Please dress appropriately

One of the highlights of the working year at Forvie in 2022 has been the resumption, after the long coronavirus lay-off, of public-facing work such as environmental education and public events. We began to pick these duties up again about a year ago, and have carried them on throughout 2022, with a packed summer events programme in addition to visits from various school, university and special interest groups. Even in the dark dog days of November this work continues, and on Thursday we welcomed students and staff from the University of Aberdeen for a day’s fieldwork on the estuary.

A typical Forvie field trip, in a gale

The down side of organising a field trip in November is that the weather on the day can be a bit of a lottery. This particular excursion was actually due to have taken place the previous week, but the forecast was absolutely dreadful for the day in question, so it was accordingly postponed. Unfortunately, the replacement day was even worse, with onshore gales, torrential rain and vicious windchill. ‘Please wear appropriate clothing’ is the usual instruction prior to a field trip, but there was little anybody could do to alleviate these conditions.

Last year’s field trip, on a much more clement day

Huge respect to the students and demonstrators though, who did their best and remained in surprisingly good spirits while getting comprehensively battered by the elements. For these trainee field biologists, it probably in fact provided some useful practice for a career working in the outdoors, usually in the worst weather going. We wish you all well in your studies and future careers, and hope that this experience hasn’t put you off Forvie for life!

While everyone survived the field trip unscathed – if painfully cold and wet – the same couldn’t be said of all our equipment. Sad to report that my faithful field notebook won’t ever be quite the same again. Off to the stationery cupboard for a new one methinks.

Farewell old friend

The following day, conditions worsened further still. This time I had a day’s desk-based work to keep me entertained (really the wrong word), but not before getting out and about to take some photos of the storm at large. A booming easterly gale, with windspeeds approaching 70mph and squalls of rain into the bargain, was tearing in off the North Sea. Looking southwards down the coast, the cliffs and stacks of North Forvie stood grimly against an onslaught of crashing waves and roiling foam. If you could keep your feet, this was an awe-inspiring day to be out on the coast.

Looking south past the Poor Man towards Hackley Bay

The village of Collieston, bordering the Reserve at its north-eastern extreme, was similarly spectacular. Here, with objects such as houses and cars to give a sense of scale, the ferocity of sea and wind combined can be better appreciated.

Wave approaching Collieston pier…
Breaking over the top…
What pier?!
Best keep the Velux windows shut
Boom!

During a big onshore blow like this one, the Reserve and village are often treated to a visit from the Foam Monster. This roguish and loveable creature, who usually lives a quiet and unobtrusive life down in Davy Jones’s locker, gets woken up by onshore winds and heavy seas, and comes ashore to create mayhem for a while. Like a toddler with a can of squirty cream, the Foam Monster liberally covers the coast with a thick layer of white spume, totally transforming the familiar landscape into something other-worldly.

There’s a beach under there somewhere

Sure enough, parts of Collieston were neck-deep in foam (and certain houses rendered inaccessible by it), while the wind whipped the foam up and carried great gobbets of the stuff a considerable distance inland. It made for a remarkable scene, with certain parts of our coastline resembling a giant snow-globe, except the individual ‘snowflakes’ were football-sized lumps of foam.

Foam blowing up over the village
A giant salty snow-globe

Mythical sea-monsters aside, sea foam is actually formed from organic compounds arising from the decomposition of algae and plankton. These compounds – proteins, lipids and carbohydrates – serve to trap air when the seawater is agitated by wind and wave action, thereby generating bubbles in much the same way as the soap-suds in your bathwater. The result is a persistent, sticky and prodigiously salty froth, which at times can look as attractive as fresh snow – but I really wouldn’t recommend trying to make ‘foam angels’ in it.

Foam Monster ahoy

How can any of our wildlife can survive conditions like these? This is another one of those everyday miracles with which nature continues to amaze us. Even when the wind and swell were at their worst, we continued to see Kittiwakes and Little Gulls fighting their way up the coast, and even dipping delicately into the raging waters to snatch the occasional morsel of food. Meanwhile, down at the mouth of the estuary, the Grey Seals were also doing their best to remain upright when coming ashore in the heavy surf. Occasionally, one would get rolled right over, before righting itself and exiting the water, presumably looking around to check that none of its contemporaries had noticed its undignified arrival onshore. But these are creatures quite used to tough conditions – and they’re always dressed appropriately of course.

Hope nobody saw my epic fail…

Even more remarkably, the movement of small songbirds has also continued in what would appear to be suicidal conditions for migration. But a trickle of Redwings and Blackbirds continue to make landfall, while Catriona also spotted a suspiciously-pale-looking Chiffchaff in the bushes at Sand Loch. Based on its appearance, this individual may have come from as far afield as Siberia, though the viewing conditions were too poor to get a decent look at it (never mind hear its call, which is one of the key ID features for sorting out your Siberian Chiffchaff from your European one). How this tiny scrap of life made landfall in this weather really does defy belief – likewise the fact that Catriona actually managed to snap a photo of it!

Chiffchaff – probably from a long way east of here!

While on the subject of Siberian wanderers, we’ll finish up this week with a light-hearted note about another small bird on an epic journey. The weekend before the storms set in, I popped out of the house and down to the bin with some recycling, only to hear an unfamiliar bird call emanating from the willow hedge along the side of the garden. Tyeck, tyeck, tyeck… not a Wren or a Blackcap… tyeck, tyeck… still not sure, better check this out… !?£%$*?!, a Dusky Warbler! Tiny and unassuming, but with a big voice, these nest in Siberia and usually spend the winter in south-east Asia, yet this one had found its way to Collieston… and thence onto the Reserve, where it settled in the willow scrub at Sand Loch for a while. Just the fifth-ever record of this species for north-east Scotland, this proved once again that if you keep your eyes and ears open, you never quite know what will come your way. And that we’re remarkably blessed with avian diversity here at Forvie.

Dusky Warbler – bona-fide Siberian whopper

Anyway, this fits with the ‘please dress appropriately’ theme for this week’s blog quite neatly. Upon my legging it back into the house, and spluttering incoherently about a Dusky Warbler in the hedge outside, my wife entered the familiar state of blind panic that accompanies the occurrence of a rarity for which you’re totally unprepared. In her haste to get outside and see it before it disappeared, she proceeded to put her boots on the wrong feet – but was nevertheless soon enjoying great views of a species she’d never seen before. Appropriate dress for a rare bird? Anything goes.