Little Tern – a species on the edge

This week’s blog is a guest blog and comes from local wildlife enthusiast and photographer, Ron Macdonald. It features intimate and breath-taking photos of the terns themselves, as well as Ron’s 40-plus years experience of the natural world and is a fascinating read.

Terns are my favourite seabirds and, of the four species that breed on Forvie NNR (Sandwich, Common, Arctic and Little), the Little tern is the one that tops my list. The bird’s good looks, its dainty flight and ability to pirouette mid-air to then dive headlong into the sea is very much part of my summer enjoyment at the Ythan estuary. I simply can’t get enough of watching & photographing them! In addition to being very photogenic, their behaviour is interesting to watch which I’ll try to illustrate in this blog. Finally, as suggested in the second part of the title, I’ll discuss why breeding numbers are trending downwards in Scotland and the efforts made at Forvie and elsewhere to halt the decline.

A Little Tern rising from the estuary after an unsuccessful dive

Little terns return from their West African wintering ground from mid-April onward and immediately start pairing up. The outer sand banks of the Ythan estuary, exposed at low tide, are where they gather and which I call their ‘courting club’. Typically, female birds await to be be courtship fed by the males or if they get impatient pursuing the males high up over the estuary to demand to be fed. Sometimes the female will take the fish offering from the male but then aggressively turn on him. I’ve also seen a courting pair joined by a third bird which I’ve taken to be a female bird ever hopeful of a free feed but that’s just conjecture.

Playing hard to get! A male tempts a prospective mate with a wee fishie but she’s not interested
A pair bond being cemented by the gift of a sand eel.
A female chasing the male high above the Ythan estuary
Or perhaps two competing males fighting?
A female demanding to be fed
And after being fed showing the male the door! Maybe it wasn’t her bonded mate? So many questions and so few answers!
I sometimes saw the terns performing elaborate moves as if they were dancing or in this case playing at leap-frog!
A pair displaying to each other
A Little tern displaying to its mate by making a heart shape out of water droplets. Honestly!

Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Two females vie for the gift of a sand eel. He doesn’t look as if he’s going to give it to either of them!

A female swallowing the sand eel provided by her mate
And the birds then mating
Little terns in a sand storm
Three Little terns and two Common terns in the midst of a sand storm raging across the estuary.

The Ups and mostly Downs of Breeding Little Terns in the UK

The long term UK trend for the Little tern is downward and nowadays its estimated that there are less than 2000 breeding pairs as shown in the graph below from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) Little tern species account. Between 1985 and 2000 there has been a long-term decline in the UK with little tern numbers down by 38%.  More recently between 2000 and 2015 the trend is -18%.

The Index of Abundance of the Little tern from 1986-2020 in the UK. Dotted lines show the 95% confidence limit. From the JNCC Little tern Species Report https://jncc.gov.uk/our-work/little-tern-sternula-albifrons/

The Scottish little tern population increased between Operation Seafarer (1968-1970) and the Seabird Colony Register (1969 -1998) but had fallen again by the Seabird 2000 census. The overall trend has been gradually decreasing since monitoring began and has remained below the baseline since 1989. However, as the confidence limits are wide, the trend should be interpreted with caution. In 2019, the index was 48% below the baseline (JNCC Little Tern Species report)

The Index of Abundance of the Little tern from 1986-2020 in Scotland. Dotted lines show the 95% confidence limits. Taken from the JNCC Little tern species account.

The trend at Forvie NNR, as shown in the table below, from 2007 to 2022 is somewhat different in that the maximum breeding pairs were present in 2013 and 2014, breeding seasons which produced good numbers of fledged young.

Year` Number of breeding pairs Number of young fledged

2007 20 1

2008 21 8

2009 37 73

2010 37 17

2011 31 34

2012 27 3

2013 40 42

2014 42 74

2015 19 0

2016 0 0

2017 5 0

2018 26 13

2019 28 0

2020 25 0

2021 25 2

2022 10 17

Key drivers affecting breeding success at Forvie NNR

Little terns prefer to nest in open or shingle beaches with little vegetation. They are often located below the Mean High Water Mean Spring (MHWS) tide limit so are prone to flooding during Spring tides. In addition, Little terns often nest on beaches popular with the public so disturbance by people and dogs can be significant without the areas being roped off and safeguarded by wardens to advise people of the risk to the birds.

At Forvie the Little terns breed on raised shingle terraces above MHWS so are safe from flooding. In addition, the area is closed to the general public from 1 April – 31 August thereby avoiding disturbance by visitors to the Reserve.

The principal threat at Forvie is predation by foxes and other bird species. To combat the threat by foxes the NatureScot Forvie team each year fence off a large area of shingle and low lying sandy areas which allows all four tern species and the large colony of Black-headed gulls to nest in relative safety. However foxes being foxes they do occasionally take some eggs and birds, probably from birds nesting outwith the fenced area.

A Red fox passing the fenced ternary on Forvie NNR with a young Black headed gull in its jaws. June 2022.

Whereas the fenced area is in the main effective against predation by foxes, aerial bird predators can and do access the ternery. For example from 2015 – 2017 and from 2019 -2020 there were no fledged young produced and the reason only came to light when footage from a camera trap revealed that oystercatchers nesting within the ternery were eating the Little tern eggs. It usually occurred when the terns performed dreads, lifting off en masse from the colony which allowed the Oystercatchers to nip in and eat the eggs before the terns returned

An oystercatcher about to eat a Little tern egg as captured by a NatureScot camera trap

In 2022 it was the turn of Black-headed gulls to predate the eggs. All first clutches of the Little terns that laid eggs were eaten by a Black-headed gull or gulls. Often it is the same individual Oystercatcher or Black headed gull that specialises in predating the eggs. Fortunately the Little terns relaid with 17 chicks fledged from 10 pairs. So what initially looked to be a fourth blank season in a row turned out to be a relatively successful one, much to the relief of the NatureScot staff who work so hard at safeguarding all four species of terns as well as the ,large colony of Black-headed gulls.

A newly hatched Little tern chick on Forvie NNR

What Future for the Little Tern in Scotland?

In June 2022 The National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded NatureScot £4.2 million funding for their Species on the Edge Project. The funding will support urgent action to help save 37 of Scotland’s most vulnerable coastal and island species, including Little tern. RSPB Scotland is leading efforts to protect and enhance the Little tern, concentrating early efforts on the small isolated Little tern colonies on the Scottish islands, engaging local communities to become involved in their long term protection.

On Forvie NNR, NatureScot staff have tried measures such as hand painted plaster cast models of Little terns to nest within the fenced area and tern shelters to provid protection for the chicks from avian predators. All these efforts have had limited, if any, success. The key is dissuading or preventing potential avian predators. NatureScot staff continue to explore ways to safeguard the colony from predation.

Hard Graft and High Excitement

Hard graft and high excitement. We’ve had a decent dose of both and it’s a nice mixture – the excitement energises you for the graft behind and ahead. We’ve been working hard this week as the summer is over – for us at least – as all the terns have departed the breeding colony and the fence that has protected them from ground predators all summer can come down. And that’s a big job, at least 3 days work for 4 or 5 people, lugging heavy batteries, posts, rolls of wire and various other sundries that make up 1 kilometre of fencing. Oh, and you’re carrying it over soft sand too, so that’s a bit of extra lactic acid for the legs!

Fence coming down

We’re always very grateful for the volunteers who help us, both putting the fence out and taking it in. We genuinely couldn’t do it without you and there are birds flying around the world right now that wouldn’t have bred here if it wasn’t for you …so thank you. It’s always a relief when all the truck is packed and ready to roll.

All packed up and ready to roll!

But it’s worth it – the birds have had a good year (more of that in a later blog) and we’re a net exporter of at least Sandwich terns to the rest of the North Sea.

Sandwich terns with fledged young on beach – ready for export!

And we were rather rewarded for our hard work by a lovely view of some bottlenose dolphins on the Monday. The seas was flat-calm – one of those days you feel like you could see to Norway -and there must have been mackerel or herring shoals running offshore, as the sea was black with seabirds. It was heartening to see so many birds out there, feeding on the fish, even though there were notably few gannets and we saw more Arctic skuas than bonxies, for the first time ever. But, in amongst the riot of bird life, something else surfaced…was that a fin?

Is that a fin?

Yes, it was! A brief view of a fin was soon accompanied by a lot of splashing and even animals jumping right out of the water as the dolphins took their share of the fish. Sadly, I never caught that on camera but we watched, entranced, as they slowly drifted north past the reserve. Okay, it’s not quite a humpback whale like St Cyrus had, but we were pretty pleased to see them nonetheless!

Dolphins
Dolphin
Dolphins off Forvie

But enough of the hard graft – let’s move onto the high excitement! As one of the authors of this blog is always saying, when there’s a hint of east in the wind in spring or autumn, it’s game on for migrant birds. And there have been a steady trickle of them this week, with whitethroats and willow warblers flitting after insects in the scrub. But the first ‘rare’ of the week wasn’t something small skulking around the bushes, as it so often is, it was a marsh harrier drifting lazily over the barley fields. These raptors are becoming increasingly common is Scotland and have bred at Loch of Strathbeg in recent years, so we keep hoping a pair might use the reedbeds here.

Marsh Harrier

Our next ‘rare’ was a wading bird, one of the most elegant, the iconic RSPB-logo avocet. These are more-or-less annual here, with one or two appearing on the estuary every year, overshoots from breeding and wintering grounds further south. If you’ve never seen an avocet before, they look a bit exotic and bizarre, with their upturned beak and a side-to-side sweep of the head as they feed. I saw my first ones aged 13 at Minsmere and, to quote Simon Barnes, it felt like ‘looking onto a field of unicorns’ – these were birds I’d only ever read about and could scarcely believe I was seeing. That magic’s never really gone away, and it’s somehow extra-special seeing one on your own patch.

Avocet
Avocet sweep feeding

But that wasn’t the big excitement of the week. I was in the office on Tuesday morning, halfway through pulling on my boots, when the phone rang. An almost inarticulate Daryl was yelling down the phone but I caught the words ‘ grab binoculars’, ‘flying south’ and ‘bee-eater’ ….surely not!!! So, laces trailing, legged it out front, and started scanning. Where was it? I can see Daryl, about 500m away, but he’s a helluva bigger than a bee-eater, so where’s he looking? Just with that, the mobile rang and the next minute descended into comedy chaos, with us yelling things at each other and neither really listening …’I’m on it, flying right over Cluny’s’ …’my right or your right?’…’being mobbed by m’ipits’…’got it…OH MY GOD!!!!!’ (Please note this is a heavily edited version so’s we both still have jobs). Even from the office I could see it catching insects, swooping like a swallow, and eventually putting down on the power lines at the south end of Collieston. One sprint and a quick record shot later it was off, heading south again to where it should be, and we could get our collective breath back. What a thing to see over your reserve!

Bee-eater on Collieston phone lines.

This was a European bee-eater and they are generally birds of the Mediterranean area. I last saw in Corfu and, like here, the easiest way to locate them is their distinctive and carrying ‘proop-proop’ call. But they are moving north, probably as a result of climate change and a pair bred in Norfolk this year. While I don’t think they’ll ever be regular visitors here, this bird was a real taste of the exotic and a total yahoo in terms of rarity. While the record shot was just a silhouette, this picture (taken in Bulgaria) give an idea of just how colourful these birds are.

Technicolour mayhem…a beautiful Bee-eater.

Speaking of technicolour, we’ll leave you this week with a couple of shots of the butterflies feeding on the heather here. As Daryl said in his last blog, it’s heather season and the moor is gloriously purple ….and all those lovely, nectar-rich heather flowers are a massive food source for butterflies and other insects. The moor is a-buzz with bees and peacock and red admiral butterflies seem to be everywhere. The peacock is almost the insect equivalent of the bee-eater – too colourful and prefect to be real!

Peacock and red admiral feeding on heather
Peacock butterfly

Blooming July

Well, that’s the first week in July over. I don’t know where the year is going, it seems to be rattling past at a rate of knots. At this time of year, the passing days are marked by the seemingly endless procession of wildflowers coming into bloom and the reserve arguably looks at its best right now, with every path lined with flowers.

Bird’s foot trefoil

These are great for butterflies. Lots of nectar to feed on and they are the favoured food plant of the beautiful dusky-blue common blue butterfly.

Common blue butterfly

One plant that loves path edges, doing well on the short grass caused by the trampling of many feet, is the wild thyme. Its purple flowers are beloved of bees and celebrated in song – though I don’t really think ours qualifies as ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’!

Thyme

Scattered in amongst the thyme and through the grass are other tiny white flowers. These are eyebrights, so called as they were used as soothing eyewashes in the past. I don’t think there is any medical evidence for this, but they are hemi-parasites on grass roots, stealing some of their nutrients and helping to keep the grass short.

Thyme and eyebright.

Also prevalent along path edges, the sweet-smelling lady’s bedstraw was one used to stuff mattresses as its scent acted as a flea repellant. It was also used to make red and yellow dyes and flavour alcoholic drinks! Now we just appreciate it for its beauty.

Lady’s bedstraw

And the hawkbits are forming yellow meadows in some of the dune slacks. Now, I’ll freely admit I’m not very good at telling these apart, going with descriptions like ‘yellow things’ or ‘the ones that look like dandelions but aren’t’! The ‘hawk’ in their name comes from an old story that hawks ate them to gain visual acuity – not true, obviously, but a hawk’s eye is yellow like the flowers, so that’s where the myth originated. But forget about hawks, the bees love them and they are yet another important plant for pollinators here.

Hawkbits
Bee on hawkbit

Another plant much- beloved by the insects – but much-hated by gardeners – is the creeping thistle. Out on the dunes, a small patch no more than 10m square held over 50 dark green fritillary butterflies.

Dark green ‘frits’ on creeping thistle

Look closely and you can tell the male and female butterflies apart: he is bright orange, while she carries much more black upon her wings. As with most creatures, he seeks to impress, while she is trying not to get eaten!

Male dark green fritillary
Female dark green fritillary

Away from the flowers, we see the summer move on as our terns finally start to leave the colony. With avian ‘flu being an ever-present threat, we are desperate to see them fly and disperse, so it’s wonderful to see them gathering on the beach prior to migrating away from the colony. These Sandwich terns are the first terns to leave, and we wish them well on their travels. They will hopefully play an important role in helping rebuild their population, which, elsewhere, has been devastated by bird flu.

Sandwich terns with fledged young on beach (although some appear ill, they’re mercifully not – they’re just spread out on the sand to cool down, as it was very hot when the picture was taken!)

But the Arctic and common terns still have a way go until they fledge. The first to go should be within the next week, but it’ll be nearer the end on the month until they are all done. In the meantime, we will maintain their predator-proof fence and hope for the best. They, on the other hand, wish we would naff and die, and make this quite clear with a succession of swoops, pecks and a lot of tern swearing!

Arctic tern – you’ve been spotted…
…attacking out of the sun, like a fighter pilot…
…INCOMING!!!

But we forgive them because, after all, they are one of the most beautiful birds in the world. Well, we think so anyway!

Arctic tern

Fingers crossed for another three or four disease-free weeks, to give these fabulous birds the chance to fledge their young and disperse into the wider world. Now that would be a blooming relief for us all.

All Things Being Equal…

Let’s talk about equality. Last month was, after all, Pride month, and many people in the world are still struggling to achieve equality, based on gender or their preferences in who they love. And there isn’t a formula, we just are who we are, and as long as we’re nice, where’s the problem? After all, there is a slime mould, of all things, that has (we think) 720 different genders. So the world isn’t built in black and white, rather in all sorts of wonderful colours and variety. But this blog isn’t really about this, it’s more about how we perceive stuff around us, and the value we give it.

An orange slime mould

There is a famous George Orwell quote ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. Working with both animals and people, this rings very, and sometimes depressingly, true. Take midgies for example. I do not love them, they make my summer an itchy misery. But just because I don’t like them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Without insects like these, we wouldn’t have swallows, or bats, or fish (that eat the larvae in the water), or frogs, and so on….so my likes and dislikes should be irrelevant here, as the insects are a large and vital link in the food web.

Midge swarm

Or clegs. Now there’s an insect it’s hard to love! The chew itchy, leaky holes in you and have even made it into mythology. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, had a shorter handle than intended, as Loki, in the form of a gadfly (cleg), bit the smith making it and distracted him. Having tried to work in still, humid cleggy weather, I sympathise, and yes, I will swat a cleg if it’s biting me. But it does make you think, too often we seek to eradicate species because they inconvenience us.

Cleg or horsefly

And slugs. How often have you lamented holes in your strawberries or the loss of a favourite plant to munching molluscs? But many slugs are detritovores – they eat dead and decomposing stuff – so have a valuable role in keeping the world clean.

Great black slug. Rather usefully, eats dog poo.

Away from insects, probably the commonest example of disliked wildlife are gulls. I find it sad, with avian flu killing up to 75% of some birds in some areas, to hear a fairly common reaction of ‘hope it kills all the gulls, they squawk all night and crap on my car’. I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to dislike gulls, but actually wishing them dead because they do something we dislike is a strong emotion – and not, if we are to reverse biodiversity loss, a helpful one. Gulls are smart, adaptable birds, and most of the time that they are in conflict with people, it’s because they are taking advantage of our profligate habits. Yes, they are a nuisance at 4am, but have you ever walked through a main street in a town at kicking-out time? The food waste you see is a magnet for something with a dustbin diet, and of course attracts gulls. Perhaps it’s ourselves we should be looking at more closely!

Herring gull with chicks

But it’s easy to convince most people of the value of other animals. Here, most people like seals, largely based on their cute appearance – look at that wee face! But the fishermen don’t like them, as they may eat salmon.

Seals

Or sea eagles – they are a rare treat here, a magnificent predator soaring through the skies, a taste of the wilderness on their rare visits. But, out west, the farmers view them with suspicion – they are top predators, take lambs and cost the farmers money. So here are yet another couple of examples of valuing or not valuing a creature based on our interests.

Sea eagle

So, what do we do about it? All animals are clearly not equal, and a lot of the value we give them is based on whether they affect us economically, have an irritation factor or, mostly, just look dramatic or cute. Seriously, don’t underestimate the cute factor – policies on certain species have been made, and taxpayers’ money spent, based on public opinion on whether we like something or not!

But that’s where we start hitting problems, because nature and ecology isn’t based on cute. It’s based on a complex and and interwoven series of relationships that we still don’t fully understand. So it’s not like you can pick and choose what you can and can’t have in the natural world. It’s like a giant Jenga stack – yes, you might pull out a few blocks and the thing still stands, but sooner or later, some key block is going to go and the whole thing will come crashing down. Our natural world is so interlinked that we have to take care our likes and dislikes don’t cause us to forget this.

Puffin – the one bit of wildlife everyone likes!

So, we’ve established that in our eyes, all wildlife isn’t equal. Further to this, our relationship with the land is similarly lopsided. We rightly celebrate our nature reserves – oases of naturalness (for want of a less clumsy word!), and sanctuaries for our beleaguered wildlife, in a landscape highly modified by humanity. But the truth is that we often only set aside land for nature if it’s no good for our own ends. Consequently, most of our prized and much-loved reserves lie on land that is simply too wet, too dry, too rocky, too salty, too windy – or indeed too sandy – to be of use for anything else. And even then, we like to think that we’re doing nature a favour!

Our beloved Forvie – good job it’s no use for development!

But you can’t help but wonder what potentially awesome wildlife hotspots might lie under the more gentle, fertile and productive landscapes that we use for other things. Maybe, some day, we might find out – if we can manage to bring some equality back into our relationship with the natural world.

Midsummer Mayhem

Well, that’s the year turned (shall I be the fist to say ‘aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in?) and we’re just past the solstice and the year has now reached its most frantic point. Everything is growing, breeding or has bred and is now raising young. We are starting to see fledged young birds everywhere, from gulls on the estuary to sparrows around the visitor centre.

Black-headed gull fledging
Young house sparrows

It’s lovely to see al these youngsters around. With all the sad news about avian flu, every fledged young bird is a hope for the future. The young sandwich terns should fly any day now and we’re desperate to see them go and disperse from the colony where the risks from bird flu are at their highest.

Sandwich tern chick

However, the Arctic terns chicks aren’t long hatched and will need at least another 2-3 weeks before they fledge. They are gorgeous little things and start life as a fluffball with tiny, thumbnail-sized pink feet. While I try to be objective in my work, I must admit tern chicks are very cute and have been responsible for highly unprofessional statements like ‘Aww da fwuffies’ while walking round the ternery!

Arctic tern chick

Mind you, sometimes the birds aren’t easy to spot in the long grass – it’s a big part of the ‘everything growing’ part of the season. As hay fever sufferers will know, the grass is all flowering now. It has some great names, like cock’s foot, false oat grass, sweet vernal grass and crested dog’s tail. The pollen – not so great sometimes!

Wet cocks foot on a dewy morning

The growing grass keeps us busy; it needs cut far more often than we’d like. The paths all need strimmed at this time of year and it’s hot work in this weather!

Strimmed path
Sunset grass

It’s no wonder everything grows so well, with easily 20 hours of daylight just now. We’re right in the ‘simmer dim’ the half-light of June, where the nights never totally get dark. Even by not much gone 2am, the first rosy hues of sunrise are starting to creep across the sky.

Sunrise – though it never really sets!

Meanwhile, in amongst the flowers and the grass, the burnet moths are busy making more burnet moths. They are having a good year this year and seem to be everywhere, especially in the flower-rich dune slacks. They are one of those insects that almost looks too vivid to be true, their glossy black and scarlet spots almost clashing violently with the purple of the northern marsh orchids.

Burnet moth on Northern Marsh Orchid
6 spot burnet moth on Northern Marsh Orchid

The orchids themselves look fantastic. the best place to see them is round the Sand Loch trail but get out soon – the summer is moving on and they are starting to go over!

Northern marsh orchid

Another sign of the year moving on is new butterfly species appearing. We’re starting to see common blue butterflies appearing, along with meadow browns and dark-green fritillaries.

Common blue
Dark green fritillary

I always think ‘dark-green fritillary’ is an odd name for what, to all intents and purposes, is an orange butterfly – like most Scottish fritillaries. But the name comes from the underwing, which shows a distinct greenish colour in the right light.

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Dark-green fritillary underwing

The rapid turn of the seasons is never more pronounced than in the natural world and every new flower or insect, or fledged young bird, to us, is the year moving on. Already, as Daryl wrote in his last blog, there are signs of a-u-t-u-m-n creeping in, even to high summer, so I think the message for us all is to get out there and enjoy it while it lasts!

Peacock butterfly

A Right Royal Blog!

Happy Platinum Jubilee, Your Majesty. A lifetime of service and dignity, and I wouldn’t want your job for a big pension – though I will probably be your age by the time I get my state pension! So, in tribute, we thought we’d have a right royal blog this week.

But one of the first things that strikes you in the nomenclature of nature is that ‘queens’, or indeed even ladies’ names, are relatively few and far between. Often, if something is large, or spectacular-looking, it instantly gets labelled ‘king’. And some truly warrant the description – this King Eider, crowned with the most glorious and ridiculous orange forehead.

King eider

Or the Kingfisher, resplendent in azure and orange.

Kingfisher

Sometimes the honour is more dubious. The spectacular-but-not-exactly-attractive King Ragworm, anyone?

King ragworm

It’s even possible to find Emperors at Forvie – the Emperor moth and, just the once, the Emperor dragonfly.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor moths make cocoons on the heather before emerging in all their acid-green, pink-spotted splendour. They put me in mind of a motorised gherkin, slowly chugging their way along the footpaths on the heath.

Emperor moth caterpillar

The adult moths themselves are also large and striking, with a set of alarming eye-spots, designed to scare off predators. You might see one of these day-flying moths bombing past you at high speed on a fine afternoon in late spring and summer. But it’s very unusual – and a royal treat indeed – to find one settled among the heather, where its beauty can be properly appreciated. Or better still, as in the photo below, a pair – an emperor and an empress.

Emperor moths

I suppose the naming conventions are understandable in what, in the west, has been a male-dominated society for generations, but I wonder if many plants or animals were named today, if that would be different? Many names date from the era of gentlemen collectors and/or scientists, when this sort of thing was perceived as No Job For A Lady. So women didn’t really have the opportunity to ‘discover’ a species (i.e. to be the first person to write about / draw / shoot and stuff something. NB: merely being a native who’d known about it all your life didn’t count). Or, even if they worked alongside male colleagues, their contribution was sidelined, as happened with Caroline Herschel, Mary Anning, or Rosalind Franklin. So we see relatively few female names in natural history.

Pallas’s Warbler – one of several birds named after biologist Peter Simon Pallas

One female name that does recur, amusingly, is Isabel – Isabelline shrike and Isabelline wheatear – both named after Queen Isabella of Castille. Both birds are a rather mucky brown colour and, so the story goes, are named for the colour of the lady’s underwear. Apparently, she promised her husband she would not change her pants while the siege of Granada lasted – which turned out to be 8 months. Not sure that’s the most flattering way to get something named after you!

Isabelline Shrike – picture from Wikipedia

The most frequent use of the word ‘queen’ in natural history relates, of course, to social insects. In many species of bees, wasps and ants, it’s well known that at the centre of each colony – physically, genetically and socially – is the queen. She builds around herself an entire society of her own offspring – her subjects if you like. And what a job these social insects do for the natural world – pollination, pest control and waste recycling (bees, wasps and ants respectively) to name three quick examples.

Queen of all she surveys

In the seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the world has seen some extraordinary changes. We can only hope that in another 70 years, we still have wildlife around us to enjoy and to wonder at. And that perhaps we might repair our relationship with the natural world, and reverse some of the damage we’ve done. A nature-rich future? Now that would be cause for a right royal celebration.

A Time for New Life

‘April is the cruellest month’… wrote Eliot, and this year you could be forgiven for agreeing. March has roared out like a lion, with freezing temperatures, snow showers and biting winds, that have left new lambs shivering, hunch-backed, in the lee of their mothers. It’s not great news for the wildlife either, and we are hoping it warms up before many more of the birds are on eggs.

Snowstorm at Waterside
Forvie Moor the same morning

Now we’re into April, the breeding season is in full swing and we are expecting the first gull eggs any day now. Then, three weeks after that, the first chicks…

Freshly-hatched gull chicks

It’s not just the gulls that are breeding. Our Sandwich Tern numbers have risen from two last week to in the thirties this week, and will – hopefully – eventually peak at around 1,000 pairs. The Ringed Plovers are also setting up territories, and their pleasingly musical calls accompany us around all our fence checks. We are hoping they breed successfully, if only because their chicks are utterly gorgeous and zoom around like little clockwork toys.

Ringed Plovers

Many of the ducks will be on eggs by now, too. They are often early breeders and by mid- April we sometimes see Mallard chicks following their mum across the lochs, little fluffy vulnerable balls of life.

Mallard ducklings

And the Skylarks are nesting as well. They are so obvious when they sing: a constant trill coming out of a clear blue sky, the sound of Forvie Moor, as they fill the world with their song. But their nests are incredibly well hidden; in all my years here I’ve never found one. The parent birds are very discreet: they land far from their nest, then creep on foot through the grass to the nest, so as not to disclose its location.

Skylark

The thing all these bird have in common, along with all the rest of the terns, the Willow Warblers, the Meadow Pipits, and the various wading birds and ducks, is that they all nest on the ground. This makes them very vulnerable to predators and disturbance, and nowadays, a huge proportion of disturbance comes from people and their dogs. This is why, at this time of year, we ask people to keep their dogs on a lead or at heel on the Reserve. It’s really important that they do, as dogs ranging off paths can scare parent birds off nests and allow predators to take the eggs and chicks, or chill to set in. As more and more people come into the countryside, the space for wildlife has become increasingly squeezed, and oases such as nature reserves are more important than ever. So we really need everyone to help by keeping dogs under control.

Willow warbler
Hackley Bay beach – a safe place for the dog to have a run about

We also need to make space for nature. No matter how well-behaved people are, sometimes their mere presence is dangerous to wildlife. It’s sad but true fact that people and wildlife frequently don’t mix – we are perceived by animals and birds as a predator, and therefore animals and birds see a place populated by people as an unsafe place to be. This is why the southern end of the Reserve is closed off until August, to give the internationally-important tern colony a chance to settle and breed in peace.

Barrier fence looking towards ternery
The beach barrier fence now complete

The tern colony here has been a real success story; one of the few in an increasingly wildlife-impoverished world. We think we now have the largest mainland ternery in Scotland, with over 1,000 pairs of Sandwich tern, over 1,100 pairs of ‘commics’ (Common and Arctic Tern; often lumped together due to the nests being indistinguishable from one another) and up to 30 pairs of Little Terns. Never mind the accompanying 2,000 pairs of Black-headed Gulls, the 100 Eider nests, and the smaller numbers of Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers and other odds and sods. It’s a busy place to say the least!

Sandwich Tern and chick – photo (c) Rach Cartwright

Little terns are one of Britain’s rarest breeding seabirds and there are only around 300 pairs in Scotland – that’s 100 fewer than Golden Eagle. They are massively sensitive to disturbance and, being little, are on everything’s menu, from Oystercatchers (they are so-and-sos for taking eggs) to gulls to Kestrels. When your chicks aren’t much bigger than a ping-pong ball, they’re an easy swallow for any predator, and also chill really quickly in damp weather. Therefore, any year they breed successfully here is an extra-good year, and it’s been great to see the wider colony go from strength to strength over the years.

A tiny Little Tern chick

The lack of disturbance here in the breeding season is the key factor for the birds. In fact it’s hard to overstate how much we appreciate those who do respect the signs, avoid the sensitive areas, keep their dogs on leads and help make space for nature on the Reserve. It’s no exaggeration to say that you’re helping to save lives. Thank you!

Ups and Downs – Forvie NNR

It’s been a bit of a mixed week, with some significant ups and one fairly major down. So let’s start with the bad news first and get it out of the way. We suspect that avian influenza – bird flu- has arrived on the Ythan. It was actually fairly inevitable, with local outbreaks already recorded and lots of migrating birds moving north. Monday morning saw one dead and several unwell-looking geese on the estuary near the roost site on the Tarty mudflats. Like human ‘flu, the effect on birds varies hugely. Some are very susceptible to it and the Svalbard barnacle goose population has been hammered, with a mortality rate of 30 – 40% – that’s up to 40% of all the barnacle geese in the world have died this winter.  It doesn’t seem to affect the grey geese – like the local pink-feet – quite so badly and many will actually survive it, if a predator doesn’t get them while they’re weak. The risk of transmission to humans is very low but it’s advisable to not touch any dead birds and report wildfowl deaths to DEFRA.

Pink footed goose

Aside from this, it’s actually been a lovely week. The wind has dropped and it’s the calmest week I think we’ve had since about last October! The lack of wind allowed a group from NESKY out to litter pick on the upper estuary and it is now a much cleaner place than it was last week. Thanks to all involved – you could get to bits of the estuary we couldn’t and it’s great that all that litter and plastic is now gone. It definitely help counteract the ‘down’ of the bird flu. 

NESKY
Rubbish from litter pick

It has really felt like spring, with some lovely misty, dewy mornings, followed by warm, bright days. It’s lovely to see the celandines, all shut up in the morning, then all yellow and sunny by lunchtime.

Closed celandine

We’ve also seen several ruby tiger moth caterpillars on their travels. You most often spot them crossing a path, in a determined, hairy- caterpillar sort of way. They are likely looking for somewhere quiet to pupate so they can emerge as moths and get on with the serious business of breeding and producing more hairy caterpillars.

ruby tiger caterpillar

In fact, lots of things are thinking about breeding just now. It very much looks like the swans on the Sand Loch will try to nest in the marsh quite close to the track. It’s wet enough to keep most people out but not dogs, and we’d like to remind people to keep their dog on a lead or at heel during the bird breeding season. This swan is a big, obvious example of a bird that nests on the ground but there are lots of others, like skylark, meadow pipit and willow warbler too, that you might never notice – but they are there and we really need people’s help to look after them by keeping dogs under control. You’ve no idea how much we, the reserve staff, really do appreciate when folk help us by simply keeping their dogs close to, on a path, and giving the wildlife space to breed and feed undisturbed.

Swan on nest at Sand Loch

While the swan on the nest is a serene-looking example of breeding, the oystercatchers are anything but! Their ‘ker-pleep’ call is one of the sounds of spring and summer on the estuary. When two pairs have a disagreement about something, be it food, mates, territory, ownership of a single mussel, even, they will display to one another to sort out who is the dominant pair. This tends to involve the pairs walking side by side, heads down, pleeping furiously at one another. These displays are known as ‘piping ceremonies’ ( I have a mental picture of them in full Highland dress now…) and, like the bagpipes, people either love or hate oystercatchers. To some people, they are an evocative sound of the sea or their childhood. To others, they’re the damn nuisance noisy black-and-white things!

Oysercatchers displaying

Oystercatchers displaying

Meanwhile, other birds are heading north. The sanderling we see chasing – and being chased by- the waves will be heading north to Arctic breeding grounds very soon. A reminder that Forvie is just part of an international nature network used by wildlife from all over the Northern Hemisphere.

Sanderling roost

Sanderling

This smart male common scotor dropped briefly onto Sand Loch. He, too, is likely to be on his way north to breed, perhaps to Caithness (where common scoter are one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds) or perhaps even further north, to the Arctic tundra.

Common scoter

Then, on Thursday, we had another major ‘up’ of the week! The terns are back! Well, admittedly it’s only two, with the first Sandwich terns seen on the 23rd, but it’s hopefully the start of a successful breeding season. There are already around 800 to 1000 black-headed gulls on the colony and we might -maybe- even see our first gull eggs by the end of next week.

Sandwich tern (C) Ron MacDonald

We’ve also had some cracking sunsets to delight the senses. A coastal haze has meant that we’ve a had a few ‘fiery ball’ sunsets, where a light mist has blocked the glare and meant you can look directly at the sun. It looks like a huge red-orange ball in the sky as it drops over the dunes into the west. We’ll leave you this week with a picture of one of these sunsets – but they’re much better enjoyed in real life!

Sunset
Fiery ball sunset

Springing into Action – Forvie NNR

It’s spring! Though, as we commented in the last blog, yes, it is blowing a hooley and the weather is coming downward in a steady, heavy, wetting drizzle. But it stayed dry for getting the tern fence up- hooray- and the week has provided us with a mixture of hard work and wildlife treats. The first of these came on Monday, when a high-water bird count revealed the presence on an American visitor on the estuary.

Green-winged teal
Green winged teal (left) with teal and wigeon

Although only subtly different to our local teal, the vertical white stripe on his flank marked this handsome fellow out as a drake green-winged teal from North America. Ducks are great travellers and can easily turn up on different continents. Sometimes they will make their way back home but other times, they will take up residence in an area and even try and mate with females of the nearest equivalent species (the king eider being a case in point). We’ll see if this chap hangs around as spring progresses.

Green-winged teal

Another wildlife treat this week was the presence of eight pintail on the Sand Loch. In spite of being one of the commonest ducks in the world, these are never a plentiful winter visitor here and are possibly the most elegant of all ducks. Even in flight, they have a rakish, fighter-jet like profile and the males put you in mind of a smart gentleman in pinstripes. They were certainly thinking it was spring, and we saw them mating and a bit of argy-bargy between competing males. At first glance, it looks like they are snuggled up in a friendly fashion, but this breast-to-breast posture is actually a pushing match. While they look serene on the surface, their feet are frantically churning, trying to push the other male away and, if this doesn’t work, things will descend into a full-on, pecking, splashing, flapping fight. Not so elegant!

Pintail pushing match
Pintail pushing match

The weather on Wednesday – appropriately for the first day of spring – was glorious. There was a real warmth in the sun, and a bit of south in the wind, the kind of day that makes you look to the skies for returning sand martins or terns, even through you know it’s still 2-3 weeks too early. But, under your feet, some of the first spring flowers are stirring, with both daises and dandelions in flower. We haven’t seen a bumblebee yet but at least they will have some flowers to feed upon when they emerge.

Dandelion

Having said that, normal service has been resumed for the rest of the week, with a keen, searching wind making tern fencing day more than a little chilly. As regular readers of the blog will know, our tern and black-headed gull colony is reliant on an electric fence to keep predators out. We need to get the fence up before the birds arrive in mid-late March and need the help of many hands to do so. A big thank you to everyone who turned out to help put up the fence on a finger-nippingly cold day. The largest mainland colony of terns in Scotland thanks you for your efforts ….and so do we!

No fence yet…
Flat pack fence
Getting the fence up

We’d take forever to get the fence up without help; twenty rolls of mesh, guy ropes, pegs, staples to pin down the fence and warning signs all need to be transported over 1000 metres of rough ground, unrolled, stood upright, and basically turned into a fence. It’s a lot of work but well worth it to maintain the tern colony here. There are so few undisturbed places for wildlife these days that those that remain are extremely precious and this is reflected in the success the birds have had here over the past 15 years. Long may that continue.

Putting the fence up
We hope it will look like this in 3 months time!

Another job is was good to see ticked off the list was the replacement of the bird hide windows. A combination of vandalism and age meant all of these needed replaced and, after a couple of costs of paint, they were ready to go. It’s nice to have them all refreshed and hopefully there will be some good birds to spot from the hide this spring!

Painting hide windows
Anything good through the new windows…???

Windscapes

Regular readers of the blog, or indeed anyone who has had power off for several days,  will know that wind has been a bit of a feature of our lives lately. Power cuts, a huge amount of damage to trees and a massive clear-up operation have been left in the wake of three big storms this winter. But, in truth, wind is always a feature of our lives at Forvie and you only need to look at the landscape to see this.

Aerial picture of dunes (C) Ron Macdonald

It’s most obvious at the estuary end of the reserve. Forvie actually has the 5th largest sand dune system in the UK and there’s times it looks more like a desert landscape. It certainly feels like it when you’re trudging through soft sand and maybe a better title for this blog would have been ‘sandscapes’. The wind is a great part of what shapes these dunes and, this winter, with a series of gales, we can see the landscape reformed on almost a daily basis.

Drifting sand and marram grass on the dunes at Sands of Forvie NNR.
©Lorne Gill
For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 44177 or http://www.snh.org.uk

It is part of the wonder and challenge of Forvie. The mobility of the landscape is what makes it special and it’s easy for us, with a human outlook, to view anything that changes like this as a bad thing. It’s too easy to see the negatives – the buried village, our endless battles to keep the tern fences standing and clear of sand – but we should perhaps focus on the fact that this wild, dynamic landscape still exists in world of intensive land use and increasing human population. So much of our coastline has been built on, farmed or generally stabilised that places like Forvie have become increasingly rare.

Ythan estuary

So, how does sand move? Well, it gets delivered to Forvie by the tides, the eroded remains of land and mountain washed down rivers to the sea. Once washed up above high water mark, it is at the mercy of the wind. Normally, in this part of the world, our prevailing wind direction is from the south-west, so the sand tends to move north-east. It does this is three main ways: suspension, saltation and creep.

Sand eroded around tiny pebbles leave them stood on a mini pillar of sand

Suspension is the dramatic one. This is sand which has been picked up by the wind and is being blown along. Think of a really rough day at the beach, when the sand stings your skin, gets in your eyes and is generally unpleasant. The sort of day that fills every nook and cranny of your clothes with sand and when you shake, a shower of sand goes all over your newly-hoovered carpet. A sand-blasted, wind-scoured, battered-by-the-weather day. But only 1% of sand moves like this. Most moves by a process called saltation, which is where sand grains bounce along the ground. The wind is strong enough to move it, but not pick it up and blow it it for any great height or distance. And the final way sand moves is creep, where bouncing sand grains knock into other ones and move them.

Sand blow

Sand movement can sometimes be fast and dramatic. You can see how much sand has buried an earlier snow shower here.

Sand and snow

You can usually tell which way the wind as been blowing when you look at a dune. On the side where the wind is coming from, a dune will usually have a long, shallow slope. But, on the sheltered, leeward side, it will usually have a steep slope.

Leeward side of dune

As you move inland, our dunes become more stable as they become covered with marram grass. Now, the reserve staff find this a fairly unlovable plant, as its waxy, rolled, water-retaining leaves come to a needle point that will cheerfully stab you and/or break off in your skin. Walk through marram all day, even in fairly thick trousers, and your legs will look like you have a rash, with lots of itchy, pinpoint pricks. But it is the plant that it most resilient to the harsh, salty, free-draining sandy conditions and its amazing root system is what starts to stabilise the open dunes. It soon becomes the dominant plant on the dunes.

Marram roots

Yet further inland, the marram gradually starts to disappear as it gets outcompeted by other plants. By now, there is more humus in the soil and it retains more water, so other plants can get a foothold. To the north of Forvie, heather, crowberry and creeping willow cover the now stable dunes, while, in the dune ‘slacks’ (wet hollows), plants like bird’s foot trefoil thrive and bloom.

Bird’s foot trefoil

In spite of the prevailing wind here being south-westerly, this winter, we have seen a series of north-westerly and westerly gales. Remember Arwen? And Mailk, and Corrie? You can see their effect if you look across the river from Newburgh. The ‘big dune’ has been flattened and tonnes of sand have been moved to the south east. This has led to big changes on the edge of the ternery, where a lot of the shingle has been buried by sand. It’ll be interesting to see what this means for the terns, as little terns like nesting in shingle and this is now under sand. It’s all part of the natural process of the site but is an example of the challenges of living in a dynamic landscape. Many years ago, this wouldn’t have posed a problem for the birds but now there is virtually no undisturbed-by-people coastline for them to move onto. Let hope the wind shifts back to the south-west and scours clear some shingle before they arrive back in April. And it’s not often you’ll hear the reserve staff wish for more wind!

Blown sand burying marram grass

Big dune