Storm season starting

Over the course of the last few days, any thoughts of an Indian summer in 2022 have been well and truly blown away. Quite literally in fact: as I sit typing this, a sixty-odd-mph wind is tearing in from the south, the trees in the back garden are waving wildly as if signalling for help, and everything is covered in a green shrapnel of shredded leaves. This is about as far removed from the becalmed days of summer as it’s possible to get. Welcome to the storm season.

The view from the Forvie Centre, into the teeth of a gale

Forvie is a place well-known for its windy climate at the best of times. The wind is the driving force behind the dynamic, constantly-shifting dunescape in the southern half of the Reserve – possibly the most spectacular and well-known feature of the site. The immense power of the wind – eroding, transporting and depositing sand in huge quantities – is reflected in this landscape, and it acts as a useful reminder that nature is very much in charge here. We may be custodians of this landscape, but by no means do we control it.

Sand-blow in action
Wind-scoured dunes
The landscape we love, sculpted by the wind – photo ©Lorne Gill

High winds also lend a very different feel to Forvie’s eastern flank. A month ago, the North Sea was serene and mirror-calm, its surface flecked with myriad seabirds and disturbed only by dolphins. Now, awakened by the gales, the sea has taken on an entirely new character, leaping and snarling at the shore, inhospitable in the extreme. From mill pond to Roaring Forties: it’s hard to believe it’s the same coastline. But this is one of the joys of living at a high latitude – the variety through the seasons means that life is never dull.

From calm and serene…
…to wild and windy

Obviously when things get as rough as this, much of our wildlife sensibly keeps its head down until the worst is past. This is not the time to be out and about, whatever your life strategy. Taking some tips from nature, we also decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and abandoned our plans for a waterfowl census on the estuary on Friday. Separating your Dunlin from your Knot isn’t too difficult in calm conditions, but when the telescope is bouncing around on the tripod like a bucking bronco, it’s worse than impossible – with the added risk of a black eye thrown in for good measure. Nope, we’ll leave that job till next week I think.

Better luck next week

Having said all that, last week was by no means a dead loss for wildlife. Thursday was the best day of the week in terms of weather – lucky for the University of Aberdeen students who visited the Reserve for a day’s fieldwork – and consequently it also offered the best conditions for spotting. The sun shone, some late insects were very much in evidence, and a hint of east in the wind had delivered a few birds too. The latter included our first Chiffchaff and Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn, among a trickle of Goldcrests and Redwings.

From Siberia with love – Yellow-browed Warbler
Redwing – first of the winter thrushes

We also recorded a couple of unusual sightings. First up was a rather out-of-place Treecreeper that pitched up in our coastal garden at the north-eastern extreme of the Reserve. We’re not exactly blessed with a lot of decent tree cover here, raising the question of quite where this little fellow had come from – a wanderer from inland, or a traveller from the Continent? It’s probably impossible to know for sure, but either way it made for an incongruous sight in a windswept coastal location, when it ought to have been more at home in a mature woodland with proper trees.

Treecreeper – where’d you come from?!
On the ground, having given up on our rubbish ‘trees’

The second oddity was a Black-throated Diver that appeared out of the blue on Sand Loch, where it dived elegantly among the regular Mallards and Mute Swans (the swan family having remained in-situ from the summer). While I try to keep the worst excesses of my uber-nerdy birder personality off the pages of this blog, I can’t help myself sometimes, so apologies for what follows. Simply, this was absolute 24-carat ‘patch gold’. Last time I saw one of these on the local patch was over a decade ago. And better still (or worse, depending on your view of me), I was able to leg it home and add it to my ‘garden list’, part of Sand Loch being viewable from our back garden. A truly preposterous ‘garden’ bird. Yes, I know this sort of behaviour is a strange affliction to have, but in all honesty, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. In the insane world of the 21st century, being a bit bonkers about nature isn’t the worst problem to have.

Black-throated Diver on Sand Loch
An absolute patch monster (and colossal ‘garden tick’)

Right, no more about birds this week I promise. I did mention earlier on that there are still some insects on the go, despite the winding-down of the invertebrate world for the year (and despite the prevailing weather too). Most obvious among these are the Red Admiral butterflies that continue to proudly fly the flag for the Lepidoptera, even though most of their congeners are done for the season. Indeed, in a mild autumn these can persist right through into early December before settling down and hibernating for the winter. These strong, athletic flyers, decked out in their bold and distinctive livery, seem to be possessed of a devil-may-care attitude to the turning of the year. We don’t care if the summer’s behind us, we’ll just carry on regardless, whatever the weather might throw at us.

Elements of summer still persisting – Red Admiral
Still looking the part too!

Another insect characteristic of autumn is the Hawthorn Shield Bug. It’s a distinctive and attractive beast, but not showy and obvious in the manner of the Red Admiral. Consequently, unless you actively seek these out, you’re most likely to cross paths with one by happy accident – such as the individual below, who landed on some of our washing during the week. Normally brilliantly camouflaged among the leaves of their favoured Hawthorn or Whitebeam trees, they are somewhat easier to spot on a white cotton background.

Hawthorn Shield Bug is a relatively recent colonist of Scotland, having previously had a more southerly distribution. This may be a result of our warming climate; a similar pattern has been observed in other insects, such as the Cinnabar moth, which first colonised Forvie in 2009. Insects are, by their nature, fast to reproduce and quick to take advantage of new opportunities, and as such they are great indicators of environmental change. And there’s no doubt that we are living in an age of unprecedented change.

Hawthorn Shield Bug – a handsome beast

One of the predicted outcomes of climate change is, ironically, more unpredictable weather. It could be that in future, storm events such as we’ve seen over the past year will become ever more frequent, and both we and our wildlife will need to adapt to this brave new world. Not an easy assignment to say the least, and there will undoubtedly be winners and losers along the way.

Welcome, once again, to the storm season – batten down the hatches.