Home and away

Occasionally, if we’ve been really well behaved, Forvie staff get allowed to go off-site, on a sort of day-release basis. We can then usually be found unleashing some form of terrible destruction upon another NNR or Site of Special Scientific Interest. Sometimes we’re ‘borrowed’ by these other sites for our biological recording and surveying expertise, but most often it’s our practical skills that are in demand. Need a sprayer or chainsaw operator, or an ATV driver, or someone to fix a fence? Ask the Reserve crew.

Reserve staff – jacks of all trades

The last days of October saw our first visit of the season to Muir of Dinnet NNR, where the chainsaws (and ourselves, as operators) were put through their paces. There were a number of dead and dying trees overhanging or adjacent to the footpaths that were liable to cause a hazard; these had been identified by our colleagues at Dinnet during the summer months (it’s easier to spot a sickly tree in summer than in autumn or winter, when they all look bare and sorry!). But of course you oughtn’t really be cutting trees in summer unless it’s absolutely critical – think of the nesting birds, for example. So now is the time to get this work done – before the winter storms bring the trees down in a less controlled manner.

Dead tree across the footpath

As a chainsaw operator, cutting dead and diseased trees is a tricky business. These trees behave in a very different manner to a healthy tree. Rot and decay can seriously compromise the strength of the timber, there’s often little or no crown weight to assist with felling momentum, and the timber itself is stiff and rigid, lacking the ‘flex’ present in living wood. Sometimes you find the tree is completely hollow inside, leaving you no timber with which to make a ‘hinge’, and on one memorable occasion, I recall cutting into a dead tree whereupon a gallon of foetid water gushed out of the cut.

Cutting a ‘rotter’ – you never know what you’re gonna get!

All these things combine to make things awkward and potentially hazardous. That’s where our rigorous training qualifications come in, and combined with plenty of previous experience and a good deal of common sense, this allows us to get the job done safely and efficiently. But you can guarantee that if you have a particularly difficult job to do, then you’ll have an audience – and that’s why we always employ colleagues and volunteers as ‘bankspeople’, fielding the members of the public while we get the cutting done.

Cutting out a dead Rowan – note banksperson in hi-viz!
A short clip of a dead tree being felled

It’s really important to note that we only cut dead and dying trees when they’re by the footpaths, and likely to cause a hazard to people. Away from the paths, we leave nature to take its course, as the risk to human visitors is low. After all, deadwood is brilliant habitat – whether standing or fallen. Dead trees support a vast range of life: fungi, lichens, wood-boring beetles, hole-nesting birds and feeding woodpeckers to name but a handful. The last thing we want to do is to tidy it all away – nature thrives on a bit of disorder. It’s all part of the cycle of life.

Dead tree next to the path…
Felled into the loch – so people don’t make fires with the dead wood!

The following week was supposed to have involved a trip to our Battleby office near Perth, where I was booked to operate our ‘Softrak’ machine in order to get the wildflower meadow cut. However, an injury sustained over the weekend prevented me from driving, and as a result the job has had to be postponed for now. The silver lining, though, was being able to attend our staff gathering at Tentsmuir NNR down in Fife, on which I would otherwise have missed out.

It was great to see some colleagues we’d not seen for a long time, as well as a chance to meet some new faces, all in a safe outdoor setting. And what a setting – Tentsmuir is a splendid site of dynamic dunes, flower-rich coastal heath and the woodlands and wetlands of Morton Lochs, with its magnificent education pavilion (full of interpretative information) as its centrepiece. It shares quite a bit in common with Forvie, and it was great to be able to chat with our coastal colleagues. And even the weather was kind to us.

Lunchtime photo call at the ‘pavvy’
In the dunes at Tentsmuir – looks quite familiar!
Their trees are bigger than ours though!

We were back home on the ranch by the week’s end, and it was time for a high-water bird count on the estuary. Although we do most of our bird-counting at low tide, when the waders are busy feeding on the mudflats, we count the diving ducks (such as Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers) at high water. This is because they tend to roost at high tide, and are more likely to sit still and be counted than at low tide, when they’re constantly feeding and diving. It’s hard to count a flock of ducks when half of them are submerged.

Again we were fortunate to have a break in the weather to get the job done, and the ducks, newly moulted into fresh plumage, were looking superb.

Red-breasted Mergansers

The Eider drakes were looking resplendent, and they knew it. Although it’s early in the season – most ducks display and pair up during winter and early spring – there was a lot of showing-off going on. Perhaps the mild conditions were getting their juices flowing. Either way, it made for a wonderful sight and sound, and it’s well worth a visit to the lower estuary just now to take it in.

A puckle of Eiders displaying at high tide
Male Eiders head-tossing

Among the Eiders was an interloper – see if you can pick him out in the photo below.

This smart-looking fella is a drake Long-tailed Duck. For once a bird with a sensible name, for he did indeed sport a magnificent long tail, the two elongated central feathers whipping around in the breeze. These are scarce but regular visitors to Forvie from the Baltic region, and most winters see one or two of them lingering among the commoner ducks. Females and immatures aren’t as flamboyantly plumaged as the drakes, and they lack the long central tail-feathers. Full adult drakes like this one are usually in the minority, so seeing this one close-up among the Eiders was especially enjoyable.

The Long-tailed Duck provided a fine end to what had been quite an eventful week. The last wee while has proven that away-days on other sites are always enjoyable – and yet there’s never a shortage of interest right here on the home patch either.