Birds, Bats, Baa’s and Byes

On Monday both NatureScot and RSPB teams dispersed around the loch to carry out our final September WeBS, and boy is it busying up! Our duck numbers are looking solid, with 5000 teal, 2500 wigeon, 2300 tufted duck, 900 mallard, 370 pochard and 330 pintail. Coot are sitting at 3760, mute swans at 585, and we have about 70 little grebes now that they aren’t sheltering among vegetation so much. We’ve also had our first sighting of a wintering Slavonian grebe!

Thousands of pink-footed geese have now descended en-masse after a flight of approximately 750 miles. For those born this year, the journey will have been their very first migration – imagine that for a first long-haul flight! Whooper swans are also arriving, and their endearing honks and whoops can be head across the loch as friends and family re-unite after an equally gruelling expedition.

We were also treated to a lovely view of three roe deer enjoying some peaceful grazing off the Kirkgate Viewpoint, as well as being surprised by them in the Pier Car Park the next morning! It just goes to show how comfortable our local wildlife may feel now that visitor numbers have reduced in these areas.

Our Bat Walk last night was a great success, with three different Pipistrelle species heard as well as a Daubentons! A big thank you to everyone who came along and to the representatives from Fife Bat Group for lending your expertise to this event. Apologies to all those who were not able to make it too – please do keep an eye on our events page in future. This event was so popular that we are very keen to run more sessions next year to meet demand!

Bat Walk at Burleigh

You may have seen va our social media that the Burleigh Wildlife Hide is currently closed. After nearly twenty years of good service and numerous patch-ups and repairs, it’s finally time to put it out to pasture. We are slowly dismantling the hide to reduce disturbance of wildfowl that enjoy hanging out in front of it, in preparation for it’s replacement with a new viewing screen. This will be modelled in the same style as the screen that can be found along the trail between Kirkgate Park and Mary’s Gate, and we hope to have it installed by December. In the meantime, we request that the public do not enter the hide for their own safety. We appreciate this may be dissapointing news, particularly when wildfowl numbers are at their best, but thank you for your understanding and look forward to welcoming you back soon.

If you were at Findatie Beach yesterday around lunchtime, you’ll have been one of the lucky few to see one of our more logistically complex management tasks underway. For many decades now, sheep have been put onto St Serfs Isle for grazing. St Serfs hosts the largest concentration of breeding ducks in Britain, and one of the largest concentrations in inland Europe! So all the management that we do out there is very much tailored towards keeping this island the safe haven it is for them, and this includes breeding habitat.

Not quite what you expect to come across at Findatie!

While ducks like to nest specifically within areas of longer vegetation (such as a clump of rushes or patches of meadowsweet), they want these patches to be surrounded by more open ground because ground predators (like foxes, mink and otter) can’t sneak up on them so easily. Now, we could spend a fortune of time, money, effort and fuel getting something like the Softrak over there, and then removing and disposing of all the cuttings afterwards. Or, we could employ a far more natural method. Grazing!

Getting lined up

We would usually try to get them out to the island earlier than this, but a combination of clashing schedules and poor weather conditions mean they will likely get a shorter holiday of two months, rather than three. Still, they certainly won’t be complaing about the chance to induldge in an all-you-can-eat grassy buffet! The 60 black-faced sheep were shipped across 12 at a time in a very smooth and well practiced operation, lining up the ramp of the trailer with the ramp of the boat and gently encouraging them into the boat pen before setting sail. We will be keeping an eye on them over the next couple of months to ensure good welfare, before bringing them back to the mainland before things get too cold. By then they should have gotten nice and fat on the grasses which would otherwise negatively impact our ducks breeding success next year, so it truly is a win win!

And they’re away!

And on a final note. Today was supposed to be our last day of insect surveys for the season. But the combination of dwindling numbers as the season ends, plus yellow warnings for wind and rain, means there is absolutely no chance that any of our six-legged friends will be out and about. Nevertheless, we have had a good season this year with plenty of species to see.

A big thank you to all our insect volunteers who have spent the past six months providing us with invaluable data on how our butterflies, bumblebees, dragonflies and damselflies are doing. The information helps to inform our habitat management, as well as being passed on to various conservation organisations which feeds into national data on how each of these groups are faring nationally.

Your dedication, knowledge and good conversation has been a pleasure, and we look forward to seeing you again next April!

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Magical, mythical moths

Besides a very unique wee species that I became quite familiar with on Flanders Moss NNR, and the occasional characteristic day-flying species (we get plenty of moths that aren’t nocturnal!), moths weren’t something that was particularly on my radar. But over the past few weeks we have been running regular moth traps, and I have to say I’m now a definite convert!

Sorting through occupied and empty egg cartons

Moth traps are a simple setup that allow us to observe them closely, without causing them any harm. You need some kind of large bucket, tub or box. Into this bucket you should add lots of places that moths can hunker down into come daylight – we use old egg cartons. Finally, you need a bright light. Set it out overnight with the light on to attract moths for miles around, and come daytime they will all drop down into the box for shelter – to peruse at your leisure. Once recorded, all moths are released back into the wild. Here are just some of the many species that have been recorded so far:

Since they are quite a misunderstood and often underappreciated group of animals, I thought I’d dip into the symbolism behind moths to see if there was any context for this attitude (besides the fact that a small number get into our clothes and furniture). There were some fairly unsurprising, if still interesting, results. In Celtic symbolism they, rather unfairly in my opinion, represent death and decay. While I can understand this with specific species – for example the entry of a Death’s-head Hawk-moth into your home was taken as a sign that death is imminent – I can’t help but feel that moths get a bit of a raw deal. Particularly compared to butterflies, and especially when you realise there are just as many beautiful day-flying moths too! There is an idea in folklore that butterflies belong to the fairies and moths to the witches, but anyone who’s dabbled in these things knows that fairies are simply not to be trusted, so why we embrace butterflies so willingly is beyond me! A kinder interpretation I found is that moths are the souls of the deceased, and should they come flying round a light, it means your loved ones are watching over you. A rather lovely thought.

Death’s-head Hawk-moth (Butterfly Conservation)

From tales to truths. Moths belong to the same group of insects as butterflies, called Lepidoptera. This name derives from the ancient greek ‘lepis’, meaning scales, as their wings are actually made up of tiny flattened hairs that resemble scales in shape! There are a whoppping 180,000 (ish) species of butterflies and moths worldwide. Here in the UK we have over 2500 moths if you total up all the macro and micro species together (micros are often notoriously difficult to ID, so we stick to the macros – the bigger ones), whereas in comparison we only have a piddly 59 butterflies! Sadly, like so many others, as a group moths are on the decline – we have lost 3 species in the last 20 years, and two thirds of our macro moths have seen a major decrease in number in the past 40 years. This is likely due to a combination of habitat loss, light pollution and pesticides, with climate change probably influencing things too.

Why does this matter? Well, apart from the fact that moths deserve our care and protection like the rest of our wildlife, they play such a vital role in nature too. They act as nocturnal pollinators and are a key food source for amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds – particularly for young chicks – so losing them could have disastorous knock-on effects to entire ecosystems. Different moth species are also very sensitive to environmental changes, so much so that they are often used as key indicators and model organism for determining environmental and ecosystem health. If the moths are happy, then chances are most other things are happy too. This is why it is so important to record our magical moths, and safeguard their populations for the future.

You can learn lots more about moths and the different moth species in the UK here.

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The Pink-feet return!

It’s my favourite time of year! The Pink-footed Geese have arrived back from Iceland and Eastern Greenland. Every year in mid-September, the ‘Pinkies’ make their annual journey from their breeding grounds to spend the winter in the UK.

Pink-footed Geese arriving en-masse!

Here at Loch Leven NNR, we can see up to 20,000 Pink-footed Geese at peak. They use the loch as an important roost and stop-over site. The fields around Loch Leven NNR provide ample food for the hungry geese as they feed up and make their way south. Most of the Pink-footed Goose population winter in Norfolk, and the big peaks we see at this time of year are birds making their way further south. However, we do have a resident population of wintering pink-footed geese that stay at Loch Leven all winter round.

Pinkies on St Serfs

‘Pinkfeet’ come to the UK to escape the harsh arctic winters of Iceland and Greenland. There are around 500,000 Pink-footed Geese in the world, and they all winter in the UK. There is a smaller number of birds that breed in Svalbard (80,000) and they winter in Northern Europe (Netherlands, Denmark etc.).

Breeding (green) and wintering (blue) grounds of pink-footed geese. Alexander Kürthy CC-BY-SA-4.0

Their migration journey from Iceland to Scotland is no easy feat. It is a non-stop flight of 12-15 hours over the sea in very changeable conditions. Especially if you are a juvenile on their first migration! Birds tend to move when the winds are north-westerly, a tail wind will make their 800 mile flight much easier.

The world population of Pink-footed Geese has increased dramatically! There were 280,000 in 2003 and this has almost doubled in 20 years. We have data from here at Loch Leven going back to 1967 and number of wintering Pink-footed Geese has increased from an average peak of 7000 to 15000 at current. Interestingly, it seems that the Loch had its highest average mean between 2004-2008. Even with the increase in population, it looks like the wintering numbers on the loch have stayed fairly stable in the last 15-20 years with no real increase or decrease. Loch Leven on average supports around 15-20,000 wintering Pink Footed Geese at peak and interestingly the record count was of 28,500 in March 2004.

Pink-footed Geese at Loch Leven NNR

Every year I longingly await the ‘wink-wink’ calls and first v-shaped skeins over Loch Leven NNR. It is one of the UKs best wildlife spectacles and a true harbinger of Autumn. I recommend a dawn watch from Kirkgate to view the Pinkies leaving en-masse, this will be best when we have our peak counts in mid-late October. We are doing a ‘Goose Sunrise’ on the 29th October at Kirkgate Cemetery at 0645 so please come along to that!

Enjoy the geese, Autumn is here for real now!

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One team went to mow, went to mow a meadow…

As you might have seen from our social media pages, we’ve hit mowing season! We’ve had to be a bit sporadic with it lately, though, because while we can easily cut vegetation during wetter weather, the bailer has a tendancy to throw a bit of a hissy fit during the rain and doesn’t produce particularly nice or easy to transport bails. But there have been enough nice days to stay on track, in no small part thanks to our volunteers!

We began mowing Kirkgate’s Pollinator Park this Wednesday, after finishing an area along the old railway line (pictured above) and completing a section by the fishery over the last few weeks. But our task is far from over! Throughout autumn and winter we will be mowing much larger areas such as the Burleigh meadow, and wetter places like Carsehall Bog (this will be done with the help of contractors, and low impact machines like the Softrak). It’s all done with the same goal in mind – to keep the nutrients levels down, stalling succession and allowing for a higher diversity of plantlife.

The tricky thing with blogs is that you can accidentally find yourself repeating entire explainations when a simple link and click will do. So, in true Blue Peter fashion, if you would like to learn more in depth on meadow meanagement, here’s one I made earlier!

We’ve also been taking advantage of our neighbours over at RSPB Loch Leven, by getting the chance to swap machines and have a play about get some other management tasks completed. They’ve gotten some good use out of our Softrak across the more sensitive site areas, and we borrowed their seed collector to (no need to guess here) collect seeds. It’s a nifty little machine we can hitch onto the Polaris with brushes on the underside, the height of which we can alter depending on the vegetation growth. These rotate super fast to collect seeds which are then held in the container at the back. We were aiming mostly for yellow rattle seeds from pollinator park (before we mowed it), and the collector certainly didn’t disappoint!

We are collecting and mowing late enough into the season that plenty of yellow rattle seeds will have naturally dispersed, helping to feed and continue our already established meadows for next year. But it wasn’t quite all gone, leaving plenty enough for us to collect and later spread across some new areas on the reserve. We’re particularly keen to do some trial patches along some of the less diverse stretches of the Heritage Trail – providing patches of pollinator friendly habitat and making for a bit of a nicer visitor experience than grasses, thistles and nettles.We don’t want to replace all of this though, as variety is best and plenty of species do make use of these plants – such as goldfinches feeding on thistle seeds and various moth and butterfly species laying their eggs on nettles.

Strimming patches along the trail for seeding

Speaking of feeding on things, bramble season has well and truly hit Kinross! Many species will be enjoying juicy blackberries at this time of year, humans included, and I can’t wait to get out for a bit of responsible foraging this weekend. I just need to decide what will they be turned into – crumbles, pies, jam, or maybe an infused beverage or two…

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Autumns approach

We are rapidly descending into Autumn, sorry summer lovers….on this date in 2019 I had my first flock of Pink-footed Geese flying high over Montrose. We will soon be graced by their presence in the next fortnight! Our resident population of Greylag Geese have been feeding in the freshly cut stubble fields around the loch.

Alert Greylag Geese, feeding 10m from the trail
Flying back to the loch to roost after having a feed

I spotted something unusual while I was scanning the Greylag flock for rings that looked rather out of place….

A Ruddy Shelduck!

We have had two Ruddy Shelduck and a Cape Shelduck on the loch the last few months, this Ruddy Shelduck has been associating with the Greylags and decided to follow them to the stubble fields! The Ruddy and Cape Shelduck have more than likely come from a captive population – these birds are popular amongst wildfowl collectors and will have escaped captivity and our now mingling with wild birds. Cape Shelduck are from South Africa and Ruddy Shelduck are from Asia – there is now a naturalised population of breeding Ruddy Shelduck in Europe that have stemmed from escapee birds.

We are seeing large numbers of Sand Martin and Swallow over the Loch. These are young birds and adults feeding up and preparing for their migration south to Africa. Worth taking a walk down to the loch in the evening and taking in these wonderful sights as they will soon be gone! I saw a Swift on the 29th August, and I have got a feeling that will be my last one!

Clouds of Sand Martin

Butterflies are becoming scarcer on the wing, but one species you can rely on to show well throughout Autumn is the Red Admiral, I had this stunning individual feeding up on the Knapweed this week.

Stunning Speciman!

Now that we are into the Autumn months, our local access guidance has changed and we now request there is no water-borne access on the loch. This is to protect the large number of wintering wildfowl that use the loch throughout the winter. This week we completed our fort-nightly WeBS counts and recorded 15,000 birds on the loch!

Loch Leven National Nature Reserve is internationally important for it’s populations of wintering wildfowl. It is designated as one of the most important wetlands on earth. Having such large numbers of birds on the loch (up to 80,000 at peak) is a massive privilege. We need to conserve these large numbers by minimising disturbance – these wintering birds are very susceptible to disturbance and this is why we prevent access on the water throughout the winter months.

Check the raft of ducks and swans in the background – a bird counters view.

On the above section alone in this weeks count we had; 8500 Tufted Duck, 2000 Coot, 2000 Teal, 350 Pochard, 400 Mute Swan and much more. Disturbance to this number of birds would be extremely detrimental!

We thank you for your continued co-operation and responsible access at Loch Leven, together we can help conserve the populations of threatened and vulnerable wetland birds and wildlife!

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St Serfs – the quiet time

Now the gulls have left St Serfs falls quiet. But there is plenty of evidence that birds have been present.

Birds-foot Trefoil grows through the trampled goose droppings

There is plenty of gull and swan feathers on the island

Greylag Geese have also dropped their feathers on St Serfs.

A Marsh Harrier has been roosting in the reedbed on St Serfs

But the Marsh Harrier may not be roosting there long at this rate as the coot destroy the reed bed. I’ve not yet worked out the reason why.

There is still a brood of tiny Mute Swans off St Serfs. This pair must have failed early on and are now having another attempt.

This Common Hawker had just emerged and was pumping up its wings. It needed a bit more sunlight to fully charge.

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Em-poo-wering conversations?

I love summer. I love how the smell of sun cream transports me back to childhood holidays, the smell of a BBQ on an evening so light it lasts well into the early hours, and the smell of wildflowers blooming across the landscape. But though it pains me to admit it, I’m so ready for autumn. Because this summer has been a really smelly one.

Before I delve into the why, let me first add a disclaimer: it’s less focused on the magical changing nature of autumn, and more on a couple of less pleasant issues to which the title of this blog alludes. If you would like to continue your day without any existential emotions or icky tummy churns, skip ahead to some nice nature photos at the end.*

So now you have been warned, onto the why. Since a picture often says what a thousand words can’t, I thought I would show you a snippet of the ‘issues’ our team has been dealing with this summer:

This is a compilation of just some of the ‘presents’ that campers at Loch Leven NNR have left us, and which, to the frustration of many, we have relatively little ability to prevent. Now presumably you, good reader, are not the type to poo on or next to paths, or indeed anywhere outdoors, without a trowel and/or dog bag in hand. But we have to start a wider conversation somewhere.

If you had told a younger me that, as a reserve ranger, I would find myself showing an external waste disposal company exactly where to find various piles of human poo, I would probably have been as disgusted and gobsmacked as many people are when I mention it to them for the first time. And don’t get me wrong, I’m still as grossed out as the next person. But I’m not even a little bit surprised anymore.

This is just a small window into the various realities of visitor management that reserve staff and rangers deal with, and that we are facing ever more frequently during summer. *It’s part of the job that I think a lot of people, even in the wider sector, would rather not think about, or struggle to comprehend in quite the same way compared to those who are dealing with it on the ground day after day. And it comes across in the conversations I often find myself having:

“It’s still better than working in an office though!”
“But it must beat sitting on a computer all day, right?”
“At least the majority of people are behaving themselves.”

Last week, a colleague and fellow reserve worker at Muir of Dinnet NNR wrote a particularly eloquent blog detailing similar issues. I strive for the ability to discuss these topics in such a compelling manner. But frankly, I’m tired and disillusioned. And it feels disingenuous to – as we often feel we must – end this conversation on the positive note that most people out there are doing the right thing. Of course most of them – of you – are. But is the bar really be so low that, to see the summer season through, we must derive our positivity from people…putting stuff in the bin?

Nevertheless, I am going to put a productive spin on this pile of poo emoji, even if it’s a small thing. All of this frustration has awakened in me the ability to put aside any worries of possible embarrassment during conversations with Joe Public once and for all. There’s no skirting around the skid marks, no eluding to the existence of a poo fairy. Simply, the blunt question of how they plan on going to the toilet and a reminder that they are looking right at the person who will be dealing with the aftermath.

And, as always, I will be forever thankful to be surrounded by colleagues who possess the admirable ability to come in every day, despite the frustations, with a smile on their faces and a determination to continue looking after our beautiful outdoor spaces.

Now, as promised, some nice nature stuff.

Burleigh Sands on a beautiful summer day

The weather has been objectively stunning, and the colours across the reserve a vibrant combination of blues and greens soaking up all the rays. Even when the weather finally turned, the reserve almost had a romantic black and white imagery to it. Enhanced all the more by the fact our wildfowl absolutely love it, giving us some great view of this years young slowly getting closer to adulthood.

Swans and cygnets feeding by the Boathouse pier

We’ve also been running regular moth traps overnight – a group of animals I have loved getting to better grips with. These were all caught just outside our workshop, highlighting the incredible diversity of life that is right on our doorsteps!

And our volunteers are definitely glad to see the back end of the balsam season. This week we started our mowing and bailing along the old railway section of the Heritager Trail, heading towards the RSPB. The weather was warm without being too hot for the quite physically demanding task of raking all the cuttings into piles and slowly feeding them into our rather temperamental little bailer. We’ll be popping up across the reserve managing the areas not quite large enough for the Softrak, stay tuned for some more in-depth understanding of meadows as the weeks continue!

Our volunteers (and me!) hard at work – photo taken by our volunteer Susan Leslie
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The battle of two seasons

As evidenced by the last Loch Leven blog I wrote here, I love everything the summer season brings. However, as it’s now August there’s already some mention of the A word around the office…

And whilst I’m not ready to completely give up on summer just yet, I am starting to think ahead to the sounds of winking pinkies and honking whoopers (Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans that is). There’s something special about this reserve at any time of year, but autumn is a great time to visit. I’m noticing some aspects of Loch Leven life that make me think we’re already in autumn, and some that convince me summer is still very much happening. It’s the battle of the seasons and here are the star players…


As I’m writing this we are in the middle of a heatwave with regular temperatures this week well above 20C, and it definitely feels like summer. However, its also been one of the windiest years yet and there are days where the wind chill and cloud cover makes me feel like it’s already autumn. Realistically though I can’t say its autumn in 25 degree heat in Scotland so summer wins this round.

Don’t be deceived by the clouds, it was very very hot this day.


The true sign of autumn in the plant world for me (and I’m sure for many others) is watching as leaves turn to brown and fall to the ground. As everything still looks green and lush and our wildflower meadows are still rich with end-of-the-season flowers, I’d say we’re still hanging on to summer.

A Six-spot Burnet moth enjoying the Field Scabious in Pollinator Park

However, some believe that certain flowers resemble the start of autumn. For example, Grass of Parnassus is starting to bloom at Findatie. A gorgeous bright white flower with green stripes, you may also know of this flower as Bog star. However, the Swedish name Slatterblomma roughly translates to hay-making flower, and was the signal to bring in the harvest. Yes, this flower is a sign of autumn!

Grass of Parnassus – not actually a grass at all!


Cygnets can still be regularly spotted around the reserve – they are growing very fast and are looking very swan-like now. They are always a joy to watch!

The Green Isle cygnets – don’t worry there are still 7!

There are still good numbers of Hirundines over the loch – a great place to spot them is over Burleigh beach. We’re still seeing a few Swifts as well, but it won’t be long until they’re both back home to Africa.

So long Swifts.

Although we won’t have a true up-to-date idea of wildfowl and wader numbers until our WeBS count next week, numbers of wildfowl are sure to be increasing on the loch and we are already spotting an increase in waders such as Black-tailed Godwits and Lapwing. A true sign of autumn starting!

We are still in the breeding season which is why we ask for all water borne access users to stay away from the loch’s edge and islands, however from September we will be asking for no water access on the loch at all to protect our large numbers of wintering wildfowl.


It’s not quite autumn for the insects yet though. We still have good butterfly numbers including fresh looking Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, and dragonflies, damselflies, bees and hoverflies are still buzzing around.

It’s also peak season for our Purple Hairstreak butterflies. This colony was found last year as a very exciting new species for the reserve (see Simon’s blog from last year here). They are an often underrepresented species as they are a bit of a strange one, having only coming out in the evening and flitting about the tops of oak trees. Despite their name, they are not technically very purple and only show a flash of purple when the light hits their upperwing – you may need to look closely to see that in my photo here!

This one was showing well enough for me to snap a photo – can you spot the purple?

They will still be out for a few weeks now so there’s still time to make your way to the oaks at the Leven Bridge after 5pm to spot them.

We’ve also been regularly setting our office moth trap overnight. Although I don’t know enough about moths to make a judgement on whether the species we’re getting are indicative of summer or autumn, according to Jeremy the presence of moths such as Rosy Rustic or Centre-barred Sallow in the moth trap are a true sign of autumn, and we’ve been getting a few of these in our trap! We have over 1500 moth species in Scotland so it’s been a great experience seeing even a few of those species.

Monday was an exciting day for me as not only did we catch a Large Elephant Hawkmoth in the trap, that afternoon Ian and I came across a Large Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar on the trail. Adult and caterpillar in the same day? Very rare!

So… bringing it back to the big question – is it still summer or are we getting into autumn? I’ll let you decide – either way it’s a great time to be at Loch Leven!

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Events and Invertebrates

There’s lots been going on this week on the NNR.

The Purple Hairstreak walk was a great success. Even though it was a little windy the group saw nearly 30 butterflies flying up in the canopy.

Julies picture which is a typical view of the species high in the canopy of the old Oak trees at Levenmouth. Many thanks to Chris and Geoff for leading the event.

The Osprey watch was a success even though it had to be curtailed 45 minutes early due to bad weather. There is another Osprey watch on the 19th August at Burleigh between 6 and 8pm.

We have been trapping moths again down at Loch Leven We caught many of the usual suspect but these Shuttle-shaped Darts were a surprise. They are scarce in Scotland and only really seen along the coast.

This Coxcombe Prominent was a nice to catch. They have two generations in a year. This was one of the second batch.

This isn’t actually a Bumblebee. It’s Volucella bombylans a bee mimic that lays its eggs in Bumblebee and Wasp nests where the Larvae feed on detritus created by the insects.

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The Willows of Loch Leven

Willows (Salix spp.) are a wonderful genus. They blur the line between shrub and tree and are understandably overlooked, seemingly becoming more taxonomically complex the more you begin to study them. In Scotland we have approximately 14 native willow species (depending on your biological persuasion). They never grow very tall, the smallest being the dwarf willow (S. herbacea), one of the world’s smallest woody plants at sometimes just a single centimetre high. Despite this, they are probably the most crucial tree at Loch Leven as they can provide vital nesting material, nesting grounds, nursery habitat and food sources for most of our resident waterfowl or passerines as well as bountiful food source for invertebrates – pollinators in particular.

The strip of willow that fringes the water’s edge is known as ‘carr’ and represents a relatively mature stage in the succession of the habitat, where the water-tolerant trees are partly submerged – a bit like a temperate mangrove swamp! Willows are incredibly fast-growing and new shoots can easily put out over a metre of growth in a year. This fecundity can get in the way when trying to manage other lochside habitats like fens or heath, meaning that their removal is often on the menu for our practical volunteer tasks. The quick growth also means that the trunks and branches are not particularly strong and willows are very often the first casualties in high winds, often blocking our paths.

Catkins are something that confuse many (the author included). What are they? They are simply the flowers of the tree, but they are arranged in a cluster, on a spike, with little or no petals. In willows they are pollinated by insects and individual trees have either male or female flowers (dioecious) which look different. Put painfully unscientifically, male willow catkins are yellow and fluffy and female willow catkins are green and spiky. Catkins are some of the first considerable nectar/pollen sources for the year, usually seen between April and May. Our early-season insect transects involve looking up to the canopy to see what bees, butterflies and other pollinators are making use of them.

At Loch Leven we regularly see 3 native willows (along with 2 regularly seen non-native species, 3 rarer species and mysterious records of 2 even rarer species – and that doesn’t include the hybrids or sub-species – so nice and simple then!) Take a look at this blog for a good introduction to some of our trees, willows included. Below is a basic, descriptive list of what willows you can expect to find on the reserve and how to identify them. For similar species, it is usually worth familiarising yourself with at least 3-4 specific characteristics to separate them. Get your cup of tea ready, reading glasses on and notepad out – this lot are not for the faint of heart!

Goat Willow (S. caprea)

  • Alternative names: Pussy Willow, Great Sallow
  • Sub-species: S. caprea caprea, S. caprea sphacelata
  • Similar species: Grey Willow, Eared Willow
  • Height: usually 8-10m
  • Leaves: Green, 3-12cm long x 2-8cm wide

Goat willow is the most common willow species you’re likely to come across on the reserve but can look incredibly similar to grey willow. It can grow further away from water than grey and usually grows taller. Its leaves are generally also more oval-shaped and the veins on the upper side are a little bit deeper. There are usually no stipules (mini-leaves growing from the base of the leaf stem). The catkins flower earlier than all our other willows here; indeed, it is one of the northern hemisphere’s earliest flowering plants. It can be easily seen all over the reserve, such as between Findatie and Levenmouth.

Grey Willow (S. cinerea)

  • Alternative names: Common Sallow
  • Sub-species: S. cinerea cinerea, S. cinerea oleifolia
  • Similar species: Goat Willow, Eared Willow
  • Height: usually 4-15m
  • Leaves: Green, 2-9cm long x 1-3cm wide

Grey willow prefers water margins and doesn’t usually grow as tall as goat. The leaves are a little bit smaller, more elongated, less deeply-veined and have stipules at the base of the stems. The bark also grows a bit darker and isn’t as deeply furrowed. It can be easily seen all over the reserve, such as near Kinross Pier.

Eared Willow (S. aurita)

  • Similar species: Goat Willow, Grey Willow
  • Height: usually 1-2.5m
  • Leaves: Pale-green/grey, 2.5-5cm long

Eared willow is the least common of the regularly-seen willows on the reserve and is more distinct. It is a much smaller species, more like a large shrub, and often has browny-red petioles (what joins the leaf to the stem). The leaves are wrinkly at the edges and have sunken veins. It is ‘eared’ because it has regular kidney-shaped stipules growing up the petioles. A good example can be seen in Mary’s Knowe.

White Willow (S. alba)

  • Similar species: Common Osier, Purple Willow
  • Height: usually 10-30m
  • Leaves: Green/pale-green, 5-10cm long x 0.5-1.5cm wide

This is one of two non-native willows, technically an ‘archaeophyte’ (a species introduced in ancient times – usually from around 4500 B.C.-1500 A.D.). It is by far our tallest willow and can be seen shimmering in the wind from far away. Fine hairs on the leaves give its underside an almost white appearance and its bark becomes very furrowed as it ages. It can be seen all around the loch; look out for it near the North Queich bridge.

Common Osier (S. viminalis)

  • Alternative names: Basket Willow
  • Similar species: White Willow
  • Sub-species: Many
  • Height: usually 3-10m
  • Leaves: Dark-green, 10-25cm long x 0.5-2cm wide

The second of our non-native willows; also an archaeophyte. Its very long, slender leaves allow it to be confused with white willow, but these are noticeably longer and non-serrated (unlike white) on inspection. The leaf surface is also noticeably rougher. It has been used all over Europe for centuries to weave baskets. It grows more on the western side of the loch; you can see it growing at Kirkgate Park.

Bay Willow (S. pentandra)

  • Similar species: Tea-leaved Willow, Dark-leaved Willow
  • Height: usually 14-18m
  • Leaves: Dark-green, 5-12cm long x 2-5cm wide

The first of our rarer willows, it is named for its similarity to the Bay Tree (a kind of Laurel). It grows in wet, boggy areas and has glossy leaves that sport finely-serrated margins (edges) – these look incredibly similar to tea-leaved and dark-leaved willow which are both much less common and not described here. It is visibly an excellent tree for pollinators and has a beautiful scent that lingers for much of the summer season. A good place to see it is at Burleigh Sands.

Purple Willow (S. purpurea)

  • Similar species: White Willow
  • Height: usually 1-3m
  • Leaves: Light-green, 2-8cm long x 0.3-1cm wide

Another rare willow, this smaller species has an introduced and native range so inseparably mixed that the entire population is now classed as native. The leaves can appear almost blue and can be distinguished from white willow by the glabrous (hairless) leaves which are slightly serrated near the tip. One can be seen in the woodland at Findatie.

Creeping Willow (S. repens)

  • Similar species: Many
  • Sub-species: Many
  • Height: usually 0.5-1.5m
  • Leaves: Light-green/dark-green/grey, up to 4cm long

The final rarer willow covered here. This short, mat-forming plant is highly polymorphic (can appear very different depending on habitat and location) so is hard to categorize. The underside of the leaves are very silky in appearance and touch. You are unlikely to come across it here without knowing where to look. It can be sporadically seen on our neighbour, RSPB’s, side of the reserve.

Additional to everything just mentioned, many willows will also readily hybridize with each other, further complicating an already complicated taxon, often stumping even expert botanists!

Hopefully this little guide can come in handy if you are looking to improve your Salix knowledge – we see them every day and yet they can be entirely overlooked. There are few places in lowland Scotland better suited to practise than Loch Leven, so spare the willows a minute the next time you find yourself on the reserve!

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