Easter already?

How time flies at Loch Leven NNR… Everything looks and sounds like it should be Easter, it even smells like it should be Easter, but it all came about so fast! It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was walking through Levenmouth Woods with the bare branches blowing about in the wind, with nobody else on the path. That definitely hasn’t been the case this week!

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Volunteer, Jock, at Levenmouth

The sun was shining (most some of the time), the bees were bumbling, the birds are busy, and so were the volunteers! Unfortunately their 2 day trip to the Isle of May to help out with tasks out there was cancelled due to high winds, but fortunately for them we had plenty of work lined up!

The main task of the day was to get some of the grass off Levenmouth as we had cut it a couple of months ago. The reason for cutting the grass is that this area has great potential to be a good example of a dry heath, a very rare habitat in Kinross-shire due to the fact it tends to occur on sandy soils, such as around the coast. The soil around Levenmouth is perfect for this as it was once the bottom of a river so it is very sandy.

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This excavation, either carried out by a badger or a fox, shows you just how sandy it is.

However, in order for it to be a proper dry heath, we need more heather. Therefore, cutting the grass and removing it, and trying to disturb the ground, should encourage some more heather growth. We used Polly (the new Polaris) for this job; it was her first big job and she handled it like a champ despite us already forgetting to plug her in to charge overnight…

Whilst on the dry heath we could clearly see how diverse it was in life. There was one character who wasn’t too pleased with our activity on Wednesday though… In fact there were a few. The grass that had been left in piles for the past few months had attracted toads and frogs as they held plenty of moisture and the heath provided them with plenty to eat!

And here’s a compilation of all of the insects and arachnids that I managed to pluck from the grass, or photograph on the grass.

That last one there, the Common Red Ant, is the favoured food of the Green Woodpecker and I was actually lucky enough to see one fly over this area last weekend. If you’re down at Levenmouth then bare in mind that you might hear the ‘yaffling’ call of the Green Woodpecker, quite a noise!

If you go to nearby Portmoak Moss then you are very likely to hear them. Here is a link to the call of a Green Woodpecker. Pretty unmistakable.

 

Elsewhere on the reserve, the summer migrant birds continue to stream in, with our first Common Sandpiper of the year deciding to pitch up right next to the Mill Hide in Factory Bay whilst I was in there on Friday. Blackcaps have also become a lot more obvious with their slightly disjointed song resounding from every clump of shrubs.

I also spent a fair bit of time trying to get a good shot of a Sand Martin as there were hundreds playing above the fields and the water at Burleigh Sands, but I failed, so you’ll have to come along and watch them yourself! We’re still yet to spot the first House Martin of the year to if you spot any white-rumped martins at Loch Leven, do let us know.

I was round at Burleigh doing some monitoring and had 3 hours on that section of the trail, then another 3 hours around Findatie/Levenmouth. So, I took the opportunity to check out all of the flowers that are out around the loch. Here’s a slideshow of 18 them, you’d be surprised at how much colour there is to be found this early in the year!

We have the Burleigh Botany event again this year so keep an eye out for the events schedule which should be out some time very soon! Posters, Facebook, Twitter, on the blog, MyPark Scotland website, maybe even Instagram! I’ll be surprised if you miss it.

So, to recap, when out at Loch Leven NNR in the coming weeks, keep an eye out for bugs, flowers, nest-building and chick-feeding birds, migrant birds, and us! We’re always happy to have a chat if you bump into us around the Heritage Trail, as are the volunteers.

To finish off, a wee clip from the Facebook page of a pair of Great Crested Grebes that have begun building a nest outside the hide at Burleigh Sands. Hopefully they do alright here but it’s quite an exposed site, best of luck to them is all I can say!

And as an added bonus, I had a nice view of a drake Red-breasted Merganser and a  drake Goosander right next to each other, so you can see the difference between the two. I hope you had a happy Easter weekend where ever you were and that you took some time out to enjoy some of what nature has to offer at this time of year.

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Red-breasted Merganser left, Goosander right

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Returning to normality…

… at Loch Leven NNR for now at least! After a week away on the Isle of May, the changes that have come about due to the increasingly spring-like conditions are even more evident.

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Kirkgate Park nice and busy

Firstly, when I arrived in the car park on Monday morning I had the pleasure of having a Swallow join the Sand Martins above my head. These birds have just made their way from Africa to feed on the plentiful insects that are beginning to emerge around the loch. If cycling around the Heritage Trail you may need to close your mouth so as not to inhale too many flies!

Also, if about on the trail, you may come across the newest vehicle that has been added to our fleet, but you might not hear it. This is because we now have a Polaris Ranger EV, EV standing for Electric Vehicle. This is a great addition to our fleet as it now means we don’t have to either strap spades and hammers to our bikes, or even carry 30 tree guards under one arm whilst cycling, as the Polaris (named Polly, by Jeremy) will be more than capable of carrying all of the kit for us.

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You’ll know it’s us because our name is plastered all over it!

Jeremy, Susan and I were actually on the training course for using a sit-in conventional steer ATV on Tuesday, hence the pic above of the Polaris not at Loch Leven. I took plenty of action shots as well as we took it around an assault course.

Many thanks to Jill at Highland Offroad for taking us, and Neil and 5 more volunteers, through the course. Everyone passed as far as I know!

Back to Spring now, and I’ve managed to find a few more flowers on the reserve (and some off the reserve but they’ll be on the reserve somewhere). Firstly, speedwells. Speedwells are a family of flowers that are typically very small and a lot of people don’t tend to notice them. But, if you take the time to look down amongst the grass and in open areas of soil, you may manage to spot some.

These flowers are only 4mm across and 8mm across!

Around by Factory Bay there are a few flowers to keep an eye out for. One of them being Butterbur. If you think to later in the year you may remember that there is a plant with massive leaves along the sides of the path, these are the leaves of Butterbur. The flower isn’t so large but is very nice looking when in full bloom.

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Butterbur

Above the Butterbur the willow is in flower which is great for attracting the early Spring bumblebees. I’m pretty sure this is Grey Willow, Salix cinerea, as opposed to the usual Goat Willow due to those little black dots which aren’t present on Goat Willow flowers.

Also above the Butterbur is some Cherry Plum, and there are also some nice big Geans (Wild Cherry) which will be in flower some time soon.

Speaking of flowers, George has just come into the office to let us know that he’s doing the first Burleigh insect survey of the year, so fingers crossed he gets some bumbles! I’ve been trying to get some pics of the bumbles that I have seen but they aren’t exactly the most docile of beings.

So you’ll have to settle for the ones I photographed in my garden in Edinburgh.

The orange one here is a Common Carder Bee, and there’s no other bumble that can really be mixed up with this one. The other bee is a Early Bumblebee which is pretty well named given it emerges pretty early, mind you most bumblebees have emerged all at once this year. The Early Bumble has the classic yellow and black markings but it has an orange bum, and is also very small. The queen that I’ve photographed here is about the size of a Carder Bee worker, so the workers are really wee things!

I did a bit of work yesterday trying to get a snapped straining post out of the ground by Orwell. I ended up digging a hole as deep as my waist but still didn’t reach the bottom of the post! But, it did give me an opportunity to look at the soil composition. Give it a chance, it can be quite interesting!

The first layer of soil was the richest, as this is where all the plant material has decayed and created some reasonably rich earth. The worms are also most active in this layer as there’s plenty for them to chow down on.

A bit deeper down the soil became very sandy. This, I suspect, is because the water level in the loch used to be higher, so this bit of land was potentially under water at some point. The soil here was more like the sand at Burleigh, and so wasn’t good for worms.

I also believe I found an iron pan, but unfortunately I can’t remember how they form! It’s the orangey layer.

And lastly, at the bottom of my 3ft deep hole, I came across some larger particles which I suspect are the shingle that you find on the bottom of the loch. This layer was also quite dry I noticed, which is an effect of the iron pan as the water finds it hard to penetrate that layer.

Anyway, perhaps you’ve skipped that bit and to that I say fair enough. It is dirt, but dirt is important, we must remember. So, for those who did skip it and those who didn’t, I’ll leave you with this pic of some lovely Cuckooflower. Hope this slightly longer blog post made up for the lack of blog posts over the past week and a bit! I’ll also leave a few pics from the Isle of May at the bottom here, and a link to the Isle of May blog post that I feature in!

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The happiness continues…

Another week has passed at Loch Leven, and boy has it been nice. Actually, not just nice, it’s been very nice, and it wasn’t just the weather…

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If I’m honest, I’ve found the past few weeks somewhat uninspiring. Obviously I have still found ways to enjoy myself by keeping busy with tasks such as hedgelaying, visiting other reserves (e.g. here and here), and a few bits and pieces about the office. But, what I really like is being able to go out and look at wildlife, whether this is plants or birds or bugs or anything else that take my fancy.

The past few weeks, however, have been that part of the year where it’s still pretty wet and cold outside so the bugs and flowers aren’t really there to be seen, and the wintering birds aren’t so obvious but the spring migrants haven’t arrived yet. Sorry to sound all doom and gloom but I have still been having plenty of fun, I’ve just gotten a bit bored of the lack of flowers, bugs and birds.

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Carsehall Bog at sundown

BUT, things are about to change. This week we have seen some solid signs that spring is here. To start with, for the past few mornings I’ve been greeted to the office by the wondrous sound of a Chiffchaff singing its somewhat simple song. These birds don’t always migrate all the way to Africa, finding Spain suitable enough to spend the winter, and some don’t migrate at all, instead laying low in dense bushes where people are unlikely to see them.

The shorter distance to travel means that they are one of the first summer migrants to return to this area. Ospreys have been arriving back in Scotland at the moment too, such as this pair, but we’re still yet to see our first of the year at Loch Leven.

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Chiffchaffs are leaf warblers, so spend a lot of their time in the canopy.

Another early summer migrant that we have seen about the loch are Sand Martins, there was a group of about 30 of them darting about the Green Isle (island of Burleigh Sands) on Wednesday. Sand Martins are often found darting about over large water bodies as they find plenty to eat flying above the surface of the water.

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There are 5 Sand Martins in this picture…

We actually spotted the Sand Martins whilst we were out with Rosemount Nursery who were visiting Loch Leven to learn the difference between natural and unnatural, looking at pond life and just enjoying the great outdoors! We found a few bits of litter which was good on the one hand as it showed us something unnatural, but bad on the other hand because we’d really rather there was no litter lying about our reserve.

Despite the chilly morning and icy puddles, we all had lots of fun, me included!

After Rosemount had left in the morning, Neil and I joined Jeremy, the volunteers and Torquil the hedgelayer to continue laying that hedge around at Mary’s Gate. We made a fair bit of progress and were out again yesterday. The total length of hedge that we have laid this spring, one metre more than Torquil’s guess, was 88 metres. We’ll have another session of laying in Autumn as we obviously don’t want to be carrying out any activity during the nesting season.

Please do head along to look at our handy-work, and watch as the first Hawthorn leaves pop out and the woven branches begin to grow.

I also decided to do a wee timelapse type thing, taking a picture of my bit of the hedge from the same position every now and then to show how it changes. But, we ran out of Hazel for binding along the top of the hedge so I didn’t get the final two stages. You’ll have to make do with a picture of another section of hedge.

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You may notice some activity behind the hedge, and this is because some sections of the Loch Leven Heritage Trail are undergoing maintenance to get rid of erosion and puddles. Please see this map for information on where the works are being undertaken.

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The section of path that was being re-done by the hedge looks brilliant now, so you can enjoy walking alongside our laid hedge, one of very, very few in Kinross-shire! I’m not even sure there will be any other laid hedges in Kinross-shire to be honest.

Plenty of machinery moving about so please do avoid using the sections that are outlined.

So to conclude, since it is now Spring (as far as I’m concerned) keep and eye out for spring wildflowers such as Lesser Celandine and Colt’s-foot, and have a scan out over the water to see if you can spot any Sand Martins, perhaps you’ll spot the first Swallow of the year… Osprey and Wheatear should be about some time soon as well. Bumblebees are definitely waking up as well, keep an eye out for those Tree Bumbles (remember, thorax to tail is orange black white).

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Lesser Celandine, in the buttercup family

 

So you may think I’ll spend next week enjoying the flowers and migrants birds about the loch, but no, I’m out to the Isle of May with the other student placements (from Tentsmuir, Stirling (covers Blawhorn Moss, Flanders Moss and Loch Lomond), St Cyrus, Caerlaverock, Creag Meagaidh & Beinn Eighe) where we will be helping to prepare the island for all the visitors (there were 12,000 in 2016) that will be coming out to enjoy the brilliantly beaked Puffins, the terns that will have a go at your head, and all the other brilliant seabirds that call the May Isle their home for the breeding season.

For updates on the Isle of May, keep an eye on the Isle of May blog. The first Puffins are returning to the isle at the moment so I’m more than looking forwards to it. You’ll have to rely on Jeremy for next week’s blog post!

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Happiness in Nature

I’m not one for all that airy-fairy sort of stuff, that’s just not me, but I am all for people being happy in nature. However with the weather being pretty grim outside at the minute, I’m quite happy to be inside typing up a blog post on the International Day of Happiness.

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This Goldcrest clearly didn’t get the memo that it’s the International Day of Happiness, although it probably doesn’t help that I was taking pictures of it having a bath. Anyway, what makes you happy when out in nature?

One of the things that makes me happiest is just seeing things, such as the Goldcrest above. It’s those little moments seeing things you either don’t see often or haven’t seen before. Most recently, I was in the right place at the right time to witness a sun halo over Loch Leven, which I had seen once before from the Isle of May (where I’ll be next week so apologies in advance for the lack of blog posts).

These halos form when there are high-level, wispy clouds which causes the light to refract through ice crystals high in the atmosphere, creating a pretty stunning effect.

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Sun halo over Loch Leven

This was what it looked like in real life, it’s not a photographic effect. If you’re lucky and the cloud conditions stay the same overnight then you may get to see a moon halo, which I did for the first time! It also meant I had to fiddle about with settings on my camera but I think this shot came out alright.

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Another aspect of nature that I get happiness from is helping it. That’s a key part of my job at Loch Leven, in fact almost everything I do is for the benefit of nature. From working with the volunteers to put up new nestboxes, to helping educate children in local schools about the life-cycle of a Brown Trout, it all helps the wildlife on the National Nature Reserve.

We’ve managed to put up about 30 new nest boxes around the reserve, if you spot any then taking a few minutes just to stop and watch may reward you with seeing a Great Tit or other small bird taking nesting material into the box.

With regards to trout in the classroom, I’ll do a blog post on that another time. For now though, I can tell you it went swimmingly and all of the trout were released into a couple of burns that lead in to Loch Leven after they had been well looked after by the school children at Arngask Primary and Kinross Primary.

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Happy unfed trout fry, just before release

It has been scientifically proven that nature is good for your health and well-being (see here and here)  and to be honest, I don’t think we need science to tell us this. Having been ill last weekend and for the start of last week, I was finding myself pacing up and down the hall, not feeling any better or any happier.

Then, on Thursday and Friday I was out on Loch Lomond NNR and Flanders Moss NNR  with friends and found myself completely relieved after being locked indoors for 4 days. I, personally, can’t stand being indoors for any more than a full day so I can certainly see that nature is good for me, and I’m sure it’s good for you too.

In my experience, a bad week can be completely turned on its head by a good day out somewhere in the countryside.

And what better place to do that than at Loch Leven NNR?! That’s another thing that makes me happy, being able to work at a place like this for a year is great. It’s valuable experience that will make me more employable, it’s the opportunity to meet people and learn things, it’s the opportunity to see nature every day and it gives me the chance to share those experiences with people, as I am doing right now with you.

Above is a selection of images of Loch Leven at its best, all taken by myself.

So, on this, the International Day of Happiness, I hope that you at least have a happier Monday than usual and can manage to get yourself out into the countryside this weekend (preferably at Loch Leven NNR but anywhere will do) to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

Things to look out for at the moment are amphibians travelling to, arriving at and doing their thing at their spawning grounds, some migrant birds arriving (Sand Martins, Wheatears, Chiffchaffs and Ospreys are some of the first summer migrants to arrive), and our wintering birds departing (huge flocks of Whooper Swans have been reported moving north over the weekend).

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Male Adder

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Common Lizard

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Female Adder

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Palmate Newt

If you go to places like Flanders Moss NNR or Muir of Dinnet NNR then keep an eye out for reptiles such as the beautiful Adder, Slow Worm and Common Lizard. I spotted a lizard at Flanders Moss on Saturday, lapping up a short burst of sun before diving in to a bog pool as I wandered past. Palmate Newts were also very showy in the pools by the boardwalk where the lone birch tree stands.

Anyway, I’ll leave you to get on with being happy at the thought of getting outdoors over the weekend, and I hope this blog post has brought some of the feeling of the great outdoors to where ever you are today!

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A cheerie Arctic Tern from the Isle of May last July. They’ll return some time at the start of May.

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Guest blog: Tentsmuir NNR

This week we have another guest blog from another SRUC student at another NNR. This time it’s Tentsmuir NNR, a reserve that I mentioned a couple of weeks back as I’d been planting a new reedbed/filter bed system at Morton Lochs.


 Tentsmuir NNR is a fantastic place to work and visit! My name is Ruari Dunsmuir and I’m the Tentsmuir SNH student placement. The Reserve is situated at the north-east corner of Fife (the tip of the Scottish Terrier’s ear) and is, in reality, not a single reserve but three smaller separate areas. Morton Lochs became and NNR in 1952 (the second place in the UK to be declared a NNR) with Tentsmuir Point added in 1954 and Tayport Heath in 1988. In 2003 SNH combined these sites to become Tentsmuir NNR.

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A frozen Morton Lochs

Tentsmuir Point is an extensive area of dunes and mudflats which continues to grow seaward and is an internationally important area for waders and wildfowl as well both grey and common seals. Further inland Morton Lochs is a wetland area with open water attracting both wintering and breeding ducks as well as a variety dragonflies and damselflies. In addition, Tayport Heath is an area of dune heath extending along the shore of the Tay adding further richness to the Reserve.

Managing an NNR is never easy and Tentsmuir is a special challenge. It is an area that is in constant flux, so our aim isn’t to preserve what you see at Tentsmuir today, but to ensure the continuity of the processes which will allow Tentsmuir to change naturally in the future. We need to manage the dunes to achieve their fullest potential for biodiversity and to minimise pressure on birdlife. As for Morton Lochs we want to keep a haven for wildlife and restore the natural habitats that once thrived around the lochs while the challenge at Tayport Heath is to maintain the open heathland by controlling scrub.

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Creating a wildflower meadow

As for myself, my role at the Reserve means that I carry out a wide variety of jobs. These include practical conservation management tasks such as species/habitat management, tree and scrub removal, new planting, herbiciding of invasive species and aquatic plant management. There are practical maintenance and management duties such as fencing and path work, while I also lead volunteer work parties and assist with educational visits. Though by far my favourite is the species monitoring – waterfowl, raptors, waders, invertebrates (dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and moths), and rare plants.

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Kingfisher and a pair of Common Darters mating

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The Tentsmuir White-tailed Sea Eagles

With such a diverse range of habitats the Reserve therefore has a wide range of species that can be seen with a keen eye and depending on the time of year. Around the coastal areas you can see Grey and Common Seals, Ravens, Otters, thousands of Eider, Dunlin, Grey Plover, and over wintering geese. Around Morton Lochs there are the playful Red Squirrels, Teal, Treecreepers, and clouds of Common Darters in summer. And this is only a small selection of what you may spot.

Though there is one species that everyone asks about: the White-Tailed Sea Eagles. These unmistakable birds have quickly become an iconic species around Tentsmuir and the nearby Eden Estuary with their massive 8ft (2.45m) wingspan giving rise to the nickname: The Flying Barn Door.The return of this eagle to Scotland is one of the great conservation success stories with the last native bird shot in 1918. Though mostly associated with the rugged west coast they have been seen regularly at Tentsmuir since 2013 with the Tay and Eden Estuaries providing the perfect environment.

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Oystercatchers and a Grey Seal in the background

 

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Update: Spring is still springing

The first couple of days of this week have been great for birding as most birds are gearing up for the coming season; Spring, and this means lots of displaying and singing! Obviously, they display and sing to attract a mate but it also makes them a little more conspicuous, helped by the fact the leaves haven’t come out yet.

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This of course means that woodland birds are particularly easy to see, compared to summer, that is. If you go out into the woodland around the loch, listen out for the calls and songs. Great Tit sounds like it’s saying “tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher”, whilst Song Thrushes will repeat the same phrase 3-5 times before moving on to another phrase. They tend to have favourites and will come back to those now and then.

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Song Thrush, typically singing from the treetops

If you look a little lower down then you may be lucky to catch sight of one of our smallest birds. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in number and noisiness! The Eurasian Wren is our most common breeding bird with a whopping estimate of 7.7 million breeding territories across the UK.

Since it’s such a small bird, many can live in a  relatively small area as they don’t need much to feed on. I’ve seen Wrens in some really remote places, such as the Isle of May, in Coire Ardair at Creag Meagaidh NNR, and 800m up a munro in Wester Ross. It’s diminutive size may also have you thinking it can’t be very loud… listen here to find out just how loud they are!

Sometimes you don’t even need to look very high up, I came across a couple of male Bullfinches and a Song Thrush this morning just feeding by the path at Levenmouth.

If you’re in Levenmouth Woods then I can highly recommend that you pop in to the hide to see what’s there. The pools have filled up recently and the ducks are loving it. I’ve managed to spot 7 species of waterfowl so far, 5 of those being different species of duck. See if you can name all of them by looking at the pictures…

There’s been some other waterfowl about Levenmouth but they are just off the reserve. Swans are feeding on the fields around the Portmoak area. This has meant I’ve been able to check for rings on their legs which would give us an insight into where our Whoopers are visiting from!

But, the only rings I found on the Whoopers were metal rings that are very difficult to read without getting very close to the bird. Frustrating. There was a colour ring on one of the Mute Swans though…

Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of ring that is used to identify the bird in the way we want to. This ring was most likely put on the swan to identify it whilst it was in care at a rescue centre, probably the SSPCA one in Fishcross, Clackmannanshire. So we do know that this bird has been in Fishcross at some point. Not really what we wanted to know but I’ll keep an eye out for proper rings!

One proper ring we have read recently was on a Coot that has been hanging about the pier by Kinross. It has a white ring with the code CF4 on the left leg, and a red and blue ring on the other leg. Turns out this is the first time it’s been seen since it was ringed as a juvenile at Linlithgow Loch on the 17th of February 2015.

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Coot CF4

The only other thing I want to cover in this post is what I found on the trunk of a Goat Willow in Levenmouth Woods. I was actually trying to work out what sort of tree it was at first, thinking it was a very strangely placed Ash (there are no Ash trees in those woods) but it was just a particularly tall and straight willow. Looking closely at the bark I noticed the signs left behind by an animal…

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Could it be a Pine Marten? A particularly arboreal Badger? Perhaps we have a big cat prowling the woods… No, it’s just our friendly local Red Squirrels playing games as they chase each other about looking to pair up for spring.

Here’s a picture to show the scale of the claw marks, just to make sure the big cat conspiracy theorists have nothing to say about the matter! And I’ve thrown in a backlit fly for good measure.

We’re currently trapping Grey Squirrels and aiming to trap American Mink on the reserve in order to protect our native species such as the really ravishing Red Squirrels and the Water Vole. Water Voles haven’t been seen around Loch Leven for a few years now so it’s very important to control the mink population as they are a major factor in the decline of this charismatic species, as well as being a threat to ground-nesting birds.

The RSPB kindly reported a mink on the River Leven giving us even more of a reason to start trapping again. If you have any sightings of American Mink then please do report them to us by calling the office on 01577 864439. The same goes for Grey Squirrels, mainly if you spot them anywhere other than Levenmouth and by Kinross.

If you aren’t sure what to look for then have a wee look on the Wildlife Trust website.

*STOP PRESS* There’s just been a new post on the Scotland’s Nature blog about why we intervene when it comes to non-native species, worth a read!

 

 

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Preparation for the coming season

It’s been a nice week weather-wise with cold, crisp mornings that have warmed up throughout the day giving us some very Spring-like conditions. The wildlife around the loch has certainly felt the beginning of the changing of the season, and we’ve been acting on this and making sure we have everything done that needs done before the breeding season starts and the flowers really start to bloom.

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This morning we were out ringing on the reserve, hoping for a Kingfisher but unfortunately we didn’t catch any (he/she narrowly avoided the net before we had it set up)! We settled for some Reed Buntings, Long-tailed Tits, a Blackbird and some Robins.

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Mrs R. Bunting

Just off the pier, in the nice early morning light the drake ducks were looking their best as the sun highlighted the glossy colouration of their feathers. Mallards are the easiest to see but there’s been a couple of Goldeneye and some Tufted Ducks, as well as two pairs of Great Crested Grebes that appear to be displaying almost every minute.

There’s actually been a bit of an exodus of wildfowl from the loch, Jeremy tells me this usually happens after the water levels rise a lot, which they have. The snow and subsequent run-off from the hills around Loch Leven have filled the loch up and raised the water level by at least a foot.

This means that the Levenmouth Hide is definitely worth visiting! If I’m honest, the only wildfowl I’d seen from that hide in all the time I’ve been here is one Moorhen. I’ve seen a few Snipe in amongst the tall, reedy grass as well. But now, phwoar… Completely different!

There’s proper water in there now, making it great for the four species of duck (Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Pintail) that were feeding away at the edges. Take a wander down there and you might spot a Kingfisher on the River Leven on the way to the hide. Hopefully the usual pair of Mute Swans will return soon as well.

Speaking of ducks (it’s all about wildfowl today!), whilst we were out with the volunteers on Wednesday we discovered a deceased drake Goosander on the beach at Burleigh. This gave me the perfect opportunity to look at the amazing adaptations that this species (and Red-breasted Merganser and Smew) have made to their beak in order for them to catch fish.

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No wonder this group of ducks are known as sawbills (aka. mergansers)! The “teeth” are actually just a modified structure of the beak itself. There haven’t been toothed birds about since dinosaurs were here, but this is pretty close. Notice how the teeth tend to face backwards to help pull the fish to the back of the beak where it can then be swallowed. There are even pointed structures on the roof of its mouth.

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Another adaptation of the beak is the hooked tip. This helps the Goosander grab hold of the fish in the first place. Of course, the whole bird is a marvel of natural engineering that allows it to feed on fish, but that beak is quite something.

Wednesday, volunteer day. It was a productive day with three groups out doing various tasks in the morning: Dave and Liz checked all of our kit/machinery, cleaned the cars, tidied up the workshop, and drank tea; Neil, Jane, Jackie and Richard put up a lot of new bird boxes around Burleigh, and drank tea; and Susan and I went around the reserve changing the seasonal signs from autumn to spring, and drank tea.

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A good day for hard graft and tea drinking

In the afternoon, Richard and Jackie stayed ad I joined them to finish making the rest of the nest boxes, leaving us with 26 more to put up; these ones will probably be put up around Levenmouth.

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26 nestboxes, hopefully housing Tree Sparrows in the near future…

Whilst all of this was happening Jeremy was out with the Softrak again, this time at Classlochie, cutting back some thick grasses to allow more wildflowers to take hold in the spring and summer. This will benefit a plethora of species, from bumblebees to Swallows.

Flowers such as Ragged Robin and Bird’s-foot Trefoil will do well here.

Speaking of flowers, we have got a few that are in bloom despite the freezing temperatures. It’s just the usual spring flowers at the moment, such as Colt’s-foot which puts out its flowers before the leaves. Willow catkins are also appearing on some of the willows around Factory Bay, these being one of the most important early sources of nectar for any bumblebees that decide to brave the changeable weather.

I’ve seen at least one report of a bumblebee out in Clackmannanshire at a similar latitude to us so do keep your eyes peeled!

Also pictured above is the minute Common Whitlowgrass. It’s not a grass really, it is a flower but the flower (when open) is no more than 3-6mm across! It grows on bare ground and if you look carefully in the less used areas of the car park by Kinross then you might spot some.

That’ll do for this blog post. I hope that where ever you are, there are signs of spring. If there aren’t then come to Loch Leven NNR and have a walk about, it’s great here (although I may be slightly biased)…

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Why lay a hedge?

As shown in last Friday’s blog, we laid the hedge that runs along the side of the path by Mary’s Gate. I left you with the sight of our finished product; a neat and tidy, laid hedge.

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But, I had to cut the post off before explaining the benefits laying a hedge. Well, you’ve come to the right place to find out why we (Wednesday volunteers, Andrew from St Cyrus, Ruari from Tentsmuir, Torquil the hedge layer, Jeremy, and I) went through the process of laying such a thorny, spiky hedge!

To start off with, why was the hedge so thorny and spiky? The hedge we laid was made up of Hawthorn, Dog-rose, Hazel, and Beech. This mix of species is excellent for increasing the biodiversity of the hedge. Not only do we now have more species of shrub, but we will have more species of invertebrates and fungi, as different bugs and fungi like different plants to feed on and live in.

The provision of food such as the Hawthorn berries and plentiful insects means that animals further up the food chain will find the hedge a good place to live in as well. Birds such as Whitethroats like to nest in hedgerows, whilst Bank Voles will tend to stay at the bottom of the hedge.

Considering where hedgerows are often found (by farmland), they can be a sheltered spot for one of the rarer birds found around Loch Leven, the Grey Partridge. This species has declined significantly due to agricultural intensification and the removal of hedgerows that they use for cover. Funnily enough, when moving material from Torquil’s trailer to the site I flushed a pair of Grey Partridge from that field which is a good sign!

This particular hedge has kindly been given a little strip of land next to it by the farmer that isn’t ploughed or planted on, called a headland. These headlands are great for wildflowers and therefore encourages more wildlife to the area. Pollinators such as bumblebees will enjoy the many flowers that are allowed to flourish as well as the flowers found in the hedgerow itself, and more birds will enjoy the extra insects!

The bumblebee pictured above, a Tree Bumblebee, is one to watch for this year as they are spreading up the east coast at a fast rate. They only arrived in the UK from Europe in 2001 and made it as far as Aberdeen last year! Keep your eyes peeled for its unique ‘orange-black-white’ markings.

The structure of the hedge itself helps to provide habitat for wildlife. Before our hedge was laid, you can see that there are lots of branches at the tops of the plants but very little at the bottom. Laying the hedge means that the branches of the plants are now lower down, and the fact that new growth will come from the exposed wood will mean the hedge will grow back up to a good height, whilst also having a thick structure.

This long stretch of good habitat also acts like a stretch of road as it gives shelter to animals that want to move across the countryside. It’s possible that a Red Squirrel has at some point run along this hedge in search of new territory before they had spread into Kinross. Other species move up and down hedgerows, such as bats that find rich pickings when it comes to their favourite food, moths, that do well on the numerous flowering plants found along hedgerows.

This particular hedgerow has played host to a number of farmland bird species this winter as well, mainly Chaffinches and Yellowhammers but I’ve also picked out Brambling, Reed Bunting, Linnet and Tree Sparrow.

So, hopefully that has explained why hedge laying is such a brilliant habitat management technique, and you now know what to look out for next time you pass a hedgerow! If visiting our laid hedge then I’ll admit, it does loom a little drastic at the moment but come Spring the hedge will be teeming with new growth, full of new life, and have a completely new look.

Come 2-3 years, it will be in it’s prime as it will have reached it’s previous height and will be capable of supporting many, many birds and even more invertebrates and flowers!

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All of this work will have paid off by the time Spring and Summer get here… We just need to wait a wee bit…

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Hedge laying!

As promised on the Scotland’s NNRs Facebook page, here’s the blog post you’ve been waiting for! Before getting into the main subject though, here’s what’s about the loch at the moment…

With the ever so slightly changeable weather (understatement), the wildlife around the loch appears to be a little bit in doubt as to whether it should be looking forwards to spring or expecting another dump of snow.

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Curlew enjoying sunlit stubble by the Heritage Trail

I’ve been out and about the loch this week and saw plenty of signs of spring: birds such as Blue Tits have paired up and are now prospecting for nest sites, the flowers on the Goat Willows are just about to burst into flower, and the sun was shining! It’s also nice to be able to hear the signs of spring, with lots of songbirds beginning to warm up their pipes for the season ahead.

And then Thursday arrived… And what made it worse was that the snow wasn’t even nice snow, it was that sort of wet snow that just soaks everything. Mind you, it did make everything look nice so who am I to complain. I didn’t actually take many pictures on Thursday because it was that wet that I couldn’t use my camera.

However, I did get my phone out so I could film Neil felling a tree in Burleigh car park. This is done because some of the trees are potentially hazardous so we remove them in a controlled manner as opposed to letting nature do it unexpectedly.

As you can see, it was very snowy and slushy. It was also quite cold…

Some of you may have realized that I said on Facebook that the blog would show you the progress we made on the hedge laying on Thursday. Well, we made none. The weather was too treacherous to ask Torquil, the hedge laying instructor, and all of our volunteers to make the journey to Loch Leven, so we felled a few trees instead.

But, on Wednesday we made a good start helped by the fact the sun was shining!

The hedge we laid was around by Mary’s Gate and runs between the Heritage Trail and a field, marked here on the map. I’ll take you through the process…

  1. Cut back any branches that may get in the way of the plant lying on it’s side. All of the plants will be laid on the same side. Also cut back any branches that get in the way of reaching the bottom of the stem.
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The gang trimming back branches

2. Using a billhook or a small axe, cut at a steep angle into the side of the stem on the opposite side to the side that is going to be laid on the ground. We don’t cut all the way through the stem though, it’s just split down the middle. New growth will come from the exposed wood and the rest of the plant will continue to use the roots it’s still connected to.

3. Whilst laying the plants, we weaved the branches into each other to help hold the hedge together and to make it look neater. We were also putting stakes into the ground at regular intervals to help with the weaving. Once the whole section of hedge had been laid down, we moved on to the next step…

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Laid hedge with upright stakes

4. To finish off, the hedge needs binding. For this we used Hazel and we weaved long, straight branches of hazel between the upright stakes, along the top of the plants that we had laid. Once we’d bound the whole section of the hedge Torquil used his chainsaw to chop the tops off the stakes and that was us done!

And here is the end product, a very neat but very functional hedge that will help to increase biodiversity by providing a home for all sorts of wildlife. But, you’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out how that happens because this post is getting a little bit long!

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A well laid hedge

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Here, there, everywhere

Hello! Apologies for the lack of posts on the Loch Leven blog, fortunately Jeremy did one whilst I was away. “Where have you been?” I hear you ask, so I’ll tell you…

On Sunday the 5th I headed up north on my way to Creag Meagaidh NNR, which was covered in a brilliant guest blog post by Jo. Whilst I was up there we did a lot of fence removal in order to create an uninterrupted landscape from lochside to mountaintop, and did some non-native tree removal to allow the native upland birch forest to re-establish itself.

We also took part in some of the deer-management practice and fed all the animals each morning. But, whilst doing all of this I couldn’t help but spot some of the wildlife that lives on the reserve and enjoy the spectacular surrounding scenery.

I actually took a little detour on the way up to check out some other NNRs, and stopped off at Glenmore and Craigellachie. Glenmore is an amazing place with its remnant Caledonian Forest supporting some really special species. This pine forest is what would have covered a lot of highland Scotland before man cut it all down.

Craigellachie is also an ancient forest but it is a birch forest. Whilst it perhaps doesn’t look all that full of life at this time of year I can assure you it is brimming with life in Spring and Summer, which aren’t too far away… Plus Craigellachie is right behind Aviemore and makes a perfect place to stop off for a wee walk whilst on a journey further north.

But, why haven’t I blogged earlier this week? I left Creag Meagaidh on Saturday so I’ve had plenty of time. Well, I’ve actually been away at another NNR for the past couple of days. This time it was Tentsmuir NNR, where I was assisting with the planting of a new reedbed. It was a mucky job but we got it done in just a day! It probably helped that there was 10 of us all digging holes and tearing apart the tubers of the reeds for them to be planted across the two areas that we were in.

The reason for planting this reedbed is for it to function in the same way as the reedbed that we have at Carsehall. Ours was planted to act as a filter for run-off from the surrounding agricultural land, which may contain higher levels of nutrients than we want in the water of Loch Leven. Hopefully in a few years I’ll be able to visit again and the reedbed I helped plant will be as well developed as ours, and the water quality of Morton Lochs will be perfect!

Speaking of Carsehall, Jeremy’s been out all week with the Softrak cutting back the thick rushes that are almost choking Carsehall Bog. The cutting and removal of all of this dense vegetation should allow other, less vigorous plants to get a foothold without being shaded out by the rushes. Plants such as the splendid Lesser Butterfly-orchid which you’ll hopefully be able to see from the path when it starts flowering in May-July.

(STOP PRESS: Just seen this on the Scottish Natural Heritage Facebook page, very apt)

We’re also hoping that some of this lot decide it’s now a suitable place for them to breed and raise their young…

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No, not the Golden Plovers. The Lapwings will hopefully spot Carsehall Bog with its abundant insects that enjoy the damp conditions and the sheltered spots where they can hide their nests from predators.

Elsewhere around the loch, there are a few signs of Spring being around the corner. I heard my first singing Skylark of the year on Tuesday, there are a few flowers brightening up the sheltered corners of the reserve, I saw a couple of Kestrels that appeared to have paired up, and the weather hasn’t been all that bad (except today, it’s very foggy today).

I’m keeping busy next week but sticking to my own reserve so I can keep you up to date with everything that’s going on around the reserve for the whole week. We’ve got some hedgelaying, an outing with the volunteers and the usual smorgasbord of tasks around the reserve. Until then, cheers for reading!

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