The Lockdown List

Without wishing to put a jinx on things, it’s beginning to look like there may be light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. With everyone having been more or less confined to their own homes for the past two months – including Forvie staff – it’s fair to say that we’re all looking forward to things returning to some degree of normality in the coming months, however long this takes. In the meantime, there are far worse places to have been stuck than on the doorstep of Forvie NNR. Here’s a selection of local patch wildlife highlights of the spring – the Lockdown List.

Mammals – 11 species seen

These have included some very common terrestrial species (Rabbit, Wood Mouse, Brown Rat, Short-tailed Vole) as well as some rather more specialist ones seen offshore (Grey Seal, Harbour Seal, Harbour Porpoise), and indeed one flying one (Pipistrelle Bat). Two of the usually-shy species we’ve been seeing regularly around our home are Fox and Brown Hare, which have been giving uncharacteristically good views.

Brown Hares

One of the recurring themes in the lockdown period has been the frequency of Roe Deer sightings. Perhaps it’s because fewer people are out and about, or because those that are have been keeping their dogs under closer-than-normal control, but either way the deer seem much more phlegmatic than usual, often allowing a close approach. This has certainly brought a lot of pleasure to the local folk here in the past few weeks.

A handsome Roe buck at dawn

Butterflies – 6 species seen

Admittedly a fairly meagre total, but it’s still quite early in the butterfly season yet! Those species we have encountered have comprised the three Whites (Small, Large and Green-veined), Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock, while this week has produced the first Small Copper of the year – a tiny gem of a butterfly that’s a personal favourite of mine.

Small White in the garden
Small Copper – photo (c) Helen Rowe

Birds – 129 species seen

Birds are my personal specialism (such that I have one) in terms of interest and knowledge, so it’s unsurprising that they’ve scored quite highly. But the high species total also demonstrates the diversity of our local area, with its mix of salt and fresh water, heathland, grassland, dunes, cliffs, scrub, gardens and agriculture. Plus we’re on the east coast migration route, with lots of species passing through on their way north for the summer, from waders to Wheatears.

Wheatear – a typical spring migrant

Particular highlights have included a fine male Ring Ouzel, which spent a few days in a neighbour’s garden, a Grasshopper Warbler singing its strange ‘reeling’ song from the scrub at the end of our road, and a Black Redstart that popped up in the garden one evening, causing me to spill my supper all over the floor.

Ring Ouzel on neighbour’s fence!

Even the weekly shopping trip has produced some interesting records-in-the-passing, like Ospreys fishing over the estuary, and a magnificent Great White Egret, a rare visitor from the south, spotted from the car window one morning.

Great White Egret

Finally, the most bizarre addition to the Lockdown List here was a Ring-necked Duck – a vagrant from North America – which dropped in by Sand Loch one April afternoon. He didn’t stick around, and after half-heartedly mixing with the local waterfowl, he presumably carried on trying to find his way back home to the New World!

Howdy, how y’all doin’? – Ring-necked Duck

Amphibians – 3 species seen

These comprise the ‘triple crown’ of local residents – Common Frog, Common Toad and Palmate Newt, all of which occur in and around the garden pond, and occasionally wander onto the footpaths or the roads. So watch your feet if you’re out for a walk around wetland areas!

Palmate Newt away for a walk

Also of note…

Worth an honourable mention is the St Mark’s Fly, which is abundant in the local area at the moment. These harmless insects get their name from their annual date of emergence, which often falls around 25th April, known as St Mark’s day. They are somewhat ‘lazy’ fliers, and often crash-land on you if you walk through a swarm of them. As well as being a herald of the latter half of the spring – often coinciding with the onset of fine weather – they’re also a great source of protein for anything that eats insects. Even so, I would recommend keeping your mouth closed when you’re out for a walk just now.

St Mark’s Flies (the name has nothing to to with St Mark’s trousers)

So that’s a quick rundown of some of the comings and goings of the last few weeks at the north end of Forvie NNR. It’s certainly a busy time of year for wildlife just now, with lots to take in wherever you happen to be. So until things return to normal, keep safe and keep spotting, and we’ll keep you posted from Forvie.

Butterflies adapted to Climate Change?

Our species of butterfly and moth, collectively known as Lepidoptera, are perfectly adapted to survive in our UK climate but many species are only able to make use of certain parts of the country due to temperature and/or habitat.

Butterflies, and moths to some degree, are often used as indicators of climate change as they are very sensitive to climate variables. Temperature strongly effects butterflies so it makes sense that you can see climate change effects through changes in the butterfly populations in an area.

Species at the northern limit of their ranges for instance have been able to expand their ranges, moving northwards throughout the UK. Orange-tip and Peacock have become common in Scotland as the climate has become more suitable with this being linked to climate change.

Peacock butterfly moving North

The Cinnabar Moth, a day flying moth, was at its furthest range at St Cyrus for some time but was recorded at Forvie NNR in 2009 and is now regularly recorded on the Reserve clifftops.

Cinnabar Moth on Forvie NNR clifftops

Migratory species of butterfly like the Red Admiral have adapted to the climate with wintering populations now found in the UK.

Speckled Wood – another species moving further North

Another adaptation being employed to deal with the changes in climate is to start emerging earlier in the year in line with the climate. The beginning of the year in 2019 was much warmer than the same time period in 2018. This brought with it earlier species records of butterfly. In this way, many species of butterfly or some moths can almost look like they are extremely well equipt to deal with climate change. Move North and/or start your life cycle earlier to match the climate.

On the flip side of this there are some species that cannot adapted at this pace like the High Brown Fritillary and Silver-Studded Blue. Not species you see at Forvie mind you but they are specialised species. They have more particular habitat requirements and can be isolated on fragments of suitable habitats. These habitats are like small islands in a sea of agriculture and urban development. Due to their specialism, they cannot adapt quickly enough to keep up with the climate. In response to this though are some amazing projects though focused on wildlife corridors, connecting bits of isolated habitat to help stabilise and spread populations, particularly for habitat specialist that are more prone to population fragmentation.

All in all there will be some positive and some negative impacts with climate change, each having a separate influence dependant on the species and habitats. The story of the Peacock spreading is similar to that of the Robins and the Blackbirds of the bird world. The Generalists survive. The Peacock butterfly fairs best in the face of habitat loss and climate change as it can survive on more varied habitats. In this case, the Peacock butterfly establishing further north did so in part by making use of our gardens, the “small islands” we’ve provided in the sea of urban development. So never forget the importance of your garden in the bigger picture of wildlife biodiversity, every little green space is important.

A history in the land – Forvie’s Geology

Author Richard Woods – Forvie Volunteer

The diversity of wildlife and habitats at Forvie is due to several factors, including the climate and the shape of the landscape. The geomorphology is a result of the geological processes which have been acting for hundreds of millions of years. The sea and weather continue to change the coastline relentlessly. Three of the most obvious features of this landscape are the estuary of the river Ythan, the southern sand dunes, and the rocky coast in the northern half of the nature reserve.

The Ythan Estuary
The river Ythan flows for about 60 km (37 miles) through Aberdeenshire, reaching the sea on the southern edge of the nature reserve where it forms a small, shallow estuary. Here, the riverbed is a mixture of gravel, sand and mud which provides an ideal habitat for thousands of wading birds.

Ythan Estuary at low tide looking South (downstream)

During the last ice age, 27000 to 12000 years ago, the sea level was about 120 metres lower than it is today. As the climate warmed, the present-day estuary would have been a deep valley filled with glacial meltwater. The sea level rose, but so too did the land (though much more slowly) as the weight of the overlying ice was removed. The sea invaded the valley which gradually silted up, forming a shallow estuary. The changes in sea level also created a series of raised beaches which can still be seen on the reserve.

Up to eight raised beaches have been identified at Forvie, the most obvious being about two, five and ten metres above the present sea level. The path along the estuary from the Waterside car park roughly follows the 2-metre beach, and the 10-metre beach is now a sheep field above the path.

The 5-metre raised beach is best seen on the path between the estuary and the sea, among the dunes at the southern end of the reserve. It is also exposed near the mouth of the river Ythan where it forms an ideal nesting ground for the tern colony. The pebbles on this beach show a variety of textures and colours, most appear completely different from the local bedrock. These came from rocks which are found many miles inland and would have been transported here by glacial meltwater. Important to note that this section of the reserve is closed to the public during the breeding season for the terns with the Southern tip of the reserve protected all year for the designated Seal haul-out. Please follow all signage and barriers on the reserve when present.

Raised beach, partially covered by sand dunes
Pebbles on the raised beach; most are different from the local bedrock.

The Sand Dunes

The large sand dune between the estuary and the sea dominates the south of the reserve and is part of one of the largest dynamic dune systems in the United Kingdom.

Sand from a vast glacial deposit on the seabed is brought ashore by marine currents and waves at the southern end of the reserve, near the mouth of the river Ythan. The prevailing onshore south-easterly wind then blows the sand up the beach to form a dune up to 30 metres high, which moves steadily northwards. Few plants can grow in such an unstable environment, so the sand is free to move. Much of the sand from this ‘big dune’ ends up in the river Ythan and is washed back out to sea, forming a continuous cycle. The dune changes visibly in height and shape from one year to the next; winter storms expose the shingle of the raised beach at the base of the dune, sometimes revealing old vehicle tracks and vintage beach litter deposited several decades ago, before the dune engulfed them.  

Over the last four thousand years, a succession of dunes has advanced northwards, driven by the onshore wind. Their progress has been deduced from archaeology and historical records: two thousand years ago, Iron Age fields in what is now the south of the reserve were covered by several feet of wind-blown sand; in 1413 Forvie Kirk and village (in the middle of the reserve) were overwhelmed; in 1680 wind-blown sand covered the whole parish, the dune front reaching the northern lochs (near the reserve’s visitor centre); and in 1759 farms at Cotehill and Collieston applied for tax relief to compensate for the effects of the sand which covered their fields.

Eventually the movement of the northern dunes stalled as they moved too far from their supply of sand. Today, the dune system forms a series of seven ‘waves’, with lower-lying ‘dune slacks’ between them. The ‘big dune’ at the southern tip of the reserve is the youngest and most active.

The ‘Big Dune’ encroaching on older, grass-covered dunes

To the north, the dunes become progressively older and more stable. Pioneer plants such as Marram grass bind the sand, allowing other species to gain a foothold and soil to form.  The northern end of the reserve is covered by heather and scrub which gives little indication of the sand lying beneath.

Older dunes with more mature vegetation established in the low-lying ‘dune slack’

The Rocky Coast

The sandy beach, which stretches 20 km (12 miles) from Aberdeen to Forvie, ends abruptly at Rockend about half-way along the reserve’s coast. A dipping layer of grey rock emerges from the sand, initially forming low cliffs which become progressively higher, reaching a height of about 40 metres at Collieston, at the northern edge of the reserve.

View northwards along beach with the cliffs at Rockend in the distance

The waves and weather exploit any weakness, and at Rockend the rocks tend to break into parallel-sided blocks. Some, larger than a refrigerator, indicate the power of the winter storms.

Rock outcrop showing parallel fractures
Rock outcrop at Rockend

At first sight these rocks might appear unremarkable, but they have an interesting story to tell. They belong to a geological group called the Dalradian and were once ocean sediments which were deposited about 550 million years ago. These were later compressed, baked, and folded by immense forces to form ‘metamorphic’ rocks as ancient continents collided, the ocean was destroyed, and a mountain range was formed and eroded.

Traces of this violent past, such as folds and faults in the cliffs, are visible today. Minerals and structures within the rocks indicate the extreme temperatures and pressures which they have endured.

Pressure and heat fold the rock. A small ‘S-shaped’ fold in the cliff face.

To the north of Rockend the cliffs are home to seabirds, ravens, and peregrines. Waves and weather have formed natural arches and stacks with evocative names such as the Needle Eye, Corbie (‘crow’) Holes and The Poor Man. The shaping of the coastline never ceases.

This short tour of the coastal geomorphology of the reserve has shown some of the major features to be found within a small area. The estuary, dunes and rocky cliffs, and the processes which formed them are of scientific interest in themselves; the habitats they provide support the diversity of plants, birds and other wildlife which live here.

Nectar of the gods

No, I’m not talking about a certain beer from the Suffolk coast, or the output of any number of Scottish distilleries. Or gods either, as it happens. Instead we’re talking actual nectar here, from actual plants. This sweetly sugary solution is effectively nature’s petrol – a high-energy fuel that keeps the natural world motoring.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, nectaring on Dandelion

A vast variety of plants produce nectar, from the tiniest herbs to the mightiest trees, and everything in between. Essentially it’s bait for pollinators. The sweet treat is often ‘advertised’ by a brightly-coloured flower or an enticing smell. This attracts the ‘customer’ – more often than not an insect, though in some parts of the world it could also be a bird or mammal – which, in the process of lapping up the nectar, collects some pollen, to be dropped off at any flower it subsequently visits. So the pollinator gets its supper, and the plant passes on its genes to make the next generation of little plants. Genius, really.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have spent a lot (a LOT) of time looking at your garden lately. Chances are that your garden (or if you don’t have a garden, your local bit of green space) will already contain some nectar sources. What follows are some examples, and some potential changes you can make to your garden to make it better for pollinators.

Bee-friendly flowers

This is an obvious place to start. Many (but not all) familiar garden flowers are also handy sources of nectar and pollen for insects, such as Bumblebees. Early in the season, Daffodils are used extensively by bees in our garden, at a time when most other flowers are still dormant. The photo below demonstrates nicely how bees transfer pollen from one flower to the next!

Bumblebee on Daffodils

After the Daffodils, next come Primroses, picking up the baton of providing for our pollinators. And once the Primroses are finished, other flowering plants will be coming on-stream. A perfect garden for pollinators will have a ‘conveyor-belt’ of flowering plants – as one species finishes flowering, another begins – meaning an unbroken food supply for insects from early spring right through until late autumn.

Primrose

Flowering shrubs

Shrubs and trees are an oft-overlooked source of nectar and pollen. A recent post on this very blog mentioned the importance of Willows as a food source for early-season Bumblebees. Another good example which fares well in our coastal location is the Flowering Currant. Its attractive sprays of pink flowers are a magnet for bees during April and early May.

Flowering Currant

Another common garden plant, which also occurs in the wild, is Honeysuckle. Its nectar-rich flowers have an intensely sweet smell, often most noticeable at dusk on still evenings. Consequently it’s very popular with nocturnal pollinators such as moths, which use their long proboscis to access the nectar at the very bottom of each tubular flower. Honeysuckle can be ‘trained’ neatly along a fence or trellis, or if allowed to ‘get away’ it scrambles among trees and shrubs, forming dense cover. Its bonny flowers, delicious smell and attractiveness to insects make it a real winner in any garden.

Bedstraw Hawk-moth nectaring at Honeysuckle

Make a meadow

A wildflower meadow in high summer is a joy to behold. A riot of colours, shapes and smells is backed by the bass sound of droning bees and other insects, with butterflies adding further visual interest. It’s a feast for the senses, and isn’t too difficult to add to your garden, however small. Although the wildflower meadow outside the Forvie Centre is quite extensive, we have a miniature one in our garden that’s no more than four or five square metres in size – but every little helps our insects!

The Forvie Centre wildflower meadow
Ox-eye Daisies, or Gowans if you prefer
Meadow Cranesbill

The easiest way to create a wildflower meadow is simply to clear an area of ground down to bare earth, scarify it and scatter some wildflower seed – some lovely seed mixes are available from commercial suppliers, but do check they consist of native species! In our case, we simply took home a bin bag full of cuttings when we mowed the Forvie meadow one autumn, and spread them onto the prepared ground. Hey presto, next year we had Ox-eye Daisies, Black Knapweed and Red Campion springing up where hitherto there had been no wildflower interest. Being sourced from just half a mile away, the seeds had local provenance as well!

Carder Bee on Greater Bird’s-foot Trefoil

Wildflower meadows are typically low-maintenance, though it’s important to mow them once or twice a year (ideally mid-autumn after the seeds have set, and perhaps again in early spring) and to remove the cuttings. This last point is critical – by removing the cuttings, you remove the nutrients from the meadow that would otherwise promote the growth of rank grasses, which eventually out-compete the flowers.

A real friend of the wildflower gardener is the Yellow Rattle. This plant is a hemi-parasite, supplementing its nutrient stream by tapping into the roots of neighbouring grasses. This weakens the grasses, preventing them from dominating the meadow, and consequently promotes wildflower growth.

Yellow Rattle – semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses, it’s also known as the Meadow Maker

Don’t be afraid to be untidy!

This doesn’t mean abandoning your gardening efforts altogether. It simply means you can provide for wildlife very effectively by leaving some areas of your garden informal and un-weeded – perhaps the corner by the compost heap, the bit behind the shed, or the roadside verge where you park the car. Even everyday ‘weeds’ like Dandelions are actually a superb nectar source for insects – better in fact than the majority of our domesticated plants. So by leaving them to flower, you’re doing wildlife a big favour, as well as saving wear and tear on your back! Check this link if you don’t believe me.

Bumblebee on Dandelion

So, some sweet and sugary food for thought there about gardening for pollinators. It’s not as difficult as you’d think, and with a little effort you too can help to keep the natural world motoring through the year.

I’ll drink to that – where’s that aforementioned beer?…

Hardy coastal plants

One of the features that makes Forvie special, like much of the North East coast, is the coastal morphology. The cliffs of Forvie are a protected feature of the site and it’s an important habitat on its own right. The environment is harsh, bearing the brunt of strong winds, breaking waves and salt spray. Yet they are home to plenty of wildlife, our coastal specialists!

Forvie’s coastal morphology

Some of the species that might instantly jump to mind are our seabirds like thyis Kittiwake below pictures last year. Many species will nest on the cliffs to stay away from predators like foxes but herin lies the trade off. There is a reason they are safer from certain predators on the cliffs, the danger and harshness of the environment. These birds are specially adapted to live in these environments, filling a different niche than species we might see inland.

Wildlife on the cliffs – Kittiwake with chick

But birds are not the only groups that have adapted to these niche environment. These are also harsh conditions for plants, on the cliff and clifftops. The physical elements are challenging. Strong winds prune plants of leaves and dry them out. Rocky and sandy soil limit water retention. Waves crashing over the cliffs spray salt in the air that absorbs into the plants – all things that would kill many plants.

Waves breaking over the cliffs spraying salt water

Yet as the title suggests, our coastal specialist are hardy plants! A familiar sight for many on the cliffs will be Sea Thrift. You will often see bees fliting from flower to flower on the Forvie cliffs picking up nectar and pollen along the way. One of the features that allows it to grow on the clifftops is that it’s a halophyte, meaning it is adapted to varying saline conditions. Salt taken up into the plant is compartmentalised and sent into older leaves of the plant which will be shed from the plant. It is also drought tolerant, meaning it will grow well on coastal habitats but in poorly drained soil that holds a lot of water, Sea Thrift would likely be out-competed by other plants.

Sea Thift in full bloom
Sea Thirft flowering head

Another coastal specialist we have on the Forvie coast is this beautiful flowering Sea Campion. As the name suggests, just like Sea Thrift, it occurs mostly by the sea and grows on the clifftops on the reserve. Sea Campion’s grey-green leaves are slightly fleshy which helps it to retain moisture in the face of sea winds. The leaves are also waxy to feel, this is often a feature of plants to help retain moisture in the leaf.

Sea Campion

One of the rare and protected plants at Forvie which is a true coastal specialist is the Oysterplant pictured below. It blooms beautiful blue flowers, pink when in bud. It forms mats on the shingle and even from the picture you can tell the leaves are quite fleshy to help store water! It got its common name as its leaves are said to taste of oysters. As it’s a protected plant we can’t of course test that so we might have to trust the internet on that one. They are also called Sea Bluebells as the flowers do share a resemblance! On the reserve these plants can grow on the high tide line, washed over with sea water and wave action. The lack of other plants nearby shows just how specialised and tough plants like this can be but they do suffer. Its rarity these days stems from habitat destruction and climate change.

Oysterplant – a protected species on the reserve.

This last plant grows in coastal areas like clifftops and salt-marshes but can occur other places as well. Common Scurvy-grass. To avoid confusion, it didn’t get its common name because it leaves you anaemic with severe tooth issues but quite the opposite. It is rich in vitamin C and was brought on ships in dried bundles or as extracts to stave off scurvy. The sharp taste of the leaves were made into a popular Scurvy-grass ale in the UK as a tonic. That might just be another flavour that I’ll leave to my imagination. Like the other plants here, it has a high tolerance to salt levels which allows it to grow better in unforgiving coastal conditions.

Common Scurvy-grass

All in all the species found on the coast are often specially adapted to this environment, hence why they thrive as opposed to other species. These species are just some of the plants that brave the elements to adapt to their local environments.

The wonder of Willows

So, we find ourselves in May – the ‘business end’ of the spring, as I like to think of it. Business, or rather busyness, is certainly the order of the day just now, with wildlife everywhere gearing up for the breeding season and the endlessly long days of summer to come. We may still be in lockdown, but the natural world around us is in full throttle.

Particularly prominent in the garden at the moment are Bumblebees, droning among the shrubs in search of nectar and pollen from dawn till dusk each day. However, their favourite food source here isn’t the host of yellow Daffodils in the borders, nor the golden flowers of the Kingcups clustered around the pond. Instead, they make a beeline (literally) for the Willows standing along the back fence, which are currently laden with yellow-green catkins.These trees are unsung heroes when it comes to providing early-season sustenance for our insects.

Bumblebee on willow catkin

This got me thinking and marvelling about Willows in general. These are a massively diverse family of trees, with around 400 species known to occur throughout their natural range in the northern hemisphere. They grow everywhere from the seashore to the tree-line up in the mountains. They survive in almost every type of habitat, from dry sandy coastal heath to permanently wet marshland. Some are mighty, magnificent trees, while others barely grow as high as your bootlaces. Willows are a wonderful example of the planet’s biological diversity.

Goat Willow catkins (I think!)

Of course, with 400 species to choose from, identifying willows to species is far from straightforward. To further complicate matters, many of them freely hybridise, producing offspring that are neither one species nor the other. One thing they all have in common, though, is their reproductive strategy – all willows are dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female. Of the two photos above, the top one shows the catkins of a female plant, and the lower one those of a male plant.

After the catkins come the leaves, and the photo below is how some of our local willows are beginning to look just now.

Willows coming into leaf

As well as reproducing from seed, Willows have a remarkable propensity to grow from cuttings, or even from broken branches lying on the ground. At home in our garden, most of our Willows originate from cuttings taken off the hedge outside the Forvie Centre. Just strip a bit of bark off each one, poke them in the ground, give them a good watering and off they go.

These willows were all grown from cut sticks

On the Reserve, one of the commonest species present is the Creeping Willow. it can be found all along the Heath Trail and along the shore of Sand Loch. Like its full-sized relatives, this diminutive tree also produces catkins…

…but the photo probably doesn’t do justice to its size, so here’s a finger for scale!

Later on in the year, when it acquires its silvery-green leaves, it looks a bit more familiar. But it’s easy to walk past it (or indeed on it) and not realise it’s actually a tree. This species is typical of northern latitudes, where growing seasons are short and conditions harsh, and it survives in places where other trees simply wouldn’t be able to.

Creeping Willow in leaf

Elsewhere on the Reserve, the larger Willow species form clumps of scrub on the moor, often in the wetter areas. These clumps provide a refuge for Roe Deer during the day, a nesting site for breeding birds in summer, and a service station for migrating birds in spring and autumn.

Willow scrub on Forvie Moor
Roe Deer – often found in the scrub during the daylight hours

It would be possible to write an almost endless piece on the species that survive, thrive and depend on Willows. Some even bear their name, so strong is the association – the Willow Warbler and the Willow Beauty moth are two that instantly spring to mind. But what about us as a species? How do we interact with these remarkable trees? Do most of us ever even come into contact with them? Basically, yes. Consider the following (deep breath now)…

Willow bark contains salicylic acid (the scientific name for Willow is Salix). This is the active ingredient in aspirin, and in days of old, people would have chewed Willow bark to stave off a headache or other complaint. The chemical compound in question forms the basis of many medicines we know today. Meanwhile, many people did (and still do) use wicker baskets – made from Willow twigs – for carrying their washing or firewood. Speaking of which, it also makes decent if somewhat lightweight firewood, and can be harvested on rotation in a coppice system owing to its fast growth rate; a truly sustainable fuel. It’s the timber of choice for making cricket bats, so any readers fond of a bit of Test Match Special also owe this to the humble Willow. And for those of an artistic bent, some of the world’s finest artists’ charcoal also comes from Willows.

What’s not to like?

Willows – a wonder of the natural world

Nesting habits

It’s that time of the year again, your garden birds are getting busy and collecting nest material for the season ahead. The dawn chorus a beautiful sound scape in the early hours, if you’re the type to be up that early!

Over the last while I’ve watched some of my garden birds gather nest materials, eagerly hopping around on the ground collecting foliage, small twigs, feathers… the whole shabang really.

Starling gathering materials for a nest

I’ve been lucky enough to get a Willow Warbler singing in my garden everyday too! Unfortunately this good luck has been balanced out by a nesting pair of Starling in the gutter above my bedroom window….. the scratching and calling a 5am has been a very consistent alarm clock recently.

Willow Warbler proudly singing away in the tree tops

Although a lot of birds nest in trees as you would expect many also nest in bushes and hedgerows.

flimsy wood pigeon nest build from twigs

With this in mind and with many of us out gardening in the current crisis its important to not forget that any tree or hedge work should be avoided at this time of the year! All nesting birds are protected in the UK so there is a risk of disturbing or destroying nests with tree or hedge work during the breeding season.

The beginnings of a blue tit nest in a nest box

My garden birds prepping for the season got me thinking about other species that I am missing at home, the diversity in how birds nest can be quite interesting! Our reserve resident terns and Black-Headed Gulls for instance opt to nest on the ground in large colonies. Although non breeding on reserve, waders like Lapwing nest in a similar fashion in some regards, relying on safety in numbers. They in particular look to nest in very short cropped vegetation in wide open areas like fields to limit any hiding spaces or perches for predators. Trees that might be too near could rule out a nesting location for Lapwing, a potential perch for a buzzard to prey on the colony.

Eider take another approach, relying on camouflage and nesting in the vegetation. They stay perfectly still if they think you haven’t noticed them to protect their eggs.

Female Eider incubating eggs

One of the first birds that shocked me was they Grey Heron, turns out they nest in trees! Being a waterbird I never really associated them with trees but they do nest high up in the canopy. Heronries can be found in reedbeds too which I suppose is what I had assumed initially, at least I wasn’t totally incorrect.

Grey Herons nest up trees

Two other surprising species are Puffins and Shelduck. Both birds can actually re-purpose old rabbit burrows to nest underground! Surprising enough as I found this, the biggest surprise came last year seeing a single Jackdaw flying in and out of the ternary, entering with a full crop and leaving with an empty crop. After investigating the site to ensure there wasn’t any predation issues the only thing we found was a number of old rabbit holes…. we came to the conclusion that like a Puffin or Shelduck, the Jackdaw was probably making the most of the available space underground to make its nest.

Osprey being chased off by shelducks