Whale of a time

If you’re a regular reader of the Forvie blog, you’ll know that we’re big fans of autumn here. The stress and hard yards of the bird breeding season are behind us, the tern fence is safely packed up in the workshop, and more to the point, the wildlife spectacle is at its best. What’s more, we actually have time to take it all in! Now we’re into early September, and it’s officially meteorological autumn (as opposed to early June when the first wading birds start heading south… people generally don’t take too kindly to the ‘A’ word being mentioned in June).

September: a harvest landscape reflected in a mirror-calm estuary

August, though, will be a tough act to follow. As we previously reported, the last month produced sightings of Bottlenose Dolphins, Marsh Harriers, Avocet and Bee-eater here at Forvie – quite a roll-call. But August wasn’t done until the very last, and the 31st gave us another rare treat in the form of a Minke Whale off the North Broadhaven.

Minke Whale
Thaar she blows!

The recent becalmed conditions offshore have presented great opportunities for seawatching – that is to say, simply looking out to sea, with the aid of binoculars or telescope, and seeing what passes by. Cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – are always highlights of any seawatch, with sightings by no means guaranteed even in good conditions. Seabirds obviously feature prominently, of which more in a moment. You may even see a migrant butterfly passing by offshore, or making landfall having crossed the North Sea – incredible though this seems. And there’s always a chance of something different: I live in hope that I might one day see a Basking Shark off our coast. It’s by no means impossible!

Seabirds and Bottlenose Dolphin

Often the best bet during a seawatch is to look out for a ‘bait ball’ – where a shoal of fish near the surface of the water is attracting flocks of birds. Kittiwakes and other gulls tend to be first on the scene, excitably dip-feeding at the surface, while Guillemots and Razorbills also pile in and dive for their share of the spoils. Such feeding frenzies are often joined by Gannets, diving spectacularly from height, though these are notably scarcer following their decimation this summer by avian flu.

Seabirds gathering…
Fish ahoy!

While most of the birds are intent on attacking the shoal of fish, some prefer to go after other birds instead. Skuas are specialists in obtaining food by larceny, pursuing other seabirds such as gulls and terns until they drop or regurgitate their catch of fish. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism – not an easy word to say after a pint or two – and requires remarkable flying skills and lightning-quick reactions on the part of the skua. But it saves them the work of having to catch the fish themselves!

There are four species of skua in the Northern Hemisphere. Of these, the Long-tailed and Pomarine Skua occur only rarely in our region as passage-migrants. But the other two species, Great and Arctic Skua, are a regular feature off Forvie’s coast from spring until late autumn. These true pirates of the high seas make for a dashing sight as they go about their swashbuckling business.

Great Skua chasing after a gull
Arctic Skua on patrol

The usual views of skuas are relatively distant over the sea: a menacing dark shape pursuing the white-and-grey shapes of the terns and gulls. Occasionally, though, they venture into the mouth of the estuary, where they are attracted by the post-breeding flocks of terns. The following photos were captured brilliantly by a visitor to Forvie over ten years ago, and to my eternal embarrassment, I cannot recall her name. But I remain ever grateful for her permission to use these amazing action shots. And if you’re reading this and recognise the photos as your own, do please get in touch, so I can give credit where credit’s due!

Arctic Skua pursuing a Sandwich Tern
“Just DROP the SAND-EEL, DAMMIT”

Back on dry land, a changing of the guard continues in the invertebrate world. Many of our butterflies are looking a bit sorry for themselves as they approach the end of their flight season. This Green-veined White was found sulking among the washing on the line in our garden earlier in the week.

Green-veined White

Other insects, though, are beginning to become more prominent. Having seen the larvae on the go earlier in the year, we’re now seeing adult Devil’s Coach-horse beetles prowling along the footpaths, looking for invertebrate prey. They don’t normally pose for photographs, so I was delighted when one decided to threaten me with the ‘scorpion pose’ as I passed by. Check out the difference between the beetle in ordinary circumstances…

Devil’s Coach-horse

…and in its threat posture, with its tail curled upwards like a scorpion’s sting, and its fearsome mouthparts open wide.

“Don’t darken my door again”

A feature of late summer and early autumn in Forvie’s grassland is the appearance of Grass-of-Parnassus. Contrary to its name, this isn’t actually a grass at all, but rather a flowering plant featuring delicately pin-striped white petals. This can be found most commonly on the Reserve along the coastal path around Hackley Bay, where it grows right alongside the footpath. One to look out for if you’re out and about in early September.

Grass-of-Parnassus

Finally, if you are visiting the Reserve any time soon, be sure and look out for the on-site information which tells you more about what you might see during your visit. Out on the Heath Trail, the wildflower interpretation boxes will remain in-situ for a short while longer, as most of the plants approach the end of their flowering season. These have been very popular with visitors since they were first deployed – and this is your last chance to enjoy them this year!

One of our wildflower boxes

Meanwhile, the Forvie Centre now features a small display on migration, featuring photos and fun facts in keeping with the season. In common with the wildflower boxes, we hope by providing these displays that we might open up a new vista for people who may not otherwise be aware of what the Reserve has to offer. And remember, of course, that we’re always happy to chat and answer wildlife-related questions if you see one of us out on site!

New displays at the Forvie Centre

Who knows – we may eventually be able to convince other folk to love the autumn as much as we do here at Forvie!