One of the things we do very well, here on the relatively flat and windswept east coast, is big skies. Horizons are not hemmed in by trees or mountains and the wind changes what we see out of the window on a sometimes minute-by-minute basis.
A real feature of this January has been an absolutely awesome series of sunrises and sunsets. Most evenings, we are bumping into people, pointing their cameras or phones at the sky, sharing smiles and ‘cracking sunset tonight, isn’t it?’ comments. But why does the sun rise – or set – in the blaze of glory we see?
Sunset on the Ythan estuary
So, here goes with the science bit – and apologies if I don’t get it quite right, I’m a biologist, not a physicist, and I suspect they make up at least some of the maths. Light, as we see it, is made up of different colours. Think of a rainbow, where the sun passing through the rain splits into the spectrum of colours. As the light from the sun hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it gets scattered, by dust, pollution, whatever. During the day, the shorter wavelengths of light show well, so we see blue. But, late or early in the day, as the sun is setting or rising, the light has to travel further round the globe to reach us and more scattering happens. When light is scattered, the short, blue, wavelengths go first but the longer wavelengths persist, so we see oranges and pinks. Like this.
And, with the big skies, we see the light change from horizon to horizon. Yesterday morning, the sun came up in a dawn-pink glow, bathing the whole reserve in warm, rose-gold light.
Sunrise over the sea
Bathed in pink light
Sunrise Forvie centre
Sunrise at Sand loch
And, at the other end of the day, the big skies give us seemingly endless fiery orange sunsets.
It’s a good time to see the shape and form of the local trees. Well, we say trees, but they’re mostly about 10 feet tall and growing at 45 degrees, a reflection of the wind that is an almost daily feature of life here.
It’s not just the sunsets you can see in the big skies. There was a cracking moonrise two nights ago, as the ‘Wolf moon’ rose fill over the reserve.
Moonset over sand loch
Or even, if you’re really, really lucky, an auroa show. It’s always worth keeping an eye on the skies!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
‘One of the penalties of an ecological education’ wrote Aldo Leopold, ‘is that one lives alone in a world of wounds’. And, to a great extent, these words still hold true, 73 years later. Many people may look at the Scottish landscape and see the beauty and wonder of our heather-clad hills and rejoice in the ‘wildness’ of it all. But as a naturalist, you always have that ecological education poking you in the back, saying ‘ yes, it’s pretty, but it’s chronically over-grazed and should be covered in trees and upland scrub and it’s only as quarter as biodiverse as it should be’. It’s often not so much even seeing the scars on the landscape as feeling the absence of what should be there – the upland forests, the coastal heaths, the top predators – all things that have largely gone from our landscape as population and development has increased.
I often wonder what the likes of Leopold would have made of the world today. A human population approaching 8 billion, and a biodiversity crisis that may be start of the sixth great extinction. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen changes and losses in wildlife and I know I’m not the only one. How many places where you grew up remain unspoiled? Even our nature reserves seem to be drowning under a tide of human-related activity or waste and, sadly, so often that means the wildlife suffers. It’s a hard and unpalatable truth that, usually, as the numbers of people rise, biodiversity declines. We see it daily on our NNRs, in damage and littering and disturbance and frequently we despair – our world is wounded.
But are we living alone in that wounded world now? Perhaps less so, perhaps less than ever. There is probably more awareness of ecological issues than there’s ever been – I remember a primary school child saying earnestly to their pal ‘ you need to switch off lights or polar bears die’ – which is not a bad grasp of climate change for a 7-year old. Most of us bring our own shopping bags to the supermarkets and there is a general perception ‘plastic is bad’ – one dead baby whale on a BBC series has far more impact than 40 years of environmentalists saying it. We’re still a long way off breaking our love affair with oil, and, like it or not, will need hydrocarbons for a few decades to come while the green transition takes place – but it’s coming and we will adjust. People are becoming more and more aware all the time how precarious our existence on this planet is and, gradually, changes are a-coming.
Unfortunately, this wider ecological knowledge doesn’t always translate into behaving on NNRs or the wider countryside -yet. Perhaps because climate change seems abstract, and it only kills people in other counties? It’s a news item, a cause for shock and pity but no real impact upon us. Whereas, for example, having to avoid an area, to not carry out your hobby at certain times or places, not get close enough to an animal to get ‘that’ picture on your phone, to keep your dog on a lead, to not have that campfire, has a direct personal impact upon people and is, so often, a sacrifice the are unwilling to make. Oh, it’s small-scale compared with climate change, but all contributes to the creeping, insidious tide of biodiversity loss.
Putting out fire close to coastal grassland
oystercatcher nest with fire in background
And, if we are not living alone in that wounded world, it means more and more people are hurting out there. While there is a saying ‘misery loves company’ I wouldn’t wish how I often on almost anyone. When you invest much of your time, life, love into the natural world, it’s upsetting when you see it damaged through arrogance, ignorance and selfishness. Angry, yes, (conservationists are often angry, and often with just cause) but that feeling of helplessness and inability to protect something you love can lead to despair. More and more people are feeling that anger – climate protests are becoming more frequent – but you hear more and more people saying ‘ what can we do?’. We can’t afford electric cars. We can’t change the fact that oil cartels are more powerful than many governments. We can’t stop greed, or corruption or ignorance so what can we do? If people despair, where do they turn for healing?
A nice view always makes you feel better
The answer is often to our beautiful, wonderful, wounded natural world. It’s been proven time and time again that spending time in a natural environment is good for mental health. You see it, with groups and people on the reserves – they often arrived stressed, harried, grumpy …but by the time they walk back to the car are happy, relaxed and laughing. You feel it in yourself, going into the woods, surrounded by natural noises and sights and smells – you can feel parts of yourself opening up that you have to keep closed to function in ‘normal’ society. Often the natural world brings peace, a place away from other people and the distractions of modern life. It’s so nice not to have things that beep, ping, ring or, in in extreme cases, talk at you. Sometimes, you even need to get caught in a rainstorm, or a blizzard and have the weather kick the crap out of you, just remind yourself what’s real in our hectic, over-stimulated and (recently at least) overly stressed world. Yes, you get cold and wet, but you feel oh so good afterwards (especially clutching a nice Orcadian malt to help the warming process….).
Snow shower coming…
We need the natural world. It’s a given, that we need a healthy planet to live on – we all need clean air, water and food to thrive – but we also need it for the good of our minds. Call it mental heath, call it psyche, call it soul, call it what you will, but nature is good for it. Now, I’m the first to admit, people frequently do my head in. I’m a self-confessed socially-awkward misanthrope and maybe I should just be better at dealing with things I don’t like or agree with. But I am lucky that I can always turn to the natural world for a ‘lift’ – the way the sun plays on the estuary at sunrise. Or a starry sky. Or watching gulls wheel on the wind. Or even just appreciating the stately form of winter trees against a sunset sky.
And wildlife encounters can be the most thrilling of all. I remember, once, watching an otter diving while I hid behind a boat-shed. It surfaced right and my feet and I don’t know who got the bigger shock, me or it…but, for a split second, I was within inches of a wild otter. Or seeing humpback whales off Newburgh -surely that’s something that only happens on Attenborough programmes? But here they were, two of them, on our doorstep and loads of people were watching from any high vantage point. And every time one dove and the tail flukes showed, everyone cheered. Complete strangers were calling to one another ‘ did you see that? There’s two! Look, over there. No, just left of that boat…there!’ And everyone was catching everyone else’s eye and grinning from ear to ear. Or showing someone who you’ve never met orcas through the telescope and getting lots of excited squeals, followed by a hug ‘I NEVER thought I’d see those!’ The natural world can unite strangers like few other things (music, perhaps, being one of the others). We can only hope this shared need and love for the natural world can help keep us sane long enough to save our planet and, ultimately, ourselves.
And we’re back, or at least I am, (while the rest of the team enjoys their last days of holiday) but I’ve still got the birds to keep me company…
I hope everyone’s had a great start to their year! It’s certainly been a beautiful January so far, the mornings have been chilly but with some cracking sunrises here at Forvie!
Although Forvie hasn’t been looking too icy or snowy it’s a different story over at Dinnet with Thursday greeting me with snowy spells and both their lochs being partially frozen over.
I’m almost jealous of the colder weather over at Dinnet, my last two bird counts there have been a complete breeze with all the waterfowl being corralled into the few unfrozen pockets on the two lochs, if only it was so easy on the Ythan…
It’s actually quiet handy for another reason too. Seeing a waterfowl line up of a teal, wigeon, mallard, goldeneye and graylag all side by side on the ice puts some context into the size comparison between these birds and gives a amateur birder like me a lot more useful information than your typical pocket bird guide.
Despite the sunny weather at Forvie its been a fairly quiet week, I’m guessing it’s due to a mix of everyone now either being back at work or enjoying their last days of freedom at home, but I’m not complaining, it was strange-but quite nice-to have done a patrol of the site and not bumped into more than 5 people. It gave me a chance to think about the busy year ahead and all the brushcutting, butterfly counting, tern babysitting etc to come, so maybe a slow start to the year isn’t all that bad.
We’re looking forward to a great 2022 here at Forvie and we’re hoping you’re able to come and visit us soon!
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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?