A big visitor

We start our September blogging with an update from the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. Situated 35 miles west of Aberdeen this reserve has a lot to offer as Reserve Manager Catriona Reid explains. What’s more it recently had a spectacularly large visitor

Much to my delight we had a sea eagle over Loch Davan recently. They’ve been seen on the reserve before- usually when the toads are breeding, when they come and eat clawfuls in one go – but this is the first time I’ve seen one here.

I was out counting ducks on Loch Davan when I spotted the great crested grebes with their chicks. It’s been windy and I hadn’t seen them much before (they had been staying tucked into the reeds for shelter) so I pulled out the camera to try and get a couple of pictures. Great crested grebes have very cute, stripy babies, so I was feeling pretty chuffed at seeing them, even distantly.

And I was well tickled when one of the youngsters climbed onto mum’s back. Grebes often carry their babies on their backs but these are getting a bit big for this and mum looked in real danger of sinking!

When you’re taking a picture, you can only see down the camera – you’re not so aware of what’s happening around you. I was suddenly aware of the ducks all taking off and belting through the picture frame. Hullo, I thought, wonder what’s scared them? And looked up to see a big bird circling. My first, instant, thought was osprey- usually, here, loch+big bird= osprey.

Sea eagle swoops over loch

Sea eagle swoops over loch

But, cue classic double take, before it dawned on me that’s not an osprey! Way, way, waaaaaaaaay too big. Sea eagle!

Sea (or white-tailed) eagles are huge. They have an 8-foot wingspan  and look almost rectangular in flight. “Over -specified” is the term that comes to mind – huge wings, massive feet and a frighteningly large hooked beak all make for a spectacular bird. This was a young bird, not quite adult, but not far off, probably about 3-4 years old. It was most definitely on the hunt and its first move was to have a go at a heron that was fishing by the mouth of the Logie Burn.

I’ve never seen a heron get airborne so quickly! They kind of lumber into flight but this one had to be pretty sharp about getting into the air. Herons are a favourite prey of both sea and golden eagles, especially on the west coast. The heron was frantically struggling to stay above the eagle, out of talon range. It managed to get away so the eagle turned its attention to the local ducks.

A lot of the ducks can’t fly just now; they have moulted out all of their flight feathers. However, the eagle picked a mallard that could fly and pursued it right across the loch, getting closer and closer all the time. Just as I was sure it was going to snatch the bird from the air, the mallard turned on a wingtip, crashed into the loch and dived. Mallard don’t normally dive, but can if they have to, like when they’re just about to be eaten. I think it surfaced in the reeds as the eagle hovered there for ages, trying to spot it. But it had to give up on that one and had another go at the rest of the ducks- coming much closer as it did so!

The bird came so close I could make out that it was ringed, but unfortunately, couldn’t tell any colours even from the photos. however, it does have a distinctive notch in the primary feathers on its right wing- so someone may have seen this bird elsewhere recently. We’d be interested in hearing if you have seen it.

It spent about 20 minutes harassing the ducks but to my huge surprise, didn’t have a go at the swans (they have nice, fat, juicy-looking cygnets) or the geese. When you have an 8-foot wingspan, you can easily eat something that size! I eventually lost in the trees to the south of the loch but it was a fantastic experience seeing a bird of this size close-up.

I’ve seen sea eagles before, but usually what seems like thousands of feet up or sitting looking vaguely untidy in a tree. To see the bird actively hunting, and at Dinnet, will be a treasured memory.

Postscript : unfortunately our pictures from Muir of Dinnet don’t reveal any wing-tags. An east-coast release bird should have wing-tags, so this bird could be a west coast bird, or possibly an east coast one that has lost its tags, but that’s less likely. You can read the RSPB  ESSE blog at http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/eastscotlandeagles/default.aspx . RSPB are always interested in reports of sea eagle sightings in the east.


Water, water everywhere

Water, water everywhere

Farewell to August :

Well, the damp summer continued to the very end of August. Rain washed out several parts of the Vat trail. I wish we’d taken before and after photos but we just piled in and fixed it! The trail isn’t quite as smooth as it was but thanks to lots of wheel-barrowing and shovelling, it doesn’t have foot deep holes in it any more. The pictures of the Vat burn in spate and the video clip here https://www.facebook.com/125227577507847/videos/vb.125227577507847/1039303886100207/?type=2&theater will give you an idea of how much water there was.

Golden-ringed dragonfly

Golden-ringed dragonfly

The dragonflies have been late this year. It’s been such a cool summer that some of them are just mating and breeding now, where they would normally do it in July. Some species are later emerging – like the black darters – but the common hawkers have been around for ages.  A couple of visitors took lovely pictures of both male and female hawkers down at Parkin’s Moss…thanks to them for allowing me the use of their pictures.

 Follow our Muir of Dinnet NNR blog @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/muir-of-dinnet/

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Species of the Month – a remarkable ant

When we think of pilfering in the natural world we may think of magpies or jackdaws, but birds aren’t the only species that are capable of a bit of theft.  Our August Species of the Month is a rather unconventional creature – a slave-making ant – as Athayde Tonhasca explains.

A stroll among Highland forests, particularly in open, sunny areas, may reveal this remarkable ant. At first glance, Formica sanguinea can easily be mistaken for any type of wood ant. But this is no ordinary creature, for Formica sanguinea is a slave-making ant. At certain periods of their life, members of the colony gather together to raid a nest of another species (other Formica ants). They kill adults and eat much of their brood, but not all: some larvae and pupae are taken back to the marauders nest. These pilfered immature ants develop into workers that are incorporated into the raiders’ colony, thus becoming their ‘slaves’.

Among all ants, individuals from the same nest recognise each other by smell, more specifically cuticular hydrocarbons (in fact, many ants are blind). The stolen larvae and pupae are imprinted with the smells of the raiders and completely integrated into the nest of their enslavers. The slaves tend brood, gather food, feed their enslavers, care for the queen, and even defend the nest against threats.

A classic wood ant nest, Black Wood of Rannoch, Perthshire

A classic wood ant nest, Black Wood of Rannoch, Perthshire

We associate ‘slavery’ with a terrible, immoral form of oppression and exploitation among humans. But in relation to insects, ‘slavery’ is a common term for what myrmecologists (those who study ants) call dulosis: a form of social parasitism in which a species exploits the labour of workers from a parasitized host colony. Dulosis is an amoral survival strategy, nothing more than an evolved behaviour found in 230 species of ants and less frequently among other social Hymenoptera (bees and wasps).

The James Hutton Institute’s UK Wood Ants site provides a description of the sequence of events during a raid:

  • Scouts set out in search of a suitable host; when they find it, they go back to their own nest to alert their sisters (all ant workers are females).
  • The slave-makers organise themselves into ‘platoons’ of 100 or so raiders that head towards the target.
  • Eventually the groups merge and form a continuous column of ants from the mother nest to the target nest. This column can be more than 12 m long, 50 cm wide and include thousands of raiders.
  • Once at the target nest, the raiders start to dig at the entrance to enlarge it and make it easier for a mass invasion.
  • Intense fighting between the slave-makers and the resident ants break out, with many losses of individuals on both sides.
  • The slave-makers move deep into the target nest to capture their victims, which are taken back to the slave-maker’s nest. Some resident ants manage to escape, taking some of the brood with them – so that they can establish a new nest somewhere else.

Formica sanguinea is the only slave-making ant in Britain. In Scotland, it was considered to be very rare, but the number of records has increased significantly; it is likely to still be under-recorded. Colonies are most likely to be found in the eastern Highlands, from north of the Dornoch Firth through to Aberdeenshire. Their nests are usually near dead wood, always in sunny areas, and they may have a small mound, although not like the characteristic thatching of wood ants. Workers are predacious and scavengers on other invertebrates; they also tend aphids on trees and bushes for their honeydew.

Individual ant images: (c) Gus Jones, wood ant nest image (c) Lorne Gill/SNH

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Outward Bound Trust

The Outward Bound Trust is synonymous with using the outdoors and education to help develop young people from all walks of life. Founded in 1941, as a school for Merchant Seamen, the Trust evolved to develop an educational programme that is closely linked to the outdoors. This ethos is as valid today as it was over 70 years ago and in 2014 the Outward Bound Trust worked with 25,802 young people.

Good examples of this positive work crop up all the time. Just this month 106 young people from Fife and Lochaber benefited from Outward Bound® courses, and the August courses had a real focus on natural heritage learning thanks to a partnership between The Outward Bound Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The Trust’s Scottish Director, Martin Davidson neatly explains the value of the Outward Bound Trust, “The Outward Bound Trust exists to unlock the potential in young people through learning and adventure in the outdoors. Our centre at Loch Eil is set amid spectacular scenery and thanks to the funding from Scottish Natural Heritage we have been able to make the most of this to increase learning about Scotland’s wonderful natural environment for young people on our courses and to encourage them to continue to enjoy the outdoors on their return home.”


Scottish Natural Heritage has provided support over three years to enable young people aged 11-18 from across Scotland to participate in five day residential courses with The Outward Bound Trust. Participants from Glenrothes, Lochgelly and Kinlochleven High Schools learnt about the flora and fauna of our mountains, lochs and coast and the natural processes which formed these landscapes.

Other topics were covered in some depth too. They discussed the impact which man has on our landscapes and how to act responsibly in these environments at the same time as they explored on foot in the mountains, canoed and rock climbed as part of their Outward Bound course. Pupils also completed their John Muir ‘Discovery’ Award and learnt about the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Those are great outcomes according to Pete Rawcliffe, Unit Manager of the People and Places Unit at Scottish Natural Heritage. “We are really pleased to be supporting The Outward Bound Trust in this work,” explained Pete. “Evidence clearly shows that giving young people opportunities to enjoy and learn about the natural world is hugely beneficial for them in terms of personal development, healthy living and employability. This year’s programme has again provided a unique opportunity for a group of young people, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, to experience some of Scotland’s great outdoors for the first time and to gain benefits that can be life changing.”

Looking forward

The Outward Bound Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage are now seeking schools who would like to participate in this fantastic programme in 2016 and are particularly keen to involve those within the Central Scotland Green Network areas (which covers Ayrshire and Inverclyde in the west, to Fife and the Lothians in the east). Interested schools should contact enquiries@outwardbound.org.uk for further information.

For more information :

The Outward Bound Trust: http://www.outwardbound.org.uk/

Scottish Natural Heritage: http://www.snh.gov.uk/

Central Scotland Green Network: http://www.centralscotlandgreennetwork.org/

For information on the John Muir Trust: http://www.johnmuirtrust.org/

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Lifting the lid on landslips

Good vegetation cover slows down the rate at which rainwater filters through the ground.   But even this natural protection can be overwhelmed by intense rain, causing dramatic landslips like the recent example from Corrie Fee national nature reserve.   Ewen Cameron and Ness Kirkbride reveal why in today’s blogpost.

The dramatic Corrie Fee landslips aren’t as rare as we might wish. Elsewhere in Scotland, landslips have blocked roads, watercourses and damaged property.   With even more intense rain predicted as part of climate change, we will need to adapt and re-think some things we have long taken for granted.

Corrie Fee landslip

Corrie Fee landslip

The landslips shown above and they have been used by Quaternary researchers (who study long term climate change) as environmental archives, which can be used to interpret periods of past intense rainfall.

Debris cones are built up over time by repeated debris flows, rockfall. and occasionally snow avalanches. They occur all over Scotland, even our Sites of Scientific Interest in Glen Coe and Glen Feshie are not immune.

Individual debris flows are caused by intense rain saturating the ground, and in Corrie Fee they occurred within the confines of the rocky gullies. They need two things:

  • sufficient silt, clay,  and rock (not just rockfall) , and
  • enough water delivered in one go, to fail and flow like a slurry of wet concrete.

Over time debris accumulates in the rocky gullies, and periodically heavy rain can result in a wet slurry type of slope failure we call debris flows. These flows can move fast, and have sufficient shear strength to transport very large boulders. The Corrie Fee debris cones will have built up over many thousands of years, from  debris flow events like these.

Individual debris flow events bury soils and vegetation, and these organic layers can be radiocarbon dated. Debris cones are like peat bogs, as they are environmental archives. During the last 10,000 years there have been periods of frequent debris flow activity on cones, during wetter periods of climate history.

Debris flows originating from gully systems are not usually associated with grazing pressure, (unlike debris flows on open slopes). Rock fall, and more importantly smaller scale granular weathering of the bedrock and soil forming processes accumulate a mix of debris in the gully, When enough debris has collected all it takes is one sufficiently intense rainfall or snowmelt  event to saturate the weathered debris in the gully floor. This can then start to move very quickly down the slope, initially collecting more debris by eroding a path and pushing some of the larger debris out at the sides leaving a track of abandoned debris on either side of its path down the hill, before slowing down and depositing a lobe of debris when the slope angle reduces and the water escapes from the rubbly mix.  So, debris  cones  like  the ones at Corrie Fee are good places to look at long term histories of extreme rainfall related landslides.

The photo shows there were several stages to these recent debris flows. The initial slurry like failures are thick and move like poured wet concrete, and then in the case of the left cone, water has eroded and reworked the lower part of the new debris flow lobe (its lobe front has been washed out).

This suggests that as the storm progressed there was not enough debris flow susceptible material in the left gully to continue to supply debris flows down the gully onto the cone. So the later part of the storm water eroded a section of the cone and  created two nested mini alluvial fans of debris at the lower end of the left debris cone.

The other thing to note is that the largest run-out and sandy wash out has run over the area where pollen records were taken for the Quaternary of Scotland GCR site. Elsewhere where this type of wash out has occured in the past, you can find interbedded layers of peat and water deposited grit and gravel. These too can be used to look at past geomorphological events, and make inferences about past weather events like floods and debris flows.

Find out more about Scotland’s landslides here:



There is more to these landslip events than meets the eye !





Posted in Geology, National Nature Reserves, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

News from Noss

We’re now well into August, which means there’s less than two weeks left for you to squeeze in a visit to Noss, Shetland’s spectacular seabird island, tucked away beyond Bressay to the east of Lerwick. Read on as Reserve Manager Craig Nisbet tries his level best to entice you to visit Noss National Nature Reserve.

News from July would typically centre on the varying fortunes of our breeding seabirds, and it’s been another mixed bag to report on this year. Exciting news this season could also have been the first known record of a Harbour Seal pup on the shores of Noss, having been seen regularly with its Mum around Noss Sound since first being detected at no more than a few days old on 2nd July.

Harbour Seal with pup

Harbour Seal with pup

There was even the annual Noss Open Day to report back on, with over 200 visitors, lots of excellent kids’ activities, a couple of well received guided walks and outstanding catering organised by Bressay Community Hall.

But to top all of this, and without doubt the biggest news of the season so far (in the wardens’ humble opinion!) was the appearance of a Paddyfield Warbler in the garden on 22nd July.

Paddyfield Warbler on Noss

Paddyfield Warbler on Noss

As well as being the first record for Noss, it was also the first July record for Shetland, and only the third July record for Britain. As only the 109th record for Britain, this is a genuine national rarity. With the closest breeding grounds in Finland and Eastern Europe, and wintering grounds in India and China, it’s likely that this bird will have flown off in the wrong direction on passage, to find itself in an insect-rich patch of hogweed in the garden of a small island in Shetland.

That being said, it seems to be feeding happily, and the fact that it’s stayed over two weeks now would indicate that it may be moulting, and would therefore be likely to stay a while longer yet. It’s enticed a number of keen birders over to Noss, and despite its ‘LBJ’ (‘little brown job’) appearance, it’s even evoked the interests of some non-birding visitors too.

To read more about the exciting news you can visit the Rare Bird Alert blog post from 22-28 July 2015, written by Mark Golley (link posted by Andrew Denton on 30th July on the Birds of Noss Facebook group).

Elsewhere on the island, there was good news to report with the completion of the all-island Guillemot count this year. With 24,456 individuals counted, we recorded a 9.8% increase on the previous count of 2009, which in reality indicates a relative stability when compared to counts from the last 10 years. Guillemots, as with Razorbills and Puffins, are now leaving the island, leading their young out to sea to continue their growth in a marine environment, away from the cumbersome burdens that land dwelling brings for auks.

Guillemot with jumpling

Guillemot with jumpling

Gannets continue their development on the cliffs, with some chicks now nearing fledging age. The dark-plumaged large chicks will soon plunge to the sea and survive on the excess store of fat built up whilst being well fed on the nests.

Gannet chick

Gannet chick

Other birds have had mixed breeding success. Arctic Terns have failed once again after a successful year last year; gull productivity is up this year; and Arctic Skuas look likely to fail, with the only chick on the island developing a malformed wing. Wader numbers continue to build up with Turnstone, Sanderling and Knot all likely to feature heavily in August, and with the brief sighting today of a Green Sandpiper on the beach at Flitsands, hopes are high for an exciting season of autumn migration.

An encouraging record this year was that of the elusive Small Adder’s Tongue, found this year by our colleague Glen Tyler. With 14 plants recorded in one localised patch, it’s easy to see how it may be overlooked!

Another search for an elusive species proved less fruitful, with lichenologist Paul Cannon from Kew Gardens visiting in search of the under-recorded fungus, Multiclavula vernalis. Paul was on hand, however, to give me a crash course in lichens of the hill dyke, of which 9 were identified with a further 20 plus being left to avoid my own personal information overload!

Xanthoria parietina

Xanthoria parietina

Regular updates continue through the Birds of Noss Facebook group, so to keep up to date with news from the island, or to look back at some pictures and stories from the season so far, log on and join the group today.


Stop Press :  the Paddyfield Warbler left Noss after 26 days, making it the third longest-staying individual on record in the UK. With easterly winds forecast for Shetland in the latter part of August, who knows what other interesting migrants and vagrants will grace our shores!


Posted in Birds, National Nature Reserves | Tagged , , , ,

August update from the Isle of May

David Steel is the Reserve Manager on the Isle of May, based on the island itself from March to October. Here he gives us an update on a busy August as visiting birds have popped in and the results of bird counts filter through.

Isle of May NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Isle of May NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Welcome to autumn. Confused? Well in the natural world August is technically ‘autumn’ as migrant birds start moving south, leaving behind the British Isles on a journey which will take many into Africa and beyond. We’ve already seen Swifts depart these shores and in recent weeks we’ve seen plenty of small birds arrive on the Isle of May on their way south.

Over the last few days with favourable weather conditions, a good scattering of migrants have arrived including the autumn’s first Wood Warbler, Reed Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. Throw in up to twenty Willow Warblers, Whitethroat and Chiffchaffs and you can see that the island has changed from a seabird colony to a migrant service station.

wood warbler

wood warbler

As well as the usual birds, we’ve also had some very unusual arrivals including:

  • Kingfisher on 8th August (only the islands 4th record)
  • Red Kite on 8th & 15th August (only the island 6th record)
  • Quail on 14th August
  • Little Stint on 11th August
  • Ruff two on 10th-11th August
  • Cuckoo on 14th-15th August
  • Crossbill on 10th August

Bird Counts

Our bird counts for the year are now done, everything calculated and we can now bring you the population counts for 2015. You can read the reports on the Isle of May NNR blog @ https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/

Fulmars are one of the longest lived seabirds in Britain, with an average lifespan of around 44 years. They are relative of the Albatross (a member of the tubenose family), fire oily vomit at predators, fly incredible distances and despite all this, are probably one of the most overlooked birds on the May. They are a very slow growing species and are one of the last seabirds to leave the island; with an average incubation of around 50 days and another 50 days of growing before the chick is ready to fledge.

They are the only species that have had a decline in their population this year, with a drop of 25 pairs, bringing the figure to a round total of 300 pairs breeding. However this is only a small fluctuation and can vary slightly year on year, with the highest recorded 382 (1997) to 198 (1990) and 218 (2013). The yearly average is around 300 pairs in recent years.

Fulmar stats

Fulmar stats

The shag population on the May shows a pattern of general decline from the 1,600 pairs that bred in the early 1990s and certainly wasn’t helped by a big winter crash in 2012/13, which saw many dead along the coast of the UK and their wintering grounds. 2013 was one of the lowest counts of pairs in history, when only 322 pairs bred. However, with an increase in 2014 to 338 pairs and another increase this season to 401 pairs, hopefully the numbers are heading the back in the right direction.



These birds often feed on the lower levels on the ocean, and winter storms that churn up the sea floor mean it can be much harder to find food. This on top of cold weather, and high winds, can lead to starvation and death. A good percentage of the Shags on the Isle of May are colour ringed as part of a study looking into their winter survival and dispersal from colonies. Hopefully this project will continue to help us gain an insight into our breeding Shag population.

Another success story is the kittiwake, which have had an exceptional year in terms of the  number breeding. They have built nests in areas where they haven’t been present for some years, and the population has increased a whopping 39% to 3,433 nesting pairs. This is highest number recorded since 2007.

We are really pleased with the figure because the Kittiwakes have had some bad seasons of late. This increase in the population is reassuring that birds are returning back to the May to breed, whether they are adults surviving the winter or young new birds that are starting to breed.



Let’s finish with some great news. Both Razorbills and Guillemots are up! The Razorbill population has increased 7% from last year to 3,202 pairs. This is the highest count since 2005 when 4,713 pairs were recorded.

The Guillemot population has also increased, to 15,945 pairs; an increase of 12% from 2014. Again, this is the highest recorded number since 2005.

These birds have strong site-fidelity, with chicks often returning to breed in the same small area in which they were born. So this population increase could be a reflection of good breeding seasons in recent years, as birds generally return to breed when they are around four years old.

There is still time to get to visit the Isle of May. We would be delighted to welcome you.

Find out more about the Isle of May at http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/isle-of-may/

Follow Reserve Manager David Steel on the Isle of May blog at https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/



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A Highland gem

Rory Richardson is the Reserve Manager at our Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. There is a lot happening on this popular reserve at this time of year as Rory explains below.

The three Munro’s on our Reserve continue to attract high numbers of walkers. Carn Liath, Stob Poite Coire Ardair, and Creag Meagaidh, are as enjoyable in summer as they are challenging in winter and I must say we are delighted with the help we get from walkers on the reserve who it must be said are highly respectful of the nature reserve, and continue to give great feedback of wildlife sightings. This feedback helps us paint a fuller picture of what is happening on the reserve.

Talking of wildlife sightings the early indications are that this has been a surprisingly good year for Dotterel. No fewer than twenty-seven breeding birds have been recorded. This is quite remarkable given the late winter and the wet summer we have had to endure.



We monitor the number of visitors that the reserve gets and visitor numbers are up on previous years. Over five thousand visitors were recorded in March which is a record for Creag Meagaidh; this is partly due to the extra two thousand metres of all-abilities paths in the lowland area we have invested in attracting the small bus tours to stop by and explore the lower reaches of the reserve.

Of course as well as ad-hoc visitors we have planned events. We have had several successful black grouse watching days, and black grouse numbers were at 74 males and 16 females which again is a testimony to our continuing successful habitat restoration.

Fortunately we have few problems to report on or near the reserve. There is a small issue with pike fishing down at the loch shore where we have had some incidences of litter being left behind, but we plan to work with our visitors to resolve this issue.


Find out more about Creag Meagaidh NNR @ http://www.nnr-scotland.org.uk/creag-meagaidh/

All images courtesy of Rory Richardson.




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