Habitats of the Reserve
Although most of the Reserve consists of tidal sands and water channels, there are some significant habitats around the edge which provide a home for a rich variety of distinctive coastal plants and flowers. Two main habitats can be found around the Reserve. Along the southern and eastern sides of the bay there are extensive areas of saltmarsh. Further north where the Reserve extends a short way along the Moray Firth then an area of coastal habitat can be found characterised by dunes, shingle and short turf.
The saltmarsh has formed over a long period from mud being deposited around the edge of the bay which in turn is colonised by a range of resistant plants. As spring tides regularly flood this area any plants that grow need to be salt tolerant. For much of the year it is dominated by grasses and plants such as Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima).
In the spring as the grasses start to grow again they provide a rich source of food for the Pink-footed Geese before they start their migration back to their breeding grounds in the arctic regions. Spring also heralds the flowering of plants such as Common Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis), which grows extensively around the Mosset Burn as it flows out onto the bay.
A little later Sea Aster (Aster tripolium) comes into flower providing a carpet of purple across the saltmarsh.
Elsewhere Greater Sand-spurrey (Spergularia media) can be seen, and around the edges, particularly in places where there is a bit of shingle at the high tide mark, Sea Milkwort (Lysimachia maritima) grows. It has fleshy leaves with delicate pink flowers.
At the top end of the saltmarsh which floods less frequently other plants such as Seaside Centaury (Centaurium littorale) grow in small numbers on the short turf.
This plant also used to grow in the dune area along the coast but has largely died out from this location.
Saltmarsh alien species and hazards
There are also some less welcome alien species that grow around the southern end of the bay. Along the edge of the River Findhorn just south of the Reserve there are extensive areas of the highly invasive plant Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica). On the embankments and river banks surrounding the bay a large plant known as Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) grows.
Originally from the Caucasus it was introduced by Victorian gardeners but it is a highly toxic plant. Contact with the sap can result in severe burns and will desensitise the skin to sunlight causing sunburn to easily occur. Programs to eradicate this plant are being undertaken, but in the meantime the Hogweed should not be handled without protective clothing.
Warning: Parts of the saltmarsh, particularly in the area of the Mosset Burn have many hidden holes and channels which can be very hazardous if crossing on foot. These can be almost impossible to see in summer when the vegetation grows and it is advisable to stay off this area and view the flora and birds from the edge.
At the northern end of the reserve where it runs along the Moray Firth the coastline is constantly changing. Shingle banks are being deposited by high tides and storms, and small sand dunes are formed from sand blowing off the beach. Plants are quick to establish themselves in these areas and in time as the areas inland become more stable other heathland plants start to appear.
On the shingle banks Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) and Scots Lovage (Ligusticum scoticum) can both be found along with Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria). In the dunes Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria) is one of the first plants to colonise the sands. In time, as the dunes stabilise other plants such as Common Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium), and Spring Vetch (Vicia lathyroides) start to appear.
On the heathland just inshore from the dunes and shingle banks the habitat has had longer to establish itself and as a result a greater range of plant species are present. The bushes that dominate the area are Gorse (Ulex europaes) or Whin as it is more locally known and Broom (Cytisus scoparius).
Although the Whin will flower year round in small quantities, it is springtime when the main flowering season occurs. Two types of heather are widespread across the heath, Ling (Calluna vulgaris) and Bell Heather (Erica cinerea). Both these species flower later in the year and will be at their best in August and September. Other flowers that are common on the heathland include Thyme-leaved Speedwell (Veronica serpylifolia), Hop Trefoil (Trifolium campestre), Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Common Restharrow (Ononis repens) and the later flowering Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis).
Bird’s-foot Trefoil is also the food plant for the Common Blue butterfly which can often be seen in this area on a sunny day in early summer. Another plant which is very typical of the coast is Thrift (Armeria maritima) which can be found flowering for much of the summer on the short turf along the shoreline.
Less widespread plants such as Purple Milk-vetch (Astragalus danicus) and Northern Marsh Orchid (Dactylorhiza purpurella) will also be seen. Although the orchids are commonly associated with wet and boggy ground they can also grow in dune slacks and appear in spring in the grass close to the beach car park. These are just a small selection of the plants to be seen and a walk around the area will reveal many more.