Notes from Patrol

It is World Ranger day today. Today I stand with the world’s rangers. World Ranger Day is celebrated to commemorate Rangers killed or injured in the line of duty and to celebrate the work Rangers do to protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

Right now we are so busy trying to be everywhere at once, covering miles, engaging with visitors, litter picking and patrolling that we are finding it quite hard to stop and look around at the fundamental reason why we are all doing our jobs as rangers – the wildlife.

The Lock down due to the tragedy of Covid 19 has been coined by ecologists and researchers as the “Anthropause”

Taken from the foremost scientific journal Nature “Reduced human mobility during the pandemic will reveal critical aspects of our impact on animals, providing important guidance on how best to share space on this crowded planet”.

“Social media abound with posts sharing surprising wildlife encounters during lockdown. As we gaze out of our windows, or relish a walk in the park, nature appears to have changed, especially in urban environments. There not only seem to be more animals than usual, but there are also some unexpected visitors. People have reported sightings of pumas in downtown Santiago, Chile, and of jackals in broad daylight in urban parks in Tel Aviv, Israel. Hidden from view, animals may also start roaming more freely across the world’s oceans, following reductions in vessel traffic and noise-pollution levels” .

We have not really had the chance to gauge how our wildlife here at Muir of Dinnet has fared whilst we were away so I took a very conscious decision on patrol yesterday to stop being so obsessed with counting people and cars while we were not so busy, go off main trail where I could and watch the wildlife in places we have not been able to get to. Nicola the Cairngorms National Park ranger also helped me taking her own pics on her patrol – thanks Nicola.

Here is our picture blog or “Plog”

Nicola caught this young wild mushroom just pushing itself up through the earth. A little bit earlier and she would have caught it shedding its universal veil. Some mushrooms start out life completely enclosed in a membrane called a universal veil. It’s sort of like a soft eggshell – it can be peeled away without damaging the embryonic mushroom inside. When the mushroom’s stalk starts to expand, it breaks out and keeps on going. 
A sinister looking black mushroom. I am afraid I don’t know what it is. You really have to know your stuff to forage for wild mushrooms and be sure of a correct identification.
An amazing close up from Nicola of a pristine Scottish Argus butterfly. They emerge almost in sync with our Devil-Bits Scabious which is just coming up now.

That’s all from me folks – I have to go and patrol now as its a busy old day here on the reserve. But it shows what can be seen here in just a day at the reserve.

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Fire Pits and Fantastic Beasts – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Phew. It’s been yet another incredibly busy week on the reserve. People are still flocking to us in droves, post-lockdown, and that’s great to see in some respects ….it will help the local economy and shows that many people value nature and want to be in the countryside. But, as always, there are a minority who spoil it for everyone ..and, with there being so many people out there, that minority is a larger number than normal. We are still seeing lots of issues with irresponsible camping, litter and human waste. No-one should have to be clearing up what we are and a massive debt of gratitude goes to all the staff, CNP rangers, volunteers and even visitors who do. Quite simply, no-one should visit the countryside unless they are prepared to leave no trace of their visit, and this means taking everything away (even if it’s unpleasant, like bagged dog poo) or putting in a bit of effort to bury human waste. I will admit, I have found the past few weeks some of the hardest in the 20 years I’ve worked in the countryside. Like many people, I do what I do because I care about it…after my family, the natural world is probably the other big love of my life and the disrespect and laziness that damages it both angers and saddens me.

Another big issue we’ve had is with fires. It seems that most people who camp want a fire, even if it means scorching a bit of the NNR and they all seem to want their own fire – even if it means scorching another bit of ground only feet away from another fire pit. Often, live branches are cut for these fires (which is vandalism, pure and simple, and a bit of a waste of time, because green wood doesn’t burn well) and even collecting dead wood destroys habitat for invertebrates.

Fire pit with cut branches

Often, rubbish is left in fire pits too, even stuff that any child would know will not burn. The damage and litter associated with these is unsightly at best and downright dangerous at worst – one fire can destroy huge swathes of our beautiful countryside.

Fire pit and litter

We have made a start on clearing up the fire pits round the loch but this will take some time, because there are over 30 and we have to litter pick them, remove the rocks, dig out the ash and turf them over. But every weekend there are more.

Fire pit…

…and after we’re cleared it up

Anyone planning on coming to the reserve and cooking anything should use a stove.

Away from the visitors, we have managed to get started on some other work on the reserve. It’s easy to forget we’ve only been back on-site for 3 weeks and even, with the best will in the world, can’t catch up with the 3 months of lockdown right away! But we’ve made a start, pulling Himalayan balsam from the stream banks before it flowers. While horribly invasive, at least it’s not giant hogweed.

Balsam left up tree to die

The reserve is starting to go purple too. The bell heather is in flower and it won’t be long until the ling is out, too.

Bell heather

On damp mornings, bluebells nod their heads in the grassy edges of the paths, weighed down with raindrops beading on their delicate blue flowers.


The long makes (you sneeze!) and the wildlife hard to spot. A russet patch in the grass gradually resolved itself into a lovely roe doe. Unusually, when she spotted us, she didn’t run right away and I wonder if he had a a youngster concealed somewhere in the grass nearby.

Roe doe

Being watched

Sometimes, the wildlife comes to us. An alarming-looking visitor appeared in the visitor centre on Sunday, when this female sabre wasp got herself stuck in the office. One of our largest insects, she uses that vicious-looking back end to bore into rotten wood and lay her eggs in the larvae that live there. It all gets a bit gross after that but if you want to read more, this will tell you all about it. Just maybe not while you’re having lunch…

Female sabre wasp

And this lizard was quite contentedly basking on one of our ‘Car Park Full’ signs round the back.


But, in some ways, the most exiting find of the week was a dead animal. No, we’re not total wierdos, finding a dead animal isn’t nice but it can tell you that a certain species is present in an area. This dead water vole in the Vat was out first record of them in the Vat Burn catchment…we have more water voles and they seem to be spreading!

Our other exciting find wasn’t our ‘find’ at all. We spotted some visitors crouched over something in the grass and they waved us over to see this ‘funny-looking beetle that looked like a bee’. The appropriately-named bee beetle does what it says on the tin. It’s a beetle that looks like a bee and, like most mimics, is pretending to be something it isn’t. At first glance it does indeed look like a bee….so you might assume, you’d get stung, right? But  you won’t, they’re only pretending, so hopefully anything that might eat them will leave them alone. They’re always a treat to see and I don’t even see one every year. We’re most likely to see in late summer, usually on later flowers like devil’s bit scabious.

And we’ll leave you with another first for the year. We spotted our first Scotch Argus butterflies of 2020 on Thursday…just 4, but, by next week, they will be everywhere. Keep and eye out for them if you are out and about this weekend but please remember – we are very busy just now and you may not get parked if you do come and visit, especially between 11am-4pm… so have a Plan B just in case.

Scotch argus








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Post Lock-down Crowds

We welcome everyone to Muir of Dinnet – but last weekend we could only patrol, engage where we could and watch as we were inundated with day trippers and campers on an unprecedented scale.

With sheer numbers came, in some instances, a dangerous disregard for other peoples safety, quiet enjoyment of visitors and local communities, and the wildlife. Cars parked on blind corners and in essential passing places, human waste, festival like camping, heavy littering and abandoned fires.

On Sunday, I spent 4 hours with two Cairngorms National Park Rangers, Nicola and Vicky amassing a truck full of rubbish, and the clean-up continued well into the week.

An abandoned camp site including a 4 man tent
Abandoned tent

As lock-down relaxed it was the first weekend of reunions and children playing together and households and friends meeting for the first time and this was genuinely uplifting to watch and truly well deserved.

With this though was an air of unthinking mass behaviour that is simply not sustainable. Everyone else is so I will park here, I will camp here, I will dump my rubbish here.

I’d love to know what the wildlife was thinking as their environment was ‘invaded’ by people after 3 months of quiet. 

Going back to basic principles I would appeal to everyone to tread lightly.  When out and about be prepared to react to sites and signage, turn back and go somewhere else or come back another day. In short, if it looks too busy, it is too busy!

Phase 3 is all about “Staying safe and protecting others”. One of the fundamental measures to suppress Covid 19 is physical distancing at 2 metres.

Can I ask any campers to the reserve to think seriously about this and camp off the main path network and away from other visitors. Also plan ahead, bring sturdy bin-bags and don’t bring too much stuff. Most of the campers we met last week simply forgot to bring bin-bags and had to make many trips to take their litter home with them.

As the weather looks good for the weekend we’re expecting the reserve to be very busy again and car parks to be full between 10 and 4 on both Saturday and Sunday.  

I and the Cairngorms National Park Rangers will be out and about in the reserve to hopefully meet you all and give advice if you need it. We shall also be face-booking and tweeting on the busyness of the reserve. 

The Cairngorms National Park has prepared this excellent video which sums up perfectly why we treasure our natural places and what we should all do as we visit them.

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Lifting Lockdown – Muir of Dinnet NNR

So, that’s the first full week back at work post-lockdown done, and it’s been a busy one. With having an outdoor site with, oooh, lots of miles of paths that haven’t been maintained  since March, we have one helluva lot of strimming to do. We’re on it, but it will probably be towards the end of next week until we get caught up with it…until then, sorry about the long, probably wet grass!

Bracken strimmed down

We’re also running as fast as we can to get the public toilets reopened too. With requiring enhanced cleaning regimes, we are having to seek out contractors who can clean daily, but we are hoping to reopen these soon. Ditto the visitor centre, though we have had to remove some of the fun stuff in the short -term…until it’s safe for people to touch again.

If you gotta go -bury it!

We’re also spending a fair bit of time patrolling and talking to people. As we all know, Muir of Dinnet is a beautiful place and lots of people want to come here…and even more this year because we can’t go anywhere else yet. But, unfortunately, as we have seen in headlines all over the UK, there are those who’s selfish attitudes spoil places for everyone, be it through irresponsible camping, fires, litter or human waste. We’re doing our best to keep on top of these but we aren’t the police  and can’t ‘make’ someone do (or not do) something…much to our frustration as well.

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

Our least favourite creature on the reserve is the ‘litterbug’. Sadly, unlike midgies, you’re not allowed to swat them.

Litter found in the loch and buried in the bracken

But it has been wonderful to get out and about (even if it is cutting grass!) to see some of our wildlife. High summer is often one of our quieter times for wildlife…young birds are keeping their heads down and many adult birds are in moult. It takes up a lot of energy, growing new feathers, so they keep quiet just now.

The ducks are moulting out of all their finery now.

Moulting geese produce a LOT of feathers!

Roe deer have young- fawns- too. They are nigh-on impossible to see in the long grass and I always could myself lucky so see one. They rut in July, too, and both males and females sport a russet-red coat at this time of year.

Roe with fawn

No adders yet…the long grass makes them very difficult to see even if they are there….but  this lizard was sunning itself on the wall one day.

Adult lizard basking

And the lilies round the loch still look lovely, too.

White water lily

One of the reasons the grass is growing so much it that it’s been warm and wet. Very wet, especially on Wednesday, when we had a couple of hours of apocalyptic rain in the afternoon – the sort that drenches you even as you dash between the sheds.

Digging ‘grips’ beside the path …in the rain

We’ll be out and about on-site this weekend (though hopefully not in the rain). Like many other sites this year, we are being supported in our work by the Cairngorms National Park seasonal rangers. Nicola, Vicky, Lianne and Polly are active across Deeside and will be keen to welcome visitors to sites, helping them have a safe and enjoyable visit and sharing information with them about how to follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, especially leaving no trace. If you seem them or us out and about, please say hi…we’re always glad to talk to the nice visitors (who leave no trace) rather than just the ones who do!

Cairngorms National Park rangers

Cairngorms National Park rangers




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Embracing the New Normal

Yesterday we were allowed to resume on site at Muir of Dinnet for the first time since lockdown began. Woohoooo! We learnt the good news on Wednesday late afternoon after spending a tense day with everything crossed.

To say it feels fantastic and I am giddy with joy and relief would be an understatement!

Our ways of working and the way the reserve will work for visitors have adapted to keep us all safe. This is a dynamic situation so please bear with us while we make this transition and get our facilities up and running.

Currently the visitor center and the toilets remain closed while we put in place a safe distancing and sanitising strategy.

I am going to let the reserve speak for itself today.

What a truly beautiful place it is and on a 5 hour walk around I may have got slightly over-stimulated by the wildlife and the landscape, whilst making copious mental notes of where to strim first and what fire-pits to dismantle.

I took photo’s of nearly everything I could see and for this maiden voyage we took some aerial footage and believe me – even if you know the reserve well – you will have never seen it from this birds eye view before. Lucky birds! We were cruising at a discreet height of 3oo ft.

We don’t encourage use of drones as they disturb wildlife and other visitors quiet enjoyment of the countryside. This footage was taken by an approved operator under strict supervision. Please if you have questions regarding drone flying or broader questions please go to:

You might want to make yourself a cup of tea, find your comfiest chair and put on some relaxing music for this. Tranquil views for a rainy day. If you watch only one I would go for Crannog Island.

Thank – you so much to John McIntosh for accompanying and taking this amazing footage. Enjoy!

Parkin’s Moss

Our raised peat bog is flowering with bog cotton. The tufts of cottony bristles, drooping from the stems give the plant a strange habit all of its own and they flutter like a sea of hares tails – a name they are also known by.

Another bog specialist Bog asphodel is flowering and its golden star shaped flowers light up the boardwalk trail.

Bog asphodel was used as a substitute for saffron and as a yellow hair-dye in western and northern Britain.
An airborne tour of Parkin’s Moss

Loch Kinord

This juvenile and newly independent Greater Spotted woodpecker was feeding on dead standing birch. With a tongue that can protrude some 40mm beyond the tip of its bill to scoop out wood boring insects and spiders.

Delightfully fragrant wild thyme is flowering in small clusters within the woodland in sunny clearings.

A protective Oyster catcher mum and chick. This very noisy wading bird with a loud ‘peep-ing’ call has moved further inland over the last 50 years to breed on waterways and lakes.
A brand new small tortoiseshell Butterfly. Though one of our most widespread and familiar butterflies, occurring throughout the British Isles it has suffered some worrying declines in recent years.
I wondered where our greylag geese were until I came across this one huge group of adults and goslings.
A mute swan flyover. It was great to hear the unmistakable sound of their deep powerful wing-beats.
The limpid calm loch caught the moody clouds scudding by to perfection

Little Ord and Loch Davan

Small Heath butterfly. This small inconspicuous butterfly flies only in sunshine and rarely settles more than a metre above the ground. Its wings are always kept closed when at rest. 
A mother Mallard and her five tiny ducklings
Usually only seen in snippets from the shoreline Loch Davan in all its glory
The old field enclosures of Old Kinord and our iron age hut circles – can you spot the lesser known hut circles in the woods .

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Blooming Summer – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s the height of blooming summer. And no, we’re not just saying that for the hay fever sufferers, who will be struggling with the grass right now. This cock’s foot grass was visibly shedding pollen as you brushed past it.

Cock’s foot grass shedding pollen

We’re actually saying it for all the wild flowers that are out just now. If you’re making the best of your ‘allowed’ 5 mile trip to go out, you can hardly help but notice all the dog roses out at the sides of the road just now. Although it’s easy just to think of them as a roadside shrub, they have a proud history – the white ‘throw’ of the dog rose was the white cockade of the Jacobites and there is one growing up a cathedral in Germany that is over 1000 years old.    

Dog rose

White dog rose

The other shrub you can’t help noticing is the broom. Its yellow flowers are a brighter, more lemony yellow than gorse, which is a deeper gold colour. The other bonus of broom is that it isn’t covered in vicious spikes, unlike gorse! It is a member of the pea family and you can actually eat the flowers when they are in bud – but not too many, they’re a diuretic.


The edges of the paths are blooming with colour, too. Germander speedwells are an attractive splash of blue in amongst the vivid yellow of the buttercups.

gemander speedwell

The field be New Kinord is yellow with buttercups

And greater stitchworts are one of the white, starry flowers you will also see. They take their name from an old belief they could be used to cure s stitch in your side caused by running.

Greater stitchwort

There are a few other starry white flowers here too. The chickweed wintergreen is out just now, but you are more likely to see it in the woodland than in the open areas the stitchworts like.

Chickweed wintergreen

But our biggest, starry white flower is unmistakable and grows in the water! Right now, the water lilies are looking at their best. The fill every small bay on the loch and provide great habitat for invertebrates, which, in turn, feed birds like goldeneye.

Water lilies on Kinord

white water lilies

Another flower you will see on profusion on the reserve is the pignut. It is an ‘umbellifer’ …one of those often hard-to-tell-apart plants with a cluster of small, white flowers at the top. They would have been hugely important to our ancestors; dig one up in early autumn and it will have a peanut-to-hazelnut sized edible starchy nodule on the root. These would have been one of the staple foods of early hunter gatherers. They’re not bad, actually…a starchy, slightly radish-y taste…but with inevitable random gritty bits!


One plant you don’t want to go eating is the foxglove. They contain digitalin, which can be used as a heart medicine when  carefully processed or synthesised, but is likely to poison you, possibly fatally, if you eat the plant. But they are beautiful things and are extremely popular with visiting bees.


Foxglove in close-up

The gowans are at their height now, too. That’s ox-eye daisies if you’re not Scottish, but I grew up hearing them called ‘gowans’. If you live anywhere near Aberdeen and drive the northern part of the by-pass just now, there are hundred of thousands of these lining the road. Never seen so many, but they will be good news for pollinating insects -like all native flowers, they are an important food source for lots of different insects.

An ox-eye daisy, or “gowan” in Scots

While these are by no means all of the flowers you will find on the reserve, we’ll finish off with another ‘Scottish’ one – the thistle. There are actually several species of thistle, from the prolific creeping thistle to the emblematic spear thistle. Also loved by insects, you soon know if you brush past these…they are one flower that demands attention!

Spear thistle









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The Little Things that run the World – the other 97%

When I started out as a ranger I think I was made to run more mini-beast hunts than anything else. From nursery to early teens I began to realise that this is one of the best ways children can begin to connect with nature.

It takes no specialist knowledge and is a wonderful way to explore a world of decaying logs and upturned stones that you may have never experienced before.

Mini-beasts are one of the more recent names for “Invertebrates”. Invertebrates are animals without a backbone or bony skeleton. Also known as wee beasties and creepy crawlies.

You may have some creepy-crawly hang-ups. I do. I am slightly (quite) afraid of spiders but pretend to be a little bit more frightened than you are and most children will boldly show you a female spider and her nest and reassure you there is nothing to be scared about.

They are by far the largest group in the animal kingdom: 97 percent of all animals are invertebrates. So far, 1.25 million species have been found and described, most of which are insects, and there are millions more to be discovered.

The total number of invertebrate species could be 5, 10, or even 30 million, compared to just 60,000 vertebrates.

A two-banded longhorn beetle. Like other longhorn beetles it lays its eggs in dead wood, often using conifer trees, where they bore deep, broad tunnels until they are ready to pupate after about two years

A really straight-forward way to break this immense variety down into manageable chunks is to think of mini-beasts as belonging to 6 camps.


A mini-beast with a soft, smooth and slimy body that slowly moves using one muscular foot.

Slugs and snails

Leopard slugs and their relatives will only mate when they’re dangling upside down from a thread of mucus.
A snail trail is a substance that’s somewhere between a liquid and a solid. It flows a bit like a liquid, but at the molecular level, it’s more organized. It can be both sticky and lubricating, and it actually slurps up water.  It helps them move and climb challenging surfaces – even a pane of glass!

Only a few slug species are pests. Most are critical members of land and water ecosystems all around the world with ecological benefits for the slow-worms, thrushes, hedgehogs, badgers and other animals further up the food chain. Most are scavengers and eat dead and rotting plants; leaf litter; dead wood; fallen fruit; animal droppings; carrion and mouldering compost.

The Annelids

Segmented worms.

A mini-beast with a long, creeping, soft, segmented body.

A wriggling ecosystem engineer

The impact of earthworms on ecosystems is just simply massive. By their activity in the soil, earthworms offer so many benefits including increased nutrient availability, better drainage, and a more stable soil structure, all of which underpin agricultural productivity. Worms feed on plant debris (dead roots, leaves, grasses, manure) and soil.

Charles Darwin in a piece called the Formation of Vegetable Mould states

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”

Myriapods – the “many legged ones”.

The centipedes and millipedes.

A mini-beast that looks a little like a worm with lots of legs.

A flat-backed millipede. I instinctively thought this was a centipede but with (I think) 2 pairs of legs per segment its a millipede.

Millipedes usually have round bodies, and have two pairs of legs on each body segment. They move slowly and often tunnel into soil and dead leaves. Nearly all millipede species are decomposers: they eat dead leaves, fungi, and detritus. If another animal threatens them, they often curl up, and some give off pungent chemicals to protect themselves. 

A millipede motionless and curled up defensively

Centipedes are usually flattened, and only have one pair of legs per segment. They are quick voracious nocturnal predators, eating any small animals they can catch. Both centipedes and millipedes need a damp humid environment to survive, and mostly live on or just under the ground.

Arachnids – Spiders

A mini-beast with a body in 2 parts and eight legs.

A female spider and her nest. Spider eggs are laid in a silken sac. She will stay with it until she dies in autumn. 

A study of an undisturbed grass field in Sussex found 5.5 million spiders per hectare.

They are important predators and prey for a multitude of other animals. Spiders eat lots of insects, mostly those smaller than themselves.

Taken as a whole spiders’ primary niche in nearly every ecosystem is controlling insect populations. 

Furthermore, spiders are an important food source for birds, lizards, wasps, and mammals.

Spiders use silk in many ways – to wrap and immobilise prey, to spin webs for catching prey using sticky silk, to make draglines which connect the spider to the web as a safety line and to parachute in the wind to find new food sources.


Wood lice

A mini-beast with a bumpy exoskeleton and seven body segments, each with a pair of legs.

By Martin Cooper from Ipswich, UK – Common striped woodlouse

Turn over any log, rock, piece of wood or other debris and you are likely to find woodlice. There are 37 species found across the UK in almost any habitat except some cold highland areas.

Though they look a bit like millipedes, woodlice are crustaceans and are related to shrimps and crabs. This makes woodlice one of the few truly land-living crustaceans.

As well as living off and recycling decaying wood, common rough woodlice feed on leaf litter, fungi, fallen fruit, dead animals and faeces. They share their habitat with spiders, beetles and centipedes which eat them and they provide a main food source for shrews.


A mini-beast with its body in 3 parts – head, thorax and abdomen – and six legs.

Having said this they truly come in diverse shapes and sizes, from butterflies to beetles and dragonflies to grasshoppers.

Common blue Butterfly
 A Dor or Dung beetle. The adults dig out a nesting tunnel under suitable dung and line the nest with dung for the larvae to feed on.
A 4 spotted chaser Dragonfly.
A meadow grasshopper. Grasshoppers go through a series of moults, shedding their exoskeletons as they grow, turning into adults in June who feed on plants and grass. 

Over one million species of insects have been discovered and described but it is estimated that there may be as many as 10 million species on earth. This means there are approximately 1.4 billion insects for every person on Earth.

Insects serve as the base of the food web, eaten by everything from birds to small mammals to fish.

They provide priceless “services” to us, including plant pollination, nutrient cycling and waste disposal. Three-fourths of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects, as well as the crops that produce more than one third of the world’s food supply.

The next time you go for a walk I urge you take some time to stretch out in a grassy meadow for 5 minutes and gently turn some logs over and place them back again and meet the multitudes.


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Summer? What Summer? – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Summer? What summer? No, that’s not a reflection on the weather, even though it’s blowing a northerly gale as I write this. It’s just that, for a great many creatures, there’s no such thing as ‘summer’ ….the year segues seamlessly from spring to autumn. And yes, I do know that it’s not even the summer solstice yet…but, for some, it’s already autumn.

Surely it’s not autumn?!?!

For those who love the long, warm, daylight hours of summer and are currently cursing at me, let me explain. June is a month where some birds have already passed through the frantic breeding period. Find a mate, lay, incubate, raise young, then fatten up for winter. They will only have one brood of young in that year and that’s it.  At this latitude, this tends to encompass most (though there are exceptions) of the bigger birds – seabirds, waterfowl, and all of the larger raptors.

Cute! Fresh greylag goslings.

Greylag goslings late summer, almost as big as adult

Long-eared ‘owlets’

This is typical of larger birds; it takes longer to raise young so they can only manage one brood in a year. But it is true of some smaller birds as well. Blue tits are one example of a small bird that will only have one brood in a year.

Blue tit

Young blue tit

While other birds like swallows or house martins can manage 3 broods between spring and autumn, sometimes with the fledged young from the last brood helping their parents raise their younger siblings.

Does it fit? House martin in old swallow nest

By June, birds like these sandwich terns are already starting to moult into their winter plumage, with their all-black head being replaced by a white forehead over winter. I always think of it as going grey with the stress of raising kids!

Sandwich terns with white foreheads

And the mallards are moulting into ‘eclipse’ – their dull winter plumage.

Male mallard in eclipse

For some, autumn comes early because they nest so far north. We saw our first southbound autumn migrants on 4th of June, when a flock of moulting, sorry-looking curlew went over, heading south. It’s likely they were arctic nesters who have failed and just headed south because their breeding attempt for the summer was over.  No point hanging around there any more.


Another summer ‘autumn’ sign is the flocks of starlings that are appearing everywhere just now. They are mostly comprised of a few families of starlings, adults and their newly-fledged young, but, come autumn and winter, will form huge flocks. These can be thousands or even hundreds of thousands strong and form impressive ‘murmurations’ as they seem to dance in the sky before going to roost. Also impressive is the sheer weight of birds. Even here, at the end of the road, I’ve counted 1500 starlings between telegraph poles. Now, assuming a starling’s weight is 60-100g, split the difference and call it 80 g per bird, so that’s 80 grammes times 1500, which is 120 kilograms of starling on the wires!


Starling flock

Some trees, too, almost skip summer. They will put on leaves and flower in  spring, but, once they’ve set seed, then there’s nothing to do but drink water and photosynthesise furiously until the fruit is ripe and it’s time for the leaves to fall.

Rowan flowers

Ironically, we often find summer one of the hardest times of year to write this blog! Once the flurry of spring is over, everything keeps its head down – especially young animals that risk getting eaten – and we won’t see them until autumn. This holds true for most mammals and birds and even the adders tend to vanish once they’ve mated. But it’s also true that the long grass and leaves hide everything too, and you don’t see it until things thin out in the autumn!

Adder well hidden in grass

Spot the deer?

Mum and youngster later in year

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The Biological Imperative

Right now the natural world has just one thing on its collective mind – to breed and to see itself perpetuated. You can see this in wispy dandelion seeds floating in the wind, the clouds of flower and tree pollen that might make you sneeze and the constant activity of our birds, mammals and insects as they forage and hunt to feed their young.

Alder tree pollen – gesundheit!

Underlying all of this new life is some serious weighing up of factors and risks, and probably a lot of trade-offs that the animals and plants are not even aware of.

It also requires some genetic hard-wiring and more than a pinch of luck. To make it is a fine balance of doing what you are designed to do best – pair up for life, return to a nest site year after year, have lots of young or only a few – and adapting to change – a warming climate, an unusually wet year, you are getting a bit older, your nest tree has blown down.

Taking some of the species to be seen at Muit of Dinnet just now here are some of the strategies at play.

The “Better Stay Together” crowd.

These are the strong pair-bonders. Great Crested Grebe, Mute Swan and Coot belong within this camp. Its all about team work.

Statistically pair bonds that last years improve the reproductive success of animals by enhancing coordination and cooperation between pair members. Pairs which have been together for longer can breed earlier, have more young and crucially have more young that survive to independence.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe with Chicks

The stunning display of courting Great Crested Grebe is all about strengthening the pair bond. We have ” The head-shaking display” where they face each other and fan their ruffs, shaking their heads from side to side. This is used in early courtship or when the pair reunite after a seperation.

This is followed by the ‘weed ceremony’ which takes place just before the pair begin to build their nest platform. As part of this ceremony the two birds make a slow and deliberate dive to collect weed, before returning to the water’s surface and swimming towards each other, their heads held low to the surface. As they meet, the birds rise from to a vertical pose, which they hold by paddling their webbed feet rapidly, treading the water. 


The length of parental care is quite long in the Coot, with the young only feeding themselves after about 30 days, much longer than in most rail species.Coot chicks look remarkably unlike the adults: they are fluffy, with tiny stunted wings, heads stained red and yellow, and with red bills.

Known for their grumpiness Coot aggression sometimes goes beyond adult rivalry into something more sinister.Coots are normally attentive parents, dividing the labour evenly between them – with the brood “split” between the two parents, with each adult feeding only its selected half.

But occasionally a parent can be seen to attack a chick, grabbing its head and shaking it, sometimes fatally. Superficially the very opposite of parental care, this extreme behaviour may be related to food supply, the birds ensuring that there are not too many chicks taking meagre resources. Luckily its been shown that this behaviour shows itself less in drier years so hopefully its looking good for Coot chick survival this year.

Mute Swan

Most Swans find their mates before the age of 2 years – usually during the winter season and will nest for the first time together between 3 to 7 years old.

Swans are believed to form lifelong pair bonds. However, if one mate dies, the survivor will find another mate.

Swans require space to breed. Usually, only one pair nests on a single body of water with nesting territories ranging from 6 to 150 acres in size and often located near where the female was hatched. The female chooses the nesting area, while the male defends it.

The “Strength in Numbers” crowd – the colony breeders.

This strategy is about cooperation, babysitting duties, security (guarding) and information sharing (mostly about food). Cooperation between individuals can lead to both increased colony health and increased survival.

It includes our Lapwing who nest in loose colonies in the short grassland of the fields of New Kinord. For them its all about predator detection and escaping predation. Lapwing need a good view from the nest, which is why nests are usually placed on a slight mound or hummock.

The adults rely on the camouflaged patterning of their eggs and chicks, something that becomes more effective if the parent bird can spot a potential predator at a distance. The parents engage in active defence of their eggs and chicks by either flying at a predator or by a distraction display, an attempt to lure the predator away from the nest’s location, often by pretending to be wounded.

Nesting Lapwing also alter their behaviour if they are being watched by us, by making ‘false nest visits’ to an area that is not the nest.

Another strength in numbers breeder is – yes I am going to say the word – midge.

A midge swarm

The midge swarm is all about mating.

Midge adults emerge simultaneously from water bodies to form swarms. It is believed that this behaviour is a mechanism to ensure the survival of the species by overwhelming their predators during the mating season with sheer numbers.

Midges are easiest to spot when groups of them dance in mid-air.  What you’re seeing are the males saying to the females: here we are, where are you? They give off a signal that’s partly smell and partly sound. Sometimes they gather in such numbers that they make huge towers.

Only the females bite. They need a protein-rich meal of fresh blood in order to mature their eggs. Both the males and the females rely on sugar meals for energy for flight but the females need more than this to ensure the next generation. Female midges feed on the blood of birds and mammals.

The “Slow Burners” – those that breed late, have few young and live long. Also known as K-strategists.

We are K-strategists. This means that we invest in the quality not quantity of our offspring. K strategist belong to stable and predictable environments. Plants are subject to the same sorts of forces as animals.

A phenomenal example of a K strategist is the mighty Oak.

A pendunculate Oak tree – a giant of the forest

Oaks trees produce both male and female flowers. In spring, oak trees grow male (catkins) and female flowers on the same tree. Fertilisation occurs when the yellow mist of the male airborne pollen comes to rest on a receptive female flower on another tree, with a little help from the wind.

Oak trees grow very slowly and can take up to 40 years to produce their first acorns. As many as 50,000 acorns can be produced by an individual tree.

So what does it do until then? As oak trees grow they commit most of their energy to just that – growing. The tree’s height and size allow it to dominate other plants in the competition for sunlight. When it does reproduce, the oak produces large, energy-rich acorns that use their energy reserve to become quickly established.

Red Squirrels play their part here too. Acorns are irresistible to squirrels and are cached around the forest. However they rarely eat all the acorns they scavenge and hide and some will become established far from the parent tree.

The “Live fast, Die young” crowd. Also known as R-strategists

Those organisms typically live in unstable, unpredictable environments. Here the ability to reproduce rapidly is the highest priority.

Such organisms produce lots of young, but with little investment in any one individual, they are generally weak and easy to predate. The idea is to flood the habitat with so many that, regardless of predation or mortality, at least some will survive to reproduce.

The Dandelion is a perfect example.

When a dandelion sets seed, the flower (actually, hundreds of tiny florets) turns into a mass of seeds known as a dandelion clock.

The Bees and the Peas – the marriage of flower and pollinator

The peas here are the flowers of the pea family so wild flowers like vetches, clovers and bird-foots trefoil as well as many crops like beans, lentils, peanuts and soybeans.

The pea family is one of the highest level of flowering plants and provides the most energy rich food for pollinating insects.

However their specialised flowers have evolved to only be available to skilled pollinators such as honey bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

Reproduced from explorenature,org

The flower design has evolved to produce an irregular and complex shape that can only be used by these pollinators . The richer the supply of food in quantity and quality, the more frequently and vigorously bees visit the source, skillfully transferring pollen from one plant to another.

This (over-time) favours the seed production of plants with higher content of sugar and proteins and with intense colours and odours.

The importance of Birds foot trefoil to our pollinators is massive. It’s an essential food plant for the young of many butterflies and moths, like the Common Blue butterfly and Six-spot Burnet moth.

In Scotland, three of our scarcest bee’s are completely dependent on the pollen of Bird’s-foot Trefoil: the pine-wood mason bee, the mountain mason bee and the wall mason bee.

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Migration Magic – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Hello folks, how are you getting on under lockdown? While there are some aspects of it I enjoy (having time to have hobbies, unlike normal), it has brought home to me that I am not cut out for a desk job and I’m desperate to go other places that aren’t the shops or within a walk of my house. And I can’t really complain, I live in the country, it’s the folk in towns I feel sorriest for. But, while we are not going places, the natural world is ticking along as normal and many amazing journeys are taking place all around us … a huge amount of bird life is on the move.

Wheatear. The only passerine migrant to cross an ocean!

At this time of year, we are thinking of birds arriving from the south, to take advantage of our long summer days, mild climate and plentiful food. While we always bill the swallow as the herald of summer, its smaller cousins the sand martins are usually the first migrant birds to arrive, any time from mid-March onwards. My first view of them is usually flying over one of the lochs, hawking for insects.

Sand martins

It’s then usually a toss -up as to what our next arrival will be. Some years, it’s swallows, with a vit-vit-vit, k-chee, k-chee call stopping you in your tracks, searching the skies for one of these stunning birds, newly returned from Africa.


Or some years it’s an osprey, hovering over the loch while there is still snow on the hills. I wonder how cold a plunge into a Scottish loch feels after the west African sunshine?

Osprey, with snow still on the hills.

Or maybe a willow warbler, with their wistful descant song, seeming far too delicate to migrate anywhere. But they do, from Scotland to sub-Saharan Africa, every year and they only weight 8-9 grams. If you put two spoons of sugar in your tea or coffee, that’s probably about the same weight as these birds in sugar.

Willow warbler – they migrate to and from Africa each year

By mid-May, most of the migrant birds coming to Muir of Dinnet will have arrived. As well as the ones described above, we get redstart, the fireflirt, probably one of our most stunning birds. We’ll also see tree pipits, close relatives of our ubiquitous meadow pipits…but much better singers. Swifts, the most aerial of all birds, scream over the reserve as they hunt insects,  while cuckoos ‘cuckoo’ from the ruin or powerlines by Old Kinord. House martins sculpt mud nests on farm buildings and cottages and even spotted flycatchers sometimes choose human company- we have had one nest on the visitor centre for several years!

Cracking male redstart

Little and Large – a m’ipit watching a cuckoo suspiciously

Guttered! The spotted flycatcher often perches up in the guttering.

Meanwhile, down on the coast, you really see the passage of migrant birds. Many of the migrants you see here won’t be stopping to breed, they’ll merely be dropping in for a rest and refuel on their way somewhere else. In the north-east of Scotland, we’re well placed to be a staging post to Scandinavia and, in May, a steady trickle of wading birds are making their way north. At our sister reserve, Forvie, the beach and mudflats are service stations on the great sky roads to the north and the waders we see here may be carrying on all the way to the Arctic circle. When they get there, their first meal may well be of frozen insects, casualties of the first frosts of the previous year, and frozen into the snow all winter.

Coastal sites are also more likely to pick up rare migrants, lost birds that overshoot their normal breeding grounds or get blown onto the wrong side of the North Sea. This great white egret and red-backed shrike are both ‘overshoots’, which should have stopped a few hundred of miles south of Forvie, where these pictures were taken (not this year, I hasten to add, what with the lockdown and all).

Red-backed shrike

Or this bluethroat, which was probably aiming for Norway but found itself on the west of the North Sea, not the east!

Male bluethroat

But many thousands of birds do make a planned North Sea or North Atlantic crossing, in both summer and winter. Most obvious of these are the geese, scribbling great ‘V’s in the sky as they race south, honking, ahead of the oncoming winter.

Or the whooper swans, from Iceland. These wild swans are known as ‘singing swans’ in several European languages after their whooping, bugling call.

Whooper swans

But, to my mind the most remarkable North Sea crossing is made by our smallest bird, the goldcrest. Weighing in at a (healthy) weight of just 6 grammes, that’s about the same as a 20p coin, these tiny birds cross the North Sea in their thousands in October. They often arrive, bedraggled, exhausted and desperate for rest and shelter. They can be really approachable at this time and are heart-achingly gorgeous…how does something so tiny and fragile make it across all that sea?


But the prize for the greatest bird migrant of all goes to the Arctic tern. They breed here in Scotland and all the way up into the Arctic Circle but think nothing of migrating to the southern hemisphere for the winter. Recently, trackers attached to these terns have revealed that they can fly 43,000 miles on migration and some even take a wee detour via New Zealand. A dead bird picked up at Forvie NNR was 30 years old, so had likely clocked up over a million miles of flying during its lifetime. That’s the equivalent of to the moon and back- twice. Definitely the migration champions!



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