Hard Graft and High Excitement

Hard graft and high excitement. We’ve had a decent dose of both and it’s a nice mixture – the excitement energises you for the graft behind and ahead. We’ve been working hard this week as the summer is over – for us at least – as all the terns have departed the breeding colony and the fence that has protected them from ground predators all summer can come down. And that’s a big job, at least 3 days work for 4 or 5 people, lugging heavy batteries, posts, rolls of wire and various other sundries that make up 1 kilometre of fencing. Oh, and you’re carrying it over soft sand too, so that’s a bit of extra lactic acid for the legs!

Fence coming down

We’re always very grateful for the volunteers who help us, both putting the fence out and taking it in. We genuinely couldn’t do it without you and there are birds flying around the world right now that wouldn’t have bred here if it wasn’t for you …so thank you. It’s always a relief when all the truck is packed and ready to roll.

All packed up and ready to roll!

But it’s worth it – the birds have had a good year (more of that in a later blog) and we’re a net exporter of at least Sandwich terns to the rest of the North Sea.

Sandwich terns with fledged young on beach – ready for export!

And we were rather rewarded for our hard work by a lovely view of some bottlenose dolphins on the Monday. The seas was flat-calm – one of those days you feel like you could see to Norway -and there must have been mackerel or herring shoals running offshore, as the sea was black with seabirds. It was heartening to see so many birds out there, feeding on the fish, even though there were notably few gannets and we saw more Arctic skuas than bonxies, for the first time ever. But, in amongst the riot of bird life, something else surfaced…was that a fin?

Is that a fin?

Yes, it was! A brief view of a fin was soon accompanied by a lot of splashing and even animals jumping right out of the water as the dolphins took their share of the fish. Sadly, I never caught that on camera but we watched, entranced, as they slowly drifted north past the reserve. Okay, it’s not quite a humpback whale like St Cyrus had, but we were pretty pleased to see them nonetheless!

Dolphins off Forvie

But enough of the hard graft – let’s move onto the high excitement! As one of the authors of this blog is always saying, when there’s a hint of east in the wind in spring or autumn, it’s game on for migrant birds. And there have been a steady trickle of them this week, with whitethroats and willow warblers flitting after insects in the scrub. But the first ‘rare’ of the week wasn’t something small skulking around the bushes, as it so often is, it was a marsh harrier drifting lazily over the barley fields. These raptors are becoming increasingly common is Scotland and have bred at Loch of Strathbeg in recent years, so we keep hoping a pair might use the reedbeds here.

Marsh Harrier

Our next ‘rare’ was a wading bird, one of the most elegant, the iconic RSPB-logo avocet. These are more-or-less annual here, with one or two appearing on the estuary every year, overshoots from breeding and wintering grounds further south. If you’ve never seen an avocet before, they look a bit exotic and bizarre, with their upturned beak and a side-to-side sweep of the head as they feed. I saw my first ones aged 13 at Minsmere and, to quote Simon Barnes, it felt like ‘looking onto a field of unicorns’ – these were birds I’d only ever read about and could scarcely believe I was seeing. That magic’s never really gone away, and it’s somehow extra-special seeing one on your own patch.

Avocet sweep feeding

But that wasn’t the big excitement of the week. I was in the office on Tuesday morning, halfway through pulling on my boots, when the phone rang. An almost inarticulate Daryl was yelling down the phone but I caught the words ‘ grab binoculars’, ‘flying south’ and ‘bee-eater’ ….surely not!!! So, laces trailing, legged it out front, and started scanning. Where was it? I can see Daryl, about 500m away, but he’s a helluva bigger than a bee-eater, so where’s he looking? Just with that, the mobile rang and the next minute descended into comedy chaos, with us yelling things at each other and neither really listening …’I’m on it, flying right over Cluny’s’ …’my right or your right?’…’being mobbed by m’ipits’…’got it…OH MY GOD!!!!!’ (Please note this is a heavily edited version so’s we both still have jobs). Even from the office I could see it catching insects, swooping like a swallow, and eventually putting down on the power lines at the south end of Collieston. One sprint and a quick record shot later it was off, heading south again to where it should be, and we could get our collective breath back. What a thing to see over your reserve!

Bee-eater on Collieston phone lines.

This was a European bee-eater and they are generally birds of the Mediterranean area. I last saw in Corfu and, like here, the easiest way to locate them is their distinctive and carrying ‘proop-proop’ call. But they are moving north, probably as a result of climate change and a pair bred in Norfolk this year. While I don’t think they’ll ever be regular visitors here, this bird was a real taste of the exotic and a total yahoo in terms of rarity. While the record shot was just a silhouette, this picture (taken in Bulgaria) give an idea of just how colourful these birds are.

Technicolour mayhem…a beautiful Bee-eater.

Speaking of technicolour, we’ll leave you this week with a couple of shots of the butterflies feeding on the heather here. As Daryl said in his last blog, it’s heather season and the moor is gloriously purple ….and all those lovely, nectar-rich heather flowers are a massive food source for butterflies and other insects. The moor is a-buzz with bees and peacock and red admiral butterflies seem to be everywhere. The peacock is almost the insect equivalent of the bee-eater – too colourful and prefect to be real!

Peacock and red admiral feeding on heather
Peacock butterfly