Looking closer at the common things

We are living in strange times and for most of us life has changed beyond recognition. Nature can provide welcome solace during these troubling days and I find it especially reassuring to see the constancy of natural cycles while everything else shifts around us. Spring is bursting forth with all its usual vigour and our staff and volunteers have been in touch via social media with sights of peacock and comma butterflies, buff-tailed bumblebee queens, and coltsfoot and lesser celandine in flower.

Lesser Celandine. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Yet this appreciation of nature must be balanced with our duty to protect each other from the spread of coronavirus, by avoiding contact with all outside our household. This means taking a closer look at the nature in our immediate surroundings: in your own garden if you are lucky enough to have one or in your local park or nature reserve while taking your daily exercise. For the staff at Loch Leven NNR, this means working on a nature reserve now involves sitting at a desk at home. I don’t live close enough to Loch Leven to visit for exercise and I’ve not been on the reserve since the lockdown was announced last Monday.

Loch Leven is feeling very far away right now. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

As such, my blog posts are going to have to deviate from usual topics like wildlife sightings and the work we have been doing on the reserve. Instead, I’m going to go into a bit more depth about what makes Loch Leven such a special place in terms of conservation. Loch Leven is rightly famous for its wintering wildfowl and I wrote a blog post about our pink-footed geese back in November. These and other wintering birds will now be returning to their breeding grounds as far away as Iceland. But did you know that come spring and summer, Loch Leven is home to more breeding ducks than anywhere else in inland Europe? This makes the loch a vital resource for wildlife throughout the seasons.

Bye pinkies, see you in the autumn. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Loch Leven is a particularly important breeding site for tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula). Males of this species are particularly dapper fellows with a glossy black back, white flanks, and their distinctive crest at the back of the head. Females are plainer and have brown flanks, but in the same overall pattern as the male. Both sexes have bright yellow eyes and a blue-grey bill with a black tip. Tufted ducks are diving ducks and they often dive with a noticeable jump to go in search of food on the bottom of the loch. Their diet is varied and will include insects, crustaceans and plants like pondweed and sedges.

Male tufted duck. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Tufted ducks breed on shallow inland lochs and avoid deep water and so Loch Leven, which has an average depth of only around 4 metres, provides the ideal habitat. Most of the tufted ducks nest on St Serf’s island, the largest island in the loch, where they are safer from predators. In 2018, there were estimated to be 171 tufted duck nests on the island. Females begin nesting in May and build nests from reeds, grasses and rushes, in areas of good cover and close to water. They will have one brood and lay 8-11 eggs which hatch after around 25 days. The young grow up fast and will be able to fly 45 days after hatching.

Tufted duck nest on St Serf’s island, Loch Leven National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Loch Leven is also a very important site for tufted ducks after breeding and our numbers swell in September and October, as you can see in the graph below. This is because large numbers of ducks who have bred elsewhere will arrive here to moult in the open water, where strength in numbers helps reduce predation in this vulnerable time. Some will then go on to winter further south, but we’ll also get more northerly birds that bred in northern Europe or Iceland, meaning numbers remain high over winter. They will often be in large flocks quite far from the shore, only really appreciated using a telescope!

Average tufted duck count at Loch Leven by month for data from 2015-2019. Numbers increase after the breeding season when birds arrive to moult on the loch. Counts may be artifically low during the breeding season when ducks are nesting and more hidden.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Wet wet wet

Wow, it’s been wet lately. Reserve manager Neil and reserve officer Jeremy can’t remember the water level ever being this high. Our new boardwalk at the pier is usually a good two feet above ground, but has been submerged in water with waves washing over it. All this means that getting round the path is a challenge and more than one of us has filled a welly with water, a very unpleasant feeling!

While we were on St Serf’s Island, we found dozens of ruby tiger moth caterpillars in the water or clinging to the few emerging bits of vegetation in a heavily flooded area. Many of the ones in the water appeared dead, but would miraculously revive when we lifted them out and helped them warm up. We collected up any that we found and moved them to drier land, but we do wonder if they’d have managed to survive without our help by climbing up the tall rushes sticking out the water.

On a day of more settled weather we were able to carry out the process of hedge laying on two hedges at Burleigh car park. Hedge laying is a traditional countryside skill that has been used for centuries to create livestock proof hedges, with many different regional styles which reflected local conditions and the type of stock. The technique involves cutting into the stem of the trees near the base to leave a thin hinge, then placing them on their sides along the row. The branches of the laid trees are woven together to hold them in place. It certainly feels brutal, but the trees will survive and new growth from the cut stem and laid branches will rejuvenate the hedge. The thick, dense structure it produces is stock proof, but also happens to be particularly great for wildlife.

Hedges are incredibly valuable for wildlife, providing a substitute for the woodland which once covered most of the country. Hedgerows can host a great diversity of species in a relatively small space and mimic woodland edge which is a habitat particularly rich in wildlife. They provide shelter, breeding sites and foraging opportunities for all sorts of creatures including insects, birds, bats and (obviously) hedgehogs. In addition, hedges create vital corridors for wildlife to move through the landscape between patches of quality habitat.

Hedging is an ancient practice in Britain and archaeological evidence suggests hedgerows were present as far back as the Roman period and possibly even the Bronze Age. Hedges served many purposes including providing firewood and coppice timber, shelter from the elements, and food such as nuts and berries. Hedging had its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of the enclosure movement, when common land was divided up into parcels of private lands and hedges were increasingly planted along boundary lines. However, agricultural intensification in the 1970s and 1980s led to a staggering loss of hedgerows to make space for bigger crops and large machines, with disastrous consequences for wildlife. We therefore regularly create new hedges and manage old ones on the reserve to help reverse this decline.

Jeremy tests the strength of our newly laid hedge

Finally, I’ve been spotting kestrels almost daily on the reserve. There is one that regularly hunts near our office at the pier. I was lucky enough to spot it land in a tree when I had a telescope on me for our biweekly survey of birds on the loch. I got a great view of this handsome bird in the scope and was able to share it with several passers-by. So as you walk around the trail don’t forget to keep alert and look to the sky to see if you can spot a kestrel too. They are easy to identify because they are the only bird of prey that hovers in one place, scouring the ground for something to eat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You’ll get round, but it’s not easy!

P1270068

We never close the trail at Loch Leven. After every storm we are out checking for dangerous trees and blockages. Unfortunately a lot of the trail is built on reclaimed land and there are bits under water. The worst bits are round Levenmouth and Classlochie. There are large puddles elsewhere. Make sure you have your wellingtons on.

P1270059

P1270045

P1270052

Last weeks gang of Waxwings at the school did not remain throughout unfortunately. Here are some shots of them feeding on Guelder Rose.

P1270064

P1270063

There are Crossbills present at the moment. They are early breeders and there have been some reports of juveniles fledged already.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Back to the depths of winter

P1260968

Snow has dominated this week.

P1260995

The Lomonds actually look like big mountains when they are covered in snow.

P1260965

This looks like a pleasant wintry scene but it was exceptionally cold while out on the Polaris checking to see if any trees are down.

P1270029

All the new buds on the Hawthorne trees didn’t last long

P1260976

Bullfinches are at their most obvious this time of year. There are many around the trail. This one was in good light outside the office feeding on the hawthorne buds.

P1260984

Chaffinches were still singing intermittently.  There is a huge flock of winter finches and buntings along the south shore.

P1270014

There are lots of Long-tailed Tits buzzing around right now. Last week it looked like many had left their extended family groups to seek nesting spots but after the spell of bad weather they are back keeping safe in numbers.

P1260816

Another bird that loosely join the Tit flocks is Treecreeper. This tiny bird can be difficult to see but is easy to detect with it’s high pitched calls.

P1270018

The Little Egrets are still around the reserve. Five were roosting along the south shore. It appears the Grey Herons are sitting tight on eggs right now.

P1270034.JPG

P1260860

There is a nice raft of Pochard out on the reserve. We used to see flocks of over 5000 here but their numbers have slowly decreased over the years. We still just about manage to get four figure counts.

P1270029

All the new buds on the Hawthorne trees didn’t last long as the weather slips back to the depths of winter. 

Late edit – There were five Waxwings spotted by Chris at Kinross High School this  Friday afternoon. Pictures next week.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Constant change

P1260963

The weather has been highly variable over the last couple of weeks. Last week the cold freezing fog gave way to spectacular bight sunshine.

P1260964

This shroud of fog continued into throughout the day on the south and east shore.

P1260928

The good weather triggered singing Skylarks on territory and possibly more suprising was a Redd Bunting in song. Dunnocks, Collard Doves and various Tit species have been singing from the start of the year.

P1260927

We’ve even noticing a bit of bird migration. These Pied Wagtails are passing through. They are roosting in the reed beds.

P1260897

There are also plenty of Song Thrushes around too. They like feeding in the short cropped grass around the trail. Some are quite tame.

P1260906

There is also evidence of early flowering plants. I cannot find any Orchids yet but these Bluebells will be flowering in 6 weeks time.

P1260940

Chris and I were removing tree guards and found a family of Wood mice living in one of them.

P1260948

We’re getting a few species on our Squirrel monitoring feeder. This Coal tit looked smart as it landed on the nuts. We popped a few apples on the feeding station today to give the other local birds a little boost during the next couple of difficult days of weather.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An hour for wetlands?

Sunday is World Wetlands Day, and I was sitting at my desk listening to the rain on the window and started thinking about how I could possibly sell the benefits of all the water that is coming down from the sky at the moment. Writing a blog there and then on the benefits of wetlands would have been easily done. But my back was sore, I was fed up with emails and I wanted out, so what else could I do?

One hour isn’t long to take out your day so I thought I’d head out for less than an hour and focus on the smaller wetlands I could explore in that brief time, those habitats that at a world renowned site like Loch Leven can so often play second fiddle to the 1500ha of open water and the 35,000 + waterfowl that call it home each winter.

Burleigh as one of the busier access points to the reserve seemed like a good place to start. I donned waterproofs and prepared to soak up the experience.  Not a hundred yards from the car park and the view out onto loch opened up before me and today it was looking a bleak and moody place but somehow enticing.

However turning around to the angry alarm calls of a great tit was another wetland found in abundance around the loch. Much of the periphery of the loch was once underwater before the sluices were installed in the 1830’s, as a result even in the driest summers the water table is still high and during the winter it will over top your wellies easily. This is where willow trees thrive and the scarce Bay willow is founder among the commoner species.

willow wet.JPG

The tangle of branches draped with moss and lichen are often home to winter flocks of tits including those tiny bundles of feather – the long tailed tit, although I had to walk on further before I first heard their distinctive contact call.

willow scrub

Tidy these areas are not, but I love their chaotic, unkempt nature and it is this that makes them great for biodiversity, dead wood, split and fracture branches all add to the attraction for so many species. The draining of so much of our countryside has made these habitats uncommon and often unwelcome in our modern world but I hope we’ll see a resurgence in them in future as humans realize their many benefits.

Next stop for me was the ponds at Burleigh the vegetation which surrounds them in the summer means they can be easy to miss but at this time their surface is patrolled by damsel and dragonflies, and stickleback patrol the depths.

Pond.JPG

Next on my route was the North Quiech, one of the larger rivers running into the loch its a great place to watch for Kingfisher and otters are also occasionally seen here. Often the watercourses flowing into Loch Leven  bring with them the challenges of pollution and invasive species. Having a wooded (riparian) zone beside the watercourse and lots of emergent vegetation can act to naturally filter water before it gets into the river and we have created special reed beds in some areas around the trail just to act as natural nutrient filters but of course they too have benefits for wildlife.

River.JPG

Once I’d crossed the bridge I walked on to Mary’s Gate, this area is another expanse of wetland unsuccessfully reclaimed for agriculture in the 1830’s.  The linear nature of ancient ditches are still visible at the site. It still remains wet all year and the plant community here is representative of constantly wet conditions which help lock up carbon and slow down the flow of water through our landscape reducing the impacts of flooding. Meadow sweet, holy grass and marsh marigold all bring there own beauty and interest for the botanist to this part of the reserve. At the same time its home all year round to reed bunting and in summer warblers nest in the cover of the reeds and willows.

Wet amnd willow.JPG

Now I did see plenty of wildlife in my quick wander, grey heron battling to fly in the high winds, tufted duck, goldeneye, mallard and teal out among the white horses driven by the winds which thundered across the loch and reed bunting being buffeted from their tree top perches. Roe deer scarpered off into the undergrowth just as I got close enough to  reach for the camera and none of it was really being helpful when it came to posing for a photo. No wetland wildlife photos from today then I thought, however just as I got back to the car park a robin clearly decided it wanted in on the wetland action and began pecking away on the edge of one of the small burns running into the loch. Being about the worlds worst wildlife photographer I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity like this so here’s my ‘wetland bird’ shot.

 

Robin.JPG

Of course please make sure you read all the blogs and articles that there will be on social media this weekend about the benefits of wildlife for climate change, biodiversity and all the rest because to us as a race they really are vital , but also please take time out to go and really try to experience a wetland. It doesn’t have to be a internationally important one but just go and explore get out there and I hope like me you’ll feel all the better for it when you return.

reed.JPG

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Waxwings are back

I had something to post this lunchtime so I decided to walk down to the post box. I’d been eying up the remaining berries on an ornamental Rowan Tree at the end of Burns Begg Street recently. I was surprised that there were still berries on it. I’ve checked the tree every day and finally there were some Waxwings on it. Also there were 4 Bullfinch adding yet more colour. I shall return this week with the camera for more shots.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Winter wildlife

P1260808

There are many squirrels around the reserve at the moment. We use the feeder outside the office to monitor squirrels locally. We had two on one day last week.

P1260704

Other wildlife in the car park includes this lovely male Kestrel that has been feeding in the long grass during the afternoon. There must be plenty of rodents scurrying about.

P1260676

Scarlet Elfcap fruiting bodies are appearing around the trail. It’s a sign of spring. European folklore has it that wood elves drank morning dew from the cups. It’s a good late winter food source for rodents and slugs. It’s also a photogenic species.

P1260690

Maybe this year we will see Ravens nesting on the reserve. There are very vocal birds around at the moment. They will be nest building already as they are early breeders.

P1260685

The unseasonable  weather is producing the odd surprise. This Peacock Butterfly was on the wing at Mary’s Knowe last Wednesday on the sunniest of days.

P1260701

Up to a dozen bats have been on the wing. This day flyer was along the golf course last week. It appeared to be catching plenty of insects but is also an easy target for a Sparrowhawk!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Can cutting down trees ever be good for nature?

Cutting down trees is probably a far cry from what most people would think of as nature conservation, especially when it comes to native species. Yet we’ve recently been putting the chainsaws to good use and removing willows in several locations across the reserve. Indeed, winter is the prime time to cut back trees and shrubs before the madness of spring begins and animals start to breed. Like many people I have a real love of trees and felling them for conservation certainly feels strange. However, it helps when the logic behind it which I will try to set out below (although it’s a complex topic open to much debate – comments welcome below!).

Chris ready to go with the chainsaw

The key concept to understand is that of ecological succession. This is the natural process by which habitats change over time, starting with pioneer plants and animals, then developing through increasing complexity towards a stable climax community. In Britain, this typically involves moving from open habitats like grassland or heath, via scrub and young shrubby woodland, towards a climax community of mature closed-canopy woodland. There is no doubt there was far more closed-canopy woodland before humans started to significantly modify the landscape, though recent theories challenge the traditional view that forests would have carpeted nearly the entire country. This alternative view suggests that wild herbivores, like the extinct aurochs, would have held back succession and kept many areas more open to create a savannah-like ‘wood pasture’.

Woodland at Loch Leven NNR © George Logan/SNH

In fully-functioning natural ecosystems the process of succession is restarted or set back by various types of disturbance. This includes the effects of herbivores such as grazing, browsing and trampling, as well as physical events like storms, windthrow, drought, landslides and wildfires. These large-scale natural processes tend not to operate normally in the highly modified landscapes we have created. The thing is, habitats in early or intermediate stages of succession can often be highly important for a wide range of wildlife. As such, we can try to mimic natural disturbance and remove vegetation using four main techniques: cutting, burning, grazing with domestic livestock, and soil disturbance like ploughing or removal of topsoil.

Wildflower meadow to benefit pollinators at the SNH office in Battleby ©Lorne Gill/SNH. Without annual mowing this habitat would become colonised by trees and eventually become woodland.

This is where cutting trees comes in. Often we are removing trees to preserve existing areas of open, early successional habitats. In a more natural ecosystem these open areas may be maintained by wild herbivores, or one area may develop into woodland while a new open area pops up elsewhere due to a large disturbance event. Selective cutting of trees can also allow young regrowth creating a varied structure in woodlands which supports more species. Again, in natural woodland this variety in structure would be created by (you guessed it…) disturbance. Lately, we’ve been cutting back willows for a number of reasons: to maintain our open wildflower meadows, to open up the structure in areas of densely planted woodland, and to let more light through to ponds to benefit invertebrates. Usually we will leave the deadwood on site which in time benefits a whole host of organisms that live off decaying matter.

Here we have opened up the environment around the pond, retaining some trees while also letting in more sunlight. Come summer damselflies and dragonflies will hunt over the surface of the water.

This all fits into another debate in conservation about our approach to management. Should we continue this sort of more intensive management on specific sites or should we be trying to restore natural processes then stepping back? My personal opinion is that it is all a matter of scale. On relatively small sites like Loch Leven NNR, which is embedded in an agricultural landscape, then targeted management that creates a diversity of habitats will benefit the most species. Elsewhere, when a site is a small surviving fragment of a rare type of habitat then that may be worth preserving. Still, where resources and space allow we should absolutely allow natural processes to operate across large tracts of land and create the complexity of life that nature does best.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

All about the pinks

We’ve been having frosty mornings here and it’s beginning to feel like winter has come early. Ice is forming on the loch, trees have dropped most of their leaves, and the office kettle has seen its use increase dramatically!

This means we are now well into the autumn migration season, in which birds make epic journeys from their breeding grounds further north to benefit from our (relatively!) mild winters. Loch Leven is particularly famous for the large numbers of pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) it supports at this time of year and this is one of the reasons it is designated as a protected area.

Pink-footed (Anser brachyrhynchus) geese at Loch Leven NNR. October 2019. Lorne Gill/SNH.

Our pink-footed geese breed in remote areas of Iceland and Greenland during the brief Arctic summer. Practically the entire Iceland/Greenland population of pink-footed geese overwinter in the UK, while a smaller population breeds in Svalbard and spends the winter in the Low Countries and Denmark. The geese moult in open water for around 25 days after breeding, replacing their feathers ready for the journey south. They then wait for the right weather conditions before making the dash across the North Atlantic. They can reach the Faroe Islands in around 6 hours and often rest for a day before completing the journey to our shores. Huge numbers can be seen arriving each day in their characteristic V-shaped skeins.

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

Around 360,000 pink-footed geese winter in the UK which is a dramatic increase from 60,000 in the early 1960s. The vast majority will stopover in Scotland to replenish their energy and nutrient stores after the challenging journey. Some will spend the whole winter here, but others will move on to sites further south in the northwest and east of England. This means we get our highest numbers in October and November as shown in the graph below. The number often rises again in February as geese start to make their way north again.

Mean numbers of pink-footed geese at Loch Leven during monthly goose counts from 1994/95 – 2018/19

The geese roost on the loch overnight and fly off in big groups at dawn to spend the day feeding in surrounding fields. We do a monthly count of geese numbers, arriving before dawn so we can see them take to the air and count their silhouettes in the faint light. We had 14,886 pink-footed geese at the October count, the highest number in 5 years. Our next count is this Friday, so we’ll see if the numbers have started to fall.

Pink-footed geese at Loch Leven NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH.

Watching and hearing the sound of thousands of geese rise in unison from the water is an exhilarating spectacle and something everyone should experience. The best place to watch them is from the Kirkgate viewpoint, ideally arriving in time for first light. Evenings are also good times as the geese return at the end of the day. Just wrap up warm and bring a hot drink!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments