Rainbows and running repairs

Following the previous week’s gales, life at Forvie this week settled into a more typical autumn medley of sunshine and rain, mild days and occasional sharp mornings. Typical in the sense that no two autumn days here are quite the same – meaning that each morning, dressing appropriately for the day ahead required a fair bit of guesswork. But if you succeeded in avoiding the squalls and showers, it was a fine week to be out and about.

A spectrum over the grass heath

The mix of sunshine and rain occasionally conspired to produce a decent rainbow, though this is always inexplicably tough to capture in a photo. Getting a reasonable picture of a rainbow is right up there in the difficulty stakes with finding the associated pot of gold. So far in my lifetime I have managed to achieve neither.

Rainbow over the Forvie Centre
Pot of gold presumably locked in Mark’s van

These big autumn skies are the perfect backdrop for the great flocks of waterfowl that characterise the season. A long, straggling skein of Pink-footed Geese against the lilac-blue of a morning sky makes for a fine sight, and is enhanced considerably by the backing-track of distant goose music – chatty, conversational babble from small flocks, and a roar of white noise from the really big aggregations. This really is the sound of the east coast in autumn and winter. Of all the seasonal wildlife, of all the species that come and go throughout the year here, it’s probably the geese whose absence is most keenly felt when they’re away in their distant breeding grounds. But this probably serves to make us appreciate them all the more when they return to our shores each autumn.

Morning flight
Pink-footed Geese – evocative sights and sounds

It’s not just the geese that have been on the move lately. Whooper Swans have also been very much in evidence, and like the geese, their loud and far-carrying voices are often the first thing to give away their presence. Spotting them can sometimes be surprisingly difficult, given that they’re six feet long, seven feet across and white – but they blend in with the cloud remarkably effectively, their plumage appearing almost translucent against the light. However, once they drop below the horizon, they’re practically unmissable.

Migrating Whooper Swans – translucent against the light sky…
Unmissable at low level though!

The constant westerly airflow over the past two weeks has brought the migration of smaller birds to an almost complete standstill. A few hardy little souls do continue to pass through, such as this Chiffchaff which spent a few days with us, presumably waiting for the wind to change to a more favourable direction for its onward journey south-west.

Chiffchaff lurking in the autumn leaves

The recent high winds also led to some high seas, with rough conditions along our coastline continuing even after the gales had abated. The churning waters associated with autumn and winter storms can occasionally throw ashore some interesting sea life that we don’t often get the chance to see. Last week, there was a notable ‘wreck’ of Common Starfish and various comb jellies on the beach at Newburgh, testament to the strength of wind and swell over the preceding days.

Wind and waves
Sea life washed ashore (photo R. Woods)
Starfish of all shapes and sizes (photo R. Woods)

Rough sea conditions also tend to result in large amounts of kelp and other deeper-water seaweeds washing up. The most commonly encountered of these is Oarweed, which comprises a single thick stalk from which a series of flat, strap-like fronds radiate, rather like a flattened palm tree. This can be foraged for culinary purposes, its uses including seasoning and thickening soups and stews, as well as being oven-dried or shallow-fried (careful though, as it tends to be quite explosive in the frying-pan) to make a very salty (but relatively healthy) alternative to potato crisps. But be sure and check anything you take home before you leave the beach – it may contain stowaways such as the Blue-rayed Limpet that we found during the Edible & Medicinal Plants event earlier in the year!

Blue-rayed Limpet

Changing tack somewhat, but staying broadly on the topic of wee craiturs, we were pleased to note a few caterpillars still in evidence on the Reserve lately. Possibly the most numerous of these at the moment are those of the Ruby Tiger moth, which can often be seen motoring their way along or across the footpaths. These are small and distinctively fuzzy caterpillars, but they do show a degree of variation in their appearance. Most are of a ginger-blonde ‘Highland coo’ shade, though some are a little darker and are more of a mahogany colour.

Ruby Tiger caterpillar – a ginger one…
…and a mahogany one

Other species are altogether more spectacular though. Surely one of the weirdest and most wonderful is the caterpillar of the Grey Dagger moth. While the adult moth may be grey, the larva is an absolute riot of loud colours and markings. We found this one munching away on the leaves of a willow thicket out on the moor.

Grey Dagger caterpillar. What a beast.

Finally, the ‘running repairs’ caveat in this week’s title refers to all the maintenance and patch-up jobs that we get up to at this time of the year, now that the full-throttle mayhem of summer is behind us. A while ago, we reported upon yet more vandalism at Waulkmill bird hide, involving a broken window among other delights. This week, at last, we found the time to get a new window manufactured and fitted. The result is a credit to Mark, who has been honing his joinery skills during his apprenticeship here at Forvie.

The old shattered pane…
…and the broken frame
New frame fitted
I can see clearly now!

Well done fella – you can do the next one without any assistance from me! Here’s hoping we won’t need to replace any more windows any time soon though; we’ve enough to do here without folk making extra work for us. But as we know, life at Forvie isn’t all rare birds and rainbows…