Sanderlings and the end of summer

I was asked recently what signs there were at Forvie showing that it was the end of summer. The beginning of autumn can be easier to mark, with geese, winter thrushes and berries all appearing then, but one sign for me that signals summer coming to the end is the arrival of the sand sprites, the forever runners, the sanderlings.

These are waders, small birds that if you walk along the beach you will see constantly running along the very edge of the water, working the space that is the pause between waves.

It is at this time of year that sanderlings are appearing on the beach at Forvie, to feed-up and grow some new feathers in a pause in their southwards migration. Their summer has finished and they bring with them the end of summer for us.

Summer for a sanderling is nothing but a mad rush. They breed about as far north as you can go, right on the northern limits of land, Spitzbergen, Greenland, Arctic Canada and Russia. Summer is short in the Arctic but with 24 hours sunlight and millions of biting and buzzing insects it is possible for sanderlings to go through a high speed breeding season.

Adult sanderlings arrive in their breeding grounds in late May, early June but in only 6 weeks they will have laid eggs, incubated them and the chicks grown to full-size. To increase productivity the females will lay 2 clutches of 4 eggs, she will hatch one, the male will hatch the other. This is pretty hard work for the female, the weight of 8 eggs is the equivalent of 3/4’s of her body weight that that takes so doing! By August the adults have had enough and start to head south, the youngsters following soon after. Their autumn journey will take them all the way down the west African coast – 5000km long. So a stop on a beach at Forvie is a welcome refuelling opportunity and with good feeding they can put on 4g a day. Not bad for a bird that usually only weighs up to 80gs. They are brilliantly adapted to feed fast, they have big eyes for spotting prey, they have lost their back toe to be able to run faster and feed continuously, only stopping for a couple of hours over high tide. They are the hardest working wader in town.

So their arrival here heading south after an Arctic breeding attempt, whether successful or not, heralds a shortening of day length, a browning of the green and a slight edge in the morning air, that means summer is nearly done and autumn on the way.

David Pickett | Forvie NNR Nature Reserve Manager

Autumn advancing

And today at Forvie it feels like it too. A strong wind from the south has coated everything in a fine layer of salt from the North Sea, the horizon is ill-defined and hazy, and overhead clouds hurry northwards through a restless skyscape. A sharp contrast to the hot days of the recent past, yes, but enjoyable in its own way. After being out in these conditions, you return home feeling weather-beaten and slightly sticky with salt, but invigorated. Try it for yourself sometime; don’t be put off visiting the Reserve if the forecast is less than perfect!

This morning the Reserve played host to a beach clean, and thanks are due to the visiting work-party from BP, and to Crawford Paris from East Grampian Coastal Partnership, for all their efforts. A truck-load of litter was collected and removed from a half-mile of beach, and a little bit more plastic removed from the marine environment.

The beach clean, as Dirty Harry would say, ‘in progress’

On our way over to the beach from Waterside car park we were lucky enough to bump into two Wheatears and four Whinchats feeding along the fence lines. These are classic early-autumn migrants, departing our northern latitudes for warmer climes to the south. The Wheatear is arguably the greatest migrant among all the world’s passerine birds; some of them spend the summer in Greenland and Arctic Canada before migrating to Africa for the winter, either via northern Europe (including here, where we see them in spring and autumn) or in an extraordinary non-stop flight across the Atlantic from Greenland direct to Spain. And all this from a bird not much bigger than a Robin.

Wheatear – unassuming but incredible traveller

On Wednesday we had a full day bashing invasive plants. In the morning we tackled Himalayan Balsam on the Foveran Burn at Newburgh, before heading to Foveran links in the afternoon to continue waging war on the Pirri-pirri Bur there. Both these species are a real problem if left unchecked, and as ever we’re grateful for the help of our trusty volunteers in tackling the problem.

Foveran Burn with Himalayan Balsam in the foreground (the white/pink flowers) and Patrick in the background (the tall bloke)
Great to see a man happy in his work

While removing the balsam from the burn – in partnership with Karen and her volunteers from the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (thanks guys!) – we made an interesting discovery. You may recognise the fella below from my previous musings – the spectacular caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth.

Elephant Hawk-moth in the making

You might be wondering if I’m getting a bit obsessed with hawk-moths (I’m not, though so far my search for hawk-moth-print wallpaper, tablecloths or boxer shorts has failed – never mind). The point here is that we found several of these caterpillars using the Himalayan Balsam as a foodplant, something that none of us here realised they were able to do. Every day at Forvie is a schoolday!

Luckily for the caterpillars, we transferred them to some nearby Rosebay Willowherb (the usual foodplant) so they could continue munching after we had removed the balsam. So everyone was happy at completion of the job.

We also found this beautiful leaf beetle Chrysolina polita, an apparently common and widespread species that’s probably under-recorded. Many naturalists (myself included) are OK at identifying the bigger, more obvious species (everyone knows what a Fox, or a Killer Whale, or a Grey Heron looks like, for instance), but tend to neglect the smaller and more cryptic stuff. But when you look closely, there are some beautiful species there in the micro scale. A reminder that there’s so much out there to discover, even when pulling up weeds.

The leaf beetle Chrysolina polita

Much of the rest of the week was spent mowing, brushcutting and trying to keep on top of the estate work tasks that we often struggle to find time for during the bird breeding season here on the Reserve. It’s hot, draining physical work, but essential to keep the footpaths clear. And to be fair, not many brushcutter operators get to enjoy a view like that at Hackley Bay when the job’s done.

A newly strimmed footpath
Hackley Bay, and a warm brushcutter (very warm operator behind the camera)

So have a good weekend, whatever the forecast, and we’ll maybe see you out and about at Forvie in September!

The Forvie Stevenson Centre

  • In Forvie NNR’s 60th year, Ron Macdonald, a former manager with SNH and Forvie local, writes about a recent visitor to Forvie NNR, the legacy that gave life to the Forvie centre in its transformation from the Little Collieston Croft and the life of the remarkable person behind it.
Little Collieston Croft photographed in the 1950’s or 1960’s when still a working farming unit and before its transformation into the Forvie Stevenson centre.

At the end of July we had a visit from Kathleen Stevenson, niece of the late Margaret Stevenson whose legacy to Scottish Natural Heritage in 1998 supported the refurbishment of the original Little Collieston cottage and barn which holds the Reserve office and visitor centre and also the purchase of small additional areas of land on the Reserve.  A new environmental education classroom was also built with support from Shell UK.

Margaret Stevenson was born in the summer of 1915 in Lumsden, Aberdeenshire. Throughout her life Margaret had a deep interest in animals, wildlife and natural history, and was a keen birder.

Margaret’s secondary schooling was at the High School for girls in Aberdeen after which she attended the Glasgow University Veterinary School. At that time it was the only vet school in the country which accepted female students, and Margaret was the only one in her class…which also included Alfie Wight who became her friend and gained subsequent fame under the pen name of James Herriot, author of a series of very popular books about the life of a vet.

Margaret’s brother Sandy emigrated to the United States to continue his studies, subsequently joining the World Bank where he worked as an economist working on projects for developing countries until his retirement.

After retiring from her veterinary practice in Swindon in the 1950s Margaret joined her brother and his family in Maryland near Washington D. C. where she worked as a bacteriologist specializing in animal borne diseases.

Both Sandy and Margaret continued with their interests in nature and conservation both locally and abroad. They both were lifelong members of the RSPB as well as American conservation organisations.

Throughout Margaret’s life her focus was nature and self sufficiency. Upon retirement she bought a small farm in Maryland, and created both a designated conservation sanctuary  area on the property as well a large vegetable garden from which she fed herself throughout the year.

In her final years, Margaret returned to Scotland to live in Greenloaning, Perthshire where she passed away in 1996. In her will she left a bequest to the Scottish Natural  Heritage which was used to establish the visitor centre at Forvie NNR as well as to purchase additional land for the Forvie reserve. The centre was  inaugurated by the late author, broadcaster and former chairman of SNH, Magnus Magnusson along with SNH officials in the presence of Margaret’s brother Sandy and other family members.

We had a lovely chat and walk on Forvie with Kathleen and her cousin Ron. Margaret’s kind legacy has made a huge contribution to the management of the Reserve and helped many visitors appreciate just how special Forvie is for people and wildlife.


Kathleen Stevenson with her cousin Ron, far left with Dave Pickett Reserve Manager (far right) and Ron Macdonald, former SNH Manager (second left) outside the Forvie Centre.
The late Margaret Stevenson
Magnus Magnusson, KBE, Chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage and Sandy Stevenson, Margaret’s brother, opening the Stevenson Forvie Centre in June 1988.

A hawk-moth haven

Hawk-moths are indisputably impressive beasts. They’re a small group of species – here in the UK we only have nine resident species and a further eight that occur as immigrants from abroad. But they’re large, often strikingly marked, powerful fliers and, in some cases, great travellers. And we’ve had a bit of a purple patch for them lately at Forvie.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

We’ll start off with the resident species. You may recall in a recent edition of the blog that we found one of these caterpillars at the ternery. It’s the larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth, so named because the caterpillar’s head resembles an elephant’s head and trunk when it’s stretched out. The one in the above photo has retracted its head into its body, thereby causing the eye-spots on its body to swell up, to warn off a would-be predator. In this case the ‘predator’ was probably the person with the camera that startled the caterpillar!

Elephant Hawk-moth is resident year-round at Forvie, with the caterpillars feeding on Rosebay Willowherb, a very plentiful food source. The adult moths can sometimes be seen feeding at nectar sources at dusk.

Poplar Hawk-moth caterpillar

The other resident species we’ve encountered recently is the Poplar Hawk-moth. This striking green caterpillar was found feeding on a willow tree in your author’s garden on the north-eastern boundary of the Reserve. Willows are common across the Reserve and its surroundings, so this species does very well locally, and the adult moths sometimes turn up in the light-trap at the Forvie Centre.

Adult Poplar Hawk-moth

The adult moths are large, attractively-marked beasts with a patch of fox-red on the underwing – just visible in the above photo. Look out for these striking moths if you have willow trees in your garden at home.

Now onto the really exciting ones – the long-distance migrants…

Bedstraw Hawk-moth

This Bedstraw Hawk-moth showed up on the north edge of the Reserve a couple of weeks ago, and was the first one that any of us here had seen, despite each of us having a lifelong interest in nature! This stunning moth is an immigrant from south-east Europe, and probably hitched a lift across the North Sea on warm south-easterly winds. It was spotted feeding on the flowers of Honeysuckle, fuelling up after its long trip.

Bedstraw Hawk-moths only occur in very small numbers in Scotland, with usually just a handful of records each summer. So to see this one was a special treat.

Hummingbird Hawk-moth

Two days after the excitement of the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, the very same Honeysuckle bush played host to a Hummingbird Hawk-moth. Another immigrant from the south-east, this too is a spectacular sight, resembling a tiny hummingbird as its whizzes from one flower to the next, sipping the nectar through its long proboscis while hovering on the spot. In fact the likeness is so remarkable that many people, upon encountering one, believe they are seeing an actual hummingbird.

These are quite a bit more plentiful in Scotland than the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, and we see Hummingbird Hawks in most summers here at Forvie. Check out any nectar-rich flowers like Buddleia or Honeysuckle; note also that these moths are active by day as well as at dusk, so you may see one in bright sunshine as well as evening gloaming.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth

The final species we’ve recently recorded is the mighty Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Like the previous two species, this comes from southern shores off the back of a warm southerly airflow and settled weather. This huge moth – with a wingspan of 4 inches (10cm) and a body as long and thick as your thumb – is a powerful flier and loves the same sort of nectar-rich flowers favoured by other hawk-moths. This one was discovered roosting by day on our neighbour’s washing(!) before being relocated to that same lucky Honeysuckle bush. Later on, after warming up its wings it flew off into the night over the Reserve, and onto the next leg of its epic journey.

So if you’re lucky enough to have nectar-rich flowers in your garden or in your local area, keep an eye on them just now, especially at dusk as the light is beginning to fade. You too may be lucky enough to cross paths with one of these fabulous insects as it goes about its nightly rounds – an experience to savour!

The Little Terns of Forvie

With the arrival of our arctic, common, sandwich and little terns it’s all hands on deck here at Forvie. The breeding terns here are of international importance and this is no more true than for the Little Terns. They are currently identified as a conservation priority under both national and international directives.

The tern colony overall has had a successful year. Sandwich Terns have had an excellent year with approximately 700 fledged birds with our Commic terns (Common and Arctic Terns) having an average year with a peak fledgling number approx 370.

Our little terns have on the other hand had an unfortunate year. A species that is struggling historically in the UK, the colony continued on this path this year and had a sad downfall predominantly due to predation and unfortunate weather conditions

We monitor all the species and ensure all due protection is given from ground predators, using an electric fence, and from human disturbance, using another fence.

Little Terns settled in on there nests here at Forvie NNR
A quick meeting for a chat during the breeding season

Early on the little tern nesting success had promising signs with 28 pairs settling in. The nests were monitored closely throughout the season and it was a happy moment to see chicks on the way and good clutch sizes.

Some of our first little chicks

It was a short lived moment as with the heavy rain and stormy weather over the summer, Little Tern nests starting to empty without any chicks. In the midst of this eggs were lost to avian predation as well. An Oystercatcher with chicks was caught on camera stealing an egg from a Little Tern nest.

Adult Oystercatcher stealing Little tern egg to feed its own chicks

Of the original nests few survived the predicament they were in but was a ray of hope. There were 10 new nests identified on the outskirts of the original colony. Many of these were likely a second clutch attempt from the birds who earlier lost their eggs and chicks.

Although it was possible for success of a fledged Little Tern, the season was getting on. Their chances were getting lower and lower by the day as birds they rely on for protection clear out of the colony leaving the leaving the Little Terns to fend for themselves.

As with the first clutches there was some hatching success but again bad weather and further predation decimated the final nests in the colony.

A Little Tern chick being cared for by a parent
Moments later, snapped away by a Black Headed Gull

This Little Tern chick is easy pickings for an adult Black Headed Gull. Although it was sad to see, it is a normal part of colony life for the terns. While this chick was lost and might seem bad, the Black Headed Gulls presence in the colony early on would have offered much needed protection and deterrent to bigger avian predators.

In the end, after a long season the Little Terns had no success this year. They are naturally poor breeders with low productivity but with less than 2000 nesting birds in the UK all efforts will be given again next year so they have the best possible chance at putting young new birds back into the world.

The terning of the year

A frequent mention in this blog goes to the rapid turning of the seasons. Here at Forvie this is felt most keenly at either end of the bird breeding season. In early spring there is a huge volume of work to get through, with the erecting of the electric fence around the ternery to protect the birds from predatory foxes. Now in August, the birds have flown and it’s time to dismantle all that fencing again. It only seems like five minutes since we were putting it up!

Volunteers Jim and Richard with a heap of fencing materials

The ternery fence runs to 950 metres of mesh netting, 1,900 metres of steel wire, 400+ insulating fence posts and lots of ancillary bits and pieces. It’s a Herculean effort to erect, maintain and dismantle it all, and we owe a massive debt of thanks to our volunteers who take on a big share of the work. Without them, we – and more importantly, the terns – simply wouldn’t get by.

We hope to have the fencing all removed by the end of the month, after which the seasonal access restrictions will be lifted. People will once again be able to walk in the south end of the Reserve, without the risk of disturbing sensitive ground-nesting birds, or indeed being attacked by Arctic Terns defending their nests! Of course there is still the seal haul-out to consider, and we’ll cover responsible access in a future blog post.

Fencing under a brooding sky

This week’s weather has been somewhat hit and miss to say the least – check out the colour of the sky in the photo above. We all got a bit wet while dismantling the fence on Tuesday, though we were compensated by some warm sunshine and a fine rainbow later on.

Is there a pot of gold at the end? I’d settle for a rare bird or two…

While working at the ternery we were lucky to cross paths with this rather magnificent beast. It’s the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk-moth, a large and spectacular species of moth which is resident at Forvie. The larvae feed on the leaves of Rosebay Willowherb – the tall, pink-flowered plant that grows in dense stands by the roadsides in late summer – and there’s certainly plenty of that at the ternery!

Elephant Hawk-moth larva
The adult moth – apologies for the pic; this one was photographed at Muir of Dinnet NNR having been caught in a light-trap there. But you get the idea!

We also happened upon quite a few butterflies during the sunny spells between the downpours. As some species’ flight-season ends, others are just beginning. This newly-minted Red Admiral was enjoying the Ragwort flowers…

Red Admiral on Ragwort

…while these Small Whites were busy, errm, making the next generation of Small Whites.

A mating pair of Small Whites

So the long days are shortening somewhat, the terns are away, and the fences nearly packed up for the season. But there’s still an abundance of wildlife to see; it’s the variety through the year that makes this place so special. Come and experience it for yourself – we’ll maybe see you out and about on the Reserve.

In the meantime, I’ve got some fence posts to collect…

Natural dyeing and food gathering at Forvie

Elaine Sherriffs, who previously worked at Forvie as the seasonal reserve officer and is now one of our stalwart volunteers, writes about how children visiting the reserve learned about some of the plants of Forvie and what they were used for:

The John Muir Award gives children a great  opportunity to learn more about their natural environment and develop outdoor skills with others.  The award consist of 4 challenges: 

  • Discover a wild place
  • Explore it
  • Conserve it
  • Share the experiences 

With this in mind a group of children from a nearby school have visited the reserve at Forvie to meet these challenges.  They tried natural dyeing on strips of wool.  The colours were beautiful – greens, yellows, reds and purples.  We used plants found at Forvie as dyes – crowberry, heather, blackberry and lichen.  Without using the chemical fix, alum, the dyes do not last very long but give an insight into how the plants can be used to produce subtle shades.

Testing out the dyes
The resulting colours

Another activity we tried was gathering wild food – berries, wild thyme, nettle leaves to make teas and also oats and kale and to make broth.  In the past when people still lived at Forvie, meat and fish and herbs would have been added to the broth. Some local people continue to gather the natural food resources from the water and land around Forvie – shellfish, salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, whitefish, wild fowl, rabbit, venison, pheasant, edible plants, honey and herbs.

We tried was milling barley and oats by grinding the grain between two stones, a lower, stationary stone called the quern stone and an upper, mobile stone called the handstone.  The flour was then mixed with water to make oatcakes, baked on a hot stone next to the camp fire on the beach.  The nettle tea and oatcakes went down well with some children, while others still preferred their sandwiches and crisps!

Grinding barley the old way