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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!