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.

Nature Watch Update 7th Aug 2020

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Early August, and a blizzard raged across my garden! Only it wasn’t a blizzard of snow, it was a blizzard of thistledown urged on by an energetic westerly breeze. Thousands of thistle seeds were seeking to colonise places wherever the wind was to take them and nature’s various systems for dispersal were clearly working well.

There are many ways in which plants increase their range. Some such as burrs stick to animal coats and are therefore transported unknowingly by passing animals. Thistles rely on the wind to carry them to new ground. Somewhere to the east of here they will come to rest and create new beds of thistles, providing of course, that someone doesn’t immediately get out the herbicide and snuff them out!

I’m sure that we use too many herbicides and pesticides because the insects of this world are in pretty desperate decline.  Across this country, across Europe and apparently across the world, insect populations are in a serious situation, a fact that should worry all of us, for of course these are the pollinators and as such are therefore a vital cog in the wheel of life. Their disappearance threatens all other life and indeed, that is not our only worry. Recent reports suggest a downward trend in animal life too and we are already aware of the serious decline in farmland birds. The vibes are not good.

The most threatened British wild mammal is the wildcat, better known in some quarters as the Scottish wildcat on account of the fact that the few remaining pure wildcats are here in Scotland. Once, the wildcat was present throughout the whole of Britain but it seems that the problem is hybridisation with feral cats which has brought a dramatic downturn in true wildcat numbers. Apparently wildcats willingly breed with feral cats and so true wildcat blood is naturally depleted.  In trying to address this problem, experts have selected the Ardnamurchan peninsular as a testing ground, with any feral cats there having either been destroyed or neutered.

It is known that this is a part of Scotland where true wildcats still live so that is why this highly important trial is being held there. At present, there is a variety of figures bandied about regarding the number of pure wildcats still in existence in various parts of Scotland. I’ve seen estimates as low as double figures when it comes to assessing the number of pure wildcats at large in the Scottish landscape but I’ve also seen figures in the hundreds. The bald fact is that whichever figure you accept, there aren’t very many!  The situation of the wildcat is therefore perilous and frankly we will be very lucky to see them survive. Perhaps now is the time to be grateful for the existence of wildlife parks, for many of them are prepared to engage in captive breeding programmes for later release into the wild.

However, there is also concern about other mammals and in recent times much publicity has been given to the downward slide in hedgehog numbers. I have seen it suggested that badgers are responsible for their decline, however, as badgers and hedgehogs have co-existed for thousands of years, I completely disregard this as utterly implausible. Judging by the evidence I have seen the main killer of hedgehogs is surely auto motoris! We all know that hedgehogs have a superb defence system - when threatened they simply roll up and present a very prickly obstacle. It is also known that badgers, with their enormously strong clawed feet, are capable of unrolling a hedgehog although I have personally never seen evidence of this. However, when confronted with a car, the rolling up tactic palpably doesn’t work as all too often we see very clearly. There may be other reasons for hedgehog decline which could, in some respects, bring us back to the over-use of pesticides and herbicides. I’m afraid that these poisonous substances readily pass down the food chain and again I express the opinion that we use too many such products.

Those same poisons may also be affecting our bats which of course rely on insects for food. The greater mouse-eared bat is thought to be as critically endangered as the wildcat and therefore as a creature so   categorized may also be almost on the verge of extinction. The Barbastelle and the Serotine bats are considered to be ‘vulnerable’ whilst the Nathusius pipistrelle and the Leister’s bat are regarded as ‘near threatened’.

One of the more familiar animals, the mountain hare, is also said to be under severe threat and of course these animals are the subject of annual culls in parts of the Scottish Highlands.  Mountain hares carry a tick which is known to infest red grouse and that is apparently the reason for pretty widespread culling. Grouse moors have a lot to answer for!  Equally at risk are harvest mice, the smallest of our native mice although I know that serious efforts are currently being made to conserve them. Surprisingly, the Orkney vole is another animal for which there is concern along with the hazel dormouse, a resident of the south of England.

Oddly enough, the red squirrel is also listed as endangered, a category which surprises me, for they are relatively common in Scotland. In this airt at least, I have witnessed a total transformation, for forty years ago this area was hoaching with alien grey squirrels which readers will remember were introduced from North America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The greys, being more aggressive and larger, have kicked the reds out of very many parts of the UK. However, the arrival of pine marten in this area, once themselves uncomfortably close to extinction, has seen a marked decline in the grey squirrel numbers and a re-assertion of the dominance of red squirrels. Now, as far as I can tell, there are no grey squirrels in this vicinity.

The simple fact is that grey squirrels, being substantially heavier and fractionally less agile, are easier for the pine martens to catch and indeed it seems that when the martens first arrived locally, they immediately targeted the slower greys. However, red squirrels are as rare as hen’s teeth in many parts of England where still the grey dominates. It will be interesting to see what happens following the recent introduction of pine marten to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.  Perhaps there, the grey squirrel’s days are also numbered!

Similarly, I find it curious that the beaver is also regarded as endangered, for despite the fact that they were extinct for several centuries, they have been officially re-introduced to both England and Scotland in recent years, albeit that here in Scotland in Perthshire, beavers had been unofficially released some years ago. The re-introductions promise that the number of beavers will gradually increase further as the years pass.

I am encouraged that at least we recognize that all these creatures and others are at various stages on these lists. There are perhaps too many of us demanding more than the environment we occupy can cope with. It seems that we always want more and more space, more development and perhaps at times too much profit … all at the expense of those creatures with which we share this planet. It really is all about balance and I fear that at the moment, we are not achieving that. We have been warned!

 

Weekly Nature Watch 31st July 2020

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The sight of a house martin to-ing and fro-ing from a field to its nest high in the eaves of a house, took me back more years than I care to remember for it was house martins that converted me into an avid bird watcher.

 

At the time, Neville Chamberlain had just announced that this country was at war with Germany. My parents, having lived through the first World War – indeed my father had been a hero of that great conflagration – took immediate action and I was dispatched from my suburban home to a country cottage which,      quite rightly, they imagined would be safe from Hitler’s bombers.

Along with a friend and his young cousin, we were whipped away from what was perceived to be a likely target for the bombers. At the age of seven, my outlook on life was about to be transformed for immediately outside my new bedroom window, almost within touching distance, was a plethora of house martin nests – a veritable terrace of them. I had already developed an interest in wild birds, albeit that the dominant ones in our suburban garden were sparrows and starlings. An aunt, who had been a ‘Nature Study’ teacher – there were such posts in those days – ensured that I was always aware of the natural world. As for the new discovery of house martins, well, by comparison, these were exotic birds and I was to spend hours during the ensuing weeks with my eyes riveted on those nests and their occupants.

It was September and the martins were exceedingly busy attending to the needs of the final brood of youngsters of the year – perhaps a third brood of that season. Therefore, there was any amount of coming and going and I was thrilled when at last those youngsters began to emerge and line up on the adjacent overhead wires to be fed. Then came the shock as one morning, there were suddenly no martins. The birds had flown, setting out on their perilous journey to Africa and I was inconsolable! The concept of bird migration was unknown to me and it was only after a protracted lecture from our host that I began to have a glimmer of understanding that, come next spring, they would return.

There were swallows too. They had nested in an outbuilding and although they were equally fascinating, at least when it came to the martins, I had a grandstand view of all the action. I was utterly hooked. Even now, the sight of both swallows and martins gladdens my heart like no other birds do. I have always admired the sheer verve and athleticism of both birds as they zip through the air picking off the insects upon which they and their young rely for food. Indeed, as I watched my lone martin the other day, I noted that it was joined by a lone swallow, both hunting over the same field and gathering flying insects for their respective young.

I have to admit that the swallow generally outflew the martin with its greater vitality but the white rump of the martin bobbing athletically along somehow demonstrated that it too is no slouch as it pursues those insects. I mused on recent reports of a decline in insects across Europe that, as a whole, has probably hit both species especially hard and I am aware that house martin numbers are also in quite serious decline. Indeed, as I watched this lone bird repeatedly return to its nest to offload its consignment of insects for its growing young, I noted that alongside its single nest were the unoccupied ruins of several others.

I wondered if house sparrows had been a problem here, for they are apt to take over martin nests before the martins return on their spring migration. The irony is, that whilst house martins have declined sufficiently to cause them to be declared as amber-risked in the lists of declining birds, so also have house sparrows now appeared on that list. Only, the decline in sparrow numbers has been so serious, that they are regarded as red endangered so their plight is allegedly worse.  However, the fact is that, as I’ve said before, hereabouts sparrows are so numerous as to dominate my bird-table. Perhaps the biggest decline has been in towns and cities? Perhaps they’ve all moved to the country?

Curiously, these days both birds, sharing the prefix ‘house’, are inevitably very closely associated with humans and human-made structures. House martins, it is thought, originally nested on cliffs building their nests below overhanging cliff tops but since the nineteenth century in particular, have instead chosen largely to nest on buildings. This has taken many of them to urban areas where of course there are plenty of buildings to choose from. House sparrows have always shared their lives with humans and world-wide, wherever there are people, there are inevitably sparrows. Not surprisingly, house sparrows also nest largely on buildings. Indeed, one of the reasons advanced for their decline is because of changes in building styles that has provided them with fewer nesting opportunities.

Another factor in the reduction in the number of house martins is that they need moisture in order to collect the mud they use to build their nests and spells of dry weather when they are building can spell disaster.  Ironically, one of the other reasons given for the decline in house martins is the increasing number of former farm buildings which have now been converted into dwellings. Apparently, the popular barn conversion has also played its part in the martin’s decline. However, climate change may also be a major factor. The migratory flight of house martins – house sparrows of course, don’t go anywhere – is hazardous in the extreme. They have to cross mountain ranges, oceans and deserts on their way to and from central Africa. And because the weather, as the result of global warming, is becoming increasingly erratic and stormy, it is suspected that more martins are being caught out. The old beliefs that swallows hibernated either at the bottom of lakes or under the sea was apparently vindicated when fishermen brought great rafts of dead swallows to the surface in their nets.

Clearly these were swallows which had been overcome by hostile weather conditions and had been forced to ditch in the sea and therefore inevitably perish. These days, long distance migratory birds like swallows and house martins are presumably even more at risk of falling foul of hostile weather conditions and consequently are thus more likely to perish en-route.

The frequent pleas to farmers and landowners to plant more and more wild flowers in order to encourage declining populations of pollinators, should be pursued with growing enthusiasm. We need to increase not decrease the population of these vital elements in Nature’s scheme of things. Such an approach would also help the likes of swallows and martins by increasing insect populations.  Perhaps also we should all curtail the use of pesticides whether we are farmers or gardeners. Our insects are the staple diet of many of our birds as well as the vital pollinators upon which the whole of Nature is so dependent. We need to look after our environment with greater care. The war we constantly wage against those elements in natural life that we don’t like, such as insects and weeds, is harming our environment irreparably. And if you think about it, it is us who are at the end of the line!

 

Weekly Nature Watch 24th July 2020

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There is no respite for the fish in our local loch. Once lockdown was announced they were at least offered some relief from the human anglers pursuing them with all manner of artificial flies. Now that the lockdown has been eased, the fisher folk are back wielding their rods with even greater enthusiasm and tempting them with an even bigger range of flies.

There is no rest for the wicked or for the scaly occupants of these waters! Not that the tweed-clad anglers are the only threat the fish face. Out there are any number of fishers, some of them clad in feathers and some in fur. And it matters not how big or small those fish are, there is always something after them!

The grebes and goosanders that populate the loch. specialize in small fry, their submariner tactics enabling them to operate blithely underwater. I once had the pleasure of watching a great crested grebe from a cliff top high above the waters of a beautiful wee lochan. Those waters were crystal clear and so I was able to watch every nuance of the bird’s technique as it hunted for small fry in those pristine waters. It was an education to see how deftly it manoeuvered and how quick it was in running down those small fish.

After rather bigger prey, herons lurk around the edge of the loch at times statuesque as they exhibit such infinite patience waiting for fish of varying sizes to come within reach of that long, dagger like beak. Then in a flash they are pinioned and slide down that long neck. You can see as the caught fish slithers down towards the bird’s stomach. Then, a swirl in the water tells of the hunting otter in pursuit of larger prey. As nocturnal hunters they are seldom seen but, nevertheless, they also take their share.

But there are bigger fish and much larger hunters. Perhaps the most spectacular are the ospreys, now well established around these waters and taking their share of the trout so eagerly sought by the angling folk. Ospreys are, of course, mighty hunters. First, they scour the waters of the loch from on high for fish before setting their sights on a likely target, probably a fish innocently languishing close to the surface completely unaware of the danger that comes from above. The bird pauses, goes into a short hover, then begins its dramatic descent, a shallow dive. Gathering speed, it homes in on its target and hits the water feet first with a mighty splash. Then it grapples with its slippery prey before its mighty wings thrash, as slowly it lifts itself clear of the water, clutching its victim, often with one lethally taloned foot. As it rises clear of the water it adjusts its grip, securing the fish with both feet, shakes itself free of surplus water and makes a beeline for its eyrie where its mate and a bevy of youngsters await.

The ospreys may be lethal and sizeable hunters but now on the horizon is another even mightier hunter, a sea eagle. Here we are looking at a bird with an enormous eight-foot wingspan, colloquially known as a ‘flying barn door’. The presence of a sea eagle over the loch and possibly two of them, came to light when the wildlife photographer Gordon Buchanan was filming a pair of ospreys on their eyrie for the “Springwatch” television programme. Since then, there have been several sightings although as yet I have still to see them.

Sea eagles don’t so much take the plunge in their quest for fish, as take them from the surface or near it. They are perhaps fish snatchers but are equally adept at taking large trout which, as the loch is stocked for commercial fishing, provides really good feeding for both ospreys and sea eagles.  However, it remains to be seen if the sea eagles settle here as I suspect these are likely to be young birds exploring the area for a suitable territory. Their choice, should they stay, is sure to be beneficial to them although I’m not sure how the presence of these mighty fishers will go down with the anglers.

The sea eagle was once commonplace throughout Britain but during the killing years of the early twentieth century, they were perceived as a threat to anglers and as a result were so severely persecuted that they became extinct as British breeding birds. The last ones were exterminated in about 1916 at around the same time as the last pair of breeding ospreys were similarly eliminated. During the past few years, sea eagles have been restored to parts of Scotland and more recently to the Isle of Wight off England’s southern coast. One of the more recent releases of birds brought in from Scandinavia was in Fife and this pair may well have travelled from there as they prospect for territory.

How the ospreys might react to sea eagles is hard to predict but there are plenty of fish to go around as the loch is well stocked. The real difference between the ospreys and the sea eagles is that the ospreys are migratory birds of course, so once they have departed by September, the sea eagles would have the loch to themselves. Meanwhile the ospreys’ fishing also has a sense of urgency, for at present they are nurturing two chicks but by the end of August the adult birds will instinctively turn their heads southwards and leave for the winter.

The young ospreys have just about reached the stage when they are beginning to station themselves on the edge of the eyrie and exercise their wings. Eventually, and by the time August is on the calendar, they will finally take to the wing. However, time is short as the parents will then have to teach their two youngsters to emulate them and pluck fish from the waters of the loch. As said, time is of the essence for come the end of August the parent birds, having lavished so much tender loving care on their brace of young, will abruptly leave, setting out on their several thousand-mile journey to West Africa. The youngsters will suddenly find themselves very much on their own. No more nurturing, no more training, but ahead of them that enormous journey across continents and oceans to reach the same destination as their parents.

Thus, there is a lot of learning to do before the end of August. However, for the time being they can at least rely on the guidance and efforts of their parents. The learning curve is certainly steep so this is probably the most important period of their lives and one that is utterly vital to their survival. Their first efforts to catch fish are likely to end in disaster but they will have no more than a month in which to sharpen that skill sufficiently to enable them to maintain themselves and sustain that flight of thousands of miles.

Significantly, when Spring arrives, these youngsters will not return to Scotland. Indeed, it may well be three years before they undertake that journey. In the meantime, they will stay in West Africa, properly honing their fishing skills in the fish-rich waters there. How hard it is to survive is emphasized by the fact that even experienced adult birds do not succeed every time they dive for fish. Indeed, when conditions are hostile and visibility hampered by rough water, they make take several sorties before they meet with success,

So, now we enter the last vital chapter in the story of this year’s young ospreys. They must learn and learn fast to be self-sufficient. This is ‘gone fishing’ with a real purpose. Otherwise they will pay the ultimate price.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 17th July 2020

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Those of us who have spent a lifetime or the best part of a lifetime playing sport or being involved in sporting activity, have indulged ourselves for a variety of reasons. Some are imbued with that competitive edge, others seem to lack that stimulus.

Those of us with that competitive instinct find It drives us to be involved and of course, to compete whether it be as part of a team or as individuals. Each to his or her own. Some are happier as individuals whereas others fit seamlessly into the team ethos. Yet even as part of a team, individual competitiveness is a driving force. Being involved in sporting activity is part of life’s training. It requires a certain degree of physical fitness. It needs self-discipline and it helps develop social skills, all of which translate to important characteristics in later life.

In essence, animals and even birds are no different. For some of them the competitiveness that will drive them to face all sorts of challenges just to stay alive is learned at an early stage of their lives. For example, anyone who has done any meaningful badger watching will be aware of the importance of play to badger cubs. Down the years, I have avidly watched badgers and have therefore seen the cubs romp and play- fight for hours on end. I was so enthusiastic about my local badgers that I watched them incessantly and was thus able to follow their lives and learn just how the cubs grew up.

Their play-fighting established a pecking order that would be with them for the entirety of their lives. There are winners and losers and these ranks are recognised early in their lives through that play as a result of which, high or low and presumably, future status within the group is established. For example, I remember watching a family of three cubs on the May evening when they first emerged from the darkness of the parental sett. On that occasion there was no playing, just a tenseness caused by the totally new experience of seeing and being in the wider world for the very first time.

Within days, however, they were playing with gay abandon and much noise, chasing round after each other and challenging each other in a crazy game of king of the castle. Soon, it became clear that one of them was very competitive and constantly the winner in this contest. He – I think it was a young boar – was the permanent king of that particular castle and even in those very young days, he was learning his place in the world, especially in relationship to his siblings. Incidentally, the sett was located in a strip of woodland behind a popular guest house and as days shortened and autumn replaced summer, it was lit up by the approaching headlights of visiting cars. Thus, even as summer had passed and autumn’s darkness descended, I was able to watch those same badgers by torchlight because they had got used to operating in the glow of headlights.

I have also watched fox cubs similarly indulge in play-fighting and even on one occasion watched badger cubs and fox cubs romp together where a pair of foxes had taken over an outlying section of a badger sett. This play is just as important to fox cubs as it is to badger cubs and they too eventually form a pecking order among the siblings, the status then established presumably carried on into adulthood. All the time they are playing, they are developing the skills that will see them through their entire lives.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that such ‘advanced’ animals also play. Those who have the company of dogs or cats, will, I’m sure, be familiar with the way puppies and kittens play, either with each other given the chance or with us. Play is very much a part of their upbringing just as it is for fox and badger cubs. It prepares them for the rigours of the life they must lead and sets them up for the future. This kind of play is a learning process and as much a part of the growing period in people as it is with animals.

However, we don’t associate play in the same way with birds. Yet every autumn and winter I see plenty of evidence of play in birds when autumnal and winter winds blow. It is then that hordes of rooks and jackdaws indulge in games of aerial tag and much more. We may view with a certain amount of disdain, members of the crow clan but believe me these are birds of high intelligence and indeed that high IQ may well be exhibited in their wild play on such occasions. Sometimes they chase each other and at times, appear to compete with one another to perform the most outlandish examples of spectacular aerial antics, diving, soaring – all at breakneck speed.  Rooks and jackdaws are clearly very skilled flyers.

All this is also part of play and is probably a constant rehearsal of acrobatic flying that on occasions may get the birds out of trouble with predators. Yet I cannot help but think these antics provide an atmosphere of sheer pleasure too. Perhaps they do it because they enjoy it and indeed it must be an enjoyable experience to challenge the elements with such verve, skill and speed.

Avian play may not seem to be likely yet other incidents have served to provide further food for thought. As I recently reported, a pair of magpies have this summer produced a brood of four youngsters in a neighbour’s garden which we are seeing quite a lot of in the vicinity of our bird-table. I have also reported on the regular presence of a cock pheasant with a distinct limp which we have named ‘Hopalong’. Hopalong has recently lost his tail feathers but whether or not he is therefore slow to get into the air because of his gammy leg, I do not know but he has perhaps been grabbed by a dog or even a fox and lost his tail.

Now he has been joined by an attractive hen pheasant, which is also coming regularly to feed on the   fragments of food from below our bird-table and she is complete in that she has a tail!  Indeed, it is her tail that has been a focus for attention. As she potters around, one of the magpies is repeatedly following her.  It is the pheasant’s tail that seems to be the attraction. The magpie stalks behind the pheasant and from time to time tweaks her tail before hastily retreating, not just once but repeatedly. Is this a sign of sheer mischievousness on the part of the magpie? Is it just playing?

The only comparison I can strike comes from one of the many books written during the last century by Frances Pitt, a naturalist of great experience. In one of her many books she recounts the story of her two captive ravens which apparently wandered freely around her garden. The ravens had a game which they repeatedly played on one of Miss Pitt’s cats. The first raven would face the cat and taunt it whilst the other would sidle behind the cat and tweak its tail. Immediately, the cat would wheel around to face its tormentor at which point the first raven would then tweak the cat’s tail. This mischief was repeated until the poor cat eventually sloped off in disgust and much affronted after it had ended up virtually going round and round in circles!

So, it seems, birds too can play. At least that seems to be the case as far as the crow clan are concerned. All the research tells us that crows are well ahead of the game when it comes to intelligence - far ahead of other avian species. However just a few years ago, I once witnessed a buzzard flying above a seashore, repeatedly dropping a stone and diving to catch it time and time again. It must have been playing! There’s no other explanation. Perhaps whilst they are playing, they are experiencing their own capabilities?

 

Weekly Nature Watch 10th July 2020

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A pall of silence has descended upon the landscape as the avian breeding season largely comes to its close. Birds are taking a well-earned rest after the rigours of a frantically busy summer producing and rearing the next generation or in some cases, generations.

 

Now they must begin to prepare themselves for the winter that lies ahead. During these next few weeks, the theme is one of renewal as most of them enter their one main moult of the year.

However, some still have work to do and the local ospreys must continue to nurture their two chicks. For them there is a sense of urgency because in a few weeks’ time and by the end of August, they will depart for Africa to be followed shortly and independently by their youngsters who, of course, have yet to take to the wing. The swallows and house martins also still have work to do. Martins almost always produce three broods of youngsters during their sojourn here so they literally do have another generation to nurture before they migrate. Swallows also sometimes produce three broods although right now they have to complete their rearing of brood number two. It does seem to have been a particularly productive year for the avian community.

And, the woodpeckers are still busy feeding their broods of redcaps, albeit that some of the these are already quite self-sufficient and feeding for themselves. However, they are still eager to take advantage of their parent’s generosity. There is still one here which flies in to the bird-table and clings like a limpet to the supporting post waiting for one of its parents to peck vigorously away at the fat balls and come spiraling down to feed it.  Young sparrows continue to be fed by their parents, although the parent sparrows are also moulting, and young magpies are also still looking for food mithering a parent bird unmercifully until it rams it down their throats.

There are young bluetits and great tits beginning to be self-sufficient although the parent birds are certainly looking tatty as they begin to lose more and more feathers. The warblers too are looking pretty ragged and are clearly going into the moult as well, although the willow warbler that has occupied my garden this summer has certainly stopped singing and is undergoing one of its two moults, the second occurring on their wintering ground in Africa during our winter. Willow warblers are unique in going through this process twice every year although this is hardly surprising considering their lifestyle which has them constantly to-ing and fro-ing through thick vegetation to reach their well-hidden nests in order to feed their young. Swallows and martins similarly wait until they have returned to their African wintering grounds before they go through the replacement of their plumage, which means they must tackle their migratory journey with old feathers rather than new.

The replacement of feathers is a constant process. As feathers become worn, they are replaced with new ones growing in the same follicles and slowly replacing old ones that are cast. Birds, not because they are fashion conscious but because their plumage takes a bit of a bashing throughout their lives need that constant process of renewal to stay in top condition. But all birds, barring the willow warblers, go through one main moult every year of their lives, a major overhaul of their plumage. When this occurs, birds are to some degree quite badly debilitated and indeed some waterfowl, because they tend to shed all their wing feathers at once, become totally flightless at this time resorting to skulking about in the likes of reed beds to stay safe during this period.

Feathers are, however, replaced in a uniform way and more or less in pairs with feathers from either side of the body being cast and replaced. The first to be lost are generally the wing and tail feathers which are each replaced in turn. As may be imagined, the most discomfort occurs when the wing feathers are lost and that is why most birds cease to give voice once the moult begins, although this week I did hear a solitary blackbird that was still full of song. Perhaps this one has delayed its moult because it is still rearing a second or even a third brood of youngsters. Also contradicting the general rule, a garden warbler and a wren are clearly still in the mood for singing. Generally however, that pall of silence is what we notice in July and August, especially after a summer which has seemed so full of rich bird-song.

Other species also migrate to moult, for example, Canada geese, which of course are not native to these shores but introduced from America several hundred years ago.  These, which were brought in to decorate the ornamental ponds and lakes devised by landscape architects such as Capability Brown, now indulge in a migratory flight from England, where there are now substantial populations of them, to the Beauly Firth in the north of Scotland. Indeed, the reason why here in Scotland we now also have a burgeoning population of Canada geese is undoubtedly connected to this migration. Doubtless some of these geese saw opportunity during their returning flights to select and settle in places where the environment was suitable and where there was evidently little or no competition from other breeds of geese which of course are largely absent from these shores during the summer months.  One of the other birds that migrate to the north for the purpose of moulting are eider ducks. Up to four thousand eiders are to be seen off the Aberdeenshire coast during July.

Most birds avoid moulting during the breeding season but there are exceptions to this rule as female sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons do so, perhaps buoyed by the fact that most of the hunting and therefore the supply of food for their young is carried out by the males.  The timing of the main moult appears to happen when food is still plentiful. Thus, although debilitated by the loss of plumage, birds are still able to find sufficient food to sustain them. That it occurs largely after the breeding season and at a time when almost imperceptibly daylight hours are beginning to wane, is also a factor. But by July, the main job of rearing families is for most birds complete. Obviously, the ospreys take their time to complete the rearing and training of their young and swallows and martins, indulging in multi broods, do not fit this profile.

So, it is the sound of silence that now descends. As explained, whilst they are in the moult, birds are more vulnerable with their flight in some cases impaired, in others absent. Therefore, they really do not want to advertise their presence as they are more vulnerable to predators. Consequently, they look particularly tatty and that was certainly the case when I visited a friend who has a multitude of birds in her garden, bluetits, great tits and coal tits to name but a few. They all looked as if they needed a good wash and brush up!

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods