About Daryl Short

Forvie NNR's resident Reserve Officer (estate worker, jack-of-all-trades, birder and wildlife enthusiast).

Wild westerly winds

You’ll doubtless have seen in the news the gigantic tropical storm, ‘Dorian’, making its way through the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard of the USA recently. It’s incredible to think that the winds that lashed Forvie earlier this week were actually the tail-ends of the very same storm that devastated the Bahamas, having thereafter tracked its way right across the Atlantic. For one thing, it makes you realise how small our planet actually is; here at Forvie we play host to weather and wildlife from all corners of the world. I’m always at pains to tell visitors that the Reserve, while awesome in its own right, is a part of the complex, joined-up system that is the natural world. We’re quite literally all in it together.

Wednesday morning at Forvie; looks nice, but by jingo it was windy – note the windswept clouds!

Now westerly winds aren’t especially helpful to the wildlife enthusiast here. We tend to wish for an easterly or south-easterly airflow, which can bring exciting visitors from the near Continent – like the hawk-moths featured in a previous blog entry. Or at this time of the year, migrant birds.

Goldcrest – Europe’s smallest bird, and a typical east-coast migrant

Goldcrests, for example, depart northern Europe in huge numbers each autumn, fleeing the onset of cold weather and heading for milder places. They’re properly tiny, only weighing five grams or so, and it’s miraculous that any of them survive a North Sea crossing (upon arrival here, some weigh as little as four grams, having used up 20% of their bodyweight in a single flight). They certainly wouldn’t want to attempt the crossing from Norway to Scotland in a headwind, so while the wind stays westerly, these birds remain scarce here.

For those migrants that do make the trip, the little pockets of willow scrub on Forvie Moor provide welcome shelter and food after their gruelling journey.

Forvie Moor, with its welcoming willow scrub
A little oasis for tired migrants

These isolated little copses are great places to see migrant birds when the weather conditions are favourable (ideally easterly winds and a bit of cloud, fog or drizzle to force the high-flying birds down). When such conditions occur during peak migration periods (chiefly May and August-November), this can result in spectacular ‘falls’ of birds. The bushes along the Heath Trail are a good place to look, and have also produced several juicy rarities like Bluethroat, Wryneck and Red-backed Shrike in the past. Watch this space for news on any exciting arrivals in the coming weeks – weather permitting of course!

The best we’ve come up with so far today is a single Lesser Whitethroat…

Lesser Whitethroat

Away from birds, it’s been great to see plenty of newly-minted butterflies out and about; many of these recently-hatched individuals will overwinter as adults and emerge next spring ready to breed and produce the next generation. This immaculate Red Admiral was sunning itself on the Heath Trail footpath earlier in the week.

What’s black and white and red all over? Red Admiral, of course.

Meanwhile, down on the estuary there’s been a ‘fall’ of a different kind. A big stranding of Lion’s-mane Jellyfish is underway – sometimes termed a ‘wreck’. This is when large numbers of jellyfish, having come to the end of their one-year lifespan, are washed ashore and left high and dry on the strand line.

A wreck of Lion’s-mane Jellyfish
Vast numbers involved!

The Lion’s-mane Jellyfish is thought to be the largest species of jellyfish in the world. It is present in the northern waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans and is a cold-water specialist. While those that occur here tend to be relatively small – usually up to about 50cm across – in the northern part of its range it can grow up to 2 metres across, with up to 30 metres of tentacles suspended beneath the jelly-like bell. The tentacles produce a sting; although not usually severe, it’s still inadvisable to touch if you find one washed up on the beach.

Lion’s-mane jellyfish close-up

So, it’s now mid-September, and your author is crossing his fingers (and anything else he can possibly cross) and wishing for some easterly winds over the next few weeks. But whatever the wind and weather does, there’s always something to see here at Forvie. Maybe see you here over a rare bird or two? Here’s hoping!

Catch-up time

No, I’m not talking about your favourite box sets (or even the test match highlights, perish the thought). Rather, this time of the year is when we at Forvie finally start to catch up on tasks that we simply don’t have time for during the full-on height of summer. These are the ordinary, humble, everyday tasks that nobody notices, unless of course they don’t get done – a bit like the dustbin collection at home. I’m talking about things like strimming and mowing the paths, fixing holes in the tracks, repainting and repairing things, and generally keeping the infrastructure of the Reserve ticking over. We even get to help out off-site from time to time, such as yesterday when some tree-cutting work was required over at Muir of Dinnet.

Tree work at Dinnet – the start of the estate work season

Strimming and mowing here at Forvie has been a hazardous business lately, due to the vast numbers of tiny toadlets present in the grass. These are this year’s offspring of the Common Toad population (we also have Common Frogs here, though they are usually substantially outnumbered by the toads), and are currently dispersing in all directions. So you really have to watch where you’re putting your feet (and your brushcutter).

A tiny toadlet, rescued from the path of the lawnmower
Perfectly formed, with finely warty skin and delicate ‘fingers’ (the toad, not me)

The weather has certainly cooled significantly this last week, with some quite chilly mornings and a heavy dew coating all the vegetation. This view over Sand Loch illustrates the rather subdued feel to some recent days, with the colours of the plants beginning to fade and a grey sky overhead.

Sand Loch on a becalmed autumn day

While autumn is now well and truly upon us, some of our wild flowers are resolutely remaining in bloom – a vital resource for the late-season bees, butterflies and other nectar-loving insects.

Lady’s Bedstraw still flowering
Eyebright flowers with an attendant Grayling butterfly

However, some other plants are definitely now done for the year. Here’s some Yellow Rattle from a few weeks ago, and then from this week. Quite a contrast!

Yellow Rattle in full flower…
…and now gone to seed – the papery husks containing the seeds rattling in the breeze

While the wild flowers are definitely slowing down, bird migration is picking up, and the first Pink-footed Geese have already returned to the region from Iceland (we’re awaiting their arrival at Forvie any day now). So now’s not the time to be morose about the passing of summer; the autumn here is a dynamic and exciting season. Put away the box sets for the dark evenings of midwinter, and come and enjoy what the Reserve has to offer. There’s plenty to catch up on.

Autumn advancing

And today at Forvie it feels like it too. A strong wind from the south has coated everything in a fine layer of salt from the North Sea, the horizon is ill-defined and hazy, and overhead clouds hurry northwards through a restless skyscape. A sharp contrast to the hot days of the recent past, yes, but enjoyable in its own way. After being out in these conditions, you return home feeling weather-beaten and slightly sticky with salt, but invigorated. Try it for yourself sometime; don’t be put off visiting the Reserve if the forecast is less than perfect!

This morning the Reserve played host to a beach clean, and thanks are due to the visiting work-party from BP, and to Crawford Paris from East Grampian Coastal Partnership, for all their efforts. A truck-load of litter was collected and removed from a half-mile of beach, and a little bit more plastic removed from the marine environment.

The beach clean, as Dirty Harry would say, ‘in progress’

On our way over to the beach from Waterside car park we were lucky enough to bump into two Wheatears and four Whinchats feeding along the fence lines. These are classic early-autumn migrants, departing our northern latitudes for warmer climes to the south. The Wheatear is arguably the greatest migrant among all the world’s passerine birds; some of them spend the summer in Greenland and Arctic Canada before migrating to Africa for the winter, either via northern Europe (including here, where we see them in spring and autumn) or in an extraordinary non-stop flight across the Atlantic from Greenland direct to Spain. And all this from a bird not much bigger than a Robin.

Wheatear – unassuming but incredible traveller

On Wednesday we had a full day bashing invasive plants. In the morning we tackled Himalayan Balsam on the Foveran Burn at Newburgh, before heading to Foveran links in the afternoon to continue waging war on the Pirri-pirri Bur there. Both these species are a real problem if left unchecked, and as ever we’re grateful for the help of our trusty volunteers in tackling the problem.

Foveran Burn with Himalayan Balsam in the foreground (the white/pink flowers) and Patrick in the background (the tall bloke)
Great to see a man happy in his work

While removing the balsam from the burn – in partnership with Karen and her volunteers from the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (thanks guys!) – we made an interesting discovery. You may recognise the fella below from my previous musings – the spectacular caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

Elephant Hawk-moth in the making

You might be wondering if I’m getting a bit obsessed with hawk-moths (I’m not, though so far my search for hawk-moth-print wallpaper, tablecloths or boxer shorts has failed – never mind). The point here is that we found several of these caterpillars using the Himalayan Balsam as a foodplant, something that none of us here realised they were able to do. Every day at Forvie is a schoolday!

Luckily for the caterpillars, we transferred them to some nearby Rosebay Willowherb (the usual foodplant) so they could continue munching after we had removed the balsam. So everyone was happy at completion of the job.

We also found this beautiful leaf beetle Chrysolina polita, an apparently common and widespread species that’s probably under-recorded. Many naturalists (myself included) are OK at identifying the bigger, more obvious species (everyone knows what a Fox, or a Killer Whale, or a Grey Heron looks like, for instance), but tend to neglect the smaller and more cryptic stuff. But when you look closely, there are some beautiful species there in the micro scale. A reminder that there’s so much out there to discover, even when pulling up weeds.

The leaf beetle Chrysolina polita

Much of the rest of the week was spent mowing, brushcutting and trying to keep on top of the estate work tasks that we often struggle to find time for during the bird breeding season here on the Reserve. It’s hot, draining physical work, but essential to keep the footpaths clear. And to be fair, not many brushcutter operators get to enjoy a view like that at Hackley Bay when the job’s done.

A newly strimmed footpath
Hackley Bay, and a warm brushcutter (very warm operator behind the camera)

So have a good weekend, whatever the forecast, and we’ll maybe see you out and about at Forvie in September!

A hawk-moth haven

Hawk-moths are indisputably impressive beasts. They’re a small group of species – here in the UK we only have nine resident species and a further eight that occur as immigrants from abroad. But they’re large, often strikingly marked, powerful fliers and, in some cases, great travellers. And we’ve had a bit of a purple patch for them lately at Forvie.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

We’ll start off with the resident species. You may recall in a recent edition of the blog that we found one of these caterpillars at the ternery. It’s the larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth, so named because the caterpillar’s head resembles an elephant’s head and trunk when it’s stretched out. The one in the above photo has retracted its head into its body, thereby causing the eye-spots on its body to swell up, to warn off a would-be predator. In this case the ‘predator’ was probably the person with the camera that startled the caterpillar!

Elephant Hawk-moth is resident year-round at Forvie, with the caterpillars feeding on Rosebay Willowherb, a very plentiful food source. The adult moths can sometimes be seen feeding at nectar sources at dusk.

Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar

The other resident species we’ve encountered recently is the Poplar Hawk-moth. This striking green caterpillar was found feeding on a willow tree in your author’s garden on the north-eastern boundary of the Reserve. Willows are common across the Reserve and its surroundings, so this species does very well locally, and the adult moths sometimes turn up in the light-trap at the Forvie Centre.

Adult Poplar Hawk-moth

The adult moths are large, attractively-marked beasts with a patch of fox-red on the underwing – just visible in the above photo. Look out for these striking moths if you have willow trees in your garden at home.

Now onto the really exciting ones – the long-distance migrants…

Bedstraw Hawk-moth

This Bedstraw Hawk-moth showed up on the north edge of the Reserve a couple of weeks ago, and was the first one that any of us here had seen, despite each of us having a lifelong interest in nature! This stunning moth is an immigrant from south-east Europe, and probably hitched a lift across the North Sea on warm south-easterly winds. It was spotted feeding on the flowers of Honeysuckle, fuelling up after its long trip.

Bedstraw Hawk-moths only occur in very small numbers in Scotland, with usually just a handful of records each summer. So to see this one was a special treat.

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

Two days after the excitement of the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, the very same Honeysuckle bush played host to a Hummingbird Hawk-moth. Another immigrant from the south-east, this too is a spectacular sight, resembling a tiny hummingbird as its whizzes from one flower to the next, sipping the nectar through its long proboscis while hovering on the spot. In fact the likeness is so remarkable that many people, upon encountering one, believe they are seeing an actual hummingbird.

These are quite a bit more plentiful in Scotland than the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, and we see Hummingbird Hawks in most summers here at Forvie. Check out any nectar-rich flowers like Buddleia or Honeysuckle; note also that these moths are active by day as well as at dusk, so you may see one in bright sunshine as well as evening gloaming.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth

The final species we’ve recently recorded is the mighty Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Like the previous two species, this comes from southern shores off the back of a warm southerly airflow and settled weather. This huge moth – with a wingspan of 4 inches (10cm) and a body as long and thick as your thumb – is a powerful flier and loves the same sort of nectar-rich flowers favoured by other hawk-moths. This one was discovered roosting by day on our neighbour’s washing(!) before being relocated to that same lucky Honeysuckle bush. Later on, after warming up its wings it flew off into the night over the Reserve, and onto the next leg of its epic journey.

So if you’re lucky enough to have nectar-rich flowers in your garden or in your local area, keep an eye on them just now, especially at dusk as the light is beginning to fade. You too may be lucky enough to cross paths with one of these fabulous insects as it goes about its nightly rounds – an experience to savour!

The terning of the year

A frequent mention in this blog goes to the rapid turning of the seasons. Here at Forvie this is felt most keenly at either end of the bird breeding season. In early spring there is a huge volume of work to get through, with the erecting of the electric fence around the ternery to protect the birds from predatory foxes. Now in August, the birds have flown and it’s time to dismantle all that fencing again. It only seems like five minutes since we were putting it up!

Volunteers Jim and Richard with a heap of fencing materials

The ternery fence runs to 950 metres of mesh netting, 1,900 metres of steel wire, 400+ insulating fence posts and lots of ancillary bits and pieces. It’s a Herculean effort to erect, maintain and dismantle it all, and we owe a massive debt of thanks to our volunteers who take on a big share of the work. Without them, we – and more importantly, the terns – simply wouldn’t get by.

We hope to have the fencing all removed by the end of the month, after which the seasonal access restrictions will be lifted. People will once again be able to walk in the south end of the Reserve, without the risk of disturbing sensitive ground-nesting birds, or indeed being attacked by Arctic Terns defending their nests! Of course there is still the seal haul-out to consider, and we’ll cover responsible access in a future blog post.

Fencing under a brooding sky

This week’s weather has been somewhat hit and miss to say the least – check out the colour of the sky in the photo above. We all got a bit wet while dismantling the fence on Tuesday, though we were compensated by some warm sunshine and a fine rainbow later on.

Is there a pot of gold at the end? I’d settle for a rare bird or two…

While working at the ternery we were lucky to cross paths with this rather magnificent beast. It’s the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth, a large and spectacular species of moth which is resident at Forvie. The larvae feed on the leaves of Rosebay Willowherb – the tall, pink-flowered plant that grows in dense stands by the roadsides in late summer – and there’s certainly plenty of that at the ternery!

Elephant Hawk-moth larva
The adult moth – apologies for the pic; this one was photographed at Muir of Dinnet NNR having been caught in a light-trap there. But you get the idea!

We also happened upon quite a few butterflies during the sunny spells between the downpours. As some species’ flight-season ends, others are just beginning. This newly-minted Red Admiral was enjoying the Ragwort flowers…

Red Admiral on Ragwort

…while these Small Whites were busy, errm, making the next generation of Small Whites.

A mating pair of Small Whites

So the long days are shortening somewhat, the terns are away, and the fences nearly packed up for the season. But there’s still an abundance of wildlife to see; it’s the variety through the year that makes this place so special. Come and experience it for yourself – we’ll maybe see you out and about on the Reserve.

In the meantime, I’ve got some fence posts to collect…

All around the blooming heather

Now I love Forvie as much as anyone alive. But even I’m forced to admit that for a large proportion of the year, the coastal heath looks a harsh, bleak environment. Arid, salt-scorched and monochrome, you could be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any life there at all. However, in August, all that changes. The heather is in full bloom, and that bleak landscape is completely transformed into a palette of vibrant colour.

The coastal heath, brown and forlorn in midwinter…
…and transformed in summer.
A mosaic of colours and textures, like a fine Persian rug!

For most folk, ‘heather’ is a a bit like ‘seagull’ or ‘beetle’, in that many people assume there’s just the one kind. But in each of these examples there are actually a number of species, not just one, and they can be recognised quite easily with a bit of practice. In the case of heather, there are three species at Forvie that make up the mosaic of colour seen in the photos above.

Ling (Calluna vulgaris)

Ling is the commonest type of heather at Forvie – its scientific name is Calluna vulgaris, with ‘vulgaris’ fairly obviously translating as ‘common’. It has dense sprays of small, frilly-looking purple flowers, though you may occasionally spot a rare white version, in which case maybe buy a lottery ticket – white heather is considered lucky in Scots culture!

Bell Heather Erica cinerea

This is Bell Heather, which is found in clumps among the commoner Ling at Forvie. It is a rich purple colour, not unlike the wrapper on a well-known type of chocolate, and each individual flower resembles a tiny bell, or Chinese lantern if you prefer. Bell heather favours the drier areas of the coastal heath, and can often be found near the footpaths.

Cross-leaved Heath Erica tetralix

The third species of the trio is Cross-leaved Heath. It is closely related to the Bell Heather, but its scientific name Erica tetralix refers to its tiny leaves, which occur in fours up the stem (tetra = four). Each set of four leaves forms a cross – thereby giving it its common name in English as well. The Bell Heather, by contrast, bears its leaves in sets of three.

Cross-leaved Heath can also be recognised by its clusters of powder-pink flowers, borne at the very top of each stem. Another clue is the location – Cross-leaved Heath likes to have its feet wet (unlike the drought-loving Bell Heather), and can often be found in marshy ground and around lochs and drains.

So next time you’re out at Forvie, enjoy the colours and have a closer look at the heathers – see if you too can spot the differences. Besides, is there a better time to appreciate the Reserve’s natural beauty than now?

An August sunset over the Flooded Piece and coastal heath at Forvie

August – already!

So, that’s July in the rear-view mirror then – how did that happen? It’s said that if you blink, you can miss the summer in Scotland. That’s not totally fair, however, and August can be a fine month – both weather-wise and in terms of interest on the Reserve.

A beautiful spider, hitching a ride on our pickup truck

This fabulous bright-green spider was spotted on the back of the Forvie pickup truck recently. I think it might be a Green Orb-weaver, but my knowledge of spiders is next-to-zero, and I’m happy to be corrected by any arachnophile readers out there. If nothing else, it makes you realise there is so much to learn about the natural world, no matter how long you’ve been interested.

The near-deserted ternery in early August

It’s now hard to believe that nearly 5,000 pairs of birds nested at the ternery this year. By Monday afternoon just a dozen or so Common Terns remained, attending the last few chicks deep within the dense vegetation. Otherwise it was all quiet; time to reflect that our recently-fledged youngsters have already started their first epic migration to western and southern Africa, or even Antarctica.

The yellow flowers visible in the photo above are Ragwort. This is a common and familiar plant, often regarded as a weed by some landowners owing to its toxicity to livestock. However, it is a favourite of insects, and none more so than the Cinnabar moth.

Cinnabar caterpillars munching on Ragwort

The Cinnabar caterpillars are able to eat the Ragwort with no harmful effects, and in doing so they concentrate the poisonous substances from the plant in their tissues. This rather helpfully makes them toxic and inedible to would-be predators like insectivorous birds – and the caterpillars even assume a yellow-and-black stripy appearance to warn them off. Even the adult moths’ red-and-black colour scheme screams out “I’m really not good to eat – leave me alone!”

Adult Cinnabar moth

At Forvie we think that ‘our’ Cinnabars are the northernmost east-coast population in Britain, but feel free to correct me if you live further north than us and see these on your Ragwort.

Speaking of insects, we captured this mighty beast in the kitchen at the Reserve office recently…

Tachina grossa – yours for a quid

It’s a Tachina grossa, sometimes known as a Giant Tachinid Fly – one of the largest species of fly in Europe. It was bashing noisily around the kitchen window, and until I caught it in the glass and could see it properly, I thought it was a bumblebee due to its size and bulk. Here’a a better pic of one down at our sister National Nature Reserve at Flanders Moss.

What a mighty beast. Where’s Jeff Goldblum?

Tachinid flies have a rather gruesome means of reproduction. They lay eggs on live caterpillars – in the case of Tachina grossa at Forvie, probably the big hairy caterpillars of Northern Eggar or Fox Moths, which are plentiful on the moor. The eggs then hatch and the larvae devour the caterpillar alive, eventually killing it. This may sound like something out of a sci-fi horror film, but it’s a real life strategy that obviously works for these spectacular insects.

Anyway, until the next blog post, don’t have nightmares!