Singing swans

This week at Forvie has seen the Reserve awash with swans. Not the regular Mute Swans you see on your local park lake, but Whooper Swans, wild and wary, genuine migrants from Iceland. The first ones arrived in mid-October – you can read about them here – and this last few days has seen a major influx of these magnificent birds, with upwards of 350 present.

Whooper swan – note the black-tipped yellow bill and straight neck…
…compared with the familiar Mute Swan, with its black-based orange bill and S-shaped neck.

Arguably the easiest way to recognise a Whooper Swan is by its voice. Unlike our resident Mute Swans, which don’t say much other than the occasional snort, hiss or grunt, Whoopers are extremely vocal. Their calls have a bugling, far-carrying quality, and at long range on a still day can almost be taken for distant human voices. However, in chorus they produce an unmistakable and beautiful sound, a true sound of the wild. That’s why in several European languages, the bird’s common name translates as ‘singing swan’. And the Ythan Estuary at Forvie is currently resounding to swan music.

Whoopers arriving high from the north
On final approach, flaps down, air brakes deployed!

While a small number of Whooper Swans will overwinter with us here at Forvie, most of the birds currently present will simply use the Reserve as a staging-post before heading further south. Many spend the winter in eastern England, where the sugar-beet and potato industries inadvertently provide them with a rich source of carbohydrates to help them through the cold days. The swans love to feed on the tops and tails of the beets, left behind by the harvesting machinery, and on any leftover tatties once the frost has softened them up. But up here they’re content with spilt grain in the barley-stubble, plus whatever roots and tubers they can find in the wet fields surrounding the estuary. Then it’s back onto the water to preen and roost.

On the water for a wash-and-brush-up between feeding trips

Another thing that sets Whooper Swans apart from their Mute cousins is their sociable nature. Whereas Mute Swans tend to be found in pairs – often aggressively chasing off any others – Whoopers are much more commonly found in groups, sometimes substantial ones. And within these groups, it’s often possible to pick out individual families.

Juvenile Whoopers – i.e. birds hatched this summer – can be easily recognised by their pale grey plumage and pink bills. The young birds tend to stick together with their siblings and parents, and it’s not uncommon to see mum, dad and up to five or six young together. They will stay together as a family right through their first winter, with the young going their separate ways when they’ve completed the return journey to Iceland in the spring. The flocks currently present at Forvie contain a high proportion of juveniles, perhaps indicating a good breeding season this summer.

A pair of Whoopers with their youngster behind them – note the grey head and pinkish bill

Of course, such an epic migration is hard work for the youngsters – they undertake the journey from Iceland to Scotland non-stop, reaching heights of up to 29,000 feet(!) – so it’s not surprising that many of them need a good rest when they arrive here!

Four sleepy juvenile Whoopers

Meanwhile, the adults are busy indulging in a bit of displaying and social interaction. This usually involves much posturing, flapping, bobbing of heads and a lot of noise.

Adult Whoopers doing their thing

The spectacle on the estuary and on Cotehill Loch at dawn and dusk is magical just now, and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re within reach of the area. After all, the birds will probably only be here in these numbers for a couple of weeks, before moving on again. So hurry along to Forvie and enjoy some singing swans – you can thank us later!

Whooper Swans on Cotehill Loch at dusk

Thanks are owed to Catriona Reid at Muir of Dinnet for the swan photos!

Forvie’s dynamic dunes

Forvie NNR host the tail end of one of the largest Sand Dune systems in the UK. The Dune system begins from near Aberdeen city up along the coast past Balmedie, Forvern Burn and half way through the Forvie NNR reserve before giving way to coastal cliff.

The Big Dune at Forvie NNR – a free moving dune slowly shifting North

As hard as it is to imagine, these “shifting dunes” true to their name are mobile. The dunes move with the prevailing wind, sand added and recycled from far off the coast driven by the tide.

Since starting my position at Forvie I’ve been fascinated with the dunes. The southern end of the reserve is dominated by a large expanse of sand slacks and sand dunes, partially visible in the photo above. A bleak, lifeless environment on the surface but one of stark beauty which bursts to life with the arrival of the terns and gulls for breeding.

Over the last few months here I’ve met a number of wonderful folk that have previously worked here, my predecessors on the reserve. Each of them would mention after after many years of not seeing the dunes they can’t believe how the landscape has changed. I’ve had a glimpse of this recently through an old photo of the seal haul-out that was shared. At the time we did not know how old this photo was but we took another snap from roughly the same location to compare the changes.

Old photo (Lorne Gill) – Ythan mouth from Newburgh beach
Current photo (Sep 2019)

The pill box has gone from being almost completely buried to being totally exposed – that’s a shift of at least 2-3 meters of sand deep being moved. Enough sand has been shifted to expose rock on the seal haul out where non was visible before.

Looking further into the background there is now an imposing ridge of sand with a drop onto the beach. All in all, who know how many thousands of tonnes of sand shifted changing the landscape. In the end the old photo was only taken in the summer of 2016 so this change occurred only over the last 3 years!

Even in my 5 months here, it sometimes seems to change overnight. I notice small changes over time but occasionally I find myself seeing new paths through the dunes wondering if that was there as I walked through yesterday, climbing a dune thinking this seems more steep – or was it my imagination? The dunes a labyrinth of sand, a puzzle being reworked by the wind.

These photos sparked a new appreciation for the dunes in me and their importance. Why is this dynamic nature needed on the coastline? Outside of the unique habitat that dunes create for flora and fauna, they act as a barrier against the seas. They are a natural defense against rising sea levels and given the current climate emergency they are becoming only more important on our coast, protecting inland areas from the seas and storms. Dunes are not our only natural defense on the coast. Cliffs protect inland areas from storm waves and wetlands reduce flood risks. In the end, I am all the more thankful for the dunes and our natural world here at Forvie.

Forvie NNR sand dunes – our natural defense ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Young and old pinkies

A few days ago I headed out onto Forvie moor at first light. The flooded piece west of the visitor centre had been the night time destination for some of the thousands of pink-footed geese that are in the area. That morning they had already gone leaving a blizzard of feathers and a carpet of poo…and 2 dead fellow geese. I could see from the distance 2 bodies, 1 lying in shallow water of the pool the other on the mud, both showing no signs of struggle or wounds, both seemed to have passed away quietly during the night. It might be that both were weakened by the long migration flight or the might have been fatally wounded by shot from wildfowlers and succumbed during the night. Either way, they were worth a moments pause to wonder what their life journeys had been that lead to this fateful pool at Forvie and to admire the sheer beauty of these birds. And it also gave me a chance to have a close look at these birds. Pink feet are classified as “grey geese” giving the impression that they might be dull on the eye but nothing could be further from the truth. Up close these are striking birds. We see plenty of pinkies feeding in the fields or flying over but I have never had one in the hand before. The subtle scalloping of the feathers, softness and strength of their wing feathers and the dappled shadows and varied grey across their bodies were worth lingering over. And I could see that though both birds were clearly pinkies they were very different.

These differences made one bird a juvenile, one hatched this year while the other was a mature adult.

A juvenile pink footed goose, not the plainer neck and body feathers.
Juvenile pink footed goose with no pale edging to the body feathers.

The youngster has it first set of feathers on, these don’t have the pale edges and tips that the adults feathers have, especially on the flanks and the coverts (the top side of the wings). A young birds feathers are also narrower and shorter. Even on the neck there is a difference with the adults having more distinct furrows in the feathers. And when I checked the legs for rings (there weren’t any) I could see that the adults feet were stout, solid and a rich pink colour while the juveniles were much duller in colour. These juveniles, in normal circumstances, will gradually moult these youngster feathers and grow a new set of  adult feathers in time for spring and the long journey north again.

An adult pinkie – see the beautiful pale edges to the wider body feathers.
Adult pinkie feathers with beautiful pale fringing.

This difference between adult and juvenile feathers helps us monitor how the pinkie population is doing. By counting the mix of adults and youngsters in the flocks arriving here in the UK the success of the breeding season can be recorded – how many youngsters against numbers of adults. All useful information when so many species, especially very northern ones are finding the conditions of a changing climate difficult to deal with. 

Juvenile pinkie
Adult pinkie

The twilight zone

This last couple of weeks have seen the day length diminish noticeably – it’s that time of the year when the change seems to happen really rapidly. At our high latitude (over 57 degrees north) there is a very pronounced difference between the two extremes of the year – in high summer, we have 19 or 20 hours of light every day, but in midwinter we’re putting the lights on by three o’clock in the afternoon. When the working day’s done, it’s a case of walk home in the dark, light the fire, put the kettle on. Although some folk find the shortening days a bit daunting, rest assured that it isn’t all bad news…

For with the shorter days come opportunities. With both ends of the day becoming closer together, it’s possible to enjoy the dawn and dusk without having to get up ridiculously early or stay up past your bedtime. And what fabulous times to be out and about on the Reserve. For starters, the light is beautiful – who doesn’t love a spectacular sunset or sunrise? And in terms of wildlife, either end of the day can be more exciting than the bit in the middle.

Sunset over Sand Loch
A fiery evening sky

Mornings and evenings are the best time to see Roe Deer at Forvie. They spend most of the day holed up in the willow scrub on the moor, keeping a safe distance from what they view as danger – people and dogs. But in the evening, when most folk have headed home, the deer emerge to feed in nearby grassland and fields, returning to the moor early the following morning. You might well see them around the Forvie Centre in the half-light, and if you’re quiet and discreet you may get some very good views – if they don’t see you first!

Two Roe bucks in the half-light of morning

In the bird world also, mornings and evenings are commuting times, much as they are for us. Obvious exponents of this are the Pink-footed Geese, which roost on the lochs and estuary, and move around to feed on stubble fields and pasture by day. Their morning and evening flight is a spectacular affair, involving many thousands of individuals, and the cacophony of calls (so-called ‘goose music’) is the soundtrack to the autumn and winter here. Set against a colourful sky, like a classic Peter Scott painting, it’s one of the best wildlife spectacles going.

Morning flight of geese
Returning to the roost in the evening

Another local commuter is the Cormorant. These birds spend the day fishing on the estuary and lochs, and roost overnight on the cliffs north of Collieston. Seeing formations of these prehistoric-looking birds forging line-astern along the clifftops – always south in the morning, north in the evening – is part of the daily routine and rhythm of life at Forvie, oft-overlooked but worth seeking out.

Running perpendicular to the Cormorants’ flightpaths are those of gulls. These roost on the open sea, and commute inland to feed on ploughed fields and the like during the day. So here at Forvie, the morning flight is always westwards, the evening eastwards. But wherever you are, you may see a similar movement, especially if you’re near the coast or along a natural flyway like a river or valley.

A single Cormorant in flight – look out for gangs of them on the move during morning and evening

We’re also still very much in the bird migration season, with many species still making landfall from the Continent. Most prominent among these are thrushes and finches, and they can often be seen arriving high from the north-east in the first hour of daylight (currently about 0730-0830 here). Most frequently encountered are Redwings and Blackbirds, while this week has seen a small movement of Chaffinches and the odd Brambling mixed in. All classic Scandinavian migrants fleeing the approaching northern winter.

One of the joys of observing the morning visible migration – or ‘viz-migging’ if you prefer the street slang – is that you’re never quite sure what’s going to turn up. On Monday morning, a high silvery trill betrayed the presence of a single Waxwing as it flew in off the sea and over the Reserve. These are very scarce here, with this only our third record in thirteen years.

Redwing eating Rowan berries, in bright morning sun – a typical October migrant

Other species are crepuscular in their habits, meaning they are most active during twilight, rather than full darkness or full daylight. Good examples are Short-eared Owl – try viewing from the Forvie Centre car park, or along the Heath Trail to Sand Loch – and Otter, for which try the Waulkmill hide down on the estuary. You’ll need a bit of luck for either of these, particularly the Otter, which although resident are surprisingly elusive – but you’ve got to be in it to win it, so get yourself out there!

Otter – shy and retiring resident, best seen at either end of the day

If I’m still yet to convince you of the virtues of dawn and dusk, consider this – they are often the calmest periods of the day in terms of the wind. Those readers that visit Forvie will be used to a constant battering by the elements, but there’s often a little lull at either end of the day – a great time to see the reflections on the lochs to good effect, and maybe grab a photo or two.

A perfectly still evening on the Sand Loch

So don’t be discouraged by the shortening days – now is a great time to appreciate all that the Reserve, and indeed the wider countryside, has to offer. You heard it here first!

Bring out your dead!

WARNING – don’t read this post before eating your tea!

Recently I came across a carcass on the path on the reserve. As far as I could see it was a dead vole – reason for death unknown. But it was appearing to be very attractive…….to gravediggers.

As you can see there were about 14 black and orange beetles on, around and even in the dead vole. These are burying or sexton beetles – they are so keen on small dead mammals and birds they actually fight over who gets the chance to tidy up the carcass – they are nature’s bin men.

Sexton beetle have antennae with lumps or clubs on the end. These have chemoreceptors on them which they use to detect dead animals from a long way away. Once they have detected the carcass the race is on as they will fight male versus male and female versus female to be the couple that wins the dead thing that raise their young on.

The winning couple (trying not to think of Love Island here) then have to bury the carcass as soon as possible to hide it from other competitors.

The happy couple dig a hole under the carcass and remove all of the fur from the body. They then cover the body with an antibacterial and anti fungal secretion that slows down the rotting of the carcass and stops other competitors detecting the rotting smell. The fur that is removed is used to line the hole or crypt. The female lays eggs into the soil around the crypt and these hatch after only a few days and the larva move to the carcass.

Amazingly these beetles are great parents. They actually stick around and can feed the larva by eating the rotting carcass themselves and regurgitating liquid food for the larva to feed on and this speeds up the growth of the youngsters. The adults continue to look after the larva for several days, protecting them from other scavangers . The final stage of the larva crawls off into the soil to pupate and hatch out as an adult.

So I am not exactly sure what was happening here. Maybe this was a mass scrum of various males and females fighting it out to be the lucky couple to win the dead vole. Or sometimes several couples of can beetles work together on bigger carcasses to bury them and raise their young communally. What I do know is that this species looks to be Nicrophorus vespilloides as it has black clubs on the end of its antennae. This is one of the commonest burying beetles found in the UK.

But I do find these invertebrate life stories so fascinating and complex. Who would have thought that such a system existed for disposal of bodies? But iIt is a good thing they don’t grow to the size of sheep, thought if they did it might mean a whole new style of green burial for humans!

Autumn Forvie style

Autumn is kicking in at Forvie. We don’t have a huge forest of trees gently glowing with autumn colours – our trees are wind blasted, are grateful to have made it this far with half the normal compliment of leaves and often lose the rest before they have a chance to go any fancy colour. But the heath has its own autumn display, just subtle and low down; hidden but no less pleasing on the eye. Like little fireworks, splashes of colour appear as the day length shortens, the temperature drops and the plants prepare for winter. The palette is supplemented by weird and wonderful fungi and all set against the most wonderful of lichen wallpaper. Keep a close eye out for autumn Forvie style.