A week of firsts

Springtime in the natural world can be a frantic, fast-moving affair. A long summer of seemingly endless daylight lies ahead, and everything – from bumblebees to beetles and birds to badgers – is gearing up for it. Hibernators are awakening, plants bursting into life, and migrants arriving from the south as others depart northwards. Each day brings further changes, and it can be difficult for the amateur (or indeed professional) naturalist to keep up.

This year, though, the weather has had other ideas, and spring has so far been a stop-start affair. Forvie has alternately looked (and felt) like the Arctic and the Mediterranean in the course of the past week.

Monday morning…
…Friday morning.

Nine consecutive days of wintry showers, icy winds and overnight snowfalls made it difficult to convince oneself it wasn’t still midwinter – temperatures had been higher than this in December after all. But for the sharp-eyed, the signs were there. Monday saw the first Sand Martin of the year flitting through the dunes of South Forvie. By then we had been on the lookout for these for the better part of a month, but they had hitherto been held up by the northerly airflow. Two days later a couple of Swallows followed suit; these were greeted automatically with a smile and a “Welcome back!”, as if encountering an old friend.

Sand Martins skimming the water
Swallow taking a well-earned rest

I always enjoy the thought that just a few weeks ago, these very same birds may have been hawking for insects between herds of Zebra and Wildebeest on the savannahs of Africa. On their incredible journeys they’ll have seen sights that I’ll never see. They also serve as a reminder that we’re all interlinked on this beautiful, crazy planet of ours, regardless of borders, boundaries and human politics, illustrating the need for us to look after nature globally, not just within the confines of places like Forvie.

Long-distance migrants are also great examples of both the toughness and the fragility of nature. Each year they tackle their mammoth migration in the face of untold adversity, and still make it to our shores. But in the case of many of our summer visitors, they do so in ever-diminishing numbers. This makes the sight and sound of the first returnees a special, bittersweet moment each spring. It’s a mixture of excitement and relief that they’ve made it.

Welcome back, old friend

This week we also enjoyed our first Osprey sightings of the year. On Tuesday a commotion arose among the local gulls over the estuary, and sure enough, there appeared among them the lumbering-yet-dashing silhouette of this charismatic summer visitor. It proceeded to drift its way upstream, occasionally pausing to hover upon sight of a fish in the shallows, before continuing northwards. Then on Friday, it or another Osprey headed downstream past us as we returned from the morning rounds of the ternery. Always a treat to see!

Osprey getting bombed by the local gulls
There’s a fish down there somewhere!

Another first for the year was a handsome Peacock butterfly. While their Small Tortoiseshell cousins have been active for a while now, and are now a frequent sight on fine days, Peacocks are always a little scarcer here. Their magnificent eye-spots are utterly distinctive; this is one of the first butterflies that many budding naturalists learn to recognise. They’re also frequent visitors to garden flowers, so keep an eye on any early spring blooms and you may be lucky enough to see one.

Peacock

We happened upon something else this week that I took to be a first for science: a vertical-take-off Fox. While walking down to the ternery on Monday morning, we discovered a neat set of Fox tracks in the snow. But there were only five footprints, and nothing either side of them. Surely the Fox had landed like a Harrier jump-jet, walked a couple of paces, and then taken off again? Judge for yourself.

The world’s first VTOL Fox?

Disappointingly, the explanation was much more prosaic. Upon returning from the ternery, the snow had melted, revealing a faint set of tracks either side of the deep ones. Clearly there had been a particularly soft patch of sand into which the Fox’s paws had sunk, leaving the five obvious prints. But the hard sand either side had captured only shallow prints, which had been easily covered by the overnight snow. Mystery solved.

Note the faint tracks heading away!

Seeing as we’re dealing in firsts, we’ll end with a mention of our new information panels around the Dune Trail. These take the form of old-fashioned wooden fish-boxes, in a nod to our coastal cultural heritage, and their colourful panels help to point out and explain some of the special features of the Reserve. They include information on Forvie’s wildlife, landscape and human history, all of which help to form the rich tapestry of the Reserve. Hopefully they’ll be as well-received as the popular ‘wildflower boxes’ which we deploy on the Heath Trail each summer.

An information-laden fish-box, in its natural habitat
Wildflowers, butterflies, archaeology (and snow) – all bases covered then

That’s it for this week’s instalment then. Most notable that I have got to the end of it without falling out with my computer. I reckon that’s a first as well.

The north wind doth blow…

…and sure enough, we did have snow. Last Monday was the coldest April day I can think of having ever experienced: so much for talking-up the spring in our recent bloggings. Actually, this week’s conditions are perhaps illustrative of the increasingly capricious climate that Annabel wrote about recently on these pages – very topical indeed. The unseasonable cold snap did make for some incongruous scenes on the Reserve, with the summer-season infrastructure protruding from the drifting snow.

It’s the bird breeding season…honest!
White-out in South Forvie
Barrier fence in the snow
Ternery electric fence, 2021-style

The high winds and low temperatures made for extremely uncomfortable working conditions – if it wasn’t hailstones hitting you in the face at 50mph, it was windblown sand. Unfortunately, there was plenty of work to do as well, with massive sand movement causing us real problems in trying to maintain the ternery electric fence. The action of the wind causes erosion in some places and deposition in others – this is the driving force behind a dynamic, constantly-shifting dune system like Forvie. It’s one of the things that makes this site really special. But it’s tough on the fence, and on those of us tasked with its maintenance.

Erosion – a Fox could fit under there driving a Land Rover
Deposition – note electric wire disappearing underground

Surprisingly, the Black-headed Gulls remained steadfast on their colony throughout the worst of the weather. Often they vacate the colony when things get really rough, but clearly this year’s cohort are tough cookies. They simply hunkered down into the gale, and against the snow their dark hoods resembled chocolate buttons on an iced cake.

Black-headers sitting tight… ever feel like you’re being watched?

Away from the ternery, the wind had carved some neat sand sculptures among the dunes. In some places, a layer of sand had accumulated on top of a layer of drifted snow, and the eroded edges of the drift looked rather like the inside of a Penguin bar (other chocolate snacks are available, though this is the nearest I’ll get to adding a Penguin to my ‘patch list’).

Drifted sand, and snow, and more sand
Like a Penguin bar, but a little crunchier
Natural sand sculptures
A miniature Uluru?
Wind-cut sand

You may have noticed that so far this week’s offering has been a little light on the wildlife sightings. As you’d expect, the harsh weather has really put the brakes on the impending spring. However, we did see our first Swallows in Collieston, ironically just before the onset of the snow, while a Wheatear at the ternery must have wondered what he’d let himself in for. Last month he was probably crossing the Sahara Desert, yet suddenly he found himself in a Scottish snowstorm with a windchill of -8oC. How these waifs survive such extremes is anybody’s guess.

A handsome male Wheatear

In all honesty, they probably take much of it in their stride. The Wheatear is the only small passerine bird that regularly makes an oceanic crossing – from Africa, through northern Europe, across the north Atlantic to Greenland and Canada, then back again in the autumn. Though they’re barely bigger than a Robin, they’re as tough as teak. What’s a bit of snow and hail to such an epic traveller?

Also defying the weather, and trying to convince everyone it really is spring, a portly Fox Moth caterpillar was discovered moving purposefully (albeit somewhat lethargically) along the estuary-side footpath. At least he had a fine fur coat to keep him warm. But many early-emerging insects, such as last week’s Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, will undoubtedly have perished in the harsh conditions. Their life strategy is a gamble, emerging as soon as temperatures begin to rise, taking a chance on the fickle weather of early spring. Get it right, and you have first dibs over the newly-opened flowers, and a chance to breed early in the year. But getting the timing wrong can be fatal.

Fox Moth caterpillar

Any insect survivors aren’t exactly spoiled for choice for flowers either, thanks again to the vicious weather. Here at home, our garden Daffodils and Flowering Currant – useful early-season nectar sources for Bumblebees and the like – were smashed to bits by the northerly gales and ice. However, helping to fill the void is everyone’s old favourite, Gorse. Shrugging off the wintry conditions, the bushes along the estuary side remain bright with flowers, offering a welcome banquet of nectar for early-season pollinators.

Gorse in full flower, unperturbed by the weather

Also beloved of insects, yet often disdained by gardeners, is the humble Daisy. The sight of these delicate yet hardy little flowers cheerily poking their heads through the sand down at the ternery – in the harshest ground-conditions imaginable – always raises a smile.

Daisies emerging from the desert
There’s life there under the sands!

Back at home, we can help early-season insects by cutting the grass a bit less frequently, thereby allowing low-growing flowers like Daisies a chance to offer up their bounty of nectar and pollen. The bees and butterflies will be grateful for it, and it’ll save on petrol for the mower in the long run as well. And with increasingly unpredictable seasons – as we said at the outset – our insects need all the help they can get.

We’ll end this week’s instalment on a wintry note, in the hope that it double-bluffs the weather (so far, talking about spring has resulted in snow, hail, sub-zero temperatures and perpetual gales). Cotehill Loch has recently been graced by a flock of Whooper Swans, stopping off on their spring migration to Iceland. They’re likely to move on as soon as the weather improves, but for now it’s a last chance to enjoy the sights, and the haunting sounds, of these charismatic wild creatures.

Whooper Swans

Next time we see them it’ll likely be September, and thoughts will be turning once again to snow days and winter woollies. Here’s just hoping we get a summer in the interim…

North Easter

April’s arrival marks a month since the start of meteorological spring – although at our northern latitude, winter is often slow to relinquish its hold. Indeed, by the time this is published we may be experiencing a late snowfall, if the current forecast is to be believed. In north-east Scotland, a bout of wintry weather in early spring such as this is known as the ‘teuchit storm’, the last significant throes of the outgoing winter. The name ‘teuchit’ (pronounced ‘chookh-it’, for the benefit of any non-Doric-speaking readers) refers to the Lapwing, and it was said that these birds always began nesting as soon as the last storm had passed. Sadly, nesting Lapwings are increasingly rare nowadays, though we still enjoy the sights and sounds of large flocks of them on the estuary during the non-breeding season.

Lapwing, or Teuchit – weather-forecaster extraordinaire

One species that does still nest at Forvie in substantial numbers is the Black-headed Gull, and by the end of last week over 1,200 of them had already taken up residence in the colony in South Forvie. They have been joined by the first few Sandwich Terns of the year, the first of which arrived on the typical date of 24th March. The noise is beginning to reach impressive levels, even from across the estuary at Newburgh, especially if the wind is onshore. It’s also starting to smell like a seabird colony down there, the subtle flavours of Nam Pla fish sauce caressing one’s nostrils on a warm day. Delicious.

King of all he surveys – Black-headed Gull
Black-headed Gull colony: the gritty east end…
…and the posh west end

I doubt the gulls will have eggs in time for Easter, but it won’t be long before they do start nest-building and laying. Consequently, we’ve worked hard this week to complete their protective electric fence, as well as erecting the ‘barrier fence’ denoting the sanctuary area that’s closed to the public while the birds are nesting. If you’re visiting Forvie during the spring and summer, please look out for the fence and the explanatory signs – and also for on-duty NatureScot staff and volunteers, who will be happy to update you on how the birds, and all the other wildlife besides, are getting on.

Wired up and ready for action
Barrier fence with ternery beyond

We’re expecting larger-than-usual numbers of visitors this coming season, as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased and people will understandably want to get out and about. As a result, Forvie is likely to be under even greater pressure than in a normal summer, so it’s never been more important to treat the Reserve and its wildlife with the respect they deserve. It’s simple really – avoid the closed-off ternery area; keep dogs on leads or close at heel throughout the Reserve, and don’t let them stray off the paths; don’t litter or light fires; and give everyone plenty of space – whether that’s birds, seals, deer or other visitors! And if the car parks are full, simply come back at a quieter time, rather than parking along the public road. All of this is just common sense of course, but if we all stick to these basic premises, we can make Forvie work for both wildlife and people over the coming months.

A peaceful scene – let’s hope to keep it this way!

The roll-call of wildlife sightings in early spring is, like the weather, disjointed and mismatched: a strange amalgam of winter and summer. The first bumblebees drone among the early spring flowers while Pink-footed Geese pass yapping and yelping overhead. Sandwich Terns, freshly arrived from Africa, share the estuary with waders and wildfowl bound for the Arctic. Small Tortoiseshells and Common Toads emerge from their winter slumbers to be faced with northerly winds and sleet showers, yet even on the coldest days, certain spots in the dune slacks are sheltered and blissfully warm. It’s a time of contrasts wherever you look.

Small Tortoiseshell – freshly emerged from hibernation
High-flying geese – a hangover from winter
Bumblebee on willow catkin

April is a good month for avian oddities. Mid-week among the Black-headed Gulls appeared a single Little Gull. Generally speaking these don’t nest in the UK, preferring instead the vast marshlands of northern and eastern Europe, but they do pass through our region in both spring and autumn. Tiny, dainty and almost dove-like, this is the smallest species of gull in the world, dwarfed even by our own svelte Black-headed Gulls. As usual, my photo doesn’t do the subject justice – but it does allow for size comparison between the Little Gull and its Black-headed cousin.

Little Gull (the little one) and Black-headed Gull (the one with the black head)

Finally, from Little to not-so-little, this week we welcomed back Patrick for his third summer at Forvie, following a winter in cryogenic storage (or staying with his family back home, can’t remember which). Patrick will once again be the face of Forvie at weekends throughout the summer season, so be sure and say hello if you see him out and about on the Reserve. I can’t promise he’ll bring you flowers, though.

Welcome back Patrick!

Emergency at Forvie

There is a global climate emergency.  The evidence is irrefutable.  The science is clear.  And people have been clear: they expect action.’ – Roseanna Cunningham to the Scottish Parliament, May 2019

When the recently formed Newburgh Climate Action Group approached me to talk about the likely effects of climate change on Forvie, my initial response was of fear and dread! My studies of climate change were 20 years out of date and related to melting polar ice caps, sea level rise threatening the Maldives and the El Nino effect in the Pacific Ocean. What did it all mean for Newburgh and the dunes of Forvie? I didn’t have a clue. I freely admitted I’ve had my head in the (Forvie) sand for too long about this issue, so never one to be put off by a challenge, I accepted the booking and set about reading and knocking on doors (by email). Needless to say, what I found out rang alarm bells.

The Heath Trail affected by seasonal flooding

We have been constructing a loop of solidly surfaced path for the last few years at the north end of the reserve, in anticipation of increased rainfall and seasonal flooding as this is a sight we seem to be encountering more and more. Solid paths help to keep people away from wildlife sheltering in the grasslands and heather, are easier to follow if you are unsteady on your feet and are robust enough to stand up to the increased foot fall we are experiencing. In some areas, the path has been raised on a causeway to keep it dry.

At the end of last summer, the combination of record numbers of people, with rainfall at the wrong time, led to the damage seen above on the route to Hackley Bay. It will take tens of thousands of pounds to fix this stretch, never mind the other 10km or so of paths all around the reserve.

So it came as a bit of a shock when I read that drought is actually something we need to be preparing for at Forvie. The Met Office does predict more winter storm events will hit the UK and so when it does rain then, it could rain very heavily. But one of our NatureScot graduate placements, Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird has been modelling the likelihood, frequency and severity of drought across Scotland. Aberdeenshire is predicted to experience more severe periods than ever before and in summer especially, which for the reserve spells big trouble.

Abandoned campfire being doused, the smoke and embers blowing up the dry grass slope above

Every summer we fear that just one cigarette, barbecue or campfire will cause the death of nesting birds and European protected habitat through raging wildfire. This risk will be all the more likely as drought conditions become more frequent and people continue to rely on outdoor gatherings in place of pubs.

Tree diseases, bacteria and pests such as heather beetle may increase with warmer weather too.

The effects of climate change on the coast are even more concerning. Sunny periods on the Ythan Estuary may see a return to thick suffocating mats of algae covering the mudflats, rich in shrimps and worms that our wintering birds rely on for food. The mussel beds of the estuary that our Eider ducks rely on for food may be smothered by blown sand or washed away by storm surges and rising sea levels. As more Carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is absorbed by the sea, the water slowly becomes more acidic. This is not good for all of those vital invertebrates with calcium carbonate shells and exoskeletons.

The Ythan Estuary hard at work locking in carbon

Another graduate placement with NatureScot, Caitlin Cunningham, is researching the topic of Blue Carbon, namely the role that our coastal zones play in storing carbon from atmospheric emissions. The dunes, saltmarsh and mudflats may not be as important as our peatlands and regenerating forests, but they play their part.

Climate change is thought to be one factor responsible for a decline in the UK’s seabird numbers, from affecting food supply to mortality from severe weather events.  In particular seabirds that feed near the surface of the sea on plankton and small fish are most at risk and that includes our terns, gulls and fulmars. Our annual counts have shown that our Forvie Herring gulls have declined to an all-time low; for comparison there were 575 nests on the Forvie cliffs in 1998, but in 2019 the figure was just 37 nests.

Our tern nesting numbers are doing well for now, but only as long as one particular species can still be found locally.

Puffin with sandeels

Puffins are found just outside of the reserve, north of Collieston, but it is those oily shiny fish in its beak that are important. The sandeel is a keystone species for the North Sea and everything seems to eat them. Birds, fish and seals depend on a bountiful supply every season. However, the flush of cold water from the North Atlantic into the North Sea is slowing down and this means that overwintering sandeels buried in sediments are more awake than they would normally be at that time of year. This means they use up vital energy they should be keeping for spawning in the early spring. Later, when any young sandeels hatch they miss out on their favourite plankton food that also comes in with the cold Atlantic water.

So what can we do? For Forvie this means we need to provide safe places for wildlife to rest and rear young while they deal with the basics of finding food or sheltering from weather. Our control and influence over activity on the Ythan Estuary from development, dredging and pollution will also help. We need to manage people to reduce the stress on the reserve and to encourage sustainable living once people go home again. Healthy ecosystems will be able to weather the storms more effectively, recovering or adapting to change more quickly, so we need to take care of the plants and animals that are currently overlooked on the reserve. Our pollinators, fungi and soil bacteria are all important in this respect. We will also keep monitoring and providing our records to national schemes, so that changes are detected quickly.

NatureScot has committed to a net zero plan so we will be reducing the amount of greenhouse gases from our own activities, heating our offices and travelling. We expect the same of our suppliers and will continue to constantly review our purchasing across the organisation. You can expect more reclaimed items from the beach being put back into use at Forvie!

To find out more take a look at our climate change commitment and make your own pledge. You really will be doing Forvie a favour!

An unhelpful headwind

Somebody once asked me which way the prevailing wind blew at Forvie. “Towards me” was my instant reply. Some weeks it feels like the wind’s always at your face, no matter which direction you’re travelling, and this past week has been one of those. On several days the Reserve was lashed by north-westerly gales, contrary to forecast, which made working conditions challenging to say the least.

Marram Grass being lashed by a gale

Down at the ternery, where work continued on the electric fence, it was like being caught up in a Saharan sandstorm – minus the heat of course. A combination of dry sand and gales tends to produce the natural equivalent of a shot-blasting chamber – great for stripping paint (or exfoliating your face, which I’m told is supposed to be good for you), but not great for fencing work. Visibility at ground level is reduced to zero, and any exposed skin is painfully friction-burned by the high-velocity sand. You also tend to take home a proportion of the Reserve in your clothing, hair and ears; there were embryo dunes forming in my bathtub on Thursday night as the bathwater drained away.

Blowing sand – vicious conditions to work in
Sand drifting downwind of all the Marram tussocks

Tuesday saw the worst conditions I can remember in fifteen years at Forvie – but for all that, the electric fence is now virtually complete. And in good time too, for the beginning of the week saw the first of our Black-headed Gulls take up residence in the colony. About 400 birds were present on the newly-strimmed ground, these being the vanguard of a population that may eventually number 2,000 pairs. All of a sudden, it sounded like summer again in South Forvie, peace and tranquillity having been replaced by the clamour and chaos of the gullery.

Black-headed Gulls ‘back home’
A warden’s-eye view of the colony, through the binoculars

The gulls occupied the colony for most of the working week, although they did bail out during the worst of the gales on Tuesday, opting instead to sit out the storm on the adjacent estuary. Indeed, large numbers of gulls are beginning to gather on the estuary each day, a combination of Forvie breeders and travellers headed inland or further north. Such are their numbers that they leave a white tide-mark of feathers on the strandline, as a result of all their preening and bathing.

Gull feathers on the high-water mark
Stuff a pillow with that!

So far, there have been no signs of our Sandwich Terns arriving yet. This isn’t surprising though – although the date is spot on for the first arrivals, the weather conditions aren’t. If you’re a migrant heading north, the last thing you need is the wind in your face. It’s hard enough for us to walk against a 50mph-plus headwind, so try to imagine having to fly into it! Best just to wait up, have a rest, and continue northwards once the wind has eased – or better still changed direction so it’s at your back. So with all these north-westerly gales, chances are that our Sandwich Terns are biding their time further south, and will arrive with us as soon as the weather lends them a helping hand.

Sandwich Tern… not just yet!

The same applies for other northbound migrants, particularly the small ones who simply can’t spare the body mass required to fight against a strong headwind. Species like Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs and Wheatears, en-route from Africa, could arrive with us any time from now – but it will likely depend on what the weather throws at us. A nice southerly tailwind, and they’ll be with us by the month’s end. But a northerly headwind will delay their progress, and we may have to wait until next month before we see these heralds of summer.

Wheatear: coming soon – or not?

It’s not all about arrivals though. Pink-footed Geese have been trickling northwards up the coast all week during lulls in the weather, on their long trip back to Iceland for the summer. But they, too, are reluctant to fly headlong into a strong wind. Rather than starting the next leg of their journey – north-westwards through Moray and Highland and over to the west coast – they will sit it out here instead until the weather changes. As a result, numbers of Pink-footed Geese have have been gradually rising here during the past couple of weeks.

Pink-footed Geese – travelling no further until the wind changes!

For all the northerly component of the wind though, temperatures have remained relatively mild, with the car thermometer reaching the dizzy heights of 13oC on Thursday. Consequently our resident wildlife is beginning to wake up, and we’ve heard reports of bumblebees and butterflies from the local area (though at the time of writing I’m yet to see either!). One species that is in evidence, though, is the Palmate Newt. These little amphibians are emerging from their winter hibernation sites, perhaps under a stone or in a dense tussock of grass, and striding forth into the world – insofar as you can stride on half-inch legs. We’ve seen them on the path by Forvie Kirk and the roads around Collieston, so they’re definitely on the move.

Why did the Palmate Newt cross the road?
Or indeed the sandy footpath, for that matter?

People that have never encountered a newt before are sometimes surprised at their diminutive size – which consequently may help explain why many folk have never seen one! But have a scout around any freshwater pond or shallow pool at this time of the year and you might catch up with one of these dinky aquatic dragons.

He’s my newt (see what I did there?)

At the moment, spring is slowly creeping into the north-east, with each week bringing fresh signs of change in the natural world. But as soon as the current north-westerly winds are exchanged for a warm southern airflow, then the pace will suddenly quicken. Exciting times lie ahead of us, and there’s much to look forward to in the weeks ahead.

Now, however, it’s time to brush all this sand out of my computer keyboard…

Why fence the wildlife in?

In the last couple of blog posts, we’ve spoken of the work going on in South Forvie to put up the electric fence around the ternery. This annual marathon task will be familiar to regular readers and visitors, while for the Reserve’s volunteers and staff it’s the first rite of the newly-arrived spring. Newcomers to both blog and Reserve, however, could be forgiven for wondering what this is all about. What follows, therefore, is a Q&A on all things relating to this apparently-curious annual ritual.

A marathon task… but why?

So why the electric fence?

South Forvie provides a summer home for nationally and internationally important numbers of seabirds, chiefly terns, Black-headed Gulls and Eiders. Some of these species (e.g. Sandwich and Little Terns) nest in only a handful of locations in Scotland, while others (e.g. Eider and Arctic Tern) have declined sharply in the UK due to major environmental changes over the past few decades.

Arctic Terns
Sandwich Terns at their colony
Eider ducks with young

All of these species nest on the ground, making them extremely vulnerable to predation by mammals such as Foxes. Foxes take eggs and chicks, as well as preying on the adult birds, and their frightening effect can cause entire colonies to be abandoned. The electric fence is used to exclude mammalian predators from the four-hectare area where most of the birds nest, affording them the protection they need to raise their young safely.

But surely the birds evolved alongside Foxes, so why the problem?

True, ground-nesting birds have co-existed with Foxes for millennia. The rogue element though is you and me – humanity. We have ‘rigged the system’ in favour of the Fox – by introducing abundant prey such as non-native Rabbits and Pheasants, by providing year-round Fox food in the form of roadkill, and by removing the Fox’s natural predator, the Wolf – which would naturally control Fox numbers. As a result, the modern-day UK’s Fox population is larger than it would be in a ‘natural’ system.

Fox – public enemy no.1 (if you’re a tern)

We’ve also rigged the system against the birds. Their natural mechanism for avoiding predators is to choose different nesting sites from year to year: if predator pressure becomes too high in one location, the birds simply relocate to another. However, their favoured habitats – low-lying sandy or shingly beaches and dunes – are also very popular with people for recreation, and most places are now far too disturbed for the birds to settle. So they’re stuck here at Forvie with nowhere else to go – it’s a last refuge in a human-dominated landscape. This is why we try, via the fencing, to give them the best chance of success each year.

Many dune and beach habitats face heavy pressure from human footfall

What about the ‘barrier fence’ and the temporary closure of South Forvie?

As mentioned above, human disturbance is a big issue for ground-nesting birds. They are particularly sensitive to the presence of dogs; as far as they are concerned, a dog is just a fox in fancy clothing – a predator all the same. If the adult birds are flushed off their nests, the eggs and young are vulnerable to predation by crows and gulls, as well as exposure to the weather. This is why we temporarily close the ternery area to the public from April to August each year, to allow the birds the space and peace they need.

It’s also in people’s own interests to avoid the area, as the birds defend their nests fiercely once their young start to hatch. Arctic Terns strike intruders about the head with their sharp bills, and easily draw blood. What’s more, all species make liberal use of, er, ‘whitewash’ to deter a would-be predator. You can easily identify someone who works in a seabird colony purely by smell.

Arctic Tern – the biological definition of ‘angry’

I sometimes see people within the closed-off area – why?

Most of the time, if you’re seeing people in the ternery area, it’ll be Reserve staff and volunteers maintaining the electric fence and carrying out essential monitoring work, such as nest censuses, fledgling counts and occasionally bird-ringing. This is all strictly controlled, and carried out under licence, in order to minimise disturbance. The monitoring work is critical in order for us to gauge the success of the colony, and thereby inform our future management of the ternery.

Black-headed Gull colony – how many nests?

Occasionally, people end up on the wrong side of the barrier fence, usually as the result of an honest mistake. Reserve staff and volunteers are usually on hand to put them right. Local residents are also quick to report any incidences of people behaving suspiciously in the ternery area during the closed season, and we really appreciate their concern for their local wildlife.

Why not just put up a permanent electric fence, rather than going to all this trouble every year?

Forvie’s sand dunes are what’s termed a ‘dynamic system’. This means the sand is constantly being pushed around by the wind, and the landscape of South Forvie can change dramatically from one year to the next – or even one week to the next. The upshot of this is that a permanent fence would soon become buried by sand, or eroded out, and rendered completely ineffective.

South Forvie’s dunes and pebble beaches – a constantly changing environment

By contrast, the temporary fencing we use at the ternery is flexible enough to cope with the demands of a changing landscape – and it also means we can remove it in winter when the weather and sand-blow are at their worst. Yes, it’s a lot of effort to erect, maintain and dismantle a kilometre of temporary fencing every year, but it’s the only way. It’s a tried and tested system, and it works: there’s method to our madness after all.

Starting from scratch every spring

Aren’t there other factors that impact on the birds, besides people and Foxes?

Of course. The two big ones, over which we have no control whatsoever, are the weather and the birds’ food supply.

A cold, wet summer can cause high mortality among tern and gull chicks. Their downy feathers do not repel water, and as such many die from exposure in wet conditions, especially if the rain persists for more than a few hours (not infrequent in a typical Scottish summer!). By contrast, a warm and dry summer tends to boost survival and therefore overall productivity of the colony.

Rain – uh-oh….
Arctic Tern chick – a not-very-waterproof bundle of fluff

In terms of food, the terns are reliant upon small oily fish such as Sand-eels and Sprats, while the Eiders are dependent upon shellfish (for the adults) and small invertebrates in the estuary (for the ducklings). Black-headed Gulls, by contrast, are generalists who can survive on anything from earthworms to discarded kebabs in Ellon car parks. All these things are outwith our control, though the recent designation of a marine Special Protection Area off Forvie may hopefully help safeguard the food supply for some of our breeding birds.

Eiders and their ducklings feeding in the estuary

Other factors we can’t easily mitigate for include aerial predators such as Kestrels and Peregrines, which prey on tern and gull chicks and adults respectively. However, a robust bird colony can withstand a degree of predation by these natural predators, and their impact is generally low.

Is it all worth it?

In one word, yes.

Although the success of individual species can vary from year to year – particularly those with small populations such as Little Terns, which are especially vulnerable to a rogue predator or an extreme weather event – in general the colony has enjoyed sustained success down the years. However, there’s little doubt that without all of our fencing and wardening work, there wouldn’t be a ternery at all.

Just one fence, but 5,000 pairs of breeding birds
Sandwich Tern and fledgling: ringing studies have demonstrated that Forvie is a net exporter of terns

Yet we know that after many years of strong productivity, ‘our’ birds are boosting populations of their species throughout northern Europe, thus contributing to conservation far beyond the boundaries of the Reserve. In terms of a return on investment, I’d say that’s more than ample payback for all the effort expended.

And that, ultimately, is why we fence the wildlife in.

Springing into life

Today’s title could just as well describe the Reserve’s staff as its wildlife. This week, work began on constructing the electric fence around the ternery, in the dunes of South Forvie, where hopefully up to ten thousand birds may raise their young in the coming months. This is a major milestone in Forvie’s year, and signals the beginning of the full-on, all-systems-go, summer season. Yep, we’re talking about summer, folks, and it’s only the first week of March.

Start with a flat-pack electric fence…
Assemble a crack team of fencers – at two-metre intervals of course…
Spread out and get fencing…
Finish the day with a cool 1,000 metres of fence erected.

A solid day’s work, with all the helpers at the requisite two-metre distance from one another, saw a full kilometre of fencing erected – a great start. We’ll now go through a period of three weeks or so of fine-tuning and strengthening of the fence, before it’s electrified at the beginning of April. This corresponds with the closure of the ternery area to the public for the nesting season; the closed area will be demarcated by a rope barrier fence and explanatory signs. Regular visitors will be very familiar with this setup, which gives the birds the space and peace they need to breed successfully, while still allowing people to walk the entire Dune Trail and most of the beach. As usual, the south end will be reopened as soon as the birds have finished nesting, typically by mid-August.

While we were working on the fence, we were visited by a party of cheeky Snow Buntings, foraging for tiny seeds among the shingle and Marram grass.

An incoming flurry of Snow Buntings
Snow Bunting in the desert
Having a good preen on some windblown Marram debris

In addition to the Snow Buntings, we were also serenaded by a twanging, twittering chorus from the regular Twite flock who inhabit the ternery area each winter. These neat little finches undertake a ‘sideways’ east-west migration from coast to coast, and many of our wintering birds will spend the summer on Scotland’s west coast and islands.

Part of the 100-strong Twite flock
Twite and shade

Later in the week, we undertook one of the final waterfowl counts of the ‘winter’. These are intended to assess the health of our non-breeding waterfowl populations – the ones that use the Reserve as a wintering site or migration service-station. And this week it was clear that a bit of spring movement was under way. This included the appearance of 13 Pintail on the upper estuary, presumably headed north for the impending summer.

Pintail – world’s most elegant duck?

A large flock of Golden Plover were also present, and a handful of birds in the flock had already begun to assume their summer plumage, with striking jet-black underside contrasting with golden upperparts. Sharp-eyed observers may be able to pick out one or two of these in the photo that follows.

Golden Plover, with a handful of Curlew muscling in
One stunning summer-plumaged bird, dead-centre of photo

While watching and counting the ducks and waders, we were treated to a flight of Pink-footed Geese – well over a thousand strong – which dropped onto the estuary for a wash-and-brush-up between feeding bouts. They made a spectacular sight and sound; surely wild goose music must be one of our greatest natural treasures here in the north-east?

Pink-footed Geese – just part of the flock

On the waterfowl count, I was being assisted by student placement Mark, who is in the process of building up his bird ID and surveying skills. I commented to Mark that early spring is a great time to look at goose flocks – they’ve had all winter to mingle around, and consequently spring flocks of Pink-footed Geese can often contain individuals or small groups of other species that they’ve ‘picked up’ en-route. I’d only just finished speaking this sentence when Mark spotted a gang of black-and-white geese among the browns and greys of the Pink-feet. Sure enough, here was a little family party of Barnacle Geese, hitching a ride with the Pink-foot flock. A great illustration of ‘fellow travellers’ – when birds outwith their normal range latch onto flocks of their nearest relatives, in the absence of their own kind. And a feather in Mark’s cap, so to speak, for observation!

Barnacle Geese among the Pink-feet – can you see them?
Zoom in a bit… there they are!

In the course of the next few weeks, we’ll say farewell to our wintering geese as they head back north for the short Arctic summer. We’ll miss them when they’re away, but they’ll be replaced in the meantime by a multitude of exciting wildlife from southern climes – until things come full circle again in the autumn. A timeless cycle of endless variety. Life at our latitude is certainly never dull.

Farewell to February

And with it, farewell to the winter of 2020/21, as the first day of March marks the official start of spring. That’s not to say we’re out of the woods just yet – remember the so-called Beast from the East a couple of years back? – but from now onwards we can look forward to increasing temperatures and day lengths, late cold snaps notwithstanding. Out on the Reserve it’s certainly felt spring-like this week, and Friday produced a beautiful, becalmed, sun-drenched morning at Forvie.

A sun-soaked Ythan Estuary
Blue skies and sunshine over Newburgh
A mirror-calm Sand Loch

On Sand Loch, the waterfowl are dressed in their finest and are beginning to display furiously on the fine days. Among the usual Mallards at the Collieston end of the loch, a pair of Wigeon have taken up residence, the drake looking particularly smart in his breeding plumage. See if you can pick him out from the Mallards in the photo below (no prizes here, just some birding-ninja points up for grabs).

Spot the odd fella out?

That’s right, duck detectives, he’s the one with the chestnut head, yellow crown and black-and-white stern. A really handsome fellow, and my dreadful photos (taken, as usual, through my binoculars using my phone camera) really don’t do him justice.

Male Wigeon (centre), female Wigeon (left), and the usual Mallards (right)

Apart from the male Wigeon’s dashing appearance, his other notable trait is his voice. The Wigeon drake’s call is a loud, far-carrying, whizzing whistle (WHEEE-ooo!), which sounds a bit like one of those comedy whistles with the little spinner inside, as deployed widely by clowns and discerning practical jokers. In chorus from a large flock, such as on the estuary where up to 600 Wigeon may be present, it’s a wonderful feast for the ears, and never fails to raise a smile. Check out this link and have a listen to some of the clips (this site is a brilliant resource for learning bird sounds, by the way). If one sound could epitomise the exuberance of the natural world in early spring, the call of the Wigeon would be a strong contender.

Exuberance personified – displaying Wigeon

Speaking of waterfowl, down on the estuary the Eiders are also looking immaculate, and the males are spending increasing amounts of time trying to impress the females. Like the Wigeon, they also have a pleasing, melodic and somewhat amusing voice. But instead of a comedy whistle, the Eider drake’s voice resembles a well-spoken lady reacting to a particularly juicy piece of gossip: “Aaooooh, he didn’t?” “Aaooooh, he did, you know!”

Eider drakes displaying to a female
Immaculate plumage, as if crafted from fine porcelain
Displaying involves much head-tossing and calling… but she doesn’t look very impressed

Among the Eiders has recently appeared a more unusual visitor. No, not the regular King Eider – whom we hope may reappear later in the spring – but a Velvet Scoter. These sea-ducks don’t breed in the UK, but are scarce winter visitors from the boreal zone of northern Europe. They are most often seen offshore (and even then they’re less-than-annual at Forvie), so to see one in the estuary is extremely unusual. However, it appears to be in good health and is feeding well, so hopefully it will soon make the return trip to the Baltic and beyond.

Female Velvet Scoter – identified by its white wing panel and the two white dots on the head

Down at the ternery, the vegetation clearance was completed by the end of last week, in readiness for the return of the Black-headed Gulls to the colony site (they are already beginning to gather on the adjacent estuary). I always reckon that if it looks like a meteorite has struck the area, then we’ve done a good job. Yet another example of apparently-destructive work in the name of nature conservation!

Ternery cleared of vegetation – just add birds

An appendix to this job is the clearance of vegetation along what will be the line of the electric fence, the erecting of which will begin in the first few days of March. This is a mundane yet critical task, as an effective anti-predator fence is essential to the survival and thrival (yep, just made that word up) of the colony. Cutting a ride through the thick grass is just the first stage of the process, but it’s a good start nonetheless.

The Electric Fence Expressway

When carrying out this job, a light southerly wind was blowing. This served to waft the pungent odour of the Grey Seal haul-out, several hundred metres distant at the mouth of the estuary, towards my position at the ternery. The smell – a heady mix of body odour, bad breath and digested fish – was so strong that it even drowned out the smell of the brushcutter’s two-stroke exhaust. While many people consider seals cute and aesthetically attractive – possibly due to their large eyes and slight facial resemblance to domestic dogs – surely nobody could find their aroma appealing.

The seal haul-out, viewed from the Newburgh side of the river of course – photo ©Lorne Gill

Eyes to the ground, and we spotted the first caterpillar of the year out and about last Wednesday. All invertebrates possessed of any common sense will have been keeping a low profile during the recent cold weather, but now things have warmed up, it’s all systems go. I’m embarrassed to report that I’m not 100% sure what species this little chap is, though it could be an early instar of the Fox Moth. I am happy to be corrected though by any entomologists reading this – as a field naturalist you never stop learning, no matter how experienced you may be.

Moth caterpillar active in February

There’s never much to report on the botany front in the first few weeks of the year, so it was a delight therefore to find the first Lesser Celandines in flower last week. Though they are a couple of weeks behind the first Snowdrops, they are technically the first wild flower to open. Snowdrops, although naturalised in the UK for hundreds of years, were originally introduced to the UK by people, and aren’t thought to have occurred here naturally. Lesser Celandines, on the other hand, are bona fide wild flowers, appearing in early spring like little splashes of golden sunshine beneath the still-bare trees and bushes.

Lesser Celandines
A little splash of sunshine in the undergrowth

Lesser Celandines are an important nectar source for early-emerging insects, when few other flowers are available to them. So with the appearance of the first celandines, we’ll be on the lookout for the first bumblebees any time from now. Watch this space for more – and keep your eyes peeled during your lockdown exercise. February’s done and dusted – now bring on the spring.

Change in the air

Actually, anything in the air today would be going past at about 50mph, such is the strength of the wind at the time of writing. But compared with last week, we’ve seen a temperature rise of nearly 20oC – a change in the air indeed. It feels like a different world to the hard, ice-bound landscape of just a few days ago, and is a reminder that in another week we’ll be heading into meteorological spring.

Snowdrops at Sand Loch this week

As Reserve staff, we know that spring is rapidly approaching when we find ourselves heading down to the ternery – “what, already?!” – to clear last year’s growth of nettles and willowherb ready for the return of the birds. Though it seems hard to believe, given that we were practically snowed in last week, the first Sandwich Terns may be with us in about four weeks’ time. Their return marks the onset of what we call the ‘crazy season’, and it’ll be all hands on deck now right through till the autumn.

Brushcutting at the ternery
Ground cleared ready for the birds’ return

While some of us attacked the dead vegetation with petrol-engined brushcutters, others used a more traditional approach. Student placement Mark, who is helping out across all the Grampian NNRs this year, looked like he was auditioning for a part in Poldark.

It’s a bit cold yet for topless scything

Another annual late-winter job is the trimming of the hedge at the Forvie Centre, to prevent it becoming too ‘leggy’ and to encourage dense growth – great for nesting birds, for example. A proportion of this hedge is willow, which lends itself to further planting. With an eye on a future hedge-planting project elsewhere on the Reserve, we harvested some willow withies (cuttings) from the existing hedge. This is the easiest way in the world to plant trees – here’s a quick photo guide:

1. Select and cut off a stout willow twig – about finger-thickness is ideal.
2. Snip the cut end into a rough point.
3. Strip a little bark from around the cut end of the twig.
4. Push pointed end of twig into ground. Congratulations, you’ve planted a tree!

An hour and a half’s work saw a good supply of withies produced for future planting. Placed in a bucket of water – or in our case, two recycled oil drums from the beach – they will survive quite happily, and even begin to put out roots where the bark has been stripped, until they get planted. Why not try this at home, and contribute to the fight against climate change?

Buckets of fun here at Forvie

What of the wildlife then? Like us, other species have noted, and responded to, the change in the weather. Suddenly, the Reserve is awash with Skylark song once again, lending a spring-like air to proceedings.

Singing Skylark – photo (c) Ron Macdonald

Other birds in song this week have included Reed Buntings, whose simple, modest ditties are sung from the water’s-edge scrub at Sand Loch and the Coastguard’s Pool. The males have also begun to assume their summer plumage, with jet-black head and bib and white ‘Mexican moustache’. A sign of the times indeed.

Male Reed Bunting in his summer finery

On a more wintry note, Sand Loch played host to a handsome adult Iceland Gull on Monday, having a wash and brush-up among its Herring Gull cousins. This may have been the same one we saw along the coast back in November (along with another juvenile bird which has since reappeared), but could equally be a fresh arrival. This presented a rare opportunity for a good look at this interloper from the far north-west, who will probably be thinking about heading back to Greenland for the summer before too long (yes, Greenland – Iceland Gulls usually just overwinter in Iceland!).

Iceland Gull, among Herring Gulls – note white wingtips, rounded head and ‘gentle’ expression

Finally, we owe a debt of thanks this week to our outstandingly dedicated neighbours in Collieston, who have put in a Herculean effort lifting rubbish from the beaches and coves of north Forvie during their lockdown exercise. Thanks to their efforts, we were able to uplift an entire pickup-truck-load of beach litter from the cliff path last Wednesday – and we had the easy bit to do.

What a load of rubbish

The mighty heap contained fishing nets, ropes, oil drums, floats and all the usual plastic shreds, as well as more curious stuff like several unopened packs of underwear(!) – how some of this ended up on the beach is anyone’s guess. While it’s depressing to see the sheer amount of rubbish washed up on just a small section of the coast, it’s also heartening to know that local folk care so much about their environment, and are willing to go to great efforts to help safeguard it.

Here’s hoping the latter is something that doesn’t ever change, whatever the season of the year.

Hard-weather refugees

It’s sneaked up on us somewhat – as the end of 2020 was generally mild and wet – but we suddenly find ourselves in the grip of the coldest winter in ten years. Snow, ice, bitter winds and hard frosts have been the order of the past two weeks. Last Wednesday saw an overnight low of -10oC at Forvie, with daytime temperatures struggling to reach the dizzy heights of zero. And that’s here on the relatively-mild coastal strip; by contrast, inland Aberdeenshire recorded lows down to -23oC. That’s proper winter weather!

Dinging it down at the Forvie Centre
A bonny blanket of snow
More snow approaching from the north-east
Snow drifting along the fence lines

Such conditions are tough enough for us to tolerate – even though we have the benefit of heated houses, warm jumpers, thermals, windproof jackets, toories and hummel doddies* to keep us cosy, plus running water and hot food to sustain us. Spare a thought then for the wild creatures of the region just now, who have no such luxuries. Nothing more than fur or feathers to keep out the cold, and almost all fresh water and natural food sources are frozen solid or impenetrably blanketed in snow. Hard times indeed.

(*woolly hats and fingerless gloves respectively.)

Ice ‘sculptures’ at Hackley Bay

In last week’s post we mentioned the ducks getting frozen off the inland freshwater lochs and fleeing to the coast. This week, we’ve witnessed similar scenes with a wide variety of other species, from thrushes to finches to Woodcocks, all in search of respite from relentless cold and hunger. While some species seek out the unfrozen margins of the estuary, others gravitate towards human activity. We humans can be at once wasteful, untidy and generous, and as such, our leavings or handouts can be a lifeline to wildlife struggling to survive the current freeze.

Livestock feeders can be a magnet for wildlife in the snow

An absolute type-example of the hard-weather refugee is the Fieldfare. These large thrushes are winter visitors to the UK from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and roving through the countryside in ‘raiding parties’, seeking out fruits, berries and invertebrates on which to feed. They’re wild, wary and unapproachable, and in normal conditions you’re only ever likely to hear a rattling call and see the bird’s blue-grey rump disappearing into the distance (this feature gives the species its old name Blue-back). However, when times are hard, they can and do enter gardens, and the chance to see one up close is a rare treat.

Fieldfare

At our garden on the edge of the Reserve, a single Fieldfare turned up last Tuesday in a snowstorm, looking absolutely shattered. However, it quickly cottoned onto the windfall apples we had carefully gathered and stored last autumn, which we have been gradually putting out on the lawn throughout the winter. (Top tip – windfall apples can easily be stored by wrapping them in newspaper and leaving them somewhere cool, and those that don’t get used for crumbles, pies and wine provide great sustenance for garden wildlife in times of need.)

Four days later the bird was still here, having consumed its own bodyweight in apples, and was looking a lot more lively – to the point of ‘defending’ the lawn against the local Blackbirds and Starlings (and at one point, another Fieldfare). In a lifetime of watching wildlife, we’d never before had the chance for such prolonged close-up views of this beautiful species. The brilliant Swedish naturalist and artist Lars Jonsson describes the Fieldfare as ‘the ugly handsome one’, which I think is a bit mean – I reckon they’re just handsome.

Look at the colours on that!

We were upstaged though by Forvie volunteer Hugh, who phoned to report seeing Fieldfares in his own garden, and to ask what food to provide for them. I suggested apples or pears, but Hugh’s local shop had neither in stock. Instead he bought a punnet of grapes – posh nosh indeed for hungry thrushes – and scattered them on the lawn. Fifteen minutes and twenty-three Fieldfares later, all the grapes were gone. While this would quickly become an extremely expensive way of feeding the birds, it did help the flock through the coldest day of the winter – and gave Hugh some first-rate entertainment to boot!

Well-fed and contented, despite the cold!

Another hard-weather refugee to gardens, parks and roadsides is the Redwing. A smaller cousin of the Fieldfare, it also hails from Scandinavia, and is similarly shy and retiring. Again, cold weather conditions present a great opportunity to see one up close, particularly if you’re able to provide soft fruit for them – or even simply to clear a patch of snow so they can have a rake around for invertebrates. They’re a slightly-more-dashing version of our native Song Thrush, with those lovely eyebrows and eponymous red underwings. Cold-weather gold, I’d say.

Redwing looking for food among the neeps

While we can help winter thrushes survive the cold by providing soft fruit, other species are dependent upon seeds, which are hard to find under a blanket of snow or locked up in frozen earth. Finches, sparrows and buntings are classic examples. A simple seed feeder, or even a handful of seed thrown onto the ground, can both help them along and provide us with some great lockdown entertainment from the comfort of our homes. At times like these, the ‘usual’ House Sparrows and Chaffinches may be joined by hard-weather refugees from the wider countryside, like Bramblings and Yellowhammers. The possibilities are almost endless.

Yellowhammers at a garden feeding station
Yellowhammer – forced into human habitations by hard weather
Brambling – northern counterpart of ‘our’ Chaffinch

It’s not just the birds that could use a helping hand though. If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden pond, it’s worth carefully breaking the ice to allow the water, and all the creatures living within it, to ‘breathe’. It also allows other wildlife, such as mammals, to get a drink of fresh water.

Pond iced over

Down on the estuary, there’s not a lot we can do for our wildlife, except leave well alone! Disturbance can be extremely damaging in cold weather, putting extra strain on animals and birds already struggling to feed, and it’s imperative that we don’t needlessly add to this stress. So if you’re visiting the Reserve, be sure to give waterfowl and other wildlife an extra wide berth just now, to allow them to feed and rest safely.

Lapwings on the estuary – refugees from inland
A freezing dusk at the Ythan Estuary

In summary, there’s a lot of wildlife having a tough time of it just now. Can we help them? Absolutely yes: by providing food, fresh water, shelter and taking care not to disturb. Can they help us? Unequivocally yes: helping wildlife is a two-way street. These hard-weather refugees from the wider countryside have benefitted from our generosity, and in return they have provided us with vibrant colour, vitality and entertainment in the depths of a lockdown winter. You can’t say fairer than that.