Cold Start

Returning to work after a two-week holiday, I often feel I’m starting from cold, in the manner of an old English Electric diesel engine. One cylinder at a time, lots of smoke and noise, coughing and spluttering, before finally settling down into a rhythm and getting to work. It certainly took a couple of days this week to shake off the inertia of the festive break, but it’s good to be up and running again. Probably in common with many other folk, I feel like I need the exercise!

It’s also been a cold start to the year, literally. Early January has seen the hardest frosts of the winter so far, with periodic thaws and occasional freezing rain turning Forvie into a 1,000-hectare ice rink. While the car parks have been liberally sprayed with rock salt, it’s impossible for us to grit the many miles of footpaths across the Reserve – so for visitors it’s just a case of take care, tread carefully and take your time in the icy conditions.

Sand Loch frozen over
Paths and tracks like a toboggan run

Overnight on Thursday into Friday, we received the first significant snowfall of the winter – admittedly just a couple of inches of snow, but by today’s standards a notable fall. Provided I don’t have to drive in it, I’ve always enjoyed snow. It covers up some of mankind’s mistakes, albeit temporarily, and for a short while the world appears natural and pristine again. It can also turn a familiar environment into something otherworldly and breathtakingly beautiful. That it is unusual, unpredictable and short-lived makes a snowfall on the Reserve extra special, and something to be savoured.

I’m dreaming of a white, er, January
Fresh snow on the grasses
Rose hips in snow

Cold weather such as this can obviously have a big impact on our wildlife. Some species, including insects, amphibians and certain mammals, sit out the entire winter in a safe place and await the coming of spring, thereby negating the effects of a sudden cold snap. Others, such as migratory birds, may flee the cold and head for milder climes.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly – often found overwintering indoors!
Lapwings heading south – a classic cold-weather migrant

On Thursday I was lucky enough to flush up a Woodcock from the coastal heath at Rockend – almost certainly a cold-weather refugee bound southwards ahead of the snow. These curiously cryptic waders don’t take flight until you almost tread on them, erupting from under your feet with a clatter of wings (and usually a torrent of bad language on my part as I fall on my backside in the wet). If you’re ever fortunate enough to see one on the ground, they’re exquisitely patterned, like the fallen leaves of the woodland floor where they spend most of their lives. Woodcocks are invertebrate-eaters, probing the ground with a long, flexibly-tipped bill, and this is clearly not compatible with frozen earth. So flee they must. In cold conditions they can turn up just about anywhere, and are often displaced to odd locations like gardens, roadsides and town centres. Or in our case, a windswept coastal heath.

Woodcock – technically a wader, but never actually wades

Other species just sit tight and tough it out. Not a problem for our Snow Buntings, hardy little birds whose favoured habitat – the salty dunes and beach of South Forvie – rarely freezes up entirely. They can almost always find something to eat among the Marram grass and strand-line debris, however cold the weather.

Snow Bunting – at home in the dunes
Safely camouflaged in the Marrams!

For others though, things are not so straightforward. Stonechats are insectivorous, and as such they can easily be frozen out of their food supply by cold weather. Most of their close relatives, like Whinchats and Redstarts, head to Africa in winter in order to be guaranteed some nosh. But Stonechats shun the potentially perilous migration, preferring to just sit tight and roll the dice. In a mild winter the gamble pays off, but when the weather turns cold it’s a different story. Last summer up to 20 pairs of Stonechats were present on Forvie, but a long walk around the north end of the Reserve on Tuesday revealed just three birds – a pair and a lone female. The severity of the winter will dictate how many pairs are present on the Reserve in the coming summer – only time will tell.

Stonechat, or ‘Kenny Rogers bird’ – the gambler

Other species throw their lot in with us humans. In the village, the House Sparrows have been gratefully accepting the handouts at various garden feeding-stations, while that little bit of warmth escaping from our houses can mean the difference between life and death when the temperatures drop below freezing.

House Sparrow fluffed out against the cold

Meanwhile a Robin followed me around part of the Dune Trail in the frost on Thursday, optimistic that I might have offered it something edible. I had to apologise for not having any crumbs or mealworms on my person. Being guilt-tripped by a passerine: such is the life of the conservationist.

Robin – ever the optimist

Lastly, I was surprised and delighted to see a Weasel in our back garden in the week – our first ever record here. It’s likely that they’re always present in our area, but the cold weather makes them more likely to break cover and hunt in the open during daylight hours. Sadly I wasn’t quick enough to grab a photo. However, this illustrates the point that wherever you are, it’s worth being extra observant just now, as the cold can produce some unusual and memorable wildlife sightings. Good luck – and be sure to stay warm and stay safe!

Happy new year!

The notice-board in our home village of Collieston, on the edge of the Reserve, contains a series of one-liners to make people smile. The one that made me smile spoke of staying up late at Hogmanay – not to see the new year in, but to make sure that the old one leaves. There are many of us who felt that way about 2020 for sure. But here we are with a new year, a blank slate, and lots of exciting possibilities for the twelve months ahead.

A new year’s sunrise

I recall when I set off northeastwards for my first six-month contract as estate worker at Forvie. New employer, new patch, new colleagues – indeed, a new life. Driving my battered old Peugeot 106 diesel (still sadly missed) up the A1, I had mixed feelings of trepidation and excitement. Foremost in the latter category was what natural wonders I might get to encounter. For this was a foreign environment with lots of discoveries waiting to be made, and for the amateur (or professional) naturalist, few things are more exciting than visiting unfamiliar surroundings.

Once an alien environment, now very familiar – but no less wondrous – Forvie’s dunes

Fourteen years later, and the environment here is now very familiar to me. But the excitement at the turn of each new year has yet to diminish. Anybody with an interest in nature will understand this: it’s the thought of what the coming year might bring. Will the winter proffer an invasion of white-winged gulls or rare geese? A Waxwing irruption, perhaps? Might I finally see a Water Vole on the Reserve? Or add that Hen Harrier to the ‘garden list’?

Iceland Gull – enigmatic white-winged denizen of the north
Waxwing – some years you see ’em, some you don’t
Most wanted: Water Vole – photo (c) Alan Ross, River Dee Trust

Will spring arrive early or late this year? When will the first bumblebees and butterflies emerge? When will the first terns return from the tropics? Or the first Swallows? Will the stars, winds and weather align to deliver a ‘Bluethroat spring’?

An early Bumblebee
Male Bluethroat – a most sought-after springtime treat

Will summer yield a rare blossoming of Lesser Butterfly Orchid on the heath, or a big influx of southern butterflies and moths? Will the autumn bird migration season be studded with Siberian gems, or might there be a huge ‘fall’ of thrushes or Goldcrests?

Will it be a big Painted Lady year?
A freshly arrived migrant Goldcrest

Will this be the year of an unforgettable Orca sighting, or perhaps a Humpback Whale encounter? A mesmerising display of the Northern Lights, even? The wonderful thing is that nobody can answer these questions. All the technology in the world can’t predict when an amazing natural spectacle will unfold before your eyes (or ears) – though a good working knowledge of ecology and the weather charts can sometimes help put you in the right place at the right time!

Orca – an unforgettable sight
Aurora borealis, viewed from the Forvie Centre car park

Of course, the natural world has the potential to surprise, delight and inspire at any time. But for some reason, the turn of the year seems to focus the mind to the possibilities ahead. Maybe it’s the psychology associated with starting a new diary or wildlife notebook (from which all my chaotic casual records will be recovered and sent to the local biological records centre at the year’s end). Either way, it provides a boost of energy and excitement even at this darkest, coldest time of the year. This is one of the real up sides of having an interest in the natural world, however casual or serious that interest may be. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

The Forvie Centre at a new dawn – a theatre of dreams!

Whatever the new year has in store at Forvie, we’ll be sure to keep you posted on these pages. Here’s hoping this year will be a memorable one – this time in a good way.

2020 – the year in review

“Aye, it’s been some year”. The words of a local resident, in typical understated north-east Scotland fashion. Spoken in the same way as a neighbour saying “A bittie windy the day”, as the wheelie bins go somersaulting down the road and the slates part company with the roof. Understated indeed.

For 2020 certainly has been a memorable year. Twelve months ago it’s unlikely that many of us would have been able to predict what lay in store. At times it’s felt more like the plot of a sci-fi film rather than reality. But life on the Reserve has carried on, life-affirmingly for those of us lucky enough to have access to it. And for those who couldn’t come to the Reserve this year, hopefully this blog has brought the Reserve to the people.

So here’s how the year unfolded, in the smallest of nutshells.

Winter

The Reserve was lashed by a series of storms in the early part of the year, with some spectacular seas on show for anyone brave (daft?) enough to take on the elements. For all that, the winter was relatively dry, and water levels remained low. The Ythan Estuary bustled with birds and seals, while Otters were regularly sighted near the A975 road bridge. As the day length perceptibly increased, work began to prepare the ternery in South Forvie for the rapidly-approaching breeding season. At this stage, the year was much like any other!

Big waves after Storm Dennis
Redshanks on the Ythan Estuary
Brushcutting at the ternery, before the birds returned
Volunteers keeping warm at the ternery

Spring

The ternery electric fence was erected in March, just before the entire country entered full lockdown. The Reserve was then eerily quiet in terms of visitors, with just the residents of Collieston and Newburgh able to visit for their daily exercise. As folk were confined to barracks, interest in garden and local wildlife increased, and was a frequent topic of conversation. Wildlife became more noticeable and approachable, possibly due to the Reserve being quieter than usual – or maybe people just had more time to notice! This was a recurring theme across the entire country. The spring migration season produced a few nice avian highlights, while a Common Lizard found on the Reserve boundary at Collieston was, excitingly, the first ever recorded on this side of the estuary.

Ternery fence going up
Bumblebee on willow catkin
Ring Ouzel – spring migrant
Roe bucks on a spring morning
King Eider – an old favourite returning for his eleventh year

Summer

Thanks to special access permissions being arranged for Reserve staff, and subsequent careful management work being carried out, the bird breeding season was largely successful, with most species producing good numbers of fledged young. Lockdown was finally lifted in late June, and visitor numbers skyrocketed thereafter; it’s fair to say that the Reserve has never been as busy. The weather was a real mixed bag, but warm southerly winds in late summer delivered the biggest arrival of Painted Lady butterflies since 2009. The wildflower season was short yet sweet, and Grayling butterflies seemed to enjoy a resurgence after a series of poor years.

The Forvie ternery in high summer
Wild Pansies
Painted Lady (on Devil’s-bit Scabious)
Grayling (on Wild Thyme)

Autumn

By late August the ternery fence was dismantled, and South Forvie re-opened to the public once more. On the heath, the ‘heather season’ saw the landscape turn purple for a brief but glorious period. The influx of butterflies and moths from the south continued, with a Convolvulus Hawk-moth at Collieston and a great arrival of Red Admirals across the Reserve. The autumn produced the best showing of migrant birds for several years, both in terms of numbers and variety, and some memorable days’ spotting were enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. Reserve staff began to catch up with a backlog of work from the spring and summer, including repairing the heavily-used footpaths. After a hitherto-very-dry year, the heavens finally opened, and the rest of the year would prove very wet indeed.

Red Admiral
Convolvulus Hawk-moth
Icterine Warbler (photo © Ron Macdonald)
Blackcap

Winter

As the year came full-circle, the soundscape of the Reserve again became dominated by wild geese, swans and waders, while numbers of Grey Seals started to increase once again at the mouth of the estuary. Occasional frosts were interspersed with stormy conditions, in a mirror-image of the beginning of the year. Water levels increased dramatically, and the Heath Trail was best tackled with wellies (or an inflatable dinghy). Reports were written, machines serviced, waterfowl counted, and even the workshop swept prior to the festive break. Thoughts then began to turn to next year, and getting back into the saddle to do it all once again.

Wild geese at sunset
Grey Seals (photo © Lorne Gill)
Bittersweet berries on a frosty morning
Stormy waters – a fitting final analogy for 2020?

So that’s 2020 just about wrapped up, for better or worse. Here’s wishing all of our readers all the very best for 2021 then. Hope the new year is kind to you, and we’ll maybe see you out and about on the Reserve – I for one will need to burn off some festive calories!

The twelve days of Christmas – Forvie style

Have you ever noticed that the ubiquitous Christmas carol named in this week’s title has a decidedly birdy theme? Turtle doves, French hens, geese, swans, calling birds and the inevitable partridge; one can only hope that the recipient of said gifts had a large aviary in the garden (or, for the less sentimental, a chest freezer). Anyway, this got me wondering about appropriating the theme for a Forvie version.

So without any further ado, here we go. Counting down in true Top-of-the-Pops fashion, of course.

Twelve drummers drumming

There’s only one contender for this title at Forvie. The ‘drumming’ sound of displaying Snipe is a fixture of spring and summer on the Reserve, and this year it attracted a lot of attention from curious local residents. It’s an unearthly sort of sound, more a bleating or throbbing noise than actual drumming, but this is the term widely used to describe it. Even more curious is the way the sound is made – not vocally but mechanically, by the wind rushing through the bird’s specially-adapted tail feathers in a diving, swooping display flight. Top marks for style and innovation. Twelve Snipe it is.

Eleven pipers piping

“Kapeeep-kapeeep-kapeeep-peep-peep…” The sound of piping, peeping, skirling, squabbling Oystercatchers is as much a part of Forvie as the estuary itself, and in high summer it’s a 24-hour-a-day soundtrack. Even now, in the depths of winter, the sounds of Oystercatchers enliven the grey mudflats of the estuary at low tide. If only for sheer volume and persistence, rather than melody, they deserve their place in the song. Eleven Oystercatchers then.

Ten lords a-leaping

The Brown Hare is a shoo-in for this title. Well known for their springtime boxing antics, hares are a familiar and popular sight around the northern boundaries of the Reserve at Collieston. It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that they’re not actually a native species; they were thought to have been introduced by the Romans approximately 2,000 years ago. Despite this they have a special place in our cultural heritage, and are very much ‘part of the furniture’ in the UK. So ten hares go into the mix.

Nine ladies dancing

This role has to go to the Common Crane, a scarce but increasingly regular visitor to Forvie. Standing at around four feet tall, with improbably long legs and neck, and a magnificent array of drooping scapular feathers, these are among the most elegant and stately of all birds. Their spring pair-bonding display involves much calling, cavorting and dancing, and if the species’ fortunes continue to improve, this might become a feature of future springs at Forvie. Though you’d be lucky to see nine in one go!

Eight maids a-milking

Down in North Devon, where I spent part of my childhood, Milkmaids is an old country name for the flower commonly known as Lady’s Smock (or Cuckoo-flower, depending on which textbook you read). This delicate and attractive plant can be found growing in the wetter bits of Forvie, particularly the dune slacks that flood in winter and remain damp in summer. A favourite of butterflies, it’s the foodplant of the Green-veined White, one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring – there’s something to look forward to. Eight Milkmaids enter the fray then.

Seven swans a-swimming

Here at Forvie, we regularly see two species of swan: the resident Mute Swan, and the migrant Whooper Swan (a third species, the Bewick’s Swan, is a rare vagrant here). The Whooper Swan is far the more sociable of the two, and if you see seven swans a-swimming together during the winter here, they’re likely to be Whoopers. Possessed of a resonant, far-carrying voice, which they’re not afraid to use, they can often be heard long before you actually see them. There are few sounds in the natural world more evocative than a distant flock of Whooper Swans on a crisp, clear winter’s day; I reckon they deserve a song all of their own. Seven Whooper Swans it is then.

Six geese a-laying

Of all the different types of geese that occur in our region, the most prominent among them has to be the Pink-footed Goose. Several thousand of them spend the winter in the vicinity of the Reserve, and tens of thousands more pass through during spring and autumn. Consequently they provide the soundtrack to life here on the east coast from September to April each year, and are conspicuous by their absence during the summer months! There’s no laying going on among our Pink-footed Geese though – they go to Iceland in summer to do all that breeding stuff. So while ‘six thousand geese a-roosting’ doesn’t quite fit the cadence of the song, they’re no less deserving of their place here.

Five gold rings

This highly sought-after title – if only because it’s the only bit of the song that anybody can actually remember – goes to the Ringlet butterfly. The underside of each hindwing is indeed decked out with five golden rings, with a couple more on the forewings for good measure. Ringlets occur plentifully in the grassland of the Reserve during the summer months, where their distinctive dark-chocolate ground colour makes them quite obvious; you do need a decent view of one to see the rings though. A true champion – five gold Ringlets for the win.

Four collie birds

What’s that, I hear you say? Collie birds??? He’s finally lost the plot altogether. Wait a moment though, let me explain. In the popular version of the song, ‘four calling birds’ could reasonably be taken to mean any songbird. But it’s probably a corruption of ‘four collie birds’ – collie bird being an olde-worlde name for the Blackbird. While Blackbirds are present year-round at Forvie, they are most prominent in spring (when the males sing mellifluously from song-posts within their breeding territories) and autumn (when the resident population is supplemented by immigrants from Scandinavia). Even into early December this year, foreign Blackbirds were still making landfall on our shores, in the final act of the epic 2020 autumn migration season. There’s more to the Blackbird than first meets the eye, and it’s a worthy recipient of the No.4 spot here.

Three French hens

This is a bit of a convoluted one, I must admit. But please bear with me. Many readers will be familiar with the jaunty and seemingly-twee-and-innocent French ditty ‘Alouette’. A quick translation reveals the subject to be the Skylark, who ends up on the receiving end of some pretty harsh treatment: “Lark, nice lark, I am going to pluck you…” Indeed, by the end of said song the poor old lark is in a sorry state, having had its beak, wings, legs, back, neck, tail, eyes and head plucked (the mind boggles). By way of recompense, I propose that the Skylark – the very embodiment of summer on the dune heath at Forvie – assumes the role of the French hen in our song. Three Skylarks it is then – intact ones as well.

Two turtle doves

Your author has lived and worked at Forvie for about fourteen years now, and is still awaiting his second Turtle Dove. The only one I have ever seen here was in a Collieston garden, a tantalisingly short distance from the Reserve boundary. Turtle Doves have declined massively throughout Europe in recent years, and it could be a long wait to see another one here. Consequently I’m replacing it in our song with a close relative, the Woodpigeon. A bird for all seasons, the Woodpigeon is tough and adaptable, and consequently is faring much better than its smaller cousin. Woodpigeons breed more or less all year, and their soft cooing song can be heard in the bare woods of midwinter as well as the leafy, hazy days of summer. Don’t park your car under trees used by Woodpigeons for roosting though; there’s another good reason this species takes the No.2 spot.

And a partridge…

…in a stunted tree, growing at 45 degrees to the salt wind. Admittedly this doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but we’ve got to be realistic here (our attempt at growing a pear tree in our Collieston garden was yet another heroic failure). Grey Partridges, however, do eke out a living here, especially in the grassland on the northern edge of the Reserve. They can often be heard at dusk on a calm evening; the call is far-carrying, unmelodic and somewhat reminiscent of a rusty lock being opened. If you’re lucky, you may see a small group of them (a ‘covey’, as it’s termed) taking flight and skimming away, low to the ground, on stiff wings. It’s often the finale to a walk on the Reserve on a winter’s day, and as such makes a fitting finale to our seasonal song, Forvie style.

So there you have it: Forvie’s take on an old seasonal favourite. On the behalf of the whole team here at the Reserve, here’s wishing all our readers a happy, restful and wildlife-filled festive season.

A winter wildlife walkabout

We’re definitely getting into the Christmas spirit here at Forvie – in fact it’s rained ‘ere all week. Get it, rained ‘ere, reindeer…? Never mind. On with the blog.

If last week could be described as cold, clear and crisp, then this one has been wild, windy and wet – especially wet. What a contrast! According to our dipwells in the dunes, the water levels have gone up six inches since the last reading was taken. Consequently, in terms of visitors, the Reserve has been at its quietest since the full national lockdown in the spring. And I don’t blame folk for not wanting to be out and about in the conditions we’ve experienced in the last few days.

The Forvie monsoon season under way
Dipwell nearly submerged by rising water levels

Nice weather for ducks, as some might say. Sure enough, ducks have been very much in evidence lately. For instance, Sand Loch has hosted no fewer than seven species in the past week: the usual Mallards and Tufted Ducks, plus ones and twos of Wigeon, Pintail, Goldeneye, Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser. A veritable smorgasbord of web-footed wondrousness.

Tufted Duck, or rather Drake
Red-breasted Mergansers, photographed on a nicer day
Likewise a pair of Wigeon

Wigeon, to my mind at least, are particularly interesting. They’re chiefly grazers, and they like to feed on short grass in places like saltmarshes and water meadows. Consequently their legs are set centrally on their bodies to facilitate walking (as opposed to the ‘diving ducks’ like Tufted Duck or Red-breasted Merganser, whose legs are set well back for underwater propulsion). They also have short necks and bills – further adaptations to their grazing habits – but this means that when they’re swimming in deeper water, they can’t reach the underwater vegetation. Consequently, on the lochs, they can often be seen hanging out with the swans. To paraphrase a 1990s beer advertising campaign, the long necks of swans can reach the places that others can’t, and the Wigeon gratefully accept any scraps of vegetation that the swans dredge up. Good thinking, that.

A gang of Wigeon scrounging off a Mute Swan

Along the coast between Collieston and Hackley Bay, the run-of-the-mill ‘seagulls’ (please, Herring Gulls) were joined earlier this week by two Iceland Gulls, scarce winter visitors from the north-west. Lacking any dark markings in the wingtips, an Iceland Gull looks a bit like an ordinary gull that’s died and gone to heaven, with a stunning translucent effect to the wing feathers in flight. Adult birds are strikingly ghostly-pale, while immatures tend to be milky-coffee-coloured with paler wingtips; this week’s Forvie duo consisted of an adult and a juvenile.

Juvenile Iceland Gull, or frothy-milky-coffee-gull if you prefer

Iceland Gulls are never plentiful in this country. In some winters they’re extremely scarce, while in others they are a little easier to come by; the reasons for this are unclear. However, in any year, our coastline here in north-east Scotland is one of the best areas of the UK to find one. Given that it’s unusual for these birds to arrive here before the turn of the year, it’s possible that these two early individuals are the vanguard of an invasion to come later in the winter. Either way, it’s well worth keeping an eye on the local gulls at the moment for one of these white-winged winter treats.

Adult Iceland Gull – what a cracker (seasonal pun intended)

Meanwhile, over on the heath, there’s further interest to be found right down at ground level. This has been especially apparent in a week when we’ve all been walking with our heads down due to the weather! Although most all of the heathland plants are now dormant for the winter, the lichens are looking magnificent, even on the dullest of dull days. Just don’t ask me to put names to them all.

Finally, we’re still receiving excited reports from visitors about close encounters with Roe Deer on the Reserve. During the spring, the deer seemed to be more plentiful and approachable than ever before, perhaps emboldened by the sudden tranquillity of the lockdown period. However, even post-lockdown, they continue to be seen regularly, adding a dash of excitement to many people’s daily walks. It may simply be the case that in the course of 2020, people have had more time to take in their surroundings, and consequently have noticed things that hitherto may have escaped their notice – the Roe Deer being a case in point.

An encounter with a Roe Deer in the murk – an unforgettable moment

A wild and wet winter week it was then. But a wealth of wildlife for the waterproofed walker to wonder at, whatever the weather. Try saying that after a few mulled wines. Till next time folks!

What goes around…

So we find ourselves in December: just two weeks from the shortest day, the lowest ebb of the year. Fittingly, the past week’s weather has generally been becalmed, clear and very cold, and the newly-arrived winter has been bedecked with frost. One evening in the week, as I was crunching my way through the bare and frozen garden to fetch in some firewood, I was struck by the scarcely-believable contrast between this and the warm hazy days of late summer, with bees droning around the honeysuckle and Willow Warblers flitting among the luxuriant vegetation (and maybe the burble of Test Match Special on the radio in the background). What’s more, this all seemed remarkably recent.

A frost settling on Sand Loch – note the ice forming in the channel to the left

Forvie lies at just over 57 degrees north, and one of the joys of living and working at a relatively high latitude is the exaggerated nature of the seasons. In summer we are bathed in daylight for nearly 20 hours out of 24, whereas in the depths of winter it seems barely to get light. Spring and autumn are consequently seasons of massive change. In terms of daylight hours, temperatures, weather and wildlife, we enjoy a life of high contrasts and endless variety.

For those folk who don’t like the winter, you can at least rest assured that it won’t be long until the seasons turn around again. But to write the winter off altogether would be a real pity, since the season has plenty to offer even the casual observer. A frosty morning, for example, can create extraordinary beauty from almost nothing.

The little selection of photos above were all taken just outside the Forvie Centre in the first hour of daylight; in these conditions it’s well worth taking the time to get down to ground level to appreciate the intricacies of the ‘ice art’ before the morning sun gets to work. Nearby, the wildlife pond was completely frozen over, testament to how still the preceding night had been.

Forvie Centre pond totally glazed over

The last of the autumn’s Bittersweet berries were gamely hanging on, and their bright colours stood out strikingly from the otherwise monochrome backdrop. A better photographer than me would be able to create some beautiful images from such raw materials as these.

Bittersweet berries
Frost-glazed loveliness

Out on the Heath Trail, the lichens, grasses and dwarf shrubs were also all rimed with frost. Surely no less attractive than the purple heathers of summer or the varied colours of autumn?

As discussed earlier though, change is never far away. Standing on the high ground above Sand Loch, a scan with the binoculars around the horizon showed Bennachie, Forvie’s nearest hill of note, in crystal clarity to the west. Off to the north, however, snowy-looking clouds were piling up, hinting at some unsettled weather to come. Sure enough, as I write this a day after taking these photos, we’re being lashed by a north-easterly and stingingly cold sleety rain, and the frosted beauty of the previous few mornings has been swept away again. At least with the big skies we see here at Forvie, you can see in advance what the weather is going to throw at you.

Set fair towards Bennachie and the west…
…but clouds on the horizon behind the Forvie Centre

For anyone who’s finding the wintry theme a bit gloomy, here’s a bit of light relief. Down by the estuary at Newburgh, a single Gorse bush was clearly in denial about the season, and was fully decked out in bright yellow flowers, coconut fragrance and all. Gorse is known to do this from time to time – to show a flagrant disregard of the weather and time of the year, and to press on and flower regardless. This maybe gives rise to the old country saying about kissing being in season only when the Gorse is in flower. That’ll be all the time, then!

The wonderful incongruity of the flowering Gorse serves as an inspiration for folk who aren’t enamoured with the winter. Firstly, it’s an advance advertisement for the coming spring, which will arrive before we know it – what goes around comes around, and all that. Secondly, it sets an example for us – don’t be downcast about the short days and low temperatures, but make the best of it, put on your glad rags and keep smiling!

It is obvious that in a year of perpetual restrictions and lockdowns, many people will have been dreading the coming of winter. However, it’s a season with much to offer those willing to brave the weather and get out and about. And there’s as much wildlife to see out there as any other time of the year – more on that next time. I for one am not pining for the summer just yet!

A winter sunset with Curlew – what’s not to like?

Stairway to heaven

Two-thirds of the way from Collieston to Rockend, the rocky coastline of north Forvie is interrupted by the golden arc of a secluded sandy beach. Nestling between high cliffs to the north and south, and backed by the wide open expanse of Forvie Moor, Hackley Bay is one of the most beautiful spots on the whole Reserve (and that’s saying something). A favourite haunt of many locals, and a delightful surprise for first-time visitors to Forvie, it’s a rightfully well-loved beauty spot, and one of the jewels in the Reserve’s crown.

Hackley Bay – is there a more beautiful spot on any other NNR? Discuss!

With its spectacular scenery and profusion of wildlife, the coastal path to Hackley Bay is popular with visitors in any given year. This year, however, has been exceptional in every sense. A rough calculation based on step-counter data indicated that in July, after the nationwide lockdown was lifted, the Reserve received eight times as many visitors than we’d expect in a ‘normal’ July. Eight times as many!

It’s great that so many people were able to enjoy the Reserve, and reap the many benefits it can offer – from improving physical health and mental wellbeing, to boosting one’s bird list, or whatever – but such a dramatic increase in footfall was always going to put pressure on the Reserve’s infrastructure. Most noticeably, some bits of footpath are now going to need some serious work in the foreseeable future.

The coastal path from Collieston to Hackley Bay – a fragile mix of sand and thin turf

Erosion on Forvie’s paths is an acute problem. Under the grassy turf is a thin, delicate layer of soil, and then sand. And then more sand. There’s very little substance to it, and once the fragile turf and topsoil are gone, there’s nothing to stop the wind from scouring the sand away. By this mechanism, a little bit of erosion can rapidly turn into a sandy pothole, and thence a full-scale blowout. Of course, people then understandably detour around it rather than walking through it, eroding the surrounding bits, and the problem is exacerbated.

Almost all footpath repairs therefore require imported materials. Usually these consist of granite blocks, crushed stone and some sort of membrane to stop the whole lot just sinking without trace into the sand. And because of the aforementioned fragility of the turf, such material often has to be helicoptered in. This is mightily expensive, but to try and move a large tonnage of stone by vehicle would just lead to more destruction. And some areas, like Hackley Bay, aren’t accessible by vehicle in any case.

Post-lockdown erosion at Hackley Bay

In some cases, though, we are able to carry out repairs in-house. At the south end of Hackley Bay is a stone staircase leading from the coastal footpath down to the sandy beach. As mentioned in last week’s instalment, the top of this staircase had become eroded by all the extra footfall over the summer and autumn. Repairing this was a job that we could do without calling on the helicopter-mounted cavalry.

When the original staircase was built (before my time, way back in the dark ages), the contractors clearly had a small amount of stone left over, and disposed of it simply by upending it down the cliff. It ended up on Hackley beach, where it’s easy to recognise – the pink Peterhead granite contrasts sharply with the blue-grey tones of the native Dalradian schists.

Imported pink granite on Hackley beach
Note colour contrast with the native rock!

Normally it’s not good practice to remove stone from a beach. In fact, it’s technically illegal under the Coastal Protection Act 1949 (designed to prevent people extracting large amounts of stone or sand, and contributing to coastal erosion). However, because in this case the stone is not natural, and was left over from the previous job, we’re effectively just litter-picking. It’s an extremely heavy form of recycling, I suppose.

Having scoured the beach for as many blocks of granite as we could find, each block was then carried by hand up the 190 steps (count ’em!) from the beach to the work site. Needless to say, this was the worst part of the job!

A long haul up the existing staircase carrying blocks of granite… a good workout though!
Granite blocks ready for digging in

It was then a case of piecing together the mismatched chunks of rock into a new set of steps. It’s a bit like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with a bit of weightlifting thrown in. A task to stretch both body and mind!

New steps under construction
Nearly finished…

Once all the stone had been put in place, it was painstakingly packed in with loose earth and turf. This will hopefully knit everything together, and after the 2021 growing season the steps should look like a part of the landscape, rather than a building site.

The completed job!

To my mind, the most rewarding work that we do on the Reserve is that which produces tangible and lasting results. This job should certainly tick those boxes. In theory, the new steps we constructed this week should outlive those of us who constructed them. I certainly hope so, if only so I don’t have to carry any more rocks up the cliff!

By the time the work was completed, the shadows had grown long, the sun was beginning to drop over the south-western horizon, and the Pink-footed Geese were on their evening commute to the local roost. The long walk back to the workshop was an experience to be savoured.

Lengthening shadows
Evening flight – Pink-footed Geese
Hackley Bay at dusk

Having locked up the Forvie Centre, all that remained to be done was to creak my way down the track to the village, run a hot bath, light the fire and put a record on while preparing the supper. Something appropriate, perhaps. Led Zeppelin IV anyone?

“And he’s building a stairway to heaven…”

The season of hard yakka

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard “You’ve got the best job in the world!”. Right enough, when you’re out counting birds on a beautiful winter’s afternoon, or walking the trails on a fine day, collecting step-counter readings or water-level data or whatever, it does appear pretty idyllic. “You mean you get paid for this?” is another frequent comment. Many people’s idea of a life working on Reserves is one of rare birds and roses, of long days in the sunshine and fresh air, communing with the wildlife and enjoying the craic with the visitors.

Who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hugely enjoyable days that do indeed live up to the shiny expectations of those looking in from the outside. There are, however, the other kind of days as well. Repetitive physical drudgery. Cleaning up after other people. Repairing damage from vandalism and stupidity. Emptying the dog poo bin. Leaking boots, torn breeks, sand in your lunch, and your mobile phone never stops flippin’ ringing. All in conditions ranging from ‘inclement’ to plainly ‘trying to kill you’. It’s not any different in that respect to any other job; you must take the rough with the smooth. And be sure to enjoy the enjoyable bits to the full!

Late autumn is a time for some of the less glamorous tasks associated with keeping the Reserve in good shape, such as maintaining drains and ditches, repairing footpaths and lifting rubbish from the beaches and trails. It’s the season for hard yakka, as they say in Australia (and Collieston).

Ditch clearing – best job in the world!

Actually, ditch work isn’t as bad as you might think. Apart from wet feet from leaking waders, the worst thing you’re likely to get is a bad perma-tan from the ochre in the water. This is a compound formed from sand and clay, rich in iron oxides which lend it a rusty hue (and a metallic taste if you’re unfortunate enough to splash it into your face; my top tip for aspiring ditch workers is keep your mouth shut). It’s not a good look, and it can take several days to wash out of your skin; on the other hand, clothing can be permanently dyed orange, and it’s a job to save for your oldest and rattiest clothes.

Happiness is a free-flowing ditch…
…and an appreciative audience.

Away from the glamorous world of ditch work, a large metal barrel was recently washed up at the North Broadhaven, where it was merrily leaking used engine oil all over the beach. Thankfully it only contained three or four gallons of the stuff, not the forty gallons of its capacity, which would have rendered it unmoveably heavy. It had to go, so it was wrapped up in a wheelie bin liner, and hauled up the cliff using a makeshift rope cradle – a filthy job, but that’s one less piece of damaging rubbish in the marine environment.

The offending oil barrel, as modelled by Catriona

Another task to be savoured is the maintenance of the all-abilities trail from the Forvie Centre to Sand Loch. Over the years the grass has gradually encroached onto the surface, and it’s high time it was pushed back again to allow for wheeled access. Chiselling away with a spade and trying to separate the turf from the hardcored path surface isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but at least it means I can allow myself a few more calories at supper time. It’s one of those jobs that’s best done in small increments – little and often.

Re-edging the all-abilities path – a start made!

A start has also been made on repairing some erosion damage to the footpath at Hackley Bay. This is a gruelling task involving a lot of lifting and shifting of stone, but we’ll hopefully get it completed within the next week. More on this particular story next time; please try and contain your excitement in the interim.

Erosion at top of Hackley Bay staircase
Flat-pack stone steps ready for assembly

Far from complaining about this sort of heavy work, it’s something to be relished, in a slightly masochistic sort of way. It feels ‘real’, and for me at least, is far more fulfilling than a day stuck behind my desk. It’s possibly even hard-wired into us. The author and environmentalist George Monbiot suggested that many of us are so far removed from the realities of a ‘natural’ way of life that it’s impacting on our health, both physically and mentally. Read into that what you will, but I’ll take creaky joints over mental stress any day of the year.

Sunshine and ochre – a great combo for a healthy complexion

Here’s to the season of hard yakka then. Hopefully, in carrying out all the unglamorous duties of the season, we’re helping to maintain a place that’s a great resource for everyone, not to mention its wildlife! If you’re out and about on the Reserve and see one of us up to our eyebrows in orange ditchwater, do stop and say hello – I may even forgive you for saying I’ve got the best job in the world.

An eclectic mix

Some weeks, the subject matter for this blog organises itself into a nice tidy article. A common theme, a chance to extol the virtues of Forvie, hopefully to amuse and maybe to educate, all tied together with some bonny photos. Nice and easy, money for old rope, finish up on time and get the kettle on. Other weeks are different, however, and sometimes I’m left tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to link all the disparate elements of the week’s happenings.

This week’s instalment is undoubtedly one of the latter. But in wondering what to do with it, I realised that it’s actually an accurate reflection of work and life here. We turn our hands, eyes and minds to many different things here in the running of the Reserve, and balancing the myriad different tasks and competing priorities is one of the things that actually makes the job enjoyable. Consequently, this week’s blog unashamedly flits from one subject to another – starting off with fungi.

Mystery mushroom…

Just outside the Forvie Centre, a large and conspicuous mushroom appeared next to an old tree stump by the pond. Many years ago this stump was dug into the ground for use as a table for pond-dipping equipment, and is now gradually rotting away. It’s a piece of Scots Pine, sourced from Muir of Dinnet NNR, and the fungus in question may well have been imported with the stump. This is a Brown Roll-rim, a common species which is symbiotic on many tree species, including Scots Pine. In common with this week’s anti-theme, it’s an eclectic species, equally at home in pinewoods, broadleaved woods and grassland. Worth noting also that it can be very toxic, so it’s definitely not one to add to your weekend fry-up.

…Brown Roll-rim

A short walk away onto the Reserve, the sides of the footpaths were also decorated with colourful mushrooms. Path edges are often great places for mushrooms. The underground ‘root systems’ (mycelia) of the fungi come up against the hard, compressed ground of the footpath, and, unable to go any further, put up fruiting bodies – mushrooms – to produce spores and jump across to the other side. Ingenious, really. This is most obvious where there is a metalled road or track through mature woodland, but can also be seen on a smaller scale on Forvie’s footpaths.

Butter Waxcaps

Butter Waxcaps are tiny mushrooms so named for the colour and texture of their caps. They’re common in unimproved grassland and aren’t averse to sand dunes either, so the north end of Forvie is ideal for them. They often grow in little clusters, brightening up the edges of the grassy footpaths.

Meadow Waxcaps

Meadow Waxcaps are a little larger, with their attractive peachy-orange caps flattening out with age. Like the Butter Waxcaps, these are grassland specialists. Waxcaps are most abundant in unimproved grassland, i.e. that with no artificial fertilisers added. Most grazing land is fertilised to some extent, and vast areas of previously natural grassland have been ‘improved’, agriculturally speaking, in the last century or so. This means the remaining natural grassland of north Forvie is of special significance.

Earthy Powdercaps

Earthy Powdercaps are a little larger than the aforementioned species, and they also favour grassland on acid soils; Forvie certainly ticks that particular box. Notably, this species is intolerant of any sort of environmental pollution, and its presence on the Reserve is indicative of a clean environment. Long may that continue to be the case.

Jumping subject, last Monday saw some frankly filthy weather. Overnight rain and strong winds gave way to a becalmed and fog-bound day, and the Reserve looked rather atmospheric to say the least.

The Forvie Centre (promise it’s there somewhere) last Monday

Days like these are a great time to be out on the Reserve; everything’s amazingly quiet, with the soft hush of the fog enveloping the landscape. It’s a great time to lose yourself in peace and isolation for a while, and escape from the hurly-burly of the twenty-first century.

Sand Loch shrouded in fog

Monday wasn’t completely quiet though. From the moment I left the house, I was aware of the chuckling, rattling and squeaking of Blackbirds. By the time I’d reached the last house in our road, I’d counted 20. There were five more along the track to the Forvie Centre, and 27 in the hedge outside the office. Many more were passing overhead, in company with a good scatter of Redwings and Fieldfares. By the end of the day I had counted 285 Blackbirds during my rounds, an extraordinary total.

Blackbirds everywhere!

Other folk had also noticed the arrival, and many had witnessed gangs of Blackbirds invading their gardens and eating them out of house and home. Another talking point among the locals, as per last week’s blog. Anyway, it turned out that various sites in north and east Scotland had recorded similar happenings: there were 480 Blackbirds on Fair Isle, 750 on the Isle of May and 1,000 on North Ronaldsay, for example. These surely represent the last throes of autumn migration in 2020, notwithstanding any winter cold-weather movements yet to come.

Any fruit is fair game for a hungry migrant Blackbird

Flitting subjects again, and at the mouth of the estuary, among the usual Eiders, Oystercatchers and the like, were some more unusual visitors. Brent Geese are barely annual here, the odd one or two getting mixed up with the local Pink-footed Geese in some winters, or dropping in on the estuary for a day or two on migration. This year, however, a little gang of them have made themselves quite at home down on the mussel-beds. These are Pale-bellied Brents, which breed from Svalbard west to Arctic Canada, and winter in western Europe. Barely as large as a Mallard duck, they’re charming little birds and a special treat to see here at Forvie.

Pale-bellied Brent Geese on the estuary

Like other species of geese, Brent Geese travel in family parties, and it’s often possible to identify these family units. Juvenile birds, i.e. those hatched this summer, have bold whitish bars across their wings, which the adult birds lack.

Juvenile (left, with white bars on the closed wing) and adult (right, with plain black wing)

‘Our’ Brent Geese this week appeared to comprise two families, of four and five birds respectively, plus an unattached individual who was loosely associating with them. For a day or two in the previous week, they were also joined by a single Dark-bellied Brent, the eastern counterpart of the Pale-bellied form, breeding in Arctic Russia. Typical of all geese, they bicker and squabble occasionally, but tend to get on well for the most part, looking out for one another. Safety in numbers, after all, so best to put your differences aside for a greater good. Perhaps, sometimes, people could learn from geese…

Mum and three kids – Brent Goose family

Finally – jumping subject one last time – once the fog cleared, we enjoyed some beautiful sunset scenes on the estuary. But even this was short-lived, as by the week’s end we were back to rain and gales once more. That’s the story of this past week. An eclectic mix indeed.

Dusk at Waulkmill hide
Ythan Estuary sunset

Wildlife – the great leveller

Here at Forvie NNR we’re lucky enough to enjoy strong links with our local communities. Many local folk regularly walk around the Reserve, and a common theme in conversation is how fortunate we are to have such a fabulous place right here on our doorstep – there’s a lot of love out there for Forvie. Some of our regulars take this love a step further by picking up litter on their daily stroll, or even by signing up as volunteers. Many also keep us informed about the goings-on around the Reserve that we may not otherwise have been aware of, and this is something for which we’re always grateful. And many more just enjoy the craic and the exchanging of wildlife sightings.

Roe Deer – a frequent topic of conversation locally in 2020

One of the most frequent conversations often begins “I’ve seen this bird / insect / plant…” [delete as appropriate]. And usually we’re able to identify the species in question, though admittedly we do sometimes get snookered! After a few years in this job, you become quite adept at identifying wildlife from a fuzzy photo on someone’s phone. Or from a wonderfully vivid description (“Honestly, it was massive, and it had these huge teeth…”). It’s actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of working here.

“Can you tell me what this bird is please?” – answer at end of blog post

The wonderful thing about this is that it’s a great leveller. It doesn’t matter about your background, your age, your level of knowledge – we’re all learning together after all, and I hope to think that we, as Reserve staff, are approachable rather than scary. In fact, I have learnt quite a bit down the years from being asked questions that I couldn’t immediately answer, then going away to do some research before getting back to the person in question.

Just last week, we spotted the photo below on Collieston village’s Facebook page – “what’s this strange bird?”, asked the caption. The photo had been posted by a neighbour of ours, the self-styled crofter and rock god Andy. We were able to inform him that it was a male Snow Bunting (thankfully a number of other contributors had come to the same conclusion), and that birding was the new rock and roll. Now this is a bloke that’s constantly pulling my leg about being a ‘bird nerd’, etc etc. But in us all, whatever our personal interests, is an innate curiosity about the world around us. And there’s plenty of wildlife out there to be curious about. Ultimately, it’s something that connects us all, and helps to bind together the fabric of the local community. That’s what makes it a leveller.

Snow Bunting at a mystery location

The Snow Bunting ended up being seen by quite a few members of the community, and was a welcome talking point to distract folk from current affairs for a moment. Sometimes it’s good to have a dose of nature-based reality in our lives!

Snow Bunting, in more normal habitat

Another recent enquiry concerned a large brown bird with a long beak found skulking around outside a neighbour’s house. It’s the sort of thing that happens here, right enough. Thankfully this was also a straightforward one to sort out. It was a Woodcock, an immigrant from the continent, seeking shelter in an unlikely place after its gruelling North Sea crossing.

Woodcock – an exotic-looking species that can pop up anywhere

That same neighbour last summer was fortunate enough (well, I think it was fortunate anyway) to discover a Convolvulus Hawk-moth in her washing. Rather than get freaked by it and squash it in fear (this moth was huge, by the way), she opted to ‘go to the wildlifey people’ instead, and we were able to identify it and relocate it to some better ‘habitat’. Again this was quite a talking point, with a number of villagers and local naturalists visiting to have a look. This species is very scarce in Scotland, and combined with its colossal size, it piqued the interest of folk who probably wouldn’t have otherwise professed to be interested in nature.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth, having been extracted from a neighbour’s washing

Sadly, some of the more frequent enquiries concern wildlife that the caller’s domestic cat has killed and brought into the house. One of the usual suspects here is the “tiny green bird with a yellow stripe on its head”. I often reply “Goldcrest” before even seeing the photo. Like the aforementioned Woodcock, these arrive here from the Continent in autumn, utterly exhausted by the exertions of their sea crossing, and are easy prey for any would-be predator. But they illustrate the miracles of migration to folk who may not have been aware they even existed. As I said, we’re all learning together.

Goldcrest – frequently reported as domestic cat food

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of what I’m trying to describe occurred on a weekend morning in June 2018. A local birder was out at the mouth of the Ythan Estuary doing some spotting, and espied a pod of Killer Whales moving north offshore. Telephone calls were made, the local Facebook grapevine went into overdrive, and the folk of Collieston poured out of their houses to squint seawards in the hope of a sighting. We hastily grabbed optics and legged it over to the headland overlooking the harbour, where a few folk were already gathered. Almost immediately we picked up the unmistakable pied hulks with their enormous dorsal fins powering north up the coast. We shared our binoculars and telescope with those who had no optical aids, and the squeals of excitement, fist-pumping and broad grins afterwards were as rewarding as seeing the Orcas themselves. We felt connected to folk we’d never even spoken to before. That’s the power of wildlife!

Orcas off Collieston and Forvie, June 2018
Thaaaar she blows!

In the year of lockdown, many people have discovered – or maybe rediscovered – a connection with nature. Certainly here in our local communities, wildlife has been a big talking point this year. Hopefully in many cases, that connection will remain for life. Maybe some good might come out of 2020 after all.

By the way, that mystery bird photo… it’s actually a Goldeneye duck’s backside. Kudos to anyone who identified that, you’re a better naturalist than me.