Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Butterflies, Ducklings and Electronic Alarms!

I have been inspired by nature to write the blog again today! :-) After the torrential rain of Monday, its lovely to get some sunshine and, reminiscent of Sunday’s visit to the reserve, the air smells fresh and fragrant with the spring blooms bursting into life all around and its making my fingers twitch!

As Grahame and I drove down the slope to the car park, the daffodils were still waving their heads in the slightly more gentle than normal breeze blowing across the top of the old dam, but their pale beauty is becoming more and more eclipsed by the wealth of deep golden yellow offered by the gorse which surrounds you as you pull up into the car park.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the entry road and car park have a whole lot of interest to offer in their own right, and so I’d like to make a small suggestion here… When you turn onto the reserve, slow your car, wind down the windows, turn off your music – and just enjoy! :-) On recent trips to the reserve Grahame has spooked 2 heron off the filter beds, and a moorhen is regularly to be found floating in and around the edges, so it is worth taking your time to make your approach as quiet as possible :-) Who knows what you might see… Grahame has even seen a stoat slinking off into the tall grass!

As we parked up, a buzzard swooped lazily down from one of the telegraph poles up the hill to the right and made a leisurely circuit of the area, while on the filter beds the moor hen poked about in the vegetation for the choicest nest-building materials. Having brought lunch we decided to eat it right there and take in the sights and sounds for a while – and the noise was incredible! :-) In direct contrast to the lazy meanderings of the buzzard, the blue tits were in full voice, and at full speed, darting through the trees before rising into the sky to give an amazing aerobatics display! There were at least two pairs involved and plenty of chattering back and forth as they criss-crossed the air. They were so caught up in their game that one of them nearly ploughed straight into Grahame – missing him by about a foot! There were also a few Reed Bunting in the area, occasionally living up to their names by hanging on to the stalks of the tall grasses leading up to the slope of the old dam!

The main reason for visiting the reserve on Sunday was to take advantage of the lovely weather and walk the route of the Butterfly Transect Grahame set up as part of the Butterfly Conservation Society’s UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. This is basically one of a series of 26 visits, undertaken on a weekly basis between April and September, where butterflies are recorded within 5m of a set route. I am pleased to say that after 3 weeks of zero, we have finally logged our first two butterflies for this year! They were both Peacock Butterflies and were found at the opposite ends of the reserve, so we can be sure they were not the same one twice!

The trip was by no means wasted even though these were our only two sightings! :-) Grahame has always been a lover of the LBJ’s (little brown jobs!) such as the warblers, chiffchaffs, whitethroat and buntings, and they have not been disappointing him so far! The melodic song of the willow warbler accompanied us on every step of the route, with the birds themselves being content to sit among the catkins of the willow trees. It was easy to see where they might have taken their name, given that the pastel shades of their plumage are perfectly reflected in the colours of the willow tree itself! The more sharp bark of the chiffchaff was also prominent, and the loud croak of the pheasant added to the music :-)

The loch is becoming more interesting as each day passes and Sunday provided its own little surprise! Grahame and I were just scanning around the edges looking for the dabchick (little grebe) when both of us happened upon something small and dark towards the far bank… Following a small adjustment of the binoculars and a couple of gasps, we were delighted to see 7 little mallard ducklings paddling like crazy after their mum! :-) Neither of us had really expected to see chicks just yet – although granted we are nearly at the end of April now. I suspect the dodgy weather has been fooling us into thinking that its still winter!

Just a small apology here for anyone who likes nipping to the loch-side to check out the birds at the peanut feeders… We have gotten a little lax in filling the feeders just recently due to a number of other personal commitments, however, now that the lighter evenings are rolling in normal service will be resumed. One of the peanut feeders does need a bit of repair work, so it may be just two of them being filled for a little while… a bushy tailed visitor has been a bit impatient about getting his hands on our peanuts!

Sadly, there was a little bit of disappointment as we neared the sheep field. We were really hoping that there might be more than two bouncy lambs for us to see – but it is common practice for ewes to be taken indoors during the lambing season these days and the flying flock are no exception so the field is looking very empty :-( However, the mother with the two lambs that have already been born are still in residence, so please do check on their progress if you are at the reserve – they are getting bigger very quickly but are still very cute with their wagging tails :-)

As we continued the Butterfly Transect beyond the sheep field, Grahame suddenly stopped and put his finger to his lips. It was the unmistakable call of the Grasshopper Warbler! Another item to be added to the species list for the reserve! :-) We tried very, very hard to spot the singer, but he was far too well hidden in the trees. As we had stopped to look and listen, we were treated to a fist fight by two male bullfinches who showed amazing agility in chasing each other through the winding branches of the willow trees! I don’t know how they were able to avoid them all, although there were a couple of close calls!

The remainder of the Transect, which basically ends at the point where the Dour Burn crosses the path at the east-most end of the reserve, was pretty quiet with the occasional chaffinch call and the bleeting of the sheep belonging to the farm east of the reserve. However, as we crossed the last open grassland area, I startled a hare (and myself!) out of the grass! I was amazed as I’d just walked past it and hadn’t seen a thing! Wildlife really is the master of disguise sometimes – which is why you should always walk slowly and talk quietly when you are out and about! :-) Grahame was happy as he’d just spotted a lapwing taking to the skies. They really are beautiful birds – but with a song that frankly sounds like an electronic alarm! :-)

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, but still a lovely walk from one end of the reserve to the other all the same :-) We jumped back into the car with 2 butterfly sightings and a couple more amazing wildlife experiences under our belts and the feeling that we’d had a good day - and isn’t that really all that matters sometimes? :-)

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

More arrivals, plus outings

First of all, apologies for the slow update to the blog. Janie and I have been away up north for a few days for a spot of R & R. We're back now, though, so I promise I'll keep it up to date, particularly with all of the new arrivals we're getting.

On April 12th we had an outing to the reserve from the Edinburgh Natural History Society. It was a relativley pleasant day, though the wind was bitingly cold. Despite the late spring we've been having this year, plenty was to be seen. The highlights were the Roe Deer up on the hills, the Hares in the neighbouring field and the Snipe which were flushed from the Snipe Bog. Several different plant and fungi species were identified on the reserve, and I'd like to express a big thank you to everyone who came along and particularly those who helped me understand and identify the various plants on the reserve.
I have to admit, plants really are not my strong point (I normally leave those to Janie) so it was good to get an insight from such knowledgeable people.

Recently we've had the arrival of Willow Warblers on the reserve. We had our first sighting on Sunday 13th April and they've been there ever since. When i went along yesterday evening, i counted at least 10 singing birds, along with 4 or 5 singing Chiffchaffs. We've recently had an increase in Reed Buntings to the reserve, with 4 males and 2 females sighted this morning.
The most interesting new sighting on the reserve over the past little while was a Common Lizard found on Sunday. I found it in the early morning near the field where the flying flock are resident.

Janie and I have also invested in some pond dipping kits, which we've taken out for a little outing to the reserve. It's still early yet for a lot of the pond life, but there were still plenty of water boatmen, beetle larvae, beetles, snails and flatworms to be found. We'll definitely be doing that more regularly. Who knows, i may even be able to persuade Janie to update the blog again with some of our findings!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Ringing in the Trees

Hey all! :-)

Firstly, a quick apology for the lack of update on what is becoming quite a busy and exciting time for the reserve! Grahame, who is the primary writer of blog updates, has been very busy recently as we are involved with conducting a few surveys and building our species lists as quickly as we can with new items are appearing all the time. On the reserve, homes are being built, mating songs are being sung, and new arrivals are popping in for the day or even being born on site so plenty of jostling for position can be seen at the feeding stations! So, given that there is a fair bit to be said, I thought I’d do the update again this time and share a bit about what has been going on! :-)

Spring has sprung at Cullaloe and every day there is something new to see, hear or smell. It is quite a feast for the senses and, on Sunday, the Dunfermline RSPB Wildlife Explorers came along to see what all the fuss was about for themselves! Just as a bit of background, RSPB Wildlife Explorers is a membership of the RSPB that is open to children aged 4 – 19 years old. Mark, our local bird-ringing expert, very kindly agreed to come along and show the Explorers what ringing is all about, which was brilliant news as this is definitely something that appeals to wildlife devotees of all ages! ;-)

Now you may have noticed that the weather has been rather changeable of late and the drive to the reserve was a little hairy in the blizzard-like conditions! I have to admit, I did wonder whether the snow might put a dent in the day by persuading the Explorers to stay indoors, so it was great to see so many people starting the trek up the hill from the car park (and yes – I’m afraid I was late again – but there was snow… and no grit yet… and… *blush*). Luckily Grahame and Mark had both arrived in plenty of time and the group were well buttoned and booted up against the chill of the morning air :-)

We started by taking a walk along the top of the old dam to the viewing point that overlooks the willow scrub on the one side and the filter beds on the other. Grahame took a moment to explain some of the history of the reserve and its previous life as a water refinery. The weather had dampened the level of bird activity around us and the only accompaniment we had on the first part of our tour was the beautiful sound of a song thrush, singing from the very top of one of the tallest trees on the reserve… or so we thought! As we all made our way back to the path leading to the Loch, we were amazed to see a chain of bird-prints running along the path where only moments before the crisp new snow had only been broken by an occasional human footprint! After a bit of consideration it was suggested that the culprit may have been a Snipe, and sure enough as we walked along towards the Loch, a group of 4 Snipe rose into the air from the willow scrub area. I have to admit I was pleased to see that many together as it suggests that all the hard work we and the local cadets have put into clearing some of the scrub for the benefit of Snipe may just be paying off! :-)

Just on the subject of the Loch, regular visitors may have noticed that the bamboo section of the screen overlooking the Loch has been removed. This is due to damage caused over a period of years which was finally brought to a head by the recent high winds. We are currently seeking funding for timber to erect a permanent replacement for the screen in the hope that this will stand up to the pressures of time, weather and the occasional enterprising visitor! If anyone thinks they may be able to help, please get in touch.

Mark met our group as we entered the trees beside the Loch and gave a bit of background on bird-ringing, the equipment used, the purpose behind ringing, and the qualifications required. Then, once the mist net had been set, we went to take a look at the Loch to let the birds come and settle around the feeders again.

There were a few birds to be seen on and around the Loch, most notably the first sighting of a swallow for this year – thanks to Matthew for spotting it skimming over the Loch! Our resident male swan from last year has returned but this time with a different female as this one features a ring. I was surprised at this as I had thought that swans mated for life, however, I read up on it a bit and, where it is necessary, they are not adverse to taking up with a new partner. They seem to be getting on very well and have already established their nest in a spot close to where last year’s was sited. Also to be seen were coots, tufted ducks and a dabchick (little grebe).

It wasn’t long, though, before our attention was taken by one of the young Explorers who had been keeping an eye on the mist net and spotted that some birds had already become caught up in it. Sure enough, when we all went to take a look, some blue tits and great tits had gotten tangled in the very fine mesh of the net. Mark carefully untangled each bird (a task that required great skill and patience!) and popped them into individual cloth bags ready for ringing. Once he was ready to start, you could feel the anticipation as Mark gently brought the first bird out of its bag, with children and adults alike leaning forward to see as much as possible. It was definitely one of those “I love my job” moments for Grahame and I as everyone’s faces as Mark carefully measured the bird’s wing, noted its age and weighed it in what one visitor described as a “piping bag” were full of amazement and interest :-) We even found that one blue tit had been ringed at Cullaloe by Mark before – 5 and a half years earlier! That amazed even Grahame who didn’t think that blue tits lived that long. He was equally impressed that it was happy to still be living at Cullaloe after all that time! :-)

Although we only captured blue tits and great tits in our net this time around (no woodpeckers much to Grahame’s disappointment!), bird numbers appear to be on the increase on the reserve with more species being recorded all the time. We have well over 40 different birds on the species list now and it should be noted that this is the best source for the latest information on the species on the reserve. Although we try to update the blog on a weekly basis, the species list is updated immediately after any visit during which a new species is recorded, so be sure to take a look.

There are some other new additions to the reserve this week but who are not from the world of birds. Cullaloe is currently host to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s flying flock (in the field beyond the Loch) and some of the ewes have begun to give birth. If you happen to be visiting the reserve and would like to see how our bouncy spring lambs are doing, please feel free to take a look. We would ask that you be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb the sheep too much, and would appreciate it if dogs were not walked beyond the spillway for the moment.

And finally, just to advise, the Edinburgh Natural History Society will be making a visit to the reserve tomorrow (Saturday 12 April 2008) and will likely be on site for the best part of the day. Grahame will be present to act as a guide and to share his knowledge of the reserve where he can.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The return of the migrants

It seems that the first of our migrants have finally returned to the reserve. I went to the reserve on Monday, as it was such a lovely day. As i was walking along the path, just past the screen, i could hear the tell tale call of the Chiffchaff. It only took a couple of minutes from there to see it.
Hopefully, this will mean that the rest of our African summer visitors will be arriving within the next few weeks. I suspected we will see swallows or sand martins next.
The lone Little Grebe on the loch has been joined by a partner, so I'm getting quite hopeful that we might have some breeding success for them this year. We also had a pair of Shelduck stop over on Monday for the day, but they didn't stay long. From reports, they have attempted to breed on the reserve in the past, but it doesn't look like this year will be another attempt.

Just to advise, we have the RSPB Wildlife Explorers visiting the reserve this Sunday. They'll be getting a guided tour and a bit of a ringing demonstration from Mark.

Keep an eye on the species list. It gets updated more regularly than the blog does, and right now it's constantly changing