Ups and Downs – Forvie NNR

It’s been a bit of a mixed week, with some significant ups and one fairly major down. So let’s start with the bad news first and get it out of the way. We suspect that avian influenza – bird flu- has arrived on the Ythan. It was actually fairly inevitable, with local outbreaks already recorded and lots of migrating birds moving north. Monday morning saw one dead and several unwell-looking geese on the estuary near the roost site on the Tarty mudflats. Like human ‘flu, the effect on birds varies hugely. Some are very susceptible to it and the Svalbard barnacle goose population has been hammered, with a mortality rate of 30 – 40% – that’s up to 40% of all the barnacle geese in the world have died this winter.  It doesn’t seem to affect the grey geese – like the local pink-feet – quite so badly and many will actually survive it, if a predator doesn’t get them while they’re weak. The risk of transmission to humans is very low but it’s advisable to not touch any dead birds and report wildfowl deaths to DEFRA.

Pink footed goose

Aside from this, it’s actually been a lovely week. The wind has dropped and it’s the calmest week I think we’ve had since about last October! The lack of wind allowed a group from NESKY out to litter pick on the upper estuary and it is now a much cleaner place than it was last week. Thanks to all involved – you could get to bits of the estuary we couldn’t and it’s great that all that litter and plastic is now gone. It definitely help counteract the ‘down’ of the bird flu. 

Rubbish from litter pick

It has really felt like spring, with some lovely misty, dewy mornings, followed by warm, bright days. It’s lovely to see the celandines, all shut up in the morning, then all yellow and sunny by lunchtime.

Closed celandine

We’ve also seen several ruby tiger moth caterpillars on their travels. You most often spot them crossing a path, in a determined, hairy- caterpillar sort of way. They are likely looking for somewhere quiet to pupate so they can emerge as moths and get on with the serious business of breeding and producing more hairy caterpillars.

ruby tiger caterpillar

In fact, lots of things are thinking about breeding just now. It very much looks like the swans on the Sand Loch will try to nest in the marsh quite close to the track. It’s wet enough to keep most people out but not dogs, and we’d like to remind people to keep their dog on a lead or at heel during the bird breeding season. This swan is a big, obvious example of a bird that nests on the ground but there are lots of others, like skylark, meadow pipit and willow warbler too, that you might never notice – but they are there and we really need people’s help to look after them by keeping dogs under control. You’ve no idea how much we, the reserve staff, really do appreciate when folk help us by simply keeping their dogs close to, on a path, and giving the wildlife space to breed and feed undisturbed.

Swan on nest at Sand Loch

While the swan on the nest is a serene-looking example of breeding, the oystercatchers are anything but! Their ‘ker-pleep’ call is one of the sounds of spring and summer on the estuary. When two pairs have a disagreement about something, be it food, mates, territory, ownership of a single mussel, even, they will display to one another to sort out who is the dominant pair. This tends to involve the pairs walking side by side, heads down, pleeping furiously at one another. These displays are known as ‘piping ceremonies’ ( I have a mental picture of them in full Highland dress now…) and, like the bagpipes, people either love or hate oystercatchers. To some people, they are an evocative sound of the sea or their childhood. To others, they’re the damn nuisance noisy black-and-white things!

Oysercatchers displaying

Oystercatchers displaying

Meanwhile, other birds are heading north. The sanderling we see chasing – and being chased by- the waves will be heading north to Arctic breeding grounds very soon. A reminder that Forvie is just part of an international nature network used by wildlife from all over the Northern Hemisphere.

Sanderling roost


This smart male common scotor dropped briefly onto Sand Loch. He, too, is likely to be on his way north to breed, perhaps to Caithness (where common scoter are one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds) or perhaps even further north, to the Arctic tundra.

Common scoter

Then, on Thursday, we had another major ‘up’ of the week! The terns are back! Well, admittedly it’s only two, with the first Sandwich terns seen on the 23rd, but it’s hopefully the start of a successful breeding season. There are already around 800 to 1000 black-headed gulls on the colony and we might -maybe- even see our first gull eggs by the end of next week.

Sandwich tern (C) Ron MacDonald

We’ve also had some cracking sunsets to delight the senses. A coastal haze has meant that we’ve a had a few ‘fiery ball’ sunsets, where a light mist has blocked the glare and meant you can look directly at the sun. It looks like a huge red-orange ball in the sky as it drops over the dunes into the west. We’ll leave you this week with a picture of one of these sunsets – but they’re much better enjoyed in real life!

Fiery ball sunset