To rain or not to rain?

With summer coming to an end and autumn beginning it’s safe to say that this week has been rather cold and wet compared to the last few months, even on the brighter days there is still a chill in the air.

With the tern fence down, and school holidays over the reserve has been less hectic than it is in the summer months but working on a nature reserve means there are always jobs needing done to keep you busy.

On Tuesday morning Mark and I headed out to the mouth of the estuary to do an Eider count and were pleasantly surprised by the lack of wind (nearly every day is a windy day around here) giving the reserve a calm and almost serene atmosphere. From this survey we counted 717 Eiders as we made our way up the estuary, these surveys are important in giving us a good idea of how our Eider population is doing. I must admit that counting hundreds of birds can at times be difficult though, it’s always nice to get out and do a spot of wildlife watching.

Peace and quiet, perfect conditions for doing a bird survey

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with E…

This week has involved some of the more manual, and slightly less exciting jobs though that doesn’t make them any less important! A job that I have been trying to get done for a week or two now is scrubbing the lichen off of all the way markers and giving them a lick of paint. The only thing is, you can’t paint things outdoors if it starts to rain… and every day I head out with my tin of paint and brushes I seem to be cursed with a mix of downpours and constant drizzles (even though the forecast said otherwise). I have no idea whether this is bad luck, bad timing or fate just not wanting these posts to be painted in a rush but Friday was the perfect example: Lovely weather in the morning, so I gathered my supplies and headed for waterside. I thought that I was in luck with the occasional glimpse of the sun trying to break through the clouds yet the minute I sat my things down and began to paint, contrary to the forecast, mother nature had other plans and the heavens opened. I guess that the unpredictable weather is just one of the things you have to embrace when working outdoors.

While these sporadic drizzles and occasional downpours can be a slight inconvenience for us trying to get jobs done, it is great for the amphibians here on the reserve, especially after the very hot and dry summer that we’ve had (maybe the newts, frogs and toads have been doing lots of rain dances of recently, rather than my bad luck). Walking past the sand loch and around the heath trail I try to watch my footing as to not step on the many toadlets and froglets that are hard to spot if you’re not looking for them!

If I stay still maybe she won’t be able to see me…

One exciting moment this week was a rather small visitor in the form of a newt travelling across the steps outside the office which I nearly missed until Annabel pointed it out to me. For amphibians to be able to move any distance from bodies of water they need damp conditions like we have seen in the last week to prevent their moist skin from drying out. Amphibians use both their lungs and their skin to breathe. These animals use their lungs to breathe on land and ‘skin-breathing’, also known as cutaneous gas exchange to effectively breathe under water. The especially thin skin and mucous membrane of these animals allows them to absorb oxygen through the surface of their bodies which then directly enters their blood stream.

A pound coin for scale

In recent weeks I have had the joy of being accompanied during disturbance surveys by a Cormorant (probably not the same one but I like to think it could be, maybe I should think of a name for it) that perches itself on the post closest to the shore at Inch point. The first time I saw it I jumped at the opportunity for a good photo through the scope but didn’t want to risk scaring it off. I opened the car door VERY slowly, crouching behind the door I crept out of the car with my scope and tripod in hand, did a rather awkward crouch-walk around the back of the car and set up the scope, peeking around from behind the car, desperately trying not to ruin the opportunity for a good photo and cause this bird any bother. After a few minutes of taking some snaps I hesitantly stood up, needing to start the survey and expecting the prehistoric looking bird to fly off. After a quick glance and a moment of looking at one another I think we came to the mutual understanding that with the water separating us, we clearly were not going to bother one another.

Just chilling
Take a bow

Cormorants catch their food by swimming and diving under the water. These birds have evolved to spend as little energy as possible underwater by not having to fight against their own buoyancy with feathers that do not retain air and become easily waterlogged, allowing them to dive deeper with ease. Their sacrifice for being such strong swimmers is that they have to dry off after a swim and can often be seen stood facing the sun with their wings spread out to the side.

Who needs a hairdryer when you have the wind?

With the time of year for spotting many insects is coming to an end, there is still plenty to see! I have been putting the moth trap out on clear nights with the hope of catching something exciting, though any moth is still a good find to me. A few weeks ago a gentleman came to the office asking me to have a look at some pictures he got of a large moth nearby, at first glance I thought that it was a Privet hawk moth which was exciting enough however, upon closer inspection I came to realise that it looked more like a Convolvulus hawk moth! An exciting find considering the species is a rare migrant from mainland Europe.

Look at those colours!

Hello there!

I have yet to see one of these marvellous moths with my own eyes, and none have wandered into our moth trap thus far. A girl can only hope!

What a view!

Working during the weekends on the reserve come with a change of pace as most of my time is spent on the reserve patrolling and standing at the entrance to the reserve at Waterside. The focus of the weekend work, especially at this time of year and into the winter months is to a chat with people coming to the reserve giving advice on responsible wildlife watching, sharing information about the reserve and of course having a general chit chat. Spending the majority of my weekends on the reserve has given me the opportunity to get to know many of the people who frequently visit the reserve (and their dogs, of course) and have interesting conversations with familiar faces and newcomers alike. Since my first weekend on the reserve earlier this year, each week people tell me how beautiful the reserve is and how lucky I am having the opportunity to work here and honestly, I couldn’t agree more.

Little Tern – a species on the edge

This week’s blog is a guest blog and comes from local wildlife enthusiast and photographer, Ron Macdonald. It features intimate and breath-taking photos of the terns themselves, as well as Ron’s 40-plus years experience of the natural world and is a fascinating read.

Terns are my favourite seabirds and, of the four species that breed on Forvie NNR (Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little), the Little tern is the one that tops my list. The bird’s good looks, its dainty flight and ability to pirouette mid-air to then dive headlong into the sea is very much part of my summer enjoyment at the Ythan estuary. I simply can’t get enough of watching & photographing them! In addition to being very photogenic, their behaviour is interesting to watch which I’ll try to illustrate in this blog. Finally, as suggested in the second part of the title, I’ll discuss why breeding numbers are trending downwards in Scotland and the efforts made at Forvie and elsewhere to halt the decline.

A Little Tern rising from the estuary after an unsuccessful dive

Little terns return from their West African wintering ground from mid-April onward and immediately start pairing up. The outer sand banks of the Ythan estuary, exposed at low tide, are where they gather and which I call their ‘courting club’. Typically, female birds await to be be courtship fed by the males or if they get impatient pursuing the males high up over the estuary to demand to be fed. Sometimes the female will take the fish offering from the male but then aggressively turn on him. I’ve also seen a courting pair joined by a third bird which I’ve taken to be a female bird ever hopeful of a free feed but that’s just conjecture.

Playing hard to get! A male tempts a prospective mate with a wee fishie but she’s not interested
A pair bond being cemented by the gift of a sand eel.
A female chasing the male high above the Ythan estuary
Or perhaps two competing males fighting?
A female demanding to be fed
And after being fed showing the male the door! Maybe it wasn’t her bonded mate? So many questions and so few answers!
I sometimes saw the terns performing elaborate moves as if they were dancing or in this case playing at leap-frog!
A pair displaying to each other
A Little tern displaying to its mate by making a heart shape out of water droplets. Honestly!

Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Two females vie for the gift of a sand eel. He doesn’t look as if he’s going to give it to either of them!

A female swallowing the sand eel provided by her mate
And the birds then mating
Little terns in a sand storm
Three Little terns and two Common terns in the midst of a sand storm raging across the estuary.

The Ups and mostly Downs of Breeding Little Terns in the UK

The long term UK trend for the Little tern is downward and nowadays its estimated that there are less than 2000 breeding pairs as shown in the graph below from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) Little tern species account. Between 1985 and 2000 there has been a long-term decline in the UK with little tern numbers down by 38%.  More recently between 2000 and 2015 the trend is -18%.

The Index of Abundance of the Little tern from 1986-2020 in the UK. Dotted lines show the 95% confidence limit. From the JNCC Little tern Species Report https://jncc.gov.uk/our-work/little-tern-sternula-albifrons/

The Scottish little tern population increased between Operation Seafarer (1968-1970) and the Seabird Colony Register (1969 -1998) but had fallen again by the Seabird 2000 census. The overall trend has been gradually decreasing since monitoring began and has remained below the baseline since 1989. However, as the confidence limits are wide, the trend should be interpreted with caution. In 2019, the index was 48% below the baseline (JNCC Little Tern Species report)

The Index of Abundance of the Little tern from 1986-2020 in Scotland. Dotted lines show the 95% confidence limits. Taken from the JNCC Little tern species account.

The trend at Forvie NNR, as shown in the table below, from 2007 to 2022 is somewhat different in that the maximum breeding pairs were present in 2013 and 2014, breeding seasons which produced good numbers of fledged young.

Year` Number of breeding pairs Number of young fledged

2007 20 1

2008 21 8

2009 37 73

2010 37 17

2011 31 34

2012 27 3

2013 40 42

2014 42 74

2015 19 0

2016 0 0

2017 5 0

2018 26 13

2019 28 0

2020 25 0

2021 25 2

2022 10 17

Key drivers affecting breeding success at Forvie NNR

Little terns prefer to nest in open or shingle beaches with little vegetation. They are often located below the Mean High Water Mean Spring (MHWS) tide limit so are prone to flooding during Spring tides. In addition, Little terns often nest on beaches popular with the public so disturbance by people and dogs can be significant without the areas being roped off and safeguarded by wardens to advise people of the risk to the birds.

At Forvie the Little terns breed on raised shingle terraces above MHWS so are safe from flooding. In addition, the area is closed to the general public from 1 April – 31 August thereby avoiding disturbance by visitors to the Reserve.

The principal threat at Forvie is predation by foxes and other bird species. To combat the threat by foxes the NatureScot Forvie team each year fence off a large area of shingle and low lying sandy areas which allows all four tern species and the large colony of Black-headed gulls to nest in relative safety. However foxes being foxes they do occasionally take some eggs and birds, probably from birds nesting outwith the fenced area.

A Red fox passing the fenced ternary on Forvie NNR with a young Black headed gull in its jaws. June 2022.

Whereas the fenced area is in the main effective against predation by foxes, aerial bird predators can and do access the ternery. For example from 2015 – 2017 and from 2019 -2020 there were no fledged young produced and the reason only came to light when footage from a camera trap revealed that oystercatchers nesting within the ternery were eating the Little tern eggs. It usually occurred when the terns performed dreads, lifting off en masse from the colony which allowed the Oystercatchers to nip in and eat the eggs before the terns returned

An oystercatcher about to eat a Little tern egg as captured by a NatureScot camera trap

In 2022 it was the turn of Black-headed gulls to predate the eggs. All first clutches of the Little terns that laid eggs were eaten by a Black-headed gull or gulls. Often it is the same individual Oystercatcher or Black headed gull that specialises in predating the eggs. Fortunately the Little terns relaid with 17 chicks fledged from 10 pairs. So what initially looked to be a fourth blank season in a row turned out to be a relatively successful one, much to the relief of the NatureScot staff who work so hard at safeguarding all four species of terns as well as the ,large colony of Black-headed gulls.

A newly hatched Little tern chick on Forvie NNR

What Future for the Little Tern in Scotland?

In June 2022 The National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded NatureScot £4.2 million funding for their Species on the Edge Project. The funding will support urgent action to help save 37 of Scotland’s most vulnerable coastal and island species, including Little tern. RSPB Scotland is leading efforts to protect and enhance the Little tern, concentrating early efforts on the small isolated Little tern colonies on the Scottish islands, engaging local communities to become involved in their long term protection.

On Forvie NNR, NatureScot staff have tried measures such as hand painted plaster cast models of Little terns to nest within the fenced area and tern shelters to provid protection for the chicks from avian predators. All these efforts have had limited, if any, success. The key is dissuading or preventing potential avian predators. NatureScot staff continue to explore ways to safeguard the colony from predation.

It’s been raining wildlife

This past week, for what seems like the first time in ages, we’ve had some proper rain at Forvie. Actual proper rain. Not the sort of quick thundery splash we’ve been getting on and off for the last month or so, which evaporates almost as soon as it falls. No, this was the real stuff – a proper prolonged soaking, providing the Reserve a with long, quenching drink after a drouthy and dusty summer. Long overdue, and very much appreciated.

Rain on the way!

As well as topping up the water levels and damping down the crispy-dry vegetation, the weather also deluged the Reserve with wildlife. This happened on two fronts: firstly with a mass emergence of moisture-loving residents, and secondly with a huge influx of foreigners.

Foremost among the residents were the amphibians. Having been hard to find during the prolonged dry spell, suddenly there were Common Toads and Common Frogs everywhere. These came in all sizes, from magnificent fully-grown adults down to the miniature replicas from this year’s hatch, making their first journeys into the wide world. In fact, traversing the footpaths became a hazardous business during and after the rain, as there were toadlets under your feet at every turn. Often we were seen to do the ‘toad two-step’, trying to avoid treading on them.

Watch your feet!

Just for a quick ID reminder on the frog-versus-toad conundrum: Common Frog is usually green (or at least green-ish, though they can be brown, rusty or even golden-coloured), with a dark stripe running through the eyes, and largely smooth, shiny skin. The Common Toad, by contrast, is usually darker and browner, lacks the ‘eye-stripe’, and has prodigiously warty skin. These differences are much more easily observed on the full-sized ones rather than the tiny juveniles.

Additionally, the two species’ gaits are different. Generally speaking, frogs hop, and toads crawl. I cannot mention this without thinking back to a conversation in the local Doric that I once overheard: “Did ye ken, there’s twa types o’ puddock? Een that hops, and een that craals!”. These being, of course, Common Frog and Common Toad respectively. I have never come across a neater way of expressing this than in our local dialect!

Common Frog
Common Toad

Among the multitude of frogs and toads thronging the footpaths, we also happened upon several Palmate Newts on the move. These appear quite unfamiliar when seen out of the water, and are often (understandably) mistaken for lizards. Their soft amphibian skin, shorter tail and slower action easily separate them from their reptile cousins though. In common with the other amphibians, these occur in all sizes, and the tiny ones can be really difficult to spot.

Palmate Newt

Autumn is the season when amphibians begin to think about bedding down for the forthcoming winter, which is one of the reasons they are so widespread just now. They are beginning to disperse away from their native water bodies, to overwinter in damp grassland or under a convenient stone or log. and at times can turn up in some odd places, far from water. On Monday we had to reprimand two newtlets who were trespassing in the Forvie visitor centre, outwith the public opening times. They had found their way in under the front door, and were gently relocated outside to some more suitable newt habitat.

Caught breaking and entering

The other big event of the week, brought about by the weather, was the largest early-autumn arrival of migrant birds since 2008. An easterly wind had sprung up over the weekend of 3rd-4th, delivering a trickle of birds to the east coast, including a handful of Pied Flycatchers to Forvie. These were a pleasure to see, having been painfully scarce on the local patch in recent years.

Pied Flycatcher

However, with the wind remaining in the east, a downpour of rain during the night of 6th-7th turned the trickle of migrants into a deluge. As the rain began to clear on the morning of 7th, it became obvious that there were foreigners everywhere. Warblers, chats, flycatchers and more besides: drift migrants fetched across from the Continent by the weather. Every patch of willow scrub across the Reserve hosted its share of the arrivals, making for some memorable scenes.

Whinchat in the rain

Some of the biggest hitters in terms of numbers were Redstarts, Whinchats, both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. We’re generally lucky to see one or two each of these per year here, so to see so many at the one time was almost bewildering.

Lesser Whitethroat
Spotted Flycatcher
Wheatear
Redstart

Among the more numerous arrivals were ones and twos of southern and eastern species that aren’t often seen in our part of Scotland. Forvie hosted singles of Reed Warbler, Wryneck and Barred Warbler, with the neighbouring village of Collieston weighing in with another Barred Warbler, an Icterine Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Common Rosefinch. Seeking out rare and unusual visitors is one of the appeals of a big autumn ‘fall’ like this, but it’s just a small part of the story really.

Wryneck
Barred Warbler
Icterine Warbler

Actually, this was a very emotional experience for your soft-centred author here. ‘Falls’ used to be a more or less annual occurrence on the east coast, but in recent years they have become fewer and further between. The last event like this took place at Forvie no fewer than 14 years ago, and observers like myself had begun to wonder if they were a thing of the past. After all, populations of migrant birds have been in decline now for decades; were there basically not enough birds left in northern Europe to sustain these ancestral migration routes? Were things beginning to crumble and disappear before our eyes? Was this yet another symptom of humanity’s destructive influence on the planet’s ecology? What future lies ahead for those of us who care about nature?

All is not lost

One of the joys of observing migration is that it can transport you, figuratively speaking, to other parts of the world. And this week has proved, mercifully, that those distant places still contain life and beauty. The relief and ecstasy brought by these tiny travellers is just about indescribable. Simply, these birds have given me hope. You can’t put a price on that.

Whale of a time

If you’re a regular reader of the Forvie blog, you’ll know that we’re big fans of autumn here. The stress and hard yards of the bird breeding season are behind us, the tern fence is safely packed up in the workshop, and more to the point, the wildlife spectacle is at its best. What’s more, we actually have time to take it all in! Now we’re into early September, and it’s officially meteorological autumn (as opposed to early June when the first wading birds start heading south… people generally don’t take too kindly to the ‘A’ word being mentioned in June).

September: a harvest landscape reflected in a mirror-calm estuary

August, though, will be a tough act to follow. As we previously reported, the last month produced sightings of Bottlenose Dolphins, Marsh Harriers, Avocet and Bee-eater here at Forvie – quite a roll-call. But August wasn’t done until the very last, and the 31st gave us another rare treat in the form of a Minke Whale off the North Broadhaven.

Minke Whale
Thaar she blows!

The recent becalmed conditions offshore have presented great opportunities for seawatching – that is to say, simply looking out to sea, with the aid of binoculars or telescope, and seeing what passes by. Cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – are always highlights of any seawatch, with sightings by no means guaranteed even in good conditions. Seabirds obviously feature prominently, of which more in a moment. You may even see a migrant butterfly passing by offshore, or making landfall having crossed the North Sea – incredible though this seems. And there’s always a chance of something different: I live in hope that I might one day see a Basking Shark off our coast. It’s by no means impossible!

Seabirds and Bottlenose Dolphin

Often the best bet during a seawatch is to look out for a ‘bait ball’ – where a shoal of fish near the surface of the water is attracting flocks of birds. Kittiwakes and other gulls tend to be first on the scene, excitably dip-feeding at the surface, while Guillemots and Razorbills also pile in and dive for their share of the spoils. Such feeding frenzies are often joined by Gannets, diving spectacularly from height, though these are notably scarcer following their decimation this summer by avian flu.

Seabirds gathering…
Fish ahoy!

While most of the birds are intent on attacking the shoal of fish, some prefer to go after other birds instead. Skuas are specialists in obtaining food by larceny, pursuing other seabirds such as gulls and terns until they drop or regurgitate their catch of fish. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism – not an easy word to say after a pint or two – and requires remarkable flying skills and lightning-quick reactions on the part of the skua. But it saves them the work of having to catch the fish themselves!

There are four species of skua in the Northern Hemisphere. Of these, the Long-tailed and Pomarine Skua occur only rarely in our region as passage-migrants. But the other two species, Great and Arctic Skua, are a regular feature off Forvie’s coast from spring until late autumn. These true pirates of the high seas make for a dashing sight as they go about their swashbuckling business.

Great Skua chasing after a gull
Arctic Skua on patrol

The usual views of skuas are relatively distant over the sea: a menacing dark shape pursuing the white-and-grey shapes of the terns and gulls. Occasionally, though, they venture into the mouth of the estuary, where they are attracted by the post-breeding flocks of terns. The following photos were captured brilliantly by a visitor to Forvie over ten years ago, and to my eternal embarrassment, I cannot recall her name. But I remain ever grateful for her permission to use these amazing action shots. And if you’re reading this and recognise the photos as your own, do please get in touch, so I can give credit where credit’s due!

Arctic Skua pursuing a Sandwich Tern
“Just DROP the SAND-EEL, DAMMIT”

Back on dry land, a changing of the guard continues in the invertebrate world. Many of our butterflies are looking a bit sorry for themselves as they approach the end of their flight season. This Green-veined White was found sulking among the washing on the line in our garden earlier in the week.

Green-veined White

Other insects, though, are beginning to become more prominent. Having seen the larvae on the go earlier in the year, we’re now seeing adult Devil’s Coach-horse beetles prowling along the footpaths, looking for invertebrate prey. They don’t normally pose for photographs, so I was delighted when one decided to threaten me with the ‘scorpion pose’ as I passed by. Check out the difference between the beetle in ordinary circumstances…

Devil’s Coach-horse

…and in its threat posture, with its tail curled upwards like a scorpion’s sting, and its fearsome mouthparts open wide.

“Don’t darken my door again”

A feature of late summer and early autumn in Forvie’s grassland is the appearance of Grass-of-Parnassus. Contrary to its name, this isn’t actually a grass at all, but rather a flowering plant featuring delicately pin-striped white petals. This can be found most commonly on the Reserve along the coastal path around Hackley Bay, where it grows right alongside the footpath. One to look out for if you’re out and about in early September.

Grass-of-Parnassus

Finally, if you are visiting the Reserve any time soon, be sure and look out for the on-site information which tells you more about what you might see during your visit. Out on the Heath Trail, the wildflower interpretation boxes will remain in-situ for a short while longer, as most of the plants approach the end of their flowering season. These have been very popular with visitors since they were first deployed – and this is your last chance to enjoy them this year!

One of our wildflower boxes

Meanwhile, the Forvie Centre now features a small display on migration, featuring photos and fun facts in keeping with the season. In common with the wildflower boxes, we hope by providing these displays that we might open up a new vista for people who may not otherwise be aware of what the Reserve has to offer. And remember, of course, that we’re always happy to chat and answer wildlife-related questions if you see one of us out on site!

New displays at the Forvie Centre

Who knows – we may eventually be able to convince other folk to love the autumn as much as we do here at Forvie!

Hard Graft and High Excitement

Hard graft and high excitement. We’ve had a decent dose of both and it’s a nice mixture – the excitement energises you for the graft behind and ahead. We’ve been working hard this week as the summer is over – for us at least – as all the terns have departed the breeding colony and the fence that has protected them from ground predators all summer can come down. And that’s a big job, at least 3 days work for 4 or 5 people, lugging heavy batteries, posts, rolls of wire and various other sundries that make up 1 kilometre of fencing. Oh, and you’re carrying it over soft sand too, so that’s a bit of extra lactic acid for the legs!

Fence coming down

We’re always very grateful for the volunteers who help us, both putting the fence out and taking it in. We genuinely couldn’t do it without you and there are birds flying around the world right now that wouldn’t have bred here if it wasn’t for you …so thank you. It’s always a relief when all the truck is packed and ready to roll.

All packed up and ready to roll!

But it’s worth it – the birds have had a good year (more of that in a later blog) and we’re a net exporter of at least Sandwich terns to the rest of the North Sea.

Sandwich terns with fledged young on beach – ready for export!

And we were rather rewarded for our hard work by a lovely view of some bottlenose dolphins on the Monday. The seas was flat-calm – one of those days you feel like you could see to Norway -and there must have been mackerel or herring shoals running offshore, as the sea was black with seabirds. It was heartening to see so many birds out there, feeding on the fish, even though there were notably few gannets and we saw more Arctic skuas than bonxies, for the first time ever. But, in amongst the riot of bird life, something else surfaced…was that a fin?

Is that a fin?

Yes, it was! A brief view of a fin was soon accompanied by a lot of splashing and even animals jumping right out of the water as the dolphins took their share of the fish. Sadly, I never caught that on camera but we watched, entranced, as they slowly drifted north past the reserve. Okay, it’s not quite a humpback whale like St Cyrus had, but we were pretty pleased to see them nonetheless!

Dolphins
Dolphin
Dolphins off Forvie

But enough of the hard graft – let’s move onto the high excitement! As one of the authors of this blog is always saying, when there’s a hint of east in the wind in spring or autumn, it’s game on for migrant birds. And there have been a steady trickle of them this week, with whitethroats and willow warblers flitting after insects in the scrub. But the first ‘rare’ of the week wasn’t something small skulking around the bushes, as it so often is, it was a marsh harrier drifting lazily over the barley fields. These raptors are becoming increasingly common is Scotland and have bred at Loch of Strathbeg in recent years, so we keep hoping a pair might use the reedbeds here.

Marsh Harrier

Our next ‘rare’ was a wading bird, one of the most elegant, the iconic RSPB-logo avocet. These are more-or-less annual here, with one or two appearing on the estuary every year, overshoots from breeding and wintering grounds further south. If you’ve never seen an avocet before, they look a bit exotic and bizarre, with their upturned beak and a side-to-side sweep of the head as they feed. I saw my first ones aged 13 at Minsmere and, to quote Simon Barnes, it felt like ‘looking onto a field of unicorns’ – these were birds I’d only ever read about and could scarcely believe I was seeing. That magic’s never really gone away, and it’s somehow extra-special seeing one on your own patch.

Avocet
Avocet sweep feeding

But that wasn’t the big excitement of the week. I was in the office on Tuesday morning, halfway through pulling on my boots, when the phone rang. An almost inarticulate Daryl was yelling down the phone but I caught the words ‘ grab binoculars’, ‘flying south’ and ‘bee-eater’ ….surely not!!! So, laces trailing, legged it out front, and started scanning. Where was it? I can see Daryl, about 500m away, but he’s a helluva bigger than a bee-eater, so where’s he looking? Just with that, the mobile rang and the next minute descended into comedy chaos, with us yelling things at each other and neither really listening …’I’m on it, flying right over Cluny’s’ …’my right or your right?’…’being mobbed by m’ipits’…’got it…OH MY GOD!!!!!’ (Please note this is a heavily edited version so’s we both still have jobs). Even from the office I could see it catching insects, swooping like a swallow, and eventually putting down on the power lines at the south end of Collieston. One sprint and a quick record shot later it was off, heading south again to where it should be, and we could get our collective breath back. What a thing to see over your reserve!

Bee-eater on Collieston phone lines.

This was a European bee-eater and they are generally birds of the Mediterranean area. I last saw in Corfu and, like here, the easiest way to locate them is their distinctive and carrying ‘proop-proop’ call. But they are moving north, probably as a result of climate change and a pair bred in Norfolk this year. While I don’t think they’ll ever be regular visitors here, this bird was a real taste of the exotic and a total yahoo in terms of rarity. While the record shot was just a silhouette, this picture (taken in Bulgaria) give an idea of just how colourful these birds are.

Technicolour mayhem…a beautiful Bee-eater.

Speaking of technicolour, we’ll leave you this week with a couple of shots of the butterflies feeding on the heather here. As Daryl said in his last blog, it’s heather season and the moor is gloriously purple ….and all those lovely, nectar-rich heather flowers are a massive food source for butterflies and other insects. The moor is a-buzz with bees and peacock and red admiral butterflies seem to be everywhere. The peacock is almost the insect equivalent of the bee-eater – too colourful and prefect to be real!

Peacock and red admiral feeding on heather
Peacock butterfly

Heather season

Here at Forvie, August is a month which has a lot going for it. Not least because it’s the time when the coastal heath, at times bleak and foreboding, bursts into vibrant colour with the blooming of the heather. It’s as if somebody has taken a paintbrush to the landscape and given it a fresh coat of purple. If there’s ever a time for a slow, leisurely walk over the heath to take in the sights and smells, that time is surely now.

It’s heather time!

Of the three species of heather to occur at Forvie, far the commonest is Ling (or Calluna for all the gardeners out there). While the other two species (the Ericas – Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heath) tend to grow in a more dispersed fashion, it’s the Ling that forms the majority of the purple carpet at Forvie, as well as in the wider landscape of the Scottish hills in late summer. It also provides that honey-sweet smell, intense and delicious, which hangs heavy in the air on a fine August morning on the heath.

Ling, or Common Heather

Like many plants, Ling occasionally occurs as a white variety, lacking the pink or purple tones usually present in the flowers. Once considered to bring good luck, it’s always a treat to find some white heather. However, with the benefit of local knowledge, there are certain spots on the Reserve where it’s easy to find, year after year – if you know where to look, that is!

Lucky white heather

On the coastal heathland of the Reserve, the purples and pinks (and occasional whites) of the heathers form a pleasing contrast with the light blue-greens of the lichens. It’s a unique colour combination, found only where heathland has been left undisturbed for a very long time. Thereby providing us with another reminder of how fortunate we are to have such a special environment right here on our collective doorstep – rare, fragile and beautiful.

A patchwork of heathers and lichens

In places on the heath, the patchwork is supplemented by other species, both beautiful and curious. One such example is Stag’s-horn Club-moss, which grows near the Heath Trail footpath in a handful of locations. Its odd structure reminds me of the giant cacti you used to see in cowboy films, but many hundreds of times smaller. Kneel down and get your eyes right down to ground level, and you could almost be in Arizona in miniature. OK, maybe it’s just me then.

Stag’s-horn Club-moss among the lichens and heather
Miniature Saguaro cacti, perhaps?

A characteristic flower of late summer at Forvie is Devil’s-bit Scabious. Its odd name is derived from the fact that it was once used to treat the disease scabies (among other things), hence Scabious. The other part of its name arises, so to speak, from the plant’s remarkably short roots. Apparently the Devil was so annoyed about its efficacy in curing ailments that he bit off the plant’s roots from underground – hence ‘Devil’s-bit’.

Devil’s-bit Scabious

Regular readers will be well aware that this blog is stuffed full of recurring themes, and in keeping with this, we found a white version of Devil’s-bit Scabious as opposed to the usual blue. In the past we’ve also seen a pink version of the flower for good measure, but we think this is the first time that any of us have seen a white one. So it joins the ever-growing list of plants to have occurred at Forvie in a white form.

White Devil’s-bit Scabious – a new one on me!

This could, in theory, be easily confused with its close relative, Field Scabious. This is generally a taller plant, bearing flowers of a delicate whitish-mauve, but with an obvious family resemblance to its usually-blue-flowered cousin. Field Scabious can be found in the grassland outside the Forvie Centre, while Devil’s-bit Scabious tends to occur along the path-sides out on the Reserve.

Field Scabious at the Forvie Centre
Field Scabious flower

Both Scabious species are favourites of our butterflies, and probably the most obvious species on the wing right now is the Red Admiral. Boldly-coloured, showy and familiar, these can be seen more or less anywhere there are flowers on show just now. However, they can be remarkably inconspicuous at rest, when the bright colours of the upperwings are hidden, as the two photos below demonstrate. The resting Admiral was obvious only by virtue of having chosen a cream-painted wall on which to roost! But against a natural background, that mottled underside provides perfect camouflage against would-be predators like birds.

Red Admiral – showy and bold
At rest, with the bright colours hidden away

Speaking of birds, the exodus at the ternery is almost complete, with just a handful of birds remaining now. The vast majority of these are Common Terns – usually our tardiest breeders – with just a couple of Arctic Terns remaining among them. Quite a few fledglings are still hanging around on the estuary, preparing for the monumental travels that lie ahead of them. But we’re very much hoping to get the electric fence dismantled next week, marking the end of what’s been a very successful season. We’ll no doubt publish a ‘ternery retrospective’ on these pages once the job is complete.

The last few terns
Juvenile Arctic Tern – next stop where?

Thankfully, the electric fence did a great job for us this season in terms of keeping ground predators out – Foxes and Badgers, as ever, being the main concerns. Sure enough, this week we spotted this Fox outside the electric fence, on the lookout for an easy lunch. It’s reckoned that if we didn’t go to such extreme lengths to fence the ternery each year, we probably wouldn’t have a ternery at all.

Who’s for a quick tern supper?

Apart from being the heather season, August is also notable for migration. As we have previously reported, wading birds have been on the move for more than a month already, and now the passerines – songbirds if you like – are beginning to get in on the act. Last Monday we logged our first Wheatear of the autumn on the Reserve – hopefully the first of many to pass through our area over the course of the autumn.

Wheatear – first of the autumn

Of course, migration isn’t just the preserve of birds, and many insects also cover vast distances too. Moths are among the more obvious invertebrate migrants, and August can sometimes offer the opportunity to catch up with long-haul travellers from the south and east. A prime example is the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, and this past week has seen no fewer than three records of this scarce migrant in our garden adjacent to the Reserve. One of them stuck around long enough for Catriona to grab a photo – the moth’s wings appearing as a blur, and the long proboscis tapping into the nectar from a Honeysuckle flower. A great capture of a very difficult subject to photograph!

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

As we all know, the heather season is over all too quickly, as the year continues to turn apace. Now is the time to get out and savour the best that August has to offer, both at Forvie and beyond.

Meetings and partings

To quote that great philosopher Kermit the Frog, life is full of meetings and partings. True words indeed, for a year on the Reserve is a continuous merry-go-round of arrivals and departures. Different species (frogs included) come and go with the seasons, and August is as busy a time as any in this respect. We find ourselves bidding some species their annual farewell, while welcoming others back after a period of absence.

In last week’s instalment, we spoke of the migrating wading birds as harbingers of the changing seasons. This week, the most obvious changing of the guard has taken place among Forvie’s butterflies. Suddenly there are Vanessids everywhere – by this, we mean that quartet of boldly-coloured powerful fliers comprising Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock. Sure enough, all four have been in evidence over the past few days, making for a colourful scene among the drought-parched grassland.

Peacock
Painted Lady
Red Admiral
Small Tortoiseshell

These four species are easily recognised with a little practice, and unlike a great many invertebrates they also have memorable names. They are well worth seeking out while they’re in such good condition, being freshly emerged into the world. An adult butterfly’s lifespan is a short one, and it won’t be long before they start to show the wear and tear of their fast-paced existence. Indeed, compared to the resplendent, newly-minted Vanessids, the last few Dark Green Fritillaries are looking pale, wan and world-weary.

A faded fritillary

Some butterflies, however, get a second innings each year, and we’ve just started seeing the first Small Coppers of the second generation. The first brood is on the wing during late spring, then there is a midsummer hiatus until the second brood starts to emerge about now. Though only tiny, these are real gems, and a close-up view of one is always a moment to be treasured.

Small Copper – tiny yet stunning

Down at the ternery, the partings are happening at a rapid rate as the last of the birds begin to depart and disperse. At the time of writing, just a few dozen Arctic and Common Terns remain attending chicks within the colony, with the vast majority having already upped and left. When we say farewell to these, we can only wonder at what lies ahead of them. These are birds with a truly global range, and some of ‘our’ birds may even visit the Antarctic region in the coming months. They’ll go places and see things that I never will.

I must admit that it’s always a relief when the last ones depart, as it means we can finally begin to dismantle the protective electric fence around the colony, and another season of stress and sleepless nights is mercifully behind us. Especially this year, with the spectre of avian flu casting a long shadow over the whole season and adding to the usual worries. But at the same time, we’ll still very much look forward to being reacquainted with the terns again next spring!

Farewell old friends – Arctic Terns
Adults and fledglings ready for the right-away

Something we’ll not be sad to see the back of is Himalayan Balsam. This week we were re-united with Karen, Tom and Alan from Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, in order to finish the assault on the Foveran Burn that we began last week. This time we reached the upstream source of the balsam, and a massive effort by the combined team got the whole lot cleared. A great result, and we’ll see how it looks next season!

Catriona tackling a balsam plant
What a beast (the plant, of course)

Karen reliably informed us that Himalayan Balsam is the fastest-growing annual plant in the UK. Remarkably, this means that the ten-foot-high plants, some with stems almost as thick as my forearms, are all the product of a single growing season. It seems almost impossible that these colossal structures could grow from seed to this height in just a few weeks – but that’s one of the secrets to its success, and consequently one of the reasons it’s so dangerous as an invasive species.

This one was a two-person lift!

Finally – and I’ve left this item until last, in case I should get emotional and not be able to see the screen hereafter – we have one very significant parting to report. After four years of sterling service to Forvie, our weekend warden Patrick is moving on to pastures new.

Patrick has contributed massively to the running of the Reserve since 2019, not least by holding the fort at weekends throughout the busiest period that Forvie has ever known. As well as being the public face of Forvie, he has also made invaluable contributions to the monitoring of the ternery and the Reserve’s botanical features, and been a great mentor to Mark and Caitlin when they each started out here. Apart from all the hard yakka, Patrick has also brought a vast amount of good humour and bonhomie to the Forvie team, and I for one will miss the craic more than anything.

So thanks for everything mate, good luck in your new adventures – and don’t be a stranger!

Thanks Patrick!

Wade in the water

I’ve heard it said that given enough time, people and their pets end up assuming the same personality as one another (and, in some amusing cases, even begin to look the same). An interesting theory – and one that could possibly also be applied to Forvie’s wildlife and its staff. Physical likenesses aside(!), it’s fair to say that both we and our wildlife take a disproportionate amount of enjoyment from plytering about in water. What better way to spend a stiflingly hot August day anyway?

Who doesn’t love a bootful of water?

This week’s excuse – erm, I mean task – was to remove the non-native and dangerously invasive Himalayan Balsam from the Foveran Burn. This is the burn that flows alongside the A975 coast road, eventually joining the Ythan Estuary at Inch Road in Newburgh. In partnership with staff and volunteers from the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, we worked our way upstream from Newburgh towards Foveran, thereby tackling the source of the balsam seeds coming down the burn to the Reserve. It was hot, sticky, stinging-nettley work, but between us we got a huge area cleared, thereby helping to safeguard the native plants which would otherwise be out-competed and overwhelmed. And special thanks are owed to Karen from SISI for providing some excellent coffee and biccies.

Himalayan Balsam growing on the Foveran Burn
Balsam bashers in their natural habitat

So what about the wildlife then? Forvie is, of course, rightly famed as a superb site for wading birds, and now is a particularly busy time in the wader world. As we’ve mentioned before in these pages, the breeding season for Arctic-nesting waders is very short, and consequently most of them are now southbound again on what effectively constitutes their autumn migration (even though it’s only early August). Forvie plays the role of motorway service-station for these long-haul travellers, providing opportunities for the birds to feed and rest.

The Reserve’s extensive and varied habitats also cater for species with different preferences. Sanderlings, for example, choose to feed along the strand-line of the beach, and roost among the debris above the high-water mark…

Sanderlings feeding furiously

…while other species, such as Turnstone, favour the rocky shore instead, and can be found feeding and roosting along the shoreline between Collieston and Rockend.

Tired Turnstone

On the estuary, different kinds of waders favour different areas too. Some prefer the saltier environment near the river mouth, such as Grey Plover – which, at this time of year, can sometimes be seen still wearing their stunning black-and-white summer plumage.

Grey Plover, in silver-and-black breeding finery

Some species, such as Whimbrel, prefer the middle reaches of the estuary, where the water is a mix of fresh and salt – known as ‘brackish’. Here they probe the mudflats for worms and other invertebrates, and can often be seen shoulder-to-shoulder with their larger relative, the Curlew.

Whimbrel – like a dinky Curlew with a stripy head
Whimbrel (l) and Curlew (r) – shame the Curlew had its back to us!

Others have a distinct preference for fresher water, and are seldom found on the estuary itself. Wood Sandpiper, for instance, is one species that tends to favour the scatter of small freshwater pools and lochs on the moor, rather than the extensive but salty wetlands of the estuary.

Wood Sandpiper feeding at a freshwater pool

One of the wonderful things about waders – apart from their elegance of form, their often beautiful summer plumage and their outstanding feats of migration – is that many are also possessed of a musical and far-carrying voice. It’s a pity not to be able to do this justice in writing, as wader calls are among the most evocative of all sounds in the natural world. Few things make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like hearing a flight of Curlew arriving upon high from the North Sea. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Landfall, guys – we made it”.

A flight of Curlew

These are not just intrinsically beautiful sounds, they are also the audio soundtrack to the shifting of the seasons, the very turning of the world upon which we all live. When walking on the Reserve, or working the garden at home, I am often stopped in my tracks by the rippling seven whistles of a Whimbrel, the mournful teu-hu-hu of a Redshank, the lively and strident kyew-kyew-kyew of a Greenshank, or perhaps the sing-song tlooeet-wit-wit of a Green Sandpiper passing high overhead. If the soundtrack of high summer is defined by the drone of bees on a dazzling hot day, then late summer and early autumn is surely defined by the sound of waders on the move. They are the sound of life itself.

Kyew-kyew-kyew – Greenshank

One of the better wader hotspots on the estuary is Waulkmill bird hide, and the mouth of the Forvie burn just next to the hide is often worth a look on the rising tide. Unfortunately in recent months, this site has also been popular after dark with the sort of people who aren’t welcome on a National Nature Reserve, and the hide has been subject to several acts of vandalism since the end of last year. The latest episode involved yet another broken window, with the shattered glass left lying outside the hide. Repairing this is another job to be ‘booked’, i.e. put on the ‘to do’ list, to be undertaken at the first opportunity.

Yet more knuckle-headery for us to repair

On the flip side, we did manage to make good the damage from the previous batch of idiocy, which took place in June and involved the destruction of shelving and display panels. This was only repaired by Mark and I earlier in the year, which made the whole thing even more frustrating. However, we were able to recover all the broken bits of timber and re-purpose them, meaning the only expense incurred was for a few nails and panel pins, plus a couple of hours of myself and Caitlin’s time.

Before…
…and after.
Before……
……and after!

This sort of job can be filed under the headings of ‘unplanned work’ and ‘making a silk purse from a sow’s ear’. Not how any of us would choose to spend our time, but making the best of a bad job, it did at least give Caitlin the opportunity to practice a bit of basic construction work. We’ll see how long this repair lasts, and will sort out the broken window as time allows.

The joys of working with the public. At least we’ve got the waders to help keep us sane!

Insect extravaganza

Late summer is arguably the most diverse and interesting time of the year when it comes to insects in our area. Long days, warm temperatures and an abundance of flowers and fruits provide the ingredients for an explosion of of invertebrate life of all kinds, each cashing in on nature’s seasonal bounty. It’s an exciting time for the naturalist, not least because you’re never quite sure what will come your way next.

This I found out last weekend, while doing some gardening on our plot adjacent to the northern boundary of the Reserve. As I was minding my own business, a colossal insect buzzed right by me, making a sound not unlike a Lancaster bomber. Ridiculously, for a six-foot outdoorsman, my first instinct was to dive for cover. After picking myself up again (and having a surreptitious glance around to check that none of the neighbours had seen me), I went to identify the beast in question, which had headed straight for a pile of uncut firewood. And what a beast it was.

Giant Wood-wasp

Meet the Giant Wood-wasp, alternatively known by the older (and more descriptive) name of Horntail. This colossus of the insect kingdom, sitting here on our wood pile, measured more than 50mm (over 2 inches in old money) from the tips of its yellow antennae to the end of its fearsome-looking ‘stinger’. However, this isn’t actually a stinger at all; it instead houses an ovipositor – a mechanism by which the female wasp lays her eggs into the timber of dying or recently-felled trees. And for confusion’s sake, it’s not even a true wasp, but rather one of the sawflies – close relatives of the true wasps and bees, all of which share the order Hymenoptera.

Sure enough, closer inspection showed that our Horntail – a female, hence the horn tail – was busy laying eggs into a Sitka spruce log, drilling into the timber with her long, needle-fine ovipositor. All the time, her wings were vibrating rapidly, and apparently this helps to drive the ovipositor into the wood with a rapid sawing motion. This explains why the wings look blurred in the photos!

Giant Wood-wasp egg-laying

Her work done, she climbed her way to the top of the log pile and took flight once more, bearing a remarkable resemblance in flight to a Hornet as she headed westwards inland. Where she had come from was a mystery, but it’s likely that this species – which specialises on softwoods such as pine and spruce – will currently be making a good living off the storm-damaged trees that still litter the countryside following the wild weather of the preceding winter. In any case, the log in question has now been marked with an ‘X’ in ink, and will be set aside rather than turned into firewood. Then, perhaps in three years or so – for this is the length of time the larvae remain in the timber – we might have a hatch of Giant Wood-wasps of our very own.

Note the ovipositor at work

While we were thrilled with the Wood-wasp encounter, it’s easy to see how some folk get a bit freaked by such a large and dangerous-looking insect (even though, in reality, it’s a completely harmless beast). Butterflies, however, are one group of insects that seem to meet with almost universal approval, their bold colours a joy to see, brightening up a summer’s day. This week we’ve noticed the first newly-hatched Small Tortoiseshells emerging, a perennial and easily-identifiable favourite. These will be the offspring of last summer’s generation, which overwintered as adults and emerged in early spring. These newly minted individuals are so much smarter than the often scruffy and careworn ones we see earlier in the year.

A mint Small Tortoiseshell

Out in the grasslands, meanwhile, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Common Blue butterfly skipping by. These are the only blue butterfly to occur at Forvie, so no ID challenges here. Seen at rest, these are truly gorgeous insects, with the blue changing its hue depending on the light and the angle you’re viewing from. Sometimes azure, sometimes purplish, sometimes dusky – but always stunning to look at.

Male Common Blue at rest

Moths are a big part of the scene on the Reserve just now, and though they’re often viewed with disdain compared with butterflies, this is somewhat unfair. Of course, most people only ever see moths bashing against a lit window at night, or occasionally happen upon one of the day-flying ones, many of which look unremarkable compared with butterflies. But there are notable exceptions. Take the two common day-fliers below: the Common Heath is understated but rather beautiful seen close up (and check out those feathery antennae). But the Six-spot Burnet is altogether more showy, in the manner of a butterfly.

Common Heath moth – a day-flier
Six-spot Burnet – likewise

Of course, many moth species are night-flying, but as we’ve demonstrated before, they can be captured using a light trap, thereby allowing us an insight into an otherwise unseen world. At our recent Fun Day, the moth trap was a remarkably popular attraction, and consequently last week’s Marvellous Moths event was very well subscribed. The night before the event, we operated not one, not two, but three light traps, all in different locations (the grassland behind the Forvie Centre; the Alder plantation alongside the track to the Reserve; and your author’s garden in Collieston). This, we hoped, would produce a range of species with different habitat preferences, giving our visitors plenty of variety to look at. And we weren’t disappointed! Here are some of the highlights.

Lempke’s Gold Spot
Beautiful Golden Y
Garden Tiger close-up
Burnished Brass – check out that metallic sheen
Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (catchy, huh?)

The diversity of moths is absolutely astonishing, with around 1,500 species occurring in Scotland (as compared with just 37 species of butterfly). Yes, separating some of the tricky (usually brown and cryptic) species is difficult for the beginner, and can even be tough for the experts at times! And their names can be a challenge too – try saying Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing with a mouthful of crisps. But what beauty and variety there is to be found – and that’s the case wherever you are, from urban gardens to National Nature Reserves. Following the excitement of the event, we resolved once again to build ourselves a light trap for use at home – maybe this time we’ll actually get around to it!

The excitement of ‘mothing’

Of course, there’s plenty of interest in the insect world outside of the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). One of the more obvious groups to the casual observer are the bumblebees. Contrary to popular belief, there’s not just one type of bumblebee, but a range of different species. Look a little more closely and you will soon start to notice differences between the bees that visit your garden flowers. Some wear the classic black-and-yellow stripes, such as this White-tailed Bumblebee…

White-tail feeding on Wild Thyme

…while others carry a very different appearance, such as the teddy-bear-like Common Carder Bumblebee.

Common Carder on Knapweed

The examples above are both common, widespread and easily identified, and are among the most obvious of the 19 species found in Scotland. So it’s well worth having a closer look at the bumblebees in your garden, or out on the Reserve, to see if you can spot the differences and start to recognise the individual species.

Other insect groups are much larger though. It’s reckoned that there are roughly 2,600 species of beetle in Scotland – now that’s a lot of differences to try and learn. While this seems daunting for the budding naturalist, you can make a bit of headway with the more distinctive-looking ones. And this is where the internet is heaven-sent, as there are numerous apps and websites available to help with species ID. For instance, after a very quick bit of research, we were able to determine that this fabulous metallic-looking beast was the leaf beetle Chrysolina polita. And that was with no prior knowledge of the subject! All you need is an eye for detail, and to be curious.

Chrysolina polita – surely deserves a common name!

Sometimes though, keen naturalist that I am, I’m forced to admit defeat. Some species groups present such a minefield of identification problems that they just have to be left alone. Recently, this ichneumon wasp turned up on our window at home, and looked (to my eyes) distinctive enough to be identified. However, upon recoursing to my usual internet trawl, I was dismayed to learn that the UK has approximately 2,500 species of ichneumon to choose from, and that many of them essentially look exactly the same as one another. Oh dear.

‘Ichneumon sp’!

Anyway, regardless of whether you can name every species that crosses your path (and I don’t know anybody who can), when all’s said and done it doesn’t really matter. More important is to recognise that there’s a huge diversity of insect life out there, a hidden world that most of us never take the time to acknowledge and appreciate. But there’s never a better time to start than right now, in the vibrant, buzzing days of late summer.

Riding the rollercoaster

When your day job involves doing something that’s close to your heart, your working life can feel like something of an emotional rollercoaster at times. This year to date has been a type example. So far, we’ve endured some depressing lows – the usual vandalism, litter and inconsiderate behaviour, the avian flu crisis, and the continued loss of biodiversity in the wider world to name a few. But these have been offset against some sublime highs – the warmth of feedback from people at our public events, some magic moments shared with nature, and some success stories in the face of adversity.

The kids’ reaction to the moths at the Fun Day was a real highlight!

Foremost among the latter is the news from the Forvie ternery. Despite the dark spectre of avian flu looming over them, ‘our’ birds have continued to enjoy a remarkably successful breeding season. This week, we counted upwards of 800 fledged Arctic and Common Terns scattered around the south end of the Reserve, representing their best productivity for several years. We hope these new recruits will go forth into the world and help repair the devastation that has been visited upon other colonies elsewhere. As we’ve said before, nature knows no boundaries, and as such, the impact of our work extends well beyond our own thousand hectares.

A fledged Arctic Tern – ready for export!
A fine season in the face of adversity

To continue with the rollercoaster analogy, the middle of summer at Forvie is like one of those massive summits that the coaster climbs up at a snail’s pace, almost coming to a standstill at the very top. We now find ourselves at the start of the descent, but rather than hurtling headlong back down to earth, this is a long and gentle ride. With the most frenetic period now behind us – that period wherein everything is frantically growing, breeding and doing everything at 100 mph – the Reserve now begins to take on a different feel. More relaxed, more mellow, and for me at least, all the more enjoyable for it.

…And relax.

In the world of plants, the grasses have reached their peak and are beginning to set seed. Grasses are a dominant feature of the landscape here, and as any gardener in the local area will tell you, their vigorous growth can overwhelm the more delicate plants. But by this time of the year the grasses have had their day (Shouldn’t that be ‘hayday’? – sorry), and it’s now time for other species to shine. But in the meantime, there’s a simple beauty about a late summer grassland, with the breeze whispering through the ranks of bowed and nodding seed-heads. We refer to the fields of ripening barley in our region as a ‘harvest landscape’, and this is nature’s equivalent.

Late summer grassland near the Forvie Centre
A soft and mellow landscape
Yorkshire Fog – a common and attractive grass

While the grasses are in decline, some of our flowering plants are just beginning their tour de force. Bluebells (or Harebells if you’re south of the border – please yourself) are now in evidence along many of Forvie’s footpaths, and their exquisite form and delicate colour make them a firm favourite of visitors and staff alike.

Bluebells and Yarrow along the path edge
A perennial favourite

A surprising number of wild plants occasionally show a white-flowered form, instead of their usual colouration. In my years at Forvie I have noted white versions of Lousewort, Spear Thistle, Heather and Wild Thyme among others – and, contrary to their name, Bluebells too. Look out for these among the regular blue ones as you traverse the paths throughout the Reserve.

A white form of Bluebell
Rare and beautiful indeed

Butterflies are very much in evidence just now on sunny days, and it was a pleasure to see Graylings on the wing during the week. These cryptic yet attractive butterflies are associated with areas of bare sand and short-cropped vegetation, and it’s thought that the decline of the Rabbit at Forvie has perhaps had a negative effect on the Grayling population. However, there are a few areas of the Reserve where Graylings can still reliably be seen. The path between the Forvie Centre and Cotehill Loch is a good bet, as is the southern end of the Dune Trail. But you’ll need sharp eyes, as Graylings are not only fast fliers, but also brilliantly camouflaged when at rest upon the ground.

Spot the Grayling

The most obvious butterfly species currently on the wing, both in terms of appearance and sheer numbers, is the Dark Green Fritillary. These seem to be everywhere just now.

Dark Green Fritillary on Creeping Thistle

They’re so abundant here during mid to late summer that they feature on the menu for some of Forvie’s insectivores. It’s not especially unusual to find little piles of wings, discarded by the predator, as it’s the butterfly’s body which is the nutritious and (apparently) tasty bit. If you happen upon such a find, it’s a good opportunity to have a look at the detail of the wing markings – particularly the green of the underwings, which is hard to see on a live specimen, yet gives the butterfly its name.

Fritillary spare parts – note the green on the hindwing

One of the most likely culprits in this case is the Stonechat, of which several pairs breed annually on Forvie Moor. While eating butterflies might seem like bad form, it’s all part of the great cycle of life, as well as important nutrition for the Stonechat’s chicks. And besides this, Stonechats eat a wide variety of other invertebrates too, including the ones that bite and sting us. So take it from me, they’re not all bad.

A handsome male Stonechat

Changing tack completely, last Wednesday saw us run a public event focused on edible and medicinal plants. The bill of fare included seaweeds gathered from Collieston beach (and yes, I appreciate these are algae rather than actual plants, before anybody writes in to correct me). Anyway, a frond of Kelp was brought back to the Forvie Centre to demonstrate how to make ‘seaweed crisps’ – which incidentally make deliciously salty ‘bar snacks’ alongside a pint of pale ale. But I digress: here on the Kelp was a passenger, a species none of us had previously seen at Forvie. The rather magical Blue-rayed Limpet.

Blue-rayed Limpet – an extraordinary little beast

These tiny shellfish generally grow to about the size of your little fingernail, though this one was barely bigger than a full stop. But what about those blue rays! Like a Kingfisher’s back or a Bluethroat’s gorget, these are an iridescent blue that’s difficult to do justice in a still photograph. You just have to see it for yourself, and the place to do so is right at the bottom of the shore on a low spring tide. Or among freshly-washed-up kelp, seemingly.

I must admit that it’s not often that molluscs feature in the Forvie blog, but that’s chiefly down to my sore lack of knowledge on the subject. Just imagine what other gems might be waiting to be discovered out there. Time to go and do some homework.