White Weather and Wild Geese – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been another icy week on the reserve. The freeze/ thaw weather has continued, with the temperature swinging to either side of freezing on a more or less daily basis. This rock says it all, really…

Does what it says on the boulder

This has meant the paths have stayed icy, with a good couple of inches of sheet ice in lots of places. Salt (where we can use it without killing the vegetation) has been of no use whatsoever – the ice creaks a bit, the salt sinks through a wee hole in the ice, then it all freezes over again overnight.

Icy…

The lochs are largely frozen. The ice will break up a bit for a day or so, then freeze again.

Frozen Kinord

Frozen Kinord

To compound the issue, we had another fresh fall of snow overnight on  Monday. By Tuesday, the reserve was a monochrome world, picked out in shades of black and white.

Snowy Vat

Although it makes walking and travel difficult, it does make everything look beautiful.  I love a good snow fall (well, if I don’t have to drive in it).  For a short while, it makes the word look pristine and covers the scars people have made on the landscape. If only it were that easy to wipe away our mistakes in the longer-term…

Snowy path

Snowy path

Snow on pine

Snowy bushes

The snow covering the ice has made it extra slippery. While these woodcock tracks were pottering abut quite happily, I saw at least three places where roe deer had slipped on the ice. This one had clearly jumped a ditch them wiped out on the ice. It has my sympathy, I fell before I got my ice grips on and now have a couple of spectacular bruises, one on my arm – and one I’m not showing anyone!

Woodcock tracks

Even the deer have fallen on the ice

Mind you, while the ice grips help with not slipping, you do get ‘snow feet’ (like a particularly hairy dog) as wet and sticky snow does build up on them!

Snow shoes!

Apart from the how beautiful the snow looked, the highlight of the week for me was a big flock  of grey geese just outside the reserve. While I appreciate they can be a pest for farmers, I have a soft spot for wild geese and love watching them just doing their thing – grazing, sleeping, bickering, all to a background burble of goose voices.

Goose flock – spot the odd ones out?

But what’s that? A goose with bright, jaffa-orange legs? That’s not normal! Most of the geese were pink-footed geese, from Iceland, with a smattering of (probably) local greylags through them. Neither of these species has vivid orange legs so this was something different. A tundra bean goose, all the way from Siberia! Wow!

Tundra bean goose – the one with the orange legs

And it wasn’t the only unusual bird. A trawl through the rest of the flock revealed a single Russian- white fronted goose and a much larger, darker Greenland white-fronted goose.

Greenland white-fronted goose – dark bird, white face.

This is one of the things I love about wildlife. You never know what you’re going to see if you keep your eyes open. And it’s a tiny, amazing snapshot of the wonders of migration – in this one flock, there were birds spanning pretty much the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. It makes your imagination run wild – how did they get here? What have they seen on the journey? They will go to places I will never see but here they are, on our doorstep, just doing their thing. It’s this sort of wonder that never goes away and makes me do the job I do.

Russian white-fronted goose

 

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Freeze/Thaw -Muir of Dinnet NNR

That’s what it’s been doing here this week – freezing and thawing. Then thawing and freezing again some more. It was a cold start to the week, with a fresh sprinkle of snow to welcome us back to work.

Cold start to week

Morven looked spectacular, looming brilliant white in the background. It was almost too white to look at, with the snow eye-achingly bright in the winter sun. But, by Tuesday, in the sun, on the low ground, the grass was clear of enough of snow to allow the geese to feed.

Greylags with snowy Morven behind

Not so in the shade; here, the temperature never rose above freezing and snow and frost hung around all day.

Frost on Moss

Ice on Moss

The lochs are mostly frozen but there are a couple of patches of clear water that are full of ducks. There are loads of rocks on the edge of the ice; people can’t resist chucking a stone to see if the ice breaks, or how far they can get it, or just for that great squeaky, squoinky, boinky noise a stone makes as it skitters across the ice – it brings out the inner child in everyone!

Frozen Kinord

Frozen Kinord

Frozen Kinord

But the cold and frost mean life is hard for the wildlife. Our feeders have been full of coal tits, and you know they’re desperate for food when you see loads of them on the feeder. They are just getting on with feeding rather than bickering with one another – no time for that, gotta eat.

Coal tit feeding frenzy

At this time of year, the rabbits take their toll on the trees. While young trees are especially susceptible to ring-barking, even older trees will get stripped of their bark. They prefer the softer bark on aspen and rowan trees, and any fallen tree will be stripped of bark anywhere they can reach.

Fallen tree; bark eaten by bunnies

The freezing and thawing means the paths are still very icy. It’s melting a bit, but only very slowly. Without ice grips, I wouldn’t have been able to walk round the reserve, and even these skidded a few times.

Even ice grips slip sometimes!

The hard-frozen ground has also made it difficult to do much on the reserve. Things like pathwork are dependent on actually being able to stick a spade into the ground, not do the comedy ‘doiiiinnnngg’ thing if you try. So it’s been a time for doing all the other, sometimes dull stuff, like catching up on paperwork, risk assessments and so on. It’s also a time to look back and around and assess what management we might need to keep the reserve as a great place for wildlife and people. Now, last year was unprecedented -no-one saw it coming and the visitor pressure post-lockdown was understandable, as people rushed back into the countryside. But the numbers, and some of the behaviours associated with this reached the point where the reserve was being ‘damaged’ – either directly by fires and litter or indirectly, by disturbance to breeding birds and other wildlife.

Fire pit and litter in the summer

It’s sometimes hard for people to accept that their mere presence can be bad for wildlife and an often unpalatable truth, that people and wildlife aren’t compatible. Wildlife sees us, and especially our dogs, as simply predators to be escaped, regardless of our harmless intentions. So, what can we do about it? We need to make and keep a bit of space for nature, away from people. At the moment, our plans are firstly to upgrade some sections of path, to make it clear where the path is, so people don’t accidentally take the wrong route into more sensitive areas.

Informal path into wildlife-sensitive area

We are also planning to fence off the ends of some unofficial paths that run into wildlife-sensitive areas. At these points, we will explain that these are special wildlife areas and ask people to stay on the main path to help give the wildlife peace to feed and  breed undisturbed. We hope, that if people have taken the trouble to visit a nature reserve, they will understand the need for wildlife to have space there.

Mum mallard with 5 fairly freshly- hatched ducklings

While none of us know what the future holds (a vaccine and return to normality, I hope – I want to see family, hug friends, go for a pint -normal stuff) we, for the time we are on this mad, beautiful planet, are custodians of it. All of us, not just people like me who are lucky enough to work in conservation. Hopefully, these works will ensure there is a wildlife-rich Muir of Dinnet NNR for the future.

Kinord

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Frozen – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Firstly, Happy New Year, folks. I hope it’s a good one for you and you stay safe and well. At the moment, the reserve car park, walks and toilets are all open but please follow all government advice while visiting. a bit of local advice though- mind how you go, it’s very icy everywhere on the reserve just now.

Ice. You don’t say….

Hence the title of this week’s blog. It’s nothing to do with the famous animated film – I’ve never really pictured myself skipping around the reserve, doing a duet with the wildlife, and I sincerely hope someone would lock me up if I start. And princesses don’t tend to clump around in wellie boots, with chainsaws, or strimmers, and certainly don’t mutter bad words about litter, dog poo, fallen trees or blocked drains. So, unless Disney plan to make an 18 certificate version, ‘Frozen’ definitely has to refer to the underfoot conditions. It’s as icy on the paths as I’ve ever seen just now and the are virtually impassable without ice grips on your boots.

It’s hard to see in the picture, but the path was sheet ice

The worst bits are the open areas. A light fall of snow has partly defrosted then re-frozen (several times) so the snow has become hard ice. It’s worst on the paths where feet have compacted it, but even off the paths, the vegetation is caked in a layer of ice.

Icy rocks

Icy bracken

Icy grass

All around the reserve, the hills are white. Morven looks beautiful, in the sun. Well, it did, once the freezing fog had cleared!

Freezing fog

Snowy Morven

Both the lochs are partially frozen, too. A dark patch on the loch often turns out to be up to several 100 ducks sitting on the edge of the ice.

Frozen Kinord

The freeze/ thaw nature of the weather this week has meant some impressive ice crystals have built up round the bottoms of the trees by the lochs. It’s nice to see them, looking like the Christmas decorations we’ve all just taken down.

Ice

Ice crystals

It can be a good time to see waterfowl as they are forced out of the reedbeds onto the only patch of open water. How many different species can you identify in this picture? (answer at the end of the blog).

How many kinds of waterfowl?

You see other things you wouldn’t expect in the cold, too. I saw a stonechat in the wood on Tuesday. Not an unusual bird in itself, but you just don’t see them in the woods, they are a bird of open moorland. But they are very vulnerable to cold conditions so will be struggling out on the open ground and will have been forced into the woodland where the ground has less snow and ice.

Stonechat

You also see birds closer-up. Robins are well-known as followers of humans in and around gardens, where they benefit from insects we have turned over in the the course of our work. For the robin, we are fulfilling the same ecological niche as wild boar, in raking up the ground, exposing food. But they soon learn that humans can equal food in other ways. ‘I’m cute, feed me!’ And we do!

Robin

The end of the week brought in another change in the weather. It’s been cold, but not dramatically so, often hovering around freezing, and it’s been as likely to spit rain and sleet as it has been to snow. But a frontal ‘mackerel’ sky suggested a change might come.

A frontal-looking sky

And it did. The temperature dropped to minus 5 and some proper snow happened. We woke up to a white world on Friday morning. Everything looks so beautiful, covered in the snow.

Snowy bushes

Snowy birches

A snowy journey to work…the road by Burn o Vat.

Snowy trees

Arriving at work – the road near the visitor centre

And finally – if you do come out, I repeat, take care. No-one wants to start the year with either COVID or a broken bone, so follow government advice on travel and distancing and walk like a penguin on the ice (or wear ice grips or wait til it melts). Oh, and there were 6 different types of waterfowl in the picture – mallard, teal, wigeon, goldeneye, mute swan, and a coot, tucked away in the background!

Mallard and teal roosting on the ice

 

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Christmas Camera Traps – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Hi I’m Mark and I’ve recently started working for NatureScot as a Student Placement on the NNR’s in Tayside and Grampian! My work here is really varied; one day I’m doing bird surveys at Forvie, on another I’ll be using a scythe to help create wildflower meadows at St Cyrus and today I’m showcasing some of the work done by our reserve staff at Muir of Dinnet by writing this blog about what we found on our camera traps.

In case you didn’t already know, a camera trap is simply a camera that can be set up and left to take pictures of any wildlife that walks or flies in front of it.

Camera traps are a very useful tool for a conservationist because they work for 24 hours a day and due to their discrete nature they can give us a close up and personal view into the lives of some of the reserves most secretive animals.

So without further ado, let’s get into the photos!

As their name might suggest Pine Martens are at home in the trees and are expert climbers, here’s an amazing shot of one jumping!
A Badger out doing some nocturnal foraging.
A Grey Heron stalking one of our waterways, probably looking for some fish or frogs for lunch.
An otter swimming along one of the reserves rivers seen in the bottom left. These aquatic mammals live between loch Davan and loch Kinord and feed on fish.
Do you think this owl spotted the camera?
A little Kingfisher seen perched in the tree on the left side of this picture, this nighttime picture doesn’t do its colorful plumage justice!
Whys a Goosander called a Goosander? Because it goes ander the water to hunt for fish…

Now these next three photos aren’t actually from Muir of Dinnet but are from the work of Scottish Wildcat Action, I found their pictures on one of our SD cards and thought it’d be a shame not to include them.

Scottish Wildcat Action are an organisation with a vision to restore viable populations of Scottish wildcats north of the Highland fault line, more information can be found on their website here-https://www.scottishwildcataction.org/.

Is this Pine Marten looking off into the distance or just posing for the camera, you decide…
This cats heavy build along with its thick, ringed and blunt tail are definitely traits of a Scottish Wildcat, however its quite likely this individual is a hybrid and contains some genetic material from the domesticated cat as well.
An adult male cat can weigh up to 7kg and this one was clearly heavy enough to snap this rotten tree!

I’m really looking forward to the year ahead of me and I’m eager to do some camera trapping of my own, so hopefully it won’t be long until I’m back here with more photos for you! Until then I’ll be keeping myself busy around the three reserves, come say hi if you see me!

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The Wonder of Water – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Water is wonderful stuff, isn’t it? Well, for the most part …if you’re drowning, or getting flooded, you’re probably not in favour of the stuff, but it is integral to life our particular rock. And it’s so easy to overlook –  how often do you go through a whole day, and, apart from wanting to fill and put the kettle on, you don’t think about water? I know I do it at home, but, out on the reserve, water is all around and you can’t forget it. And it is, after all, the Year of Coasts and Waters so let’s pay tribute to all the wet stuff.

Vat waterfall in low light

The most obvious ‘watery’ things are the lochs, Kinord and Davan. These formed in hollows left by ice at the end of the last Ice Age (more water, just in solid form…) and are one of the most biodiverse and popular parts of the reserve. Dozens of species of plant and bird are found here, including some of the most beautiful- check out these dragonflies and water lilies.

Loch Kinord – a beautiful place worth looking after.

Frozen Loch Davan and snowy Morven

Teal roosting

Golden-ringed dragonfly

Water lilies on Loch Kinord

If there’s one thing that lockdown has shown us this year, it’s that people like and want to be by water. All of the most popular- and sadly most damaged -sites were generally by lochs or the sea. It’s likely water was sacred to our ancestors, judging by votive offerings placed into it worldwide, and it seems to still be there, tucked into our subconcious, as somewhere we want to be. Maybe for no more reason than ‘it’s pretty’. But people still like being by water.

Water is also probably, along with tectonics, the great formative force on our world. It wears down mountains; it carves valleys; its presence (or absence) decrees where we can and can’t live on the planet. Civilizations may rise to the march of armies and the sound of drums, but many more have fallen because the wind changed and what was once green became desert. ‘ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair…’ but the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sand dunes (okay, it’s not really a desert, it’s actually Forvie NNR!)

It’s amazing how we can see the formative power of water even on a tiny scale on the reserve. A fallen tree may dam a stream and flood a path. Or, in the Vat, some vital rock will shift and suddenly the stream emerges in a different place and starts to cut a new channel.

The stream coming out of the Vat is changing its course

Sometimes it even seems to flow from solid rock!

Looks like it is coming straight out of the rock!

Stream from nowhere

But, after floods, water becomes Eliot’s rampaging river god ‘sullen, untamed and intractable….ever, however, implacable. Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder, of what men choose to forget….’. An unstoppable force that sweeps away everything in it’s path and reminds us that, no, it’s not all about us after all, the weather will please itself and we humans have to live with it. The worst I’ve ever seen it was in the wake of Storm Frank, in 2015, when whole caravans were being swept down the Dee.

Vat burn in full spate

Damage to the Vat path

We got off with it quite lightly that time round, with only a short section of path destroyed. Mind you, I’d like to think that, in spite of the flooding, the reserve did its bit to help mitigate flooding downstream, Yes, our lochs, fens and bogs were totally flooded – but they held a lot of water that would otherwise have joined that ripping chunks out of Deeside. One of the often-overlooked roles of wetland is in flood mitigation – they store water and can reduce the seriousness of flood events.

Flooding at the edge of Loch Davan

Bits of some of the paths flood occasionally

You don’t need the waymarker to tell you when it’s flooded…wet feet do that!

We also have a lovely selection of wetlands (that aren’t lochs) on the reserve. Some of these are ‘micro-wetlands’ – small kettle holes tucked in the woods or out on the moor. But we also have some quite substantial ones, too. Between them, Black Moss and Ordie Moss cover abut 100 hectares of nice, undisturbed wetland – a great place for wildlife and, under the surface, carbon storage. The role of wetland in carbon capture can’t be overestimated and it’s one of the reasons we try so hard to keep our wetlands healthy by ditch-damming and tree-felling. Basically, we’re trying to stop anything that means they dry out!

Black Moss felling

You can see ditch damming for yourself on the Parkin’s Moss route. Named after the first warden to dam the ditches here and see its potential as a wetland, it’s been a bit of a pet project for a whole series of reserve staff, myself included, over the years. It’s one of the places on the reserve I can look at and think ‘Yup, made a difference here’…which is a nice feeling.

Ditch damming on Parkin’s moss

Parkin’s Moss

We also shouldn’t forget that water is fun! Like anything ‘wild’ it needs respect or you can damage yourself…but there’s nothing better than a bit of splashing on a hot day, is there? Or a nice, cold drink of….water.

Splashing fun!

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12 Days of Christmas – Muir of Dinnet NNR

We all know the song – well, bits of it anyway – don’t we? ‘On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….’  and then the unnamed narrator proceeds to receive a veritable menagerie of birds, noblemen, farm workers and musicians. I mean, what’s wrong with socks, like any normal person??? But, even if you don’t know the whole thing (and, let’s face it, who remembers what order they go in after eight anyway ‘ Nine dah-dah…lah-ing’) you’ll notice a distinctly avian theme to the first two-thirds of the song. So this has inspired both us at Dinnet and our colleagues at Forvie to produce our own reserve’s 12 Days of Christmas versions. The challenge was making sure we didn’t overlap and you can read their version here on Sunday https://forvienationalnaturereserve.home.blog/

So, without further ado, and imagining your best Tony Blackburn voice, let’s go pop-pickers, and start the countdown.

12 Drummers Drumming

Drrrrt! This has to be the great-spotted woodpecker. It’s won’t actually be all that long until the drummers start drumming, it’s usually in January you hear the first ‘drrrrt’ of a woodpecker drumming. Rather than singing to declare and defend territories, woodpeckers drum to announce their presence, ideally on a dead branch or hollow tree for a bit of extra resonance. Some even produce an extra-loud drum by hammering on the aluminium sheathing on telegraph poles. Thus proving the old lie true ‘It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts…’.

Great- spotted woodpecker and coal tit

I’m not sure that SSE might approve!

11 Pipers Piping

Our pipers won’t arrive until much later in the year, it’ll be April until we hear pipers piping. Our common sandpipers spend the winter in Africa  and, when they return, their call is one of the sounds of summer on the reserve. They nest around the shores of the loch and are also known as the ‘summer snipe’ and the ‘willy-wicket’ after their piping call.

A common sandpiper, in a very typical “bum up” pose

10 Lords -a-leaping

This was one of the harder ones to come up with but we finally decided on black grouse. Rarely seen on the reserve, largely as people don’t go to the bits where they are, these are a bird of woodland edge, thriving in the ever- dynamic boundary between moorland and trees. They are often easiest to see in winter, when they come into roost in trees, but their leaping is all done at lek sites, where the males gather and pop, hiss, crackle, gurgle and, yes, do leap about, in an effort to impress all the females.

Male black grouse (Tetrao tetrix)

9 Ladies Dancing

Many of our reserves are really good ‘dark skies’ sites. Often situated away from centres of population, when it gets dark here, it gets properly dark. The lack of light pollution means you get a great view of the stars, the moon and, if your luck is in and the gods of solar particles smile on you, you just might see the Heavenly Dancers – the aurora borealis.

Aurora, visible near Echt on the way home one night

8 Maids-a-milking

In the autumn, the reserve is a great place for fungi. We get all sorts here –  cep, chanterelle, fly agaric, sulphur tufts, the list goes on and on – but to qualify as maids-a-milking, we have to look to the  Lactarius  family of mushrooms. These are the milkcaps, so-called as, when you break them open, they exude a white fluid that looks like milk. But don’t try and drink it – if you touch it to your tongue, it would be unpleasantly burning and bitter. Most milkcaps aren’t edible but the one that is produces a bright orange ‘milk’ that stains your hands quite badly!

Milkcap

7 Swans-a-swimming

This title goes to our mute swans, who, on Loch Davan this year, produced seven cygnets. While waterfowl often produce large broods, it’s quite unusual for so many to survive to fledging. It’s quite common to see them with lots of ‘awww, fluffy’ chicks but they’re bite-size at that age and predation, starvation and weather all take their toll. So our swans have done really well to get all their brood to this size. Top parenting!

Seven cygnets!

6 Geese-a-laying

Honk! That’ll be the local greylags, then. The valleys of Deeside and the lochs here play host to a population of breeding greylag geese. Come late February/ early March, they will start setting up territories round the loch and defend them with an awful lot of unmelodic honking and clattering. One they hatch, the goslings form creches – there’s safety in numbers – and are shepherded around the loch by their proud and protective parents.

Greylag goslings

5 Gold Rings

Or should that be ‘Five yo-oldrins’? I always thought it was unexpectedly generous of the giver in the song to suddenly stop with the birds and start handing over jewellery. But it’s likely this has been a language – or perhaps a demographic shift – over the years. Yoldrin, or yolrin was an old name for yellowhammer, and you can see how it fits with the metre of the song. And yellowhammers were kept as cage birds, so you can easily imagine them  being given as a gift amongst all the other birds. But, with the move away from the countryside to cities, more people are, nowadays, far more likely to encounter a gold ring than a yellowhammer, so ‘yolrdin’ became ‘gold ring’.

Yellowhammer

4 Calling Birds

…or is it ‘collie birds’? Some people sing ‘calling’, some sing ‘collie’. If it’s a ‘collie bird’, it’s nothing to do with dogs, most likely a blackbird – a ‘coaly bird’ – ie, a coal-coloured, black bird. If it’s calling bird, it could be almost anything. But, as its the middle of winter, we’ll sing ‘calling birds’ and give 4th spot to the robin. Robins hold territory all year round and part of their defence of that territory is that they will sing all year round. So a bird you hear singing -calling- at this time of year is likely to be that most Christmassy of birds, a robin.

Robin on ivy

3 French Hens

These are the non-native red-legged or French partridge. Released in huge numbers for shooting, they are now much easier to spot than our native and endangered grey partridge …which I’ve never actually seen on the reserve. But I have seen the French partridge, including this one sheltering under a picnic bench!

French or red-legged partridge

2 Turtle Doves

Sadly, this is a species I’ve never seen at Dinnet, nor am likely to. They only occur in the south of the UK and are in a huge amount of trouble, population -wise, so are getting harder to see every year. The most tenuous link I can come up with for this one is that a turtle is a bit like a tortoise (okay, I know there are huge differences but work with me here) and this leads us to the small tortoiseshell butterfly. Two tortoiseshells it is!

Small tortoiseshell butterfly

..and a Partridge in a Pear Tree!

As a birder, this line in the song always used to annoy me. Partridges are a ground-dwelling species and you are most unlikely to be seen in any variety of tree, pear or otherwise, unless placed there by a Christmas card illustrator or stuffed. If you want a game bird that’s up a tree, try capercaillie. There are still one or two around the reserve and they feed on, among other things, pine needles, which they pluck from high in the canopy. If you ever see them up a tree, they look decidedly incongruous given their sheer size. Far more likely to been seen on the ground, like this rogue female who turned up at the Burn o Vat a few years back and had to be relocated to the trees from our car park!

Hen capercaillie

So, that’s the Muir of Dinnet 12 Days of Christmas. Enjoy. We wish you a happy Christmas and all the best for 2021!

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Wet and Grey – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Thanks goodness for Christmas lights on the way to work. That’s about the only bright and cheerful thing we’ve seen all week. The weather has been pretty foul – dull, grey and wet. On top of everything else 2020 has thrown at us, a wet week is pretty minor, but it does make it harder to keep feeling positive…okay to work but not to do anything that makes life worth living, can’t see your family, can’t see your mates…and, on top of that, you get soaked every day. Thanks, 2020, you can leave any time you like. Didn’t get a bird count done this week due to the fog on Wednesday…forget counting ducks, you couldn’t even see the loch!

Fog over wetland

Foggy Davan

The sun did try to glimmer through, very briefly, but didn’t really get there. By the time I’d pulled the camera out and snapped these two pictures, that was kind of it for the day.

Sun trying to break through fog

At least we didn’t get damaging flooding as last week’s snow melted. The Vat Burn is high, and you can only get into the Vat itself in wellies. I wasn’t trying it in walking boots!

Rushing water at entrance to Vat

After pulling on said wellies, the waterfall was well worth the effort. A combination of rain – every day – and ongoing snow-melt on the high ground, has been feeding the stream and the water is roaring down into the Vat.

Entrance to Vat

Vat waterfall

I do love to see all the wetlands around the reserve brim-full of water when we have had a prolonged wet period. This is when they come into their own, gathering and storing water; full of secret pools and backwaters, all fueling life, all  a-whistle with wigeon and teal.

Wigeon

All this water has meant that we need to check and clear the side drains by the paths. Fortunately, we tend to keep on top of this anyway, but are not helped in our endeavours  by moles! They like to drink, but stay unseen, so often tunnels come up in or by drains, ditches or streams…but their ‘molehill’ earth blocks the pipe under the path!

Drain blocked by molehill!

When you’re scraping out ditches, you often encounter roots. It’s an easy drink for a tree but often hard work to keep these clear. And, as well a tree roots we encounter plenty of bracken rhizomes. They, at least, have the advantage of being easily broken up – unlike tree roots! They are black on the outside and, when you break them open, they are full of a white, glutinous starchy material that is a food store for the plant – they’ll use it to help grow again in spring. So high in starch are the roots that they were ground into flour in the past or used to make a sort of porridge. They can also be used in beer making, but beware – bracken contains chemicals that can be carcinogenic.

Starchy bracken root

We’ll leave you with a few rainy pictures from this week. As for me, I’m off to dry out….and hope for some sun for next week!

Rain

Raindrop

Rain water on a pine branch

 

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Dazzling December Days – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….everywhere you go. I’ve never seen so many lights up as early as this year. I’m starting to feel like a right stick-in-the-mud for only planning to put the tree up mid- December! But, I suppose, after the year we’ve had, people want something bright and colourful, around to cheer them up and I can’t say I blame them. It is brought home to me, yet again, how lucky we are to have the countryside on our doorstep here and how important it is to try and get outside in what little daylight we get. Mind you, this week has been doing its best to outdo the brilliance of any Christmas lights, with star-studded nights and bejewelled frosty mornings.

The mires around Loch Davan are beautifully frozen

Frosty grass outside visitor centre

One of the things I regret about these glorious mornings if you can never truly capture the rainbow colours that the frost creates on the grass. They disappear in the camera, but, to the eye, the morning rays are refracted into sapphires, rubies and emeralds on the grass.

Bejeweled reeds

The rainbow reflection in the heather look like little fairy lights

Even the frost patterns painted on the outside of you windscreen are beautiful. But you just know you won’t be going anywhere for a while when you get in the car and see this in front of you!

Ice ferns on windscreen

In the sun, the frost melts into dewdrops on the grass. Like the frost, they refract and dazzle the light through them, making them look like brilliant, tiny glass decorations.

Wet grass

Light catching water droplets

But, out of the sun, the frost never lifts. On Thursday,  it was -3 when I arrived at 8am and -4 when I departed at 4pm, and was the first real ‘killer cold’ of the year. Yes, it’s been cold, but this was the first so-cold-it-hurts day as the sun dropped. But it was the most beautiful day imaginable, carved from crystal, with everything sharp and clear on the cold winter light. Thanks to visitor Jim for this glorious picture of Kinord in the last of the sun.

Loch Kinord

The birds get hungry in the cold. The peanut feeder out the back has been buzzing with activity, as coal, blue and great tits jockey for a turn at the food.

Coal tit feeding frenzy

And birds in the woods are more confiding. They don’t have energy to waste flying away, so you can sometimes get some really nice views  of things. This treecreeper was busy feeding, ignoring us, as were the long-tailed tits.

You can see the long, thin beak here. Useful for winkling insects out of cracks in the bark.

Long tailed tit

And, by Friday, the snow had arrived, along with high winds. Although I normally recommend getting out at every opportunity, what with the cold and the wind and the dodgy roads…it’s more of a stay-at-home-with-a-cuppa kind of day.

The sun is blotted out by snowfall

So, that’s what I think we’re going to go and do – get a brew on. We’ll leave you with some more frosty pictures…always lovely to look back at when you’re not actually freezing your fingers off taking the picture!

Frost on bracken frond

Event the picnic benches are bedecked with frost

frost flower- a  dead devil’s bit scabious head covered in frost petals

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Frosty Sunrises – Muir of Dinnet NNR

What a spectacular start to the week. No, not the heart- stopping swerve to avoid fallen branches in the dark, but the sunrise. Monday was dawn goose count day, so it meant an ultra-early start to get on-site while it was still pitch dark. Geese tend to get up pretty early so you have to be there before they do – and before it’s too light for them to see you and take off in panic. But a brief stop by the loch on the way to work suggested there might be a problem – no goose noise. Even when roosting, geese are never silent –  they burble and chat away to one another, in a pleasant, constant low murmur. The silence suggested no geese but it was too dark to see – have to wait for the dawn.

First light – a faint glimmer in the east

It was a cold wait, too. Although it wasn’t frosty, there was a brisk (weather forecast’s terminology for ‘howling gale’) wind blowing and, as we all know, the wind always makes it feel far colder than it is. After shivering in the dark for the best part of an hour, it was finally getting light enough to see. This sleeping swan never even stirred as I crept down to the loch shore.

And my suspicions were confirmed. Not a goose in sight This is pretty unusual on the lochs here; normally, there are at least some of the local greylags hanging around and often more come in to roost. But they can move their roosts around, sometimes roosting at Auchlossan or in the hill lochs to the west of here, or even just in a flooded field. They must have been doing that on Monday, so it really, really wasn’t worth getting out of bed to count geese. But it was worth it for the sunrise, which came up in a blaze of glory, turning the sky a vivid, glowing pink.

Dawn over the loch

Sunrise from viewpoint

Getting lighter

Sunrise

There is a certain light in morning and evenings – the ‘golden hour’ beloved of photographers – where everything takes on that rose-gold tint. Before the sun actually rose, the light reflecting off the clouds lit up all the pine trees, making them look like they were glowing.

Pines in first light

Monday was definitely the best sunrise of the week, everything must just have aligned that day to produce those gorgeous colours. We’ve actually had a pretty decent week – it was pleasantly warm on Wednesday –  but the clear nights have meant frosts and occasionally icy roads. After the summer and autumn, it’s still a novelty to come out of the car and have the grass crunch underfoot and see all the fallen leaves picked out with a rime of frost.

Frosty hazel leaf

Frosty oak leaves

Frosty clover leaf

No ice on the lochs yet but a few of the puddles did have a skin of ice on them.

Icy puddle

We also had a half-day away day helping out at the wonderful Forvie NNR. This reserve has been a big part of my life since I started going birding there in my late teens (and that was more years ago than I’d care to remember) so I always enjoy a day helping out there. We were doing a bit of path building at the top of the Hackely Bay, possibly the most beautiful bit of the whole reserve. But, like us, they had huge numbers of visitors post-lockdown and erosion from all those feet meant a few more steps were needed at the path down to the beach. I was lucky in that Daryl had hauled all the stone into position beforehand – the hardest bit of the job – and I just had to help jigsaw it together.

Hackley Bay

Making new steps at top of Hackley Bay

I must admit, I find pathwork pretty satisfying. A good piece of work may even outlive me and you can see a tangible result for your day’s labour. I often smile to myself when I walk over a bit we’ve fixed and remember the staff and volunteers who helped. This pic is from a couple of years ago – I need to point that out because it was back in the good old days when you could stand close to people and not have to be terrified of catching the plague or being COVID-shamed!

Pathwork vols

We’ll leave you this week with  Forvie sunset, seen walking home after a good, hard day’s work. Makes it extra satisfying!

Sand loch sunset

 

 

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Snow and Signs of Spring – Muir of Dinnet NNR

As we roll into the second half of November, we’re seeing signs of the year turning. One of the things I truly love about living at this latitude is that we get ‘proper’ seasons, and, if you are tuned into it, you can always see at least one season ahead. It’s the smell of frost on a July morning, a warm January wind from the south,  or, like this week, a hint of spring before winter has even set in. Tuesday was exceptionally warm, with the thermometer hitting 16 degrees and this, coupled with the sun, made the signs off spring seem more obvious. The aspen catkins were looking swollen, glistening chestnut in the winter sun.

Aspen buds

Look in your own garden – you may even see the daffodils peeking up by now. But here, in the woodland, the most obvious are the catkins. Both hazel and birch have put on next year’s catkins, sometimes even while this year’s ones are still on the tree. These old catkins will still hold seeds that will feed birds like redpoll over the winter.

Birch catkins – next year’s

Birch catkins – this year’s

Redpoll

The birds will be glad of anything that still has seed to feed on very soon. Autumn’s plenty is being replaced by winter’s scarcity and food will be at a life-saving premium. Although they are tiny, the seeds contained in bulrushes will last over the winter. They should; there can be over 200,000 seeds in one  cigar-shaped seed head! (And that’s why you never bring them inside…they will explode into a fluffy mess that you’ll be picking out of the carpet forevermore…).

Bulrush

Bulrush seeds

Another sign of spring is that the ducks are…well…not to put too fine a point on it…getting randy. They have moulted into their breeding plumage and, my, don’t they just want to show it off? Although it’ll be another 3-4 months until mating and egg-laying, the males are already trying to dazzle the females with their finery. The goldeneye are head bobbing and ‘zip-zeeowing’ furiously, while gangs of mallards bow and head-stretch in the bays. I don’t know what the female duck are thinking about all this, they seemed to be dabbling away unconcernedly, ignoring the males (‘Ooh! Pond weed! Snail’). But, in the way of ladies everywhere, they are probably watching this posturing out of the corner of their eye and quietly forming their own opinion!

Displaying mallards

Goldeneye displaying

Then, as if to make a mockery of the warm start to the week, it snowed on Thursday. Insects dancing in the sun were replaced in the same sun-patches by ice crystals, swirling and waltzing in a cold north wind. The tops of the hills looked stormy it it was 16 degree colder than on Tuesday!

Stormy Morven

Later, when it cleared, you could see the snow was lying down to about 2000 feet. Below that, there was a light sprinkle, an icy dusting of snow on  leaves, cars, cars…and roads, it wasn’t a fun drive to work!

Snowy Morven

Snow on leaf

In keeping with the wintery weather, we saw quite a big flock of winter thrushes to the east of the reserve on Thursday. These are shy birds, blown in from Scandinavia in October, fleeing the worst of a northern winter. Wild and wary, they are flighty but can be surprisingly hard to see if they keep quiet. But fieldfares aren’t a bird to suffer in silence; they will let you – and the rest of the world – know if they think you are too close with a loud  ‘tak-tak-tak’ call. Ironically, you probably wouldn’t have noticed them before they started kicking up a fuss but, once they start alarm -calling, they usually fly soon after. A group of trees that I’d thought harboured maybe a dozen birds suddenly erupted with a flock of close to a hundred redwing and fieldfare. A real treat to see and was loving all the ‘white noise’ of thrush calls.

Fieldfare

Redwing

Another bird you almost always spot by their calls is the long-tailed tit. These gorgeous ‘flying teaspoons’ form mixed flocks with other birds but chat constantly to each other with high-pitched squeaking, or soft churring, farting calls. They never sit still for long and I’m always pleased if I even manage to get one in a photograph, let alone any semi-decent picture.

Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

Away from the wildlife, the path by Bogingore is now flood-free. It’s nice to know the work we did last week has managed to fix that particular issue!

Flooded path last week

Path no longer flooded

There are also path works happening on the Burn o Vat trail at the moment, to resurface it after the flooding in October. Please give our contractor space if you do visit, he’ll be finished by the end of next week and the path will be as good as new- until the next flood…!

Burn o Vat path repair ongoing

 

 

 

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