West winds and Scandi chic

Honest to goodness, I’m not totally and unreasonably obsessed with the direction of the wind. Promise. Even if I do spend a fair bit of time frowning over the weather charts, muttering darkly about highs and lows and occluded fronts. But the fact is, Forvie is a wind-driven place. Its very landscape is created by the wind – drifting, accruing, carving and eroding, giving with one hand and taking with the other. This gives rise to the dynamic, shapeshifting landscape that we hold so dear, the defining character of the Reserve itself.

A dynamic sandscape
Wind-carved dunes
Sand sculptures

In the UK, sited as we are at the end of the Gulf Stream from across the Atlantic, the prevailing wind in the UK is from the westerly quarter. At Forvie, this means an offshore wind, i.e. blowing from land to sea. In the dynamic southern half of the Reserve, which is composed largely of open, mobile dunes, the prevailing wind picks up a lot of sand, and shifts it seawards. The result is that sand accumulates on the leeward side of the dunes – the seaward-facing side – forming new embryo dunes and extending the Reserve, inch by inch, into the North Sea.

Wild winds whipping up the sands

Often, these westerly periods of sand accumulation are tempered by periodic easterly winds, often associated with some quite violent storms in autumn and winter. These easterlies, plus the wave action at sea that they set up, serve to erode away the deposited sand, thus ‘re-setting’ the process again. But in recent years such easterlies have been fewer and further between. Consequently, the coastline along Forvie beach now looks very different to how it did a decade ago – and in the right light, if you know where to look, it’s possible to see this quite plainly.

The new dunes along the beach are colonised, stabilised and built up by Marram grass – that tough, spiky, salt-hardy favourite son of Forvie. But the new Marram is much lusher and greener than the older stuff – and the difference in colour can show us where the dunes are forming. The two photos below, looking north and south respectively, clearly show the dividing line between the old and new dunes – the former and current coastlines, if you like. It’s clear evidence that Forvie has crept eastwards in recent years, meaning we’re a little bit closer to Norway than we were before.

New dunes (front/right) contrasting with older ones (rear/left)
The re-aligned coast of Forvie

Being a few feet nearer to Norway in fact leads us neatly into the second part of today’s instalment. As we’ve mentioned previously on several occasions, the wind and weather has a major bearing on bird migration, and this is the chief reason for my devotion to the weather charts, surprisingly enough.

This autumn’s airflow has been relentlessly south-westerly, meaning that any birds waiting to cross the North Sea from Scandinavia to Scotland will have been held up. You don’t set out on an epic sea-crossing into a headwind – not a good idea if you’re keen on actually making it to the other side. Consequently, there’s been a backlog of birds waiting in Norway for the opportunity to jump – and finally last weekend they got their chance.

Redwing – one of many hundreds to make landfall at Forvie

On Sunday into Monday, the wind backed easterly for a short period – no more than 24 hours – but that was enough to release a great traffic-jam of migrants. Far the most numerous of these were Redwings – the Scandinavian counterpart of ‘our’ Song Thrush, fleeing the northlands for our comparatively mild winter. These are remarkably dapper birds, if painfully shy and hard to observe closely. To me, a Redwing resembles a Song Thrush wearing an outfit that’s been tailored by Hawkes of Savile Row.

A typically snappily-dressed Continental

Along with the hordes of Redwings came smaller numbers of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and the odd Fieldfare, but the other really prominent species was the Brambling. While the Redwing is the northern proxy for ‘our’ Song Thrush, so the Brambling replaces ‘our’ Chaffinch at the higher latitudes of the world. A handful of pairs probably breed in Scotland each year, but it’s chiefly a winter visitor and passage migrant, with numbers varying hugely from one year to the next, depending on the availability of beech-mast on the Continent – the Brambling’s favourite food. The unpredictability of ‘Brambling winters’ means that when they do occur, they’re appreciated all the more. These are truly handsome birds; their colours are peachy to say the least.

Male Brambling – pure Scandi chic

This series of photos was taken at our garden feeding-station just on the northern boundary of Forvie. Bramblings are quite apt to mix with other species, and for all their bonny colours, they can be surprisingly inconspicuous among the resident sparrows. Wherever you are, if you have a garden feeding station, keep your eyes peeled for a Brambling this next wee while, as birds trickle their way south and west from their coastal arrival sites. A little piece of Scandinavian magic delivered right to your door, and free of charge too – well, that is except for a handful of bird seed.

Spot the Brambling?
Two handsome fellas hiding out with the House and Tree Sparrows

Individual Bramblings are highly variable in appearance, and although all share the same autumn-leaves colour-scheme, the markings around the head and back are especially variable. Older males tend to show lots of black on the head, while younger ones feature more grey and tan tones, with females still more subtly-plumaged and less brightly-coloured. It doesn’t take too much observation to distinguish individuals from one another, and by these means we know we’ve hosted at least nine different Bramblings at our little feeding-station this week, even though we’ve never seen more than three at a time!

Male Bramblings – note differences in appearance
Female Brambling – a bit less showy than the male

West winds, east winds. Shifting sands, drifting birds. All tied up with the highs and the lows and the occluded fronts. It’s said that Brits aye talk about the weather – but here at Forvie we live and breathe it.