Sun, Showers and Snow

Typical Scotland, typical February. Fourteen degrees and sunny on Monday, very pleasant and spring-like….and then minus two and 4 inches of snow by Friday. It was really warm at the start of the week and the adders were out enjoying the sun. 

Basking time

Basking time

Watching me, watching you.

Watching me, watching you.

They are incredibly hard to spot in the bracken. Even we, who are used to them and look for them, don’t see them sometimes and I nearly trod on this male when I went to retrieve some litter from the bracken. 

Spot the adder? I didn't!

Spot the adder? I didn’t!

Can you see the adder?

Can you see the adder? It’s the dark line at the base of the dyke, 12 o clock in the picture.

 There were quite a few blustery showers early in the week, with the wind whipping short, sharp showers across the reserve. But these combined with the sun made for some spectacular rainbows. 

Blustery showers and pretty rainbows

Blustery showers and pretty rainbows

Rainbow at Old Kinord

Rainbow at Old Kinord

A lot of the birds are thinking breeding thoughts now. Mistle thrushes, song thrushes, great tits, blue tits, treecreepers and chaffinches were all singing in the first half of the week. 

Male chaffinch in his spring finery

Male chaffinch in his spring finery

 

Treecreeper

Treecreeper

The mute swans are getting increasingly aggressive as they push rivals or young birds out of their territories. The last year’s cygnets were not being allowed to settle on Loch Davan and were being repeatedly chased by the resident males. 

Aggressive mute swan chasing cygnets

Aggressive mute swan chasing cygnets

One of last year's cygnets, being chased by an adult swan

One of last year’s cygnets, being chased by an adult swan

A couple of the swans on Loch Kinord just now have probably been pushed off a park  pond or somewhere there are lots of people. They don’t seem wild and wary like the other swans, but are hanging around close to the bank and look like they’re used to being fed. “What have you got in your sandwiches? Go on, give us a bit.” But, unfortunately, bread for a swan is a bit like booze or chocolate for us- it’s so-o awfully fine but not good for you at all. 

You can see right through the swan's beak!

So close you can see right through the swan’s beak!

 Midweek, a suspicious-looking stain on the ceiling sent us into the loft to look for leaks. It seems dry up there but who’s poo is this? We get mouse and bat poo in the loft, both live up there, but this looks like stoat poo. I’ve heard of having bats in the belfry, but stoats in the attic…? 

Who's poo? We think it's stoat poo- in our loft!

Who’s poo? We think it’s stoat poo- in our loft!

It was nice to see one of our rarer and more obscure specialities putting in an appearance this week too. We found a couple of capsules of green shield moss by the Vat Burn. It’s a very rare, very fussy moss which only grows on very rotten wood that stays wet all the time. We don’t see it every year but it’s nice to know it’s still hanging on. 

Green shield moss

Green shield moss – the two green “blobs”.

It’s a good job we found it on Wednesday. It would have been covered with several inches of snow, after “Doris “day on Thursday. The reserve looked a very different place by the end of the week, a winter wonderland of crisp, fresh snow. It’s starting to melt rapidly by now – late Friday -but, if you come to the reserve this weekend, make sure you have good boots- it’ll be wet for a few days to come once this all melts off!

Moven is pure white today

Moven is pure white today

A snow view across the reserve

A snow view across the reserve

The hills are white today

The hills are white today

Even the birch brackets are covered in snow.

Even the birch brackets are covered in snow.

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Adding Up to Springtime

The cold and grey of last week seems to be giving way to warmer weather. So much so that the adders, absent since last October, have emerged for the spring.

Tasting the air

Tasting the air

On the move

On the move

Male adder crossing track

Male adder crossing track

We first saw them on the  15th Feb, exactly a week later than last year. They may have been out before that, but we weren’t around last week to check. But maybe not- the two adders of Wed 15th had become five adders by the 17th, so they may just be emerging now. They’ll have spent the winter in rabbit burrows on a dry, south-facing bank and are now emerging as the sun warms the ground.

The first adder of the year

The first adder of the year

The second adder of the year

The second adder of the year

There are actually two adders in the "puddle" of snake"

There are actually two adders in this “puddle” of snake.

The adders don’t tend to get up until the middle of the day at this time of year. And who can blame them? It was minus two degrees this morning as the sun came up- and there is still snow on the surrounding hills.

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Morven with cloud and snow cap

Morven with cloud and snow cap

Meanwhile, other wildlife is also on the move. We’ve had small groups of whooper swans starting to trickle through  the reserve. These lovely birds are on their way north already, starting to move up through the UK to north-west Scotland. It’s the best “jumping off” point if you’re to migrating back to Iceland – the less of the north Atlantic you have to cross, the better!

Super whoopers!

Super whoopers!

Mind you, the local mute swans aren’t all that happy about these northern visitors and the male mutes keep chasing them around. Having said that, the mute swans aren’t that happy about anything right now- the males are getting charged with spring testosterone and are in the mood to fight with practically anything big and white. I’ve even heard of them attacking sheep in extreme cases. At the moment, they’re confining themselves to puffing up their wings and sailing up and down on the edges of their territories – but it won’t be long until some proper wing-beating, water-splashing, neck-pecking down-and-dirty fights start.

Whooper swan being chased by irate mute swan

Whooper swan being chased by irate mute swan

Stroppy swans

Stroppy swans

We’ve also had a couple away days this week, one to a meeting and another, more excitingly, helping clear the Forvie ternery for the return of the black-headed gulls and terns later in the year. We strimmed down a lot of dead nettle and willowherb stems to make it easier for the birds to land. Why? Well, imagine you’re the size of a tern. Now imagine trying to land in a forest of dead, spiky twigs (and that’s after you’ve flown from near the south pole). Not much fun, huh? So we try an make life easier for them by flattening the dead vegetation before the arrive. And it has to be done now, as the black-headed gulls will be on eggs by late March. Spring is definitely in the air!

Summer starts here....clearing the ternery for it's avian visitors later in the year

Summer starts here….clearing the ternery for it’s avian visitors later in the year

ternery

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Is It February Already?

Many thanks to Ewen Cameron, Chair of  the Habitats & Species Group, North East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership, for this week’s blog.

There’s lots of wildlife activity now to remind us that 2017 is starting to speed up.   The annual Big Garden Bird Count has passed (I hope you took part) and tree leaf buds are starting to swell.   If you are managing to keep to your New Year resolutions – well done.   Even if not, there are still lots of things that it’s not to late to “start up” for 2017.   One of the easiest and most useful for nature is “wildlife gardening”.

Many gardeners and most gardening programmes would have advised you to get your “tidying up” done in the Autumn to be ready for Spring.   But I always leave my tidying until March.   That way, birds, hedgehogs and lots of other wildlife get the advantage of piles of fallen leaves, dead plants and so on for food and shelter through the Winter.  I particularly like watching the blackbirds and blue tits repeatedly searching through little piles of leaves or dead flowers for something to eat.   And what they are eating will include the sorts of the wee beasties that you don’t want (or at least don’t want lots of) in your garden.

Female blackbird

Blackbird raking around in leaves for insects

 

Coal tit feeding frenzy

Coal tit feeding frenzy

Lots of gardening experts will also tell you that slugs are your enemy number one. Some slugs can certainly damage prize plants, but if your garden is bird and hedgehog friendly, then they will be busy controlling your slugs while you are sitting with your feet up or sound asleep in your bed.   Nature never rests.   And of course there are some slugs, like the leopard slug, which is really the gardener’s friend because it not only eats (and therefore recycles) dead vegetation – it also eats other slugs.   So, like the rest of life, when it comes to the garden, make sure you know who your real friends are.   Very often, the creepy crawlies you don’t like the look of, really will be your best friends.   Remember what your mother told you – looks aren’t everything.

The aptly-named Great Black Slug

The aptly-named Great Black Slug. They eat dead and rotting vegetation- and even eat poo!

Leopard slug

Leopard slug

Sexton beetle

Sexton beetle – they bury and eat dead animals

 I have been gardening here on Deeside for more than 30 years and my slightly untidy wildlife garden also has hostas growing without any damage.   And its years since I used any chemical pesticides.

Wildlife out on the reserve at Dinnet is getting a move on too.   Last week the covering of ice on Loch Kinord, was being broken up into plate sized pieces by the wind and waves.   This also piled them up against the loch shore creating some lovely patterns that had a distinct Art Nouveau look about them.

Ice crystals do abstract art

Ice crystals do abstract art

No straight lines in nature?

No straight lines in nature?

Ice by Loch Kinord

Ice by Loch Kinord

And when the loch is free of ice, the ducks and swans have a much bigger area to feed in.   Two “teenager swans” – probably hatched last year – were quietly swimming round the loch edge and feeding on the newly accessible plants growing just below the water.   The mature swans were occupied elsewhere defending territories, trying to impress females and all the other things that go with the early stages of a new year and a new breeding season.

Mute swans- this year's cygnets

Mute swans- this year’s cygnets

 

Swan fight

Swan fight. Swans defending their territories can be very aggressive

Of course, to get such good views of wildlife you have to be quiet, you have to move carefully and you really do have to leave your dog at home.   If you don’t, wildlife will usually give you a wide berth and you’ll be lucky to see more than their tail end disappearing in the distance.

We had a group of 21 whooper swans pass through the reserve on Thursday.

Swans feeding undisturbed by watcher

As you will have seen in previous blogs from Dinnet, sunlight early and late in the day can give some striking photos, like this male goldeneye which looks as though it’s paddling through golden syrup rather than a chilly Aberdeenshire loch.

A pair of goldeneye displaying on Loch Kinord

A pair of goldeneye displaying on Loch Kinord

Sleepy ducks in the sunrise

Sleepy ducks on pink water

So why don’t you resolve to make 2017 the year that you do some positive things for wildlife in your garden – no matter how big or small it is.   The internet is a great source of information for wildlife gardening tips and ideas.

2017 could also be the year that you and your family resolve to improve your wildlife watching skills.   No doubt some of you will have seen the wildlife photography and sightings on the BBC’s Winterwatch; and indeed on other television programmes.    So when you visit the reserve, or indeed any part of the countryside; keep the noise down and, at least sometimes, leave the dog at home and you will be rewarded with more close up wildlife sightings.   The wildlife will appreciate your efforts – as will the reserve’s other visitors hoping for some wildlife close encounters too.

SNH staff and Board members on a site visit to St.Cyrus NNR, Grampian. ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177

 

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Frosty Days and Fencing Wire

Hello and apologies for the lack of blog last week. Life gets in the way, sometimes, and so does a ton of fencing wire! That’s how much we took to the tip on Friday, finally getting rid of the huge pile of wire Duncan has accumulated over the past couple of years. It’s a relief to see it gone- these old fences can catch deer and especially owls, which hunt in the dark and are never going to see fencing wire until they fly into it.

The pile of wire is starting to go

The pile of wire is starting to go

The wire pile is almost gone...

The wire pile is almost gone…

All loaded up, strapped down and ready to roll.

All loaded up, strapped down and ready to roll.

The robin was extremely pleased we were moving the wire. As far as we were concerned, we were disturbing the ground for him to root around for insects. We all love to see the robin following us when we garden, and are flattered by their confidence. But we might be less flattered to think we’re fulfilling the same role as wild boar did for robins, long before we put spade to soil!

Oh, go on.....kinck up some vegetation....turn over a few logs!

Oh, go on…..kick up some vegetation….turn over a few logs!

It is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology in 2017, and this week’s blog contains a mere 400 million years of history! We had a day away from the reserve, doing a wee bit of maintenance at Rhynie Chert. Now, this is the least likely-looking protected site you’ll ever see- what’s so special about a field? Well, nothing, on the surface, but a metre underneath the grass lie some of the best- preserved fossils from millions of years ago. Nothing big and dramatic like dinosaurs- they didn’t appear for another 200-ish million years – but rather early land plants and invertebrates. About 410 million years, a volcanic spring covered these plants and animals and preserved them in such fine detail that you can, under a microscope, still see individual cells within the plants. There’s even an extinct genus of plants called Rhynia in honour of the site.

Rhynie Chert

Rhynie Chert

It's SSSI- honest!

It’s SSSI- honest!

Much of last week and early this week was fairly cold- the lochs have been partly frozen for about a week. The ducks don’t mind though, and seem to actively enjoy loafing around on the ice by the edge of the unfrozen patches. It’s often the best time to spot the teal- they usually lurk in the reedbeds and you can hear, but not see, them. When they are standing on the ice, you can really see how much smaller than the mallards they are.

Frozen Kinord

Frozen Kinord

The ducks seem to like standing about on the ice during the day

The ducks seem to like standing about on the ice during the day

Mallard and teal rooting on the ice

Mallard and teal roosting on the ice. The teal are the small ones.

Even a couple of visiting whooper swans were wandering around on the ice. It won’t be long until we start seeing groups of these, moving back north for summer.

A pair of whoopers on the ice

A pair of whoopers on the ice

Speaking of summer, it looks a bit odd to see the gorse coming into flower already. Gorse blooms almost all year round…and there is a saying that when gorse is in flower, kissing is in season!

The gorse is coming into flower

The gorse is coming into flower

Yet again, the frosty mornings have turned the reserve into a winter wonderland for a few hours- until the sun comes up. Perhaps that’s part of what makes it so beautiful, it’s a transient thing, to be enjoyed before it melts away.

frosty birches

frosty birches

Frosty alder catkins

Frosty alder catkins

Frosty Bogingore

Frosty Bogingore

Frosty rosehip

Frosty rosehip

Backlit shrubs look amazing in the frost

Backlit shrubs look amazing in the frost

Late winter is a hard time for wildlife- a lot of the food is gone, but it’s still at least a couple of months until any new growth or new food comes along. The redpoll flocks are growing increasingly bold with hunger, and feeding right over your head if they find a tree with a good crop of birch seeds. Their fine beaks are ideal for winkling the tiny seeds out of the catkins.

Redpoll feeding on birch seeds

Redpoll feeding on birch seeds

Redpolls

Redpolls

Male redpoll

Male redpoll

We also said farewell to a faithful servant this week- the old reserve Land Rover has been replaced. But it served us well- we never got stuck anywhere in 12 years!

Goodbye, faithful servant!

Goodbye, faithful Landy!

We also had a trip into a school this week, talking about ancient Scotland.   Dinnet is a place great to see some archaeology – but the artifacts in the Forestry Commission’s Archaeology resource box are a lot more fun to handle! The children were surprised that flint was genuinely sharp….and just how hard it is to grind barley by hand!

Using a bow drill

Using a bow drill

A selection of artifacts from the Forestry Commission Archaeology Resource box

A selection of artifacts from the Forestry Commission Archaeology Resource box

flint arrowhead

flint arrowhead

Saddle quern

Saddle quern

 

 

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Golden Winter Days

We’ve had some spectacular sunrises this week. The skies have been mostly clear, which has made for cold nights and mild days. And the sunrises, oh, the sunrises, have painted the skies in pinks and golds.

Sunrise over Davan

Sunrise over Davan

Sunrise

Sunrise

At this time of year, on the slightly misty mornings, the light seems to flow, slow and gold, into all the hollows and hidden places. The sun touches the hills a good 15-20 minutes before it reaches the lochs.

Icy Loch Davan

Icy Loch Davan

 Frosty birches

Frosty birches

Minus 5 on Friday morning

Minus 5 on Friday morning

Frosty bracken

Frosty bracken

Frosty hogweed

Frosty hogweed

When it’s misty like it was today, you can look directly at the sun. Normally, that’s not advisable- at best you’ll get purple spots in your vision for ages, at worst you’ll damage your eyes. But today was one of those rare days when you can see the golden ball that is out nearest star rise over the loch. Kind of odd, in a way, to see something as tiny as teal in the foreground and as something big as a star in the background.

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Our nearest star, rising over the hills

Our nearest star, rising over the hills

Last weekend’s snow melted rapidly this week. It always looks sad when it goes, all mucky and patchy. But at least folk had been having fun while it lasted!

The snow id going-fast!

The snow is going-fast!

The melted snow has made all the braches dripping wet

The melted snow has made all the braches dripping wet

Wet pine needles

Wet pine needles

Hardly any snow on Morven on Monday, in spite of being a lot on Saturday

Hardly any snow on Morven on Monday, in spite of being a lot on Saturday

The wind hasn’t done too much damage, we’re glad to say. We’ve only found one, not-very-large tree that needed cleared up.

This tree has snapped off over the path

This tree has snapped off over the path

All cleared up!

All cleared up!

In spite of the cold weather, the wildlife has sensed the year turn and there are signs of spring creeping in. The mistle thrushes are in good voice already, and great tits are prospecting for nest holes.

The great tits are nest prospecting and calling on the sunny days.

The great tits are nest prospecting and calling on the sunny days.

We also heard our first woodpeckers drumming today (20th Jan). The males are already marking out their territories, often using a dead or hollow tree for extra sound.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker

However, some other birds are concentrating of feeding, rather than thinking about breeding yet. Small flocks of bullfinch can often be seen, picking their way through the frost-blackened remains of the rowan berries.

Bullfinch eating the few remaining rowan berries

Bullfinch eating the few remaining rowan berries

Male bullfinch

Male bullfinch

Bullfinch eating rowans

Bullfinch eating rowans

Wrens, too, are just concentrating on survival. You have to, when you only weigh about 10 grams. But, in spite of its tiny size, the wren is the king of birds in several mythologies and its Dutch name is winterkoninkje, the little winter king.

Wren

Wren

Another bird that features in a lot of mythology is the raven. We don’t often see these here, but a “quork, qourk” call heralded a fly-past by the UK’s biggest crow.

Kronk! Raven flying over the reserve.

Kronk! Raven flying over the reserve.

We’ve been taking advantage of the reasonable weather to get a few jobs done out on-site. One of these is starting to dispose of the big pile of wire that Duncan has been clearing up. We’ve spent what feels like far too much time loading it onto the trailer. It’s horrible stuff- anything it can catch on, it will, and does, and it takes forever to separate. Still, we’re getting there…and I, for one, will be delighted to see the back of it. But it is nice to know that no more deer or owls will die on now-defunct fencing….no matter how many times we curse it!

The pile of wire is starting to go

The pile of wire is starting to go

Loading up!

Loading up!

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New Year, New Storms

Hello and a happy new year to you! This is the first blog for a while, a combination of Christmas holidays and flu had put us out of commission for a while. But the reserve’s still here and still a great place to visit – though I might leave it a day or two until this wind eases off! The weather started to get changeable early in the week, with snow showers blowing through on an increasingly bitter north-westerly wind.

Sun over Morven....

Sun over Morven….

....and barely 5 minutes later, with the snow starting to roll in

….and barely 5 minutes later, with the snow starting to roll in

A few whooper swans were sheltering in the corner of Loch Davan. Most of the birds were tucked in out of the wind and hard to see.

Whoopers bathing

Whoopers

Before the snow came, and you could actually see the ground,  Parkin’s Moss was looking wet- nice to see the dams are doing their job.

Parkin's Moss looking wet

Parkin’s Moss looking wet

When the snow came, it arrived in short, heavy, wind-driven bursts. One minute sun, then you could barely see the other side of the car park.

Snow's on

Snow’s on

In fact, it was so rough we’ve been helping out at Forvie for a couple of days. An eider duck count found more than just eiders- some numpty had paintballed the sign at the bird hide….grrrrr! The only plus to this was that it was water-based paint and washed off with a handful of grass and a couple of buckets of unpleasantly-cold estuary water. It’s fair to say we weren’t impressed.

What's happened to the sign?

What’s happened to the sign?

Paintballed sign

Paintballed sign

There were a couple of splatters on the hide itself, so it was with some trepidation we opened the door. What sort of mess were we going to find? Well, none mercifully- and not only that, but some lovely person had pinned up a heap of bird posters in the hide! it was the perfect antidote to the stupidity outside.

Posters in the Waulkmill bird hide

Posters in the Waulkmill bird hide

Pimp My Bird Hide- someone has added some smart posters to the bird hide!

Pimp My Bird Hide- someone has added some smart posters to the bird hide!

The eiders themselves are looking fabulous just now. They are already gathering in rafts and showing off to the females  (and they’re a right pain to count in these tight, active groups). The males look gorgeous, with their green neck, blushed-pink breast and contrasting black-and-white plumage… and their “wooo-ing” call will always make me think of the Ythan Estuary, where I first saw these ducks up close as a young YOC (remember that?) birder.

The male eider are already showing off to the females

The male eider are already showing off to the females

Eider drake in all his finery

Eider drake in all his finery

Another sea duck was also present in good numbers during the eider count. There were plenty of red-breasted mergansers hanging about the estuary. While the eiders look very dapper, the mergansers or “mergs”, look odd, bordering on scruffy. Both males and females have a spiky “punk” hairdo, with a crest on the back of the head, and when this is being blown around the mergs can look quite comical.

The mergansers' crests were blowing about in the wind

The mergansers’ crests were blowing about in the wind

Red-breasted mergansers

Red-breasted mergansers

Tucked in with the mergs were a couple of sleepy scaup. They never lifted their heads the whole time we were there.

Sleepy scaup

Sleepy scaup

The wind was picking up fairly steadily and this cormorant was barely able to keep its balance on the post. It gave up soon afterwards and flopped into the water.

Cormorant

Cormorant

Even if it is too windy to see many birds, you can still spot Forvie’s biggest resident, the grey seals, lounging on the beach at the estuary mouth. These are best seen from the south (Newburgh) side of the river…you can park close by, near the golf club , and see the seals just across the river. It’s not such a good idea to try and see them from the north- you have a long walk-in (a lot of it on sand, which is extra-hard work) and, if you get too close, you’ll scare them. But, from the south, they know there is a river between you and them and feel quite safe- so you can view them just behaving naturally and being seals. If it’s too snowy inland this weekend, a trip to Forvie is definitely worthwhile!

Grey seals hauled out

Grey seals hauled out

We're just checking they put up the fence properly.

Grey seals

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Cheer

Welcome to the shortest day of the year. It’s the winter solstice today and the year turns after tonight, with the sun gradually starting its long climb back to 21st June. To be honest, I don’t mind the dark days when I’m not working – they’re a pain when you are – but I like a lie-in and cosy down in front of the fire. And you can still enjoy a sunrise without getting up too ridiculously early. We’ve had some lovely mornings on the reserve this week, with the sun rising pinkly over Loch Davan.

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Sunrise over Loch Davan

Pine needles against the sunrise

Pine needles against the sunrise

Sunrise over the hills

Sunrise over the hills

Sunrise reeds

Sunrise reeds

First light and the sky is blushing pink

First light and the sky is blushing pink

Even the pine trees glow in the early morning light.

Pine trees in first light

Pine trees in first light

It has been reasonably mild this week. Not warm – it is the middle of winter, after all –but there isn’t (or wasn’t yesterday, there may be by today) a speck of snow on Morven.

No snow!

No snow!

The milder weather has meant the lochs are ice-free. This is great for the ducks, sometimes they are frozen off the lochs for months if we get a hard winter. Ice is very risky for diving ducks- surface in the wrong place and you’re trapped under the ice and drown. So the goldeneye, tufted ducks and goosander are taking full advantage of the open water and feeding furiously. They have even started to get in a little displaying – the year does turn today, after all!

female goosander

Female goosander. Seeing as it’s Christmas, cracker joke time…. why is a goosander called a goosander? ‘Cos it “goes under” the water….

Male goldeneye displaying

Male goldeneye displaying

Unusually, we spotted a flock of 80-100 lapwing circling Loch Davan on Tuesday. We often have odd birds dropping in but it is unusual to see so many. In spite of watching them for a while, they didn’t settle but headed off towards Tarland.

Lapwing flock

Lapwing flock

There have been quite a few swans on the lochs as well, much to the disgust of the resident pair. The male has been steaming from one end of the loch to the other, chasing the interlopers of “his” patch. Not that they go far – they just move around him and reform into a group elsewhere on the loch. And off he goes, again….

Aggressive male mute swan

Aggressive male mute swan

Mute swans, Loch Davan

Mute swans, Loch Davan

It’s probably a good job that a flock of visiting whoopers picked Kinord, not Davan to settle onto. He’d have been apoplectic, with eighteen new swans to chase! Especially as whooper swans’ attitudes to an aggressive mute swan can often be summed up as “Yeah, whatever. Look, mate, we’ve just migrated 600 miles across the North Atlantic in a screaming gale. You think we’re going to get too uptight about you? Push off and bother the other mute swan and leave us to preen and sleep in peace”. Funnily enough, ignoring him often seems to work – he knows how to handle fear or aggression – but indifference seems to confuse him and he will, indeed, go back to chasing the other mute swans around the loch.

Whoopers flighting in to Loch Kinord

Whoopers flighting in to Loch Kinord

Whoopers on Loch Kinord

Whoopers on Loch Kinord

With the winter solstice passing, it means Christmas is just days away. Now, I unashamedly love Christmas. I like seeing the lights on the way to work- it really brightens the dark days, I love putting up a tree, I even like the cheesy Christmas songs on the radio. I also like that fact that, even briefly, we remember we’re human beings among other human beings, and people are nicer and chattier just now than they are the rest of the year. We’re all stuck on this mad, stupid, wonderful planet together…so let’s enjoy it and look after it. Have a lovely Christmas and all the best for 2017.

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

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Grey December Days

It’s not been much of a week, this week. Some weeks are just like that- not too warm, but not really cold either, not really dry, but sort of damp rather than proper rain….and the sun has never managed to do more than glimmer through the trees. 

Still damp days

Still damp days

The sun only ever managed a glimmer this week

The sun only ever managed a glimmer this week

Misty morning

Misty morning

 Even the wildlife has been keeping its head down. We’ve not been seeing much this week, but there are still nice mixed tit flocks in the wood. My favourites are the long-tailed tits, with their gentle burping calls. 

A legless long-tailed tit!

Long-tailed tit!

On one of the drizzly days, we saw this part-hoodie crow “rain bathing”. He kept tipping himself from side to side to get his “armpits” wet. 

Crow "rain bathing"

Crow “rain bathing”

The still days make sound carry for miles. A lot of it is man-made -you hear aircraft, tens of thousands of feet high. You hear the main road, two miles away. You hear bangs and clangs of trailers on the nearest farm. I often wonder how it would like if, just for an hour, you could shut off all human noise. Would it be wonderful or would the silence scare us? In terms of natural noises, you can hear the whoopers on Davan from Burn of Vat and, even a hundred yards away, you can hear a blackbird foraging! However, it is fair to say that they do forage very enthusiastically, flinging leaves around in their search for food. This female was so intent on her search she never spotted me, only feet away. 

Leaf chucking blackbird

Leaf chucking blackbird

Female blackbird

Female blackbird

With not seeing much wildlife, we’ve had to look for signs of it instead. So, go on, have a guess – who’s poo? 

Capercaillie poo

Capercaillie poo

To work out who left what deposit, you need a bit of detective work. Start with size- how big? That’ll tell you if it’s a big animal or not. This is about 2 inches long and as thick as a pencil. What colour is it? Well, it’s green, because the “depositer” has been eating pine needles. Look closely, you can see some in the poo. So, what eats pine needles and live in the pine wood? A few things do, but you may be able to narrow it down further. If there’s white stuff on it, then it’s probably a bird – the white stuff in bird poo is effectively “pee”, but birds don’t pee as water is too heavy to carry around if you fly. This is actually bird poo, and the size suggests it’s a big, pine- needle eating bird…and it’s one we are lucky to still have, the capercaillie. There are a few still roaming the woods of Deeside and long may that continue.

 Another visitor was appreciating our viewpoint the week. A red squirrel clearly thought it was the ideal place to sit and strip down a few pine cones! 

 A squirrel has been sitting on the viewpoint enjoying a pine cone

A squirrel has been sitting on the viewpoint enjoying a pine cone

A table with a view

A table with a view

The wildlife is getting hungry as winter deepens. This coal tit wouldn’t even wait for me to hang the feeder up- the black thing in top of shot is my arm!

Hungry coal tit- waiting impatiently

Hungry coal tit- waiting impatiently

We’ll leave you this week with a picture of a spring sign – one or two of the willows already have catkins peeking out. Let’s hope they don’t get too frosted!

Some willow catkins are visible already

Some willow catkins are visible already

 

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Warm and Cold Winter Days -Muir of Dinnet NNR

It has been a week of contrasting temperatures this week. In fact, that’s putting it mildly – the thermometer has practically been bouncing all over the place. It started cold and frosty, with yet more wonderful sunrises. 

Sunrise in the frosty woodland

Sunrise in the frosty woodland

Yet again, thick hoar frost coated all the trees around the lochs. The reedbeds looked amazing, all winter-white in the first light. (By the way….hoar frost is a thick frost that forms from water vapour in the air. It is nothing to do with a word that sounds the same but does not appear, ever, in this blog, even if it has a commoner usage than “hoar”.Spell checker keeps suggesting I change it!).

Frosty reeds by Loch Davan

Frosty reeds by Loch Davan

 Even every blade of grass and every piece of vegetation was coated in ice crystals, from trees down to the dead heads of summer flowers like devil’s bit scabious.

All the grass near Old Kinord was covered in frost Monday morning

All the grass near Old Kinord was covered in frost Monday morning

The shady hollows stay frosty all day

The shady hollows stay frosty all day

Frosty birch

Frosty birch

 Tufted hair grass

Tufted hair grass

Frosty rowan tree

Frosty rowan tree

Frosty birch tree

Frosty birch tree

frost flower- a devil's bit scabious head covered in frost petals

Frost flower- a devil’s bit scabious head covered in frost petals

 And then, quite suddenly, on Wednesday the temperature rose. And not by a little either, by a lot – it was 15 degrees Celcius here on Wednesday and you didn’t need a jacket to work outside. That’s 21 degrees warmer than the minus 6 of Monday morning! Goodness knows what these bouncing temperatures feel like to the wildlife, but a break from the cold must have been a relief for the birds and animals. They use up so much energy, just staying warm enough to stay alive, that they are very hungry and can be quite confiding. The normally shy and retiring winter thrushes were feeding right beside the car park at Burn o Vat – and not flying away from people much either.

Fieldfare, guzzling rowans

Fieldfare, guzzling rowans

Fieldfares

Fieldfares

They are great entertainment to watch. The rowan berries grow right on the end of the branches, which are really thin. And thrushes are a reasonable-sized bird. So, if they land close enough to the berries to feed, the branches will hardly hold their weight. You often see them, swaying furiously, trying to keep their balance- and not always succeeding! 

Fieldfare toppling over after berries...

Fieldfare toppling over after berries…

....going....

….going….

....going....

….going….

....gone!

….gone!

While it is always a privilege to see a wild bird or animal this closely, we have to be careful not to disturb them. They have enough ado, staying alive, without wasting energy flying off because someone has got too close with a camera. Think of it as “Countryside Manners” – just respect their space. Then you can watch wildlife with the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing you’re not making life harder for it!

There are a few redwing scattered through the fieldfare flocks

There are a few redwing scattered through the fieldfare flocks

One member of the local wildlife certainly hadn’t noticed us – but we noticed him. It didn’t take too long to track down where the tapping, pecking noise was coming from.

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker feeding on invertebrates in a dead branch

It’s not just the wildlife that has taken advantage of the warmer weather. About 3 weeks ago, we wrote about not being able to complete a dam at Parkin’s Moss. This was just before the hard frost and it delayed the work a fair bit – the whole surface of the bog was frozen and we couldn’t get a spade into it, let alone dam piling. But we got it finished yesterday, in spite of 6000 year-old tree roots that kept stopping it from going into the peat.I sometimes wonder, if, in another 6000 years, some archaeologist will wonder what all these dams were for….

Replacement dam. Parkin's Moss

Replacement dam. Parkin’s Moss

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Brilliant Biodiversity – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Due to other commitments, we’ve not been at Dinnet this week. So we’ve handed the blog over to Ewen Cameron – thanks Ewen- for a quick blast of biodiversity – and what you can do to help.

On any visit to Dinnet I alway try to spot what the reserve team have been up to in their work to help protect and restore Scotland’s Biodiversity.   The blog and the displays in the Burn o’ Vat Centre help by letting readers get a wee bit more insight into some of the work that goes on in the background that most people will never be aware of.   It might be some carefully planned heather burning to maintain the bearberry heath, maintenance work along the footpaths or yet another attempt to get visitors to keep their dogs under control!   The “restore” bit is very important because biodiversity in Scotland has taken a series of big hits over the last 70+ years.

Nature will take care of itself given half a chance and in many respects that’s what nature reserves do – they give Nature half a chance.   But nature reserves are few and far between so they cannot do it on their own.   And that’s where we all have a part to play; we can all help.   But I’ll come back to that later.

Mum mallard with 5 fairly freshly- hatched ducklings

Mallard ducklings finding something to eat under the watchful eye of mother duck

 Parkin’s Moss has often featured in the reserve blog and I clearly remember some of the first ditch blocking work we did there nearly 20 years ago.

The first ditch damming at Parkin's Moss

The first ditch damming at Parkin’s Moss c. 1998 (Note from reserve staff today: Flippin’ heck- it’s so dry and heathery and there’s so many trees!)

Lots of bogs have been drained for agricultural, forestry or other purposes over the centuries and we have only realised more recently that peat bogs play a really important role in capturing the carbon that pours into our atmosphere from cars, planes, fires, industry and so on.   When bogs are drained, not only do they stop storing new carbon, they also start to release all the carbon they have already stored back into the atmosphere – a double whammy in the climate change challenge.   And that’s partly why we took the steps to restore Parkin’s Moss by blocking up the ditches, getting the bog wet again so it can start storing carbon again – as well as being a better habitat for lots of wildlife.   Of course Parkin’s Moss won’t halt rising carbon in the atmosphere all on it’s own; but you know what that well known supermarket says………..!

Parkin's Moss

Parkin’s Moss from the air, 2016. You can see standing water and there are no trees on the centre of the bog….all thanks to that work in the late 1990s.

Bog restoration is now a countrywide activity and it’s estimated that Scotland’s bogs already store about 180 years worth of our country’s current carbon emissions.   Bogs are probably much more useful as carbon stores than they are for poor quality grazing or producing compost for our gardens.   The Government’s Scotland’s Biodiversity: a Routemap to 2020 is a very readable document, that you can see online, and it begins to explain how Scotland will contribute to the very ambitious international targets set to halt decline in biodiversity by 2020.

Scotland's Biodiversity Routemap

Scotland’s Biodiversity Routemap

Many people still think that Nature is nice to have, but it’s not really all that important when compared with the need for food to eat, water to drink and energy to keep our homes warm and our economy turning.   Sadly, that view couldn’t be more wrong – we don’t realize that trees and plants clean up the air we breathe, soils filter and clean water and insects pollinate our food plants.  It’s probably due to the fact that we have all become a bit detached from the natural world and what actually does for us.   We get plenty of TV on tigers and pandas (or those amazing snakes after the baby iguanas), but we get much less on the decline of the bumblebees and other insects that pollinate the crops that produce much of our food.   Perhaps we don’t have enough “real”, reality TV.   The decline has got so bad that farmers in the UK import some 50,000 colonies of wild bees from eastern Europe each year!   Wouldn’t it just be simpler and cheaper to restore some habitat on farms where bumblebee numbers could recover?

Devil's bit scabious with bumblebee

Devil’s bit scabious with bumblebee

Another very readable document is the Government’s 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity, and you can read that online too.   It helps explain the ways in which even modern and technological countries like ours are still very dependant on the natural world – I think you will be surprised.

2020 Challange

2020 Challenge

I was born and brought up on a farm north of Inverness in the early 1950s and I know how farming has changed our countryside since then.   I’m not suggesting all these changes have been for the worse, but they haven’t all been for the good either.   Changes in cropping and harvesting may have led to better yields, but they frequently lead to more bare soil during the winter months, which in turn risks more soil erosion and can increase flooding and pollution.   I don’t think anyone can afford to literally flush their most basic asset down the drain.

Eroded soil being blown into ditch

Eroded soil being blown into ditch

In 1979 I did some land use survey work and when I compared my results with an Aberdeen University survey done in the same area ten years previously; semi-natural habitats (wee bits of woods, rough grassland and so on) had declined by just over 30% and the area of arable land had gone up by just over 30%.   Over those ten years, the price of malting barley had gone up and it’s easy to understand how and why at least some of that change happened.   But it also meant that habitat for pollinating insects declined and the remaining semi-natural areas became even more isolated.

Of course it isn’t just farming.   All sorts of land use continues to nibble away at the wildlife reservoirs these semi-natural areas provide – new road here, land “reclamation” there, new buildings, more car parking – I’m sure all of you have seen lots of little bits that were once fine for Nature but have now gone to other uses, under concrete and tarmac or grass manicured to within an inch of it’s life.

Baby robin

Young blackbird sheltering in hedge

Over my lifetime I have heard many groups claim that they are “the real custodians of the countryside”.   In truth nobody is really entitled to that claim.   We have all played a part in the decline of Scotland’s biodiversity, one way or another, and we all need to play a part in helping put things right for the sake of our children & grandchildren.   We all can, and should, play our part in restoring what has been lost – what we all ultimately  depend on.

So – what can you do?

Bee on Thyme

Bee on Thyme in garden

  1.  Major global problems usually seem “too big & too complex” for us as individuals to do much about or to make any real difference.   But if everyone in Scotland did just one little thing for Nature, that would add up to a big change – mony a mickle maks a muckle! – as they say in Doric. Farmers, foresters, house builders, local councils and everyone with a bit of land (and that includes a garden) could sow a wee corner with (native) wildflowers or native, berry bearing trees or shrubs and so provide food and shelter for lots of wildlife.   Although many garden flowers are very showy they, often have little or no nectar or pollen.   And of course you can always get together and encourage others to join in to make an even greater impact – your school grounds, your community spaces, your local park.   And don’t wait for “them” to do something – be a trendsetter and lead the way.
Fox hunting for rodents

Fox engrossed in hunting for rodents

2.   Don’t just take my word for it – find out about biodiversity and how it is vital to even modern and technological societies like ours.   The 2020 Challenge and the Routemap to 2020 would be a good start.   If you are better informed, you will have a better understanding of why the “answers” that may seem like common sense often just make things worse.   And if you are better informed, you will find it easier to make sense of all the mixed messages that fly around.   For example, in Scotland we have a very strange and ill-informed relationship with predators.   Sure, foxes will take some chickens and lambs, but they will take far more rabbits, mice and voles – which are considered pests. As they are also scavengers, they clean up roadkill and other things they come across that are already dead.   So perhaps reaching for the shotgun is not always the best first step.

3.  The Internet is a wonder of our times and you will find lots of information out there on how you can help wildlife on your farm, in your forest, in your garden, in your school grounds.   Almost certainly, there will already be a group or individuals nearby who can help you with ideas and encouragement.   My top tip would be – don’t be too quick to “tidy up”.   Wildlife will benefit from the food and shelter where things are left for a while and it will shelter Leopard slugs that eat – other slugs!

Compost bins

30 year-old compost bins sheltering wildlife as well as recycle garden waster

4.  Please don’t ever dump plants or animals into the countryside – it won’t help, is likely to cause real problems and in some cases you will be committing a criminal offence.   I once met someone planting garden flowers on one of our nature reserves because they thought is was looking a bit dull!   Wildlife frequently likes dull – excitement generally consists of narrowly avoiding being eaten by something else!   If you really would like to help improve nature reserves, then offer to volunteer with some of the properly planned work. SNH, RSPB, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Local Councils and the National Trust for Scotland are just some of the organisations who may be glad to have your help.

5. Don’t be in denial!  We were and are all part of the problem faced by our biodiversity and we all have the responsibility to be part of the solution and help put things right. And, I’d like to think we can- if we all just try.

East Tullos Burn, Aberdeen

Wildflowers in the city. East Tullos Burn, Aberdeen

 

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