About Daryl Short

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

Apocalypse blow

I love the smell of two-stroke oil in the morning. Good job too, as we’ve been smelling quite a bit of it this week. For last weekend brought not one but two apocalyptic storms to the north-east, and the resultant destruction meant we were on intimate terms with our chainsaws for much of the week that followed.

Back in November, Storm Arwen tore through our region with 100+ mph winds and a red warning from the Met Office. Then last Saturday, Storm Malik rolled in, with winds of a comparatively gentle 85 mph, and an associated amber warning. The after-show party was then provided by Storm Corrie on Sunday night into Monday, a rather understated affair that warranted just a yellow warning (we get these issued approximately every second week here on the Aberdeenshire coast).

Post-Arwen salvage work at Waterside Wood

The reality on the ground, however, was almost the inverse of the Met Office’s warnings. Arwen was rough, right enough, and we had to clear up a few fallen and damaged trees on the Grampian NNRs, but nothing too severe. A couple of days’ cutting at Forvie, and an easy day at Muir of Dinnet – and all was sorted. Malik, though ‘only’ amber-rated, was no less destructive, with further damage caused at both Forvie and Dinnet, but still nothing especially outlandish.

The worst damage here was along the track to Waulkmill hide, where two Sitka spruces had fallen onto the track (and blocked in a car belonging to one of our regulars – luckily both car and occupant were unharmed though). By Monday evening, these had been safely cut out and cleared away, and the track to the hide was open to traffic once again.

There’s a track under there somewhere
Raising sawdust
Almost done… or so we thought

Corrie was the real joker in the pack though. She arrived on Sunday evening with little fanfare, under a run-of-the-mill yellow warning for high winds. Just another day at the office here. But what followed took us all by surprise, and the level of destruction surpassed the previous two storms by some distance. While Forvie was relatively unscathed, Dinnet wasn’t so lucky, and it was clear that we’d have to tear up our plans for the week and head inland to help clear up the debris.

Perhaps it was the direction of the wind (westerly, as opposed to northerly on the previous two occasions), or perhaps the preceding storms had weakened the trees and their root plates. Either way, most of the casualties at Dinnet were Scots Pines, whose heavy canopies of evergreen needles served to catch the wind with inevitable consequences. But even the deciduous species suffered, with both Silver Birch and Aspen also succumbing. Every trail and footpath on the Reserve was blocked (including the 100 metres between the car park and toilets), with some thirty fallen trees needing cleared; hundreds more had come down in the wider woodland, but being away from the paths these thankfully weren’t of concern to us.

A mighty Scots Pine, after being cut off its root plate
Another stricken Scots Pine
Birch this time…
…and another one
Track reopened – after removing a Whitebeam and two Scots Pines

After two solid days of cutting, winching and dragging, our small team managed to get all the waymarked trails at Muir of Dinnet safely cleared and reopened to the public in time for the weekend. A great relief for all concerned, but especially for Reserve Manager Kirstin, who has recently taken over the reins and is settling into her new role with aplomb. By way of exchange for our labour, we’ve promised to lay on some equally hard yakka for her at Forvie at some point in the future.

The team at work
Sharing skills and experience

But in all seriousness though, as Grampian Reserve staff we’re all on the same team, and are always ready to assist each other as and when required. Not only does this help the Reserves to function effectively, but it also provides us with a change of scene (and work), helping to keep us fresh too. Mentally fresh, that is. After all that chainsawing, we certainly weren’t smelling fresh, I can tell you.

YEEEAAAAAHHHH – time for a bath and a dram…

The fun isn’t quite over yet, as there remain a couple of damaged-but-not-immediately-dangerous trees left to come down at Forvie next week – so please take care if you see us working on site, and look for our hazard warning signs and hi-viz-wearing bankspeople. But this will hopefully be the last of it. Who knows, by this time next week I might actually have some wildlife news on which to report – barring any more apocalyptic weather events between now and then.

Help from the heavens

Here at Forvie we often find ourselves hoping for some form of divine intervention, usually when faced with some intractable problem or another. Over the years, a fair bit of time has been spent beseeching the gods of wind / weather / time / rare birds / common sense / eternal patience [delete as appropriate] to help us out, usually with little success. There are times, though, when help literally comes from above, and that was the case this week when improvement works got underway on the coastal footpath between Collieston and Hackley Bay.

Hackley Bay

This route has proved extremely (and understandably) popular since the end of the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020, and with many people ‘discovering’ Forvie for the first time, footfall has increased dramatically. While it’s been great to see so many new faces enjoying what the Reserve has to offer, it’s put a lot of strain on the infrastructure. A large proportion of our footpaths are naturally grass-surfaced, and for many years, light footfall and low levels of Rabbit grazing has kept these surfaces in good order. However, heavier usage in the last couple of years has eroded away the grass and the thin, fragile topsoil, allowing the wind to blow out the loose sand below. Moreover, in other places, soil compaction has resulted in issues with waterlogging and flooding. The net result is that Forvie’s footpaths are now in need of a massive amount of TLC.

A natural grass path, in the early stages of wearing out
What a mess.

While our staff and volunteer complement are able and willing to undertake repair work to the paths, what we lack for here are the materials. The only materials available on site are sand (surprisingly enough) and thin turf, and these have to be ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else not far away from the footpath – a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. And besides, this is exactly the same stuff that got eroded away from the paths in the first place, so by replacing like with like, we’d only end up with the same eventual result. Consequently, the only option is to import material from off site: something with a bit more substance, such as crushed stone.

Part of the Hackley Bay footpath, with Mark making some repairs

Anyone who has ever undertaken this sort of work will appreciate how heavy such materials are, and how far they don’t go. By this I mean that a ton of crushed stone will probably only make a couple of metres of footpath – it’s the absolute antithesis to ‘a little goes a long way’. It’s always surprising just how much volume and weight of stone is required for what seems like a relatively small job. So, getting long stretches of footpath repaired and upgraded – which is exactly what’s required at Forvie – needs a vast amount of material. And this then creates another problem: how to get the material where it needs to be, without causing even more damage to the ground.

The current phase of footpath repairs taking place along the coast path will utilise around 90 tons of crushed stone. This would be about 50 return trips with a fully-loaded pickup truck and trailer, taking about 40 hours. Or 180 trips with a track barrow, taking perhaps 350 hours. These would each cause untold damage to the existing footpaths, not to mention the protected habitats of the Reserve. But due to the remote location, and the need to cross the Mealy Burn to access the work site, neither of these options would be practicable in any case. Time then to look to the skies.

The helicopter, and 90 tons of stone in giant bags

Last Wednesday, a helicopter was drafted in to shift the 90 tons of crushed stone from the temporary ‘depot’ at the Forvie Centre to its required location on the coast path. In a clinically efficient performance from crew and machine, the entire load was shifted in just five hours, including breaks. By the end of the day, the round trip (pick-up at Forvie Centre, to drop-off at coast path, and back for next pick-up) was taking just two and a half minutes. And crucially, no damage to the fragile ground or its precious habitats was incurred in the process.

The chopper in action

Using a helicopter might seem, on the face of it, a bit profligate. In an era of acute awareness of climate change and carbon footprints, air transport is rightfully under close scrutiny. But in this case, it’s the only way to get the materials where they need to be, with minimum collateral damage, in order to make a permanent repair to the footpath. This isn’t the sort of decision that’s taken lightly – it’s done on a ‘needs must’ basis.

Ready for the next pick-up

With the airlift complete, our specialist path contractor will be working over the coming weeks to turn the bags of stone into a fully finished, durable footpath, enabling Forvie’s visitors to enjoy their coastal walk without having to mind their feet, or causing damage to the Reserve’s fragile vegetation. If you’re passing by the site while work is in progress, take care around any unfinished sections, and do please heed any on-site signage or instructions.

Of course, even when this section of path is complete, there remain many other parts of Forvie’s path network in need of more work. But bear with us: such work is both expensive and time-consuming, and as such can only be done in small increments. However, in recent years we’ve completed the inner loop of the Heath Trail (including the ‘shortcut’ and return via Sand Loch), and have already earmarked other sections of the coast path for further upgrades.

A previously completed section of path

Having a network of well-maintained footpaths is not only good for Forvie’s human visitors. It also helps to safeguard the flora and fauna of the Reserve, by minimising the impact of the tens of thousands of visits we receive each year. Providing people with a good surface (and route) on which to walk hopefully eases the pressure – in terms of both erosion and wildlife disturbance – on the more sensitive areas of the Reserve.

Forvie’s lichen heath – rare and fragile
A home for shy and sensitive species

Almost all aspects of our work on NNRs involve maintaining the fine balance between providing a public service and protecting our vulnerable wildlife and habitats. Take it from me, it’s not always easy. But, as this week has demonstrated, sometimes help comes from above after all.

Dry January

This past few days, a high-pressure weather system has been sitting over the British Isles, as snug and well-fitting as a plover brooding her clutch of eggs. Even at our high latitude, we’ve been enjoying the benefits associated with it: a series of becalmed, dry and mild days, drenched in sunshine, evoking prematurely optimistic thoughts of spring. Accordingly, I have also received my first helping of “you must have the best job in the world” remarks from our visitors (we usually get told this on practically every sunny day in spring/summer). It’s hard to argue with that sentiment, though, when the Reserve looks and feels like this.

Forvie beach, looking south
Golden dunes, and sea melding into sky
The Flooded piece, flooded with sunshine
Late afternoon on the estuary
Sand Loch on a still morning

As we’ve said in the past, what has the potential to be the best job in the world is tempered somewhat by the humdrum or downright filthy tasks that we have to undertake – like frequently having to clear up after inconsiderate people. Even on occasions like these, though, we take a good deal of pride in a tidy job. This week we finished the repairs to the bird hide at Waulkmill, following the vandalism over the Christmas break. Having previously fixed up the seating, shelving and interpretation panels, this week we sorted the ramp and handrail, where the timber was coming to the end of its lifespan. A good opportunity for us all to scrub up our joinery skills, and to pass on some tips and tricks to Mark, who is learning his trade – and learning quickly.

Re-decking the bird hide ramp
Well through the job…
Hopefully good for a few more years, barring any further muppetry

With the weather having been calm and dry for the most part, it was a surprise to find that the groundwater level at one of our dipwells had risen considerably. We take water-level measurements from these dipwells – which are essentially long pipes sunk vertically into the ground – every month, allowing the hydrology of the Reserve to be monitored in our current changing climate. With the water level here having risen quite substantially since my last visit, in trying to take the reading I ended up with two boots full to the brim with refreshingly cold water. And a very squelchy walk home afterwards.

Dipwell in flooded dune slack

The gods of karma paid me back for this minor indignity by delivering unto me a Hen Harrier, a rare bird at Forvie these days. Back in t’ day, when I were a lad (i.e. when I started working at Forvie in 2007), these were scarce but regular on the Reserve, with up to two birds wintering in the area (occasionally including a full white adult male – spectacular beasts, these). But in recent years, for whatever reason, they’ve become much scarcer, and even sightings of the commoner brown female or immature birds – collectively known as ‘ringtails’, owing to their barred tails – have been few and far between. Nowadays this species rates as ‘patch gold’ for the local-patch-based birdwatcher, and this week’s sighting was savoured accordingly.

Ringtail Hen Harrier

At a time of the year when we normally have precious little to report upon from the world of invertebrates, it was a surprise to see a couple of caterpillars out and about. Regular blog aficionados may indeed recognise the small, fluffy caterpillar of the Ruby Tiger moth. But as to where these were headed in the dead of winter – answers on the proverbial postcard please.

Who’d be a caterpillar in winter? Good job it’s got its fur coat on

Although the days have been mild and pleasant, the clear nights have seen temperatures dip below freezing. This has frozen the ducks off the inland waterbodies, causing them to flee to the coast where it’s usually a bit milder. Sand Loch has consequently seen higher-than-usual numbers of Mallards, and lurking among them a pair of Pintail. In a nod to our recent pseudonyms blog post, one of the old names for the Pintail is the Cracker. And a drake Pintail really is a cracking bird indeed. If you’re passing by Sand Loch on your walk around the Reserve, have a look through the Mallards and see if you can spot him, alongside his much more sombrely-dressed mate. While she resembles a small, pale female Mallard, he is utterly distinctive with his white breast, chocolate-coloured head, blue bill and pert pointy tail.


At the time of writing, the high atmospheric pressure looks set to remain for a few days yet. A fine opportunity then to crack on and enjoy some winter wildlife while you can. Wet feet optional of course.

Highs and lows

Coming back to work after a lengthy break is always a tricky business. After a single week off, it’s usually possible to hit the ground running, and pick up where you left off the week before. But being off for a fortnight or more tends to lead to a bit of physical and mental inertia setting in, after which it can be tough to get going again. There’s also the not-quite-knowing what to expect upon your return, what with the Reserve having effectively been unstaffed for a while, and the general public having been out in force – what could possibly have gone wrong?…

On the flip side, stretching ahead of us is a new year, full of hope and promise, bursting with opportunity and (hopefully) packed with wildlife and excitement, and memories waiting to be made. So it was that we returned last Monday for our first full week back in harness, with the appropriate mix of trepidation and relish. And sure enough, that first week was one of high contrasts.

A new dawn

We had ended the festive break on a high, with a magnificent display of aurora borealis over the night of 8th-9th January. Although we don’t have a north-facing coast, Forvie isn’t the worst place to be when the northern lights are on show; our skies are relatively free from light pollution, allowing the spectacle to be enjoyed to best advantage. At our home on the northern edge of the Reserve, we braved the sharp cold to soak up the experience, and most of our neighbours appeared to be doing the same. It’s another fine example of a natural phenomenon bringing people together, in much the same way as a great wildlife experience, or a stunning sunset. Of which more later on!

A band of aurora over Collieston
Getting brighter…

From the cosmic high of witnessing the ‘merrie dancers’ over the weekend, we were brought back down to earth with a bump on the Monday morning. It turned out that at some point during the break, somebody had decided to use (and abuse) Waulkmill bird hide for an impromptu party. This involved the usual ritual of leaving rubbish everywhere and setting things on fire. Clearly incapable of thinking ahead and providing their own firewood, our revellers instead chose to demolish some of the infrastructure of the hide itself. This included parts of the window sills, interpretation panels and even the uprights of the bench seat, rendering it unusable. I suppose the small mercy was that they actually had the fire outside the hide.

Fire site partly cleared up
Damage to the seating, shelving and interpretation

Faced with this sort of knuckle-dragging boneheadery, it’s natural to get angry and aggrieved and question the very future of humanity. But that’s not what we’re employed for. At times like these, there’s nothing for it but to roll up your sleeves and get on with fixing things up. And while we’ll have to buy in some timber to replace some of the damaged fixtures, there was some work we could do immediately, and help came from a rather unlikely source. Our old friend Storm Arwen had bequeathed to us a supply of timber at Waterside Wood, so we took advantage of this to get the hide bench back on its feet – literally.

Free building materials, courtesy of Arwen
A cheap but effective repair
Back in service again (both the bench and me)

The other notable piece of idiocy concerned the sign at Waterside informing people about the seal haul-out. This is an important piece of infrastructure, as it advises would-be seal-watchers to view the haul-out from the Newburgh side of the river, rather than risk disturbing the haul-out by approaching from the Forvie side. For whatever reason, somebody decided to destroy the wood-and-acrylic A-frame sign (which I had just rebuilt in the autumn, thinking it would be good for five or six years). Luckily the heavy Perspex sign itself survived, but the rest of the structure was nowhere to be seen. (!?*@%$#&*?!)

Whatever the reasons for its destruction, it meant another high-priority repair job during the first week back at work. This done, it was reinstated by the end of the week, ready for the weekend’s influx of visitors.

Seal sign rebuilt (again)

Just as the week proved to be high in emotional contrasts, so it was in terms of its weather too. From hard frost at the weekend, by the Friday it was grey and dreich yet unseasonably mild. In between times, there were a couple of really beautiful, almost spring-like days (whisper it quietly though). Even some of the local songbirds bought into it, with Great Tit and Starling both indulging in a bit of singing practice in readiness for the approaching spring.

From a cold and frosty Monday…
…to a dreich but mild Friday

While all the unplanned repair work wasn’t exactly the best start to the year, we were compensated by some immense sunrises and sunsets during mid-week. On Wednesday and Thursday in particular, the colours had to be seen to be believed, and the photos simply cannot do justice to the beauty on show.

Collieston sunrise
Gonnae be a good one…
Rubbish photos though – you had to be there!
The view to Bennachie
A fiery cloud dragon, or mayfly, or something
Sunset at the Flooded Piece

That’s the first full working week of 2022 negotiated then. While in many ways it wasn’t a typical working week, I suppose it was a fair reflection of the highs and lows that we tend to experience here. And the latter, at least, make you appreciate the former all the more. We’ll just have to see how the rest of the year pans out!


The start of a new year always presents an opportunity to look afresh at life and at the world around you. Perhaps a chance to set yourself a resolution or two – even though for most of us, these will have gone out the window before the Christmas decorations come down. For the amateur naturalist, a common resolution may be to learn more about those aspects of the natural world that you know little about. Which in my case is most of it – the more obvious omissions being things like mosses, lichens, most water fauna and the vast majority of the insect world. So where to start?

Lichens – try putting names to that lot
Likewise this lot

In contemplating this, I came to realise that one of the barriers to learning is language. Put simply, we learn to recognise things by putting names to them, thereby assigning them a memorable identity, after which they are familiar to us. The trouble is, a lot of species in my ‘problem groups’ – the insects, lichens and mosses of this world – just don’t have common names, instead possessing only a scientific name based upon Latin or ancient Greek. Scientific names are crucial as they follow a logical system of classification, and are universally acknowledged, wherever you are in the world. However, most of these names are as long as the proverbial docker’s tea break, and are at best unpronounceable, at worst comprehensively incomprehensible.

The beetle Chrysolina polita – surely this deserves a common name!

On the other hand, species that are more broadly familiar to people often have a suite of common names to choose from (as well as their ‘official’ scientific moniker, of course). While this can be confusing, it’s also a source of great delight, especially if you’re interested in etymology as well as entomology. Nowhere more so than right here in north-east Scotland, where we have not only the scientific and common English names on the go, but also Scots and Doric alternatives to boot. An eclectic mix.

As an unashamed bird-brain, my first examples of common species with multiple identities naturally come from the avian world. Take the humble Mallard, for instance. It’s a name that most folk will be familiar with, notwithstanding famous steam locomotives of old. But this most recognisable of ducks also carries the scientific name Anas platyrhynchos (which translates as ‘broad-snouted duck’), and the alternative English name of Wild Duck (refreshingly no-nonsense, this). And here in the north-east, the Mallard also goes by the name of Mossie-deuk, sometimes abbreviated simply to Mossie. Not to be confused with the biting insect to be found in the same habitat, which is surely spelt Mozzie… OK, time to move on.


No less familiar than the Mallard is the small garden bird which carries the scientific name Fringilla coelebs (translating as ‘bachelor finch’). While most of us know this species as the Chaffinch, just about every corner of the UK can lay claim to its own alternative name. A quick glance at my copy of ‘British Birds’ Eggs & Nests‘ by the Rev. J.C.Atkinson (published 1898; probably not available in many bookshops) reveals 14 alternatives: Spink, Pink, Twink, Shelly, Skelly, Shell-apple, Scobby, Shilfa, Buckfinch, Horsefinch, Copperfinch, Whitefinch, Beechfinch and Wet-bird. Spink is an interesting one, as here in the north-east, it’s actually used as an alternative name for the Primrose rather than the Chaffinch. Here you’re more likely to hear the diminutive Chaffie used for the bird instead. Confusing, huh? Perhaps those standard Latin scientific names weren’t such a daft idea after all.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is chaffinch.jpg
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is primrose2.jpg

This is the last bird one, I promise. Corvus cornix, to quote the scientific name, is widely known as the Hooded Crow. Up here in the north-east it’s often foreshortened to Hoodie, which makes a deal of sense, the bird’s black head and neck contrasting with its ash-grey body like some fearsome executioner’s hood. But in my previous place of residence, north Norfolk, the species carried the curious nickname Denchman. This is said to be a corruption of ‘Danishman’, the reason being that in times of old, the same north-east winds that bore Hooded Crows over the North Sea to Norfolk’s shores also brought Viking invaders in their longships. The most feared of these was King Harald of Denmark, leading to the Hooded Crow being christened ‘Harra the Denchman’ in the local tongue. How the name has persisted for so long is anybody’s guess. But it’s one that I still use every time I see a Hooded Crow out on the mussel-beds of the Ythan Estuary.

A pair of Denchmen, emphatically not on the Ythan Estuary

There are numerous examples in the plant kingdom that also demonstrate a diversity of regional names. Some I have mentioned in previous blog posts – e.g. Lotus corniculatus / Bird’s-foot Trefoil / Bacon-and-eggs / Craa’s-taes – depending on which name you prefer for this common and attractive flower.

Bacon-and-eggs, mmmmmmmmm…

Another very familiar plant with a slew of different names is Ulex europaeus – European Gorse to give it its full common name. Most of us know it simply as Gorse, though in southern England it’s known as Furze, and in Scotland widely referred to as Whins. And in our corner of Scotland, fed through a filter of Doric, this can be heard pronounced ‘Funs’, just to add to the confusion. Here on the Reserve, Gorse also gets called all kinds of names that I can’t reproduce here in print, owing to its vicious spines that embed themselves all-too-readily into fingers, hands and even toes when they find their way into your boots.

A shrub of many names – not all of them printable

What scientists would term ‘invertebrates’, many folk would call ‘creepy crawlies’, and here in Doric country they may simply be referred to as ‘wee craiturs’. Like the aforementioned birds and plants, many invertebrates are a familiar, everyday presence in our lives, and as such, they too have collected their own regional, colloquial, affectionate or not-very-affectionate pseudonyms. Woodlice, for instance, have their ‘correct’ scientific and common English names: the one in the photo below, for example, is Phyloscia muscorum, the Common Striped Woodlouse. An alternative common name for this particular species is the Fast Woodlouse (well all things are relative, I suppose). But locals here often refer to these, and others of their ilk, as Slaters. And as a young child growing up in south-west England, I knew them as Choogy-pigs. To this day I have no idea why, but even so, it’s not the sort of name you forget.

Woodlouse / Slater / Choogy-pig [delete as appropriate]

I’ll finish up on a personal favourite. Earwigs are yet another common everyday invertebrate with multiple identities, but surely the best name is the home-grown one widely used in our corner of Scotland. After all, who doesn’t love a Hornie-gollach? Perhaps if all insect species had such appealing names, I’d have learnt to identify more of them by now.

What’s that lurking in the leaflet box?
It’s a Hornie-gollach!

Even in a short and superficial article like this one, it’s easy to see why we need the standard system of scientific names to create some sort of order from the chaos of regional, colloquial and informal names we use for our wildlife. But at the same time, this diversity of language is surely something to be celebrated. As regional cultures and dialects become increasingly and inevitably homogenised, I hope there’ll always be room for Hornie-gollachs as well as Earwigs in the world. Happy new year!

The summer of 2021 – a review

This end of the year is widely regarded as a time of tradition. This can include the religious or spiritual traditions associated with Christmas and the winter solstice, family traditions like always watching It’s A Wonderful Life (I’ve still never seen it!), or local ones like knocking neighbours’ doors on Christmas Eve and ‘carol-bombing’ them with guitars, piano-accordions and tuneless but enthusiastic singing. Here at Forvie, it’s become blog tradition at this time of year to have a look back at the bird breeding season, now we’ve finally finished crunching the numbers and writing the reports. After all, nothing says Christmas like pictures of terns and fluffy Eider ducklings, right?

Sandwich Terns at Forvie ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot
Fluffy chick alert

After the lockdown-interrupted 2020 season, it was a relief in 2021 to embark on the season’s work in circumstances of relative normality. However, the weather had other ideas. The spring was almost unbelievably cold, with snow during the first week of May. This meant we couldn’t carry out some of our routine monitoring work: the welfare of the wildlife must always come first, and flushing birds off their nests in cold conditions can be fatal for the eggs and young. Consequently some of our population figures for 2021 are best estimates rather than actual census data.

Snow at the ternery in spring 2021

Later on in the season, when things finally warmed up, we were faced with another meteorological problem: drought. This wasn’t widely reported upon at the time, being that we’re somewhat off the beaten track here, but the fact was we had negligible rainfall for several months up until September, when the weather pattern finally changed. Normally, we’d be delighted with a dry summer, as dry weather helps the survival of the gull and tern chicks. However, this year the drought was so extreme that it nullified the effectiveness of the protective electric fence around the bird colonies. An electric fence requires a conductive ‘earth’ in order to complete the electrical circuit – and bone-dry sand doesn’t conduct. Consequently, the birds were beset by predation from the local Foxes and Badgers for the second half of the season.

Public enemy no.1 (if you’re an Arctic Tern)

But for all that, it was far from a disastrous season, and certain species fared very well indeed. Here’s how the key players performed in the long, hot summer of 2021…

Black-headed Gull

Of all the breeding birds at Forvie’s ternery, the Black-headed Gulls are always the first to arrive, settle and get going. In 2021, this meant their peak egg-laying period, and consequently nest-census time, coincided with the May cold snap, so instead we could only estimate the population by looking in from outside. By these means we reckoned that approximately 1,500 pairs nested.

Black-headed Gulls on their colony

The first young began to fledge in early June, and a peak count of 1,099 fledged young was recorded at the end of that month. This peak count, of course, is a snapshot of the colony’s productivity, and the true total of fledged young is likely to have been substantially higher. All in all, another excellent season for this species, thus reaffirming the importance of the Forvie colony in a regional context. It’s now far the largest Black-headed Gull colony in the north-east (many other local colonies having declined or disappeared), and is a true stronghold for the species in our region.

Sandwich Tern

These have bred at Forvie for many decades, and achieved a high level of breeding success over the years. In 2021 the first birds returned from their wintering grounds in South and West Africa in late March, and eventually 1,075 pairs settled on their favoured spot in the centre of the Black-headed Gull colony.

A Sandwich Tern and its nearly-fledged chick

Fledglings were first noted in late June, and a peak count of 481 fledglings was recorded at the month’s end. In similar fashion to the Black-headed Gulls, other chicks would have continued to fledge after this, meaning the true total of fledged young would have been greater still. This represents a good solid season’s productivity, continuing the sustained success this species has enjoyed over the past few years. Forvie’s high productivity means that we ‘export’ birds to other colonies in the UK and wider Europe, thus helping the Sandwich Tern’s conservation status well beyond the boundaries of the Reserve. You can’t say fairer than that.

Arctic & Common Terns

These smaller cousins of the Sandwich Tern tend to arrive at Forvie a little later in the spring, with both species taking up residence from late April. Their nests and eggs are very similar in appearance to one another, so they are dealt with collectively when carrying out the nest census. This produced a combined total of 1,127 nests; feeding counts carried out later in the season indicated that the colony comprised c.91% Arctic and c.9% Common Terns.

Arctic Terns – the world’s farthest-travelled birds (look it up!)

Their breeding cycle being a month behind the Sandwich Terns, our Arctic and Common Terns were able to avoid the effects of the May cold snap. They did, however, suffer from the predatory attentions of Foxes and Badgers later on in the season (by which time most of the Sandwich Terns had already finished their season and departed). Consequently their breeding success was somewhat indifferent, with a peak count of just 195 fledged young recorded in mid-July. Overall a rather difficult and disappointing season, but certainly not a disastrous one.

Little Tern

These are our smallest, rarest and most fragile breeding tern species. In recent years their track record at Forvie has been poor, with multiple failures resulting from poor weather and predation – most recently in 2020 when a local Oystercatcher ate most of the eggs (you just couldn’t make it up). In 2021, 30 pairs attempted to breed, and the hatching rate was much improved… but then the Black-headed Gulls ate most of the chicks. If it’s not one thing stitching them up, it’s another thing: that’s life in the crazy world of Little Terns.

One of the few – a Little Tern chick

However, a minimum of two Little Tern chicks survived to fledge, giving the species its first breeding success here since 2018. Others may have done likewise, but no more than two fledglings were seen at any one time. Although this represents meagre productivity, it’s hopefully a step in the right direction. And yes, the sight of those two fledglings flying around the colony did elicit a fist-pump celebration.


This is another species with a rather forlorn recent history at Forvie, with a massive population decline allied to a long series of poor breeding seasons. It was to our surprise and delight, therefore, that they enjoyed a highly successful season in 2021.

Eider drake displaying to his mate. She looks impressed

In most years, the Eider nest census is undertaken in tandem with that of the Black-headed Gulls – so in 2021, in tandem with the Black-headed Gulls, it didn’t happen. Spring counts of Eiders on the estuary, plus observations of the comings and goings at the ternery, indicated that there were perhaps 100 or so nests within the electric fenced area, much the same as in other recent seasons.

Two mums and their creche

Ducklings began to gather on the estuary during June, and by the end of the season in August a very respectable 167 had survived to fledge. This is the highest Eider fledgling count at Forvie since 2003 – an excellent result. The only minor frustration was not being able to explain the reasons behind this unexpected success story!

In summary then…

Forvie’s breeding birds have had better seasons than 2021. They’ve also had plenty worse. Despite difficulties along the way, all the key species produced at least some young, and some were very successful indeed. If I’d been offered that result at the outset, I’d have taken it!

Another gratuitous fluffy chick pic

That’s 2021 wrapped up then. Time now to look ahead to the 2022 season, which will be here before we realise it: the first Sandwich Terns might be back at Forvie within twelve short weeks. What a thought! I think I need another glass of sherry.

Solstice skies

Within two days of this blog post being published, the year will have turned. The hours of daylight will have reached their nadir, and begun to lengthen once again; the start of the long, slow ascent to the summit of midsummer 2022. Quite a thought when we find ourselves shivering in the pre-dawn twilight of a frosty December morning.

A Sand Loch dawn – frost and pastel shades

It’s been said in the past, and rightly so, that some of the real pleasures of this time of year are the sunrises and sunsets. While we may bemoan the brevity of the daylight hours, the up-side is that sunrise and sunset each occur at ‘sensible’ times of the day; in order to witness them, you don’t have to be out of bed especially early, or stay out late into the evening.

What better time to be out and about?

Add to this our topography. I always feel that in terms of aesthetic merits, the east coast tends to get sniffed at a bit. You want nice landscapes, you go to the west coast, or to the central Highlands, right? Certainly these are lovely locations, but to ignore what we have right here on our doorstep is a careless oversight. The east coast landscape, of course, tends to be lower and more undulating, rather than high and craggy like the mountainous regions further west. And that means we do skyscapes as well as anywhere in the UK.

Sky and dunes: pearl and ebony
Where does land stop and sky begin?
The moon and the dune
The cool fire of a Forvie dusk
Ablaze with colours

Having spent some very enjoyable past times living and working in East Anglia, it’s surprising how much common ground is shared between that particular region and north-east Scotland. Both are to some degree misunderstood, with the people of both areas often accused of being dour, and the landscapes dismissed as flat and uninteresting. Each of these is well wide of the mark: east-coast folk tend to be understated yet possessed of a wickedly dry humour, and the landscapes are desolate yet hauntingly beautiful, stretching away to a distant horizon under endless skies. And what better time to appreciate the latter than at either end of a short, sharp winter’s day?

Rose-gold evening sunshine
A spectacular cloudscape
A timeless scene

Witnessing sunrise or sunset in Forvie’s dunescape is a unique experience. If you choose your location carefully, there’s no indication that you’re actually in the 21st Century. This timeless quality provides welcome relief from the relentless pace and pressure of the era in which we live. I have spoken before on these pages of the powerful effect of being immersed in the natural world, and its benefits to mental as well as physical wellbeing. I for one would certainly be a sorry case without it.

Sunset over the Ythan Estuary

Solstice sunrises and sunsets are often sought out by photographers, as well as folk perhaps wishing to connect with something more spiritual. For these would have been important events in the calendar during prehistoric times – indeed, before there were actual calendars – and even today some people like to retain that connection with their ancient ancestors. It’s likely that long before Christmas existed in its current form, there would always have been some sort of midwinter feast or festival to celebrate the turning of the year.

Sun rising out of the North Sea at Collieston

This seems, therefore, an opportune moment to wish all our readers the very best for Christmas 2021. From all the staff and volunteers here on the Forvie team, we wish you a restful break, and a happy and wildlife-filled new year to follow – and we’ll see you out and about on the Reserve as the days begin to lengthen once again.

Season of the duck

On Thursday morning past, the tide was ebbing, the seemingly-permanent gale had miraculously eased for a while, and it was time for the fortnightly waterfowl census on the Ythan Estuary. This, as we’ve explained in previous postings, is a way of assessing the health of the estuary, and of the populations of birds who depend upon it.

Because we aim to record the peak number of each species – and because different species reach their peak numbers at different times of the year – we count a different selection of them each month. In autumn, counts tend to be weighted towards waders – many of them Arctic breeders on their way south, using Forvie as a migration stop-over. But now, as we head into winter proper, many of these have continued southwards, and instead the focus changes to those birds who will actually overwinter here. This is the season of the duck.

Nice day for a bird count – for once

Ducks are a diverse group of birds with a wide variety of shapes, sizes, habits and preferences. What they all have in common, of course, is a love of water, whether fresh or salty. Here at Forvie we are blessed with the full suite of duck habitat: the salt water of the North Sea, the fresh water of the lochs, and the brackish, tidal shallows of the Ythan Estuary in between. Consequently there can be few places on the Scottish mainland offering such good opportunities for observing ducks of all persuasions.

A festive selection-box of ducks – Teal, Wigeon and Mallard

Broadly speaking, ducks can be divided into two groups: ‘dabblers’, which are surface-feeders, and ‘divers’, which obtain their food by diving below the surface of the water, rather than upending. Within these groups, each species has its own niche, or specialism, by which it makes its living. In most cases, the females tend to be cryptically plumaged, often dressed in sombre shades of brown, which keeps them safe from predators during the critical nesting season. The males, or drakes, however, have no such need for camouflage, given that they play no role in incubating the eggs. As such, they are often brightly coloured, boldly marked and – completely unscientifically – delightful to look at.

Ducks on ice

Ask most folk to picture a duck, and they’ll probably think of the Mallard. This is the archetypal dabbling duck, with longish neck and broad, spatulate bill for sifting through shallow water and pulling up waterweeds. Mallards often occur in close proximity to human habitation, and I’d be willing to bet that most of our readers, in their youth, will have been taken by their parents to the local park or river to feed the ducks. But the Mallard’s familiarity belies its status as a truly wild bird with a global reach. Its natural range encompasses nearly eight million square miles of the northern hemisphere, from the Arctic to the sub-tropics.


Sure enough, here in the UK our resident Mallards are supplemented in winter by immigrants from the north, and it’s notable how shy and flighty these are compared with the resident birds. Next time you see a Mallard, give it a second look, as there’s more to this familiar species than first meets the eye. The ones on your local pond may have travelled further than you think to get there!

Mallards at Sand Loch (plus a Wigeon among them – spot him?)

Another dabbling duck present in good numbers at Forvie just now is the Teal. It’s our smallest duck, barely half the size of the Mallard, and indeed the female resembles a miniature Mallard duck. Seen well though, the female Teal has a green flash in the wing, rather than the Mallard’s blue-purple. The drake Teal, on the other hand, is both distinctive and handsome, with his chestnut-and-green head and neat pin-striping. Teal can be found on both the freshwater lochs and the brackish waters of the estuary, where their presence is often betrayed by the male’s call – a short, high, ringing whistle, perhaps best rendered ‘preep‘ – to the uninitiated, a quite un-duck-like sound. In a flock, these calls form a pleasing musical chorus, providing the treble to the winter marshland soundtrack.

A Teal drake having a snooze

Wigeon probably technically qualify as dabbling ducks, but they are somewhat atypical. Possessed of short necks and small bills, their specialism is grazing rather than dabbling for food. They love to feed on land, often favouring saltmarshes and weedy foreshores as well as pastureland near water, and spend more time on their feet than most other ducks. To facilitate this, their legs are set more centrally on the body than other ducks (whose legs are more ‘rear-mounted’), giving the Wigeon an easier gait on land than most of its relatives. Like the Teal, the drake Wigeon also has a distinctive voice, a loud and exuberant glissando whistle, which I’ll attempt to transcribe as ‘WHEEE-ooo!‘. A long-time favourite of mine, a big flock of Wigeon in midwinter is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes.

Wheee-ooo!‘ Wigeon drakes displaying

Moving onto the diving ducks, the Tufted Duck is probably the species most commonly encountered on still, fresh water such as lochs and ponds. The drake is a real dandy, dressed simply but smartly in black and white, with a bright yellow eye and rakish ‘pony-tail’ on the back of his head. The female, typically, is more dowdy and lacks the ‘tuft’. Look out for these on Sand Loch throughout the year – but in common with most ducks, they’ll be looking their best during the winter months.

Tufted Duck, or rather drake

The Goldeneye is a duck that’s at home on both fresh and salt water. They breed scarcely in Scotland, with Speyside and upper Deeside the main strongholds, but most of our overwintering Goldeneye are immigrants from the Continent. During the winter months they can be found on lochs, estuaries and sheltered inshore waters, where they feed on small fish and aquatic invertebrates. They’re worth seeking out if only to witness the male’s frankly ridiculous display, wherein he just about folds himself in half while making a squeezing noise, all to impress the ladies. A true touch of class.

Drake Goldeneye throwing some shapes

Finally, it’d be almost rude to write a piece about ducks at Forvie without mentioning the Eider. An out-and-out salt-water specialist, Eiders rely on a supply of shellfish food, such as Mussels, to see them through the winter. The Ythan Estuary meets that requirement, and consequently Eiders can be seen throughout the year here. But it’s now that they’re looking their best, with the drakes beginning to display to the ducks in readiness for next year’s breeding season.

A resplendent Eider drake

In this sense, ducks are often one of the first indicators of spring, even though it currently seems a long way off. If you suffer the doldrums during this, the lowest ebb of the year, prescribing yourself a little bit of ‘duck therapy’ isn’t the worst idea. Besides their bright colours and melodic voices, these birds are simply full of the joys of spring, even before the year has turned. Don’t think of it as midwinter – just the duck season.

After the storm

Have a read of the various NNR blogs this week and you’ll notice a recurring theme, with Storm Arwen having wrought chaos and destruction throughout the length of eastern Scotland. I must admit that while writing the previous piece about weather-forecasting wildfowl, I couldn’t have foreseen the sheer violence of what lay ahead. Maybe the birds did, hence their southward exodus. But while the geese and swans were safely ensconced in East Anglia, indulging in some sugar-beet tops in the endless beet fields, we endured the roughest conditions since the ‘Michael Fish hurricane’ in 1987.

Storm ahoy

A wind speed of 102 mph was reported from Strichen, about eight miles inland from the coast to the north of Forvie. Along the exposed east coast, things weren’t any better. While our neighbours’ sheds, wheelie-bins and bits of their house roofs were disappearing into the North Sea, we huddled around the stove and the paraffin lamps at home, dreading what we’d find on the Grampian NNRs when the storm finally abated. Reports from around the region indicated widespread devastation. We feared the worst.

Patrick made it out to Forvie on the Sunday, and reported a handful of damaged trees at Waterside Wood – phew, this didn’t sound too bad! However, with roads inland being blocked by fallen trees, and by the snow and ice that soon followed, no staff made it to Muir of Dinnet over the weekend following the storm. As a result, our plans for the Monday were torn up, and we headed to Dinnet as a team, tooled up with chainsaws and winches, expecting a scene of apocalyptic destruction. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, with just a few birches having succumbed and needing cut off the paths. This was a far better result – and an easier day’s work – than we’d all predicted.

Birches on the track at Muir of Dinnet NNR

Tuesday, then, gave us the opportunity to inspect the damage at Forvie more closely. As Patrick had noted, there were a handful of trees down or damaged near the main track onto the Reserve. A Sycamore with a shattered trunk, hung up in the neighbouring trees. A Sitka spruce with its crown snapped out, hanging precariously at a jaunty angle. Another big Sycamore – a ‘double-stemmer’ – with one half severed and on the ground, the other half broken yet still attached, once again hung up in its neighbours’ crowns. A little further up the slope, six more Sitkas and a further two Sycamores all tipped over, root plates out of the ground, tangled up with each other. Deal with that lot then.

So, plans were hatched, equipment sourced and help summoned. The first two of our volunteers to pick up the phone were, completely co-incidentally, Messrs Wood and Woods; you really couldn’t have made it up. But along with Mark and I, it gave us a team – chainsaw operator, winchman and two bankspeople. So we bashed on and got most of the individual trees safely felled and cleared on the Wednesday, leaving just the big cluster of trees ‘up the hill’ to deal with on the Thursday.

A snapped-out Sycamore with winch attached, ready for cutting
Safely cut and winched down – just the dismantling left to do

Meanwhile, over at Waulkmill bird hide, a little Crack Willow had done what Crack Willows do best: half-snapped and landed on the roof of the hide.

That shouldn’t be on that roof
Cutting out

Thankfully we also had Catriona on site on Thursday, sharing with me the chainsawing duties, and along with Mark we spent all the available daylight making the trees safe. Some came relatively quietly, but one big spruce in particular fought us every inch of the way. This one tree took more than two hours of hard labour, winching and cutting, before it lay safely grounded and sectioned. At one point it even overloaded the five-ton winch, causing the shear pin to blow (this is a safety device that is designed to ‘fail safe’, before any other components of the winching system become dangerously over-strained). But as I’ve said before, Mark clearly doesn’t know his own strength.

Cutting a fallen spruce off its root plate
First one down and partly cleared
Sycamore over on its root plate
All cleared up

To be honest, we got off very lightly at Forvie compared with other places nearby. Waterside Wood lies on the leeward side of the hill, after all. The plantation on the windward side of the same hill, just half a mile away on our neighbour’s land, was devastated. As I keep saying throughout these pages, the direction of the wind dictates everything here!

Nearing the end of a long day

As the daylight began to fail on Thursday, and we packed up the last of the gear and began to think of home and a hot bath, there appeared a little natural light relief. A Robin hopped around the churned-up woodland floor, where the furrows created by our winching activities had unearthed a treasure-trove of invertebrates. Then, as light and fleeting as a falling autumn leaf, a Goldcrest flicked through the prostrate twigs of the stricken, now-dismantled trees.

A cheeky Robin, on the lookout for a free meal
Goldcrest – five grams of restless energy

How these tiny waifs got by in the storm is anyone’s guess. But here was vibrant life among the debris and destruction: the gentle side of nature after the violence of the storm.

Feathered forecasters

When planning my week’s work – or indeed anything else that involves being out of doors – I usually check four different weather forecasts, and take an average. It’s very seldom that all these different forecasts agree with one another, and not infrequently they all get it wrong. In the 21st Century, we have access to so much technology, historical data and computer modelling software that weather forecasts are better than ever before – and yet there’s still an element of guesswork involved. Before the technological age, though, people often looked to nature for clues as to what the weather had in store for them.

Rain or shine… or maybe both!

Country folklore is bursting at the seams with such things. If the Hawthorns are heavy with berries, a hard winter lies ahead. When the Rooks build their nests high in early spring, it’ll be a dry summer. The emergence of leaves on the trees can also predict whether the coming summer will be a drought or a washout – “Oak before Ash and we’re in for a splash; Ash before Oak and we’re in for a soak”. And, of course, when the cows lie down in the corner of the field, it’s due to rain.

Oak before Ash?

Needless to say, some of this is probably nothing more than superstitious nonsense – or at best, more useful for indicating what has already happened, rather than what is about to happen. For example, the Hawthorns may be fruiting prolifically due to the conditions in the preceding summer, rather than the forthcoming winter. And in all honesty, the cows probably lie down because their legs are tired. But for all my scientific cynicism, there may actually be a degree of truth in some of these old truisms, because at times it seems that our wildlife knows what’s going to happen before we do.

Hawthorn berries – a sign of cold to come, or simply the result of a good summer just gone?

Take this last week for instance. Up until mid-week, it had been unseasonably mild at Forvie. With temperatures up around 16oC, we found ourselves ludicrously overdressed for all but the most sedentary jobs. We also enjoyed quite a bit of unfeasibly warm sunshine, just to add to the illusion of an Indian summer in November. Our annual ditch-clearing work, usually carried out in a Force 7 with sleet hammering in your face, was undertaken in almost Mediterranean conditions – and we naturally ended up with an iron-ochre perma-tan to match.

Mark hard at work with the ditch-rake
Ochre in the Mealy Burn
A very effective (and cheap) fake-tanning medium
Job done – that water level will have dropped then!

The previous Friday, two of our colleagues from elsewhere in NatureScot, Tina and Becky, came to Forvie for their ‘volunteer day’, whereby they were let out of their respective offices for good behaviour (really?) to help us out and see what we get up to on the Reserve. We spent the day lifting beach litter, before having a tour around South Forvie in the last of the daylight, ending with a fabulous sunset to boot. Our guests took a bit of convincing that it wasn’t like this here every day. Anyway, their efforts were very much appreciated, and weather-wise they couldn’t have picked a better day.

Becky and Tina – beach-clean ninjas
They’re always this happy, apparently
A fine summer’s day – in mid-November

But for all that, signs of change were in the air. For several days there was a noticeably heavy southward movement of Pink-footed Geese and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Whooper Swans. After a couple of days of this, Reserve Manager Catriona and I looked at each other and remarked, “What do they know that we don’t?”. At that point it was fine, warm and settled – why the urgency?

Pink-feet heading south
Whoopers on the move

Sure enough though, mid-week saw the weather break. The wind veered northerly and the temperature nose-dived. Overnight frosts gave way to squally showers of sleet, driven before icy winds under a leaden sky. Suddenly we were grateful for all those layers of clothing that we’d been furiously shedding earlier in the week. How quickly things can change here!

Whooper Swans freshly arrived from the north

It appeared almost as if the geese and swans had ‘read’ the conditions several days in advance. Whether there’s any scientific truth in this, I can’t begin to say. Perhaps the birds can sense a change in atmospheric pressure, or are able to interpret the winds and skies in a way that we don’t fully understand. Or maybe it’s just coincidence. But we’ve noticed similar movements on numerous occasions in the past, often just ahead of a snowfall, cold snap or big storm.

Pink-footed Goose – a feathered Michael Fish?

It’s an intriguing mystery – but in an age where we can instantly find the answer to just about any question by tapping on our phones, isn’t it nice to be baffled by the brilliance of nature every now and then?