The Bleak Midwinter?

Just now, we are in the heart of the darkness. This is the darkest month, with very few hours of daylight every day, and long nights that begin before you get home from work, then don’t end until you are at work again the next day. Some people struggle in the winter because of the lack of light, and there’s no doubt that it is an even greater struggle for wildlife, with cold temperatures draining body heat and a lack of food. So it’s very easy to think of winter as something negative – the bleak midwinter – cold, damp, dark, with nothing to recommend it. But that’s not true, and winter can provide us with some real wildlife spectacles, not to mention some beautiful crisp days. Let’s have a look at some of the good things about winter here at Forvie.

Frosty view over the reserve

One of the first things to say about Forvie is, as a coastal reserve, we don’t actually get a lot of frost and ice, certainly not compared with inland. It is a source of extreme annoyance and frustration for the local kids – most of the country is off on a snow day, and they aren’t. And they can barely find enough snow to run a sledge down the favoured slope in one of the neighbouring fields (though it’s quite handy, as you’ll find your car scraped clean, in a desperate attempt to find enough snow to make a snowball or mini-snowman!). But it is not uncommon for our sister reserve at Muir of Dinnet to look like this….

Snow at Burn o’ Vat

….while we look like this… a smattering of snow, mostly blown into hollows or ruts in the track.

Light snow

Because Forvie – and other coastal sites – often remain frost-free, they are a haven for wildlife in the winter. The estuarine mud very rarely freezes – the salt and twice-daily tidal movement take care of that – and the estuary is a food-rich haven for wading birds. These birds really struggle with frozen ground. When getting your dinner is dependent upon being able to stick your beak into the mud or soil, you will go hungry if the ground freezes hard. So, move to the coast and you can solve that problem.

Redshank in flight
Estuary birds

We also often see high numbers of ducks during hard weather. These get ‘frozen off’ inland water and they, too, come to the coast where they can use the estuary and river for feeding and roosting. Our highest counts of Teal are always during harsh weather and we get the odd treat, like a small party of Pintail arriving too.

Teal
Pintail

The short days can bring their bonuses as well. If nothing else, it means that sunrises and sunsets happen at a time of day that you see them. The cold makes the winter air especially clear and the sun is low, and this makes for some gorgeous pink and gold dawns and dusks.

Pink & orange sunset

We also have the joys of the evening flight, where the geese scribble patterns across the sunset sky.

Evening flight

It’s even worth getting out after dark. Thanks to a fair bit of ambient light locally, we don’t have the best dark skies in the country, but you can still see the stars above, and, thanks to a number of apps, it’s now easy enough to identify the constellations. Start with the easy ones: the Plough, like a giant ladle, or Orion, the hunter. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even catch a glimmer of the aurora to the north.

Aurora borealis

Mind you, that’s not to say we don’t get hard weather here. Often it’s the wind that gives you a hard time, blowing salt in off the sea or just plain wrecking things. It’s not uncommon to get 60mph-plus winds here and, while we don’t have many trees to blow over, rough seas can make it hard for seabirds to feed and we occasionally see ‘wrecks’ of auks and other birds on the coasts after storms.

Dead Guillemot

And that isn’t to say we don’t occasionally get proper frosts and snow. Often, these are accompanied by strong winds, meaning white-out conditions and drifts. During the ‘Beast from the East’ the snow was too deeply-drifted to walk the path from the village to the office.

Snow drifting
Wind-blown frost

The cold, dry snow on that occasion also managed to blow in under the eaves of the workshop, and coated everything in a fine powder of snow. We’ve never seen this happen before or since…but that was an exceptional storm.

Snow in the workshop

When the worst of the weather blows through, the snow makes everything utterly beautiful. I often think snow hides the scars that we have put upon the land and, for a short period, everything is sparkling, pristine and clean.

Snow on fences

While the big skies let you see where and when the next dump of snow is coming. Snow clouds always seem to have a special, intense sort of pink colour in the low sun…or maybe they just look exceptionally vivid against the white ground.

Snow clouds
Snowstorm over Aberdeen to the south

One of the other appealing things about cold winter days (and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this) is that there are fewer people around. While it’s great that so many people want to come to the countryside, a lot of people do so to clear their heads and often that means solitude and peace and open spaces. So it can be a time to find yourself again after the endless bustle and daylight of summer. We, on the reserves, enjoy winter – it’s a chance to get caught up from the non-stop activity and stress that summer brings. And we know we’re not alone in enjoying the peace – folk from the local village often remark that it’s much nicer when the tourist season winds down.

A storm brewing …and not a soul around.

So, if you know where and how to look, winter needn’t be bleak. It is what it is, just one of the seasons that make our nature what it is. So, wrap up warm and get out there!

Ice at Hackley Bay