A Time for New Life

‘April is the cruellest month’… wrote Eliot, and this year you could be forgiven for agreeing. March has roared out like a lion, with freezing temperatures, snow showers and biting winds, that have left new lambs shivering, hunch-backed, in the lee of their mothers. It’s not great news for the wildlife either, and we are hoping it warms up before many more of the birds are on eggs.

Snowstorm at Waterside
Forvie Moor the same morning

Now we’re into April, the breeding season is in full swing and we are expecting the first gull eggs any day now. Then, three weeks after that, the first chicks…

Freshly-hatched gull chicks

It’s not just the gulls that are breeding. Our Sandwich Tern numbers have risen from two last week to in the thirties this week, and will – hopefully – eventually peak at around 1,000 pairs. The Ringed Plovers are also setting up territories, and their pleasingly musical calls accompany us around all our fence checks. We are hoping they breed successfully, if only because their chicks are utterly gorgeous and zoom around like little clockwork toys.

Ringed Plovers

Many of the ducks will be on eggs by now, too. They are often early breeders and by mid- April we sometimes see Mallard chicks following their mum across the lochs, little fluffy vulnerable balls of life.

Mallard ducklings

And the Skylarks are nesting as well. They are so obvious when they sing: a constant trill coming out of a clear blue sky, the sound of Forvie Moor, as they fill the world with their song. But their nests are incredibly well hidden; in all my years here I’ve never found one. The parent birds are very discreet: they land far from their nest, then creep on foot through the grass to the nest, so as not to disclose its location.


The thing all these bird have in common, along with all the rest of the terns, the Willow Warblers, the Meadow Pipits, and the various wading birds and ducks, is that they all nest on the ground. This makes them very vulnerable to predators and disturbance, and nowadays, a huge proportion of disturbance comes from people and their dogs. This is why, at this time of year, we ask people to keep their dogs on a lead or at heel on the Reserve. It’s really important that they do, as dogs ranging off paths can scare parent birds off nests and allow predators to take the eggs and chicks, or chill to set in. As more and more people come into the countryside, the space for wildlife has become increasingly squeezed, and oases such as nature reserves are more important than ever. So we really need everyone to help by keeping dogs under control.

Willow warbler
Hackley Bay beach – a safe place for the dog to have a run about

We also need to make space for nature. No matter how well-behaved people are, sometimes their mere presence is dangerous to wildlife. It’s sad but true fact that people and wildlife frequently don’t mix – we are perceived by animals and birds as a predator, and therefore animals and birds see a place populated by people as an unsafe place to be. This is why the southern end of the Reserve is closed off until August, to give the internationally-important tern colony a chance to settle and breed in peace.

Barrier fence looking towards ternery
The beach barrier fence now complete

The tern colony here has been a real success story; one of the few in an increasingly wildlife-impoverished world. We think we now have the largest mainland ternery in Scotland, with over 1,000 pairs of Sandwich tern, over 1,100 pairs of ‘commics’ (Common and Arctic Tern; often lumped together due to the nests being indistinguishable from one another) and up to 30 pairs of Little Terns. Never mind the accompanying 2,000 pairs of Black-headed Gulls, the 100 Eider nests, and the smaller numbers of Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and other odds and sods. It’s a busy place to say the least!

Sandwich Tern and chick – photo (c) Rach Cartwright

Little terns are one of Britain’s rarest breeding seabirds and there are only around 300 pairs in Scotland – that’s 100 fewer than Golden Eagle. They are massively sensitive to disturbance and, being little, are on everything’s menu, from Oystercatchers (they are so-and-sos for taking eggs) to gulls to Kestrels. When your chicks aren’t much bigger than a ping-pong ball, they’re an easy swallow for any predator, and also chill really quickly in damp weather. Therefore, any year they breed successfully here is an extra-good year, and it’s been great to see the wider colony go from strength to strength over the years.

A tiny Little Tern chick

The lack of disturbance here in the breeding season is the key factor for the birds. In fact it’s hard to overstate how much we appreciate those who do respect the signs, avoid the sensitive areas, keep their dogs on leads and help make space for nature on the Reserve. It’s no exaggeration to say that you’re helping to save lives. Thank you!