Flying in the face of adversity – Forvie’s butterflies

Forvie is a tough place to be a butterfly. On most days, the temperature here is several degrees lower than even a few miles inland; not great for warmth-loving insects. We’re often beset by the dreaded haar, that infamous dense fog that rolls in off the North Sea, coating everything in water droplets and sending the temperature plummeting. The rest of the time it’s almost relentlessly windy – even in high summer. Moreover, the winters here can be long and cold, making overwinter survival a serious challenge.

Add to that the stunted nature of the vegetation, growing as it does in harsh ground conditions, which consequently makes finding food and shelter difficult. Sounds like a tough gig, right enough. Who’d be a butterfly in this environment?

Forvie Moor – not an easy place to be an insect

Well, for all that, there are a number of species that do eke out a living here, many of which are on the wing right now. They have variously different strategies for coping with the conditions, allowing them to survive and thrive in this challenging environment. Here are some of the key players.

1. The Vanessids

Painted Lady – long-haul traveller

The Vanessids comprise four attractive and brightly-coloured species: Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral and Painted Lady. The name ‘vanessid’ comes from the Latin names of the latter two species (Vanessa atalanta and Vanessa cardui respectively). These species are all strong fliers, and can travel unexpectedly vast distances. The Painted Lady is the most celebrated in this respect, undertaking an amazing migration from North Africa through Europe to the UK each summer.

Small Tortoiseshell – tough enough to see out the Scottish winter

While the warmth-loving Painted Lady cannot survive the Scottish winter at any part of its life-cycle, the Small Tortoiseshell can and does overwinter with us. They can often be found in cool, dark places like garden sheds or garages, where they enter a state of torpor – suspended animation, if you like – before resuming their lives again the following spring. Late summer is a great time to see the Vanessids at their best – check out any tall flowering plants like thistles, Ragwort or Valerian.

2. The grassland specialists

Although the wildflower season at Forvie is short, both in terms of time and the stature of the flowers themselves, we do rather better for grasses. It’s thought that as our climate warms and becomes wetter, Forvie Moor may become more grassy, rather than heathery and, er, crowberry-y. And there are some species of butterflies that are well-placed to take advantage of this.

Ringlet – grassland aficionado

The Ringlet is a relatively recent addition to the Forvie butterfly fauna. They were absent, or at least very scarce, when I arrived at the Reserve in 2007. Nowadays, however, they can be quite abundant in the grassier areas of the Reserve, such as around the Forvie Centre and along the estuary side of the Dune Trail – look out for a dark-chocolate-coloured butterfly flitting weakly among the grass stems. While many butterfly species in the UK are declining, it’s heartening to see others, like our Ringlets, taking advantage of environmental change.

Small Heath – a delicate species requiring fine grasses

The Small Heath is another denizen of grassland, whose caterpillars feed on fine grasses like Fescues, which are plentiful at Forvie. As a result, Small Heaths are plentiful as well. If a tiny, light-orange-and-silver-grey butterfly flits past your bootlaces on the Reserve just now, it’s likely to be one of these.

3. Wildflower specialists

For other species of butterfly, grasses are no use at all – wildflowers are where it’s at, for both caterpillars and adults. The most obvious exponent of this strategy is the Dark Green Fritillary. Its name is somewhat confusing, since it is very obviously orange rather than green. But there are several fritillary species that all look very similar, and in this one, its distinguishing feature is the green underside of the hindwings.

Dark Green Fritillary caterpillars depend on Violets as a food source, while the adults enjoy nectar-rich flowers like Knapweed, Marsh Thistle and Wild Thyme. True wildflower connoisseurs, I would say.

The apparently-misnamed Dark Green Fritillary

Much more sensibly named is the Common Blue. It’s common, and blue. But even then, there’s a twist as the females are brown-with-blue-bits rather than all blue like the male pictured below. These tiny, highly active butterflies nectar on all sorts of flowers, while their caterpillars feed on Bird’s foot Trefoil – remember our recent wildflower blog?!

Common Blue

Specialist specialists…

A real specialist is the Grayling. This unobtrusive yet attractive butterfly likes a mix of short grass, nectar-rich flowers and bare, sandy ground upon which it can bask and catch some rays of sunshine. It’s perfectly adapted to this niche, and when it lands on the ground, it practically disappears – its underwings are brilliant camouflage against the sand.

Spot the Grayling – not easy when on the ground…
…much easier to spot when feeding on Wild Thyme!

Sadly, Graylings have become noticeably scarcer at Forvie in recent years, perhaps due to the effects of climate change, or maybe due to the decline in the local Rabbit population (Rabbits create the mosaic of bare ground and short vegetation beloved of Graylings). But they seem to have had a bit of a resurgence in just the last couple of summers – here’s hoping they continue to grace the Reserve in the face of continuing environmental change.

Recording butterflies

Here at Forvie, staff and volunteers undertake a weekly butterfly survey from spring through to autumn. This involves walking a fixed route through the Reserve, known as a transect, and recording the butterflies seen en-route. This has been taking place since the late 1970s – one of the longest-running surveys of its kind in the UK – and feeds data into a national archive via Butterfly Conservation’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Most of what’s known about our butterflies’ distribution and abundance (or otherwise) comes from this sort of work.

It’s not all about countryside professionals though. You, dear reader (I’ve always wanted to say that), can also make a contribution. Butterfly Conservation also organise a citizen-science project, the Big Butterfly Count, each summer, and anyone can take part. This coming weekend marks the end of the 2020 Big Butterfly Count, and we’ll await the results in due course. Perhaps something to consider for next summer then?

Red Admiral

Meantime, enjoy the rest of the 2020 butterfly season, while it lasts, and stay safe!

Web-footed wanderers

One recent morning, on my commute up the track to the Forvie Centre, a neighbour stopped me for a chat. The conversation took a familiar path, beginning with the incessant rain (July’s weather having been, for the most part, dismal), and moving on to what wildlife was about. My neighbour mentioned the the proliferation of tiny frogs – or are they toads? – emerging from the Coastguard’s Pool at the moment. They’d surely make a good blog post, I was told. OK, well here we go then!

Firstly let’s try and answer the frog-or-toad question. Here at Forvie we have just two species to choose from: the Common Frog Rana temporaria and the Common Toad Bufo bufo; no Natterjacks or Marsh Frogs here to confuse matters. Both species are widespread and abundant on the Reserve wherever you find fresh water (and as I type this, with the monsoon lashing the windows, that’s just about everywhere). With a bit of practice, the smooth-skinned and attractively-marked Common Frog can be quite easily separated from the warty-skinned, brown-toned Common Toad. Have a look at the following couple of photos and see if you can sort them out.

Greenish colour, bold dark stripes through eyes, largely smooth skin, long powerful legs – Frog!
Brown ground colour, magnificently warty skin, short dumpy little legs – it’s the Toad!

OK, so they’re easy enough to identify when they’re fully grown. But what about the dinky ones? Well, the same differences (sorry) apply, and if you look really closely you can still tell one from the other. Below is one of the tiddlers currently emerging from the Coastguard’s Pool.

Froglet or toadlet?

Even at this diminutive size, we can still make out the brown ground colour, coarsely warty skin and short legs, safely identifying this little fella as a Common Toad.

It’s not always necessary to look quite so closely though. I recall once overhearing a conversation between two Buchan folk, with one lady informing her friend that “there’s twa types o’ puddock… een that hops and een that craals”. And this is absolutely true. The Common Frog, with its long powerful hind legs, hops. But the Common Toad, with its shorter legs, crawls. It’s a bit like the way that a Rabbit and a Hare, although superficially similar, have a noticeably different gait.

So that’s the ID side of things sorted then. We know that we’re dealing with Toads in this instance. In fact it turns out the the Coastguard’s Pool, along the cliff path between Collieston and Hackley Bay, is a major breeding site for toads.

Toadspawn

Every spring, substantial numbers of Common Toads travel across the Reserve to the Coastguard’s Pool to mate and spawn. They are very site-faithful, returning to the same breeding site every year. Toadspawn is laid in distinctive long strings, often tangled around the submerged vegetation, and is quite different to frogspawn, which is laid in a shapeless mass at the surface. This done, the adult toads then leave the pool and return to a terrestrial existence, spending the rest of the year in the damp grassland of the Reserve, or the leafy gardens of Collieston where they are a familiar sight on summer evenings. They will repeat this feat of navigation and endurance once again the following spring. It’s not just geese, swallows and terns and the like that migrate – toads are migrants too.

Tadpoles

After a variable period of time, dictated by water temperatures, the spawn hatches into tadpoles. These ‘toadpoles’ are very similar to Common Frog tadpoles, but tend to be blacker in appearance and form dense shoals in the shallows of the pool. Once again, their rate of development is variable, but eventually they begin to grow tiny legs, the tail shrinks and disappears, and they resemble a tiny version of an adult toad. At this point, it’s time to leave the pool and set out into the wider world. And that’s exactly what they’re doing right about now.

Journeying by land for the first time – a dangerous business

Having complained about the wet weather in my opening gambit here, it’s worth pointing out that it’s great news for these tiny toadlets. At this early stage in their lives, with their delicate skin and small body size, desiccation is a life-threatening risk. So the rain does them a huge favour in this respect. It allows them to disperse safely into the surrounding grassland, heath and wetlands, where they will quietly and unobtrusively make their living.

Of course, with so many toadlets emerging into the world, many of them do fall by the wayside. They’re all-too-easily trodden on, even by the most careful of walkers, and they’re also on the menu for the local crows and herons. Road traffic claims a huge number of casualties too, even on our relatively quiet roads. Only a small proportion of them will survive into adulthood; it’s thought that they take between three and seven years to reach maturity. But those that do may well return in future to the Coastguard’s Pool to breed, thus sustaining this timeless cycle of life, and giving the local folk something to muse over besides the weather.

I give you the Common Toad – not the flashiest species to occur at Forvie, but surely one of the most characterful.

What a handsome face – the incomparable Toad.

The birds of Forvie 2020

This time last year we had a good idea of how most key species on the reserve had faired throughout the season. The nest and peak fledgeling numbers had been counted for each species in the ternery, the cliff-nesting seabirds had been surveyed and Eiders were mostly accounted for as well. 

As with most other things this year, the pandemic meant that a lot of this work wasn’t possible so this year. As a result, we don’t have the same level of information as usual so there will be a gap in the data for the birds of Forvie. Although it is a shame, we aren’t totally blind to how the birds have performed over the season! 

With all the Forvie staff back at work on-site in some element over the last few weeks, we’ve had the chance to try and capture some information about a few of the species. We were lucky enough to get the peak fledgeling counts for some and also acquired good estimates of potential breeding pairs through Daryl, so I’d hazard a guess that the estimates are pretty darn reasonable. This blog is a quick update on how some of our key species are getting along.

Commic terns

Arctic Tern earlier this season

We lump the Common and Arctic Terns into the aforementioned “Commic Terns” as we count the fledglings together. Typically we separate them through ratios calculated earlier in the season and extrapolated for the whole colony. The potential breeding pairs were estimated by Daryl at roughly 1500 pairs! The peak fledgers count tallied to 550 birds in and around the colony. This is not a record for the ternery but it’s a healthy result for such long lived birds. It also beat last years success to boot!

Sandwich Terns

Last years Sandwich Terns with white speckled foreheads after a long season

Some of our most studied birds here at Forvie, everyone’s gotta love a Sandwich Tern. They arrive earlier in the season than our other terns, shortly after the Black-Headed Gulls! Interestingly, the Black-Headed Gulls arriving first to the ternery actually help settle the Sandwich Terns into the colony as the gulls offer protection from predators. 

At this stage, the Sandwich Tern adults are grey-headed from the stress of parenting and fledged birds have explored the estuary and beaches of Forvie. Most juveniles and adults have already cleared out with only a handful of pairs still in the breeding colony.

The estimated breeding pairs of the sarnies was approx. 1000 pairs with a peak count of 500 fledged birds! So it has been a few fantastic years in a row now for the Sandwich Terns…. touch wood I haven’t jinxed it now.

Black-Headed Gulls

Black-Headed Gulls last year before the season kicked off

Like the Sandwich Terns, having arrived earlier, most of the gulls have gotten business done and dusted. On the most part, they are moving up and down the coast already. It looks like they also have had another good year with approx. 2000 breeding pairs!

It’s amazing to see so many birds get off the ground and all in all, it has been a solid year for the ternery. Although things are starting to quiet down, there are still hundreds of birds breeding including nesting Little Terns so keep in mind the area is still closed off until mid-August.

Eiders

Some of this years (almost) fledged Eiders with an adult for safety

I’m sure a lot of the readers know that the Eider population has declined dramatically over the last 15-20 years. We don’t have a number for potential breeding pairs this year but we did gather a peak fledgling count of 37. There is still time for a few more chicks to reach this stage but this would be a slight change at best overall. It’s by no means the worst Eider year on reserve but it does mark a drop from more promising results last year. Only time will tell if this is just a natural lul before a more productive season down the line.

Cliff-nesting seabirds

This years fledged Kittiwakes

And finally, our cliff nesting seabirds! Our monitoring of cliff-nesters at Forvie captures peak numbers of Kittiwake, Fulmar, Guillemots etc. typically sometime in June. These key dates weren’t possible this year so this is the monitoring area we are most in the dark about. Last year saw the lowest population figures for 2 or 3 species so I was keen to see how they would do this year but it was not meant to be it seems. I did get out in time though to get a few snaps of this years Kittiwake fledgers and some Fulmar chicks, its reassuring to see some get off the ground. Having spoken to some of the locals as well, it seems there were multiple Great Black-Backed Gulls nesting this year which is an improvement over last year as there was only one nest in 2019.

And that all! The season is still underway for all the species with the stragglers trying to finish up. We will be updating how things are going through social media I’m sure so keep an eye out for more soon!

Wildflowers in miniature

It’s mid-July – how did that happen?! – and we’re currently at the height of the wildflower season here at Forvie. Although different plant species bloom at different times throughout the year, the diversity of plants in flower is at its absolute highest just now. Everywhere you look on the Reserve there are little splashes of colour among the grasses and heathers. ‘Little’ is in fact the operative word here, since many of the flowers in question are notably tiny, and for good reason.

Dark Green Fritillary butterfly on a carpet of Wild Thyme

Forvie is, of course, famously sandy. The soil here is generally thin, free-draining and relatively nutrient-poor; farmers or gardeners might use the term ‘light soil’, though by comparison to most places, Forvie’s is positively featherweight. Added to this, the climate is harsh (by UK standards at least), with cold winters, occasional drought periods, frequent strong winds and plenty of salt blown in from the North Sea to boot. It’s a tough gig being a plant in these conditions, and one of the best survival strategies is to stay close to the ground. The result is a veritable carpet of miniature plants, which are looking their best just now. Here are some of the ones you might see around the trails.

We’ll start off with a familiar one. White Clover can often be found in your lawn at home, and it thrives on the edges of the footpaths through the Reserve. The white-and-pinkish flowers are a magnet for insects such as bumblebees.

Likewise, you may think this is the familiar Dandelion, cursed by many a gardener (unfairly perhaps, but that’s by the by!). However, there are a large group of plants in the same family that look very similar. This miniature one, growing no more than 5cm in height, is the attractively-named Mouse-ear Hawkweed, so named for its furry leaves. Cute, huh?

This bonny blue flower is Germander Speedwell. It too can occur in gardens and lawns, especially if you leave some areas uncut (or at least less frequently cut). At Forvie it can be found in grassland and along the edges of the paths.

From one Speedwell to another… these tiny, pale mauve flowers are those of Heath Speedwell. Appropriately enough, the path-sides along the Heath Trail are a good bet for finding this one.

This bright yellow spray of flowers is easy to recognise. This is Lady’s Bedstraw; in past times it was used for stuffing mattresses and the like, hence its curious name. It’s common in the grassier areas of the Reserve.

And this white version is Heath Bedstraw. Its frothy sprays of flowers always put me in mind of soap suds. Look closely though, and each individual flower is a perfect four-pointed star.

This cheery little fellow is Tormentil. Its distinctively-shaped, four-petalled flower is the symbol of the Heath Trail, appearing in stylised form on the waymarkers that help you find your way around the trail. Its name stems from its medicinal use, to ease the ‘torment’ of various illnesses and injuries, from toothache to stomach problems.

Another plant with a name derived from its widespread use in folk-medicine is Self-heal. This one was used for treating abscesses of the throat, among others – nice! Its purple flower-heads often appear flat-topped, as if someone has chopped them off halfway down. Again, check the path sides and it’s not difficult to find.

This little gem is Bird’s-foot Trefoil (or Bacon-and-Eggs, or Craa’s Taes, depending on where you grew up). It’s a member of the pea family, the shape of its golden-yellow flowers bearing an obvious family resemblance to garden sweet-peas, but very much smaller. Another thing it shares with its distant garden relatives is a deliciously sweet aroma on a hot day.

Even those of us with only a rudimentary knowledge of plants will recognise this as a pansy (or viola if you prefer). This is Wild Pansy or Heartsease. Again, the family resemblance with the domesticated garden version is plain to see.

We’ll wrap things up with a couple of somewhat rarer plants. This rather lovely, delicate white flower is the oddly-named Grass of Parnassus. It’s not a grass at all, but it does occur in grassland, and can be found by the coast path near Hackley Bay.

Finally, this one is a bit of a local speciality. As far as we’re aware, Purple Milk-vetch only occurs at one site on the Reserve, and we eagerly await its reappearance (we hope) each summer. Its tiny purple-and-white flowers emerge in June and persist into early July, if the local Rabbits don’t eat them first!

So there you have it – a fine selection-box of assorted wildflowers, and none of them any higher than a sparrow’s kneecaps. Who says bigger is always better anyway?…

A ‘wildflower box’ on the Heath Trail

If you’re out and about on the Reserve in the next wee while, look out for the seasonal ‘wildflower boxes’ around the Heath Trail, which tell you more about some of the plants found there. And don’t be afraid of getting your knees damp and having a proper close look – because it’s well worth taking the time to appreciate this world in miniature.

Our Citizen Science contributions

With events like RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch drawing in huge interest from the public, Citizen Science is becoming more and more popular. Their event this year had almost half a million participants which is just incredible! It is an example of citizen science at its best.

Citizen science is, for any who arent sure, the collection and analysis of data by members of the public.

My interest in citizen science, and my first time partaking in a project of this kind, originated through Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS) for the BTO. These surveys are done all around the coast of the UK and collect some of the most important information about waterbird populations in the country. They are extremely well established as far as surveys go, with 3.75 million waterbirds counted each year by a group of 3000 plus volunteers. this data gathered by volunteers has far-reaching effects. It influences and informs management on nature reserves across the whole UK.

The scope of what can be accomplished through citizen science is extraordinary. An invested public can achieve more in a day than any organisation. For all you lovers of the outdoors, with a little bit of knowledge (or some patience and interest to pick some up), there are plenty of nature projects to get involved with (even from the safety of your garden!). Each of these monitoring programs linked here helps build a better understanding of our natural world on a national scale.

In the spirit of this, each of the staff members at Forvie tried our hands at contributing to one of these programs from the safety of our gardens. Have a read about our experiences below and give one a go yourself.

Annabel Royal Horticultural Society Cellar Slug Hunt

As I looked down the list of citizen science projects available, wondering if I had missed the best of the sunshine for this year, I hoped there was a need to count something that didn’t rely on good weather, perhaps that stayed still long enough for me to identify it and could be done outside my block of flats.  The RHS Cellar Slug Hunt leapt out immediately!

I know very little about slugs but the simple task is to find yellow or green cellar slugs, as it seems the green ones are increasing in number, while worryingly, the yellow ones may be declining to the point of extinction across the UK.  Both species eat fungi and rotting vegetation so are no threat to prize lettuces.  After a damp day with a few downpours I only had to wait for it to get dark enough to venture out with a torch and camera phone, hoping the neighbours weren’t looking out and wondering what on earth I was up to this time!

At first I checked the wheelie bins, the pavement and up the side of the building but not even a slime trail was to be seen.  ‘Think like a slug’ I thought, so ventured over onto damp grass and my heart raced as I spotted a slender dark object glistening slightly against the green.  When my eyes focussed however, I realised I was looking at a twig!  How many newbie slug seekers have fallen foul of that disappointment, I pondered.  That glimmer of excitement was however enough to keep me going and sure enough, another sweep of the torch and there in the beam was…alas not a slug, but a magnificent garden snail.

Garden snail

Confident I was now indeed on the right track, my eyes were drawn to a humungous dark streak of something up ahead.  As I raised the light, I could only gasp at the size of the thing!  It was around 15cm long. Where do these things lurk during the day? 

It has the stripe of yellow on the lower tail, like the yellow cellar slug, so could I have struck gastropod gold?  Unfortunately, the eye stalks are brown and not grey-blue and there are many stripes and a few spots near the head.  This I believe is a leopard slug, so while very interesting was not the target for my night’s work. Turning back to the snail, it had been joined by a smaller slug. 

a green slug!

Now this was interesting, it had blue-grey eye stalks.  It also had a sort of olive green colour to it.  I am waiting for my record to be verified through the survey, but I think it is the advancing green cellar slug!

For 20 minutes wandering at night, listening to the sound of the dark and treading carefully I certainly enjoyed my slug safari and recommend you try one yourself!

Patrick – UK Ladybird Survey

For me, learning is part of the fun so I wanted to take part in some citizen science in an area of nature that I didn’t know as much about. So that’s how I ended up with ladybird monitoring. All I needed was to get out in my garden with a simple ID sheet (provided on the website) and begin monitoring. The website gave easy to follow tips on finding and identifying Ladybirds. It was pretty straight forward, mostly involving turning over leaves and recording any species that I saw, making sure to take a photo for ID proof.

I spend the better part of an hour monitoring and lo and behold, I found absolutely nothing. It’s always the way it seems, normally you’re tripping over ladybirds but the second you go looking, they are nowhere to be found. Thankfully my sister came to the rescue with my first sighting. The following day I came across a few individuals myself too. The beauty of this monitoring was that there were no set time limits so as much or as little as you would like was the order of the day. Even records in passing were touted as useful, you just need a quick snap for proof of ID.

7-spot ladybird – the first ladybird spotted
A second 7-spot ladybird

The 5-6 individuals that we stumbled across were all 7-spot ladybirds. No huge haul but interesting to me nontheless. From here I input the info into an online form with my pictures and viola! Citizen science mastered. I learned a thing or two about ladybirds in general and also about the invasion of the harlequin ladybird threatening native species. Definitely something I will cotinue to look out for. Just as important to all this, I made a small contirbution to a wider program of information for conservation efforts. Happy days work.

Daryl – RSPB Big Breakfast Birdwatch

There’s only one thing I love more than a big breakfast, and that’s a big breakfast while doing a spot of birding. So this particular activity was an obvious choice for me. During the lockdown period, many folk have been keeping a close eye on their garden wildlife, and this project uses social media (via the hashtag #BreakfastBirdwatch) to create a community of breakfast birdwatchers, sharing their sightings, photos and videos. It takes place every weekday between 8 and 9am.

So what of this morning’s session then? Well, over the course of my morning cuppa, all the usual suspects dropped in. Starling, House Sparrow, Goldfinch, Blue Tit, Blackbird and Wren all stood up to be counted. All good solid garden-birding staples.

Goldfinch

But there was also a surprise in store. Our peanut feeder was already more than half empty (should have topped up before starting off!). But this was still enough to attract a Great Spotted Woodpecker – our first garden record. It was a brilliant moment, although the woodpecker did look a bit silly when shimmying up our spindly Elder bushes, in lieu of proper trees. Collieston doesn’t exactly provide great woodpecker habitat, but at this time of year juvenile birds (like this one) are dispersing into new territory, and they have to make the best of whatever they find.

Great Spotted Woodpecker – the red cap denoting a juvenile bird

As well as having a bit of fun (and it’ll be even more so once Patrick teaches me how all this social media stuff works), I will also be sure to send my breakfast birding records to NESBREC, our local biological records centre. It’s just a small contribution to science, but if we all do a little bit – ‘many a meikle makes a muckle’, as they say (apparently). And that’s what citizen science is all about.

Forvie’s coastal defences

It’s the Year of Coast and Waters 2020. While many of the events that were planned have been put on hold due to the COVID crisis, we can still appreciate some aspects of Forvie NNR in celebration of the year. 

While I’m a tad biased, I think Forvie is a beautiful example of a coastal site. With imposing and dynamic dunes, raised shingles beaches and impressive cliffs to boot, Forvie’s almost got it all. These habitats are essential for our wildlife here at Forvie, wildlife which is often unique to the coast. The terns and gulls occupy the raised beaches annually, the cliffs are home to our cliff-nesting seabirds and the dune slacks support a wide variety of flora. 

Coastal cliff habitat, Razobill sitting on egg

Lots of people will know the importance of these habitats for our wildlife, some will even know that this isn’t the only reason they are important. More to the title of this article, our habitats at Forvie are a coastal defence. Other areas along the coast that are more flat in nature or have farmed land are at risk of flooding from the sea during storms. Looking inot the nto the future, they are at risk of slowly being lost to rising sea levels as well.

Natural coastal barriers at Forvie NNR

Our coastal features here at Forvie for example act as a buffer, protecting inland areas against storm events. It’s easy to picture how cliffs accomplish this, they are huge physical barriers against the sea. Our dune system, from Aberdeen to Forvie NNR, acts in much the same way. Both play a similar role as a physical barrier along the coast, but our dunes are more flexible. With each storm, parts of the dunes will be eroded as it would with the clifs, albeit much slower a process. During periods of normal weather, wind and wave action bring new sand to the dunes replenishing them. The dune system is kept in a balance through the removal and addition of sand to the system!

View of dunes at Forvie NNR in evening light
Evening light on the sand dunes and beach at Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve, ©Lorne Gill

Our dunes and cliffs aren’t our only coastal defence here at Forvie, some are less obvious. Natural wetlands like our saltmarsh play a role here too. As you approach Forvie NNR from waterside carpark, the grassy saltmarsh and mudflats are some of the first bits of habitat you will see along the estuary. The saltmarsh acts as a sponge, soaking up water and mitigating flood risks along the estuary! As well as playing an essential role for our waders and waterfowl, they are becoming increasingly recognised for this role it plays in defending our coastline. 

Not that it needed visualisation, but during a not very interesting movie on Saturday night I whipped open paint on my laptop and prepared a little diagram.

The above points are not to say that these coastal habitats are immune to the pressures of climate change. With more storm events and rising sea levels, each of these habitats will face increased erosion at Forvie and elsewhere. Yet our natural coastal habitats are better equipt to deal with pressures from the sea than other habitat types. They are an integral part of Scotlands Coast so take some time and appreciate the benefits of our coastal landscape when you’re next out at Forvie!

Lichens – the carpet of Forvie

Picture Forvie Moor in your mind. Apart from that short period in late summer, when the coastal heath is a vivid purple with blooming heather, you may conjure an image of a patchwork landscape, dowdily dressed in browns, greys and blue-greens. Look a little more closely though, and among the dormant heathers, Crowberry and Creeping Willows, you’ll find a rich carpet of lichens.

Lichens are a curious group of organisms. Most of us probably never really notice them, even though they are all around us. Come to that, what are they? Are they plants? Are they fungi? How do they fit into the web of life at Forvie, and the wider world? How do you even pronounce lichen? (In my childhood I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to pronounce it ‘like-en’ or ‘litch-en’ – my family, being Devon folk, had some funny ideas about pronunciation. I gather that the former is the correct way.)

Forvie Moor, with its carpet of lichens

In fact, lichens are neither one thing nor another. They’re actually a symbiosis – a biological co-operation – between fungi and algae or bacteria. The fungus provides the physical structure – the framework, if you like – and the algae or bacteria live within the structure and provide the energy-gathering capability, much like the cells in a plant’s leaves. This unique arrangement allows lichens to survive and thrive in places where plants can’t.

Cladonia lichen among Heather on Forvie Moor

Lichens occur on the splash zone of the seashore, just above the high-water mark, where they form black, orange or reddish crusts over the rocks. They grow among the dwarf shrubs of the coastal heath, and among the bents and fescues of the grasslands. They are abundant on the bark of trees, and even make a living on old fenceposts and walls. Go further inland, and the trees of the relict Caledonian pine forests are thick with them. And up in the highest peaks of the Cairngorms, where conditions are too harsh for even the toughest plants and animals, you’ll still find lichens.

Lichen growing on an old fencepost
Lichens on tree trunks

Although these ‘go-anywhere’ organisms appear to be able to eke out a living in any situation, there’s a snag. Unlike plants, lichens do not periodically shed their ‘foliage’, so they accumulate toxins from the air much more readily than plants and trees (although we may not notice it, even ‘evergreen’ trees replace their needles regularly). Many lichens are therefore very sensitive to air pollution, meaning they can only survive in areas where pollution is low. Consequently they’re great indicators of the health of our environment.

I recall first visiting Abernethy Forest in the Highlands many years ago, and being awestruck by the lichen ‘flora’ all over the trees there. It resembled some sort of fairytale landscape, with the ancient pines all draped in long beards of epiphytes – the fibrous lichens that hang from the branches and appear to live on fresh air alone. This was far, far removed from the densely-populated, polluted environment of my youth. A few years later, on arriving at Forvie for the first time, I met with the same sort of scene, but at ground level rather than in the tree canopy. If lichens are a measure of a clean and healthy environment, then here at Forvie it seems we’re doing OK.

Forvie Moor – a mosaic of dwarf shrubs, grasses and lichens

These remarkable organisms are more than just an environmental ‘miner’s canary’. People have used them for food, dyes and medicines down the centuries. Other species make extensive use of them – for example, the Reindeer Moss that sustains the herbivores of the Arctic tundra isn’t actually a moss at all, but a lichen. Closer to home, they are used by birds like Chaffinches to disguise their nests and protect them from predators, while insectivorous species forage among them like a miniature tree canopy, seeking out the many invertebrates that find shelter within.

Female Chaffinch gathering lichen for her nest

Identifying individual lichen species is a challenge to say the least. One estimate reckoned on there being some 15,000 species worldwide, and detailed surveys of Forvie in 1992 and 2000 found a total of 129 species here. Your jack-of-all-trades author is exceptionally poor at sorting them out, and in many cases you actually need a microscope to achieve a positive identification. Take it from me – compared with these, identifying small brown warblers is money for old rope.

So rather than make an idiot of myself by misidentifying things and misleading the readership, I’ll leave you with a few photos of some of the weird and wonderful lichens that occur here on the Reserve – the carpet of Forvie.

Forvie’s communal and territorial birds

The breeding season is in full force. Nests for some birds have come and gone, others may be getting ready to breed for a second time already! The Forvie ternary is bustling with life at the moment with tern and gull chicks are on their way to fledging! Sometime during the week just passed we welcomed our first fledged Black-headed gull chick. With quarantine in place, it has been a while since I have seen Forvie’s charismatic nature in action personally so social media and the work of those local to the reserve has been much appreciated to keep in touch Forvie’s nature. My garden’s wildlife with new baby sparrows just gone and two robins yelling at each other remind me daily as well that nature at Forvie is still moving forward.

Our first Black-Headed Gull Fledgers of 2020

Recently I posted a blog about some of the intriguing nesting habits of various species, most of which breed on the reserve. It talked a little around communal breeding behaviour in the ternary. All our terns are colonial breeders, none more so than our Sandwich Terns. True to their names, they sandwich their nests right on top of each other! No social distancing here to say the least. An individual nesting territory is quite small, a tiny area around the nest that they protect for themselves. The neighbour’s nest could be closer than a meter to give you an idea of how little space they claim individually. Meanwhile, a Robin can claim half a hectare all for itself! Taking social distancing to the extreme.

Sandwich Terns – a dense breeding colony

Our ground-nesting Eiders normally nest close to each other, (although they can also nest in isolation). Overall though, territory isn’t very important to them. Their true communal qualities happen when chicks hatch and form creches on the estuary. These creches are escorted and kept safe by adult females that didn’t breed that year, the aunties of the group! This allows the mothers that had been incubating a chance to feed and recuperate energy.

Eider chicks escorcted by their “aunties”

But not all of our ground-nesting birds are communal breeders here at Forvie. Anyone walking across Forvie’s dune heath at this time of year is inevitably going to hear or see Skylarks. They make beautifully formed nests hidden inside the vegetation. Their song is an inescapable sound across the heathland. They sing high above their territory and when you catch one singing, you might hear a rival nearby, both singing to defend and impress. Claiming their territory reduces competition for resources and it also serves to attract a mate. Just as how my Robins yell at each other from either end of my garden, the Skylarks are proclaiming their borders.

A skylark at Forvie, taking in its domain

Individual territories are quite common as a breeding behaviour with many of our songbirds in the UK. Singing takes up a lot of energy so it has to be worth it. By singing to defend, not only are they protecting their food supply but they limit physical competition (birds having a scrap) which saves energy in the long run. The territory songbirds claim can vary in size year by year depending on food and habitat availability. As mentioned earlier, a little Robin can claim half a hectare, happily sharing it with other species but chasing away any competition from other Robins poking around on its patch. Our terns, on the other hand, keep very little individual space but their communal range for feeding comparatively to the Robin is enormous, pushing out into the North Sea.

Not all our small birds are territorial though. Our colonies of Sand and House Martins on the reserve are just that, colonies. Like our terns they live and nest close together sharing feeding areas along the estuary to catch insects.

Last years Sand Martin colony

Next time you’re out on the reserve, keep an ear open for the Skylarks to appreciate the lengths they go to for defending their area. Or keep your eyes peeled for groups of Sand Martin intricately feeding together along the estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways each species can tackle the same issue in different ways. No approach is better, just different. Part of the intrigue of nature.

Going global – Forvie’s terns and their place in the world

Regular readers of this blog, and visitors to Forvie during spring and summer, will undoubtedly be familiar with terns. These graceful seabirds are real creatures of contrast. Abundant in summer, absent in winter; incredible travellers, yet faithful to their summer home; tough enough to survive among towering seas and violent storms, yet fragile and sensitive to disturbance when nesting. They never fail to amaze, or to amuse.

Arctic Terns – you looking at me?

Regulars will doubtless also be familiar with the temporary closure of the south end of the Reserve each summer, to allow Forvie’s terns, gulls, Eiders and others the space and peace required for nesting. If you’ve looked across the water from Newburgh during the height of the season, you may have seen the huge upflights of birds, like snowflakes in a snow-globe. Or you may have heard the constant cacophony of calling birds on the breeze, or if the wind is onshore, even smelled them (it’s not as bad as you’d think). Here, some 5,000 pairs of birds are hard at work raising young, in one of the largest colonies of its kind on the UK mainland.

OK, so the Forvie ternery is important. But how does it fit into the bigger picture? Pull up a chair.

Sandwich Tern colony

First up, time for a wee bit of lightweight science. Ecologists are fond of the term ‘metapopulation’. This may sound like a scary piece of scientific jargon, but bear with me, it’s actually pretty straightforward. A metapopulation is ‘a group of spatially-separated populations of the same species, that interact with one another’. Sandwich Terns are excellent exponents of this: each colony (e.g. Forvie) is a distinct unit, but birds also move between different colonies, meaning all the local populations are linked together to form a whole (e.g. the North Sea). So the Sandwich Tern colony at Forvie is one unit within the North Sea metapopulation of Sandwich Terns. See, told you it was easy!

Another pair of terms beloved of ecologists are ‘source’ and ‘sink’ populations. Again, we’ll use Sandwich Tern as an example. Within the North Sea metapopulation of Sandwich Terns, some colonies produce loads of fledged chicks in a given year, while others may have poor productivity and produce few or no young. A productive colony effectively produces a surplus of birds, which bolster the wider population – a ‘source’ population. Meanwhile, an unproductive colony effectively consumes birds from the population, as the normal losses incurred during the year are not replaced by the recruitment of young. This is a ‘sink’ population.

Sandwich Terns

Somebody once told me that a Sandwich Tern colony only needs to produce around one fledged chick for every five nests (i.e. a productivity rate of 0.2) in order to maintain a stable population. In recent years, Sandwich Tern productivity at Forvie has generally been between 0.5 and 1 fledged chick per nest, i.e. well above the 0.2 as stated above. This we know from the monitoring work that we carry out each summer at the ternery, censusing the nests and counting the fledged young. In short, in most years, Forvie acts as a source population for Sandwich Terns.

As we’ve mentioned, a source population ‘exports’ birds into the wider population, and this is certainly the case for Forvie. But how do we know this? Another part of the annual tern-monitoring programme is the marking some of the Sandwich Tern chicks with special plastic leg rings bearing a unique code. These are known in the trade as ‘Darvic’ rings, and they can be read through binoculars or a zoomed-in digital photo, without the need to recapture the bird or get too close to it and disturb it. The rings are fitted to the tern chicks by trained bird-ringers from the Grampian Ringing Group, supervised and assisted by Forvie staff. And some of the results have been remarkable.

Darvic-ringed Sandwich Tern and chick

Some of ‘our’ Sandwich Terns have appeared in colonies in Belgium, Holland and England (remember the metapopulation thing?), thus spreading ‘Forvie genes’ throughout the North Sea. Others have been spotted on their wintering grounds in Namibia and South Africa; you wonder if that’s where they meet birds from other colonies, and return with them in the spring. But perhaps the most exciting discovery has been the establishment of a new Sandwich Tern colony at St John’s Pool up in Caithness, whose population comprises a high proportion of Forvie alumni. Concrete proof that we are acting as a source population for Sandwich Terns within the North Sea metapopulation. With seabird populations generally struggling, this is a huge feather in Forvie’s cap, pardon the pun please.

And that’s just the one species. It’s likely that similar things are happening within the populations of Arctic Tern and Black-headed Gull, two species which have also enjoyed productive recent seasons at Forvie.

Black-headed Gulls and their chicks (plus a photo-bombing Eider in the foreground)

I suppose the take-home message here (apart from learning, or re-learning, some sixth-form ecology) is that it always pays to look at the bigger picture. Yes, Forvie is a fabulous place in its own right, within its 1,000 hectares, and all that they contain. But its influence and importance extends far beyond its boundaries into the wider world. Nature is a global entity; by definition, nature conservation must look to be the same. Borders and boundaries are a purely human invention.

Next time you’re out and about at Forvie enjoying the wildlife, just stop and think: this is part of something massive. I find this a really inspiring thought. And long may it continue to export terns unto the world.

The language of nature

There is a book The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris that has seen campaigns to get a copy in every school in Scotland and further afield, you may know it already. The book started as a response to the Oxford Children’s Dictionary deciding to drop nature words such as ‘acorn’ and ‘bluebell’ because today’s young people are seemingly more likely to need to know the definition of ‘broadband’. Hopefully this book’s popularity will help to reconnect families with the environment in some small way, after all it has been said if we don’t have a name for something it is harder for us to connect to it, understand it or care for it.
Fortunately, there are many words for natural things and not just in English!

Plants, animals and other living things have their local names in English and Scots, Gaelic and Doric, so to save confusion they have also all been given a Latin name, which is used for the same thing across the world. Each Latin name starts with the family name and then the individual species name follows, a bit like our first names and surnames, but in reverse.
An example is the wild pansy that you see growing all across Forvie for most of the summer. It has many different English names, but its Latin name is Viola tricolor. This tells us it is a member of the Viola (violet) family, which are generally purple. Wild pansies are purple, white and yellow so to set it apart it was given a Latin name which means the 3-coloured violet.

Wild pansies, Viola tricolor at Forvie

More complicated, but just as delightful is the latin name for our very own Eider ducks: Somateria mollissima. Broken down, soma means ‘body’, eria comes from the Latin for ‘wool’, mollis means ‘soft’ and issima is added to mean ‘very’.  Put together, eiders are ducks whose bodies are covered in very soft wool!  Eider down feathers are certainly softer and warmer than sheep’s wool.

‘woolly’ ducklings are starting to hatch at Forvie

In Doric, Eiders are annets, while we are all worried about the declining numbers of foggy bummers in our gardens and countryside.  The reserve has a more healthy population of hornie gollachs, which tumble out from the noticeboards when posters are changed!

Collective nouns exist for lots of Forvie’s birds and animals, although how often do you see large gatherings of some of them?

Starlings do like to congregate in number and while they are noisily chattering in flocks on the ground or on telephone wires they are known as a Quarrel.  Once they take to flight in spectacular winter swarms at dusk, they become the more familiar Murmuration.

a Murmuration of Starlings

In Spring at Forvie during brief spells of sunshine, your spirits may be lifted by an Exaltation of Skylarks, when territorial males start signing on high.  A Charm of Goldfinches is also a treat to see and hear, while a Bazaar of Guillemots is rather more noisy!

The corvid family gets less appealing and rather unjust names when they gather.  A Mob of Jackdaws, a Murder of Crows and an Unkindness of Ravens are thought to come from medieval superstition that these black birds were associated with devilry and witchcraft. 

While you might also encounter a flutter of butterflies, a loveliness of ladybirds or a knot of toads, our wildflowers and plants don’t seem to have many associated collective nouns.  Perhaps you could make up your own, how about a constellation of daisies?  A barrage of gorse? A stinging of nettles seems the obvious choice!

A constellation of daisies in a meadow cosmos?

Language is always changing, just as nature around us is too.  It may be acceptable for things to change, but less so to disappear completely.  My final word for this blog is one you should get to know – Biodiversity.  It is viewed as a bit of an awkward buzz word at times, but it just means a rich mixture of life.  Scotland, along with other nations across the world has pledged to protect and increase the biodiversity in our care, as it is known that if we continue to lose species and the natural places they live, then the consequences for the planet will be disastrous. 

Get to know the names of your local wildlife if you can, but make up your own if you can’t! It is the first step to looking after it.