Wade in the water

I’ve heard it said that given enough time, people and their pets end up assuming the same personality as one another (and, in some amusing cases, even begin to look the same). An interesting theory – and one that could possibly also be applied to Forvie’s wildlife and its staff. Physical likenesses aside(!), it’s fair to say that both we and our wildlife take a disproportionate amount of enjoyment from plytering about in water. What better way to spend a stiflingly hot August day anyway?

Who doesn’t love a bootful of water?

This week’s excuse – erm, I mean task – was to remove the non-native and dangerously invasive Himalayan Balsam from the Foveran Burn. This is the burn that flows alongside the A975 coast road, eventually joining the Ythan Estuary at Inch Road in Newburgh. In partnership with staff and volunteers from the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, we worked our way upstream from Newburgh towards Foveran, thereby tackling the source of the balsam seeds coming down the burn to the Reserve. It was hot, sticky, stinging-nettley work, but between us we got a huge area cleared, thereby helping to safeguard the native plants which would otherwise be out-competed and overwhelmed. And special thanks are owed to Karen from SISI for providing some excellent coffee and biccies.

Himalayan Balsam growing on the Foveran Burn
Balsam bashers in their natural habitat

So what about the wildlife then? Forvie is, of course, rightly famed as a superb site for wading birds, and now is a particularly busy time in the wader world. As we’ve mentioned before in these pages, the breeding season for Arctic-nesting waders is very short, and consequently most of them are now southbound again on what effectively constitutes their autumn migration (even though it’s only early August). Forvie plays the role of motorway service-station for these long-haul travellers, providing opportunities for the birds to feed and rest.

The Reserve’s extensive and varied habitats also cater for species with different preferences. Sanderlings, for example, choose to feed along the strand-line of the beach, and roost among the debris above the high-water mark…

Sanderlings feeding furiously

…while other species, such as Turnstone, favour the rocky shore instead, and can be found feeding and roosting along the shoreline between Collieston and Rockend.

Tired Turnstone

On the estuary, different kinds of waders favour different areas too. Some prefer the saltier environment near the river mouth, such as Grey Plover – which, at this time of year, can sometimes be seen still wearing their stunning black-and-white summer plumage.

Grey Plover, in silver-and-black breeding finery

Some species, such as Whimbrel, prefer the middle reaches of the estuary, where the water is a mix of fresh and salt – known as ‘brackish’. Here they probe the mudflats for worms and other invertebrates, and can often be seen shoulder-to-shoulder with their larger relative, the Curlew.

Whimbrel – like a dinky Curlew with a stripy head
Whimbrel (l) and Curlew (r) – shame the Curlew had its back to us!

Others have a distinct preference for fresher water, and are seldom found on the estuary itself. Wood Sandpiper, for instance, is one species that tends to favour the scatter of small freshwater pools and lochs on the moor, rather than the extensive but salty wetlands of the estuary.

Wood Sandpiper feeding at a freshwater pool

One of the wonderful things about waders – apart from their elegance of form, their often beautiful summer plumage and their outstanding feats of migration – is that many are also possessed of a musical and far-carrying voice. It’s a pity not to be able to do this justice in writing, as wader calls are among the most evocative of all sounds in the natural world. Few things make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like hearing a flight of Curlew arriving upon high from the North Sea. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Landfall, guys – we made it”.

A flight of Curlew

These are not just intrinsically beautiful sounds, they are also the audio soundtrack to the shifting of the seasons, the very turning of the world upon which we all live. When walking on the Reserve, or working the garden at home, I am often stopped in my tracks by the rippling seven whistles of a Whimbrel, the mournful teu-hu-hu of a Redshank, the lively and strident kyew-kyew-kyew of a Greenshank, or perhaps the sing-song tlooeet-wit-wit of a Green Sandpiper passing high overhead. If the soundtrack of high summer is defined by the drone of bees on a dazzling hot day, then late summer and early autumn is surely defined by the sound of waders on the move. They are the sound of life itself.

Kyew-kyew-kyew – Greenshank

One of the better wader hotspots on the estuary is Waulkmill bird hide, and the mouth of the Forvie burn just next to the hide is often worth a look on the rising tide. Unfortunately in recent months, this site has also been popular after dark with the sort of people who aren’t welcome on a National Nature Reserve, and the hide has been subject to several acts of vandalism since the end of last year. The latest episode involved yet another broken window, with the shattered glass left lying outside the hide. Repairing this is another job to be ‘booked’, i.e. put on the ‘to do’ list, to be undertaken at the first opportunity.

Yet more knuckle-headery for us to repair

On the flip side, we did manage to make good the damage from the previous batch of idiocy, which took place in June and involved the destruction of shelving and display panels. This was only repaired by Mark and I earlier in the year, which made the whole thing even more frustrating. However, we were able to recover all the broken bits of timber and re-purpose them, meaning the only expense incurred was for a few nails and panel pins, plus a couple of hours of myself and Caitlin’s time.

…and after.
……and after!

This sort of job can be filed under the headings of ‘unplanned work’ and ‘making a silk purse from a sow’s ear’. Not how any of us would choose to spend our time, but making the best of a bad job, it did at least give Caitlin the opportunity to practice a bit of basic construction work. We’ll see how long this repair lasts, and will sort out the broken window as time allows.

The joys of working with the public. At least we’ve got the waders to help keep us sane!