Sound of the whoopers..

During a litter pick of the Levenmouth Hide on Monday morning I heard a familiar sound. The ‘hoot-hoot-hoot’ of whooper swans! These magnificent swans come to the UK to winter, and I always relish their arrival.

Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) (c) Simon Ritchie

The majority of the Whooper Swans we get here in the UK breed in Iceland. The Icelandic population of Whooper Swan winter primarily in the UK, this is thought to be the longest sea-crossing of any swan species in the world! An 800 mile flight is very impressive, and it is even more impressive when you think of the young birds from this year making the perilous journey.

Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) ©Lorne Gill

Whooper Swans differ from their Mute Swan cousins. They have a bright yellow bill, are much more vocal and look slightly more elegant. There is no difference between the male and female which are known as the Cob and Pen. The juvenile birds from this year are a lovely, dusky grey colour and the bill is an off-white/grey colour. It takes the bird around 2 years to get a fully yellow bill.

Whooper Swan in Background, Mute Swan in foreground (c) NatureScot

Another confusion species is the Bewick Swan, although these swans are very rare in Scotland. They are 1/3 smaller than a Whooper Swan and their bill has more black than yellow. Bewick swans (also known as Tundra swans) come from Siberia and the call of these swans is much more high pitched, almost like an excited dog! The chances are, if you are seeing a Swan with a yellow bill in Scotland, it will be a whooper!

Whooper, Mute Swans and Greylag Geese (c) NatureScot

Whooper Swans tend to travel in family groups, so you often get a large influx over a few days. Last week there were none and on Monday I had 67! Interestingly enough, of these 67 Whoopers, only 5 of which were juvenile. I wonder if this influx was mainly of non-breeders.

Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) © NatureScot

These swans are truly wild, often much more wary and timid than our pond dwelling, seed and bread eating Mute Swans. Whooper Swans are an amber listed species, meaning that their wintering and breeding numbers have been declining in the UK over the last 30 years (Whoopers do breed in Scotland, although in extremely small numbers). Although it is not all bad news as it seems that the population in Iceland is increasing!

I love Whoopers, they symbolise winter for me. Their vocal hoots often accompany frost and a low lying mist on a dawning winters day.

A wintry Whooper Swan Scene (c) Peter McPhail

Next time you are out and about on the Loch or a local wetland, have a look (and listen) for these magnificent birds, they are hard to miss and a joy to spot! The numbers will gradually increase throughout Winter and we can have up to 200 on the Loch.

Magical birds!

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Seeing Red

In my last blog, I wrote about how the start of September ushered in a distinctly autumnal feel. Well now the last few days have felt positively wintery as clear skies and Arctic winds have caused temperatures to plummet. In fact, Wednesday saw the UK’s coldest September night in over 20 years, with the mercury dropping to -5°C in the Highlands. On 22 September we crossed the threshold of the autumn equinox and from now until spring days will be shorter than nights. The numbers of pink-footed geese are building up at Loch Leven day by day, a sure sign we are now firmly in autumn.

Pink-footed (Anser brachyrhynchus) geese at Loch Leven NNR © Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Autumn is also one of the best times of year to spot red squirrels, because they are busy gathering food for winter and there are fewer leaves on the trees. Indeed, 21-27 is Red Squirrel Week and coincides with the Great Scottish Squirrel Survey. This nationwide squirrel survey is run by Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels and encourages everyone to get outdoors and report their sightings of red and grey squirrels. You can also report your squirrel sightings to the organisation throughout the year and this data is vital in monitoring population sizes and mapping the distribution of squirrels across the country.

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

There are estimated to be about 160,000 red squirrels remaining in the UK and around 75% of them live in Scotland. The reds’ stronghold is the Highlands, while only grey squirrels are found around the urban centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow. At Loch Leven, we straddle the borderline between the two species and see both red and grey squirrels. Anecdotally, I mainly see reds around the trail and they are regular visitors to the peanut feeder outside our office, whereas I have only seen greys a couple of times over the last year. This matches up with reported sightings of squirrels in the area, with grey squirrels mainly being seen near Kinross.

Sightings of red (red dots) and grey (grey dots) squirrels around Loch Leven © Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, Ordnance Survey

Most people are aware that red squirrels are our native species, while the larger grey squirrels are an invasive non-native species introduced from North America in the 1870s. Grey squirrels displace reds by outcompeting them for food and habitat but also, perhaps most significantly, by acting as carriers for a disease called squirrelpox. This is lethal to reds but not greys. On mainland Europe red squirrels are much more common and greys are only found in Italy, so efforts are directed at preventing their spread across the Alps. In Scotland, the focus is on containing squirrelpox and stopping further spread of grey squirrels into the Highlands.

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Grey squirrels are generally controlled by trapping and killing. This can be successful, but is expensive, time-consuming, and raises questions over animal welfare. However, new hope is offered by the resurgence of pine martens. Grey squirrel numbers have fallen, while red squirrel populations have recovered, in some areas of Scotland and Ireland where pine martens have returned. These predators are omnivores and will hunt both red and grey squirrels, but greys may be more susceptible to predation as they are less agile and lack an innate fear of pine marten scent.

Pine Marten (Martes martes) © Lorne Gill/NatureScot

If you would like to take part in the Great Scottish Squirrel Survey this weekend, all you need to do is get outdoors in your garden or local greenspace and report your squirrel sightings by following this link.

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Return of the Skeins

They’re back! Our winter visitors from Iceland and Eastern Greenland have arrived. Pink-Footed Geese appear en-mass in early September with numbers peaking in Scotland in late October. These fabulous birds have spent the short arctic summer breeding in the tundra and have now made landfall in Scotland to winter.

Pink-footed Geese (c) NatureScot

A small number of arrivals were noted on the 5th September this year in Scotland, and since then more and more skeins of geese have been seen in our skies. It won’t be long until dawn and dusk are filled with the sound of their characteristic ‘wink-wink’ call. These birds are the true harbinger of autumn.

Here at Loch Leven, our numbers will peak at the end of October. We can see up to 20,000 of them on the loch, which makes for an amazing spectacle! These birds will use the safety of the loch to roost and the surrounding farmlands to feed. The arrival of these birds coincide perfectly with the harvest season. The geese will feed on post-harvest cereal stubble that is left over and large flocks are usually seen in near-by fields.

Pink-footed Geese feeding in a stubble field (c) NatureScot

The world’s Pink-footed Goose population is increasing (Hurrah!). There are now around 450,000 – 500,000 Pink-footed Geese and almost all of them winter in the UK. Our winters are much milder than Iceland, and the feeding here is much better during the winter months, hence why we get a large arrival of these magnificent birds.

Normally, these geese will depart from Iceland and fly 12-24 hours depending on the winds (sometimes stopping at the Faroe Islands en-route) and arrive in the north of Scotland. The North-East is usually the first geographic area to welcome the first skeins. Places like RSPB Loch of Strathbeg, Loch of Skene and SWT Montrose Basin can get the first large congregations of geese. Into October, these numbers will build up around the country, with the biggest Scottish Pink-Footed Goose colony being Montrose Basin with numbers up to 90,000!

Pink-footed Geese grazing in a stubble field (c) NatureScot

In November, the Scottish population starts moving further south into England and end up spending the winter in places like East-Anglia and Lancashire. The 80,000 at Montrose Basin can drop down to 20,000-30,000 in a few weeks. Our peak of around 15,000 – 20,000 will drop down to 5,000-10,000 throughout winter.

Pink-footed Geese are extremely fascinating birds, and every year I await their arrival with excitement! I have already seen a few skeins of around 50 birds flying over the loch. Watch out though, as we also have both Greylag and Canada Geese on the Loch just now, try and not get confused when identifying them. Pink-footed Goose can be heard here; https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Anser-brachyrhynchus (listen out for that distinctive ‘wink-wink’ high pitched call).

Pink-footed Goose (front) and Greylag Goose (behind) (c) NatureScot

My advice to you all is try and get out one early morning and enjoy a goose sunrise on the loch, this is a great time to see the birds leaving the roost and heading out to do some feeding for the day. Although for all of you non-early birds, the geese will arrive back at sunset and it is just as spectacular!  

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A change is in the air

This week started with 31 August, the last day of meteorological summer, and it certainly feels like the seasons are changing with the cold, wet and windy weather. It’s strange, given many of us have been getting used to a slower pace of life, but I’ve found this summer has flown by in a blur. It seems only moments ago we were in the freezing depths of winter and I was wishing on the new life and warmth promised by spring and summer. However, all around me at Loch Leven, the signs that summer is drawing to an end are hard to ignore.

The trees may still have their leaves, but the berries are ripening to red on hawthorns and rowans, foreshadowing the arrival of hungry hordes of winter migrant birds like redwings, fieldfares, and waxings.

Hawthorn
Rowan

Numbers of wildfowl on the loch are building up, as birds gather here at the end of the breeding season for protection in numbers as they moult into new feathers.

Numbers of wildfowl, like mute swans, rise at this time of year

The bright flower spikes of rosebay willowherb act like a natural calendar, opening in sequence from the bottom up over the course of summer, only reaching the top at summer’s end. The blaze of pink which lined much of the trail just weeks ago has all but disappeared, with just the final few flowers remaining. Wet meadows recently dominated by the tall white flowers of wild angelica are now fading to shades of brown as the plant goes to seed.

The last few flowers of rosebay willowherb
Brown stands of wild angelica after flowering

Yet, not all wildflowers are past their best. I went on a bike ride in search of plants that are still in flower, giving a welcome splash of colour and much needed nectar and pollen for insects. Red campion is a stalwart, flowering right through from April to October. I love it and have planted it in the garden to provide interest for months on end. The white flowers of yarrow are also still a common sight in the meadows. Common knapweed has largely gone to seed, but its flowers are still widespread and are a favourite of bumblebees and butterflies.

Red campion
Yarrow
Common knapweed in flower and going to seed

I also spotted some purple loosestrife in amongst the reeds. I’ve just got back from holiday in Argyll, where this plant was common and lined the road verges, but it is relatively scarce on the reserve.

Purple loosestrife

Some plants are late flowerers and characteristic of late summer and autumn. Harebells (also called bluebells in Scotland) form pleasing patches of lilac close to the ground. Two close relatives, field scabious and devil’s-bit scabious, also come into their own around now and are excellent for pollinators.

Harebell
Devil’s-bit scabious and a carder bee
Field scabious

The change of seasons also heralds new tasks at Loch Leven. It’s bye-bye to balsam bashing (woop woop!) and hello to meadow management. Conservation management of wildflower meadows typically mimics traditional practices of cutting meadows for hay. The rattling sound produced by the mature seed heads of yellow rattle was said to signify the time to make hay in former times. This is usually in mid-summer, but we normally delay our cuts until September to benefit pollinators and allow late flowering plants to set seed.

Mature yellow rattle seed heads

We carried out our first meadow cut of the season with our volunteers this week. The cut vegetation is baled up and removed to be composted in less sensitive areas. This annual removal of vegetation both takes away nutrients and allows light to reach more delicate wildflowers. This keeps more vigorous, competitive species in check and increases the overall diversity of flowers in the meadow.

Volunteers baling cut hay as part of wildlflower meadow management

Let’s hope we still have some warm days ahead of us in September, but it won’t be long until we see autumn colour on the trees and migrant geese will be arriving here at Loch Leven.

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Hello!

Hello! My name is Simon, and I am the new Nature Reserve Officer at Loch Leven National Nature Reserve. I have made a short 80 mile migration southwards from St Cyrus National Nature Reserve where I have been volunteering and working for the last 8 years. I am extremely excited to get stuck into all things Loch Leven! I started last week and already I am blown away by the sheer magnificence of this wonderful national nature reserve.

I cannot wait to see how the loch changes over the seasons and to welcome all of the seasonal wildlife that calls Loch Leven its home. It will be a tough job to fill the boots of previous reserve officer Jeremy, but I will give it my best shot! I am an extremely keen naturalist with a particular interest in birds, butterflies, moths and plants and I love getting stuck into different practical jobs around nature reserves.

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Measuring Broken Boardwalks…(excuse the wellies)

In my first week of work, I managed to get out and do a variety of jobs. This included; balsam bashing with the volunteers, strimming, chainsawing, boat cleaning, flood alleviating, cycling around the loch (numerous times) and much more. When I did my first cycle around the loch, I was totally surprised at the amount of different habitats Loch Leven has to offer. From species-rich grasslands, oak-woodland, birch-woodlands, wet grasslands, reed beds and wetlands; the amount of diversity is staggering! I have seen osprey fishing almost every day, large groups of siskin over Levenmouth woods, water rail squeeling in the reed beds and even a Loch Leven rarity bird; turnstone!

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Juvenile Turnstone at Burleigh (c) Gus Routledge

It was one of the first birds I saw on the Loch since starting and I was quickly made aware that it is not a common bird here, less than 20 records! It is not only birds however, my good friend and previous Loch Leven student placement, Gus Routledge spotted this scarce plant while out wandering here last week. Current Student placement Chris Boyce also spotted it on another part of the reserve as well! The wonderful Large-flowered Hemp Nettle (Galeopsis speciosa).

There is so much interesting wildlife to be seen at Loch Leven and I am in my element! While summer still clings on, I will try and see if I can catch any interesting plants before the inevitable return of Autumn.

Speaking of which, it is 2-3 weeks until the arrival of our wintering Pink-footed Geese. As an obsessed Goose guy, I can’t wait! Until then, let’s enjoy the last remaining weeks of summer. If you see me around the trails, feel free to stop and have a chat. I may see some of you out there!

Simon Ritchie

Nature Reserve Officer

Loch Leven NNR

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Floods and Flowers

It seems as though the autumn storms have rolled in early this year.  Tuesday night’s thunder and lightning was amazing!  I don’t know if I have ever experienced anything like that not even in the Tropics! 

With so much rain we had to change our volunteer’s plans on Wednesday morning.  We were filling up sandbags to stop the water coming into the office, public toilets and the fishery.  It was all hands on deck!  Wading through flood water is not a good time to discover you have a hole in your welly, which I soon realised I had! 

Later we went off to do some more balsam bashing and within those few hours the water levels had gone down significantly at the office.  There has been some flood damage on the Trail, particularly on the access paths at Findatie so please take extra care around there until it can be repaired.

Climate change is predicting that we will have wetter summers.  In the future the wetlands and places like Loch Leven will become even more important for holding flood water.  It is important for us to connect Loch Leven to other wetland areas to act as a corridor for wildlife.  When these flood events occur it will be more difficult for dabbling ducks like mallard and teal to find food.  If we are able to create and maintain areas where they can move in order to feed we can improve their chances of survival. 

Elsewhere on the reserve we have been working away on the invasive plants.  Last week Chris and I tackled the Giant Hogweed growing on the North Queich.  This week Simon and I will be tackling the American Skunk Cabbage along the Ury burn.  Although these invasive plants are not yet on the reserve, it is important for us to stop them coming downstream so we don’t have a problem on the loch.  With a few years of working on a catchment scale we can try and reduce the threat of these invasive species and then we can focus on managing the Himalayan Balsam.

The Grass of Parnassus is flowering at Findatie just now. It is also known as the bog star.  It has beautiful ivory-white flowers laced with green veins around the golden stigma and stamens.  There is also plenty of knapweed and scabious plants flowering there as well.

I’m not sure if it is having been in lockdown for most of this year but it seems like autumn is here already.  The Rowan trees are hanging heavily with their berries and the Gelder Rose berries are reddening up.  I was walking around the reserve this weekend and the rosehips are looking shiny and red too.  I was often told that if the berries are early it is a sign of a bad winter to come but it is more likely to have just been a good growing season.  These berries are a good food source for our woodland birds especially during the winter months and the migrants such as redwing and fieldfare love them!

To keep up with the long-tailed tit feature on my blogs although I don’t have a picture to show you I did hear them calling as I wrote this blog outside the office at the picnic table!

Wednesday – after the storm

I’m taking some leave this week to tackle the invasive plants which have been growing in my garden.  When I come back we will be into the mowing season on the Reserve and there may even be some early autumn migrants to report.  This is my favourite time of the year at Loch Leven – I can’t wait to get back!

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Balsam, birds and other beasties

We have had another busy week of strimming and pulling balsam.  As much as we try to remove it, we keep finding more! 

While strimming last week I stopped to have drink and sat on a fallen tree.  It must have been a good place to stop for whenI looked down I saw where a squirrel had been feeding.  Squirrels strip pine cones from the base up; they hold the cone in their paws and pull off the scales to get to the seeds inside.  When I was about to head back to the office I spotted the culprit clambering around in the canopy; it is not the best picture as I was trying to point it out to some visitors and it dashed off before I could focus the camera.

I have been noticing plenty of other mammals on the reserve just now including a number of roe deer.  In the summer months their coats are a bright rusty red colour rather than slate grey.  On Saturday there was one hiding around the pools at Levenmouth and I also spotted a brown hare in the fields at Findatie.

On Tuesday I was up before the crack of dawn to ring birds in the grounds of our Battleby office.  I love ringing but I am definitely more of a winter ringer!  The daylight comes in that bit later and I can get a few more hours in my bed!  We had a really good session with nearly 50 birds ringed with most of the birds we caught being juveniles.  We had been watching a mixed flock of siskin, chaffinch and tits and on our last net round we headed off to take the nets down and found that part of flock had flown into the net; there were so many we had to go back to the car to get more bags!

The ‘star birds’ of the day were a willow warbler and two chiffchaff.  It is really impressive that a bird weighing under 7g can travel over thousand miles to spend its summer here and then fly back again to winter in Africa.

There are still lots of insects around with the bees enjoying a variety of wildflowers which are flowering on the reserve. I spotted a couple of red-tailed bumbles on knapweed today and the carder bees were enjoying the Viper’s Bugloss outside the Battleby office on Tuesday. Ringlet, meadow brown and small tortoiseshell butterflies are all still fluttering around.

I don’t think I am able to write a blog these days without including another picture of long-tailed tits which I saw this week in Levenmouth woods!

Better get back to bashing some more of this balsam!

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The balsam blues

I’m a dedicated plant lover and it pains me to say it, but right now I hate Himalayan balsam. I’ve spent three solid weeks pulling, cutting and strimming the stuff. I’ve had countless nettle stings, regular entanglement with brambles, and developed a numb arm from excessive strimming. Yet despite all this effort, the wretched plant still seems to be everywhere. Just when you think you’ve dealt with a patch, you see one more plant, which leads you to another, then another, then a whole host of them mocking you from deep in an inaccessible thicket. Even the sight of them offends me with their gangly proportions, lurid green stems, and garish pink flowers.

Grrrrrrr

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Any tedious and repetitive task can make you resentful, especially if at times it feels hopeless: Himalayan balsam is present on large swathes of the reserve, despite years of concerted control. Taking a step back, it’s not the plant’s fault. It has no malicious intent and never asked to be taken outside its natural range. As its name suggests, the plant is native to the foothills of the western Himalayas in Pakistan and India, and is found at elevations of around 2000-3000 metres above sea level. In these conditions, the plant is smaller and less vigorous because its performance is limited by climate and natural enemies. As such, it does not cause the problems seen elsewhere and instead forms an integral part of the ecosystem.

Dense stands of Himalayan balsam at Loch Leven

Maybe I should direct my anger at the Victorian plant collectors who brought Himalayan balsam back to the UK in 1839 and introduced it as a garden ornamental. However, their ecological understanding was much more limited and I can understand their excitement and sense of adventure in travelling the world and finding new and unusual lifeforms. Indeed, gardens across the nation are still bursting with colourful exotic plants and it is only recently that organisations like the Royal Horticultural Society have started to look into the benefits of choosing British native plants e.g. to support plant-dwelling invertebrates. In fact, invasive species can have a long “lag phase” between being first introduced and becoming problematic. For example, Japanese knotweed, another well-known invasive plant, was present in the UK for nearly 100 years before its distribution began to spread rapidly. The next Himalayan balsam or Japanese knotweed could already be lying in wait in a garden near you.

Himalayan balsam ina typical hard to reach spot

Invasive non-native species (INNS) are characterised by their ability to spread and result in negative impacts on the environment, biodiversity, and/or social and economic interests. Himalayan balsam produces around 2500 seeds per plant which are launched up to 7 metres by explosive seed heads and dispersed further afield via watercourses. Reaching 2-3 metres, it is the tallest annual plant in the UK and forms dense stands which outcompete native vegetation and block light from reaching the ground. This results in close to a Himalayan balsam monoculture which is bad news for the native ecosystems which are replaced. In addition, it often invades river banks which are then vulnerable to erosion when the plants die back in the autumn.

Densely packed Himalayan balsam and not much else

The traditional options for control of Himalayan balsam are physical removal or the use of herbicides. We try to use physical methods like pulling and cutting as much as possible, but its hard work and very time consuming. The plant has an annoying tendency to grow amongst nettles and brambles or in difficult to reach places within thick shrubs or on steep banks. In the future, we may be able to take advantage of biological control using natural enemies. Indeed, a highly selective rust fungus which coevolved with Himalayan balsam in its native range has now been identified. This has been released at multiple sites in England and Wales with some success, though not all plants are susceptible. It has been found that different strains of the rust fungus from different parts of India and Pakistan are effective in controlling different plants. Now the hunt is on to find strains that will infect all the main types of Himalayan balsam in the UK. I’ve got my fingers crossed that one day soon we’ll be able to down tools and hand this job over to the fungus!

Volunteers excited for a day of cutting Himalayan balsam
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Back to work!

I am very happy to be back on the Reserve, it has been a long winter! Our main job just now is tackling the invasive plants on the reserve and we have them all!  There is a lot of Himalayan Balsam around and we have been strimming and hand pulling where we can.  Normally we would have our team of volunteers out with us, which would make this a much quicker and more enjoyable task but at the moment it is just the two of us.  Chris has also been working on Giant Hogweed along the North Queich and I am just about to tackle the Skunk Cabbage which is growing along the burn.

We would have been out with our volunteers counting Lesser Butterfly Orchids at Carsehall, instead I tried to count them myself!  As many people who know me will understand, I am not very good at walking in a straight line particularly when I am looking for things.  Fortunately I did manage to find plenty of plants without falling over although they were not at their best.  It is a shame we did not have an accurate count this year but it was nice to see they are still there and in good numbers.

My plant hunting continued at the weekend, and I went to look for coralroot orchid.  These plants are normally quite difficult to find but now the vegetation had grown up it was even trickier.  Jeremy took me to look for them last year so I knew where to go and I managed to find some. The plants had turned to seed pods but I was still happy to have found them.  I’ve stolen a picture from Jeremy’s blog a few years ago to show you them in flower.  They are really nice plants and the satisfaction from finding them makes them even better.

We managed to launch the big boat on Monday, Neil is hoping to get the sheep out on St Serfs soon and start on some brood counts. We have had our first WeBS count since lockdown, there were large rafts of tufted duck around factory hide and while chatting to some locals we spotted a brood of Gadwall swimming past.

mallard brood

There are still lots of summer migrants around. While out on the Trail today I noticed this Whitethroat singing in the tree, as their name suggests they have a prominent white throat!

I also had a flock of long-tailed tit join me while I was pulling balsam, they are my favourite birds so certainly made this job much better.

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First week back: a week of firsts

We’re back! Last Thursday, Louise and I returned to Loch Leven for the first time since lockdown began and were welcomed by warm sun and a clear blue sky. We took straight to the Heritage Trail, going for a cycle patrol around the loch to help prioritise tasks for the coming days. Dramatic change had unfolded in our absence and we were hit by the sights and sounds of summer: the bright green of fresh bracken, wildflower meadows a riot of colour, and late migrant birds like swifts hunting for insects over our heads.

View of Loch Leven from the Heritage Trail

In just a few days on the reserve, I came into contact with a whole range of wildlife for the first time this year. The main green spaces I can visit within five miles of home are parks and woodlands, so I’ve not had access to the array of environments that makes Loch Leven so special like meadows, wetlands and freshwater habitats. As such, I missed out on experiencing the normal spring procession of the natural calendar, instead being confronted with many new arrivals all at once. For me, this emphasised the value of the diversity of habitats provided by nature reserves and wild places, something we can take for granted when used to easy travel and freedom of movement. So, here are my year firsts (with photo evidence!) from this week:

Sedge warbler

Sedge warblers are summer visitors and winter in sub-Saharan Africa. Have a listen to their unusual and much varied song, full of clicks, whistles and mimicry:

© Gabriel A. Jamie, XC424575. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/424575.

This is a characteristic sound of summer at Loch Leven and you can hear it all around the trail, coming from shrubs, trees and reed beds. Listen for where the song is coming from and then you’ll find the singer: a small brown and cream bird with a bold stripe above the eye.

Damselflies

Azure damselflies pairing
Large red damselfly

Damselflies are related to dragonflies, but are smaller and more delicate. At rest, their wings are usually held together above the body, whereas dragonflies spread their wings out horizontally at a right angle to the body. Mating damselflies form a ‘heart’ or ‘wheel’: the male holds the female by the neck with claspers at the tip of the abdomen while she bends her body around to his reproductive organs. They are usually found close to water and the ponds at Burleigh are a good place to spot them on a sunny day.

Grasshopper song

Common green grasshopper at Burleigh
The meadow at Burleigh is a prime spot for hearing grasshoppers

I love the experience of walking through a meadow and hearing the sound of grasshoppers. Their ‘song’ is known as stridulation and is a means of communication produced by rubbing the hind legs and forewings together. Again, head to Burleigh when the sun is shining and you are sure to hear them in the meadows. Follow your ears and you may spot one, although they tend to go quiet when you get near and have a habit of jumping away!

Osprey

An osprey flying away from the loch with a freshly caught fish

This osprey flew over our heads clutching a fish on our first day back. There are no ospreys breeding at Loch Leven but they will come to hunt for food. We often get the most sightings in autumn when the juveniles are hunting for themselves and moving away from their parents.

Orchids

Common spotted orchid

Orchids always seem like such tropical plants to me, but in fact there are 29 native species in the UK. Findatie is a good place to spot common spotted and early marsh orchids, while we have an important population of the rare lesser butterfly orchid at Carsehall bog.

Burying beetles

Common sexton beetle

While out litter picking I found these striking beetles in a not so glamorous location: feeding on a dead mouse inside a Buckfast bottle. Common sexton beetles are a type of burying beetle which are important decomposers. They feed on and bury the carcasses of small vertebrates, laying their eggs within the body. More than being a year first, this was the first time I had ever knowingly seen these beetles. However, it turns out they are actually quite common and the reason I’m not familiar with them is more because I haven’t yet developed the habit of poking around in decomposing remains. Maybe I should though, because Loch Leven is one of only two locations in the entire UK where the endangered carrion beetle Thanatophilus dispar has been recorded since 1970.

There you have it, a week full of new wildlife experiences for the year. Is there anything in nature that you’ve been particularly missing over the past few months? I know some of you will be able to get out more now the five mile restriction on travel being lifted today. If so, I hope you too have a new found appreciation for what’s on offer in the wider countryside around you.

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