About Daryl Short

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

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!

Heather season

Here at Forvie, August is a month which has a lot going for it. Not least because it’s the time when the coastal heath, at times bleak and foreboding, bursts into vibrant colour with the blooming of the heather. It’s as if somebody has taken a paintbrush to the landscape and given it a fresh coat of purple. If there’s ever a time for a slow, leisurely walk over the heath to take in the sights and smells, that time is surely now.

It’s heather time!

Of the three species of heather to occur at Forvie, far the commonest is Ling (or Calluna for all the gardeners out there). While the other two species (the Ericas – Bell Heather and Cross-leaved Heath) tend to grow in a more dispersed fashion, it’s the Ling that forms the majority of the purple carpet at Forvie, as well as in the wider landscape of the Scottish hills in late summer. It also provides that honey-sweet smell, intense and delicious, which hangs heavy in the air on a fine August morning on the heath.

Ling, or Common Heather

Like many plants, Ling occasionally occurs as a white variety, lacking the pink or purple tones usually present in the flowers. Once considered to bring good luck, it’s always a treat to find some white heather. However, with the benefit of local knowledge, there are certain spots on the Reserve where it’s easy to find, year after year – if you know where to look, that is!

Lucky white heather

On the coastal heathland of the Reserve, the purples and pinks (and occasional whites) of the heathers form a pleasing contrast with the light blue-greens of the lichens. It’s a unique colour combination, found only where heathland has been left undisturbed for a very long time. Thereby providing us with another reminder of how fortunate we are to have such a special environment right here on our collective doorstep – rare, fragile and beautiful.

A patchwork of heathers and lichens

In places on the heath, the patchwork is supplemented by other species, both beautiful and curious. One such example is Stag’s-horn Club-moss, which grows near the Heath Trail footpath in a handful of locations. Its odd structure reminds me of the giant cacti you used to see in cowboy films, but many hundreds of times smaller. Kneel down and get your eyes right down to ground level, and you could almost be in Arizona in miniature. OK, maybe it’s just me then.

Stag’s-horn Club-moss among the lichens and heather
Miniature Saguaro cacti, perhaps?

A characteristic flower of late summer at Forvie is Devil’s-bit Scabious. Its odd name is derived from the fact that it was once used to treat the disease scabies (among other things), hence Scabious. The other part of its name arises, so to speak, from the plant’s remarkably short roots. Apparently the Devil was so annoyed about its efficacy in curing ailments that he bit off the plant’s roots from underground – hence ‘Devil’s-bit’.

Devil’s-bit Scabious

Regular readers will be well aware that this blog is stuffed full of recurring themes, and in keeping with this, we found a white version of Devil’s-bit Scabious as opposed to the usual blue. In the past we’ve also seen a pink version of the flower for good measure, but we think this is the first time that any of us have seen a white one. So it joins the ever-growing list of plants to have occurred at Forvie in a white form.

White Devil’s-bit Scabious – a new one on me!

This could, in theory, be easily confused with its close relative, Field Scabious. This is generally a taller plant, bearing flowers of a delicate whitish-mauve, but with an obvious family resemblance to its usually-blue-flowered cousin. Field Scabious can be found in the grassland outside the Forvie Centre, while Devil’s-bit Scabious tends to occur along the path-sides out on the Reserve.

Field Scabious at the Forvie Centre
Field Scabious flower

Both Scabious species are favourites of our butterflies, and probably the most obvious species on the wing right now is the Red Admiral. Boldly-coloured, showy and familiar, these can be seen more or less anywhere there are flowers on show just now. However, they can be remarkably inconspicuous at rest, when the bright colours of the upperwings are hidden, as the two photos below demonstrate. The resting Admiral was obvious only by virtue of having chosen a cream-painted wall on which to roost! But against a natural background, that mottled underside provides perfect camouflage against would-be predators like birds.

Red Admiral – showy and bold
At rest, with the bright colours hidden away

Speaking of birds, the exodus at the ternery is almost complete, with just a handful of birds remaining now. The vast majority of these are Common Terns – usually our tardiest breeders – with just a couple of Arctic Terns remaining among them. Quite a few fledglings are still hanging around on the estuary, preparing for the monumental travels that lie ahead of them. But we’re very much hoping to get the electric fence dismantled next week, marking the end of what’s been a very successful season. We’ll no doubt publish a ‘ternery retrospective’ on these pages once the job is complete.

The last few terns
Juvenile Arctic Tern – next stop where?

Thankfully, the electric fence did a great job for us this season in terms of keeping ground predators out – Foxes and Badgers, as ever, being the main concerns. Sure enough, this week we spotted this Fox outside the electric fence, on the lookout for an easy lunch. It’s reckoned that if we didn’t go to such extreme lengths to fence the ternery each year, we probably wouldn’t have a ternery at all.

Who’s for a quick tern supper?

Apart from being the heather season, August is also notable for migration. As we have previously reported, wading birds have been on the move for more than a month already, and now the passerines – songbirds if you like – are beginning to get in on the act. Last Monday we logged our first Wheatear of the autumn on the Reserve – hopefully the first of many to pass through our area over the course of the autumn.

Wheatear – first of the autumn

Of course, migration isn’t just the preserve of birds, and many insects also cover vast distances too. Moths are among the more obvious invertebrate migrants, and August can sometimes offer the opportunity to catch up with long-haul travellers from the south and east. A prime example is the Hummingbird Hawk-moth, and this past week has seen no fewer than three records of this scarce migrant in our garden adjacent to the Reserve. One of them stuck around long enough for Catriona to grab a photo – the moth’s wings appearing as a blur, and the long proboscis tapping into the nectar from a Honeysuckle flower. A great capture of a very difficult subject to photograph!

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

As we all know, the heather season is over all too quickly, as the year continues to turn apace. Now is the time to get out and savour the best that August has to offer, both at Forvie and beyond.

Meetings and partings

To quote that great philosopher Kermit the Frog, life is full of meetings and partings. True words indeed, for a year on the Reserve is a continuous merry-go-round of arrivals and departures. Different species (frogs included) come and go with the seasons, and August is as busy a time as any in this respect. We find ourselves bidding some species their annual farewell, while welcoming others back after a period of absence.

In last week’s instalment, we spoke of the migrating wading birds as harbingers of the changing seasons. This week, the most obvious changing of the guard has taken place among Forvie’s butterflies. Suddenly there are Vanessids everywhere – by this, we mean that quartet of boldly-coloured powerful fliers comprising Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock. Sure enough, all four have been in evidence over the past few days, making for a colourful scene among the drought-parched grassland.

Peacock
Painted Lady
Red Admiral
Small Tortoiseshell

These four species are easily recognised with a little practice, and unlike a great many invertebrates they also have memorable names. They are well worth seeking out while they’re in such good condition, being freshly emerged into the world. An adult butterfly’s lifespan is a short one, and it won’t be long before they start to show the wear and tear of their fast-paced existence. Indeed, compared to the resplendent, newly-minted Vanessids, the last few Dark Green Fritillaries are looking pale, wan and world-weary.

A faded fritillary

Some butterflies, however, get a second innings each year, and we’ve just started seeing the first Small Coppers of the second generation. The first brood is on the wing during late spring, then there is a midsummer hiatus until the second brood starts to emerge about now. Though only tiny, these are real gems, and a close-up view of one is always a moment to be treasured.

Small Copper – tiny yet stunning

Down at the ternery, the partings are happening at a rapid rate as the last of the birds begin to depart and disperse. At the time of writing, just a few dozen Arctic and Common Terns remain attending chicks within the colony, with the vast majority having already upped and left. When we say farewell to these, we can only wonder at what lies ahead of them. These are birds with a truly global range, and some of ‘our’ birds may even visit the Antarctic region in the coming months. They’ll go places and see things that I never will.

I must admit that it’s always a relief when the last ones depart, as it means we can finally begin to dismantle the protective electric fence around the colony, and another season of stress and sleepless nights is mercifully behind us. Especially this year, with the spectre of avian flu casting a long shadow over the whole season and adding to the usual worries. But at the same time, we’ll still very much look forward to being reacquainted with the terns again next spring!

Farewell old friends – Arctic Terns
Adults and fledglings ready for the right-away

Something we’ll not be sad to see the back of is Himalayan Balsam. This week we were re-united with Karen, Tom and Alan from Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, in order to finish the assault on the Foveran Burn that we began last week. This time we reached the upstream source of the balsam, and a massive effort by the combined team got the whole lot cleared. A great result, and we’ll see how it looks next season!

Catriona tackling a balsam plant
What a beast (the plant, of course)

Karen reliably informed us that Himalayan Balsam is the fastest-growing annual plant in the UK. Remarkably, this means that the ten-foot-high plants, some with stems almost as thick as my forearms, are all the product of a single growing season. It seems almost impossible that these colossal structures could grow from seed to this height in just a few weeks – but that’s one of the secrets to its success, and consequently one of the reasons it’s so dangerous as an invasive species.

This one was a two-person lift!

Finally – and I’ve left this item until last, in case I should get emotional and not be able to see the screen hereafter – we have one very significant parting to report. After four years of sterling service to Forvie, our weekend warden Patrick is moving on to pastures new.

Patrick has contributed massively to the running of the Reserve since 2019, not least by holding the fort at weekends throughout the busiest period that Forvie has ever known. As well as being the public face of Forvie, he has also made invaluable contributions to the monitoring of the ternery and the Reserve’s botanical features, and been a great mentor to Mark and Caitlin when they each started out here. Apart from all the hard yakka, Patrick has also brought a vast amount of good humour and bonhomie to the Forvie team, and I for one will miss the craic more than anything.

So thanks for everything mate, good luck in your new adventures – and don’t be a stranger!

Thanks Patrick!

Wade in the water

I’ve heard it said that given enough time, people and their pets end up assuming the same personality as one another (and, in some amusing cases, even begin to look the same). An interesting theory – and one that could possibly also be applied to Forvie’s wildlife and its staff. Physical likenesses aside(!), it’s fair to say that both we and our wildlife take a disproportionate amount of enjoyment from plytering about in water. What better way to spend a stiflingly hot August day anyway?

Who doesn’t love a bootful of water?

This week’s excuse – erm, I mean task – was to remove the non-native and dangerously invasive Himalayan Balsam from the Foveran Burn. This is the burn that flows alongside the A975 coast road, eventually joining the Ythan Estuary at Inch Road in Newburgh. In partnership with staff and volunteers from the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, we worked our way upstream from Newburgh towards Foveran, thereby tackling the source of the balsam seeds coming down the burn to the Reserve. It was hot, sticky, stinging-nettley work, but between us we got a huge area cleared, thereby helping to safeguard the native plants which would otherwise be out-competed and overwhelmed. And special thanks are owed to Karen from SISI for providing some excellent coffee and biccies.

Himalayan Balsam growing on the Foveran Burn
Balsam bashers in their natural habitat

So what about the wildlife then? Forvie is, of course, rightly famed as a superb site for wading birds, and now is a particularly busy time in the wader world. As we’ve mentioned before in these pages, the breeding season for Arctic-nesting waders is very short, and consequently most of them are now southbound again on what effectively constitutes their autumn migration (even though it’s only early August). Forvie plays the role of motorway service-station for these long-haul travellers, providing opportunities for the birds to feed and rest.

The Reserve’s extensive and varied habitats also cater for species with different preferences. Sanderlings, for example, choose to feed along the strand-line of the beach, and roost among the debris above the high-water mark…

Sanderlings feeding furiously

…while other species, such as Turnstone, favour the rocky shore instead, and can be found feeding and roosting along the shoreline between Collieston and Rockend.

Tired Turnstone

On the estuary, different kinds of waders favour different areas too. Some prefer the saltier environment near the river mouth, such as Grey Plover – which, at this time of year, can sometimes be seen still wearing their stunning black-and-white summer plumage.

Grey Plover, in silver-and-black breeding finery

Some species, such as Whimbrel, prefer the middle reaches of the estuary, where the water is a mix of fresh and salt – known as ‘brackish’. Here they probe the mudflats for worms and other invertebrates, and can often be seen shoulder-to-shoulder with their larger relative, the Curlew.

Whimbrel – like a dinky Curlew with a stripy head
Whimbrel (l) and Curlew (r) – shame the Curlew had its back to us!

Others have a distinct preference for fresher water, and are seldom found on the estuary itself. Wood Sandpiper, for instance, is one species that tends to favour the scatter of small freshwater pools and lochs on the moor, rather than the extensive but salty wetlands of the estuary.

Wood Sandpiper feeding at a freshwater pool

One of the wonderful things about waders – apart from their elegance of form, their often beautiful summer plumage and their outstanding feats of migration – is that many are also possessed of a musical and far-carrying voice. It’s a pity not to be able to do this justice in writing, as wader calls are among the most evocative of all sounds in the natural world. Few things make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like hearing a flight of Curlew arriving upon high from the North Sea. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Landfall, guys – we made it”.

A flight of Curlew

These are not just intrinsically beautiful sounds, they are also the audio soundtrack to the shifting of the seasons, the very turning of the world upon which we all live. When walking on the Reserve, or working the garden at home, I am often stopped in my tracks by the rippling seven whistles of a Whimbrel, the mournful teu-hu-hu of a Redshank, the lively and strident kyew-kyew-kyew of a Greenshank, or perhaps the sing-song tlooeet-wit-wit of a Green Sandpiper passing high overhead. If the soundtrack of high summer is defined by the drone of bees on a dazzling hot day, then late summer and early autumn is surely defined by the sound of waders on the move. They are the sound of life itself.

Kyew-kyew-kyew – Greenshank

One of the better wader hotspots on the estuary is Waulkmill bird hide, and the mouth of the Forvie burn just next to the hide is often worth a look on the rising tide. Unfortunately in recent months, this site has also been popular after dark with the sort of people who aren’t welcome on a National Nature Reserve, and the hide has been subject to several acts of vandalism since the end of last year. The latest episode involved yet another broken window, with the shattered glass left lying outside the hide. Repairing this is another job to be ‘booked’, i.e. put on the ‘to do’ list, to be undertaken at the first opportunity.

Yet more knuckle-headery for us to repair

On the flip side, we did manage to make good the damage from the previous batch of idiocy, which took place in June and involved the destruction of shelving and display panels. This was only repaired by Mark and I earlier in the year, which made the whole thing even more frustrating. However, we were able to recover all the broken bits of timber and re-purpose them, meaning the only expense incurred was for a few nails and panel pins, plus a couple of hours of myself and Caitlin’s time.

Before…
…and after.
Before……
……and after!

This sort of job can be filed under the headings of ‘unplanned work’ and ‘making a silk purse from a sow’s ear’. Not how any of us would choose to spend our time, but making the best of a bad job, it did at least give Caitlin the opportunity to practice a bit of basic construction work. We’ll see how long this repair lasts, and will sort out the broken window as time allows.

The joys of working with the public. At least we’ve got the waders to help keep us sane!

Insect extravaganza

Late summer is arguably the most diverse and interesting time of the year when it comes to insects in our area. Long days, warm temperatures and an abundance of flowers and fruits provide the ingredients for an explosion of of invertebrate life of all kinds, each cashing in on nature’s seasonal bounty. It’s an exciting time for the naturalist, not least because you’re never quite sure what will come your way next.

This I found out last weekend, while doing some gardening on our plot adjacent to the northern boundary of the Reserve. As I was minding my own business, a colossal insect buzzed right by me, making a sound not unlike a Lancaster bomber. Ridiculously, for a six-foot outdoorsman, my first instinct was to dive for cover. After picking myself up again (and having a surreptitious glance around to check that none of the neighbours had seen me), I went to identify the beast in question, which had headed straight for a pile of uncut firewood. And what a beast it was.

Giant Wood-wasp

Meet the Giant Wood-wasp, alternatively known by the older (and more descriptive) name of Horntail. This colossus of the insect kingdom, sitting here on our wood pile, measured more than 50mm (over 2 inches in old money) from the tips of its yellow antennae to the end of its fearsome-looking ‘stinger’. However, this isn’t actually a stinger at all; it instead houses an ovipositor – a mechanism by which the female wasp lays her eggs into the timber of dying or recently-felled trees. And for confusion’s sake, it’s not even a true wasp, but rather one of the sawflies – close relatives of the true wasps and bees, all of which share the order Hymenoptera.

Sure enough, closer inspection showed that our Horntail – a female, hence the horn tail – was busy laying eggs into a Sitka spruce log, drilling into the timber with her long, needle-fine ovipositor. All the time, her wings were vibrating rapidly, and apparently this helps to drive the ovipositor into the wood with a rapid sawing motion. This explains why the wings look blurred in the photos!

Giant Wood-wasp egg-laying

Her work done, she climbed her way to the top of the log pile and took flight once more, bearing a remarkable resemblance in flight to a Hornet as she headed westwards inland. Where she had come from was a mystery, but it’s likely that this species – which specialises on softwoods such as pine and spruce – will currently be making a good living off the storm-damaged trees that still litter the countryside following the wild weather of the preceding winter. In any case, the log in question has now been marked with an ‘X’ in ink, and will be set aside rather than turned into firewood. Then, perhaps in three years or so – for this is the length of time the larvae remain in the timber – we might have a hatch of Giant Wood-wasps of our very own.

Note the ovipositor at work

While we were thrilled with the Wood-wasp encounter, it’s easy to see how some folk get a bit freaked by such a large and dangerous-looking insect (even though, in reality, it’s a completely harmless beast). Butterflies, however, are one group of insects that seem to meet with almost universal approval, their bold colours a joy to see, brightening up a summer’s day. This week we’ve noticed the first newly-hatched Small Tortoiseshells emerging, a perennial and easily-identifiable favourite. These will be the offspring of last summer’s generation, which overwintered as adults and emerged in early spring. These newly minted individuals are so much smarter than the often scruffy and careworn ones we see earlier in the year.

A mint Small Tortoiseshell

Out in the grasslands, meanwhile, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Common Blue butterfly skipping by. These are the only blue butterfly to occur at Forvie, so no ID challenges here. Seen at rest, these are truly gorgeous insects, with the blue changing its hue depending on the light and the angle you’re viewing from. Sometimes azure, sometimes purplish, sometimes dusky – but always stunning to look at.

Male Common Blue at rest

Moths are a big part of the scene on the Reserve just now, and though they’re often viewed with disdain compared with butterflies, this is somewhat unfair. Of course, most people only ever see moths bashing against a lit window at night, or occasionally happen upon one of the day-flying ones, many of which look unremarkable compared with butterflies. But there are notable exceptions. Take the two common day-fliers below: the Common Heath is understated but rather beautiful seen close up (and check out those feathery antennae). But the Six-spot Burnet is altogether more showy, in the manner of a butterfly.

Common Heath moth – a day-flier
Six-spot Burnet – likewise

Of course, many moth species are night-flying, but as we’ve demonstrated before, they can be captured using a light trap, thereby allowing us an insight into an otherwise unseen world. At our recent Fun Day, the moth trap was a remarkably popular attraction, and consequently last week’s Marvellous Moths event was very well subscribed. The night before the event, we operated not one, not two, but three light traps, all in different locations (the grassland behind the Forvie Centre; the Alder plantation alongside the track to the Reserve; and your author’s garden in Collieston). This, we hoped, would produce a range of species with different habitat preferences, giving our visitors plenty of variety to look at. And we weren’t disappointed! Here are some of the highlights.

Lempke’s Gold Spot
Beautiful Golden Y
Garden Tiger close-up
Burnished Brass – check out that metallic sheen
Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (catchy, huh?)

The diversity of moths is absolutely astonishing, with around 1,500 species occurring in Scotland (as compared with just 37 species of butterfly). Yes, separating some of the tricky (usually brown and cryptic) species is difficult for the beginner, and can even be tough for the experts at times! And their names can be a challenge too – try saying Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing with a mouthful of crisps. But what beauty and variety there is to be found – and that’s the case wherever you are, from urban gardens to National Nature Reserves. Following the excitement of the event, we resolved once again to build ourselves a light trap for use at home – maybe this time we’ll actually get around to it!

The excitement of ‘mothing’

Of course, there’s plenty of interest in the insect world outside of the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). One of the more obvious groups to the casual observer are the bumblebees. Contrary to popular belief, there’s not just one type of bumblebee, but a range of different species. Look a little more closely and you will soon start to notice differences between the bees that visit your garden flowers. Some wear the classic black-and-yellow stripes, such as this White-tailed Bumblebee…

White-tail feeding on Wild Thyme

…while others carry a very different appearance, such as the teddy-bear-like Common Carder Bumblebee.

Common Carder on Knapweed

The examples above are both common, widespread and easily identified, and are among the most obvious of the 19 species found in Scotland. So it’s well worth having a closer look at the bumblebees in your garden, or out on the Reserve, to see if you can spot the differences and start to recognise the individual species.

Other insect groups are much larger though. It’s reckoned that there are roughly 2,600 species of beetle in Scotland – now that’s a lot of differences to try and learn. While this seems daunting for the budding naturalist, you can make a bit of headway with the more distinctive-looking ones. And this is where the internet is heaven-sent, as there are numerous apps and websites available to help with species ID. For instance, after a very quick bit of research, we were able to determine that this fabulous metallic-looking beast was the leaf beetle Chrysolina polita. And that was with no prior knowledge of the subject! All you need is an eye for detail, and to be curious.

Chrysolina polita – surely deserves a common name!

Sometimes though, keen naturalist that I am, I’m forced to admit defeat. Some species groups present such a minefield of identification problems that they just have to be left alone. Recently, this ichneumon wasp turned up on our window at home, and looked (to my eyes) distinctive enough to be identified. However, upon recoursing to my usual internet trawl, I was dismayed to learn that the UK has approximately 2,500 species of ichneumon to choose from, and that many of them essentially look exactly the same as one another. Oh dear.

‘Ichneumon sp’!

Anyway, regardless of whether you can name every species that crosses your path (and I don’t know anybody who can), when all’s said and done it doesn’t really matter. More important is to recognise that there’s a huge diversity of insect life out there, a hidden world that most of us never take the time to acknowledge and appreciate. But there’s never a better time to start than right now, in the vibrant, buzzing days of late summer.

Riding the rollercoaster

When your day job involves doing something that’s close to your heart, your working life can feel like something of an emotional rollercoaster at times. This year to date has been a type example. So far, we’ve endured some depressing lows – the usual vandalism, litter and inconsiderate behaviour, the avian flu crisis, and the continued loss of biodiversity in the wider world to name a few. But these have been offset against some sublime highs – the warmth of feedback from people at our public events, some magic moments shared with nature, and some success stories in the face of adversity.

The kids’ reaction to the moths at the Fun Day was a real highlight!

Foremost among the latter is the news from the Forvie ternery. Despite the dark spectre of avian flu looming over them, ‘our’ birds have continued to enjoy a remarkably successful breeding season. This week, we counted upwards of 800 fledged Arctic and Common Terns scattered around the south end of the Reserve, representing their best productivity for several years. We hope these new recruits will go forth into the world and help repair the devastation that has been visited upon other colonies elsewhere. As we’ve said before, nature knows no boundaries, and as such, the impact of our work extends well beyond our own thousand hectares.

A fledged Arctic Tern – ready for export!
A fine season in the face of adversity

To continue with the rollercoaster analogy, the middle of summer at Forvie is like one of those massive summits that the coaster climbs up at a snail’s pace, almost coming to a standstill at the very top. We now find ourselves at the start of the descent, but rather than hurtling headlong back down to earth, this is a long and gentle ride. With the most frenetic period now behind us – that period wherein everything is frantically growing, breeding and doing everything at 100 mph – the Reserve now begins to take on a different feel. More relaxed, more mellow, and for me at least, all the more enjoyable for it.

…And relax.

In the world of plants, the grasses have reached their peak and are beginning to set seed. Grasses are a dominant feature of the landscape here, and as any gardener in the local area will tell you, their vigorous growth can overwhelm the more delicate plants. But by this time of the year the grasses have had their day (Shouldn’t that be ‘hayday’? – sorry), and it’s now time for other species to shine. But in the meantime, there’s a simple beauty about a late summer grassland, with the breeze whispering through the ranks of bowed and nodding seed-heads. We refer to the fields of ripening barley in our region as a ‘harvest landscape’, and this is nature’s equivalent.

Late summer grassland near the Forvie Centre
A soft and mellow landscape
Yorkshire Fog – a common and attractive grass

While the grasses are in decline, some of our flowering plants are just beginning their tour de force. Bluebells (or Harebells if you’re south of the border – please yourself) are now in evidence along many of Forvie’s footpaths, and their exquisite form and delicate colour make them a firm favourite of visitors and staff alike.

Bluebells and Yarrow along the path edge
A perennial favourite

A surprising number of wild plants occasionally show a white-flowered form, instead of their usual colouration. In my years at Forvie I have noted white versions of Lousewort, Spear Thistle, Heather and Wild Thyme among others – and, contrary to their name, Bluebells too. Look out for these among the regular blue ones as you traverse the paths throughout the Reserve.

A white form of Bluebell
Rare and beautiful indeed

Butterflies are very much in evidence just now on sunny days, and it was a pleasure to see Graylings on the wing during the week. These cryptic yet attractive butterflies are associated with areas of bare sand and short-cropped vegetation, and it’s thought that the decline of the Rabbit at Forvie has perhaps had a negative effect on the Grayling population. However, there are a few areas of the Reserve where Graylings can still reliably be seen. The path between the Forvie Centre and Cotehill Loch is a good bet, as is the southern end of the Dune Trail. But you’ll need sharp eyes, as Graylings are not only fast fliers, but also brilliantly camouflaged when at rest upon the ground.

Spot the Grayling

The most obvious butterfly species currently on the wing, both in terms of appearance and sheer numbers, is the Dark Green Fritillary. These seem to be everywhere just now.

Dark Green Fritillary on Creeping Thistle

They’re so abundant here during mid to late summer that they feature on the menu for some of Forvie’s insectivores. It’s not especially unusual to find little piles of wings, discarded by the predator, as it’s the butterfly’s body which is the nutritious and (apparently) tasty bit. If you happen upon such a find, it’s a good opportunity to have a look at the detail of the wing markings – particularly the green of the underwings, which is hard to see on a live specimen, yet gives the butterfly its name.

Fritillary spare parts – note the green on the hindwing

One of the most likely culprits in this case is the Stonechat, of which several pairs breed annually on Forvie Moor. While eating butterflies might seem like bad form, it’s all part of the great cycle of life, as well as important nutrition for the Stonechat’s chicks. And besides this, Stonechats eat a wide variety of other invertebrates too, including the ones that bite and sting us. So take it from me, they’re not all bad.

A handsome male Stonechat

Changing tack completely, last Wednesday saw us run a public event focused on edible and medicinal plants. The bill of fare included seaweeds gathered from Collieston beach (and yes, I appreciate these are algae rather than actual plants, before anybody writes in to correct me). Anyway, a frond of Kelp was brought back to the Forvie Centre to demonstrate how to make ‘seaweed crisps’ – which incidentally make deliciously salty ‘bar snacks’ alongside a pint of pale ale. But I digress: here on the Kelp was a passenger, a species none of us had previously seen at Forvie. The rather magical Blue-rayed Limpet.

Blue-rayed Limpet – an extraordinary little beast

These tiny shellfish generally grow to about the size of your little fingernail, though this one was barely bigger than a full stop. But what about those blue rays! Like a Kingfisher’s back or a Bluethroat’s gorget, these are an iridescent blue that’s difficult to do justice in a still photograph. You just have to see it for yourself, and the place to do so is right at the bottom of the shore on a low spring tide. Or among freshly-washed-up kelp, seemingly.

I must admit that it’s not often that molluscs feature in the Forvie blog, but that’s chiefly down to my sore lack of knowledge on the subject. Just imagine what other gems might be waiting to be discovered out there. Time to go and do some homework.