Life's a ditch…

Unless you’ve just returned from a twenty-year holiday in outer space, you’ll have heard in the news that the climate is changing. Here in the UK, milder and wetter is the new order of the day. We’re tending to get more rain these days, and even on the relatively dry east coast of Scotland we get our share. Here on the Reserve, there’s been a definite increase in standing water over the last 10-15 years.

Wetlands forming along the Heath Trail

Generally speaking, we’re happy to let these new wetlands develop naturally. In the past, when the Reserve was managed as a sporting estate prior to its sale to Scottish Natural Heritage, a network of drains kept the moorland dry. The aim of this was to maintain good habitat for Red Grouse, a popular quarry species for field-sports enthusiasts. Red Grouse like dry heather moorland and don’t much enjoy getting their feet wet. So, with the exception of a couple of artificial flight-ponds (which were built for the purposes of duck-shooting), most of the Reserve was kept dry. The heather was even burned from time to time to produce fresh regrowth for the grouse to eat.

Red Grouse

Heather-burning and maintenance of the drains ceased here in the 1970s, and the Red Grouse population gradually declined as conditions became less favourable. There have not been any grouse seen at Forvie for a number of years now, though they remain plentiful in the hills of inland Aberdeenshire. As the Reserve ‘wets up’, the grouse have been replaced by a range of species that favour a more watery landscape.

Snipe – a wading bird that likes flooded ground
Reed bunting – breeds in scrub around shallow wetlands
Common Hawker dragonfly laying eggs in a moorland pool
A pair of Large Red Damselflies egg-laying

There are a few bits of the Reserve where we still have to maintain the ditches and drains. These are the areas where the footpaths or vehicle tracks are prone to flooding or getting excessively muddy, and even then, we only ever drain the bits that we absolutely have to. It’s a case of putting on your overalls and waders, rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck into some good old-fashioned hard yakka.

Your author trying not to get stuck in the Mealy Burn, south of Collieston on the coast path

This week we turned our attention to a bit of the Rockend Track – the one that bisects the Reserve from Waterside car park to the beach – which has flooded badly in recent times. As well as being one of the principal footpaths on site, it’s also our only means of getting the 4×4 vehicle onto the beach. This is crucial for collecting beach litter, transporting all the fencing gear to the ternery, and maintaining vital infrastructure in the south of the Reserve. It’s our equivalent of the M6 – a critical transport link!

Rockend Track flooding – it gets a lot worse than this!

A bit of closer investigation revealed an old overgrown ditch, to the right of the track in the photo above. It was completely choked with rushes and other vegetation, and the water level was higher than the track – hence the flooding. Time to get our hands dirty again then.

Old ditch totally overgrown and choked up
Almost like digging a new ditch from scratch!
Check out the amount of spoil piled up to the left of the ditch!
That’s more like it – plenty of water flowing

Over the course of an afternoon, I manually cleared about 25 metres of ditch, but the bad news is that there’s another 50 metres to go! At least it’ll help me burn off some of the excess calories enjoyed during the Christmas holidays. And once completed, it should improve the condition of the path markedly. It’s actually remarkably satisfying work, and by carrying out the work by hand rather than hiring-in a machine, the environmental impact is kept to a minimum. Because we’re only clearing the essential bits, the surrounding wet areas are left to continue developing naturally.

While ditch-clearing yesterday, the weather was remarkably mild, and the mist periodically came and went. It was surprisingly hot work with the humidity being so high, though it did make for some attractive vistas over the Reserve.

Mist over the estuary in the distance
An atmospheric scene on the Reserve

All this talk of wetlands is a handy reminder that 2020 is the Year of Coasts and Waters. Here at Forvie we do a good line in both coasts and waters, so stay tuned for some more watery-themed blog posts this year. Added to that, it’ll be World Wetlands Day on 2nd February – once again, watch this space for more.

Meanwhile, I’m heading back to my favourite ditch…

Storm force

One of our highest-profile visitors to Forvie so far this year made his entrance earlier this week. Storm Brendan had already wrought chaos on Scotland’s west coast, knocking out power supplies and throwing transport into disarray. Brendan’s mood hadn’t improved much by the time he reached us here on the east coast either. Consequently, this week we’ve endured probably the highest winds of the winter so far, whipping up the North Sea into a frothy fury. It was awesome to watch, that is if you could actually stand upright in the gale.

Waves smashing in
North Sea in a bad mood
The ‘Poor Man’ rock, getting battered by the elements

Storm Brendan’s visit corresponded with the highest tides we’ve had since October. The onshore gales and low atmospheric pressure, combined with these high spring tides, led to very high water levels on the estuary, where most of the saltmarsh and the low-lying island of Inch Geck became submerged. Naturally this doesn’t bother the flora or fauna there – they’re all adapted to these occasional extreme conditions. The plants are hardy and salt-tolerant, and the birds simply push off into the neighbouring fields to roost. For them it’s just another day at the office. Meanwhile, on the seaward side of the Reserve, the ‘foam monster’ was at large, smothering all the beaches and inlets.

Sea foam – waist deep if you were daft enough to go there!

The tide height is of course linked to the phases of the moon, and before Brendan’s appearance we’d enjoyed a spectacular full moon. The January edition is known as the ‘Wolf Moon’, which is thought to stem from Native American culture. In the past, wolves would also have occurred across northern Europe, including the UK, before being widely persecuted by the growing human population. Alas, no wolves at Forvie these days (though one or two of our visitors sometimes bring lookalike husky type things); nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider that there was once a time where we weren’t the top predator here.

Full moon
Moon behind wind-blown hawthorns
Moon setting behind the Forvie Centre

In spite of the high winds and low temperatures, some of our wildlife is already looking ahead to the spring. At the end of last week the Fulmars were back on the cliffs at the Corbie Holes, just north of Hackley Bay, and looking very much at home. These seabirds, northern-hemisphere cousins of the albatrosses, are already setting up home among the crags and ledges, preparing for the long breeding season ahead.

Corbie Holes, with Fulmars in attendance – can you see the white dots?
Zoom in a bit, and there they are – already paired up in January!
Staking claims already for breeding territories!

Note the ‘digiscoped’ photos (more on this exquisite form of photographic bodgework here).

So the Fulmars are thinking spring thoughts already. Storm Brendan has passed, the skies have cleared and things have settled down a bit. The sun’s even out as I type this. Our usual post-high-winds routine is being carried out – round up the wheelie bins, remove all the plant pots and associated debris from the hedge, and recover next-door’s garden furniture from halfway up the sycamore tree. And all the while, the wildlife just carries on as if nothing’s happened. Storm – what storm?

The many faces of winter

2020 has started off mild, damp and windy. As I type this, the office window is being lashed by a southerly gale, and in the distance the North Sea is flecked with white-caps atop a boiling swell. The air is heavy with salt, and consequently the handbrake on the car will be seized up tomorrow, again. But that’s life here on the coast.

It’s really not a day for being out on the water. However, some of our wildlife species are well-adapted to these wild conditions, and they just take it all in their stride.

Spot the Eider drake about to get hit by the big wave…
Preparing to do a bit of surfing…
No problem! Now for the next one…

It hasn’t all been mild and wild though. We had a series of lovely frosty days over the festive break, each book-ended by a fabulous sunrise and sunset. The colours really had to be seen to be believed.

The Flooded Piece under a fiery sky
We do big skies very well here, it must be said!
Colours intensifying as the sun sets
Just add geese for the classic sunset scene!

During the short hours of daylight, the winter sun just began to melt the ice crystals before the frost returned at dusk. This resulted in some beautiful patterns of frozen water-droplets on the dead grasses. A bit of jiggery-pokery with the settings on the camera produced some really nice results. What beauty there is to be found right at our feet, if we only take the time to look and appreciate it.

Frosty grass
Frost on lichen
Water droplets on grass

In terms of wildlife, the Reserve has appeared relatively quiet lately – though there’s always something happening if you search for it. Two bird species worth keeping an eye open for along our coast are Peregrine and Raven, and these can be found even on the quietest of winter days.

Peregrine being ‘deeved’ by a Raven

Peregrines – our fastest bird of prey – and Ravens – our largest crow – are not very harmonious neighbours. Crows generally tend to view birds of prey as a threat, and often mob them, calling noisily and drawing attention to them. Occasionally the bird of prey may lose patience with being ‘deeved’ (bedevilled, for our non-Scots-speaking readership), and might have a go at the crow in return, perhaps dive-bombing it or presenting it with a faceful of talons. It’s all very fractious, but they rarely actually come to blows. In fact, listening out for all the noise made during such a confrontation is a good way of catching sight of either or both of these iconic birds.

But failing that, there’s always the view to enjoy. Happy new year!

Frosty view over the reserve

Thanks to Elaine Sherriffs (volunteer and friend of Forvie) and Catriona Reid (Muir of Dinnet warden and blogger) for the photos in this blog post!

Walking through history – Perthudden

Today, in our first blog post of 2020, we welcome local resident and historian Ellie Ingram as guest blogger. Ellie explores some of Forvie’s rich human history, starting with an unusual structure on the north-eastern boundary of the Reserve…

As you walk along the coastal path from Collieston to the Forvie National Nature Reserve the first bay you come to is Perthudden. Perched on top of the cliff at the southern end of the bay you will see a small concrete shed.

Perthudden, with concrete shed to the right of the picture

Have you ever wondered what it is and how it came to be there?

Let me take you back to the latter half of the 19th century when the village of Collieston was home to a prosperous fishing community.  Tragedies at sea were a common occurrence in those days so the local fishermen decided that something had to be done to provide a safe haven for fishing boats sailing along the treacherous north east coast. Collieston’s natural harbour made it an obvious choice for the location of a Harbour of Refuge but it has to be said that, in addition to providing a safe haven for boats, there would also be an added financial bonus for the local fishermen. The construction of a pier would increase the depth of water in the harbour so that bigger boats could fish out of Collieston. Bigger boats meant more fish and more fish meant increased prosperity for the local fishermen.

Greater safety at sea and more money – a no brainer – but it wouldn’t be plain sailing for the fishermen as they would have to raise a lot of money to cover part of the overall cost. 

A Harbour Committee was formed in 1891 and a massive fund raising effort began.  The Fishery Board was petitioned to build a Harbour of Refuge but bureaucracy was just as slow then as it is now and permission was eventually granted almost three years later. The total cost of the project was £6,040. The Harbour Board donated £4,440 and the local community raised the impressive sum of £1,600, the equivalent of approximately £200,000 in today’s money. 

On 17 October 1894 Lady Eliza Gordon Cathcart, owner of Slains Estate, laid the foundation stone of Collieston Pier and then the hard work began.

To facilitate the construction of the pier, large rocks in the bay had to be blasted but, as it was considered too dangerous to keep explosives in the village, it was agreed that a small shed to house the gunpowder should be built outwith the village, hence the construction of the gunpowder shed on top of the cliff at Perthudden. 

The gunpowder shed

Transporting the explosives through the village by horse and cart was also considered to be too risky so they had to be carefully lowered down the cliff and ferried round the headland to the harbour by boat.

Despite all that hard work and effort, the hopes and dreams of the fishing community came to nothing. By blocking off the original north entrance of the natural harbour, sand soon began to drift in from Aberdeen Bay. Many of the older fishermen had predicted that this would happen but theirs fears and protestations were ignored. The silting up of the harbour also coincided with the arrival of steam trawlers. This ‘perfect storm’ meant that by the early 1900s most of the younger fishermen had left Collieston and moved to Torry, and fishing and sailing in the village became a leisurely pursuit.

The fishing fleet may have long gone but the gunpowder shed remains. It may stoop a bit these days but you would too if you were one hundred and twenty-five years old! As far as I am aware it has never been used for anything other than the storage of explosives, however its nickname, ‘The Moosie Hoosie’, might suggest that it often provides welcome shelter for wildlife. 

‘The Moosie Hoosie’, looking towards Collieston

The next time you are walking along the coastal path round Perthudden, I suggest that you take time to stop on the clifftop beside the gunpowder shed (not too near the edge!) and see for yourself how hazardous it must have been to lower explosives down the cliff, especially in those pre-health and safety days.

If you happen to be there on a clear, calm day, look out to sea and you may be fortunate enough to spot some passing dolphins, humpback whales, orcas or even “Collieston Offshore Rowing Club’s (CORC’s) skiffs on a training exercise. 

All photographs (c) Ellie Ingram. We hope to feature more of Ellie’s work on the blog in future. Thanks Ellie!

Arctic and Common terns – 2019 season

The last of our ‘summary-of-the-2019-season’ blog posts concerns our Common and Arctic Terns – known collectively as ‘Commic’ Terns. Forvie NNR boasts a large mixed colony of these two similar species – indeed one of the biggest colonies in the UK. Read on to find out a bit more about how these remarkable birds fared this year.

The first Arctic and Common Terns each arrived at Forvie on 22nd April, and numbers of both species swelled throughout May as they settled down to breed. A nest count in mid-June produced an impressive 1,669 ‘Commic’ Tern nests. The nests of the two species look identical, but by counting the adult birds bringing fish into the colony to feed their chicks, and applying a bit of mathematical jiggery-pokery, we arrived at figures of 1,427 Arctic Tern nests and 242 Common Tern nests – phew! Counting the nests is not for the faint-hearted, as the birds defend their eggs and young by dive-bombing you, striking you on the head with their bills, and showering you with, er, ‘whitewash’. It’s quite a welcome.

The numbers of both species have increased markedly at Forvie in recent years. Obviously we’d like to put that down to good wardening, and there’s no doubt that all our efforts with electric fencing (to minimise predation by Foxes) and encouraging visitors to avoid the area where the birds nest (to minimise disturbance) gives them a massive helping hand. Thanks indeed to all our readers who have been to Forvie in the summer, and respected the temporary access restrictions. But there are other things over which we have no control, such as food supply and weather. We’re just grateful for the successes that we’ve had here down the years, as tern populations throughout Europe are not faring particularly well in general.

Below is a selection of photos taken through the season, showing the birds displaying, incubating their eggs and feeding hungry chicks.

The cool, wet and unsettled summer of 2019 took its toll on the birds, and the peak count of fledged Common and Arctic Terns was a rather disappointing 351 on 22nd July. However, this is just a snapshot of productivity – birds continued to fledge over a month-long period – so the true total of fledged young is likely to have been somewhat higher.

The last birds departed the colony in mid-August, and set off on their epic journey around the globe. On leaving Forvie, the Common Terns tend to head for west Africa, while the Arctic Terns – the greatest travellers in the entire natural world – opt for Antarctica for a winter destination (it’s summer down there, of course). And to think that I complain about the journey down the M6 to see family for the holidays!

Till 2020 then, terns – and we wish you all a safe journey back to Forvie in the spring. See you in April!

Thanks to Dave Pickett for the photos and video in this blog post!

Photographing wading birds at Pickett`s Paradise

As a festive treat, we are delighted to welcome back local naturalist and photographer Ron Macdonald as guest blogger. Ron’s post takes a look back at the heady days of summer and autumn 2019. Enjoy!

In August and into early September a small wetland to the west of the Stevenson Forvie Centre was a magnet for migrating waders. 

Locally referred to as the ‘Flooded Piece’, I prefer the name Daryl Short coined for the wetland, ‘Pickett’s Paradise’, after David Pickett, Forvie’s Reserve Manager, who regularly birdwatched here during his 6 months secondment at Forvie. 

It was David who first alerted me to how much of a draw the wetland was for migrating waders.  He posted a photo of a juvenile Spotted Redshank on a local Birders’ Facebook Page and this encouraged me to visit the site and see for myself.

The first picture below is of the juvenile Spotted Redshank with its pal a juvenile Dunlin feeding along the edge of the wetland. For 2/3 days the two were inseparable, feeding and roosting together. The green tinge to the image is caused by me taking the photograph through vegetation at the edge of the wetland. More about the reasons for this later in the blog piece.

Juvenile Spotted Redshank and juvenile Dunlin © Ron Macdonald

The next 2 images are of the Spotted Redshank on its own, the Dunlin having left, probably having continued south to its wintering grounds or to the neighbouring Ythan estuary which at this time had several hundred juvenile Dunlin. 

Spotted Redshank feeding  © Ron Macdonald
Spotted Redshank picking off midges from the surface of the water © Ron Macdonald

Over the next 4 weeks the wetland attracted a wide diversity of wading birds including Greenshank, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover and Curlew.  There weren’t great numbers of birds with seldom more than half a dozen present at any one time.  The Spotted Redshank stayed for around 3 weeks. 

A juvenile Dunlin at rest © Ron Macdonald
A juvenile Greenshank wondering what this strange thing is in front of it © Ron Macdonald

I hope you enjoy the images I took using a full frame camera and a 700mm lens at distances of between 10-25 metres. Getting good quality photos at a small wetland like this with no hides and which is very open is 25% reliant on the quality of your equipment, 15% on one’s technical ability in using it and a whopping 60% on fieldcraft. Yes fieldcraft; it is that important in this type of situation.

A juvenile Greenshank framed by a clump of sedges © Ron Macdonald
A wary juvenile Golden Plover © Ron Macdonald 

So given the emphasis on fieldcraft, what did this involve and how did I go about taking the images? Hopefully the pointers below will help others take photographs of waders in a similar situation.

  1. I always viewed the waders from afar before getting closer.   Using binoculars from around 100-150 metres, I slowly crept closer with the last 20-30 metres prostrate face down inching forward.  I stopped frequently so as not to spook the birds, allowing them to get used to my presence. It also allowed me to see which areas were the favoured feeding, resting and roosting spots. 
  2. When I first watched the Spotted Redshank and its wee Dunlin pal, it was very wary and would immediately fly away, even at distances of 100 metres. However it gradually became more relaxed until, eventually, it was comfortable to keep feeding at a distance of 10-15 metres. 
  3. Lying as low as one can get not only reduces the threat you pose to the bird,  it produces more attractive ground level pictures. You are literally at the bird’s eye level. It also helps you blur the background and by including vegetation in the foreground, it makes it stand or pop out.
  4. I allowed the birds to come to me rather pursue them. As their fear of you subsides they will gradually return to their favoured feeding area which you already know about. 
  5. Lying flat at the edge of a wetland often means you get wet so either wear waterproofs or bring a change of clothes.  Most importantly protect your camera and lens by resting it on a beanbag. 
  6. One evening while lying prostrate, photographing the Spotted redshank, two juvenile Greenshank landed about 15 metres away.   You can see in one of the pictures a Greenshank walking towards me with a tuft of sedges just in front of the bird. This was at a distance of under 12 metres.  The two Greenshank were migrating during the day and decided to stop off at Pickett’s Paradise for a quick feed and a bathe. By using good fieldcraft I was able to take advantage of the surprise visit. I was doing the right thing, in the right place at the right time!  Bingo!
  7. Photographing the Golden Plover was difficult as I had to crawl for about 40-50 metres face down. I could see by the bird’s behaviour that it was wary so I retreated and took only 4-5 photos from 30 metres.  If I had continued the bird might well have flown away.  Yes I might have got a better picture but at the cost of disturbing the bird. The greatest buzz a responsible photographer can get is a good photo without disturbing the bird. I get enormous satisfaction and inwardly I’m shouting ‘Yessssss!’
  8. All the birds photographed were juveniles most of which would not have encountered humans before. It is much easier to gain their trust than if I was photographing adult birds who have experience of us humans and are therefore much more wary. 

By the middle of September the wetland had dried out and no longer attracted waders.  Some 3 weeks later, in early October, heavy rains reflooded the wetland and a few Dunlin did use it. However the halcyon days of August were not to be repeated but I did have fantastic memories and what I think are some good quality images. I count myself incredibly privileged to have experienced what I did. 

Ron Macdonald, December 2019

Sandwich Terns – 2019 season

As the year draws to a close, we’ve been gradually reviewing the 2019 breeding season for various species of birds at Forvie. In this installment we’re focusing on our Sandwich Terns, which return each spring from their wintering grounds in West Africa to nest among the dunes here. Here’s how they got on in 2019.

Sandwich Tern – check out that hairdo!

The first returning Sandwich Terns arrived at Forvie on 29th March, when a party of four birds was spotted on the estuary. Numbers built up during April, soon rising to hundreds of birds, and they settled on the colony site in late April. The first eggs were laid on 1st May. By mid-May the colony was packed with birds, and no fewer than 1,010 nests were counted during a census on 24th May. The first chick hatched the very next day, with many more soon following.

Once the chicks had started hatching, the adult birds’ attention was focused on bringing back fish to feed their new offspring. Despite all the problems afflicting fish stocks and seabirds in other parts of the North Sea, the food supply at Forvie appeared to be in good health, and the Sandwich Terns were soon bringing back plenty of nourishing, oil-rich, silver fish. What more could a tern chick want?

The following videos should give you an idea of what life is like in the Sandwich Tern colony – it’s a real seabird city!

Despite the frequently wet and cool weather we experienced throughout the summer of 2019, the Sandwich Tern chicks developed well, and on 26th June the first one took its maiden flight. This pioneer fledgling was quickly followed by many others, and the peak count was a very respectable 535 fledglings on 26th June. Of course, the true total of fledglings is likely to have been higher still, as they don’t all fledge on the same day, or indeed line up on the beach helpfully to be counted! Nevertheless, the peak count indicates that they had a very productive season.

A baby Sandwich Tern, almost ready to fledge

As part of the annual routine of monitoring the Sandwich tern colony, some of the chicks were ringed. This work was carried out by Grampian Ringing Group and SNH staff. A proportion of the ringed chicks were fitted with Darvic rings (see photo below), which allows the bird to be identified without having to recapture it. These rings can be easily read through binoculars or telescope – so if you see a gang of Sandwich Terns on your local beach, check them out for rings! By submitting the ring details to the British Trust for Ornithology, the bird’s life history can be pieced together.

Sandwich tern ‘Yellow EFK’ – with standard BTO metal ring (left leg), and Darvic ring (right leg)

The Forvie Sandwich Tern ringing programme has shown us that ‘our’ birds spend the winter in western and southern Africa, some as far away as Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. I imagine they’ll be enjoying the southern hemisphere summer, as we’re shivering up here in the northern winter!

Apart from showing up interesting bird movements, the ringing data also shows us how long these birds live. For instance, we know that the adult bird in the photo below – ‘Red EJL’ – was hatched at Forvie in the year 2000, making it 19 years old. That’s quite a few trips to South Africa and back.

‘Red EJL’ and chick

Sandwich Terns are always the first tern species to return to Forvie in the spring, sometimes as much as a month before their Arctic, Common and Little cousins. It’s quite a thought that in as little as 13 or 14 weeks’ time, we could be welcoming them back from Africa once again.

In the meantime, here’s wishing all our readers a happy festive season. I might well see you out and about on the Reserve while walking down the Christmas dinner! Have a good one!