Feathery fishermen and Stunning Sunsets

The thaw is on! This week has seen a 15 degree upswing from – 5 ° C on Tuesday to the balmy heights of 10 °C today and it has almost felt like Spring is on its way. With the warmer weather has come some astounding mackeral skies and sunsets.

Sunset
Sunset
The sunset on Wednesday turned into a blanket of fiery red
Mackeral skies over Loch Kinord. These undulating, rippling clouds signal that rain is on its way.

The birds seem to be enjoying the warm weather with large “Springs” of Teal and “Coils” of Wigeon displaying and dabbling away noisily on Loch Davan.

Teal in the reeds

Displaying teal – lots of prooping and head bobbing. The soft “krick” call of these agile and dinky ducks is instantly recognisable and carries a surprising distance.
Male Wigeon. make a 2 note piping whistle which starts with a high pitch whee -ooo, followed by a lower wip-weu

On Loch Kinord, Castle Island has been colonised by Cormorants. These gloriously prehistoric looking birds are expert divers and supreme feathery fishermen. Their strange shape is a combination of adaptations to a life in the water.

The most obvious one is, like many other aquatic species, these birds have long, curved necks that they use to reach below the surface to snag fish as they attempt to escape.

To further aid in capturing slippery fish, cormorants have long beaks that have a sharp hook at the end. To better move through the water, these birds have webbed feet.

Not so obviously they also have dense, solid bones which cause them to float low in the water.

Unlike ducks, their feathers are not very waterproof! While having water resistent feathers protects a bird from getting soaked, this oily coating is not great for diving. So instead the cormorant lets its feathers get waterlogged – allowing the bird to sink and dive more effectively. This leads to their classic pose of perching in the sun with wings outstretched, drying them out.

A final adaptation is their remarkable underwater vision. The cormorant can focus on a fish that is only 3½ inches in front of its eyes, because the lens in its eye can change shape far more than a human’s lens can.

These adaptations come with some costs! With short wings in relation to their body size due to their need to swim, they actually expend more energy than any other bird in flight.

Castle Island provides a safe perching outpost for these Cormorants. There is something very contemplative about cormorants perched in a tree gazing out over the loch.

The warm sun this week has made us think of our reptiles. Not only have we eagerly taken on a transect surveying our adder across the next 2 years as part of a new national project called ‘Status of the adder Vipera berus in Scotland’ but a colleague spotted a common lizard basking in the winter sunshine in Inverness this week!!

A beautiful big female adder watching us closely in previous years

While conventional wisdom states that our adders and lizards hibernate from October and emerge in mid February/March time – maybe we need to rethink this!

Hibernation in reptiles is quite different to the deep sleep of mammals and is known as “Brumation”. During brumation, the reptile is still awake, but all normal bodily processes are reduced to their absolute minimum. Their dormancy has periods of activity. If the weather is mild, they will venture out and bask though they won’t go very far from their chosen hiding spot or den site.

So on sunny winter days keep your eyes peeled! We would love to know when you first spot an adder or lizard!

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Spectacularly Wintery and piercingly Cold

Happy New Year from all the Muir of Dinnet NNR team. I returned to the reserve for the first time in 2022 on Wednesday to take on my new role as reserve manager after a great partnership with Catriona Reid for three years as Reserve Assistant.

I have not experienced the reserve in the depths of winter before. My first challenge has been to acclimatise myself to how piercingly cold it can get. In the first week of the New Year temperatures have hovered around zero with a biting wind chill. This has brought sifting snow and ice – lots of it.

In the glorious spells of sub zero sunshine everything sparkles through a thick layer of tiny intricate ice crystals and the trees have taken on a beautiful ghostly quality. It is both dazzlingly beautiful and hostile at the same time. Wrap up extra warm if you are visiting us right now. Please take care and drive slowly in the carpark too as it is very icy.

A thin and shimmering ice sheet forming over Loch Kinord. The ice tinkles musically as it laps against the shoreline and it reflects the clouds beautifully. Maybe counterintuitively our lochs freeze from the top down! 
A stunning image of a moody Loch Kinord contributed by Adam Price who has been photographing the reserve for over a decade.
Loch Kinord through ice crystals

On my first patrol of the year it was great to be heralded by these ethereal Whooper swan on Loch Kinord in the sifting snow.

A gaggle of honking Whooper swan heading to investigate a Mute swan family.
The ice forces our birds into large groups far out in the remaining patches of open water. On the plus side this makes them ridiculously easy to count 🙂
Hoar frost making even blades of grass look exquisite

Hoar frost is swathing our vegetation and drastically changing the appearance of everyday sights. Hoar frost is the feathery frost that forms when water vapour in the air comes into contact with solid surfaces that are already below freezing point. Ice crystals form immediately, and the ice continues to grow as more water vapour is frozen. The word ‘hoar’ comes from old English and refers to the old age appearance of the frost: the way the ice crystals form makes it look like white hair or a beard.

Hoar frost in overdrive
Icy gorse flowers
An icy spiders web
Icy Phragmites reed beds on Loch Davan

Hoar frost grows really well on trees overnight and gives them a petrified ghostly look. I now call them ghost trees.

Ghost Scots pine
Ghostly half frozen Birch trees. You can easily see which way the wind has been blowing
Hoar frost tends to develop on clear calm nights. You might think of hoar frost as the frozen equivalent of dew.
Spectacularly ice frocked trees

The cold weather is exerting obvious stress on our woodland birds, with a constant throng of visitors to our peanut feeders emptying them in the space of a couple of hours. While feeding this way is ideal for species such as coal tits and great tits, those birds that can’t perch on a feeder such as Robin are just looking forlorn and hungry. If you are able to scatter meal worms and seed mix around the ground in your garden please do just now.

Too cold for Comfort. This little Robin looked so miserable and dull today I resorted to uncooked porridge oats to feed him which were very gratefully scoffed.

Just leave you with my current obsession – the many changing faces of Morven, the hill which overlooks us, sentinel like.

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Rubbing Along – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Have you ever notice how a great many of people’s hobbies annoy someone else? Motorists get like hell about cyclists, while mountain bikers may scare pedestrians and horse riders – who annoy the walkers by leaving piles of poo on the path (aye, the horses, not the riders). Water users annoy anglers, while anglers and water users annoy the birdwatchers. Dog owners often annoy one another, usually when someone’s dog tries to eat someone else’s dog, and anyone who is watching wildlife will bemoan the countryside looking like Crufts. Oh, and they all generally expect ‘the ranger’ to sort it out, who is probably fighting the urge to knock their silly heads together and tell them to get on with it!

Birdwatching

Okay, that is a jokey sort of summary, but it carries an element of truth. Here, in Scotland, we are privileged to have some of the most liberal countryside access laws in the world. Over much of our country, we are allowed to take pedestrian (non-motorised) access to land provided this is done responsibly. But, while you can find definitions of ‘responsible’ in the Scottish outdoor Access Code (SOAC), everybody has their own definition in their own head and, sadly, too often a feeling of privilege has been replaced by a sense of entitlement. This has been brought to the forefront in the past couple of years with some of the behaviours we have seen post-lockdown(s), but does seem to be a growing issue in the countryside.

Funny how it’s much heavier to carry out empty, than in when it’s full, isn’t it?

Clearing up afterwards

And, while people have the ‘right’ to undertake an activity, it should only be done so responsibly – i.e.  if it doesn’t create too many problems for other people or wildlife.  Now, I should say here and now, the majority of people are pretty good – they generally want to go out and enjoy themselves and not cause any problems. But there are always those who will put their own pleasure above the needs of wildlife – and other visitors. With increasing numbers of people in the countryside, even the incorrigible 1% can cause a lot of damage. We see this over and over, with those who litter, or light fires, or behave in a way that is just not acceptable on a national nature reserve. And, while people can discuss, argue over, or even swear at one another about things they don’t like, the wildlife can’t speak up for itself. We regularly get people complaining that someone has a dog out of control, has lit a fire, is being noisy, has cycled past too fast, but the birds can’t come up to us and say ‘hey, guys, I don’t feel like nesting because someone has scared me off every day for the past month’. So we need to speak up for the wildlife and try and direct people to take access in a way that will not ruin the NNR and destroy the very thing that a nature reserve is a nature reserve for.

Mother goldeneye with a mere 6 of her brood

Mum plus babies

A big problem we see is the cumulative effect of disturbance. People may argue they are doing nothing wrong. And, individually, that may be right. But one small disturbance incident from different people, repeated over and over, will build up to affect wildlife. Creatures use energy every time they move to escape from us and, even out presence may raise their metabolic rate. Ever felt nervous about anything? Exams? Interviews? Meeting the in-laws? You can feel your heart beat faster and you’ve got those ‘ butterflies’ – and all these responses will mean you are burning energy faster. It’s the same for wildlife – even if something doesn’t run/ fly away, it may still be stressed. It’s one of the hardest things to explain to people – being responsible may mean that you have to accept that you are part of the problem and the only way to not be is avoiding an area, especially during a sensitive time like the breeding season.

Anxious, alarm-calling willow warbler.

It’s especially important to keep dogs under control on nature reserves. Now, this isn’t going to be an anti-dog tirade, and, contrary to what people believe, a great many nature reserve staff love dogs and have dogs too.  And I am compelled to admit it’s not necessarily the dog that’s the problem, it’s often the owner! But the simple fact of the matter is wildlife is scared of dogs. Most creatures have evolved to view something hairy with four legs and a general dog-shape as a wolf and run away. Unless there is something telling you otherwise you should always assume a dog should be kept under close control on a nature reserve – and this means on a lead or at heel, not charging around and ‘he’ll come back if I call’. And as for bags of dog poo hung in trees…just gonnae no’?

Dogs off lead

Please- keep dogs on lead in the NNR!

As rangers, it’s one of the hardest things we have to do, approach people about their dog being out of control and chasing wildlife or annoying other visitors. Because the dog will be a much-loved member of the family, people take this very personally – it’s almost like you’re criticising their child or their parenting abilities. Even a very polite request to keep a dog on a lead for the sake of the wildlife can be met with abuse – or the outright unwillingness to accept there is any issue in the first place.

Some places are okay for a run; others aren’t

And that’s where we come to rubbing along. We all have the ‘right’ to be in the countryside – so how do we do so without damaging nature and annoying each other? You can certainly find guidance in the SOAC and, usually, there are signs when you get to a site telling you about local issues. But a lot of it is just about respect, plain and simple. I’m not going to Aretha anyone at this point (you wouldn’t want me to; my singing has been likened to the noises you’d expect from trying to drown a cat in a tin bath) but we really need to respect everyone and everything else around us.  So, for the most part, here are some simple guidelines:

RESPECT the wildlife. Most people are in the countryside for leisure activities – but what is your hobby may be a matter of life and death for the creatures that live there. We know that biodiversity is in trouble – try not to contribute to this by scaring wildlife in our country.

Canoeing responsibly

RESPECT other people. We all want to enjoy ourselves. Cycle past people slowly. Smile at one another. Keep your furry best friend beside you. Be polite. Respect what they’re doing, even if not’s not your ‘thing’. Follow SOAC. Read signs. Be nice. Be best you can be in the countryside. Leave only footprints and take away memories, knowing you have done the right thing.

Out for a walk

RESPECT the countryside. As we said earlier, most people come into the countryside for leisure. But people live here and work here and it’s their livelihood, their vocation, a big part of their lives. Just, for a second, imagine how you’d feel if someone damaged or destroyed something you’d worked for because they were having fun. That’s what a lot of countryside workers face on a daily basis.

Irresponsible campsite

DON’T. Don’t what? It’s not a fashionable thing to say, but sometimes doing the right thing is not doing something. Maybe you need to avoid a loch where birds are breeding, a tern colony, a seal haul-out. The very, very best thing you can do for some wildlife is stay well away, maybe for the breeding season, maybe all year. Don’t be an environmental thief – help save wildlife for future generations.

Seals. Best left well alone.

If we all respect the wildlife and each other, then, hopefully, we should be able to rub along together and enjoy a nature-rich future.

Germander speedwell and buttercups

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Short Days – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, here we are,  in the depths of December, in the dark of the year. We’re  only ten days off the shortest  day, then the year turns. For another month or so, we’re in the armpit of the year, the deepest depths of winter. A lot of people find this a difficult time of year – very little daylight, cold, and not everyone is into the mid-winter festival we now call ‘Christmas’. Now, personally, I must admit I find it easier than the unrelenting daylight and unremitting stress of summer, a part of the rhythm of the year. Things should be frenetic in spring, summer and autumn – breeding, raising young, fattening up to survive the winter – but, when winter comes, things should slow down and tick over, maintenance level for survival. Things can feel slower too, with the trees all bare and sleeping and the sun taking forever to creep over the surrounding hills in the morning.

Sunrise over Loch Kinord

Bare birch sunrise

I love the light at this time of year; the rose-gold of dawn and the fragile sunlight which barely warms your back. Because the sun lives so low in the sky in winter, we have a long dawn, with trees and hills blushing pink for an hour in the light-before-sunrise. This is the rising sun reflecting off the clouds and that light is what makes everything glow, from the burning-ember trunks of Scots pine trees to the pink of Morven’s snowfields.

Pines in first light

Pink morning sun on Morven

There’s just something about light on water that is pleasing to the eye and soul as well. Even cities can look good after dark, reflecting their otherwise hideous sodium-glow off their local river. But they will never beat a sunrise – or sunset – over a loch or the sea.

Sunrise over Loch Kinord

Sunrise over Loch Kinord

And we’ve had several good sunrises this week. It has cleared up overnight – no aurora sadly – but the clear skies make for crisp mornings. Everything has a thin rime of frost covering it.

frosty moss

Although it’s been frosty, we haven’t had any desperately hard frosts yet, the kind where it doesn’t lift for days, and where even water in the air condenses and freezes out onto every twig, branch and blade of grass. That’s when you get a proper ‘hoar frost’, with ice crystals several millimetres long decorating all the vegetation. It’s usually pretty rare, something we’ll only see a handful of mornings in a year, but when you do, is something special to behold. Wonder when we’ll get one this year?

Frost crystals in close up

It certainly hasn’t been cold enough to freeze the lochs yet. Oh, there is some ice in the sheltered bays, but it’s a thin skim, breaking at the slightest touch. The open water means the birds can still feed and we saw one spectacular example of this on Thursday. This goosander had caught a pike and was determined it was going down the hatch, in spite of it looking a good 8-12 inches long. It took over 5 minutes, with a lot of splashing, neck stretching, flapping and straining until the pike finally disappeared. Given the mouthful of teeth a pike has, not a snack without risk either!

Goosander with fish

Down the hatch!

Another surprise this week was nearly tripping over this frog on the path near Burn o Vat. Most amphibians spend the winter tucked away, in some nook or in the mud at the bottom of ponds. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frog in December before, with the exception of when we once disturbed one while clearing a blocked ditch. What it was doing out on a frosty morning, I do not know, but I do hope it hides away before the weather gets any colder.

December frog?

Storm Barra was much ado about nothing on the reserve. After Arwen, we did wonder if it was out turn to cop it – but it seemed that the west got it worse. We had one snapped, hung-up branch we had to take down with the pole saw, a piece of kit I am a massive fan of.  It’s long enough to deal with stuff 5m above your head – and, more importantly, long enough that you can stand out of the way of falling branches! Gravity, like taxation, is one of the constants of the universe and, when you finally free the branch, it inevitably heads downward at speed so it’s best to be somewhere else when it lands.

Cutting hung-up branch

Branch down!

After Barra passed over, it was, like after Arwen, mockingly still. The fury of the storm was replaced by the placid calm of a mid-winter day, with all the trees reflecting in the loch. These days are gold, amidst the leaden coinage of winter, and are to be enjoyed. And we did. Winter is a time to stand and stare – as long as you’re wrapped up warm.

Loch Kinord bare trees

Aspen reflecting

Tree reflections

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Northern Storms – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Arwen. Tolkien’s elvish maiden of legend, fairest of all, Evenstar of her people. But her name will be rather more infamous after this past weekend, a storm of power and fury like many of us have never seen. In places, whole woodlands have been flattened and thousands of people spent – or are still spending- days without power. In general, evergreen trees have been hardest hit, though plenty of now-bare broadleaves have come down too. We had no power at the Burn o Vat for 4 days and, with a by-then internal temperature of 6 degrees, were beginning to worry about our pipes freezing! But heroic efforts by the SSE folks restored power on Monday and we even were able to get a brew after our tree clearing efforts -bliss! Although not as badly hit as some coastal areas, we inevitably had some trees down over paths. The biggest of these was an old birch on the south shore of the loch.

Fallen tree

It must have come down with quite a thump! One branch had embedded itself a good spade’s-depth into the path and, even once cut, took quite a haul to get it out.

The branches embed themselves in the path!

Cutting fallen tree

When you get winds like these, some of the worst damage you see is when trees ‘domino’ – knock each other over as they fall and/or rip up root plates.  This is most likely to happen in plantations and often with non-native trees like Sitka spruce or Norway fir and you wind up with a dangerous, jumbled mass of roots, branches and timber  (and, for the SSE guys and girls,  100s of trees on the power lines). These have to be untangled like ‘pick up sticks’ top one first, the brash and timber cleared away so you can get at the next one, and so on. Mercifully, a lot of our woodland isn’t dense plantation and broadleaves, having lost their leaves already, were less vulnerable to the winds. But a pair of birches had domino’d and it did take a while to unpick these.

Fallen trees

All our paths should now be open and tree-free. At least until the next gale!

Tree cleared

After the wind, while we were clearing up, the weather seemed to go mockingly still. Haha, it seemed to say, I’ve battered you and  now look how beautiful I can be. Look at the hills, covered in fresh snow, glowing dazzlingly white. Look at the lochs, still and calm, reflecting the winter sun. Look at you lot, smelling like the ratcatcher’s dog after 3 days chainsawing…

Culblean hill

Snowier than last week!

icy Kinord, snowy Morven

All sorted!

Away from the tender mercies of Arwen, it’s been a typical winter week. Cold, the odd nice day and the odd sleety, dreich one. It’s hard to believe a scarce 10 days ago we were working in t-shirts, muttering about the unseasonable 16 degree temperature. But now there are snows and frosts, and we are starting to see icy patterns build up on the water. This ditch was still flowing but the froth on top had frozen, into a  glacier- like pattern of striations and ridges.

Water patterns

Water patterns

Water patterns

The colder weather has brought more of a sense of urgency to the birds. They are feeding frantically, trying to build up reserves and have enough food to keep warm. Our peanut feeder, which usually does a steady trade, is now much in demand with constant coal tit comings and goings. It’s still not really cold though, they are still fighting over the feeder. When the weather is properly harsh, they don’t waste energy bickering and just get on with feeding.

Coal tits

The snow earlier in the week made it obvious where other birds had been feeding. This scatter of rowan seed showed someone had been eating the berries – but who?

Rowan seeds

Our answer came with a series of fluting calls from nearby and the flash of a white rump as a bird flew off. Bullfinch! There have been around 15 of these lovely finches by the visitor centre this week and they are always a pleasure to see, hanging acrobatically upside down as they feed.

Bullfinch

Male bullfinch

Acrobatic bullfinch

They weren’t the only birds taking advantage of the rowans. Fieldfares have replaced redwings as the dominant thrush on the reserve. And they make the redwings look positively refined by comparison! There are a couple of flocks on the reserve about 150 strong – raiding parties- that descend on an area and strip it of berries, all the while chattering, bickering and ‘tack-tak-tak-ing’ in alarm. They are noisy, gregarious, rowdy, beautiful birds and positively exciting to watch en masse. But later in the year, the flocks will disperse and individual birds will defend a berry tree or garden until the food runs out. If it’s cold like last February, you may well find one  in your garden, beating up the local blackbirds, starlings or any other bird it sees as a threat to its food. Keep a look out – especially if it turns cold!

Fieldfares in ash tree

Fieldfare, guzzling rowans

Fieldfare

 

 

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Early Sunsets – Muir of Dinnet NNR

The nights, as they say, are fair drawing in. We’re now into the darkest two months of the year and less than a month from the winter solstice. It makes for long, dark nights but it does mean that sunsets and sunrises happen at a civilised time of day…and night. And we’ve been making the best of them, enjoying the colours and the changes as the light grows and fades.

Sunset

Sunset

First light – a faint glimmer in the east

Sun behind ash tree

Sunrises over Loch Davan are always special. Even more so when there is a little mist hanging over the loch and the ducks and swans come and go like ghosts on the water.

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise

Swans in the mist

It’s been getting colder, too. The 16 degrees of last week has been replaced by frost this week. The days are still relatively mild so the frost doesn’t last long but, for an hour or so, the frost makes everything sparkle and glimmer.

Frosty grass

Frost

Frosty clover leaf

But, in, spite of the fact that the year is still a month from turning, we are seeing the odd sign of spring. Yes, spring. If you know where to look, you can see the year turning before the calendar ever does. We’ve already seen the first goldeneye displaying this week, to odd milder day making them think breeding thoughts. They’ll go off the idea again when it gets colder but it’s always nice to see the first-neck stretch and foot-splash of the season.

Goldeneye display. I can stretch my neck further than him….mate with me memememe!

Male goldeneye displaying

It’s not just the goldeneye that are showing hints of spring. The hazel bushes have also put on catkins. They won’t open for a few month yet, but are already formed, just waiting for the longer days.

Hazel catkins

However, we have a winter to get through before then and were reminded of the fact when Morven and all the local hills were capped with snow once more. It’s still pretty high up, above 2500 feet at a guess, but will work its way lower over the winter. Or, on Thursday, if the forecast is to be believed!

Morven sunrise

Winter is also the time of year we get onto all the habitat management and maintenance jobs around the reserve. We’ve been clearing drains and ditches – a messy, smelly but oddly satisfying job – and one that needs done every year. Yes, the ditches will silt up naturally but we occasionally find they’ve been blocked by other things. Molehills are a favourite – moles will usually have one tunnel that comes out somewhere they can get a drink, so a ditch is ideal. Until their excavated earth blocks it. More annoying are the dog poo bags and coke cans though…

Drain blocked with leaves

Drain blocked by molehill!

Now the leaves are off the trees, we can see any damage that was done by the last set of gales. Fallen trees are obvious enough, but snapped branches may not be visible until all the leave fall. Once we spot them, we dig out the pole saw and use it to take them safely down so they don’t drop in the next high winds (forecast Saturday!). As the tallest member of our team, Patrick drew the ‘long’ straw and was handed the saw! It’s hard work, as you’re usually working above your head and, with bigger branches, you often need ‘my arms are dropping off’ breaks. Fortunately, there was no big stuff to broken and the branches were soon down.

We’ll leave you this week with yet another ‘skies’ picture. Given snow is forecast, I wonder if we’ll have any clouds like this looming over the reserve in the next few days?

A snow shower moving in from the west in the morning sun

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Misty Mornings -Muir of Dinnet NNR

Autumn is often a time of misty mornings. Mild damp days followed by chill nights make water condense out of the air and a blanket of mist covers the land. Or, some days, just the cooler, damper places, like up the river valleys or over the lochs. It looks amazing from high ground on these mornings; all the low-lying land shrouded in mist, but the hill tops, bathed in early sun, popping out the top of the blanket of fog. You feel like you’re on top of the world in mornings like this, like the mist is something you could skim over to mountains on the other side of the valley. Then, as you descend, a cool, clammy blanket envelops you and the sun becomes a distant memory. Then, the gradual clearing as the mist burns off. We’ve had to wait until mid- November to get days like this in 2021 but they are worth waiting for.

Mist first thing

Mist starting to clear

Monday was such a day. And it took a long time for the mist to go, too, at least over some of the reserve. The southern part of the reserve , by Loch Kinord, was crystal clear but the mist came and went over Davan for a fair chunk of the day. One minute the mist was in, the next it was clear.

Misty morning

Mist over Davan

Loch Davan

This panorama show how half the reserve was misty – and half was glorious sunshine!

A panorama showing the mist over half the reserve

The other thing the mist does, in a morning when it burns off and the sun come out, is coat everything in a fine sheen of water. You need a totally still day for this to happen; any breeze will blow the droplets away or dry them out. On those rare, utterly still mornings, it seems the woods have been showered in diamonds overnight. Every twig, every leaf, every blade of grass is covered in scintillating light as the sun rises, the water shattering light into a thousand rainbows and flashes, that shimmer and dazzle as you turn your head. You can never capture this on camera. The nearest you can come is to put on the star filter and get arty!

Sparkly wet branches

Sparkly wet branches

Sparkly wet branches

Sparkly spiders’ webs

Sparkly spiders’ webs

The mist also picks out the spiders’ webs. You just don’t realise how covered the woodland is in spider silk until you get a morning like this.  But these webs are very effective at capturing water and, suddenly, they become visible, especially backlit in the sin. Pity the insect that has to navigate these silken traps – they must be pretty hard to avoid!

Spider’s web

Sparkly spiders’ webs

Spider’s web

When the mist did clear, oh, the reflections! Often it needs water-on-a-layer-of-ice to get this sharp a reflection, but these were just still, clear water. You could see every branch, every twig, every sprig of lichen reflected.

Kinord flat calm

Bare trees reflecting

Bare trees reflecting

Reflections

There aren’t many leaves left to reflect now. Most of the birch are bare and what little colour there is, is mainly coming from the willows round the loch now. But you could be forgiven for thinking it’s much earlier in the autumn if you are under the big oak trees on the east shore. The oaks are usually late to come into leaf in spring, then late to lose them in autumn, and they still have the full glory of their autumn colours.

Oak leaves

Oak tree

Loch Kinord

While admiring the trees, we noticed an odd-looking duck on the loch. What the heck’s that? A female long-tailed duck? Surely not!

Long-tailed duck

But it was. Now, long-tailed ducks are sea ducks. They breed in the (very) high Arctic and some winter around our coasts. The males are amongst the most beautiful of ducks, black, white, chocolate-brown, with a cute pink patch on the beak, and a perky, cheerful-looking long tail. And, typically for ducks, the females are drab, brown and fairly non-descript. But the white patches on her face are a bit unusual, and were enough for us to pick her out. What she’s doing here is a bit of a mystery, but she’s the second ‘sea duck’ of the autumn to add to the velvet scoter we had a couple of weeks back. Bizarre!

Long-tailed duck

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Fallen Leaves, Fallen Trees and First Frosts – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been the sort of week where you stop saying ‘late autumn’ and start saying ‘ early winter’.  Oh, it’s been unseasonably mild – we’re still seeing plenty of toads wandering around the reserve, when they should be thinking about burying themselves in mud for the winter – but there is a edge to the wind and a bareness to the trees that speak of the winter months to come. Most of the birches are bare now, but some of the willows still hold golden leaves.

Dull day reflections

It’s the toad – in November!

And it was a bit more than an edge to the wind on Sunday night – more like a battering ram! With gusts in excess of 70 mph,  some of the trees took a hammering. At least most of the leaves have gone now, so they aren’t quite so vulnerable to the wind, but there were a few casualties. The worst of these was an old birch, snapped over not one, but two paths. While I was cursing the job ahead, I did have to admire the completeness with which it had blocked one path, while also managing to dangle dangerously over a different path. Quite an achievement for just one tree!

Not safe! Hung up tree.

And the same tree, blocking a different path

That one tree did take us most of the afternoon to clear up. First, you need to get all the saws and winches to the site – and, mercifully, we could get a vehicle in to it, otherwise you’re knackered carrying stuff by the time you start cutting! Then set up the safety ‘Tree Felling’ (ie please don’t wander past us while we’re cutting. Yes, I’m afraid people are that daft) signs. Then set up the winch and pull the snapped tree onto the ground. It’s a lot safer to cut up something lying on the ground; one of the golden rules of tree work is ‘ never work under a hung-up tree’, (basically cos it might drop on your silly head at any point). That and  ‘always use your chain brake’ and ‘never cut through your hinge…’.

Once the tree is down, it’s all over bar the sawing-and-chucking-bits-off-the-path. But that’s still an hour’s work there, and it’s oh, so satisfying when it’s done!

All sorted!

It’s turned windy again now but the middle of the week was flat-calm. A great time to go out and count ducks on the loch. The ducks are looking at their best just now; they have mostly moulted out of their drab ‘eclipse’ plumage into their full breeding splendour. Now, as I’ve said before, waterfowl are one of my favourite groups of birds. This probably dates from when I was a kid and just learning to identify birds. Ducks – well, the drakes at least – are relatively easy to tell apart and, as a budding birder, it’s nice to be able to confidently say’ the one with the yellow foreheads is a wigeon’. Especially compared with warblers which are small, flitty and you need to count the wingbars and eyebrows and look how long the flight feathers are…nah, give me a duck any day!

A pair of wigeon; she’s preening, making herself look attractive….but he knows he’s gorgeous already!

And they make a great noise. Who doesn’t love a duck quack! But they don’t just quack – what we think of a duck quacking is largely just the mallards. Wigeon whistle ‘wheeeeow’. Teal proop-proop. Gadwall quack, but deeply, more of a ‘nerk’ than a quack. Goldeneye buzz ‘zip-zeeeow’. Tufties grunt and growl. So even their calls are as varied as their plumage.

Mallard ducks

Steaming in  – the goldeneye.

We also have the ongoing entertainment of the local swan wars. Loch Davan usually holds a couple of breeding pairs of mute swans and they will hold territory pretty much all winter. But they don’t get the loch to themselves, my goodness, no. Bachelor or younger pairs of mute swans will take up residence over the winter and that’s not to mention any visiting whooper swans. But all this company makes the local residents a bit uptight and ‘swan wars’ ensue as the resident pairs attempt to chase off the visitors. To be fair, they’re not usually as bothered about the whoopers – maybe they’re just different enough to not trigger an outright territorial response – but other mute swans get the full ‘get orf my land’ treatment – wings back, steaming through the water, then a full-on wing thrashing, running-over-the -water attack.

Chased off

Grumpy mute swan

Mind you, it’s a good chance to compare ‘our’ resident mute swans with the ‘wild’ whooper swan who visit us from Iceland every winter. The younger, non-territorial mute swans quite happily hang out with the whoopers and, at a distance, you have to look quite closely to tell them apart.

two kinds of swans!

Closer to, you can see that the whoopers are a bit smaller, straighter- necked and have a yellow beak instead of the orange-and-black beak of the mute. And, though mute swans aren’t mute – they hiss, growl and mutter away quite happily – they don’t have the musical, bugling call of the whooper.

Whooper swan (left) and mute swan

Different coloured beaks

The winds at both ends of the week have brought in fairly mixed weather. There have been glimmers of sun and a few fairly sharp and unpleasant showers. But a combination of these does produce some amazing rainbows. Maybe you can come and see us and visit the reserve at the end of the rainbow this weekend!

Double rainbow

rainbow trees

The reserve at the end of the rainbow!

 

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November Winds – Muir of Dinnet NNR

While our autumn colours are glorious, I’ve known years when they’ve been better and lingered for longer. Why? Well, the wind this year has been the difference! We’ve had a pretty unsettled autumn, with lots of strong winds – and a fair bit of heavy rain. (Remember when, back in July, we were wishing so hard for rain when there was a drought ? No, me neither….). And the wind and the rain between them have contrived to knock down the leaves as soon as they turn, so the colours haven’t lingered this year. The aspen, so glorious last week, are now bare.

Bare aspen

Bare aspen

But the larch trees are still looking lovely. There is one broken larch on the reserve, with branches that trail to the ground, that make a sort of golden cave of branches and larch needles. I usually find an excuse to visit it and sit under it for lunch at least once every autumn.

Larch needles

Larch needles

At least there were still some autumn colours left for our visitors on Tuesday. We were privileged to host a delegation from the US Department of the Interior, including Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland. They were visiting the Cairngorms National Park on the way to COP26 and we were delighted to be able to show them  the wonders of the Burn o Vat and the beauty of autumn in Scotland. Even in fairly brief conversations, is was obvious that they face many of the same issues and challenges we do, from impacts of climate change to the occasionally idiotic behaviour of people. Let’s hope COP26 can mark the start of some real progress towards stopping global warming and the associated impacts upon climate and biodiversity.

Secretary Haaland entering the Vat

Pointing out the crannog

At the viewpoint

Then, on Wednesday, we had an ‘away day’ to one of our sister reserves, Tentsmuir NNR. Set on the southern,  shore of the Firth of Tay, it was  fascinating to spend some time here and see the differences and similarities between our reserves.  It was also lovely to see colleagues, some of whom we hadn’t seen for over two years. A lot of catching up was done and we learned a lot about the reserve too, from the team there – and had definitely made me want to go back! Thanks to Marijke and Alex for sharing their knowledge with us.

Tentsmuir talk

Tentsmuir pavilion

Tentsmuir

Back at Dinnet, it seems like the reserve is sinking under the weight of redwings! I have never seen an influx of these winter thrushes on this scale. There is a constant rush of wings as the raiding parties move from rowan tree to rowan tree. But, while  there are hundreds, if not thousands, of redwing here, it won’t be long until they almost all leave – like any guest, once the food runs out, the venue becomes less attractive and they go elsewhere with better catering! Once the berries are all eaten, the redwings will move on, probably heading south to yet warmer climates…with as-yet-uneaten rowans!

Redwing flock

Redwing. You can just make out the red underwing.

Meanwhile, the winds continue to keep us busy. When winds hit before all the leaves come off the trees, the full or partial canopy acts a bit like a sail, catching the wind – and making it far more likely a tree will snap in a gale. We are still clearing up after the last gale and it looks like more are on the way this weekend, so I anticipate a  bit of chainsawing next week!

Clearing fallen tree

 

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Velvet Ducks and a symphony of colour

This week Loch Davan has entertained a very unexpected visitor. On Wednesday – a female Velvet Scoter appeared. Known as a sea duck we believe she must have been blown off course by the strong winds on Tuesday night. She is dusky brown and distinctive with her white head patches and wing bar.

This species breeds in Scandinavia and western Siberian Russia and winters along the coasts of Western Europe and the east coast of the UK. Normally, in winter this species is found on inshore coastal waters, rarely inland, and never venturing ashore. A highly sociable bird, Velvet Scoters can be found in large flocks. They dive to feed, with the flock synchronising their diving for shellfish, crabs and sea urchins.

Sadly globally, this species is estimated to have undergone a population decline of 30–49% over the last three generations and is a Red List species.

Through a variety of effects, climate change potentially represents the greatest threat to the species, at present and in the future. A trend of decreasing lying spring snow cover has been linked to declining Scoter populations in North America and Siberia.

female velvet scoter
The white wingbar is a diagnostic feature of the species

The work of the reserve this week has been to fell dying birch trees close to our trails. We did this with mixed feelings as dead wood is a great and important habitat. However we consider it a pre-emptive strike as dead, diseased or dying trees can pose a major threat to people, as the large quantities of dead wood and the damage to the stability of the tree can create serious safety hazards, particularly during strong winds. So we only fell dead trees that are right beside the path and dangerous to visitors.

Gone. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no -one around to hear it does it make a noise. Yes it does – a very satisfying loud thud.

Across the reserve is a symphony of colour. The tree of the reserve this week has got to be our aspen. Their stunning shimmering golden leaves make these trees out standing in the landscape.. Their leaves have transformed from a coppery colour in spring, to verdant green to now a brilliant yellow. Each separate aspen clone has its own individual colouration.

Aspen is what is known as a pioneer species. It is fast growing and responds well to disturbance. As in other pioneer species, an individual tree is short-lived, surviving for perhaps only 50-100 years. But the clone to which it belongs will live for much longer than this.

Scientists have studied the life span of closely-related trembling aspen and concluded that individual clones can survive for 14,000 years or more. This probably makes them the longest lived organisms on the planet!

Aspen – the essence of yellow
Aspen in the wind

The distinctive sight and sound of aspen leaves ruffled by the wind has inspired poets through the ages and in some places earned it the name of “old wives’ tongues” because the leaves are constantly moving.

Appropriately as we approach Halloween, with its origins in the ancient Caltic festival of Samhain, the visual effect of an aspen trembling in the wind was said to be the tree communicating between this world and the next.

This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the “darker” season. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Celtic priests to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.

They peeled apples to help them read the future. This continued and became the popular Halloween game of bobbing-for-apples. If you are the first to catch the apple in your mouth, you’re supposedly blessed with good luck until the next harvest festival.

crab apple tree groaning with fruit

Certain birds are feared around Halloween time as well.

Carrion crow

Crows are carrion birds, scavenging the meat off dead animals. In Greek mythology, crows brought the goddess of war, Athena bad news so she cursed them. Some Native American tribes viewed crows as a trickster and trouble makers.

A beautifully camouflaged tawny owl

Owls too, efficient night predators, are linked with the dark. They are soundless in their flight and many are ambush hunters. Some of their hoots sound like screaming which can definitely be eerie in a dark forest.

Not far behind aspen in terms of beauty, for me, are the golden needle laden boughs of the European Larch.

In European folklore, larch was said to protect against enchantment.

These rich yellow tones are set into a kaleidoscope of scarlets, crimsons, russets and ambers.

a symphony of colour
the russet of bracken dying back
the amber of fallen ash leaves
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