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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Meeting the natives – camera trapping in your back garden

Hello everyone. My name is Kirstin and I am the Reserve Assistant for Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, nestled in the North East of the Cairngorm’s National Park.

I am quite simply obsessed with spying on wildlife! I am not ashamed to admit it and its not become a problem – yet.

I discovered the joy of trail cameras with the Wildcat Project in Angus over three winters.

We set up over 70 cameras across the glens to help in the research and monitoring of wildcats and feral cats and identify the routes that they use and the size of their territories. And we found them!

But it was not just the cats – we also uncovered the whole other world of the animals that live out their lives there.

Since then, I have become a raving fan of this wildlife friendly technology and own three cameras myself.

What is a Camera Trap?

The Browning Special Ops is the camera I own now and it is one of the best camera’s I have ever handled – and I have handled quite a few. The excellent sound recording (for me) makes this a completely immersive experience.

A camera trap is just a digital camera connected to an infrared sensor which can “see” warm objects that are moving, like animals.

When an animal moves past the sensor it causes the camera to fire, recording an image or video to a memory card. The beauty of camera traps is that they can be left in the field to watch an area of habitat for weeks or even months.

Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve is brimming with special wildlife and we use trail cameras to monitor our waterways and priority species.

A flotilla of expertly fishing Gossander at Muir of Dinnet

This is where camera traps come into their own.

They are wildlife friendly – in that the animals don’t know they are even there apart from your residual scent – so they can capture shy and skittish species. As most of you will have seen in wildlife documentaries they have been used to record some of the rarest species in the world and some fascinating animal behaviour.

They operate at night when we don’t so are perfect for nocturnal species.

A family outing of Otters at Muir of Dinnet – we think mum and her 2 teenagers.

During lock down I have turned my attention to my garden and my feathered neighbours.

It has been really rewarding. I hadn’t realised birds have so much personality!.

To avoid all of the pitfalls I fell into repeatedly here is my How To guide.

First Step: Choosing a Camera

My go-to place to help me choose my camera was NatureSpy. They are a not-for-profit organisation who tap into conservation camera trapping across the UK to get the low down on makes and models. They have a excellent choosing a camera section –

Second Step: Identify where the action is.

A camera is only as good as the person wielding it!

Start watching your garden to identify any hot spots.

Feeding stations are great areas for birds to congregate. Though the middle of my garden is abit of a desert for wildlife and mown within an inch of its life we leave the edges wild to act as wildlife corridors and this is where we have placed our bird feeders.

Other brilliant areas for action are watering holes – so garden ponds or fountains. If you are lucky enough to get visiting mammals to your garden try and identify where they come in – a gap in the fence or a well used run in the grass.

Please be respectful of the your wildlife. It is bird nesting season. While an obvious place for a camera is on nest boxes or nest sites it might not be the wisest place. I have Blue tits on eggs in a nestbox and pied wagtails on eggs in my woodshed and have opted not to camera trap these just now and leave them undisturbed to raise their young.

Pre-camera trap baiting can be a great way to get passing wildlife used to stopping for a few minutes so you can get images when the time comes. The bait has to be targeted to the species and never in excessive amounts. I put a small dish of cat food out every night for any passing hedgehogs, foxes or badgers.


Step 3 – Really get to know your camera and its settings.

All cameras will need AA batteries and an SD card . Its a good idea to have 2 SD cards per camera so you can switch out and let the camera keep going.

Lots of camera models have a hybrid setting that lets you take a mix of photo’s and video. You can set the number of photos it takes and the length of video. Be aware though that the camera takes the photos 1st and then begins to video – so you could miss the animal in motion by the time the video catches up.

Also with video don’t always think the longer the better. Most wildlife passes through pretty quickly and when it comes to going through your footage a 30 second clip that is mostly empty can mean the difference between you staying interested and getting bored and giving up – and missing some really good stuff!

Check the date and time are correct!!!!

This week I have opted for 10 second video with an instant delay – so if it gets interesting the camera will instantly create another video. Right now I value video more. I try to camera trap for behaviour so its animals in motion and sound that I target.

Don’t be scared of the camera! I have seen the fear many times – Experiment on all settings in your living room and see what works best for you.

Step 4 Setting up and Camera placement

This is the single most important factor standing between success and failure. Be instinctive and place your camera in a place that feels positive to you. A camera should ideally be placed about 2 metres from your target on a diagonal so you can capture an animals approach.

After several years I am now firmly of the opinion go as low as you can go when placing a camera. Most animals are much smaller than we are and navigate the world at a much lower level. So don’t go for an animals head height – go for feet height.

I rather smugly thought I would place my camera opposite a feeder and catch amazing footage. Not so. I think I have moved my camera about 15 times this weeks due to false triggers caused by swaying vegetation.

Necessity being the mother of invention I decided to try ground feeding the birds. Certain species actually prefer to feed from the ground, such as the blackbird, chaffinch and Robin. And it worked -phew.

Meet the Natives

The Greater Spotted Woodpeckers – Mr and Mrs

Greater spotted woodpeckers will happily come to peanut feeders and bird tables. It’s easy to tell the sexes apart, as only the male has the patch of scarlet on the back of the neck. Did you know an unpaired male may drum as many as 600 times a day; a paired male just 200 times.

Carrion Crow – Aka greedy guts in my garden.

The all-black carrion crow is one of our cleverest, most adaptable birds. This crow was the first bird to cotton on to the food on the ground and is the first there in the morning. This is a well known character trait – although often cautious at first, they soon learn when it is safe, and return repeatedly to take advantage of whatever is on offer.
Shameless behaviour – Not content to just eat his fill this crow crams more seed into a special pouch in his mouth. He will cache it for later.


Jays are one of the most photogenic birds in my garden and are a wonder to watch. Look at those colours, the moustache , the streaky head, the eyes. Although they are the most colourful members of the crow family, jays are actually quite difficult to see alot of the time. They are shy woodland birds, rarely moving far from cover.

This Jay is an early morning visitor and is always watchful

A Goldfinch and Yellowhammer

Male yellowhammers are unmistakeable with a bright yellow head and belly and a brown back streaked with black. A bird of farmland they are often seen perched on top of a hedge or bush, singing.
Its recent population decline make it a Red List species.
This was the one and only visit from a Goldfinch this week. The striking red crown, golden back, and bright yellow wings of the goldfinch make it one of our prettiest garden birds.

The female yellowhammer is much browner with more a more streaky belly. She also has less yellow on her head.

Pied Wagtail

This nesting pair return year after year to nest in the woodshed and they are surprisingly quiet neighbours. Filmed when they were in the industrious nest building mode back in April and left alone now for the egg sitting, chick rearing stage. I love their constant tail wagging.


Each robin has a unique breast pattern, and can (with great difficulty) be recognised individually.
Given a choice of any food, most robins like mealworms best of all.


Chaffinches have regional accents, with slight differences in song depending on where in the country the bird lives. The one essential for chaffinches to thrive in gardens is plenty of trees.
Did you know: Introduced to New Zealand in 1862 the Chaffinch is now the most numerous bird in the country.


The blackbird is the most abundant bird in the British Isles, with a population of around 6 million pairs. The song of the blackbird is arguably the most beautiful and well known of any British bird. Did you know: They like to sing after the rain.


A small retiring bird of garden fringes and under bushes with a flamboyant love life. Though they do form strong pair bonds the female will still mate with another male, so neither male knows who the father is and both supply her chicks with food. 
This can lead to pretty animated male territorial behaviour with calling and wing-flicking.

And finally a Blue Tit peck-by

Though this is pretty bad footage of a blue tit having a go at my camera I absolutely love it. It sums up a blue-tits personality perfectly – feisty. Gotta respect that!

So these are my neighbours and a diverse bunch they are too. Happy camera trapping everyone and be aware – this is a highly addictive activity!

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Scale-Winged Wonders – Muir of Dinnet NNR

This week’s guest blog comes from Helen Rowe and explores the winged wonders that are our native butterflies and moths. As well as being Aberdeenshire Council Countryside Ranger for the Marr area, Helen is a keen Lepidopterist (studies butterflies and moths). She is the South Aberdeenshire county moth recorder (checks volunteer recorders’ moth sightings in the area for submission to our local biological records centre, NESBReC and the National Moth Recording Scheme) and Aberdeenshire area organiser for Butterfly Conservation East Scotland Branch (coordinates local events and surveys).

From childhood I’ve loved butterflies and moths for their beauty and diversity, with camouflage or warning colours to try to evade predation through their life-cycle stages. The variety of colours and complexity of patterns the adults display comes from the arrangement of microscopic scales that cover their wings and bodies like a mosaic of tiny overlapping roof tiles. Lepidoptera, the scientific name for their insect order is from ancient Greek words lepís = “scale” + pterón = “wing”. They’re also important in ecosystems, as a food source, e.g. many nesting birds feed their chicks on caterpillars, e.g. up to 10,000 may be needed to rear a brood of blue tits – we have a nest in our garden due to hatch any day now! – and several are pollinators. Over 1000 species have been recorded in NE Scotland (up to 30 butterflies & the rest are moths), but I’ll focus on a few that are on the wing now, perhaps to look out for on exercise walks from home, depending where you are, and some may be seen in your garden. Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells that have overwintered as adults are still around at this time of year but are starting to look faded and worn. It can be hard work for males to find a mate – if you’ve ever seen butterflies spiralling rapidly up in the air together, these are typically rival males battling it out for territory to court females. The urgent search for a mate sometimes results in cases of mistaken identity. I recently witnessed a Small Tortoiseshell trying to court a Peacock – the latter just sat still with wings tight shut until the former gave up making advances and flew off. Females of both species will now be laying egg batches on sunny nettle patches to start the next generation.

Small Tortoiseshell trying to court Peacock

 A couple of weeks ago in Aberdeen I was pleased to see a Comma, named after the white punctuation mark on the underside of its wings. Still uncommon in Aberdeenshire, numbers of this dead leaf-disguised butterfly have increased in recent years, especially on Deeside, with both spring and late summer/early autumn sightings indicating it’s now overwintering and breeding locally, perhaps as a result of climate change, but has also made a comeback in many parts of the UK. This species is thought to have transitioned to nettles as its main caterpillar food-plant relatively recently. It also feeds on elm, but many trees succumbed to disease and it was once known as a pest on hops in the now long-gone hop gardens of southern England.


We’re now seeing some of the white butterflies, having emerged from their overwintering chrysalis stage. The Green-veined White, that is not a ‘cabbage white’ but as a caterpillar feeds on leaves of crucifers, e.g. Cuckoo Flower, Garlic Mustard, is the commonest in our region. At close range it can be identified by the dark-greenish speckled veins on the underside of its wings.

Green-veined Whites mating

The Orange-tip is also widespread, and the male has very distinctive orange wingtips, but both sexes have a marbled yellow/black mix on white pattern on their hindwing undersides. It also lays eggs on crucifers, but the caterpillars eat the flowerheads and developing seed pods. They’re also cannibalistic so usually only one orange egg is laid per flower, to avoid them meeting and eating each other! Can you spot the egg in the photo?

Orange-tip male on dandelion

Orange-tip egg on dame’s violet

A fiery gem of a butterfly, the Small Copper is one to especially keep an eye out for at the moment as Butterfly Conservation Scotland is running a survey to find out more about where this species occurs:

Small copper

Green Hairstreaks are also on the wing now – look for them around patches of blaeberry – their usual larval foodplant in our area, though their colour against fresh green leaves and diminutive size makes them hard to spot until they move – territorial males will fly up from favoured perches to counter any intruders to their patch. The bright green underside wing colour is an iridescent optical illusion created by the structure of their scales.

Green Hairstreak

Speckled Woods should also be appearing – like the Comma, they were rarely seen in Aberdeenshire (apart from in the north-west towards the Moray Firth) until recent years, but have been spreading from the NW as well as from the south and can now be locally common in some woodlands.

Speckled wood

My favourite spring butterfly is probably the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, having studied this species for many years, including annual surveys along Cambus O’ May riverbank (although that may not happen this year!) – and also because it has a beautiful chequered pattern. The name comes from the string of pearls that borders the underside of the hindwings and ‘fritillary’ is from the Latin word fritillus, meaning dice box (which were formerly chequered). A speciality of Deeside from around Potarch all the way up to Mar Lodge Estate, this is a fussy butterfly. It likes sheltered, usually south-facing slopes, with bare ground and/or leaf litter, often bracken, for the caterpillars to bask on in early spring to warm up, which aids their digestion! They only eat violets and the adults need nectar plants such as bugle and dandelion, so all these ingredients are needed to support a colony. This butterfly used to be common across much of Britain and was known as the ‘woodman’s friend’ as it followed woodland clearings created by coppicing, a practice which died out and the butterflies with it. Thankfully it seems to be thriving on Deeside, with record counts made on some sites last spring.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary on bugle

Pearl-bordered Fritillaries mating

Many moth species are in the larval stage at present (to help feed all those hungry bird nestlings!), but a number are adults now. Day-flying Emperor Moth males may be seen whizzing around moorland and open woodland to detect female pheromone (chemical scent cocktail) trails from up to a few miles away with their feathery antennae. The adults of this species lack mouthparts so must find a mate before ‘their batteries run out’, probably a week after emergence from their cocoons at most. The false eyespots on their wings may scare off some predators. Their caterpillars eat various plants but are often on heather in the highlands.

Emperor Moths

 Another mainly diurnal moth out now is the Ruby Tiger – as well as having reddish wings, its body and parts of its legs are red underneath as an ‘I taste nasty’ warning to would-be predators.

Ruby tiger

A recent highlight for me was successfully rearing a Puss Moth I found as a small caterpillar last year, which overwintered as a cocoon kept in the garden shed. Many species are easy to rear from eggs or larvae to pupae then adults if you have the right food-plants available – this one likes aspen and willow. I used to do so as a child and still rear species found locally, as caterpillars always provoke interest with school groups and at ranger events. The furry cat-like moth looks very different from its caterpillar, which has multiple defences – when threatened it waves its head about displaying quite a startling face, spits acid and protrudes pink ‘whips’ from its two tails!

Puss moth male

Puss Moth caterpillar

Butterflies and moths are very sensitive to environmental change so are useful indicators of the health of our environment, and long-term studies have shown changes in distribution and abundance of many species, and although some are increasing, several are declining. So see what butterflies and moths you can spot in your garden or nearby and send in your sightings. Check out these Scottish regional ID guides: and habitat and species leaflets:

Peacock butterfly

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It’s All Relative – Muir of Dinnet NNR

This week’s guest blog has been written by Ewen Cameron, Chair of the Habitats and Species Group, NE Scotland Biodiversity Partnership. Ewen has been involved in nature conservation for around 40 years and shows us what you can achieve with a wee bit of water in your back garden.

The National Nature Reserve at Muir of Dinnet extends to 1,163 hectares.  My garden is a mere 0.27 hectares; it would fit into the Nature Reserve 4,300 times over!  But if you read Daryl’s Forvie NNR blog on the 12th of April, you will already know that a great deal of wildlife can benefit from a small space; and a garden space busy with people at that.  Nature knows how to share.   While Muir of Dinnet enjoys two fascinating Lochs – Dinnet and Kinord, my village garden hosts a much smaller body of water – my garden pond.  

Well over 60 years ago I first discovered the pond on the family farm where I grew up.  The story in the family is that it was an old retting pond for flax; part of the process of separating the fibres for making linen – and the Old Statistical Account shows that linen was grown in that part of Scotland.   But I’m getting off the point.  From those first encounters with frogs and tadpoles I have never lost my fascination, mainly for the wee beasties, that live in still, and sometimes smelly, freshwater. As I write this, my pond is still emerging from its Winter quiet time.  The water level is low but plants like Marsh Marigold are just starting to flower.  The yellow duck isn’t real by the way.

Ewen’s pond

But that’s just what we see with a casual glance; but there’s lots more if you take a little more time.   Like the proverbial iceberg, there is much more going on below the surface, but let’s start with “on the surface”.  Lots of activity from the whirligig beetles and as their names suggests they are constantly whirling around the water surface like those at a 1970s disco and too fast for me to get a decent picture.  However this pond skater is much more deliberate in its behaviour sensing vibrations through its feet and waiting for something tasty to stray within its grasp.

Pond skater

Below the surface you have to be patient before you spot the slow moving pond snails browsing algae off every surface – like a heard of armoured cows grazing across a field.

Pond snails

Or this caddis fly larvae that at first looks like nothing more that a wee bit of decaying plant stem, but is actually several pieces of vegetation carefully stuck together with silk to make a mobile “hiding tube”.  Here it has popped its head out for a quick look  and will withdraw back to safety at the smallest sign of danger.

Caddis fly larvae

In a month or so’s time the pond will be like a jungle from a frog’s eye view with so much activity you won’t know where to look first.  But just like on the Nature Reserve you have to be patient, you have to keep still with your eyes and ears open and your mouth firmly closed.  Then there is a good chance of seeing much more wildlife

Pond close-up

Orange tip butterflies will soon be on the wing and laying their eggs on the pale lilac flowered Ladies Smock.  Adult blackbirds will be searching for things to feed to their hungry young and a steady stream of all sorts of birds will be lining up to have a bath.

Orange tip butterfly on cuckoo flower

Or if we are really lucky, we may be visited by an Emerald Damselfly.

Emerald damselfly

And of course there will be even more going on below the water.  Lots of tadpoles of course, but also lots of predators, like this dragonfly larva, waiting for juicy tadpoles to stray to close to its powerful jaw.  Dragon fly larvae can spend several years in the gunge at the bottom of the pond, slowly developing before they crawl up the stem of a plant and emerge as the familiar and beautifully coloured adult we usually only see in a flash.

Dragonfly larvae

Or the fearsome looking larva of the Great Diving Beetle.  It often hangs vertically in the water waiting for a tadpole or other tasty beast which it grabs with it huge biting jaws.  Both these predatory larvae can grow up to 5 centimetres long – imaging coming face to face with that if you were a tadpole!

Diving beetle larvae

That’s just the merest glimpse of what can be seen in and around a small garden pond.  I’m sure mine has hundreds if not thousands of associated species – from birds to bacteria.  Now you may not have a garden pond – you may not even have a garden, but I’m willing to bet there is at least one place very close to where you live that is just as busy with wildlife – when you have the time to stop and look closely.

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Bird Listening – Muir of Dinnet NNR

What, we’re often asked, are those chirpy things that go ‘tweet’ in the bushes? Well, even venerable and world-weary naturalists like ourselves need a wee bit more of a description than that…but, with modern technology, we often get handed a recording. And then you’re  trying to ID a noise in a bush….which, to be fair, is often all you’ll see (or not see) of a bird. So, with International Dawn Chorus  Day coming up on Sunday, here’s some tips on Bird Listening rather than Bird Watching. Firstly, it’s often the best way to find a bird. If it’s small, dull-coloured and shy (and there are oh, so many like that) you may not notice it until it calls. So, very first tip is -use your ears to find them.  

What’s  hiding in the grass that’s just gone chirp?

Secondly, how on earth can you tell them apart? I mean, they all just go ‘tweet’, don’t they? And these rangers and outdoor types that can tell them apart, well, they’ve got some sort of special skills or training, right? Well, no, not really. We’ll be interested, yes, but have picked it up as we go along. And if you think that’s impossible, start thinking about some of your favourite music…any bands or albums you particularly love, or played to death as a teenager? I bet, if there are, you could instantly pick out tracks by name after even a few chords of the intro. So, familiarity is a big thing…start to listen and pick up any differences in songs.

It can also sometimes be the easiest way to tell birds apart. Willow warblers and chiffchaff look almost identical and even experienced birdwatchers can mis-identify them. But, if it opens it’s beak and goes ‘chiffchaff, chiffchaff, chiffchiff’ it’s probably a fair bet it’s not a willow warbler.

Thirdly, like anything else in life, start easy. Some birds have a distinctive call that says their name – cuckoo, chiffchaff, kittiwake. Easy, that’s three already. Or something from your garden – great tits, from late January onwards will call ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ incessantly, in a sort of squeaky-bike-pump kind of way. Or tune in to something like a blackbird – they often sit high up to sing, so you can see what’s singing (a big help with ID when you’re learning)

And really try and get familiar with the stuff you see all the time. This might be a herring gull on your rooftop (awAk, awAK, AwawawAAAK at 4am) or local pigeons ( and mmm-mmm-ing, cooing sound) and they’re easy to learn. But if you have robins, or blue tits, or sparrows in your garden, really listen to them, and before you know it, you’ll start to identify things on just hearing them.

Fourthly, bug anyone you know who’s good at these things to help you out! And don’t be shy about asking them to repeat things…repetition is often the best way to get something into your head ( I know I have to be told thing for too many times). And use the internet…it can be a wonderful tool when used correctly (but say Parus major rather than great tit…just in case….). There are loads of websites out there that can help you out, including    and

Male blackcap, one of the finest singers

And, sixthly and finally…never forget to just enjoy the dawn chorus and birdsong. I often come out my car in the morning at work and just stand there, with a probably goofy smile on my face, just listening to the birds all singing. Enjoy!


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An Ode to Spring

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure…

William Wordsworth – “Lines written in Early Spring”

Spring is a time of renewal and reawakened nature. The Romantic poets had deep sympathy with the season and often identified with individual flowers as a reflection of the human condition.

Here is a tour of some of the Wildflowers and trees that you may encounter on your daily walks through the eyes of the poets.

Bud burst and trees newly in leaf

Hawthorn in leaf
The European Larch in leaf

Philip Larkins “The Trees”

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

The Humble Daffodil

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Daffodils belong to the genus Narcissus, derived from the Greek word for “to benumb” and this refers to the narcotic properties of the plant.

Flowering in early spring these horticultural cultivars are perhaps the best known and iconic heralds of the changing season.

There is a native variety that survives in the English and welsh countryside in damp woods, fields, grassland and orchards. Our native Daffodil is smaller than many garden varieties but is still a striking sight in early spring.

Currently Daffodils are being grown for Galanthine, a property being investigated for its benefits on Alzheimers.

Lesser Celandine

lesser celandine

“To the small Celandine” by William Wordsworth

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.

Lesser Celandine was Wordsworth’s favourite flower. He discovered it when he was of an age himself, and it provided a special appreciation and inspiration within him as he composed three separate odes based upon this little flower. 

Lesser Celandine is one of the first wildflowers to bloom.

In fact, the 21st of February is known as “Celandine Day” as this is when peak flowering has been observed to begin.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh marigold

“Walking before Sunrise” by John Cleveland

The marigold, whose courtier’s face Echoes the sun, and doth unlace Her at his rise, at his full stop Packs and shuts up her gaudy shop.

Also known as ‘kingcups’ this stout wildflower of wet meadows, marshes and wet woodlands could be one of our most ancient plants. It is thought to have been growing here before the last Ice Age.


Lessons from the Gorse by E. B. Browning

Mountain gorses, ever-golden.
Cankered not the whole year long!
Do ye teach us to be strong,
Howsoever pricked and holden
Like your thorny blooms and so
Trodden on by rain and snow,
Up the hillside of this life, as bleak as where ye grow?

Few plants are making such a visual impact on the landscape just now as the flowering gorse with its rich yellow flowers. It gives off a gorgeous coconut and vanilla smell – apparently this is quite pungent to some people, but weak to others.

It is widespread on heaths, embankments and sea-cliffs.

The straight stems of gorse make excellent walking-sticks and the flowers can be used to make a Gorse wine.

Wild Primrose

Primroses by John Clare

I love the rath primroses pale brimstone primroses
That bloom in the thick wood and i’ the green closes
I love the primroses whenever they come
Where the blue fly sits pensive & humble bees hum
The pale brimstone primroses come at the spring
Swept over and fann’d by the wild thrushes wing
Bow’d down to the leaf cover’d ground by the bees
Who sing their spring ballads thro bushes & trees

The primroses’ name derives from the Latin prima rosa meaning ‘first rose’ of the year. In different counties of England it is also referred to as butter rose, early rose, Easter rose, golden rose and lent rose.

You will find this dainty flower in woodland clearings, hedgebanks, waysides and railway banks.

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From Farm to Fork – Lets hear it for these front-line workers

Living through lock down in rural Angus near the East coast of Scotland has given me time to look around and observe (for the first time I am ashamed to admit) the outstanding contribution that farmers across Scotland are making to all of us – all of the time – and especially during Covid-19.

I am literally surrounded by farms, my next-door neighbours are farmers and farming is the backdrop to most of my life at home.

After watching farmers here work tirelessly for over a month now I thought it is about time I begin to learn what is actually involved.

So I asked my neighbours’ Joel and Carolyn and their dog if they could fill me in!

Sheer hard work, skill and determination is what it takes as it happens.

Angus is a vast patchwork mosaic of ploughed and sown fields just now
Overlooking the river Tay the 15 mile stretch of coastal Angus running from Arbroath to Dundee is known as “the Golden mile” because a combination of wonderfully fertile soils and moderate climate make for ideal growing conditions.

Meet Skip, an Australian Kelpie, a tough ranch breed with strong herding instincts and Joels’ closest work colleague.

He is smart, work-orientated and exuberant.

Joel works a mixed farm, a mixture of livestock – cows and sheep – and arable – cereal crops – wheat and winter/ spring barley, rapeseed and potatoes.

600 acres are devoted to arable production and 150 acres are given over to grazing.

What makes Scotland so good for farming ?

Well perhaps the most important reason is actually our long cool days with temperatures during the growing period generally below 20°C and day-lengths of over 15 hours for at least 5 months. These factors combine to produce really good yields.

Some Farming Facts

  1. 80 % of Scotland’s land is farmed in some way, making it one of the biggest sculptors of the landscape we see around us.
  2. Scotland’s farmers, crofters and growers generate £2.9 billion a year.
  3. 67,000 people are directly employed in agriculture, representing 8% of the rural workforce and making this the 3rd biggest employer in rural Scotland. On top of this its estimated that a further 360,000 people (1 in 10 of all Scottish jobs) are dependent on it.
  4. Most farms are small to medium sized, employing several members of the same family, these often spanning several generations.
  5. Farming fuels food production, supplying us and our supermarkets with a rich larder from fresh in-season fruit and veg to high quality Scotch beef – a sector which generates over £15 billion.
This 2018 census gives an overview of the sheer numbers involved in this sector

How has the Covid lockdown affected farmers day to day?

I asked Joel this and the short answer to this is in reality not much.

Coming out of an extremely wet winter left him 150 acres still to plough with long days in the fields and the clocks still to change.

He listened to the virus spread on the radio in his cab but had no time for tv binge watching.

The clocks changed, things warmed slightly, and best of all it stayed dry. Time to Sow! Joel has worked fifteen hour days for several weeks now. He has of course heard the stories and tries to imagine how it is for people in town but for him in many ways its business as usual – except Carolyn is in lock down at home instead of at work – so he is better fed haha!

Long days in the field

Joel makes a really good point. Farmers practice social distancing and isolation most of the time. Theirs is a tough job that requires pretty epic self-motivation. They are keeping us fed throughout this crisis and are truly front-line workers deserving our respect.

A heart-warming video poem from farmers across the country pledging to keep us going through hard times can be seen here:

Thanks to Joel, Carolyn and Skip

After a hard days work skip gets a well deserved treat of ice cream

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LBJs- Muir of Dinnet NNR

LBJs. Or ‘little brown jobs’ to birders. And it’s easy to think half our avifauna is comprised of these – brown things that go tweet in the bushes and all look the same. (Actually that’s warblers….more of them later in the year!)

No photo description available.

I’m not saying that there isn’t an element of truth in that, but some of these LBJs have a bit more going for them than just being a small, brown, nondescript bird. As we’re all generally staying close to home, we’ll have a look at a few you might find on our rambles or in your garden.

Meadow pipit

We’re going to start with what, for me, is the type example of LBJ – the meadow pipit. These birds have, in many respects, very little to distinguish them…no remarkable song, almost totally brown plumage and are very common in moorland and rough grassy areas across Scotland. If someone comes into the office and says ‘I was up on the hills and there were loads of these brown bird things that tweeted a lot’, it was probably meadow pipits. Or as they’re known in this house of birdwatchers, ‘poxy meadow pipits’ because, when you’re rare bird hunting and something flies up in front of you, and you raise your binoculars, it’s usually a poxy meadow pipit, not a rare bird! They eat small insects and spiders and form an important part in the food chain as they are one of the main prey items of upland raptors.

Meadow pipit with food.

Close relatives of the meadow pipit are the rock pipit and the tree pipit. Although all three of these birds look almost identical, they have very different ways of life. Tree pipits migrate to Africa in the winter and return to our shores in April. Unlike meadow pipits, they are great singers and their parachuting descant is one of the sounds of the summer at Dinnet. And, as their name suggests, you find them in woodlands.

Tree pipit. Small bird, big voice.

Whereas rock pipit is a largely resident bird of (you guessed it) rocky shores. They scavenge for beach insects like sandhoppers along the tideline and often nest in rocky crevices above the reach of the waves.

R’ipit….a rock pipit

Another country LBJ that you can hardly fail to be aware of at this time of year is the skylark. They have a lovely, subtle brown-patterned plumage but it’s their song that sets them apart …a seemingly never-ending series or trills and chirrups from on high.  It is likely that, in spite of being a LBJ, more poems have been written about the skylark than any other bird (the nearest contender being nightingale, another LBJ). Unfortunately, skylarks are on the decline due to changes in agricultural practices but we are still lucky to have them in good numbers in Aberdeenshire.


So, onto garden LBJs. One of the ones that has been entertaining us most during the lockdown is the dunnock… literally, the ‘dun cock’ … or ‘small brown bird’. They aren’t bad singers but it’s their lurid love life that has been brightening up our back garden. Dunnocks often come in threes and this can lead to trouble as rival males fight for the affections of the female…who really isn’t all that fussy about who she mates with or how much they scrap over her. She is quite capable of flirting by wing-waving at one male, then losing interest and wing-waving at the other male, while male No. 1 is still there….often leading to fights. Ironically, a Victorian clergyman was fond of preaching to his congregation to emulate dunnocks, by being modest, sober, shy and retiring…..but ornithology has revealed that doing so would provide a plot line for a soap opera!


One of our commonest LBJs that you will see in most places is the house sparrow. I’m not going to say more about these here, but will direct you to this link about them in our sister blog at Forvie

House sparrow

The last of our LBJs for the week is the tree sparrow. I always think of them as the Harris-tweed-clad country cousins of the house sparrow….a much warmer brown, with a gingery cap and smart white cravat. They are smaller then the house sparrow and can be pushed out of nest boxes  by their more urban cousins…but will readily nest in nest boxes given a lack of competition. They will also come to feeders and love seed and peanuts.

Tree sparrows

So, there you go- a brief run -down of the LBJs you might see in your garden. But my advice would be – don’t worry about telling them apart, just enjoy having birds in your garden!


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Royalty Amongst Birds – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Gulls are royalty amongst birds. Discuss. Well, I suspect most folk would disagree – aren’t gulls just the things that crap on your car, nick your chips, dive bomb you in the town and terrify the kids into dropping their ice cream? While there’s no doubt they can do all these things, there’s a bit more to them than that. So,we’re going to take a closer look at them this week as we can’t get out and about to see all the normal wildlife on the reserve…and they may well be something you can see from your own window in town.

Let’s start with the ubiquitous herring gull. These are the gulls you are most likely to see in many cities. As their name suggests, they are fish-eaters and would have followed  the herring boats 200 years ago. But they are also smart, and adaptable, and there are far more fast-food outlets around than herring boats these days,  They have a very varied diet and can, and will, eat almost anything … walk through a town centre at pub closing time and you’ll soon see that! As an illustration of how adaptable they are, check out this news story from a few years back – Sam the Seagull became quite the local celebrity and people were paying the shopkeeper to let him nick crisps!

Gulls have taken readily to urban life but, as so often is the case when a species benefits from our profligacy, they are labelled a nuisance. And, while it can seem like there are herring gulls everywhere – especially when they wake you up at 4am with ‘awak,awak,awak’ – there are half the number there were in 1993. Herring gull is a species in decline, and potentially in trouble.

Herring gull with chicks

A close relative of the Herring Gull is the rather suave and sophisticated Lesser Black-backed Gull. These elegant birds can be recognised by their dark slate-grey backs, yellow legs and bright bill colours. Unlike the Herring Gull, these are summer visitors to our corner of the world, heading south in autumn for the warmer climes of continental Europe. When the first ones reappear after their winter holidays in the sun, it’s a sure sign that spring is upon us.

Lesser black-backed gull

Often confused with the previous species, the Great Black-backed Gull is substantially bigger, as its name somewhat suggests. In fact it would be worthy of the name Greatest – it is the largest species of gull in the world, with a five-foot wingspan, heavy bill and burly appearance. The adult birds are much darker on the back than the Lesser BB Gull – almost black, in fact – and the legs are pink, not yellow. These magnificent birds have a fearful reputation as predators – when you’re that big, you basically eat whatever you choose – and they have been recorded predating numerous other species from Puffins to Rabbits to Arctic Terns, as well as scavenging anything conveniently dead and meaty. They often nest on the very tops of sea stacks and cliffs, for a panoramic view of all the other food – I mean seabirds.

Great black-backed gull

The smallest and arguably smartest of our resident gulls is the Black-headed Gull. In spring and summer – the breeding season of course – they wear a very dapper chocolate-brown hood (not actually black) with neat white eyelids and a dark crimson bill. In winter they lose the hood and show just a dark spot behind the eye – changing their appearance so much you could almost be forgiven for thinking they were a different species. Many years ago, Black-headed Gulls bred plentifully at Dinnet on the lochs and mosses, but as in many other places, these inland colonies have gradually faded away. On our sister reserve at Forvie, however, they continue to thrive, with upwards of 2,000 pairs nesting there in some years.

Black-headed gull

Black headed gulls at Forvie

And now onto another inland nester. Common gulls, or mew gulls, don’t fit the description of ‘seagull’ very well. A lot of the older folks I know call them ‘heather gulls’ from their habit of nesting in the hills. They are smaller than a herring gull, with a gentler face and are often one of the gulls you see following the plough when the fields are being turned over. The north-east of Scotland used to boast one of the world’s largest common gull colonies, near Huntly, but this has declined over the past 20 years. Instead of being ‘heather gulls’ at least some of these could be renamed ‘Asda gulls’ as they can be found nesting in the gravel at the petrol station there!

Common gull

The last of the gulls you are likely to see in the UK is the least urban of the gulls…you really aren’t likely to see these on your daily walk unless you live next to sea cliffs. These are kittiwakes – named after their kitti-WAKE call – and it’s the high-rise life for them. Kittiwakes build a nest comprised of grass, guano and hope on steep cliffs and are one of the main residents of the big seabird cities you see on these cliffs. Their chicks are programmed from birth to shy away from steep drops and don’t wander around the nest the way other gull chicks do – it would be instantly fatal! Of all our gulls, kittiwakes are in the biggest trouble. They feed out to sea, on sand eels and collecting morsels from the surface of the water, so are totally dependent on what happens in the marine environment. Climate change, changes in sea temperature and food distribution and over-fishing have all contributed to their decline and, even in my lifetime, the seabird cliffs north of Aberdeen are quieter places than they were when I first went birding. I hope this is not the precursor of a silent spring for seabirds but I do fear for their future.


Finally, we’ll have a quick look at two rarer gull species that you might be lucky enough to cross paths with. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are collectively known as ‘white-winged’ gulls, owing to the complete lack of any pigmentation in their wingtips. This gives them a strikingly pallid, ghostly appearance and really makes them stand out from the crowd in a mixed-species flock. The Iceland Gull actually breeds in Greenland, though a lot of them do spend the winter in Iceland, with a few making it as far south as the UK each winter. By contrast the Glaucous Gull is an Arctic breeder, where it is essentially a northern counterpart of ‘our’ Great Black-backed Gull – a big, bruising, scavenging pirate, albeit demurely dressed in white! The one in this picture is attempting to mug a grey seal for some bit of gods-alone-know-what, in spite of the fact the seal is dozens of times it’s size and weight. What gulls lack in popularity, they more than make up for in attitude!

Glaucous gull thieving from seal

Glaucous gull

Iceland gull

Kumliens and Iceland gull

So, there we are, a quick run down of the gulls you may see on your daily exercise. We may not have convinced you to like them but we hope you’ll at least appreciate them for what they are! Thanks to Peter for pics and Daryl for co-authoring this blog.



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