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Muirshiel Wildlife Almanac

January

A quiet time for many species but can be the best time of the year to spot Ermine. These are what white-coated Stoats are called in winter. Changing the colour of their warm fur helps these voracious hunters to catch their prey at this hard time of year and the white fur might even help them stay warmer.

The very short days and lack of light means that wildlife has less time to find a meal and will often forage during our work hours as a necessity to survival. You will often see more sightings of very shy creatures like Roe Deer and Foxes who prefer to be out in the early morning and late evening.

February

Often the coldest month at Muirshiel and, if snow is lying on the ground, it is an ideal time to look for tracks and signs of the animals that have been out and about in the night.

Snowdrops push through the snow and despite the lingering frosts, burst open.

By the end of the month, if it is mild, the pond is full of Frogs calling and laying spawn. The larger males ‘sing’ to attract females who lay their eggs in great clumps. Some eggs near the surface will be killed by frost but enough will survive to hatch into tadpoles.

March

Despite the feeling that it is still mid- winter the days are starting to lengthen and this is the time that the Ravens will be starting to build nests and even lay eggs. Their early breeding habits are timed to take advantage of the lambing season and the surplus of carrion and birthing waste.

The Brown Hares are out and about in the fields in the glen, the females boxing off male suitors until she chooses which will be her mate.

Above the conifer trees of the plantation the Sparrowhawks are displaying, one of the few times you are likely to see them clearly.

It is the turn of the Toads to visit the pond and lay their eggs in long strings like black pearl necklaces and the Newts are there too. Newts are amphibians, like the Toads and Frogs, but they choose to lay their eggs singly attached to the underside of leaves in the pond.

April

The first Cuckoos of spring are arriving back from Africa. Males are calling loudly to attract females, who have been seeking out Meadow Pipit nests in which to lay a rogue egg.

The Hen Harriers are back at last! the males soaring over the moors displaying by flashing their white under wings in the sky. They can be seen for several miles by other males and females will come and look to see if they have picked a good territory for catching prey. The males demonstrate they have picked a good spot by supplying gifts of food to her.

Marsh Marigolds come into flower along the steam and river margins and together with Dog Violets and Primrose make a welcome, early splash of colour.

May

Early in the month the Green Hairstreaks are on the wing, feeding from the Blaeberry flowers. These exquisite small metallic green butterflies are very difficult to see, but on a warm day, sit close to a patch of Blaeberry and you will soon spot one as it flits between the tiny bell shaped flowers. With them are the Blaeberry Bumble Bees, quite rare in the UK but common at Muirshiel.

Later in the month Large Red Damselflies are emerging from the pond and can be seen hunting the waters edge for Midges.

The Cuckoos are still calling throughout the park and Tree Pipits are performing their display flight like tiny parachutists. Skylarks can be heard singing loudly over the moors, but are very difficult to see, as they hang high in the bright sky maybe 200 metres above the heather.

Lizards are basking on the dykes by the Windy Hill footpath absorbing solar energy to heat their small bodies. The Common Lizard, which is found at Muirshiel, is one of only a few reptiles which have live young rather than lay eggs, an adaption to our cold climate.

June

Around the ponds big blue Common Hawker dragonflies are patrolling – attacking almost anything which infiltrates their airspace. Tiny froglets take their first journey onto dry land, if they survive they will return to this same pond to breed.

Mid June the Midges arrive in force and dull damp days can be very itchy for animals and humans. But the dragonflies and Swallows feast on the small flying bodies of this West of Scotland curse.

The Northern March Orchids come into flower in the damp areas near burns and ditches, there are Bog Asphodel too.

Young Hoolets squeak from the Owl box in the woodland and fledgling Skylarks flutter amongst the heather on the moor.

July

The beginning of the month is the time to see the Rhododendron in flower, they were planted here in Victorian times to provide shelter for game birds.

There are young birds peeking out of bushes and trees all round the park, small fluffy brown mottled Robins and Wrens, call loudly for food.

Kestrel fledglings are learning to fly, it only takes a few days and they are hovering like masters of the wind.

By the end of the month Black Darter dragonflies are sunning themselves on the pond boardwalk while Waterboatmen and Pond Skaters hunt the pond for smaller creatures.

The Blaeberry and Raspberry bushes are heavy with fruit which is devoured by Foxes, Roe Deer and Rangers alike.

August

The summer flowers are out in force now Heath Bedstraw, Marsh Thistle and Field Pansy are flowering all over the park.

On the moors the fluffy white tops of the Cotton Grass bobs and sways in the breeze and the Heathers are in full purple bloom and the sound of bees and insects is everywhere.

The Meadow Pipits, Wheatears and Skylarks spend the whole day gathering up hundreds of these invertebrates to feed their chicks who will be leaving the nests soon.

Merlin and Hen Harrier hunt low over the moors to catch an unsuspecting young fledgling and feed their own hungry young.

The Swifts fly high, circling about the moors taking Midges and other insects while on the wing, feeding up for the long journey south.

Big hairy caterpillars of the Northern Eggar Moth are all over the heather providing a bonus meal for many birds

September

The summer migrants are leaving already, great flocks of Starling, Swallows and Meadow Pipits gather in flocks to fly away to warmer places.

The tree leaves start to loose their colour and Conkers fall from the Chestnut trees. There are Hazelnuts too and the Bank Voles and Squirrels feast for a change.

Fungi cover the woodland floor, Fly Agaric with it’s red cap and white spots is easy to recognise as poisonous but with others it pays to be very careful. The Boletus have no gills, just pores underneath; the Milkcaps ooze white sap when cut and the Calocera almost glow fluorescent under the conifer plantation.

October

The Autumn winds have blown away most of the leaves and it is easier to see around the woodland. Rabbits scurry for cover from the soaring Buzzard. Hedgehogs eat the last worm of the year then climb into a big pile of leaves to sleep away the winter.

Some winter migrant species have arrived, the Fieldfares and Redwings strip the Hawthorn bushes bare of berries after their long journeys from Scandinavia.

November

Tawny Owls set up territories at this time and males can be heard “too-whooing” around the woods at dusk. Female Tawny Owls say “te-weet” in reply. These pairings will last all winter till breeding starts again in spring.

Flocks of Crossbills arrive from the far north and may stay for several weeks feeding if there are plenty of cones to eat on the Sitka and Norway Spruce trees.

December

The ponds might be frozen over but looking through the ice there is still activity below. The invertebrates can survive in the pond as long as there is open water below the ice. Water Boatmen and Pond Beetles still move around but are much more lethargic and will burrow down into the mud to sleep out the coldest weather.

The Heron finds it harder, with all the Amphibians tucked away in the mud sleeping away winter, food is difficult to get and fish impossible when trapped below the ice. So if it finds a gap in the ice it will wait, standing patiently till something swims by.

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