Ellon high water

Life at Forvie, as we’ve often remarked, is driven by the winds, the weather and the tides. Sometimes the three can act in unison to create something breathtakingly spectacular, and at other times they can combine to create chaos and destruction. Right enough, the past few days have seen examples of each, with high rainfall, big tides and a continuing onshore blow joining forces during a typically capricious November week.

Raining again…

We’ll start off with the chaos then. Heavy and persistent rain in the past week swelled the waters of the River Ythan, causing unusually high flow rates and water levels in the river’s lower reaches. Meanwhile, strong onshore winds caused the flood-tides in the estuary to be higher and more prolonged than usual, effectively ‘damming’ the estuary and preventing the excess water escaping into the sea. The backed-up waters almost completely inundated the island of Inch Geck – to the annoyance of the waterfowl which usually use it as a high-tide roost – and completely covered the saltmarsh next to Waterside car park.

Waterside car park – literally
All that remained of Inch Geck, plus some refugee waterfowl

In the nearby town of Ellon, just upstream from Forvie, the Ythan appeared bank-full as we passed by on the adjacent road mid-week. The net result here was some localised flooding, which unfortunately affected a waste-water treatment plant upstream of the Reserve. This allowed the escape of large numbers of the plant’s little plastic inmates – the ‘biomedia’ used as part of the water filtration process. Needless to say, many of these subsequently ended up washed up along the foreshore, where efforts almost immediately got underway to recover them. Thanks to Scottish Water’s environment team and Lauren from East Grampian Coastal Partnership, literally thousands of the little wagon-wheels were collected within a day or two of the incident. Nice work folks!

Biomedia among the strand-line debris
All over the estuary, prior to clean-up – photo (c) Lauren Smith
Great job, folks – photo (c) Lauren Smith

The same area of the estuary that saw the biomedia clean-up has also been subject to a considerable amount of erosion. High water levels combined with heavy wave action, set up by the onshore blast, served to undercut the dunes by the old lifeboat shed on the Newburgh side of the estuary. A huge amount of sand has been washed away into the river, to be redistributed by water and wind.

Erosion at the former lifeboat slipway
Serious amount of sand shifted

As we know, the elements frequently take with one hand and give with the other, and erosion in one spot is often counterbalanced by deposition in another. Sure enough, on the Forvie side of the estuary, yet more sand was building up at the high point of the Dune Trail, overlooking the ternery – to the point where we’re going to have to consider relocating the signs, or even re-routing the footpath in due course. The joys of working in a dynamic landscape!

That’ll be accumulating then

Following on from last week’s rough seas and foamy mayhem, this week’s continuing high winds brought more of the same. The difference this week was that it was recorded by a competent photographer (reserve manager Catriona) with an actual camera, rather than an eejit (estate worker Daryl) with a ropey mobile phone. Judge for yourselves – either way, Forvie’s coastline was once again an exhilarating place to be.

Waves smashing into Hackley Head
A maelstrom of sea spray
Collieston Pier taking another hammering

Seabirds and other offshore wildlife can tolerate such violent conditions with relative ease in the short term, and it’s only when such rough weather continues for a prolonged period that they begin to get seriously inconvenienced. That’s when they may have to head inshore, in order to seek shelter and rest until things settle down. Therefore it’s at these times that we might be treated to the appearance of species that don’t often occur in Forvie’s inshore waters. A classic example was the Great Northern Diver that appeared on the upper estuary in front of Mark and Catriona during the week, when they were undertaking a routine waterfowl census during a lull in the weather.

Great Northern Diver on the estuary

These mighty waterbirds are the size of a Cormorant, but rather more heavily built, to the point where as youngsters we used to refer to them as ‘battleships’ due to their heavy-set, low-slung profile in the water. The powerful neck and head are surmounted by a dagger-like bill, used for capturing fish during deep and prolonged dives. They breed in the Arctic zones of both Europe and North America, wintering in the northern temperate zone, and in North America they go by the name of Common Loon, the name deriving from the loud, haunting and slightly maniacal wailing to which they sometimes give voice. Recordings of these birds were often used for sound effects in mid-20th-Century horror films!

I recall once speaking to someone who had rescued a Great Northern Diver that had crash-landed in a built-up area during a storm. Having been summoned to assist, and collected the errant diver, he took the bird into a nearby building in order to quietly check it over for injury before releasing it back at the coast. While he was checking the bird over, it gave vent to the ‘loon call’ at full volume in the confines of the room in which he was working. Apparently this caused every hair on the back of his neck to stand up – and that’s the repeatable bit of the story.

A voice that could cut cloots

The word ‘capricious’ was used in my opening gambit to describe the last week, and for good reason. Between the bouts of violently rough weather and heavy rain, we actually experienced a couple of very still, cold and frosty nights – an extraordinary contrast to the days in between. Often the early morning was the best part of the day, but it invariably didn’t last. By mid-morning things had often changed so much you could be forgiven for thinking it was a different day, or indeed season. But it was beautiful while it lasted.

A heavy frost
Spiders’ webs picked out in ice crystals
Frosted Hogweed stems
Teasels likewise
OK, Catriona’s getting clever with the camera here…
Then back to this by mid-morning!

In all honesty we could probably do with quite a bit more rain yet, in order to restore the water-table following the drought summer of 2022 (which followed on from the drought year of 2021). But not all at once, please; too many more weeks like this one and we’ll have to see about building ourselves an ark. Thank you.