About Daryl Short

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

Puffballs!

Catchy title, eh? Contrary to popular belief, ‘puffballs’ aren’t some sort of cheesy corn-based snack, or a lightweight expletive that you can use in front of Granny. No, we’re talking about fungi here. And anyone that’s walked the footpaths at Forvie during late autumn has probably seen a puffball, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.

A puffball beside the footpath
A cluster of puffballs
Close up

Puffballs, like other more familiar mushrooms, are the fruiting bodies of a fungus. These are the means by which the fungus releases spores (broadly speaking, the fungal equivalent of seeds) in order to reproduce. In most cases, the fruiting bodies are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, the actual fungus being very much bigger, and hidden from view in the soil or dead wood. Consequently, we only ever see a fraction of what’s happening in the world of fungi.

Fungi have various strategies to release and spread their spores. In the case of these puffballs, their strategy is to produce a rounded fruiting body with a small hole in the top through which the spores are propelled when pressure is applied. This pressure may come from falling raindrops, trampling by wildlife and people, or simply the breeze blowing over the ground. Once released, the spores are dispersed by the wind.

Puffball with pressure about to be (artificially) applied
Spores beginning to be released
There they go!

The spores are tiny and dark brown in colour, and resemble a puff of smoke when they are released. This fairly obviously gives puffballs their common name. Their scientific name is rather more bizarre – the Latin name Lycoperdon translates literally as ‘wolf flatulence’. I can’t even begin to suggest an explanation for this; I imagine you would require a better working knowledge of wolves than I have.

There are several species of Lycoperdon puffballs in Scotland, and not being expert mycologists here we struggle to identify them. But we think the ones currently visible on the Reserve, along the edges of the footpaths in the dune heath and grassland, are Lycoperdon lividum. Their altogether more prosaic common name is the Grassland Puffball. But for any readers out there with a better knowledge of fungi, please do get in touch and correct us if necessary!

Launching more spores skywards
All puffed out now

While it’s generally not advisable to touch fungi – some species are poisonous, and it’s always best to err on the side of caution – it’s hard to resist the temptation to have a quick prod at a ripe puffball. And it’s nice to think that the resulting little puff of spores might help to produce more puffballs in future. Who knows, maybe these have evolved to take advantage of our (my) curious and easily-amused nature?

Anyway, do keep an eye out for these next time you’re out and about walking the trails. They’re another little piece of the massive jigsaw of life here at Forvie. And by the way, if you can explain the wolf thing, please do give us a shout…

The joys of the east coast

I’m fond of saying that Forvie’s not just about the birds. There’s the incredible landscape, the rare habitats, the rich flora and the diverse array of wildlife from fungi to marine mammals. But having said all that, today’s post is an unashamedly birdy affair, following a remarkable turn of events on Tuesday.

Upon leaving the house to walk up to the Reserve office on Tuesday morning, my eye was drawn to the unmistakably daft silhouette of a Waxwing perched on the telegraph pole next door. This was the first one to touch down on the local patch in 13 years – the previous ones have just flown over and not stopped. So this was a moment to savour.

A stunning Waxwing – the broad yellow tip to the tail probably indicating a male bird

The Waxwing eventually discovered the apples we’d put out in the garden for the birds, and gratefully tucked in, replenishing its energy reserves after its long flight across the North Sea. But this wasn’t the only surprise of the morning.

While trying to get photos of the Waxwing, we caught a glimpse of a small bird perched up in the bushes, tail cocked. It then dashed off after a flying insect before disappearing into cover. Red-breasted Flycatcher!

Red-breasted Flycatcher – a classic east-coast rarity. Only the males have a red breast; this is a juvenile

Red-breasted Flycatcher is a rare migrant here; their normal range is far to the east of the UK. They are plentiful in eastern Europe in the summer months, and migrate southwards in autumn to spend the winter in western Asia. But every autumn a few of them end up drifting westwards, crossing the North Sea and gracing our eastern seaboard. Encountering a little gem like this is one of the joys of living and working on the east coast.

Later in the day, having calmed down from the excitement of the Waxwing and Flycatcher, while returning from our area meeting in Montrose we dropped in by the estuary in the last of the daylight. On the Sleek of Tarty – the bit just upstream of the Waterside road bridge – the long-staying Great White Egret remained in-situ.

Great White Egret

Meanwhile the Whooper Swans, upon which we reported last week, continue to be a major presence. We carried out a quick population census and recorded no fewer than 392 individuals – we think this is an all-time record for Forvie. This must be one of the best wildlife spectacles in the region just now.

An estuary full of swans
Whooper swans at dusk

So there you have it – an absolute top day’s birding by anyone’s standards. Yes, there’s more to the Reserve than ‘just’ birds, but it must be said that days like this one are hard to beat. Whooper swans from Iceland, an Egret from southern Europe, a Waxwing from the far north and a rare Flycatcher from the east. And all here, right on our doorstep. That’s the joy of the east coast at Forvie.

Singing swans

This week at Forvie has seen the Reserve awash with swans. Not the regular Mute Swans you see on your local park lake, but Whooper Swans, wild and wary, genuine migrants from Iceland. The first ones arrived in mid-October – you can read about them here – and this last few days has seen a major influx of these magnificent birds, with upwards of 350 present.

Whooper swan – note the black-tipped yellow bill and straight neck…
…compared with the familiar Mute Swan, with its black-based orange bill and S-shaped neck.

Arguably the easiest way to recognise a Whooper Swan is by its voice. Unlike our resident Mute Swans, which don’t say much other than the occasional snort, hiss or grunt, Whoopers are extremely vocal. Their calls have a bugling, far-carrying quality, and at long range on a still day can almost be taken for distant human voices. However, in chorus they produce an unmistakable and beautiful sound, a true sound of the wild. That’s why in several European languages, the bird’s common name translates as ‘singing swan’. And the Ythan Estuary at Forvie is currently resounding to swan music.

Whoopers arriving high from the north
On final approach, flaps down, air brakes deployed!

While a small number of Whooper Swans will overwinter with us here at Forvie, most of the birds currently present will simply use the Reserve as a staging-post before heading further south. Many spend the winter in eastern England, where the sugar-beet and potato industries inadvertently provide them with a rich source of carbohydrates to help them through the cold days. The swans love to feed on the tops and tails of the beets, left behind by the harvesting machinery, and on any leftover tatties once the frost has softened them up. But up here they’re content with spilt grain in the barley-stubble, plus whatever roots and tubers they can find in the wet fields surrounding the estuary. Then it’s back onto the water to preen and roost.

On the water for a wash-and-brush-up between feeding trips

Another thing that sets Whooper Swans apart from their Mute cousins is their sociable nature. Whereas Mute Swans tend to be found in pairs – often aggressively chasing off any others – Whoopers are much more commonly found in groups, sometimes substantial ones. And within these groups, it’s often possible to pick out individual families.

Juvenile Whoopers – i.e. birds hatched this summer – can be easily recognised by their pale grey plumage and pink bills. The young birds tend to stick together with their siblings and parents, and it’s not uncommon to see mum, dad and up to five or six young together. They will stay together as a family right through their first winter, with the young going their separate ways when they’ve completed the return journey to Iceland in the spring. The flocks currently present at Forvie contain a high proportion of juveniles, perhaps indicating a good breeding season this summer.

A pair of Whoopers with their youngster behind them – note the grey head and pinkish bill

Of course, such an epic migration is hard work for the youngsters – they undertake the journey from Iceland to Scotland non-stop, reaching heights of up to 29,000 feet(!) – so it’s not surprising that many of them need a good rest when they arrive here!

Four sleepy juvenile Whoopers

Meanwhile, the adults are busy indulging in a bit of displaying and social interaction. This usually involves much posturing, flapping, bobbing of heads and a lot of noise.

Adult Whoopers doing their thing

The spectacle on the estuary and on Cotehill Loch at dawn and dusk is magical just now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re within reach of the area. After all, the birds will probably only be here in these numbers for a couple of weeks, before moving on again. So hurry along to Forvie and enjoy some singing swans – you can thank us later!

Whooper Swans on Cotehill Loch at dusk

Thanks are owed to Catriona Reid at Muir of Dinnet for the swan photos!

The twilight zone

This last couple of weeks have seen the day length diminish noticeably – it’s that time of the year when the change seems to happen really rapidly. At our high latitude (over 57 degrees north) there is a very pronounced difference between the two extremes of the year – in high summer, we have 19 or 20 hours of light every day, but in midwinter we’re putting the lights on by three o’clock in the afternoon. When the working day’s done, it’s a case of walk home in the dark, light the fire, put the kettle on. Although some folk find the shortening days a bit daunting, rest assured that it isn’t all bad news…

For with the shorter days come opportunities. With both ends of the day becoming closer together, it’s possible to enjoy the dawn and dusk without having to get up ridiculously early or stay up past your bedtime. And what fabulous times to be out and about on the Reserve. For starters, the light is beautiful – who doesn’t love a spectacular sunset or sunrise? And in terms of wildlife, either end of the day can be more exciting than the bit in the middle.

Sunset over Sand Loch
A fiery evening sky

Mornings and evenings are the best time to see Roe Deer at Forvie. They spend most of the day holed up in the willow scrub on the moor, keeping a safe distance from what they view as danger – people and dogs. But in the evening, when most folk have headed home, the deer emerge to feed in nearby grassland and fields, returning to the moor early the following morning. You might well see them around the Forvie Centre in the half-light, and if you’re quiet and discreet you may get some very good views – if they don’t see you first!

Two Roe bucks in the half-light of morning

In the bird world also, mornings and evenings are commuting times, much as they are for us. Obvious exponents of this are the Pink-footed Geese, which roost on the lochs and estuary, and move around to feed on stubble fields and pasture by day. Their morning and evening flight is a spectacular affair, involving many thousands of individuals, and the cacophony of calls (so-called ‘goose music’) is the soundtrack to the autumn and winter here. Set against a colourful sky, like a classic Peter Scott painting, it’s one of the best wildlife spectacles going.

Morning flight of geese
Returning to the roost in the evening

Another local commuter is the Cormorant. These birds spend the day fishing on the estuary and lochs, and roost overnight on the cliffs north of Collieston. Seeing formations of these prehistoric-looking birds forging line-astern along the clifftops – always south in the morning, north in the evening – is part of the daily routine and rhythm of life at Forvie, oft-overlooked but worth seeking out.

Running perpendicular to the Cormorants’ flightpaths are those of gulls. These roost on the open sea, and commute inland to feed on ploughed fields and the like during the day. So here at Forvie, the morning flight is always westwards, the evening eastwards. But wherever you are, you may see a similar movement, especially if you’re near the coast or along a natural flyway like a river or valley.

A single Cormorant in flight – look out for gangs of them on the move during morning and evening

We’re also still very much in the bird migration season, with many species still making landfall from the Continent. Most prominent among these are thrushes and finches, and they can often be seen arriving high from the north-east in the first hour of daylight (currently about 0730-0830 here). Most frequently encountered are Redwings and Blackbirds, while this week has seen a small movement of Chaffinches and the odd Brambling mixed in. All classic Scandinavian migrants fleeing the approaching northern winter.

One of the joys of observing the morning visible migration – or ‘viz-migging’ if you prefer the street slang – is that you’re never quite sure what’s going to turn up. On Monday morning, a high silvery trill betrayed the presence of a single Waxwing as it flew in off the sea and over the Reserve. These are very scarce here, with this only our third record in thirteen years.

Redwing eating Rowan berries, in bright morning sun – a typical October migrant

Other species are crepuscular in their habits, meaning they are most active during twilight, rather than full darkness or full daylight. Good examples are Short-eared Owl – try viewing from the Forvie Centre car park, or along the Heath Trail to Sand Loch – and Otter, for which try the Waulkmill hide down on the estuary. You’ll need a bit of luck for either of these, particularly the Otter, which although resident are surprisingly elusive – but you’ve got to be in it to win it, so get yourself out there!

Otter – shy and retiring resident, best seen at either end of the day

If I’m still yet to convince you of the virtues of dawn and dusk, consider this – they are often the calmest periods of the day in terms of the wind. Those readers that visit Forvie will be used to a constant battering by the elements, but there’s often a little lull at either end of the day – a great time to see the reflections on the lochs to good effect, and maybe grab a photo or two.

A perfectly still evening on the Sand Loch

So don’t be discouraged by the shortening days – now is a great time to appreciate all that the Reserve, and indeed the wider countryside, has to offer. You heard it here first!

Allowed out for good behaviour…

Being a multi-talented bunch (well, jacks-of-all-trades at least), the Forvie staff are occasionally pressed into service on sites other than Forvie. In these instances we assist with all sorts of things from chainsawing and footpath-mending to plant surveys and herbicide-spraying, making use of the practical qualifications and ID skills we’ve collectively built up over the years. Recently we assisted with the control of some invasive plants up the coast towards Peterhead.

The Dunbuy Rock, on the coast north of Forvie
A spectacular natural arch

The coast north of the Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its floral features – in straightforward terms, it’s specially protected for its rare plants. (It’s also outstandingly beautiful, and home to spectacular seabird colonies during the summer months.) So the last thing we need there is an invasive non-native species like the notorious Japanese Knotweed.

A former forest of Japanese Knotweed

A couple of years ago we were approached by our colleagues in the regional office about spraying a large stand of Japanese Knotweed growing in a cleft in the cliffs near the Dunbuy Rock. How it got there is a mystery, but it may date from an age-old rubbish dump (once upon a time, before wheelie-bins, it was commonplace for coastal folk to tip rubbish over a convenient cliff; thankfully times have changed!).

We started treating the Japanese Knotweed with herbicide last spring, and since then it’s gone from a head-high forest of thriving plants to a few sorry little shoots, which we gave an extra spray this time round. Hopefully this should finish the job, fingers crossed!

Herbicide being applied – DIIIIIIIEEEEE, EVIL WEED!
Dunbuy inlet, sans knotweed!

So the work to conserve and protect the natural world extends far beyond the borders of the Reserve, lending yet more variety to the working week at Forvie. You can read more about the hard work being done to tackle invasive species in Scotland here.

Little miracles of migration

I think the Forvie staff have collectively performed the birder’s equivalent of a rain dance. Perhaps by complaining bitterly in my last post about the relentless westerly winds, I prodded the weather gods into a reaction. As if by magic, our prayers were answered and the wind direction shifted to the south-east, bringing with it some migrant birds from the east.

Of course, it could be more to do with the jet stream and all that stuff, but we’re no meteorologists. Anyway, what about the birds?

What’s that lurking in the willows? Yellow-browed Warbler!

One of the more interesting species to make landfall at Forvie this week is the Yellow-browed Warbler. This tiny bird – no bigger than a Wren, with a bodyweight of just seven grams – breeds in Siberia, far away to the north-east. Most of them migrate south-east to spend the winter in south-eastern Asia, but somehow some of them end up way off-course in western Europe. Or are they really off-course? There’s a bit of a story here – throw another log on that fire.

Back in t’good old days, when I were a lad (that’s only 20-odd years ago, btw), Yellow-browed Warblers were a proper rarity. You heard about them via the rare bird information services, and generally had to go to some far-flung windswept headland (in my case, Portland Bill down in Dorset) to see one. Fast-forward two decades, and they’re a regular fixture of the east-coast autumn, with ever-increasing numbers arriving on our shores. Some have even begun to over-winter in southern England, and spring records from migration watchpoints in the UK indicate that some of them are surviving our winter and making the return trip to Siberia. So what’s actually going on here?

Little lost soul, or bold pioneer?

One theory is that these aren’t just lost, disorientated migrants that have taken a mega wrong turn, but rather that we’re witnessing a colonisation event in action, before our very eyes. These birds are the pioneers, discovering new migration routes and wintering areas, helping to ensure their species’ survival in these changing times. They may even be re-establishing ancestral routes lost during the last Ice Age. It’s thought that by wintering in southern Europe and Africa, instead of south-east Asia, that they may save themselves several thousand kilometres of flying.

Either way, there are too many of them arriving nowadays for it to be just an accident. A species with that level of navigational incompetence would soon be heading for extinction. And mercifully, Yellow-browed Warbler is one species that seems to be doing OK, for the moment at least.

Green plumage isn’t such good camouflage among brown dead leaves

If you are out and about on the Reserve in this next few weeks – or indeed anywhere along the east coast or islands – you have a chance of connecting with this charismatic little bird. They often give themselves away by their voice – a sweet, high-pitched tseoo-weet! uttered persistently from the trees or bushes in which they shelter and feed. Sycamore trees, with their attendant population of aphids (i.e. warbler food) are a particular favourite, with willows a close second. Try the bushes along the Rockend track, or around the Forvie Centre for starters.

Willows and sycamores are the birds’ favoured fast-food restaurants

When seen, Yellow-browed Warbler is a beautiful little bird with its moss-green and cream plumage, offset with two neat wing-bars and those lovely yellowy eyebrows of its common name. And it’s a total fidget – constantly on the go, never sitting still, restlessly flitting, hovering and dashing this way and that through the tree canopy. Hard work to keep up with, especially with a camera, but a joy to see.

Fabulous yellow eyebrows

So if you are lucky enough to cross paths with one of these ‘sprites’, take a moment to reflect on the enormity of the journey it’s undertaken to get here. Never mind rain dances – that’s a proper miracle.

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!