New friends and familiar faces

The middle week of March proved to be a very busy one at Forvie (though aren’t they all nowadays?!). Not least because for two days mid-week, we welcomed our colleagues from the recently-formed North Area sector of NatureScot to the Reserve for a rare in-person gathering. This was a great opportunity to meet with our counterparts from such far-flung places as Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney, Shetland and Moray (as well as some more familiar faces from Aberdeenshire), and to actually see each other in 3D as opposed to tiny thumbnail pictures on Microsoft Teams. Quite a few of the attendees had never visited Forvie previously, so it was a chance for us to do the ‘proud parents’ bit and basically show off about what a brilliant place it is.

North Area colleagues chatting with Ron Macdonald at the Newburgh seal viewpoint
Extolling the virtues of the Reserve to a rapt audience (I hope)

After a wintry week of snow and ice, followed by a day of relentless rain on the Monday, we were fortunate to have a couple of fine days for the get-together. In fact it was so clear and still on the Tuesday night that a sharp frost developed, and our walk along the estuary shoreline on Wednesday morning met with a vista of washed-up ice-floes that had been broken up and pushed onto the strand-line by the early-morning tide.

Sheet ice washed up along the shoreline

Along the shores of the estuary, efforts are continuing to clear up the bio-filters which escaped from the Ellon waste-water treatment works back in November. Scottish Water’s sub-contractors have been busy removing literally tons of tideline debris, among which the filters tend to gather. This has the beneficial side-effect of also removing all the other small plastic fragments that have become entangled in the flotsam – bits of rope, shreds of carrier bag, bottle caps and countless other small items. It’s a huge undertaking, and this work is likely to be ongoing for some time yet. So if you see a massive tractor and trailer driving up and down the estuary, it’ll be lifting tideline waste as part of the big clean-up.

Contractors at work removing strand-line debris
The offending items

On a brighter note, the second day of the staff gathering also corresponded with a major milestone in Forvie’s year: the Black-headed Gulls returned to their colony for the first time. As I explained to my colleagues, this was therefore the official first day of summer at Forvie. Well over a hundred birds were present across the area that we recently cleared of last year’s dead vegetation, and these are the vanguard of what we hope will be a large – and ultimately successful – breeding population. Time alone will tell though.

They’re back!
Paired up and dressed in their finest

Notable among these early birds was an interloper from the south. Mediterranean Gulls are scarce visitors to our region, with the Ythan Estuary one of the most reliable sites in the north-east to see one. During most years we receive several visits from ‘Med’ Gulls, as they are informally termed, but usually these records concern wandering immature birds. However, on Wednesday morning we were treated to a stunning summer-plumaged adult, with ghostly white plumage (adults have no black or grey in the wing feathers, unlike most other gulls), full jet-black hood, droopy bright-red bill and clown-like white crescents around the eyes. Sadly it flew straight through before we could get any photos, and consequently the picture below was taken last summer for illustrative purposes only! (Although the one in the pic isn’t quite fully adult, as it has a few black spots in the wingtips. Hope you can forgive me.)

In any case, I owe an apology to Ron Macdonald, who was speaking to the North Area team at the time when I interrupted him to call out the sighting as the bird flew by. Sorry Ron!

Mediterranean Gull (centre) – this one was photographed last summer

Further signs of spring creeping in were noticed this week – notably the first Common Frog of the year, seen at dusk on Thursday (in dreadful light for photography by the way, so once again the photo that follows is for illustration only!). By its size and shape, i.e. like a beach ball with legs, it appeared to be a gravid (=egg-filled) female searching for somewhere to spawn. A welcome sight for us after an amphibian-deprived winter!

Common Frog on the move

Perhaps even more exciting was the appearance of the year’s first butterfly – not the expected Small Tortoiseshell, but a gorgeous Peacock. There may in fact have been an element of cheating with this one – I suspect it had been hibernating in a folded-up trestle table in the workshop, and stirred into life when the table was brought into the warmth of the classroom for the North team gathering. So it may have emerged a bit earlier than it meant to. Either way, it appeared in excellent condition, and as I type this, the weather is certainly warm enough to sustain any early flying insects.

The first butterfly of the year – always a welcome sight!

Spring sounds have also been on the increase this week, and the regular birdsong chorus of Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock and Skylark has now been joined by a couple of additional species. Yellowhammers have begun issuing their simple little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese ditties from prominent song-posts such as a telegraph pole or treetop, and on Friday we also heard a male Stonechat giving it big licks for the first time this year. Lengthening days and rising temperatures mean the hormones start pumping, and now in the mornings you can hear it.

Yellowhammer atop a typical song-post
Male Stonechat surveying his territory

It won’t be too long now before some familiar old friends bid us farewell for the summer. Pink-footed Geese have already begun trickling northwards, and their numbers here will be in a continuing state of flux for the next few weeks, as flocks pass through our region before making the leap across the sea to Iceland or Spitsbergen.

Pink-footed Geese moving north

With the shooting season now finished, the geese become a little more approachable, though they still remain wild and wary, with a particular aversion to pickup trucks (the shooter’s vehicle of choice). Sometimes they’ll feed right by the roadsides and will happily tolerate the moving traffic nearby – but if you slow down or stop for a look, they often become alarmed and take off in fright. Sometimes, however, they settle back down again and allow some nice views.

Pink-feet on the ground

March is a fine time for sifting through goose flocks, as the birds have had all winter to mingle on the feeding-grounds, during which time some flocks acquire hangers-on of different species. This was nicely illustrated recently when Mark and I discovered a Greenland White-fronted Goose among a flock of Pink-feet by the estuary. These are rather darker-plumaged and swarthier than the familiar Pinks, and also have bright orange legs and bill, the latter with a white base which gives the species its name. The bill pattern can make it look a bit like they’ve got an ice-cream cone stuck on their face. Or maybe it’s just me.

Greenland White-fronted Goose (nearest bird)

That’s us into the second half of March then – half a month of spring past already. Here’s hoping it’ll actually start to feel like it! Till next week folks.

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like…’

You know the tune, and yes, it’s an unseasonable one. But it’s been an unseasonable sort of week here at Forvie, in common with much of the rest of the country. It appears that someone has pressed the pause button on the arrival of spring, and instead we’ve experienced the sort of week that we might reasonably expect in mid-December. Perhaps we’re paying the price for all the mild days we had in February, in some back-handed sort of karma. Either way, it’s been a stark reminder that winter hasn’t quite relinquished its grip on the north-east just yet.

A bonny spring day(!)

After a chilly but nondescript weekend, things began turning Christmassy (sorry) on Monday, when I set out on foot over the Heath Trail and Rockend Track, to check on some of the infrastructure and read the dipwells. During the morning the sky had darkened ominously, with the odd sleety shower passing through. These showers soon turned to hail, depositing onto the Reserve a layer of icy ball-bearings, closely resembling the polystyrene packaging that was ubiquitous in the 1990s.

Polystyrene balls? Thankfully not

In the time it took me to walk from Waterside to Rockend, the hail had turned to wet snow, and a thin white blanket began to be cast over the heath, dunes and beach. Borne on a fresh northerly breeze, this was a stern test of one’s waterproofs, as well as being conducive to an ice-cream headache. Not that this made being out and about any less enjoyable though.

Snow starting to fall…
…beginning to settle…
…even on the beach!
Hackley Bay with a covering of snow

By Tuesday morning we had received a light but notable snowfall, and the Reserve looked like a winter wonderland once again – if you could tune out the singing Skylarks and ignore the fact that when the sun shone, there was a genuine warmth in the air. Thereafter, overnight frosts – temperatures fell to -5oC on Tuesday night – created some fine ice sculptures in the wetter bits of the Reserve.

Frost-encrusted rushes emerging from a frozen ditch
A frozen wetland on the Reserve
A series of ice sculptures at Hackley Bay

A covering of snow adds an extra dimension to the landscape for the naturalist. Suddenly, animal tracking becomes easy even for the casual observer. This set of tracks appeared on one of Forvie’s footpaths after an overnight snowfall in the week…

Fresh tracks in the snow

…and their gun-barrel-straight alignment, in addition to the dainty dog-like pattern of the individual paw prints, easily identified these tracks as those of a Fox. The animal had clearly passed that way, in typically direct and purposeful fashion, since the latest snow shower. And but for the snow, we would never have known it had been there. Thus fresh snow can reveal a world of activity normally hidden from our eyes.

Fox footprint in the snow

Among the diurnal wildlife, many bird species have switched from springtime thoughts (of territoriality and breeding) back into survival mode. Here at author’s HQ, the feeding-station has become very popular again, and this is the scene from the window as I type this:

A well-attended feeding-station

As well as the usual House Sparrows and Starlings which are resident here, small numbers of Chaffinches and Yellowhammers have also taken refuge from the harsh conditions in the wider countryside. These are cashing in on the handouts of food to see them through this cold snap, but once the weather turns mild again they’ll soon be away back to their regular haunts, leaving the feeders to the sparrows once again.

Chaffinch in the snow
Yellowhammer under the garden feeders

Plants, however, remain undaunted by this temporary setback in the weather, and continue to embrace the lengthening days with reassuring vigour and determination. Gorse, of course, is a plant for all seasons, and you can usually find some of it in flower, somewhere, on any day of the year. From now on though, its yellow blooms will become an increasingly familiar sight as the season progresses. Although we’re still some way off those balmy summer days, when the heady coconut scent of Gorse flowers hangs heavy in the air, the sight of a few flowers now is an encouraging promise of what lies ahead.

Gorse flowering despite the snow

Other plants are also beginning to stir into life, notwithstanding the wintry conditions. Honeysuckle is now starting to put on leaf, again tempting us to think ahead to warm summer evenings, and the deliciously sweet scent of its flowers on the night air. Apart from being intrinsically attractive, both in appearance and fragrance, the other delightful thing about Honeysuckle is its magnetic pull upon insects. A summer afternoon spent watching the comings and goings of bees, moths and the like, as they partake in the nectar offered by the Honeysuckle flowers, is time well spent. Here in the early, fragile days of the new spring, these first leaves bring with them a sense of anticipation.

Honeysuckle leaves emerging

Hawthorn trees have also begun to burst into leaf this week, with the fresh bright green of the new leaves standing out incongruously against the snow. This species is also traditionally known as the May tree, as this is the month in which its frothy white blossom will emerge. Here in the north-east, the expression ‘ne’er cast a cloot till the May is oot’ is a sage piece of country-common-sense advice: don’t leave your warm clothes at home until the Hawthorn is in bloom, as the winter may yet come back to bite you. This past week having been a case in point!

Hawthorn buds bursting

We’ll leave you this week then with an appropriate seasonal image taken in the second week of March. I can almost hear Bing singing…

Fighting talk

March. Meteorological spring. In the natural world, of course, this means the onset of breeding time. And breeding time means it’s also time to find yourself a mate, and perhaps a territory too. Plenty to be getting on with then.

While the popular imagery associated with spring and the breeding season – fluffy chicks, baby rabbits and the like – suggests a serene and gentle time in the year, the reality is somewhat different. For our wildlife, this is a season of competition, intense hard work, exertion and even physical violence.

Coot quietly tending to its chicks. A serene scene – but don’t be fooled!

The whole business of establishing and defending a territory, and attracting and retaining a mate, requires a lot of visual and aural signalling. Thus when spring arrives, everything starts displaying and singing like crazy. This is my patch, keep off. Unless you’re a prospective mate. In which case, I’m fitter and stronger than the next fella. Come and have my babies. These are the key messages, common to many different species throughout the animal kingdom. But the ways in which these messages are delivered are highly variable.

Ducks are some of the earliest to get going – they start displaying and pairing up during the dead of winter – and by early spring they’re getting really animated. Their breeding-season messages are mostly delivered visually; although some species do incorporate sounds into their display, it doesn’t constitute ‘song’ as we would recognise it. Instead, it’s the ornate plumage of the drake (male) that is used to signal his intentions to both prospective mates and rivals. And like any hopeful singleton, as well as dressing sharply he must also throw some shapes on the dance floor in order to impress the ladies (and ideally intimidate the other blokes in the area as well).

Mallards bowing and bobbing

Mallards tend to bob and bow to one another, accentuating the greenness of their heads, the yellowness of their bills and the curliness of their tailfeathers. While doing so, the drakes often give voice to a brief musical whistle, which sounds quite un-Mallard-like if you’ve never heard it before. Teal are rather more vocal, giving frequent chirpy whistling calls, and they too go all-out to demonstrate the magnificence of their plumage. The drakes have a delightful ‘tail-up’ display whereby they show off the crisp cream-and-black undertail markings as well as the stunning iridescent green panel in the wing. Look out for both Mallard and Teal displaying on the estuary and lochs just now.

Drake Teal throwing some shapes

Goldeneye drakes go to frankly ridiculous lengths to impress the ladies, throwing a series of implausible shapes including folding themselves in half, and uttering a bonkers fizzing sound as they do so. They even use their feet to spray water droplets around to add to the effect. If you see a pair or party of Goldeneye on the estuary or on Sand Loch on a fine early-spring day, keep an eye on the drake(s) and you might just be treated to one of the most ludicrous displays in nature. Try not to laugh at them.

First the neck stretch…
…then the contortions…
…and finally the water works.

For other species, it’s less about the appearance and more about the sound. While ducks are all glam-rock and elaborate music videos, songbirds are more like a classical or jazz recital. It’s an unwritten rule (and not one that holds true all the time) that the best singers in the natural world are the least interesting to look at. Think Nightingale, Woodlark, Garden Warbler… all stunning voices, but anonymous in appearance. To some extent, the same applies to the Blackbird – sombrely dressed, but with one of the finest voices in the natural world.

One of our finest songsters – a male Blackbird

Robins are among the few small birds that defend a winter territory as well as a breeding one, and they have a song for each purpose. Their winter song, often heard at dawn and dusk on the shortest days but also in the dead of night in areas illuminated by street lighting, is thin and melancholy, in keeping with the season. In spring they switch to a much livelier and more strident song, as if they’re shifting up a gear for the increased pace of the upcoming summer. And if the aural cues don’t do the job when it comes to putting off potential rivals, the red breast also acts as a visual warning. Most of the time this is enough, but Robins can be surprisingly violent to one another, and fights to the death are by no means unusual.

Robin – aural and visual signals

Birdsong is now all around us, but other sounds of spring are rather subtler and easier to miss. If you’re around shallow freshwater pools in early spring, and it’s not blowing the customary North-east Scotland gale, keep an ear cocked for the sound of Common Frogs. These mate and lay their eggs (spawn) communally in traditional breeding ponds and lochs, and as well as spotting the tell-tale ripples on the water’s surface, you may also hear the soft snoring sound they make – the frogs’ proxy for song.

Common Frogs getting on with it

Common Toads, meanwhile, have a much higher-pitched and more abrupt call, and to my ear at least they sound more like a waterbird of some kind rather than an amphibian. The purpose of the sound is the same though: hey ladies, come and have my babies.

What’s that odd sound? It’s the Toad!

Brown Hares, present in the fields around North Forvie, are famously exuberant in early spring, indulging in ‘boxing’ displays to establish mating rights. This isn’t, as is popularly imagined, rival males having a punch-up, but rather a potential pair sparring – the female effectively sizing up her suitor and telling him he’ll have to try a bit harder if he wants to win her over, so to speak. As such, the boxing of mad March hares doesn’t constitute actual violence, but more a ritualised form of mock fighting.

Brown Hares

Roe Deer, however, can and do get violent with one another. Their rutting season, though, is still a long way away, taking place in late summer. Just now in March, the bucks are ‘in velvet’ – that is to say their antlers are in the process of growing prior to the summer rut. This gives them a very distinctive appearance in the meantime. It also means that despite the intense competition among the males of so many other species in spring, Roe bucks still rub along happily with one another – for the time being at least.

Roe buck in velvet
Best of friends… for now

At times though, all the visual signals and audio cues are just not enough to separate closely-matched rivals, and this is when things start to get a bit ugly. While the Mallard drakes that we mentioned earlier can usually sort things out with a bit of posturing and perhaps a quick lunge and chase across the water, sometimes the rival won’t take the hint, and avian fisticuffs ensue. This can be surprisingly full-on, though the birds’ blunt, flat bills mean serious damage isn’t often caused. Intense fights between drakes out on the water can on occasion lead to drownings, but on dry land it’s usually limited to a few missing feathers and some damaged pride.

Play nicely, boys

We started this article with a restful picture of a Coot on its nest, tenderly caring for its freshly-hatched youngster. Coots, however, are anything but peaceable, and have a reputation for being bad-tempered and quick to come to blows. While a pair of Coots is usually a harmonious combination, throw in a rival and things quickly escalate into all-out warfare. Mallards are relative amateurs when it comes to violence by comparison. And sure enough, in early spring, tensions are running especially high, as this recently-taken series of photos demonstrates.

A Coot equivalent of a pub fight situation – round one
Round two
The winner victorious, the loser with bloodied bill

Welcome then to spring 2023; a time of birdsong, new life and spring flowers – and occasional bouts of gratuitous violence.

Suns up, seals out, sheds built.

Well if you weren’t at Forvie on Monday I feel a bit sorry for you. With temperatures up to 14 degrees, clear skies, a slight wind, and an impressively high tide, what’s not to love?

Sadly someone forgot to tell the birds and after going along the length of the estuary I managed one of the lowest bird counts to date, you’d think a 4.4m high tide would in fact bring out more birds on the “high water bird count”, unless they were all enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta in the grass from the February sun? Who knows…

I’ve never actually seen this whole section of the road disappear into the tide before, cue some gazelle-like agility to tiptoe around the water’s edge to carry on the survey.

This week’s seal count down at the Ythan mouth came back with 1260 seals. Now this does sound high but we’ve recently had upwards of 3000 seals on the haul out which has smashed Forvie’s site record by at least 800! I’m curious if this week’s “low” count is just by chance or if the usual spring peak has occurred already before the end of February, because if not we might be on track to have a real boatload of seals come April when the seals are usual at their peak. Time shall tell.

1260 of Forives finest enjoying a nice lie about.

Also, we have a new shed. The lads impressively managed to get the whole thing up within a day, I swear I said hi one minute, blinked, then there was a shed outside.

Hard at work.

Sadly we weren’t quick enough to get our handprints into the fresh concrete last week in a “Hollywood Walk of Fame” impersonation but then again I’ve heard fresh concrete isn’t the best for you so maybe that’s a blessing in disguise.  

This new shed comes with a revolutionary new feature known in the industry as a “functional roof” this is designed to stop rain from entering the structure and means we no longer have to use a wok to keep the shed dry (and lucky for you I’m not writing this blog from Forvie today or else I would be showing you a picture of that rusty abomination)


Here’s some cautiously good news to send you off with, after my estuary and beach checks for any dead/sick birds from bird flu there were zero this week! Who’s to say what the near future holds with this current outbreak but at least in the recent short term our birds have had a good week!

The sands of time

Time has a powerful, and at times strange, effect upon our perception of things. I realised this recently when speaking to a group of students on a university field trip to the Reserve, and trying to explain all the changes that have taken place at Forvie since I arrived here in 2007. “This bit of the Reserve looked totally different in 2007…” Or “back in ’07 there were loads of Rabbits here…” And “there were hardly any Grey Seals on the Ythan when I started off here…” The list goes on.

A university field trip on the estuary

This brought home two realisations. Firstly, I’m beginning to sound like an auld mannie, always harping on about the olden days ‘when I were a lad’. Not good: surely I’m too young for that yet. Secondly, and more importantly, I recognised that I am constantly using 2007 as my reference point for everything. This makes sense to a degree, though I would be wise to remember that Forvie has been here for a bit longer than the past sixteen years. But in any case, for better or worse, 2007 is my ‘baseline’.

Rabbits – big decline since the heady days of 2007

This links to an interesting and well-known quirk of human nature. Often, when we look back to when we were young, we do so wearing rosy specs, and we tend to think of the state of the world back then as ‘how it should be’. We relate everything that we see today back to this starting point – this is the ‘baseline’ that I speak of. Obviously, this will be different for each one of us. Consequently, our perception of the world today depends very much upon our individual baseline.

Bronze Age civilisation at Forvie – how would our ancestors have seen their world?

The author and environmentalist George Monbiot was quick to identify this phenomenon, and coined the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. This basically means that we can only easily relate to the changes that have happened since our youth, and find it hard to get our heads around anything else. Thus a person born in the 1980s may lament the loss of wildlife in the countryside over the last few decades – but not necessarily realise that the wildlife of the 1980s was already severely depleted compared with, say, the 1940s. A person born in the ‘40s may think of their youth as a nature-rich utopia compared with today – but how would this compare with the 1900s? The 1850s? The pre-Industrial Revolution era? Your perception depends upon where your baseline lies.

A rich and diverse landscape – or a degraded one?
An estuary full of birds – or a fraction of what was once here?

Shifting baseline syndrome often results in some deep and at times heated discussion with visitors, neighbours and stakeholders on the Reserve. The Grey Seal population is one of the more frequent topics for trenchant debate, often in the middle of a bird count or litter pick – usually when you’re least expecting it. The usual format is this: member of public marches up to staff member and demands to know “what you’re going to do about all these seals”. Staff member, slightly startled, politely asks “what exactly would you like me to do about the seals?” – and so it goes on.

I won’t transcribe the whole exchange, but the jist is that some folk think there are too many seals on the Ythan these days. My usual response is “well, how many are too many?” – to which, of course, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Nature will decide that one, given the chance. But because there were hardly any seals here until relatively recently – due in no small part to human persecution over a long period – some people’s perception is that this is a change for the worse, and that their baseline (of no seals) is the correct one. Particularly since other species like Atlantic Salmon and Eider have declined massively over the same period of time – it must be the seals that are to blame, right? And therein lies another quirk of human nature: we like a simple cause-and-effect explanation to a problem, even when in reality the issue is a very complex one.

Grey Seals, and a photo-bombing Sanderling

On the flip side, if the seals were to suddenly decide they preferred to haul out somewhere else, and the seal population at Forvie dropped back again, we’d probably get told we should be doing something about that too. People with a present-day baseline (of three thousand seals) will naturally assume this is the correct state of things, and any departure from this would be a disaster. But nature doesn’t really work like this; things are in a constant state of flux, and often we (as Reserve staff) have very little influence over what’s happening in the wider environment.

Seal watchers on the Ythan

Seals aside, there are many other examples like this, and I lose track of the number of times I’ve heard “too many Buzzards these days”, or “not enough Lapwings”, or “there were lots more songbirds when we were young, and we never saw a Sparrowhawk”. One pound fifty for every conversation I’ve had along these lines, and I’d have paid off my house by now.

Common Buzzard – commoner than they once were
Lapwing and chick – an increasingly rare sight

I suppose the bottom line here is that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to define ‘how things should be’. Ours is a massively modified and human-influenced landscape (and seascape), and it’s highly unlikely that things will ever return to how they were before humanity’s dominance. Or, indeed, to how they were when we were young! We all have to accept that things will continue to change over time, and those of us concerned with the conservation of nature (or at least what remains of it) can only strive to prevent wholesale loss and extinction.

The importance of caring for what we have

For all of us though, we’d probably be well-served to remember there was life, and a Planet Earth, before our own lifetime (and I certainly hope there will be afterwards as well). Yes, we’re witnessing huge changes before our very eyes, some of which are admittedly pretty scary. But things have been changing for far longer than ‘since we were young’, and what we remember from our youth isn’t necessarily how things had always been. It all depends upon your baseline.

The shifting sands of time. This looked really different in 2007!

What is clear and unequivocal, though, is that nature is under greater pressure from human activity than ever before. Whatever baseline we might be starting from, I hope we can all agree that it needs our help, and our consideration, and our care. If I’m still working here in another sixteen years, I have no doubt that I’ll have witnessed even more change. I yet live in hope that some of it might be for the better.

Reflective moments

When you basically live your entire working life in the teeth of a gale, a calm day becomes a treat that’s enjoyed out of all proportion. The second week of February was a bit of a mixed bag, with some really quite rough days, but a couple of lovely gentle ones too. Luckily, one of the latter coincided with a long hike around the shores of the Reserve (surveying for avian ‘flu casualties, of which mercifully there were none). Walking north up Forvie beach, I found that the recently-formed tidal lagoon was mirror-calm, without so much as a breath of wind to ruffle its surface, and the reflections almost didn’t look real. As I say, days like these are a rare treat here.

Glassy waters
Mirror-calm conditions
Unreal-looking reflections

Later in the week, a stiff southerly breeze had sprung up, and the waters of the Reserve were rather more restless. This included the nice new wetland where the Heath Trail used to be.

Heath Trail: holding a bit of water just now(!)

Actually, though, this isn’t really new – this area regularly holds water after periods of prolonged rainfall, leading to the footpath becoming totally submerged, and impassible in anything but chest waders (or a rubber dinghy). This hasn’t been an issue during the two very dry years that we have just experienced, but the winter of 2022/23 has certainly rebalanced the books – or more to the point the groundwater levels.

Nice conditions for ducks

This was illustrated very effectively when I took the monthly water-level readings early last week. For the last two years, our dipwells (long tubes sunk vertically into the ground used to monitor groundwater levels) have been sitting high and dry, and you had to poke the tape-measure a long way down each one to reach the groundwater and take a reading. Not the case this time though:

Dipwell totally submerged – I needed thigh waders to actually get near this one.

Seasonal flooding is likely to become more and more of an issue as our climate becomes ever more unpredictable, and we will have to think on our feet when it comes to maintaining a decent network of footpaths. Some of the trails may have to be re-routed in future, while others will need some improvements and ongoing maintenance to their surfaces, and their associated side-drains and culverts. It’s just a case of doing what we can, when we can.

On the plus side, improvements to the formerly-very-wet section of path where the Heath Trail joins the coast path to Hackley Bay are nearing completion, and should ensure a dry and robust path for many years to come.

Pathwork in progress…
…nearly finished!

While out on the heath in the past week, the most noticeable feature – especially on those lovely still days – has been the sudden eruption of Skylark song. It’s like somebody has pressed ‘play’ on the summer soundtrack, and Forvie sounds like Forvie once again.

Skylark, giving its wings and voice a rest

The song of the Skylark is one of the simpler bird songs to recognise, due to its frenetic pace and high-pitched, almost frizzling quality, and the fact that it is delivered from upon high, the bird often hovering or hanging in the wind high above the observer. Upon analysis, though, the song itself is anything but simple. Listen closely and you can detect individual phrases that are often repeated a handful of times before the bird moves on to the next phrase. It’s reckoned that some Skylarks have over 500 individual phrases in their repertoire, giving them an almost infinite number of combinations. What’s more, they pour out their song for minutes on end without pausing for breath – the structure of the bird’s respiratory system and syrinx (voicebox) allowing it to effectively circular-breathe while singing. Bonkers, eh?

For such an extraordinary singer, the Skylark is very unassuming to look at, and not many folk would pick one out in a line-up. Perhaps its most striking feature is its short spiky crest, giving it the appearance of wearing a little pointy hat.

Not much to look at – but what a voice.

The pointy hat is a good way of separating the Skylark from the other abundant ground-dwelling bird of Forvie, the Meadow Pipit. These are a bit smaller, and lack both the hat and the incredible song of the Skylark. Instead, they indulge in song-flights, towering upwards and parachuting down on set wings, while uttering a simple squeaky crescendo. This week we saw and heard the first Meadow Pipits beginning to return to the moor, and it won’t be long until we see them parachuting once again.

Meadow Pipit: a rhapsody in brown

Further to our recent mention of Forvie’s Herons gearing up for their breeding season, we can report that they have now taken to their favoured Sitka Spruces at Waterside Wood, and have begun to ‘spruce up’ (sorry) their old nests with some new sticks. You might hear their odd honking calls from the treetops if you’re walking through the wood this next wee while – that is if you can hear them over the din of the rookery there.

Grey Heron – getting on with it

Down on the estuary, we are now in the penultimate month of the wader-and-wildfowl-counting season. For the most part, it’s been a quiet winter with no great numbers or spectacles on which to report. This week’s census did however produce a respectable count of Wigeon, with just short of 600 present.

Wigeon pair having a wash-and-brush-up

Also notable among the commoner ducks was a newly-arrived drake Pintail – a very handsome fellow indeed, and a sign perhaps that some waterfowl species are beginning to think about heading northwards for the impending spring.

A handsome drake Pintail

Meanwhile, we have also been treated to a series of magnificent sunrises and sunsets, to the point where we wondered if there was Saharan dust or something in the atmosphere, causing unusual amounts of light refraction. With the airflow having been from the south-west for the most part, a Saharan influence seems unlikely. However, there has seemingly been plenty of volcanic activity in central America, which is exactly where our weather has been coming from – notably Popocatépetl in Mexico (try saying that after five or six pints). Was Mexican volcanic ash responsible for the brilliant colours of the past few evenings? Maybe not, but it’s an interesting theory at least!

Sand Loch under a fiery sky
The glowing embers of the old day
A watercolour sunset

Let’s hope for a few more of these becalmed days and evenings, and their associated reflective moments – a welcome dose of serenity before the mayhem of the spring and summer season to come.

Fast forward

Without wishing to sound like your grandad, it strikes me that time has been passing by rather rapidly of late. One minute you’re raising a dram to welcome in the new year, and the next minute it’s February. For whatever reason, it felt like January rattled past at 100mph this year, and now we find ourselves in the last month of meteorological winter. Around the Reserve, and in the wider countryside, there are already plenty of indications that spring isn’t far away.

Snowdrops at Sand Loch

Snowdrops are perhaps the most obvious heralds of the approaching spring. Although strictly speaking non-native, they have long been naturalised in Scotland, and in common with other introduced species of long-standing such as the Rabbit and the Brown Hare, they have found themselves a niche and are very much part of the landscape now. They are perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of all flowers, emerging at the darkest time of the year, with the promise that warmth and daylight are on their way back to the northlands.

Other plants won’t be far behind them, and the diligent observer may also spot the glossy, dark-green, heart-shaped leaves of Lesser Celandines in the same areas. Like the Snowdrops, these also favour wooded and scrubby areas, hedge banks and rough grassland. Before long, their shiny yellow flowers will also begin to appear – easy to recognise, and a sure sign of the seasons turning.

Lesser Celandine leaves…
…and flowers

Certain songbirds are quick to pick up on the lengthening hours of daylight. One of the earliest to act upon this, and to start singing in earnest, is the Mistle Thrush. This is our largest species of thrush, somewhat resembling a giant Song Thrush but with colder tones to the plumage; it also has a distinctive call which sounds rather like an old-fashioned wooden rattle, of the type that used to be favoured by football supporters before the invention of the vuvuzela.

Mistle Thrush – full of the joys

The Mistle Thrush’s song is something of a paradox. On the face of it, it sounds rather sad and melancholy, almost like a subdued Blackbird, singing in the minor key rather than the major. Yet it also conveys a vibrant optimism. As well as being one of the earliest harbingers of spring, Mistle Thrushes are renowned for singing not just on the fine days, but also through the grimmest of winter weather, the likes of which would put off any other early songsters. This gives the species its old, evocative, alternative name of Stormcock.

Mistle Thrush belting it out

Meanwhile, the regular Grey Heron at Sand Loch has started to assume his spring finery. His bill has already begun to change from dull yellow to bright pinky-orange, and his plumage from the subdues greys of winter to the more striking black-and-white contrasts of the breeding season. Right enough, the herons at Waterside Wood are likely to be on eggs later this month, barring any major storms or severe cold snaps in the meantime.

Grey Heron getting glammed up

The wildlife may be getting geared up for spring, but the Reserve staff have a few more winter tasks to plough through yet. One of these was some drainage work to repair a flooded and very muddy section of path at Hackley Bay. Regular readers will already know how much we love being up to our eyebrows in mud and ditchwater, so it’ll come as no surprise that we undertook this particular task with great relish.

Path repairs ‘in progress’, as Dirty Harry would say
Drain-cutting nearly finished…
The final turf being cut
Drain complete; path already drying out
Happy Deez… note the ‘make-up’

Of course, this wasn’t done purely for the enjoyment of the staff, and we hope that once it’s had time to dry out and re-vegetate, it will help make the footpath more resilient in readiness for the high levels of footfall we will expect in the forthcoming summer season.

Having completed the drainage work on a very fine evening, the walk back to the office and workshop yielded some fabulously clear views across the landscape towards Bennachie, our nearest hill of any note.

Bennachie looking moody

With spades, boots, hands and faces having been thoroughly scrubbed, rinsed and oiled (delete as appropriate), the walk home in the last of the daylight produced a wonderfully colourful sky over Sand Loch as we passed it by.

Sunset at Cluny Cottages, Sand Loch
Sundown over the loch

Then, after sundown, we were treated to the rare spectacle of nacreous clouds high above the south-western horizon. These clouds are a natural phenomenon found only in the polar regions. They are composed of fine ice crystals in the stratosphere, and require a temperature of around -80oC or below to form – and this means they only do so at high latitude, high altitude, and during the winter months. Because they occur at such great altitude, they reflect light from the sun even though it has already set below our horizon; this makes them stand out remarkably brightly in the darkening evening sky, as if artificially lit from behind.

Nacreous clouds make for a beautiful sight, yet this is oddly difficult to capture in photographs such as these below. They possess a stunning iridescence, comprised of every colour you can think of; indeed, the term ‘nacreous’ is derived from the old English word nacre, meaning mother-of-pearl – and it’s not difficult to see why.

Nacreous clouds at dusk

Sundown is a great time to enjoy a quiet moment in the outdoors (nacreous clouds an optional extra, of course). While it’s a great deal of fun to live life in fast forward, it’s also fine to press the pause button every once in a while.

All change please

Change is our constant companion at Forvie. Seasons, tides, weather, wildlife and even landscape are all in a constant state of flux, with a consequential influence upon the day-to-day tasks inherent in the running of the Reserve. With this in mind, we recently took a trip down to the ternery in South Forvie, with an eye on the forthcoming breeding season (the first Sandwich Terns could be back in as little as seven weeks, which is a bit scary to say the least).

We undertake such reconnaissance trips in January and February every year, to allow us to make plans for the season ahead – not least where to site the electric fence that will have a critical role in protecting the nesting birds from predators. The one thing you can guarantee is that it won’t be in the same place as the previous season: Forvie is too dynamic for that.

Planning for the electric fence: make-or-break time

This is a restless, shape-shifting landscape. The wind and the tides, relentless and immensely powerful, see to it that nothing stands still for long. As we are fond of repeating, this is one of the Reserve’s special qualities, not to mention one of its protected features, and one of the things that sets it apart from just about anywhere else. It’s something to be celebrated, even if it does present us with substantial problems in trying to look after any infrastructure here. Maintaining a functional electric fence in this landscape is no light task, and its positioning needs to be carefully chosen at the outset. Get it wrong, and the following six months becomes a recurring nightmare of sand-blow, short-circuits to earth and endless digging and hauling. The pre-season recce is a crucial part of the process to prevent this from happening – we hope.

Overnight sand-blow: eroding…
…and accruing – not helpful either way!
A wrecked fence – the joys of a dynamic landscape

Sure enough, we found that since the end of the 2022 tern breeding season, the topography of the ternery has changed yet again. Gone is much of the shingle at the north end: either buried under deep drifts of windblown sand, or grown over with the ubiquitous Marram grass, which probably appreciates the extra nutrients deposited by the birds each summer. This is a blow to our morale; the exposed shingle is sought-after nesting habitat for many of our terns, and it’s likely that the lack of habitat will have a bearing on the size of the breeding population in the coming season. Worse still, the birds might all go over to the beach and try and nest on the strand-line instead, creating another serious management headache for us. If maintaining an electric fence in the windblown dunes is difficult, doing so on a tidal beach is practically impossible.

Brows now furrowed, we thought we’d best have a look at the beach, in the hope that it didn’t look like brilliant tern habitat. Our mood was lifted somewhat en-route when we happened upon a flock of Twite twittering and twanging musically in the high dunes.

Twite in the dunes

These cheery little finches spend the summer on Scotland’s west coast, raising their families in Gorse thickets in the crofting country of the Hebrides and Wester Ross. Rather than heading south for the winter, they undertake a west-to-east migration, and come to our coast where they eke out a living on the seeds of grasses and weeds. The Twite’s neat yellow beak and orange flush to the breast and ‘face’ are two features that help separate it from its nearest relative, the Linnet; these two species often form mixed flocks at Forvie allowing a handy side-by-side comparison. Do keep an eye out (and an ear cocked) for them if you’re wandering the dunes of South Forvie in winter.

A friendly and sociable species
Yellow beaks and orange faces

Distraction over, it was back to the job at hand. Upon arriving at the beach, we were relieved to note that it didn’t look like first-rate tern habitat after all – small mercies and all that. But we were astonished at the change that had taken place. Having cut through the dunes ‘cross-country’ to avoid disturbing the Grey Seal haul-out at the very end of the Forvie peninsula, we suddenly found ourselves at the top of a forty-foot sand cliff, which dropped precipitously down to the now-much-broader beach. Clearly there had been some serious erosion here over the winter.

Newly-formed sand cliff

Even more surprising was the beach itself. The lower shore had eroded right back to rock, with an extensive boulder-strewn shoreline stretching away to the low-tide mark. Just to the north of this rocky beach, an array of old posts had become exposed by the eroding sand, presumably artefacts from the salmon-netting trade many decades previously. In my sixteen years at Forvie these had never before been visible. It was an almost-unrecognisable landscape, as if somebody had swapped the beach for a new one while we weren’t looking. On the positive side, it does provide a useful visual clue that you’re approaching the seal haul-out: when walking south down the beach, and you see the posts and rocks appearing ahead of you, it’s time to cut into the dunes and give the seals some space.

A new rocky shore
Boulder beach at the seal haul-out
Net posts now exposed

As we’ve said before though, the elements take with one hand and give with the other. The massive loss of sand at the southern end of the beach is counterbalanced by accruals at the ternery (unfortunately right on top of the best tern habitat) and along the southern section of the Dune Trail. The latter also causes us some problems, especially when it comes to maintaining the footpath and signage, and we’ve had to rescue several of our waymarkers from oblivion in recent months. The next series of photos is a fair illustration of the problem.

Oh dear – that’ll be accruing then
Time for some honest toil
Oot ye come!
Think that’s just about deep enough
Reinstated – all’s right with the world again (for now at least)

All this change takes a lot of keeping up with, and at times a lot of digging too. At least it means life and work here is never dull and predictable; things simply never get the chance to become that way. Suits me fine – and I wonder how different the place will look in another sixteen years.

Life in the freezer

With the climate becoming ever more erratic and unpredictable, it’s hard to know what to expect of our seasons nowadays. In recent years, Scottish winters have tended to become milder, wetter and windier, the previous one being a case in point – remember Arwen, Malik and Corrie, anyone? This time around, however, we have experienced a couple of ‘proper’ wintry spells, and consequently had to hunt down our usually-redundant gloves, scarves and ice-grips for our boots. This past week, while not as viciously cold as the pre-Christmas period, delivered to Forvie another icy blast from the north-west. Fair to say that the Reserve has looked very photogenic, and felt very inhospitable.

Snow on the way

Mid-week saw a light snowfall over the course of a couple of days and nights. The resultant covering of icing-sugar transformed the landscape into something resembling a Christmas cake. This was the sort of powder snow that gets kicked up by your boots as you walk through it, feather-light and fine, sparkling in the low sun. Being out and about in conditions like these is another simple pleasure to add to the ones we listed in the previous week’s blog.

A fresh dusting of snow
Marram grass, snow and sky
Sparkling crystals

For reasons I don’t fully understand, snowy conditions often produce a beautiful pink hue to the sky. This may be an effect of light refraction by the ice crystals in the clouds, which results in more of the longer wavelengths of light (i.e. the red end of the spectrum) reaching the earth’s surface. Either way, this is a uniquely wintry phenomenon. It’s made all the more spectacular by the snow-covered landscape below, which reflects the rose-pinks and powder-blues of the sky above.

A snowy sky
Rose-pink and powder-blue
A pink winter dusk

A covering of snow means different things for different species of wildlife. For small mammals such as Field and Bank Voles, a bit of snow can be really helpful. They can continue with their everyday lives eating seeds, grasses and other vegetation, but can do so away from the prying eyes of predators. They construct a series of tunnels through the snow, where they can operate in complete safety unseen by aerial predators such as Kestrels and Short-eared Owls.

Of course, they still need to be wary of the presence of a Stoat or Weasel, which could easily follow their tunnel network – or a Fox, which could punch through the snow layer to reach them. But at least they have a bit more privacy than usual! Often, when the snow has thawed after a prolonged period of snow-cover, you can see the now-abandoned runs and tunnels chewed through the grass by the voles – evidence of a world beneath our feet that would otherwise go completely unnoticed.

Bank Vole popping up for a look around

For many species of birds, though, the snow is a serious impediment rather than a help. For seed-eaters like Yellowhammers, for instance, it means their food supply is buried under an impenetrable layer of ice, and they must change their tactics in order to survive. Abandoning their usual haunts in stubble fields and hedgerows, they gravitate towards animal troughs where the hooves of the sheep or cows disturb the ground and break up the snow, or instead head for garden feeding-stations where they gratefully accept our handouts of bird-seed.

Yellowhammers at a garden feeding-station

Meanwhile, fruit-eaters like Fieldfares also try their luck around human habitation – as we’ve said in our previous postings this winter, they have a voracious appetite for apples, and have practically eaten us out of house and home over the course of the past few weeks.

Another hungry Fieldfare

In between the snowfalls have been some clear, sharp, frosty nights, placing extra demands on our wildlife which must burn a lot of energy just to keep warm. Just about all the fresh water on the Reserve has been frozen over at least some of the time, including the lochs and all the flooded areas on the heath (including the footpaths in places!). This creates another problem for mammals and birds – where to drink and bathe?

Frozen Sand Loch
Ice patterns
Heath Trail – get your skates on

Down on the estuary, even the brackish water (i.e. the slightly salty stuff) was threatening to freeze, with ice accumulating on the high-water mark, and a fine coating of frost on the seaweeds along the strand line.

Frosted seaweeds

However, the salt influence and twice-daily tidal movement prevents the estuary from freezing over altogether, even in really cold conditions. The estuary therefore becomes even more important than usual, not just for the masses of wildlife it normally supports, but also for the additional cold-weather refugees from frozen inland waters. These include swollen numbers of ducks like Mallard and Teal, waders of pasture such as Lapwing and Curlew, and occasionally – as we did recently – we might chance to meet with a Kingfisher frozen off its usual freshwater haunts.

Waders on the estuary – how many different species can you spot here?
Kingfisher – hard-weather refugee

Another big positive about the cold and frosty nights is that the crystal-clear air allows for some great opportunities for star-gazing. Or if you’re really fortunate, a glimpse of the Northern Lights. We’ve had a few nights this winter when the aurora alert has sounded; most of the time it’s been too cloudy to see anything. But when it corresponds with a clear night, it’s well worth staying up late for.

Aurora at Forvie…
…and over the village of Collieston

If you’re planning on venturing out onto the Reserve during a cold snap, wrap up warm and be sure to take care in the icy underfoot conditions – but don’t forget to spare a thought for nature during these hard times, and please allow wildlife to feed and rest undisturbed. A little consideration goes a long way when the freeze is on.

Simple pleasures

‘Please enter your WordPress password’, said the on-screen message when I attempted to begin this week’s bloggage instalment. Oh no. Please no. It never normally asks me for that. What could the password possibly be? I set about trying a scattergun mix of words – names of birds, favourite bands, former car number plates, locomotives I remember from my childhood (which are a great source of name-and-number combos, if like me you’re nerdy enough to remember them); all kinds of random stuff. Surprisingly enough, none of them worked.

Redsh@nk1? Nope, try again

Oh well, yet another forgotten password to reset then. It’ll be exactly the same situation when I next have to pay my electricity bill, or top up my mobile phone, or try and book some leave from work. ‘The username or password you have entered is incorrect’. Maybe I ought to write these things down – though of course this is the one thing we’re repeatedly and emphatically told never to do. Sigh.

I don’t usually look as cheerful as that when this happens.

I must confess that my relationship with technology is a fractious one at the best of times. In some ways, maintaining this blog is like a form of exposure therapy, making me front up to my electronic phobias. Life in the 21st century, of course, is increasingly and unavoidably bound to technology. Many (most?) of us spend our working lives at a screen, or on the phone, or both. Home lives are no different, with endless gadgets and gizmos to make every aspect of our hectic lives easier and better (in theory at least). Your phone knows every last detail of your life, your car practically drives itself, and even the washing machine sings a song and sends you a message when it’s finished its spin cycle. Fifty years ago this was the stuff of sci-fi, and yet here we are. Love it or loathe it – and I know people on both sides of that divide – technology is here to stay.

This car is a thousand times cleverer than the bloke driving it.

Technology has helped to give humanity a huge amount of power and influence over Planet Earth. With such great power, of course, comes great responsibility, and balancing these things is is the foremost challenge of our time. In the current age, our relationship with the world in which we live can be difficult for us, as individuals, to reconcile. How we live our lives, and the choices we make on a daily basis – even down to the really small stuff – will have an effect on the planet, its lands and seas, its atmosphere, its climate, its biological diversity and not least upon our fellow humans.

Most of us (I hope, speaking as an eternal optimist) try and do our best to be considerate. But it’s all so complicated. The seemingly intractable tangle of issues and problems that face the world are difficult for most of us to get our heads around, and result in a great deal of anguish, stress and mental unrest. This is something that isn’t easily fixed by recourse to electronic gadgetry.

A dark and brooding sky

Fair enough Daryl, but you’ve gone off-piste a bit here – what’s all this got to do with Forvie? Well, quite a bit actually. Nature reserves – or any wild places for that matter – are crucially important in today’s world not just for the habitats and wildlife they support, but also as a refuge for people. Forvie is a fine example. Its starkly beautiful landscapes and vast skies are balm for the soul, a perfect antidote to the breakneck pace and hideous complexity of the man-made world of 2023. A walk through the dunes or along the estuary on a clear winter’s day – or even in a force eight and sideways rain – has a restorative effect far beyond the burning-off of a few excess Christmas calories. This is one of the ways in which nature is of critical importance for us – the simple pleasures of a sunrise, a crisp winter’s morning, a skein of geese, the first wild flower of spring.

Sunrise at Forvie
A flawless day on the estuary
Pink-footed Geese at sundown
Lesser Celandine – one of the earliest spring flowers

I suppose there is an amusing irony here. The natural world is so complex that we’re only just beginning to understand how some of it works. Everything within it is linked to everything else, like a vast machine with billions of different components; our knowledge of it barely scratches the surface really. Last Monday I gave an illustrated talk to the Collieston and Slains SWRI, and during my introduction I explained that I had worked at Forvie for sixteen years and was only just starting to get to know the place – absolutely true. But while nature itself is inherently and immensely complex, our enjoyment of it is one of life’s simplest pleasures of all.

A still and frosty morning – a universal pleasure

One of the most brilliant aspects to this is that it’s free of charge. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you live, or how much money you have. Nature is a great leveller because it belongs to – and is accessible by – each one of us. You don’t need to be able to climb a mountain, or take a three-week cruise to Alaska, or fly to the Serengeti, to appreciate nature. It’s all around us – it’s just a case of taking the time to tune into it.

There’s a sunrise to enjoy wherever you are in the world (OK, unless you’re at the North Pole just now)
A simple walk along the shore can cleanse the mind
A rose-pink dusk – a pleasure available to all

You don’t even have to know anything about it. Yes, I like to put names to the things that I see while I’m out and about in nature, and have a decent(ish) knowledge of some species groups at least. And while this gives me a great deal of pleasure, it certainly isn’t essential to appreciating nature: expertise and enjoyment are two different disciplines. You don’t need the former in order to have the latter.

You don’t have to know what something is in order to simply enjoy it!
A moment shared with nature

In conclusion, nature can provide us with exactly the kind of uncomplicated and guilt-free pleasures that at times we all need – a safety valve to relieve the pressures and complexities of 21st-century life. There are many compelling reasons for conserving what’s left of the natural world, and not least because our own mental and physical wellbeing is bound up with its fate.

For now at least, nature is there for all of us to enjoy and appreciate – and best of all, you don’t need a password.