The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 12.4.17

on .

It was almost as if we had passed from the sublime to the ridiculous. A week or so ago, I was celebrating a sighting of my first osprey of the year - and you surely can't get more exotic than that - and now I have heard my first visiting summer songster. Only the word 'songster' does seem on reflection, to be rather generous. What I heard was the monosyllabic chanting of a newly arrived chiff-chaff. Hardly a song to my ears but doubtless very much music to the ears of another chiff-chaff, especially if it is of the feminine gender! And if there is in the osprey a sense of splendour, that too is missing in the chiff-chaff. Its song is plain in the extreme ... and so is its appearance.

This is the very epitome of 'the anonymous little brown bird' albeit that it does have a tinge of green about it and a nice little eye stripe. Furthermore, it is indeed anonymous in every way, shy and retiring, not easy to spot even if it is easy to identify vocally. Indeed, over the past few days, I have heard a good many chiff-chaffs, even if I have actually yet to lay eyes on any of them! Yet most of these relatively tiny birds have just completed a pretty spectacular journey from somewhere deep in Africa's Sahel region, south - perhaps inclining to the south-west of the massive Sahara desert, a voyage of some three thousand miles plus!

The chiff-chaff is always among the very first of the smaller birds to arrive in the spring. Its almost identical cousin the willow warbler, the possessor of a considerably more musical voice, I anticipate will arrive in a couple of week's time. Its lyrical, sweet, down the scale song I have always regarded as the true voice of spring. Apart from the obvious vocal difference, the only certain way I know of discriminating between these two birds is the colour of the legs, black in the case of the chiff-chaff, flesh coloured in the case of the sweeter singing willow warbler. One other difference is that the willow warbler tends to nest on the ground, whereas chiff-chaffs prefer a little more elevation, usually in a low bush. However they do climb up into the canopy to give voice.

In a sense, the chiff-chaffs represent the vanguard of the millions of birds we can expect to flood into our landscape over forthcoming weeks. The spring migration is a spectacular and indeed a global event, surely one of the great wonders of the natural world, an event about which there is still so much to learn. It is not that long ago - no more than a couple of centuries - that even eminent naturalists such as the famed Gilbert White, had little or no concept of bird migration. Many such experts believed that like bats and hedgehogs, birds actually hibernated during the winter.

Swallows in particular were said to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. The evidence, they said, was provided by the spectacle of migrating swallows being seen roosting in reed beds overnight by disappearing by first light. They were of course continuing their migratory flight and definitely not diving into ponds to hibernate! Another theory conjectured that some even hibernated on the sea-bed, a conclusion reached after fishermen had brought up the bodies of swallows in their nets. The reality was that sadly these rafts of swallows had been downed into the sea by adverse weather and were consequently very dead rather than asleep!

If I have heard but not seen those elusive chiff-chaffs, I have seen but not heard my first wheatear. This too is an early traveller from similar regions to the chiff-chaff and during this Easter weekend, when tradtionally hill walkers come out of their hibernation to explore our hills and glens, I'm sure there will be many sightings of this little bird. It is an unmistakable fellow and relatively bold, often flitting away from almost under one's feet, its most identifiable feature, that bold white flash just above its tail. At one time that flash gave the bird its original name, 'white-arse', not apparently appropriate as far as our prudish Victorian ancestors were concerned, who accordingly re-named it 'wheatear'. It was a curious name to pick for as exclusively an insect eater, it has no connection whatsoever with wheat. Nor does it have noticeable ears! I suppose it just sounded similar!

Mind you, those same Victorian folk used to like wheatears ... to eat! If ever there was an era of contradictions, the second half of the nineteenth century was surely it. It was a time when 'Nature Study' was becoming all the rage in Victorian schools; yet it was also a time when thousands upon thousands of birds were annually trapped to be kept in cages for the amusement and indeed profit of their captors. And this was also a time when a universal interest in all things natural was blooming and books on natural history were being printed in their thousands. At the same time, folks along the South Coast of England trapped and ate wheatears as a delicacy. No wonder wheatears have declined in Lowland Britain and mainly survive nowadays in the uplands of the North and West!

This month is a time when the inner clocks that govern the lives of migratory birds, begin to tick that little bit faster, when the urge to fly northwards seizes literally millions of birds to respond to their instincts to leave Africa and head for the lands of their birth. I have already and unusually early, seen my first swallow but during the next few weeks we will see these supremely athletic birds returning to the nests that in some cases many generations of swallows will have used down the years. But first will come the martins, the relatively anonymous and perhaps less glamorous sand martins, followed by the altogether cuter house martins.

Usually my first sightings of these joyous birds are to be seen as they skim low over the loch, scooping up beaks full of flying insects. If the willow warbler's sweet song is the audible confirmation that spring is indeed with us, then the sight of some white-rumped house martins flying low over the loch is the visible confirmation. What the chiff-chaffs and wheatears started develops into a feathered avalanche as more and more migrants make landfall after their incredible journeys.

You might well wonder why these birds take their lives in their hands and undertake such monstrous journeys, braving stormy tropical rain forests, enduring long desert crossings, navigating their way across seas, oceans and high mountain ranges. It is an in-built part of their psyche, pure instinct, a journey their ancestors begin to make as the Ice retreated thousand of years ago. And the advantages of heading north? Our lengthening hours of daylight which as they begin to nurture the next generations of their kind, afford them the opportunity to feed them long into the evening and from early in the wee sma' hours.

There are those that delay their travels. It will be mid-May before the screaming of swifts begins to echo around village rooftops and May before the comic chanting of cuckoos may be heard. The swifts will hang around long enough - until August - to produce one generation, whereas the cuckoos will linger merely into July, leaving nursery chores to others. They are the undedicated exceptions that defy the strict rule all other birds follow - to dedicate their summer lives to the task of producing and nurturing those next generations.

Country View 5.4.17

on .

Already, in early April there is new life. For most creatures, spring is generally the time when serious preparations are being laid for the real season of re-birth, summer. So spring is a time when terriotories are mapped out, pairings sought and established and when the sound of music confirms the spirit of true romance. All these emotions are by now, done and dusted as far as foxes are concerned. They are remarkably quick off the mark. Already there are cubs being lovingly suckled by their mothers. These new arrivals are however, as yet unseen, still safely tucked away in their underground nurseries.

In these more northerly latitudes, fox cubs are usually born during the month of March following a fifty-two day gestation. Courtship happens during early January - sooner in the south - when the blood curdling screams of the vixens, act as a signal to dog foxes that the time for coupling is right. However, in 'normal' circumstances, a dog fox may well have a cohort of three or four vixens in his territory and he will usually only couple with one of them, a choice between those vixens, the dominant one becoming his mate for the year.

Mind you, those screams, when heard at close quarters, can be a mighty shock to the human nervous system. I have personal experience of this when once walking my dog across fields one foggy, wintry night. Suddenly from the murk behind me, I heard an unknown creature's feet crunching in the frosted grass before it shattered the night's otherwise muffled silence, with a nerve jangling scream. It was clearly a vixen! There followed more sounds of crunching feet as the perpetrator circled me and my dog, pausing every now and again to utter than unearthly scream again and again and again. The hairs on the back of my neck were tingling; my dog resembled a stiff brush, the fur on her back utterly erect! It was somehow an unearthly experience but neither of us saw a single hair of her. The torch I wielded illumnated nothing but grey walls of fog.

The colonisation by foxes, of suburban and indeed, ubran areas, has however, made foxes much more visible and consequently when the breeding season comes along, more audible too. Ironically, if you live in city suburbs these days, you are much more likely to enjoy close encounters of a furred kind with these now extremely familiar residents than those of us who live in the countryside. I'm sure that there will have been many occasions when folk returning in the evening from work, will have jumped out of their skin in response to a vixen's blood curdling scream issuing perhaps from a darkened garden.

During occasional visits to suburbia I have watched foxes, strolling nonchalantly along pavements, picking their way along fence tops - with all the balance of a feline - sunbathing on shed roofs and even knocking on the French windows of houses with their forepaws, in the hope of a free meal. I have heard many accounts of foxes setting up home and producing litters of cubs, under garden sheds. Urban based foxes mind you, learn to exist on a diet of human cast offs - scraps and the contents of waste bins - albeit that they do sometimes repay their human neighbours by killing unwanted rats.

Yet elsewhere, in rural landscapes, foxes have always been, in some people's minds, public enemy number one. Indeed, foxes have been chased, hunted, shot, snared, trapped and poisoned mercilessly down the years. Yet, if there is a creature which deserves the accolade of the 'great survivor' then surely that creature is the fox, known by Scots as Tod; the Reynard of much children's literature and also of course, across the pond, the famous Brer Fox!

Yet despite such unparalleled persecution, there are probably more foxes in our landscape now than ever before. It is an incontrovertible fact that the harder people are on foxes, the more they are harassed and pursued, the more they respond by increasing their rate of breeding. Dog foxes in such extreme cirtucmstances are likely to throw aside their singular mating habits and instead of mating with just one vixen, mate with two or more! One hill farmer of my acquaintance, will not have a fox pursued or killed on his land, as he firmly believes that a stable population of foxes will do him less harm than a constantly harassed one!

Those new arrivals, even now crawling about the cloying darkness of their earths, are not necessarily however, very fox-like. It is usually around ten days before their eyes open and they may have reached the ripe-old age of four weeks before they experience the great outdoors for the first time. Initially, they are born with a covering of usually dark brown fur, albeit that sometimes they are black and sometimes almost golden, with quite short, stubby tails. It is good many years ago since my family and I found ourselves fostering such a cub called Sithean. This too was a real survivor for her den had been the subject of an assault by terriers. All her siblings had fallen victim but somehow, she had survived and had, at a few days old, found her way to the earth's entrance.

Human nature is a multi-faceted and complex characteristic, for it was the very keeper who had put the terriers in to the fox's den in the first place who discovered this still blind waif and stray and who initially took her into care! However, he very quickly passed the fox and the responsibility of rearing her to me. It was not, as it happened, the first time such a responsibility has landed on my doorstep.

Although at first she lived freely in our house, such long-term residence is not to be recommended. In general foxes do not make good pets. Sithean, however, was very different, loved communing with our dogs - she was enthusiastically mothered by our borzoi Anna, with whom she played ceaselessly - and liked nothing more than a good rub of her tummy rolling on her back any time we approached. At first, she was a sightless, brown little waif but it was not long before her coat turned 'red' and she looked like a proper little fox.

Some folk would have you believe that wild foxes eat nothing but hens, lambs and pheasants. Whilst there is no doubt that if hens are not shut up at night, they may well form part of your local fox's diet; as the late David Stephen once said to me, "I never knew of a fox that carried a key to the hen-house!" Foxes however, eat a surprising number of worms, rats and small rodents such as mice and voles. Indeed, in a good vole year - which this one looks like being - voles may well be the fox's staple diet!

I am certain that the often blind and thoughtless persecution of foxes is vastly overdone and seemingly counter productive. And with the introduction of fifty million pheasants to the British landscape each and every year, as far as the foxes - not to mention a few other birds and animals - are concerned, it must seem to them like a generous bonanza of free food! After all they don't know that those pheasants are there to be shot!

Country View 29.3.17

on .

Wide blue skies and sun filled days last weekend were almost more reminiscent of the arrival of summer, than of spring. Furthermore, the summery mood was enhanced by fleeting glimpses of two of the returning avian wanderers from Africa. First a lone swallow - yes I know that that single sighting doth not a summer make - perched upon the overhead wires, soon followed by the sighting of an osprey, quartering the waters of the loch. But those two intrepid immigrants, if significant in their own way, may nevertheless make us wary that this could be something of a false dawn. It was and is after all, still March! Summer is yet some way off!

Days earlier, I had heard reports of the arrival of the first osprey at the Loch of the Lowes, further north in Perthshire. It is likely that the single swallow may have been en route for somewhere far to the north too, rather than one of our local birds. In my mind these two birds, the swallow and the osprey, are among the most glamorous of our summer immigrants albeit that the osprey has become one of our most notable birds just within my lifetime, after several decades during which time it was entirely absent from these shores. Historically the last pair of breeding ospreys in Scotland was shot out of existence during the years of the Great War.

However, the osprey finally made a dramatic comeback in the nineteen fifties, when a pair settled and then bred in Speyside. It was assumed that these were birds destined for Scandinavia, their route northwards bringing them via Scotland. Whether because they discovered that Scotland offered exceptional opportunities for such fish hawks, or whether perhaps adverse weather might have delayed them from setting out on the final leg of their journey across the North Sea, remains a puzzle. For whatever reason, they stayed. And from such so-called acorns, have grown many fine oaks! The osprey is once again a bird, which has become increasingly familiar in many parts of Scotland.

In recent years of course, other birds of prey such as the sea eagle and the red kite have been brought back from extinction and restored as Scottish breeding birds. In their cases young birds from Scandinavia in the case of sea eagles and Germany, in the case of kites, were released into the Scottish and British landscapes. These then have been deliberate re-introductions, whereas the ospreys returned of their own volition. However, the appearance of any rare bird, in those days when protection was not perhaps as rigorous as it is today, instantly alerted that band of nefarious individuals who dealt in the eggs of wild birds. In their eyes, the rarer the species the better, for they commanded the exchange of surprisingly high amounts of money in that shady world of the collectors.

Thus it did not take long, once ospreys had started to return here, for these criminals to strike. Eyries were robbed - one of them in this vicinity - and had it not been for a determined band of enthusiastic bird-watchers who in response to these robberies, subsequently mounted watches on osprey eyries, the return of these spectacular birds might never have happened. By coincidence, I was one of those enthusiasts. The eyrie that several volunteers and I subsequently began to guard a year after it had been robbed, was then the only one in Britain, outside Speyside.

The consequence of those early protective measures all those yeas ago in the nineteen seventies, is reflected in the success now enjoyed by successive generations of ospreys. Ospreys have now colonised many parts of wild Scotland, have been encouraged to translocate to some parts of England and indeed are also now well rooted in Wales too.

The establishment of these new generations of ospreys perhaps re-balances a situation which existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, all raptors, not to mention carnivores as well, were regarded as fair game by many of a new generation of folks who were intent on developing sporting estates ... at any cost. The slaughter that ensued, sent the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey and, among the mammals, the polecat, into oblivion.

Among the birds now restored, the osprey alone is a bird that migrates, in the autumn swapping the lochs of Scotland - and nowadays the lakes of England and Wales - for the mangrove swamps and fish rich coastal waters of West Africa, their home during the winter months. Each year, those of us for whom the osprey remains a very special element in our lives, repeatedly scan the skies as April nears, for a glimpse of that first returning osprey of the spring.

Then at last, there it is, high above the waters of the loch, long wings beating then gliding and hovering as with those amazing eyes it scans the waters, ready to launch itself into a spectacular stoop. That single bird is but the vanguard of growing numbers of fish hawks that will make that journey here with the principle aim of producing new generations of their kind this summer, taking massive advantage of our long summer days.

Their numbers each year are augmented by young birds which, since making their first daunting migratory flight from here to Africa perhaps three summers ago, are now ready to return for the first time to the land of their birth. By now they will have honed their fishing skills during their time in the Dark Continent and so they return harbouring the ambition of perpetuating their kind. But first they must find a suitable territory and then a mate. Some will find themselves competing vigorously with other, more established birds. Therefore there may well be conflict; nature preaches a code that favours only the fittest!

The entire purpose - the raison d'etre - for that three thousand mile flight for most of them is to produce that next generation. Once territory has been re-established or indeed carved out, eyries must be re-furbished or indeed built from scratch. Courtship follows, eggs laid, and then incubation for around 35 days before that new generation finally arrives. There follows a period during which gradually the demand for fish will increase as the youngsters grow. At first it will be the male alone that must be the provider but over the ensuing seven or eight weeks, the female too will have to pitch in and fish before at last the youngsters, after much wind flapping, will take to the air.

They however will find themselves on the steepest of learning curves for they must learn the art of fishing remarkably quickly. Suddenly, usually before the end of August, they will find themselves alone; their parents' summer long devotion over. Meanwhile, from this moment on, the ospreys will, with each successive plunge in pursuit of fish, gloriously entertain us. This is just the beginning of a spectacular summer-long avian experience so many of will feel so privileged to enjoy!

Country View 16.3.17

on .

The fishers have returned. At least some of them have. Those anglers clad in tweeds, who wield rod and line in pursuit of the piscatorial occupants of the deep, must wait another couple of weeks before unveiling their new flies and casting off. And those other, more deadly, well taloned killers of fish, the ospreys, are yet to complete their relatively leisurely journeys from the Dark Continent, albeit that they may well be plunging into these waters before the angling enthusiasts start filling their creels.

The spring migration of those much-admired feathered fishers is not conducted with the same sense of urgency as when they depart in late summer. Yet as spring here seems each year to begin that little bit earlier, they could I suppose, turn up any day now. Several other fishers however, are already seeking their scaly prey in the waters of the loch with three especially evident. Goosanders, not necessarily one of the tweed-clad fisher's favourites, have been active throughout the winter, doucking and diving to exploit the scaly occupants of the loch. So too have the even more unpopular cormorants, those seemingly black submariners which down the years have become increasingly active away from the wave dashed shores of the coast and are consequently regarded by the angling community as menacing!

The third fisher is one that like the ospreys departs these inland shores during the winter to spend some time not faraway in Africa but offshore, in nearby coastal waters and in estuaries and firths. Great crested grebes, whilst perhaps not the true, long distance migrants that the ospreys are, are nevertheless to be regarded as essentially summer birds in these inland lochs. These slender necked pursuers of small fry were once on the verge of extinction because their soft, white breast feathers, known ironically as 'grebe fur' were coveted by the creators of nineteenth century fashion as trimmings for both clothes and hats. Thus grebes were slaughtered wholesale to meet the demands of fashion houses until by 1860, it was thought that the British population had slumped to a mere forty-two pairs.

Originally, this so-called grebe fur had been imported from the Continent but as demand increased, the unrelenting slaughter of our native population followed to meet rising demand. There was a time when a cotton cloth with a downy surface on one side was sold as 'grebe cloth', an indication perhaps that 'Fake Britain' was alive and well during Victoria's reign and thus has quite a long history! The passing in 1867 of Bird Protection laws however, happily gave the grebes some much needed breathing space and they quickly began to recover. However, notwithstanding the new laws grebes were still being killed. Thus a group of ladies formed an organisation called the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, pledging to refrain wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for food. Indeed such was the support for this conservation ethic, that within a year, they had reached a membership of over five thousand.

The population of grebes accordingly recovered and spread initially across southern England. These days, they have prospered well enough to have expanded their range across much of England, southern Scotland and those parts of the rest of Scotland that lie south and easy of the 'Highland Line. Durign the spring, summer and autumn, great crested grebes inhabit and breed on low-lying stretches of water, including slow moving rivers. They have long adorned our local loch and as spring advances, will begin a courtship ritual so full of postures and gestures that an utterly intrigued Sir Julian Huxley dedicated a treatise entirely to the subject back in 1914.

This remarkable courtship display sees a pair of grebes swimming towards one another until they meet, breast to breast before seemingly rearing up as if standing on the water's surface and shaking their 'horned heads'. They will also dive to obtain fronds of water weed which, as they come together, they present to one another. Grebes are very definitely not musical birds, for this courtship ritual is often augmented, by a coarse but loud croaking. Besides being decidedly unmusical, grebes are also pretty useless on land. Their feet are located so far back on their bodies that they rejoice in the soubriquet of 'arsefoot'. Hence they nest in reed beds, usually close to shore, their nests actually floating.

They are not much better equipped when taking flight either. When taking off from water, they need a long runway (or waterway) before at last they attain flight! Even then their flight is rather lumbering. However, despite their inadequacies on land or in the air, they are absolutely and utterly at home when in or indeed under the water. I spent many happy hours years ago regularly watching grebes from a ridge high above a quiet little lochan of crystal clear water. Now I could see grebes at their very best, arking below the surface, darting to right and left with all the aplomb we associate with penguins, as they went off in pursuit of the small fish they rely on and instantly becoming at one with the underwater world. These lith underwater actions were so clearly the very antithesis of the slow and clumsy movement they exhibit on land or in the air.

There is a distinct delicacy about the appearance of the great crested grebe, its slender neck offset by the frills and 'horns' around the head and neck, deliciously chestnut in colour. This makes them very different and perhaps less threatening than the predatory, black looking cormorants which, while exhibiting similar skills underwater, have otherwise a much more threatening persona. This demeanour is not enhanced of course by the fact that although their plumage reflects both green and copper iridescence, they are otherwise seen as black birds and as such are naturally viewed by many as being hateful!

Nor do goosanders, like cormorants, endear themselves to the angling fraternity. It is interesting that there is, I have read, to be a survey of both these species conducted on the River Teith and its catchment area. I fear the results of such a survey, may eventually lead to some form of control prompting in my mind the thought that these birds fish to survive whilst we fish almost entirely for pleasure!

If great crested grebes are not migrants in the full sense of the word, they do take leave of these freshwater lochs in the autumn to spend their winters largely at sea before becoming one of nature's heralds of spring when they return to their natural habitat. It is yet another encouraging marker signifying the passage of the seasons.

Country View 8.3.17

on .

As each day passes, the volume of music increases as spring's advance continues. The song thrush continues his daily tuneful diatribe and indeed, elsewhere in the locality, I am hearing other such thrushes giving voice more than has been the case for years. That resurgence I spoke of a week ago, is here at least, a pleasing and increasing reality - a very satisfactory fact of life. But if the thrushes oft-repeated ditties are currently topping the charts, others are joining the chorus, literally putting television's "The Voice" to shame!

And at last I have heard the first cheerful chuntering of a chaffinch, a song which always seems to me to be a bit of a jumble, as if its perpetrator is somehow unsure as to which notes come next and thus stutters through his verses. Someone once likened this, one of the most familiar of spring songs, to the action of a bowler in cricket running up to deliver the ball! It also reminds me (partially of my own frailties on the dance floor) of a dancer who repeatedly finds her or himself having to adjust their steps due to having forgotten them in the first place and thus, like the aforementioned bowler stuttering round the dance floor!

Another jumble of notes issues from the throat of a humble dunnock, a bird previously often dubbed, a 'hedge sparrow'. The dunnock is definitely not a sparrow! Indeed, this is a bird, which although similarly brown in colour, is altogether more delicately formed than the much chunkier house sparrow. It is also a possessor of a very fine beak as opposed to the distinctly stout 'neb' of the more 'up-front' speug! It is to all intents and purposes, a much shyer and retiring bird as well, surreptitiously working around the periphery of the gangs of chaffinches and sparrows as it picks up unpretentiously whatever morsels it can.

Yet, if the dunnock may give the impression that it is therefore 'lightweight' in its approach to life and unlike the more forward and argumentative sparrows, meek and mild, nothing could be further from the truth. Among dunnocks in early spring, initially there is a role reversal in which the females establish territories not the males. The females also provide the early bursts of song too. But then along comes a male to take over. Often a second male may also enter and even share in the defence of that territory although one of the two will soon assume the dominant role. However, often, at the instigation of the female, the 'subsidiary, second class' male may be found secretly having an affair with the female!

The rapidly delivered but quite sweet music of the dunnock does not even begin to compete with the amazing rat-a-tat-tat voluminous delivery of the wren, now also an increasingly vibrant addition to the growing chorus. I doubt if any bird quite matches the assertive nature of the vocal territorial claims of jenny wren, not even the robins, of which there are clearly many for during my meanderings, I always seem to be travelling from one robin territory to another.

Of course, one of the functions of song is to proclaim territorial integrity and issue stern challenges to other cock robins. Sometimes in the nature of redbreasts of course, such challenges are taken up and conflict ensues ... sometimes so intense that it is to the death! And yet, I always think that redbreast music lacks the deliberate and repeating structure demonstrated by the wren. Robins somehow blurt out their sweet notes, as Eric Morecambe once so memorable said, "I am playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!"

In stark contrast to the sweetness of the robins, a foursome of carrion crows demonstrated their welcome to spring rather more raucously. Clearly there were two pairs of them, all bowing and scarping at one another, their coarse cawing a rather rude awakening compared with the surrounding melody of tuneful songs. Periodically the two males came together in short bouts of conflict almost as if to show off their prowess to the watching females and demonstrate their suitability as 'husbands'.

However, down at the loch, there was a demonstration of the very antithesis of springtime music as a bevy of swans suddenly arrived - sixteen of them I counted. If mute swans are not entirely mute, they do not greet springtime with anything resembling song, for apart from their familiar and aggressive hissing and an occasional grunt, mute swans leave the music to other avian classes. However, they are not entirely bereft of music for when they fly the 'soughing' of their wings does indeed produce a pleasing and very musical, 'mewing' sound.

Why this sudden appearance in such numbers I cannot explain, albeit that in recent months I have seen similar gatherings of these 'galleons in the sky' grazing in fields not that far away from our loch. Make no mistake, these are truly wild birds although mute swans were formerly - until the late eighteenth century - ironically referred to as 'tame swans'. And indeed, they are pretty universally distributed. They may be seen in considerable numbers in the wilds of the Outer Hebrides, where they are very numerous and incidentally, notoriously shy. But of course they are familiar on city park ponds, both urban and rural stretches of canals, popular riversides and coastal harbours. These more familiar swans are by comparison with their Hebridean cousins, outrageously bold! Wherever there is water, there can usually be found, mute swans.

And, not only are they to be seen universally, they are, in many parts of the globe, at the heart of some of the ancient legends that have come down through history. The symbolic nature of the swan is hardly surprising when one considers the graceful form of the bird, especially when it is upon the water. For instance, there are early Bronze and Iron Age images of swans to found on both metal and pottery artefacts. And of course, in Greek mythology, swans were the birds of Apollo and drew his chariot.

But the strangest tales seem to come from closer to home, in the Emerald Isle, where there were well entrenched beliefs that people, when they died, took on the forms of swans, albeit that like most myths, this one takes on different forms depending on where you happened to have lived in Ireland. And this has, for a long time, been a royal bird. As early as in 1387, England's Edward III passed legislation to protect swans and Henry VIII decreed that anyone stealing a swan's egg would be imprisoned for a year!

Perhaps the strangest tale concerns the swans, which disappeared from Linlithgow Loch when Cromwell invaded Scotland but returned when the Monarchy was restored. And of course there are legends about swans singing when they are about to die. Well, if there is any truth to that story, it wouldn't concern mute swans. Whoopers, those winter visiting swans, flute melodiously, so any singing would be down to them!

As the tempo of the avian choir increases, there is one thing for sure. Those mute swans won't be joining in!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods