The Transformative Power of Nature

As the days tick by and the nights draw in, I think all of us are feeling the strain from the restrictions placed on what we are able to do, and who we are able to meet.

Right now there is something to be said for recognising the impact nature has on our mental and physical health. We want you to thrive around nature and we work within our Reserves to ensure that nature can thrive around us all.

Spending time outdoors has long been known to benefit human health and well being: there is a certain meditative, rejuvenating quality to connecting with nature.

This ability to transform us, to give us a new perspective, to open our eyes to the thread that connects us all – is especially important in times of hardship.

The benefits are often related to how our senses connect us to the environment around us, from the shapes in nature we see to the scents that trees give off and the soft fascination that nature can stimulate which helps our minds rest.

At Muir of Dinnet the ephemeral beauty of Autumn continues. Each day we are sure we have seen the peak of colour and each day the colours just seem to intensify. This week the intense yellows of our Aspen have joined the fray and even on the gloomiest of days our woodland appears to glow.

Trembling, fluttering and shimmering in the slightest breeze. The rippling leaves of this beautiful tree give it its name: quaking aspen.
Don’t forget to look up! As we approach All Hallows Eve a crown made of aspen leaves was said to give its wearer the power to visit and return safely from the Underworld. In Celtic mythology, the visual effect of an aspen trembling in the wind was said to be the tree communicating between this world and the next.
Aspen is also unfortunately a highly preferred species for Roe Deer to munch on over winter. To give the young sucker shoots a chance we were out tree tubing this week.
A riot of colour adds multi-layered depth to our woodland

Nature is for everyone. It should be everyone’s right to access nature, whatever their circumstances. For someone living with loss of vision, hearing or mobility, their need to enjoy nature remains, as does the positive impact of nature on their wellbeing. Having a disability does change how and where you can access nature, and with whom.

I joined Simon Mulholland and his very sure-footed pony Obama for a rainy day adventure on St Cyrus beach. Obama and Simon trot the length and breadth of Scotland to help people with disabilities access beach and woodland areas that they would be unable to traverse safely. Simon has designed an ingenious chariot for Obama that can take a wheel chair off path and into the landscape.

The other power of nature is its elemental ability to physically transform the landscape, sometimes suddenly, sometimes drastically. After a month of heavy rainfall our waterfalls are transformed into roaring cascades. At Burn O’ Vat our waterfall is sublime right now.

At St Cyrus the waterfall after a night of torrential downpours leading to a rise of a metre in the River North Esk and extensive local flooding.

Last Sunday St Cyrus experienced a record high tide in 20 years, with a height of over 5.5 metres. Fortunately these tides came in placidly. From a good vantage point I watched the beach disappear leaving in its wake a drift zone absolutely heaving with swept up massive tree limbs.

On a final note look out for a new addition to the St Cyrus reserve team – Albus the rescue Collie puppy. At 18 weeks old he is now patrolling his reserve with reserve manager Therese and learning how to engage with visitors.

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The Redwing Have Landed! – Muir of Dinnet NNR

The autumn trees are still the overriding highlight of the reserve at the moment, not only for our human visitors who are enjoying the rustic colours, but also for our feathered visitors too.  The jays are enjoying the ripe acorn crop offered up by the oak trees, flocks of redpoll are finding small seeds to feed upon on the birch and migrating redwing have started arriving, doing their best to hoover up the last of the rowan tree berries. 

Wintering Redwing have arrived!

Whilst the trees aren’t quite bare of leaves yet it can be hard to spot some of these birds as you walk below the trees but they usually give themselves away as they either call to each whilst feeding or in alarm at the sight of you approaching.  Listen for the chattering chet-chet-chet of the redpoll or the loud, rather unpleasant, hoarse screeching scream of the jay to help you spot them.  One sound synonymous with autumn that we all recognise is the overhead honking of geese.  We are still hearing this daily in the morning and it never fails to entice me to look skywards to watch the skeins of geese jostle for place within their V as they pass overhead.

Geese making their way over the reserve.

The cooler change in temperature has enticed more leaves to fall.  The forest floor is carpeted with a confetti of birch leaves and the most magical moment for me is when a gentle whoosh of wind lightly rains down a fresh coating of leaves from the trees above.  Birch is a pioneer species and so when the glacier which was responsible for sculpting many of the reserve’s features retreated, birch would have been the first trees to re-colonise the rocky landscape that emerged after the ice melted over 11,000 years ago.  The birch woodland that is present now is not quite that old due to the historic change in land over the years however it is still a dominant and prominent feature of the reserve and still feels like an ancient connection to the past.  With it being such a showstopper at this time of year it is easy to see why it played such an important role in the Celtic festival of Samhain, the start of the Celtic New Year that is now known as Halloween.  Twigs from the birch would be used to drive and beat out the evil spirits from the old year, ready to start the new year afresh. As a pioneer species, this could be why birch was seen to be a symbol for renewal and purification.

The trails are bordered with a dusting of birch leaves.
The red leaves of the rowan trying to out do the birch in the autumn colour competition.

The rowans are doing their best to rival the birch in the autumn colour show and they also have a place in Scottish folklore with the belief that they were able to ward off evil spirits.  This is why they were often planted around houses, to offer protection from witchcraft and enchantment.  It is likely that this stems from the five pointed star shape on the underside of the tree’s red berries which is reminiscent of a protective pentagram symbol.  If you can find any rowans that haven’t had their berries devoured by hungry birds, why not see if you can see the shape for yourself?

Star shaped underside of the rowan berry,
Rowan leaf – protection against witches?

In the low sun of the shortening days even the reeds are contributing to that enchanting autumnal glow!

Autumnal glow emanating from the reeds.
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Floods and Falling Leaves – Muir of Dinnet NNR

The title pretty much sums up this week’s blog – it’s all been about the floods and the falling leaves. We had 68mm of rain in 12 hours over the weekend and that made the Vat Burn rise dramatically. It has a fairly small catchment, up on Culblean Hill, and a lot of bedrock near the surface – so rainfall runs off into the burn pretty quickly. Then the burn rises…and rises….

Burn o Vat flood!

Of course, our most popular path is right by the burn! This does mean that, in high rainfall, it does get flooded. It’s very hard to tell which one is the burn and which one is the path in this picture.

Which one is the path, which one is the burn? (The path is on the right!!!!)

This sort of flooding does cause damage and we will have to get some resurfacing work done. The path surface isn’t as smooth as normal but we have filled in the worst of the holes.

Flooded path

Once the rain went off, the water dropped pretty quickly. By the following day, you could get into the Vat in wellies – and the waterfall looked really spectacular with all the water coming down the burn.

Lots of water in the Vat!

In fact, by Tuesday, that sun had come out and it has stayed pretty bright all week. The sunlight has really made the autumn trees glow with colour. The woods are at their best just now.

Birch leaves in autumn sun
Rowan leaves

It looks especially beautiful, down by the loch, where the trees reflect in the water.

Autumn view over Kinord

Occasionally, you even find a whole rainbow of colours on one leaf. Rowans are especially good for this!

Rowan leaf showing all the autumn colours!

Autumn is my favourite season of the year. I love the colours and the smell – that rich, earthy, fallen-leaves smell, with the first hints of frost in the morning. But if you want to get out and enjoy the trees, do it soon, the leaves are falling fast now.

The leaves are falling…

I’ll be totally honest and say I also like autumn as it usually gets a bit quieter here too – summer is a pretty intense season for us, this year especially, and, as visitor numbers drop, it gives the reserve and the wildlife a bit of breathing space. It is one of the sad-but-fundamental truths that people and nature often don’t mix very well…as the numbers of people go up, biodiversity decreases and damage increases. I suspect this breathing space won’t happen this year and, while it’s reassuring that so many people want to come to the countryside, it is a cause of deep concern that so many feel the need to damage it by fires or litter for their own personal pleasure. We will be making a concerted effort to finish clearing up fire sites in the next month but there are 63 around the loch and this is an unacceptable level of damage.

Especially in a place so beautiful and important for wildlife. While the ducks are all in hiding just now (they take to the flooded reedbeds after heavy rain), we were lucky enough to see an otter fishing on Loch Kinord.

Diving otter
Chewing on something

But, even after seeing the otter, we still keep coming back to how gorgeous the trees look. Seriously – go for a walk in the woods this weekend, it’s good for the soul!

Golden birch

Autumn birch

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Autumn Winds – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, that’s us into October now, and we can no longer kid ourselves it’s ‘late summer’ – it’s definitely autumn now. We’ve had the first frosts and the car thermometer was reading minus one when I got here on Tuesday.


The colder nights have really made the trees turn. I’ve been off for a fortnight (two weeks of not having to clear up after selfish and lazy people has made a pleasant change) and I really see the difference in the trees. The woods are still- just- more green than yellow but that will not be true by next week. The trees are turning rapidly and the wind is whipping the leaves away as soon as they go yellow.

The birches are going yellow

In fact, it’s looking like Tuesday may well be the nicest day of the week. It was calm and sunny and the lochs were reflecting the autumn trees and skies beautifully.

Some of the rowan trees have already turned. Along with the geans, they are the ones most likely to go red in autumn. They look spectacular, set against a clear blue sky.

Rowan leaves turning red

The wildlife is easier to spot on still, fine days, too. Black darter dragonflies were basking on the boardwalk at Parkin’s Moss.

Black darter.

Like all dragonflies, their huge eyes give them amazing visual acuity and make them very successful hunters. In fact, they have a ‘kill rate’ of around 90%…as opposed to lions, which only catch around 19% of their prey.

Black darter. Note the huge eyes!

A few late common hawkers are still zooming around the ditch at Parkin’s Moss as well. While I’d love to get a photograph of one in mid-air, they are way too fast for me. I have to wait until I find one settled or egg-laying.

Female common hawker egg- laying in the water

While Tuesday was glorious, the next couple of days were a write-off weather-wise, cold, windy and wet, A day for scraping out ditches to keep them running and getting soaked through (and cursing when the heating went off).

Water on a pine branch

The only wildlife on the move seemed to be the geese. These are local Scottish-breeding greylags and they seem to be roosting overnight somewhere to the west of us, as flocks of them always appear from a westward direction between 8 and 10 am. Lochs Muick or Callater perhaps? Around 200 appeared yesterday, in a honking clatter of wings and put down on Loch Davan for a bit before flying off to feed in fields nearby.

Greylags flighting in to Loch Davan

We are expecting more autumn migrants any day now. The pink-footed geese are back on the coast but we haven’t had any winter thrushes on the reserve yet. The easterlies forecast this weekend may bring an influx of redwings… but they may find a lot of the food on the reserve may already have been eaten.

Redwing- we think these will be around by next week.

The rowan berries are always the first to go. Lots of different bird- starlings, blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes, blackcaps and bullfinches will all have been tucking in already. I do hope we do get a big ‘fall’ of thrushes – it’s really exiting when there is a white noise of birdcall on the reserve and flocks of redwing and fieldfare erupting from every tree. I’ve never yet found anything rarer than a ring ouzel in with them, but a girl can dream, can’t she?!

Male blackbird scoffing rowan berries

If you do see us peering wistfully and wetly into a bush this weekend, do say a socially-distanced hello…and we’ll tell you if we’ve found anything good. Probably not, but like all Scotland fans know, it’s the hope that kills you!

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From Coastal Seas to Pine Forest Trees – Muir of Dinnet NNR

As Reserve Officer for Noss NNR I’m usually castaway on the windswept Isle of Noss in Shetland, monitoring seabirds and ferrying visitors across the narrow sound in a small zodiac RIB.  However, COVID has prevented me from returning to Noss this season, and so after a small stint helping staff on the Isle of May for August and Sept, I have been reassigned from the treeless island landscapes of the North Sea to the much more wooded and (currently!) fungi filled shores of Loch Kinord at Muir of Dinnet NNR to help staff here with the higher visitor numbers the reserve has been experiencing lately.

Noss NNR

As I’m sure you can imagine, the difference between the two reserves are striking and for me the real highlight is seeing trees still in leaf, laden with berries (in the case of the rowans) and ready to turn a variety of shades of autumnal amber.  The domineering bracken is kicking the colour changing season off as it begins to die back, fading from a vibrant green to golden yellows and rusty browns. 

Seabird islands are an assault on all the senses, with the sound, smell and sight of 13,000 nesting gannets and the wind howling around you, it can be overwhelming (in a good way!) and so I’m finding a new kind of bliss in the peaceful tranquillity of the pine forests of Muir of Dinnet, especially early in the morning as the rays of the rising sun beam through the trees like spotlights on the forest understory.

Fungi – Fly agaric

Autumnal colour changes in the bracken.

It is also special to see some of the commoner woodland bird species that can be taken for granted on the mainland but which are noticeably absent and rare on remote islands, such as coal tit, chaffinch, goldcrest and treecreeper.  Now that the breeding season is over, pockets of mixed flocks of these species can be found feeding together in the trees, their presence often given away by the high pitched ‘zzree zzree zzree’ sound of our smallest bird in the UK, the goldcrest,.as it calls loudly from tree to tree.  Foraging for food together like this is often more efficient and can offer safety in numbers.  Mistle thrush, usually seen in singles or pairs during the summer season, are now flocking together too and have been seen stripping the berries from the rowan trees as their tell-tale flight call rattles overhead as they move between stands of trees.  One bird sighting that I’m sure is never taken for granted whether on an island or the mainland came on my first day when I was treated to a white-tailed eagle soaring over the reserve, giving most of the ducks on the loch a good scare as they took flight in fright.


The contrast in bird species is not the only difference between the reserves.  Dragonflies are another island rarity which are a regular feature at Muir of Dinnet, and so I feel lucky to have caught the end of the flight season for some of Muir of Dinnet’s stain-glass-winged mini-dragon specialties, like the black darter which is attracted to the acidic pools the reserve has to offer.  At only 29-34 mm, this is the UKs smallest dragonfly.  Adders and common lizards are also a reserve highlight, and the hot, sunny weather recently has offered up some treasured sightings of both these reptiles – one stone dyke in particular was busy with basking baby lizards on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Black Darter – UK’s smallest dragonfly
Common Lizard

I have come too late to witness the heather at its finest but there is still a purple hue emanating from Parkin’s Moss, especially when the sun is lower in the sky, which is becoming earlier and earlier as we approach autumn.  Other shades of purple are colouring the reserve in the flowering devil’s-bit scabious which is providing food for the lingering bees and butterflies.

Bee feeding on devil’s-bit scabious
Parkin’s Moss – still retaining a shade of purple from the heather.

It truly is a special place for both wildlife and for those who wish to emerge themselves in nature, and I feel lucky to have the chance to work here for a short spell.  This has made the recent scars left by fire pits around the loch, and evidence of trees cut down in an attempt to fuel these fires, a shock for me after being marooned on an NNR whose natural sea barrier has protected it from the recent flurry of irresponsible camping that mainland sites, like here, have suffered.  I can understand the desire to spend a night in such a beautiful spot but not the reckless littering and vandalism of a place that is so important for wildlife.  It is an unsustainable impact on the reserve that puts it at risk of being spoilt not just for the wildlife but also for those who come to enjoy the reserve responsibly.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the reserve changes as we move further into autumn as well as meeting visitors who value and treasure the reserve and hope that the impact of an unprecedented busy visitor season soon eases off enough to give the reserve time to heal.

Loch Kinord – a beautiful place worth looking after.
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Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Our woodland is softly transitioning into its rich fall colours
Autumnal views from the view point on the Vat trail

This is the first line of romantic poet John Keats Ode “To Autumn”. Its a poem which richly describes the beauty of this season, rejoicing in its lush fruitfulness and the melancholy hint of shorter days to come. His words depict the haunting beauty in the quiet winding down into winter. Coming back here for the 1st time today since last Sunday I was amazed and wowed at the autumnal changes that have taken place in just five days.

Undoubtedly this is one of the loveliest times to visit us.

To Autumn (by John Keats)

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells…
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

As we approach the Autumn equinox on the 22nd of September and the tide of daylight to darkness turns against us – our trees are now, just this week, showing off one of the most stunning signs of autumn – the turning of the leaves. The shorter days are a signal to trees to begin to prepare for winter.

The chemistry behind the vibrant ambers, reds and yellows of autumn is all down to (or should I say lack of) the chemical chlorophyll. This makes our tree leaves green and as it declines other chemicals become more prominent in the leaves. These are the flavonoids, carotenoids and anthocyanins.

A really intriguing half and half effect

This Hawthorn is a gorgeous contrast of yellowing leaves and vivid red berries
With its leaves tendrilling into yellow the birch reminds me of the weeping habit of the laburnum tree
Ragwort seeds. Seeds from the disc florets can be carried up to 75 m by the wind. .
Clinging to the remaining late summer thistles these butterfly nectar in numbers together behind the drystane wall behind the Celtic Cross
A Red Admiral at rest on the path on patrol. A little tired and unwilling to fly off..
Towards the end of summer and into autumn as flowers die back, fallen and rotting fruit provides a really important source of sugar for butterflies.

A speckled Wood butterfly blending into fallen leaves in the dappled sunshine

The Black darter is a small, narrow-bodied dragonfly that is on the wing from June to October. This is a common dragonfly of our moorlands and bogs. As their name suggests, Black darters have a darting and somewhat skittish flight, moving forward suddenly from a hovering position to catch their insect-prey. They also bask on the sun heated boardwalk of Parkins Moss

I was hunting for Adder here yesterday. The change in wind direction, warm temperatures and the appearance of the sun made this week a perfect adder hunting opportunity. After 40 minutes of watching I got distracted by butterflies and just by chance nearly tripped over this female in the long grass.

The most distinguishing feature of the Adder is the dark zig-zag pattern running along the animals back. No other native animal has this marking.
This female tolerated me for a couple of minutes before slipping away. She is my first of this season so I am more than thankful for a partial glimpse

Out on trail, our camera’s have had a lot of success this week, with Stoat, Badger, Pinemarten, Otter and one nice surprise! A black stripy (melanistic) cat. The stripes show up in the nocturnal shots. Possibly a wildcat hybrid.

An early morning pine marten
Melanistic animals produce so much melanin that their color is blackened. Other famously melanistic felines include black leopards and jaguars

A very curious female otter attracted to the smell of salmon oil that we are trialing as a scent lure. It really seems to work!
Eurasian otters have slender, streamlined, serpentine bodies with short legs, webbed feet and non retractible claws. As you can see here their thick fur is made up of layers, a thick outer waterproof one protecting a warm inner one. The fur traps a layer of air to insulate themselves.
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The best of both worlds

Right now I have the pleasure of working across two spectacular national nature reserves. Muir of Dinnet – my “usual” reserve, and St Cyrus our sister reserve in Grampian, to lend a hand where I can during this unusually busy period.

These reserves could be described as chalk and cheese. Muir of Dinnet is a massive magical mosaic of wetlands, waterways, woods and moors. It feels old, enduring and peaceful.

St Cyrus is all about splendour and drama. It is a highly dynamic landscape with the coastline varying from day to day, tide to tide.

At Muir of Dinnet we are slipping into Autumn quietly, with our flowers dying back and our trees bearing fruit.

Our birch woodland at Muir of Dinnet is on of the best places to experience vibrant autumn colours
The Rose hips from dog rose form after successful pollination of the rose flowers in early summer and ripen in late summer through autumn.
In Germany it is linked to the Devil and its fruits were said to be used by fairies to make themselves invisible.
Meadowsweet seeds
Hawthorn berries. The hawthorn tree has long sharp thorns, making its bushes a safe place for birds and small mammals to munch on the red berries away from predators. 
For us, after the first frost is a good time to pick hawthorn berries. Hawthorn berries can be made into hawthorn gin (better than sloe some say) or hawthorn brandy and jam or jelly.
A crab apple tree groaning with fruit.
We are all enticed by these brilliant fruits and birds and insects love the sweet mush of windfall apples as much as we do. Blackbirds, robins and starlings love to feast on fruitfall from apple trees, and all manner of insects will join the fray as the fruit softens, sometimes getting a little drunk on the fermenting sugars.

Life out on our waterways is busy too and our trail cameras are aiding us in recording this.

This otter female appears to be regular on a burn in the reserve, seen on the same stretch, at the same time of night on several occasions.

This Daubenton bat, aka the water bat hunts insects low over the Davan Burn, and performs figures of eight as its hunting pattern. Ghostly by torch-light if one flies by you just give it a minute and pretty often it will return.

On a more serious note we recorded blue-green algal blooms on Loch Kinord for the 1st time yesterday in slicks around shallow bays. At this time we ask all swimmers and dog walkers not to swim in the waters or allow their dogs to drink from the loch. Blooms of blue-green algae can produce harmful toxins which stop a dog’s liver from functioning properly. Though not all types of blue-green algae are dangerous you can’t tell by looking so absolutely best not to run the risk.

At St Cyrus the windswept, storm-battered dunes can at first appear a little inhospitable. Salty winds batter along this stretch of coastline. But the natural barriers of its rugged inland cliffs and a seaward ridge of sand dunes protect the St Cyrus grasslands from the ravages of the weather.

The result is a small strip of warmth nestled on the north-east coast that is still clinging onto summer!

If you want a final fix of wildflowers I can’t recommend this site enough.

Among the first plants to grab a place at the top of the beach are the lilac flowering sea rocket. They have amazing staying power when you consider that high tides, drying winds and stinging sands continually buffet them.
This stonecrop grows on the cliffs and is easily recognised by its fleshy leaves, which store water like desert cacti.

The tidal ebb and flow of St Cyrus is powered by the moon. The Moon’s gravitational pull generates something called the tidal force. The tidal force causes Earth—and its water—to bulge out on the side closest to the Moon and the side farthest from the Moon. These bulges of water are high tides. During a full moon or a new moon the difference between the high and low tide is at its greatest.

The full moon fuels an amplification of high and low tides

At the lowest tide I have ever seen here the volcanic rock formations to the North looked almost other worldly. As the tide ebbed it out it left rock pools and channels deep enough to swim in.

Outrcrops of strangely shaped basalt

The river North Esk feeds into the sea at the South of the reserve and is a great place to watch seabirds at low tide. I will leave you with something of a spectacle. A hundreds strong mixed flock of gulls making a cacaphony of noise. It was brilliant to watch.

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Fantastic Fungi – Muir of Dinnet NNR

There’s a hidden world beneath our feet. In the darkness, away from the light, down in among the tree roots, lies an invisible network that is vital to the health of our woodlands and even our planet. Yes, folks, it’s the fantastic and often bizarre world of fungi…or ‘mushrooms’ or ‘toadstools’ if you prefer. This is their time of year, with strangely-shaped and colourful fungi popping up all over the place.

Tawny grisette, Amanita fulva

There are lots of myths surrounding fungi. One is that they’re all poisonous. They’re not – some are actually very good to eat – but you do need to know what you’re doing with them. There aren’t actually all that many that will kill you outright (though some will do it slowly by knackering your kidneys) but if you don’t know what it is, the golden rule is don’t eat it. Equally, don’t destroy it – it depresses me to see children being told to ‘kick over toadstools because they’re dangerous’. They’re only dangerous if you eat them so any danger is largely self-inflicted!  

Cortinarius mushroom, showing “cortina” – the web-like structure under the cap

Another myth is that ‘fungi kill trees’. Again, some do…but it’s only a tiny minority (like honey fungus) that are deadly to healthy trees. Most of the fungi we see on trees or dead wood are actually ‘saprophytes’ – dead wood decomposers. They don’t kill the tree but are breaking down the dead wood or leaves. It’s hard to over-emphasise how important this role is in our woodland ecosystem. Without fungi, we’d be up to our eyes in fallen leaves and dead trees …but, instead, they help rot all the organic matter and release nutrients back into to soil…which the trees and plants then use to grow. Fungi are a vital part of the nutrient cycle in any woodland.

Sulphur tufts

I often think that the really impressive thing about fungi is the most well-hidden. When we think of fungi, we think of a ‘mushroom’ – the field mushroom-types we buy in shops or a  red-and-white spotty thing in a children’s book. But that’s not really what fungi are all about; that’s just the showy public face, all the real business goes on, quietly and invisibly underground. Most fungi, unless they have a pressing reason to do otherwise, exist solely underground, as a network of ‘mycelia’ -a mass of fine, thread-like ‘hypahe’ (a bit like roots but a fraction of a millimetre across). Thus picture is unfortunately the best illustration of a mycellium I have. I say ‘unfortunately, as it’s actually growing on dog poo (I once was presented with a mould-cover dog poo by a child on a school visit ‘ What’s this?’ ‘Put it down RIGHT AWAY and go and wash your hands….’)

Phycomyces (pin mould) on dog poo

 Often only when fungi get stressed (eg by drought) or can’t spread any further will the fungus actually produce a mushroom. This is its survival strategy. The mushroom will release spores, which will blow away and land elsewhere, allowing the fungus to survive or spread. That’s why you so often find fungi on track edges – they can’t make their way through the compacted soil under the track – so up pops a mushroom to allow it to keep going.

The blusher

A huge number of fungi are actually in a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the trees. Their hyphae wrap around the tree roots and exchange water and nutrients with them. The fungi gets sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis (which the fungi can’t make for itself) and, in return, helps the tree absorb water and nutrients from the soil. And (this is the really good bit) any one tree may have a relationship with half a dozen different fungi. Those fungi, in return, may be in a relationship with half a dozen different trees…and on it goes. Fungi effectively join most woodlands into one huge ‘super-organism’ – all connected invisibly by magical mycelia.

The spore-bearing ‘teeth’ of the scaly tooth fungus

Okay, that’s enough of the science bit. Let’s have a look at some of the fungi that are up just now and we can see!

Let’s start with the first fungus may of us ever see, probably in a nursery rhyme book. Here’s the fly agaric. Don’t eat it. The name comes from the fact it was crushed into saucers of milk to kill flies.

Fly agaric

And, right down the other end of the scale – the chanterelle – a very popular eating mushroom. If you ever do pick mushrooms, it’s good practice to seek the landowner’s permission and never pick more than 10% of the fungi in any area.


Another highly-prized one is the cep. Dried and sold as porcini, this is a member of the bolete family which have pores (like a sponge) under the cap. A lot of brown birch boletes resemble cep but aren’t. They generally have the advantage that they won’t kill you if you get it wrong, but some will make you very familiar with the back of the bathroom door and those immortal words ‘Armitage Shanks’.


Some of the most colourful fungi are the russulas, or brittle-gill family. They are often quite difficult to tell apart and come in every colour, from red to green to yellow.

A red Russula or brittlegill mushroom. These mushrooms can be hard to tell apart.

Yellow russula or yellow brittlegill

Grass green russula

Fungi also come in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. Puffballs are ‘gastromycetes’ (stomach-shaped fungi) and their spores were used to help clot wounds. Some can be used as tinder to light fires, too.


The tiny, talon-shaped ergot is easily overlooked but can be dangerous in cereal crops. They grow on grass heads and have unpleasantly hallucinogenic properties, as well as causing convulsions and abortion in livestock. Look at, go ‘hmmm, ergot’ to yourself, then walk away.

Ergot in timothy grass – one of our more toxic species


And we’ll finish off with the fungus which, for some reason, causes the most hilarity. The stinkhorn, or, to give it its scientific name Phallus impudicus . Finding this on a fungi walk always results in a bit of sniggering – can’t think why. It gets its common name from the fact it does stink (to me, it smells a bit like gas, that’s oven gas, not any other sort) to attract flies to the mass of spores on the tip. They crawl all over the greenish, slimy spores, which stick to them, then they fly off and spread them elsewhere. They were also eaten as an aphrodisiac, an act which owes more to optimism than good sense. Another fungus which is best admired (if that’s the right word) from a distance!

Stinkhorn fungus


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Wet and Wild

This could as easily refer to both our lochs and the weather recently. In the past few weeks it appears our normal Scottish weather has reasserted itself with unsettled squally wet days with cool brisk winds and fresh starts to the mornings. It also means moody landscapes, often with low lying cloud wisping just above our lochs.

View over to Loch Davan
View from Old Kinord fields
Russet notes are creeping into the landscape

Autumn dew on an aspen leaf

We had a wet old start to the week. Looking at SEPA rainfall data we experienced over 20 mm of rain here on Tuesday. This means 20 kilograms of water per square meter of the reserves surface, and that’s quite a large amount — in fact two buckets of water. Given the reserves surface is large and uneven, this flowed into our low-lying areas, forming turbulent burns and recharging our depleted lochs.

Bar the rain, in many ways this a lovely time to visit, enjoying a quieter space where the wildlife shows itself as it gluts on Autumns bounty and builds up reserves. For the first time since lockdown lifted we are starting to monitor the lochs for our waterbirds, by carrying out a weekly bird-count, mapping species where-abouts on detailed maps. This has been done for years so we can begin to see if recent high visitor numbers has had any effect on this years bird numbers.

Our Mute swan breeding pair on Loch Davan with their seven cygnets

On Loch Davan the success story is our Mute swans.

Our Mute swan breeding pair have done ever so well this year, with a bumper crop of 7 cygnets who are getting pretty big now.

The young of some pairs are driven off the breeding territory as soon as their plumage turns predominantly white in late autumn or early winter. Other broods accompany their parents to the wintering area, and usually join a large flock in which they remain when the parents return to their breeding territory.

Greylag goose on Loch Davan
Greylags and their goslings in water-lilly bay

Our Greylag Geese I think have become noticably more easily spooked so whilst still there I often hear them take to the air in alarm when patrolling – and its impossible to get close to them now when on they are on land.

A Red Kite fly-over as I counted Loch Davan

Some of the highlights on Loch Kinord included this teenage Moorhen attempting to walk over our water lillies (the ministry of funny walks springs to mind). On the next bay over we have another moorhen family, with the two chicks at a much earlier stage.

A moorhen mother and her two chicks. She was brandishing this succulent piece of water lilly stem proudly. Moorhen feed on water plants, seeds, fruit, grasses, insects, snails, worms and small fish.
Moorhen chick

Other species included Golden Eye, this contemplative grey heron (hitching a ride on a Mallard Duck by the looks), and all the still fluffy mallard ducklings that are now almost fully grown.

The unexpected main attraction though was a flock of over 500 siskin feasting on the birch seeds in the birch stands surrounding the Celtic Cross. This species will form large flocks outside the breeding season, often mixed with redpolls.

It is a bird that does not remain for long in one area but which varies the areas it used for breeding, feeding, over-wintering from one year to the next. I know that birds ringed in Angus have been mist netted in London and one male bird in Glen Doll had been ringed in Belgium.

Siskin on alder strobiles
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Autumny August – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, that’s the schools back, it must be autumn now. Though this year, we’re not heaving such a big sigh of relief as we normally do as there are still lots of people going around and, sadly, still quite a few misbehaving. This week’s entertainment (apart from the usual poo-covered tissues, food wrappers, abandoned tents and beer bottles) was a nasty tangle of fishing wire, still with hooks in it (all the better to embed in your hands or a dog’s paws) and a damaged, abandoned kayak. Unfortunately, fitting a 10-foot kayak in a 5-foot truck back wasn’t working all that well and we had to be extremely careful getting it back to base… fortunately on reserve tracks, not on the road.

Fishing wire

But I can see why even misbehaving visitors come here. It’s beautiful and a great place to visit for all those, nice, respectful folk who come and go and enjoy themselves and don’t trash the place. Even in the rain it’s beautiful: arguably more so as there are fewer people!


And the still , misty mornings make for be-jeweled vegetation. All the grasses, webs and other plants are heavy with water which sparkles as the sun comes up.

Misty morning

Diamonds in the sky- dew on a spider’s web

Water droplets on grass

Mind you, this can make for some really uncomfortably-humid days. After the thunder last week the temperature rose to 31 degrees. Add to that the 80% humidity and you just needed to look at a shovel to start sweating…

The damp weather is also bringing out the fungi. From egg-yolk yellow chanterelles to red russulas, they’re all up. These sulphur tufts are dead wood decomposers and often form spectacular clumps (or ‘tufts’) on rotting wood.


A red Russula or brittlegill mushroom. These mushrooms can be hard to tell apart.

Sulphur tufts

Sulphur tuft fungi

Often thought of as a fungus (but actually quite different) is this slime mould. Going by one of the most unfortunate names in the natural world of the ‘dog sick fungus’, this slime mould is also feeding on dead wood.

Yellow slime mould. Or other names are ‘ dog sick fungus’ or ‘scrambled egg mould’.

Yellow slime mould

Also feeding furiously are the bees and other pollinating insects. They are making the best of the heather being in full bloom and other late summer flowers like the devil’s bit scabious. Some of these aren’t even fully out yet and will provide the insects with food for another month.


Devil’s bit scabious closed

Devil’s bit scabious fully open

We are also seeing fruit appearing, some ripe enough to eat. While I wouldn’t recommend biting into a cowberry (they’re viciously sour) blaeberries are pleasant enough to eat and make lovely jams. Try some if you come an visit us this weekend!





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