Saurus with no Rex

If you had any interest in dinosaurs at any stage in your life, you’ll probably know that Tyrannosaurus means “terrible lizard” and Rex means “King”. Not sure that’ll help you understand the title of this post but all shall become clear…

Last Sunday was a good day, one of many good days I’ve had recently. The weather was just as good as it has been on previous good days so I suspect it has quite a big part to play in whether I have a good day or not. Also, I needed good weather on Sunday for my target to be met.

I’ll start from the beginning. At some point I shared this video of two Adders Vipera berus dancing to our course group on Facebook for my coursemates for them to see. One of my coursemates commented, saying, “Where’s that then? cos i’m up for driving,” and that was that.

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Burn o’ Vat, Muir of Dinnet NNR

The first wee wander we took once we arrived at Muir of Dinnet NNR was up the Burn o’ Vat. I’d been up there before but then all I had done was just stand there in awe of how impressive the area was. Native Pinus and Betula woods with an understory of Calluna and Vaccinium, amazing glacial features and some brilliant wildlife. I highly recommend a trip to Muir of Dinnet even if it’s just for a quick stop on a journey further north or south.

I immediately got about to looking for new ferns as there are plenty species there, and quickly got sidetracked looking at the Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, male Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea and a stunning view of Lochnagar.

Clearly no Capercaillie was going to show itself so we made our way back to the visitor centre, taking in the spectacular views of Loch Kinnord before continuing on the path to a specific location for those all-important Adders!

Ok, Adders aren’t lizards so the saurus thing doesn’t really work here, but fortunately I spotted a Common Lizard Zootoca vivipara in the Heather by the path, and just today I found a new site for them near my campus! (Also saw my first Sexton Beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides)

The walk around the Loch was actually longer than need be but we had a nice wander with some good botanising done by me throughout. I was also slightly surprised to learn that I showed my 2 mates their first Lapwings Vanellus vanellus!

Other birds included a Common Sandpiper, many Siskins, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Buzzard, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins, Reed Buntings and a bunch of others enjoying the warmer weather.

Once at the location, I spotted what honestly looked like a small cow pat at the side of the path. This was in fact my first Adder Vipera berus and on closer inspection, she was one of the most striking creatures I’ve ever seen. We went on to see 4 in total, including males (and a Common Frog Rana temporaria just to slightly even out the herptile playing field).

Mission successful, we ambled back around the loch and headed home. Or at least I’m sure that’s what my mates wished had happened.

Me being the naturalist and occasional collector that I am, I seized the opportunity to get a Weasel Mustela nivalis head from a trap that was at the side of a field. Long story short, my pen knife needed disinfecting and my bag smelt a bit for a wee while, but I definitely think it was worth it.

 

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Weasel head Mustela nivalis

Slightly gruesome but at the same time (once it’s all cleaned up and doesn’t smell) it’ll be a great thing to show people, maybe even something that would capture the imagination of a small child. Or freak them out a little… Not the desired effect.

And to finish off the day, I had a little sit under the wee waterfall in the Burn o’ Vat and got suitably soaked.

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To finish off this post, a brief round-up of a great Friday birding with one of the guys I ring (birds) with over winter. The Ythan Estuary didn’t produce the King Eider Somateria spectabilis (hence the title No Rex) but a ghostly leucistic female Common Eider Somateria mollisima made up for that, as did the 3 Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta (lifer!). 300+ Grey Seals Halichoerus grypus was quite a sight too. Bullers of Buchan provided some nice seabirds and Corbie Loch was swarmed with Sand Martins Riparia riparia.

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Saurus with no Rex

It’s Been a Busy Week

It sure has, but I have enjoyed every day of it!

As I mentioned in my last post, I secured an internship with SNH to work at Loch Leven NNR for a year. The best opportunity I’ve ever had!

Just days after receiving the good news, I was back on the train down to Perth to attend a 2-day course on “Working with the public outdoors”. I’ll give you a brief run-down of what this entailed..:

  • An overview of why SNH work with the public on their reserves by Neil Mitchell from SNH. This included health benefits, and getting people involved with and valuing nature more.
  • Licencing and legislation
  • Health and Safety: Including risk assessments, incident management, emergencies.
  • Equality in outdoor activities
  • Child protection
  • People with disabilities outdoors: This section done by Gordon McGregor of Paradventures, a really thought provoking lecture that has made me look at outdoor access in a completely different way.
  • Leadership
  • … and finally, Navigation.
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5-man shelter… or was it 6…

Everything mentioned above (except the two sections that say otherwise) were covered by Stuart Johnson of Climbmtns. I’d like to thank Stuart for managing to include an incredible amount of information that has made me think about the outdoors and outdoor activities in a completely different way!

I won’t go in depth as to what we learnt as that’s not why you’re here. If the name of my blog is anything to go by then you’re probably here for birds. So I’ll skip to Tuesday afternoon when I went to visit family who live near Perth. Where am I going with this? Beavers. That’s where I’m going with this.

As you may know, there are Beavers Castor fiber on the River Tay, although you may not realise how many there are. Rumours that I’ve heard have said that there are hundreds, all over the Tay catchment and stretching beyond that. Good news for us naturalists! Although perhaps not so good news for the farmers fields that are affected by localised flooding due to the beavers. I do sympathise with them, although feel that there are better ways of dealing with the situation than shooting them whenever they want.

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Buchanty Spout, Perthshire

We went for a wee wander around a section of Glenalmond Estate, near Buchanty Spout (a great place to watch Salmon Salmo salar jumping in September). As well as some mighty trees, there’s a man-made loch used for wildfowling and fishing that is absolutely covered in signs of Beavers. I loved it, a new species for me, although we didn’t see the beast itself.

The next day we had a wee trip for the navigation section of our course. The weather was absolutely spot-on perfect. Out on the hillside, learning how to use a compass and map, whilst also being shown a 5/6-man shelter (see above).

One of the first pictures I took was because I had just had the lecture on the challenges for people with disabilities getting outdoors!

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Not very wheelchair friendly at all

On top of the excellent new skills I was learning from Stuart with the others in the group (mostly people who were either coming to the end of their internships or starting theirs at the same time as I am), I also managed to pick out some spectacular birds that I don’t see all that often. I’ll start off with the Red Kite Milvus milvus that flew straight over us as we learnt how to estimate distances, mainly because it was the only one I got good pics of!

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But the real stars of the day were the Hen Harriers Circus cyaneus that I spotted! The female I actually saw at first soaring with a Buzzard Buteo buteo and thought, “Ah yes, juvenile Buzzard showing that slightly harrier-like silhouette,” and then being pleasantly surprised when I spotted the white upper-tail coverts!

Terrible pics but they didn’t come very close…

I managed to get the hang of map reading and orienting my compass quite quickly, probably as a result of doing a fair bit of biological recording!

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Orienting my compass
  1. Start by lining up the edge of your compass with where you are (just below Creag na Criche) and where you want to go (Ruhumnan, 528m).
  2. Turn the (blue orienting) arrow so it is facing north on the map, as shown above.
  3. Put down the map and turn the compass so the red needle is lining up with the orienting arrow.
  4. Now stand behind the compass and the direction of travel arrow (outside the compass) should be pointing to where you want to go.

It’s as simple as that! This is most useful when there is poor visibility. Although bear in mind that it’s more than likely you won’t be walking as the crow flies to your destination! If my explanation isn’t making sense, then Silva has a good Navigation School video on YouTube.

I won’t attempt to impart any more of my newly found wisdom on you, don’t worry. What I will do is leave you with what I’ll call a “picture pun”. You have to work out what the joke is here… Not a very good joke, but certainly a very naturalist-y joke!

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It’s Been a Busy Week

Things are happening…

… and it’s great.

If I haven’t already told you or you haven’t seen my tweet or heard me celebrating from next door (sorry Fraser), then I have news that made me extremely happy yesterday afternoon.

I hadn’t said anything before but I applied for an internship with Scottish Natural Heritage a few weeks back. This opportunity comes from a link between Scotland’s Rural College (where I study) and SNH in which SRUC students have the opportunity to apply for a year long internship with SNH at one of 7 sites, for example there’s a Grampian placement which covers St. Cyrus NNR, Muir of Dinnet NNR and Sands of Forvie NNR.

I applied for the Loch Leven NNR internship because it’s an area I know well and looked like the best of the bunch in my opinion. I was fortunate enough to be asked to go for an interview at Battleby House (a lovely place by the way) on Wednesday.

After the interview, which I thought went pretty well, I headed back up to Aberdeen and had to wait. Yesterday’s lectures were Classification and Identification of Organisms (ID skills) which I have no problems with, and Understanding the Landscape which looks like a very interesting module!

After lectures I headed out with a few course mates to help collect pieces of Yew Taxus baccata wood that were suitable for making bows out of (one of my course mates is quite into his archery and woodwork), and then proceeded to West Woods where I’d left my trail camera.

 

After reviewing the clips in the woods (you can do that with the LTL Acorn D5210A) I knew I had Badgers Meles meles captured, and once back in my room I realised a little Wood Mouse Apodemus sylvaticus jumps about picking up the seed that I scattered in front of the camera!

Whilst I was renaming files and uploading videos, I realised I hadn’t checked my emails in the past hour (I’d been checking them very frequently) so clicked on the Outlook tab that I always have open, and lo and behold there was an email confirming that my application was successful and I had been chosen for the internship at Loch Leven!

Quite simply the best thing that I think has ever happened to me. Not sure exactly when it starts but I suspect it’ll be about mid-June (don’t quote me on that). For now I have to organise getting back to Battleby on Tuesday for a “Working with the public outdoors” course which spans Tuesday and Wednesday. I can’t wait!

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St. Serf’s Isle, Loch Leven

In other news, I’m going to an ORCA training day in a couple weeks as they are hopefully expanding northwards to Aberdeen, meaning I’ll be qualified to go out and survey for marine mammals from ferries! Quite different from anything else that I know as almost everything I know is terrestrial, other than birds of course. So that’ll be cool and just adds to my excitement about the coming weeks/year!

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Bottlenose Dolphins, Moray Firth

I have one other piece of news that I’d like to tell you now, but you’ll have to wait until later today! In fact, I’ll probably just update this post when that news is made public.

I’m going out to place my camera trap in West Woods later in the hopes of getting more species recorded so I can submit them to the Mammal Society’s Mammal Tracker. Aiming for Pine Marten…


Well, it is later now, and BiOME Ecology’s new webzine has gone live! I was selected as the youth writer for the site and I’ll be contributing regular articles on various aspects of being a young ecologist/naturalist/conservationist. Although my first post isn’t particularly youth-focused, I hope you enjoy it!

It’s on “Tracks and Signs” although I’m sure you would’ve guessed that from the title! Have a good look around the site as there’s already loads of great articles up on various subjects ranging from the Honey Badger being found in the Western Sahara to asking whether citizen science can help reduce wildlife roadkill!

On another note, I’ve got to go and walk about another mile after discovering some very likely Pine Marten Martes martes scat on a forestry track after placing my trail camera somewhere else, and I’d like to move it so I have a better chance of getting Pine Marten!

Things are happening…

The Dipper, Cinclus cinclus

The Dipper Cinclus cinclus is my favourite song bird. That lovely chinking song that bounces off the rocks and running water, such a nice sound to hear whether walking along an upland stream, or on your patch just 2 miles from the centre of Edinburgh!

Fortunately the latter applies to me, and it makes it very easy for me to enjoy this bird that is pretty unique when compared to our other British passerine species. For starters, the Dipper is the only passerine that makes a habit of fully submerging itself underwater. It does this to feed on whatever insects (and sometimes fish) it can catch under the surface.

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Dipper Cinclus cinclus, Braid Burn

Despite the fact I see this species on a regular basis, with at least 4 territories noted on my patch this past winter, I still have unanswered questions.

The first one is something that nobody really knows the answer to.The Dipper gets its name, not from the fact it dips under the water, but from the fact that it bobs up and down when perched on a rock or log or at the riverside. It is unclear as to why exactly Dippers do this but there are a few possibilities.

Communication

Firstly, it may be that this is a method of communication between individuals. Considering the habitat in which a Dipper lives (typically fast-flowing, rocky streams and rivers), it would make sense that the Dipper uses a visual means of communication as opposed to trying to be heard above the rushing water. However, I have observed Dippers bobbing with no other Dippers in sight. In fact they bob all the time when they aren’t out of the water, so I’m not so keen on this theory although I could be wrong. I’m sure someone somewhere will know why they would have a reason to constantly bob for communication.

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Dipper Cinclus cinclus, Braid Burn

Feeding

The next possibility is that since the Dipper feeds on invertebrates underwater, it has to dip to better gauge where its prey is. A bird that does something somewhat similar would be the Grey Heron Ardea cinerea. When a heron sees a fish, it will move its head towards the fish to grab it, but then adjust its strike slightly so as to compensate for the fact that light refracts in water. The refraction of the light means the fish will not be exactly where it appears to be when looking through the surface of the water. This could be the explanation as to why Dippers must keep bobbing when perched at the water’s edge.

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Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, Findhorn Bay

Camouflage

The final possible explanation for the obsessive dipping behaviour is that they are trying to blend in to their ever-moving habitat, becoming less visible in the water as it flows past. You might think that with such a brilliant white breast, the Dipper is bound to be obvious in an otherwise rather grey/brown background of rocks and water. However, if it is amongst the rapids where you get whitewater, this white patch does actually work quite well in concealing the wee bird. I have tested this theory myself and can see that Dippers are often harder to spot when they take on the same movement as their background.

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Dipper Cinclus cinclus, River South Esk, Moorfoot Valley

Flight call

One other thing that has always intrigued me was the fact that, when a Dipper is flying along one of its watery highways, it is constantly letting out that “zrik zrik zrik!” call. That was actually what inspired me to write up this post, since I was sitting on top of Agassiz Rock today looking down at the burn and could pick out this little black dot travelling back and forth, calling all the while.

Why would a bird want to be so easily heard? Sometimes it’s an alarm call, as was demonstrated today when a Kestrel Falco tinnunculus flew low over the burn. But most of the time it appears to just be calling because it’s travelling.

My most ridiculous theory is that they do this as a sort of echo-location. And now that I think about it more, I realise this is highly unlikely. The second theory I’ve come up with (couldn’t find any information on the web) is that they do this to signal  to other Dippers that they are coming. If two Dippers are flying along the same narrow stream towards each other, I’d think it would be entirely possible for them to collide! Perhaps years of evolution has taught them that they need to let one another know when they are coming.

On the other hand, it could be as simple as the bird is proclaiming its territory. Although they already do this with that beautiful song. Speaking of which, I captured this video of what turned out to be 3 Dippers (I was only aware of 2 when filming) taking chunks out of each other in a dispute at the border of their territories. Quite an unexpected experience.

 

Try and see if you can pick out the possible explanations for why Dippers dip in the video, there’s quite a bit of footage showing typical behaviour: communication, feeding & camouflage.

Skip to around about 2 minutes to get to the action…

Not behaviour that I’d seen before they floated right in front of me as I sat on a log in the middle of the Braid Burn.

 

I hope that was an informative post and that you can find somewhere to watch Dippers yourself. I’m lucky in that we have loads of wee burns and rivers nearby that provide good habitat for this charismatic and somewhat strange bird. Bare in mind that Dippers have been known to move to the shores of lochs/lakes in the winter and even sometimes will be found along the coast in winter. Dippers are occasionally seen on the shores of Loch Leven but I’ve never personally seen one at the coast.

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Dipper Cinclus cinclus droppings
The Dipper, Cinclus cinclus