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