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.

Weekly Nature Watch 23 Jan 20

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There are two important events to mention this week - the RSPBs annual bird count to be run this weekend and of course celebrations of the birth of Robert Burns, also tomorrow.

I cannot help but feel that Burns would have keen a keen contributor to the bird count for his poetry is full of all sorts of birds and animals he observed and of course included in his poetry. Burns clearly had an eye for such things but then he lived in an age when people in general were closer to the land than we are today. Indeed, there are times when I think that these days, we live in a world in which we are in many ways isolated from the harsh reality of life, especially on January days.

When Burns bent his back walking behind the horse-drawn plough, he was much more closely connected with the environment compared with today’s ploughmen who sit in their all singing, all dancing modern tractor cabs, in reality, far removed from the environment in which they are working. Not that I’m advocating that a return to tramping behind a horse-pulled plough is the way it should be done now, it’s just worth remembering what being a ploughman once meant.

Some might suggest that Burns spent too much of his time observing things natural which is why he failed as a farmer. It was hard graft in those far-off days and as we all know Burns’ health suffered for it not even reaching his fortieth birthday! Yet in his relatively short life he produced absolutely reams of truly epic poetry. What is apparent in our technical age today is that most of us are insulated from the reality of our countryside, whether we work in it or not. Not only are our modern ploughmen able to ride in their high tech tractors with heating and piped music available at the touch of a button, most of us now live in centrally heated homes with double glazing and all mod cons and, perhaps like the ploughmen,  to some degree isolated from the reality as Burns and his contemporaries knew it.

Perhaps too, when Burns was writing about his linties, his mavis, his laverocks and merles, there would have been no need to count the birds for there were probably enough of them to cause little concern about their numbers. Then our landscape would still have had enough wildness about it to satisfy most species of birds. Burns, I’m sure, would have been horrified to think that the likes of curlews and lapwings – his whaups and peewits – would have declined in the way they have in our chemical filled modern landscape.

Now, such activities as the count are necessary because of the serious declines in farmland birds. My own observations might indicate that the summer of 2019 was a pretty good year for many of our birds with good conditions prevailing throughout the breeding season. Now we’ll find out if my observations are born out! Some might ask why are such things important? They are important because if conditions are threatening the existence of our birds, could they also eventually be threatening us? An environment bereft of birds could be an environment in which perhaps we are the next to suffer!

For example, who would have thought that house sparrows would be one of the birds which today are in really serious decline? My own garden is full of these once very commonplace birds and there doesn’t appear to be any decline here! In fact, it is in the environment which over the years has suited them – our towns and cities – where the decline is most marked. Similarly, the ubiquitous starling which is another urbanized bird that is in serious trouble. Apparently, there is also real concern for the greenfinch, one of those birds with which I became familiar as a lad but now these colourful characters are declining alarmingly. Here, we used to be almost overwhelmed by them but in recent years they have become as rare as hen’s teeth. Thankfully, some of these have returned but only in small numbers.

And where have our yellowhammers gone? There was a time when you couldn’t walk one of our local lanes on a summer’s day and fail to hear the famous ‘little bit of bread but no cheese’ ditty – the anthem of that little yellow headed bird. Now those lanes are silent, utterly bereft of that cheery little song. Every winter, I would be visited by a handful of these attractive wee birds but I haven’t seen one now for at least two winters. Yellowhammers feed extensively upon the seeds of weeds which these days have a chemical war waged upon them and a dearth of such food has caused the species to decline alarmingly. In Burns’ day, there would have been no shortage of weeds and one imagines therefore, no shortage of yellowhammers.

The poor old yellowhammer has been abused down the years. Time was when young boys would be encouraged to harry them, find their nests and destroy their eggs. It was known in various parts of Scotland as the yellow yite or the yellow yorling though I doubt if Burns ever used either name in his poetry, However, I am not sufficiently familiar with the immense folio of work produced by the Ayrshire man.

According to the old legend, the yellowhammer drinks a drop of the devil’s blood every May morning as stated in the following verse:- ‘The brock and the toad and the yellow yorling, Tak a drop of the devil’s blood ilka May morning.’ The fact that the yellowhammer’s eggs are covered with scrawl-like markings resulted in the bird being given the pseudonym of ‘scribbling lark’ or ‘writing lark’. Indeed, it was also believed that the name of a future lover could be deduced from such scribbles!

I wonder how Burns would have reacted to the mass feeding of birds that is a characteristic of twenty-first century Britain. As I watch the birds flock to my bird-table, I see robins, wrens, chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches, sparrows, starlings, great spotted woodpeckers, dunnocks, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, collared doves, blackbirds, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks all, bar the latter, eager to take advantage of the seeds, nuts and fat I supply on an almost daily basis. Of these, Burns would not have known of collared doves which didn’t arrive in Britain until the twentieth century.

Recording the birds in your garden will help them in the long run because it is necessary for us to know what the trends in populations are. Only then can we take remedial action to try and redress the balance. It is a very much worthwhile exercise and I’m sure Burns would have approved. So, pencils at the ready

Weekly Nature Watch 17 Jan 20

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Mid-January and thoughts of spring are automatically diminished by the dreich conditions, yet there are hints of spring in the sounds we are hearing. A week or so ago, it was the eager drumming of great spotted woodpeckers, an interesting variation on a theme in which the frantic drumming in a sense substitutes for a vocal intervention. Then on a more vocal note, there was the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker adding to the hint that some birds at least are projecting their thought processes ahead to events that determine the future of their kind. The breeding season may seem a long way off on these bleak January days but these early markers tell us that the age-old cycle is beginning to turn … even now!

And then came the far carrying, unmistakable twin notes of a great tit, ‘tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’ confirming that, although we may not necessarily have noticed it, the days are at last fractionally longer – a sure herald of spring days to come. The cock birds, resplendent in their best bibs and tuckers, long black chest stripes dominant, are always amongst the first to pronounce that distinct approaching change of mood.

The louder the pronouncement, the better chance of getting a mate and the longer and denser that black chest stripe, the better again will a cock bird be regarded. The great tits, that have graduated to our towns and cities, actually sing louder in order to make themselves heard above the sound of traffic. As in almost all bird species, it is the male that does the running and the singing and the female that makes the choices. When it comes to selecting a mate, it is the female’s prerogative that counts! However, when it comes to great tits, there is always a very clear pecking order. There are some circumstances in which heavier birds dominate, others when heavier birds, deemed more vulnerable to predation by the likes of sparrow-hawks, are regarded as a disadvantage and therefore downgraded.

And, if it is that two-tone call which currently dominates due to an initial lack of competition from other songsters, the great tit is one of the avian world’s more versatile singers. Walk through a woodland on a spring day where great tits are present and you will find yourself listening to a remarkable variety of calls, most of which emanates from these birds. I remember playing a recording of some forty different calls to an audience and asking them how many different birds were involved. The answer was that they all were uttered by great tits!

By nature, great tits are woodland birds, given to constant searching woodland floors for beech-mast and the like but they have very willingly become garden birds and take extremely well to nest boxes. As a result of their willingness to accommodate themselves so, great tits are among the closest studied of all birds. As most readers will know only too well, great tits are present in most gardens and happily feed upon a variety of nuts, seeds and fat, despite the fact that by nature they are mainly insectivorous.

However, readers may also be surprised to learn that in some cases, great tits can be regarded as predators. They are known occasionally to kill small birds such as goldcrests and will also feed on small lizards too. Great tits will also devour small frogs and surprisingly large insects. A recent discovery showed that great tits in Hungary also have a penchant for eating pipistrelle bats, which are about a quarter of the size of the tits themselves,

Caterpillars however, are the vital element in feeding their young and knowing that, the parent great tits have had to adjust their own breeding programme. As a result of global warming therefore, these caterpillars are now being produced that bit earller than used to be the case. The tits therefore have had to advance their own breeding activities in order to maximize the capture of these moth larva which are of the right size to suit their fast growing young.

The great tits, with which we are familiar here in Britain, are widespread in distribution being found right across Europe and Asia and even down into North Africa. Their range stretches from Ireland in the west to Eastern China in the east and there are several sub-species which penetrate well into the Southern Hemisphere. Caterpillars are the main source of food for all of them when they are rearing a family.

And of course, the size of caterpillars has also to be taken into account. Small chicks cannot handle large ones so initially the parent birds know they must find smaller caterpillars, gradually increasing the size of prey as their brood grows. Therefore, timing is again of the essence. Great tits, although agile, are not quite as adept as some of the other, smaller tits such as blue-tits and coal tits and feed extensively on the ground in their natural woodland habitats.

The largest member of the tit family, the great tit rejoices in several pseudonyms, locally known as a ‘black-headed tomtit’, elsewhere as ‘black- headed Bob’. ‘Saw-sharpener’ is another name that emanates from the ‘tea-cher’ call alluded to earlier. Few of our garden birds are so attractively plumaged, from the black cap, which gives it those localized names, to the yellow body, greenish back and wings. Its distinctive white face markings bring yet another colloquialism, ‘ox-eye’. The body stripe is fulsome in the males, in the females it is often broken.

As said, it may not yet feel like spring but these early sounds signify that sooner or later, winter will give way to the season of re-birth. The woodpeckers know that and so too do the chanting great tits with their challenging ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ calls. The urgent nature of the great tit’s calling promises much but January and February may have to pass before spring really does begin to function. However optimistic that sound makes me, the fact is that two woodpeckers and a great tit do not a spring day make! Not yet anyway!

Weekly Nature Watch 10 Jan 2020

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The news that the beaver project in Argyll now has official status and protection, comes not as a surprise but with the knowledge that these water-based animals, which it is thought were shot and trapped to extinction some 400 or so years ago, have now re-appeared on the list of British fauna. A similar release also occurred , on the River Otter in Devon and this too has been granted official recognition. The fact that here in Scotland, there have been beavers unofficially cavorting around Tayside for several years and that the Scottish population now totals in excess of 400 seems to have been ignored.

The presence of beavers on Tayside has resulted from the act by someone of unknown identity, who deliberately introduced beavers to the area some years ago. Indeed, they have now migrated from the Tay catchment area to that of the Forth so somewhere near you there are probably wild beavers swimming in very local waters. I may have mixed feelings about their presence but they are so well established that they are now a very real fact of life. My mixed feelings relate to the possibility that others, dedicated to the re-wilding of our landscape, may also take the law into their own hands and release lynx, wolves or even bears into the Scottish landscape. There are those who have a real enthusiasm for re-wilding and perhaps see the introduction of beavers as a logical step towards their ultimate goal.

Of course, beavers don’t eat lambs or deer and are therefore regarded as relatively harmless. I know that beavers build dams and can do a fair amount of damage to river banks sometimes causing the flooding of valuable farmland but the wildlife trusts in Devon seem to have come up with a solution to the unwanted activities of beavers and their potential effects on local farmers and their land. It seems to me that their approach appears to be a particularly pragmatic one, which points the way towards conservationists and farmers working closely together with everyone’s interests served and with ‘rogue’ activities by the beavers quickly nipped in the bud. It is possible to paint the lower part of trees with a substance which deters the beavers from gnawing them.

Predictably, the National Farmers Union has not necessarily welcomed the re-introduction of beavers to the British landscape, citing occasions where the damming of burns has caused crop fields to flood, thus costing farmers valuable money.  However, it should be possible to solve such problems. Where there’s will, there’s generally a way and as said, beavers do not pose any threats to farm livestock which other re-wildling projects could. It is interesting that in Germany, where a benign attitude toward wolves has been encouraged, they are now finding it necessary to shoot wolves as they increasingly interfere with the day-to- day practice of livestock farming.

So, what do beavers eat? The simple answer is that they are entirely vegetarian, consuming a variety of aquatic plants, grasses and shrubs and especially during the winter, woody plants and tree bark. They spend much of their time in water preferring slow moving water as opposed to rushing burns and they construct dams, therefore having a considerable impact on their immediate environment. They construct lodges, usually with the entrance situated under the water and store food there. Surely, no animal has a greater impact on its surroundings. They coppice trees on the shore, with willow in particular a target species and their dams help control river and burn flows and create wetland that is invaluable to a whole range of wildlife. Beavers are shy of human company and most active during the hours of darkness and at dusk and dawn.

The demise of the beaver some 400 years ago came as a result of the then dependence upon the likes of beaver skins said to be thick and warm and waterproof, which were much in demand. Beavers have webbed feet and their flat, scaly tail Is also a swimming aid and this appendage was once reputed to be a rare culinary treat.

Re-wildling may seem on the surface to be a meritorious notion. The prospect of seeing lynx and even wolves and bears once again on the list of Scottish fauna has its appeal but not I fear, if you are a livestock farmer. Whilst advocates point to the out-of-control numbers of deer in our landscape and the impact both lynx and wolves would have upon them, neither are they likely to ignore sheep and even cattle which by the very nature of Highland farming, are extensively farmed across large acreages. The reactions of French, Italian and Spanish sheep farmers to an increasing presence of lynx and wolves and their reaction – shooting – tells its own story.

Some might well argue that the re-introduction of white-tailed eagles – now being released on the Isle of Wight – has caused too much conflict with claims of severe lamb losses. However, unless you want to make life in Highland Glens impossible, any thoughts of transplanting lynx, wolves and even bears should surely be put on absolute hold. As explained, with beavers any problems accruing can be dealt with sensibly. With lynx and wolves, the solution would not be so simple.

About the size of a spaniel, this is surely one of the innocents. It is the largest rodent on the British list and yet ancient folklore attributes certain parts of the beaver’s anatomy with almost magical curative powers. One of the old beliefs was that a balm made from beaver flesh was a reliable cure for rheumatism. This undoubtedly sprung from the fact that beavers spend so much of their lives in water.

Research shows that the activities of beavers have a beneficial and direct benefit for water voles and otters and that the creation of new wetland areas also benefits a number of birds, most notably woodcock and snipe. The pools created by beaver activity also harbor surplus agro-chemicals and collect silt washed from adjoining fields. I was amused by the tale of one of the male beavers that went missing from the site set aside for them on the River Otter in Devon and turned up on an estate some three miles away. The presence  of the said beaver was soon evident from the felling of a large willow tree. The estate workers had not seen the beaver – they had just heard it chomping away! The miscreant was re-captured, taken back to the River Otter and given a female for company. It has remained there ever since!

With the numbers that are now known to be on Tayside and their recent spread to the Forth catchment area, beavers are now well and truly a part of the Scottish landscape. I just hope their presence after such a long absence is not a prelude to further re-wilding. As said, beavers chop down trees whereas wolves, lynx and bears kill for a living

Weekly Nature Watch 03 Jan 2020

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Although the winter drones on with low temperatures and the customary rain, the first signs of impending spring apparently threaten! Through the gloom came the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker, followed shortly by a response from another. Conditions may not yet be reminiscent of spring, albeit that our daylight hours are now a second or two longer which means we have passed the darkest hour. However, there was another indicator that the spring feeling has some impetus with a report of the yaffling call of another woodpecker, this time of a green woodpecker, a sound I have not heard in this airt for several years.

There was a time, decades ago, when the green woodpecker ruled these acres. The ‘laughing’ yaffling was indeed a familiar sound. Then, the sight of a great spotted woodpecker was unusual to say the least. However, these colourful birds have slowly extended their territorial integrity further and further north in recent years and I fear, at the expense of the former resident, have established a presence. As the great spotted variety has become entrenched, so has the green variety disappeared. Great spotted woodpeckers are assertive birds and are not tolerant of their green cousins, despite the fact that they don’t really compete with each other for food. Green woodpeckers eat almost exclusively, ants.

On many occasions, I have watched the green variety go to work with rare enthusiasm on ant hills and ant runs. Here is a bird that is very specially equipped to hunt those insects. Its tongue is almost prehensile and is so long that when extended to its full length, protrudes beyond the tip of the bird’s beak by some 10 centimetres or four inches. When retracted, it has to fit into a tube that goes around the back of its skull – quite a mouthful - and on to the crown. The tip of the tongue is flat and wide and the bird is able to manipulate it independently in order to explore cracks and fissures for the ants it devours with such enthusiasm. The tongue is also kept permanently sticky by a constant supply of saliva.

I have many a time watched green woodpeckers exploring the ground for ants and anthills and they do seem to possess retentive memories, logging the whereabouts of their victims with uncanny accuracy. Armed with such information green woodpeckers will willingly dig through a foot of snow to find their ant victims which are, of course, active throughout the year.  If the spectacle of feeding on the ground strikes a difference between it and its greater spotted cousin, they both excavate their nests in trees.

Since the arrival of great spotted woodpeckers in this airt, their numbers have rapidly grown and we now have two families regularly visiting us albeit that trade has fallen off markedly since one of the females fell victim to a sparrowhawk last year. Since that event their visits have become less regular and much briefer. A shock to the woodpecker system perhaps - it certainly would appear so. Both families enjoyed successful breeding seasons and I expect that from the youngsters produced, a replacement female will emerge.

The great spotted variety is certainly more aggressive and they certainly do not tolerate other feeders, generally clearing smaller birds off the bird-table on their arrival. That long, pointed beak is a useful weapon and the woodpeckers are not frightened to use it! Their food range is quite wide and usually obtained by hammering away at rotting wood in order to extract the larvae of wood boring beetles. Caterpillars are an important source of food during spring and summer although nuts and seeds become important dietary items in the autumn.

One family uses the sloping branch of one of the trees in our orchard on a regular basis. Indeed, the branch acts as an anvil at times as bird after bird takes a nut from the bird-table, jams it into the bark and then proceeds to hammer away at it. Although I have never witnessed it myself, I do know that great spotted woodpeckers can also hammer away at nest boxes, making the entry hole big enough for them to gain entry and filch a chick or two. Some actually define woodpeckers as predators, especially during spring when other birds are nesting.

Listening to a rendition of “A partridge in a Pear Tree” the other day I noted there were ‘twelve drummers drumming’. My understanding is that these may have been great spotted woodpeckers in the mind of the writer of the famous carol. These woodpeckers transmit messages according to the resonance they produce by drumming on suitable bits of tree. We have a telegraph pole which has a metal top on it and I have caught our local woodpeckers using that metal plate to add volume to its drumming. Making a significant noise is clearly the business they’re in - the further it carries the better it is likely to attract a mate and signify a claim on a territory. The drumming is every bit as effective as a songbird’s singing and is conducted at an amazing rate of 18 blows per second!!

Oddly enough, although the great spotted woodpecker cannot match the length of the green woodpecker’s tongue, it is nevertheless pretty long, protruding some one and a half inches beyond the tip of the beak. It is controlled by the bird and like that of the green woodpecker, can be manipulated to search every nook and cranny for potential food.  In addition, the tongue is equipped with little bristles on the end enabling it to impale soft bodied insects or larvae.

Having entertained both these two families of woodpeckers for the past two summers, we are familiar with the males with their red flashes at the nape of the neck, the female, lacking that flash and the youngsters or redcaps, which as the name suggests, have red crowns, They’re handsome birds that do not suffer fools gladly, rush in, disperse all other feeders and rush off again, always at brisk pace. Sadly, the female that fell victim to the hawk earlier this year, was caught napping and was snatched from the feeder in mid-feeding mode.

I wonder, is it too soon to record the sounds of impending spring? Perhaps, but there it was, loud and clear proving that the seasons move inexorably and springs are getting earlier. I hope I haven’t spoken too soon!

Weekly Nature Watch 27 Dec 2019

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How man has always coveted the power of flight. Famously, during the reign of James IV, an Italian courtier, John Damian, having glued feathers to his arms, attempted to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle. He failed, ending up in a dung heap … fallen from grace! Whilst we may ridicule this attempt to emulate birds, there are still those who try to fly as witness the efforts of a number of flight theorists who leap annually from a pier in the south of England. Of course, there are now intrepid adventurers who wear special suits and jet-propelled engines who actually succeed in mastering the air. One recently crossed the English Channel thus!

My own view is that mankind is meant to remain on terra firma, for no matter how ingenious we may be, we will never master the air in the way of birds. The birds themselves demonstrate so well how flight has evolved. Some excel like the peregrine falcon, the fastest bird there is, capable of topping two hundred miles an hour in the stoop, a truly amazing sight to see. I well recall watching one such falcon set off from just above me on the steep wall of a glen and remember watching it as it homed in on a small flight of woodpigeons, accelerating spectacularly as it sped through the glen.  Travelling at somewhere near two hundred miles an hour, it picked out a single victim, which it struck on the back of the head and the bird was instantly dead, tumbling to the floor of the glen closely followed by the assailant.

All manner of birds demonstrate a remarkable variety of flight styles, some fast, some slow, from the almost ponderous flight of the minuscule wren to the measured flight of the heron, alluded to last week, whose progress may be described as stately and rhythmic. In contrast, the sparrows feasting on my bird table together with the finches are in and out, zooming hither and thither, albeit not with the verve of the swallows of summer now wintering in the southern half of Africa. Swallows provide us with a demonstration of real flying panache every summer and I never tire of watching them. The screaming swifts also give us plenty of speed and verve as do the sparrowhawks which, however, seem unable to sustain fast flight for long. I watched a meadow pipit a couple of summers ago, completely outwit a hawk, dodging this way and that to avoid successive strikes until the hawk simply gave up. Hawks operate more successfully by stealth.

We admire the skills of the pilots of the Red Arrows as they fly their airplanes in a variety of formations but just watch the birds flying in their flocks. They are flying under their own steam and show how well their formations are kept together. Take the geese that come to us every winter, their skeins as they fly hundreds of miles across the North Atlantic, only change periodically as senior birds share the burden of pathfinding. Swans and gulls follow similar flight patterns and particularly amazing are the flocks of waders, such as knot, that fly in remarkably close-order and create marvelous patterns across the sky as a result.

However, the real artists at combined flying are undoubtedly starlings with their remarkable mumurations. People travel great distances to get a sight of such phenomena and are well rewarded when thousands, if not millions of birds get together and perform. Hereabouts, we don’t get the large murmurations they get around Gretna in the Borders but the other day I sat in a supermarket car-park and watched what I might call a ‘whisperation’ of about a dozen starlings careering around the sky above as if there were no tomorrow.

I have watched many similar events and tried to puzzle out the motivation behind them. The more I watch, the more I am convinced that the driving force behind these extraordinary events is sheer fun. There is surely no other explanation for there is no pattern, no apparent direction to these hurtling demonstrations, no apparent reason; they zoom here and there completely at random. They could be demonstrating their collective skill as a means of confusing potential predators, except that I never see a predator anywhere near them. There could even be within each racing flock, a desire to impress. I simply cannot work it out. There isn’t even a single bird leading these headlong charges for the leadership changes frequently.

Such events inevitably attract the attention of behavioural scientists who also don’t seem to know what to make of them. I’ve read that each bird has its own little space which, in relation to the birds ahead, behind, to the side, above and below, is retained. But as far as I can ascertain no one can properly explain this behavioural trait! So, we will continue simply to admire the dynamism, discipline and sheer beauty of these events and continue to speculate about their origin.

Starting from those dozen birds I watched zooming over that supermarket car park and going from that to the millions of birds that get together to form those gigantic murmurations seems an amazing contrast and there is nothing quite to match the larger gatherings which paint the most artistic patterns in the sky. Whatever the motivation, I regard this aspect of starling behaviour as a wonder of the natural world, especially when they come together in their millions, creating wonderful instantaneous works of art in the sky, sometimes like smoke wafted this way and that by some capricious wind. Yet even in miniature, with only a dozen birds or so, their hurtling presence asks questions I certainly can’t answer.

Yet what a contrast between the apparent discipline required for that formation flying and the absolute indiscipline shown by individual starlings when for instance, visiting a bird-table. Here, starlings show a preference for the fat balls and they do get in quite a lather when competing for space on them. They swear at each other and they fight, often spiraling to the ground as they squabble.  There is absolutely no sign of the tight discipline they must all adhere to when conducting their amazing fly pasts. And if you think of starlings as ‘common or garden birds, then think again for if they were not so common, we would admire them for their plumage, iridescent green with an attractive medley of white spots.

When it comes to the breeding season, starlings are quite cunning in so far as the hen bird will often lay eggs in the nests of other starlings. Not exactly cuckoo-like but clearly determined to spread her own genes as far and wide as possible. The long yellow bill indicates that, notwithstanding a pretty catholic diet, the starling is a dab hand at digging and probing for buried insect life. In that respect it is very much a farmer’s friend

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods