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 July 2020

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While the nation was in lockdown because of Covid-19, there were those taking advantage of the situation by perpetrating wildlife crime. The authorities were and still are pre-occupied trying to control a public so long constrained by lockdown that now people are taking liberties and at the same time putting themselves and others at risk. And of course, there has been a lack of volunteers who would normally be available to help guard vulnerable nesting sites. Hence, the wildlife criminals – I do not mince my words – have once again seized the opportunity to pursue their nefarious ways.

 

For example, there has been an increase in the illegal killing of raptors throughout the UK. It has to be said that most of these crimes occur in areas where shooting is popular – either an unhappy coincidence or a pointer to the root cause of such activity. And now I read that in Derbyshire’s Peak District, where Britain’s first National Park was established, peregrine falcons have been targeted and their eggs and chicks taken to be reared and later sold for vast sums of money.

Peregrines have had a chequered history down the years. When it was a royal sport, falcons were in great demand and of course not protected by the law, so that young falcons were regularly taken by enthusiasts for the sport. Of course, these days such activities are strictly illegal with most falconer’s birds supposed to be captive bred. But now some with eyes firmly riveted on their wallets, are returning to the bad old ways and taking young falcons from the wild or their eggs which of course go into incubators to produce youngsters.

Peregrines were very much under pressure during the war years, especially on England’s south coast, because of their predation upon carrier pigeons bringing messages from the front or indeed from aircraft that had been shot down. However, once hostilities ceased, peregrines were once again protected only to suffer from the use of new pesticides - most notably DDT - in the immediate post war years. Treated seed ingested by the pigeons that were their main prey, carried on down through the food chain and peregrines and other birds of prey first started to become infertile and then die. Hence, such noxious chemicals were controlled, and in some cases banned.

Now peregrines are under threat again, so valued by those who follow the sport of falconry that they are prepared to pay big money for young falcons – up to £8,000 a bird. Among the most enthusiastic followers of the sport are Middle Eastern in origin. Those, who have got rich on the world’s dependency on oil, have the resources to pay that kind of money for what is generally regarded as the king of all falconry birds.

I must confess that seeing such a bird in action is indeed a thrilling sight as you might expect of a bird that is capable of exceeding 200 miles per hour in the stoop. I have watched peregrines on many occasions yet one memory from a glen where I once spent a good deal of my time, sticks in my mind. I had been scaling the side of the glen when a peregrine took off from a rocky ledge above me and drifted down the glen below me. Suddenly I was aware of a little posse of pigeons a long way down and clearly the peregrine had noticed the same group and now began to home in on them. I’m sure my jaw dropped when I saw the falcon accelerate as it made a bee-line for the pigeons.  With the peregrine now travelling at considerable speed, it rapidly overhauled them and finally hit one of them a mighty blow sufficient to decapitate and kill the victim instantly. It then followed the tumbling body down into the glen - lunch had been served!

The report I recently read suggested that three of the estimated 40 peregrine nests in that part of the Peak District National Park had been robbed of either their eggs or young chicks resulting in a serious depletion of the Park’s peregrine population which, if repeated in other parts of the country, would result in a significant reduction in peregrine populations.

Add to that the killing of raptors such as hen harriers, which has been occurring on or near grouse moors, not to mention golden eagles and of course peregrine falcons and buzzards and we are beginning to slide down a very slippery slope which begs the question, are we returning to the bad old days when all raptors and indeed all carnivores, plus hedgehogs were unmercifully and universally slaughtered with impunity? All as a measure designed to protect game.

These days, there is much more awareness of the precious wildlife resource we have in these islands, much more desire to protect that resource and laws that give it vital protection. No such laws existed when open war against such creatures was pursued towards the end of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth century. Even such birds as ospreys were killed willy-nilly and by 1916, had been driven to extinction as breeding birds in Britain. Miraculously, during the 1950s ospreys returned to Scotland of their own volition and with considerable help from many volunteers as well as professional organisations, re-established themselves.

Sea Eagles were similarly eliminated and red kites too, save for a rump of them that hung on in central Wales. Were they eliminated by those who follow the sport of shooting - who knows? Both these birds have been successfully re-introduced in recent years and are now prospering again. But clearly there are those who have only their interest in shooting birds such as red grouse at heart and care not a fig for the likes of harriers, kites, buzzards, peregrines and eagles. And those currently in possession of peregrine chicks taken from the wild either as eggs or chicks, have no interest in the survival of these magnificent raptors in our countryside.

Shooting brings substantial income for some landowners and some suggest that  is probably the root cause of the killing of birds of prey, whether or not the perpetrators of these crimes are directly or indirectly connected with them or those who shoot. Now the theft and selling of peregrine falcons by people who clearly know their birds of prey and where they are to be found, is a growing problem. These people have only the profit motive in their minds when they steal eggs or chicks which, as previously said, they can sell for vast sums of money on the international market.

We need to take wildlife crimes such as these very seriously and all of us should always remain vigilant especially if we are aware of the presence of these birds in our own area. These are as much crimes as common theft or burglary - crimes which most of us universally condemn. They should not be tolerated by anyone and the full force of the law should be brought to bear on the offenders.

Weekly Nature Watch 26th June 2020

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There is a gradual lulling of the sounds of summer as birds now find it not quite so important to declare their territorial boundaries.  Most disputes over territory were settled some time ago although in many cases, cock blackbirds and thrushes have resumed song whilst their mates start all over again incubating their next clutches.

Other birds are kept busy feeding their fast growing broods.  For example, it has been recorded that in a single day a pair of great tits brought their brood no fewer than 900 meals ….. one every daylight minute.

The fact is that tits notoriously go in for large families – sometimes into double figures – and further, that tits are very rapid developers requiring a mere fortnight to be on the wing  Thus, their growth rate and their requirement for food is astonishing.  Many of the smaller birds follow this pattern – large and a rapid turnover of clutches and a consequential need for the youngsters to become self-sufficient in as short a space of time as possible.

The contrast between this pattern and that followed by birds of prey is considerable.  One clutch is quite enough for our predatory birds and in general their clutches are relatively small.  The incubation period also differs – a mere fortnight for many small birds whilst a month or longer is the norm for most predators. Even then, there is frequently a long feeding period required before the offspring are capable of going it alone.

Therefore, it did not surprise me to find myself gazing skyward at the weekend to admire a pair of circling buzzards.  I watched them come off the cliff face, where they nest, and soar into a brilliant blue sky flecked with massive pillars of frothy white clouds.  As they drifted across the blazing sun their plumage seemed to be fired with light.  I don’t think that they were going anywhere in particular, nor do I think they were eager to hunt but I am quite sure they will have a healthy brood of two, perhaps three youngsters, probably a week or two old.  With a healthy and numerous population of rabbits pockmarking the fields below their eyrie, there will be no shortage of food.  Their chicks, much less than expecting a feed every few minutes, will, especially at this stage, will only require food three or four times a day.

Thus, relieved of the need to sit tight on her eggs, the hen was simply joining her mate in some pleasant aerial exercise.  And, whilst the survival technique of great tits and many other small birds is to produce offspring like peas in a pod, rows and rows of them, clutch after clutch, most large birds of prey produce relatively small single clutches of two or three.

But all birds of prey have devised a particular recipe for survival which sees a vast difference in size between the oldest and the youngest in a clutch.  This ‘staggering’ of their young is, first of all, a result of a delay in the laying of their eggs.  Secondly, it ensures that, except in the most adverse circumstances, at least the largest of the clutch will survive.  In years of the shortage of natural food, the youngest – the smallest – will fail and often provide its fellow nestlings with a somewhat grisly means of survival!  So nature plays the percentage game – a game which, whatever the formula, is an almost certain guarantee of survival at least for the fittest and strongest.

In most cases, come the end of the summer the youngsters will have to find their own way in the world. The parents that nurtured them so carefully throughout the summer will expel them, sometimes most forcibly, from their territory as the leaves begin to turn.

The nurturing is a long process in birds such as eagles.  Their young, and often only one clutch of two will survive, do not fly until they are about three months old.  Buzzards cut that time to about seven weeks.

That hen buzzard would also be free to leave her youngsters for a while because this particular eyrie is south facing and, on the day of my excursion, warmed by the heat of the June sun and protected by the cliff from the chilly northerly wind.

Mind you, with the youngsters only recently hatched, the demand for food, though constant, will be satisfied by a couple of plump young rabbits, at least for a while. However, as their young grow, those two buzzards will have to work progressively harder.

The same pattern is repeated ospreys.  One good fish will keep the newly hatched youngsters going for quite a while, even though the male bird, who does most of the food fetching initially, will always take his fill of each catch before presenting it for the female to feed, first her young and then herself.  However, as the summer progresses, a greater sense of urgency will build as the female will have to contribute to fetching the food. The urgency is accentuated by the knowledge that the young ospreys will have to be fit to undertake a journey to Africa in September.  In a bad fishing season, some simply don’t make it.

So whilst the smaller birds busy themselves rolling clutch after clutch off the production line, birds of prey taken their time, concentrating on their one family of the year and I suspect that there will be less time available for those buzzard parents I watched, to cavort about the sky.  There is a job to be done.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 19th June 2020

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I miss the lovely calling of lapwings at night.  When the fields surrounding my cottage were used for grazing stock, the summer nights used to fairly buzz with their calling.  The increase in sheep farming in this airt with grass literally eaten to the bone has certainly reduced their numbers here and, whilst some pairs persist, the population has undoubtedly declined. 

This spring, other people have commented that there appears to be a shortage of both lapwings and curlews in areas where both were once prevalent.  I have little doubt that the face of farming over the past few years has contributed much to their decline.

But as soon as you begin to explore grazing ground, especially on the lower hills, as I did in recent weeks, the picture changes quite markedly.  The grassland that I went to explore had its share of lapwing chicks.  Everywhere I looked I could see their little scuttling figures as they sought out food – sometimes prodding into the soft soil especially when exploring little wet hollows and sometimes picking the insects quite literally from the blades of grass.

Young lapwings, - or if you prefer peesies, peewits, peesweeps, teuchits, chewits and a whole host of other pseudonyms – are comic little creatures, beautifully camouflaged in their first few weeks by that mottled back and head yet easily identified by their leggy appearance and the characteristic black collar.

Had I broken cover, no doubt I would have been immediately bombarded by the adult birds because peewits are very active in the defence of their young. Like all such ground nesters, they also have an ability to “freeze” their youngsters with a sharp alarm call so that the young immediately crouch absolutely still to avoid detection whilst the adults themselves set up a series of distracting displays.  Not only do they mob any alien intruder, be it human or otherwise, but they are also dab hands at deploying the broken wing trick – trailing a wing as if injured to draw the attention of any potential predator away from the youngsters.  These, needless to say, remain absolutely motionless thus merging with the landscape until instructed to do otherwise.  By my estimation, most of the youngsters I watched were between a week and two weeks old.

Recently, I also had the pleasure of watching some young curlews which, with a sprinkling of adults, dotted a low ground field.  Young ‘whaups’ are gangling creatures, all leg and beak, although in this case they were not yet fully developed so did not display the spectacular long curved bill.

Oystercatchers are also ground nesters but they are known to practice “egg dumping”.  Like the cuckoo they sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other species such as seagulls, abandoning them to be raised by those birds. Like lapwing and curlew chicks, their young are upwardly mobile from the moment they emerge from the egg but sadly they are also in decline.  However, I have a very clear memory of a pair regularly nesting atop a drystone dyke beside a busy road.  On one occasion, the chicks left the nest descending to the roadside which sent the parents into a state of frenzy.  Happily, they scuttled along until they were able to find a gate to safety.

What all these particular observations illustrate well in all three cases is the independence of these youngsters at such an early age.  In fact, within a matter of hours of hatching, ground nesters such as these are mobile enough to be able to run at a fair speed considering their minuscule proportions.  I have actually seen a young peewit running along with part of its egg shell still attached to it.  Furthermore, they are self-sufficient enough to feed themselves from the outset.

Preliminary attempts at flight by oystercatcher chicks are seen about the fifth day as wing-flapping and leaping.  Thereafter, the wings are frequently exercised every day until actual flight becomes possible about the end of the fourth week.  On the other hand, it will be about five weeks before the young peewits are able to take to the air and in the case of the curlews, they do not fly until they are approaching about seven weeks.

The contrast between these typical ground nesters and other birds, which are reared in quite different circumstances, can best be demonstrated by a further observation – this time of young blackbirds which are most certainly not independent, or anything like it when first hatched.  I suppose the real differences lie in the type of nesting habitat and, of course, in the lifestyle of the bird in question.  It should also be said that blackbirds incubate their eggs for a mere two weeks whilst lapwings, for example, sit on their eggs for about four.

Of course, ground nesting birds are more vulnerable than the likes of blackbirds which build their nests in much more protected and less exposed locations.  The ones I have been watching have nested in my orchard while, as many readers will undoubtedly know, they often choose such locations as garden sheds.  More naturally, perhaps, they may also choose fairly thick shrubbery or hedges in which to construct their nests. In theory, they are therefore less at risk from predators although squirrels, weasels, jays and magpies are quite capable of totally destroying a nest full of young blackbirds.

Just a week or so ago, I watched a newly fledged blackie, which was still trying to find its wings, snatched by a male sparrowhawk doubtless as food for its own youngsters.  It should also be remembered that blackbirds often produce several broods in a season.  Two is commonplace or even three but on occasions it may run to four or even five for a particularly hard working pair.

Lapwings and curlews generally content themselves with one clutch per season although in the old days when lapwing eggs were considered a delicacy – now a thing of the past, thank goodness – it was common practice for people to take the first clutch in the knowledge that the birds would inevitably lay another.

One way or another, the avian production line is currently in full swing.  The hordes of sparrows that we have here have been extra energetic producing countless youngsters. I have been watching parent birds feeding their fawning young, with their wings trembling and their mouths agape to reveal the colourful interior which is a stimulus to the parents to stuff food into their mouths.  The other day, one took briefly to the air to snatch a flying insect which would, I suppose, have added protein to the youngster’s diet.

We have also been inundated by a bevy of newly fledged starlings – hardly yet a murmuration, more as my wife described them, a squabble!  Young starlings are appallingly bad mannered, bullying is endemic and belies the amazing discipline they subsequently show when they fly in perfect order in their murmurations.

A pair of crows has also been tending to a single youngster which, like the young sparrows, fawns frantically to encourage its parents to feed it.  The first redcap, from one of two pairs, has also appeared at the bird table.  Indeed, the woodpeckers are also incessant visitors devouring the fat-balls at an incredible rate.  I presume both pairs must be feeding other newly fledged youngsters.

So once again, nature goes forth and multiplies.

 

Weekly Nature Watch 12th June 2020

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If roebuck could be entered for the Grand National then I’m sure we saw a candidate for the race this week which was last seen sprinting across the open ground between two large woodlands and clearing fences in the manner of Red Rum!

His hasty departure from a dense, overgrown woodland was entirely at the behest of a well-established rival buck which saw this fleeing roebuck vacate that territory very abruptly, but no doubt before he left his departure would have been hastened by a few thrusts of the lethal antlers of the dominant buck together with much barking.

We often refer to the ‘gentle roe’ and indeed, roe deer in general give the distinct impression of gentleness and shyness in demeanour except at this time of the year when the bucks work themselves into a frenzy. Indeed, when it comes to the male of the species, the gentle roe has a pretty vile temper when dealing with other bucks. Territorial integrity is essential and the cause of much angst between May and August when territories are sought and claimed. The fleeing roebuck had presumably had notions of establishing an area in the wood for himself, only to find a resident buck already making a statement that this wood was his! Roebuck defending a territory ask for and give no quarter whatsoever.

Roe deer, however, have a chequered history. During the nineteenth century, as our national railway system was being developed and when coal mining was really coming into its own, the demand for timber for sleepers and pit props was such that much of the British landscape was stripped of its trees. Successive wars exacerbated the situation and in general the woodlands of Britain ended up in a sorry state. Accordingly, bird and animal species that rely upon woodland began to diminish although some sought solace by adapting their lifestyles to other habitats.

There is a perception that red deer are creatures of the high hills, glens and moors of Britain although in truth they were originally woodland creatures. Thus, when their woodland habitat was fast disappearing, red deer in Britain somehow managed to eke out a living in those Highlands and on the moors. The red deer that still occupy the great woodlands and forests of mainland Europe are consequently of much grander stature and heavier than their Scottish counterparts, living as they do in the far more suitable environment of those places where food is plentiful and shelter guaranteed.

During that period of the depletion of our forests, roe were unable to make that transition and adapt their lifestyles to more open higher ground. Consequently, their numbers plummeted and only after the First World War, when the Forestry Commission was established and began to plant new forests did roe deer begin to turn the corner. And turn the corner they did because nowadays, roe deer are prospering as never before and are even taking over areas such as cemeteries on the edge of our cities, where tombstones provide shelter instead of trees. The spread of woodland elsewhere has also given them a new lease of life.

Royalty and the nobility staged mammoth deer hunts down the centuries and as a result, other kinds of deer were introduced to Britain. Fallow deer were introduced from the Continent as park animals back in the thirteenth century and here in Scotland, we have herds of fallow deer – around Loch Lomond for instance and also on the Isle of Mull. These herds have been long established and a further importation of Sika deer from China in the nineteenth century has brough another species into Scotland. Sika are certainly widely present in Argyll and have proved to be a problem because they hybridize with red deer and as a consequence, the off-spring being slightly smaller, results in a reduction in the quality of our native red deer.  Elsewhere in Britain, tiny muntjac deer have been introduced as have Chinese Water Deer but as yet, neither of these have spread to Scotland.

Of course, this is the month that red deer hinds give birth to their calves. Their woodland heritage is born out through the spotted nature of the calves’ coats when they are born. This has the effect of camouflage where the sun breaks through the foliage dappling the woodland floor. Furthermore, in recent years red deer have fast colonized lowland woodland so especially during the month of May, where you perhaps might have expected to come across roe off-spring, now it may be red deer calves that people see.

As everyone knows, the red deer rut takes place in the autumn of the year whilst the roe deer rut - less spectacular than that of red deer - happens in August, by which time all territorial disputes have been well and truly settled. It is during the August rut of roe deer that those fairy rings appear. These rings are made by the roebuck going round and round their does during courtship. By comparison with their bad-tempered beaus, roe deer does are indeed shy and gentle.

The red deer calves currently being dropped are still largely being born in upland locations albeit that as previously said, red deer are increasingly returning to the habitat that was once their realm, lowland woodland. Of course, there is currently much discussion going on about the number of red deer at large in the country.  Latest figures suggest that there are presently in excess of 360,000 red deer throughout Scotland which compares with a figure of 150,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are also thought to be between 200,000 and 350,000 roe deer abroad in Scotland and there are repeated calls for heavier culling of both species.

This prompts the re-wildling movement, which of course is eager to re-introduce wolves and lynx to Britain. Thus far their pleas have gone unrewarded but there is a growing number of voices advocating such a move. Some say that such a reintroduction would enhance wildlife tourism especially in Scotland but there are other considerations to take into account. Sheep farming is still an important industry in rural Scotland and it seems to me inconceivable that sheep farming and wolves or lynx could happily reside side by side. And although I remember the late naturalist, David Stephen, telling me that he had never found an authentic record of a wolf having killed a human being, I’m not at all sure that he was a hundred per cent correct.

There is little doubt that there is a problem but those who suggest that there are far too many red deer will have to come up with a better solution than to reintroduce wolves and lynx.  Wolves roaming wild in Scotland would surely merely create much more animated and acrimonious controversy.

Weeky Nature Watch 5th June 2020

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For the time being, the housing market has virtually collapsed. The lockdown has meant that those wishing to buy or sell property have had to put their plans on hold. It is just one of the inconveniences of the present situation.

Holidays have also had to be put on hold and as the message says, ‘stay at home’ is now the norm for most people … or it should be! However, home for the birds can be anywhere from a tractor to a tree where no such diktats apply. The current situation has absolutely no effect upon them and they may come and go as they please.  In doing so, they at least provide us mere mortals, confined by the lockdown, with a host of entertainment.

A farming neighbour has an old tractor and having two other tractors of more modern vintage, it is seldom used these days. So when he discovered that a pair of starlings had commandeered the old tractor as a new home, he was not too surprised. In time, the starling incubated and then raised a new family and now that they have flown, if needed, the tractor can be used again. Or so our farming friend thought, only to discover that in a piece of machinery attached to the tractor, a pair of wrens has taken up occupancy and are sitting tenaciously on a clutch of eggs!

Birds nesting in machinery is not new. Years ago, there was a report of a pair of blackbirds which nested in a lorry working on a substantial building site. Thus, the lorry lumbered to and fro on the site transporting a nest full of eggs and an incubating parent bird from one end to the other. And once the eggs had hatched, the young chicks were similarly transported with the parent birds having to follow the movements of the lorry in order to feed their chicks. However, all ended well with the chicks successfully fledging!

During these lockdown weeks, I have become increasingly fascinated by the avian chorus as it has grown and developed. This singing is very much related to the presence of nests and the purposes of bird song are manifold. Firstly, it represents a declaration on the part of a male bird that he is available as a mate and the strength and variety of his song is important for it tells the females that this is a fine songster with all the attributes she is looking for in a mate.

Song also pronounces territorial integrity. In other words, the presence of a singing male indicates to any females of the same species that here is a male bird with a territory to proclaim. It is therefore an invitation for the female to come and examine that territory and judge it for its capacity to provide plenty of food for a young growing family. Remember, it is the female that makes all the vital choices. She must choose a mate that displays a fine vocal technique and a territory that will provide for the family that they hope to produce. And of course, there must also be a good, secure nesting site.

Of course, there is rivalry between competing males and I have been watching two families of great spotted woodpeckers during these past few weeks. One family is nesting somewhere in our orchard, the other somewhere else. I’m not exactly sure where but they come and go in a totally different direction from the ones in the orchard. At the moment, although the parent birds do take peanuts, the main attention is being focused upon the fat balls. When woodpeckers attack fat balls they really do so with great gusto and fly off with a gut and beak full of the said fat, presumably duly stuffing the material into the gaping mouths of their youngsters.

Occasionally, the two families arrive at the bird-table at the same time and there follows what can only be described as a scuffle with one or other put to flight. There is no love lost between the two families even though the female of one was almost certainly bred by the other after her predecessor was taken by a female sparrowhawk last year.

The other interesting conflict of the last few weeks was a set-to between crows and magpies. One morning there was a clear falling out between a pair of magpies and a pair of carrion crows, both of which have been hovering somewhat nervously around our bird-table for some weeks now. Such was the ferocity of the encounter that one of the crows seized one of the magpies in a frantic wrestling match which had the two of them rolling and over in what seemed to be a mortal combat.

Subsequently, the magpies, which have nested in a neighbour’s garden, fledged four youngsters which, from what I have seen, have so far been completely ignored by the crows. However, these two members of the corvid clan seem to have it in for one another but both the crows and the magpies are obviously well aware of human antipathy towards them. All of them display a distinctly nervous reaction when they come near the bird-table and a distinct suspicion of one another. If the crows spy a tempting morsel, they literally sidle up to it, grab it and make off with it until they feel they are at a safe distance; it is only necessary to wave at the magpies for them to take flight.

The other rivalry that is evident is not really a rivalry at all. For weeks, a very tuneful blackbird has been the leader of the avian choir here. His voice is mature and exceptionally sweet and his song dominates. Even the wren seems unable to top it for volume. But now he has a vocal rival in a song thrush, singing with just as much vigour and power. They generally sing from opposite ends of the garden but when both are going at full strength, everything else including jenny wren becomes a background noise.

Both have really rich voices with the blackbird perhaps being the most inventive, his song flowing in a continuous string of virtuoso melodies whereas the thrush sings in three or four repetitions of every phrase. When both get going it is a rare treat and I surmise that they both have nests somewhere in our garden or the garden of our neighbour. They may appear to be rivals but of course are not … only in a vocal sense, for the thrush is pronouncing his thrush territory, the blackbird his blackbird territory.

                                    “The blackbird and the speckled thrush

                                    Good morrow gave from brake and bush”

                                                                                                Scott, Lady of the Lake.

So, the mavis and the merle make merry music and soon they will also be welcoming new arrivals as June progresses.

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods