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.

Sun, fun and little ‘uns

It’s said that Reserve staff are jacks of all trades, and this truism very accurately reflects the varied nature of our work. However, for the last couple of years, one key element of the job has been conspicuously absent. For a long while, coronavirus restrictions obliged us to severely (and necessarily) curtail the outward-facing aspects of our work, such as environmental education and public events. However, in summer 2022, and much to our relief, the Forvie team has been able to recommence this public-facing work. As well as assisting with education visits ranging from primary schools to university classes, we have also, excitingly, been able to put together a programme of events for the first time since 2019.

The up-to-date Forvie events leaflet. So good that I printed it twice.

Last week’s event was the Forvie Fun Day, an afternoon of activities at the Forvie Centre for young and old alike. Not having run such an event here for many years, we were unsure what to expect in terms of turnout or how it would be received. But we were blessed with a stunning day’s weather, allowing us to set up tables and chairs outside where people could enjoy the Collieston & Slains SWRI’s show-stopping array of cakes and refreshments. Pauline the storyteller kept the kids (and adults) entertained, there were crafts and a treasure trail, while the moth trap was incredibly popular with both children and adults. All in all, the day exceeded our expectations – we can only hope the rest of the summer’s events are equally well received!

Activities in the classroom
Pauline doing her stuff in the visitor centre
Refreshments in the sun
Success – and a very relieved Reserve team!

Out on the Reserve, the summer season rolls inexorably onwards. As Catriona mentioned in her previous instalment, the wild flowers are looking magnificent just now, and some of the trails look like they’ve been strewn with confetti.

Wild flowers in South Forvie

Among the common and familiar plants on the Reserve are some more specialised and unusual species. One of our notable plants at Forvie is the rather odd yet attractive Oysterplant, which grows in one particular spot at the foot of the cliffs near Collieston. Midsummer is when Oysterplant comes into flower, and we recently made a special pilgrimage to count the plants, and to enjoy the sight before the flowers begin to fade away once again.

Oysterplant growing on the shingle
In full flower
A unique appearance

On the beaches, we’re still seeing the terrible toll taken by avian flu on Scotland’s seabirds, with dozens of dead Gannets now being joined by similar numbers of deceased Guillemots and gulls. Thankfully, at the time of writing, the worst-case scenario has not yet unfolded at the ternery, and our Black-headed Gulls and Sandwich Terns have largely finished their breeding season and begun to leave the area. This is a massive relief to us, and the many hundreds of young that they’ve successfully fledged (minimum 1,029 for Black-headed Gull and 865 for Sandwich Tern) represent a triumph in the face of adversity.

Part of the carnage on the beach at Rockend
Sandwich Terns and their fledglings on the estuary

Our attention now rests with the smaller tern species, who are still mostly feeding chicks – though our first Arctic and Common Terns have also now begun to fledge and depart the colony. Fingers crossed for those that remain.

Arctic Tern – will you lot please just get on with it and leave?!

Another resident of the ternery, but one that’s much less conspicuous than the neighbouring terns and gulls, is the Ringed Plover. These dinky little waders nest on the sand and shingle around the fringes of the ternery, but their habits are discreet and they take great care not to disclose the location of their nests. Despite this, we did recently find a Ringed Plover’s nest not far from the electric fence batteries and switchgear. It was beautifully concealed within the dense Marram Grass atop a low dune right next to the fence, and contained four perfect little eggs.

Ringed Plover’s nest

Upon re-checking the nest this week, I was disappointed to note an empty scrape, with no sign of eggs, young or parent birds. I resigned myself to the fact that the nest had probably been predated. However, the following day, the adult birds were back in the same area, and behaving very suspiciously. Eccentrically, in fact. In a complete reversal of their usual discreet behaviour, the plovers were trying to attract my attention. This they did by calling repeatedly, flying around me, and indulging in that brilliant and remarkable bit of behaviour that you usually only read about in books – the Ringed Plover’s famous ‘distraction display’.

Ringed Plover distraction display
Putting on a proper show

The distraction display basically involves the parent bird(s) feigning injury, in an attempt to trick a potential predator (in this case me) into chasing after them rather than their chicks. This they do by trailing one or both wings as if broken, while flapping around in an apparently helpless manner. A Fox, for instance, might be taken in by this and pursue the parent bird, imagining an easy meal. Of course, the plover then simply takes flight and the performance resumes a safe distance away. All the while, the Fox is being led further and further from the plover’s chicks.

What a little performance!

In this case, I immediately realised there were baby plovers in the area, so after hastily snapping a couple of photos of the distraction-displaying adults, my attention turned to my feet, to make sure I didn’t tread on the tiny chicks. These tend to freeze and rely on their excellent camouflage to keep them safe, while their parents are putting on a show. Sure enough, almost right under my feet was a baby Ringed Plover. Again, I rapidly took a couple of snaps before moving on as quickly as was safely possible, so as not to cause the family any extra stress.

Ringed Plover chick

It’s likely that this little bundle had siblings nearby (the nest, remember, had contained four eggs). But I made no attempt to find them, opting instead to just move on and leave them to it. I was simply content in the knowledge that the nest hadn’t been predated after all, and had in fact successfully hatched.

Hand for scale only – and yes, I did resist the temptation for a quick snuggle

Speaking as a hard-hearted professional ecologist and fieldworker of 20-odd years’ experience, I will still freely admit that wader chicks are cute enough to melt a heart of stone. Resisting the temptation to pick them up for a quick snuggle is one of the toughest tests that you can face in this line of work. But what with predators, inclement weather and avian flu, they have more than enough to deal with already, thanks very much.

Here’s hoping the little ‘uns get through the rest of the season unscathed, and that we will be able to enjoy such chance encounters in future years. There’s no day that can’t be improved by a moment shared with nature.

Blooming July

Well, that’s the first week in July over. I don’t know where the year is going, it seems to be rattling past at a rate of knots. At this time of year, the passing days are marked by the seemingly endless procession of wildflowers coming into bloom and the reserve arguably looks at its best right now, with every path lined with flowers.

Bird’s foot trefoil

These are great for butterflies. Lots of nectar to feed on and they are the favoured food plant of the beautiful dusky-blue common blue butterfly.

Common blue butterfly

One plant that loves path edges, doing well on the short grass caused by the trampling of many feet, is the wild thyme. Its purple flowers are beloved of bees and celebrated in song – though I don’t really think ours qualifies as ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’!

Thyme

Scattered in amongst the thyme and through the grass are other tiny white flowers. These are eyebrights, so called as they were used as soothing eyewashes in the past. I don’t think there is any medical evidence for this, but they are hemi-parasites on grass roots, stealing some of their nutrients and helping to keep the grass short.

Thyme and eyebright.

Also prevalent along path edges, the sweet-smelling lady’s bedstraw was one used to stuff mattresses as its scent acted as a flea repellant. It was also used to make red and yellow dyes and flavour alcoholic drinks! Now we just appreciate it for its beauty.

Lady’s bedstraw

And the hawkbits are forming yellow meadows in some of the dune slacks. Now, I’ll freely admit I’m not very good at telling these apart, going with descriptions like ‘yellow things’ or ‘the ones that look like dandelions but aren’t’! The ‘hawk’ in their name comes from an old story that hawks ate them to gain visual acuity – not true, obviously, but a hawk’s eye is yellow like the flowers, so that’s where the myth originated. But forget about hawks, the bees love them and they are yet another important plant for pollinators here.

Hawkbits
Bee on hawkbit

Another plant much- beloved by the insects – but much-hated by gardeners – is the creeping thistle. Out on the dunes, a small patch no more than 10m square held over 50 dark green fritillary butterflies.

Dark green ‘frits’ on creeping thistle

Look closely and you can tell the male and female butterflies apart: he is bright orange, while she carries much more black upon her wings. As with most creatures, he seeks to impress, while she is trying not to get eaten!

Male dark green fritillary
Female dark green fritillary

Away from the flowers, we see the summer move on as our terns finally start to leave the colony. With avian ‘flu being an ever-present threat, we are desperate to see them fly and disperse, so it’s wonderful to see them gathering on the beach prior to migrating away from the colony. These Sandwich terns are the first terns to leave, and we wish them well on their travels. They will hopefully play an important role in helping rebuild their population, which, elsewhere, has been devastated by bird flu.

Sandwich terns with fledged young on beach (although some appear ill, they’re mercifully not – they’re just spread out on the sand to cool down, as it was very hot when the picture was taken!)

But the Arctic and common terns still have a way go until they fledge. The first to go should be within the next week, but it’ll be nearer the end on the month until they are all done. In the meantime, we will maintain their predator-proof fence and hope for the best. They, on the other hand, wish we would naff and die, and make this quite clear with a succession of swoops, pecks and a lot of tern swearing!

Arctic tern – you’ve been spotted…
…attacking out of the sun, like a fighter pilot…
…INCOMING!!!

But we forgive them because, after all, they are one of the most beautiful birds in the world. Well, we think so anyway!

Arctic tern

Fingers crossed for another three or four disease-free weeks, to give these fabulous birds the chance to fledge their young and disperse into the wider world. Now that would be a blooming relief for us all.

All Things Being Equal…

Let’s talk about equality. Last month was, after all, Pride month, and many people in the world are still struggling to achieve equality, based on gender or their preferences in who they love. And there isn’t a formula, we just are who we are, and as long as we’re nice, where’s the problem? After all, there is a slime mould, of all things, that has (we think) 720 different genders. So the world isn’t built in black and white, rather in all sorts of wonderful colours and variety. But this blog isn’t really about this, it’s more about how we perceive stuff around us, and the value we give it.

An orange slime mould

There is a famous George Orwell quote ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. Working with both animals and people, this rings very, and sometimes depressingly, true. Take midgies for example. I do not love them, they make my summer an itchy misery. But just because I don’t like them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Without insects like these, we wouldn’t have swallows, or bats, or fish (that eat the larvae in the water), or frogs, and so on….so my likes and dislikes should be irrelevant here, as the insects are a large and vital link in the food web.

Midge swarm

Or clegs. Now there’s an insect it’s hard to love! The chew itchy, leaky holes in you and have even made it into mythology. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, had a shorter handle than intended, as Loki, in the form of a gadfly (cleg), bit the smith making it and distracted him. Having tried to work in still, humid cleggy weather, I sympathise, and yes, I will swat a cleg if it’s biting me. But it does make you think, too often we seek to eradicate species because they inconvenience us.

Cleg or horsefly

And slugs. How often have you lamented holes in your strawberries or the loss of a favourite plant to munching molluscs? But many slugs are detritovores – they eat dead and decomposing stuff – so have a valuable role in keeping the world clean.

Great black slug. Rather usefully, eats dog poo.

Away from insects, probably the commonest example of disliked wildlife are gulls. I find it sad, with avian flu killing up to 75% of some birds in some areas, to hear a fairly common reaction of ‘hope it kills all the gulls, they squawk all night and crap on my car’. I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to dislike gulls, but actually wishing them dead because they do something we dislike is a strong emotion – and not, if we are to reverse biodiversity loss, a helpful one. Gulls are smart, adaptable birds, and most of the time that they are in conflict with people, it’s because they are taking advantage of our profligate habits. Yes, they are a nuisance at 4am, but have you ever walked through a main street in a town at kicking-out time? The food waste you see is a magnet for something with a dustbin diet, and of course attracts gulls. Perhaps it’s ourselves we should be looking at more closely!

Herring gull with chicks

But it’s easy to convince most people of the value of other animals. Here, most people like seals, largely based on their cute appearance – look at that wee face! But the fishermen don’t like them, as they may eat salmon.

Seals

Or sea eagles – they are a rare treat here, a magnificent predator soaring through the skies, a taste of the wilderness on their rare visits. But, out west, the farmers view them with suspicion – they are top predators, take lambs and cost the farmers money. So here are yet another couple of examples of valuing or not valuing a creature based on our interests.

Sea eagle

So, what do we do about it? All animals are clearly not equal, and a lot of the value we give them is based on whether they affect us economically, have an irritation factor or, mostly, just look dramatic or cute. Seriously, don’t underestimate the cute factor – policies on certain species have been made, and taxpayers’ money spent, based on public opinion on whether we like something or not!

But that’s where we start hitting problems, because nature and ecology isn’t based on cute. It’s based on a complex and and interwoven series of relationships that we still don’t fully understand. So it’s not like you can pick and choose what you can and can’t have in the natural world. It’s like a giant Jenga stack – yes, you might pull out a few blocks and the thing still stands, but sooner or later, some key block is going to go and the whole thing will come crashing down. Our natural world is so interlinked that we have to take care our likes and dislikes don’t cause us to forget this.

Puffin – the one bit of wildlife everyone likes!

So, we’ve established that in our eyes, all wildlife isn’t equal. Further to this, our relationship with the land is similarly lopsided. We rightly celebrate our nature reserves – oases of naturalness (for want of a less clumsy word!), and sanctuaries for our beleaguered wildlife, in a landscape highly modified by humanity. But the truth is that we often only set aside land for nature if it’s no good for our own ends. Consequently, most of our prized and much-loved reserves lie on land that is simply too wet, too dry, too rocky, too salty, too windy – or indeed too sandy – to be of use for anything else. And even then, we like to think that we’re doing nature a favour!

Our beloved Forvie – good job it’s no use for development!

But you can’t help but wonder what potentially awesome wildlife hotspots might lie under the more gentle, fertile and productive landscapes that we use for other things. Maybe, some day, we might find out – if we can manage to bring some equality back into our relationship with the natural world.

Midsummer Mayhem

Well, that’s the year turned (shall I be the fist to say ‘aye, the nights are fair drawin’ in?) and we’re just past the solstice and the year has now reached its most frantic point. Everything is growing, breeding or has bred and is now raising young. We are starting to see fledged young birds everywhere, from gulls on the estuary to sparrows around the visitor centre.

Black-headed gull fledging
Young house sparrows

It’s lovely to see al these youngsters around. With all the sad news about avian flu, every fledged young bird is a hope for the future. The young sandwich terns should fly any day now and we’re desperate to see them go and disperse from the colony where the risks from bird flu are at their highest.

Sandwich tern chick

However, the Arctic terns chicks aren’t long hatched and will need at least another 2-3 weeks before they fledge. They are gorgeous little things and start life as a fluffball with tiny, thumbnail-sized pink feet. While I try to be objective in my work, I must admit tern chicks are very cute and have been responsible for highly unprofessional statements like ‘Aww da fwuffies’ while walking round the ternery!

Arctic tern chick

Mind you, sometimes the birds aren’t easy to spot in the long grass – it’s a big part of the ‘everything growing’ part of the season. As hay fever sufferers will know, the grass is all flowering now. It has some great names, like cock’s foot, false oat grass, sweet vernal grass and crested dog’s tail. The pollen – not so great sometimes!

Wet cocks foot on a dewy morning

The growing grass keeps us busy; it needs cut far more often than we’d like. The paths all need strimmed at this time of year and it’s hot work in this weather!

Strimmed path
Sunset grass

It’s no wonder everything grows so well, with easily 20 hours of daylight just now. We’re right in the ‘simmer dim’ the half-light of June, where the nights never totally get dark. Even by not much gone 2am, the first rosy hues of sunrise are starting to creep across the sky.

Sunrise – though it never really sets!

Meanwhile, in amongst the flowers and the grass, the burnet moths are busy making more burnet moths. They are having a good year this year and seem to be everywhere, especially in the flower-rich dune slacks. They are one of those insects that almost looks too vivid to be true, their glossy black and scarlet spots almost clashing violently with the purple of the northern marsh orchids.

Burnet moth on Northern Marsh Orchid
6 spot burnet moth on Northern Marsh Orchid

The orchids themselves look fantastic. the best place to see them is round the Sand Loch trail but get out soon – the summer is moving on and they are starting to go over!

Northern marsh orchid

Another sign of the year moving on is new butterfly species appearing. We’re starting to see common blue butterflies appearing, along with meadow browns and dark-green fritillaries.

Common blue
Dark green fritillary

I always think ‘dark-green fritillary’ is an odd name for what, to all intents and purposes, is an orange butterfly – like most Scottish fritillaries. But the name comes from the underwing, which shows a distinct greenish colour in the right light.

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Dark-green fritillary underwing

The rapid turn of the seasons is never more pronounced than in the natural world and every new flower or insect, or fledged young bird, to us, is the year moving on. Already, as Daryl wrote in his last blog, there are signs of a-u-t-u-m-n creeping in, even to high summer, so I think the message for us all is to get out there and enjoy it while it lasts!

Peacock butterfly

Don’t mention the ‘A’ word…

Except I’m about to do just that. Autumn. There you go, not so painful after all, was it?

Yes, I know we’re only just into the second half of June, the days are at their longest, the sun at its highest, and it only seems five minutes since spring arrived. So how can we be thinking about autumn already? Well, in the natural world, the signs are already there. Subtle and easily missed, perhaps, but there nonetheless.

You need to be up late to catch the sunset just now!

In fact, the first sign appeared as early as 6th June. Catriona was doing the rounds of the ternery as per usual, when her attention was seized by an evocative cry from the clouds above. Here, high overhead, was a little flock of six Curlew flying in off the sea on a south-westerly bearing, making landfall after their crossing of the North Sea. These were probably failed breeders from Scandinavia, and rather than mope around on the breeding grounds, they had decided to get a headstart on their autumn migration. Their arrival here was therefore a major landmark in the year.

Incoming!
Curlew – quick out of the blocks

Returning wading birds are often the first indicators that the year is past its zenith. But June is an odd month in many ways for these birds. The ones who breed way up into the Arctic Circle are among the latest of all our northbound migrants, not passing through our region until early June. After all, the ice doesn’t melt until mid-June in the very far north, so it would be pointless their travelling any earlier. But by this time, some of the more southerly breeders – such as our Curlew of 6th June – may already have attempted to breed and failed, and will be southbound again.

Migrant waders on the Ythan
Waders on the estuary at sunset

So on any given day at Forvie in mid-June, we may be seeing both northbound and southbound migrants effectively crossing one another. It’s often hard to tell which way an individual or flock is headed. This absolutely bears out the old birders’ truism, that there isn’t really a ‘summer’ period – instead, spring just segues seamlessly into autumn. And nowhere is this more apparent than at our northerly latitude.

Waders on the beach – but headed which way?

Many people get a bit downcast at this thought; understandably so to some extent. But it’s also a very exciting period for the naturalist. We look forward to the turning of each season in anticipation of what interest and excitement it may bring. And I’m not ashamed to say that of all the seasons, the period from August to October is my most eagerly-anticipated period of the year.

This year though, we are positively willing the seasons to turn. The reason for this is the other big ‘A’ on our minds at the moment: Avian Influenza – ‘bird flu’ to the lay-person. Over the last few days, we have been receiving reports from elsewhere in the North Sea region that seabird colonies are being devastated. In France and Holland, Sandwich Terns are being wiped out in their colonies, with a mortality rate upwards of 75%. Now that’s what you call a pandemic. If you’ve got the stomach to read more about this grisly subject, check out this article.

Sandwich Terns

Here at Forvie, ‘our’ Sandwich Terns are getting towards the business end of their breeding season, with the first fledglings due any day now. Once fledged, the youngsters and their parents tend to disperse widely into the North Sea and beyond, on a leisurely and circuitous journey to their wintering grounds in south and west Africa. Once they’ve left the tightly-packed breeding colony, the risk of transmission of the avian flu virus is much lower. Up to now (touch wood), our colony has been unaffected, with the young progressing well at the time of writing. Consequently, we’re hoping and praying for three or four weeks’ grace to allow them to finish their season and get away safely. But it’s very much in the balance.

Young growing fast – we just hope it’s fast enough!
Rapidly approaching fledging age

This is an extremely anxious time (there’s another ‘A’ word) for Reserve staff and volunteers. Over the years we have poured a vast amount of effort and emotional energy into protecting our terns, and giving them the best possible chance of success. We have revelled in the successes, and taken the failures on the collective chin. But here we’re faced with something potentially catastrophic, which we are powerless to do anything about. This is a matter of life and death, in a very literal sense. With all this in mind, please forgive us for willing the summer to pass quickly and for autumn to arrive.

Parent and baby – anxious times for all

I can only apologise (another ‘A’ word) for the rather gloomy subject matter in this week’s instalment (and I don’t mean autumn, by the way, which is a joyous season!). Hopefully in a few weeks’ time I will be reporting on a successful season for Forvie’s breeding birds – and if that is the case, ‘our’ birds will then have a crucial role to play in rebuilding their species’ devastated populations following the terrible events of 2022.

Hopefully a sight we can still see in years to come

At this stage, there’s still all to play for: just wish us luck. And in the meantime I will continue to say, without any feelings of guilt, “Roll on autumn”.

Don’t they grow up fast?

With Mad May having long since given way to Jumping June, we’re currently right in the middle of the busiest period of the year, for Forvie’s wildlife and staff alike. The almost perpetual daylight and increased daytime temperatures (finally!) each serve to create a frenzy of activity wherever you look on the Reserve. This is the season of new life.

Nowhere more so than down at the ternery. While it only seems moments since we reported upon our gulls and terns laying their first eggs of the season, now their chicks are racing towards fledging, and taking their first tentative wingbeats into the world outside their natal colony. Foremost in the race to get airborne are our Black-headed Gulls, whose young are now at the ‘gawky teenager’ stage. Like a lot of human youngsters, they’re bonny when they’re little, then go through an awkward stage where they’re all elbows and knees, before maturing into something altogether more handsome.

Bonny babies
Scruffy and awkward teenagers
Getting there!

Following in their wake are the Sandwich Terns, whose young are now up on their feet and visible from outside the protective electric fence as we carry out our daily rounds. They too are going through the scruffy stage before acquiring their smart juvenile plumage.

Sandwich Terns growing up fast

Excitingly, last week delivered the first Eider ducklings of the season. Several broods were seen emerging from the ternery, each being closely escorted by their mother. Sadly these were slightly too late to make the ‘fluffy things’ blog we recently ran, but it was a relief to finally see some ducklings. The cold spring of 2022 meant that Forvie’s Eiders were slow to get going, with ‘our’ birds being fully a month behind their counterparts on the Isle of May. But it’s a case of ‘better late than never’.

Mum and ducklings
Day-old babies, snuggled up to mum
Made it – safely afloat on the estuary

We also saw our first Oystercatcher chicks of the season last week. This nest, containing four eggs, was located just inside the electric fence – making it easy for us to keep abreast of its progress during our daily fence checks.

Four Oystercatcher eggs, before hatching
Eggs hatching

On Tuesday morning, the eggs had begun to hatch, with at least one chick having completely emerged but not yet dried out. This is a critical time, with the newly-hatched young susceptible to becoming chilled. Thankfully these had chosen to hatch on a mild day, but even so, Catriona only paused for a few seconds to capture a photo before hurrying onwards, and allowing the parent bird to return to the nest to brood the new arrivals.

Oystercatcher – new parent

Away from the ternery, the dune slacks are now a riot of wild flower colour. One of the most obvious and visually appealing flowers currently in full bloom is Bird’s-foot Trefoil. It’s a member of the pea family, with its flowers (and later on, its seed pods) bearing a close resemblance to garden sweet peas. Moreover, it also shares its domesticated relative’s deliciously sweet smell. If you come upon a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil in a sheltered slack on a hot, still day, the smell can be almost intoxicating.

A riot of colour
Bird’s-foot Trefoil… you can almost smell the sweet scent
A beautiful contrast with the blues and whites of Wild Pansies

While Forvie’s butterflies, like our Eider ducks, have been slow to get going this year – again likely due to the dismal cold spring we experienced – our moths are beginning to put on a show. One of the more obvious day-flyers is the distinctive black-and-red Cinnabar moth, which can be seen patrolling the dune slacks looking for Ragwort plants on which to lay its eggs. Hopefully later in the season we’ll begin to see the Cinnabar’s equally-distinctive caterpillars, tiger-striped in black and orange, munching their way through the Ragwort leaves. The coast path south of Collieston, and the estuary-side portion of the Dune Trail, are good places to look out for these.

Cinnabar moth
Cinnabar caterpillars on Ragwort

Rather less obvious are the multitude of night-flying moths that occur here. In order to see these, you need to either stay up late, or set a light-trap to capture them – or simply get lucky and find them at roost during the day. This we did recently, stumbling (almost literally!) over a Small Elephant Hawk-moth at roost in the grass right next to the coast path. We don’t often get a chance to see these, so this was a real piece of good fortune. And for those who think all moths are just dull brown things that crash into light bulbs – check out the colours on that.

Small Elephant Hawk-moth – what a beaut!
A rhapsody in shocking pink

For all the excitement of high summer, the first full week of June also brought the first signs of autumn to the Reserve (please don’t hate me for saying that – besides, it’s the best season of the year here in your author’s humble opinion). But more on that in next week’s instalment!