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. 

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


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!

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.


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…???


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
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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

Nature Networks

Here at Forvie, we have a new addition to the team. Our long –serving (and long suffering) reserve manager Annabel  is on secondment and her shoes are temporarily being filled by Catriona, formerly reserve manager at Muir of Dinnet. Now, two more different reserves within 40 miles of one another, it’s hard to imagine. Dinnet has lochs, hills, trees (that aren’t 10 feet tall and growing at 45 degrees) and, lying in the foothill of the Cairngorms, its climate and ecology are totally different from Forvie. Whereas the reserve here is perched on the very edge of the North Sea and is a world dominated by maritime weather, the rhythm of the tides and the endless, sculpting power of the wind.

Loch Davan, Muir of Dinnet NNR

Sand dunes at Forvie

And a great deal of the wildlife has nothing in common, either. Take the long-tailed tit, for example. This is a bird you’ll see daily at Dinnet. It’s a woodland species and Forvie has little to offer it – the smalls, scattered wind-stunted trees here just aren’t suitable for it. So it’s a real event if you ever do see one here and I think there are something like 3 record in 15 years. Equally, you’re highly unlikely to see on of Forvie’s signature species, the eider duck, at Dinnet. There are sea ducks and you won’t find the mussels they feed on in fresh water.

Long-tailed tit

Eider drake

But one thing that has been brought home to us with the staff change and sitting and chatting about ‘our’ respective reserves, is the importance of nature networks. You will never find one nature reserve that is suitable for everything. Part of the joy and wonder of the natural world is its endless variety, of both habitats and species, and you probably find that yourself. One day you might fancy going to the beach, another, for a walk in the hills. You will see very different things there and it’s important that you do – this variety, this biodiversity, is the sign of a healthy planet.

Ythan estuary

And that brings us to nature networks. It’s so tempting to think of the wildlife we see here as ‘ours’, but it’s easy to forget where (and how far) some of it has come from.  Standing on the cliffs at Forvie, doing a bit of seawatching in spring or autumn, you will, sooner or later, spot a sooty shearwater. Now, these birds breed in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand, the country on the other side of the planet, the one with all the kiwis and mountains and volcanoes and tauaturas and hobbits. It almost seems easier to believe you’d find a hobbit there than a bird could travel that far!

Sooty shearwater

Over the winter here, we often see whooper swans feeding in the fields around the reserve or roosting on Cotehill Loch

Whoopers feeding in a field

Whoopers on Cotehill loch

But the first picture here was actually taken in Iceland, somewhere in the south-west, in September, as the whoopers gathered to make the jump to the UK for the winter. They will have bred there, on tarns and lochans and then flee south before the snows close up the land. And they won’t stop there either – many will continue onward to the rich sugar-beet fields of East Anglia. Our pink-footed geese will take much the same path, too – was this photograph take from Forvie or Holkam Beach? No way to tell!

Pink footed geese

The Ythan estuary is a hugely important part of the international nature network. It’s like a service station, without the insane parking and ghastly, over-priced takeaways, really – a place where birds can refuel as the migrate north or south to their breeding or wintering grounds. Or is the wintering ground for many – salty mud doesn’t freeze easily, so, when winter bites, the estuary is an open-all-year-round food source.

Redshank in flight

And we see a huge variety of birds here. Lapwings are familiar to most people as ‘peewits’ or, locally, ‘teuchits’, and their black-and-white, flop-winged flocks are a spectacular sight.

Lapwing flock

While golden plovers gather in numbers and tight flocks that, from a distance, can be mistake for a starling murmuration. We had at least 4 and a half thousand earlier in the autumn.

Golden plover

You may also be able to pick out bar-tailed godwits feeding on the mud. Bigger than the ubiquitous redshank but smaller than a curlew, they are like many wading birds over the winter, dressed sombrely in shades of grey and brown.  Handsome enough in an understated way, but nothing to write home about, really. But these waders are capable of undertaking one of the most epic migrations in the natural world. One, tagged in Alaska, flew non-stop (that’s non-stop, not landing at all) to New Zealand, a distance of over 8000 miles. Doesn’t that just blow your mind?

Bar-tailed godwits and dunlin (dunlin are the wee ones!)

And it really brings home the importance of nature networks, not just in our country but worldwide. A bird may need the Ythan Estuary, or Montrose Basin, or sugar-beet field in East Anglia, but it may also need a wetland in Eastern Europe, or a loch in Iceland, or a forest in Siberia. And the wonder of it all, the marvel of the natural world, is that we can see these creatures on our doorstep too – but only as long as there are nature networks in the world.


One of the things we do very well, here on the relatively flat and windswept east coast, is big skies. Horizons are not hemmed in by trees or mountains and the wind changes what we see out of the window on a sometimes minute-by-minute basis.

Mackerel sky

A real feature of this January has been an absolutely awesome series of sunrises and sunsets. Most evenings, we are bumping into people, pointing their cameras or phones at the sky, sharing smiles and ‘cracking sunset tonight, isn’t it?’ comments. But why does the sun rise – or set – in the blaze of glory we see?

Sunset on the Ythan estuary

So, here goes with the science bit – and apologies if I don’t get it quite right, I’m a biologist, not a physicist, and I suspect they make up at least some of the maths. Light, as we see it, is made up of different colours. Think of a rainbow, where the sun passing through the rain splits into the spectrum of colours. As the light from the sun hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it gets scattered, by dust, pollution, whatever. During the day, the shorter wavelengths of light show well, so we see blue. But, late or early in the day, as the sun is setting or rising, the light has to travel further round the globe to reach us and more scattering happens. When light is scattered, the short, blue, wavelengths go first but the longer wavelengths persist, so we see oranges and pinks. Like this.

And, with the big skies, we see the light change from horizon to horizon. Yesterday morning, the sun came up in a dawn-pink glow, bathing the whole reserve in warm, rose-gold light.

Sunrise over the sea

Bathed in pink light

Sunrise Forvie centre

Sunrise at Sand loch

And, at the other end of the day, the big skies give us seemingly endless fiery orange sunsets.

Streaky sunset

Orange sunset

It’s a good time to see the shape and form of the local trees. Well, we say trees, but they’re mostly about 10 feet tall and growing at 45 degrees, a reflection of the wind that is an almost daily feature of life here.

Sunset tree

It’s not just the sunsets you can see in the big skies. There was a cracking moonrise two nights ago, as the ‘Wolf moon’ rose fill over the reserve.

Wolf moon

Moonset over sand loch

Or even, if you’re really, really lucky, an auroa show. It’s always worth keeping an eye on the skies!












A World of Wounds

‘One of the penalties of an ecological education’ wrote Aldo Leopold, ‘is that one lives alone in a world of wounds’. And, to a great extent, these words still hold true, 73 years later. Many people may look at the Scottish landscape and see the beauty and wonder of our heather-clad hills and rejoice in the ‘wildness’ of it all. But as a naturalist, you always have that ecological education poking you in the back, saying ‘ yes, it’s pretty, but it’s chronically over-grazed and should be covered in trees and upland scrub and it’s only as quarter as biodiverse as it should be’. It’s often not so much even seeing the scars on the landscape as feeling the absence of what should be there – the upland forests, the coastal heaths, the top predators – all things that have largely gone from our landscape as population and development has increased.

I often wonder what the likes of Leopold would have made of the world today. A human population approaching 8 billion, and a biodiversity crisis that may be start of the sixth great extinction. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen changes and losses in wildlife and I know I’m not the only one. How many places where you grew up remain unspoiled? Even our nature reserves seem to be drowning under a tide of human-related activity or waste and, sadly, so often that means the wildlife suffers. It’s a hard and unpalatable truth that, usually, as the numbers of people rise, biodiversity declines. We see it daily on our NNRs, in damage and littering and disturbance and frequently we despair – our world is wounded.

But are we living alone in that wounded world now? Perhaps less so, perhaps less than ever. There is probably more awareness of ecological issues than there’s ever been – I remember a primary school child saying earnestly to their pal ‘ you need to switch off lights or polar bears die’ – which is not a bad grasp of climate change for a 7-year old. Most of us bring our own shopping bags to the supermarkets and there is a general perception ‘plastic is bad’ – one dead baby whale on a BBC series has far more impact than 40 years of environmentalists saying it. We’re still a long way off breaking our love affair with oil, and, like it or not, will need hydrocarbons for a few decades to come while the green transition takes place – but it’s coming and we will adjust. People are becoming more and more aware all the time how precarious our existence on this planet is and, gradually, changes are a-coming.

Beach cleaning

Unfortunately, this wider ecological knowledge doesn’t always translate into behaving on NNRs or the wider countryside -yet. Perhaps because climate change seems abstract, and it only kills people in other counties? It’s a news item, a cause for shock and pity but no real impact upon us. Whereas, for example, having to avoid an area, to not carry out your hobby at certain times or places, not get close enough to an animal to get ‘that’ picture on your phone, to keep your dog on a lead, to not have that campfire, has a direct personal impact upon people and is, so often, a sacrifice the are unwilling to make. Oh, it’s small-scale compared with climate change, but all contributes to the creeping, insidious tide of biodiversity loss.

Putting out fire close to coastal grassland

oystercatcher nest with fire in background

And, if we are not living alone in that wounded world, it means more and more people are hurting out there. While there is a saying ‘misery loves company’ I wouldn’t wish how I often on almost anyone. When you invest much of your time, life, love into the natural world, it’s upsetting when you see it damaged  through arrogance, ignorance and selfishness. Angry, yes, (conservationists are often angry, and often with just cause) but that feeling of helplessness and inability to protect something you love can lead to despair. More and more people are feeling that anger – climate protests are becoming more frequent – but you hear more and more people saying ‘ what can we do?’. We can’t afford electric cars. We can’t change the fact that oil cartels are more powerful than many governments. We can’t stop greed, or corruption or ignorance so what can we do? If people despair, where do they turn for healing?

A nice view always makes you feel better

The answer is often to our beautiful, wonderful, wounded natural world. It’s been proven time and time again that spending time in a natural environment is good for mental health. You see it, with groups and people on the reserves – they often arrived stressed, harried, grumpy …but by the time they walk back to the car are happy, relaxed and laughing. You feel it in yourself, going into the woods, surrounded by natural noises and sights and smells – you can feel parts of yourself opening up that you have to keep closed to function in ‘normal’ society. Often the natural world brings peace, a place away from other people and the distractions of modern life. It’s so nice not to have things that beep, ping, ring or, in in extreme cases, talk at you. Sometimes, you even need to get caught in a rainstorm, or a blizzard and have the weather kick the crap out of you, just remind yourself what’s real in our hectic, over-stimulated and (recently at least) overly stressed world. Yes, you get cold and wet, but you feel oh so good afterwards (especially clutching a nice Orcadian malt to help the warming process….).

Snow shower coming…

We need the natural world. It’s a given, that we need a healthy planet to live on – we all need clean air, water and food to thrive – but we also need it for the good of our minds. Call it mental heath, call it psyche, call it soul, call it what you will, but nature is good for it. Now, I’m the first to admit, people frequently do my head in. I’m a self-confessed socially-awkward misanthrope and maybe I should just be better at dealing with things I don’t like or agree with. But I am lucky that I can always turn to the natural world for a ‘lift’ – the way the sun plays on the estuary at sunrise. Or a starry sky. Or watching gulls wheel on the wind. Or even just appreciating the stately form of winter trees against a sunset sky.

And wildlife encounters can be the most thrilling of all. I remember, once, watching an otter diving while I hid behind a boat-shed. It surfaced right and my feet and I don’t know who got the bigger shock, me or it…but, for a split second, I was within inches of  a wild otter. Or seeing humpback whales off Newburgh -surely that’s something that only happens on Attenborough programmes? But here they were, two of them, on our doorstep and loads of people were watching from any high vantage point. And every time one dove and the tail flukes showed, everyone cheered. Complete strangers were calling to one another ‘ did you see that? There’s two! Look, over there. No, just left of that boat…there!’ And everyone was catching everyone else’s eye and grinning from ear to ear. Or showing someone who you’ve never met orcas through the telescope and getting lots of excited squeals, followed by a hug ‘I NEVER thought I’d see those!’ The natural world can unite strangers like few other things (music, perhaps, being one of the others). We can only hope this shared need and love for the natural world can help keep us sane long enough to save our planet and, ultimately, ourselves.