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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.