We all know the song – well, bits of it anyway – don’t we? ‘On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….’ and then the unnamed narrator proceeds to receive a veritable menagerie of birds, noblemen, farm workers and musicians. I mean, what’s wrong with socks, like any normal person??? But, even if you don’t know the whole thing (and, let’s face it, who remembers what order they go in after eight anyway ‘ Nine dah-dah…lah-ing’) you’ll notice a distinctly avian theme to the first two-thirds of the song. So this has inspired both us at Dinnet and our colleagues at Forvie to produce our own reserve’s 12 Days of Christmas versions. The challenge was making sure we didn’t overlap and you can read their version here on Sunday https://forvienationalnaturereserve.home.blog/
So, without further ado, and imagining your best Tony Blackburn voice, let’s go pop-pickers, and start the countdown.
12 Drummers Drumming
Drrrrt! This has to be the great-spotted woodpecker. It’s won’t actually be all that long until the drummers start drumming, it’s usually in January you hear the first ‘drrrrt’ of a woodpecker drumming. Rather than singing to declare and defend territories, woodpeckers drum to announce their presence, ideally on a dead branch or hollow tree for a bit of extra resonance. Some even produce an extra-loud drum by hammering on the aluminium sheathing on telegraph poles. Thus proving the old lie true ‘It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts…’.
Great- spotted woodpecker and coal tit
I’m not sure that SSE might approve!
11 Pipers Piping
Our pipers won’t arrive until much later in the year, it’ll be April until we hear pipers piping. Our common sandpipers spend the winter in Africa and, when they return, their call is one of the sounds of summer on the reserve. They nest around the shores of the loch and are also known as the ‘summer snipe’ and the ‘willy-wicket’ after their piping call.
A common sandpiper, in a very typical “bum up” pose
10 Lords -a-leaping
This was one of the harder ones to come up with but we finally decided on black grouse. Rarely seen on the reserve, largely as people don’t go to the bits where they are, these are a bird of woodland edge, thriving in the ever- dynamic boundary between moorland and trees. They are often easiest to see in winter, when they come into roost in trees, but their leaping is all done at lek sites, where the males gather and pop, hiss, crackle, gurgle and, yes, do leap about, in an effort to impress all the females.
Male black grouse (Tetrao tetrix)
9 Ladies Dancing
Many of our reserves are really good ‘dark skies’ sites. Often situated away from centres of population, when it gets dark here, it gets properly dark. The lack of light pollution means you get a great view of the stars, the moon and, if your luck is in and the gods of solar particles smile on you, you just might see the Heavenly Dancers – the aurora borealis.
Aurora, visible near Echt on the way home one night
In the autumn, the reserve is a great place for fungi. We get all sorts here – cep, chanterelle, fly agaric, sulphur tufts, the list goes on and on – but to qualify as maids-a-milking, we have to look to the Lactarius family of mushrooms. These are the milkcaps, so-called as, when you break them open, they exude a white fluid that looks like milk. But don’t try and drink it – if you touch it to your tongue, it would be unpleasantly burning and bitter. Most milkcaps aren’t edible but the one that is produces a bright orange ‘milk’ that stains your hands quite badly!
This title goes to our mute swans, who, on Loch Davan this year, produced seven cygnets. While waterfowl often produce large broods, it’s quite unusual for so many to survive to fledging. It’s quite common to see them with lots of ‘awww, fluffy’ chicks but they’re bite-size at that age and predation, starvation and weather all take their toll. So our swans have done really well to get all their brood to this size. Top parenting!
Honk! That’ll be the local greylags, then. The valleys of Deeside and the lochs here play host to a population of breeding greylag geese. Come late February/ early March, they will start setting up territories round the loch and defend them with an awful lot of unmelodic honking and clattering. One they hatch, the goslings form creches – there’s safety in numbers – and are shepherded around the loch by their proud and protective parents.
5 Gold Rings
Or should that be ‘Five yo-oldrins’? I always thought it was unexpectedly generous of the giver in the song to suddenly stop with the birds and start handing over jewellery. But it’s likely this has been a language – or perhaps a demographic shift – over the years. Yoldrin, or yolrin was an old name for yellowhammer, and you can see how it fits with the metre of the song. And yellowhammers were kept as cage birds, so you can easily imagine them being given as a gift amongst all the other birds. But, with the move away from the countryside to cities, more people are, nowadays, far more likely to encounter a gold ring than a yellowhammer, so ‘yolrdin’ became ‘gold ring’.
4 Calling Birds
…or is it ‘collie birds’? Some people sing ‘calling’, some sing ‘collie’. If it’s a ‘collie bird’, it’s nothing to do with dogs, most likely a blackbird – a ‘coaly bird’ – ie, a coal-coloured, black bird. If it’s calling bird, it could be almost anything. But, as its the middle of winter, we’ll sing ‘calling birds’ and give 4th spot to the robin. Robins hold territory all year round and part of their defence of that territory is that they will sing all year round. So a bird you hear singing -calling- at this time of year is likely to be that most Christmassy of birds, a robin.
Robin on ivy
3 French Hens
These are the non-native red-legged or French partridge. Released in huge numbers for shooting, they are now much easier to spot than our native and endangered grey partridge …which I’ve never actually seen on the reserve. But I have seen the French partridge, including this one sheltering under a picnic bench!
French or red-legged partridge
2 Turtle Doves
Sadly, this is a species I’ve never seen at Dinnet, nor am likely to. They only occur in the south of the UK and are in a huge amount of trouble, population -wise, so are getting harder to see every year. The most tenuous link I can come up with for this one is that a turtle is a bit like a tortoise (okay, I know there are huge differences but work with me here) and this leads us to the small tortoiseshell butterfly. Two tortoiseshells it is!
Small tortoiseshell butterfly
..and a Partridge in a Pear Tree!
As a birder, this line in the song always used to annoy me. Partridges are a ground-dwelling species and you are most unlikely to be seen in any variety of tree, pear or otherwise, unless placed there by a Christmas card illustrator or stuffed. If you want a game bird that’s up a tree, try capercaillie. There are still one or two around the reserve and they feed on, among other things, pine needles, which they pluck from high in the canopy. If you ever see them up a tree, they look decidedly incongruous given their sheer size. Far more likely to been seen on the ground, like this rogue female who turned up at the Burn o Vat a few years back and had to be relocated to the trees from our car park!
So, that’s the Muir of Dinnet 12 Days of Christmas. Enjoy. We wish you a happy Christmas and all the best for 2021!