Brilliant Biodiversity – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Due to other commitments, we’ve not been at Dinnet this week. So we’ve handed the blog over to Ewen Cameron – thanks Ewen- for a quick blast of biodiversity – and what you can do to help.

On any visit to Dinnet I alway try to spot what the reserve team have been up to in their work to help protect and restore Scotland’s Biodiversity.   The blog and the displays in the Burn o’ Vat Centre help by letting readers get a wee bit more insight into some of the work that goes on in the background that most people will never be aware of.   It might be some carefully planned heather burning to maintain the bearberry heath, maintenance work along the footpaths or yet another attempt to get visitors to keep their dogs under control!   The “restore” bit is very important because biodiversity in Scotland has taken a series of big hits over the last 70+ years.

Nature will take care of itself given half a chance and in many respects that’s what nature reserves do – they give Nature half a chance.   But nature reserves are few and far between so they cannot do it on their own.   And that’s where we all have a part to play; we can all help.   But I’ll come back to that later.

Mum mallard with 5 fairly freshly- hatched ducklings

Mallard ducklings finding something to eat under the watchful eye of mother duck

 Parkin’s Moss has often featured in the reserve blog and I clearly remember some of the first ditch blocking work we did there nearly 20 years ago.

The first ditch damming at Parkin's Moss

The first ditch damming at Parkin’s Moss c. 1998 (Note from reserve staff today: Flippin’ heck- it’s so dry and heathery and there’s so many trees!)

Lots of bogs have been drained for agricultural, forestry or other purposes over the centuries and we have only realised more recently that peat bogs play a really important role in capturing the carbon that pours into our atmosphere from cars, planes, fires, industry and so on.   When bogs are drained, not only do they stop storing new carbon, they also start to release all the carbon they have already stored back into the atmosphere – a double whammy in the climate change challenge.   And that’s partly why we took the steps to restore Parkin’s Moss by blocking up the ditches, getting the bog wet again so it can start storing carbon again – as well as being a better habitat for lots of wildlife.   Of course Parkin’s Moss won’t halt rising carbon in the atmosphere all on it’s own; but you know what that well known supermarket says………..!

Parkin's Moss

Parkin’s Moss from the air, 2016. You can see standing water and there are no trees on the centre of the bog….all thanks to that work in the late 1990s.

Bog restoration is now a countrywide activity and it’s estimated that Scotland’s bogs already store about 180 years worth of our country’s current carbon emissions.   Bogs are probably much more useful as carbon stores than they are for poor quality grazing or producing compost for our gardens.   The Government’s Scotland’s Biodiversity: a Routemap to 2020 is a very readable document, that you can see online, and it begins to explain how Scotland will contribute to the very ambitious international targets set to halt decline in biodiversity by 2020.

Scotland's Biodiversity Routemap

Scotland’s Biodiversity Routemap

Many people still think that Nature is nice to have, but it’s not really all that important when compared with the need for food to eat, water to drink and energy to keep our homes warm and our economy turning.   Sadly, that view couldn’t be more wrong – we don’t realize that trees and plants clean up the air we breathe, soils filter and clean water and insects pollinate our food plants.  It’s probably due to the fact that we have all become a bit detached from the natural world and what actually does for us.   We get plenty of TV on tigers and pandas (or those amazing snakes after the baby iguanas), but we get much less on the decline of the bumblebees and other insects that pollinate the crops that produce much of our food.   Perhaps we don’t have enough “real”, reality TV.   The decline has got so bad that farmers in the UK import some 50,000 colonies of wild bees from eastern Europe each year!   Wouldn’t it just be simpler and cheaper to restore some habitat on farms where bumblebee numbers could recover?

Devil's bit scabious with bumblebee

Devil’s bit scabious with bumblebee

Another very readable document is the Government’s 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity, and you can read that online too.   It helps explain the ways in which even modern and technological countries like ours are still very dependant on the natural world – I think you will be surprised.

2020 Challange

2020 Challenge

I was born and brought up on a farm north of Inverness in the early 1950s and I know how farming has changed our countryside since then.   I’m not suggesting all these changes have been for the worse, but they haven’t all been for the good either.   Changes in cropping and harvesting may have led to better yields, but they frequently lead to more bare soil during the winter months, which in turn risks more soil erosion and can increase flooding and pollution.   I don’t think anyone can afford to literally flush their most basic asset down the drain.

Eroded soil being blown into ditch

Eroded soil being blown into ditch

In 1979 I did some land use survey work and when I compared my results with an Aberdeen University survey done in the same area ten years previously; semi-natural habitats (wee bits of woods, rough grassland and so on) had declined by just over 30% and the area of arable land had gone up by just over 30%.   Over those ten years, the price of malting barley had gone up and it’s easy to understand how and why at least some of that change happened.   But it also meant that habitat for pollinating insects declined and the remaining semi-natural areas became even more isolated.

Of course it isn’t just farming.   All sorts of land use continues to nibble away at the wildlife reservoirs these semi-natural areas provide – new road here, land “reclamation” there, new buildings, more car parking – I’m sure all of you have seen lots of little bits that were once fine for Nature but have now gone to other uses, under concrete and tarmac or grass manicured to within an inch of it’s life.

Baby robin

Young blackbird sheltering in hedge

Over my lifetime I have heard many groups claim that they are “the real custodians of the countryside”.   In truth nobody is really entitled to that claim.   We have all played a part in the decline of Scotland’s biodiversity, one way or another, and we all need to play a part in helping put things right for the sake of our children & grandchildren.   We all can, and should, play our part in restoring what has been lost – what we all ultimately  depend on.

So – what can you do?

Bee on Thyme

Bee on Thyme in garden

  1.  Major global problems usually seem “too big & too complex” for us as individuals to do much about or to make any real difference.   But if everyone in Scotland did just one little thing for Nature, that would add up to a big change – mony a mickle maks a muckle! – as they say in Doric. Farmers, foresters, house builders, local councils and everyone with a bit of land (and that includes a garden) could sow a wee corner with (native) wildflowers or native, berry bearing trees or shrubs and so provide food and shelter for lots of wildlife.   Although many garden flowers are very showy they, often have little or no nectar or pollen.   And of course you can always get together and encourage others to join in to make an even greater impact – your school grounds, your community spaces, your local park.   And don’t wait for “them” to do something – be a trendsetter and lead the way.
Fox hunting for rodents

Fox engrossed in hunting for rodents

2.   Don’t just take my word for it – find out about biodiversity and how it is vital to even modern and technological societies like ours.   The 2020 Challenge and the Routemap to 2020 would be a good start.   If you are better informed, you will have a better understanding of why the “answers” that may seem like common sense often just make things worse.   And if you are better informed, you will find it easier to make sense of all the mixed messages that fly around.   For example, in Scotland we have a very strange and ill-informed relationship with predators.   Sure, foxes will take some chickens and lambs, but they will take far more rabbits, mice and voles – which are considered pests. As they are also scavengers, they clean up roadkill and other things they come across that are already dead.   So perhaps reaching for the shotgun is not always the best first step.

3.  The Internet is a wonder of our times and you will find lots of information out there on how you can help wildlife on your farm, in your forest, in your garden, in your school grounds.   Almost certainly, there will already be a group or individuals nearby who can help you with ideas and encouragement.   My top tip would be – don’t be too quick to “tidy up”.   Wildlife will benefit from the food and shelter where things are left for a while and it will shelter Leopard slugs that eat – other slugs!

Compost bins

30 year-old compost bins sheltering wildlife as well as recycle garden waster

4.  Please don’t ever dump plants or animals into the countryside – it won’t help, is likely to cause real problems and in some cases you will be committing a criminal offence.   I once met someone planting garden flowers on one of our nature reserves because they thought is was looking a bit dull!   Wildlife frequently likes dull – excitement generally consists of narrowly avoiding being eaten by something else!   If you really would like to help improve nature reserves, then offer to volunteer with some of the properly planned work. SNH, RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Local Councils and the National Trust for Scotland are just some of the organisations who may be glad to have your help.

5. Don’t be in denial!  We were and are all part of the problem faced by our biodiversity and we all have the responsibility to be part of the solution and help put things right. And, I’d like to think we can- if we all just try.

East Tullos Burn, Aberdeen

Wildflowers in the city. East Tullos Burn, Aberdeen

 

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Frostfest – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been cold this week. Very cold – minus 10 on Sunday-into-Monday night. But oh so very beautiful in the frost.  It’s been a few years since we’ve had such a prolonged cold spell and this has made for bejewelled mornings as the frost splits the sunlight into thousands of red, gold and blue lights.

The frost coasts every twig

The frost coasts every twig

Bejeweled reeds

Bejewelled reeds

Frosty birch

Frosty birch

The sunrises have been worth getting out of bed for, too. The sky was an amazing pink colour this morning during the goose count. Even the snow on Morven was tinted pale pink.

Birch trees against the sunrise

Birch trees against the sunrise

The light gradually goes pink, then gold in the mornings

The light gradually goes pink, then gold in the mornings

The snow looks pink in the sunrise

The snow looks pink in the sunrise

Mind you, it wasn’t easy to count the geese. There is hardly any unfrozen water on either of the lochs and all the birds are crammed into a very small area. We had 440 pink-footed geese and 250 greylag this morning, while there were over 240 mallard on Monday- all in an area about the size of a dozen car parking spaces.  Not to mention the fact that it was -7, so your binoculars steam up instantly when you take them to your eyes, and you can’t feel at least two of your fingers…..

Loch Davan only had a tiny bit of open water - with an awful lot of ducks in it!

Loch Davan only had a tiny bit of open water – with an awful lot of ducks in it!

All the trees round the lochs were covered in frost

All the trees round the lochs were covered in frost

The birds are easy to see in the cold. They are so intent on feeding, they don’t really care too much about you- unless you’re bringing them food. the coal tit were taking peanuts from our hands by Friday, they were so hungry. Except for the winter thrushes- they are still shy and you always get spotted by the sentinel bird- the one that sits up high watching out for sparrowhawks-or people.

Long tailed tit

Long tailed tit

Sentinel fieldfare

Sentinel fieldfare

We’ve been continuing to remove dead trees close to the paths. It’s actually ideal weather for this work….chainsaw gear doesn’t half make you sweat, even in sub-zero temperatures. The main risk is dehydration – the water out of your bottle, or even the tap, is so teeth-achingly cold, you often don’t drink enough!

The fungi are a good indication that the tree is dead or dying

The fungi are a good indication that a tree is dead or dying

We also had a visit from an old friend this week. Paul,who used to work here, popped in to say hello and to do some photography of the frost. He’s kindly shared some of these with us, and they’re spectacular. So, thanks to Paul and enjoy the frost show.

Ice in Vat burn

Ice in Vat burn

 ice on Vat burn

ice on Vat burn

All the plants in the splash zone are bedecked with ice

All the plants in the splash zone are bedecked with ice

Ice crystals

Ice crystals

Even the sphagnum moss in the bog is frozen

Even the sphagnum moss in the bog is frozen

Thick frost coasts the woodrush

Thick frost coasts the woodrush

Frost, close up

Frost, close up

The frost crystals get bigger as it stays below freezing for another day

The frost crystals get bigger as it stays below freezing for another day

Frost crystals

Frost crystals

frosty grass

frosty grass

A frosty world.

A frosty world.

Trees coasted with hoar frost, Loch Davn

Trees coasted with hoar frost, Loch Davn

Male bullfinch

Male bullfinch

Frosty reeds

Frosty reeds

Every twig is coated in ice

Every twig is coated in ice

Frosty rowans

Frosty rowans

Don't forget the robin!

Don’t forget the robin!

 

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Windthrushes and Winter Days – Muir of Dinnet NNR

A lot of people think that we wind down a bit on reserves over the winter. There’s nothing to do and no wildlife to see. To which we say “Mwahaha-ha-ha-ha!!! Aha-ha-ha-ha! Ahem.”  Sometimes I wish we did wind down, but we just get busy with other things, like tree work or ditching. And winter is actually one of the best seasons for wildlife watching. …you get spectacles like geese coming in to roost or huge flocks of winter thrushes. Sunsets and sunrises are at a time of day you can actually see them, not the middle of the night. And there aren’t any leaves on the trees, which makes spotting birds a lot easier too. We’ve been treated to the most wonderful views of fieldfares feeding on rowans in the winter sun.

Fieldfare in rowan tree. the highest berries always get eaten first

Fieldfare in rowan tree. the highest berries always get eaten first

Fieldfares in rowan tree

Fieldfares in rowan tree

Fieldfare, almost hanging upside down to get at the rowans

Fieldfare, almost hanging upside down to get at the rowans

Fieldfare, scoffing rowans

Fieldfare, scoffing rowans

We’ve also been seeing their “winter thrush” cousins, redwings, along with the fieldfare flocks. The redwings are slightly smaller than the fieldfares, browner in colour and have a prominent pale “eyebrow”. They are known as “windthrushes”- a lovely, evocative name- in the Northern Isles as they always blow in on the first storms of the autumn.

Redwing. You can just make out the red underwing.

Redwing. You can just make out the red underwing.

Winter thrushes, fieldfare top, redwing bottom

Winter thrushes, fieldfare top, redwing bottom

Redwing and blackbird feeding on rowans

Redwing and blackbird feeding on rowans

We had an insanely warm start to the week- it got up to 17 degrees on Monday…which was 20 degrees warmer than the minus three degrees that we arrived to on the previous Friday! Just after we published the blog last week, we saw a couple of lovely roe deer, browsing on bog myrtle in the snow.

Snow roe- roe deer in the snow last week

Snow roe- roe deer in the snow last week

Then, by Monday, all of the snow had gone from the reserve. There were only a few patches left high up on neighbouring Morven.

Nearly all of the snow is gone this week

Nearly all of the snow is gone this week

Virtually all of the trees have lost their leaves now. The aspen look sombre, standing in straight grey ranks along woodland edge.

Aspen in their grey winter dress

Aspen in their grey winter dress

Only a few willows and the oaks are hanging onto some leaves – and it won’t be long until these fall too.

Some of the willows still have a few golden leaves left

Some of the willows still have a few golden leaves left

The oaks still have leaves in December

The oaks still have leaves late in the year

We didn’t catch the “supermoon” on Monday night – it was cloudy- but did manage a brief view of it setting behind Morven on Tuesday morning.

The "supermoon" setting over Morven

The “supermoon” setting over Morven

We’ve had a few very still days this week. Sound has been carrying for miles across the reserve – you can hear a whooper swan on Loch Davan from the Burn o Vat. And the lochs have been like glass, reflecting the bare trees.

Autumn reflections

Autumn reflections

Loch Kinord, flat calm

Loch Kinord, flat calm

It's hard to know which way is up when the loch is this still

It’s hard to know which way is up when the loch is this still

There have been some beautiful sunrises this week. We’ve had those amazing crystal clear days that you sometimes get at this time of year, when the light makes everything glow. It’s even worth getting up early for- honestly!

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise over Loch kinord

Sunrise over Loch kinord

Reedbed sunrise

Reedbed sunrise

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Winter is Coming – Muir of Dinnet NNR

There seem to be a lot of unhappy and bewildered people on the reserve this week. We’d like to think it’s not our fault though, more, shall we say, election–related. Events in the wider world are making people uncertain – so they seem to turn, as they often do, to simple pleasures- something uncomplicated and beautiful, like a walk in the country. Speaking for myself, I find that it helps clear my head and makes me forget about bigger issues – it’s harder to worry when the sunrise is so gorgeous through the trees.

Sunrise at burn o Vat

Sunrise at burn o Vat

Sunrise

Sunrise

You also find you have other things to think about- like seeing the first snows whitening Morven and watching a buzzard disappearing into the mist. It’s easy to underestimate how much these things can mean to people and how much they get from nature, probably because we can’t quantify it. How can you put a price on the smile you smile at something like beauty, or the heart lift you get from seeing a wild animal in its own world?

Morven through the mist

Morven through the mist

Buzzard in the fog

Buzzard in the fog

Winter is coming....Morven has a snowy cap

Winter is coming….Morven has a snowy cap

It has been a week of cold and contrasting weather. Early in the week, it was clear on high ground but the freezing fog took a long time to clear away from the lochs.

A frosty, misty morning looking over Davan

A frosty, misty morning looking over Davan

Misty trees

Misty trees

The sun is just visible through the mist

The sun is just visible through the mist

A misty sunrise over Little Ord

A misty sunrise over Little Ord

On these cold mornings, every blade of grass is picked out in white. Even the spiders’ webs are rimed with frost.

Frosty web

Frosty web

Even the spiders' webs are frozen!

Even the spiders’ webs are frozen!

And it was an odd experience, sweating while loading old fence wire into the land rover- but still having painfully cold feet!

Old fencing wire, rolled up and ready to go

Old fencing wire, rolled up and ready to go

The reserve is still playing host to good numbers of “winter thrushes”- redwing and fieldfare. We are still seeing flocks of dozens of birds feeding in rowan trees.

A tree full of thrushes- fieldfare flock in birch tree

A tree full of thrushes- fieldfare flock in birch tree

Fieldfare, always alert.

Fieldfare, always alert.

Fieldfare

Fieldfare

Rowan guzzling redwing

Rowan guzzling redwing

redwing and fieldfare in the same tree. Briefly...

Redwing and fieldfare in the same tree. Briefly…

....before they all took off.

….before they all took off.

They will need all of the energy they can get from the berries to keep warm. It turned damp later in the week and the damp cold always feels much colder and more draining than a dry cold. But it always amazes me how even the smallest glimmer of sunshine can brighten up the reserve and bring the late autumn colours to life.

The bracken is golden in the watery sun

The bracken is golden in the watery sun

The sun brings a grey woodland to life

The sun brings a grey woodland to life

Loch Davan. Looking grey.

Loch Davan. Looking grey.

What a difference a glimmer of sun makes

What a difference a glimmer of sun makes

It’s been wet enough to make the lochs high again. Not as high as last winter, fortunately- but as high as they’ve been for 7 or 8 months.

The lochs are high with all the recent rain

The lochs are high with all the recent rain

The wildfowl don’t seem to mind the wet weather- they’re well adapted for it. We have been seeing a few families of mute swans on the lochs. The youngsters, this year’s cygnets, are starting to moult into adult white feathers- but it’ll be another couple of years before they are old enough to breed.

Mute swans, adult and youngster

Mute swans, adult and youngster

Mute swans- this year's cygnets

Mute swans- this year’s cygnets

And then, on Thursday, winter arrived for a couple of days. We had a couple of inches of extremely wet snow that turned the reserve into a monochrome winter wonderland.

Snowy birch

Snowy birch

The road to snow-where....

The road to snow-where….

Snowy larches

Snowy larches

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Snowy rowans

Snowy rowans

But a little bit of snow doesn’t stop us from getting out on the reserve and chopping down a few more dead or dying trees near the paths! Fortunately the snow wasn’t too deep to do this – it’s not safe if it is – but it was very wet, as lumps of half-melted snow  dropped off the trees. And they always seem to fall, with unerring accuracy, right down the back of your neck…..brrrrrrr!

It's got to go...this snapped tree is too close to the path

It’s got to go…this snapped tree is too close to the path

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Falling Leaves and Feeding Thrushes – Muir of Dinnet NNR

This week has flown by. Suddenly, we’re into November and we have to start thinking about changed clocks, frosts and fireworks….and hope no-one fills the car parks with firework debris or nails any onto signs this year (yes, people do that. No, of course you shouldn’t. Yes, we get annoyed and yes, it does damage the signs). But it’s not winter just yet- there is still enough colour in the trees to tell ourselves it’s autumn for a bit longer. 

The aspen at Burn o Vat is still in leaf- but they are falling fast

The aspen at Burn o Vat is still in leaf- but they are falling fast

Dew-covered aspen leaf

Dew-covered aspen leaf

 We’ve had a few cool, misty mornings this week. The lochs have looked moody, brooding quietly under the slowly clearing mist. 

Misty morning

Misty morning

 We still have a good crop of rowans. The trees are bare of leaves now but the berries are still hanging in glowing blood-red clusters. 

Red berries, blue sky

Red berries, blue sky

Red rowans

Red rowans

Most of the birds we have seen this week have been spending at least some time in the rowan trees. Fieldfares, also here  from Scandinavia, seem to have replaced redwings as the most numerous and obvious thrush on the reserve. They are larger and greyer than the redwings, with a rattling chack-chack-chak call. Like all the other thrushes, they are gorging themselves on the berries before they go. Gotta feed up before winter strikes in  earnest!

fieldfare with rowan berry

fieldfare with rowan berry

Fieldfares perching in birch tree between feeds

Fieldfares perching in birch tree between feeds

Chack. Chack-chak! Fieldfare in rowan tree

Chack. Chack-chak! Fieldfare in rowan tree

Feeding fieldfare

Feeding fieldfare

We also caught these resident blackbirds mid-scoff. All of the thrushes swallow the berries whole and can eat far more rowans that you’d think they could fit in their tummies!  

Young blackbird also mid-scoff

Young blackbird also mid-scoff

Male blackbird scoffing rowan berries

Male blackbird scoffing rowan berries

Bullfinches, however, break up the berries to eat them. Like many finches, they sort of “mumble” their food, manoeuvring it around in their beaks to find the best bits, be it seed kernels or fruit pulp.

Male bullfinch with rowan berry

Male bullfinch with rowan berry

Male bullfinch reaching for a berry

Male bullfinch reaching for a berry

....and stretch....

….and stretch….

Juvenile bullfinch

Juvenile bullfinch

We’ve been seeing other birds in the rowans too. This robin seems to be practicing his pose for Christmas cards ….only 50 days to go…. 

Robin. Posing.

Robin. Posing.

And the blue tits and goldcrests were foraging for insects in among the berry clusters and on the bark. 

Goldcrest foraging in rowan tree

Goldcrest foraging in rowan tree

Blue tit, blue sky, red berries

Blue tit, blue sky, red berries

However, the redpolls prefer birch trees. Their fine beaks are ideally suited for winkling out tiny birch seeds. 

Redpoll feeding in birch tree

Redpoll feeding in birch tree

A rather bedraggled redpoll

A rather bedraggled redpoll

It was something of a surprise to trip over a very late- blooming bluebell in the grass near the Celtic cross…we thought the frosts would have finished off any flowers. 

A late-flowering bluebell

A late-flowering bluebell

Down on Parkin’s Moss, we had a day with volunteers and a large rubber mallet attempting to put in another dam across the ditch. Two of the old dams don’t seem to be holding water any more, so the intent was that the new dam would replace these. However, we ran into problems in the shape of unrotted pine tree roots buried in the bog. There is no sign of the trees now, they will have fallen over and rotted away over 1000 years ago, but their roots, buried in the peat, have been well preserved…. and you can’t bang plastic piling through them! Needless to say, it was almost the last pile that wouldn’t go in and we couldn’t shift the others.  The word “dam” was said quite frequently…and not meaning to block water either! We’ve had to leave some of the piling sticking up until we get a big pinch bar to try and break through the roots.

Ditch damming on Parkin's moss

Ditch damming on Parkin’s moss

The dam piling was not going in to the dam(n) bog!

The dam piling was not going in to the dam(n) bog!

This week was marked by a steady whooper swan passage through the reserve. I always find it hugely exciting to first hear and then see the first whoopers of the season, freshly arrived from Iceland. Yes, I’ll admit they are one of my very favourite birds- their whooping calls are swan music to me and, in my head, epitomises wild places and wild birds. It’s amazing that a bird that weighs up to 11 kilos can fly pretty much non-stop for hundreds of miles over the north Atlantic to get here. And that’s with no map, no compass, no sat-nav- I think most humans would do well to find the right continent, let alone the right country!

Super whooper - 20 whooper swans on passage

Super whooper – 20 whooper swans on passage

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Thrushing around – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Firstly, thanks to Ewen for a great blog last week. If you’ve been waiting with baited breath to know the answer to his question about the deer footprint- it’s at the end of this blog.

This week, you can’t set foot on the reserve without being aware of the thrushes. There were good numbers of redwing and fieldfare around a fortnight ago but there must have been a massive arrival from the continent last week.  I came back this week to the white noise of huge thrush flock stripping berries from around the Vat trail.

Redwing in rowans

Redwing in rowans

A lot of the rowan trees have lost their leaves by now but are still heavily laden with berries. This has made the thrushes easier to spot.

The rowans have lots their leaves but still have berries

The rowans have lots their leaves but still have berries

Bare rowans

Bare rowans

But it hasn’t made them any less shy. They are wild and wary birds, taking off with chuck-chuck-chuck-ing alarm calls when you appear. Birds feed voraciously on rowans, then go and sit high up in a non-food tree, usually a birch, to digest the berries (and poo lots – an all-fruit diet will do that to you). These birds often seem to act as sentries for the rest of the flock and are the first to kick up an alarm – and they get the flock out of there in fairly short order!

Slightly out-of-focus but showing red "armpit"

Slightly out-of-focus but showing red “armpit”

Redwing in birch tree, keeping a look-out

Redwing in birch tree, keeping a look-out

Lookout bird

Lookout bird

Often all you will see is a lot of retreating birds, winging their way away over the trees.

Fieldfares flying

Thrushes in flight

The trees are starting to look a little bare now. The birches are losing their leaves rapidly but some of the aspens are at their most golden right now. If you do want to enjoy the autumn colours, I’d suggest getting out sooner rather than later – the leaves are going in earnest now.

Autumn aspen

Autumn aspen

The aspen tree beside Burn o Vat is at it's most golden just now

The aspen tree beside Burn o Vat is at it’s most golden just now

Autumn colours

Autumn colours

The trees lok dramatic against the grey sky

The trees look dramatic against the grey sky

We’ve had a few frost this week and this will be hastening the colour change in any still-green leaves. It was minus two degrees on Tuesday morning- the first day it has been cold enough to freeze the puddles as well as there being a grass frost.

frosty bracken

frosty bracken

Frosty gorse

Frosty gorse

Frosty grass

Frosty grass

Frosty tufted hair grass

Frosty tufted hair grass

Frozen puddle

Frozen puddle

But the frosts aren’t lying for long. The sun is melting them off early in the day.

Frost melting off bracken

Frost melting off bracken

In answer to the puzzle about the deer prints, you can tell if a deer is running if the two “toes” at the front are splayed and you can see the marks of the two dew claws ( the two dots at the back of the back print)at the back. These are only usually visible if the deer is running on firm ground.

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Running roe deer prints

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Taking a closer look – Muir of Dinnet NNR

I recently retired after 40 years working with SNH and one of its predecessors, the Nature Conservancy Council.   The first half of that mostly involved managing different nature reserves across Scotland and I have always been interested in the stories that lie behind what you can see or hear.   Muir of Dinnet is a great place for doing that and the visitor centre will explain that the reserve looks the way it does because of the enormous forces that shaped the land during and after the last Ice Age.

But there are lots of other smaller scale signs that tell a story too.   I’m sure you’ve all seen things like these deer footprints below.

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Their toes are pointed at the front, so you can tell which direction they were going.   You can also tell that they were running.   I think we’ll give you a chance to figure out how we know that – answer next week.   OK we’ll give you a wee clue – the soil in the picture is firm not soft.

A classic sign to watch out for here at Dinnet is what’s left behind after different animals have been eating the seeds out of pine cones.   This is often all that’s left after red squirrels have been having a feed – and sometimes these remains are scattered around if the squirrel has been up in a tree or in a neat pile it they have been sitting on the ground.

squirrel

Other “eaters” are much tidier and I have always liked the way that wood mice feed.   These wild cherry stones all have a neat round hole chewed out of them to get to the soft, nutritious centre.

wild-cherry-seeds

One of my favourite wildlife signs has always been poo – I guess you can tell I’m a boy who has never really grown up!   Not only can poo tell you who left it behind, but a careful examination can also tell you what it was eating.   So like most detective work it can help to confirm what often misunderstood animals pine martens and foxes have really been eating.   Yes they will sometimes eat red squirrels, but they will eat lots more other things too – rabbits, berries, insects, roadkill.   And poo can vary throughout the year – in the autumn, some become almost black with the blueberries.

fox-poo

Of course, to be able to see these things you have to keep your eyes open.   And if you keep the chatter down and the dog on a lead, you have a much better chance of seeing the wildlife too.   This toad was sitting at the edge of the path and I was almost on top of it before I noticed it.

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If you have your ears open too then you will hear the different calls of birds around you and perhaps the distant bark of a deer or fox, the honking of geese.   Your nose will pick up the smell of rowan trees in flower and your whole body the cool, clammy sensation of being in the Vat.   Nature reserves can be a joy (and a challenge) for all our senses.   But the outdoors is not like modern media where everything is thrust under your nose with a voiceover to tell you what everything is.   In the outdoors you have to do at least some of the work yourself – but you will enjoy it, so what are you waiting for?

Ewen Cameron, guest blogger.

All images by Ewen Cameron.

 

 

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Autumn Winds

Well, it had to happen sometime. Autumn has finally shown its teeth, with colder days and blustery, easterly winds. We’ve had lots of winter thrushes blown in from the continent, with the fieldfares arriving on Tuesday. By Friday, we were seeing flocks of 160 strong- those rowans won’t last long!

Fieldfare

Fieldfare

Birch and rowan

Birch and rowan

They’re not the only once tucking in. There have been little groups of bullfinches hanging around near Burn o Vat all week, stuffing down rowan berries. Some of these are this year’s youngsters, still missing their black cap. They’ve had a good breeding season judging by the number of young we have seen recently.

A relatively late brood of young bullfinches

Young bullfinches

Young bullfinch

Young bullfinch

Female bullfinch feeding on heather seeds

Adult female bullfinch –  she has a black cap, which the youngsters don’t have

It hasn’t been all cool, grey and windy days. We’ve had a couple of lovely afternoons, with the sun making the woodland shine like gold. The birches are at their best just now, every one a golden shower of leaves.

A shower of golden birch leaves

A shower of golden birch leaves

Gold trees, blue sky

Gold trees, blue sky

Looking up from the Vat

Looking up from the Vat

You don't have to go far to see wonderful autumn trees- these are at the car park!

You don’t have to go far to see wonderful autumn trees- these are at the car park!

Red rowans, gold birches

Red rowans, gold birches

Golden birches

Golden birches

Autumn birch

Autumn birch

The lochs have looked beautiful on the fine days, reflecting the turning leaves.

A glimmer of sun brings the colours to life

A glimmer of sun brings the colours to life

A still day on the loch

A still day on the loch

Kinord, reflecting Cnoc Dubh

Kinord, reflecting Cnoc Dubh

Autumn trees

Autumn trees

Some of the other trees, like the geans (wild cherries) go much redder. This is caused by chemicals called anthocyanins being produced in the leaf towards the end of summer. These are the chemicals that cause the deep, firey red you sometimes see in trees like cherries. They can be produced in spring too and account for the reddish- bronze tint you sometimes see in spring leaves.

A flame - coloured gean tree

A flame – coloured gean tree

Even the bracken looks lovely at this time of year. You’ll never persuade me to like it but even I must admit it does give the woods an extra golden glow.

Golden bracken

Golden bracken

We’ve been getting on with a bit more clearing of dead or damaged trees near paths…..but only on the not-too-windy days. The cooler weather is much better for chainsawing, the trousers and boots alone weigh about 5 pounds – so it’s awfully hot work. It’s funny how people always say “what a great job you must have” on fine days when you are counting birds…but never say it on wet days when you look (and smell) like something the cat has buried for a week, then dragged in…..!

A winter job is taking down trees we think are a bit too close to the path

A winter job is taking down trees we think are a bit too close to the path

Speaking of counting birds, the numbers of ducks on the lochs continue to rise as more waterfowl start to winter here. Tufted duck have been our most numerous duck on the last couple of counts, usually it is mallard. The males are almost moulted back into their finery and look rather dapper in their smart black-and-white suits.

Male tufted duck

Male tufted duck

We’ve had lots of geese roosting on the loch this week. They’ve been a mixture of “pinks” (pink-foot geese) and “greys” (greylag geese) and there must have over 1000 on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, they took off just as I got there, so the number is something of a guess – but there were more than I’ve seen so far this winter. Here’s hoping they stay around for a bit longer- they really are a fantastic sight and sound.

Geese over Loch Davan

Geese over Loch Davan

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Cold Nights and Gold Trees

When you’ve been away for a fortnight, you fairly see the changes in the reserve when you come back. I stepped out of the car on Monday to the first frost of the year and to the high, shrill “tsreeep” of redwing calls. The winter thrushes are back!

Redwing

Redwing

There seem to be a moderate number of redwings and black-beaked (probably continental) blackbirds on the reserve. Redwings are a favourite of mine but I never seem to get a decent picture of them. They are wild, shy, wary birds- and usually see you before you see them, so you just see a lot of flocks flying away from you! However, this one sat tight just long enough to grab a couple of shots.

Redwing

Redwing

Redwing

Redwing

Possibly a continental blackbird- the black beak can be a giveaway.

Possibly a continental blackbird- the black beak can be a giveaway.

The trees also seem to have turned a lot in the last fortnight. It’s been quite breezy, so a few are looking rather bare, as they are losing their leaves as soon as they have turned yellow.

A lot of the trees are losing leaves in the wind

A lot of the trees are losing leaves in the wind

However, some other trees in more sheltered spots are holding their yellow leaves longer and are looking lovely and golden.

Yellow birch leaves

Yellow birch leaves

Golden birches

Golden birches

From the viewpoint - looking autumnal

From the viewpoint – looking autumnal

The bracken looks lovely in autumn

The bracken looks lovely in autumn

Bogingore

Bogingore

The aspens are one of the later trees to “turn” and are only just starting to yellow.

The aspens are later in going yellow

The aspens are later in going yellow

The rowan trees are still heavy with fruit- but the thrushes are already starting to make a dent in it already. If there is a big arrival of redwing and fieldfares mid-October, as there often is, it will all go in a surprisingly short space of time.

Bending under the weight od fruit

Bending under the weight od fruit

Red berries, blue sky

Red berries, blue sky

There are still a lot of rowans around

There are still a lot of rowans around

We had an unexpected visitor in the office this week. A movement seen out of the corner of my eye was found to be a tiny toadlet! How it had got in, we don’t know, but we gently evicted it on an old events poster. It’s best not to handle frogs and toads if you can avoid it, as a) (the altruist’s reason) the oils on your skin can irritate them and b) (the vested self-interest reason) they pee on you in self –defence.

We had to evict this toadlet from the office!

We had to evict this toadlet from the office!

Down on the lochs, the grebes seem to have disappeared. We don’t normally see them during the winter, so I’m assuming they’ve fledged and moved on. But the geese are using the lochs more, roosting there overnight. They are great entertainment to watch, as are most social animals with a pecking order (literally, in the case of birds). They are always bickering and jostling but still need to be part of the flock ( a bit like people,  really). They are fun to watch landing too, with their big pinky-orange feet acting as air brakes as they come in to splash down on the lochs.

Greylag geese flighting in to Loch Davan

Greylag geese flighting in to Loch Davan

Flaps down - those big feet are good air brakes!

Flaps down – those big feet are good air brakes!

Landing gear down...

Landing gear down…

Splashdown!

Splashdown!

Winter also marks a change in our work on the reserve. Now is the time we start doing “tree work”, taking down anything near paths that has died over the summer. Some trees are easy, some are a pain. This one was firmly in the latter category, having snapped and hung up – but we got it down, slowly and safely.

Felling dead trees

Felling dead trees

Snapped dead tree- too close to path.

Snapped dead tree- too close to path.

The fungi are a good indication that the tree is dead or dying

The fungi are a good indication that the tree is dead or dying

Taking down dead tree

Taking down dead tree

On it's way over

On it’s way over

Stump of felled tree

Stump of felled tree

With the colder weather, the peanut feeder has been much in demand. Coal tits are the smallest bird and bottom of the pecking order- but do okay due to sheer numbers and persistence! Then blue tits, then great tits, who usually give way to chaffinches…and top bird is the woodpecker. But the squirrel trumps all of these and you often see the other birds hanging around, scolding, waiting for the squirrel to go. Except for the coal tits- who nip in right under squirrel’s nose!

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

Tucking in

Tucking in

Red squirrel on feeder

Red squirrel on feeder

Two tails. A coal tit has nipped in for a feed right below the squirrel

Two tails. A coal tit has nipped in for a feed right below the squirrel

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The View From Above

What a busy week! We’ve hardly had chance to look at the wildlife this week, what with hung-up trees, grass needing cut, contracts needing let and quarterly reporting needing done. Unfortunately, although it may look like it, it’s not all sunny days and watching wildlife….but you don’t have to go far at Dinnet to see something!  The devil’s bit scabious flowers are starting to go over and the bees are frantically topping up on nectar before the flowers fade or we get frosts to kill them off.

Devil's bit scabious with bumblebee

Devil’s bit scabious with bumblebee

Devil's bit scabious with bumblebee

Devil’s bit scabious with bumblebee

Mind you, it doesn’t look like we’re at any risk of frosts any time soon. It’s been incredibly hot and humid this week. Unpleasantly humid for us – according to the weather station, the lowest the humidity fell to last week was 67 % and it was generally above 80%. That may not be a lot of fun if you’re cutting grass or wearing chainsaw gear – awfully sweaty work – but the toads have been loving it. There are tiny toadlets all over the reserve just now – I even had to evict one for the office!

Tiny toadlet

Tiny toadlet

The young great crested grebes are getting bigger all the time. They seem to be feeding themselves more or less all the time now- this is the first week we haven’t seen an adult feeding a fish to one of the youngsters. One of them begged for food from the adult but was ignored, so started diving and looking for food itself . I bet a lot of parents feel like that… “look, you’re perfectly capable just doing it yourself, so just get on with it!”

Adult plus one (and here comes another)

Adult plus one (and here comes another)

An adult great crested grebe plus two chicks

An adult great crested grebe plus two chicks

Three stripy faces

Three stripy faces

Young grebes and swan

Young grebes and swan

Five grebes- the four youngsters plus one adult

Five grebes- the four youngsters plus one adult

The grebes aren’t the only youngsters on the lochs to be getting big.  Two of this year’s cygnets were feeding just beside the grebes.

Swan with cygnet

Swan with cygnet

And we spotted – just- another two of this year’s young animals down at Bogingore. These two roe deer fawns were quite well grown but were beautifully camouflaged in the long, yellowing grass. Do you remember those books you used to get, where, if you stared at an abstract image long enough, you’d see pictures? (I could never see them and suspected they were just making it up).  It was a bit like that- is that shadow in the grass a deer – or isn’t it?

Is it there-or is it my imagination?

Is it there-or is it my imagination?

Spot the deer?

Spot the deer?

Roe fawn 1

Roe fawn 1

Roe fawn 2

Roe fawn 2

Roe deer heading off

Roe deer heading off

The adders have been hard to spot this week as well -they’ve been lurking in the deep grass.

Snake in the grass

Snake in the grass

We had a day away from the reserve on  Wednesday, getting together with the rest of our Tayside and Grampian colleagues at Glen Clova. It’s a rare chance to have us all in one place and catch up with what’s happening in other areas, and well done to the organisers- we know that getting us in one place is like herding cats!  We also brought cake –lots of it, and very nice it was too, thank you to the bakers- as it was the last such meeting for one of us. Ewen, who has been with NCC and then SNH for 40 years, retires soon and will be sadly missed. But I’m hoping to persuade him to do the odd article for the blog, so watch this space….

Tayside and Grampian staff

Tayside and Grampian staff

Oh course, the downside of a group meeting is that someone’s bound to have a camera to catch you doing something incriminating. In this case, it was my turn. “Daryl, there’s a huge mozzie on your neck!”

“Agh, getitgetitgetit!”

Snap! And here’s a picture of me looking like I’m slapping my colleague round the head!

Candid camera! We were killing a mosquito on his neck- honest!

Candid camera! We were killing a mosquito on his neck- honest!

Finally, we’ve got a photo-fest to finish off this week’s blog. Mary, one of our volunteers, who you may have seen on the blog rescuing frogspawn, or helping clear up fly tipping, was given a glider trip last Christmas, Well, she finally took advantage of it this week from the Deeside Gliding Club at Aboyne. That’s just down the road from us and the gliders are a constant presence over the reserve on fine days. They have a surprisingly huge range – they can easily reach the north of Scotland and have an altitude record of 38,000 feet (yes, thirty eight THOUSAND feet).  Mary was staying a bit closer to the ground and requested she could have a soar over the reserve – so here are her photos from the air!

Going up!

Going up!

Dinnet village looking north

Dinnet village looking north

Kinord and Davan

Kinord and Davan

Kinord and Davan

Kinord and Davan

Edge of reserve, looking south towards River Dee

Edge of reserve, looking south towards River Dee

Western end Kinord and Davan

Western end Kinord and Davan

Parkin's Moss

Parkin’s Moss

Loch Davan

Loch Davan

The Burn o Vat trail

The Burn o Vat trail

Over the Vat gorge, looking east

Over the Vat gorge, looking east

Towplane, looking west up Dee valley

Towplane, looking west up Dee valley

Bogingore

Bogingore

Loch Kinord

Loch Kinord

Tow plane

Tow plane

Wetlands, NW corner Loch Davan

Wetlands, NW corner Loch Davan

Castle Island

Castle Island

Loch Davan

Loch Davan

The crannog and Castle Island

The crannog and Castle Island

The gliding strip at Aboyne

The gliding strip at Aboyne

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