Winter Blast – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Brrrrr! I think our weather’s jealous of all the coverage the Winter Olympics is getting and wants to get in on the act.  We’ve had something on an Arctic blast this week -which  February can be prone to, it’s either lovely or freezing. The week actually started quite pleasantly, cold but clear, and we were looking across the reserve thinking about spring. Once you’re into February, the birches seem to take on a purple-y bloom, one of the first signs that the sap is starting to rise in the trees.

The view over the winter woods

Birch trees

And there are other signs of spring. Where there have been gardens (or even garden waste chucked over a wall) many years ago, you find little patches of snowdrops.


And the first nettles are up, as I discovered when I knelt down to photograph the snowdrops…and they can sting through trousers, even at that size! Mind you, our ancestors would have been glad to see them- these would have been the first fresh greens they would have had to eat for six months. They’re full of iron- even more than spinach – and boiling removes the sting…but they do still have a furry sort of texture.

The nettles are starting to grow

Even before the snow arrived, it was very cold. The strong winds kept ice off the lochs in the first part of the week…but where the water splashed up round the edges of the lochs, there was an icy tide-line.

The wind has kept the ice off, but it has formed on the shore

Ice on loch shore

In the more sheltered bays, small “pancakes” of ice formed. These sometimes form in moving water, as all the corners get rounded off pieces of ice as the knock against one another. I’ve seen them in rivers before but never on the lochs- a testament to just how windy it has been this week.

Small pancakes of ice

It wasn’t just the lochs that were icy. Delicate frost crystals had formed on the lichens and bearberry.

Frosty lichens

Frosty bearberry

But, even after having a fine morning, with a beautiful sunrise…


Sunrise over Loch Kinord

…the snow wasn’t far away. At first it was just the odd flake, apparently falling from a clear, blue sky.


But it wasn’t long until it was on in earnest. And it blizzarded too, with the strong winds whipping the flakes into an icy haze.

The snow soon came on

One advantage of the snow if that you can see what’s been going about. A roe deer must have walked right past the visitor centre.

Roe deer footprints

And a blackbird had been under the peanut feeder.

Bird footprints

But the weather has taken it’s toll and Thursday involved helping to make safe a tree in Waterside Woods at Forvie. The wind had tipped it over and hung it up near the footpath – so it had to go. It wasn’t an easy job either- it was a large, double-stemmed sycamore caught in other trees. Fortunately, we’d both had tree work training and have a good winch, so it came down safely. Hard work though- in one of the pictures, you can see the furrow the trunk made as we winched it down. It’s a hand winch we have and you get maybe an inch of cable moved for each pull of the handle. Given that furrow is 15-ish feet long, that’s a fair bit of winching and we’re glad it’s the weekend now!

The wind knocked a tree over at Waterside woods

Half down

All down


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Strimming, Seals and Saplings – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Phew! It’s been a busy week, both here and at Forvie, where we were helping to strim the ternery on Monday and Tuesday. Every year, they fence off around 4 hectares to give the birds the predator-proof, undisturbed area they need to nest. But the approx. 10,000 birds  that do nest there produce quite a lot of poo, and this fertilises the ground. So, up come the nettles! But, when these nettles die, they leave a hard, woody sort of stem sticking up and this can stop the birds landing in the ternery- a bit like pigeon spikes on a building. So we have to strim these down to give them a nice, flat tern des res for when the come back late March. It’s a big job and Annabel and Daryl are always grateful to the at least half-dozen volunteers who turn up to help do this.


Nettle stems in the ternery can put the birds off landing


Summer starts here….clearing the ternery for its avian visitors later in the year

Mind you, the strimming on Tuesday was somewhat delayed by a wandering seal pup. We took a phone call at the reserve saying there was a seal on the main road between Collieston and Newburgh. Now, while we’re not equipped or trained to deal with seal rescue, we wouldn’t want to see an animal hurt, so off we trekked, I’ll admit slightly dubiously (seal on the road? yeah, right….), to see if we could track it down. In the end, it was dead easy to find, with two kind people stopped either side of it, hazard lights on, to stop it getting run over. Turned out the “seal on the road” was a seal pup, a bit under-nourished, who, for some reason, had decided to humph 600 metres uphill  along the 60mph A975. One of the ladies had called the police and we also summoned the SSPCA and BDMLR to come and help. We used car mats to corral the pup, keeping our hands well away (seals have a vicious and bacteria-laden bite, and if they get hold of you, it’s goodbye fingers, hello septicemia) until the police arrived. They were also slightly dubious about the “seal on the road” report (having been on the receiving end of the stuffed tiger incident at the weekend …see  ) until they arrived and saw there actually was a seal on the road! They were great, and used their signs to keep the pup safe until the SSPCA arrived. A slightly bizarre incident, but one that restores your faith in human nature when people stop to help an animal like that.

seal locn

The blue dot is where the seal was!

seal location

A long way from the water


The seal pup, corralled to keep it safe until the SSPCA arrived

Back at Dinnet, we all continue to wait for spring to arrive. We had another sprinkling of snow over the weekend and it’s still been very cold at nights. The birds in the woods are made bold by hunger and we’ve had some lovely views of mixed tit flocks, plus their usual smattering of followers. We had some fantastic views of treecreepers on Wednesday.


You can see the long, thin beak here. Useful for winkling insects out of cracks in the bark.



The whooper swans continue to move through the reserve, with 21 on the lochs this week. They gave us a fantastic show, whooping and wandering around the ice.


Whoopers on ice



Preening and stretching…or saying …”and the pike I saw was THIS big ….”


Heads or tails? three upending, one keeping watch.

It was nice to see so many youngsters in the group. In some year, you hardly see a young bird, suggesting that there has been poor breeding success in Iceland.

young whoopers

Out of 21 whooper swans, 8 were youngsters

The resident mute swans have been taking umbrage at all these extra swans on THEIR patch. The male mutes have been going into full-on threat mode, head down, wings back and sailing after everyone else. Their threats work best on the young whoopers, who are by far the easiest to bully.

Male mute swan in threat mode

Stroppy mute chasing young whooper

Then, all of a sudden, something  moved behind the swans. What was it? or was I just imagining it? No! Otter! No…two otters!

There were TWO otters!

We hadn’t seen an otter on the lochs for ages, so this was a real treat. One even popped out briefly onto the ice- but flatly refused to turn round for a photo. I kept hoping it would, but no, it plopped off the ice and dove instead!

Otter on the ice. Hoped it would turn round for a photo….

But it dove instead!

As the snow has scuppered our chances of heather burning for the next few days, we decided to crack on with some wetland management and path repairs. I was dead chuffed that we finally finished pulling and cutting pine saplings off Parkin’s Moss …trees can really dry out a wetland. It’s been a big job, over the last few winters, involving several different volunteers and any staff I could beg, steal or borrow to help. But hopefully it’ll be fine for a while now- til we have to do it all again in a few years time!

Pine saplings on Parkin’s Moss

And after the saplings were removed.




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Wet and Wonderful – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s World Wetlands Day today. Happens every year on 2nd February. So why celebrate wetlands? Well, they’re hugely important for wildlife….AND hugely useful for us, too. Yes, they are great places for wildlife, but they also help slow global warming by “carbon capture” and mitigate flooding by storing water. The carbon  capture bit is actually quite simple…when stuff dies, it decomposes. When it decomposes, one of the gasses produced is carbon dioxide (the CO2 you hear about) – which is a greenhouse gas. If all the plants that die in wetlands don’t decompose (cos stuff often doesn’t decompose underwater), then it’s a lot less CO2 in the atmosphere…equals less global  warming. And wetlands are wet because water wants to lie there…so let it, and it’s less likely to flood areas we don’t want  flooded, like towns. After all, floodplains tend to do what it says on the tin- they flood! We saw that after Storm Frank, when the reserve was badly flooded…but at least it was water that didn’t end up in the already-flooding River Dee. And our wetlands are great places for wildlife – these pools are home to rare northern damselflies.

Wet and wonderful- one of the northern damselfly pools at Dinnet

The seeds on the reed heads can provide food for finches and insects all winter.

Reedbed, Loch Kinord

Reed seedhead

And otters  need wetlands, too. We found lots of otter sign including this large sprainting patch which had killed all the vegetation around it.

Otter sprainting site

Some of the pools are still frozen from a fortnight ago. But you can see life under the ice, as these horsetails start to grow.

The horsetails are starting to grow under the ice

Now we’re in to February, it’s getting a lot lighter in the mornings and afternoons. We only just managed to see the supermoon before it set on Wednesday morning.

And there was a beautiful sunrise afterwards.

Sunrise over Loch Davan

The low light in the morning casts long shadows and is a good time to spot any marks on the rocks in the old drystane dykes. Sometimes, these lines are plough or machinery marks but it is thought some may have been carved by our ancestors. They’re not in any shape- just irregular, often crossing lines – and tend to be narrower than machine marks. They often look a bit like this, but I suspect by their breadth these are machine marks.

Marked rock

Some of the migrants are on the move. Oh, it’ll be a couple of months until they leave us for northern climes, but this week has seen a passage of whooper swans through the reserve and on the coast. These birds will be starting to drift north through the UK, eventually heading for NW Scotland and the long jump-off to Iceland.

Clean, mucky, adult and young whoopers

Whoopers displaying, with neck-stretch

Whooper swan

Some of the hazel catkins have opened a fair bit since last week. There is a bit of heat in the sun now, and you do get the feeling that life is stirring on the reserve. I even stopped at one point this week, just to enjoy the sun on my back, rather than scurrying around to keep warm!

The hazel catkins are starting to open

When the leaves are off the trees you can  see things you miss during the summer. We found this old wren’s nest this week.

Wren’s nest…

The real surprise was its location- right next to the road! But it may never have been used – female wrens are fussy partners (go, girls!) and demand that the male builds several nests. They’ll then inspect them all and will only mate with the male if one of his nests meets their expectations!

…but rather close to the road.

We’ve had a busy week on the reserve, continuing with ditching and path repairs. The Vat path has needed a fair bit of work this winter. No complaints- it sees upwards of 50 000 feet (well, 100 000 if you assume two feet per person) per year – but sooner or later wear and tear takes its toll. One section of path had collapsed into a side drain and needed some minor repair…and some major rocks! We’re yet again very grateful for the volunteer help to do this….and see if you can spot the repairs if you go for a walk here this weekend!

The drain has collapsed and the path is sagging towards the drain.

First, you grab a volunteer to help you!

Second, you dig out all the soggy muddy stuff.

Then you collect some rocks. The bigger the better!

Then you use the rocks to pin the edge of the path in place.

Finally, cover over with turf and wait for it to grow over. Taa-dah! Finished.



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Grey and Gold – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been a mixed week on the reserve. We’ve had some beautiful mornings, but we’ve also has some horribly damp, cold, grey days. But you don’t take pictures of those, do you?

Sunrise over frozen Loch Kinord

Monday morning

And it’s definitely gotten warmer since last weekend. There was still some ice hanging around on Monday morning but it was melting rapidly and by Tuesday was more or less all gone.

The shady (north facing) side of the Vat always has water oozing down the rock face – until it freezes

Ice on branch

There were still icicles in the Vat on Monday but they were melting fast

Frozen splash zone at foot of waterfall

Teeth of ice

Unfortunately, the paths are getting squishy as the ice melts. To quote one older gentleman “Aa’thin’s a right clort after the snaw”( ….or “it’s a bit muddy, isn’t it?” if you’re not Scottish). Part of the reason for this is frost heave. We all know water expands when it freezes -it’s why ice bursts pipes – and water in the ground can freeze into large crystals and lift up the ground surface. Some of these “frost heave” crystals can be huge- I lifted this one out of a wet area and reckon it must be about 18cm long. You can seen the bands of earth in it as it froze on different days/ nights – bit like tree rings! This opens up air spaces in the soil -which is good for aerating the soil – but on the paths means you have a hard layer at the bottom, a wet layer where the ice has melted in the middle and the soft, lifted surface layer on top. And the second you walk on it…well, it turns into a right clort.

Frost heave in a damp area

A 10 inch-long frost crystal

Ice crystals “frost heaving” the earth

The lochs are de-icing rapidly too. It’s a good job- the swans are really getting a bit hormonal and stroppy with one another now and the unfrozen patch of water on Loch Davan was definitely starting to look too small for them! A couple of the grumpier males were chasing small groups of swans off the water and into the air…and they’d fly round…and round…and then come back onto the loch again. With Kinord being completely frozen, it wasn’t like they could push off “next door” for a bit of peace and quiet…they all had to rub along on the unfrozen bit of Davan.

The territorial swans chased this lot into the air. They didn’t want to go, though, and flew round…

….and round…

…and round…

…and finally came back in to land on the patch of water they’d been chased off a few minutes beforehand.

On the warmer days, the birds are starting to sing. We added singing crossbill to drumming woodpecker this week, in terms of spring sounds. Crossbills aren’t particularly enthusiastic singers and it took me several years to learn their song as I didn’t hear it very often. They breed very early in the year and I wouldn’t be surprised if some were on eggs by the end of the month.

Male crossbill

We even heard a mistle thrush try a couple of notes. You couldn’t call it singing yet, but they think it’s worth  starting to test out the old voice for spring.

Mistle thrush

Some of the trees are showing signs of life too. The hazel catkins are well formed but don’t seem to be ready to open yet….although they are down south where it’s a bit warmer then here. No signs of the willows opening yet on the reserve either- but I’ve seen elsewhere locally, so it can’t be long now.

Hazel catkins

In the lawn outside the visitor centre, the moles are on the move. It’s the time of year the males start extra tunneling, looking for females. Their name comes from “moldywarp” in Old English, meaning “earth tosser” and it’s a very appropriate name, as (often unwelcome) mounds of soil are excavated during their excavations. They can even be found tunneling right up beside the Vat and have an annoying habit of surfacing in the side drains. This is quite normal- most moles will have at least one tunnel that comes out in a ditch or stream so they can get a drink…but the resulting molehill can block the drain. There are drains that need weekly cleaning at this time of year, thanks to on-the-move moles!






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Spectacular Skies – Muir of Dinnet NNR

We’ve had some spectacular skies this week. Even if you don’t like snow, the sky art they produce has been well worth seeing. I, personally, don’t object to snow (unless I’m driving in it) and I’ve been loving watching the showers come in from the west. It’s best first thing in the morning, when the early sun tints the growing clouds a seemingly impossible pink.

A snow shower moving in from the west in the morning sun

Then the first wisps of cloud start to blow over your head.

The first clouds blow in

Before long, the sun is just peeping under the edge of the cloud.

The edge of the snow shower

And then the leading edge of the shower arrives, turning the sun to a grubby orange before it blots it out completely.

The leading edge of the shower against the sun

It’s amazing how the light changes. This picture (below) was taken only minutes after the very first one…and the sky has changed from bright pink to leaden grey.

And 15 minutes later- dull, grey and snowing!

The showers haven’t lasted long and we’ve had surprising little snow compared with the west of Scotland, where several inches have fallen. But it is still bitterly cold and ice is a constant presence on the reserve. The recent winds and milder weather over the weekend have broken up the ice on the lochs and stacked it in sheets on the windward side of the lochs.

Broken ice

Ice sheets

It looks like some odd, shiny crazy paving.

Ice “paving”

At this time of year, when the vegetation has died back, you really notice the bulrushes by the loch edges. Each of these cigar-shaped seed heads can contain over 200,000 seeds and, when they’re ripe, if you run your finger down them, they explode into a mass of fluff. Someone once counted the seeds in a bulrush head and got 220,000  -that’s roughly the same as the population of Aberdeen – all in one six-inch seed head.


The breaking of the ice has freed up a lot of extra water for the ducks. Large rafts of mallard have formed on Loch Davan, probably to start checking one another out. A lot of the ducks are thinking breeding thoughts and there’s been quite a bit of displaying happening –  now there’s enough water to actually display in!

There were large rafts of mallard on Loch Davan

Small groups of mallard will break away from the main group and the males will go all-out to impress the females with various head-bobs, neck-stretches and wing flaps.

Lots of the ducks are displaying now

But prize for the best and most ridiculous display must got to the goldeneye….isn’t he a fine, if rather daft-looking fellow? The almost turn themselves inside out to impress, with a swift neck stretch, head back, foot splash, “tzipzzzeo” call sequence.


Other birds just come to Dinnet to feed and hang out. Cormorants don’t breed here but they do fish on the lochs and you often see them roosting on Castle Island.

Roosting cormorant and crow

Also hanging out round the lochs are a few redwing, fieldfare and starlings. Next to the reserve, there is a field with sheep in it, and they’re in some sort of starchy kale crop grown to feed them when they are nearing lambing. You certainly know it’s a kale crop when you walk past -second-hand, frosted kale has a smell all of it’s own! But the field has become a favourite feeding area for small flocks of birds, probably as the sheep churn up the ground and expose small tubers and invertebrates. Gangs of redwing, fieldfare and starlings are constantly  feeding on the ground or digesting in nearby trees – or just waiting for people to move on before they drop back into the field.

Waiting for everyone to pass by

All the birds fly out of the field as you walk past and watch from nearby trees

It’s amazing how much rubbish turns up at this time of year. Most of this is from the summer, when, let’s face it, lazy and thoughtless people, have thrown their rubbish into the bracken. You don’t find it over the summer – the bracken is often over 8 feet tall and you can’t see your own feet, let alone a tin can when you’re wading through it. But, once it dies down and is flattened by snow and ice, the rubbish emerges like the proverbial bad penny. It’s often into January or February until you can find it and a concerted clear round the loch produced 3 black bags of rubbish consisting of, among other things, 28 glass bottles, 21 tin cans, one large and mysterious bit of foam, three disposable BBQs (a pet hate of mine), one burnt tent, one bra (don’t ask) and umpteen used wet wipes (really don’t ask).

It’s surprising how much litter emerges after the vegetation gets flattened by snow.

In spite of the cold, the Vat is less icy than last week. it has been milder this week- the temperature has only (ha!) been going down to minus two or thee, and you really need it minus 4 or colder to get spectacular ice. Tonight is supposed to be really cold – minus 7 forecast – so there may well be some nice ice to photograph this weekend! Worth a visit to check out perhaps?

Icicles in splash zone above waterfall

Water and ice

Only a little ice by the waterfall today



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The Turning Year – Muir of Dinnet NNR

We’re not even half way through January but already you can feel the year turn. Oh, it’s still cold and dark and will be for some time, but you are already noticing the days start to lengthen. The birds feel it too and, on a couple of the finer days, we’ve heard the first songs.. or, at least, birds displaying. We heard our first woodpecker drumming on the 5th of January and a great tit singing its “teacher, teacher” song a day later.

Great spotted woodpecker


Great tit

It seems almost strange to think of the spring, with it still being so cold. The temperature was low all through the weekend and into Monday. As soon as you stepped out of the car, it caught your breath and you noticed the ice on the puddles.

Ice patterns

Slowly-grown ice crystals

The Vat was quite well iced up on Monday, too. It takes several days of sub-zero temperatures before you start getting really nice icicles in here. It’s really sheltered, so it’s always cool in summer  – but that can keep the worst of the frost off in the winter as well and I’ve only ever once seen the waterfall completely frozen, in the winter of 09/10. But there were still some nice ice sculptures in the Vat…and they looked a lot more attractive than some real sculptures you see in galleries too!

Icicles in the Vat

Frozen grasses

Ice sculptures on the rocks

the Waterfall in the Vat

Icy rock. The ice builds of on the splashed side of the rock.

Ice beside the waterfall

All the plants near a splash zone were ice-coated

Ice and water

The path up to the Vat is colder than the Vat itself and the frost coated all the low-growing vegetation.

Frozen star moss, looking like mini-trees

The cold is hard for the wildlife and this robin landed at my feet, practically begging to be fed. I suspect he had done okay off visitors at the weekend, “oh look, cute robin, chuck him a bit of your sandwich” and was associating people with food.

The robin was so hungry, it landed at my feet practically begging to be fed.

The lochs were still pretty well frozen, though both had small clear patches of water covered in ducks. It gets pretty crowded out there and the birds have less space than they are used to. One of the male mute swans was attempting to be territorial in a ridiculously small area of water, crammed with a few hundred teal, mallard, wigeon and over 40 other swans. It wasn’t really working- all he would do was herd a small gang of swans, clockwise, then anti-clockwise round the free area of water to no great effect…then get fed up and take a peck at a wigeon or whoever was nearest. Still, at least it means the birds probably aren’t too starving- if they were, they wouldn’t have time for this carry on.

Reeds in frozen loch

Frozen Kinord

You can see what’s NOT frozen by where the birds are

Mute and whooper swans

There were lots of birds on the ice-free patches of water

I think the mallard quite like the ice as a perch on the edge of the water. … and watching ducks trying to walk on ice should be available as a cure for feeling blue. Yes, I know it’s childish but I do smile every time one lands on its bum!

Mallards on ice. Can you spot the one that fallen on it’s bum trying to walk on the ice?

As the winter wears on, food gets harder to find. That’s when food sources like pine cones come into their own.  These take two years to ripen so there are always  some trees bearing cones getting near ripening. And, because they aren’t ripe yet, there’s a nice, sealed  package of food (the pine seed) tucked away in the cone. The only problem is getting at it and the different ways animal do this tells us who’s been eating the cones. Looking at these, who would you reckon had been having a feed off them?

Who’s been eating these pine cones?

Squirrel? Well, no, they strip a cone completely. Crossbill? Could be, but this pile was under a birch tree and crossbills just tend to drop the cones out of the pines. A closer look at the cones reveals they are slightly flattened on one side and were lying under a broken branch that had a nice crack in it….just right to wedge a pine cone in while you peck at it. Which means our cones were most likely eaten by a great spotted woodpecker- they usually show a flat side where the bird has wedged it in a tree.

Look closely- the cone is slightly flattened on the left side

Elsewhere on the reserve, January is the Month of the Ditch. We spend a lot of time in ditches, either damming the ones on the bogs or clearing out the ones by the footpaths.  This blocked side drain shows why we need to do this- it doesn’t take long for the water to build up and flood onto (and erode) the path.

Blocked drain with water running onto path

Working again, with the water a foot lower than before

We get a lot of help with this (and everything else) from volunteers and it’s no lie to say we couldn’t run the NNRs without them. Across all of the SNH NNRs, over the past two years, we’ve had over 7000 volunteer days (or the equivalent of over 30 full-time posts) of work, on everything from the aforementioned ditches to seabird monitoring or events or heather burning or deer management. We’re indescribably grateful for this and hope we can give something back too, in terms of training, learning, fitness or even just the social aspect of working with like-minded people in the outdoors. So, here’s to the volunteers- we salute you and thank you for your role in looking after Scotland’s nature.

Volunteer Mary cutting back branches and clearing ditches




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Happy 2018 – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Hello and a very happy new year to you all. I hope 2018 is good to you. Is your life returning to normal after Christmas and new year? Mine is- back to work, don’t dare stand on the scales and no more mince pies for breakfast. Actually, the reserve is such a wonderful place, it’s kind of nice to be back…you hurry round, checking everything. Are the lochs frozen? Are there icicles in the Vat? Did the power go off and anything freeze? Are any trees down? I think the break is healthy- you appreciate anew what a cracking reserve it is. Mind you, the weather hasn’t been very inspiring this week – rain onto frozen ground has, yet again, turned the paths to sheet ice…and the daily commute into a death-defying, ABS-grinding horror show. I often think everything has an almost monochrome beauty on these grey days- all the colours are subdued but it’s still pretty…in a somber kind of way.

Misty mornings

The loch is mostly frozen

The one splash of colour came from some very early flowering gorse. It’s  a plant I have to admire- it’s a persistent survivor – but I really don’t like it in just about every other respect. “Spiky ” and “pernicious” are two of the few repeatable things I can say about it. If you want unrepeatable, there’s probably a NNR, local nature reserve or other wildlife site somewhere near you that would appreciate a hand removing it…

Some of the gorse is in flower!

It was a very different goose count today to the last one just before Christmas. That one was a golden morning, with pastel colours changing in a sunrise sky. Today…well, it just got a lighter shade of grey. Still plenty of geese though….my count was 1701 pink-footed geese and 289 greylags.

Dawn goose flight

Counting geese is both an exact and inexact science. On big sites, you need lots of observers just to try and count what leaves all the different parts of the site. And sometimes it’s easy. For small groups, it’s your classic 1-2-3 etc counting. But as the numbers increase, you have to start to scale up and the count in your head goes something like ” 10,20, 50, 100,200, 500, 1000, 3000, LOTS” as you estimate the size of the flock.

…and the rest

With the cold weather, both of the lochs are still largely frozen. It’s often a time you get high counts of wildfowl as bird like teal are frozen out of the reedbeds. But ducks seem to quite like standing on the ice- I suppose it gives them somewhere to hang out away from predators.

The birds seem to like perching on the edge of the ice

Ducks on ice

In among the mute swans were five whooper swans. I always think they look much more elegant…and just generally less grumpy than the mutes!

Line abreast whooper swans

The cold weather can force wildlife into behaviours that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from them. Two robins having a scrap (nothing unusual there) caught my eye…but what they were fighting over was unusual. A dead and partly-eaten rabbit had wound up frozen into the ice of the loch – and the robins were fighting over it. Once one had been driven off, the winner proceeded to perch on the carcass  and tuck in. Although we don’t think of small birds as scavengers, they will take small bits of meat (ever put bacon rinds out on your birdtable?) – it’s quality, high-energy food. Not quite the image of robins we’ve all been looking at on Christmas cards for the past few weeks though!

They don’t perch on that on a Christmas card…

…nor do we think of them as scavenging dead meat!






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Reflections on Ice – Muir of Dinnet NNR

Well, we’re almost there, and there’s a good chance the year will have turned by the time you read this. Not date-wise, but the shortest day will be happening or over and it will actually be getting a few minutes lighter each day. The sun is late in coming up- it’s gone 9 by the time it peers over the hills at Dinnet – but you get long and beautiful sunrises as the light gradually creeps across the sky.

first light brings some lovely colours

We had one of the best sunrises of the year on Tuesday. It was a goose count day- there had been a lot of goose noise on the lochs so we wanted to check how many were around. Normally, we only have a few hundred graylag geese on the lochs but they had been joined by around 1800 pink – footed geese. These may well have been frozen off another local roost site and were using the small patch of clear water on Loch Kinord. The sight and sound of them taking off against the sunrise is one of the best spectacles in the natural world. With the colours of the sunrise, the morning flight looked just like a Peter Scott painting.

Morning flight

Goose take-off reflected in the loch


The light is changing as it gets nearer dawn

Geese heading off to feed

Goose take-off, less than half the flock. They’re a pain to count when they all get up at once!

It was really icy at the start of the week. Everything, including the paths and car park, was coated on a thick layer of hard ice after it had rained onto frozen ground over the weekend.

Icy rock

The ice coats any hard surface

Even the bog pools were frozen. The sphagnum looked oddly ghostly under the ice.

Sphagnum in the ice.

And the lochs were largely frozen too, with the exception of a couple of small patches of water kept clear by the ducks moving about in them.

Swans upending in the unfrozen bit

We were grateful when, on Tuesday, the ice started to melt rapidly. This was the first day for about 10 days it didn’t feel like the roads were actively trying to kill you and the frost light actually went off on the dash. When you get this sudden melting,  you can get the most amazing reflections on the lochs. The ice melts a bit, and a thin layer of water lies on top of the ice…and the whole things acts like a giant mirror. I have rarely seen such perfect reflections on the lochs. I’ve actually flipped one of these pictures upside-down. See if you can work out which one!

The trees are reflecting in the ice

Loch Davan reflections

Reflections in the ice

Pine tree reflections

Reflections in Loch Davan, pines and reedbed

Reedbeds, Loch Davan – but all of the ducks are frozen out of them

Upside down hill- Morven reflected in the loch

All the birds are crammed in a thin strip of clear water

With the weather getting much warmer ( minus 3 to +10 in one day), the wildlife has become a bit more active. We got fantastic views of a mixed tit flock moving past us in the woods. When birds are hungry they can be remarkably confiding and I almost got landed on by a coal tit at one point. I also saw a bird doing something I’d never seen before too. A long-tailed tit had found a large grub to eat and proceeded to hang from a branch by one foot and use the other foot to manoeuvre its food around, a bit like a parrot.

long-tailed tit finding food

You can just make out the grub it has found

Hanging by one leg and using foot to help deal with food

We got some wonderful views of the long-tailed tits. As I said- they can be quite confiding – but are always on the move and never stay still for long. So you never get a decent photo of them. Well, almost never…

You never get a good photo of a long-tailed tit. They never sit out in the open for long enough.

No, they never sit out…

… never sit for a photo….

…NEVER sit out….

….oh, whatever. Just pose, why don’t you!

That’s the more normal view!

The flock also held a few other birds, including coal tits, great tits, treecreepers and goldcrests. Goldcrests (along with firecrests, which you don’t see up here unless you’re really lucky) are Britain’s smallest bird, only 9cm long and weighing in at around 6 grams – about the same as a 20p coin. And that’s a healthy one. I always marvel at how something so tiny makes it through the winter.

Britain’s smallest bird – the goldcrest


Using wings to keep balance

Given that we’re fast approaching Christmas, I hope you’ve managed to sort out your lords-a leaping from your ladies dancing by now (though, as a naturalist, I feel I must point out that you are unlikely to ever see a partridge in a pear tree, they are a ground-dwelling species). If you are planning a visit to the NNR over the festive break, the paths, toilets (very necessary!) and car park should be open throughout. The visitor centre will be open on 22,23,24 Dec, closed 25,26,27, 28 Dec, open again 29,30,31 Dec, then closed 1,2,3 Jan, reopening on the 4th. All that remains is for me to wish you a very “Merry Christmas” – have a lovely time, wherever you are -and all the best for 2018. See you in the new year!



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Snow and Ice – Muir of Dinnet NNR

It’s been an odd week, weather wise. There was an awful lot of snow on the coast – but not nearly so much at Dinnet. I don’t think I’ve ever know it that way round. It was something of a battle to get to Dinnet through the snowy roads and we were rather stuck for jobs when we got there. Frozen ground rather precludes doing some of the jobs like ditching…but it does make for some good icicles in the Vat. It does NOT make for good conditions underfoot- the paths are dangerously icy right now.

It was cold enough for big icicles to form in the Vat

Ice in the splash zone of the stream

Unfortunately, until late on Friday, we still hadn’t replaced the bench at the viewpoint. We got a hole dug- but everything’s been frozen ever since.

We’re due a bench in here…when the ground defrosts!

But it turned out the bench fitted the holes so well that we managed to get it in, even in the ice!

Finally-the new bench at the viewpoint!

The contractors have been cracking along with the bridge. They got the foundations in just before everything froze, so that allowed them to carry on with building the actual bridge structure. It should be finished by the end of the week, weather permitting.

The work has started- in spite of the weather!

Preparing the ground for the new bridge

The replacement bridge is coming along

And indeed, it was finished on Friday! Bridge and path are reopened, enjoy, just watch out for the ice.

The new bridge, all finished

The lochs have been largely frozen too. There was only one small bit of clear water on Loch Davan, with a LOT of wildfowl crammed into it. There were at least 114 mallard, 40 wigeon, 41 swans, 40 teal and a scatter of coot, goldeneye and whooper swans. There were probably more, but they were difficult to count as everything was hidden behind everything else.

All the swans and geese are crammed into the small unfrozen area of water.

Swans upending in the unfrozen bit

Ice art

The icy roads did result in  me hiding at Forvie one day…and what a day it was! The end of last week into the start of this week saw the most snow that we’d seen on the coast since 2009. Thanks to the fact that most of the snow came down horizontally in the strong north-westerly wind, there were big drifts formed in all the exposed places.

The most snow since 2009!

looking south along the coast at Forvie

Every vertical surface exposed to the wind was plastered in snow…even the telegraph poles were turned white.

The snow drifted against any vertical object

Looking north from Forvie. More snow clouds on the way!

There were some fantastic sunrises and sunsets once the snow clouds cleared.The light in the mornings has been gorgeous, tinting the snow pink in the first rays of sun. Sunrises and sunsets are great opportunities to get out with your camera….and, the beauty of them, is you don’t need to be a brilliant wildlife photographer to capture a really good shot. You don’t have to spend three weeks in a cramped hide, or risk getting eaten by a polar bear…you just need to get out there and point your camera at the pretty colours!

Sunrise over the snowfields

the first rays of sun over the moor

The sun looked bright orange as it rose

Snow in the sunrise

The local village, Collieston, looks like something off a Christmas card in the snow.

Collieston village from the Forvie centre

It has even been cold enough to completely freeze the Sand Loch. It doesn’t normally freeze completely- it’s a bit brackish, with being so close to the sea, and the wind tends to keep it ice-free too. But it has been frozen for nearly a week now.

Pink snow clouds reflecting in Sand Loch

Frozen sand loch. It’s been several years since it froze so hard.

With the fresh water being frozen, the local geese have been pushed onto the estuary to roost. I reckon at least 2500 got up on Tuesday morning, along with everything else, when a raptor went through.

Geese getting off the estuary

When it is snowy, you sometimes see wildlife really well. Animals get desperately hungry in the cold and are forced to be bolder than normal. These roe deer were feeding in the last of the light but weren’t inclined to run away, even once they spotted us.

Roe deer feeding in the snow

Spotted! the roe on the right has spotte dus

Robins are bold at the best of times. This one looks like he is posing for the role of “fat robin on Christmas card” but is only looking so fat because he has his feathers fluffed out for warmth.What he’s really hoping is the a) we’ll chuck out some food, or b) we’ll disturb the ground so he can find insects.

Robin perched on picnic table

Fluffed up robin

House sparrow. Excuse me, but I think you’ll find the peanut feeder is empty….

And sometimes, in the snow, you see something really spectacular. Owls struggle in prolonged snow cover. The rodents they feed on are quite happy in tunnels under the snow but are hard for the owls to hunt- they find it difficult to pinpoint them under the snow. So you sometimes see them forced into hunting in daytime. This time round, a barn owl landed on the office windowsill and peered in at us…but obviously decided we weren’t rodent-like enough and took off again. And I took this picture back in 2009, during the last major snowfall on the coast, of a barn owl on broad daylight. So keep a lookout- the great thing about wildlife is you just never know what you might see!







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Sunrises and Supermoon – Muir of Dinnet NNR

We – and – the rest of the world – started the week with a supermoon. That’s when the moon’s orbit most closely approaches the earth at the same time that there is a full moon. I always remember the moon looking big sometimes but “supermoon” is a word that seems to have become fashionable lately….it even makes the national news (even if it has been happening for the four-and-a-bit billion years or planet has been on the go- must have been a slow news day).The only moderately unusual thing about it was that it wasn’t cloudy so we could see the moon…and it did make for a spectacular moonset over Morven.


The full moon, 4th Dec

Birch tree in front of the full moon

Moonset over Morven

When the moon is full and close, it’s worth looking at it even through just an ordinary set of binoculars.If you’ve never done it, you’ll be surprised how easily you can see some of the asteroid impact craters on the moon. The three big craters – Copernicus, Tycho and Kepler – were caused by asteroids between 70 and 90 km in diameter hitting the moon.  A lump of rock that size hitting your planet would fairly wreck your weekend – or your entire ecosystem – so we better hope none ever come our way!

Full moon, with the craters Tycho, Copernicus and Kepler showing well

With us being right in the heart of winter, getting to and from work has become a journey in the dark (wasn’t that a chapter in Lord of the Rings? In the mines? I tell you, I’d rather have the balrog than the AWPR roadworks). And the sun doesn’t rise until you are at work and sets before you leave. But it does mean you are awake to see some spectacular sunrises- they have been particularly good this week. The very first light is often the pink light reflected off the clouds, before the sun actually comes up, and it can make the woods glow with a rosy light.

Trees, glowing pink in the sunrise.

And the clouds get pinker and pinker as it gets closer to sunrise…almost too pink!

Not a bad view to open the door to!

Quote from Terry Pratchett “Sometimes the gods have no taste at all. They allow sunrises and sunsets in ridiculous pink and blue hues that any professional artist would dismiss as the work of some enthusiastic amateur who’d never looked at a real sunset. This was one of those sunrises. It was the kind of sunrise a man looks at and says, ‘No real sunrise could paint the sky Surgical Appliance Pink.’ Nevertheless, it was beautiful.”

Pink light over Morven

Then the light goes golden as the sun finally peeps over the horizon. If you’re down by the water, you have the added bonus of it reflecting off the water too.


Loch Kinord sunrise

The sunsets haven’t been bad either!

Mind you, although it’s been bonny at both ends of the day, it’s often been grey and nondescript during the day. At least it hasn’t been frosty this week – we’ve managed to get a bit of pathwork done and the bridge replacement works have  started too. It’s a good job it wasn’t as frozen as it was last week or we’d have never got these big rocks dug in to support the edge of the path.

Path fixed

We had to build up the edge of the path where people had eroded it by going into the burn

My plans to go out to Dinnet were then scuppered by the weather on Friday…so at Forvie instead. You’ll see why looking at the photos- a fair bit of snow fell overnight. So I helped out with one of the bird counts on the estuary instead. In this sort of weather, the Ythan Estuary is a real hotspot for birds- the unfrozen mudflats are somewhere they can feed even when the fields are covered in snow. For the likes of curlew, the count was over 700, whereas, if it hadn’t snowed, it would probably have been nearer 250. There was also a lot of “cold weather movement” of geese- probably moving from places even worse than here. So keep your eyes peeled this weekend- you never know what you might see moving!

Snowy sunrise

Sunrise over the Ythan estuary

Snow of the foreshore…and Daryl, off to count birds.

Lots of geese are on the move in the cold weather

The broom is laden down with snow.

Gorse flowering even in the snow

Snowy trees

Snowy trees by fishermen’s car park







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