About Daryl Short

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

Ellon high water

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

Raining again…

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

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

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

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

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

Erosion at the former lifeboat slipway
Serious amount of sand shifted

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

That’ll be accumulating then

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

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

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

Great Northern Diver on the estuary

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

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

A voice that could cut cloots

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

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

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

Please dress appropriately

One of the highlights of the working year at Forvie in 2022 has been the resumption, after the long coronavirus lay-off, of public-facing work such as environmental education and public events. We began to pick these duties up again about a year ago, and have carried them on throughout 2022, with a packed summer events programme in addition to visits from various school, university and special interest groups. Even in the dark dog days of November this work continues, and on Thursday we welcomed students and staff from the University of Aberdeen for a day’s fieldwork on the estuary.

A typical Forvie field trip, in a gale

The down side of organising a field trip in November is that the weather on the day can be a bit of a lottery. This particular excursion was actually due to have taken place the previous week, but the forecast was absolutely dreadful for the day in question, so it was accordingly postponed. Unfortunately, the replacement day was even worse, with onshore gales, torrential rain and vicious windchill. ‘Please wear appropriate clothing’ is the usual instruction prior to a field trip, but there was little anybody could do to alleviate these conditions.

Last year’s field trip, on a much more clement day

Huge respect to the students and demonstrators though, who did their best and remained in surprisingly good spirits while getting comprehensively battered by the elements. For these trainee field biologists, it probably in fact provided some useful practice for a career working in the outdoors, usually in the worst weather going. We wish you all well in your studies and future careers, and hope that this experience hasn’t put you off Forvie for life!

While everyone survived the field trip unscathed – if painfully cold and wet – the same couldn’t be said of all our equipment. Sad to report that my faithful field notebook won’t ever be quite the same again. Off to the stationery cupboard for a new one methinks.

Farewell old friend

The following day, conditions worsened further still. This time I had a day’s desk-based work to keep me entertained (really the wrong word), but not before getting out and about to take some photos of the storm at large. A booming easterly gale, with windspeeds approaching 70mph and squalls of rain into the bargain, was tearing in off the North Sea. Looking southwards down the coast, the cliffs and stacks of North Forvie stood grimly against an onslaught of crashing waves and roiling foam. If you could keep your feet, this was an awe-inspiring day to be out on the coast.

Looking south past the Poor Man towards Hackley Bay

The village of Collieston, bordering the Reserve at its north-eastern extreme, was similarly spectacular. Here, with objects such as houses and cars to give a sense of scale, the ferocity of sea and wind combined can be better appreciated.

Wave approaching Collieston pier…
Breaking over the top…
What pier?!
Best keep the Velux windows shut
Boom!

During a big onshore blow like this one, the Reserve and village are often treated to a visit from the Foam Monster. This roguish and loveable creature, who usually lives a quiet and unobtrusive life down in Davy Jones’s locker, gets woken up by onshore winds and heavy seas, and comes ashore to create mayhem for a while. Like a toddler with a can of squirty cream, the Foam Monster liberally covers the coast with a thick layer of white spume, totally transforming the familiar landscape into something other-worldly.

There’s a beach under there somewhere

Sure enough, parts of Collieston were neck-deep in foam (and certain houses rendered inaccessible by it), while the wind whipped the foam up and carried great gobbets of the stuff a considerable distance inland. It made for a remarkable scene, with certain parts of our coastline resembling a giant snow-globe, except the individual ‘snowflakes’ were football-sized lumps of foam.

Foam blowing up over the village
A giant salty snow-globe

Mythical sea-monsters aside, sea foam is actually formed from organic compounds arising from the decomposition of algae and plankton. These compounds – proteins, lipids and carbohydrates – serve to trap air when the seawater is agitated by wind and wave action, thereby generating bubbles in much the same way as the soap-suds in your bathwater. The result is a persistent, sticky and prodigiously salty froth, which at times can look as attractive as fresh snow – but I really wouldn’t recommend trying to make ‘foam angels’ in it.

Foam Monster ahoy

How can any of our wildlife can survive conditions like these? This is another one of those everyday miracles with which nature continues to amaze us. Even when the wind and swell were at their worst, we continued to see Kittiwakes and Little Gulls fighting their way up the coast, and even dipping delicately into the raging waters to snatch the occasional morsel of food. Meanwhile, down at the mouth of the estuary, the Grey Seals were also doing their best to remain upright when coming ashore in the heavy surf. Occasionally, one would get rolled right over, before righting itself and exiting the water, presumably looking around to check that none of its contemporaries had noticed its undignified arrival onshore. But these are creatures quite used to tough conditions – and they’re always dressed appropriately of course.

Hope nobody saw my epic fail…

Even more remarkably, the movement of small songbirds has also continued in what would appear to be suicidal conditions for migration. But a trickle of Redwings and Blackbirds continue to make landfall, while Catriona also spotted a suspiciously-pale-looking Chiffchaff in the bushes at Sand Loch. Based on its appearance, this individual may have come from as far afield as Siberia, though the viewing conditions were too poor to get a decent look at it (never mind hear its call, which is one of the key ID features for sorting out your Siberian Chiffchaff from your European one). How this tiny scrap of life made landfall in this weather really does defy belief – likewise the fact that Catriona actually managed to snap a photo of it!

Chiffchaff – probably from a long way east of here!

While on the subject of Siberian wanderers, we’ll finish up this week with a light-hearted note about another small bird on an epic journey. The weekend before the storms set in, I popped out of the house and down to the bin with some recycling, only to hear an unfamiliar bird call emanating from the willow hedge along the side of the garden. Tyeck, tyeck, tyeck… not a Wren or a Blackcap… tyeck, tyeck… still not sure, better check this out… !?£%$*?!, a Dusky Warbler! Tiny and unassuming, but with a big voice, these nest in Siberia and usually spend the winter in south-east Asia, yet this one had found its way to Collieston… and thence onto the Reserve, where it settled in the willow scrub at Sand Loch for a while. Just the fifth-ever record of this species for north-east Scotland, this proved once again that if you keep your eyes and ears open, you never quite know what will come your way. And that we’re remarkably blessed with avian diversity here at Forvie.

Dusky Warbler – bona-fide Siberian whopper

Anyway, this fits with the ‘please dress appropriately’ theme for this week’s blog quite neatly. Upon my legging it back into the house, and spluttering incoherently about a Dusky Warbler in the hedge outside, my wife entered the familiar state of blind panic that accompanies the occurrence of a rarity for which you’re totally unprepared. In her haste to get outside and see it before it disappeared, she proceeded to put her boots on the wrong feet – but was nevertheless soon enjoying great views of a species she’d never seen before. Appropriate dress for a rare bird? Anything goes.

Bitterly mild

The couple of frosty nights we experienced in the opening week of November were, it seems, just an anomaly. Since then, conditions at Forvie have been staggeringly mild for the time of year, with temperatures daily in the mid-teens. For our wildlife, this blurring of the seasons leads to confusion and ‘mixed messages’ – after all, the daylight hours are falling away rapidly, but the temperature isn’t – and this can cause real problems for species that rely on temperature changes as triggers for hibernation, dormancy, emergence or growth. For us, meanwhile, it creates a feeling of unease about the state of our climate, and our effect upon it. A November week this warm simply feels wrong.

The estuary calm and serene – and incredibly mild

It’s been noticeable here how many of our wild flowers are still hanging on, even at this late stage of the year. A handful of Daisies and Dandelions may persist through an exceptionally mild autumn and winter, but at the moment they’re still remarkably widespread, providing splashes of colour along the waysides. Red Campion is another plant with a long flowering season, and its pinkish blooms can also still be found around the Reserve as we head into mid-November.

Dandelions still in full flower
Daisies persisting on the waysides
Red Campion – a plant with a long flowering season

Even some of our more specialised coastal plants are resolutely clinging on. Sea Rocket is a plant of the crucifer (cabbage) family, and its powder-pink flowers and fleshy leaves are a feature of the mobile dunes in summer. Yet here we are in late autumn, and some plants continue to bear a scatter of flowers.

Sea Rocket in June…
…and persisting into November

Sea Mayweed is recognisably a member of the daisy family. However, like the aforementioned Sea Rocket and many other plants adapted for the arid and saline coastal environment, its leaves are succulent and fleshy, helping the plant to retain water. Again, we usually associate its cheery flowers with high summer, rather than the short days of November. Yet here it was, brightening up the estuary foreshore, and offering a free meal of nectar and pollen to any tardy pollinators still on the wing.

Sea Mayweed in full bloom – in late autumn!

Perhaps most surprising of all was the discovery of some Wild Angelica in full flower. This species’ usual flowering season is from June through August, and by this time of the year the plants have usually long since died back. This particular plant, though, was at its absolute peak in the first week of November, and none of us could recall ever before having seen it blooming so late in the year. There’s no doubt that the mild weather has confused the flora at Forvie this autumn.

Wild Angelica in full bloom
Each flowerhead comprising dozens of tiny individual flowers
Delicate and beautiful – and very late!

Inland of us, people have been reporting that the leaves have remained on the trees much later than usual this autumn, again due to the warm temperatures and lack of frost. Here at Forvie though, our trees and shrubs have already been substantially stripped – not by low temperatures, but by high winds, blowing relentlessly from the south and south-west. While most of the leaves are long gone (and are probably scattered far and wide across Buchan), in some cases the fruits remain. Dog Rose is one of the most prominent, and attractive, of the fruit-bearing shrubs; its lovely scarlet rose-hips will persist into the winter, providing a much-needed source of food for various mammals and birds during the colder months ahead.

Dog Rose
Rose hips in the autumn sunshine

The colourful berries of Bittersweet (or Woody Nightshade to give it its alternative and somewhat posher name) are also a feature of the late-autumn landscape here, and are easy to spot now most of the leaves have fallen. These fruits are popular with birds like thrushes and Blackcaps, and represent a welcome refuelling opportunity for these long-haul travellers when they make landfall from the Continent. This is a two-way street of course: the birds benefit from some life-saving nutrition, while the plant benefits from the birds’ generosity in terms of spreading its seeds.

Bittersweet berries

Bittersweet is a native, wild plant, but it also makes an attractive addition to an informal garden (ours is very informal, so it looks right at home here). It grows and spreads rapidly, and can even be ‘trained’ along a fence or trellis in much the same way as Honeysuckle. It features attractive purple flowers and brightly-coloured fruits, is a magnet for wildlife, and is very hardy as well. That makes it the perfect garden plant as far as I’m concerned!

Bittersweet growing along a trellis at Author’s HQ

In addition to the rose hips and Bittersweet berries, and handful of Blackberries remain on the Bramble bushes, and likewise Sloes on the Blackthorn (though the latter are scarce in our local area). Just about all of the Rowan and Whitebeam berries are long gone though, having been decimated by the great raiding-parties of thrushes that arrived on our coast last month.

Blackberries – down to the last few now

With autumn drawing to a close, and the clocks having shifted back an hour, we’re now in ‘winter mode’ in our working lives. But the continuing mild conditions have occasionally confused us too, and this week I found myself massively overdressed for the annual ditch-clearing routine. Sweltering under too many layers of clothing, I was forced to open my shirt-collar and roll up my sleeves to disperse the heat. On the up-side, the lovely orange ‘perma-tan’ that you inevitably get from working in ochre-stained ditchwater now extends to my elbows and neck. Next time I’m in the pub I’ll probably get asked “Ooh, have you been somewhere nice?” – errr, you could say so I suppose!

Daryl and Mark topping up their tans

As we’ve explained before in these pages, we maintain a small network of ditches and drains to prevent the flooding of footpaths, tracks or neighbouring farmland where it naturally drains onto the Reserve. It’s surprisingly fulfilling and enjoyable work, perma-tan or otherwise, and always satisfying to see the results of your labours.

Solid gold ditching action

Working in shirtsleeves in crazily mild conditions, and getting a bright orange tan in the process, in mid-November? Ignore the 60mph winds, and the fact it’s dark by 4pm, and you could almost imagine you’re somewhere in the Mediterranean, rather than here at 57.3o north. As I said earlier on, it just feels a bit wrong: surely Forvie shouldn’t feel like this in November? But who knows, bitterly mild autumns like this one may turn out to be the new normal, if indeed there is such a thing.

On a frosty night at Forvie…

Finally, after what must have been the mildest October since the beginning of time, the opening week of November delivered the first frost of the autumn. As last Thursday drew to a close, clear skies and a lull in the wind at last allowed temperatures to drop below freezing, lending a brittle crunch to the grass and fallen leaves underfoot. It also set the scene for a memorable evening on the Reserve, with an enjoyable crispness to the air, and a fabulous sunset as a backdrop.

A golden Forvie sunset
The Flooded Piece at dusk
Going, going…

On most clear evenings here, we are treated to the spectacle of the ‘evening flight’, where huge flocks of Pink-footed Geese commute from their daytime feeding grounds to their overnight roost on the estuary or one of the local lochs. On occasion, especially in late autumn and early winter, the geese are accompanied by a much smaller, yet highly vocal and still impressive, flight of Whooper Swans. Sure enough, on this fine evening, we heard the deep, bass bugling of the swans mixing with the treble babble of the geese. But something tonight was different.

Pink-footed Geese after sundown on Thursday

With the sun already set, and a two-thirds-full moon suspended over the North Sea, the swans didn’t, as expected, head for the estuary or Cotehill Loch (usually their favourite overnight stops). Instead, flock after flock set out on a south-south-easterly course, straight and unwavering, taking them out across the moon-glazed water and away over Aberdeen Bay. Rather than settling down for the night, they were leaving us.

Heading south-south-east…
They’re away!

South-south-east in a straight line from Forvie, by my reckoning, would eventually land you on the coast of north Norfolk. Right enough, large numbers of wild swans, including up to 12,500 Whoopers – 5% of the entire world population – spend the winter in the East Anglian fens, and this is likely to be the destination for many of the swans and geese that use Forvie as a service-station each autumn. I had always assumed (without any particular reasoning) that once they arrived in the UK from Iceland, the swans would make their onward journey southwards in a series of short hops, travelling by day rather than overnight. Seems I was wrong then – thereby proving once again that you never stop learning stuff, even after a lifetime of being interested in a subject.

Nightfall no barrier for travelling

Of course, it’s impossible to say for sure which route and destination lay ahead for the swans as they set out from Forvie that night. They might have just trundled down the coast to St Cyrus or Montrose, for instance, and stopped there. But this is where the scientist and the romantic in me occasionally bash heads. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to picture them crossing the Norfolk coast at dawn, their calls echoing across the saltmarsh below as they did so. And in support of my romantic long-haul theory, the clear, still, moonlit night would undoubtedly have presented them with perfect conditions for navigation and travelling.

Whoopers against the dusk

As a veteran myself of countless long journeys – frequently overnight – to visit family in distant southern counties, perhaps I identify with the travelling swans more than most. But they are possessed of other characteristics that we humans can relate to as well. Not only their voices, which are at once musical and conversational, but their sociable nature as well. As reserve manager Catriona has often said, there are few things that sound more forlorn than the call of a lone wild swan. These are creatures with family ties, just like us.

A sociable species, just like ourselves

Listen to a flock of Whoopers on migration, and you can hear the adults calling out encouragement to their youngsters: stick together, keep us in sight, don’t give up, we’ll make it eventually. The keen listener may also discern the voices of the young ones among the babble – often with a hoarse, cracked tone a bit like a teenager whose voice is beginning to break. Slow down dad, you’re flying too fast, where are we going, are we nearly there yet? OK, I’m anthropomorphising here, but again it’s not a huge leap of the imagination. They call loudly and frequently for good reason; again, like us, communication is of paramount importance to them.

Whooper family travelling together
Follow my leader

If you’re lucky enough to see a flock of Whooper Swans on the ground, it’s easy to separate the adults from the young: the former are gleaming white with a sharply-defined yellow-and-black pattern to the bill, while the latter are silver-grey with a pink-and-black shadow of the adult bill pattern. Consequently it’s easy to pick out family parties among a larger flock, and to see how successful each pair has been in the preceding breeding season. Some pairs will have just one or two cygnets; some, perhaps the younger or more inexperienced pairs, may not have any at all. But the really successful partnerships may have four, five or even six young in tow. Judging by what we’ve seen here in the last few days, their productivity appears to have been good this year, which will hopefully help to ensure we’ll still be enjoying ‘swan music’ at dusk here in years to come.

Mum, dad and youngster

As night finally fell on Thursday, the sunset melted away and the moon rose higher into the inky-blue-black sky; still the swan flight continued. Later on, a glimmer of aurora touched the northern horizon, and still the swan flight continued. This was a night to remember for sure.

Moon over sand loch
A hint of aurora to the north

A sharp frosty night in late autumn is one of life’s pleasures. But add a flight of wild swans, and the experience is elevated to a different level altogether. Now is the time to get out and sample it for yourself. Just mind and wrap up warm.

What a heap of rubbish.

As anybody who lives by the coast will testify, the sea is an exceptionally rich source of litter. We, as a species, have long used our oceans and seas as a dumping ground for our waste, which doesn’t exactly reflect well upon us as chief custodians of our planet. At the same time, our litter also finds its way into rivers and inland watercourses – whether accidentally or deliberately – and this ultimately ends up in the sea as well. With all this anthropogenic detritus sloshing around the world’s oceans, it’s hardly surprising that a proportion of it ends up getting washed back ashore, making for a sad and sorry sight on our beaches.

A typical haul of beach litter at Forvie

It’s a huge, global problem – but nevertheless, we at Forvie try to ‘do our bit’ and keep on top of marine litter on our own patch. We have several miles of glorious sandy beach and sheltered estuary foreshore in our care here, in addition to the secluded coves and pebble beaches north of Rockend, all of which accumulate rubbish in quantity. Keeping everything spotless would be a full-time job in itself, as every high tide brings with it a fresh delivery of flotsam and jetsam.

A full-time job

We’re really fortunate, therefore, that we get so much help with this task. Not least from the residents of Collieston and Newburgh, who diligently – and at times bloody-mindedly – take it upon themselves to keep their local patch clean and tidy, as a matter of personal pride. Some individuals, out for their daily walk, may pocket a few small items of litter to take home, while others determinedly haul rubbish up the cliffs from remote coves, and either carry it home or leave it in a convenient place for us to collect with the pickup truck. Others mobilise their friends, family or perhaps a sports team, kayak club or scout group, and go out mob-handed. The amount of work these unpaid and unheralded heroes do is truly impressive, and we’re more grateful than any of you could ever know.

Uplifting beach rubbish collected on the Reserve by residents of Collieston…
…while the local kayak club collected this lot from the estuary!

Last week, we undertook a beach clean of our own, in conjunction with Lauren from East Grampian Coastal Partnership via the ‘Turning the Plastic Tide’ project. Lauren provided the gloves, bags and litter-pickers required for the job, as well as crucially arranging for the waste to be uplifted from Waterside car park – as always, our biggest problem is how to dispose of the litter, rather than how to physically remove it from the beach. In return, we provided tea and biccies, and helping hands in the form of Reserve staff and volunteers.

Some of the happy beach-cleaners

Unfortunately we couldn’t do anything about the weather on the day which, perhaps appropriately, was utter rubbish during the morning. But for those hardy souls who did turn out, it eventually cleared into a beautiful autumn afternoon, and a fine truck-load of marine litter was successfully removed from Forvie beach.

Lifting beach litter, in a typical Forvie gale
Weather starting to clear
Enjoying a well-earned brew
Unloading some of the spoils at Waterside

When beach-cleaning, you’re never quite sure what you might find, and previous outings have turned up some weird and wonderful finds. We didn’t find anything especially interesting, bizarre or disgusting this time, but the most notable item had to be this trawl-net float encrusted with the biggest barnacles any of us had ever seen.

Blistering barnacles, look at the size of those

We’re not sure what species these are; they may just be exceptionally large and mature Rough Barnacles (scientific name Balanus balanus, a common and widespread species), or they could be a non-native species from warmer waters, having hitched a ride on drifting fishing-gear. If anyone out there knows their barnacles, please get in touch with us! Either way, they were certainly an impressive sight, given that the barnacles we’re used to seeing on the rocks here are barely fingernail-sized.

Michty me!

Mercifully and surprisingly, given the year we’ve had with avian flu, we only found a couple of dead birds washed ashore during the beach clean. One was a Guillemot, which we commonly encounter in these circumstances throughout the year, and could have succumbed to avian flu or a dozen other causes besides. The second was a Redwing, thousands of which had made landfall from Scandinavia the previous week; this one was a sad reminder of the dangers of a migratory life strategy. The crossing of the North Sea is a stiff test for a bird that cannot land on the water for a rest, and it’s a test that not every individual will pass.

Redwing – one that didn’t make it

We’re now on high alert for avian flu once again, with the geese having returned to our region for the winter. Will there be a mass die-off like last winter, or will the epidemic have subsided? On Friday morning we carried out a reconnaissance mission to the south shore of the estuary, but didn’t find the droves of dead birds that we’d feared – so it’s a case of so far, so good! Unfortunately for us though, our visit coincided with another spell of heavy rain, and in such an exposed environment as the open estuary, we were all soon comprehensively soaked. The underfoot conditions of greasy grass, slimy seaweed and slippery rocks were challenging to boot, but luckily none of us ended up flat on our face in the sticky, cloying estuarine mud.

A grim morning indeed

On the plus side though, we did have a close encounter with a large flock of Dunlin, one of Forvie’s commonest and smallest wader species. These were feeding contentedly on the mudflats, quite unconcerned by our presence, allowing us to view them from just three or four metres away while they went about their business. It was a lovely experience to watch them pottering about at such close quarters, and to hear the quiet conversational chatter from the flock that you’re not able to hear at ‘normal’ viewing distance. And best of all, they came to us, and not the other way around. An encounter with wildlife on its own terms is always the most enjoyable kind of encounter – knowing that you haven’t disturbed or affected the behaviour of the creatures you’re watching. And this encounter certainly made up for the soaking we received.

Dunlin at point blank range
The Dunlin flock doing their thing
Gotta love a close encounter with wildlife!

With October now drawing to a close, and the clocks shifting back an hour, sunset has been brought forward to the end of our working day. While this sadly means no more gardening or spotting after work, it does present us with some good photo opportunities.

Sand Loch at an October dusk

As we’ve said before, ours is a particularly photogenic landscape at sunset and sunrise, and late autumn is a fine season to make the most of it. The view over Sand Loch on Wednesday was particularly enjoyable, after the day’s beach-cleaning efforts. Fair to say the week wasn’t all a load of rubbish.

Where’s Wally?

It’s been a notably good week at Forvie for birds from the far north: Arctic visitors to our comparatively balmy shores. Probably most obvious among these are the Pink-footed Geese, winter refugees from Iceland and beyond, whose constant babble is the soundtrack to our autumn and winter, and whose numbers are at their highest just now. And as any bird-brain will tell you, taking time out to sit, observe and pick through a goose flock is one of life’s pleasures.

Pink footed Goose

It’s great to watch the geese themselves, to see the size differences between the big ganders, the much smaller females and this year’s offspring, and to watch all their social interaction. Family parties stick together on migration and throughout the winter, and the casual observer can often quite easily discern a family unit comprising mum, dad and their youngsters.

Arguments between family parties are commonplace within the flock, and even the young get involved, as they literally sort out the pecking order. They posture at one another in exaggerated fashion, stretching their necks and swearing copiously in goose-speak; if this doesn’t settle the debate, they may recourse to a bit of lightweight physical combat, pecking and chasing. For a highly sociable species, they seem to spend a lot of time falling out with one another. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy their antics – we’re not so very different ourselves!

A feeding flock of Pink-feet

When faced with a substantial flock of geese, the keen naturalist is always on the lookout for something rare or unusual among the masses – a sort of Where’s Wally? with geese. Maybe there will be a White-fronted or Tundra Bean Goose from the east, or a massive prize like a Ross’s Goose from North America. And while this week didn’t produce one of those (you’d have heard the Reserve staff yelling if it had), we did have our fair share of more unusual geese.

Geese on the estuary: an avian Where’s Wally?

In recent days we’ve been graced by unusually high numbers of Barnacle Geese alongside the usual Pink-feet. These are more usually associated with more westerly locations, such as Islay and the Solway Firth, where tens of thousands of them may congregate in winter. Here at Forvie we most often see them passing through in late spring and autumn, en-route to and from their breeding grounds in Svalbard, with just the odd one or two spending the winter here with their Pink-footed cousins. They’re easily picked out among the Pinks, with their attractive black-and-white barred plumage and little white faces standing out from the crowd.

Barnacle Geese

This week, we’ve hosted around 200 Barnacle Geese on and around the Reserve, and among their number we happened upon a couple of Wallies, so to speak. First up, a Canada Goose – but not one of the big, brash, feral ones you might find eating handouts of bread at a city park. Canada Geese come in all shapes and sizes, with numerous sub-species whose appearances differ considerably; the feral ones that have naturalised so successfully in Europe are one of the largest and palest subspecies. This individual, however, was smaller, slenderer and swarthier, and was likely a ‘Todd’s Canada Goose’, a genuine vagrant from North America. Blimey!

Todd’s Canada Goose (centre), with Barnacle Geese and Whooper Swans

The second Wally took a lot less finding among the flock, and in fact stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. At first glance, its white plumage could have been taken for that of a Ross’s or Snow Goose, but closer inspection revealed that it was actually a white Barnacle Goose! This remarkable and beautiful individual lacked most of the dark pigments normally present in the plumage, an aberration known as ‘leucism’. For many decades now, a dynasty of leucistic white Barnacle Geese has overwintered annually at Caerlaverock, in south-west Scotland, and it’s highly likely that our special visitor was one of these, stopping off on its way down to the Solway.

Spot the odd one out?!
Leucistic Barnacle Goose, paired with a ‘normal’ one
Beautiful freak!

Towards the end of the week, the excitement came in the form of winter thrushes. From Wednesday onwards, it was apparent there was a mass arrival of Redwings and Fieldfares happening. These birds come here from Scandinavia, but the constant westerly winds of the last few weeks will have stacked them up on the other side of the North Sea, waiting for easier winds to make the journey. As soon as the winds switched round to the north and east, the thrushes seized their opportunity, made the jump and arrived on our coast in their thousands.

Sky full of thrushes

There are few things more exciting than being out in a ‘fall’ of birds, especially thrushes. They arrive in big, vocal flocks, wild and wary, dropping out of the sky into the first bit of cover they find, raiding any fruit they find in order to refuel after the sea crossing. The air is electrified by the sound of their contact-calls – the fizzing notes of Redwings, the staccato chatter of Fieldfares, and the deep chuckling of Blackbirds. There’s a real sense of urgency about the whole affair, and rightly so, as these – like the geese – are fleeing the hard northern winter in their native lands. It’s the stuff of life and death, and perhaps this is one of the reasons we find such arrivals so moving and compelling.

Redwing
Fieldfare

Redwings were far the most plentiful of the arrivals this week, with over 4,000 recorded on Friday alone. However, there have been good numbers of Fieldfare as well (upwards of 1,500 on Friday), with the odd Song Thrush and Ring Ouzel mixed in for good measure. We have also seen several hundred Blackbirds as they, too, make the crossing from the Continent to the UK, supplementing ‘our’ resident population each winter. These are usually more confiding and easier to see than the wary Redwings and Fieldfares, which are seldom easily approachable.

A newly-arrived Blackbird

Friday morning, when the ‘thrush fall’ was in progress, was notable (by Forvie standards) for being remarkably calm and still. Indeed, there was a touch of mist through the air, and with the voices of thousands of thrushes overhead, and the distant babble of geese, it made for an extremely atmospheric morning. It also produced a wonderful display of water droplets on all the grass heads and spiders’ webs, like millions of tiny glass beads.

Path lined with dew-covered grasses
Beauty under our feet
Spider’s web enamelled with water droplets
This would be invisible without the water!

When the mist and drizzle cleared for a while on Friday afternoon, it briefly turned into a fine autumn’s day, offering the opportunity to appreciate the colours of the heath and its willows, while they still retained some leaves.

Autumn leaves on the heath
Colourful willow leaves
Autumn colours at the Coastguard’s Pool

Autumn colours and an awesome migration spectacle, as well as some excellent Where’s Wallying – it’s been a super week to be out on the Reserve. October is such an enjoyable month at Forvie that I reckon we ought to have two Octobers a year. Still, I don’t make the rules.

Rainbows and running repairs

Following the previous week’s gales, life at Forvie this week settled into a more typical autumn medley of sunshine and rain, mild days and occasional sharp mornings. Typical in the sense that no two autumn days here are quite the same – meaning that each morning, dressing appropriately for the day ahead required a fair bit of guesswork. But if you succeeded in avoiding the squalls and showers, it was a fine week to be out and about.

A spectrum over the grass heath

The mix of sunshine and rain occasionally conspired to produce a decent rainbow, though this is always inexplicably tough to capture in a photo. Getting a reasonable picture of a rainbow is right up there in the difficulty stakes with finding the associated pot of gold. So far in my lifetime I have managed to achieve neither.

Rainbow over the Forvie Centre
Pot of gold presumably locked in Mark’s van

These big autumn skies are the perfect backdrop for the great flocks of waterfowl that characterise the season. A long, straggling skein of Pink-footed Geese against the lilac-blue of a morning sky makes for a fine sight, and is enhanced considerably by the backing-track of distant goose music – chatty, conversational babble from small flocks, and a roar of white noise from the really big aggregations. This really is the sound of the east coast in autumn and winter. Of all the seasonal wildlife, of all the species that come and go throughout the year here, it’s probably the geese whose absence is most keenly felt when they’re away in their distant breeding grounds. But this probably serves to make us appreciate them all the more when they return to our shores each autumn.

Morning flight
Pink-footed Geese – evocative sights and sounds

It’s not just the geese that have been on the move lately. Whooper Swans have also been very much in evidence, and like the geese, their loud and far-carrying voices are often the first thing to give away their presence. Spotting them can sometimes be surprisingly difficult, given that they’re six feet long, seven feet across and white – but they blend in with the cloud remarkably effectively, their plumage appearing almost translucent against the light. However, once they drop below the horizon, they’re practically unmissable.

Migrating Whooper Swans – translucent against the light sky…
Unmissable at low level though!

The constant westerly airflow over the past two weeks has brought the migration of smaller birds to an almost complete standstill. A few hardy little souls do continue to pass through, such as this Chiffchaff which spent a few days with us, presumably waiting for the wind to change to a more favourable direction for its onward journey south-west.

Chiffchaff lurking in the autumn leaves

The recent high winds also led to some high seas, with rough conditions along our coastline continuing even after the gales had abated. The churning waters associated with autumn and winter storms can occasionally throw ashore some interesting sea life that we don’t often get the chance to see. Last week, there was a notable ‘wreck’ of Common Starfish and various comb jellies on the beach at Newburgh, testament to the strength of wind and swell over the preceding days.

Wind and waves
Sea life washed ashore (photo R. Woods)
Starfish of all shapes and sizes (photo R. Woods)

Rough sea conditions also tend to result in large amounts of kelp and other deeper-water seaweeds washing up. The most commonly encountered of these is Oarweed, which comprises a single thick stalk from which a series of flat, strap-like fronds radiate, rather like a flattened palm tree. This can be foraged for culinary purposes, its uses including seasoning and thickening soups and stews, as well as being oven-dried or shallow-fried (careful though, as it tends to be quite explosive in the frying-pan) to make a very salty (but relatively healthy) alternative to potato crisps. But be sure and check anything you take home before you leave the beach – it may contain stowaways such as the Blue-rayed Limpet that we found during the Edible & Medicinal Plants event earlier in the year!

Oarweed
Blue-rayed Limpet

Changing tack somewhat, but staying broadly on the topic of wee craiturs, we were pleased to note a few caterpillars still in evidence on the Reserve lately. Possibly the most numerous of these at the moment are those of the Ruby Tiger moth, which can often be seen motoring their way along or across the footpaths. These are small and distinctively fuzzy caterpillars, but they do show a degree of variation in their appearance. Most are of a ginger-blonde ‘Highland coo’ shade, though some are a little darker and are more of a mahogany colour.

Ruby Tiger caterpillar – a ginger one…
…and a mahogany one

Other species are altogether more spectacular though. Surely one of the weirdest and most wonderful is the caterpillar of the Grey Dagger moth. While the adult moth may be grey, the larva is an absolute riot of loud colours and markings. We found this one munching away on the leaves of a willow thicket out on the moor.

Grey Dagger caterpillar. What a beast.

Finally, the ‘running repairs’ caveat in this week’s title refers to all the maintenance and patch-up jobs that we get up to at this time of the year, now that the full-throttle mayhem of summer is behind us. A while ago, we reported upon yet more vandalism at Waulkmill bird hide, involving a broken window among other delights. This week, at last, we found the time to get a new window manufactured and fitted. The result is a credit to Mark, who has been honing his joinery skills during his apprenticeship here at Forvie.

The old shattered pane…
…and the broken frame
New frame fitted
I can see clearly now!

Well done fella – you can do the next one without any assistance from me! Here’s hoping we won’t need to replace any more windows any time soon though; we’ve enough to do here without folk making extra work for us. But as we know, life at Forvie isn’t all rare birds and rainbows…

Storm season starting

Over the course of the last few days, any thoughts of an Indian summer in 2022 have been well and truly blown away. Quite literally in fact: as I sit typing this, a sixty-odd-mph wind is tearing in from the south, the trees in the back garden are waving wildly as if signalling for help, and everything is covered in a green shrapnel of shredded leaves. This is about as far removed from the becalmed days of summer as it’s possible to get. Welcome to the storm season.

The view from the Forvie Centre, into the teeth of a gale

Forvie is a place well-known for its windy climate at the best of times. The wind is the driving force behind the dynamic, constantly-shifting dunescape in the southern half of the Reserve – possibly the most spectacular and well-known feature of the site. The immense power of the wind – eroding, transporting and depositing sand in huge quantities – is reflected in this landscape, and it acts as a useful reminder that nature is very much in charge here. We may be custodians of this landscape, but by no means do we control it.

Sand-blow in action
Wind-scoured dunes
The landscape we love, sculpted by the wind – photo ©Lorne Gill

High winds also lend a very different feel to Forvie’s eastern flank. A month ago, the North Sea was serene and mirror-calm, its surface flecked with myriad seabirds and disturbed only by dolphins. Now, awakened by the gales, the sea has taken on an entirely new character, leaping and snarling at the shore, inhospitable in the extreme. From mill pond to Roaring Forties: it’s hard to believe it’s the same coastline. But this is one of the joys of living at a high latitude – the variety through the seasons means that life is never dull.

From calm and serene…
…to wild and windy

Obviously when things get as rough as this, much of our wildlife sensibly keeps its head down until the worst is past. This is not the time to be out and about, whatever your life strategy. Taking some tips from nature, we also decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and abandoned our plans for a waterfowl census on the estuary on Friday. Separating your Dunlin from your Knot isn’t too difficult in calm conditions, but when the telescope is bouncing around on the tripod like a bucking bronco, it’s worse than impossible – with the added risk of a black eye thrown in for good measure. Nope, we’ll leave that job till next week I think.

Better luck next week

Having said all that, last week was by no means a dead loss for wildlife. Thursday was the best day of the week in terms of weather – lucky for the University of Aberdeen students who visited the Reserve for a day’s fieldwork – and consequently it also offered the best conditions for spotting. The sun shone, some late insects were very much in evidence, and a hint of east in the wind had delivered a few birds too. The latter included our first Chiffchaff and Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn, among a trickle of Goldcrests and Redwings.

From Siberia with love – Yellow-browed Warbler
Redwing – first of the winter thrushes

We also recorded a couple of unusual sightings. First up was a rather out-of-place Treecreeper that pitched up in our coastal garden at the north-eastern extreme of the Reserve. We’re not exactly blessed with a lot of decent tree cover here, raising the question of quite where this little fellow had come from – a wanderer from inland, or a traveller from the Continent? It’s probably impossible to know for sure, but either way it made for an incongruous sight in a windswept coastal location, when it ought to have been more at home in a mature woodland with proper trees.

Treecreeper – where’d you come from?!
On the ground, having given up on our rubbish ‘trees’

The second oddity was a Black-throated Diver that appeared out of the blue on Sand Loch, where it dived elegantly among the regular Mallards and Mute Swans (the swan family having remained in-situ from the summer). While I try to keep the worst excesses of my uber-nerdy birder personality off the pages of this blog, I can’t help myself sometimes, so apologies for what follows. Simply, this was absolute 24-carat ‘patch gold’. Last time I saw one of these on the local patch was over a decade ago. And better still (or worse, depending on your view of me), I was able to leg it home and add it to my ‘garden list’, part of Sand Loch being viewable from our back garden. A truly preposterous ‘garden’ bird. Yes, I know this sort of behaviour is a strange affliction to have, but in all honesty, I really can’t recommend it highly enough. In the insane world of the 21st century, being a bit bonkers about nature isn’t the worst problem to have.

Black-throated Diver on Sand Loch
An absolute patch monster (and colossal ‘garden tick’)

Right, no more about birds this week I promise. I did mention earlier on that there are still some insects on the go, despite the winding-down of the invertebrate world for the year (and despite the prevailing weather too). Most obvious among these are the Red Admiral butterflies that continue to proudly fly the flag for the Lepidoptera, even though most of their congeners are done for the season. Indeed, in a mild autumn these can persist right through into early December before settling down and hibernating for the winter. These strong, athletic flyers, decked out in their bold and distinctive livery, seem to be possessed of a devil-may-care attitude to the turning of the year. We don’t care if the summer’s behind us, we’ll just carry on regardless, whatever the weather might throw at us.

Elements of summer still persisting – Red Admiral
Still looking the part too!

Another insect characteristic of autumn is the Hawthorn Shield Bug. It’s a distinctive and attractive beast, but not showy and obvious in the manner of the Red Admiral. Consequently, unless you actively seek these out, you’re most likely to cross paths with one by happy accident – such as the individual below, who landed on some of our washing during the week. Normally brilliantly camouflaged among the leaves of their favoured Hawthorn or Whitebeam trees, they are somewhat easier to spot on a white cotton background.

Hawthorn Shield Bug is a relatively recent colonist of Scotland, having previously had a more southerly distribution. This may be a result of our warming climate; a similar pattern has been observed in other insects, such as the Cinnabar moth, which first colonised Forvie in 2009. Insects are, by their nature, fast to reproduce and quick to take advantage of new opportunities, and as such they are great indicators of environmental change. And there’s no doubt that we are living in an age of unprecedented change.

Hawthorn Shield Bug – a handsome beast

One of the predicted outcomes of climate change is, ironically, more unpredictable weather. It could be that in future, storm events such as we’ve seen over the past year will become ever more frequent, and both we and our wildlife will need to adapt to this brave new world. Not an easy assignment to say the least, and there will undoubtedly be winners and losers along the way.

Welcome, once again, to the storm season – batten down the hatches.

It’s been raining wildlife

This past week, for what seems like the first time in ages, we’ve had some proper rain at Forvie. Actual proper rain. Not the sort of quick thundery splash we’ve been getting on and off for the last month or so, which evaporates almost as soon as it falls. No, this was the real stuff – a proper prolonged soaking, providing the Reserve a with long, quenching drink after a drouthy and dusty summer. Long overdue, and very much appreciated.

Rain on the way!

As well as topping up the water levels and damping down the crispy-dry vegetation, the weather also deluged the Reserve with wildlife. This happened on two fronts: firstly with a mass emergence of moisture-loving residents, and secondly with a huge influx of foreigners.

Foremost among the residents were the amphibians. Having been hard to find during the prolonged dry spell, suddenly there were Common Toads and Common Frogs everywhere. These came in all sizes, from magnificent fully-grown adults down to the miniature replicas from this year’s hatch, making their first journeys into the wide world. In fact, traversing the footpaths became a hazardous business during and after the rain, as there were toadlets under your feet at every turn. Often we were seen to do the ‘toad two-step’, trying to avoid treading on them.

Watch your feet!

Just for a quick ID reminder on the frog-versus-toad conundrum: Common Frog is usually green (or at least green-ish, though they can be brown, rusty or even golden-coloured), with a dark stripe running through the eyes, and largely smooth, shiny skin. The Common Toad, by contrast, is usually darker and browner, lacks the ‘eye-stripe’, and has prodigiously warty skin. These differences are much more easily observed on the full-sized ones rather than the tiny juveniles.

Additionally, the two species’ gaits are different. Generally speaking, frogs hop, and toads crawl. I cannot mention this without thinking back to a conversation in the local Doric that I once overheard: “Did ye ken, there’s twa types o’ puddock? Een that hops, and een that craals!”. These being, of course, Common Frog and Common Toad respectively. I have never come across a neater way of expressing this than in our local dialect!

Common Frog
Common Toad

Among the multitude of frogs and toads thronging the footpaths, we also happened upon several Palmate Newts on the move. These appear quite unfamiliar when seen out of the water, and are often (understandably) mistaken for lizards. Their soft amphibian skin, shorter tail and slower action easily separate them from their reptile cousins though. In common with the other amphibians, these occur in all sizes, and the tiny ones can be really difficult to spot.

Palmate Newt

Autumn is the season when amphibians begin to think about bedding down for the forthcoming winter, which is one of the reasons they are so widespread just now. They are beginning to disperse away from their native water bodies, to overwinter in damp grassland or under a convenient stone or log. and at times can turn up in some odd places, far from water. On Monday we had to reprimand two newtlets who were trespassing in the Forvie visitor centre, outwith the public opening times. They had found their way in under the front door, and were gently relocated outside to some more suitable newt habitat.

Caught breaking and entering

The other big event of the week, brought about by the weather, was the largest early-autumn arrival of migrant birds since 2008. An easterly wind had sprung up over the weekend of 3rd-4th, delivering a trickle of birds to the east coast, including a handful of Pied Flycatchers to Forvie. These were a pleasure to see, having been painfully scarce on the local patch in recent years.

Pied Flycatcher

However, with the wind remaining in the east, a downpour of rain during the night of 6th-7th turned the trickle of migrants into a deluge. As the rain began to clear on the morning of 7th, it became obvious that there were foreigners everywhere. Warblers, chats, flycatchers and more besides: drift migrants fetched across from the Continent by the weather. Every patch of willow scrub across the Reserve hosted its share of the arrivals, making for some memorable scenes.

Whinchat in the rain

Some of the biggest hitters in terms of numbers were Redstarts, Whinchats, both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats. We’re generally lucky to see one or two each of these per year here, so to see so many at the one time was almost bewildering.

Lesser Whitethroat
Spotted Flycatcher
Wheatear
Redstart

Among the more numerous arrivals were ones and twos of southern and eastern species that aren’t often seen in our part of Scotland. Forvie hosted singles of Reed Warbler, Wryneck and Barred Warbler, with the neighbouring village of Collieston weighing in with another Barred Warbler, an Icterine Warbler, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and a Common Rosefinch. Seeking out rare and unusual visitors is one of the appeals of a big autumn ‘fall’ like this, but it’s just a small part of the story really.

Wryneck
Barred Warbler
Icterine Warbler

Actually, this was a very emotional experience for your soft-centred author here. ‘Falls’ used to be a more or less annual occurrence on the east coast, but in recent years they have become fewer and further between. The last event like this took place at Forvie no fewer than 14 years ago, and observers like myself had begun to wonder if they were a thing of the past. After all, populations of migrant birds have been in decline now for decades; were there basically not enough birds left in northern Europe to sustain these ancestral migration routes? Were things beginning to crumble and disappear before our eyes? Was this yet another symptom of humanity’s destructive influence on the planet’s ecology? What future lies ahead for those of us who care about nature?

All is not lost

One of the joys of observing migration is that it can transport you, figuratively speaking, to other parts of the world. And this week has proved, mercifully, that those distant places still contain life and beauty. The relief and ecstasy brought by these tiny travellers is just about indescribable. Simply, these birds have given me hope. You can’t put a price on that.

Whale of a time

If you’re a regular reader of the Forvie blog, you’ll know that we’re big fans of autumn here. The stress and hard yards of the bird breeding season are behind us, the tern fence is safely packed up in the workshop, and more to the point, the wildlife spectacle is at its best. What’s more, we actually have time to take it all in! Now we’re into early September, and it’s officially meteorological autumn (as opposed to early June when the first wading birds start heading south… people generally don’t take too kindly to the ‘A’ word being mentioned in June).

September: a harvest landscape reflected in a mirror-calm estuary

August, though, will be a tough act to follow. As we previously reported, the last month produced sightings of Bottlenose Dolphins, Marsh Harriers, Avocet and Bee-eater here at Forvie – quite a roll-call. But August wasn’t done until the very last, and the 31st gave us another rare treat in the form of a Minke Whale off the North Broadhaven.

Minke Whale
Thaar she blows!

The recent becalmed conditions offshore have presented great opportunities for seawatching – that is to say, simply looking out to sea, with the aid of binoculars or telescope, and seeing what passes by. Cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – are always highlights of any seawatch, with sightings by no means guaranteed even in good conditions. Seabirds obviously feature prominently, of which more in a moment. You may even see a migrant butterfly passing by offshore, or making landfall having crossed the North Sea – incredible though this seems. And there’s always a chance of something different: I live in hope that I might one day see a Basking Shark off our coast. It’s by no means impossible!

Seabirds and Bottlenose Dolphin

Often the best bet during a seawatch is to look out for a ‘bait ball’ – where a shoal of fish near the surface of the water is attracting flocks of birds. Kittiwakes and other gulls tend to be first on the scene, excitably dip-feeding at the surface, while Guillemots and Razorbills also pile in and dive for their share of the spoils. Such feeding frenzies are often joined by Gannets, diving spectacularly from height, though these are notably scarcer following their decimation this summer by avian flu.

Seabirds gathering…
Fish ahoy!

While most of the birds are intent on attacking the shoal of fish, some prefer to go after other birds instead. Skuas are specialists in obtaining food by larceny, pursuing other seabirds such as gulls and terns until they drop or regurgitate their catch of fish. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism – not an easy word to say after a pint or two – and requires remarkable flying skills and lightning-quick reactions on the part of the skua. But it saves them the work of having to catch the fish themselves!

There are four species of skua in the Northern Hemisphere. Of these, the Long-tailed and Pomarine Skua occur only rarely in our region as passage-migrants. But the other two species, Great and Arctic Skua, are a regular feature off Forvie’s coast from spring until late autumn. These true pirates of the high seas make for a dashing sight as they go about their swashbuckling business.

Great Skua chasing after a gull
Arctic Skua on patrol

The usual views of skuas are relatively distant over the sea: a menacing dark shape pursuing the white-and-grey shapes of the terns and gulls. Occasionally, though, they venture into the mouth of the estuary, where they are attracted by the post-breeding flocks of terns. The following photos were captured brilliantly by a visitor to Forvie over ten years ago, and to my eternal embarrassment, I cannot recall her name. But I remain ever grateful for her permission to use these amazing action shots. And if you’re reading this and recognise the photos as your own, do please get in touch, so I can give credit where credit’s due!

Arctic Skua pursuing a Sandwich Tern
“Just DROP the SAND-EEL, DAMMIT”

Back on dry land, a changing of the guard continues in the invertebrate world. Many of our butterflies are looking a bit sorry for themselves as they approach the end of their flight season. This Green-veined White was found sulking among the washing on the line in our garden earlier in the week.

Green-veined White

Other insects, though, are beginning to become more prominent. Having seen the larvae on the go earlier in the year, we’re now seeing adult Devil’s Coach-horse beetles prowling along the footpaths, looking for invertebrate prey. They don’t normally pose for photographs, so I was delighted when one decided to threaten me with the ‘scorpion pose’ as I passed by. Check out the difference between the beetle in ordinary circumstances…

Devil’s Coach-horse

…and in its threat posture, with its tail curled upwards like a scorpion’s sting, and its fearsome mouthparts open wide.

“Don’t darken my door again”

A feature of late summer and early autumn in Forvie’s grassland is the appearance of Grass-of-Parnassus. Contrary to its name, this isn’t actually a grass at all, but rather a flowering plant featuring delicately pin-striped white petals. This can be found most commonly on the Reserve along the coastal path around Hackley Bay, where it grows right alongside the footpath. One to look out for if you’re out and about in early September.

Grass-of-Parnassus

Finally, if you are visiting the Reserve any time soon, be sure and look out for the on-site information which tells you more about what you might see during your visit. Out on the Heath Trail, the wildflower interpretation boxes will remain in-situ for a short while longer, as most of the plants approach the end of their flowering season. These have been very popular with visitors since they were first deployed – and this is your last chance to enjoy them this year!

One of our wildflower boxes

Meanwhile, the Forvie Centre now features a small display on migration, featuring photos and fun facts in keeping with the season. In common with the wildflower boxes, we hope by providing these displays that we might open up a new vista for people who may not otherwise be aware of what the Reserve has to offer. And remember, of course, that we’re always happy to chat and answer wildlife-related questions if you see one of us out on site!

New displays at the Forvie Centre

Who knows – we may eventually be able to convince other folk to love the autumn as much as we do here at Forvie!