What a heap of rubbish.

As anybody who lives by the coast will testify, the sea is an exceptionally rich source of litter. We, as a species, have long used our oceans and seas as a dumping ground for our waste, which doesn’t exactly reflect well upon us as chief custodians of our planet. At the same time, our litter also finds its way into rivers and inland watercourses – whether accidentally or deliberately – and this ultimately ends up in the sea as well. With all this anthropogenic detritus sloshing around the world’s oceans, it’s hardly surprising that a proportion of it ends up getting washed back ashore, making for a sad and sorry sight on our beaches.

A typical haul of beach litter at Forvie

It’s a huge, global problem – but nevertheless, we at Forvie try to ‘do our bit’ and keep on top of marine litter on our own patch. We have several miles of glorious sandy beach and sheltered estuary foreshore in our care here, in addition to the secluded coves and pebble beaches north of Rockend, all of which accumulate rubbish in quantity. Keeping everything spotless would be a full-time job in itself, as every high tide brings with it a fresh delivery of flotsam and jetsam.

A full-time job

We’re really fortunate, therefore, that we get so much help with this task. Not least from the residents of Collieston and Newburgh, who diligently – and at times bloody-mindedly – take it upon themselves to keep their local patch clean and tidy, as a matter of personal pride. Some individuals, out for their daily walk, may pocket a few small items of litter to take home, while others determinedly haul rubbish up the cliffs from remote coves, and either carry it home or leave it in a convenient place for us to collect with the pickup truck. Others mobilise their friends, family or perhaps a sports team, kayak club or scout group, and go out mob-handed. The amount of work these unpaid and unheralded heroes do is truly impressive, and we’re more grateful than any of you could ever know.

Uplifting beach rubbish collected on the Reserve by residents of Collieston…
…while the local kayak club collected this lot from the estuary!

Last week, we undertook a beach clean of our own, in conjunction with Lauren from East Grampian Coastal Partnership via the ‘Turning the Plastic Tide’ project. Lauren provided the gloves, bags and litter-pickers required for the job, as well as crucially arranging for the waste to be uplifted from Waterside car park – as always, our biggest problem is how to dispose of the litter, rather than how to physically remove it from the beach. In return, we provided tea and biccies, and helping hands in the form of Reserve staff and volunteers.

Some of the happy beach-cleaners

Unfortunately we couldn’t do anything about the weather on the day which, perhaps appropriately, was utter rubbish during the morning. But for those hardy souls who did turn out, it eventually cleared into a beautiful autumn afternoon, and a fine truck-load of marine litter was successfully removed from Forvie beach.

Lifting beach litter, in a typical Forvie gale
Weather starting to clear
Enjoying a well-earned brew
Unloading some of the spoils at Waterside

When beach-cleaning, you’re never quite sure what you might find, and previous outings have turned up some weird and wonderful finds. We didn’t find anything especially interesting, bizarre or disgusting this time, but the most notable item had to be this trawl-net float encrusted with the biggest barnacles any of us had ever seen.

Blistering barnacles, look at the size of those

We’re not sure what species these are; they may just be exceptionally large and mature Rough Barnacles (scientific name Balanus balanus, a common and widespread species), or they could be a non-native species from warmer waters, having hitched a ride on drifting fishing-gear. If anyone out there knows their barnacles, please get in touch with us! Either way, they were certainly an impressive sight, given that the barnacles we’re used to seeing on the rocks here are barely fingernail-sized.

Michty me!

Mercifully and surprisingly, given the year we’ve had with avian flu, we only found a couple of dead birds washed ashore during the beach clean. One was a Guillemot, which we commonly encounter in these circumstances throughout the year, and could have succumbed to avian flu or a dozen other causes besides. The second was a Redwing, thousands of which had made landfall from Scandinavia the previous week; this one was a sad reminder of the dangers of a migratory life strategy. The crossing of the North Sea is a stiff test for a bird that cannot land on the water for a rest, and it’s a test that not every individual will pass.

Redwing – one that didn’t make it

We’re now on high alert for avian flu once again, with the geese having returned to our region for the winter. Will there be a mass die-off like last winter, or will the epidemic have subsided? On Friday morning we carried out a reconnaissance mission to the south shore of the estuary, but didn’t find the droves of dead birds that we’d feared – so it’s a case of so far, so good! Unfortunately for us though, our visit coincided with another spell of heavy rain, and in such an exposed environment as the open estuary, we were all soon comprehensively soaked. The underfoot conditions of greasy grass, slimy seaweed and slippery rocks were challenging to boot, but luckily none of us ended up flat on our face in the sticky, cloying estuarine mud.

A grim morning indeed

On the plus side though, we did have a close encounter with a large flock of Dunlin, one of Forvie’s commonest and smallest wader species. These were feeding contentedly on the mudflats, quite unconcerned by our presence, allowing us to view them from just three or four metres away while they went about their business. It was a lovely experience to watch them pottering about at such close quarters, and to hear the quiet conversational chatter from the flock that you’re not able to hear at ‘normal’ viewing distance. And best of all, they came to us, and not the other way around. An encounter with wildlife on its own terms is always the most enjoyable kind of encounter – knowing that you haven’t disturbed or affected the behaviour of the creatures you’re watching. And this encounter certainly made up for the soaking we received.

Dunlin at point blank range
The Dunlin flock doing their thing
Gotta love a close encounter with wildlife!

With October now drawing to a close, and the clocks shifting back an hour, sunset has been brought forward to the end of our working day. While this sadly means no more gardening or spotting after work, it does present us with some good photo opportunities.

Sand Loch at an October dusk

As we’ve said before, ours is a particularly photogenic landscape at sunset and sunrise, and late autumn is a fine season to make the most of it. The view over Sand Loch on Wednesday was particularly enjoyable, after the day’s beach-cleaning efforts. Fair to say the week wasn’t all a load of rubbish.