The twilight zone

This last couple of weeks have seen the day length diminish noticeably – it’s that time of the year when the change seems to happen really rapidly. At our high latitude (over 57 degrees north) there is a very pronounced difference between the two extremes of the year – in high summer, we have 19 or 20 hours of light every day, but in midwinter we’re putting the lights on by three o’clock in the afternoon. When the working day’s done, it’s a case of walk home in the dark, light the fire, put the kettle on. Although some folk find the shortening days a bit daunting, rest assured that it isn’t all bad news…

For with the shorter days come opportunities. With both ends of the day becoming closer together, it’s possible to enjoy the dawn and dusk without having to get up ridiculously early or stay up past your bedtime. And what fabulous times to be out and about on the Reserve. For starters, the light is beautiful – who doesn’t love a spectacular sunset or sunrise? And in terms of wildlife, either end of the day can be more exciting than the bit in the middle.

Sunset over Sand Loch
A fiery evening sky

Mornings and evenings are the best time to see Roe Deer at Forvie. They spend most of the day holed up in the willow scrub on the moor, keeping a safe distance from what they view as danger – people and dogs. But in the evening, when most folk have headed home, the deer emerge to feed in nearby grassland and fields, returning to the moor early the following morning. You might well see them around the Forvie Centre in the half-light, and if you’re quiet and discreet you may get some very good views – if they don’t see you first!

Two Roe bucks in the half-light of morning

In the bird world also, mornings and evenings are commuting times, much as they are for us. Obvious exponents of this are the Pink-footed Geese, which roost on the lochs and estuary, and move around to feed on stubble fields and pasture by day. Their morning and evening flight is a spectacular affair, involving many thousands of individuals, and the cacophony of calls (so-called ‘goose music’) is the soundtrack to the autumn and winter here. Set against a colourful sky, like a classic Peter Scott painting, it’s one of the best wildlife spectacles going.

Morning flight of geese
Returning to the roost in the evening

Another local commuter is the Cormorant. These birds spend the day fishing on the estuary and lochs, and roost overnight on the cliffs north of Collieston. Seeing formations of these prehistoric-looking birds forging line-astern along the clifftops – always south in the morning, north in the evening – is part of the daily routine and rhythm of life at Forvie, oft-overlooked but worth seeking out.

Running perpendicular to the Cormorants’ flightpaths are those of gulls. These roost on the open sea, and commute inland to feed on ploughed fields and the like during the day. So here at Forvie, the morning flight is always westwards, the evening eastwards. But wherever you are, you may see a similar movement, especially if you’re near the coast or along a natural flyway like a river or valley.

A single Cormorant in flight – look out for gangs of them on the move during morning and evening

We’re also still very much in the bird migration season, with many species still making landfall from the Continent. Most prominent among these are thrushes and finches, and they can often be seen arriving high from the north-east in the first hour of daylight (currently about 0730-0830 here). Most frequently encountered are Redwings and Blackbirds, while this week has seen a small movement of Chaffinches and the odd Brambling mixed in. All classic Scandinavian migrants fleeing the approaching northern winter.

One of the joys of observing the morning visible migration – or ‘viz-migging’ if you prefer the street slang – is that you’re never quite sure what’s going to turn up. On Monday morning, a high silvery trill betrayed the presence of a single Waxwing as it flew in off the sea and over the Reserve. These are very scarce here, with this only our third record in thirteen years.

Redwing eating Rowan berries, in bright morning sun – a typical October migrant

Other species are crepuscular in their habits, meaning they are most active during twilight, rather than full darkness or full daylight. Good examples are Short-eared Owl – try viewing from the Forvie Centre car park, or along the Heath Trail to Sand Loch – and Otter, for which try the Waulkmill hide down on the estuary. You’ll need a bit of luck for either of these, particularly the Otter, which although resident are surprisingly elusive – but you’ve got to be in it to win it, so get yourself out there!

Otter – shy and retiring resident, best seen at either end of the day

If I’m still yet to convince you of the virtues of dawn and dusk, consider this – they are often the calmest periods of the day in terms of the wind. Those readers that visit Forvie will be used to a constant battering by the elements, but there’s often a little lull at either end of the day – a great time to see the reflections on the lochs to good effect, and maybe grab a photo or two.

A perfectly still evening on the Sand Loch

So don’t be discouraged by the shortening days – now is a great time to appreciate all that the Reserve, and indeed the wider countryside, has to offer. You heard it here first!