We are living in strange times and for most of us life has changed beyond recognition. Nature can provide welcome solace during these troubling days and I find it especially reassuring to see the constancy of natural cycles while everything else shifts around us. Spring is bursting forth with all its usual vigour and our staff and volunteers have been in touch via social media with sights of peacock and comma butterflies, buff-tailed bumblebee queens, and coltsfoot and lesser celandine in flower.
Yet this appreciation of nature must be balanced with our duty to protect each other from the spread of coronavirus, by avoiding contact with all outside our household. This means taking a closer look at the nature in our immediate surroundings: in your own garden if you are lucky enough to have one or in your local park or nature reserve while taking your daily exercise. For the staff at Loch Leven NNR, this means working on a nature reserve now involves sitting at a desk at home. I don’t live close enough to Loch Leven to visit for exercise and I’ve not been on the reserve since the lockdown was announced last Monday.
As such, my blog posts are going to have to deviate from usual topics like wildlife sightings and the work we have been doing on the reserve. Instead, I’m going to go into a bit more depth about what makes Loch Leven such a special place in terms of conservation. Loch Leven is rightly famous for its wintering wildfowl and I wrote a blog post about our pink-footed geese back in November. These and other wintering birds will now be returning to their breeding grounds as far away as Iceland. But did you know that come spring and summer, Loch Leven is home to more breeding ducks than anywhere else in inland Europe? This makes the loch a vital resource for wildlife throughout the seasons.
Loch Leven is a particularly important breeding site for tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula). Males of this species are particularly dapper fellows with a glossy black back, white flanks, and their distinctive crest at the back of the head. Females are plainer and have brown flanks, but in the same overall pattern as the male. Both sexes have bright yellow eyes and a blue-grey bill with a black tip. Tufted ducks are diving ducks and they often dive with a noticeable jump to go in search of food on the bottom of the loch. Their diet is varied and will include insects, crustaceans and plants like pondweed and sedges.
Tufted ducks breed on shallow inland lochs and avoid deep water and so Loch Leven, which has an average depth of only around 4 metres, provides the ideal habitat. Most of the tufted ducks nest on St Serf’s island, the largest island in the loch, where they are safer from predators. In 2018, there were estimated to be 171 tufted duck nests on the island. Females begin nesting in May and build nests from reeds, grasses and rushes, in areas of good cover and close to water. They will have one brood and lay 8-11 eggs which hatch after around 25 days. The young grow up fast and will be able to fly 45 days after hatching.
Loch Leven is also a very important site for tufted ducks after breeding and our numbers swell in September and October, as you can see in the graph below. This is because large numbers of ducks who have bred elsewhere will arrive here to moult in the open water, where strength in numbers helps reduce predation in this vulnerable time. Some will then go on to winter further south, but we’ll also get more northerly birds that bred in northern Europe or Iceland, meaning numbers remain high over winter. They will often be in large flocks quite far from the shore, only really appreciated using a telescope!