Weekly Nature Watch
Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.
At last the smiling face of spring is emerging from winter's final east-wind fling. Rising temperatures convey a new message and so now, the dancing can begin as birds seize the mood and begin their courtship rituals. When you see those displays it is easy to understand why man has always envied the birds for their powers of flight.
Indeed, every year on England's south coast, intrepid souls equipped with various designs of wings still try to fly by leaping off a pier and generally, very quickly plunging into the sea. However, most of them seem to enjoy marginally more success than Father John Damian who, in the year 1507 and watched by King James IV and his court, leapt from the walls of Stirling Castle only to crash-land on the rocks below.
Many of our birds will respond to the rising temperatures by beginning their courtship dancing, the manner of which must have turned people like Father Damian green with envy. I expect migrant birds to flood in during these genuinely spring days. Already short distance migrants such as lapwings are arriving, unfortunately not in the numbers that we used to see, for their populations, like those of the curlew, have dropped dramatically in recent years.
Indeed, as yet this spring I have only heard a single whaup and only seen meagre flocks of lapwing. Once upon a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lapwing eggs were considered to be a rare delicacy and were therefore eagerly sought, resulting in a decline in numbers of these lovely birds.
Some of the older farming folk will tell you that in the more recent past, the first clutches of lapwing eggs would be harvested in the knowledge that the birds would lay another clutch. However, in those early days, greed overtook reason and until legislation was passed in parliament in 1926 to curb such excesses, lapwing populations continued to fall because of the theft of their eggs.
By the nineteen sixties, lapwing populations appeared to have stabilised but in recent decades, there have been further alarming reductions which, I'm afraid, seem to emanate from the changes in the way we farm the land. Increases in the amount of land now turned over to arable crops are thought to be one of the negative factors effecting lapwings, especially in recent times with the switch to autumn rather than spring-sewn crops which denies them good nesting sites.
And as ever, the heavy use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides seems increasingly to be a major contributory factor. Lapwings feed primarily on invertebrates which also seem to be in serious decline. Ironically lapwings, when they abandon their coastal and estuarine winter homes and head inland in the spring, feast extensively upon two of farming's greatest pests, wireworms and leatherjackets.
Indeed, whether lapwings have learned to dance for their supper from gulls, or is it the other way round, the spectacle of these dainty birds marking time, as a means of encouraging worms to the surface by simulating falling rain, is an example of their ingenuity. Those gulls are also familiar performers of what might be described as a 'rain dance'!
The arrival of lapwings to familiar inland-beats initially takes the form of tightly knit flocks, some of which used to be large enough to 'blacken the sky'. These days those flocks generally appear to be considerably smaller but as they settle in their new inland realms, the flocks begin to split up and as the weather warms, courtship begins and what a spectacle that provides! That admiration for the flying skills of birds which must have been the inspiration so long ago for Father Damian can more easily be understood when the courtship of lapwings is at its height.
Now, those 'bat-shaped' wings, which seem so well controlled as they fly in their orderly flocks, are fully exercised as the male birds swoop and swerve, duck and dive, like dancing dervishes. They absolutely tumble about the sky in ecstatic displays, their wings audibly throbbing, their voices crying 'pee-wit' wildly. They sometimes give the impression of being utterly out of control, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Theirs is a dance of exuberance and utter control, one that should surely encourage all of us to simply watch in sheer admiration.
Such wonderful demonstrations of flying skills however, are as said not as common as they used to be and there may be many factors at play. These days, the 'blame game' seems to be one of humanity's traits. Someone or something is always to blame! Perhaps, in this case we blame those who farm the land but ignore the advice that is constantly being flung at farmers, including that from official sources, to increase productivity by fair means or foul! It is true that the tempo of farming practices has been ramped up considerably in recent times. I suppose that modern man always wants to do things faster and faster. It is the modern way of doing things.
Old Watty used to tell of the times in spring when, if he was ploughing and found in his path a lapwing nest, he would scoop up the eggs and move them, and then move them back when he ploughed the next furrows. He always made the time to do such things. He, I might suggest, was more in touch with the soil he farmed and the wildlife he was always at pains to protect, than many of today's more modern minded family folk.
Today's tractors are so much more powerful and speedy, besides which they are all singing and dancing, insulated against the elements, and therefore, isolating the drivers from the world outside. Thus, the connection between driver and any wildlife is to all intents and purpose broken. And, as I've said on previous occasions, it is my belief that by encouraging the freedom to use the aforesaid herbicides and pesticides with abandon, government indirectly, is putting at risk our very future. We are, according to all the evidence, killing off the vital pollinators of our crops - the insects upon which also so many farmland birds rely.
Lapwings, curlews and skylarks are always in my mind as April progresses for they were the birds I most remember from youthful days when I ventured out to the moors on early hiking expeditions. Few birds enjoy such a list of pseudonyms as the lapwing. Pee-wit, tee-wit, tee-whup, pessie-wheep, teuchit, chewit, flop-wing and bizarrely, 'tieves nacket from Shetland, are among the many curious local names commonly in use in various parts of the country.
Even when they disperse to breed, you will still find a corporate spirit alive in the lapwing population. When youngsters hatch, even though they are upwardly mobile from the word go, they are kept under quite close scrutiny in a kind of creche manned when parent birds are always seeking food for their young, by other members of what is in reality a loose colony.
And isn't that lilting 'pee-wit', together with the romantic whistling of the whaup, so much the real sound of spring?
The 'Beast from the East' certainly put the proverbial cat among the pigeons and the brakes upon bird migration. Indeed, there are concerns that some migrants may already be arriving, only to find their quest for the insects upon which they depend, drawing a blank. Yet when at last, there were a few days of spring sunshine last week I noted that there was a sudden emergence of insect life. Thus, hope is not entirely lost. However, Met Office experts were forecasting a 'White Easter' a few days ago!
Recent conditions have certainly had a profound effect on our east coast colonies of sea-birds, most notably upon guillemots, for over the course of a couple of weeks, considerable numbers of these essentially marine and sea cliff dwelling birds were literally falling from the sky in inland locations. This time, I only had a single bird to deal with - a quick call to the RSPCA and it was picked up and taken to the Fishcross Centre. Elsewhere, some disorientated guillemots were landing on motorways and that is where many of their lives came to a grisly end. Others took up residence on our local freshwater loch, whilst more were found scattered around on farmland.
Many years ago, during the nineteen eighties, I became all too deeply involved in what was then an avalanche of guillemots, many of which were being picked up in local forests, not exactly a suitable habitat for these fish-eating birds! At one time I was feeding fish daily to up to fifty of these penguin-like birds. Then, although there were strong easterly winds blowing, it was believed that the over-fishing of sand eels was the cause of that particular coastal exodus. Sand eels represent the main source of food for guillemots and a drastic shortage could have been the reason for hundreds of these birds attempting to fly in a westerly direction, presumably in the hope they might reach the west coast, where perhaps there might be more food available.
Global warming is said to be responsible for many of our sea-birds experiencing food shortages as warming seas push their main sources of food, like sand eels, further and further north. Inevitably, the result is declining numbers of young birds being produced making the future of these very important populations here in Britain, questionable. This threat inevitably poses the question that is on so many scientists' minds - how can we counter the dangers posed by global warming which is said to be largely down to the use of fossil fuels over the course of many years. Perhaps we are now reaping a harvest sown by those who were responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent development of heavy industry?
The other factor, which we could surely do something to curb if the political-will really was there, is the world-wide felling of the world's forests. The great forests of the Amazon region, Asia and Africa are under constant threat, mostly from illegal loggers. Neither governments nor world leaders seem to be willing or able to halt this devastation. These forests absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide and are the 'lungs' of the planet, thus as they are felled this vital process is constantly being lessened, and the phenomenon of global warming is accelerated. So threatening is this activity that as sea levels rise due to the melting of polar ice, many communities around the world will simply have to abandon their homes and move elsewhere to higher ground.
And yet, mankind's constant pursuit of more and more wealth is such that we are now having a profound effect upon so many aspects of life that we are, assuredly, if perhaps sometimes, unconsciously threatening our own survival. I am a born optimist, yet further news that bird-life in France is in rapid decline with as many as a third of some species having been lost during the course of the last fifteen years, is alarming news. Furthermore, it is concluded that the increasing use of pesticides by French farmers has wiped out 80 per cent of the flying insects which are absolutely vital to the welfare of so many of those birds. Such figures are also a cause of further alarm for those insects are the vital pollinators, which play a pivotal role in the very fabric of life.
It occurs to me that many of the migrant birds we are currently expecting to arrive during the forthcoming days and weeks, actually travel through France. Thus the findings of French ecologists, who have produced these rather alarming figures, may indeed have an impact upon British migrants returning from Africa. As yet, apart from that short burst of blackcap music heard a week or two ago, I have not thus far either seen or heard any sign of incoming migrants, although I understand a handful of ospreys has arrived. So far, there has been no sign of them here.
What with the hostile weather conditions so far causing the arrival of spring to be extremely fitful, as well as these concerns about the effects of the use in agriculture of pesticides and repeated warnings about global warming, it is easy to feel deep concern. Nevertheless, there are reasons to feel some optimism. Each succeeding day bears witness to the growing chorus of bird-song, chaffinches are in full voice, chuntering away with increasing enthusiasm and in particular I am hearing plenty of the repeating lyrics of song thrushes.
Not so many years ago, song thrushes had become most noticeable at least in this airt by their vocal absence and their numbers were in decline pretty universally. I would have thought that the recent snows might have had a deleterious effect on numbers and indeed, song thrushes often respond to such hostile conditions by undertaking temporary migrations to France for instance. However, during the past couple of years, there has clearly been a resurgence of the song thrush, which has always been a favourite with poets. Robert Burns in particular referred to the 'mavis' many times in his writings.
Despite the nature of the weather in this so-called spring, the tuneful melodies of song thrushes are ringing out loud and clear. There is a flute-like quality about the mavis' voice as he sings sequences of phrases, each phrase repeated four, five or even six times. Each songster has his own favourite passages but these are augmented by occasional bursts of mimicry of the calls of other birds, together with excerpts copied from other thrushes.
Their resilience and that of blackbirds, any number of which are currently to be seen patrolling my lawn as well as the surrounding fields and woods, does at least give some cause for optimism. And this is despite the off-course guillemots, the decline of farmland birds and the problems relating to global warming, not to mention the activities of those more concerned about the profits they are accumulating as opposed to the future of this planet.
But hope springs eternal! Sing on sweet singing thrush!
Seconds out! Round one! The annual boxing match is well underway as brown hares assemble - as is the tradition in the month of March - to indulge in the preliminaries to the breeding season. This is, of course, the time for Mad March Hares! And, it is a time when Jack and Jill did not so much go up the hill to fetch a pail of water so much as to decide instead to get down to the business of courtship. And that means boxing!
Jack hares indulge in little competitive scraps, which include some sparring, but the main pugilists are the female Jills. A Jill may be pursued vigorously by a number of competing Jacks but she will resist any attempt to mate with her until she knows she is ready. Then, and only then, will she submit. Meanwhile, the Jacks leap, sometimes over each other, in their excitement.
Until she is in a condition to drop her guard, the real boxing begins as each Jill takes on the persona of Nicola Adams and firmly repels the advances of the most dominant Jacks by giving them a lesson in the pugilistic arts. And this, believe me, is just round one, for as the year passes, hares will not mate just once but several times - three or four at least. Thus, a Jill hare may have as many as four litters in a single year. However, these initial, frenzied bouts of courtship seem heightened as spring fitfully advances and with little in the way of vegetation to give them cover and perhaps with the urge to procreate at its peak, their madness is now fully revealed.
Over the decades it has been my privilege to live in this airt, I have seen incredible changes in the local hare population. It has gone from a time when I could scarcely look out of my kitchen window and not see a hare lolloping past, to periods when hares seemed almost to have disappeared altogether. Indeed, I well remember local hare shoots in which there were so many guns going off that it sounded as if the third world war had started. It was a wonder that no one was killed and the poor old hares had to run a pretty chastening gauntlet!
Now thankfully, after a period in which hares had become real rarities, there seems to be a slowly rising population of the lowland-living brown hare hereabouts. Yet the fact is that hares have always found themselves high on the list of targets for I guess that down the centuries, folk wielding spears, bows and arrows and latterly, guns, not to mention those who used to hunt hares with dogs, all viewed hares as 'fair game'.
Indeed, the hare has always been regarded as one of our 'big five' quarries along with the hind, the hart, the boar and the wolf. The wolf is gone, although there are those who would like it restored and the wild boar was also exterminated, albeit that there is now in Britain a substantial population of them again thanks to escapees from 'wild boar farms' and from estates where they have been introduced for sport.
Judging by the work of some of mankind's earlies artists, whilst clearly seen as a source of food and pelts and therefore being a regular target for the huntsman, the hare seemingly also commanded deep respect because of its supreme field-craft. In Grecian, Iranian and African folklore, it is regarded as more astute and cunning than even the fox! And the hare is actually the 'Brer Rabbit' of American folklore, its reputation travelling to America with the slaves transported from West Africa.
Hares assimilate and accumulate an intimate knowledge of their territory in such detail that they know every possible escape route such as the whereabouts of gaps or holes in hedgerows and fences which afford them the opportunity to evade any pursuing predator.
For the most part, hares tend to lie up during daylight hours, huddled up in the 'forms' - shallow depressions that they create - in which circumstances they often resemble molehills. If disturbed after sitting tight, a hare may emerge to show itself, initially without undue haste or alarm. However, when pursued, say by a dog, the animal will soon stretch its legs impressively. It is also capable of 'turning on a sixpence', changing direction abruptly, leaving a pursue baffled and straining to halt and then adjust to its headlong charge.
It is my understanding that the brown hare populated these islands before the last Great Ice Age but probably retreated to Continental Europe as the ice spread to cover much of Britain. When Britain became an island as the ice melted and sea levels rose, the opportunity for them to return was denied them. Thus, the only true native hare in Britain is said to be the mountain variety, often referred to as the 'blue hare'.
However, the writings of Julius Caesar around 54BC, tell us that brown hares were kept as pets by the Britons, residing in enclosures called leporaria and looked after by keepers who could summon them by blowing special horns! It may be presumed that these captive hares might be the ancestors of our current hare population for there is little doubt that such enclosures would not be entirely hare-proof and not too difficult to escape from. The remains of high-walled hare enclosures dating from Tudor times have also been discovered.
Yet despite the respect accorded to hares by our ancient ancestors, another tradition encouraged the hunting of hares because they were alleged to be witches which it was believed, could transmogrify themselves into hares. Apart from the speed a hare is able to generate, with its eyes set on the sides of its head to give it virtually an around the compass field of vision, it is also exceptionally well equipped to spot potential predators. However, old time poachers detected a weakness in a hare's vision which suggested that whilst it can see behind and to the side, its vision straight ahead is not so good. To catch a hare then, the advice was to approach it from the front!
However, courting Jack hares seem to be able to see forward well enough as they pursue the apple of their eye, a Jill. Indeed such is their fixation that you may, at this time of the year, see several of them following in the wake of such a Jill. At times it seems they are accordingly completely oblivious to any human presence, all utterly dedicated and entirely focussed on an eventual outcome, which it is likely, only one of them may enjoy!
Spring fever at last and not before time!
Down the centuries, the impact of successive generations of people on our landscape has been enormous. Once, much of Britain was covered in woodland and heath but the advancement of agriculture saw a massive transformation down the ages. Woodland was cleared and turned into productive land, heathland was drained and improved and some might say that slowly, as the ambitions of those who strove to make a living from the land grew, our landscape as a consequence, was tamed.
And naturally as those changes took place, so wildlife had to adapt, move on or simply cease to exist. As the machinery of the farming industry has become more and more sophisticated, such changes can clearly be made at a much faster rate these days. Indeed, in many instances, machinery has replaced manpower. Farming today clearly employs far fewer people than once was the case, as witness the selling off of farm cottages originally built to house levels of labour no longer required.
The merging of farms into bigger units has also made many farm buildings redundant and in recent times we have seen many of them converted into modern living space. And whilst some might argue that such developments mark the further advancement and rationalisation of the farming industry, there is nevertheless a knock-on effect on wildlife. I remember only too well, when a neighbouring farm was a splendid place at which to watch barn owls but where those owls once nested in what was then a barn, now instead there are human occupants!
Not surprisingly perhaps, we nowadays seldom see these beautiful owls making their almost ghostly progress as they scour the surrounding fields for rodents. I used to watch barn owls frequently quartering nearby rough grazing ground and indeed, in those self same acres, I could also expect to see short-eared owls, snipe - in the spring, drumming - and skylarks soaring and of course singing their breathless anthems.
Those lowland acres were then ploughed and planted to become a relatively sterile conifer forest. Admittedly, deer now prosper in it, especially red deer which have seized the opportunity to vacate the nearby hills - also now covered in spruce trees - to re-colonise the kind of habitat their ancestors once originally enjoyed living in - lowland woodland. However, the aforementioned owls, snipe or skylarks are no longer there!
I suspect that the planting of those previously delightfully unkempt acres might not happen today for when they were planted nearly forty years ago, there seemed to be less concern for the impact such a transformation might have on all that wonderful wildlife. These days, there is perhaps much more recognition of the responsibility we have for our diminishing wildlife but ironically, it also seems likely that this particular forest may never be felled!
The Scottish Government plans to increase the future level of forestry, which in its own way will further change the distribution of wildlife wherever the next generation of trees is planted. I remember some forty years ago that our local hills sustained no fewer than seven pairs of hen harriers but as more planting occurred they disappeared. There was also a healthy population of short-eared owls - they were easier to spot than the barn owls for they are diurnal hunters and therefore as such, very different from most other owls. But they too are gone.
However, conifer forests are not entirely sterile. They provide ideal habitat for several interesting animals and birds. Red squirrels find spruce forests very much to their liking and hereabouts their population has soared, thanks to the increasing presence of another mammal, which also prospers among the conifers, the pine marten. The new generation of martens have decimated the local grey squirrel population, perhaps because not only are the alien greys less agile than the smaller, native red squirrel but they are, as a result, easier to catch. Red squirrels have accordingly filled the vacuum.
Those unique birds, crossbills also find conifer forest very much to their liking as do the minuscule goldcrests - our smallest native bird. And of course, in recent years there has been a substantial increase in the population of another of those wee birds which, as March approaches, become more and more familiar in our gardens. During the past few days, I have been seeing a few of these delightful, colourful and feisty little birds, the siskins. And during these next few weeks, I expect their presence will become more and more evident.
I recently re-read a wee book published in the early twentieth century, "Familiar Wild Birds", written by a gentleman by the name of Swaysland. The siskin is named as a rare bird, which was, late in the nineteenth century, a popular cage bird. Indeed, the presence of siskins in the London area, it was suggested, might have been due to the presence of escaped cage birds, initially imported from Germany. It was further presumed that some siskins could possibly have crossed the North Sea, again from Germany, in which country migrants from Scandinavia regularly winter.
Otherwise, the author suggested, they might have come from Scotland where there were a few known breeding populations. There can be little doubt that the spread of coniferous forest here in Scotland, during the twentieth century, has enabled the siskin population to go forth and multiply. Indeed, it may be that in the past their numbers here have been augmented by migrants from Scandinavia. This likelihood provides further proof that birds, with their ability to translocate over distance, will go where the most beneficial conditions prevail.
These tiny birds are very attractive, the males fairly glowing with their lemony-green plumage and adorned by a striking black cap, which extends below the chin to a wee bib. Surprisingly, research has proved that the larger that bib, the more dominant is that bird's status in the siskin community. Siskins are extremely sociable birds, nesting in the conifers in colonies and clearly establishing a social order. As the spring advances, you may see cock birds offering food to females and even to other males.
In itself, the exchange of food between males clearly illustrates exactly how dominant the recipients of such gifts are within that community. Those proffering gifts are clearly subordinate birds. However, males feeding females is entirely different and a ploy designed as you might guess, to strengthen a bond. As the breeding season hots up, it may also be a means of persuading the females to concentrate on the production of the next generation rather than wasting energy on foraging.
The arrival of siskins in gardens as March approaches is likely to be because they have nearly exhausted natural supplies of seeds, particularly those of alder but also including birch, spruce and the seeds of weeds such as docks and burdock. Thus, our provision of various varieties of seeds fills a gap in the siskin diet. The brightest flashes of colour are provided by the male siskins - the females lack the black crown and bib, their plumage is more streaked and thus they are not quite as bright. They are really agile wee birds and are not readily bullied by the likes of greenfinches and chaffinches. As said they are feisty!
Green suddenly seems to be the theme for having seen no greenfinches here over the course of the last couple of years, I have recently observed a handful of them on my bird-table. But it is the siskins that really catch the eye, their yellow barred wings flashing in the winter - or could it be spring sunshine? Spring, despite the continuing presence of low temperatures, is definitely moving in!