them. The cold makes the winter air especially clear and the sun is low, and this makes for some gorgeous pink and gold dawns and dusks.

Pink & orange sunset

We also have the joys of the evening flight, where the geese scribble patterns across the sunset sky.

Evening flight

It’s even worth getting out after dark. Thanks to a fair bit of ambient light locally, we don’t have the best dark skies in the country, but you can still see the stars above, and, thanks to a number of apps, it’s now easy enough to identify the constellations. Start with the easy ones: the Plough, like a giant ladle, or Orion, the hunter. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even catch a glimmer of the aurora to the north.

Aurora borealis

Mind you, that’s not to say we don’t get hard weather here. Often it’s the wind that gives you a hard time, blowing salt in off the sea or just plain wrecking things. It’s not uncommon to get 60mph-plus winds here and, while we don’t have many trees to blow over, rough seas can make it hard for seabirds to feed and we occasionally see ‘wrecks’ of auks and other birds on the coasts after storms.

Dead Guillemot

And that isn’t to say we don’t occasionally get proper frosts and snow. Often, these are accompanied by strong winds, meaning white-out conditions and drifts. During the ‘Beast from the East’ the snow was too deeply-drifted to walk the path from the village to the office.

Snow drifting
Wind-blown frost

The cold, dry snow on that occasion also managed to blow in under the eaves of the workshop, and coated everything in a fine powder of snow. We’ve never seen this happen before or since…but that was an exceptional storm.

Snow in the workshop

When the worst of the weather blows through, the snow makes everything utterly beautiful. I often think snow hides the scars that we have put upon the land and, for a short period, everything is sparkling, pristine and clean.

Snow on fences

While the big skies let you see where and when the next dump of snow is coming. Snow clouds always seem to have a special, intense sort of pink colour in the low sun…or maybe they just look exceptionally vivid against the white ground.

Snow clouds
Snowstorm over Aberdeen to the south

One of the other appealing things about cold winter days (and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this) is that there are fewer people around. While it’s great that so many people want to come to the countryside, a lot of people do so to clear their heads and often that means solitude and peace and open spaces. So it can be a time to find yourself again after the endless bustle and daylight of summer. We, on the reserves, enjoy winter – it’s a chance to get caught up from the non-stop activity and stress that summer brings. And we know we’re not alone in enjoying the peace – folk from the local village often remark that it’s much nicer when the tourist season winds down.

A storm brewing …and not a soul around.

So, if you know where and how to look, winter needn’t be bleak. It is what it is, just one of the seasons that make our nature what it is. So, wrap up warm and get out there!

Ice at Hackley Bay

Snow and ice and all things nice

Weather warnings were in place across the country this week, warning of snow showers and ice. I have to admit, any time there is snow forecast I usually take it with a pinch of salt, with ‘proper’ snow being somewhat a rarity living right on the coast. As you can imagine, I got a surprise when I looked out the window on Thursday morning to see my snow covered car and garden! Numerous people over the summer commented on the sand dunes at Forvie, comparing them to the planet Tatooine from Star Wars, with the addition of snow there is no doubt that they look otherworldly, like something you’d see in a sci-fi film.

Forvie dunes or a Star Wars set?
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

The snow isn’t the only thing making the reserve look particularly pretty at the moment, we’ve also had some cracking sunset scenes of vibrant orange, pink and purple hues.

Sunset reflecting on the Sand Loch
Violet skies

A phenomenon known as Rayleigh scattering is not only the reason that the sky appears blue during the day, it also creates the picturesque sunset colours we have been seeing lately. Sunlight contains the whole colour spectrum. Blue light is mirrored and scattered by gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, meaning less of it reaches the ground and instead bounces around in the atmosphere above us, which answers the question: ‘Why is the sky blue?’.

During sunset, the light from the sun has a larger distance through the atmosphere to travel before it reaches our eyes, so a greater amount of blue light is scattered and the warmer tones can pass straight through to our eyes with ease, creating the striking red, orange and pink sunsets.

On Friday into Saturday we experienced all kinds of weather from snow to sun, rain to sleet and even a brief shower of hail. Not to mention, all of the puddles and bodies of water around the reserve had, to some extent, frozen over!

Ice so thin you would think this was just a big puddle…
A mosaic of ice

The short shower of hail got me thinking about how hail stones are formed, something I remember learning about when I was younger after reading stories of hailstones as big as a grapefruit… thankfully these were smaller than that.

Hailstones are quite literally balls of ice that fall from the sky. They form inside storm and thunder clouds when up- and downdraughts move water droplets that are too small and light to fall to the ground, up and down through the cloud. As these smaller raindrops are pushed by the rising air currents up into the colder parts of the cloud, higher in the atmosphere, they freeze and thus, become a hailstone.  In this area of the atmosphere there are what is known as ‘supercooled’ water drops, which are droplets of water that remain unfrozen even though the surrounding air is below freezing. The newly formed hailstone collides in the air with these water drops which subsequently freeze onto the surface of the hailstone, causing it to grow in size. They will only fall to the ground when the air currents inside the clouds can no longer support their weight, or if the up-draughts weaken. As gravity pulls them down towards the earth there is no time for them to melt, causing the showers of hail that we infrequently see. Pretty interesting!

Unlike the conditions throughout the week, today we saw sun and clear blue skies. Even in the coldest parts of winter, it’s during days like this that I love working outside. I jumped at the chance to spend some time outside after the recent spell of rubbish weather, grabbing the camera and heading out on patrol. I have to say, looking for, and taking photos of wildlife is something that I’ll never get bored of, even seeing the same animals over and over again, like the Robin that sat on a post maybe a metre or two away from where I was standing.

Yet another curious Robin
Handsome Heron
Bottoms up!

There really is a degree of excitement to this, especially in birdwatching. I can see the appeal, it almost reminds me of Pokémon, instead of catching them all, you gotta spot ’em all!

High Tides and Pony Rides

It’s safe to say that the rather abysmal weather conditions over the last wee while have made the reserve rather quiet. Though the same can’t be said about last Sunday, as we were lucky to have a day of marvellous weather, and everyone must’ve been thinking the same thing, wanting to get outside and make the most of it as the number of people I chatted to at Waterside exceeded 200! Following the days of high winds I was almost surprised when I went for a patrol to the beach and the way marker beside the tern monolith had nearly disappeared under all the sand, each time I walk over you can see less of the way marker. I know the dunes are always changing but I have never personally seen such a drastic change in the landscape in my time working here, with the big dune and surrounding area looking like a completely different place.

Top of the big dune looking like the Sahara
Spot the way marker… with so many days of high winds you can see less and less of it

As mentioned on our Facebook, the other week I had the pleasure of meeting Kate and Simon from Inclusive Countryside Access as they had planned to meet us with Obama, the lovely pony to take people out along Newburgh beach on Friday and Saturday a couple of weeks ago. As someone who really loves animals (who isn’t in this line of work?) I was already excited at the thought of getting to hang out with a pony at work, which is something we don’t often see here at Forvie. Many of you that frequently chat to me at Waterside will know that I love fussing over animals, and I often say ‘any time spent petting a dog is time well spent’, the same applies to meeting a pony. However, learning about the project and meeting the masterminds behind it, was what I was the most excited for.

Working with care homes, special needs schools and other various organisations Inclusive Countryside Access provide all terrain wheelchair access with the help of Obama and the chariot which has its own unique safety system to protect the person on board and the pony. The idea is that everyone should be able to go out into the countryside and our wild spaces to experience nature first hand, and this project allows people who in many circumstances would struggle or never get to go out and explore outdoor spaces like our nature reserves. Thanks to this, the outdoors becomes accessible for all.

With a combination of an amber warning for rain, 80-odd-km/h winds and a tide so high that the beach could barely be seen on the Friday morning, we all decided that the sensible decision would be to call it off for the day. The conditions were too harsh to be out in, for us and Obama, as well as nearly losing a wheelchair!

The wind or a ghost? Obama didn’t seem bothered either way
Low tide wasn’t looking very low at all…

Thankfully, the weather on the Saturday was nowhere near as wild as the previous day, although it certainly wasn’t a calm day. Upon regrouping, with the addition of Richard one of our volunteers, it was decided that it was still too cold and windy to take those who were scheduled to come out onto the beach. I was then asked if I wanted to go for a test ride along the beach, sitting in the wheelchair to take pictures and videos from the point of view of the rider – what can be experienced, for those who in many cases, wouldn’t get the chance to visit a place like Newburgh beach at all.

Getting a good view of the seals
The seals getting a good look at us!
Taking a running approach back to the carrots

It’s safe to say that I had a fantastic time, and a comfortable journey. The beach is my favourite place to de-stress and it makes me realise how I have taken for granted being able to go for a wander along the beach whenever I feel like it. They say that nature heals and nature is good for you but that isn’t just some myth! Spending time outside, connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress and improve your mental and physical health, so with the way things are nowadays, especially throughout the pandemic people have had to spend a lot more time indoors, looking at screens. For many people, that have restricted or no access at all to natural spaces, work like this could make a huge difference to their lives and having sat in the seat myself, you certainly get the full experience or being outdoors and seeing the nature all around you! On top of this, many people find animals to be great mood boosters, and for some people who struggle to communicate, animals can be a fantastic aid, and help in boosting mood and confidence.

You can find more information about this organisation and contact details on their websites:

https://www.icaccess.org/

A good view of the estuary, you can see the back of the wheelchair which is pulled on and secured with a winch
Obama having a whale of a time

Finally, I want to give a huge thanks to Richard, one of our volunteers who stayed out in the cold and wind for the whole day and didn’t complain once. I first met Richard when I came into the job earlier this year, joining him on one of his butterfly surveys and since the departure of our beloved Patrick, Richard has come out to help me patrol the reserve and undertake surveys nearly every weekend, rain, wind or shine. We really value the work that all of our volunteers put in to help, so, thank you!

Enjoying a hard earned cup of tea and the rainbow after our last beach clean

Speaking of volunteers and hard work… On Thursday, our dedicated team of staff, volunteers and Lauren from EGCP – Turning the Plastic Tide, braved the elements and spent the day doing a (rather soggy) beach clean in an effort to remove more of the plastics and rubbish that the recent floods and stormy weather have washed onto Forvie shores. One of our main aims for the day was to remove as much of the plastic bio-media that has been washing up in extremely high numbers both along the riverbanks of the Ythan, onto the estuary and along the beach. In just one 60m stretch of riverbank, over 2300 of these tiny little filters were collected. Scottish water and their environmental team are also continuing their efforts to remove as much of these from the environment as possible.

A bucket of biomedia… just a fraction of what is to be collected.
Bits and bobs and other bags of rubbish also collected

I think it’s fair to say that it was not an ideal day for working outdoors on Thursday, with wind and never-ending showers, the weather was pretty miserable. However, every one of us persevered in an effort to collect as much rubbish as we could, making the day a success! Again a huge thanks to Lauren and all of our wonderful volunteers for helping out (and Georgie, of course)!

A bit of rain can’t stop Elaine and Georgie!