Swirling Swallows and Calling Cuckoos

I think we have finally made it folks. Our Birch forest is in leaf, our wild Cherry are groaning with blossom and we have lots of little gaggles of Goslings . So its raining for sure but at least its a warm rain! I could see our wildflowers and tree’s enjoying having a drink today in the steady drizzle. So the midges are out. All the more to eat for the Swallows and Martins. It could just be Spring!

Birch in leaf
.
The vast cover of our Silver birch forest can be seen best from the moorland on the south of the reserve.
Birch forest provides a light, open canopy, providing the perfect conditions for grasses, mosses, wood anemones, bluebells, wood sorrel and violets to grow.
Wild Cherry Blossom. The wild cherry not only has beautiful blossom but also a bounty of bright red fruits. The second part of its botanical name – avium – refers to birds which play a vital role in the tree’s continuation by eating the cherries and dispersing the seed. The leaves form the main food for caterpillars of many moths, including the cherry fruit, the orchard ermine, brimstone and short-cloaked moth.

There is an old adage of “Swallows (and Martins) flying high – staying dry”. If you have been watching the Martins and Swallows swooping low over Loch Kinord recently you know that this rings very true.

Something about the raindrops on the water seemed to push these birds into a feeding frenzy.

One thing these birds have in common is that they feed on the wing, swooping and diving to pluck insects from the air. On fine days, when air pressure is high, tiny insects are swept up high on warm thermal currents rising from the ground, forcing birds to head upwards in search of their lunch. I have seen groups of over 500 vortexing high over Loch Kinord. When air pressure is low, and rain is more likely, as in the last week, there’s a greater chance that swallows and Martins will find tasty morsels of crunchy winged snackettes buzzing around closer to the ground.

The call of the male cuckoo has now become the background sound of the reserve, and the repetitive call of “cu-coo, cu-coo, cu-coo, cu-coo” can slightly haunt you as you walk around.

This surprisingly penetrating call is quite difficult to get a fix on as it’s a sound that really travels and seems to surround you.

I finally tracked this male down to the Old Kinord fields. As the spring progresses this double-note tends to change: In June I change my tune.The female’s bubbling call is very different and often said to resemble the sound of bath water gurgling down a plughole.

To end on some gratuitous cuteness now. Here are our Goslings and a baby bunny (who is probably partly responsible for the sorry state of the bluebells’ leaves above). Does it stop you saying ahhhh. I didn’t think so. Me neither.

Baby Bunny

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Spring Snow – Muir of Dinnet NNR

There comes a point, when you look skyward at the weather and say ‘Stop it. It’s just not funny any more.’ I reached that point on Wednesday, in an absolutely dinging snow shower – proper, 10p sized snowflakes and bitterly cold. Okay, it’s not all that unusual to get the odd snow flurry in May but I can’t remember one with such a prolonged period of northerly winds and low temperatures.

Dear Weather, it’s just not funny any more…
Fresh snow on Morven
Lochnagar from top of reserve

As we were saying last week, the weather is making everything very late this year. The trees, which would have normally very quickly burst into life, are still hesitating and the reserve is not yet that vibrant spring green colour. The last thing the trees need is to lose a lot of new leaves – and therefore photosynthesising power – to frosts, so they will delay opening as long as possible until the weather warms up. If it ever does….

Birches with new green. Just.

Mind you, whatever the weather is actually doing, we’re well into spring now and there are signs all around us. We’ve seen new goslings on the loch (feel free to go ‘awww’ at this point) and various other birds carrying food or nesting materials.

Cute!

Treecreepers, who nest in a crack in the bark of a tree, seem to have gotten going earlier than some birds that in open. We’ve seen several carrying beakfuls of insects, indicating that somewhere, quietly tucked away, are a brood of hungry mouths to feed.

Treecreeper with insect

But the cold weather will make life harder for breeding birds. Insect food will be harder to come by until the leaves come out. These leaves are food for caterpillars, who then, in turn, are often the main food for young birds. The cold also means that eggs or young will chill very quickly, so it is especially important that birds are not scared off nests by people or dogs. We really do appreciate those who do keep their dog on a lead and help us look after the wildlife!

Thrush nest

In between the showers, when the sun comes out, the reserve becomes a much noisier place. Some of this is people – no-one wants to come out and get drenched – but the sun really provokes the birds into singing. One of the best ways to find a bird is to learn its song. It’s thanks to this we know, roughly, where some breeding territories are and what species of bird are on the reserve. One bird I really started noticing after learning its song was the redstart, a pure, clear jangle of notes. Local wildlife photographer Ron Macdonald took these lovely pics of redstart on the reserve- thanks for sharing them, Ron.

Male redstart (c) Ron Macdonald
Redstart (c) Ron Macdonald

Another bird more often heard than seen is the blackcap (again, thanks Ron for the picture). A loud, liquid burble of notes from inside a bush may be all that indicates they are there – it’s far rarer to actually see one!

Male blackcap (c) Ron Macdonald

And it helps us work out which migrants are back, too. We heard-before-seeing our first cuckoos last weekend and only yesterday a scratchy cascade of notes from a gorse bush heralded the return of whitethroat (another African migrant) to the reserve.

Little and Large – a m’ipit watching a cuckoo suspiciously
Whitethroat
Whitethroats favour scrub and gorse around the reserve

Away from the bird life and the trees, lepidopterist Helen has discovered more Kentish glory moth eggs than we’ve ever seen here before. As these moths are rare (and beautiful) it’s great news!

Kentish glory eggs

In the woods, the anemones are keeping their heads down. While, on a sunny day, they open up and gaze lovingly towards the sun, on a cold days they don’t bother ‘getting up’ for the day and drowse, head bowed, waiting for warmer, brighter days. And aren’t we all? Stay warm if you come and see us this weekend!

The wood anemones are still nodding and haven’t woken up yet.
The same patch of anemones a couple of hours later.

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April Showers and Singers- Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s not often you’ll catch me saying this, but one of the highlights of the week was the fact it rained! It’s been getting dust-dry over the past month or so and we’ve seen only 10% of the rain we’d normally expect in April. I’m relieved on two counts. One, the plants were really starting to need a drink and two, it makes it less likely anyone will set fire to the reserve by accident, probably through carelessness with a fire or disposable barbeque. I know the cold has been putting some people off but we are still seeing fires and bbqs around the loch, even though their use may not be appropriate in high fire risk situations. While I totally ‘get’ that people are fed up being told what to do, we promise we are only asking for things for the safety and enjoyment of everyone and to protect the wildlife. So please, don’t give our staff a hard time, it’d be great if we could all keep on with the ‘be nice’ message on a permanent basis!

Rain over reserve
Looks like rain
Rain

One of the things you notice on a damp spring morning is the smell. Damp air carries smell better than dry air (that’s why dogs have wet noses) and the newly emerged birch leaves have a sweet, green, earthy smell that is good enough to drink. A top tip for smelling things better is to cup your hands round them, then ‘huff’ onto them (like you’re trying to steam up a mirror) then breathe in the smell. The water vapour in your breath will help carry the smell. Find some new leaves (but don’t pull them off the tree, please!) and try it!

New birch

And rowan leaves have a musky, almost almond-y smell.

New rowan leaves

But the leaves are late out this year. Looking over the loch, the dominant colour on the birch trees isn’t green quite yet. In fact, the emerging leaves almost give an illusion of late autumn, as they almost appear yellowish as they emerge.

Hard to tell if spring or autumn!

In fact, everything’s late – migrant birds, breeding birds, leaves, flowers – but it’s all down to the cold weather. Thursday morning saw a sprinkle of fresh snow on Morven and it was cold enough, even with gloves on, for your hands to hurt with the cold while working.

Fresh snow on Morven

Having said that, most of the migrant birds are now in. The dominant noise on the reserve is that of willow warbler song. Their little descant can be heard from the top of what feels like every second birch tree as they try to attract a mate. They need to make the best of the summer; by September, many will be making their way south towards the warm African winter.

Willow warbler warbling

A much better singer than its resident cousin, tree pipits are now singing and parachuting in the woods, too. While they and meadow pipits look very alike, the tree pipit’s strident song sets it apart. I’m afraid meadow pipit song is pretty weedy by comparison! For a nice wee video on telling LBJ (Little Brown Jobs) apart, check out this BTO workshop https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti5-wah4eBA

Tree pipit

One bird that is utterly unmistakable if the redstart. There are now several singing males around the loch, and their reasonably-pleasant jangly song is rather eclipsed by their gorgeous plumage. Seen well, a fresh spring male redstart is a stunner; scarlet breast and tail, ash-grey back and a black ‘bandit mask’ over the eyes and face. What a show-stopper!

Redstart

We’ve also seen our first fungi of the year. Well, soft fungi, not the hard-semi-permanent bracket fungi we see year-round on the birch trees. What, I hear you cry? Surely mushrooms are an autumn thing? Well, most are but false morels are an exception. Come April, up they pop along track edges. Now, believe it or not, this is a healthy specimen – they look half-dead even when they’re young, with a dark brown wrinkly cap. As the name suggests, they resemble the true morel, but, unlike them, I wouldn’t recommend eating false morels. They have a toxin called gyromitrin which can a) give you a nasty dose of the runs and b) knacker your kidneys. So, if you see any while out and about this May weekend, admire them – but don’t eat them!

False morel
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Glorious Moments in the bearberry

Sometimes you get a day where this reserve rewards you with a tantalising glimpse into the lives of some of the rarer species that inhabit this magical place.

Such a day was yesterday in our bearberry heath. This dry heath thrives on the drier
hummocky ground in the south of the reserve. We manage this habitat to allow some young stands of birch – an essential habitat for a variety of specialised invertebrates, including the very rare Kentish Glory moth.

In a session led expertly by Helen Rowe – Aberdeenshire Council ranger and the Butterfly Conservation County Recorder for Moths in South Aberdeenshire and joined by the keen eyes of Cairngorms National Park rangers Pete, Blair and Scott we encountered a splendid and incredibly special scene-the mating of the iconic Kentish Glory.

We watched spell bound as a newly emerged female, who has over wintered as pupae in a webbed cocoon, crawled her way up onto a stalk of heather, plumped herself up and found herself a mate – all in the space of a couple of hours.

A bedraggled Kentish Glory female. She was on the ground and for a moment looked like she had been trampled on.

When moths and butterflies emerge from chrysalis, their wings are small and wet, and they cannot yet fly.

She righted herself and slowly clambered her way up a stalk of heather

She must pump fluids from her abdomen through the veins in her wings, which causes the wings to expand to their full size. Then the wings must dry out and she must exercise flight muscles before she can fly.

As we watched her wings visibly fleshed out
She dried out in no time in the calm warm sunshine yesterday and we don’t know when but started transmitting her irresistible scent.

Helen was trialing a tailored synthetic pheromone lure to attract some male Kentish Glory attention.

Males look for females on calm warm days flying fast across favourable habitat using their feathery antennae to monitor for “calling” females. Like many moths, the females use pheromones to advertise to passing males that they are looking for a mate and it is these pheromones that can bring in passing males from up to 1km away.

While the synthetic lure caught some passing attention, the males honed in upon the females with total intent and swiftly began mating.

Females lay small clusters of eggs on birch twigs and the caterpillars feed on the birch leaves until they pupate in August; to over-winter as pupae and hatch out in the Spring. Adults do not eat, so literally, the caterpillars have to eat enough in 8-12 weeks to last them a lifetime! And they are not small beasties.

We are not voyeurs – honest – but another spectacular mating scene in the heath were these gorgeously vivid green tiger beetles who were everywhere.

A ferocious and agile predator, the Green tiger beetle hunts spiders, ants and caterpillars on heaths, grasslands and sand dunes. It is one of our fastest insects and a dazzling metallic green colour.

Just to finish with a quick update on our Great Crested Grebe pair on Loch Davan.

Their reed bed nest site is looking less submerged and a bit more promising for them now.

During an early morning bird count I watched as the female – here on the left – called her mate over.

The female called persistently to her mate

From fairly sleek headed as they began to court face to face they both deployed their black and orange facial ruffs to great effect.

The male has the larger ruff of the two
Here you can see some synchronised preening
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Sunny Spring Days -Muir of Dinnet NNR

And after last week…the weather still hasn’t made up its mind! We had at least one snow shower per day for the previous 7 days in a row, making this one of the coldest Aprils we can remember. Mind you, the days have been lovely – a high pressure system has settled over the country and has brought a series of cold nights and sunny days. This is confusing for the wildlife- while the sunny mornings make the birds want to sing, the frost puts them off!

Frosty grass

 We even heard our first blackcap singing this week as well. These small, migratory songsters have one of the best voices in this part of the word, with probably only blackbird, song thrush or garden warbler running them close. It’s the first year I’ve ever heard blackcap before willow warbler – but our colleagues at Loch Leven have heard them, so it can’t be long until we hear their little descant song and see them fidgeting about in the trees.

Male blackcap
Willow warbler warbling

I did finally see my first osprey of the year, thought, circling over loch Kinord, likely freshly arrived from West Africa. But, in the same sky, were pink-footed geese, departing for Iceland. While the warm weather brings migrants, it also encourages the winter ones to make the jump across the North Sea to Scandinavia. Not farewell, but fare forward, travellers.

The warm days are bringing out the leaves. We’re just on the cusp of them bursting into life and, from now, every day will probably look a little greener. The dog rose is just about open and the birches are on the verge of opening, too.

Speaking of going green – we saw this absolutely cracking male common lizard basking on the moss on a drystone dyke. He is in full breeding regalia, with his skin tinted a lovely minty green colour. It also helps him blend into the moss!  He almost disappeared when he curled up but was really obvious when he stretched out in the warm, spring sun to get some serious basking done.

 All this nice, warm, dry weather now means that much of eastern Scotland in an Extreme Fire Risk situation. We would normally ask people not to light fires on the reserve anyway – most of the habitat here isn’t safe or appropriate to light fires in- but it is especially important no-one does so right now. However, we did come across this in the woodlands, which horrified us. We don’t mind folk building a den, but covering it in pine branches, then lighting a fire inside is downright stupid, especially if someone was still inside – hey, lets basically build a bonfire and sit inside! Pine needles burn so easily, it’s scary to think of someone in there with a fire. Not to mention the fact it could have taken half the woodland up with it, too.

A much pleasanter job was putting out the Pollinator Trail for this year. It’s easy to forget how dependant we are on insects – unless we see a pretty one, like a butterfly, or get bitten by one, like a midge, we just don’t tend to think about them at all. But much of our food needs are dependant on pollinators and they, like many other creatures, have suffered from our activities on this planet. So wilder places, like nature reserves, are important refuges for them. Although there aren’t many plants in flower yet, we’re starting to notice the drone of bumblebees pollinating the willow trees, so that means it’s time for the trail to go out. It covers part of the Parkin’s Moss trail and we hope you enjoy reading it as you go around.

The leucistic chaffinch is still around, looking odd-but-stunning, and now beating up the other local chaffinches. Thanks once again to our regulars, who have given us these lovely pictures to share with you- much better than any I got. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk round the loch- you may even spot him yourself!

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The Fickle Charm of April

“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”

(Robert Frost, 1926)

This expresses the weather we have had in the last week perfectly, with one day of glorious sunshine, sandwiched between days of biting sub-zero winds that yo-yo between extremes of sun and snow. Brrrrrr

Driving conditions in Deeside can be a little bit interesting right now with wintry showers breaking out at odd moments until midday tomorrow.

Our wildlife is proving to be pretty tenacious though.

While yet a little bit of a meagre lot , a couple of dainty woodland flowers that truly herald the Spring have bloomed to join the lilac splashes of the Spring Crocus.

A spring delight, the Wood anemone grows in dappled shade in ancient woodlands. Its white flowers bloom between March and May, before the canopy becomes too dense, but its seeds are mostly infertile and it spreads slowly through the growth of its roots.

A trait of the little Celandine, so called and beloved by Wordsworth, is that it clams itself up when the elements are at their worst, only presenting its face to the sun when it shines unthreatened by cold or rain.

The invigorating energy of leaf burst is beginning in our woodland, with Larch a week ago with its vivid green and beautifully soft needles. Our Birch followed suit yesterday.


European Larch is one the first trees to burst into leaf with beautifully soft needles

Spring is a busy time for trees. In early spring the tree roots mobilised water and nutrients from the soil up to the rest of the tree, now ready to burst into leaf with enough sunlight.

The study of nature’s calendar, the first bud bursts and flowerings, first dollops of frogspawn, the emergence of bumble bees and butterflies, arrivals and departures of migratory birds, the first cuckoo calls – is called phenology.

It allows us to look at the effects of climate on plants and animals, and on the stages of growth in plants. The woodland trust run a fantastic recording forum called Natures Calendar which appeals for these important firsts of the changing season, spanning amphibians, flowers, birds, insects and trees. It’s open to all of us in the UK. https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/add-a-record/

In 2016 for instance, budburst spread across the UK from South to North at a rate of 1.5km per hour.

Which means, as Richard Mabey put it, “that you can indulge in the fantasy of following it on foot, the guest behind the unrolling carpet”.

Our earliest returning African migrants, Wheatears have arrived at the forefront of the annual summer invasion. The male is a handsome chap, with black cheeks, white eye stripes, a blue back and a pale orange chest. Look for them scurrying and hopping along.

Our adders have moved into the final phases of their breeding behaviour with the famous dance, followed by mating. This takes place over about a three week period.

The dance, in which pairs of snakes entwine themselves around each other and wrestle energetically, can be mistaken for a courtship ritual but is actually a duel between territorial males.

mating adders

The ,ahem, actual act has been studied. Scientists Madsen, Shine, Loman, and Håkansson studied the sex habits of adders living in grassy meadows of southern Sweden for 10 years. They were attempting to answer the question – why are female adders promiscuous?

While male promiscuity makes evolutionary sense – males have everything to gain by mating with as many partners as possible – the female on the other hand, spends months in pregnancy, and bears the costs of rearing offspring. Yet a female adder typically has several mates, even though one is more than enough to do the trick.

This study found that promiscuous females differ from less sexually active adders in one important respect — they have more live births among their litters. By offering her body to several males – the strongest sperm fertilise the eggs, and the female is rewarded with more live births and increased chances that her own genes will be passed on.

A highly unusual inhabitant has also been discovered this week – a leucistic male chaffinch.

He was spotted by a keen eyed local walker – and once seen – never forgotten.

This leucistic chaffinch has a striking white head

Leucism is a plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents the pigment melanin, from being properly formed on a bird’s feathers. Birds with leucism are white.

The extent varies from bird to bird. This male shows white in his head and breast and he would be called a “piebald bird”. Leucistic birds with different colors may show some colors brightly, especially red and orange.

While we have all found this bird beautiful and exciting and he has a very strong fan base here – leucism come with a lot of challenges.

It can rob birds of their protective camouflage and leave them vulnerable to predators like sparrowhawk.

Because plumage plays a vital role in courtship ritual he may not be able to find a mate.

Melanin is a structural component of feathers and birds with leucism have weaker feathers that wear out faster, reduce insulation against harsh weather and protection against the sun.

It goes without saying – we really hope he thrives and prospers.

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Easter Excitement – Muir of Dinnet NNR

There’s a growing sense of excitement on the reserve. No, not the lifting of the lockdown, that’s a sense of dread as unfortunately we expect a selfish minority to misbehave. No, it’s the birds that are getting excitable – there are swan wars on both the lochs just now.

Swan chases

As the mute swans set up territories, the males will aggressively chase off any other swans, including last year’s youngsters. They really, really don’t want any other swans around, to the point where they will flap furiously and ‘run’ across the loch surface in pursuit of any other swans. They will grow increasingly protective as the females settle on eggs and the lochs will resound to the sound of frantically-beating swan wings for some time to come.

Aggressive swan

They’re not the only ones thinking about breeding. The adders have shed their skins and now mating will be the only thing on their minds. We found several shed skins this week and it always fascinates me to see a shed skin, still with the clear eye-scale intact, like a little window you can see through, on the skin.

Shed adder skins
Shed adder skin showing eye scale

But it’s turned a bit too cold for them to be amorous right now – they like full sun and double-figure temperatures before they will mate. So it’s back to a bit of basking again.

Shed male adder

It’s not just the wildlife that’s breeding. The silky, grey ‘pussy willow’ catkins are now ripe. Willows are either ‘male’ or ‘female’ – the male catkins are now yellow with pollen, while the female ones are longer and green.

Catkin

But breeding can be a hazardous affair. Many frogs and toads have lots their gamble by breeding in a normally-sheltered bay of the loch this year. Unfortunately, strong winds have made the bay choppy and the frogspawn has been battered to bits. All the protective jelly has dispersed and there is a sad slick of part formed tadpoles on the loch shore. The grey stuff to the right of shot is all tadpole remains, and you can see a few isolated ones floating in the middle. Mind you, the slick was swarming with other insects feeding off it – in nature, where there is death there is life, too.

Tadpole debris

We’ve also seen our first butterflies this week. Mark evicted a couple of peacocks from the visitor centre, where they had probably been hiding and hibernating, while we had our first small tortoiseshell out on site. Almost invisible in the bracken, it wasn’t until it moved we realised it was there. When we finally got a decent view, we could see it looked pretty shabby and worn after a winter’s hibernation.

Small tortoiseshell
A rather ragged small tortoiseshell

And, now it’s April, it’s appropriate we get April showers. We’ve not had many, though, and we could really do with some rain to damp the countryside down. But the showers have been accompanied by some lovely rainbows – including this particularly flat one over the Old Kinord fields.

Rainbow at Old Kinord

And finally – today is the day that at least some of the COVID lockdown restrictions are lifted. This doesn’t mean COVID is over, it doesn’t mean you can’t catch it or pass it on, and it does not mean that it is any way acceptable to behave badly in the countryside. We look forward to welcoming people back and would like to thank all of those who come and enjoy the reserve responsibly – those who keep their dog on a lead, don’t light fires and who certainly don’t have a massive hooley then leave all their litter behind (if you want to do that, this isn’t the place for you – litter your own back garden instead). Reserve staff will be on patrol are happy to chat (do say hello!), but please still respect social distancing. We all need to look after each other – and the countryside – so there is a future for us all to enjoy.

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Making Space for Nature

At Muir of Dinnet we are making a concerted effort to let our wildlife feel free of disturbance to enjoy the bays and peninsula’s that we know are the refuges for our breeding birds, reptiles and amphibians. As we passed the Vernal Equinox last Saturday and day and night became of equal length – we slipped into spring – the point in the year where we start seeing more daylight than darkness. 

Lengthening days trigger a lot of changes.  In birds, mammals and most other animals it rouses dormant species from hibernation, calls the migratory birds to begin epic journeys, and plays a big role in the timing of the breeding season.  

At Muir of Dinnet love is in the air!

If you come to visit us just now you will notice the sheer number of toads on our paths – often seen with a cheeky male piggy back riding the much larger females to their breeding ponds.

A lazy male piggy-backing a lift

Where they converge enmasse to mate.

While their relatives bred last month and left a great loll of frogspawn the toads are just arriving. During a bird count last weekend I discovered that water-lilly bay is a breeding pond for toads – hundreds of them.

The scores of bubbles bubbling up at the surface caught my eye, followed by flashes of wee copper eyes flaring up among the foliage. The much larger females act like magnets for all that male toad testosterone with a toad ball numbering up to a dozen males clambering to mate. It is a fascinating spectacle. Soon each female is in the middle of a sprawling mass of bodies, so that they appear as a single mud globe. Sometimes they sink to the bottom and unfortunately it may not end well and she’s drowned.

The best time to have a look is at night or early morning, particularly if it is mild. The outcome of this struggle is that the strongest male will win the right to fertilise the female’s eggs and pass on his genes to the next generation.  Toad spawn is laid in a long double helix chain of around 7,000 eggs and is wrapped around the vegetation in the pond.

Some impressive open water swimming

Right now our adders are also misty eyed and amorous.

Cloudy eyed male a day into his shed to look pristine for the females
A smaller still bright eyed male tongue flicking

These amazing shots were taken by keen local wildlife photographer Tony. We watched at a safe distance so as not to disturb these stunning males who are getting ready for the females (the 1st we’ve seen emerged two days ago). You will notice that this big males eyes are cloudy. This is a sign that he is in the process of shedding. The eyes start to look cloudy and blue about a day into the shedding process. The liquid is building up between the eye and the eye cap, which is part of the snake’s skin. This fluid helps separate the eye and eye cap so it can release easily. His smaller neighbour is still bright eyed and was much more active. Here he is tongue flicking – this is a way to pick up the scent of nearby prey or predators – or rivals!

female adder basking

Our Aspen trees are producing Catkins. These trees have male and female catkins on different trees. Male catkins like this one release pollen and the female catkins produce the white fluffy seeds that carpet the floor in April and May.

Male Aspen catkin
Aspen catkins

Our Lapwing have returned to the New Kinord fields with the males making spectacular song flights. The male wobbles, zigzags, rolls and dives while calling to advertise his presence to rival males and potential mates.

We have also seen both Grey wagtails and Pied wagtails around our fields and shores, feasting on emerging flies.

On our lochs are a wealth of breeding birds. During an early morning bird count today we counted 112 Goldeneye on Loch Kinord in full courtship.

The head flick of a courting male is accompanied by a tzzip- zzzzeoo! call

In order to protect all of this we have roped and sign-posted certain corners of the reserve using reclaimed beach rope from our sister reserve Forvie NNR and the signs are made from the reclaimed wood of the previous Vantage point on the Burn O’ Vat trail.

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Looking after the Magic – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Picture the scene. It’s early – the sun isn’t up yet, and the light is the grey monochrome of pre-dawn. The woods are quiet, but the water birds never totally settle and, from the loch, comes the occasional whistle of wigeon, proop-proop of teal, descant QUACK-quack-quack-quack of the mallard and, over all this, this constant muttering of the geese. These lulling sounds are sometimes broken by the blood-curling, slit-throat scream of a water rail or a splash – otter, maybe? Dawn by the loch is a magical experience and one always getting out of bed for.

Sunrise wigeon

Male wigeon

And it’s not just the water birds. As the grey light grows, and the first rosy fingers of dawn creep across the horizon, a lone song thrush starts to sing. Proud, strident, melodic, he shouts his intent to the sky – mate with me, this is my patch! But he doesn’t have the stage to himself for long. A woodpecker, invisible in the trees, announced his presence with a loud ‘drrrrt!’ as he drums on a dead branch. Then the robins start up – not the wistful, wispy song of winter but a full-throated declaration of readiness to breed. A mistle thrush, minor and melancholy, adds its voice to the chorus. Then everything cuts loose – repetitive great tits, shouting ‘teacher’ teacher’, goldcrests squeaking, coal tits, blue tits, treecreepers and dunnocks all adding their songs to a veritable cacophony of birdsong.

Dawn over the loch

Song thrush

At the moment, it’s only our resident birds that are singing. But it won’t be long until other voices join the chorus – chiffchaff, willow warbler, redstart or sedge warbler, all arrived from Africa. When these join the dawn chorus, it truly is one of nature’s symphonies.

Robin

Like many things in the natural world, this magical symphony is a fragile thing, and we – all of us – need to look after it. And we’re coming up to the time when visitors can help us, by keeping their dogs on a lead when they visit the reserve.

Please- keep dogs on lead in the NNR!

Now, we know a lot of people won’t want to, especially after lockdown. People are dying to get out, anywhere, and they will want to let their pet run about. So why do we ask for this here?

Bird will nest even close to paths – the lower arrow marks a robin’s nest, the higher one a path

A great many of our birds nest on the ground. Here, at Dinnet, we have more than twenty species of birds that nest on the ground or close above it – most of the ducks, willow warblers, robins and wrens, to name but a few. These birds are especially prone to disturbance by people and dogs. Whatever our intent, they see us, and especially our foxes/wolves (because that’s what a bird thinks a domestic dog is) as a threat, a predator. And an out of control dog can be a predator, but, arguably, disturbance by dogs is a greater threat. While it’s owner might perceive it having a great time running around, it can scare birds away from nests, allowing other predators access to eggs – or eggs may chill and die.

Willow warbler…warbling.

And there’s the dog’s welfare at stake, too. As regular readers of our blog and FB page will know, the reserve is blessed with a healthy population of adders. Who won’t take kindly to having a nose or paw planted in their face and will defend themselves the only way they can. While adder bites usually aren’t fatal to dogs, they are painful and distressing for both dog and owner.

Adder

There’s also the ‘getting lost’ issue. Even for a reasonably well-behaved dog, the red mist can descend and they will chase and chase something (usually roe deer) to exhaustion. This isn’t good, on any fronts – a dog-torn roe deer is a horrific sight and we’ve had to call the SSPCA to dispatch injured deer. You feel sad and angry, because it’s so avoidable. And, even if a dog doesn’t catch a deer, it can wind up lost, which is really upsetting for the owner. I really feel for folk who have lost their dog and are panicking….and part of me feels for the wildlife it may have killed or disturbed, too.

Being watched

But…all of the above can be avoided by the simple measure of keeping your dog on a lead when you visit a National Nature Reserve. Most people would hate to think there could be a ‘silent spring’ because our birds have been scared away from breeding. It needn’t happen – all we need to do is keep our furry best friends on a lead, both for their sake and that of the wildlife. And we can all enjoy springs filled with song and wildlife.

Dunnock singing

 

 

 

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Adding up to Spring – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s still feeling spring-like, in spite of a few frosty nights. We’re seeing adders most days now – if we’re at their spot late enough in the day, they are (very sensibly) not early risers.

Male adder

If you need heat to get going, there’s no point in getting up before there is any real heat in the sun! But you can increase your surface area and steal/ share heat with someone else, too – look closely at this picture. You’ll see there are two heads and this pile of snake is actually two adders.

A sum of adders

The other thing we’ve been seeing a lot of is displaying waterfowl. The greylag geese are now setting up territories around the loch and you can hardly miss all the honking and clattering that is going on as they dispute who owns which patch of water and which stretch of bank. It won’t be long until they are on eggs, often geese and ducks start laying by the end of March.

Greylag pair

The goldeneye are also displaying furiously. On a calm day, you can hear the males ‘zip-zeeeow’ calls all over the loch and, if you’re really close to them, you might hear the deep ‘gnrr-gnrr-gnrr’ call of the female. The display sequence is always fun to watch – the low-to-the-water  ‘stealth swim’.

Male goldeneye, head down display

Then there’s the sky-point.

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

Or the head-toss,  foot splash. I know it must appeal to a female goldeneye, but it does look completely insane to our eyes. My back definitely wouldn’t bend like that!

Male goldeneye displaying

Goldeneye displaying, with head tucked right back onto body

We’re often seeing swans flying between to two lochs as well. This is also a symptom of breeding time. As pairs set up territories of their own, they will chase off other swans – other over-wintering adults or last year’s young. And then the chased-off swans land in someone else’s territory and it all starts again. The clatter of swan wings can sometimes be even louder than the geese honking!

Grumpy mute swan

Stroppy swans

As the weather gradually gets warmer we’re starting to see more amphibians on the move. We haven’t had a big peak of frogs and toads yet (and it may well be delayed by the forecast colder weather this weekend) but they are certainly now all on the go. The next really mild day should trigger the ‘frog (and toad) chorus’ from their breeding pools.

It’s the Toad!

Frogs and toads will often return to their traditional spawning sites and this can involve quite a significant journey. They can be totally single-minded about this but they often have a problem in that we humans have come along and built a road in the way. Or a wall. Or even filled in their pond. There is a high butcher’s bill on the roads every year and the local roads are always littered with squashed toads. Froglife estimate that maybe 20 tonnes of toads are killed on UK roads every year. It’s a problem there’s no easy answer to, but preserving the wetlands we have can help, as can building a pond on your own patch if you have space….every little helps.

Squashed toad remains

Speaking of being single-minded, one of our readers (thanks, Kerry!) sent us these pictures of a frog in their garden. While there was a gate nearby, it was so determined to go in a straight line, it climbed a 2-metre, ivy-covered wall and sat at the top, surveying the world, before scrambling down. A perfect illustration of the drive and need to go to a certain place to breed!

Frog on wall

Frog on top of a wall

 

 

 

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