A natural tableau and a stroll at Dawn

The dictionary defines a tableau as “ a striking or artistic grouping” from the French tableau vivant (meaning literally, living picture). National Nature Reserves across Scotland have excitingly been asked to forage natural items to represent our reserves and various biomes as graceful Japanese bonsai exhibits across the negotiating tables at COP 26 in Glasgow.

These will be assembled by more skilled hands than ours within the Japanese philosophy of Ikebana dating back 550 years.

Our lichen drenched boughs and autumn turned leaves and berries will hopefully find new life and beauty when placed in their new environment. 

This is some of what we have foraged from Muir of Dinnet. Nearly everything was gathered, not picked. A woodland tableau.

Top left the are some remnant bell heather blooms – becoming a vital final food source for our pollinators in the year.

White- tailed bumblebee – nectaring on bell heather a few weeks ago

Next a wind blown branch of English Oak, only now ripening into acorns that will attract Jays from far and wide.

As an oak releases its acorns into the harsh environment during September to November, the jay will collect many of the acorns (the healthy, ripe, good-sized ones), and bury them at a distance from the tree that may vary from tens of metres to a few miles. 

At the level of a single jay, the dispersal of acorns may be fairly small and localised, but when amplified to a group of jays 65 strong, research has indicated that (over the course of four weeks) up to 500,000 acorns may be dispersed.

Red rowan berries

Emerging in autumn our rowan berries are only now being stripped away by hungry birds and helped by some continental arrivals such as blackbird and fieldfare.

Fieldfare in rowan tree. the highest berries always get eaten first
Possibly a continental blackbird- the black beak can be a giveaway.
Bullfinch scoffing rowan berries

I couldn’t resist adding a sloughed adder skin. After a month of not seeing any adders the Cairngorms National Park Rangers spotted a very pristine big female last weekend.

Adder at top of dyke. Amazingly not in hibernation yet! Right now adult snakes follow scent trails left by other adders to find their way back to their hibernation sites. Hibernation sites are usually used by many snakes over several years.

The feathers belong to a Greater Spotted woodpecker, a Mallard Duck and the secretive woodcock.

Greater spotted Woodpecker with food. Depending on the season, a woodpecker may eat several different things. Popular woodpecker foods include insects, especially wood-boring insects, grubs, spiders, and ants.
The exquisitely camouflaged Woodcock is mainly nocturnal, hiding in the dense undergrowth of woodlands and heathlands during the day.

Fungi had to be included as the autumn season would be nothing without our weird and wonderful wild mushrooms. This webcap mushroom (possibly saffron webcap) just happened to be one I found perfectly intact on the path. The saffron webcap was used as a source of dye for colouring fabrics.

WIld mushrooms are the fruiting body of a huge, extensive network of mycelia living underground, underpinning carbon cycling in our woodland.

This bracket fungus – a wood decayer – from the viewpoint of a forest manager, could be seen in terms of financial losses resulting from deteriorating timber value.

In our reserve these fungi create a unique microhabitat of decaying wood play a major role in promoting the biodiversity of many groups of organisms, such as woodpeckers, bats, small mammals and invertebrates.

A young bracket fungus on dead standing Birch.

The tightly closed pine cones and whorl of Scots Pine needles represents our Scots Pine forest. Scots pine almost wholly dominates many of our pinewoods in the cold, dry east. Though not very diverse in their plant and animal life they do support some iconic species such as capercaillie and Britain’s only endemic species of bird, the Scottish crossbill. Elusive mammals such as Red Squirrel and Pinemarten are also found here.

Scots pine in morning sun
Hen caper
Cone cracking Crossbill
Red squirrel
A pine marten just yesterday morning

Delicate tiny flora like this crowberry carpet the woodland floor.

The delicate nodding white flowers of Cowberry can be appreciated again just now in our Scots Pine woodland.
Cowberry unusually has two flowering periods at the beginning and end of summer,
Scots pine forests provide an excellent habitat for the cowberry, which loves the shade of the pine canopy.
It spreads itself over the hummocks, those raised soft mats of vegetation that form over old tree stumps and rocks.and can often be seen with both flowers and berries growing simultaneously.

Just to leave you with photos from early this morning. With this morning’s forecast set for glorious I took the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the reserve from the top of old Kinord before hanging out with Whooper swans on Loch Davan. If you have the chance- and there were a couple of walkers out -in terms of being there for when the wildlife wakes up I can’t recommend it enough.

A gaggle of whooper swans on Loch Davan

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What’s in a Name? – Muir of Dinnet NNR

What’s in a name? We’re taught, as children, that name calling doesn’t matter – ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. But, of course, that’s not true – names, words and descriptions are strongly tied up in who we are, and how we view the world. They are part of our identity to the point we often change them if we are seeking to define ourselves in the world. And, in terms of the world around us, they define what we see, in a deeply personal way. If I say ‘tiger’, what do you conjure in your head? The Tiger Who Came to Tea, lounging in the kitchen, drinking daddy’s beer? Or burning bright in the forest, a flash of eyes, orange stripes, talons and the scream of the kill? If one word can call up so many and varied images, than what’s in a name is important.

Garden tiger moth. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t have the feline kind in our image library.

Here at Muir of Dinnet, we can trace at least some of the history through the names. Muir of Dinnet itself likely means ‘moor of the brown place’ and, well, there’s plenty of heather here, it’s brown for most of the year, so I suppose that makes sense. And Loch Kinord has miscellaneously been Loch Kander (Loch of the Headwater), Loch Canmore (probably after Malcolm Canmore, he of the ‘great head’) before setting to Loch Kinord – the loch at the head of the Ord hill.

Kinord reflections

Bogingore, near Burn o Vat, is ‘Little Bog of the Heron’. Or crane, there would have been cranes here a few centuries ago. It’s sometimes hard to tell from a name which large, long-legged bird would have been here in times past, as people were more obsessed surviving that differentiating between cranes and herons – often the key question was  ‘is it easy to catch and can you eat it?’. All that changed as the written word became more common and bestiaries, containing fantastic beasts, were replaced with something we’d recognise as an early versions of a field guide. Probably the first of these were the Thomas Bewick bird guides from the 1800s and, given these were hand-engraved, the quality of the artwork is astounding.


But there was still the intransigent problem of names. Depending on where you are in the country, peewit, peesie, green plover, teuchit, flapjack, flop-jack are all lapwings. To me, a ‘spink’ or ‘spinkie’ was a primrose. To my husband, brought up in the south of England, it was a chaffinch. And that’s all within the UK, it gets even harder when people from different countries are trying to communicate -a German birder would say ‘alpenstradlaufer’ (the alpine beach runner) and we’d say ‘dunlin’ (the little brown one). So we need an international language.


That’s where scientific names for things come in. These are usually derived from Latin or Greek, or a combination of the two, and are termed the binomial system, with the genus name being followed by the species name. Now, sometimes you hear scientists using these and it’s easy to think it’s just them being a bit superior and pretentious. And, fair enough, sometimes it is. But often it’s just to avoid ambiguity – oystercatcher is Haematopus ostralegus  to any birder in the world, whether they call it oystercatcher, sea-pie, skirlie-wirlie, tjeld, strandskata, austernfischer or gillie-brighde. Or even ‘those damned noisy black-and-white things that nest on the roof!’


So lets, have a look at some local things – and their names. And let’s start with something dead common that everyone will know, the blackbird. One of the most simply-named birds, it is also  Turdus merula (the black thrush), a coalie-bird, or lon-dubh in Gaelic. Unsurprisingly, all the names refer to its colour!

Male blackbird

Or how about this puffball mushroom? Its genus name is Lycoperdon, meaning ‘wolf fart’. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour?


Sometimes, scientific names can be surprisingly descriptive when you break them down. Cormorants, which we are used to seeing hanging themselves out to dry on the trees on Castle Island, are  Phalacrocorax – the bald-headed sea raven.

Cormorants roosting on Castle Island

And possibly my favourite belongs to the curlew. Whaups locally, they are also  Numenius arquata,  the bird with the new-moon, bow-shaped bill.

Curlew, blending into it’s background

Or there are the old names. The fireflirt – a redstart, with it’s red ‘steort’ -old English for ‘tail’.

Redstart (c) Ron Macdonald

As for the ‘skiddy-cock’, it sounds a bit rude. I suspect ‘water rail’ is a bit more socially acceptable but ‘brook-runner’ is more evocative.

Water rail

And I have no idea where ‘hedge mumruffin’ comes from for long-tailed tit. Bottle-tit I can kind of see, with the long tail making them vaguely shaped like an old bottle, but they can also go by ‘poke-pudding’. Your guess is as good as mine!

Long-tailed tit

So, next time you head out, look around you, you might see a dun-cock fiddling about in the bracken, or a yellow-neb on the loch- you may never know what you’ll see, but you can bet it’ll have a lot of different names!

Whooper swan

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Looking with fresh eyes

Writing this on a driech, rainy autumn day seven months into a busy season its quite easy to feel a little bit tired of having to react to the reserves’ day to day needs -patrolling, litter picking, strimming, engaging and dealing with anything that comes out of left field as it so often does. But then something changes and you come to appreciate it all again with fresh eyes.

That something is that Catriona Reid, Reserve Manager here for simply ages (on and off since 1999) has been seconded to our sister reserve Forvie National Nature Reserve for the next 18 months. A huge congratulations to Cat, and well done Forvie on snagging such a good manager. I know even while she is still here in post Cat is beginning to miss this place so I thought I might just summarise the season in pictures to cheer her on her way and remind her of what a good job she has done of protecting a very special place.

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of photographs we have taken (and some very talented contributors) across the year here are just a few to sum up what a good year its been.


Then the rejuvenating magic of Spring – awakening reptiles and amphibians, catkins, returning migrant birds and wildflowers – and the creation of our roped off zones to protect all of this.

Life on the water

A defining feature of the reserve are our two lochs. This year we have counted and mapped the birds on our Loch’s twice a week and really got to know them as their annual drama’s of courtship, mating and raising their young unfold.

A highlight was capturing on camera perhaps our shyest loch inhabitant in a lovely moment. This water rail family is happily foraging amongst the phragmites reed beds of Loch Kinord.

Mum, dad and 6 fluffy black chicks

Life on the bog

Parkins’ Moss is the place we go to enjoy the tranquility of our raised peat bog – a place full of strange and wonderfully adapted plants and animals.

Life on the land

Just to leave you with a few of those unusual and unique highlights. We promise not to break the place in her absence.

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Different Strokes – Muir of Dinnet NNR

One of the things I love about nature – and there are oh, so many – is that there is always something new to see and experience. A big part of that is the turn of the seasons and this week, as the equinox passed, we saw even more changes on the reserve. Although the days have been warm, the nights are getting cooler and there was nearly a frost on Monday morning. And, as so often happens around the equinox, it’s been windy, with the first gales of autumn bringing down several trees.

Grey skies

Stormy sky

Fallen birch

The north-westerly winds on Thursday also brought the first geese of the winter. If you’re travelling south from Iceland, a screaming north-westerly tailwind is exactly what you need to make the journey faster and more easily than you would if you had to flap all the way. And it seemed like the entire population of Icelandic pink-footed geese were hitching a lift on the wind. Every time we looked up, great skeins were scribbling V and W shapes in the sky, and there was the constant murmur of goose noise on the wind. Colleagues from Glen Feshie to Glen Doll to Forvie were all on Whatsapp, commenting that geese were going over them all day so it seems the whole country was under the flyway on Tuesday.

Pink footed geese overhead

And the wind didn’t just bring the geese. Dinnet and Forvie both bagged their first whooper swans of the winter. These are another Icelandic breeder, and the winds will have really helped them on their way. A big adult male swan can weigh up to 11kg, and that’s a lot of whooper to haul south across the North Atlantic. So they, too, have used the winds to ease their journey south, and it lovely to have them back. For me, goose and swan calls are the sound of autumn and winter, and I can’t hear them but I think of misty mornings, huge pastel sunsets under endless skies, the taste of frost and the smell of woodsmoke on the wind.

Super whoopers!

It’s not even necessarily something big, like the goose passage, that can catch your eye and make you thing ‘ whoa, that’s new’. I remember once seeing a long-tailed tit, hanging by one foot, clasping food in the other food and reaching down to eat it. And that was a behaviour I’d never seen before.

Hanging by one leg and using foot to help deal with food

Or it’s an unusual ‘throw’ of something common. Most of us, at some point, will have seen a white version of a common plant – white heather for example – but you get white versions of lots of plant. This is usually caused (although some plants bleach in the sun) by genetic variation and recessive gene combinations showing up. At some point over the years, I’ve seen white forms of thistle, bellflower, rock rose, 3 types of heather, bugle and bluebell.


White bluebell

It can show up in pretty much anything, too. We’ve had a couple of unusual insects this week, with an aberrant ‘throw’ of a white-tailed bumblebee giving us the screaming heebie-jeebies. It’s unusual colouration, at first glance, makes it look like a greater-yellow bumblebee, which are really rare and you definitely don’t get here. Could we have found something remarkable? Well, yes and no. It wasn’t a greater-yellow but was an unusual form of the white-tailed – and a rather attractive insect to boot.

White- tailed bumblebee – yellow form

Another very unusual and attractive insect we spotted this week was this pink form of the common green grasshopper. Now, normally, the name’s a bit of a giveaway, it does what it says on the tin. It’s a) common, b) green and c) a grasshopper. But this one was more than half pink. And bright pink at that, a violent cerise colour. While I can’t say it’s the most attractive colour combination I’ve ever seen (frankly, it clashes horribly, green and cerise, don’t go at all) it does make for a very striking insect. Unfortunately, the pink forms of these don’t have great survival rates as they are so much more obvious to predators than the all-green versions. And, right enough, bright pink insect in green grass? Not going to work!

Common green grasshopper

Away from the ‘unusual’ stuff, autumn is progressing apace. And we’re seeing all the things you’d expect at this time of year -late flowers, late second-generation butterflies, fruit and berries forming, the trees turning and some lovely misty mornings. We’ll leave you today with a selection of pictures of these that will hopefully inspire you to get out there and enjoy autumn!

Aspen leaf

Red admiral

Hawthorn berries

Rowans for far side of loch

Misty morning

Reeds edged with dew

Mist rising off the loch

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Sultry Silences

This week we have experienced some bizarre weather on the reserve with some extreme heat and lingering humidity. Wednesday saw the hottest September day in Scotland in106 years and out on the ground it was pretty uncomfortable, with a temperature breaking 27°C and 96% humidity. Coming in to enjoy the wildlife on a sunny day off I was surprised at the lack of movement and the quietness.

I changed tack and took some time to appreciate the smaller things that abound.

These lovely almost entwining Orange Grisette (Amanita crocea) in the woodland around Loch Davan. There latin name refers to refers to the saffron colouring of this mushroom with Saffron the orange-yellow spice derived from the flowers of the Saffron Crocus. These fungi form mutually beneficial relationships with Birch.
Recently given the common name Bald Inkcap, Parasola leiocephala is a very delicate member of the inkcap group of fungi. It occurs singly or in small groups in short grass and on woodland edges.
This is one of the many short-lived inkcap fungi that appear overnight following rain; the fruitbodies develop, expand, shed their spores and decay within 24 hours and by the next morning there is usually little or no evidence of them ever having been there.
A fragile seeming white Harebell.

With its papery petals and delicate appearance, you might think the harebell a rather fragile wild flower. In fact, it’s incredibly tough and resilient. It just needs to be given the environment it grows in: the harebell is a wild flower of dry, open places from the bare slopes of hills to the windswept coast.

Within our grassland I noticed this superb looking spider – a female 4 spot Orb weaver spider.

The heaviest spider in Britain at a impressive 17mm across her abdomen, this large female was laying in wait for a passing grasshopper. This species builds its web close to the ground to catch jumping insects. The female builds the more elaborate web, complete with a funnel-shaped retreat where she goes during inclement weather. She amazingly can change colour. It takes her about three days to take on the colours that accurately match her surroundings. An amazing adaptation!

A common green grasshopper – an enticing snackette for this large spider. She is at her biggest and most noticeable in August and September when her true prey catching abilities can often be observed with even wasps and bumblebees making up a part of her diet!
Fox moth caterpillar. This caterpillar emerged in June and will continue to feed for a little while longer before finding a cosy space under some moss or leaf litter to overwinter
If you go off trail beware of bungee jumping caterpillars. To increase their chances of finding tasty buds and also to enable them to spread to nearby trees some of the caterpillars will spin a thin thread and hang downwards from the thread.

Our butterflies are gradually on the wane as our flowers die back with Peacock butterflies dominating and a few Red Admiral and Painted Lady occasionally making an appearance flying high and fast.

Red admiral

Starting each spring and continuing through the summer these strong flying butterflies make northward migrations from North Africa and continental Europe. The immigrant females lay eggs and there is a consequent influx of fresh butterflies from July onwards, arriving here about this time every year.

Painted lady. Painted lady have been seen here in the last week and make an even vaster migration, known to have come as far afield as North Africa, the middle east and central asia.

Our swallows are gathering in numbers with the 2nd broods successfully fledged.

Newly fledged swallow

By early September, most swallows are preparing to migrate. They flutter about restlessly, and often gather on telegraph wires. Most leave the UK during September, with early broods of youngsters being the first to go. I watched as a kestrel took a watchful position a little way off.

After the blazing sunshine has come two days of wreathing mistiness. It has been eerily quiet across the a glass calm Loch Kinord with the mist seeming to stifle noise. Its very atmospheric and a little unnerving.

Kinord views in the mist.
Reflections on a still loch

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Autumn’s blaze

Autumn is gathering pace here at Muir of Dinnet, with the reserve changing from day to day. What a spectacular season it is and what a captivating time to visit as the woodland moves towards deep goldens and reds.

Here the first leaves are just beginning to turn.

This annual event is triggered by autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter days. When there’s less sunlight, broadleaf trees stop producing chlorophyll, which they use to convert light into energy to grow. Chlorophyll is the pigment that gives leaves their green colour. When production slows down, the chlorophyll fades and yellow and red pigments are revealed.

Early morning is the best time to visit and a best chance to see wildlife such as Red squirrel as they spend time foraging nuts, cones and fungi to cache around the forest floor.

Red Squirrel – older kits will be dispersing from their
parents territory to find a place of their own to forage and sleep.

This morning on patrol revealed a landscape that looked like it had been dusted in snow. A heavy gossamer cloak of spider webs draped itself off trees and across the heather. Spiders build webs all year round, but autumn is the best time to spot them as the morning dew and mist droplets suddenly reveal a multitude of hidden webs that were previously virtually invisible thanks to the transparent nature of silk.

Even the mossy slopes of Loch Davan were carpeted in cobwebs. The webs here are known as sheet webs. They are densely woven, thin, horizontal sheets which look like silken hammocks on grass and low bushes. Insects fall onto the hammocks or get knocked down when they collide with a tangle of threads above the sheet.
Sheet webs are usually built by the Linyphiidae. This is the largest family of spiders in the UK, with 280 species.

A myriad of new and wonderful fungi appears after rain. Even a single species like the fly agaric can put on many faces so there is always something new to appreciate.

Lycoperdon perlatum – the Common puffball is also known as warted puffball, wolf farts or the devil’s snuff-box. At maturity, a hole opens at the top. When the puffball is compressed – whether by raindrops, a passing animal or human touch – a cloud of spores burst out.
High-speed photography has shown the puffed spores are ejected at a velocity of about 100 cm/second to form a centimeter-tall cloud one-hundredth of a second after impact. A single puff like this can release over a million spores.

Who doesn’t love a slime mold! We certainly do. They are among the world’s strangest organisms. Long mistaken for fungi, they are now classed as a type of amoeba. As single-celled organisms, they have neither neurons nor brains. There are more than 900 species of slime mold; some live as single-celled organisms most of the time, but come together in a swarm to forage and procreate when food is short. Yes they actually move – and while not fast enough for the naked eye to detect, if you come back after an hour, you’ll notice their patterns have changed. 

Dog vomit slime mold – they actually move, and while not fast enough for the naked eye to detect, if you come back after an hour, you’ll notice their patterns have changed. 
Chocolate tube slime mold or Tree hair – courtesy of Cairngorms National Park Ranger Judy

September has started dry and fair with days that prove that we can still have summer like heat fluctuating with driech cool days like today.

After a long hot dry summer an unusual butterfly has attempted another generation. Small pearl bordered fritillaries are on the wing here just now! The last time this happened in Deeside was the hot summer of 2015. Second generation butterflies are smaller and produced in far less numbers. With heather aplenty to nectar on we are hoping the weather will be kind to them.

Small pearl – bordered fritillary
Small pearl-bordered fritillary. Whilst in the milder, southern areas of the UK there are increasingly two generations In cooler northern parts of the British Isles there is typically only a single generation.
A handsome male common darter . Darters hover around all kinds of waterbodies, darting out to surprise its prey. On sunny days they perch on twigs and fences angling their wings towards the sun to warm up.

To end on another first – we are clocking up a few this year – is the arrival of common darter to the reserve. While they have been at Glen Tanar for a number of years they have seemed reluctant to cross the river Dee. A welcome addition.

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Wild Harvest – Muir of Dinnet NNR

With the end of August fast approaching, we’re well into the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ now. And the reserve is starting to look particularly fruitful right now, with all the rowan trees dripping in berries. These are visibly ripening in the sun and growing increasingly scarlet as the month progresses.

Rowan berries

And it’s not just the trees in fruit. Fungi – or mushrooms – are popping up everywhere just now. It’s easy to forget the ‘mushroom’ we see growing by the path is only the fruiting body -like an apple- of a huge, extensive network of mycelia living underground. We’re usually quite unaware of fungi until they start fruiting – or mushrooming even – but they can become obvious almost overnight after a damp spell.

Russula species

Tiny blusher

There are a huge number of myths about fungi. They aren’t all parasites that kill trees – some are, but far more actually have a mutually beneficial relationship with trees. They aren’t all poisonous either, some are very good to eat. But it is true that many look very similar and you should always be 100% sure what something is before you eat it! The Scottish Wild Mushroom Code gives guidance on collecting but the golden rules ae not to over-collect, trample ground and wait until the mushroom has dispersed its spores before picking  https://www.nature.scot/scottish-wild-mushroom-code


It is also the time of year when our ancestors would have harvested other things, and perhaps not what you’d expect. Late summer, when the nettles have reached the height of their growth and started to go a bit hard and woody, would have been the time to harvest nettle bark. The skin, or ‘bark’ on the outside of the nettle stem was once of the main sources of material to make string and rope and people would have stripped 1000s of nettles to gather enough material to build huts or even make fishing nets. Top tip, though, if you decide to give it a go – don’t ‘grasp the nettle firmly’ – use a set of nice, sturdy gardening gloves. Believe me, you’ll save yourself a world of pain!


Nettle ‘bark’

Handily, growing just by the nettles are docks and greater plantain. Both have sap that will help relieve the sting on nettles or insect bites!

Dock leaves


You notice other plants coming into seed in autumn, too. Down at Parkin’s Moss, the bog asphodel seed heads are a lovely russet-orange, which almost makes them look like some sort of strange but attractive flower.

Bog asphodel seed heads

And the thistle heads are producing thousands of airborne fluffy seeds. We called these ‘hairy witchies’ when I was a kid and made a wish if you caught one. But, like the nettles, these seed heads would have been gathered by our ancestors, possibly as tinder for starting fires. It’s not the best tinder going, being very fast burning, but along with birch bark, other fungi or wood shavings, could save your life if it meant you got a flame to take hold.

Thistle seed heads

It’s taken a very long time this year, but we’ve finally seen our first small copper butterfly of the year. These are one of my favourites; tiny oranges jewels, glowing impossibly brightly in the sun, almost looking lit from within. Always a massive pleasure to see one.

Small copper butterfly

Autumn is also the time when we actually start having time to get on with various reserve management tasks that we either can’t do in the summer because of breeding birds or being too busy managing people. This week, we have been starting this year’s batch of heathland management, with ongoing gorse control and cutting firebreaks. Many thanks to Mark, Daryl, Patrick and Kirstin, who have all put in a shift this week, in pretty hot conditions, to get a good chunk of this work done. Just be glad the photo’s far enough back not to see the sweat….

Team heathland

We’ll leave you this week with one of the less favourable aspects of autumn. No, not the weather, but the blue-green algae bloom on the loch. This appeared over the weekend and this dogs are at particular risk if they drink it, or lick it off after swimming. We’d advise staying away from blooms and seeking medical or veterinary advice if you or your pet are affected. As long as you avoid the algae, there shouldn’t be a problem. Blooms usually disperse in 2-3 weeks so hopefully it will go soon.

Blue-green algae

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A Bonnie Heather-land

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

The bleakness of our heathland is suddenly transformed with the autumnal embellishment of their blossoming purple Heather.

Heather is as much a symbol of Scotland as the famous thistle.

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

Ling heather on Parkin’s Moss with its delicate, loosely arranged pink flowers 
Ling heather
Bell heather in close-up

Both are really important nectar sources for all kinds of insects including honey bees and the local bee keepers have just brought their hives onto the reserve. The honey that results from these bees that feed on heather is dark and fragrant and very popular.

Heathers and bilberry are the foodplants of the caterpillar of the Northern Eggar moth caterpillar

The predominance of heather today is the result of past deforestation, followed by a regime of burning and grazing. Man has been giving a boost to heather for a very long time, favouring it over grasses and trees. 

Today Scotland is the European stronghold for upland, heather-rich heath, with about a quarter of the whole surface of the country covered in it. Not surprisingly the amount of heather cover has gone up and down, linked to human activity, over hundreds of year.

With so much of it around we have put it to good use in a host of different ways. In days gone by, heather was often used to stuff bedding. In fact, the species was introduced to North America thanks to the heather beds that Scottish Highland settlers brought with them.

Due to its toughness heather has been used to make tracks and roads, fences and field drains. It has provided building materials for walls, thatching, and its roots have been made into pegs and nails.

Ling’s Latin name is Calluna vulgaris, from the greek kalluna, to cleanse. This is thought to refer to its use as a broom. As well as brooms, it has been made into mats, baskets, brushes, mattresses, rope, and used as a dye – the flowers give wool an orange-yellow colour.

Heather Ale has been brewed here for thousands of years and still is a fragrant floral peaty alternative to other ales and the bard himself was fond of a cup of heather flower tea.

Another layer of colour in the heath are the splashes of red from the berries of the dwarf shrub cowberry. These inviting looking berries are just about edible but have a sour kick due to the high content of fruit acid.

Bladderwort in flower

Away from the purple, on Parkin’s Moss we spotted this bladderwort in flower. A first for us. These plants are pretty remarkable.

They are a highly evolved acquatic carnivorous plant. They hold no roots, stems or leaves and they use miniature trap doors attached to digestive-enzyme-secreting bladders to snag and digest unsuspecting water fleas, insect larvae and other microscopic prey Bladderwort traps are one of the most highly-evolved and unique mechanisms in the plant kingdom.

Mother Mallard and her nearly grown ducklings

Out on the water it is lovely to see the breeding success of of our birds on Loch Kinord. We always worry for chicks when they are at the small, fluffy, snack sized stage but with these seven ducklings getting on to be almost the same size as the mother mallard we can relax and say job well done.

Outside the office our young robin is bit by bit developing his red breast. He has had a good summer begging scraps from picnic tables and has mastered the inquisitive cocked head that is so quintessentially ‘Robin’.

Young Robin red breast

For our reptiles this is an exciting time of year with common lizards having just given birth and our adders about to.

Lightning quick and sun worshipping the common lizard is more often heard than seen as they whisp off though the undergrowth. Males tend to be spotty with a vivid orange yellow belly and the females stripy with a pale underbelly. This female was basking in the rain using an interpretation panel as an umbrella. Parkin’s moss boardwalk on a sunny day is a good place to watch lizards, especially the inch long babies.

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Past and Present Perspective – Muir of Dinnet NNR

As we have staff on leave this week, we’ve asked long-time associate of the reserve, Ewen Cameron, to write this guest blog. Ewen’s association with the reserve and nature conservation goes back over 40 years and he has seen many changes over this time. He can still be found volunteering in his spare time, with the North-East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership. Thus proving the adage, old wardens never die, they just volunteer elsewhere….

In 1979, as the recently promoted Warden (as we were called in those days) of Glen Strathfarrar National Nature Reserve, I was given the opportunity to go and “pick the brains” of some of my more experienced colleagues.  Dinnet was then a fairly quiet place with few people about.  Many things have changed since then.  Several versions of the Visitor Centre led up to what’s there today and there are toilets, surfaced car parking and well maintained footpaths. 

The visitor centre in 1999

Careful planning and work by many people created the wonderful Parkin’s Moss, which is now a haven for many bog species that have featured in previous blogs and, of course, the now active bog is storing carbon from the atmosphere – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year in and year out.

Parkin’s Moss, in the beginning. 1998
And now. Note the change from heather-dominated vegetation to a much boggier landscape!

Of course it hasn’t all been good news.  Then, as now, some visitors were incredibly stupid and I never fail to be amazed at the places people light camp fires.  Specialist fire fighting equipment developed to tackle less accessible woodland and moorland fires has been used at Dinnet to maintain the rare Bearberry heath with a CAREFULLY MANAGED programme of CONTROLLED burning.

A camp fire that needed 2 fire engines, a helicopter and dozens of people working for several days to put out. 1996.

I’m sure most readers will know about the huge increase in recent times of the irresponsible and selfish behaviour of a growing number of visitors to the countryside and even although less than 1% of Scotland is designated as National Nature Reserves, litter, dogs out of control, fires and general disturbance are all too frequent features now, even of places like Dinnet.  Is it really so much to ask that everyone coming to such places remember why they exists and think of their wildlife and the visitors who come to see and hear that wildlife?

Willow warbler – they migrate to and from Africa each year

I am rarely long into a visit to Dinnet these days before someone’s dog comes bounding along the path scattering and silencing the wildlife as it goes.  I often politely mention to the dogs owners, depending on the time of year, that there are many ground nesting birds sitting on eggs or that there are many dependant young animals around so could they keep please their dog on a lead? Responses from owners have included – oh my dog wouldn’t harm a thing or, I love to see my dog running free as the wind or, why should I?, or more usually something far too rude and abusive to write down here.  When out in the countryside it is rarely long before the innate instincts of the majority of dogs comes to the surface. So the reserve staff are really grateful to those visitors who do keep their best friend under control.

Please- keep dogs on lead in the NNR!

We have few enough places where wildlife, in theory at least, is given priority.  The requests made of visitors in relation to their fires, their litter, their dogs and their general behaviour are there for good reasons.  They are not intended to spoil anyone’s day out but to allow many people like me to enjoy the few places we have left that are still rich in wildlife. 

Fire pit with cut branches

I would like to think that my children and grandchildren, indeed everyone’s children and grandchildren, will long be able to enjoy our wildlife gems like Dinnet.  So please read and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code,  It is there to allow everyone to enjoy the countryside and its wildlife. Ignoring guidance on responsible behaviour can turn people into unwitting ‘environmental thieves’, as disturbance and damage may steal natural experiences from future generations. It is so important that we don’t do this – let us all safeguard nature so that it will still be there for future generations of Scots.


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A glimpse of Autumn

This week we have had the first glimpse of the changing of the guard with some of the first signs of the autumn. The most obvious sign is our reserve is bearing fruit – with our Rowan trees erupting into berry and the woodland carpeted in weird and wonderful wild mushrooms. Our reserve is becoming a foragers delight.

The common Scots Gaelic name is caorunn which appears in many Highland place names such as Beinn Chaorunn in Inverness-shire and Loch a’chaorun in Easter Ross. Rowan was also the clan badge of the Malcolms and McLachlans. There were strong taboos in the Highlands against the use of any parts of the tree save the berries, except for ritual purposes. The exception was a threshing tool made of rowan called a buaitean which was used on grain meant for rituals and celebrations.
The berries can be made into a variety of alcoholic drinks, and different Celtic peoples each seem to have their favourites. It is still made as a wine in the Highlands, the Scots made a strong spirit from the berries, the Welsh brewed an ale, the Irish used them to flavour Mead, and even a cider can be made from them. Today rowan berry jelly is a Scottish speciality which is eaten with game. Rowan berries are relished especially by thrushes and other bigger songbirds. One bird that is very fond of them is the waxwing.

If you do plan to forage, please do sustainably and responsibly.

Take no more than you plan to consume. Stick to paths and take care not to trample down or damage areas you are collecting from. Know what you are picking and never consume a wild plant or fungus unless you are absolutely certain of its identification.

Finally only collect flowers, leaves, fruits and seeds where they are in abundance and leave plenty behind for the animals.

Red squirrels for instance love to eat mushrooms, even toadstools like the fly agaric which are highly toxic to humans. Because of their unique gut, toxins are passed straight through their body without ever entering the bloodstream.

Red squirrels will haul wild mushrooms up to a favourite bough of a tree to dry them.
A ripe wild raspberry. Around our woodland look out for dense stands of Wild Raspberries in clearings. Smaller than the cultivated variety with a sharper taste they are truly delectable.
Orange birch Bolete – A tasty member of the greater Bolete family with a good flavour – similar to that of a Cep.
Chanterelle. A Prized ingredient and forager’s favourite. Succulent and delicate in flavour, chanterelle is used by chefs the world over. Yellow or orange in colour when young they smell of apricots. Chanterelles are common but localised and when people find a rich patch they tend to keep it quiet. In our woodland chanterelle forms mycorrhizal (mutually beneficial) associations with birch and pine.

It is a beautiful time of year but also a reminder to appreciate the remains of the summer.

We are trying not to keep taking pictures of lepidoptera but when you are surrounded by clouds of butterfly it’s impossible to resist. Our new game is trying to see how many Scotch Argus we can find nectaring on a devil’s bit scabious flower head. Top trumps is 5 at the moment.

A female green veined white. The first brood of female green-veined whites laid their eggs in May. Two weeks later, the caterpillars emerged; they feed for up to a month, then pupated, emerging as second brood adults right now. The eggs of this generation will lay in late summer and the pupae hibernate over winter, emerging as adults the following spring.

On Parkins Moss the spectacular Emerald Damselfly is on the wing. They are the last species of damselfly to emerge in the UK each year and are on the wing from the end of June to September. Unlike other damselflies, it holds its wings half-open when perched.

Male emerald damselfly – very bling

Our adder have taken to basking coiled together in one particular spot in the long grass.

A few days ago Cat the reserve manger observed the spectacle of a buzzard taking off from here leaving behind a blood spattered rock. We can only speculate what might have happened. There are certainly accounts of raptors and crows, as well as foxes and pheasants taking adders and after all nature is red in tooth and claw.

Out on the water our mute swans can be more than a little territorial.

Though this is a beautiful stance, this mute swan was actually exhibiting extreme aggression towards two other mute swans on Loch Davan. Hissing was accompanied by this behaviour called busking, a threat display where the swans neck is curved back and its wings are half raised. It certainly did the trick.

On a lighter note an initial experiment with a small mammal lens on a trail camera gave one decent shot of this little field vole.

A little field vole. With a population of 75 million, the field vole is one of the UK’s most common mammals.
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