Winds of Change

Hi folks! Well, I know it’s not quite the ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ yet, but there’s definitely a chill in the air, early in the mornings and in the evenings, here at the Muir of Dinnet. It’s still just about summer though and at the time of writing this, I can confirm that it’s been mostly a very warm and pleasant day. But there’s just that instinctive sense that it’s all about to change very soon. A change to that wonderful time of crunching leaves, vistas of orange, gold and yellow speckled hillsides, where the Birch, Rowan and Aspen start to shut down for the winter.

Fieldfare gorging itself on Holly berries.

There’s a sense of anticipation for those first sounds of autumn too: the calls from thousands of Pink Footed Geese, flying en masse in their triangular skein formations overhead, or the mournful honks of the Whooper Swans, reassuring each other that they’ve survived yet another perilous journey. Perhaps we’ll soon be hearing the echoes of roaring Red Deer stags, bellowing down the mountains? Or maybe we’ll catch that rapid and slightly manic chattering of Redwings and Fieldfares, escaping the grip of an arctic winter, setting in across the North Sea in Scandinavia and Russia. A reminder that a much colder and harsher world is never very far away. All to come soon, but not quite yet.

A dominant Red Deer stag and his hareem of hinds.

The heather moorland surrounding the reserve and our own Bearberry heath, is still in full bloom at the moment. From any angle the view is the classic picture post card of the Scottish Highlands, dressed in characteristic purple and pink. It’s a stunning sight, and we often take it for granted, but it’s actually pretty unique, when you consider three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK, and the majority of that, is up here in the Highlands. In fact, our equally unique management of heather, for the maximisation of the Red Grouse harvest, means that this rather homogenous and yet beautiful habitat, covers around 50 per cent of Scotland’s uplands.

The Muir of Dinnet heather moorland in its full late summer glory.

It’s a cultural landscape, so to speak, an artificial tundra thousands of miles south and hundreds of meters below, the naturally occurring treeline. Our Bearberry heath is of global conservation importance, because it is naturally occurring at, or below, 200 metres in elevation. This extremely specific habitat in conjunction with the open Birch woodland and light native forest regeneration (of specifically younger trees) makes it the perfect home for the Kentish Glory Moth, a very rare moth to the UK. That’s why we have to manage the heath, rotationally burning the heather every year, to maintain this precious and fragile habitat.

Young Birch and Pine interspersed with heather is an important habitat for the Kentish Glory Moth.

Kentish Glory shows quite considerable sexual dimorphism between males and females. Males tend to be smaller and darker generally than the females, with characteristically orange-brown hindwings, whereas the females are brownish white. Males also have a rather cute feathery antennae and are stronger fliers. Their activity usually peaks in sunshine and overcast conditions around midday. Females fly at dusk and nest on Birch twigs (pictured below). Their caterpillars emerge from mid-May to mid-August and cocoon themselves as pupae during the winter, safe on the ground. This is considered to be a prime habitat for this delicate little moth and we feel very fortunate to have it choose this place as home.

Kentish Glory Moth on a Birch twig (courtesy of Creative Commons).

In more hands-on, practical reserve news, Kirstin and I had the pleasure of working alongside the Cairngorm National Park Rangers yesterday, to help safeguard our Aspen suckers (or saplings). We did this by inserting over 150 tree guards over the suckers and also built a small enclosure to protect a bigger group of small trees. Aspen suckers are the clone shoots which grow from the adult Aspen trees. With time, they eventually grow into mature Aspen trees and this, in effect, expands the Aspen stand. An Aspen stand is often composed of genetically identical Aspen trees, which are all connected to the same root system. Therefore, an Aspen stand is technically the largest organism on earth, even bigger and heavier than a Blue Whale! Pretty cool, I know! Unfortunately, their leaves and shoots are extremely palatable to Red Deer (but then, what isn’t?).

A mature Aspen tree on the reserve (courtesy of Kirstin Mair).

Unsurprisingly, the relatively recent explosion of the Scottish Red Deer population, combined with historic deforestation over millennia, has caused this fascinating woodland ecosystem to perish, and it’s now restricted to very specific sites across the highlands; often in extremely inaccessible places where deer can’t reach the tree saplings. Knowing this about Aspen, makes the task of carrying out this work extra rewarding and fulfilling, because every Aspen stand that is protected and expanded, contributes to re-establishing this incredible tree organism back to our native forests. We’re really grateful to Kirsty, Sam, Joe and Tom for helping us out with this important restorative work; actions that will continue to resonate long into the future.

That’s all for this week. I’m off to do my 4×4 off-road training next week and I can’t wait! Wish me luck! I’ll let you know how I get on. Take care everyone. Danny.

In my element!
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Exceptional Times and a Massive thank you

At Muir of Dinnet we are approaching the end of an intense high season with over 41,000 visitors across summer, from all over the world, choosing to visit us and enjoy our beautiful reserve. We are taking a moment right now just to pause and consider how it’s all gone. The exceptionally long hot, dry summer has altered the “normal” rhythm of things like emergence and die back here.

Our water birds and otter have had a great year. We monitor and map the birds on Loch Kinord twice a week and are overjoyed by our numbers . We would like to say a massive thank you to all of you who have supported our position and chosen not to take water borne access across this breeding season. We believe that at the critical time in Spring our birds were relaxed enough to want to remain and breed here.

Reflections of scudding clouds on a limpid calm Loch Kinord on a still summers day.
A proud wigeon mother parading her brood of three ducklings. Only 200 breeding pairs are recorded UK wide. Every brood is precious!
This graph shows a weekly timeline beginning in week 11 – mid March. Across the crucial breeding season Loch Kinord has provided an ideal habitat for far more birds this year compared to last. This years bird numbers are shown in orange. I find the difference in numbers in week 22 – early June – just astonishing. 190 birds seen this year compared to just 9 last year.
A continuous timeline from March 2021 to end of July 2022
A family group of three otter were spotted on Loch Kinord earlier this week

August brings a riot of colour to the hillsides of Scotland as the heather begins to flower, creating a uniquely bonny landscape.

The carpet of colour you see is actually made up of two types of flower, Ling heather with its loosely arranged pink flowers and the dark pink-purple chimes of Bell heather.

Our local bee keepers have had their cheerfully coloured hives on the moor for about a month and the sound of thousands of honey bees feeding on the sweetly smelling blooms is extraordinary. The honey that results from these bees is dark and fragrant and very popular.

South Heath erupting into bonny blooms of heather
Beehives on the moor. Scottish Heather Honey contains 10x the amount of the essential nutrient Manganese than other honeys making it a superfood.

Historically heather has been put to use in many practical ways. Long leggy stems made durable thatching. People made a yellow dye from heather as well as strong rope which withstood the effects of seawater.

Heather was also gathered together in bundles to make a variety of besoms and brooms. On the Isle of Lewis, a particular kind of hoe drawn by a person had two rows of wooden teeth followed by a row of heather to smooth the soil.

The dark pink-purple chimes of Bell heather

Unbelievably late we are only now beginning to see wild mushrooms within our woodland, and then only the odd one or two. This year the weather has really altered the timings for many groups and this has been really disorientating for us too. It’s fantastic to have our weird and wonderful mushrooms back at last.

Warmer temperatures dry out soil, especially during periods of low rainfall. Dry soil creates a snowball effect by killing plants, which yields more dry soil. But the effects do not stop at plants – some fungi suffer as well.

It might appear as though fungi are not important because they are only scattered here or there when you see them in the woods. That is because most fungal growth is underground. Fungi are dominant members of the community of microscopic organisms that live beneath our feet. In many soil communities, fungi represent an average of 55%-89% of all microbes. Because fungi strongly impact ecosystem health, how fungi respond to drought is an important question.

Filamentous fungi get their name because they grow in branching filaments, called hyphae The hyphae expand outwards to form large networks of tissue that traffic nutrients from distant places, making filamentous fungi expert scavengers. One of the dominant roles of scavenging fungi in maintaining a healthy ecosystem is nutrient cycling by decomposition. . 

Great black slug eating a mushroom
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Cameras, Butterflies and Frogs

Hi folks! I’m writing this blog on another extremely hot day. The temperatures are not quite as elevated compared to the July heatwave, but we are still enduring an exceptionally dry summer. My rain dances have clearly not paid off yet! Today I am covering quite a broad range of topics; most of them are positive, informative and hopefully entertaining. But I have to start off by talking about some of the realities of reserve work, which, are not always pretty or fragrant, because of the waste and litter left behind.

The hills overlooking Loch Davan on a very hot day.

Unfortunately, one of our reserve Trail Cams was recently stolen. I placed this camera in a woodland location near Loch Davan and really enjoyed setting up the area for Red Squirrels, Jays, Pine Martens, Greater-spotted Woodpeckers and other species, that would take advantage of the easy meal of peanuts left behind to coax them in. Kirstin, Jennie and myself had a lot of fun watching through the footage and stumbling across ‘little gem’ moments to share with you, where for example, an inquisitive woodpecker would look at the camera, or a Pine Marten (as pictured in a previous blog) would pose perfectly while checking that the coast was clear, and of course, let’s not forget my arboreal rabbit! The camera is there to capture interesting wildlife behaviour, which is then used as an educational tool for the general public, especially children who have learnt so much from watching some of Kirstin’s Trail Cam videos in the past. It also gives us an idea of what species are present in the area and this can be very useful to monitor how healthy the habitat is. I find this particularly saddening, because that camera contained some very unique and irreplaceable footage. It would be wonderful to think that whoever took the camera might return the SD card with all that priceless material, but it’s probably a long shot.

The hinge that the Trail Camera was attached to. It has clearly been snapped off.

Moving on, this brings me onto another regrettable situation, which is illegal fishing on Loch Davan. It has been banned for nearly 10 years, to protect this smaller and more fragile ecosystem (than Loch Kinord). But people still continue to fish there despite our requests to refrain from doing so. For the most part, the fishermen we encounter are very understanding when we explain the reasons behind the ban, and are happy to move onto more sustainable waters. However, there are always those who feel that the law does not apply to them. This puts us into a difficult position because no one wants to be heavy handed and have to escalate the situation.

The ecosystems on this reserve are fragile, so seemingly careless, but unintentional acts can have a significantly and disproportionately negative impact.

In a little bit, I will be talking about more nature related encounters, but first I need to address another issue which has been blighting our reserve recently. That is dirty camping. In talking about this, I realise that in the case of 90% or more of the people reading this blog, I am probably ‘preaching to the choir’ as it were. But in saying this, I might just manage to inform someone who was a bit unclear on the rules and generally accepted etiquette of residing on a nature reserve (or anywhere in the countryside for that matter). We remove all the human waste that we identify, but anything we miss presents a health and safety risk to the public and the wildlife. I’m sure I don’t need to point out, that these unwelcome human ‘deposits’ can be a breeding ground for E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and everyone will be aware that the most recent Polio outbreak has originated from human waste. I’m sure most people will bring their own trowel and know how to dispose of their waste safely (let’s face it if a cat can manage it, I’m sure we can!). Following these extremely simple rules will make your trip to the countryside much more pleasant. When you consider that a minimum of 40,000 people visit the site each year, this could become a serious issue on many levels. Like they say, when visiting the countryside ‘take only memories, leave only footprints’.

Back to Nature

Almost anywhere on the reserve where there is tall and damp grassland (which is very common here!) you will have probably observed a very pretty, dark brown and orange butterfly. These butterflies (pictured below) are called Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops). I have been tip-toeing around them in recent weeks while out on patrol or when conducting bird surveys. From a distance, they appear to be black with very striking circular orange patches on each wing. Despite what its name might suggest, this species does actually live in other parts of the UK, but only being present in a couple of locations in northern England outside of Scotland. This species is adapted to living in the cooler temperatures of northern Europe and is thought to be one of the first butterflies to colonise the UK after the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. This species, like so many others, has experienced a long term decline in the UK (which can probably be attributed to both habitat loss and climate change), but despite this trend, it is not a species of priority conservation efforts because it has actually increased at specifically monitored sites. They are a lovely site to see on a warm summer afternoon and evening, and I am very glad that they appear to be thriving here at the Muir of Dinnet.

Another species which are constantly crossing my path (or should I say our footpaths are crossing their territory) are Common Frogs (Rana temporaria). If you are near water, in the meadows or even in dense pine woodland, with a bit of patience, you do stand a very good chance of seeing them. So, please be extra careful with your footing if you see a froglet. In my experience, where you encounter one, there are usually multiple individuals. These amphibians have extremely smooth, moist and very absorbent skin, which they breathe through; they also breathe through their lungs and the lining of the mouth. Skin colour ranges quite dramatically from brown and yellow to grey or olive green. They have irregular dark blotches, a dark stripe around their eyes and eardrum and dark bars on their legs. One really cool fact that I only learned recently about Common Frogs is that they are actually capable of lightening or darkening their skin to match their surroundings. Pretty handy when hiding from predators! These charming amphibians are a widespread species across the mainland of Britain. They are most active at night and will usually hibernate under logs, stones, piles of rotting leaves or pond mud during the winter. I think what most of us probably find fascinating about frogs is their remarkable, transitional stages of development from frogspawn into tadpoles and then eventually into froglets. Once spawning has occurred and the tadpoles hatch, it takes them approximately 16 weeks to slowly change into froglets, in a process known as metamorphosis.

Thank you for taking the time to read my fourth blog. Apologies for the less than inspiring beginning, but if you truly value and cherish our open spaces as places to relax and enjoy nature, then I’m sure you won’t mind this personal appeal to do your part in nurturing them. In the meantime, take care and enjoy what you have on your doorstep. Danny

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Adventuring into Autumn

Although the high temperatures are set to continue into next week the mornings are starting to feel fresher and the breeze has an invigorating edge to it. On the reserve we are getting our first peek of autumn. Whilst our trees are bearing fruits and berries, other species are going for broke, capitalising on the fine weather to get one final brood in.

Song bird chicks such as black cap, robin and blackbird can be found low to the ground just now and even though the bird breeding season is technically over there are still lots of young naïve birds around. Pease help our wildlife thrive when visiting and keep dogs at heel or on a lead.

Everyone say “awwww”- three newly-fledged willow warblers
Emerging rowan berries.
Bane of witches, diviner of the future and producer of jam, rowan is an elegant tree with a mystical history. The colour red was considered to be the best colour for fighting evil, and so the rowan’s bright red berries have been associated with magic and witches.
The creamy frothy petals of Sambucus nigra grow in clusters. Elderflowers are one of natures finest edible treasures and a signature wild food of mid summer. Their elegant, sweet, heady fragrance translates into lots of  delicious drinks and desserts. Elderflower champagne is one of the simplest and most rewarding boozy summer preparations.
Bramble or wild blackberry. Brambles used to be planted on graves to stop sheep grazing, but might also have had the more superstitious purpose of keeping the dead in. 
Wild raspberry, commonly called ‘red raspberry’, is also known as the ‘hindberry’ in some parts of Scotland because it is a favourite food of deer. In Scotland, the small and tart wild raspberry has long been foraged for its delicious berries. Archaeological evidence indicates that Mesolithic hunter-gathers ate raspberries.

We had a fantastic bat and moth event here on Friday night on a mild, still summers night. Our Soprano pipistrelle have disbanded their maternity roost and now is the time to glut and build up those reserves for mating and later on hibernation. They are incredibly active on the paths feasting on the plentiful insects around right now. Young recently weaned bats stick close to their mothers as they hunt.

To attract our moths we used a combination of pungent smelling “sugar”, a treacly, beery tar that we painted onto the trees, wine ropes – exactly as it sounds and light traps.

Large yellow underwings and dark arches really loved the sugar, whilst species like the large emerald came readily to the light. Live moth trapping is really exciting as you get to experience these amazing creatures in their element, fluttering and active.

Dark arches moth feasting on “sugar”.
A dazzling Large emerald moth at our light traps

The reserve work of the week has been to clear Himalayan balsam by hand pulling from along the Monodavan burn.

Impatiens glandulifera -a highly invasive non-native of waterways . Himalayan Balsam aka policeman’s helmet, kiss-me-on-the-mountain and poor-man’s orchid. Its “impatience” is demonstrated by an ability to grow massively tall in just one season, and its seedpods are grenades filled with seeds that can go off at any second, often triggered by rain drops.
Himalayan Balsam spreads prodigiously quickly and forms dense thickets, altering the ecological balance and character of wetland habitats. Many seeds drop into the water and contaminate land and riverbanks downstream, but the explosive nature of its seed release (seeds can be projected up to four meters away) means it can spread upstream too. It produces a lot of pollen over a prolonged season and is attractive to pollinating insects. There is concern that its presence may therefore result in decreased pollination for other native plants.

Just to leave you with a master of camouflage. Can you spot the spider? This little spider is actually called an invisible spider and its camouflage ability is astonishing. It lives on the lower trunks of trees, in this case birch. The female constructs a web of very fine threads, which lies very close to the trunk surface, practically invisible to the naked eye, and on this web they are approached by males during courtship.

Can you spot the invisible spider – I have to admit I couldn’t
On closer inspection
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The Hot Topic!

A rather disorientated adult female Soprano Pipistrelle. Photo courtesy of Kirstin Mair.

Hi folks! The extreme temperatures have been a major concern here recently and their impacts on wildlife have not gone unnoticed.  During the last week, the temperatures soared to over 30°C at the Burn O’Vat; we were actually the hottest place in Scotland on Monday 18th July! The consequences of the prolonged heatwave have ranged from considerably lower water levels on the lochs, to the erratic behaviour of Pipistrelle bats. We have a roost of 244 Soprano Pipistrelles, resident in the eaves of the Visitor Centre and office. This exceptional heat is proving to be extremely uncomfortable for them and some individuals have migrated into the relative coolness of the main room of the Visitor Centre! Kirstin even spotted an adult bat make a hasty retreat from the roost to the forest, in broad daylight; it really must have become unbearable in the roost. I really do hope that the switch back to cooler temperatures persists longer than forecast, as these little guys are extremely prone to over-heating and even death by heat exhaustion and dehydration. Unfortunately, roosts can experience quite high mortality rates during heat waves.

The plant life has also suffered in the punishing heat. Flowers wilted very quickly, which obviously can have a knock-on-effect for pollinators such as bumblebees and honeybees. They really depend on healthy, blooming flowers; especially at this time of year, when they provide them with the necessary nectar for an immediate energy boost and for the production of honey, but also the pollen provides some fats and proteins to take back to the hive for the young and non-foraging bees. So, some respite from these temperatures is essential, we really need some prolonged rainfall soon. This will help to revitalize our meadows and top-up our lochs and of course the River Dee.

A Harebell beginning to wilt on the Bearberry Heath.

The presence of Blue-Green Algae (scientifically known as Cyanobacteria) is always concerning to people who exercise, live or work by or near the water. SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) have recently reported to us that it is on Loch Davan. It is toxic and in extreme cases, exposure to high levels of it can cause various health issues, such as nausea and breathing difficulties in humans. Sadly, for dogs it can be lethal, leading to liver failure. If you are walking your dog by Loch Davan, no matter how hot it is, please keep your much beloved ‘best friend’ away from the water, doing that could save a life. When algal blooms spread across waterbodies and persist, they can have detrimental effects on resident waterfowl and fish populations as well. It’s an ongoing concern that SEPA and NatureScot will be monitoring. Blue-green algal blooms arise when water temperatures stay consistently high, in combination with persistent sunshine in nutrient rich waters. These potentially dangerous, hazardous blooms could become a more common sight in Scottish waters as climate chaos intensifies.

Cylindrospermum (Blue Green Algae) as seen under a microscope. This is a genus of filamentous cyanobacteria found in terrestrial and aquatic environments. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

These climate driven issues, witnessed on the reserve, provide just a snapshot of what must be happening nationally and internationally to our biosphere due to climate change. Sadly, we can’t turn back the clock to a time before human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, began this dangerous new cycle. However, we can all do our bit to help the environment now, and our combined efforts can have an enormous impact. Taking care of our wild spaces for example, by simply respecting the basic countryside etiquettes, is something everyone could do and would have such far-reaching positive outcomes.

Roe Deer doe enjoying a cooler summer evening in the meadow.

We recently hosted a very successful pop-up event; jointly hosted with the CNPA rangers on the north shore of Loch Kinord. The public were invited to pond-dip and discover some of the fascinating mini-beasties that inhabit the loch! Insects such as Greater Water Boatmen and Common Blue Damselflies, were among just a few of the diverse array of species that people of all ages were able to observe and enjoy. We welcomed questions about all the local wildlife and were able to answer any queries regarding the water sports access, camping, and the general outdoor recreational activity etiquette, in accordance with SOAC (Scottish Outdoor Access Code), in the context of a nature reserve.

Pop-up event, The CNPA rangers Kirsty and Andy on the left (and Judy took the photo) and Jennifer, Kirstin and myself on the right.

The tragic Avian Flu (H5N1) outbreak, reported in the news, is having a devastating and long-lasting impact on a number of sea bird colonies, particularly species such as Great Skua and Gannet. The world population of Great Skua is about 16,000 and research is now indicating that Avian Flu could have killed between 64% and 85% of these birds in their most important breeding sites on Orkney and Shetland. Seabirds are especially vulnerable because they are typically long-lived birds, which often take five years or more to reach breeding age. They also have small broods so population recovery is slow. The UK has about 8 million sea birds and over 300 outbreaks of flu have been reported. So, it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of birds may have died across these colonies. Aberdeenshire council alone, has reported over 1,000 dead seabirds washed up on beaches across the region. In response, NatureScot has set up a new task force to combat this severe outbreak and have recommended that 23 islands ban tourists from public landings in their waters, to combat the spread.

Despite having two large waterbodies and significant waterfowl populations, the Muir of Dinnet NNR has escaped the worst effects of the Avian Flu for now.

This is beginning to transfer to other species such as raptors, like Common Buzzard, but fortunately not here, so far. These bulky ‘Tourist Eagles’ (an affectionate nick-name for them, as tourists often mistake them for eagles) were a common sight in the UK during the 1800s. But populations of these raptors swiftly declined due to persecution, as was the case with many birds of prey. They were considered vermin by landowners and a threat to game bird interests. The two World Wars saw a temporary upsurge in buzzard numbers until the mid-50s when myxomatosis wiped out rabbit populations, a significant food supply for them. Organochlorine pesticides then reduced their ability to reproduce (as was the case for other species) this continued until the late 60s, when they were banned. Finally, by the 1990s, these birds had the opportunity to rapidly recolonize, and they made the most of it. In 2000, the UK population soared to a staggering 44,000 pairs! But in the wake of Avian Flu, could the Buzzard’s reign and status as the UK’s most numerous and successful breeding raptor be under threat? Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD), is a highly contagious virus currently sweeping across UK rabbit populations and this will once again impact on Buzzards and other predators that rely on them as a food source. My concerns could be unfounded, but I have seen fewer buzzards in recent years. Have other people noticed the same thing or have others observed the opposite? What do you think? It would be interesting to hear our readers thoughts on this, and for that matter, their thoughts and opinions on all the other issues raised in this blog post. Looking back over it, I realise that there is not a lot of positive content, sorry about that; a sign of the times perhaps? On a lighter note, I will now be going off to do a rain dance; now that should raise a smile! Take care everyone. Danny

A Common Buzzard watching its prey in the nearby undergrowth.
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The Joys of Meadow Walking and an Important Announcement

The upper wildflower meadow in the old Kinord fields is simply teeming with 6 spot Burnet moths right now. The abundant birds food trefoil has provided the perfect stage for its hungry caterpillars to thrive and the glossy black and red adults have a bounty of tufted vetch and common knapweed to feed on.

According to Homer the Elysian Fields were a beautiful meadow in the Underworld where the favoured of Zeus enjoyed perfect happiness.

I believe I was there yesterday. You may think of us as a woodland reserve with two glorious lochs at our heart but right now the reserve is carpeted in flower rich grassland. Meeting up with the Cairngorms National Park to map the extent of our aspen woodland took us up into the higher fields of Old Kinord and revealed a stunning visual spectacle – a field full of colourful flowers, filled with fluttering petals. So we indulged in a spot of meadow walking. There is something uniquely joyful about watching waves of wind sculpt the long grasses while Skylark soar overhead.

Skylark
A throng of oxeye daisy and knapweed and lady’s bedstraw
Often growing in swathes along a roadside or field margin, the oxeye daisy is just as at home in traditional hay meadows. The large, cheerful, white, daisy-like flowers are easy to identify. The petal-plucking game, ‘He loves me; he loves me not’, is thought to have started with the oxeye daisy.

Ladybirds are instantly recognisable, but could you recognise their larvae. Nestled within the daisy head is the larvae of a 7 spot lady bird. Ladybirds are nature’s pest controllers. Many ladybirds eat aphids such as blackfly and greenfly but their larvae are also keen predators, with some eating up to 100 aphids a day.

Every step through the waist high sward is accompanied by the chirruping of grasshopper and the billowing of small heath, common blue and Dark Green Fritillary butterflies.

The common green grasshopper can be found in damp, unimproved pastures and meadows throughout summer. Males can be seen displaying to females by rubbing their legs against their wings to create a ‘song’ – in this case, it is a long, loud, ‘churring’ noise. After mating, the eggs are laid in the soil ready to hatch the following spring.
The warm brown hue of the grassy meadow on the north shore of Loch Kinord will soon be replaced by the vibrant rich yellow of ragwort.
Musk mallow peppers this grassland. Though not normally a massive fan of pink in wildflowers there is something about the showiness of the mallow family that really wins me over. It lives up to its name, producing a delicate, musky smell that increases indoors.
Mating small heath butterfly
Common blue butterfly. I have seen more common blues here this year than ever before.
Male Dark Green Fritillary butterflies basking in the sun
A rather tatty Northern Brown Argus butterfly perched and ready to mate. This tiny member of the blue butterfly family have surrealy pretty faces.
One of three discovered colonies of Northern Brown Argus Butterfly

Bee beetles wrestling flirtatiously on the Dog rose of the field margins

Around the visitor center we have had a procession of cute fledgling birds with a cohort of 3 young blackbirds.

These 3 sibling blackbirds appear to be rather in cahoots

Now onto the Important announcement.

New Kinord is a small informal car park outside the National Nature Reserve which is only accessible by way of a private track.  Dinnet & Kinord Estate have tolerated vehicle access by the public along this track for a number of years but increasing levels of use have made that untenable.

They have therefore taken the decision to close the track to vehicles, other than for residents or other permitted users.  This will take place on Friday the 29/07/2022.

We were consulted on the change and understand the reasons why the estate have taken this decision.

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Angry Birds

It’s been a very hectic few weeks since I wrote my last blog post. Visitor numbers have definitely increased with the much-improved weather, and as a consequence it’s been all go here: conducting bird surveys, clearing brash (reducing the temptation for campers to build camp-fires), setting up camera traps, putting up ‘high fire risk’ signposts and removing evidence of fire-pits, while keeping constant tabs on visitor activity. This work requires a dedicated team and along with Kirstin, Jennie and the Cairngorms National Park Rangers, we’ve all been kept very busy. Visitors have been for the most part, extremely friendly and grateful for our service, which is always really motivating. Also, NatureScot have given me several fantastic training opportunities for essential skills over the past couple weeks, with various courses in Forfar and Forvie.

North-western Loch Kinord. Visitor numbers have increased with the onset of warmer weather.

With the increased visitors, there are always a few issues arising and I foresee the potential for an increase in incidents of dogs ‘off-lead’, campfires or ‘firepits’ being lit and the possibility of unwanted water sports, all of which we need to discourage for the benefit of wildlife and public safety. It is fantastic that so many people want to enjoy the nature on offer here, but it is also very easy to forget that the Muir of Dinnet is a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Dogs can wreak havoc among ground nesting birds and resting waterfowl on the lochsides, firepits are a massive wildfire risk and any forms of water sports (other than wild swimming in the designated swim zones) can cause disturbance to waterfowl and separate ducklings and chicks from their parents, with disastrous consequences for their health and survival.

Four-spotted Chaser. A species of Dragonfly regularly observed when out on patrol.

It is our job as rangers to monitor the frequency of these activities and liaise with the public to reduce these incidents, hopefully preventing them from happening altogether, by pointing out some of the negative impacts. There is a lot of ground to cover on a daily basis, though, so it keeps us on our toes. When we can interact with the public and explain how they can help keep the area safe and un-spoilt, it tends to be a really positive encounter. For example, explaining how firepit embers can continue to smoulder underground, setting off fully blown wildfires, sometimes weeks after having been lit, can come as a genuine surprise and shock to most visitors. They then appreciate and respect the need for safety, in order to guarantee everyone’s enjoyment. This job makes me realise that information is key, in order for the public to get the full benefit of the natural world around them and to play their part in protecting our shared wild spaces. For example, the general numbers of breeding birds on the lochs (especially Kinord) have increased from 2020, when there were considerably more water sports occurring there, so I think it is fair to say that the signage and information we are providing is definitely making a positive impact.

Red Squirrels are frequently observed in the Pinewoods in the general area, and I have recently captured a couple individuals on our camera traps.

Kirstin has set me the task of capturing footage of various visiting wildlife around the reserve with camera traps. Over the past few weeks, I have been setting up cameras in the same locations (baited with some tasty treats in the form of peanuts which are very enticing) and gradually, over time, the results have become evermore promising. Recent species have included: Otter, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Grey Heron, extremely inquisitive Jays and even tree-climbing arboreal baby rabbits! The latter is definitely a first for me and probably for most people. Who knew kits (baby rabbits) would go to the lengths of climbing tree branches to eat peanuts?  It’s worth noting that when baiting areas with food such as peanuts, we do ensure that only a small amount is put out at irregular intervals, so that the wildlife doesn’t become dependent on it.

Another passion of mine is filming wildlife and I do work for a small film company, primarily as a wildlife cameraman. One huge advantage with having this job as a ranger is that you quickly learn where all the wildlife hotspots are. This is particularly useful knowledge to have when I have time off work to go filming some of the birds that I survey.

Pine Marten is a species I have been fortunate enough to film and camera trap.

The title of this blog is called ‘Angry Birds’, and that is thanks to a pretty dramatic event which unfolded in front of my eyes, and thankfully, also my lens and viewfinder! Last Saturday, I got up early and decided to film the waterfowl on Loch Davan. I’d really hoped to film one of the Otters there, as I’ve seen them on several recent surveys, but this time to no avail.

This adult male Mute Swan is ‘busking’, whereby he folds his wings like sails, puffs out his feathers and folds his neck back. This is an intimidation display to rivals, predators and to any form of threat to itself or its young, and can be a precursor to a full on fight. Who would want to mess with him!

It was a beautiful, tranquil, if rather uneventful morning, in terms of filming wildlife! That is, until I noticed a Mute Swan family emerge out of the reeds. The light was very decent, and the birds were happily swimming and foraging on the water. Phew! I wouldn’t be returning to the visitor centre empty handed now. And then, just before I was about to pack up my camera, I noticed the father ruffle his feathers and puff himself up to a good third larger than he really was. Four juvenile swans had landed on the other side of the loch and he had obviously seen their approach. I have never seen a swan swim so fast before. Mute Swans, the UK’s second heaviest flying bird (only the Great Bustard being heavier) are very territorial birds, males can weigh up to 12kg and can be extremely formidable in fights, so I knew what to expect. The father instantly waded in to defend his offspring and territory against these rowdy delinquents and before a fight even emerged (almost as soon as they landed in fact), the juveniles were off again, probably to Loch Kinord. What a sight to witness! Who needs Netflix when you can watch real life wildlife drama on your own doorstep? Not me! Well, unless it’s ‘Stranger Things’! Anyway, that’s all from me this week. Chat again soon. Take care, Danny.

This is what the father swan was protecting. The cygnets have definitely passed their cutest stage! Best of luck to them on their journey to adulthood.
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A familiar Place

A little bit about me

Hi Folks! I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Danny and I’m one of the new seasonal rangers at the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. Any of you who have visited the reserve recently might have already seen me on patrol, and maybe even stopped to have a quick chat about the birdlife on the lochs. The fields of ecology and conservation have significantly shaped and influenced my life from a very young age. Ever since I could walk, I could be found out in the back garden with dirty hands, having collected worms and beetles for my bug box. That, or trying to impersonate lions, tigers, and a varied array of dinosaur species, such as Velociraptor, and that would be a typical day for me when I was little. Dinosaurs were my big obsession, for a significant portion of my childhood, until, to my dismay, I realized that we are still a very long way away from creating Jurassic Park! That’s probably for the best though.

Hooked on birds from a young age

Inevitably, this interest transitioned to birds, particularly raptors, which became the replacement of the dinosaurs in piquing my interest and passion. From then onwards, I wanted to know everything about birds of prey. This even led to an interest in falconry for a while, before I was finally introduced to the world of ecology and conservation in my teenage years. Since then, I have never looked back, and I am very grateful for the opportunities and experiences that it has already given me.

I have studied MSc Ecology and Conservation at the University of Aberdeen and worked or volunteered for various conservation charities, ecological consultancies, and institutes, such as Trees for Life, the RSPB, and the James Hutton Institute. My love of cameras combined with my passion for nature has opened up a whole other avenue in wildlife filmmaking, and because of this, I have worked for a small natural history film company called Mousehole Films for five years. No doubt, some point over the next six months, you will probably catch me out with my camera, especially in the early mornings, before I open the visitor center and start patrol.

So far, I have been focusing my spare time on filming Goldeneye and their ducklings, and, after three sessions, I am glad to say it’s beginning to yield promising results! My MSc thesis involved research into Pinewood regeneration, and the restoration of the Caledonian Forest is a particularly big passion of mine. As a child, I went on countless holidays to Aboyne Loch Caravan Park, and Dinnet was a regular playground for me. So, I feel extremely fortunate to be working at a location both with Pine Forest and within an area that is very familiar to me.

Pinemarten are an integral part of our Pinewood ecosystem
Red Squirrel – another iconic inhabitant of our pinewoods

Work as a Seasonal Reserve Officer

I have found seasonal ranger work extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Without sounding too clichéd, everyday day is different to the next. My first week was a very busy time in terms of visitor numbers and so I needed to learn a lot of skills ‘on the job’, so to speak. Learning how to drive the truck off road was one of my first tasks, which was a lot of fun. It is of course, an essential skill for reserve work and no doubt, will become a necessity over the coming months. Catriona (Reserve Manager at Forvie NNR) assisted us in removing a precarious and partially fallen birch tree along the north Kinord footpath, and showed me how to use the winch, which I found very satisfying! I am very fortunate to be working alongside Kirstin (reserve manager), Jennie (our new part-time seasonal reserve officer) and the fantastic fleet of Cairngorms National Park Rangers and Volunteers, who are all working very hard to keep this place as natural and beautiful as it should be.

One of the most important weekly tasks for seasonal rangers is surveying the waterbirds on Loch Kinord and Davan. It has been very encouraging to see how many species are successfully breeding on the lochs so far this season. I have counted three (possibly four) broods of Goldeneye, and one brood with seven ducklings! This is apparently a big increase from last year. Harry Scott has been putting up specially designed nest boxes for Goldeneye over many years and of course without these boxes, the Scottish breeding population would be practically zero. This is because they rely on hollowed-out trees as nest sites, and we don’t have all that much dead standing and dying wood in our woodlands, especially beside the lochsides. Thanks to this massive effort in placing nest boxes at suitable locations, the Scottish Goldeneye population has stabilized to approximately 200 pairs.

Mum Goldeneye and her four very cute black and white chicks – already expert little divers in their own right
Male \Goldeneye – his job is done for this breeding season

This population is boosted massively to 27,000 in winter by Scandinavian and Russian birds that stay here to take advantage of our milder weather, before flying back to their breeding grounds in spring. Kirstin explained to me that predation by Pine Martens and a process known as ‘clutch dumping’, whereby several females lay eggs in the same box, are two main causes for concern, in preventing the population reaching its full potential. But nonetheless, it has been very heartening to see the ducklings thrive in their natural habitat on the loch.

The Greylag Geese appear to be doing well this year, as I’ve observed many goslings both swimming on the loch and grazing on pasture beside Loch Kinord with their parents.

Greylag goslings shepherded around Loch Kinord in multi-family groups

If you visit Loch Davan, look out for the Mute Swan pair and their cygnets.

Mute swan family with six steely grey cygnets
A grey Heron captured on our trail cameras on the Davan Burn- another way we keep an eye on our wildlife!

It is a beautiful scene to witness, especially on a warm and sunny evening. At this time of year, you’ll have a very good chance of spotting an Osprey fishing over both lochs. That’s assuming the bird doesn’t give up fishing the hard way and decide to try out the Trout Fishery at Tulloch!

Loch Davan of a summer’s evening.

I think one of the biggest species highlights for me so far has been the observation of hunting Hobby on the reserve. These Kestrel sized falcons are migratory and winter in Africa, following similar migration paths to that of Swallows and Ospreys, and breed in Europe during the summer. They like to hunt insects such as dragonflies and fast flying birds such as Swallows and are typically found hunting over heath and wetland habitats and will often be found nesting in pine trees.

I saw a beautiful male darting along the wet fen surrounding Loch Kinord, hunting for dragonflies (and possibly swifts) only on my second waterbird survey! How about that for beginner’s luck! Since then, I have seen Hobbies hunting at Parkins Moss and a bird flying over Loch Kinord. This is extremely exciting and encouraging news for the reserve because Hobby as a breeding species in the British Isles is pretty rare. Only 2800 summer breeding pairs are recorded annually, and it is generally only considered a breeding species in England and Wales within its typical UK range. Could climate change mean more Hobby in Scotland? Only time will tell.

A dinky but devastatingly agile aerial predator

Wildlife knows no boundaries when it comes to borders, or more specifically, places to nest. A recent job for Jennie and me was to help protect a Common Sandpiper nest site along the North Shore of Loch Kinord, literally feet away from the footpath! We want to thank Ron MacDonald and Wild Rover Photography again for spotting this vulnerable nest and for alerting us to it. Contrary to what its name might suggest, Common Sandpiper are not all that common. They are on the ‘Amber Breeding List’ of species in the UK and number roughly 15,000 breading pairs, so it was really important for us to divert people and their dogs away from the eggs and the extremely well camouflaged and vulnerable chicks, which had already hatched. Since putting up the temporary signage to alert people to the Sandpiper nest, I am very glad to say that all four chicks appear to be thriving with their parents. Best of luck to them! They need all the help and luck they can get.

A common sandpiper, in a very typical “bum up” pose

I have also been monitoring a Red Kite nest. For the safety of these birds, we cannot disclose the location of the nest, as they are still relatively rare as a breeding species in Scotland and only 4600 pairs breed across the UK as a whole. This species is Schedule 1 on the Wildlife and Countryside Act, meaning it has the highest level of protection, especially with regard to nesting. The particular nest I have been monitoring has two very healthy-looking chicks and very dedicated parents. Most of you reading this blog probably know about Red Kites and their huge UK success story. The species was almost completely driven to extinction in the UK by the 20th century, having been completely eradicated from Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland through persecution, because the species was seen as ‘vermin’. Only a handful of pairs remained in the central valleys of mid Wales by the 1950s. But through successive reintroductions in many locations across the UK, it is making a remarkable comeback, and one which is very much still ongoing. Sadly, these birds still suffer at the hands of illegal persecution and often fly over ‘black holes’ for raptors, these are areas where poisoned bait, shooting and traps, mean that the birds fall victim to malice and never return. Persecution will be with us for some time yet, but I do think the tide is turning.

Our Red Kite parents are hunting hard to feed their two chicks

Finally, another enjoyable job was installing the new donations box (or post) with Kirstin. The old box really has seen better days and had recently become a wasp nest! I’m all for making space for nature, but it was definitely time to upgrade! The donations box is considerably sturdier than its predecessor and should stand the tests of time. I will be posting again soon. But in the meantime, if you’re on the reserve and see me, please don’t hesitate to say hello, and have a chat, but only if it’s about birds of course…no just kidding! Thanks for taking the time to read my first blog post. Bye for now! All the best, Danny

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The Pulse of Life

In the dazzling sunny weather this month the reserve is thriving. This extended dry and sunny spell has provided an ideal start for nesting birds, flourishing flowers and emerging pollinators.

Parkin’s Moss seems to come alive at this time with a sea of cheerfully swaying bog cotton set to the calls of Whitethroats and the rustle of Dragonfly wings.

The long-term success of dragonflies and damselflies is largely due to one key factor – they are superb hunters par excellence, perfectly adapted for purpose and surprisingly unchanged (physiologically) since prehistoric times. Most display capabilities in flight that would shame a modern fighter jet. When combined with superb eyesight, courtesy of their oversized compound eyes, there’s little prey that stands a chance.

Four spotted Chaser Dragonfly. Picture by CNPA rangers Fiona and Andy.

The first Dragonfly species of the year our four-spotted chasers are on the wing. They are easily recognised by their stocky body shape and the two dark spots on the leading edge of each wing – giving this species its name.

Four-spotted Chasers are active dragonflies, spending a lot of time hawking over water for insect-prey and to mark out their territories.
Enormous migrating swarms of Four-spotted chasers have been recorded in Europe with swarms up to 500m long and 20m wide recorded. Such swarms can contain up to 2.5 billion individual dragonflies.

In the steady high atmospheric pressure insects are flying higher so these superb predators follow suit and take up position high in the canopy. Photo by CNPA rangers Andy and Fiona. Dragonflies have huge eyes which occupy most of their head.

The first species to be spotted in spring is the rather stunning Large Red Damselfly. They are wonderfully adaptable, living in habitats ranging from freshwater lakes to muddy, stagnant, acidic pools. The ‘red’ and ‘blue’ families of Damselflies are quite unusual in that it’s only really the females that exhibit variation in colour, a phenomenon known as colour polymorphism.

The male whitethroat does, indeed, have a white throat! Arriving from Sub-Saharan Africa in April, it can be spotted amongst the scrub and gorse around the reserve.

Trembling in spring breezes, bog cotton brightens the landscape of Parkin’s Moss. These fluffy, feathery blooms are found where their name suggests, smack bang in the middle of our raised peat bog.

A densely blooming meadow of bog cotton can resemble a snowy field, right in the middle of the warmest months.

Our ancestors used the silky heads to fabricate candle wicks, to staunch wounds and to stuff pillows.

Our wildflowers are now forming small communities and providing appealing swathes of colour across the reserve with bluebells, speedwells, pansies and wild tulips all in flower.

The gorse too is spectacularly in flower with surrounding hillsides appearing to be ablaze with golden flowers and their sweet coconut fragrance fills scented corridors around Loch Kinord.

The two at the end share an interesting history in that both are not native but have been naturalised in the wild over time. The beautiful flowers of the wild tulip are growing in the understory of our aspen woodland. They have been naturalised here for over 200 years.

The allure of tulips by the west but before then by the Ottoman and Persian Empires led, (in the 17th century) to a phenomena known as “Tulipmania”. During a short three-year period (1634-1637) Dutch speculators created a market where enormous prices were paid for individual tulip bulbs. In February 1637 the market collapsed, to the ruin of many.

The Spanish bluebell was introduced to UK gardens more than 300 years ago and quickly became popular. However, it soon became apparent that it also has the ability to crossbreed with our native bluebell species and can create fertile hybrids. Currently around one in six broad-leaved woodlands in the UK contain the hybrid species.

What we plant in our gardens can get out of hand! Addressing this issue of garden escapes a new leaflet “Garden Watch North East”, provides a simple guide which encourages the planting of native species and outlines steps to avoid non-native plants spreading beyond our garden boundaries and damaging our native wildlife.

It can be downloaded at: https://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/…/Non-native%20Invasive…

A two banded longhorn perusing our new leaflet “Garden Watch North East”

With this abundance of nectar available our pollinators are spoilt for choice.

We are fortunate to have small localised populations of Pearl Bordered fritillaries around the reserve.

Once very widespread this species has declined rapidly in recent decades, and is now highly threatened in England and Wales.

The pearl-bordered fritillary is a striking orange-and-black butterfly of sunny woodland rides and clearings. They fly close to the ground, stopping regularly to feed on spring flowers such as Bugle. 

We strim small glades on south facing slopes with bracken to provide their ideal habitat.
Bracken fronds act like a woodland canopy, allowing a ground flora of Violets, Wood Sage and Bugle to flourish.

Out on the water the number of adorable chicks increases daily with new broods of goslings, ducklings and moorhen chicks who are little black balls of fluff right now.

Some great news is that we have five brand new cygnets of Loch Davan – three up on last year.

We have 5 newly hatched days old cygnets on Loch Davan
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Spring in full Swing

Spring can be a time of sensory overload. There is so much to see, hear and get reacquainted with its hard to keep pace with the explosion of new life.

In the last month visitors have been a great help in keeping track of what is happening on our Out and about board in the visitor centre. You are quite often a day ahead of me which is fantastic and means I know what to seek out on patrol. You collectively heard our first cuckoo of spring on the last day of April. Please keep your sightings coming – you are my eyes and ears. Bar the crocodile which I think I will leave as unconfirmed for now hehe.

It is baby bird time of year and the exciting news is we have have our first greylag goslings and mallard ducklings on Loch Kinord.

Loch Kinord with its surrounding arable fields and wooded islands is their ideal breeding habitat.

Greylag goslings.
Goslings are shepherded around in multi-family groups. The chin tilted up posture is a sign that this adult is aware of me – so I quietly backed off.

Females and males both build the nest but it is the female who broods the eggs. If you see a lone male looking alert and defensive just now he is probably guarding his mate and their nest! Incubation takes 4 weeks and a breeding colony are pretty synchronised in the laying and hatching of their clutches. The goslings are precocial which means highly independent from birth and can run, swim, dive and feed within hours of hatching and drying.

Mum mallard with 5 fairly freshly- hatched ducklings
Proud Mother Mallard with ducklings

For Mallard Ducks the female builds the nest from leaves and grasses and lines it with down plucked from her breast. The normal clutch is about 12 eggs, laid at one to two day intervals. After each egg is added, the clutch is covered to protect it from predators. 

If you find a nestful of duck eggs, please leave it well alone; it is unlikely to have been abandoned. The laying period is very stressful for the female as she lays more than half her body weight in eggs in a couple of weeks. She needs a lot of rest and relies heavily on her mate to protect her and their feeding and loafing areas.

The Drake Mallard can be a bit of a brute at this time towards females. The role of the male is almost over once the clutch is laid. He remains sexually charged for a while in case a replacement clutch is needed, but gradually loses interest and joins other males to moult. At this time groups of males with no obvious duties often force themselves pretty violently onto females that appear to be unattached.

Just in time for all these hungry mouths to feed we have been seeing the hatching of non-biting midge swarms around loch kinord – fuelled by the high constant temperatures and lack of rain we have experienced recently.

A midge swarm arising from the banks of Loch Kinord. Taken by Cairngorms National Park ranger Vicky

These midges are also known as “blind mosquitoes” because they are mosquito-like in appearance but do not bite. They are highly beneficial and desirable organisms, providing food for fish, water and shoreline birds, predatory aquatic insects like diving beetles and waterboatmen and bats. Larvae “clean” the aquatic environment by consuming and recycling organic debris.

A feast of protein

Talking of a feast a regular walker has shared this photo of a Grey Heron with eyes that are bigger than its belly – here trying to work out the best approach of eating a fully grown Perch.

Perch have spiny dorsal fins and have to be swallowed head first. Good luck!

Whilst some have young already others are just starting. Grey wagtails are graceful inhabitants of fast flowing, gravel bottomed burns and add extravagant golden-yellow splashes of colour along our waterways.

A cuckoo with a look of intent in their eyes.

Our cuckoo have arrived back and I have clearly heard three males singing across the reserve – the quintessential sound of spring here.

Cuckoos are summer visitors and are well-known brood parasites. Instead of building their own nest, the females lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, especially meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers. When a female cuckoo finds a suitable nest, and the hosts aren’t looking, she removes one of their eggs and lays her own egg in its place.

Cuckoo young hatch after just 12 days, and push the hosts’ eggs or babies out of the nest, allowing it to eat all food brought by the host bird. By the time the cuckoo leaves the nest, it is far bigger than the host bird, but the adoptive parent continues to feed the young cuckoo for a further two weeks.

A cuckoo chick demanding food from the parent meadow pipit a few years ago.

Just to leave you with some of our butterflies and wildflowers that have emerged this week

Male orange tip butterfly. 1st of the year on 28th April. Its Caterpillars feed on crucifers, in particular the pretty cuckoo flower but wild mustards also.
1st Speckled Wood butterfly on the 27th April. This butterfly is a lover of dappled shade

Green Hairstreak butterfly on the parkin’s moss trail. 1st of the year Sunday 1st of May. Though widespread colonies are often small and localised. In Scotland the caterpillars feed on Gorse, Broom and Blaeberry.
Cherry Blossom in bloom. The heavy buzz of bumblebees feeding on the flowers is incredible to experience.

Viola Tricolour or Heartsease – more showy than the little common violet
Blaeberry in flower

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