Butterflies and Beasties – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been yet another cracking week on the reserve. Yes, we’ve had some rain….enough to make the grass grow, certainly… but plenty of sunshine too. There have been loads of butterflies around and, after the scotch arguses, the peacocks have been the one you’re most likely to see.

Peacock

Peacock butterfly

I was also delighted to see my first painted lady of the year on the reserve. These butterflies migrate, over several generations, from north Africa, following summer through Europe and arriving here in (usually) mid -to -late summer. There are still plenty of wildflowers here but they will probably have “gone over” or been scorched off with the heat further south.

Painted lady

Painted lady

The peacocks and the painted ladies look gorgeous, almost freshly minted. But the scotch arguses are well through their season now and are starting to look a bit sorry for themselves. This one was missing several chunks from its wings and is really looking rather worn.

scotch argus

Most of the scotch argus butterflies are looking worn by now.

Although we have had some rain, the ground is still really dry. This ditch is completely dry, for the first time ever. It’s often above waist deep in the winter and we’ve never seen it with no water in it.

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When we have had rain, all the frogs, toads and slugs have come out. Unfortunately, a lot of toads have been run over but their revenge is nigh … the road surface is really breaking up under the squashed corpses. Which will let in water, which will freeze and expand, which will break up the road even further … and hello, potholes!

sqashed toad

Squashed toad remains, lifting the road surface.

After the rain, there are slugs everywhere. Now, they’re not most people’s favourite animal -in fact, I doubt they’d make the top 100 – but the big black ones are quite useful. They’re not the ones that munch your garden, they’re detritivores – they eat detritus, dead plant material, even poo. So they’re useful in helping recycling in the natural world.

black slug

Life in slow-mo. A great black slug.

The slugs are easy to spot but other invertebrates are easy to miss. We hosted a Scottish Countryside Rangers training day on Tuesday, with the wonderful Dr Mark Young, looking at whatever beasties we could find. Spot of the day were these two froghoppers….would you have seen them on their branch?

froghoppers

Spot the froghoppers?

We also found various spiders and caterpillars and the galls left by the pine resin gall moth. I’ve been seeing these lumps on pine trees for years and never known what they are- until now.

Insect training day

SCRA insect training day

wolf spider with eggs

Crab spider

Crab Spider

oak egger caterpillar

Oak eggar moth caterpillar

pine resin gall moth

While we were insect hunting, we couldn’t help but find craneflies. Also known as daddy longlegs, they are everywhere in late summer, and the chances are you’ll have had some in the house, blundering gormlessly into lights and windows. But, if you look closely at one, you’ll see something interesting going on with their wings. They only have one pair of “proper” wings as the front but have these strange-looking lollipop-shaped structures where you’d expect another pair of wings behind them. These are called halteres and oscillate while the insect is flying, helping it to balance in flight.

cranefly

Cranefly, with halteres visible

One of the main reasons we see so many butterflies and other insects at this time of year is the abundance of food for them. A lot of these insects will be pollinators and will feed of nectar from flowers. As the heather is out just now, there is a lot of nectar on offer.

heather

Bonny purple heather

There are plenty of other flowers. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about bluebells …but they don’t have to be blue. We found some almost-white ones near Meikle Kinord this week.

white bluebell

White bluebell

Another easily overlooked flower is out just now, too. This is sneezewort, a close relative of yarrow. It’s quite toxic to grazing animals but has been used medicinally for millennia. It was often dried and powdered, then inhaled like snuff … usually resulting in a sneezing fit. Hence the name!

sneezewort

Sneezewort

The lochs are pretty quiet just now. All the ducks are in “eclipse” – they’ve moulted their breeding finery and are keeping their heads down. The most obvious residents of the lochs were the large family of mute swans pottering around feeding on the weed. They’ve done well to get seven cygnets to this size…as far as we know, they only lost one from the whole brood.

swan & cygnets

Three of the cygnets with male swan behind

swans

These swans have done well raising 7 cygnets this far

Another parent we spotted this week was the mum roe deer with her fawn. It’s unusual to see them with the youngsters -they’re so wary of predators they usually leg it as soon as you see them. But this female can’t have seen us and it was lovey to watch her interact with the youngster. She even cleaned its ears, resulting in much ear-flapping and head shaking. Muuuummmm! Gerroff!!!

roe deer

Mum and youngster

roe

Clean out your ears!

We’ll finish this week’s blog with a small plant that should be one of everyone’s favourites. Let me introduce you to the sundew …small, red, quite pretty in close up. But nothing special, right? Wrong! This wee plant is carnivorous and, if you look closely, you’ll see that this one has caught a cranefly. And, even closer to, all those black dots or smears on the leaves are probably the remains of midgies. Any plant that munches midgies or mozzies will definitely count as one of my favourites!

sundew

This sundew has captured a cranefly

Sundew

Sundew in close up

 

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Autumnal August – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been another warm week on the reserve…but the weather does seem to be changing. I’m sure the glorious summer has been nice if you don’t have to work in it, but it has been heat hell while working…especially if you’re striming, spraying or (worst of all) wearing neoprene chest waders. I jokingly said that I was fed up with this incessant heat and wanted a frost now…and we nearly got one on Wednesday night, with the temperature down to only 2 degrees! We’re also starting to see rain more regularly but it’ll take a while to top up the lochs.

Cloudburst.

We’ve had a pretty busy week on the reserve. Simon and Obama (he’s the one with the four legs and the tail) came out for a visit prior to the Pony Axe trips later in the year. If you’re interested, booking details are below.

We then piled into some practical work with volunteers Hugh and Wallis. They extended a handrail then we all threw ourselves into some pathwork. Part of the Burn o Vat path was starting to slip sideways down the hill. This will only get worse, as folk try to walk round an uncomfortable side-slope and erode the path further- and water will strip off the surfacing. So, we had to revet the side of the path with boulders and build up the surfacing a bit. Sounds simple, but it took four of us half a day to fix no more than 20 yards of path. It looks good now, though, and hopefully won’t go anywhere anytime soon.

Wallis and Hugh installing a new handrail.

Finding rocks to revet the path

Team Footpath! (and Hugh, who’s behind the camera).

The repaired path

Although we’ve had some rain now, even more of the trees are starting to pack up for the season. These rowan leaves are yellowing rapidly, even before the berries are ripe.

More of the trees are starting to turn yellow

Some of the late-summer insects have been much in evidence. August is the peak month for hoverflies and there seem to be a lot of them this year. At least a couple of the commoner species (migrant and marmalade hoverflies) can be migrants and their numbers can be boosted by big influxes from the continent. I suspect this has happened this year by the sheer number of hoverflies we’ve been seeing.

Hoverfly on foxglove

Also everywhere just now are wind-blown thistle seeds. We always called these “hairy witchies” when we were kids and tried to catch them. They’ll be around for a bit yet as the willowherb seeds will take over as soon as the thistles are finished.

“Hairy witchies” …a thistle seed caught on a spider’s web

Good numbers of geese seem to be gathering on the lochs. This is a sure autumn sign, as a lot of the local breeding population “hang out” on the Dinnet lochs over the winter. It’s a sobering thought that they could be joined  by their Icelandic counterpart in as little as three weeks!

The geese are gathering on the lochs

We’re also seeing the start of some of the autumn fruit now. The rowans are ripening rapidly but the rosehips still have a fair way to go.

Green rose hips

Ripening rowans

We were also busy this week with preparation for, and running of, our annual wild food walk. We run this alongside Aberdeenshire Council Ranger Service and it’s always really popular. It’s a great way to connect people with nature, to let them see, touch, smell and taste things our forebears would have used…not that long ago, in some cases. Unfortunately, you’ve missed this year’s one but look out for it again next year- it’s usually in the first half of August. Maybe see you next August!

Wild rasps, strawberries and candied angelica

Blaeberry pancakes …a great way to get youngsters to try fruit.

Smelling wood sage

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Showers and Sun – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, we’ve finally had some rain. In fact, it has rained every day since Saturday and, for the most part, has had the decency to do so overnight. The grass is looking a lot greener but some of the trees had started to drop leave before the rain came. If you look closely at a fallen leaf you can see how the chlorophyll, the stuff that makes leaves look green and converts sunlight to energy for the tree, is being reabsorbed along the veins of the leaf. The are often greener than the rest of the now-yellow leaf.

You can see how the green chlorophyll is reabsorbed into the tree along the veins in the leaves.

Green and yellow

And some of the trees look like they’ve died in the dry. We’ll leave these for a bit to see if they put on fresh growth but I suspect they’ll have to come down over the winter.

This pine is dying with the drought

In spite of the overnight rain, we’ve been having lovely sunny days. The late-summer flowers seem to be enjoying the sun and one of the prettiest must be the bluebell, or harebell. In spite of its lovely, delicate appearance, it was sometimes held in suspicious awe in folklore. The ringing of the flower bells was said to summon the fairy-folk, and these weren’t the nice, modern, twinkly, Tinkerbell-type of faeries. Oh, no, these were the mischievous and often downright dangerous “wee folk” of nightmares, who stole children away ….and, if they came for your teeth, they’d use pliers,  forget getting 20p under the pillow.  So bluebells were left unpicked…just in case you annoyed the Wee Folk.

Bluebell or harebell

Less obvious but just as lovely in close-up are the eyebrights. These tiny flowers are partly parasitic on grass- their roots attach into the grass roots and steal some of it’s nutrients. They’re know as “eyebright” as they were, and still are, used to treat eye inflammation in herbal medicine.

Eyebright

The ling heather is almost in full bloom now. Looking across the landscape, there’s a decidedly purple tint to the hills now.

Ling heather

The butterflies are enjoying the late flowers. Scotch arguses are still everywhere.

Scotch argus

And we saw this rather knackered-looking dark green fritillary making the most of the sun on Thursday.

A rather worn-looking dark green fritiallary

Compare it to this freshly-emerged small copper. I never feel that any photo of a small copper does it justice – it never seems to capture just how the orange on their wings glows in the sun.

Small copper butterfly

Also making the most of the sun are the dragonflies. We’ve seen lots of these this year, thanks to the fine weather. They really need a bit of heat to fly and they have got plenty of that this summer! Hopefully, they’ve been tucking into as many mosquitoes and midges as possible.

Female black darter

Common hawkers

Speaking of tucking in, we’ve seen a lot of pine marten poo on the path this week. One pile looked worryingly pretty until we realized it was covered in brightly -coloured greenbottles that buzzed off as we walked past.

Greenbottles

Another pile showed quite clearly what the pine marten had been eating. Can you tell?(or maybe you’re a normal person that doesn’t look closely at poo, unlike nature reserve staff).

Who’s poo? and what have they been eating?

Well, here’s what the marten must have been tucking into. And I can’t say I blame it. Wild cherries, or geans, are delicious and it’s their stones you can see in the poo pile. They really need to go almost black to be sweet enough to eat – be warned, they’re still eye-wateringly sour if they’re anything paler than a deep, dark red. It’s one of life’s pleasures, to be able to pick and eat sun-warmed fruit straight from the tree. (Oh, and to see how far you can spit the stone…surely, if you’ve ever eaten cherries, you must have tried that, even once?)   There are still some wild cherries left so, if you’re here this weekend and fancy one, give it a try- just make sure you definitely know it’s a wild cherry…and only pick a dark red or black one!

Mmmmmm. Wild cherries.

Fallen wild cherries

Caught red handed!

 

 

 

 

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Dam Good Peatlands

This month is Peatlands themed month for Scottish Natural Heritage; a perfect opportunity to tell you about my favourite part of the reserve. Parkin’s Moss is a raised bog or peatland not too far from the visitor centre. A peatland is an area where Peat soil is formed; a brown material consisting of partly decomposed plant matter. For peat to form you need an area of ground that is wet all year; a Fen will form first which is a marshy area of ground dominated by grasses and sedges. Low oxygen levels and acidic soil will slow the decomposition of dead plants and Peat begins to form. The centre of the bog will rise above the groundwater level as the peat builds (raised bog forming) and is then fed only by rainwater. Phew! That’s the long winded explanation over with.

Parkin's

Parkin’s Moss

Parkin’s moss was drained by the Victorians to try and make more grazing land for livestock. Unfortunately the water level suddenly dropping has stopped the production of Peat, but we have been trying to reverse this since 1999. Putting in dams to bring the water level up is precise but fun work (if you like wielding giant wacky looking hammers).

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Giant wacky hammer (paving maul)

You first place timber across the ditch that you’re going to dam for a point to stand on and to support the dam.

ditch-dam

The first ditch damming at Parkin’s Moss

You then use a spade to mark where you want plastic piling sheets to go. Then start gently taping in the piling sheets with the 13 lbs./ 6 kg giant wacky hammer (paving maul).

damming

My, that’s a big hammer you’ve got there….putting in a new dam on a side drain

The plastic piling sheets slot together to form a water tight barrier so when you’ve joined them together across the ditch you have a perfect dam! That is of course when they don’t start breaking off from a slightly too heavy whack of the hammer. Or when they can’t be pushed though some still too fresh rotting tree branches… so it can take a while but it’s still fun work. It’s very satisfying when you come back a few days later to see the water level up and the ground saturated.

dam

Finished dam. Parkin’s Moss

So we’re doing this work partly to continue the formation of Peat at Muir of Dinnet but also because this is an important habitat for some very snazzy plant and animal species. The Dragonflies and Damselflies are the most eye-catching animals whizzing around Parkins Moss. There are 8 species of Dragonfly and Damselfly at Muir of Dinnet but the common blue Damselfly and the four spotted chaser dragonfly are the most likely to be spotted.

Don’t be fooled by their small size. These creatures are the most successful predators in the world! In 2012 researchers at Harvard University, found that dragonflies caught up to 95% of the prey they chased! Compare that to the mighty Leopard; where 6 out of 7 hunts end in disappointment, or even the speedy Cheetah which only catch their prey half the time.

What you see covering most of the bog is Sphagnum Moss which plays an important role in holding onto the water on bogs. This moss also contains Penicillin and has been used as a wound dressing since prehistoric times. Even fairly recently as part of the war effort in the 1940s, when the usual dressings were in short supply, Girl Guides were sent to collect Sphagnum moss from their local bogs.

The openness of this landscape is one of the reasons I love it. Hardly any trees, a stretch of seemingly flat moss covered land and the sky stretching endlessly overhead. It reminds me of the barren openness of the uplands of Scotland (another of my top habitats) but with both habitats there is much more going on than initially meets the eye. Bogs have a dark beauty about them in the unknown depths of the water and the unfamiliar species. Although they can appear barren the water is full of damselfly and dragonfly larvae, frogs, toads, tadpoles, water beetles, pond skaters, leeches and more! These all make a mighty feast for the birds and otters.

My favourite smelling plant of the reserve (although not too eye-catching) can be found at Parkin’s Moss. Bog Myrtle grows in a number of large patches around the bog including at the handrail of the boardwalk on the opposite side to the handrail. If you find yourself here, rub the leaves between your fingers and smell their gorgeous eucalyptus scent. Bog Myrtle is a natural midge repellent and the farmers, hunters and ramblers of old would have stuck a sprig of it behind the ear to keep the midges away.

One final interesting plant species I’d like to tell you about is the Sundew plant. These are tiny red specks on the bog with a big appetite. They are insectivorous and catch insects with the sticky hairs that cover them. The digestive juices in the Sundew are said to have been used by ancient Celts as hair dye. The plant can produce red and purple dyes so the effect was probably quite eye-catching!

sundew

Sundew

So we like to maintain and improve the bogs in Scotland for the habitat and number of species they can support, for there particular features and beauty and for Peat formation. The Peat formation has another important and far reaching benefit. It traps Carbon. 90% of the bogs in the UK have been lost and have taken with them rare plants and animals and released Carbon. Since 2012, Peatland ACTION, launched by the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage, has set more than 10,000 hectares of degraded peatlands in Scotland on the road to recovery. This is a long term plan to trap Carbon over time and reduce the effects of climate change. Hopefully this has sparked some interest in this unusual habitat and you might see bogs in a new light. If not you might still appreciate their importance both in Scotland and globally.

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Sizzling Summer – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been yet another scorching week on the reserve. Rain is  still in short supply …but visitors aren’t! It’s shaping up to be our busiest month EVER…if we have more than another 150  visitors by the end of the month, it’ll be a record breaker! The temperature has been over 20 degrees every day and it was perfect weather for our “Splish Splash” event this week. In this weather, (safely supervised)  children and water go together and there was lots of splashing and they made some pretty funky rafts.

Splashing fun.

Going for a boat trip!

Mini-raft

Some of the summer flowers seem to be “going over” pretty quickly. The water lilies won’t be around for much longer, so I’d suggest a walk round the loch sooner rather than later if you want to see them.

White water lilies

A common flower found in grassy areas is yarrow. You may even have some in your lawn, if, like ours, it isn’t a “posh” all-grass lawn. Yarrow has been well-known for millennia as an astringent and was used to stop bleeding. It’s scientific name  Achillea comes from the Greek hero Achilles, who  supposedly used it to treat his wounded warriors and other names include soldier’s woundwort and staunchweed. Their dried stalks were used in divination and on some of the Scottish Islands it was even believed that holding a yarrow leaf to the eye gave you second sight.

Yarrow flower

Another plant that was used medically is grabbing some attention, too. Raspberry leaves were, and still are, used in tea to help ease childbirth or period cramps. But it’s not the leaves that are catching everyone’s attention, it’s the red, juicy raspberries! Wild rasps are a real treat, with (to my mind, anyway) a much more intense flavor than domestic ones. It’s easy to get distracted from litter-picking by a particularly tasty-looking patch!

Wild rasps

One of the later-flowering plants is the devil’s-bit scabious. This pretty purple flower was used to treat scabies, a nasty, itchy skin disease. They’re a really good source of nectar for bees and butterflies at this time of year and you usually don’t have to look at one of the flowers for long before you’ll see some insects visiting it.

Devi’s bit scabious

One of the insects you may well see is the Scotch argus butterfly. These smart, dark butterflies don’t emerge until into July and have done pretty well over the last few years as, by July, the rubbish springs we’ve had are over….they haven’t suffered the way the early-emerging butterflies have. They’re prolific in Deeside and, if the weather is half-decent, you’re almost guaranteed to see one as you walk around.

Scotch Argus

Mind you, some of the other butterflies have had a better year this year with the warm weather. We’ve seen more peacocks and small tortoiseshells already than we did all last summer. The weather makes such a huge difference to wildlife…both good and bad.

Peacock butterfly

Small tortoiseshell butterfly

If you want to see a bit more of the reserve, but maybe haven’t been able to, due to accessibility issues, there is a great (and free) opportunity coming up. We are running a couple of Pony Axe trips next month. See below for details and booking.

We’re going to finish this week’s blog with a picture of a tern, as a tribute to a colleague of ours who passed away last weekend. Rob was a passionate conservationist and he helped make the tern colony at Forvie what it is today- the largest mainland ternery in Scotland. He helped us out at Dinnet several times and he was just, simply, a good bloke and our friend. We’ll miss you, Rob.

Arctic tern

 

 

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Holiday Buzz – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, that’s us into the second week of the school holidays and there’s a real buzz about the reserve, with loads of visitors going around. Our fun day, last Friday, was really busy and we had a super day with over 150 people. Everything seemed popular and we didn’t stop all day…which is how we want it!

Craft table at fun day

The tea tent (very important. And tasty.)

Fun day crafts

Storyteller Pauline. “Under your seat, you will find an invisible axe. Pick up your invisible axe….”

End of the day. Phew! Glad that’s over….

Mind you, some of our visitors weren’t stopping either …being silly, that is. Yes, there’s been a bit of rain but everything is still very dry and fire is an ongoing threat. We think someone had decided to try and lever an old tree stump out of the ground for a fire but, when it turned out to be really heavy (because of the huge boulder in the roots) they just abandoned it in the middle of the path. Don’t assume logic comes into it…it doesn’t!

Don’t know why someone decided blocking the path with this stump was a good idea…

Must have taken some effort to shift!

All cleared!

We had a visit from our Chief Executive Officer, Francesca, on Tuesday. She’s cycling between all the SNH offices, in her own time, to meet the staff and see some of Scotland’s wonderful nature. You can follow her journey at #CycleForNature.

Our CEO Francesca at the Vat

As we were running a moth event just after she was here, we took the opportunity to introduce her to one of the stars of the moth event. Ranger Helen (who is a star in her own right!) had brought along some very large, almost-ready-to-pupate emperor moth caterpillars and you must admit, they look pretty impressive.

Holding an emperor moth caterpillar

Emperor moth caterpillar

And the moth trap was HEAVING with moths! We had 50 different species of moth in the trap and well over 100 individual moths. My favourites were the burnished brass and the not-very-snappily named lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing. Try saying that in a hurry! But my favourite moth name is the “Confused” … yes, there is genuinely a moth called that….and one called the “Uncertain”. I’m just sorry we’ve never had one in the trap.

The snout

Lesser broad-bordered yellow underwing and common carpet moths…the carpet is on the right.

One of the species that were in the trap were several bird cherry ermine moths. These were the ones that, earlier in the year, had the caterpillars that covered the trees in webs and sometime stripped the tree bare of leaves. Well, this is a grown up version of the culprit – small and innocuous-looking, aren’t they?

Bird cherry ermine moth

When we run a moth event, we give the children butterfly nets with which to catch the inevitable escapes when we’re emptying the moth trap. We try and ID everything…and the moths try and leave as quickly as possible. So we set the youngsters to chasing down the escapees. While they were doing that, one extremely observant girl came back with a bumblebee in her net, saying it had a beetle on its tongue. So, we looked closely at it and yes, there was a small brown beetle firmly latched onto the proboscis of this still-alive but sorry-looking bee. Well, I’ve worked in the outdoors for 20 years and never seen anything like it. Lepidopterist Helen had never seen anything like it. Two other folk who study moths a hobby had never seen anything like it. Was it a parasite? A rummage on-line eventually suggested that the beetle was a species of Antherophagus beetle. These live in bee nests and (there’s no nice way to say this) eat bee poo. They lurk in flowers until a bee comes along and hitch a ride to the nest. We can only assume that this one grabbed the nearest bit of the bee, which was its proboscis …but then the bee couldn’t feed easily and just got weaker. We gave the bee some honey and, after it dunked the beetle in the honey a few times, it let go. Both bee and beetle were safely returned to flowers…and we learned something new.

Bumblebee with beetle on tongue

Toadlets seem to be everywhere on the reserve just now. These are this year’s tadpoles (toadpoles?), grown up into mini-toads. They’ve been easier to see now we’ve had a few damp mornings- when you’re that tiny, you’d dry up quickly so they’ve been staying hidden in damp places until now.

Tiny toadlet

No longer hiding are this year’s young birds. Their parents have pushed off to have another brood or to moult (or to just generally recover from having kids) and the youngsters have to fend for themselves. This young robin has been hanging around the back of the visitor centre, doing okay off us as we move stuff around. There are always beasties to be found when you shift stuff! He or she has also been hoovering up bits of nut under the feeder and was catching stray moths the night we had the trap set.

Young robin

This young blue tit has also learned where the feeder is. They’re easy to tell from the adults as they have yellow, rather than white, faces.

Young blue tit

And this young pied wagtail did well to make it this far! The nest was in the wall, right beside where the adders bask. And adders are partial to a young bird for dinner …but they mustn’t have found the nest.

Young pied wagtail

If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, why not book onto our Sensory walk? It’s free of charge and suitable for adults or children…lots of interesting things to smell and feel!

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Damp and Dry – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Finally, finally, we’ve had some rain. Not a massive amount and not really proper rain either- more drizzle, really, or what we’d call “smirr” in the NE of Scotland – but at least it has started to damp down the countryside a little. Not enough though – it’ll take several days of rain to start overcoming this drought – but it was nice, for a change, to see all the trees and grasses dripping water a couple of mornings.

Raindrops on pine tree

Wet grasses

Usually that’s not something we have much problem seeing! But, this year, it has been so dry that some of the trees are starting to show signs of drought stress now. Some of the leaves are turning yellow and it’s looking more like late August than mid-July.

The trees are showing signs of drought stress

The damp mornings have brought the toads out in force and, sadly, that means there’s been a high butcher’s bill on the roads. But the toads seem to be getting a form of posthumous revenge…the places where toads have been laminated onto the tarmac seem to break up more easily. I don’t know if it’s chemicals from their bodies, or that the dark-coloured toad splatter absorbs more heat and melts the tar more, but the bits where toads have bought it do seem to have been damaged more in the heat.

Toad on the road. We moved it.

The revenge of the toad?

The lochs are really low just now and Loch Davan has an unpleasant-looking green weed-and-algae mat over much of its surface. It doesn’t seem to be putting the birds off though – they are feeding in amongst it, like this grebe. There were even a three common sandpipers running around on top of the weed mat.

Great crested grebe

However, the otters seem to prefer the open water. I suppose it’s not so dark under the weed and that might make it easier to catch fish. Catching the otter on camera was hard enough…it kept diving and I had far more photos of the back and tail than I ever got of the head end!

Diving

Only the tail showing

otter

This otter was so absorbed in fishing, he never noticed us watching from the shore. Often, if you stand still, wildlife will let you get closer that you’d ever imagine possible. And sometimes, the wildlife comes to you. I was litter picking around the car park when something moved in the grass….so, stand still. What is it? Something wee, down in the grass. Mouse? Vole? No, shrew! I’m not sure if it’s a common or pygmy shrew but, either way, it’s one of the smallest mammals in the country. Shrews are relentless, restless bundles of energy, constantly moving, always feeding. And they have to – their metabolism burns so quickly, they have to feed all the time or die. Your heartbeat will- probably -be about 70 beats per minute. A shrew’s will be – give or take – around 800 beats per minute. And they have ben measured at over 1000, too. They really do epitomize the “live fast, die young” lifestyle.

Shrewly not? That’s tiny!

Shrew

Shrew

The bell heather is well out now and it won’t be long until the ling heather is out too. This will be a real feast for the bees and, if you’ve ever had heather honey, you’ll know it tastes like the smell of the moors in late summer.

Bell heather in close-up

Also out are the foxgloves. These tall, striking purple -or-while flowers are biannuals – they will put out a rosette of leaves one year and flower the next. They are also popular with bees and even a big bumblebee can disappear completely into a foxglove flower. For many years,  foxgloves were used to treat heart or nervous complaints as digitalis (a chemical they contain) affects heart rate. But  this wasn’t a precise art and it was awfully easy to overdose someone and make them very unwell. There’s a theory that Van Gogh’s “Yellow period” came about as a result of digitalis poisoning – he was given it to control seizures but, at toxic doses, it can confuse visual perception and make things look yellow or green…or surrounded by an aura. It’s definitely a plant that’s best just appreciated for its looks and not touched!

The foxgloves are at the height of their flowering and growth just now.

Foxglove

A rather less toxic but also less attractive flower is this angelica. It’s what is termed and “umbellifer” … a plant with umbrella -shaped clusters of often white flowers. You see umbellifers all over the place and they include plants like hogweed, cow parsley, wild carrot…and some properly nasty ones like hemlock. Angelica isn’t toxic though, its stems can be stripped and candied. The resulting green strips were widely used in cake decorating before synthetic colourings became the norm. And, in case you’re wondering, it just tastes of candied angelica….a mild but unique flavor that doesn’t taste like anything else. There are still spaces on our Edible and Medicinal plant walk on 9th August if you want to try it….?

Angelica flower

Speaking of events, we’re publishing the blog a day earlier than normal. This is because, tomorrow, Friday, we’ll be up to our eyes setting up, running and then packing away our annual fun day. There will be lots of fun things for all the family – crafts, stories, face painting, bird box making …and it’s all free, yes that’s FREE of charge. Why not drop in and see us…and, if you can’t make the Friday, we’ve a peatlands treasure hunt on Saturday. Maybe see you there!

Fun Day poster

Peatlands treasure hunt poster

Moth poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scorchio Part II – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been another glorious week on the reserve. Still no rain though…but the  school holidays start today in Aberdeenshire, and that’s usually a cue for it to come on and forget to stop. The heat and the dryness is baking the grass yellow and it looks like autumn could come early this year as the trees react to drought stress. In fact, on a couple of days it has felt like autumn first thing, with cool, dew-covered mornings, the plaintive piping of curlews heading south and the Christmas adverts on the car radio (yes, already. I swore at it). The bracken is also turning yellow in places and it a lot shorter than last year. At least it’s less to strim!

Some of the bracken is turning yellow with drought

Keeping the paths clear of vegetation is usually a bit of a thankless task at this time of year. In warm, wet summers I’ve been known to yell “will you just stop growing!” at the grass, after cutting it for the umpteenth time. But not this year. Yes, there is still path clearing to do – like these branches which were just at the right height to poke people in the face – but the dry weather has definitely slowed everything  down.

These branches need cut back

Done! Shouldn’t poke anyone in the face now.

The breeding season is slowing down too, with a lot of birds having bred and now concentrating on raising their young. These young siskins were learning how to feed on birch catkins.

Young siskin

Young siskin, feeding on birch catkins

Our spotted flycatchers fledged on Tuesday morning and, for the rest of the week, you could hear them all round the visitor centre. This picture was taken the evening before the left the nest.

the spotted flycatchers, on Monday, just before they fledged

But, as one bit of wildlife leaves us, another arrives! With the warm weather, I’ve had the back door standing open as I potter around the sheds and, as I came back into the kitchen, I thought to myself “gosh, that bit of grass that’s come off my boots looks so like a lizard”…. just as the bit of grass turned its head and blinked at me. Oh, hells, there’s a lizard in the kitchen! How can we get it out without it disappearing under a unit or hurting it? So, I’m on the floor, slowly edging a metre stick behind it to hopefully block an escape under the fridge, while, with my other hand, carefully easing a bandy net towards it. Fortunately it climbed right into the net and was hastily evicted.

How to extract a lizard from the kitchen

Freedom! Eventually….

And then, 10 minutes later, it was back! Yes, in the kitchen again. Turns out the reason for its repeated visits was that it was thirsty and I must have splashed water on the floor, getting a drink or washing up or something. And here’s the lizard, sitting there lapping it up, with every evidence of enjoyment. you can see a wee video of it here   https://www.facebook.com/ScotlandsNNRs/videos/1995967507100502/ You know it’s been dry when the wildlife comes looking for a drink like this.

There’s a lizard in the kitchen!

As the year moves into July, different plants and wildlife appear or become obvious. This week has marked the appearance of the ringlet butterflies. These can look almost black when they emerge, but soon fade to a nondescript brown colour. They take their name from the rings around the spots on their underwings.

Ringlet butterfly

Also really obvious this year have been the specked wood butterflies. We’ve been seeing here for a few years now but  never in any numbers – until now! This year, specked woods are just everywhere, flying up off the paths and dancing in woodland glades. We think it’s due to climate change – they like it a bit warmer  than it normally is here and so are becoming more abundant as the climate warms.

Speckled wood, folded up on path

Speckled wood, wings unfolded

A plant that can make its presence felt from now onwards is the burdock. Only known to a lot of people as a flavouring in a drink – dandelion and burdock anyone?- this large-leaved plant has catchy, spiky seed heads that absolutely LOVE fleece jumpers. It’s how they spread seeds- they hook onto any passing furry-or-feathery (or fleecy)  thing and get distributed away from the plant. I’m just glad the ones that got me are still young and stayed as an intact seed head. One they’re older,  they fall apart and you have to spend ages picking them out of your clothes or off the dog.

The burdock is in flower

Stuck on you….

With the school holidays coming up, we have a fun-filled programme of nature events coming up. Here are posters the next three, but you can find a full list here – just type “Dinnet” into the search box. https://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/events

Fun Day poster

Peatlands treasure hunt poster

Moth poster

We hope to see you at one of these over the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scorchio! – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Phew! It’s been hot, hot, hot this week! A little too hot at times, truth be told, for a cold- adapted northern species like myself. The temperature made it up to 30 degrees and everything is looking quite dry and yellow. Yet again, we’re paranoid about fire, especially after seeing those huge blazes in England recently. It’s so dry just now that it’s just not responsible to light a fire AT ALL…our first job on Monday was to douse a smouldering tree stump that had been burning all night. I’m sure the people who lit the campfire thought they’d done so safely…but it got into the tree roots and just kept going. Fortunately, nothing around it went on fire and we were able to dig it out and douse it….but it served as yet another warning of just how easily fire can get out-of-control in these dry conditions.

High fire risk. Just don’t.

Irresponsible fire pit

feeling hot, hot, hot….it did top 30 degrees Celcius within the hour too….

I think the heat has also made it quiet for wildlife this week, too. With the reserve baking under the sun, even the birds don’t seem to be singing all that enthusiastically. The willow warblers are sounding more and more wistful as the year wears on and the blackcaps are confining themselves to short, sudden liquid bursts of song.

Willow warbler singing from the top of a pine tree

But we have been seeing quite a few roe deer this week. With their rut approaching, their coast are becoming redder…and any bucks you see have now worn the velvet off their antlers, ready for combat in the next few weeks.

Roe doe

While the deer are just approaching their breeding time, most of the birds are well through the theirs. Some, which bred early (like the geese) have young that are so large you need to look twice to separate them from the adults. They are still slightly smaller and, with the light behind them, you can still see a faint fuzz of down on their heads.

A gang of greylags

The greylag goslings are big now

Oh course, all these young birds need to learn to feed themselves. The woodpeckers have already taught at least one of their brood the art of freeloading …” Here you go kids, there’s usually grub there. Don’t mind the humans, they wander back and forth a bit, no idea why”.

Young great spotted woodpecker. You can tell it’s a youngster by the red cap.

The feeder is also a nice, easy place to get a quick feed for other birds. For a couple of days, a pair of siskins were almost resident on the feeder. These slender finches always seem to prefer to feed upside down.

A pair of siskins

Our other youngsters are growing rapidly. Just this week we’ve actually been able to see the heads of the young spotted flycatchers peeping out over the edge of the nest by the back door. I’m still not totally sure how many there are…definitely three, maybe four. They all have the classic punk hairdo of chicks-moulting-into-feather everywhere.

There are at least 3, maybe 4 young spotted flycatchers in the nest.

The parents have constantly been back and forth with food. They often perch up on the gutter, affording us some splendid views. You can even see the fine “hairs” around the base of their beak that help channel insects towards the beak, then “snap”….and that’s another meal for the chicks.

Spotted flycatcher

As the summer wears on, you notice a change in the flowers. The anemones, violets and stitchworts of spring have been replaced by “summer flowers” …the bedstraws, daisies and heathers. Most obvious, that the moment, are the ox-eye daisies (or gowans). Another old name for these is “moon daisies” as they seem to glow in the fields at dusk.

Ox-eye daisy…or moon daisy

Of course, it won’t be long until the ox-eyes aren’t the most obvious flowers around. The bell  heather is coming into bloom and that’s just the start of the hills turning purple with heather for the summer. Like the ling heather, you can get pale or white “throws” of the plant, and there is a particularly pale patch right beside the path between Burn o Vat and Old Kinord.

Pale and “normal” purple bell heather

Some of the slightly less obvious flowers are worth a look, too. The golden spikes of lady’s bedstraw line many roads just now and you can find it scattered throughout the grassy parts of the reserve. As the name suggests, it was used to stuff bedding, and it sounds quite a romantic idea, sleeping on a mat of dried flowers. But the flowers have astringent properties, which helped keep fleas away…which doesn’t sound quite as appealing. So, keep your eyes peeled for it as you walk around the reserve…and try not to itch at the thought of its original use!

Lady’s bedstraw

 

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Pathway to Paradise

So it looks like the theme for the month across all of the Scottish Natural Heritage sites is ‘Paths and Trials’. Which is useful as I’ve being doing a lot of path maintenance the last couple of days! Even without much rain the vegetation has been shooting up; the grass, bracken and nettles are waist height in some places (well waist high on me which is maybe not so impressive if you’re taller than 5’3″). We need to knock it back now before it starts to fall over across the path. The Little Ord trail needed some attention this week. The poor Celtic cross was starting to get overshadowed by the Bracken.

This 1200 year old carving on a felsite slab (impressive – very hard rock!) is one of four Scheduled Ancient Monuments at Muir of Dinnet. The presence of this cross indicates there may have been a chapel or monastery nearby. Since this carving only has Christian symbols it is considered a third period Pictish cross (earlier crosses would have had pagan symbols as well). At some point this cross was lost and buried. It was then dug up in the 1820’s in a field near it’s present position, it was taken to Aboyne castle and eventually returned to its current position in 1959.

I used a slasher (no, not a demented character bent on revenge) to cut back the Bracken. It looks a bit like a hockey stick but has a flat almost blade that’s perfect for breaking the Bracken at it’s base.

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Slasher

15 hut circles have been found in this area, some 15m across! They would have sheltered people and animals. Next to the hut circles are hollows thought to be collapsed souterrains (underground storage rooms). Here’s an aerial view to understand the size of the settlements (this is just one of several clusters).

Paths

Aerial view of hut circles

They too start to become overshadowed by the bracken at this time of year. A real shame as the path goes right past them. Here’s a before and after of my strimming efforts.

Then I moved on to some strimming of the paths. A few monotonous days with strimming but it’s quite satisfying work when you can see such a clear difference.

Now for the wildlife roundup for the week….

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Roe Deer

If you walk round the Parkins Moss route, quietly, you have a good chance of seeing Roe deer around the Bogingore cottage (it’s marked on the map). The picture above is one that Cat managed to quietly photograph.

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Juvenile Redstart

Here you can see a juvenile Redstart. Although the juveniles are usually more spotty the giveaway that this is a juvy is the yellow around the beak. This usually brightly colored and fleshy base of the bill (the gape) is present in many young birds as it attracts the attention of parents and makes it easy to aim food, especially in dark nests. The gape shrinks and darkens over time but is still useful after a young bird has left a nest as many are still dependent on their parents for a time after.

 

The water lilies are out in force now. It almost looks like a solid structure at some places around Kinord!

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Deer on Loch Kinord

Finally here is a picture from yesterday of two Roe deer (one buck and one doe) venturing to the edge of the water of Loch Kinord. This was around 2pm when the place was heaving! It just shows what wildlife we can miss when we’re too close; the point they’re standing on is far from the path. We like to keep some places on the reserve as quiet and undisturbed as possible and you can see why with these two – they’re so relaxed! So please come and enjoy the reserve and please also keep to the paths, and we’ll try to keep them as open and enjoyable to walk along as possible.

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