Peregrine

Our ranger Jackie tells some interesting facts on her guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on the Peregrine falcon  that can be seen in the great out doors around Scotland.

While out on a wildlife tour, I was fortunate to get a brief glimpse of a peregrine disappearing at speed over a ridge. Ever since I was a child I have always had a fascination with these incredible birds.

Peregrines populate large areas of every continent apart from Antarctica and they have managed to customise their hunting methods to suit almost every habitat, including in our cities.

We as humans very quickly realised how high their hunting success rate was. We also very quickly realised how trainable they are. As a result they have become one of the most popular birds for falconers throughout the world. Some peregrines have gained themselves very important jobs in our society, warding off other birds where they have become a problem, e.g. pigeons at Wimbledon, Lords cricket ground or at airports. I have also heard some have been trained to catch drones!

Peregrine on a wildlife tour
© O. Hopkinson Photo

They really are an apex predator. So what is it that makes them so much more successful than other birds of prey?

If we start by looking at the head, a peregrine’s eyes make up more than 50% of its head; to give you a comparison our eyes make up 5% of our head. Peregrines eyes are also very clever because they can see in both monocular and binocular vision. So when a peregrine looks at something close by it uses both eyes together to create an image in the same way that we do, but the clever bit is when they look at something far away. Often you will see peregrines turning their heads sideways to look at something. This is because they are using their monocular vision, which for us would be like looking through a telescope. A peregrine can see a tennis ball from 3 kilometres away! This means an unsuspecting pigeon can be being hunted with out even realising. A peregrine will then use its next weapon, the one they are most famous for and deservedly so, because it is the fastest creature on the planet.

Peregrines have been recorded at speeds of over 200 miles an hour. What’s also amazing is their ability to get to high speeds incredibly quickly, faster than any sports car.

Being able to accelerate from 0-60mph in less than a second has its issues though. This is why peregrines have very strong dense skeletal structures and relatively short, stiff, pointy wings. The tail is wide but also short and stiff. All of these traits help it to cope with the extreme speeds, acceleration and high G forces, up to 18G, which is double what any of our best fighter pilots can deal with.

I have been fortunate to see wild peregrines hunting a few times and also been out with falconers on a few occasions in the past; watching peregrines fly while hunting is a truly incredible site. I’m not sure I can really put into words how beautifully graceful and effortless it is.

So once the peregrine has spotted and managed to catch up with its prey, it will now grab it with its talons while on the wing and then deal the fatal blow with its sharp beak. Both the feet and the beak have hidden secrets though.

The feet have a clever ratchet like system on the end of each digit that means when the 2cm talons have hold of the prey they will not let go. The other big advantage of this is that no energy is expended holding the prey. This also means peregrines can take on prey far larger than themselves.

The peregrine’s beak has a small, easily missable notch on the inside of the upper mandible that is called a tomial tooth. This is used to fit between and dislocate the vertebrae in the victim’s neck and results in almost instant death.

Peregrine in the Cairngorms National Park
© O. Hopkinson Photo

When it comes to parenting peregrines take it in turns to look after normally about 3-5 eggs. Once hatched the chicks mature very quickly partly due to a constant flow of food from both parents. The chicks are trying to fledge after 7-8 weeks. Once they have the hang of basic flying, together the parents teach the chicks the skills needed to hunt.

So when you are next out and about in an open area, do keep your eyes peeled for these amazingly swift, beautiful birds.

 

Cuckoo bees

While on a wildlife tour with Jackie you can learn some interesting facts about nature in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her observations on the Cuckoo bee.
Cuckoo on a wildlife tour Scotland
Cuckoo – Cuculus canorus

Most people will be familiar with the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). The medium-sized bird with the familiar disyllabic call. The females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, especially meadow pipits, dunnocks and reed warblers.

Less well known is the fact that there are bees with a similar habit to that of the cuckoo. Other than honey bees most wild bee species are solitary. They do not have a complex social structure with queens and workers. Females of these solitary bees build their own nest, fill it with pollen, and then lay an egg in it. Often a nest contains several compartments with pollen on which the bee larvae will feed.

These bees are targeted by other insects that take advantage of the available shelter and food. The females of these cuckoo bees locate a nest of a specific host bee species and lay their eggs in the nest themselves. Cuckoo bees may revisit a nest from time to check if there is enough pollen for their future offspring to feed on. If so, the eggs are deposited and the pollen that was collected by the host bee will be eaten by these cuckoo bee youngsters instead.

On one of our tours we found the cuckoo bee Nomada panzeri (Panzer’s nomad bee): a little bee that looks a bit like a wasp because it isn’t as hairy as a lot of other bees and because of its yellow and dark red markings. The presence of this bee meant that its host species was likely to be around too. Sure enough, a female of Andrena lapponica (bilberry mining bee) seen. Females of this bee build their nest in the ground and visit mainly bilberry for nectar and pollen. Pollen is collected on the pollen sacks on the hind legs and later deposited in the nest for her offspring to feed on, or the offspring of the cuckoo bee of course.

Click here for a UK bumblebee species guide.

We Love Nettles

Our botanist Dr Oliver Moore has been out and about on nature walks in the Cairngorms and wants us to love nettles.

The common nettle is, in my opinion, a misunderstood plant. I think almost everyone in the UK who has spent any time in the countryside has a story about how they fell in a patch of stinging nettles. Because of this they get a bad reputation and most people are a little frightened of them. In my case I have many childhood memories of being stung, then rummaging round looking for dock, or ‘doctor leaves’ as they are known in my family, to try and ease the discomfort.

Nettles are part of the Urticaceae family and are found almost all over the world and tend to be a good indicator of moist, nitrogen rich soil. This is why they are often found near livestock fields, dung heaps, riverbanks and hedgerows. As most gardeners know once they get going its incredible how fast they can take over an area.

Nature Walk in the Caringorms National Park
Common Nettle

There are six subspecies of nettle, not all of which sting; the five that do are all covered in small hollow hairs that are full of a chemical called histamine. When you come into contact with these hollow hairs they act like thousands of hypodermic needles that inject the chemical into the skin thus causing a painful sensation. For nettles this is a highly effective method of protecting themselves from hungry herbivores. How ever, nettles are an important food source for both the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, as well as a large number of moths and other insects which in turn pollinate and continue the spread of nettles.

Wildlife Tour in the Cairngorms National Park
© O. Hopkinson Photo

Nettles produce a lot of seed but it often doesn’t travel far from the plant, which is why they are often seen growing in clumps. They can also spread by rhizomes. Having both options means if the plant is damaged or burnt it will quickly re-establish and over take other plants.

Nettles have been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years and although they have great ability to cause discomfort they are also said to alleviate symptoms of allergies, hay fever, muscle cramps, joint pain and urinary issues. This is due to their high numbers of nutrients and minerals. It is also excellent for your compost heap (without the seed heads) for the same reason.

Nettles can be made into tea and there are many entire cooking books dedicated to cooking with nettles.  They can be used any of the ways you might cook spinach, as well as being a great ingredient in soups, smoothies, pesto, risotto and many, many more. I have recently been enjoying them in soup and pesto, and hold out hope that they are going to reduce my hay fever symptoms!

Wildlife Tour Cairngorms National Park
© O. Hopkinson Photo

What’s happening under your nose?

Our ranger Jackie tells some interesting facts on her guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on what can be seen in the great out doors around Scotland.

It’s spring meandering into summer, the uplands are rich in wildlife and vibrant colours, the nights are short, the days are long and the natural world is alive and screaming (Swifts spring straight to mind).  Now coming into nesting and fledging time, the birds are feeding up and finding food for their young.

A glimpse out of the window and suddenly an aerial glider comes into view and spiralling in the wind, the sight of an Osprey is enough to get a whole office excited, communal awe of the wonders of nature.

boy with binoculars in Cairngorms
Wildlife Tour

Sometimes going on a recce reaps the rewards.  Whilst trying to find a good spot to cross a burn, I witnessed something that lifted a somewhat dreich day in the field.  I saw red, no I’m not talking about an angry farmer chasing me off his land.  In fact something far more adrenaline pulsating, a sight I’d never seen before, a PINE MARTEN, an unmistakable big bushy red-brown tail scuttled out from the riverbank and into the undergrowth.  As quick as I’d locked eyes on the Marten it had gone.  Still that special moment lead me to feel a sense of elation, a feeling only endured during times of success!

Several weeks later Oliver came running into the kitchen with excitement exclaiming the words PINE MARTEN on the front wall, I ran outside but once again this elusive mammal had gone.  Still that same sense of emotion raced through me, rare or common, the natural world is all around.  Get out there, live it and enjoy it…

Don’t rely on technology. Learn to use a map and compass.

Our ranger Joe tells some interesting facts on navigation on his guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are his observations on how to stay safe in the hills.

For thousands of years mankind has navigated using the sun and the stars. In the past few hundred years however we have advance from this now primitive technique and become more accurate using maps and newer still satellites paired to GPS devises that fit quite happily in your pocket, amazing.

Walking Tour Scotland
GPS

With such strives in technology it’s a wonder anyone ever gets lost! But like all technology it has its faults. Being reliant on battery powered equipment alone is not the way to go for navigating in the great outdoors. One of the common problems with electronically aided navigation is the fact that batteries don’t do well in the cold. This can be a huge problem when outdoors in the winter, a phone or GPS that was on full charge can quickly go flat with little or no use when in sub zero temperatures. A means to combat this would be to keep you device on in inside pocket close to you body heat and keep its usage short when exposed to the elements. Keeping spare batteries in the same pocket is also a good idea, some smart phones do have removable batteries so can be well worth getting a spare.

Another pitfall of technology, in particular smart phones, is the fact they need constantly updating. Some applications will not let you view maps and location without the most current update. It can be a pain to find this out on the hill. Always checking for any updates the night before you head out and ensure you have the relevant maps available when offline is a wise move.

A less thought of problem with smart phone and GPS’s are their usability in bright light, especially on snowy days. Screens can be impossible to read in direct sunlight and attempting to read them inside a jacket can be troublesome. In general electronics don’t mix well with the outdoors; cold, rain, sunlight and sand all hamper their ability to assist you when in pinch.

While the modern tools we have available definitely have their merits and are fantastic tools in successfully navigating, they buy no means should be the only weapon in our navigation arsenal. It is essential to be familiar and well versed with more traditional methods. Also it feels a little bit like cheating!

Winter Navigation in the Cairngorms
Winter Navigation in the Cairngorms

The essential skills to know include: map reading, using a compass and measuring distances; along with a good level of knowledge of how long it will take to travel distances over a variety of terrain. As with any practical skill, practise makes perfect. Practising navigation can be fun and rewarding, but it is important to practise skills on terrain suited to your ability. It would be dangerous and even life threatening for a novice to hike up onto the Cairngorm plateau in winter or poor weather conditions. Navigation courses are a great place to start and build on any pervious knowledge and really gain confidence.

 

Blaeberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticola)

Our ranger Jackie tells some interesting facts on her guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on Bilberry and Mountain bumblebee that can be seen in the great out doors around Scotland.

Whilst up in the hills on a warm, sunny afternoon in June, there is little to disturb the peace and quiet–little more perhaps than the passing buzz of a worker bumblebee as it flies in search of flowers to collect food. The Blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is in flower at that time of year and is a food plant of the Blaeberry bumblebee: an attractive, colourful bee, native to the uplands of the United Kingdom, with many found here, in the Scottish Highlands.

Vaccinum myrtillus in Scotland
The Blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

This bumblebee favours colder weather and is at home in the uplands and moorlands. As such, it is particularly at risk of decline, due in large part to global warming. As the temperature generally warms, its habitat shrinks: pushing the bumblebee higher into the uplands.

Look out for them as you walk or even in your garden: queens, workers and males all have the same markings. If you spot a bumblebee with two lemon-yellow bands on its thorax and a large band of red-orange on its abdomen, this is most likely to be a Blaeberry bumblebee.

Mountain Bumblebee Wildlife Scotland
Mountain Bumblebee in the Cairngorms

Bumblebees are important pollinators; however, they are not alone in being so invaluable. A variety of other insects, such as: solitary bees, butterflies, moths and hoverflies, are also busily pollinating flowers as they feed and move amongst them to feed. These wild pollinators are in fact twice as effective as domesticated honey bees. Many flowering plants rely on their activities to pollinate their flowers, and so, to produce seeds. We heavily rely on these insects too; they complete an essential step towards helping us to produce crops, such as: apples, oil seed rape, coffee and tomatoes. They may be only tiny, but en masse, their work is on an epic scale and would cost the human race trillions of pounds to replicate (if this were even feasible).

The funny thing about Cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and its not a grass

Wildlife Safari Scotland
Our ranger Jackie tells some interesting facts on her guided wildlife tours running in the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on Cotton-grass that can be seen on our nature trails.

I have many memories of growing up in the countryside of Speyside and the Cairngorms. The bubbling whistle of the first curlew returning from winter shores, the fragrance of bog myrtle, the vibrant purple of heather blooming, the taste of blaeberrys straight from the hill and the phrase ”the funny thing about cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and it’s not grass”. This was accompanied by eye rolling from those of us who had heard it a thousand times before and some chuckling from the perpetrator. Unfortunately for those of us who heard it too often, he was actually right.

Grasses, sedges and rushes are Graminoids. These are herbaceous plants which have long blade leaves and often occupy areas of open ground such as grasslands and moorland. To a relative beginner, these can at times look quite alike but the short saying ‘sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses are hollow right up from the ground’ can help with sorting out whether it is a rush, a sedge or a grass you are looking at. As ever there are exceptions to this rule!

Wildlife Tours
© Copyright Dennis Thorley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cotton-grass, or bog-cotton as it is sometimes known, is actually a sedge. Following the ‘sedges have edges’ rule, a cross section through the stem shows that it is triangular in shape. This is also very obvious if you roll the stem between your fingers.

Although there are more than 25 species, we mostly see Common Cotton-grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) and Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum). Common Cotton-grass is often found near bog pools and areas of Sphagnum moss whereas Hare’s-tail Cotton-grass is normally found in areas of wet peaty moorland. In particular on the acidic soils of blanket bog and raised bogs. It is often found growing alongside Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris).

In early summer the flowers of Cotton-grass are fertilised. The characteristic cottony white seed heads can be seen when they are in fruit June. This can be an amazing sight with a sea of fluffy white flower heads spread out before you. In addition to the very slightly different niches which Common and Hare’s-tail cotton-grass occupy, the leaves and seed heads are also slightly different. Unsurprisingly hare’s-tail cotton grass produces one fluffy white seed head which looks like a hare’s tail. It also has many thin leaf blades which grow to around 50 cm. In comparison, common cotton-grass has thicker leaf blades and can produce multiple seed heads from the same stalk. They are like flags waving in the wind.

Historically Cotton-grass seed heads would have been used to stuff pillows instead of goose down and were used for wound dressings in the first world war. Native Americans also use the seed and stems of Common cotton-grass in traditional recipes. I’m not sure this is something we will be trying.

So when you are next out on the moor and see Cotton-grass, just remember ‘the funny thing about Cotton-grass is, it’s not cotton and its not a grass’!

Whisky Walking Wildlife

Guided Whisky Walking Tours in the Cairngorms and Speyside.

At the start of the month of May we had a fantastic five days of tours during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. We designed five Whisky Walking tours in Speyside that not only showcased Scotch Whisky but also let people enjoy the living landscapes of the Cairngorms.

We tried several different ideas which all worked very well with our guests. We had walks along the banks of the River Spey and hikes into the hills of Glenlivet.

A highlight was a visit to the Scalan (Gaelic for a turf-roofed shelter). This hidden building holds many secrets and tells an important story of ‘penal days’ when the native Scottish Catholic community kept the ancient faith alive in Northern Scotland.

Whisky Cairngorms
The old college of Scalan

A whisky sampling was had in the grounds of the Scalan College with water taken from the Bishops Well.

We told the story of Illicit stills and how distilling was widely considered to be a ‘right of man’ an opinion shared by most landowners. We looked at the crucial links between distilling and economic survival. How during a long winter, the cattle would survive on draff (nutritious husks and spent grains left after fermentation) We will also have a wee dram to toast the great people of the area who have been making whisky, both legal and illicit.

During the walks we spotted the following: Roe Deer, Red Deer, Buzzard, Mountain Hare, Curlew, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Red Squirrel, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Common Gull, Brown Hare, Rabbit, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, Wheatear, Sedge Warbler, Red Kite, Osprey, Kestrel, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Goldcrest, Robin, Mistle Thrush, Red Grouse, Black Grouse, Pheasant and Red-legged partridge.

Spirit of Speyside Festival
Whisky Walking Tour Scotland

We have a selection of Whisky Walking tours here

 

Feather Alarm Clocks

Nature Walk in the Cairngorms
Jackie Taylor has been up early this month getting our wildlife tours running in Glenesk nestled in the rolling hills of Angus situated in the south of the Cairngorms National Park. Here are her thoughts on the wonders of the dawn chorus that can be experienced on our nature trails.

Has anyone else getting woken up at silly o’clock in the morning?  Well, if you are, you may need to get a set of ear plugs, as the dawn chorus will continue through to July.

The lengthened daylight has flicked a switch and the sounds of the morning are now dominated by a cacophony of bird song.  The dawn chorus has two main purposes; attract a mate and defend a territory.  Singing is hard work and so it is the strongest and best songs that indicate the fittest birds and those most likely to hold good territory and pass on successful genes.

Wildlife Tour Scotland
Chaffinch on a nature trail in the Cairngorms

Why do birds sing at dawn?  Dawn air can be still and there is usually less noise meaning song can carry up to 20 times as far.  The light is a little dimmer, and this reduces the likelihood of a songbird being predated whilst they are singing and advertising their location.

It is truly fascinating to listen to the orchestra of bird song and at the same time it’s difficult to identify all the species that are singing.  Birds such as the skylark, robin and blackbird tend to start the chorus whilst other species such as wrens and warblers join later in the morning.  Chaffinch and great tit have a large repertoire of songs to convince rivals that

Wildlife tour Scotland
Great tit on a wildlife tour

there are several birds in the area and all the best territories are taken.  To help filter out the song birds it can be worthwhile going on an organised dawn chorus event where an expert will help to tease out the bird species.

International Dawn Chorus Day(IDCD) is on the first Sunday in May and you can join an organised event or enjoy the bird song from your own garden or local park.  Songbirds in the UK have declined by 55% since the 1970’s and so IDCD is an opportunity to celebrate nature’s symphony and support nature conservation.

Not an early riser?  You can listen to the dusk chorus, its not as loud as at dawn but some species such as tree sparrows and blue tits prefer it.

We will be doing Dawn Chorus tours in May and June so please join us. Contact us here for more information

 

Egg-cellent!

Nature Day Trips
While out on a wildlife nature walk have you ever stumbled across an egg shell?

Every Easter the supermarket shelves are stocked with rows of eggs of all shapes, sizes and colours with attractive packaging.  Outside of the supermarket there is a more subtle display of eggs being stocked in nests hidden from view or so well camouflaged they go unnoticed.

The shape, size and colour of eggs relate to the species of bird and its nesting characteristics.  As a general guide:

  • Blue or greenish eggs are usually from birds who build their nests in trees or shrubs.
  • White or pale blue eggs are more likely the eggs of hole nesting birds.
  • Brown or speckled eggs are produced by birds who lay their eggs in the open and on the ground.

But why do birds produce eggs with different patterns and colours?  Ground nesting species such as the Oystercatcher rely on the camouflage provided by the specked pattern and pale colouration to protect the egg from predators.  A study by Glasgow University found that quails seemed to learn their egg patterns and match their nesting location to give the best possible camouflage.  This may be one reason why first nest attempts aren’t always successful, as the birds have not seen their eggs before and are not able to choose the best place to lay them.

The white or pale blue eggs allow hole nesting species such as the Puffin to find their eggs in the darkness and avoid breaking them.

Many common bird species like the Dunnock, Blackbird and Song Thrush lay blue or blue-green eggs which can be vibrant in colour.  They don’t offer camouflage and as these birds nest above ground, they can easily see their eggs in daylight.  The blue colouration has been found to help the egg absorb the right amount of light to warm it but not allow the egg to get too hot. An article in Science Daily showed that brighter blue Robin eggs seemed to indicate a healthier female bird and encourage the male to take more interest in helping to raise the young.

Nature Walk in the Cairngorms
Blackbird on a wildlife tour

The Easter eggs at the supermarket don’t have these amazing adaptations but you can get novelty, personalised and luxury eggs.

Here are some top tips from the Wooldands Tust that will help you identify some of the more common shells you’re likely to find on a wildlife  nature tour. Click here.

Why not have an Easter wildlife nature hunt with our Ranger in Glenesk. Jackie will be out and about in the Cairngorms on Sunday and Monday. For more information click here.

Happy Easter