The last full week of May finally delivered a series of fine and settled days, the likes of which had hitherto been painfully scarce this spring. At last, heading out onto the Reserve for the day’s duties started to feel like a pleasure, rather than an ordeal at the hands of the elements. And not before time.
Walking southwards along the cliffs from Collieston to Rockend, in order to census the Eider population – and thus to gauge how many nesting pairs we might expect – also allowed us to take in the botanical delights of the coast path. In terms of wild flower interest, this is one of the more diverse parts of the Reserve. The varied topography of the cliffs creates niches for specialist as well as generalist plants, with each location having its own microclimate and soil chemistry. Consequently, one bay or headland can host a different range of plants to the next one.
On the most exposed headlands and precipitous cliffs, the salt-hardy seaside specialists such as Thrift and Sea Campion hold sway. These are tough, low-growing and well-adapted to withstand the strong winds, salt spray and parched conditions of life on the edge – in the literal sense.
The section of path around the north side of Hackley Bay is a particularly rich hunting ground when it comes to wild flowers. This is one of very few spots on the Reserve where Kidney Vetch can be found. A member of the pea family, its burnt-yellow flowers are borne in clusters which are not only distinctive in appearance, but also to the touch.
In truth this plant should have featured in last week’s blog under the ‘fluffy things’ premise, but arguably the word ‘fluffy’ simply isn’t enough to describe its delightfully soft feel. I am in fact an advocate of the term ‘fwuffy’, which just sounds a softer word (OED application form currently in the post for this one). However, it’s probably best if you look out for the plant, have a feel of the flowers, and judge for yourself.
I recently mentioned the appearance of Meadow Saxifrage flowers along the coast path, and these also have a remarkably localised distribution at Forvie. The ‘Fulmar stack’ – the slouched crag of rock at the south end of Hackley Bay’s sandy beach – is its sole stronghold, with the exception of just one or two isolated plants on the adjacent footpath. Clearly there’s something about the soil chemistry or climate in this one particular spot that the Saxifrage finds to its liking. Now, with the flowers at their best, the stack looks a bit like it’s received a light sprinkling of snow – which somehow doesn’t seem that unlikely given the cold spring that we’ve endured this year.
Violets, by contrast, are much more widespread across the Reserve, and can be found along the cliffs as well as in the dune slacks, on the heath and throughout Forvie’s grassland. This spring seems to be producing a particularly good showing of them, and we’re hoping that it’ll be a correspondingly good year for Dark Green Fritillary butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on Violet leaves.
Another widespread and common species, but one we’re always pleased to see when it first appears, is the Northern Marsh Orchid. A little fussier than the aforementioned Violets, these attractive orchids prefer the damper areas of the Reserve and shun the drier parts of the heath. The wet flushes along the coast path, as well as the damp grassland around the freshwater lochs and pools, are the most productive areas to look for them.
Damp or dry isn’t a problem either way for Tormentil, a characteristic plant of the heath. It’s equally happy among lush grassland or, as in this example, on the bare dry sand by the sides of the footpaths. Curiously, its distinctively-shaped flowers almost always have four petals arranged in a cross shape, but occasionally a five-petalled example appears on the same plant – see if you can spot one in the photo below. The reason for this is unclear, though it does make a mockery of the ‘key’ at the start of the wild flower field guides which often use the number of petals as an identification criterion. The trouble with nature – as we’ve often found – is that it doesn’t read the field guide!
While Hackley Bay is a notable location for botanical interest on the Reserve, another little hotspot is the site of the lost village of Forvie. The relict stone walls of Forvie Kirk – the last visible remains of the settlement – provide an unlikely but attractive setting for a range of flowering plants.
While passing by the kirk in the week, we spotted a plant we hadn’t previously noticed in all our collective years at Forvie. Clearly another member of the pea family, it resembled a tiny, two-coloured version of Common Vetch (a widespread species with which we’re much more familiar). This stumped both Catriona and I, and upon returning to HQ we consulted the field guide. A bit of head-scratching and cross-referencing of photos later, and we settled upon the identification as Spring Vetch. A new species for us – though chances are we’ve been walking right past it for years…
While it’s a pleasure to be reporting upon the wealth of botanical interest now appearing across the Reserve and local area, other plants are a less of a welcome sight. Last week we renewed hostilities with the Pirri-pirri Bur at Foveran Links, where we have been battling against this invasive species for more than a decade now. As ever, we owe a debt of thanks to our volunteers for their efforts; last week’s visit will doubtless be the first of many such excursions over the coming months.
Finally, on the theme of ‘about time’, a couple of wildlife highlights (for me at least) upon which to report. If I’m honest, this first one was a bit daft. Regular readers will know I’m very keen on my ‘garden list’, i.e. wildlife seen from my own property next door to the Reserve. Picture the scene, then, on Tuesday morning, when Catriona and I were walking up the road to the Reserve office at opening-time.
Hearing the local crows furiously mobbing something, I looked up to see a distinctive shape wheeling around, dodging the crows. Pointing, I spluttered something along the lines of “Flippin’ Marsh Harrier! Garden tick!”, at which point the two of us legged it headlong back up the road in order to view the harrier from our own front yard. Luckily the harrier obliged, and we enjoyed great views of it above the house before it drifted off north-east. Always a notable bird at Forvie, this was species number 166 on the garden bird list!
The following day, this was surpassed by a sighting of even greater magnitude – a live Water Vole! I couldn’t believe my own eyes as it motored across the ditch at the north-east corner of Sand Loch, looking like a clockwork miniature Beaver. A long-awaited first sighting at Forvie for me, this follows a long series of near-misses and false alarms – never mind friends, colleagues and neighbours all seeing them, just to rub it in. But there it was, large as life, and right at the end of our road to boot.
A good week then – Marsh Harrier on the garden list, and the Water Vole ghost finally laid to rest. About time too!