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 12 July 2019

on .

There can be no doubt at all that this is the time of the young ones.  As the avian breeding season finally draws towards its close, the evidence that this has been very productive is all around me.  Indeed, my garden seems to be awash with young birds all of which are daily gaining in confidence and making strides towards self-sufficiency.  I'm not sure how many families of starlings there are here but there is certainly more than one.  The other day I counted at least twelve young starlings on or around my bird-table.

The main attraction seems to be the fat blocks we string up for them.  Indeed, there are times when the squabbling over who gets prime position to peck away at the fat provides us with rich entertainment.  I am constantly reminded of the curious two dimensions of starling behaviour.  There have been times - and doubtless there will be again - when I am awe-struck by the amazing discipline starlings can exhibit when, mainly during the winter months, they come together in those amazing murmurations and proceed to baffle us with the fantastic patterns they proscribe in the air.  No human artwork can surely match the precision, the ever-changing shapes produced by the massed ranks of starlings.

Here, we don't see the massive murmurations filmed near Gretna Green that have been shown on television, which involves thousands if not hundreds of thousands of starlings painting the sky with their ever changing patterns.  But, more often than not, during the winter months we do find some forty or fifty starlings roosting in our leylandi hedge and conducting mini-murmurations.  The discipline required must be absolute.  They change direction at a whim, thus changing the shape of their formation as they fly first this way and then that in a dizzying sequence of movements that is indeed baffling.  I have watched closely as they hurtle forth and can definitely confirm that there is never a single leader conducting this amazing orchestration.  There may be one bird that leads for a short while, then another takes over, and another and another and so on.

There is never the merest hint of collision.  Every bird in the flock knows its place...absolutely.  The scientists tell us that each bird has a set amount of space between its neighbours, ahead, behind, above and below and to the sides.  What discipline that must take, especially as they conduct these movements at incredible speed.  The only similarity I can strike is between starlings and those remarkable flocks of waders, such as knot, that collect in the estuarine environment and perform similar feats of collective aerobatics.  Similar mass disciplines must also be at work there too.

So, why is my new generation of starlings so completely undisciplined?  They fight and argue with pernicious vigour all the time, vying with each other to secure a place on the fat.  Initially, it was the parent birds that pecked so vigorously so as to secure quite large beaks of fat, which they then rammed down the throats of pleading youngsters.  But gradually, the youngsters found they too were able to fly up, secure a hold on the wire and ram their long beaks into the fat.  I had just read about the problems afflicting human society - that obesity has now overtaken cancer as a problem.  The way these starlings are battering away at the fat, I found myself wondering whether they too are heading down the same road.  Why is it, that so much pure fat effects humans and not starlings?  However, I suppose that they burn up a good deal of energy zooming from place to place and in those whirling murmurations!

The starlings are not alone.  The fat is also a major attraction to great spotted woodpeckers.  It has been evident that two pairs of these colourful characters have been re-charging their batteries on those same slabs of fat.  One pair comes from one direction, the other from the opposite point of the compass and we have been watching the newly fledged redcaps - young woodpeckers - being fed by their parents.  But like the new broods of starlings, some of the redcaps too are now coming in and helping themselves.

It is evident that the young starlings are unaware of the threat woodpecker's can pose with their well-known antipathy to all other birds when food is the attraction.  The parent starlings certainly know for they soon make themselves scarce when the woodpeckers arrive, retreating to a safe distance.  The young starlings however, seemed unaware of the antagonism of the woodpeckers....until eventually one of the woodpecker parents had a real go at a couple of them, putting them to immediate flight with a couple of thrusts of that long and presumably sharp, rapier-like beak.  Maybe at last they will have learned the lesson!

Meanwhile a four-strong family of blackbirds has joined the melee, coming regularly to feed on the fallen sunflower seeds.  I also watched two song thrush youngsters following a parent and begging for food.  The parent bird, typical of the thrush family, moves in short sharp bursts before suddenly darting forward and seizing on some tiny fragment of invertebrate life which was eventually thrust down the throat of one of the following youngsters.  The begging also extends to two young crows which are now pursuing their parents everywhere they go, flapping their wings and fawning as they repeatedly ask for food.  All young birds are equipped with brightly coloured inner mouths, which stimulate the parent birds into stuffing more and more food into those colourful gapes!

There are times when mini battles break out.  Indeed, it is clear that there is no love lost between competing siblings.  One of the young crows in its eagerness to be first to receive a beak full of food from a parent, knocked its sibling for six.  Furthermore, hostility between them seems to break out from time to time.  One was so aggresive that it had its sibling on its back the other day.  There is another example of conflict that surprised me.  There has been a pair of collared doves around right through spring and summer.  However, there has been no sign of youngsters.  One of the said doves was wandering around the other day when a magpie landed close by.  The dove - aren't they supposed to be birds of peace? - immediately flew into a rage at the magpie which, to my surprise hurriedly departed in panic!  I speculated that maybe a magpie, perhaps this one, had robbed the dove's nest of either her eggs or young and this was appropriate retribution!  I'm afraid magpies are often the villains of the piece!

It is the redcaps however, that provide the most entertainment. They fly in explosively, clamp themselves to the wire containers for the fat and swing round and round as they pick vigorously away at the energy-giving treat.  Now they are also threatening any of the young starlings that dare to challenge them for a beak full of fat.  As George Orwell once wrote, 'I'm fat but I'm thin inside'!



Weekly Nature Watch 28 June 2019

on .

Although we've only just passed Midsummer' Eve, already there is a slight falling away in the volume of bird song, a gradual dampening down. 

For many, the frantic nature of their summer breeding season is coming to an end with new families now up and flying.  Many adult birds will, I'm sure, be relieved that they can at last see light at the end of this particular tunnel.  Once we reach the end of June and July begins to dawn, the frenetic nature of their lives in their drive to produce the next generation calms.  During these next few days and months, there will be a chance for them to draw a breath and prepare themselves for the next phase in their lives, at which time many will enter their main moult of the year.

The process of replacing plumage is an on-going process but now as we enter the second part of summer, a major moult and a renewal of feathers is undertaken by most birds.  Some birds become flightless during this process, whilst others, as they cast their flight feathers, are to some degree debilitated and are thus more vulnerable to attack by predators.  Hence singing, by and large, is off the agenda.  Birds that are handicapped by this major loss of plumage certainly don't want to advertise their presence and thus fall largely silent.  I don't know how many times I have heard visitors to our landscape during July and August, commenting that there seems to be a lack of birds.  However, the birds are there, albeit noticeably in reduced numbers these days, but we don't hear too many of them once they begin to shed their feathers.

There was, commonly, one notable exception to this rule in the colourful shape of yellowhammers.  Being prolific breeders, often nurturing a third brood during those late summer months, they were often the lone songsters during July and into August, their 'little bit of bread but no cheese' ditty echoing from many of our otherwise relatively silent hedgerows.  However, as I recently reported, their numbers are plummeting and I haven't heard them in this locality for at least a couple of years.  Instead of removing hedges, better management of these vital wildlife corridors could help to restore the balance.  Indeed, it can be argued that we need a landscape, which is less stringently manicured and managed and where some weeds are allowed to grow, before this sad decline in yellowhammers and other farmland birds is likely to be halted and reversed.

However, there are other birds which are still deeply embroiled in the business of nurturing young.  The ospreys will continue to feed their new generation at least until late July or early August and of course so too will the swallows and martins.  There has been a decrease in the number of both these wonderfully athletic summer migrants this year and especially so in the case of house martins.  I understand that the weather over the Continent was particularly stormy at the time these birds were heading north on their spring migration.  Thus, some may have perished whereas others might have been seriously delayed during their northerly passage.  My own observations suggest that many of the martins that are here were unusually late in arriving.

House martins, especially, do try to produce three broods of young during their summer sojourn with us.  However, I suspect that many of them this year will have to be satisfied with just two broods, as a late arrival reduces the time they have to raise and nurture multiple broods. It must be assumed that their vulnerability during migration is high if they need to produce three broods every year in order to maintain their numbers.  Swallows too, journeying some six thousand miles all the way from Soutn Africa, must also suffer losses and indeed we do know that the crossing of the massive Sahara Desert, accounts for a fair number of them.  The other negative factor may be connected with the serious downturn in insect populations recorded both here and across Europe.  Both swallows and martins depend entirely on insects and so this shortage is bound to affect them.

The speed at which different birds moult is very much related to how and where they spend their winter.  In other words, those that are migratory must moult at a faster rate than those that are sedentary because they have to be well prepared for their epic journeys.  For instance, blackcaps take around thirty-five days to complete their moult, although increasingly these wee warblers seem to be opting to spend winter in the southern reaches of Britain. Will this mean I wonder, that gradually blackcaps will take longer to moult than is the case now?  Short distance migrants like redpolls for example, take longer, something like fifty days to complete their moult.  Compared to this relatively rapid moult, resident songbirds such as thrushes and blackbirds, destined to remain here for the winter, do not need to hasten the process.  Having no migratory deadline to meet, they may take 80-90 days to fully complete their moult.

In contrast, some like garden warblers, swallows and perhaps surprisingly, cuckoos, will not moult until they have completed their migration to their wintering grounds in Africa and indeed the process can be prolonged in some cases, lasting most of the winter.  Unusually, willow warblers moult twice a year, possibly because their lifestyle and breeding habits mean they spend a great deal of time making their way through thick vegetation, which takes a toll on their feathers.

However, it is the water-based birds that really take their time moulting.  Ducks and grebes for instance, shed all their flight feather at once and so actually become totally incapable of flight for several weeks.  Therefore, you will see them skulking about in reed-beds and the like during this time when they are obviously more vulnerable.  And of course. many of them also have the option of diving to evade attack.  Many years ago I certainly remember watching a couple of goldeneye which were being pursued close to the loch by a sparrowhawk, descend quickly to the water's surface and immediately dive leaving their pursuer utterly baffled by their sudden disappearance.

Male ducks - the drakes - also go into an eclipse moult at this time, emerging in plumage which is as dull as that of the females, making them more inconspicuous.  Indeed it is easy to get the feeling that all the drakes have disappeared after midsummer as they don't regain their full colours until October.  Our commonest duck, the mallard, very clearly demonstrates the difference between the duck and drake.  The drake is attractively colourful with its bottle-green head, white collare and purplish brown breast, its back greying brown, whereas the duck is very much a plain Jane, with mottled brown plumage.  Her one concession to colour is her blue wing flashes.

The drake needs to be colourful to sucessfully compete with other drakes and attract a mate.  In other words, he is the 'waddling wonder-kid' but the duck, nesting as she does on the ground, needs therefore to be well camouflaged and discreet.  However, as in almost all species, it is that 'plain Jane' of a duck, who ultimately makes the choice of mate.  Therefore, when breeding time comes along, he has to be at his best, but when he moults he too needs to be camouflaged and discreet.

So its time for new sets of clothes, a matter of urgency for those destined to launch themselves on epic migratory journeys but perhaps a matter of personal pride for year-long residents like those familiar mallards!

Weekly Nature Watch 21 June 2019

on .

Against a backdrop of falling bird numbers and, perhaps more crucially, alarming declines in insect populations, the pollinators of course, we may assume that survival of the fittest and concentration on the production of the next generation, to be the main criteria which drives most creatures. You might think, therefore, that most birds and animals would not have much time to contemplate play and having fun. However, on examination, some creatures actually devote surprising amounts of time to enjoying themselves.

Indeed, there are time when some animals clearly go to considerable lengths to enjoy a romp.  Never is that observation more obvious than when badger clubs start to play.  In essence, play is a process whereby indulging in play fighting and rough and tumble, those cubs are actually learning the lessons that will stand them in good stead as they grow up.  And it really can be a real melee as each cub strives to become dominant.  They attack each other with gusto and roll around in mock combat, issuing plenty of noise in the process; the adults generally seem to let the cubs get on with it.

Fox cubs go through a similar routine, albeit that the vixen also plays a part in their rough and tumble, provoking play by sometimes flicking her tail to encourage them to pounce on it.  I have on one rare occasion, been privileged to watch badger and fox cubs play together.  Foxes had taken over a part of an ancient badger sett and once the cubs of both were confident enough to emerge in order to indulge in play, both fox and badger cubs joined the subsequent ruction with great glee.  I couldn't help but wonder if the parent badgers looked upon this combined play with some disdain for whilst badgers are by nature clean and tidy in their habits, foxes are the opposite, not so clean and pretty untidy!  For badgers, they are not the best of neighbours!

Play is also a natural instinct among some surprising animals.  I had always thought that roe deer kids lacked any impulse to play until many years ago I took responsibility for the rearing of a roe deer kid.  She was around three days old when she was 'found' by some children in a wood even though in reality she was not lost!  However, she had been so handled by the children that she must have fairly reeked of their scent, certainly enough for the doe to abandon her had she been returned to where she had been found.

Initially, she lived quite happily in a large cardboard box in our sitting room.  At the same time we had a collie pup and within days the two animals seemed to have established some sort of play routine. The roe kid soon discovered she could jump out of her box, which as the days passed, she frequently did. Then of course, she encountered the collie pup, which she would proceed to chase through the house.  Then the pup chased the kid back again.  This became a regular game between two animals, which apart from their youth had no other feature in common...except a desire to play!

There can however, be another, more practical aspect to play in animals.  I once watched a weasel perform a perfect square dance along a quiet country lane. It darted across the lane before running along the bottom of a hedge.  Then it crossed again and ran back along the opposite hedge bottom on the other side of the lane.  It repeated this little dance time and time again and as I watched I was aware that a considerable number of small birds were observing this strange behaviour and were becoming increasingly fascinated by it, moving closer and closer to action.  Then came the denouement as one bird got too close to the action and paid for its curiosity with its life.

In a similar incident, I watched a stoat in my own garden go through the most amazing routine of somersaults, chasing its own tail and a variety of amazing gyrations.  It also entranced a host of birds, almost hypnotising them, until one dunnock moved just too close to the action, again to pay for its fascination with its life.  The running weasel and the gyrating stoat were playing, but with a deadly purpose.

However, there are cases of birds for instance, quite deliberately indulging in bouts of what can only be described as play. On windy days, especially during the winter months, massed ranks of rooks and jackdaws can regularly be seen cavorting around the sky in mass displays of utter bedlam.  Often you will see members of the cavorting masses splitting off into pairs and chasing each other in furious games of tag.  At times, the sky seems to be full of birds flinging themselves around with absolute abandon, clearly having fun!

Such displays are by no means restricted to rooks and jackdaws for I have also seen ravens play with rare enthusiasm.  My first eye-opening experience of watching ravens express such a desire was off our west coast on the distant Treshnish Islands.  We had been invited to go for a week's sailing and we anchored off the islands overnight and then explored them during the following day.

Much to my astonishment,  a family party of ravens suddenly appeared.  Some were spiralling or corkscrewing through the air, some were even flying upside down.  Without any doubt, they were having fun.  The twentieth-century naturalist Frances Pitt wrote about her two tame ravens which, as far as I know, were free flying.  She described how the pair of them would collaborate in a game in which they would tease unmercifully one of Miss Pitt's cats, one of them distracting the cat whilst the other would sneak behind the animal and grab its tail.  Ravens clearly have an in-built instinct to play as well as a mischievous disposition.

The propensity to play may however, not be one of the essential attributes of wagtails, yet this can, most notably in the form of the pied wagtail, are to me naturally comedic birds in appearance, the 'Coco the Clowns' of the avian world.  That black eye on the white face of the bird paints a clownish picture whilst the very demeanour of the bird seems to me to spell comedy.  It struts, it runs until its legs are a blur, it springs into the air, where it pirouettes so brilliantly as it pursues insects.  And of course, it constantly flips its tail up and down, as opposed to wagging it.

This latter feature of wagtail life is the source of much speculation. Some conjecture that it is disturbing insects which it then catches.  However, as its tail is naturally at the rear of the bird and my observations reveal that it is always darting ahead on foot or on wing to snaffle them,  I hae ma doubts!  In my opinion, more is it a movement that mirrors the passage of water beside which we are most often likely to see the bird.  In other words it may be a means of obfuscation.  However, it may also be a constant signal that simply says 'I am here - this is my territory', a statement of integrity.  Whatever the reason for the constant tail movement, the one thing that is assured, is that wagtails somehow always bring a smile to one's lips, intentionally or otherwise!

The poet Montgomery wrote of the water wagtail:-

What art thou made of?  air or light or dew?

I have no time to tell you, if I knew.

My tail - ask that - perhaps may solve the matter;

I've missed three flies already by this clatter.

Weekly Nature Watch 14 June 2019

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There can be little doubt of the natural instinct of a hunting osprey to mercilessly slay fish.  Thus, it cruises menacingly over the loch, eyes down ready, primed, to launch its attack.  There follows a denouement, which is as dramatic as they come, as the bird enters its death-defying dive before hitting the water feet first with a mighty splash.  It may seem initially to momentarily struggle to lift its victim from the water but it is merely securing its grip on the slippery prey before rising in triumph, the fish slung below like some scaly torpedo.

Yet now, away from the loch, this accomplished killer is also to be seen in a very different light.  This is the other side of the coin as, oh so gently, she picks flesh from the bones of the latest scaly prey and tenderly offers it her chicks.  Suddenly, the image is not of a wanton killer but of a tender hearted parent devoted to the vital business of rearing her family.  The main purpose of her existence is the perpetuation of her kind as she tends her brood atop her eyrie.

This is a familiar story when it comes to raptors, all of which, with the possible exception of the kestrel, clearly project the fact that unhesitatingly they are killers.  It is the eyes that tell the story, for they always seem to glare with extreme hostility.  Ospreys certainly do not deviate from this image. for when seen close up, their eyes glow balefully yellow.  However, like all birds of prey, it is their ferocious looking talons that do the killing whilst the hooked beak is merely a tool to strip the meat from the bones.

That one possible exception to the rule, the kestrel, does portray a slightly less manacing image for its eyes are darker and less threatening.  Yet kestrels, of course, also survive largely by the slaughter of wee creatures such as mice and voles.  Perhaps that is why they are generally viewed more benignly, for as a rule they take the not-so-nice wee rodents rather than the 'nice' wee birds.

My choice of the kestrel as my favourite raptor may also have been influenced by experiences gleaned during boyhood days, when I would like on my back in a field and spend much of my prostrate time watching the majesty of kestrels hovering high above as only kestrels can.  There may also be influence in the fact that some years ago I derived so much pleasure from flying a captive kestrel from the wrist and thus set up a very intimate rapport with the bird.

However, other raptors can indeed look incredibly menacing.  The sparrowhawk, with its piercing yellow-eyed gaze, can never give the impression that it is anything other than an extremely efficient plunderer of small birds and in the case of the larger female, not so small birds, a raptor perhaps not viewed so benignly by garden bird watchers.  If the kestrel bewitches us with its magnificent hovering - it is often know as the 'wind hover' - the hawk's approach is perhaps more dynamic, reliant on cunning, stealth and bursts of sheer speed.

However, there is another woodland dweller, once virtually extinct as a British breeding bird but now reclaiming some of its lost territory and very much a presence in this airt.  The goshawk is arguably the most potent killer of them all and I'm sure that many readers will have had a feeling of discomfort when seeing shots of the goshawk on television's "Spring-Watch", the orange eyes of the male, especially, fairly simmering with hostility and menace.

This is indeed a bird which absolutely exudes hostility, leaving the viewer with the impression that it is not a bird to be messed with! Yet here again, we saw how tenderly the female goshawk attended to her young, once again demonstrating those two very different sides of the coin.  However, the best description of this super raptor is perhaps to say it is not unlike a scaled-up version of the sparrowhawk.  It explodes into action and then pounces with awesome speed and power,  It even attacks and kills other raptors such as kestrels.  I remember watching a kestrel hovering when in a flash, out of a clear blue sky erupted a goshawk. All that remained was a handful of feathers floating down to the ground!  The female at almost buzzard size, is a lethal hunter!

But it was for its slaughter of game birds that the goshawk was so vigorously persecuted.  I'm sure that they were very high on the list of those, who during the 'killing years' of the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, deliberately set out to kill as many birds with hooked beaks as possible.  These birds represented the enemy to those charged with the responsibility of defending the precious game birds.

Such was the level of persecution that goshawks, due to their particularly fearsome reputation, were effectively sent into extinction.  However, the high status of the goshawk as a hunter also enhanced its reputation among falconers.  If the peregrine falcon was always regarded as the king of all falconry birds, which have escaped from their falconry masters and established themselves in the wild.  For many years now, like all other raptors, goshawks have enjoyed the protection of the law.  However, there are keepers of my ken who will simply not tolerate their presence!

The two-sided coin syndrome again struck me very forcibly this week but without, as it happens, any connection with raptors.  Several broods of starlings have emerged during recent days and I have been highly amused by their antics as they literally harass their parents for food......very vigorously.  What a rabble! It is in such situations that starlings reveal what can only be described as a total lack of discipline.  Indeed, there are times when starlings tend to rule the roost around bird-tables, clearly bullying other birds and at times utterly commanding the food supply.  At times. this rabble threatens to do just that - until the woodpeckers make their pitch, flying in directly and scattering the starlings to every point of the compass.  Wisely, not many birds are prepared to challenge woodpeckers!

This aspect of behaviour constrast utterly with the astonishing displays of starlings when they come together, sometimes in their thousands, during the winter months and fly in such a disciplined manner in their fantastic murmurations.  I also have a crow as a regular visitor.  We often think of crows as 'Jack the Lads', pretty fearless and highly intelligent, yet there are other traits, which are slightly more unexpected.

He comes in to peck away at the detritus below the bird-table but is exceptionally wary, ready at any second to take flight and make himself scarce.  So, beneath the brash exterior, there is clearly an extremely nervous disposition at work.. They are of course, sharp-witted and know only too well the antipathy of mankind towards them.  There are indeed two sides to every avian coin! As for goshawks, if looks could kill....!





Weekly Nature Watch 31 May 2019

on .

They've made it again,

Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's

Still waking refreshed, our summer's

Still all to come.


So wrote the late Ted Hughes, in welcoming the swifts' return from their African winter sojourn.

"A bolas of three or four wire screams

Jockeying across each other

On their switchback wheel of death

They swat past, hard fletched,"

he concluded.

There is surely no better description of the sudden arrival of screaming swifts soaring spectacularly among the rooftops of many of our towns and villages.  The last of the migrants have at last pitched up, on time but perhaps fewer than usual in number.

Our swifts, like so many of our birds, are in serious decline.  The recent announcement by the nation's largest building company, Barratts Homes, that they are now putting specially designed bricks in all the houses they build up and down the country which will provide nesting opportunities for swifts is a step in the right direction.  This highlights the problem, namely an increasing lack of suitable nesting sites, which appears to have been a major factor in the decline of swifts.

The same problem it seems is shared by house sparrows, numbers of which have also been in serious decline in recent years.  I must say that in this airt, sparrows do not appear to be in decline.  However, there are few new build houses here, rather are most dwellings quite old and thus presumably more sparrow friendly.  In addition, farm buildings offer these argumentative little birds all sorts of nooks and crannies for them to nest in.  Unfortunately, they are also dab hands at taking over swallow nests, nipping in to claim them before their constructors have returned from their winter travels.

Swifts are much more likely to be present in towns and villages than in open countryside and generally prefer older buildings in which to nest.  Not that they are great nest builders, a few token fragments of straw and feathers, gleaned from the skies through which they constantly zoom, suffice.  Surely, no bird is more at home in the sky that the swift.  It eats, drinks, sleeps and mates in the air.  Indeed, those that do not breed here this summer, will not touch down at all during their stay.  And, when they fly off to Africa, they will still remain exclusively air-born, so some swifts may stay in the air for as long as three years without setting foot.  Terra Firm is definitely not their thing!

Mind you, during a day on the mountains, I well remember seeing swifts flying at almost three thousand feet, so they are most certainly high flyers too! I also remember being called to a house in one of our local town one mid-August day.  The householder had found an unidentified bird languishing on her lawn, apparently unable to fly which I immediately identified as a young swift.  I was aware that many of the local swifts were already embarking on their migratory exit from our northern skies.  To the horror of the householder, I threw it into the air.  Happily, it instantly flew away with great vigour and interestingly, in a southerly direction! Swifts do not spend much time with us.  They arrive in mid-May, produce one brood of chicks - seldom more than two chicks - before they leave us again in mid-August.

Swifts do in fact experience difficulty in getting back into the air if they are for any reason grounded.  They have puny little legs and excessively long wings.  The only way they can do so is to find a vertical surface up which, using their sharp claws, they can climb before literally re-launching themselves into the air.  Aristotle rather unkindly called the swift, 'footless' and indeed the Latin name, apus actually means, a - without, and pous - foot.

Another bird I do not usually expect to observe on the ground is the great spotted woodpecker.  Almost all sightings of these colourful birds are on the branches of trees, where they move with great speed and dexterity.  Currently, they are regular visitors here and indeed, I am almost certain that we are entertaining two separate pairs of them. They fly in at speed, utter their single piercing 'chip' note, hammer at either the fat slabs or the peanuts and depart as rapidly as they came.  Great-spotted woodpeckers are clearly on the up and during the past few years, they have inhabited my garden in numbers.  In recent days. both males - identified by the red flash on the nape of their necks - and females without the red, have been frequent visitors and I'm pretty certain therefore that somewhere not very far away thaty have broods of hungry youngsters to feed.

Both pairs have been gathering as much of the fat or nuts as possible and hurtling back to their nests.  When it is nuts that they take, they fly up into the trees and break them down assiduously with more violent pecking before flying off to their nests.  However, in their eagerness to collect as much food as possible they have also been collecting the spilt fragments of sunflower hearts and flakes of fat from the ground below the bird-table.  As a result, they give the distinct impression of being 'footless' because their legs, more often used like crampons to clamber rapidly up trees than travel on the ground, are so short.

When I first came to live here many years ago, there were woodpeckers which were much more familiarly seen on the ground and which incidentally were much more vocal too with their chortling laughs! They were, of course, green woodpeckers but these more ground-hogging birds have in recent years disappeared to be replaced by the great spotted woodpeckers.  I mentioned a few weeks ago the rat-tat-tat drumming of these woodpeckers.  They use the drumming in the same way that songbirds vocalise as a means of pronouncing territorial integrity and advertising for a mate.

I was scanning the pages of one of my older bird books the other day - it dates from the very early years of the twentieth century.  It stated...'the great spotted woodpecker's flight is short and undulating; the bird is seldom seen on the ground, and when there its movements are slow'.  Insects are the main source of food although another much more recent volume - published some hundred years or so later - went so far as to suggest that great spotted woodpeckers are 'birds of prey'.  This assertion is based upon the fact that, because they are equipped with lethal beaks with which they are able to enlarge the holes of tree-nesting birds such as tits, they thus sometimes take the young hatchlings of other birds.  They nest in tree holes but like swifts are not great nest builders, providing little or no lining.

The other asset thay have in their quest for insect prey is a long, almost prehensile tongue, which the bird can extend one and a half inches beyond the end of its beak in order to penetrate into all sorts of nooks and crannies, for example, in or under the bark.  It is also sharp enough to impale soft-bodied prey.  Interestingly, my older tome places these woodpeckers mainly in southern and central England.  However, in recent years, they have clearly headed north big time! Interestingly one of the pseudonyms attached to them is 'French'pie'!  I'm not sure where the French connection comes from but they are certainly striking birds with their pied plumage - black and white - and those flashes of bright red.






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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods