This past week, for what seems like the first time in ages, we’ve had some proper rain at Forvie. Actual proper rain. Not the sort of quick thundery splash we’ve been getting on and off for the last month or so, which evaporates almost as soon as it falls. No, this was the real stuff – a proper prolonged soaking, providing the Reserve a with long, quenching drink after a drouthy and dusty summer. Long overdue, and very much appreciated.
As well as topping up the water levels and damping down the crispy-dry vegetation, the weather also deluged the Reserve with wildlife. This happened on two fronts: firstly with a mass emergence of moisture-loving residents, and secondly with a huge influx of foreigners.
Foremost among the residents were the amphibians. Having been hard to find during the prolonged dry spell, suddenly there were Common Toads and Common Frogs everywhere. These came in all sizes, from magnificent fully-grown adults down to the miniature replicas from this year’s hatch, making their first journeys into the wide world. In fact, traversing the footpaths became a hazardous business during and after the rain, as there were toadlets under your feet at every turn. Often we were seen to do the ‘toad two-step’, trying to avoid treading on them.
Just for a quick ID reminder on the frog-versus-toad conundrum: Common Frog is usually green (or at least green-ish, though they can be brown, rusty or even golden-coloured), with a dark stripe running through the eyes, and largely smooth, shiny skin. The Common Toad, by contrast, is usually darker and browner, lacks the ‘eye-stripe’, and has prodigiously warty skin. These differences are much more easily observed on the full-sized ones rather than the tiny juveniles.
Additionally, the two species’ gaits are different. Generally speaking, frogs hop, and toads crawl. I cannot mention this without thinking back to a conversation in the local Doric that I once overheard: “Did ye ken, there’s twa types o’ puddock? Een that hops, and een that craals!”. These being, of course, Common Frog and Common Toad respectively. I have never come across a neater way of expressing this than in our local dialect!
Among the multitude of frogs and toads thronging the footpaths, we also happened upon several Palmate Newts on the move. These appear quite unfamiliar when seen out of the water, and are often (understandably) mistaken for lizards. Their soft amphibian skin, shorter tail and slower action easily separate them from their reptile cousins though. In common with the other amphibians, these occur in all sizes, and the tiny ones can be really difficult to spot.
Autumn is the season when amphibians begin to think about bedding down for the forthcoming winter, which is one of the reasons they are so widespread just now. They are beginning to disperse away from their native water bodies, to overwinter in damp grassland or under a convenient stone or log. and at times can turn up in some odd places, far from water. On Monday we had to reprimand two newtlets who were trespassing in the Forvie visitor centre, outwith the public opening times. They had found their way in under the front door, and were gently relocated outside to some more suitable newt habitat.
The other big event of the week, brought about by the weather, was the largest early-autumn arrival of migrant birds since 2008. An easterly wind had sprung up over the weekend of 3rd-4th, delivering a trickle of birds to the east coast, including a handful of Pied Flycatchers to Forvie. These were a pleasure to see, having been painfully scarce on the local patch in recent years.
However, with the wind remaining in the east, a downpour of rain during the night of 6th-7th turned the trickle of migrants into a deluge. As the rain began to clear on the morning of 7th, it became obvious that there were foreigners everywhere. Warblers, chats, flycatchers and more besides: drift migrants fetched across from the Continent by the weather. Every patch of willow scrub across the Reserve hosted its share of the arrivals, making for some memorable scenes.
Some of the biggest hitters in terms of numbers were Redstarts, Whinchats, both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. We’re generally lucky to see one or two each of these per year here, so to see so many at the one time was almost bewildering.
Among the more numerous arrivals were ones and twos of southern and eastern species that aren’t often seen in our part of Scotland. Forvie hosted singles of Reed Warbler, Wryneck and Barred Warbler, with the neighbouring village of Collieston weighing in with another Barred Warbler, an Icterine Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Common Rosefinch. Seeking out rare and unusual visitors is one of the appeals of a big autumn ‘fall’ like this, but it’s just a small part of the story really.
Actually, this was a very emotional experience for your soft-centred author here. ‘Falls’ used to be a more or less annual occurrence on the east coast, but in recent years they have become fewer and further between. The last event like this took place at Forvie no fewer than 14 years ago, and observers like myself had begun to wonder if they were a thing of the past. After all, populations of migrant birds have been in decline now for decades; were there basically not enough birds left in northern Europe to sustain these ancestral migration routes? Were things beginning to crumble and disappear before our eyes? Was this yet another symptom of humanity’s destructive influence on the planet’s ecology? What future lies ahead for those of us who care about nature?
One of the joys of observing migration is that it can transport you, figuratively speaking, to other parts of the world. And this week has proved, mercifully, that those distant places still contain life and beauty. The relief and ecstasy brought by these tiny travellers is just about indescribable. Simply, these birds have given me hope. You can’t put a price on that.