Riding the rollercoaster

When your day job involves doing something that’s close to your heart, your working life can feel like something of an emotional rollercoaster at times. This year to date has been a type example. So far, we’ve endured some depressing lows – the usual vandalism, litter and inconsiderate behaviour, the avian flu crisis, and the continued loss of biodiversity in the wider world to name a few. But these have been offset against some sublime highs – the warmth of feedback from people at our public events, some magic moments shared with nature, and some success stories in the face of adversity.

The kids’ reaction to the moths at the Fun Day was a real highlight!

Foremost among the latter is the news from the Forvie ternery. Despite the dark spectre of avian flu looming over them, ‘our’ birds have continued to enjoy a remarkably successful breeding season. This week, we counted upwards of 800 fledged Arctic and Common Terns scattered around the south end of the Reserve, representing their best productivity for several years. We hope these new recruits will go forth into the world and help repair the devastation that has been visited upon other colonies elsewhere. As we’ve said before, nature knows no boundaries, and as such, the impact of our work extends well beyond our own thousand hectares.

A fledged Arctic Tern – ready for export!
A fine season in the face of adversity

To continue with the rollercoaster analogy, the middle of summer at Forvie is like one of those massive summits that the coaster climbs up at a snail’s pace, almost coming to a standstill at the very top. We now find ourselves at the start of the descent, but rather than hurtling headlong back down to earth, this is a long and gentle ride. With the most frenetic period now behind us – that period wherein everything is frantically growing, breeding and doing everything at 100 mph – the Reserve now begins to take on a different feel. More relaxed, more mellow, and for me at least, all the more enjoyable for it.

…And relax.

In the world of plants, the grasses have reached their peak and are beginning to set seed. Grasses are a dominant feature of the landscape here, and as any gardener in the local area will tell you, their vigorous growth can overwhelm the more delicate plants. But by this time of the year the grasses have had their day (Shouldn’t that be ‘hayday’? – sorry), and it’s now time for other species to shine. But in the meantime, there’s a simple beauty about a late summer grassland, with the breeze whispering through the ranks of bowed and nodding seed-heads. We refer to the fields of ripening barley in our region as a ‘harvest landscape’, and this is nature’s equivalent.

Late summer grassland near the Forvie Centre
A soft and mellow landscape
Yorkshire Fog – a common and attractive grass

While the grasses are in decline, some of our flowering plants are just beginning their tour de force. Bluebells (or Harebells if you’re south of the border – please yourself) are now in evidence along many of Forvie’s footpaths, and their exquisite form and delicate colour make them a firm favourite of visitors and staff alike.

Bluebells and Yarrow along the path edge
A perennial favourite

A surprising number of wild plants occasionally show a white-flowered form, instead of their usual colouration. In my years at Forvie I have noted white versions of Lousewort, Spear Thistle, Heather and Wild Thyme among others – and, contrary to their name, Bluebells too. Look out for these among the regular blue ones as you traverse the paths throughout the Reserve.

A white form of Bluebell
Rare and beautiful indeed

Butterflies are very much in evidence just now on sunny days, and it was a pleasure to see Graylings on the wing during the week. These cryptic yet attractive butterflies are associated with areas of bare sand and short-cropped vegetation, and it’s thought that the decline of the Rabbit at Forvie has perhaps had a negative effect on the Grayling population. However, there are a few areas of the Reserve where Graylings can still reliably be seen. The path between the Forvie Centre and Cotehill Loch is a good bet, as is the southern end of the Dune Trail. But you’ll need sharp eyes, as Graylings are not only fast fliers, but also brilliantly camouflaged when at rest upon the ground.

Spot the Grayling

The most obvious butterfly species currently on the wing, both in terms of appearance and sheer numbers, is the Dark Green Fritillary. These seem to be everywhere just now.

Dark Green Fritillary on Creeping Thistle

They’re so abundant here during mid to late summer that they feature on the menu for some of Forvie’s insectivores. It’s not especially unusual to find little piles of wings, discarded by the predator, as it’s the butterfly’s body which is the nutritious and (apparently) tasty bit. If you happen upon such a find, it’s a good opportunity to have a look at the detail of the wing markings – particularly the green of the underwings, which is hard to see on a live specimen, yet gives the butterfly its name.

Fritillary spare parts – note the green on the hindwing

One of the most likely culprits in this case is the Stonechat, of which several pairs breed annually on Forvie Moor. While eating butterflies might seem like bad form, it’s all part of the great cycle of life, as well as important nutrition for the Stonechat’s chicks. And besides this, Stonechats eat a wide variety of other invertebrates too, including the ones that bite and sting us. So take it from me, they’re not all bad.

A handsome male Stonechat

Changing tack completely, last Wednesday saw us run a public event focused on edible and medicinal plants. The bill of fare included seaweeds gathered from Collieston beach (and yes, I appreciate these are algae rather than actual plants, before anybody writes in to correct me). Anyway, a frond of Kelp was brought back to the Forvie Centre to demonstrate how to make ‘seaweed crisps’ – which incidentally make deliciously salty ‘bar snacks’ alongside a pint of pale ale. But I digress: here on the Kelp was a passenger, a species none of us had previously seen at Forvie. The rather magical Blue-rayed Limpet.

Blue-rayed Limpet – an extraordinary little beast

These tiny shellfish generally grow to about the size of your little fingernail, though this one was barely bigger than a full stop. But what about those blue rays! Like a Kingfisher’s back or a Bluethroat’s gorget, these are an iridescent blue that’s difficult to do justice in a still photograph. You just have to see it for yourself, and the place to do so is right at the bottom of the shore on a low spring tide. Or among freshly-washed-up kelp, seemingly.

I must admit that it’s not often that molluscs feature in the Forvie blog, but that’s chiefly down to my sore lack of knowledge on the subject. Just imagine what other gems might be waiting to be discovered out there. Time to go and do some homework.