Sun, fun and little ‘uns

It’s said that Reserve staff are jacks of all trades, and this truism very accurately reflects the varied nature of our work. However, for the last couple of years, one key element of the job has been conspicuously absent. For a long while, coronavirus restrictions obliged us to severely (and necessarily) curtail the outward-facing aspects of our work, such as environmental education and public events. However, in summer 2022, and much to our relief, the Forvie team has been able to recommence this public-facing work. As well as assisting with education visits ranging from primary schools to university classes, we have also, excitingly, been able to put together a programme of events for the first time since 2019.

The up-to-date Forvie events leaflet. So good that I printed it twice.

Last week’s event was the Forvie Fun Day, an afternoon of activities at the Forvie Centre for young and old alike. Not having run such an event here for many years, we were unsure what to expect in terms of turnout or how it would be received. But we were blessed with a stunning day’s weather, allowing us to set up tables and chairs outside where people could enjoy the Collieston & Slains SWRI’s show-stopping array of cakes and refreshments. Pauline the storyteller kept the kids (and adults) entertained, there were crafts and a treasure trail, while the moth trap was incredibly popular with both children and adults. All in all, the day exceeded our expectations – we can only hope the rest of the summer’s events are equally well received!

Activities in the classroom
Pauline doing her stuff in the visitor centre
Refreshments in the sun
Success – and a very relieved Reserve team!

Out on the Reserve, the summer season rolls inexorably onwards. As Catriona mentioned in her previous instalment, the wild flowers are looking magnificent just now, and some of the trails look like they’ve been strewn with confetti.

Wild flowers in South Forvie

Among the common and familiar plants on the Reserve are some more specialised and unusual species. One of our notable plants at Forvie is the rather odd yet attractive Oysterplant, which grows in one particular spot at the foot of the cliffs near Collieston. Midsummer is when Oysterplant comes into flower, and we recently made a special pilgrimage to count the plants, and to enjoy the sight before the flowers begin to fade away once again.

Oysterplant growing on the shingle
In full flower
A unique appearance

On the beaches, we’re still seeing the terrible toll taken by avian flu on Scotland’s seabirds, with dozens of dead Gannets now being joined by similar numbers of deceased Guillemots and gulls. Thankfully, at the time of writing, the worst-case scenario has not yet unfolded at the ternery, and our Black-headed Gulls and Sandwich Terns have largely finished their breeding season and begun to leave the area. This is a massive relief to us, and the many hundreds of young that they’ve successfully fledged (minimum 1,029 for Black-headed Gull and 865 for Sandwich Tern) represent a triumph in the face of adversity.

Part of the carnage on the beach at Rockend
Sandwich Terns and their fledglings on the estuary

Our attention now rests with the smaller tern species, who are still mostly feeding chicks – though our first Arctic and Common Terns have also now begun to fledge and depart the colony. Fingers crossed for those that remain.

Arctic Tern – will you lot please just get on with it and leave?!

Another resident of the ternery, but one that’s much less conspicuous than the neighbouring terns and gulls, is the Ringed Plover. These dinky little waders nest on the sand and shingle around the fringes of the ternery, but their habits are discreet and they take great care not to disclose the location of their nests. Despite this, we did recently find a Ringed Plover’s nest not far from the electric fence batteries and switchgear. It was beautifully concealed within the dense Marram Grass atop a low dune right next to the fence, and contained four perfect little eggs.

Ringed Plover’s nest

Upon re-checking the nest this week, I was disappointed to note an empty scrape, with no sign of eggs, young or parent birds. I resigned myself to the fact that the nest had probably been predated. However, the following day, the adult birds were back in the same area, and behaving very suspiciously. Eccentrically, in fact. In a complete reversal of their usual discreet behaviour, the plovers were trying to attract my attention. This they did by calling repeatedly, flying around me, and indulging in that brilliant and remarkable bit of behaviour that you usually only read about in books – the Ringed Plover’s famous ‘distraction display’.

Ringed Plover distraction display
Putting on a proper show

The distraction display basically involves the parent bird(s) feigning injury, in an attempt to trick a potential predator (in this case me) into chasing after them rather than their chicks. This they do by trailing one or both wings as if broken, while flapping around in an apparently helpless manner. A Fox, for instance, might be taken in by this and pursue the parent bird, imagining an easy meal. Of course, the plover then simply takes flight and the performance resumes a safe distance away. All the while, the Fox is being led further and further from the plover’s chicks.

What a little performance!

In this case, I immediately realised there were baby plovers in the area, so after hastily snapping a couple of photos of the distraction-displaying adults, my attention turned to my feet, to make sure I didn’t tread on the tiny chicks. These tend to freeze and rely on their excellent camouflage to keep them safe, while their parents are putting on a show. Sure enough, almost right under my feet was a baby Ringed Plover. Again, I rapidly took a couple of snaps before moving on as quickly as was safely possible, so as not to cause the family any extra stress.

Ringed Plover chick

It’s likely that this little bundle had siblings nearby (the nest, remember, had contained four eggs). But I made no attempt to find them, opting instead to just move on and leave them to it. I was simply content in the knowledge that the nest hadn’t been predated after all, and had in fact successfully hatched.

Hand for scale only – and yes, I did resist the temptation for a quick snuggle

Speaking as a hard-hearted professional ecologist and fieldworker of 20-odd years’ experience, I will still freely admit that wader chicks are cute enough to melt a heart of stone. Resisting the temptation to pick them up for a quick snuggle is one of the toughest tests that you can face in this line of work. But what with predators, inclement weather and avian flu, they have more than enough to deal with already, thanks very much.

Here’s hoping the little ‘uns get through the rest of the season unscathed, and that we will be able to enjoy such chance encounters in future years. There’s no day that can’t be improved by a moment shared with nature.