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 3rd April 2020

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Even as I write, countless birds, little more than fragments of feather, bone and sinew, are making their way here from darkest Africa, as thousands, millions and even billions of them undertake their springtime migration; surely one of the true wonders of the world.

Bird migration on a large scale has been going on since the Ice Ages of thousands of years ago, the vast populations of insect eating birds driven ever southwards as the ice advanced during successive winters. Then they must have flooded back northwards with each spring as the ice retreated allowing those insect fragments of life to prosper again encouraging the hordes of birds back north for the summer months. This has become the inescapable rhythm of life for countless migrating birds. The miracle when millions of birds forsake their wintering grounds in Africa and head inexorably north is under way and as these next days and weeks come and go, so hosts of these intrepid travelers will also arrive.

The early birds have already arrived for there it was, unmistakable in its simplicity, the two-note signature tune of a chiff-chaff and, for me at least, the true herald of spring. So often, the chiff-chaff is the first of these long-distance voyagers to reach our shores. He is recognized by the monotonous song that easily singles him out but in a few weeks, we will be celebrating the arrival of his look-alike cousin, the willow warbler, distinguished by the subtle difference in the colour of his legs which are lighter than those of the chiff-chaff and more or less flesh coloured rather than black. Not that we get sufficiently good sightings of either of these birds to identify them readily by their leg colour. Vocally, the willow warbler is also more ambitious with a silvery, down the scale song.

Both birds are inclined to hide themselves away in thick vegetation or high in the canopy and both build their nests more or less on the ground in such vegetation. Curiously the chiff-chaff is known as featherbed in one part of England, a reference to the little dome-shaped nest they build. Yet in this case, local folklore has got it wrong for the chiff-chaff seldom uses feathers to line its nest whereas the willow warbler does. A case clearly of mistaken identity for the author of this pseudonym clearly didn't look at the colour of the bird's legs!

With the wind turning into the north and east, I'm afraid the insect life upon which the newly arrived chiff-chaff depends is likely to be pretty sparse, albeit that the other day I saw a column of gnats displaying in my garden. All of these warblers largely exist by scouring the vegetation for insect life and although I have yet to see persistent evidence of emerging insect life, I'm sure that they will appear during these next few days and weeks. Nevertheless, those hosts of warblers are inexorably heading our way and I expect that the progression of life will ensure the emergence of plenty of insect life to sustain them.

If the monosyllabic chiff-chaff denotes the first arrivals of spring migrants, I always feel that the sweet little ditty of the willow warbler underlines the true arrival of spring confirming, as Ted Hughes wrote of the later arrival of swifts which means the globe's still working. The annual cycle is indeed still happening as the lonesome osprey sitting atop his eyrie patiently awaiting the arrival of his mate and the solitary voice of that chiff-chaff confirm that the wheels are indeed still turning.

However, for all their differing musical styles, except for a tint of green which means they are not just ordinary little brown birds, the warblers of this world are not outstanding beauties. Rather are they relatively plain Janes. Yet their music is at times remarkable. As already stated, the willow warbler's cadence down the scale is sweet and silvery whereas the trill of the wood warbler and the sometimes, coarse notes struck by sedge warblers, although less tuneful, are also signals that the world is still turning. The most amazing vocal offering by any warbler must be the astonishing ventriloquism of the grasshopper warbler which trills away whilst turning its head this way and that so that its voice is thrown and literally comes and goes in the most incredible way. Perhaps the sweetest of the warbler vocalists is possibly the garden warbler although the blackcap is tuneful too.

Cuckoos - their numbers are falling dramatically - will also be making their way here from deep in Africa, although they don't really make their presence felt in these parts until May. And of course, also winging their way towards us will be the swallows and martins. Sand martins are among the early arrivals and soon I shall be scanning the waters of the loch in the hope of seeing them skimming over the surface in their ceaseless search for insect life.

The swallows, which also usually arrive here during this spring month of April, fly an incredible six thousand miles from the Cape of Good Hope on their migratory trip. They, I always feel, bring the true essence of summer when they arrive. But pause for a moment to remember that there are even longer journeys undertaken with Arctic terns flying the entire length of the globe translocating from one end - the Antarctic - to the other - the Arctic - in a marathon migratory journey.

Manx shearwaters almost go one better. These secretive birds, that breed on the islands on our west coast, fly off to waters lapping the shores of South America and then, using the Gulf Stream as their guide, cross the Atlantic again to return in the spring. Theirs then is also a journey which sees them move across the globe as well as north to south.

That lone chiff-chaff is therefore the first of the many birds, little more than feather and bone, that put their lives at risk the minute they embark on their astonishing travels. However, there is a group of migrant birds that will be leaving us this month. Soon, those great skeins of geese will depart for more northerly climes in the Arctic where they will maximise the short Arctic summer to rear another generation of their kind. The whooper swans too will leave us with a similar itinerary. Woodcock, short-eared owls, crossbills and goldcrests et al will flood back across the North Sea to a Scandinavian summer.

Our understanding of bird migration was preceded by any number of imagined theories. For example, it was firmly believed by even eminent naturalists that swallows hibernated in the mud at the bottom of lakes and lochs. This supposition was based upon the spectacle of migrating swallows choosing to roost in reed beds overnight, moving on before daybreak the following day. Another theory was that cuckoos transmogrified themselves into sparrowhawks for the winter, a theory based on a similar profile shared by both species and the fact that during the summer sparrowhawks, virtually disappear, hiding away in vegetation where they lay ambushes for other small birds.

Only in relatively modern times, now aided by bird ringing and technology such as GPS, have the true facts of the mass migration of birds across the globe emerged. The consensus is that it is surely the nearest thing to a miracle that nature produces!

Weekly Nature Watch

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At long last, it would appear that spring is definitely springing. Blue skies and warm sunshine heralded a marked change in the weather last weekend and the volume of birdsong is on the rise. The first migrant birds are beginning to turn up and in particular, the first returning ospreys are arriving after a 3,000-mile journey from West Africa where they have wintered. Ospreys these days are among the first of the summer visitors to show up and their arrival signals another turning point. Of course, in living memory such a sighting would have been impossible for ospreys as breeding birds became extinct in Scotland and therefore in Britain, around 1916 when a so-called naturalist shot the last breeding pair on their nest in Speyside.

The return of the osprey to Scotland during the nineteen fifties and their subsequent re-establishment as breeding birds here is perhaps one of the great conservation stories of recent years albeit that rabid egg collectors did their best to wreck the come-back, stealing the eggs of the first pair of birds. That diabolical theft ensured that efforts to protect the birds would be re-doubled and watches were thereafter posted to ensure the safety of any nesting ospreys. The dedication of many volunteers in subsequent years ensured that ospreys would once again appear on the British breeding birds list.

All the indications are that the ospreys return here in the spring follows a relatively leisurely migration flight in which the birds more or less hug the west African coast as they begin their trek northwards before crossing the Mediterranean to travel through Iberia and France to arrive on these shores. Among the first to arrive are the birds at Rutland Water in the East Midlands. Of course, these birds owe their origins to Scottish born birds, which were ‘transplanted’ to Rutland some years ago and the slow expansion of ospreys from Scotland means that there are now breeding pairs also located in the North of England and in Wales. Curiously enough, many centuries ago James 1 (JamesV1of Scotland) introduced captive ospreys on the Thames to fish for him although I presume the experiment failed due to the instinctive desire on the part of the birds to migrate in the late summer.

Initially, the starting point for the new generation of ospreys was Speyside but there was also one solitary pair that based themselves in this area. Now ospreys are virtually endemic across Scotland – there are now thought to be at least 300 pairs of them - a success story which, as said, probably represents one of the best conservation stories in a long time. That single pair has now multiplied because ospreys now return to this part of Scotland in ever increasing numbers each spring.

The first to complete a successful migratory flight is often the male bird which, on its arrival in late March or early April, is soon making running repairs to the eyrie which is used year after year. On the arrival of his mate – they may have both been in West Africa during the winter without ever meeting up – the birds re-double re-construction efforts and of course renew their bond with courtship flights in which both birds soar to considerable heights. Mating follows and eventually a long thirty-five-day incubation period begins.

During their stay here, most of the ospreys’ attention is concentrated on the rearing of the next generation. From their arrival until their depqrture in early September, the main thought on their minds is the welfare of their new offspring. In general, the female takes on the biggest percentage of the incubation duties, relieved from time to time by the male who, of course, is the principle ‘bread winner’, keeping her well provided with fish. The hatching of the youngsters sees both parent birds being even more heavily committed to their young family, which is usually of three in number. Eventually, after a few weeks, the heads of the young birds will be glimpsed as they jostle for position and as they begin to get their full plumage, the youngsters can be seen getting up onto the edge of the eyrie to try out their wings with vigorous flapping. This continues for about seven or eight weeks before they finally take to the air.

Meanwhile, as the male bird continues to be the main food provider but as the chicks grow, the female also has to do her share. The amount of care and attention provided to the offspring by the parents is wondrous to watch. For such large birds of prey, the tenderness shown by them is truly remarkable and belies their reputation as remorseless killers of fish. However, their final act is a dénouement that belies all the care the parent birds have previously lavished on their off-spring and is therefore something of a surprise. After showing so much TLC, towards the end of August the parent birds suddenly cut their ties and depart, leaving the youngsters to fend entirely for themselves. Individually, the parent birds make their own way back to West Africa whilst the brutal fact is that the youngsters will have to quite separately follow their instincts and as individuals, find their own way back to Africa. It stands to reason that with the hasty depqrture of their parents, it is vital that the youngsters also hone their hunting skills well enough to be self-sufficient to undertake such a journey so early in their lives.

However, between late March and early September, we are wonderfully entertained by these magnificent fish hawks as time and again they quarter the waters of lochs and sometimes rivers in search of their piscatorial prey. A fish is spotted near to the surface, the quartering stops and now the bird hovers before beginning a death-defying dive. Lethal legs – the killing machines of the bird – are lowered and the bird enters the water feet first with a mighty splash. It grapples with its victim before rising like a phoenix clutching its fishy prey. At around ten feet above the water, the bird secures its prey with both feet, shakes off surplus water and rises in triumph to fly either to the eyrie or to some favourite feeding perch. Magnificent!

Not every dive yields a fish. Sometimes the fish will dive to deeper water in the nick of time and the bird will abort its dive But, there is a relentlessness about the successive dives made by an osprey during its day long quest for vital food for it and its family. And we are essentially exceptionally privileged to witness these wonderfully choreographed events.

Thank goodness ospreys are back as living, breathing and essentially highly dramatic fishers of our lochs, rivers and coastal waters. They are dynamic and present beautiful and highly dramatic figures as they quarter the waters for their scaly prey. Our world was a poorer place during those years of absence but now is a better place for their return. The first birds have arrived and now they wait with due pqtience for their mates to join them.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 20th March 2020

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There have been but a few glimpses of spring but generally the weather has not been particularly encouraging with the wind continuing to blow and little respite from the rain. But the birds know well enough that slowly – very slowly – spring is beginning and they are producing more in the way of music and even a few birds are collecting nesting material. Spring will spring … eventually!

And I had one of those uplifting moments when a kestrel was seen hovering over a field on the Carse, a sight that was once regular but which in recent times has become a real rarity. It took me back to my youth when – and I have recounted this many times – I would lie on my back in a favourite field and watch the kestrels hover on trembling wings. I also used to watch the skylarks soaring from that same field but I think I’ve given up on that memory for the time being. There are now no skylarks here at all!

Until the new generation of red kites came on the scene, the one bird of prey that held me in awe was the kestrel, its hover is a thing of intrinsic beauty. From such heights – some are wont to use telegraph poles from which to conduct their ground surveys as they search for small rodents like voles and mice. Those that launch themselves are soon treading on the air, tails fanned, wings beating and trembling, the whole bird always making miniscule adjustments so that everything is totally co-ordinated and calculated to adjust to every eddy of the breeze. I remember occupying a window seat on an airliner and watching in fascination the man-made, computerised version of a kestrel as all the time the wing-flaps were making minute adjustments according to the wishes of the plane’s computers in order to maintain equilibrium. An exact replica of what   happens with the kestrel – except we were hurtling along at something like 600 miles an hour!

Since the arrival of kites in our skies again, the kestrel has a rival for beauty of flight yet it alone stands out as the master hoverer. There has also been a slight departure from the norm in that some kestrels have further adapted their lifestyle to include a sparrow-hawk-like assault on small birds, which they snatch out of mid-air. Just another illustration of the ability of nature to adapt.

There is no doubt that the volume of birdsong has increased and the blackbirds I reported on a week or two ago have now been joined by song thrushes giving voice to their repetitive airs - enough to rival the warbling merles. The mavis and the merle, however, give us real music after the silence of winter. The other prominent songster is cock robin, his little bursting interludes adding real quality to the day’s music. I often think that the robin sings almost involuntarily, opening its little beak and seeing what comes out! It literally blurts out what seem to be unrehearsed bursts of sweet music. Several times recently, two robins have been seen feeding together on the bird-table but they will definitely not be two cock robins otherwise the feathers would be flying.

Add to that the chortling chaffinch and the mood is definitely being set for the onslaught of music that is about to fill the air. I wonder how long we will have to wait until we hear the first of the migrant birds which of course, will already be making their way here right now. The first to put in an appearance is usually the humble little chiff-chaff, the very epitome of plainness. If ever there was a ‘little brown bird’ the chiff-chaff is surely that. Its song is made to match - ’chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’ - boring but something to look forward to.

It seems slightly premature to talk about migrant birds but they will be here soon enough. I don’t think the coronavirus will deter them one jot! It strikes me that if we older folk are to self-isolate in our own homes, apart from TV and radio, the birds in our gardens are likely to play an even more important role in providing us with entertainment! The wheatear is also generally an early arrival, famous for its white rump which at one time gave it an alternative and very apt name, ‘whitearse’, a name soon changed by our prudish Victorian ancestors.

The movement of birds across the globe is truly phenomenal. Millions of birds literally translocating in a general northerly direction. The geese that over-winter here are already getting restless albeit that it will be another month at least before they will eventually head north and depart. But they are decidedly restless and I get the sense they are itching to get going,

On the loch, there is a bevy of goldeneye showing that faraway places are already on their minds. These tree-living ducks will eventually breed in the vast forests of Scandinavia and Northern Russia but already they are indulging in their courtship rituals during which the drakes throw back their heads over their backs and at the same time kick up water with their feet, whilst the ducks watch on admiringly.

Meanwhile the loch has been occupied by a small colony of mute swans, including a family of five cygnets. Of course, they will not be joining the legions of birds moving north but whether they will take up permanent residence there remains to be seen.  However, some have been seen investigating the considerable reed beds where in years past mute swans have previously nested.

Things are on the move and already there will be new life. Down in fox earths and badger setts a new generation of foxes and badgers will already be suckling their mothers. I’ve certainly been seeing more red squirrels and also pine marten which I’m sure the squirrels will be anxious to avoid. The transformation down the years has been astonishing. Since the arrival of a new generation of martens the squirrel population has been transformed from hoaching greys to plentiful reds with now not a grey in sight.

The battle of the seasons will continue to rage but now I am sure that spring is winning and that winter is in retreat. The buzzards are beginning their circling proscribing courtship dances. Kites too are in courtship mode. With millions of birds already making their way here, the time of transition is almost with us. In forthcoming days spring will emerge

Weekly Nature Watch 13th March 2020

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Good news!  Common sense has prevailed at last. The cull of badgers, which currently applies to certain areas south of the Border, is to be halted and instead a programme of vaccination is to be introduced. The advice of scientists has at last been listened to. The culling programme was never likely to put an end to that deadly disease, bovine tuberculosis, which they all kept saying but the Government kept ignoring them! The strategy of culling badgers was flawed in the first place because all it would succeed in doing was to move them around and needlessly kill thousands of badgers which had not a vestige of bovine TB in their bodies. However, it is estimated that 100,000 badgers paid for this foolishness with their lives!

Again, it is worth making the point that in Scotland we are officially bovine TB free so no culling has taken place here. However, I presume that the vaccination of badgers and cattle will now also be pursued here.

I’ve had a soft spot for badgers ever since my first bizarre encounter. Driving along a road in the Lake District, I spotted a badger lying prone in a field and, fearing the worst, went to investigate. When I got to the animal, I discovered it was an old boar simply having a siesta in the middle of the afternoon. I bent down and touched it and it instantly sprang to its feet, grunted and lumbered off in high dudgeon, I imagine. So not only was this my first ever encounter with a live badger but I actually touched it too!

A year or two later after I had taken up residence in Scotland, I discovered that a matter of yards from my front door there was a badger sett. I had seen a badger one night caught in the glare of my headlights and resolved to track their sett down. Thereafter, I spent many happy hours watching badgers, at one time on a nightly basis. I had many entrancing experiences including an occasion when I was late setting out to watch my badgers and found myself confronted by one running along the well-worn badger path that I used to get to the sett. The wind was blowing from the badger to me and the animal, totally unaware of my presence, actually ran between my legs before diving headlong into the vegetation.

When the cubs began to emerge, I had hours of enjoyment watching them play before trekking off with their mother for their nightly adventure. I learned a good deal about the animals during that spell of intensive badger watching and came to the conclusion that the poor old badger took too much of the blame for the widespread incidence of bovine TB, and that the real problem was with cattle rather than badgers. After all, it is a disease called Bovine TB, surely an allusion to its origins among cattle!

More good news! Despite the continuing blustery conditions, I think that we can now refer to this as spring. The other day I heard my first chaffinch of the year bursting into song – that chuntering little song, complete with its final triumphant flourish so very much one of the sounds of spring. Surely, no other bird is so commonplace around bird-tables and indeed, wherever people foregather. The chaffinch is one of those birds that must always live cheek by jowl with mankind – one which therefore benefits greatly from our collective generosity when it comes to feeding the birds.

 All readers will be familiar with the chaffinch and will know how to discriminate between the males and females, the males, of course, being considerably more colourful than the females. What you may not realise is that the two birds of the same sex you may be seeing in your garden are unlikely to form pairs as they probably emanate from different places. Male and female chaffinches migrate separately, the female usually travelling further than the males. There are already signs that the cock birds are starting to become more feisty because, unlike the females, they will have the drive and instinct in mind that ere long they will need to lay claim to breeding territories, a factor that is absent in the females. Because chaffinches invariably hang around in familiar groups, aggression between males is less conspicuous than you might expect but when a stranger tries to muscle in, all hell is let loose.

With regard to that chuntering little song, you may be surprised to know that in doesn’t come naturally and the birds have to learn it. They do this by listening to other chaffinches and hence there are dialects from different parts of the country which, when heard, are naturally copied. Thus, there will be Lancashire based chaffinches which probably sing the avian version of ‘ee bah gum’ just as there will be others from hereabouts that translate to ‘och, get awa wi ye’. Heaven knows how the chaffinches in Aberdeenshire’s Mearns district can be understood! There’s more to chaffinches however, than that familiar song. Chaffinches have a vast array of calls to add to that - ‘pink, pink’ for instance, in flight a kind of ‘choop’ and when perched, an oft repeated ‘huit’, all of them with regional dialects. 

We think of all finches as seed eaters. However, chaffinches are pretty conservative feeders and during the breeding season, consume a goodly number of insects. Indeed, when youngsters come along, they are reared on a diet largely comprising of insects. Above all, chaffinches are cheery little birds, their characters really shaped by their antics at bird-tables where they have certainly learned to ape the tits and cling on to baskets full of nuts with amazing alacrity.

One of the local names for this ubiquitous bird is ‘wet bird’ a curious nom-de-plume, more resonant of recent weather than this attractive little fellow. Elsewhere in Scotland, it rejoices in several names that reflect its vocal rqnge, ‘binkie’ ‘chy’ and ‘prink’, whist its physical properties are reflected in ‘blue cap’ and ‘whitewing’. Others, which are more reflective of the bird’s familiarity, are ‘boldie’, ‘brighty’, ‘snabbie’, and tree lintie’.

This pink chested, grey capped (in the case of the male) little fellow is indeed an entertainer and to hear that little chuntering song surely brings a smile to one’s face. It tells us, ‘this is spring’!

                        The spring drew near, each felt a breast

                        With genial instinct filled;

                        They paired and would have built a nest,

                        But found not where to build.

                                                                        Cowper ; ‘A Tale’

Weekly Nature Watch 6th March 2020

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When I was but a lad, I used to lie on my back in a field gazing ever skywards to watch the hovering kestrels and the towering buoyant flight of skylarks, which were singing as if their lungs were about to burst. Skylarks and countryside are, or perhaps were, endemic and you seldom had the one without the other. In more recent years I used to watch them from my garden, watch as they climbed up into the sky and all seemed well then – I had my larks, I had my wonderful hovering kestrels.  Now the skies hereabouts are empty and for the past few years, they have been sadly bereft of the quite magnificent song of the skylark.

In recent years, the decline in farmland birds has been alarming. I no longer hear the ‘little bit of bread but no cheese’ ditty of the yellowhammer. Once upon a time, wherever I went during the summer months, that cheerful little song would ring out from every hedgerow. Now there is that all pervading silence. I used to be regularly visited by tree sparrows, now I never see one. What are we doing to our countryside?  Since the 1970s, nearly seventy per cent of starlings, those ever-present raiders of my bird table, have disappeared.

I was shocked to learn these birds are on the red alert list and in such rapid decline that their future is threatened. Starlings, I ask you! When, as a young boy I first became interested in birds, the starlings were viewed rather like a plague. At times, they dominated our bird-table, bullying other birds and always, it seemed, grabbing the best of the food we provided. Since those youthful days, I have gained a tad more respect for these vagabonds. Indeed, I have thought for a while that starlings are the ‘colley’ birds of the carol, ‘a partridge in a pear tree’.

Some claim that ‘colley’ (black) birds, not ‘calling birds’ as most sing, are blackbirds but reading an extract from a new book, “Red Sixty Seven”, I am now further convinced that colley birds are starlings. In that book, the first edition of which has already sold out and with a reprint now on the way, the author, Rob Cowen, speaks of the starlings as once being as common as coal.  He compares the iridescent purples, greens and blues on a black background of their feathers as the rare hues of petrol on water – all colours that you get from a coal fire - and he also refers to their smoke-like swirling in the skies. Surely then these are the real colley birds.

Starlings are full of character - Chaplinesque at times - as they strut here and there, often causing chaos and prone at times to bullying other birds at bird-tables. But at times, there can be a distinctly comedic aspect to their behavior, albeit that various town and city councils don’t appear to see their funny side. Rather do they wage war on them with some authorities having spent considerable amounts of money in trying to deter them from roosting en-masse on town and city buildings.

Starlings are well known for gathering together in large numbers in the evening in massive roosts which sometimes number more than a million birds. This strategy has caused much puzzlement for although they get together in this way, they do not huddle as a means of generating corporate heat. In fact, many other birds practice this togetherness as a means of deterring potential predators. I suppose the self-preservation theory is that if you are one of a million or so birds you have a statistically better chance of not becoming a victim!

The famous ‘mumurations’ when thousands, sometimes millions of starlings come together to paint the sky black with their incredible patterns – like smoke drifting across a sky brushed this way and that by the wind – are a truly amazing phenomenon, a movement which, in my view, might justify inclusion among the wonders of the world. These displays terminate eventually when the mass of birds decides it is time to settle down for the night at which point, they all dive into a roost. It is then that starlings begin their evening prayers – not so much supplication as exchanges of information as to where the best and most productive feeding places are and so on and so forth. Starlings may not speak in the way that we humans do but somehow, they do manage to share this vital information.

As said before, starling numbers have been flagging over the years and no-one can pinpoint the reason. A near seventy per cent reduction in overall numbers since the mid seventies is, by any calculation, a severe drop in population and accordingly starlings are now endangered birds. One explanation put forward is that a succession of dry summers has made the soil that they explore for invertebrates, less yielding and more difficult to penetrate but this does not apply universally. Nor would I expect this to have a profound effect upon a bird which is particularly well equipped to seek food by prodding its long, pointed beak deep into the soil.

Among the strange facts of starling life is a cuckoo-like inclination to lay eggs in other starling’s nests. Maybe they’ve watched the cuckoos and thought ‘that’s a good idea!’. I certainly have a clear memory of a parent starling hurtling towards its own nest full of chicks with a beak full of wriggling insects, being lured by the highly coloured interior of the yawning gape of a young cuckoo and thus instinctively going to the cuckoo and discharging its cargo into that open mouth. But copying cuckoos and depositing eggs in other nests may just be a way of ensuring that the species prevails.

Wildlife provides us with plenty of warnings as to the damage we may be causing to the environment. The demise of so many starlings in recent years, the absence of yellowhammers and tree sparrows, not to mention the aforesaid kestrels and skylarks, are clear warnings that all is not well. Therefore, the sooner we can work out just why our starlings are in such disarray and just why our yellowhammers and other birds are also in such decline, we should not rest easy.

Although starlings are pretty omnivorous, the fear that insects, their principle source of food, are also in such decline may well be a clue. Reports from all over western Europe indication that insect populations are at seriously low levels also tells us that insect eating birds are bound to suffer as a result. And the fact that we are too easily persuaded that all weeds are bad and need eliminating, ignores the fact that many birds, including the yellowhammer, depend on the seeds of many weeds for their survival.  This should surely evoke a response from us.

Perhaps we are too hasty to point the finger and eliminate things like insects and weeds and forget that they are all part of the very fabric of life. And where, oh where, are my gorgeous hovering kestrels? That perhaps is another story!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods