Friday 13 December 2013

Sleep Through Christmas?

For some of you, sleeping through Christmas might seem like an attractive option. Bats should be sleeping just now but the mild weather has wakened them and many have been spotted both in twilight and during the day. The warm weather triggers them to wake up and go and hunt for food. Bats can cope with waking up so long as there is some food available, there are quite a few moths still flying so hopefully they can have a feed and sleep again when it gets colder.

Pipistrelle bat - all our bats are small, but this is the smallest
Really cold weather can also wake them because although there body is in a deep-state of metabolic slow-down, an alarm goes off if their body temperature drops too low. They will then wake up and try and find somewhere warmer.
All our British bats are small and have a high surface area to volume ratio which means they lose heat very easily. Hibernation is the only way to survive through a cold winter.

They will also wake up once every 3 weeks or so to drink, as they lose a lot of water while hibernating
Other British animals that hibernate include dormice, hedgehogs, frogs, toads and lizards.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Our Wildlife is Ready for Winter

The hills have had their second full carpetting of snow here after a wild stormy day on Wednesday with proper blizzards. If you want to come out to the hills now, full winter gear is recommended - ice-axe, crampons and winter boots. Many of the tracks are icy - so you need to take care on bikes too.

White hills on Thursday morning from the estate office

However, the wildlife is ready. Our red deer have grown their thick winter coats, with hollow, duvet-like hairs and the mountain hares have moulted to their winter coat. This white coat is perfect camouflage for conditions like we have now, but it's a disaster if we have a mild winter. When there's no snow, their white coat makes them obvious for miles around, and a hungry golden eagle can follow them very easily, before swooping down and helping themselves to a good meal. Winter is a hungry time for eagles and mountain hares can be an important part of their diet. If they can't find hares, they often survive on carrion.

Too obvious when there's no snow!
Ptarmigan (Mountain grouse) and some stoats also go white in winter for camouflage.

Friday 1 November 2013


Winter suddenly seems to have arrived in Blair Atholl. Torrential rain, hugely swollen rivers and snow on the hills added to the long dark evenings have definitely made it feel like winter is upon us.

River Tilt in spate
The Witches Rock - not such a good place for swimming today! The river is running behind it too.

Up until now the wildlife has had an easy autumn with mild weather and an abundant autumn harvest to feed up on to prepare for winter. This week hedgehogs, bats and amphibians will be heading into hibernation. Our red squirrels have been stashing food furiously over the last few weeks, so that on bad days like we are having just now they can stay warm and cosy in their dreys for most of the day.
The red deer have pretty much finished rutting, but the stags will be exhausted and need to feed up frantically before the winter gets really bad.

Swollen rivers can be very dangerous for any hillwalkers or trekkers out in the heart of the Cairngorms where there are no bridges. Red deer and other animals can also get swept away. The rivers here do rise and fall very quickly.
The River Tilt at Marble Lodge. See how quickly the water levels rise.

Cold, wet and windy weather is the most testing for the animals and birds that stay here in the winter. They can cope well with very cold, crisp weather, and snow is not too bad so long as it's not very deep. But cold, rainy or sleety days are worst because the wet penetrates down to the skin and get the creatures really cold. The only way they can combat this is to eat a lot to keep up their energy levels, but if there's not enough food around then it get very bad. We shall soon see what the winter has in store this year.

Friday 30 August 2013

Bye Bye Birdy

Many summer holiday visitors have been leaving Blair Atholl over the last few days, and with the dismantling of the horse trials it has gone quiet. But this is not just because all the people have gone, many of the summer bird visitors have flown off too. Suddenly we notice that there's no oystercatcher piping or sandpiper peeping. The swallows have been flocking for a couple of weeks now, but are almost ready to go, and will be followed soon after by the house martins.

Huge numbers of swallows congregate on phone wires at Old Blair. They flock together like this prior to the start of their journey.

Swallows head to South Africa, where they can continue to feed on insects. Although it seems to us as though they go to Africa fro the winter, in fact, they only come here to breed, spending much more of the year away. The abundant insect life that we have in the summer helps them to rear their chicks successfully. Swallows mate for life, females choose males depending on the length of their long tail feathers - those with the longest tails are the most sought after! Most pairs will raise 2 broods of chicks while they are here, but mortality will be 70 - 80% in the first year. The migratory journey is particularly hazardous. If they survive to the next year, young birds will return to the same place that they came from, e.g. your garden.

Friday 2 August 2013

The Buzzing of the Limes

The grounds of Blair Castle have many common lime trees (Tilia x europaea), including the wonderful lime avenue drive up to the Castle from the village. This was planted way back in 1737, though some trees have been replaced since then.

Lime avenue from Blair Castle to Blair Atholl

The lime trees are now flowering, and this provides an absolute late summer feast for many of the smaller nectar feeding insects, such as bees, wasps and
 moths. Walking underneath the trees you can hear how alive the canopy is with beasties - the air is literally buzzing above your head all the way up the avenue. The flowers are pollinated by these insects and the resulting seeds have a special wing which allows them to sail in the wind to find new places. These seeds look nothing like the green citrus fruit called a lime - the tree's name comes from Linde, the German word for rope, because ropes used to made from the inner bark of the lime tree.

Lime flowers

Lime fruits and the lime nail gall.
The fabulous lime hawk moth, sadly not found in Scotland,
but common on lime trees in the southern half of Britain

Tuesday 23 July 2013

A flutter of excitement

A brief flurry of excitement the other week. Returning from a butterfly survey in Baluain Wood, above the castle a flighty fritillary butterfly was sighted. After a short but mad dash, waving the butterfly net wildly about to apprehend the fast flying and elusive insect, it was caught. A few tense moments as the butterfly was carefully transferred from net to viewing pot and allowed to settle so its identity could be confirmed. Then a sudden release of baited breath and mild sting of disappointment - this wasn't the pearl bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) that we had been hoping to find but its close cousin, a small pearl-bordered Fritillary Boloria selene).

What is it? PBF or 'just' small PBF?!
Strange to think that we put such value on rarity that we should feel any sort of disappointment at seeing such a lovely butterfly up close. For the pearl-bordered fritillary is more scarce than the small pearl-bordered but the populations of both are threatened in the UK, so to come across either and capture a photograph is something of a treasure. The excitement of discovery is heightened too by the close similarity of the two species - often easily confused - the most obvious difference being the number of white 'panels' on the underside of the wings, requiring a close look for confirmation. If any further confusion were needed over the matter, the 'flight periods' of many butterfly species (the times when they are on the wing) are out of sync with the usual timings due to the long staying winter weather earlier in the year and subsequent rapid advance of summer. In the end it all adds to the excitment.

There are more ways to distinguish the two than by the under-wing patterns alone.For a more detailed comparison of the two Boloria click here or check out the Butterfly Conservation website (follow the species links above).

Definitive small pearl-bordered Fritillary

Scarce beauty - Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Where Have All the Butterflies Gone?

Beautiful hot, sunny weather has come to Highland Perthshire. Summer has arrived at last. The sunny weather is perfect for butterflies, but sadly there are hardly any to be seen. The ranger service surveys 2 butterfly transects every week, and the lack of butterflies has been very evident. The flowers are abundant with nectar for the butterflies to feed on, and the weather is certainly warm anough for them to be active.
Ready for a butterfly transect.
The reason that the butterflies are not around goes back to the poor summers of the last 2 years here. Poor weather gave them little opportunity to be active to feed and breed. It may take some time for the populations to build up again locally. However, ringlets are just appearing and will soon be followed by Scotch Argus. These butterflies can be active in poorer weather and so were less affected by the conditions of the last 2 years. So we should see some more activity if the sun stays shining!

Scotch Argus

It's also better news locally with the moths, which are certainly enjoying the warm nights and are making up for the lack of butterflies to some degree. Because they are mostly nocturnal, they don't need sun and warmth to the same degree as butterflies and so are less affected by poor conditions.  This is good news because many bird species are dependent on moth caterpillars to feed their chicks, and moths also pollinate many plants.


Wednesday 26 June 2013

Wild Scotland: spaces for nature

A brilliant short video produced by 2020 Vision that we came across and couldn't resist sharing with you. The video encourages and explores the idea that nature needs our help and we need it. The video gives a special mention to several places and projects going on across Scotland and in the Cairngorms National Park too. Make your own wee space for nature - sit back, relax and enjoy it!

Wild Scotland from 2020VISION on Vimeo.

Thanks to @CameronMcNeish for sharing!

Monday 24 June 2013

New Atholl Walking Trails

The ranger service has been hard at work installing new set of waymarked trails around Blair Atholl and the surrounding area. The way markers are now all in place for visitors and locals alike to explore the trails but the work wouldn't have been possible without the hard work of volunteers and input from the Cairngorms National Park Authority and local Tourism Association.

Three of the trails start from the Blair Atholl Information Centre, located on the main road beside the River Tilt, and two more begin from Struan, to the north. A sixth trail uses the existing trails around the Falls of Bruar, starting from the House of Bruar.

Copies of the accompanying Atholl Trails booklet, guiding you around the walks, are available in the Blair Atholl Information CentreYou can view a printable version of the Atholl Trails booklet, guiding you around the new walks printed copies are available in the Blair Atholl Information Centre. You can also view a printable version of our own Waymarked Trails from Blair Atholl online.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Waymarked Trails on Atholl Estates

Click on the pictures of the trails booklets below to view printable online versions of the publications.

Waymarked Trails from Blair Atholl (published by Atholl Estates)

Atholl Trails (published by the Cairngorms National Park Authority)

Countryside Trails Dunkeld (published by Atholl Estates):

Cycle Routes from Blair Atholl
(published by Atholl Estates)

This booklet is not currently available as an online document but several 
downloadable route cards are available by following the links below:

Saturday 22 June 2013

A Day for Dwarf Shrubs

The rhododendron is in full flower in the Castle grounds and looking quite magnificent. However, the common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) is not always so welcome out in the wider countryside where it can spread through woodland swamping other vegeatation completely until there is nothing left but the rhododendron. It looks good at this time of the year, but it's not a good wildlife habitat at all.

But there are other native shrubs that are flowering just now. They are a lot smaller than rhododendron, but they don't take over, and provide much more for our birds and animals.

Here are the flowers of cowberry, an evergreen shrub of woodland and moorland, and blaeberry (or bilberry in England), which is deciduous. Both of these flowers will eventually turn to fruit. We know and love the blaeberry, but so do many other creatures - lots of birds and some mammals including pine martens and badgers. The cowberry has a red berry which is not so tasty to us (though not poisonous), but still important for other creatures.

Round ball-shaped flowers of the blaeberry
 In addition the bushes provide food for many insects, which then provide food for birds, especially chicks which need protein to develop. The capercaillie feeds its chicks on caterpillars from blaeberry bushes
These shrubs also provide great shelter, particularly for ground-nesting birds.

Bell-shaped flowers of the cowberry

Friday 7 June 2013

Bambi and Other Babies

Spring has definitely arrived at last and the grounds of Blair Castle are teeming with new life. An oystercatcher has laid eggs in the car park (don't worry, we've roped it off so they don't get squashed!) and another oystercatcher has chicks running aound near hercules Garden. The resident swans in the garden are also busy on their nest, and are pretty unwelcoming if you get too close.

You need to look carefully! Not the best shot but after this it went inside the tree fence and was even harder to see!
Two red deer calves have also just been born in the deer park. They look gorgeous with their spotty coats which are for camouflage. The mother also cleans their rear end assiduously so that they don't give off any scent to attract predators when they are left alone on the hill. She leaves her calf while she feeds and returns to it later .Calves usually appear earlier in the park than in the wild because the deer here have an easier life and are better fed. Wild calves are usually born in June though it may be a little later this year. If you visit and notice that the magnificent stag is missing, don't worry. He has gone to a new home and will be replaced with a different stag so that there is some fresh blood / genes - we don't want the deer to get too in-bred.

Saturday 11 May 2013

First Cuckoo of Spring

A pleasant surprise this morning. While working in Blair Castle grounds we heard the first cuckoo of this spring. It's always lovely to hear the call of the cuckoo as it's a sign that the warmer weather is on the way.

Listening to the characteristic sound also brings a sense of awe, to think that this bird -about the same size as a pigeon- has flown all the way here to Scotland from central Africa. The call is the male bird, letting females in the area know that he has arrived and is ready to take a mate.

European Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)
Image: Locoguapa

Cuckoos are brood parasites, a term that means rather than rearing their own chicks they lay an egg in the unattended nest of another bird, pushing out one of that birds own eggs in the process. The bird whose nest it is then unwittingly raises the cuckoo chick as it's own, unaware of the swap. The young cuckoo usually pushes it's foster brothers and sisters out of the nest, meaning it is the sole recipient of it's surrogate parents attentions. Cuckoos in Scotland usually lay their eggs in the nests of birds such as Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks, and Reed Warblers. The health of the population of Scottish and British cuckoo populations is therefore closely linked to those of these birds. The dramatic decline of cuckoos in recent years has largely been due to a reduction in their egg-hosts' populations decreasing, caused mainly by habitat loss and fragmentation.

The cuckoo has a breast patterning that mimics the coloration of the peregrine falcon and keeps potential competitors and predators at bay. This is the grey and white banding that you can see clearly in the picture above. It is though that this patterning also helps them to successfully parasitise the nests of other birds, fooling them into thinking that they are going to be attacked and eaten, and so they flee the nest leaving the female cuckoo free to lay her egg. Something which she can do in under 10 seconds!

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Black Grouse Lekking

Dawn was a bit hazy and dull this morning but it looks like today may be nice again. Until the rain arrives, at least. I was up early to survey some Black Grouse lek sites for the Perthshire study group and managed to get some camera-phone footage of  the activity. The quality isn't amazing but you can see how easy it is to do a bit of amateur 'digiscoping' without needing too much technical kit. The initial results are below - no sound though: the grouse were a bit too far away to pick anything up!

When I get a chance I will try and get some more footage and photos up. If you'd like to get closer or have a try yourself, why not check out Atholl Estates' Black Grouse Land Rover Tours that will take you out to the action.

Monday 29 April 2013

Eagle Learns about Leks

Wow. An amazing sight very early this morning. While out counting black grouse lekking (displaying) as part of ongoing monitoring, a juvenile golden eagle appeared. The black grouse all disappeared in a flash and the young eagle didn't catch one, but it hung around. The urge to lek is so strong in the male black grouse that they started coming back fairly soon and the eagle had another swoop in.
A young eagle - note the white tail and white undersides to its wings

A male black grouse at a lek. An easy target???

I watched for about half an hour and the eagle had no luck. Black grouse are generally only occasional prey for an eagle, but if this one does learn to catch them, then he has breakfast lined up every spring as the birds not only congregate but make a bubbling call as well, alerting the eagle to where they are. However, as eagles are generally lazy hunters it might well be that it's all too much hassle.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Snow Melt Adds To Heavy Rainfall

The weather has been very wet here since the early hours of Sunday morning. Heavy rainfall combined with milder temperatures has meant that much of the snow from the higher ground has been melting, swelling the rivers and burns and making them run in high spate. You can see from the picture and video below just what a difference this can make

A tranquil view of Gilbert's Bridge in Glen Tilt on a 'normal' day.
The river is relatively calm. in this picture

The video above was taken from the top of Gilbert's Bridge on Sunday morning. 
The river was in heavy spate and flowing very fast!

Sunday 7 April 2013

Lambs and the Springtime

Well it must be spring because the lambs are appearing. The temperatures outside tell us it is still winter, but our cross-breed sheep started lambing last week. It should be a lovely time of year, but unfortunately the extreme cold weather has made things very tough for the ewes and lambs. There is no growth at all of the fresh, nutrient-rich grass which is so important at this time of year for the pregnant and lactating ewes. Our sheep lamb outside and would normally be grazing on the rich, green field now, but instead they are having to make do with winter rations. Some ewes are very hungry, others have re-absorbed lambs or lost them after they have been born. The mothers with triplets are suffering most as they have to give so much to their lambs. It will take some time now for the soil to warm up enough for the grass to grow, and until then we risk losing more lambs every day because the mothers can't provide enough for them. Sad indeed.

Mother and lamb in the 'special care unit'

You can help by keeping disturbance of the sheep to a  minimum by keeping to paths and keeping dogs on leads amongst the sheep.

You can also help struggling our sheep and cattle farmers throughout the country by making an effort to buy British meat.

Let's hope that by the time the Blackface lambs are due in May, things are looking a whole lot better for them.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Last Chance - Make Your Vote Count for Nature!

Caledonian Pine woodland
Image: RSPB

Today is the last day of voting to award €20,000 (£17,000) of funding to a European wildlife project. All of the projects nominated are excellent and details can be found here

The RSPB have a reserve at Abernethy Forest, near Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park that is up for the funding, which could be vital to the success of their project to restore Caledonian pine woodland from fragmentary, to continuous habitat.

But they need your votes to get the money! So please read the letter (quoted below) from the RSPBs Abernethy Forest, site manager and then head over to or TGO Magazine to cast your vote!

Please vote for Abernethy

We are delighted to announce that our project to re-connect Abernethy forest with neighbouring Glenmore has been shortlisted by the European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA) for a potential award of nearly 20,000 Euros.
This project will be an exciting step towards restoring Scotland’s magnificent Caledonian forest - but we need your vote if we are to be successful in securing the funds!
Please click here, to vote for our project “Restoring Scotland’s Caledonian Forest”.
We will need thousands of votes, so please do share this link with your family and friends!
This area is now the capercaillie’s final remaining stronghold in the UK. The expansion and re-connection of individual forests, such as the two forests of Abernethy and Glenmore, is crucial to provide the extensive habitat these birds require.
We hope to plant 30,000 trees in this area over two years, to create a huge wildlife corridor – set to benefit an array of incredible woodland wildlife. There will also be new interpretation at nearby Ryvoan bothy to describe our vision for the forest and the species which depend on it.
Voting ends on 28 March, with the winning project announced shortly thereafter.
Thank you for your support.
Jeremy Roberts 
Senior Site Manager
Abernethy Forest


If you have problems voting the above link you can also vote through the TGO magazine website.