Why do we count things?

You might have noticed that yesterday’s blog didn’t feature Monday or Friday. There’s a simple explanation. I got so carried away chatting about geese, it ended up as far too much for a single blog.
So I’ve broken from tradition and kept everything goosey to this one instead – enjoy!

Monday saw us split up and look for clues, or rather birds, for our October WeBS. We all started from one of the best vantage points on the reserve – the Kirkgate cemetary – panning our telescopes across the water and counting up everything we could see. Every count the numbers get bigger and bigger, and I was given my first taste of just how many geese can pack themselves into a small area here, with over 500 squeezed onto Scart and the surrounding waters. With skeins flying overhead as we counted the gaggles below (the names for flocks of geese depend on whether they’re flying or not!), and hundreds of geese and swans to watch at the Burleigh hide, it was very easy to get excited for the upcoming first goose count of the winter.

Swan Yoga?

This took place yesterday (Friday) morning, which meant the whole team was up at a rather early hour to be in place before first light, ready and waiting. Fan of dark mornings or not, those of us assisting with goose counts need to be in position well before sunrise, as it allows us to get a good chance of counting the geese more accurately as they take off from their roosting sites to feed for the day. This isn’t so bad for those of us who stay locally – I can roll out of bed at 6am, don my many layers and be in place at Kirkgate cemetery easy peasy. Julie on the other hand had to make her way from Edinburgh, with a less appealing 5am start. She tells me it was worth it though, being her first and only goose count with the team before the seasons end, and of course a well deserved Bayne’s brunch afterwards! We were all very glad that the weather took a turn for the clearer overnight, but expericing the first frost of the year and losing feeling in our fingers and toes is something we aren’t use to anymore!

Sunrise over Loch Leven NNR

As with the WeBS counts, our goose counts are done in local collaboration with our neighbours at RSPB Loch Leven, but they also feed into a nationwide monitoring programme for pink-footed geese. This goose species winters almost exclusively in the UK, meaning basically the entire Icelandic population can be found here and which makes them one of our easier species to survey. So once a month from October to March, a whole bunch of us across the country can be found shivering in a designated spot before sunrise, eagerly waiting for all the geese in our counting zone to slowly take to the skies and head off to their feeding grounds.

These counts are done because historically numbers of pink-footed geese were much lower than they are now. But here we have a wildlife conservation success story! According to the World Wetland Trust, in the 1960s the population size was approximately 50,000 – 60 years later it has increased tenfold to 500,000! Here at Loch Leven we have also seen a clear increase, with peak averages having doubled in the past 60 years from approximately 7000 to 14,000 birds. Long term monitoring is so important, to ensure this species continues to thrive. And this is also why we count so many other species – from birds to bees to bats. It enables us to quickly determine if a species is declining, how quickly this is happening, and how best we can help protect them. Counting is definitely the number one tool for wildlife conservation!

A wonderfully wildlife-rich view from the Burleigh Hide

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Mystery munchers and tree tubes

Dreich weather is closing in, the days are cooler, halloween decorations fill the highstreet and leaves litter the ground. Autumn is definitely here – anyone got their heating on yet? Turnips and pumpkins? Witches hat? Just me? And with it comes the much anticipated changing of trees, with some beautiful shades of yellow, orange and red to be found across the reserve. I’m no fan of waking up to darkness, but seeing these stunning colours are well worth it – some of my favourites include the now scarlet cherry trees, and the contrast of silver birch bark blends with golden leaves. Even the rain is something to be celebrated, as the wet ground is allowing mushrooms to keep popping up all over the reserve, and spider webs glisten beautifully for spooky season.

Tuesday was an odd jobs kind of day; checking things on the computer here, sorting things in the workshop there, and getting a plan together for our volunteer group on Wednesday. The task of the week was tree guard removal, so Neil and I headed to scope out the best spots to keep our volunteers busy. It also gave me an oppertunity to see a new section of the reserve – the area between the trail and the loch as you walk along to the RSPB – and learn a little about it’s recent history as well as plans for the near future. We had fabulous views of lapwing and curlew, but came across a very strange sight beneath the young birch trees. Dense patches of balsam (how is it still flowering and seeding!?) that looked almost like something had had a bit of a much. The tops had all been removed in a rather jagged fashion, at varied heights and in multiple places on the same plant – how odd! It couldn’t have been removed by a whacker or strimmer, as the plants would be more uniform in height and we would have seen a shortening of non-target plants too. It’s also highly unlikely that someone went to the effort of removing the seed heads by hand, because why not just pull the whole plant out to save time? Has something taken a fancy to balsam? If so, they’ve shown some major preference for it while grazing. Perhaps a deer has become our ally and is about to much their way through the whole reserve? Or maybe a local sheep was rewarding themselves for their escapee tendencies. We may never know!

On Wednesday our volunteers headed to the sites we had picked out. We had lovely weather for a very productive day, with the vast majority of tree tubes from this area removed and collected to be kept at our workshop until they are sent back to the manufactorer. Tree planting is a nature based solution vital for tackling climate change, but with millions of trees being planted nationwide, that’s an awful lot of tree tubes possibly going to waste! Thankfully, companies like Tubex have been revamping their process of take-make-waste (their words, not mine!) and are moving towards a more circular economy. Absolutely the best move and something that all industries should be striving for. According to their website, over 150,000 tubes have been returned this year alone, which are then used to contribute towards the production of new tree tubes. This goes to show just how needed their recycling programme was, and hopefully being easily accessible will encourage other land users to dispose of their old tree tubes responsibly too.

On Thursday I headed back out to sites from the previous day – though the weather had done a complete 180, so it was with waterproofs, wellies and a couple of extra layers that I reluctantly ventured outdoors. While most of the tree tubes had been collected, some were particularly well hidden amongst the very overgrown grass, and so had been missed. Others were in denser patches of vegetation, and some were very close to the shoreline – best to have just one person remove these rather than a whole team, as it reduces the risk of spooking nearby birds. I was incredibly irritated to come across two balloons while out on my mission, but it felt rather fitting given a recent blog from our neighbouring reserves. A few waterlogged hours later however and we’re confident that at least one patch of our tree tubes have now been completely removed from the reserve, with many well established willow trees doing a fantastic job both providing shelter to our wildlife and capturing carbon – and all looking rather pretty while they do so too. Though…maybe not in this weather!

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More whoopers, plus some machinery mishaps

Monday saw us return to Mary’s Knowe to finish off the baling that Neil, Simon and I began last Friday. A task that is now complete, but that took a little longer than expected as we may have gotten a bit distracted by the wildlife. Throughout our pollinator survey season, very few dragonflies have been seen at Mary’s Knowe. Yet, in the midst of a warm sunny spell, a flash of shining wings caught our eye. Far too big to be a common darter, we killed the machines to go and get a closer look. A flash of blue – it was a male common hawker! Later on, we also had to pause to get a look at the reddest frog either of us had ever seen – hopping away from our pokey pitchforks. We always try to keep an eye out for wildlife when mowing, taking the time to move frogs, toads, moths and more out of harms way, but this speedy individual required no help at all.

On Wednesday we moved all our mowing equipment to the far side of the reserve at Findatite, where the meadow required a bit of a haircut after being left for one year too many, allowing grasses to dominate the area. While some of us bathed in a surprisingly sunny day (standing in great contrast to the miserable weather we had on Tuesday, seeing us retreat into the office for some behind the scenes admin work) while mowing and baling, the rest of our volunteers were taken into perhaps the boggiest part of our reserve to tackle the encroaching scrub. Bogs need to stay, well, boggy! But trees do a very good job at sucking up the water for themselves, so to maintain this habitat we need to remove them. Though leaving them as deadwood is ecologically beneficial, some trees were taken home to be provided a second chance at a long life within a more suitable space. A great effort (as always) from our volunteers.

The next day required the removal of the Findatie bales by Simon, Julie and myself. Which proved to be a task within a task within a task as things just kept following Sod’s Law! We realised the trailer would be too heavy to tow with all the bales because the wetter weather had made the track so slippy. Never mind, we thought, the Polaris will manage it! But a rather slippy atempt down the hill made it very clear that, nope, it was too soggy for that too. After a lot of thinking through theoretical scenarios and trying to come up with a creative solution, we eventually ended up settling on a shuttle system – running two bales at a time from the field to the bottom of the hill in the Polaris, and then carting them up to the trailer with our iron horse. A job well done in the end, with all bales removed and ready for composting. But machinery can be tempremental, and disaster struck at the end of the day as, after a full day of use, the Polaris didn’t have enough battery to make it back to the office! So Julie and I had to await an impromtu rescue from Simon – life is never dull on the reserve!

Things could have been much worse though – all the bales were removed, it didn’t rain on us nearly as much as it could have done, and we were also treated to fantastic views of more whooper swans – 85 to be exact, including 6 juveniles – right next to the trail along by Findatie. Whoopers are usually far less habituated to people, and rarely come this close to the shoreline, so it was a real treat to see so many at ease. Many visitors noticed the numbers too, and asked us about the funny goose-like noises they make. They are rather strange – with some almost sounding like a barking dog, others like a squeaky chew toy, and there was even one that sounded a little like an alarm!

Who knew swans had so much to talk about? It’s well worth wandering along the trail for a spot of birdwatching right now – you just might need your waterproofs!

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WeBS, Whoopers and Maths Week

We’re well and truly into our autumn WeBS now. And with a wet and windy start to the week, we were all caught out by the first less than pleasant survey in a while. Following what has been an abnormally warm month, we’ve now been plunged back into the cold and the rain, and we definitely weren’t prepared for it! Wellies and waterproofs? Check. But definitely not enough layers or warm flasks – brr!

I have been asked more than once “how do you count so many birds at once!?” and the answer, honestly, is with great difficulty! I know my birds well enough that, in good light and at an easy distance, I’m pretty confident in what I’m looking at. But when they’re up to a kilometer away from the shore, constantly bobbing and diving about, and much the same shape and colour as each other? That’s when it gets interesting. Simon has been conducting large WeBS counts for far longer than me, and I watch with a little bit of awe as he manages not just to accurately tally up the thousands of tufties or coots present, but that he can keep count of multiple species at once! Meanwhile, I will take the same amount of time just to count the easiest (read – largest…) of all our waterfowl – the swans. Over time this will no doubt get easier, and is a good example of how placements like mine provide the oppertunity to improve my skills in a professional way.

Speaking of swans, we already have a handful of Whoopers back with us! This is quite early, we usually see them begin to arrive in October-November. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for their ‘whooping’ noises as they fly across the water. And if you aren’t sure what the difference is between Whoopers and Mutes, here’s a fantastic little video from the BTO to help.

Wednesday saw us all return to Carsehall for a second week of fire, and with our entire team of volunteers concentrated in one area we made quick work of it! This section is now cleared enough that other species will be able to make a comeback, and with an added splash of pesticide (small, and spot-sprayed directly onto the cut stumps), we know our work will prevent future regrowth. We do apologise to anyone who may have had a very smokey view from the larder though!

Thursday brought more rain, and with it, our first trail flood since before summer. While there was no damage caused and it quickly drained away, this hints at a wider issue. Climate change is already bringing hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters to Scotland. But, what’s wrong with that? Well, without going off on a tangent quite a lot – but the relevant issue here is flooding. Hot weather means dry ground, and if the ground is dry for long enough, it reaches a point where it cannot absorb a sudden downfall of heavy rain fast enough. This causes flash flooding, something that many across the UK are experiencing more and more frequently, and something that, if we do not mitigate for, we can expect to happen on a regular basis. Just something to bare in mind.

Finishing off on something a little more light-hearted however, it’s Maths Week this week!

Maths is everywhere, not just in the classroom, and conservation is no exception! So how do we regularly use maths across the reserve? Well, this week is a perfect example. Our regular wildlife counts and surveys require quick mental arithmatic, because thousands of fast moving animals that need to be counted on the spot means we can’t use calculators quickly enough! And using pesticides requires great care and precise calculations to ensure the correct volumes and concentrations are used without damaging the wider environment.

Teal ducks roosting on Morton Loch NNR, Forth and Borders Area. ©Lorne Gill/SNH For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or http://www.snh.org.uk

On a wider scale, did you know that some of our most important mathematical equations were inspired by, and can be found in, nature? The Fibonacci spiral (or golden ratio) can be seen in pine cones, sunflowers and seashells, while ferns and trees exhibit Fractal patterns. But how about an example a little closer to home? Horsetail, a species found widely across Loch Leven NNR, has a stem pattern so beautifully spiraled that it is rumoured to have been the inspiration for John Napier’s logarithms!

#ShowYourWorking #MathsWeekScot

We finished off the week by transporting our trusty mower and baler over to Mary’s Knowe, where we are now in the process of cutting back the verges either side of the path. This, as with the pollinator meadow, prevents it from becoming enriched with nutrients next year, however we only mow it once a year as the plant community is more delicate than a wildflower meadow. It also keeps the path from getting super overgrown for users! A soggy beginning to the week meets a soggy end, but actually, the combination of dense plant material combined with wet weather is making for some nice, intact bales! More of this going on today, so feel free to say hello to us if you’re walking along the trail.

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Magical May, Mowing, Management and More!

I think this alliteration malarkey will need to take a backseat soon – I am running out of letters! What a change a few days makes though – I am finding myself with an extra layer on outside the office in the mornings, and that wonderful ‘burnt’ smell of fallen leaves is beginning to waft amidst Loch Leven’s woods. The dew is heavy on the grasses now but I think it’ll be a good while yet before it’s frost!

Myself and Julie were on the Isle of May for the first time last week as a work party and, despite it being post-season for the breeding birds, it was still brilliant to be immersed in a seascape again, getting stuck in with some practical work. Alongside some rubble-moving and railing-painting, the primary jobs were clearing out the ternery of nettles for next year (and adding sand in for a new section) as well as moving the last of some washed-ashore timber on the partly-cut-off islet Rona across the channel onto the May itself. Character-building stuff, and we all remarked on the potency of the May’s nettles – white noise reverberated throughout all of our hands that evening! We got to see the helicopter remove the island’s sewage – a once-every-5-year spectacle – lucky us! Thank you to Bex and Steely as well as my other wonderful NatureScot colleagues for a brilliant few days. Here’s a few captures from the week.

Snoozy seals, Scarlet Pimpernel, Swallows getting a meal, a Wheatear, a Rock Pipit and some Sea Campion
Sewage-copter on approach, the NW cliffs, away for a wander and ingenious ideas

Back to the loch, I was delighted to find a species I’d been meaning to look for for a few years now – Amethyst Deceiver! Tied with the best common name of any species in the country (in my opinion) with Enchanter’s Nightshade, this marvellous fungus prefers to live under beech trees. At the weekend, Julie and myself were passing by the area of beech just before Mary’s Knowe. I thought, well, it’s the right time of year, we might as well take a look. Within a couple of minutes, there they were! I was almost annoyed how easy it was to find – and right underneath the biggest beech tree as well. They are known as ‘deceivers’ as they share a trait with other funghi species of being highly variable in their form, ‘deceiving’ you into thinking they are another species. There aren’t many other funghi out there that share such a vibrant colouration!

Turning those brown cells purple

A couple of other notable species I’ve seen recently are the large-flowered hemp-nettle and the pink-barred sallow moth. The first I noticed on Burleigh beach, initially thinking it was a variation of a regular white dead-nettle or a garden escapee but I was amazed to find out that it is a native flower. The moth was also spotted at Burleigh, blending in incredibly well to the dying nettle leaf it was resting on. I’d had an inkling it was a kind of sallow but I didn’t identify it properly until on the Isle of May, using their ID guidebook.

large-flowered hemp-nettle and pink-barrow sallow

In practical terms, we were over at Carsehall reedbed to cut back a small section to act as a management control of sorts. Cutting the Phragmites back encourages better growth and subsequently increased food for more of the reedbed’s inhabitants – allowing the reeds to simply grow as big as they can get and leaving them can result in reduced nutrients being returned to the water and soil, less incident sunlight and sub-optimal diversity of birdlife – the main three birds we see (or hear) that use the reeds are the reed bunting, sedge warbler and water rail, but dabbling ducks like gadwall could also make better use of more open reedbed too if we provide a mosaic of reedbed age for them.

From afar, the reedbed can seem quite dense but truly how dense can only be seen when you attempt to strim into the heart of the beast! It is only about 10m in depth but is more closely akin to an impregnable jungle thicket – Joseph Conrad springs to mind! Combined with the adaptable drainage area we were wading through, health and safety took top priority quite quickly. In the end we cleared an area resembling about 5x10m² and the remaining pile was quite impressive, split between Simon’s brushcutting and my (much slower) hedgetrimming.

Waist-deep Simon keeping the brushcutter out of the murky depths
A wild Do-you-think-he-saurus

We have finally finished mowing and bailing our Pollinator Park with the volunteers for the year, after six days worth of work! Well done to everyone who took part – it is absolutely invaluable help. Taking the cuttings away will keep nutrients level low and prevent non-meadow species encroaching.

Some of the bailer team in action with John as designated driver

Meanwhile, on the other side of the reserve, the other volunteers were getting stuck in with some gorse management over at Carsehall. Gorse is one of those ‘native invasives’ – a bit like bracken or (in some cases) deer – where their presence is beneficial but would smother everything else if not kept in check. Almost every NNR will have a species a bit like this. As a nature reserve we have a duty to maximise species diversity and sustainability where appropriate and this is one of those instances. We would quickly lose our wet bog habitat with the lesser butterfly orchids, grazing deer, soaring buzzards and countless ground-nesting birds if we let the fecund furze take over, as good as it can be as a nest for the odd passerine. It’s also brilliant fun!

Keeping warm in the new chilly conditions

The Pink-footed Geese are back!! We had over 4000 go over on Thursday. Plenty were landing on the loch as well! Absolutely fantastic to see migration in action, numbers will now build up and we will see our peak in late October. Make sure you keep an eye and an ear out for these charismatic skeins flying over-head.

Big Skein of Pinkies – how many can you count?

Have a great week! Keep your heids high and eyes to the skies!

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Climate Week and ‘Winter’ WeBS

As you may have seen on our Facebook, this week marks the start of Scotland’s Climate Week – an annual event to help raise awareness of the global climate emergency. It also marks just 6 weeks until COP26 – an international climate conference that will be held in Glasgow, bringing governments and climate experts together to agree on actions rapidly needed to stablise rising temperatures (hopefully anyway). According to the latest climate science IPCC report, “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land” and some have declared even declared this report a ‘code red for humanity‘.

It is more important than ever that governments, organisations and businesses lead the way in reducing our impact, and we at Loch Leven NNR are no exception. We are committed to reducing our overall impact at an organisational level, but there are things that we can do as individual teams too. The biggest thing for us here at Loch Leven is to reduce our fossil fuel emissions, which is made ever more possible with electric options becoming more accesible, and we are rapdily seeing a changeover from fuel to electric-powered vehicles and tools. On top of this, we try to reduce our waste where possible as well as doing our bit for biodiversity, as the current ecological emergency is instrinsically linked to climate change. Loch Leven is also part of a wider study that aims to determine whether certain freshwater management practices can help reduce climate impacts on water quality acoss the country, following the warmest decade on record.

Longer, warmer, drier summers are adding to the problem of algal blooms across Scotland

We conduct plenty of our own research and monitoring too, for example we just completed our first autumn WeBS (wetland bird surveys) count this week. Warm weather, blue skies…I have to say it didn’t feel particularly autumnal. But the number of birds present on the loch definitely signified we’ve reached the wintering bird season – with over 700 mute swans, 1200 mallards, 1700 coot, and 2500 tufted duck and teal counted! Plus many other species such as pochard, wigeon, pintail, shovelers, great crested grebes, and even three ruff and a greenshank. This increase in numbers will continue until the number of birds peaks (usually around mid-October) before decreasing as many migrate onto other sites through the winter.

These numbers may seem huge to me or you, but Simon and Neil assure me that numbers have been far higher in previous years, reaching as many as 6700 coot, 9300 teal and 12000 tufted duck! Being only my second WeBS at Loch Leven, I’m still very slow with my counting, as attempts to distinguish several different species of waterfowl at as distance can be quite tricky! Add in the fact they are constantly moving around, swimming, diving, and generally being very unco-operative, I was quite greatful to be eased into things with these ‘smaller’ numbers.

A mix of over 150 mute swans, grebes and ducks in just one small space

Our Wednesday volunteer work party took half of us back to the Kirkgate pollinator park, with the majority of the meadow now mowed and baled. I managed to nab some leftover yellow rattle seeds for my own garden with the aim of ‘wildflower-ifying’ it next year, and ensured that a wee toad was safely removed from the path of the grass cutter and relocated closer to the loch. The rest of the group headed round to Carsehall to trim back the canary reed grass overhanging the path, as well as removing the remains of our deconstructed bridge (see here) and carrying out some scrub removal. Gorse, while native, will invade and dominate certain areas if left unchecked, so it needs to be cut back regularly to allow for greater biodiversity.

Getting the baler ready for work
Breaking out the iron horse to carry out the bridge remains

Simon and I finished off the week by carrying out visitor facility infrastructure checks – a quarterly health and safety measure to ensure that all benches, boardwalks and bird hides are still in a good and safe condition. Or, if not, prioritising what needs to be done and when. Health and safety certainly doesn’t sound the most rivetting, but we had a lovely day cycling round the reserve, checking everything over, coming up with a plan for various winter tasks, chatting with visitors enjoying a day out, and of course getting a bit of birdwatching in where we could. I’m still finding new spots across the reserve that I haven’t seen before, all the while learning about their historic and future management needs, so taking the time to get to better grips with the reserve is a very useful way to spend the day.

Especially in the woodland sections of the reserve, the autumn colours are definitely beginning to appear, with birches turning gold and leaves falling to the floor. It makes for a stunning backdrop, a day of generally feeling very lucky to have this reserve for our office.

Now all we need are some geese!

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Think Pink?

We are now into September, and that means one thing….the first arrivals of Pink-footed Geese! I longingly await their ‘wink-wink’ calls and v-shaped skeins filling the skies. They could be arriving here any day now! In 2019 I had my first skein on the 2nd September and in 2020 I had my first skein on the 10th September. We are right in the money!

Pink-footed (Anser brachyrhynchus) geese at Loch Leven NNR.

The ‘pinkies’ start arriving en-masse from late September. They winter in the UK to escape the cold, harsh winters of their breeding grounds of Iceland/Eastern Greenland. The wintering population of Pink-footed Geese in the UK is around 450,000-500,000. There are two different geographic populations; Svalbard breeding Pink-footed Geese which winter in Denmark/Holland and the Iceland/Greenland breeding population which winters solely in the UK.

A gathering of geese!

The migration that the Pink-footed Geese undertake is no easy task. The journey from Iceland to Scotland is around 800 miles at its shortest point. Throw in some strong southerly winds, rain and heavy seas and you’ve got a hard task ahead of you. Now imagine doing it as a fairly fresh-to-the-world juvenile… life is hard for a pinkie!

With light winds, this can be be done in around 12-15 hours but can take as long as 24 hours! Often a stopover on the Faroe Islands can be a well-earned rest.

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

The Pink-footed Goose global population has substantially increased over the last 60 years. Here at Loch Leven NNR, we get our peak numbers in October. Once birds arrive in Scotland from Iceland, they trickle their way down to England where they will spend the majority of the winter. 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. We have data from the site 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.

Pink-footed (Anser brachyrhynchus) geese at Loch Leven NNR.

We hold a population throughout the winter here, which peaks in October, this then drops to a few thousand during the winter months. An increase is often seen in March when the geese are making their return journey north for the summer.

It’s this time of year that I can often be seen darting out of the office, or back door after catching a glimpse of a goose skein high in the sky, often to be greeted with the familiar, loud, raw cackling calls of our resident Greylag Geese. However, any day now I will be rewarded with the first skein of pinkies, fresh in from Iceland. Thus, commencing goose season at Loch Leven NNR! Bring on the early morning counts and fields full of noisy Icelandic visitors!

Listen out for the distinctive, high-pitched ‘wink-wink’ call and look out for any v-shaped skeins high in the sky. You may be in luck!

Autumn is on its way! 🙂

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Meadow management and water-borne access

Morning dew covers the grasses, condensation sets in on windows, and mist lingers over the water. Brambles are popping out blackberries, worker bees are dying off as new queens search for a suitable place to overwinter, and swallows are disappearing south. Autumn is on the way. Well, it’s hinting at it anyway! We’re still finding ourselves down to t-shirts as the cool air burns off to reveal the heat of the sun. But where it would usually beam down on bright colours and full fields, now it shines onto freshly harvested crops and wilting wildflowers.

A sunrise view over the misty Loch

This change to the season means a change to our work aswell. Bye-bye balsam bashing, and hello meadow management! You may have seen the beginning of our efforts taking place in the pollinator field at Kirkgate Park, but what are we actually up to and why?

Our wildflower meadows are managed specifically for, well, wildflowers! They act as a fantastic source of food and energy for thousands of invertebrate species – not just for favourites such as butterflies and bees, but the many lesser known moths, beetles, flies and more too. The tall vegetation also provides the perfect hiding place for nesting birds and small mammals, and nearby water means frogs and toads can often find refuge. These meadows really are wildlife havens, as well as being simply beautiful to observe.

So why do we cut them down?

Without management, wildflower meadows can become easily dominated by other species, such as grass, nettles or Rosebay Willowherb. This is because these plants can grow tall very quickly, shading out wildflowers from the sun before they have had a chance to establish. They then die back, leaving us not with a diverse rainbow of colour, but a handful of common species, which will in turn reduce the diversity of wildlife.

We use a reciprocating mower to cut the grass

By cutting our meadows and removing these cuttings, we ensure that the conditions will be favourable for wildflowers next spring. Instead of thick thatch layering the soil and enriching it with nutrients, the ground remains nutrient poor. Sounds a bit backwards, but many of our native wildflowers flourish in nutrient-poor ground! Once the cutting is complete, we will sow a very important wildflower called Yellow Rattle. This plant does best if sown into bare soil and given a full winter to develop before germinating in spring. Why is this plant important? Because it parasitises the roots of grasses – it seeks out their roots and takes water and nutrients from them, reducing their growth which further helps to prevent the takeover of dominating plants and making it a vital component of any wildflower meadow.

Next, we use a baler to create small round haybales (once we got it working!)

We leave mowing until the end of summer to ensure all birds and mammals will have finished breeding, and the majority of invertebrates will be dying off or finding shelter for the winter. Then we employ the help of our ever-enthusiastic volunteers to get the job done! It’s a slow process – there are multiple large meadows across the reserve that require mowing, and hand tools are not made for speed. What they do make for however is an incredibly rewarding work day. You know your efforts are contributing towards something beautiful for next year that directly benefits wildlife, and that many people get some enjoyment out of too!

Finally, we rake away excess thatch

As well as our meadows, several verges across the reserve have required a final trim for the year. You’ve likely seen me out and about on our little ride-on mower as I battled with tall nettles, avoided running over bees and ladybirds, and rather unsuccessfully avoiding sections of eroded bank. Okay…very unsuccessfully.

An accidental topple, but no damage done!

We would also like to remind everyone that autumn means no water-borne access to the public. We advise staying out of the water due to blue-green algae anyway (yep, that’s what you can smell) but from September 1st to March 31st we request that there is no kayaking, paddleboarding or swimming in Loch Leven NNR. Why do we ask this?

Blue-green algae blooms have been seen across all shores on the loch.

While many bird species leave the UK during autumn and head south for warmer climates, just as many will begin to arrive from colder countries. Compared to places like Greenland, Iceland and even Siberia, Scotland is practically tropical in winter! Which is why tens of thousands of birds spend the colder months here, resting and recouperating from the busy breeding season. These birds can actually begin to arrive as early as August, evidenced by our WeBS counts (Wetland Bird Surveys) showing clear increases in the number of birds present across the loch both before and after the access guidance begins.

These birds really only want two things: a safe place to rest and plenty of food. When we disturb them (by making them swim or fly away from us when we get too close) we are forcing them to expend uneccessary energy to avoid us. Taking off takes the most energy when they’d much rather be resting or eating. Imagine having to break into a run every time someone walked past you, now imagine having to do that after running thousands of miles to another country. Sounds tiring, right? This, coupled with our inability to regulate every individual that accesses the water (unlike the fishery, who can strictly monitor their boats and with whom we have a specific management agreement in place), is why we respectfully ask all visitors to refrain from water-based activities.

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

Loch Leven National Nature Reserve is recognised not just nationally, but on an international scale for it’s importance as a wildlife refuge. It is is first and foremost a nature reserve, designated for it’s international importance for biodiversity and managed for the benefit of Scottish wildlife. We are facing a climate emergency and ecological collapse, meaning our nature reserves have never been more important for protecting wildlife. The right to access reserves and wild spaces is permitted on the basis that we all act responsibly. Please adhere to the guidance and ensure this beautiful space remains accessible for everyone to respect, protect and enjoy.

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Birdy Surveys and Fun(gi) in the Sun

OK, I am prepared to admit that my declaration that summer was over was perhaps a bit hasty, however that still did not prevent Julie and I getting soaked again (also again after removing our waterproofs) earlier this week. Perhaps it is our continued refusal to completely ignore the forecasts and just plan for the worst, but profuse sweating has usually been concurrent with our bad luck so maybe we just can’t win!

The warm weather afforded us the chance to do the most recent WeBS count – still meagre by Loch Leven standards but a considerable challenge for a newbie like myself – 1032 tufted duck and many more others were recorded by us at the Burleigh hide while Neil took the brunt of the counting at the other side of the loch, but the remarkably settled conditions and quietness of Burleigh (due to it’s closure for roadworks) meant it was daunting but manageable. My next highest count of the tufties at the beginning of the season was less than half of what it was this week. I am learning to absolutely love these surveys!

Placid waters at Factor’s Pier

This is a bit of a momentous week in the year as it is likely the last ‘quiet’ WeBS for 2021 – as of Wednesday next week, water borne access is prohibited on the loch until April 2022 due to the increasing bird numbers, some of whom will be emerging from their reedy hovels and learning to fly. Our WeBS also increase in regularity to approximately fortnightly in order to better analyze who we’ve got on the water this winter.

I was also afforded the chance to get my first photo of one of the ospreys through the scope lens – after I had waited for it to return after it flew off the moment I went for my first photo of course! I also saw my first Loch Leven jay just before Mary’s Knowe, a hotspot for them. Usually, as in this case, you hear them before you see them, screeching like an old cailleach or other beings you’d not want to come across in the middle of the night.

About time!

Something I’ve noticed this week is the variety of fungi emerging from the wooded areas of the reserve, like Levenmouth and Burleigh. There are some true crackers dotted about at the moment and many of them I’ve never seen before. I think the most impressive ones so far are the Parasol Fungus (Macrolepiota procera) on the Burleigh path. Unfortunately, one of them has already been knocked over. People kicking over or unnecessarily picking mushrooms and toadstools is easily in my top 5 nature pet peeves. There’s something about them that people feel the need to harass – perhaps the fact that they are very often poisonous combined with their delicate form. Please admire them from afar – not only will you be allowing them to grow back more ‘fruitfully’ next year, but others will also be able to appreciate them after you.

Mesmerizing patterns

Here’s a few more below that I’ve seen – fungi must be some of the trickiest everyday organisms to identify on our planet, and I definitely can’t ID them very well. This first set is of, I think, an old and new birch polypore (Piptoporus betulina) and a couple of Boletus. Birch polypore, as you might expect, is epiphytic to almost solely birch trees and was carried by Ötzi the Iceman, possibly meaning that it had a beneficial human use even 5,300 years ago. It’s possible that the first photo is actually the hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) which was also carried by him.

Boletus fungi can be identified by their, chunky, short form and usually brownish colour. One of the most amazing natural spectacles I have ever witnessed was when I accidentally strimmed into a Boletus while cutting grass. It immediately began to turn blue in front of my eyes – I was quite sure I was imagining it. This is known as bruising and usually indicates the fungus is not edible. Of course, it made me more wary of fungi when strimming!

The next few are a variety. The first two are the common puffball (Lycoperdum perlatum) and, I think, the common earthball (Scleroderma citrinum) – now these are ones which are incredibly tempting to squish (infact I would probably let you off with it later in the year when it has failed to disperse all its spores). The middle and last images I am unsure about but the bright yellow fungus could well be the yellow swamp brittlegill (Russula claroflava) – apparently edible but I’d strongly advise not sampling any fungus the reserve has to offer unless you really know what you’re on about – I certainly don’t (and I don’t like mushrooms anyway!)

Hopefully this has inspired you to go and look about for the stunning variety of funghi woodlands and other habitats have to offer – they really are from a different world.

Lastly on my nature list for this week, and seemingly everywhere at the moment, are the delights of caterpillars out and about, currently voraciously munching away on the vegetation all across the country. This one below is of an elephant hawk-moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor), the first time I have seen one, but met another over at Carsehall 2 days later. These relatively drab but conspicuous beings turn into one of the biggest and most striking moths we have to offer, blending into their foodplant, rosebay willowherb, once able to fly. I had to move it off the path so a passing visitor didn’t squash it – keep your eyes out for these furry friends on our paths at the moment. Now if there is anything stranger than funghi it is metamorphosis!

Watch out!

This weeks volunteering was some of the best fun I’ve had this month. A varied week due to it only being myself and Neil in, we ended up doing an assortment of jobs all nearby to the office. Split into groups, some blackthorn pulling at Pollinator Park, boardwalk vegetation clearance and a refurb of the new drying room were the main morning jobs. Most of us however ended up joining the mowing/bailing party in the afternoon, getting an induction (or reintroduction) to the mower, bailer and the IronHorse by Neil in order to get the area around the boathouse more wildflower-friendly. What’s better was the sun stayed out brilliantly and got the sweat pouring! This was the first volunteering week for me where the power of teamwork truly shone through – and it made a good break from the balsam!

Neil showing us the ropes
Now Richard’s in charge!
It’s not all hard work…

A very well done to our brilliant volunteers as always for their time, laughs and quick-to-learn attitude – until next week!

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The Insect Survey Season Story

This week’s been a bit of a weird one with various holidays and things happening off reserve, so therefore blog writing is handed to me (Julie, not Bethia, I just haven’t sorted out wordpress)! My latest (and first) blog was all the way back at the start of July, so I’m happy to be back on this week to talk all things insect-y! No two days are the same here which I love, but one thing that has been almost a constant during my time here has been being able to go out with the insect volunteers on Friday afternoons. Therefore, in this week’s blog, I’m going to be a little unorthodox and shine a light on our very smart and dedicated insect volunteers, who survey every Monday and Friday (weather permitting!) between April and September, and contribute to monitoring our insect populations on the reserve.

This summer season, due to more staff employed on the reserve we try to get out and see the insect volunteers and help them out with their surveys as often as we can (provided we don’t have any other jobs to do on the reserve that is)! This allows us to gain insight into what they get up to and we get to witness emerging patterns of different insects first hand, and contribute to citizen science! Monday’s insect surveys involve walking transects and looking for bumblebees and butterflies by the old railway line, whereas Friday’s transects are located in Burleigh meadow and Mary’s Knowe. We also get to survey one of my favourite places, the Burleigh ponds, which frequently have an array of damselfly and dragonfly species living and breeding on these ponds. It’s a fantastic part of my job, as I get to learn so much from all their many years of experience, and contribute to monitoring of bumblebees, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies which are always exciting to see. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking back to my dissertation for uni, which was all about citizen science and the importance of the effort of volunteers, especially for insects, so it’s great that I’m able to put my findings into practice!

I started my post here at the end of May, so managed to start surveying with the volunteers while numbers of various butterflies were increasing, including one of my favourites, the Orange-Tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines – below left), which is one of the earliest butterflies to emerge, normally in April/May and are seen until the beginning of June. The males have distinctive orange markings of the wing, with mottled green underwings (whereas the females are harder to identify). The beginning of June is also when numbers of damselflies rapidly increase, especially the Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella – below right). This damsel has a very long flight period between April and September, so there’s normally a few to spot during this time, but we had a magnificent count for a few weeks in June with 199 Azures in one week, and 285 and 257 the next two weeks, respectively. These damsels are very common, but nonetheless very eyecatching, with the flash of blue normally easy to spot against the green vegetation by the ponds. The only difficulty comes when the Common Blue Damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), which are also blue yet slightly brighter and broader, start coming in from the loch. I have to admit, it took me a while but I think I can finally tell the difference between the two now!

By the end of June/start of July, we started to see many more Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus) and Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) on the reserve, and these numbers only increased towards the end of July, where 33 Meadow Browns and 121 Ringlets were recorded on one day during our transect at Burleigh meadow. It’s also exciting to see the occasional Common Blue Butterfly (Polymmatus Icarus), which is a bright blue butterfly (photos below) in flight and lovely to look at if you’re lucky enough to see it land. All of our bumblebees were at a steady state during this time, with many Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and Common Carder Bees (Bombus pascuorum) recorded throughout the season. An un-bee-lievable count (pardon the pun) of bumblebees was recorded a couple of weeks ago, where Monday’s survey group recorded 181 Red-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) on one day.

As we’re now moving into the end of the summer season (yes, I hate to say it but I’m afraid it’s true!), it’s all starting to quieten down again. However, we are seeing lots of Peacock Butterflies (Inachis io) at the moment, and the Emerald Damselflies (Lestes sponsa) and Common Darters (Sympetrum striolatum) are making more of an appearance by the ponds. Our insect surveyors continue until the end of September, and I look forward to joining them when I can and seeing what species we can find! A big thanks to all our insect volunteers for contributing to a great 2021 season!

Emerald Damselfly
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