The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 29.11.17

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Maybe I'm just an old grump but I'm sure that many readers will share my concern at the number of people, young and not so young, who seem utterly 'hooked' to the screens of their mobile phones or tablets. It is now commonplace to see folk, in increasing numbers, with their eyes glued to that little screen utterly ambivalent to the world and indeed the people around them, their eyes glued to that little screen. Equally puzzling to me are the legions of runners who take their exercise in the countryside, where the sights and sounds are so much part of where they are, yet who are oblivious to such things because of the latest tracks being relayed to them via headphones. They surely have the same disorientating effect!

Evolution may be an exceptionally slow process, yet I can't help but think that in aeons to come, our basic senses will become increasingly depressed. But as far as I can tell, by and large most wildlife, happily utterly divorced from technological devices, remains confidently much more dependent on the basic senses than we ourselves. Ever since we began to evolve from hunter-gatherers, when our senses played an essential role in our very survival, I guess many of our senses have gradually deteriorated. The trouble is that we may now, almost unknowingly, be accelerating the process.

Yet we certainly know plenty about the disastrous effects of war, the dreadful mental stress it causes and of course the deafness for instance, that came to those who fired the guns. Perhaps those young folk who drive around with their cars filled with the din of heavy metal or beat music will suffer the same fate. Nevertheless, man's ability to overcome some of these problems perhaps make us feel somewhat immune! Does that I wonder, mean that hearing aids for instance, will become utterly standard?

Of course, much is made of our technical progress. It can't be denied that what we can now do on a day-to-day basis with technology in our hands, is remarkable. And yet, how much of it is actually copied from nature? The development of sonar and radar went a long way towards bringing us victory in the Second World War. Yet the bats taking their winter hibernation break and now largely inactive, have been using such techniques since Adam was a wee bit boy! Nature too, has been a technocrat since time began!

Thus, whilst technology in its many forms, might be seen as accelerating the decline of our senses, generally, wild creatures are not so afflicted. Except of course, it is thought that our sonar and other marine devices may be having an effect upon the world's great sea mammals - the whales, dolphins and porpoises. Indeed, perhaps underwater signals of various kinds could be confusing those sea mammals and causing the strandings. We just don't know.

Perhaps therefore, it is because our own senses have become shrunk, that we are so fascinated by the senses exhibited by birds and animals. Even my own twa dugs show how much more attuned to their senses of smell and hearing they are, compared with us mere mortals who hear so little and barely smell anything. I often see them sitting out in the garden, their noses raised vertically and twitching as they receive masses of information merely by scent, which they can instantly interpret into mental pictures. Equally, how many times do they know when visitors are approaching? Up go their heads and they look in the direction of our track along which visitors are bound to come. We of course, are oblivious to such a presence!

I have been watching quite a few buzzards of late, their languid flight always I think, something to be admired. Buzzards, like bats, are hunters. They sail forth on those broad wings, ready to seize upon any opportunity - a rabbit, a rodent, an injured pheasant - anything that will make a meal. Whilst their talons do the killing it is their eyes that do the work. As they glide about the landscape their eyes are constantly scanning the ground below. Buzzards are equipped with what we might regard as telephoto vision, enabling them to see the tiniest mouse from on high.

I suppose comparisons are invidious but I hark back to those childhood days when I watched kestrels dancing on the breeze as they hovered, meticulously scanning the ground below for the slightest movement that might betray the presence of a mouse or vole. As much as I peered in my search for such animals, I looked in vain, yet the bird, like the proverbial 'Mountie', always got its prey. Again, the vital elements were the fantastic eyes, albeit that all the kestrels of this world are so perfectly designed that whilst every sinew of the body, wings and tail would be moving in order to maintain equilibrium, the head remained absolutely still. This is to enable the bird to focus its eyes intently. Watch a kestrel hovering even in a strong breeze and you will see that its head does indeed remain utterly still.

There are plenty of examples of creatures relying on their hearing in order to survive. For instance, I have often watched foxes using their large ears to locate voles in their grass-covered runs. Foxes have endless patience when it is needed. An active vole-run will initially, however, be identified by scent. But once fresh scent has been picked up, the fox turns to its ears. Now it plonks its bottom down and sits ... and listens. Its large ears are cocked forward and they constantly twitch and flex in response to the little rustling sounds they hear. Finally, as a vole approaches, the fox prepares for action, remaining seated but then arching its back before launching itself in a cat-like pounce, front feed and jaws combining to trap the hapless vole. Game, set and match!

However, the arch purveyor of what sometimes seems to be extra-sensory perception, is surely the common or garden, tawny owel, widespread resident of both town and country across Britain. As anyone who has seen portraits representing owls, which are common enough, the first element that is very obvious, is the eyes, dark, round and large. Eyesight is clearly a very important factor in the success of tawny owls and indeed if our eyes were as proportionally large in relation to size of skull, they would be as large as tennis balls! Clearly such large eyes have great light gathering powers enabling a tawny owl to see in light we would be unable to penetrate.

Yet, incredibly, in some circumstances a tawny owl does not need any light at all in order to home in on its prey. Because a tawny's ears are offset, so that one is situated slightly higher on the head than the other. By tilting and turning its head, the bird can thus precisely pin point prey in absolute darkness and launch itself at the creature thus identified utterly confident of a successful kill. Sufficiently equipped as a predator you might think, yet in addition, the tawny owl flies so silently that its prey does not even hear its killer coming. This silence is achieved by a fringe of fine feathers on the wing edge, which obliterates the sound of air through or past the bird's wings.

Across nature, there are many fascinating variations on a sensory theme. Our sight, hearing and sense of smell may be deteriorating due to many factors in modern life. Thankfully, nature remains so dependent on th ose senses that they remain the strengths of so much of our wildlife - their means of survival.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods