INNS (it never never stops) week

Okay so no, INNS doesn’t actually stand for ‘it never never stops’. But for anyone reading this who has dealt with them before, you know exactly where I’m coming from. For those of you who don’t? Prepare to be enlightened…

INNS stands for Invasive Non-Native Species. This refers to any species – plant or animal – that is not native to the UK, but that is now found in the UK, and that has a significantly detrimental effect on native wildlife. It’s important to note that not all non-native species are invasive, while some native species can be invasive. Confused yet? It’s all about the adverse effects they cause our local wildlife, combined with their ability to readily spread across the Scottish landscape.

Japanese Knotweed (left) and Himalayan Balasam (right). Photo by Lorne Gill

As it’s INNS week, that is what we shall focus on. And unfortunately we have several INNS present across Loch Leven NNR: Four major plant species (Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed, Giant hogweed and Skunk cabbage) and two mammals (grey squirrels and mink, both of which are native to North America).

How did they get here? Many plants – particularly very pretty or ‘ornamental’ ones – tend to have a story attached to them of some wealthy soul from yesteryear invading travelling the globe and deciding en route that “these plants are very pretty and so I will take them home with me and plant them in my mansion garden”. And the rest is, well, not history. Some animals have also historically been brought over and subsequently released. Sometimes by collectors and landowners who decided they wanted to jazz up the local ecosystem a bit.

Rhododendron ponticum is a primary example of an ornamental plant that has spread invasively across the UK.
Photo by Lorne Gill

What’s that? People doing things with neither thought nor care for the consequences? Shocking! And we have also seen much more recent examples of invasive species being allowed to run rampant. Which leads us nicely into the various INNS we have to manage here at Loch Leven NNR.

American Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) is like something out of ‘The Day of the Triffids’. They are bog-loving beasts that can grow to massive sizes if left to their own devices. And since sales of this species were only banned in 2016, they basically were! It spreads in a twofold attack, by seeds and by rhizomes – a sneaky root system that can grow horizontally and put out roots and shoots of new plants. It is this root system that makes established plants so difficult to tackle, and why pesticides are often required. If you don’t remove the whole root system when digging the plants out they will simply grow back, so a highly targetted chemical dose into the centre of the plant’s stem is often necessary on older plants, while younger and smaller plants may still be possible to dig out.

The big patch of Skunk Cabbage we have to control

The patch of skunk cabbage we control isn’t technically on the reserve, but the boggy waterway it has colonised leads directly to the loch. There’s no point dealing with INNS on a boundary-only basis, you’ll never win the ever-encroaching battle. Buffer zones and partnership working is the way to go, and due to the nature of Loch Leven’s waterways (providing an easy and extensive seed dispersal route), we have a dedicated catchment management group on the case.

Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is another species that spreads by rhizomes and is so fast at taking over an area that contaminated soil has to be disposed of at registered sites. Apart from extensive digging and burning operations, which are costly and not always possible, pesticide is the best way to limit the spread of this plant and must be applied for several years at specific times – once at the beginning of the growing season, and a second time before natural dieback. We have a few small patches of this on the reserve that we cannot dig out and burn, but which must be prevented from spreading to nearby watercourses at all costs, and so pesticide is our only option.

Japanese Knotweed. Photo by Lorne Gill.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is another species the reserve has thankfully not been overrun by, but which has set up shop along parts of the shoreline, likely spreading from the North Quiech. We control individual plants with pesticide – spraying newly emerging leaves – and (where possible) cutting the flowers off of stems before they seed. Giant hogweed is one we advise everyone to avoid as it has photoxic sap which can cause incredibly painful burns to the skin, as well as long term issues with exposure to sunlight. It’s probably one of the most dangerous plants you can come across – thank goodness for spray suits!

Giant Hogweed. Photo by Lorne Gill.

On the topic of pesticides, there are many valid criticisms to its use, and believe me I certainly would not be advocating for them if there was another equally effective way to manage INNS, especially on a nature reserve. They’re bad for the environment, they’re bad for wildlife, and they’re bad for us – in ways that only become increasingly evidenced as studies continue. I’m sure that in the not too distance future we’ll see widespread pushes for bans not only in gardens and urban areas, but within agriculture and for cases like ours too. We need to start thinking about how we will deal with INNS without the use of pesticides. But as it stands today, without them we’d be completely overrun and our natural biodiversity (which is already struggling) would take an even bigger hit.

Thankfully, our most prevailent INNS does not necessitate such chemical warfare.
But which species is this? Our nemesis, the final boss…is…

Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) runs rampant across Loch Leven NNR. It’s already beginning to pop out in force and is perhaps the one we all dread the return of most. Taking up a significant portion of our summer management, from the moment it begins to grow until the point at which it begins to seed, every spare moment is dedicated towards ‘balsam bashing’. Staff, volunteers, contractors, any passers-by we can convince to join the cause all attempt to keep this plant from spreading as much as we possibly can.

We have a limited period of two to three months to tackle as many areas of the reserve, including the islands, as we can. Thankfully, it’s one of the easiest plants to control manually. Their shallow root systems do not spread via rhizomes, and their lack of ability to sting, burn or stab us means mean we can simply grab and pull handfuls upon handfuls (upon handfuls, upon handfuls…) of the stuff and leave it hanging above the ground on branches and logs to dry out and die.

Balsam Bashing! Photo by Lorne Gill

We only have until it begins to set seed to do this, because balsam has a pretty unique way of spreading. The seed cases will reach a point where they are, quite literally, fit to burst. The cases explode! And this can disperse the seeds by several metres. They can also be forced to explode if disturbed as the plants, sensing danger, pop pre-emptively. This is why we have to stop, and why we try to discourage the public from popping them for entertainment too!

So why is it so prevelant? It’s shallow root system means it can grow pretty much anywhere. It’s also a very fast grower that can reach heights of up to 2.5 metres. This means that it overtakes and shades out plants that are growing in the same area before they’ve had a good enough chance to grow and establish. Over time, a lack of deeper root systems also leads to soil degradation and erosion (a particular problem along watercoursee). Bees do seem to love it, but it is important to remember that this is likely to the detriment of other native wildflowers, perpetuating a viscious cycle.

Note the seed pods forming around the flowers. Photo by Lorne Gill.

The pandemic didn’t help either, and we’re still seeing the fallout of just one year being missed. INNS need constant control and subsequent monitoring for years after their apparent eradication, as seeds can lay dormant in the soil. Lockdown meant we couldn’t keep anything in check for a whole summer, and it’s allowed the balsam in particular to bounce back with a vengence. We’ll be busy for many years to come, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, our invasive mammals don’t cause us nearly so much grief. American mink are good swimmers, and could decimate our breeding duck populations if they got their paws on some tasty eggs. We also have the occasional grey squirrel sighting in the local area, but our native red squirrels seem to be fairing well, and ongoing control of both INNS means that sightings are few and far between.

Across the UK, control of INNS is a costly (we’re talking hundreds of millions for total eradication!) and time consuming task that can at times feel endless. Certainly, by the end of last summer I was practically seeing balsam in my sleep! This year there will no doubt be more sweaty days spent inside chemical protection suits, and every spare moment will be devoted to pulling up plant after plant (after plant…). It’s a task that is definitely best undertaken in company, not least to ward of the balsam bonkers-ness, but because the more bodies we have on the ground the more of an impact we can make. This is why we are always so greatful for our volunteers who never fail to show up ready and willing to get stuck in – tackling the balsam at Loch Leven simply wouldn’t be possible without them.

So, if you see us out and about over the next few months kitted up in hazmat suits or ripping up plants with apparant abandon, worry not! There haven’t been any murders, and we aren’t some hooligans set on destroying this beautiful place. Rather, we’re a bunch of biodiversity protectors just trying our best to ensure that our wonderful reserve doesn’t completely succumb to encroaching invasives.

For more information on INNS management, check out organisations like the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels and the Hebridean Mink Project. Remember to take care while gardening, and utilise organisations such as the RHS for their advice on how to best help protect our natural ecosystems.

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The Phoenix Hide!

14 months since the burning down of the Mill Hide. The Phoenix Hide has now been opened!

3…..2…….1……Open!

We had our opening ceremony last week where we were joined by donators, locals, Kinross 1st beavers and NatureScot Chair, Mike Cantlay. We were thrilled to have around 50 people at the ceremony! Where we all enjoyed the views from the Phoenix Hide of this magic national nature reserve and the wildlife that calls it home.

The rebuild of the hide wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the local community – and all of us here at NatureScot are extremely grateful for the support we received to re-build this award-winning hide.

Panoramic Views
Entrance to the Phoenix Hide
Looking great from the inside. The black finish behind the cladding providing a ‘Phoenix’ theme.
Looking good!

Thanks to our fantastic community, we can now once again enjoy the panoramic views and superb wildlife encounters that this fantastic hide has to offer. The contractors have done a fantastic job in the construction of the hide and were lucky to have had a reasonably good spell of weather to accompany them throughout the build. We hope the Phoenix Hide will provide many great memories and wildlife experiences just like the Mill Hide did before it. It will forever be a token of great community spirit!’

Mute Swan building a nest, as seen from the Phoenix Hide.

The new security camera that looks onto the hide has excellent clarity. It came into use as we saw 2 people clambering over the hide which was closed at the time and chucking our cone and a pair of vice grips into the loch….

Security Camera Image – the hide is now monitored as well as being coated in a fire retardant paint
We were out with our volunteers replacing the broken willow hurdles.

It’s been a massive journey, and we thank each and every one of you for the support of the last 14 months. We now have our award winning hide back in which we can connect with nature and make lasting memories! Below are the photos of the whole process from start to finish;

The morning after the terrible event…
After the demolition it looked like this for 10 months
Then in March 2022 – the rebuild commenced!
Floor being constructed
Sides in place
Wall panels being installed
Walkway and Roof being installed
Hide finished inside!
Hide finished from the outside – doesn’t it look amazing! (c) Lorne Gill

We are absolutely thrilled to have the Phoenix Hide open. Make sure you pop down and have a look for yourself. I have spotted Pochard, Goosander, Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Great-crested Grebe, Sand Martin, Swallow and Teal amongst many others. It’s a cracking spot and its here to stay!

Thank you!

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May beginnings

It’s the first week of May already – where has the time gone?! This is an exciting time in the natural world with our summer visitors arriving, many butterflies back on the wing, and wildflowers popping up all over the reserve. This week also marks about a month since I started at Loch Leven for my second season! It’s been so good to be back out on the reserve, and especially at this time of year as the seasons change from Winter to Spring (and even sometimes feeling like Summer – too soon?). We’ve had lots of nice summer migrants arriving, and this Sunday was a very exciting day for me as we had our first Osprey of the year! I spotted it from the beach at Kirkgate, high in the sky but unmistakable as an Osprey! It’s always worth keeping an eye out for them during the summer months – I find they are always an exciting encounter to have!

A very welcome sight, an Osprey!

One thing I’ve really been enjoying lately is the sounds of our migrant warblers. The Sedge Warblers, Grasshopper Warblers, Whitethroat and Blackcap have now joined the Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers, and they are sounding beautiful along with our resident songbirds around the reserve. This is the perfect time of year to get out and listen to birdsong, especially if you can pull yourself out of bed at dawn to hear the wonderful dawn chorus. Not only are they sounding amazing, they look amazing too! This is a good time of year to spot birds as they sing from high branches, as soon the trees will become fully green and they become hidden in all that vegetation. I managed to record this (rather shaky) video of a Willow Warbler at Burleigh last week, as it was bursting it’s little heart out in song.

A very showy Willow Warbler.

Another amazing bird spectacle to witness at the moment is all the Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins (all of the family Hirundinidae) – they are truly out in force at the moment! If you’ve walked around the trail recently you may have noticed the amount of flies buzzing around, and hopefully these are providing a nice food source for our migrating Swallows and Martins. We’ve also had our first Swift of the year fly past our office this week! These are not Hirundines like Swallows and Martins, but have lots of similarities, sometimes making them quite difficult to tell apart… or maybe that’s just me!

A sight to behold!

It’s not just the birds that are indicative of the changing seasons here at Loch Leven, as more and more wildflowers are also popping up around the reserve. I have especially been enjoying the Red Campion and Cowslip which can be seen at various spots around the reserve.

And with the wildflowers, come the butterflies! It’s been amazing to be out on the reserve on a calm, warm, sunny day and see species such as Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Green-veined White, and my personal favourite – the Orange-tip! I always delight in seeing that flash of orange from the male Orange-tip during a wander through the reserve, but that underwing is equally impressive too!

I also saw my first damselfly of the year on Sunday – a Large Red Damselfly by the Burleigh ponds. However, our insect volunteers spotted 5 at Burleigh meadow on Friday! Apparently this is on the earlier side of sightings for Large Reds here, but they can be seen anytime from late April to early September, so it’s worth keeping an eye out. I’m excited for our other damselfly species to emerge and once again make our ponds at Burleigh come alive!

A Large Red Damselfly stopping for a photo (c) Simon Ritchie

But before I start convincing myself that Summer is upon us, I will continue to enjoy all that Spring has to offer here at Loch Leven – it truly is my favourite time of year!

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Farewell to the Nature Reserve Manager

Sadly, we are now saying goodbye to our long-standing Reserve Manager, Neil Mitchell. Neil first came to Loch Leven in 2009 as a fresh-faced, new-in-post Reserve Manager. Moving from his previous role as the ranger at Montrose Basin and having a stint on St Kilda before hand.

Neil with John Craven

Neil has done a fantastic job of managing Loch Leven National Nature Reserve over the last decade (and more). With his influence, steer and partnership working, a circular trail around Loch Leven was implemented. We have had numerous hides/viewing screens upgraded and constructed, we have efficiently re-modelled our survey techniques to ensure viable scientific data is collected and many, many hours of graft and behind-the-scenes working has kept Loch Leven NNR a special place full of wildlife.

Neil doing trout in the classroom

Neil has welcomed hundreds of groups on the reserve, whether that be education outreach with local schools or far flung universities or practical volunteers from all over Scotland. He was always at the forefront of the Reserve, even having a few appearances on national TV..

His fleeting glimpse on Landward was the highlight last week!

Neil has always been keen to get stuck into various practical work. Very handy with a chainsaw, various fencing tools, boats and a hammer – he would always be keen to get stuck in…

A bit of fencing here…
Bit of sawing there… (This was at Morton Lochs after Storm Arwen)
Handy bit of polesawing…
Neil skippering the sheep with Scott the Shepherd.

Neil also managed for the internationally important populations of waterfowl we get on the loch, even writing a scientific paper! Normally seen with bins around his neck when wandering around the loch, he enjoyed getting out on the loch, conducting brood counts, nest surveys and WeBS (Wetland Bird Surveys).

Checking the Black-headed Gulls
Brood Counts on a cold spring morning
Last years nest survey team – Neil 3rd from left

Wasn’t just the birds. Neil is an all-round naturalist, a keen moth trapper and was occasionally seen delving into plants!

Neil conducting our lesser butterfly orchid survey

Neil built up a brilliant volunteering network of both practical volunteers and insect surveyors. Neil was happiest when outside – ideally involving bonfires and cake…

Have you ever seen a happier Reserve Manager?
There is a theme here…
Definitely a theme…
Neil with the volunteers…

So, for now we say farewell and congratulations to Neil. Neil has moved onto another post with NatureScot as a ‘Wetlands Advisor’. Not sure what it will entail, but I imagine bonfires wont be an annual thing…

His time at Loch Leven NNR will be a long lasting legacy with many great things being achieved. We wont see the last of him, I imagine he will be out on the loch fairly regularly – maybe even with a brown trout on the end of his fly rod……..wishful thinking eh Neil!

From all of us here at Loch Leven NNR we wish Neil all the best and thank him for his enthusiasm, wisdom, knowledge and great friendship over the years.

Thanks Neil!

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Spring happenings…

The first main news of the week is that the Phoenix hide is now open! It’s absolutely fantastic. We are having an opening ceremony on 6th May, so ill talk a bit more about this and the hide in a couple of weeks….

Fantastic Panoramic Views from the Phoenix Hide

We started our week off with the first summer WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) of the season. Our full loch counts are now down to once a month rather than every two weeks to allow time to carry-out our pairs and brood counts on the loch. Now it’s April, the bird numbers have dropped since the winter but we will still have in excess of 8000 birds on the loch! Highlights from Monday’s WeBS include; a female Marsh Harrier heading north, 1000+ Tufted Duck, 80+ Mute Swan and plenty of Mallard and Gadwall.

Non-breeding Mute Swans sizing me up.

Swans are starting to nest now. I’ve spotted a couple round the reserve building their nests. Wont be long until we spot our first cygnets! We have roughly 30 pairs of swans on the Loch, so we could potentially have over 100 cygnets on the loch throughout the season…

Mute Swan building a nest

We have seen our first broods this week (young ducklings with parents). A brood of 10 mallard was spotted at Findatie. Out on the Islands and on the shoreline, Mallard, Mute Swan, Gadwall and Greylag will be sitting on eggs. A reminder to keep your dogs on a lead in sensitive areas and near the shoreline. When out Kayaking keep away from the shoreline and don’t land on any islands, this is all to help the wildfowl that call Loch Leven NNR their home!

Accidentally spooked a few Roe Deer at Carsehall while out doing WeBS

Some more flowers are out now as well, the marsh marigolds are looking good in the spring sunshine!

Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris

I still haven’t spotted an Osprey on the loch yet! Surely any day now we will get one fishing. I am still awaiting a couple more summer migrants like Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler and Whitethroat. Plenty Butterflies on the wing, I have had a look for Green Hairstreak at Levenmouth but no luck yet…

Peacock Butterfly in the car park

Hopefully next week we will spot our first Orange Tip, Green Hairstreak and other spring delights. Worth keeping your eyes peeled at all times at the moment – anything can appear!

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Our New Brass Rubbing Trail and Spring Wildlife Updates

As the title suggests, this week we launched our new ‘Tufty the Tufted Duck’ themed brass rubbing trail. The trail circumnavigates the 13 mile heritage path around the loch and there are 10 brass rubbing posts to find. The posts feature Tufty and friends from the book ‘Tufty the Tufted Duck‘ and there is a leaflet that is available for printing here; https://www.nature.scot/doc/loch-leven-nnr-tufty-tufted-duck-brass-rubbing-trail-leaflet. The leaflet gives you all of the information about the trail and a map where the posts are situated.

Tufted Duck Brass Rubbing Post
Mallard Brass Rubbing Post
Brass Rubbing Post in situ

All you need is some paper, crayons and hand sanitiser. A great adventure for the kids on an easter weekend! I am sure the adults could be tempted by making sure a coffee and cake stop is in order half way round….

In other important Reserve news, our Phoenix Hide is almost complete! It is looking absolutely fantastic. Keep an eye on our social medias for an official opening date, it’s likely to be the end of April. I am really looking forward to spending time in the hide and taking in its special panoramic views and fantastic wildlife encounters!

Isn’t it looking fantastic!

Speaking of wildlife, the spring migrant floodgates have truly opened now! In this past week alone, I have had some excellent birding moments…

My first swallows! I had 4 on Monday
Couple of Swallows ‘Flycatching’ over the office
A Beautiful Male Wheatear in Kirkgate Park
First singing Willow Warbler, true sign of an approaching summer!

I also had my first singing Blackcap, which unfortunately I didnt manage to record and a fly-over House Martin. It’s not just about the birds however, a few plants have been appearing on the Reserve.

Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis just coming into flower.
Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria holostea
White-dead Nettle, Lamium album

Lastly, the Bees are out in force! A fantastic early-nectar source is the willow catkins. Next time you are passing any willow trees, especially at Kirkgate and Burleigh. Look up and see how many insects are buzzing around them, its amazing!

White-tailed Bumblee on Willow Catkin

Let’s see what next week will bring. I am still to see my first Osprey, hear my first Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler and Whitethroat. It wont be long until the Orange Tip butterflies are on the wing. Its a truly magical time of year!

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Hello again!

After a long five months of intermittent attendance on this wonderful reserve, we are very happy to be back into the swing of things this week as myself and Ian have returned for our second season at Loch Leven! And what a first week back it’s been, giving us a taste of all the good (and more challenging) things to look forward to this season. Our main job for the first weekend back was to re-emerge ourselves into life at Loch Leven, while doing a big litter-pick around some of the main areas of the reserve. It’s good to get this done at around this time of the year as most of the vegetation has died back so old litter is easier to spot and it gives us a sort of ‘clean slate’ for the rest of the season. We managed around five full binbags-worth in our first week on the busier western side of the loch. This seems like a lot but a good proportion was ‘historic litter’; mainly bottles and cans which have been lying around for a few years unnoticed, obscured by grass or reeds.

With views like these, it’s easy to enjoy a productive walk around the reserve

Of course our litter-picks always involve some birdwatching and other nature-spotting along the way. This weekend, the hide overlooking the pools at Levenmouth were an absolute treat to visit, brimming with lots of fantastic birdlife including: sparrowhawk, snipe, little grebe, moorhen, mallard, gadwall, coot, teal, heron and, most impressively, upwards of fifteen shoveler – the most we’ve seen all together! Most of these fantastic looking ducks were drakes but amongst them were at least two females, and one pair were engaging in their courtship display. This is quite an unusual and amazing thing to watch, as they circle around each other, submerging their massive ‘shovel-like’ bill under the water. Courtship displays in ducks is something that continues to amaze!

Levenmouth pools in the sun – there are shoveler somewhere in this photo, I swear!

However, along with some nice wildlife on our first weekend back, we also had our first bit of fire damage – a very large fire scar found on the grass right outside the Burleigh hide. This was upsetting to find, especially given it has only been a couple of years since the Mill Hide was burnt down. The new Phoenix Hide is progressing nicely, thanks to a massive fundraising effort from the community, proving that the majority of the people that visit this wonderful reserve appreciate all the benefits it gives as a nature reserve, not only for the numerous species that call it home, but for visitors to enjoy too! However, when such a small minority of people make such a large impact it’s easy to get disheartened, so please always practice responsible access on the reserve. We went out the next day and, using our best efforts, including some ingenious thinking by Simon, have removed and disguised most of the damage. Regardless, this will take quite a few years to fully return to normal.

Before
After

After a very computer-based day on Tuesday dealing with various bits and bobs in and around the office, it was good to get out on Wednesday for some practical work with our volunteers! However, as we’re now getting into the time of year where we will unfortunately see more fires and campers on the reserve, our focus for this week was trying to manage the risk of large fires and irresponsible behaviour, rather than specific nature conservation. There were a few trees felled recently, as they were becoming dangerous and there was risk of them falling on the path, so our task for this volunteer day was to move the smaller bits into a pile at Burleigh car park that the public were welcome to take away as firewood. Although as you may have seen from our Facebook post on Wednesday, this was not to be burned on the reserve, though I doubt we had to worry about that as by the next morning it was all gone!

Keeping a safe distance
Blink and you’ll miss it

We have also been able to go out with our insect volunteers twice already, one of whom is a new start, with another transect planned for later today. Given the time of year, it has been remarkably successful with three different bee species as well as small tortoiseshell butterflies, surely down to the unseasonally-warm weather, though it does now seem to be cooling down a bit again. It wont be long before the damselflies and dragonflies are hovering about too!

It’s still early in the year for flowering plants but there are some colours to be spotted. Both red and white deadnettle are making a bashful appearance and many of the willow catkins are enveloping along with their increasingly greeny foliage. Lots of early yellow hues are to be found with the ever-yellow gorse, dandelion and, if you find yourself in a wetter woodland like Levenmouth, golden saxifrage. There are two species of this flower in Scotland, opposite and alternate-leaved, with the former being much more common, often forming quite extensive patches. I have always loved their transition from dark green to lime green to yellow (or golden). Fun fact: David Bowie’s surname ultimately comes from the Gaelic for yellow, buidhe, pronounced ‘boo-yeh’, but later also meant fair-haired.

Opposite-leaved golden saxifrage – slips off the tongue!

Overall a very productive week, reacquainting ourselves with the reserve and prepping for the rest of the season to come – it’s sure to be a good one!

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With great access rights, comes great responsibility

We have a few big topics to cover today, but first things first…To all those who saw our little April Fool’s on social media this morning, we can assure you that there have not in fact been any flamingos sighted at Loch Leven NNR – well, not recently anyway! What started as (what I thought was) a silly little joke, it turns out, actually has some truth behind it! We had a couple of escaoee visitors way back in 1992 in the form of two Chilean Flamingos!

Though there were no flamingos today, there were lots of geese on Monday! Which marked our final goose count of the winter. The counting spot from Orwell is generally pretty quiet, with geese usually favouring other spots on the loch. But I found myself rushing to count them well into the hundreds just as soon as I arrived, with a total of over 1000! This proved to make up a significant portion of the count, which for the overall loch totalled in at 4780 pink-footed geese and 130 greylags.

The good weather and early light seemed to encourage the geese to head off quite quickly, but I stuck around for a little while longer. The calming stillness of dawn is not something I can easily tear myself away from, and I popped into the Kirkgate cemetery on my way back to the office to enjoy the golden light of sunrise too.

Dawn at Orwell
Sunrise from Kirkgate Cemetery

For every ending though, there is a new beginning…and we are very excited to announce the return of our seasonal staff – Ian and Julie! This will be their second summer at Loch Leven and we’re looking forward to having them back. They will be the first point of contact for many visitors to our reserve during the busiest months – do feel free to stop and say hello if you spot them while out and about!

Seasonal staff are vital for helping reserves deal with the increase in visitor pressures seen during the spring and summer. Warmer weather and sunny skies encourage us to spend more time outdoors, which is great! It’s good for our physical health, our mental wellbeing, and gives us a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of nature. But while the majority of visitors cause no issues at all, there is a small but unfortunately impactful bunch who do, and we are already seeing irresponsible behaviours beginning to once again take place on the reserve.

We had our first relics of a wildfire last weekend, using deadwood from the local woodland during a period of high fire risk. And the first disposable barbeque of the year that, surprise surprise, had not been responsibly disposed of (sidenote – Waitrose and Aldi have announced they will stop selling them due to their environmental impact, which is absolutely a step in the right direction).

The Scottish Outdoor Access code is very clear about what is and isn’t considered responsible behaviour in the outdoors, and you can learn more directly via their website by clicking here.

Follow the advise given by SOAC on social media, and please share with other people too

And speaking of responsible behaviour, today is a big day. From the 1st April – 31st August, water-borne access is allowed on Loch Leven NNR! This applies to all forms of access – swimming, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and any variations thereof (including inflatables) – but it comes with a few conditions that we hope visitors will respect and adhere to:

  • Please do not land on any of the loch islands, as hundreds of birds use them to breed and raise young.
  • Castle Island is closed as Historic Scotland have advised that the castle monument is unsafe.
  • Please stay 200 meters away from the shoreline to avoid disturbing breeding birds (apart from the designated launch spots at Kirkgate Park and the main Burleigh Sands beach).
  • No launching is allowed from Findatie Beach as the surrounding areas are key breeding sites for birds.
  • Motorised boats are not included in Scotland’s access legislation, and are not permitted on Loch Leven.
    The only exceptions to this are boats owned by NatureScot, CEH and the fishery.

We will have multiple signs up around the reserve notifying visitors of this access guidance, which is put in place to protect the many breeding birds found across Loch Leven NNR. This reserve is recognised on an international level for it’s importance as a breeding site for waterfowl and knowingly disturbing breeding birds, their eggs and nests, is a legal offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) which can carry fines of up to £5000. Loch Leven is first and foremost a wildlife reserve, and one that has, like many other reserves, seen a noticeable increase in disturbance in the past few years.

As the weather gets milder it is also important for all trail users to learn how to recognise the signs of an algal bloom, as they can be harmful to human and animal health. The first algal bloom of the year was reported earlier this month, and health notices have been put in place along the Heritage Trail.

Avian Flu has also sadly been confirmed at Loch Leven NNR. This means that dead birds are likely to be found around the reserve. We understand that this can be an upsetting sight and are following government guidelines closely regarding the proper action. It is advised that the public do not touch or handle any dead birds.

Algal bloom at Burleigh

Onto more exciting news, we have a new addition to our vehicles in the form of a brand new boat!
It was bought to replace our very old and tired little boat, and as with all replacements to equipment we wanted to improve our sustainability efforts as well as reduce our carbon footprint.

This new boat is fully electric and the hull is made entirely of recycled plastic, which is far more environmentally friendly than using fuel, and has the added bonus of being low disturbance too. The electric engine is so much quieter that we are far less likely to disturb wildlife while on the loch, which is particularly important as this boat will primarily be used for wildlife monitoring during summer – a necessary part of reserve work to ensure various species populations are doing well.

We’ve already got it into the water and out to St Serf’s and Castle Island, where we have put signs in place regarding the new water access guidance. It’s not exactly a speedboat, but it will do the job nicely.

And lastly, but certainly not least of all – the Phoenix Hide construction is progressing well. It’s so exciting to see an actual building appear over the past couple of weeks, where for as long as I have been working at Loch Leven there have only been bare foundations. We cannot wait until the hide is complete and we can welcome you all back! The trail will again be open from this evening and over the weekend, but will close again on Monday while construction works continue, and the diversion will be reinstated.

The view (sort of) from the new Phoenix Hide

Phew! That felt like a lot to get through all in one blog, but it’s all important infomation that’s best shared sooner rather than later. We hope that the changes to the water-borne guidance are clear and that the reasoning behind it all makes sense. We have very special access rights across most of Scotland, but only if we do so responsibly.

Nature is all about balance, and we must all do our best to ensure that balance is achieved between our enjoyment and protection of nature.

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Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs and Butterflies

A true spring title for this blog. Spring has been the running theme this week; warmer weather, wildflowers, avian migrants and insects. The week started off with the first Sand Martins of the year. While out doing our last WeBS (Wetland bird survey) count of the winter, we spotted 4 flying over kirkgate point. These enigmatic birds are in the family Hirundinidae – swallows and martins. Collectively known in English as Hirundines. Sand Martin are agile flyers, often seen flying over water hunting for flies. Listen out for their rasppy-buzzy-farty call as they fly over head. They can be confused with Swallows – which have larger wings, a red throat, long tail streamers and a blue sheen to their body. A good guide to confusion species is here; https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/birdwatching/how-to-identify-birds/swift-swallow-or-martin/

The fleeting glimpse of a Sand Martin
A better photo – not mine! (c) Gus Routledge

All around the reserve, Chiffchaffs have been calling. These are usually our first spring migrants, arriving back in March from their winter in southern Europe/north Africa. Chiffchaffs are warblers, a family known for their hard identification and similar looking species. The best way to ID a chiffchaff is by its song; a clear – chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff. Their main confusion species that you are likely to see in Spring is the Willow Warbler (usually arrive Mid-April). Chiffchaff usually have darker legs, darker plumage and behave a bit differently with more tail-flicking. Chiffchaffs look a bit more dumpy, Willow Warblers have longer wing length, brighter legs, plumage and eyestripe (known as supercilium) and a completely different song. As always, there is variation in birds – so learning the song is a foolproof way to determine species.

Chiffchaff (c) RSPB
Willow Warbler (c) RSPB

I have seen numerous butterflies and bumblebees this week, mainly flying past at a rate of knots. Ive seen Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies, Buff-tailed and Common Carder Bumblebees. This amazingly fresh Peacock did co-operate for a split second for a photo. Absolutely stunning, look at those blue eyes on their wings!

Peacock Butterfly

If you are passing the reedbed at Carsehall, or any other wetland around the reserve for that matter; listen out for the croaking frogs! The male Frogs are now calling to attract a mate and compete against other males in the battle to win a female. It did seem that one did catch a bit of luck…

Croaking Frogs – you might have to turn up your volume.
Love is in the air!
Not the best place for it…. I had to shimmy these lovebirds off the path

and on that note, please watch out for frogs and toads on paths as this is the time that they are moving from wetland to wetland. We would rather leave them in peace to get on with their business….

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Bits and pieces, and some beaches

It’s been an odd jobs, bits-and-pieces, week this week. The highlight of which is of course the commencing of the rebuild of the Mill Hide! Works began smoothly and we’re already seeing some good progress with it’s creation. Please note that this section of the Heritage Trail will remain closed until the rebuild is complete. Follow the diversion signs in the car park and along the high street – we are checking the route regularly to ensure everything is signed as it should be, but do let us know if something seems amiss.

Diversion route, from the pier car park to the train monument junction

Tuesday took me away from my usual office and quite a bit further north, up to Forvie National Nature Reserve. As a practical placement I am provided oppertunities to try out things beyond my day to day tasks and responsibilities. This includes the occasional chance to visit other reserves, to help out with specific tasks that could use an extra hand or two. So this week I headed up to Forvie NNR to help set up the boundary fence around the ternary (see more here), which also provided a chance to explore the reserve a bit, meet the team and get a bit of wildlife watching in. In just a few hours I learned a great deal about the many confounding issues facing the different species found on the reserve, as well as feeling a definite strain in my legs from walking along the windy sand dunes!

Forvie NNR
A scene not unlike St Serfs during summer, with black headed gulls moving in to nest

Back to Loch Leven and my, there is warmth in that sun today! After a computer based day yesterday (very un-blog-worthy), I was keen to make the most of the good weather. So I ended the week with a cycle round the reserve. These are good to do semi-regularly to check over everything around the reserve in greater detail than we can sometimes spot while doing other tasks. In this instance, I was paying particular attention to any patchwork our fencing may need – in the run up to the bird breeding season it’s important to ensure they won’t be accidentally disturbed. Bird feeders needed filling up, litter needed picking, and some signs required a bit of TLC. Little jobs that, on their own, wouldn’t take me even close to a whole day. But add them all together and you end up with a good few hours to fill, and that’s no bad thing when the weather is as beautiful as this!

A stop off at the Levenmouth hide yeilded busy scenes of moorhen, mallard, mute swans, teal and even a pair of shoveler! They’re impossible to mistake for anything else, since their beaks are like, well, shovels! A yearly first for me and a nice addition to the list, I also heard several yellowhammer giving their characterisitc “a little bit of bread and no cheese” call (they really do sound like this!) as well as spotting a brilliantly yellow male in a hedge to the side of the trail. Reports say that the first of the sand martins have been spotted in the area too, though I wasn’t so lucky as to see any today, and many have heard chiffchaffs singing again.

A male shoveler (front centre), male teal (left) and mallard pair (back centre)
A juvenile cormorant (note the pale belly) perched on the pier at Findatie beach

Snowdrops and daffodils have been popping up everywhere too, bringing some long awaited colour back to our plant life. It’s getting me excited for the season to continue, I can’t wait for our wildflower meadows to be buzzing and fluttering with life again. A beautiful end to the week, and I think if the forecast is correct I’ll be spending most of my weekend outdoors too!

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