In the depths of winter

“Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,   

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

—- under the noiseless drift” (Snow Day by Billy Collins)

A Very Happy New Year from the Muir of Dinnet NNR team.

For the past six weeks the reserve has been in the hard grip of winter and transformed under the silent influence of snow and ice. Whilst a snow blanketed landscape is spell binding and spectacular it can be a challenging environment for wildlife.

Morven in the depths of winter

The UK gets on average 23.7 days of snowfall or sleet a year.  In Scotland, the figure is much higher, with snow or sleet falling on 38.1 days on average. Statistically, the snowiest place in the UK is the Cairngorms in Scotland, with 76.2 days of snow or sleet falling on average.

At it’s height we had 17 cm of snow accumulated on the reserve, transforming everyday sights into wonderfully alien landscapes.

A frozen Loch Davan

In between times we have had days where milder temperatures have broken up the ice sheets. Open leads snake through the most amazing ice floes and the sound of ice breaking up and lapping the shoreline sounds like a thousand tinkling wind chimes.

The dark nights also have their own beauty – and the reserve can look magical under starry skies.

A starry starry night over Loch Kinord
The Vat looking dramatic under night skies
Red grouse have been forced down from the hills and can be found sheltering in the gorse thickets around loch Kinord right now

Winter brings very different challenges to our wildlife – temperatures are lower, days are shorter and food is harder to find. Winter requires survival strategies!

Mammals like foxes, pine marten and badgers grow a thicker coat to help keep them warm.

For Badgers, a thicker coat changes the shape of the animal. The Badgers begin to look much more ‘barrel’ like in shape.

And some, of course, hibernate! We often think of hibernation as the number one solution – how great would it be to eat as much as possible and then just sleep until it gets warm again?

A young hedgehog – in hibernation now for a couple of months

Hibernation is, in reality, far more than just a long, deep sleep in a quiet burrow or cave. Only two of the animals on the reserve truly hibernate; bats and hedgehogs, and the process is a little more complex than you might think!

Pipistrelle bat. Bats hunt for hollow trees, roofs, caves and bat boxes to spend their winter months. They usually hibernate from November to April. To help get them through this period, bats can slow their breathing to as few as five breaths a minute. Some species can last almost an hour without breathing at all!

Hibernation is a prolonged period of inactivity that allows animals to survive when food is scarce and the weather is harsh. Typically, the animal will first build up a reserve of body fat by eating as much as possible in the lead up to winter.

They will then retreat to somewhere safe, where they will enter a torpid state. This is where almost all of the animal’s bodily functions are either completely halted or are slowed down significantly. This reduces the amount of energy the animal’s body has to burn to survive. Its body temperature will cool, and its breathing and heart rate will slow down.

While such a deep torpid state might seem like it leaves them vulnerable, it actually makes the animal very difficult for predators to detect as they give off less of a scent, hardly move, and make no sound while hibernating.

Another way in which hibernation differs from normal sleep comes when it is time to wake up. We all know how difficult it can be to get out of bed on cold winter mornings, but hibernating animals often take up to an hour to fully awaken from their torpid state.

Animals may wake up several times during the hibernation period to go to the toilet, move locations or, occasionally, have a little snack.

Badgers and red squirrels do not hibernate, but they do enter a state of torpor. Unlike hibernation, torpor is involuntary, and animals only enter it when environmental conditions become too harsh. It doesn’t last as long as hibernation and animals may come in and out of this state more easily than true hibernation.

What about all the other animals that disappear over winter? Reptiles, amphibians, and many insects all seem to vanish as the weather turns cold. Whilst they don’t truly hibernate, they do rely on different strategies to see them through until spring.

Our reptiles and amphibians are all in a period of dormancy known as Brumation. It is very similar to hibernation in that it is characterised by extended periods of very minimal activity to save energy. As animals that rely on the temperature of their environment, as it gets colder, reptiles like adders become more lethargic and less able to hunt.

One of last year’s baby adders in late September – just before entering Brumation

For our apparently disappeared insects they have hit the “pause” button too and entered a stage known as diapause. . It refers to the interruption of an insect’s development as a response to environmental pressures. During this time– they don’t ‘age’. For insects, this can occur in embryos, larvae, pupae, or adults.

Comma butterfly – one of the few butterflies to overwinter as adults.
Light returning

The days are lengthening and with it the return of light. This shaft of light in the forest is a glimpse of the optimism of spring.

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Winter is Here

Hi folks! Apologies for the slight delay in getting this out. I have been recovering from a recent bout of COVID-19. Since the pandemic started, I’d actually managed to avoid getting the virus, but it finally got me last week.

There has been much talk about the colder weather recently, and it has definitely created a more festive and atmospheric scene across the reserve. It doesn’t take much for the lochs to start freezing over, because they are relatively shallow, and a thin blanket of snow beautifully transforms the surrounding pine forest and hills. But how do birds cope with the colder temperatures? If you go for a walk in the local woods, you’ll notice that instead of being evenly spread throughout the area, several species group together in fairly loose and large feeding flocks. Flocking together in winter increases their chances of locating food. Overnight, birds will huddle together to help conserve body heat. The principle of ‘safety in numbers’ is especially critical in winter, when birds are conserving energy and more eyes also means a better chance of spotting and therefore evading a predator, such as a Sparrowhawk. Flocking becomes especially important for birds during the late afternoon and evenings, when many species will develop massive flocks, both to keep warm and lower the risk of being picked off as dinner, for a predator! This is why species like Jackdaws and Rooks will gather in their hundreds in farmland woods.

At the moment I find myself easily spotting in excess of 20 birds on the feeders next to the office, species such as Coal Tits (the most numerous on our feeders) Blue Tits, Great Tits, Robins and Chaffinches, eagerly packing in the calories throughout the day. Long-tailed Tits, Treecreepers and Wrens also regularly congregate in large numbers like this to feed and conserve heat. Smaller birds especially, have to feed at an accelerated rate, while also ensuring a proportion of their time is spent keeping warm and conserving energy. It’s an extremely fine balancing act and one that unfortunately, can go wrong. The smallest birds have to feed during most of the daylight hours and consume a hefty quantity of food, up to 30% of their body weight on a daily basis! This ensures they can maintain those fat reserves, which is a difference between life and death during the coldest of winter nights. So, if you’re planning to put out feeders yourself, then you really will be helping them out. Hoarders such as Red Squirrels and Jays have already done much of their hard work. In tougher times, they can resort to their larders, which they prepared back in the autumn when food was more abundant.

The biggest challenge for wild birds in winter is to find food sufficient enough to accumulate fat reserves to store on the body and burn for energy. This becomes extremely difficult in cold weather when snow and ice hide once easily found food supplies. We have many species of wintering waterbirds here, such as Goldeneye, Goosander, Wigeon, Teal, Whooper Swan, Cormorant, and more numerous species including Grey Heron and Moorhen. If the temperatures really take a tumble for a sustained period, such species may be forced to leave the lochs in preference for coastal wetlands. But this really would require a substantial big freeze. Will that happen this winter? We’ll have to wait and see.

Snow camouflage is a fascinating transformation seen in a range of species during the winter months, when fur or plumage turn white in response to climate. Scotland is home to two mammal species which do this, the Stoat and Mountain Hare, and one bird, the Ptarmigan. Stoats live here on the reserve and the surrounding areas, and I have been fortunate enough to spot them a few times. Although Mountain Hare might not live specifically on the reserve, they do live in the surrounding higher hills, the nearest population probably being on Morven, an 871-meter-high Corbett, just by the reserve. I thought this winter edition of our blog would be the perfect opportunity to talk a bit about these unique species in a bit more detail.

Nimble, elusive, and very competent climbers, stoats will happily take on larger animals, with Rabbits being their preferred prey. They usually have a light brown coat, white belly, and a black-tipped tail, for most of the year. But in winter, depending on which part of the UK they inhabit, they will turn a patchy brown and white combination, or completely white where the climate is colder. For example, in most of inland Deeside and northern Scotland, Stoats turn white in November most years. This is in anticipation for snow and frost, if they can blend into their surroundings, they can hunt prey more successfully. This colour morph or plumage is known as ermine, a genetic trait passed down the generations. In southern Scotland, away from the increased chance of snow, only about 30% of stoats change colour, and in England and Wales, few stoats ever change colour. But interestingly, it has been recorded before some severe winters have occurred (a recent example being 2009-2010), that Stoats turned white even south of the border. The process of changing to white is quite complicated, but put simply, decreasing daylight hours and lowering temperatures, stimulate receptors in the eyes and skin to send information to the brain, activating the production of a white moult with extra dense fur.

Mountain Hares are Scotland’s and the UK’s only native hare and an important species for indicating a healthy ecosystem in Scotland’s hills. They also turn white in winter thanks to the same process that causes Stoats to change colour. This camouflages them in the snow and helps hares avoid predators, especially birds of prey like Golden Eagles. They are now classed as ‘Near Threatened’ in Scotland on the UK Red List of Mammal Species and subsequently, have been given full protection in Scotland from March 2021.

Historically, they have thrived in managed grouse moors, but in recent decades, they have undergone excessive persecution from Game Keepers, because it has been thought that they are a significant harbourer of ticks (despite considerably more numerous sheep and deer occupying the same habitats and presenting far larger hosts for ticks!). Ticks can cause deaths in Red Grouse chick populations. It is estimated that up to 25,000 hares were being culled each year, which, according to some sources, was approximately 10% of the Scottish population! But since Monday 1st March 2021, Mountain Hare have been included on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, which has given them full protection, meaning that culling can only happen in a closed season, under license.

Mountain Hare and Ptarmigan are among the only true Arctic species naturally found in Scotland and are sometimes referred to as being an ‘Ice Age Relict’ species. An Ice Age relict or ‘Glacial Relict’ is a population of a cold-adapted species that has been left behind, as their geographic range has changed after an ice age ends (from glacial maximum to glacial minimum or interglacial). This happened about 10,000 years ago, when Mountain Hare and Ptarmigan were left behind in the UK, as the North Sea land bridge known as Doggerland flooded and became sea. Glacial relicts are typically found in enclaves under relatively benign conditions. In the case of Mountain Hare and Ptarmigan, the Scottish Highlands is an example of such an enclave, an island of Ice Age habitat in effect, surrounded by an otherwise warm and temperate sea of ecosystems further downhill.

Ptarmigan are Scotland’s hardiest birds and also live on Morven and the higher hills surrounding the reserve. In Scottish Gaelic, their name ‘tàrmachan’, literally means ‘the croaker’. Very fitting. If you’ve ever accidentally flushed one and heard its call, you’ll know exactly why they were given that name. There are many place names in the Highlands such as Tàrmachan Ridge (near Ben Lawers), which refer to these birds. They’re accustomed to the Arctic Tundra, the High Arctic, Iceland, the Alps, the Scandinavian Peninsula Mountain chain, the Ural Mountains, Siberia, Canada, and Alaska. So, for ptarmigan living in Scotland, it must be relatively balmy here, when compared to these considerably harsher environments!

The highest Highland mountains are the only place in the UK, which remotely resemble their true habitat, and sadly climate change is definitely a threat to this species in Scotland. A place which is already on the very western edge of its Arctic Alpine range. In fact, they have declined by 81% here since 1961. Mountain hare and Ptarmigan are beautiful creatures, part of Scotland’s unique natural heritage and symbols of healthy biodiversity, it would be so sad to lose them. Let’s hope they can both return to stable thriving populations.

Female Ptarmigan conserving energy.

That’s all for this week. Take care, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from me, Kirsten and all the team at Dinnet! Thanks for reading. Danny.

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After the floods

Across three days of heavy rain last week from Thursday into Saturday, accompanied by amber weather warnings and severe flood warnings the flood damage has certainly left it’s mark on the reserve and wider Deeside.  The village of Aboyne recorded a whopping 71.4 mm of rain in just 24 hours on Friday the 18th November.

108 mm of rain fell across the reserve supercharging the Vat Burn into a raging torrent, leading to it bursting it’s banks and scouring out the lower Vat trail and leaving many of our other trails submerged.

It’s always humbling to witness the after effects of the ferocious power of nature.

The Vat is looking sublime just now. In torrent it just looks and sounds fierce and elemental. Wellie boots a must!
This long exposure shot was taken by CNPA ranger Will.. Cairngorms National Park Authority Ranger Service
Deep gullying on the lower Vat trail, at its worst half a meter deep and half a meter wide.
The last time the Vat trail was washed away was in 2015/2016 with the heavy rains and snow melt of storm Frank, a storm event leading to flooding that has been described as a one-in-500 year event.

But what has been incredibly uplifting was the immediate support that the reserve has received from ranger services across Deeside who have published our flood damage updates on their social media and the manpower we were really kindly offered by the Cairngorm National Park Authority Ranger Service to help stabilise the path line and cordon off the most dangerous bits. This is a temporary fix until we can get the path resurfaced by a contractor.

Last Wednesday Danny and myself were joined by Cairngorms National Park Rangers Will, Duncan and Pete Cairngorms National Park Authority Ranger Service who really kindly offered to help us with path repairs to make the lower Vat path safe for visitors.

The dream team worked for hours in the rain to stabilise and infill all the dangerous bits of the lower Vat trail. Will has created a couple of fantastic and rather amusing time lapses of everyone’s amazing hard work and effort.

There might have been a bit of love for the powered wheelbarrow going on! Thanks to everyone for your amazing hard work.
The Vat trail is currently open but please respect the cordon and detour around it when crossing the 2nd footbridge as this is where the worst damage has occurred.

Elsewhere long stretches of the Loch Kinord trail is submerged and it may take some time time for the flood waters to recede.

Loch Kinord itself is looking massive and beautiful with the shoreline inundated by a good 5 meters in places.

A flooded Loch Kinord swathed in pockets of low lying freezing fog

The birds seem to be thoroughly enjoying it with Goldeneye beginning to courtship display – in November! Monogamous pairs form as early as December into April, and the pair stays together until the male abandons the female early in the incubation period.

Goldeneye display. I can stretch my neck further than him….mate with me memememe! In winter, Common Goldeneyes form small courtship groups where males perform elaborate displays. The female responds with her own displays, most often the “head-forward” when she lowers her head and neck and swings it forward.

Across this year we have experienced wind storms, drought and flood damage. I feel the reserve has experienced a condensed version of the predicted climate change impacts of the future.

I am learning rapidly to appreciate the reserves landscapes and wildlife on a day to day – season to season basis – because there are no guarantees that they will remain “fixed” into the future.

Climate change is the single greatest threat to Scotland’s habitats.

Some direct impacts are predicted such as rivers will flood more often as rainfall patterns change and bring more heavy downpours.

Summer droughts are also due to occur more often. Changes in wetland habitats like our raised peat bog on Parkin’s moss may reduce their natural capacity to store carbon and filter pollutants.

More often, climate change will alter the intricate ecological balances that let plants and animals grow and thrive. For example, pinewoods may keep their pine trees but lose the heathery vegetation beneath trees to grasses and bracken due to reduced frosts and more nitrogen enrichment. Grass and bracken may grow in its place, in turn affecting local wildlife.

One unchanging spectacle for now is winter flocks of Siskin and the first snows of Morven.

As I stopped to admire the view on the South Shore of loch Kinord I had a flock of Siskin feasting on Silver Birch seeds directly above me. Hanging acrobatically upside down to strip the tendrilled catkins as they feed they shed a fine rain of tiny seeds. Siskin are stunning seed eaters who rely on trees such as alder, birch and pine for food. A large Silver birch can produce up to 1 million seeds in a year.

A feeding flock of Siskin. I thought is was raining until I glanced up and realised I was being covered in a drizzle of stripped birch seed
Morven with a snowy hat on. Winter has arrived!
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Geese, Squirrels and Bare Branches

Hi folks! I expect everyone is gearing up for Bonfire Night; so don’t forget to check for sheltering hedgehogs and other creatures, seeking shelter in the log piles. I’m noticing most of the leaves have fallen here, much to my dissapointment. I really wanted to get more autumn colour shots, but alas, that’s it for this year! It’s a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. I’m sure we’re all noticing the nights drawing in faster and getting colder, especially since the clocks went back. We’ve still not experienced any harsh frosts. I love the freshness associated with frosty mornings, it’s perfect for setting the festive mood. Although, I’m sure many of our readers are glad it hasn’t become too cold yet, especially when considering the vagaries of this cost of living and energy crisis.

Looking west over Loch Kinord from Oak Bay.

Anyway, we recently conducted a goose count for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). This is to monitor the migration movements of Icelandic and Greenlandic Greylag Geese (Anser anser). In the decades gone by, lochs Kinord and Davan were the winter refuge for hundreds of Greylag Geese. They migrated here from Iceland and Greenland, to take advantage of the milder climate and food on offer, which would help them survive the leaner months, before their spring migration back to their breeding gounds.

A skein of Pink-footed Geese.

But nowadays you would be lucky to see one migrant, as most of them are wintering further north, as the climate continues to warm. This phenomenon is called ‘range shifting’. We obviously have Greylag Geese here, but these are year-round resident birds, which breed in the spring, and it is thought that they originate from feral stock. Still, watching a family of resident Greylag Geese, feeding in the fields during June, is a lovely scene to witness.

As for the survey, well, the objective was to count how many birds took off from their dawn roost site. It yielded limited results at best, as I only saw 15 birds. It’s hard to say whether these birds are residents or genuine migrants. This national survey also encourages participants to look out for Pink-footed Geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) migrating from Greenland or Iceland. Although, we had been instructed to specifically look out for Greylags only, as it is assumed Pink foots won’t be about. But ironically, I did spot and record a very lost and lonely looking ‘Pinkie’, that had probably become separated from its skein. This bird, alongside the Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus), which enjoy overwintering on Loch Davan, were the only birds on the survey which were 100% winter migrants. As Pink-footed Geese breed in Greenland and Iceland exclusively, no feral birds breed in the UK, and only 22 pairs of Whooper Swans breed in Scotland, which are all confined to the Northern Isles and occassionally in Caithness.

Greylag Geese on Loch Kinord.

Thanks to the deciduous tree branches becoming progressively barer as the autumn gradually transitions into winter, it is getting a lot easier to spot Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). It also helps, that Red Squirrels become considerably more active at this time of year, as they begin to cache hazelnuts and other food sources to see them through tougher times. I have been getting some decent squirrel action on one of our camera traps recently, but I also enjoy going to specific ‘hotspot’ locations to photograph and film these endearing mammals. Did you know that Red Squirrels have an exceptional sense of smell? They’re capable of finding food buried underneath a foot of snow and can sense a rotten nut without having to open it. What sorcery is this!

A Red Squirrel searching for its winter stash in 8 inches of snow.

Even more quirky, they can be left or right-handed and even ambidextrous! Left-handed squirrels hold a pinecone with the top towards the left and use the left hand to rotate it. Right-handed squirrels do the opposite. What especially surprises me, is that their average lifespan in the wild is only 3 years. This is mostly since they live very high stress and high-risk lives, and unfortunately present themselves as a rather appealing snack for many predators. But apparently, they can live over 10 years in safer, enclosed environments. They tend to build more than one drey (a nest), to ensure that at least one isn’t found by predators, and in case one gets damaged, there’s always drey number two. Pretty smart!

Once a common site across the UK, as most will already know, Red Squirrels have undergone a devastating population decline, primarily due to competition for food and living space from the highly invasive, non-native, American Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Greys have another deadly weapon in their arsenal, in the form of the Squirrel Pox Virus, which is lethal to Reds, but not to themselves. Current estimates put the UK Red Squirrel population at approximately 160,000 individuals, 75% of which are here in Scotland. Thankfully, Scotland’s population is increasing steadily, for now. However, without continued and effective action to protect them, even Scotland’s Red Squirrels could disappear within our lifetime.

In recent years, Reds have become particularly associated with pine forest, which of course, we have in abundance in Deeside. But what some readers might not know, is that they can exist in higher population densities in deciduous and mixed forest, in the absence of Greys. As deciduous and mixed forest can provide them with more food options (i.e., a greater variety of tree nuts such as hazelnuts and acorns) than coniferous woodland. Reds are becoming increasingly confined to coniferous woodland more down to necessity than preference, as Grey Squirrels aren’t very good at extracting pine seeds from pinecones, and prefer to go for the easier option of readily available, easily extractible, nuts and berries. A bit lazy if you ask me!

Interesting research from the Republic of Ireland has shown that as Pine Marten (Martes martes) increase and reclaim their former haunts, Red Squirrels are bouncing back, and Greys are decreasing rapidly. In a rather ironic twist of fate, what appears to be happening, is that the Martens, an all too common foe of the Reds, are favouring the Greys as prey, because Greys are less arboreal, slower, and heavier, and find it harder to run along the finer tree branches. Red Squirrels just take acrobatics into their stride. And prefer to spend more time in the higher, thinner branches. So, essentially, being smaller, skinnier, and more athletic, is literally saving their lives! Could we witness the same exchange beginning to develop in Scotland? Could other predators, such as Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) have a similar role to play in preferentially hunting Grey Squirrels over Red Squirrels? We just don’t know yet, and more research is required to answer these questions. But this sort of research is very encouraging for ‘Squirrel Nutkin’!

I really do love filming and photographing these beautiful creatures. That’s all for this week. Hope you enjoyed the read. Take care everyone, chat again soon, Danny.

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Descending into Autumn

Hi folks! We’re now officially into meteorological autumn. The recent weather is definitely reflective of John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’, but the colours aren’t quite there yet. Although the bracken is turning into a glorious orange colour, and there’s an abundance of autumn fungi, the leaves on the deciduous trees are still quite green, and are probably a couple weeks away from transitioning into that exquisite myriad of vibrant golds and yellows, that we all anticipate and associate with this season. I haven’t seen any winter migrant geese on the reserve yet either, but Kirstin’s recent Whooper Swan sightings, are an exciting reminder that autumn and winter are fast approaching. On my commute home (I live on the north-eastern Aberdeenshire coast), I have seen large skanes of Pink-footed geese in the hundreds, so I remain hopeful that we will eventually see more winter migrants here soon, but perhaps we’ll have to wait a couple more weeks for that peak autumn migration time.

In Kirstin’s latest blog, she documented an encounter with a very cheeky looking Common Toad (Bufo bufo). On recent patrols, I have also been stumbling across more of these characterful amphibians along the footpaths. If you do encounter more toads (or other native reptiles or amphibians) in unusual places at this time of year, it might be because as the days get shorter and nights become cooler, they tend to seek out places to spend the winter. I was mistaken in thinking that Common Toad hibernate, when they actually just overwinter, burrowed down in mud or compost to conserve energy. They will briefly emerge to forage in milder spells, which is becoming a more common occurrence in the wake of climate change. The long-term effects of this are unclear. But it could negatively impact their life cycle, as an increase in warmer spells reanimates the toads out of rest more frequently, and that will cause them to conserve less energy and vitality, which is required for good overall health and breeding success.

Toads (Bufo bufo) just look perpetually grumpy don’t they!

Similar to Common Frogs (Rana temporaria), Common Toads exhibit various colour morphs from dark brown, grey and olive green to a sandier complexion. Their bodies are broad and squat with warty skin, and being less athletic than frogs, they tend to walk rather than hop. Their warts are extremely useful for deterring predators. When threatened, a fowl-tasting toxin known as bufagin is excreted from their warts, and toads will puff themselves up too, to appear more intimidating. Although toads pack a rather nasty tasting defensive punch, they are still no match for carnivorous mammals like otters and hedgehogs, grass snakes, herons, and some birds of prey (such as Buzzards and Marsh Harriers), which are less susceptible to their toxins (and clearly have a rather tolerant palate!).

Actually, this little guy looks rather content!

Breeding can occur as early as late February in Cornwall and other parts of southern England, where winters tend to be milder, but it typically starts mid to late March in the Highlands. It is quite a similar process to that of Common Frogs, except that ‘Toad Spawn’ has a rather different appearance to the large, rounded patches which we associate with Frogs Spawn. It is instead composed of triple-stranded strings of eggs, which are laid among waterweeds by the females. Toad tadpoles hatch after a week and half, and undergo the same metamorphosis as seen in frog tadpoles, into ‘Toadlets’, over two or three months. What really surprises me is their potential longevity. Some Toads can live in excess of 20 years! One famous example is ‘Georgie’, the toad who was introduced to a garden in Greatfield in 1973, to protect tomato plants against slugs and snails. Scientists believe she is at least 40-years-old! Blimey! But a more typical lifespan in the wild is 10-12 years. Still quite impressive for a wild creature. Toads provide an important ecological service, which is protecting plants from natural pests, by consuming insect larvae, slugs and worms, which, in excessive numbers, can severely damage plants when unchecked. Toads also enjoy eating spiders, and in more extreme cases, larger toads have even been known to predate on harvest mice, slow worms and small grass snakes!

Mating Toads (Creative Commons Licence).

As with many of Scotland’s native species, the common toad has been negatively impacted by habitat loss, particularly the loss of breeding ponds. Draining wet areas also reduces the amount of wet woodland, which is a favoured habitat for these amphibians. Human infrastructure, such as roads, seriously disrupt their migration routes, and traffic can lead to high mortality, especially in spring when they attempt to travel to their breeding ponds. Thankfully, we have a wealth of perfect toad habitat at the Muir of Dinnet NNR, which is in no short supply. But those of us with gardens, can help the Common Toad too, by leaving one corner to grow wild, giving toads somewhere safe to overwinter.

Life on the reserve has become quieter in recent weeks. With the school holidays over, visitor footfall has dropped significantly, and will continue to do so exponentially over the rest of autumn and winter. As fulfilling as it was to engage with extra visitors whilst on patrol, I did miss getting involved in the more practical, ‘hands on’ conservation work, which there just isn’t as much time for, during the peak season over the summer. Now that our work is less influenced by public engagement, we have the time to start various, necessary jobs around the reserve, such as woodland expansion, winter goose counts, the building and repair of leaky dams in Parkin’s Moss, and the placing of new Goldeneye nest boxes later in the season. I can’t wait to get stuck in!

That’s all for this week. Hope you enjoyed the read. Take care everyone, chat again soon, Danny.

P.S. Just wanted to end the blog with this beautiful and intimate moment between this doe Roe Deer and one of her twin kids (or fawns). So peaceful.

P.S. Check out these Roe Deer above. The Trailcam captured a beautiful and intimate moment between the doe and her one of her fawn twins. Must watch!
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Thriving in Ballater and the Heralds of Winter

Last weekend saw us joining forces with the local community for the three day International Bike festival Thrive Ballater. With over 50 stalls around the greens it was a fantastic opportunity to engage with the local community and international visitors alike with over 450 people dropping into our tent to talk about responsible mountain biking in the great outdoors, to test their knowledge of the fabulous wildlife of Scotland, pick up a pack of native wildflower seeds, paint a paper mache bunny or make a woodland animal track.

Thrive aims to promote Mountain Biking for the wellbeing of people, whilst ensuring that the local economy, community, and environment thrives. The profits from the Thrive Bike events are invested into various initiatives focused on building and improving the trail networks in the area.

Into the Wild – (c) Trev Worsey. Advice on how to Do the Ride thing can be found at
https://www.dotheridething.co.uk/

Set to the imposing backdrop of the Loch Nagar ridgeline Thrive was a great opportunity to meet mountain bikers from across the world and discuss how they can be a real asset in conservation projects. For instance right now, mountain bikers in the Cairngorms are fast becoming a leading light in capercaillie conservation as they prepare to deliver their own solutions for the endangered species as part of the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project.

A recent survey of riders in the Cairngorms National Park, the last remaining stronghold for capercaillie in the UK, revealed that almost all riders feel responsible for the environment they ride in and are willing to change behaviours to help protect the environment.

To help riders deliver their own solutions for capercaillie, the project, which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has made £100,000 available. Workable solutions might include a programme of repairing trails which have become unrideable, to reduce the need to build new trails in areas which are home to capercaillie.

Shh – artists at work. It was lovely to see so many teeny tots zipping confidently around on bikes.

Moody cloudscapes, luminous day moons and cracking sunrises all herald the changing of the seasons and, with us past the equinox, the beginnings of the slide into the darker months.

Big sky country
The 1st quarter moon was luminously shining over the reserve yesterday afternoon. Pale and ghostly, a daytime Moon can sometimes catch you unaware, stopping you in your tracks.
Sunrise from viewpoint
The 1st ethereal Whooper swan flyover on the 28th of September . The sound of Whoopers flying overhead just makes you feel good!

Another herald of winter is the arrival of our first Whooper swans on the reserve. All of Scotland’s Whooper swans actually nest in Iceland. They migrate here every autumn to escape the freezing winter temperatures up there.

Once they decide to leave Iceland, there is no going back. Whooper swans undertake what is probably the longest sea crossing of any swan species. For the next few days all they are going to see is open ocean – over a thousand kilometers of open ocean. They have got to be very careful that they have got their weather forecast right. With a super favourable tail wind this journey can take only 2 days, but more generally up to 5 days. For such a large bird, sadly flying accidents are a major cause of death.

Whooper swan families make the big migration journey to Scotland together. Both parents take care of their cygnets when they hatch in the Icelandic summer and come the autumn they all depart together to fly south. The cygnets stay with their parents over winter and start the return migration journey with them in the spring. Whooper swans are very faithful to the sites where they spend winter and often return to the same place over many years. For those chicks that have been blindly following their parents they must be thinking “what is going on?” “Are we ever going to get there”. The north west coastline of Scotland is the first thing thing they will see.

Whooper swan families make the big migration journey to Scotland together.
A whooper swan family with their cygnet preening and stretching…or saying …”and the pike I saw was THIS big ….”

From individual satellite tagged birds we know that Whooper cruise at speed of over 60kph and altitude of 85 m above ground level.

The gloriously named Herald of Winter is a waxcap of pine woodlands

A final herald of the winter is a little waxcap mushroom called exactly that.

Between late summer and early winter, one of nature’s most colourful displays takes place: gem-like fruiting bodies of woodland and grassland fungi peep through the turf across our countryside.They come in a variety of different colours including vibrant pinks, yellows, greens and reds. Keep your eyes peeled as the more you look the more you see!

Some of the smallest are also the most strikingly beautiful like this tiny vermillion waxcap.

vermillion waxcap
A cluster of common puffballs

Just to leave you with a lovely encounter with a toad. This common toad is just chilling by the Vat.

I absolutely love the relaxed attitude!

These wonderful shots were taken by Cairngorms national park Ranger Fiona.

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Winds of Change

Hi folks! Well, I know it’s not quite the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ yet, but there’s definitely a chill in the air, early in the mornings and in the evenings, here at the Muir of Dinnet. It’s still just about summer though and at the time of writing this, I can confirm that it’s been mostly a very warm and pleasant day. But there’s just that instinctive sense that it’s all about to change very soon. A change to that wonderful time of crunching leaves, vistas of orange, gold and yellow speckled hillsides, where the Birch, Rowan and Aspen start to shut down for the winter.

Fieldfare gorging itself on Holly berries.

There’s a sense of anticipation for those first sounds of autumn too: the calls from thousands of Pink Footed Geese, flying en masse in their triangular skein formations overhead, or the mournful honks of the Whooper Swans, reassuring each other that they’ve survived yet another perilous journey. Perhaps we’ll soon be hearing the echoes of roaring Red Deer stags, bellowing down the mountains? Or maybe we’ll catch that rapid and slightly manic chattering of Redwings and Fieldfares, escaping the grip of an arctic winter, setting in across the North Sea in Scandinavia and Russia. A reminder that a much colder and harsher world is never very far away. All to come soon, but not quite yet.

A dominant Red Deer stag and his hareem of hinds.

The heather moorland surrounding the reserve and our own Bearberry heath, is still in full bloom at the moment. From any angle the view is the classic picture post card of the Scottish Highlands, dressed in characteristic purple and pink. It’s a stunning sight, and we often take it for granted, but it’s actually pretty unique, when you consider three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK, and the majority of that, is up here in the Highlands. In fact, our equally unique management of heather, for the maximisation of the Red Grouse harvest, means that this rather homogenous and yet beautiful habitat, covers around 50 per cent of Scotland’s uplands.

The Muir of Dinnet heather moorland in its full late summer glory.

It’s a cultural landscape, so to speak, an artificial tundra thousands of miles south and hundreds of meters below, the naturally occurring treeline. Our Bearberry heath is of global conservation importance, because it is naturally occurring at, or below, 200 metres in elevation. This extremely specific habitat in conjunction with the open Birch woodland and light native forest regeneration (of specifically younger trees) makes it the perfect home for the Kentish Glory Moth, a very rare moth to the UK. That’s why we have to manage the heath, rotationally burning the heather every year, to maintain this precious and fragile habitat.

Young Birch and Pine interspersed with heather is an important habitat for the Kentish Glory Moth.

Kentish Glory shows quite considerable sexual dimorphism between males and females. Males tend to be smaller and darker generally than the females, with characteristically orange-brown hindwings, whereas the females are brownish white. Males also have a rather cute feathery antennae and are stronger fliers. Their activity usually peaks in sunshine and overcast conditions around midday. Females fly at dusk and nest on Birch twigs (pictured below). Their caterpillars emerge from mid-May to mid-August and cocoon themselves as pupae during the winter, safe on the ground. This is considered to be a prime habitat for this delicate little moth and we feel very fortunate to have it choose this place as home.

Kentish Glory Moth on a Birch twig (courtesy of Creative Commons).

In more hands-on, practical reserve news, Kirstin and I had the pleasure of working alongside the Cairngorm National Park Rangers yesterday, to help safeguard our Aspen suckers (or saplings). We did this by inserting over 150 tree guards over the suckers and also built a small enclosure to protect a bigger group of small trees. Aspen suckers are the clone shoots which grow from the adult Aspen trees. With time, they eventually grow into mature Aspen trees and this, in effect, expands the Aspen stand. An Aspen stand is often composed of genetically identical Aspen trees, which are all connected to the same root system. Therefore, an Aspen stand is technically the largest organism on earth, even bigger and heavier than a Blue Whale! Pretty cool, I know! Unfortunately, their leaves and shoots are extremely palatable to Red Deer (but then, what isn’t?).

A mature Aspen tree on the reserve (courtesy of Kirstin Mair).

Unsurprisingly, the relatively recent explosion of the Scottish Red Deer population, combined with historic deforestation over millennia, has caused this fascinating woodland ecosystem to perish, and it’s now restricted to very specific sites across the highlands; often in extremely inaccessible places where deer can’t reach the tree saplings. Knowing this about Aspen, makes the task of carrying out this work extra rewarding and fulfilling, because every Aspen stand that is protected and expanded, contributes to re-establishing this incredible tree organism back to our native forests. We’re really grateful to Kirsty, Sam, Joe and Tom for helping us out with this important restorative work; actions that will continue to resonate long into the future.

That’s all for this week. I’m off to do my 4×4 off-road training next week and I can’t wait! Wish me luck! I’ll let you know how I get on. Take care everyone. Danny.

In my element!
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Exceptional Times and a Massive thank you

At Muir of Dinnet we are approaching the end of an intense high season with over 41,000 visitors across summer, from all over the world, choosing to visit us and enjoy our beautiful reserve. We are taking a moment right now just to pause and consider how it’s all gone. The exceptionally long hot, dry summer has altered the “normal” rhythm of things like emergence and die back here.

Our water birds and otter have had a great year. We monitor and map the birds on Loch Kinord twice a week and are overjoyed by our numbers . We would like to say a massive thank you to all of you who have supported our position and chosen not to take water borne access across this breeding season. We believe that at the critical time in Spring our birds were relaxed enough to want to remain and breed here.

Reflections of scudding clouds on a limpid calm Loch Kinord on a still summers day.
A proud wigeon mother parading her brood of three ducklings. Only 200 breeding pairs are recorded UK wide. Every brood is precious!
This graph shows a weekly timeline beginning in week 11 – mid March. Across the crucial breeding season Loch Kinord has provided an ideal habitat for far more birds this year compared to last. This years bird numbers are shown in orange. I find the difference in numbers in week 22 – early June – just astonishing. 190 birds seen this year compared to just 9 last year.
A continuous timeline from March 2021 to end of July 2022
A family group of three otter were spotted on Loch Kinord earlier this week

August brings a riot of colour to the hillsides of Scotland as the heather begins to flower, creating a uniquely bonny landscape.

The carpet of colour you see is actually made up of two types of flower, Ling heather with its loosely arranged pink flowers and the dark pink-purple chimes of Bell heather.

Our local bee keepers have had their cheerfully coloured hives on the moor for about a month and the sound of thousands of honey bees feeding on the sweetly smelling blooms is extraordinary. The honey that results from these bees is dark and fragrant and very popular.

South Heath erupting into bonny blooms of heather
Beehives on the moor. Scottish Heather Honey contains 10x the amount of the essential nutrient Manganese than other honeys making it a superfood.

Historically heather has been put to use in many practical ways. Long leggy stems made durable thatching. People made a yellow dye from heather as well as strong rope which withstood the effects of seawater.

Heather was also gathered together in bundles to make a variety of besoms and brooms. On the Isle of Lewis, a particular kind of hoe drawn by a person had two rows of wooden teeth followed by a row of heather to smooth the soil.

The dark pink-purple chimes of Bell heather

Unbelievably late we are only now beginning to see wild mushrooms within our woodland, and then only the odd one or two. This year the weather has really altered the timings for many groups and this has been really disorientating for us too. It’s fantastic to have our weird and wonderful mushrooms back at last.

Warmer temperatures dry out soil, especially during periods of low rainfall. Dry soil creates a snowball effect by killing plants, which yields more dry soil. But the effects do not stop at plants – some fungi suffer as well.

It might appear as though fungi are not important because they are only scattered here or there when you see them in the woods. That is because most fungal growth is underground. Fungi are dominant members of the community of microscopic organisms that live beneath our feet. In many soil communities, fungi represent an average of 55%-89% of all microbes. Because fungi strongly impact ecosystem health, how fungi respond to drought is an important question.

Filamentous fungi get their name because they grow in branching filaments, called hyphae The hyphae expand outwards to form large networks of tissue that traffic nutrients from distant places, making filamentous fungi expert scavengers. One of the dominant roles of scavenging fungi in maintaining a healthy ecosystem is nutrient cycling by decomposition. . 

Great black slug eating a mushroom
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Cameras, Butterflies and Frogs

Hi folks! I’m writing this blog on another extremely hot day. The temperatures are not quite as elevated compared to the July heatwave, but we are still enduring an exceptionally dry summer. My rain dances have clearly not paid off yet! Today I am covering quite a broad range of topics; most of them are positive, informative and hopefully entertaining. But I have to start off by talking about some of the realities of reserve work, which, are not always pretty or fragrant, because of the waste and litter left behind.

The hills overlooking Loch Davan on a very hot day.

Unfortunately, one of our reserve Trail Cams was recently stolen. I placed this camera in a woodland location near Loch Davan and really enjoyed setting up the area for Red Squirrels, Jays, Pine Martens, Greater-spotted Woodpeckers and other species, that would take advantage of the easy meal of peanuts left behind to coax them in. Kirstin, Jennie and myself had a lot of fun watching through the footage and stumbling across ‘little gem’ moments to share with you, where for example, an inquisitive woodpecker would look at the camera, or a Pine Marten (as pictured in a previous blog) would pose perfectly while checking that the coast was clear, and of course, let’s not forget my arboreal rabbit! The camera is there to capture interesting wildlife behaviour, which is then used as an educational tool for the general public, especially children who have learnt so much from watching some of Kirstin’s Trail Cam videos in the past. It also gives us an idea of what species are present in the area and this can be very useful to monitor how healthy the habitat is. I find this particularly saddening, because that camera contained some very unique and irreplaceable footage. It would be wonderful to think that whoever took the camera might return the SD card with all that priceless material, but it’s probably a long shot.

The hinge that the Trail Camera was attached to. It has clearly been snapped off.

Moving on, this brings me onto another regrettable situation, which is illegal fishing on Loch Davan. It has been banned for nearly 10 years, to protect this smaller and more fragile ecosystem (than Loch Kinord). But people still continue to fish there despite our requests to refrain from doing so. For the most part, the fishermen we encounter are very understanding when we explain the reasons behind the ban, and are happy to move onto more sustainable waters. However, there are always those who feel that the law does not apply to them. This puts us into a difficult position because no one wants to be heavy handed and have to escalate the situation.

The ecosystems on this reserve are fragile, so seemingly careless, but unintentional acts can have a significantly and disproportionately negative impact.

In a little bit, I will be talking about more nature related encounters, but first I need to address another issue which has been blighting our reserve recently. That is dirty camping. In talking about this, I realise that in the case of 90% or more of the people reading this blog, I am probably ‘preaching to the choir’ as it were. But in saying this, I might just manage to inform someone who was a bit unclear on the rules and generally accepted etiquette of residing on a nature reserve (or anywhere in the countryside for that matter). We remove all the human waste that we identify, but anything we miss presents a health and safety risk to the public and the wildlife. I’m sure I don’t need to point out, that these unwelcome human ‘deposits’ can be a breeding ground for E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and everyone will be aware that the most recent Polio outbreak has originated from human waste. I’m sure most people will bring their own trowel and know how to dispose of their waste safely (let’s face it if a cat can manage it, I’m sure we can!). Following these extremely simple rules will make your trip to the countryside much more pleasant. When you consider that a minimum of 40,000 people visit the site each year, this could become a serious issue on many levels. Like they say, when visiting the countryside ‘take only memories, leave only footprints’.

Back to Nature

Almost anywhere on the reserve where there is tall and damp grassland (which is very common here!) you will have probably observed a very pretty, dark brown and orange butterfly. These butterflies (pictured below) are called Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops). I have been tip-toeing around them in recent weeks while out on patrol or when conducting bird surveys. From a distance, they appear to be black with very striking circular orange patches on each wing. Despite what its name might suggest, this species does actually live in other parts of the UK, but only being present in a couple of locations in northern England outside of Scotland. This species is adapted to living in the cooler temperatures of northern Europe and is thought to be one of the first butterflies to colonise the UK after the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. This species, like so many others, has experienced a long term decline in the UK (which can probably be attributed to both habitat loss and climate change), but despite this trend, it is not a species of priority conservation efforts because it has actually increased at specifically monitored sites. They are a lovely site to see on a warm summer afternoon and evening, and I am very glad that they appear to be thriving here at the Muir of Dinnet.

Another species which are constantly crossing my path (or should I say our footpaths are crossing their territory) are Common Frogs (Rana temporaria). If you are near water, in the meadows or even in dense pine woodland, with a bit of patience, you do stand a very good chance of seeing them. So, please be extra careful with your footing if you see a froglet. In my experience, where you encounter one, there are usually multiple individuals. These amphibians have extremely smooth, moist and very absorbent skin, which they breathe through; they also breathe through their lungs and the lining of the mouth. Skin colour ranges quite dramatically from brown and yellow to grey or olive green. They have irregular dark blotches, a dark stripe around their eyes and eardrum and dark bars on their legs. One really cool fact that I only learned recently about Common Frogs is that they are actually capable of lightening or darkening their skin to match their surroundings. Pretty handy when hiding from predators! These charming amphibians are a widespread species across the mainland of Britain. They are most active at night and will usually hibernate under logs, stones, piles of rotting leaves or pond mud during the winter. I think what most of us probably find fascinating about frogs is their remarkable, transitional stages of development from frogspawn into tadpoles and then eventually into froglets. Once spawning has occurred and the tadpoles hatch, it takes them approximately 16 weeks to slowly change into froglets, in a process known as metamorphosis.

Thank you for taking the time to read my fourth blog. Apologies for the less than inspiring beginning, but if you truly value and cherish our open spaces as places to relax and enjoy nature, then I’m sure you won’t mind this personal appeal to do your part in nurturing them. In the meantime, take care and enjoy what you have on your doorstep. Danny

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Adventuring into Autumn

Although the high temperatures are set to continue into next week the mornings are starting to feel fresher and the breeze has an invigorating edge to it. On the reserve we are getting our first peek of autumn. Whilst our trees are bearing fruits and berries, other species are going for broke, capitalising on the fine weather to get one final brood in.

Song bird chicks such as black cap, robin and blackbird can be found low to the ground just now and even though the bird breeding season is technically over there are still lots of young naïve birds around. Pease help our wildlife thrive when visiting and keep dogs at heel or on a lead.

Everyone say “awwww”- three newly-fledged willow warblers
Emerging rowan berries.
Bane of witches, diviner of the future and producer of jam, rowan is an elegant tree with a mystical history. The colour red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil, and so the rowan’s bright red berries have been associated with magic and witches.
The creamy frothy petals of Sambucus nigra grow in clusters. Elderflowers are one of natures finest edible treasures and a signature wild food of mid summer. Their elegant, sweet, heady fragrance translates into lots of  delicious drinks and desserts. Elderflower champagne is one of the simplest and most rewarding boozy summer preparations.
Bramble or wild blackberry. Brambles used to be planted on graves to stop sheep grazing, but might also have had the more superstitious purpose of keeping the dead in. 
Wild raspberry, commonly called ‘red raspberry’, is also known as the ‘hindberry’ in some parts of Scotland because it is a favourite food of deer. In Scotland, the small and tart wild raspberry has long been foraged for its delicious berries. Archaeological evidence indicates that Mesolithic hunter-gathers ate raspberries.

We had a fantastic bat and moth event here on Friday night on a mild, still summers night. Our Soprano pipistrelle have disbanded their maternity roost and now is the time to glut and build up those reserves for mating and later on hibernation. They are incredibly active on the paths feasting on the plentiful insects around right now. Young recently weaned bats stick close to their mothers as they hunt.

To attract our moths we used a combination of pungent smelling “sugar”, a treacly, beery tar that we painted onto the trees, wine ropes – exactly as it sounds and light traps.

Large yellow underwings and dark arches really loved the sugar, whilst species like the large emerald came readily to the light. Live moth trapping is really exciting as you get to experience these amazing creatures in their element, fluttering and active.

Dark arches moth feasting on “sugar”.
A dazzling Large emerald moth at our light traps

The reserve work of the week has been to clear Himalayan balsam by hand pulling from along the Monodavan burn.

Impatiens glandulifera -a highly invasive non-native of waterways . Himalayan Balsam aka policeman’s helmet, kiss-me-on-the-mountain and poor-man’s orchid. Its “impatience” is demonstrated by an ability to grow massively tall in just one season, and its seedpods are grenades filled with seeds that can go off at any second, often triggered by rain drops.
Himalayan Balsam spreads prodigiously quickly and forms dense thickets, altering the ecological balance and character of wetland habitats. Many seeds drop into the water and contaminate land and riverbanks downstream, but the explosive nature of its seed release (seeds can be projected up to four meters away) means it can spread upstream too. It produces a lot of pollen over a prolonged season and is attractive to pollinating insects. There is concern that its presence may therefore result in decreased pollination for other native plants.

Just to leave you with a master of camouflage. Can you spot the spider? This little spider is actually called an invisible spider and its camouflage ability is astonishing. It lives on the lower trunks of trees, in this case birch. The female constructs a web of very fine threads, which lies very close to the trunk surface, practically invisible to the naked eye, and on this web they are approached by males during courtship.

Can you spot the invisible spider – I have to admit I couldn’t
On closer inspection
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