Last week saw a major landmark in Forvie’s year, when the last of the terns departed their breeding colony in the south of the Reserve. For us, this means two things. Firstly, it’ll be all-hands-on-deck over the next wee while, to get the fencing dismantled and packed up before South Forvie re-opens to the public in mid-August. And secondly, it marks the start of autumn in the bird world: the breeding season is over, and the migration season is upon us. While some people may lament the passing of high summer, we’re now entering into a dynamic, exciting and most enjoyable period for the wildlife enthusiast.
Out on the estuary, great gatherings of terns assemble on the sand-bars, perhaps arguing over where to find the best fishing grounds, or the most expedient route to Antarctica, where some of them will be headed when they leave our shores. Alongside them are the Black-headed Gulls that until recently thronged our colony, the adults looking careworn with half-moulted flight-feathers and faded brown hoods, and the juveniles wheezing and whistling in the hope of a free meal. The Eiders continue to shepherd their ducklings, though these are now almost the size of their parents, and quite safe from predatory gulls and crows. For once, we can report that they’ve enjoyed a productive season, with nearly 170 ducklings successfully reared.
All in all, it’s a much more peaceful scene now: gone is the urgency and stress of the breeding season, replaced instead by the laid-back days of plenty that make up the northern hemisphere autumn. The entire Reserve has a different feel to it. By some sort of osmosis, this invariably affects my outlook too – I, like the birds, often begin to feel demob-happy at this time of the year.
The autumn bird migration is a much more leisurely affair than in the spring. There’s no hurry to get to the breeding grounds to stake out the best territory or find a mate. Instead, there’s time to wander in search of the best feeding grounds, and to rest and recover from the hurly-burly of the nesting season. On the estuary, many species of waders are doing just that, and it’s a great time to go out wader-spotting. Many of the common species – Dunlin, Knot, Golden Plover etc – are still resplendent in their breeding plumage, while it’s also a great time to find something more unusual among them.
Away from the birds, the insect world is full of interest just now. Some of Forvie’s butterflies have been more approachable than usual over the last few days, the weather having been overcast and rather cool. On days like these, butterflies need to bask in order to raise their body temperature and get their flight muscles working. Consequently they’ve been a lot easier to photograph than they were during the recent heatwave, when you couldn’t get near them with the camera!
Moths are a group of insects to which many people pay little attention – chiefly because they’re mostly nocturnal, of course – but there’s also perhaps a common misconception that they’re all just brown things that bumble around the lightbulb if you leave your windows open at night. This is, of course, monumentally unfair, and there are some truly stunning species out there – and some of them surprisingly common too. Take for example the following two species, both found roosting by day on the Reserve.
Excitingly, we’ve just taken delivery of some spares for the Forvie moth trap – a device that uses ultraviolet light to attract and capture moths overnight, trapping them in a keeping-box (alive and well, of course) for inspection and release the next morning. This hopefully means we’ll be able to acquaint ourselves with more of Forvie’s moths over the next wee while, once the trap is repaired and up and running. However, you don’t need any specialist equipment to observe and learn about moths, and we had an impromptu ‘mothing’ session at home recently, employing nothing more than a lightbulb and an old bedsheet out on the lawn. It might generate some funny looks from the neighbours, but it’s well worth it in my opinion.
Of course, not all moths are out and about in their adult form just now, with some species currently at the caterpillar stage. One such is the Emperor Moth, a spectacular beast at all stages of its life cycle. When full-sized, its caterpillars are as long and thick as your finger, dressed in a vibrant green with black-and-white dots. To me they resemble a motorised gherkin, slowly chugging their way along the footpaths. The adult moth is even more impressive, though sadly I’ve never yet been able to photograph one. You’ll just have to look it up I’m afraid!
As the summer begins to age and fray round the edges, don’t think for a moment that nature is done for the year. Yes, an exodus of our breeding birds is underway, and the early generations of wildflowers have been and gone. But now we find ourselves entering into a season of bounty, another new beginning in the ever-changing natural world. Exciting times for the naturalist indeed.
Now to repair that moth trap…