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.

Country View 16.11.17

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There was a real clamour on a bright and sunny morning as I went about my chores a day or two ago. The sky was criss-crossed by countless skeins of pink-feet. This was indeed a large gathering and at one time, individual skeins seemed to be heading towards almost every point of the compass. Hence the sky simply seemed a mass of geese. And wherever there are pink-feet, there is always also that shrill clamour. These geese always seem to be in endless conversation with one another, morning, noon and night! But also contributing to the racket, were jackdaws not thousands of them like the geese but hundreds anyway.

They were vocal enough to almost completely drown out the cawing of the numerous rooks also sailing above the surrounding fields. Frankly, knowing jackdaws as I do, I had a notion, that this rabble was looking for mischief. I often think that is what jackdaws are all about! And to add to this cacophony of avian sound, mischief already seemed to be in the making at closer quarters, for the growing population of speugs hereabouts were absolutely in full voice and were clearly, as sparrows are wont to do, having a 'ding-dong' of an argument. That such gatherings rejoice in the collective name of 'quarrels', could not be more appropriate, for I cannot think of any birds as eager to join in arguments than sparrows, most notably those of the 'house' variety!

Across the entire globe, sparrows seem endemic. Despite recent reports of declining numbers of house sparrows in some of our urban areas, these it might be argued, are among the most successful birds on the planet. You may have noticed that they have a great affinity with the human followed in his wake. But then, above all, sparrows are opportunists and know only too well that wherever mankind goes, there will always be crumbs upon which to feed. Moreover, we have given them a helping hand in their march across the globe, by introducing them to North America for instance.

The other sparrow of note hereabouts is the tree sparrow - really I suppose a subtle variation on a sparrow theme! The tree sparrow is notably adorned by a dark splodge on each cheek, the only really marked difference between it and its cousin, the ubiquitous house sparrow. The tree sparrow is also the rurally based cousin of the so-called urban house variety and very much the junior partner in the sparrow club, quite rare in comparison with the house sparrow. I can certainly tell you that if house sparrows are said to be in decline, they aren't here! Indeed, in Scotland as a whole these cheeky little fellows are bucking the trend.

Mind you, tree sparrows have their place in history. During Mao Zedong's all-powerful chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Government, he decreed that the tree sparrows, which were consuming vast amounts of the country's cereal crops, should therefore by targeted, almost as public enemies number one! Mao subsequently ordered the destruction of an estimated three million tree sparrows in order to protect those crops. It proved not to be one of Mao's wisest prognostications. As a result, those crops were utterly devastated, not by the now absent sparrows but by locusts, which of course, had been previously controlled ... by the sparrows! Not one for Mao's little red book!

However, thus far this winter, tree sparrows have been noticeably absent from my bird-table. Not surprisingly, there has been absolutely no shortage of house sparrows. I suppose I've lived with sparrows for most of my life and it has been extremely interesting to watch them evolve from birds which as I remember from childhood, were only able to exploit food that was either on the ground or on a bird-table. Nuts or fat in hanging baskets were off the menu - they literally didn't have the ability or strength of food to scale such heights. Sparrows now, however, swarm over basket and bags as to the manner born. In short they have improved their dexterity, generation by generation.

Reflecting on the fact that autumn has this year been something of a long running saga, clearly largely bereft of frosts until recent nights, so the colours, over the past few days have only just come into their full glory. And, coincidentally, traffic at my bird-table, had thus far been somewhat fitful too. There has been no shortage of one of my favourites, the goldfinch ... and no shortage therefore of 'goudspink' squabbling over prime place at the sunflower hearts and to a lesser degree of the nyger seed. But the titmice in particular seem not to be so numerous thus far. Mind you, I have also noticed that there remains plenty of insect life in the air, which may in part explain something of a reluctance among the avian classes, to exploit what is on offer here.

But now as temperatures very definitely follow a downward trend, there is by the day, more and more activity. Needless to say, the ubiquitous chaffinches are once again very much to the fore. These are perhaps the most recognisable birds on most garden bird-tables and are indeed, among the most successful of our British breeding birds. However, contrary to opinion, many British chaffinches join the migratory exodus in the autumn, heading southwards through the Continent towards the Mediterranean. Whilst I certainly seem to see as many females as males, chaffinches often opt to come together during the winter months, in single sex flocks. Indeed, flocks comprising almost entirely of females tend to be rather more ambitious than their male counterparts, generally travelling further afield.

One reason for the apparent reluctance on the part of males to venture too far away from home, may well be linked to a desire to be able, as spring advances, to stake a claim to territory as early as possible. Chaffinches are one of the birds, which come together in flocks for winter whilst giving voice, is one of the certain signs that spring is in the air. And, by the way, chaffinches from different parts of the country sing in different dialects. The differences are not strong - you won't for instance hear a north of England based bird singing, 'ee, bah gum' or a cockney based bird singing 'cor blimey'. But wherever you go in the country, if you listen carefully you may be able to identify the slightly different inflections between regional songs.

Chaffinches, because they feed more extensively than other finches on insect life and with their marginally longer wings, may in springtime be seen making short flights in pursuit of flying insects. For this reason, chaffinches tend to be more territory conscious whereas many other finches are more inclined to nest communally. Of course, it will be some time before that chattering little song will greet advancing spring. Meanwhile, chaffinches are set to entertain us during the forthcoming months. Like the sparrows, they have certainly learned to exploit food hung in nets or baskets. These days they are indeed, extremely dextrous. And come to think of it, the male bird's plumage actually mirrors many of the autumn colours!

Country View 8.11.17

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At times, life can seem like the ticking of clocks. Some clocks tick fast; others tick slowly. The life of the blue tit currently hammering away at the peanuts hanging from my bird-table lives its life at a pretty phenomenal rate - like a small clock, ticking furiously. Its life-span is short for it will be very lucky to survive beyond its second birthday. Furthermore, like all small birds, which generally enjoy a short but very vigorous life, it has already probably packed in a fair amount of adventure into its life.

The starting point for that particular bird would have been in the late spring of this year and like all young, small birds, the beginning of its life would have been full of surprises. After emerging from the egg, it would have spent just short of three weeks developing from a bald and blind chick into an almost fully feathered tit, before finding its way from the confines of its nest into the outside world ... another dimension altogether. And whilst its parents would have continued to feed it over the course of the next few weeks, pretty quickly it would have had to learn to survive on its own.

Of course, young birds like that blue tit, are immediately faced with a plethora of problems; where to find sufficient food - in competition with all the other youngsters emerging - to ensure survival and how to avoid falling into the clutches, for instance, of the local sparrowhawks. By the nature of things, sparrowhawks instinctively prey heavily on inexperienced, young birds, as they are, it is safe to assume, extremely vulnerable and very definitely at that early stage of their lives, not 'street-wise'!

All young song-birds face such problems. Nature can be extremely red in tooth and claw. Nature is also very raw and extremely pragmatic. Only the fittest survive. That is the name of the game! Thus, I found myself reminiscing about my own young days. We humans generally have things pretty cushy; mollycoddled! But I do remember finding myself facing the first real challenge of life when I was called up for my National Service stint and soon found myself propelled halfway across the world. It might have seemed a shock to the system at the time but the reality was that an eight thousand mile journey on a troopship, well fed and watered, was, compared with some of the challenges faced by young birds, also distinctly cushy!

These thoughts stemmed from the sight of a flock of whooper swans grazing happily away in a local field. They represent the other end of the spectrum, slow ticking and long lasting. There wre among them, several cygnets, which of course, were not as pristine white as their parents. Now young whoopers, I thought, really do face a challenge very early in their lives! Their lives begin in the bleak tundra of Iceland, a pretty hostile environment. Unlike many of the small birds alluded to, whooper cygnets emerge from the egg not bald and blind but covered in down and with their eyes wide open. Thus, from the word go they are able to see their desolate if beautiful surroundings during the brief Arctic summer of endless light.

They too have predators to cope with, not sparrowhawks perhaps but the likes of Arctic foxes for instance, which can definitely threaten swan nests. But those cygnets grow quickly and are able to fly at around eight weeks of age. And then, aged little more than three months of age, they suddenly realise that they are to be on the move with a journey of very nearly a thousand miles across the wild north Atlantic suddenly now their destiny. True, it isn't a journey they have to face on their own as is the case for instance, with young ospreys making their way to Africa. They are indeed, well chaperoned by their extended family - parents, uncles, aunts, older siblings and cousins. Whooper swans, like geese, are very family orientated.

But hundreds of miles of what can be a very hostile North Atlantic Ocean, represents a pretty daunting early learning process for those young whoopers. This, the first great adventure of their young lives, is certainly destined to stretch and test them beyond what we might regard as reasonable! And these swans can on occasions, be real high flyers. If weather systems lie in their path, they may make detours to avoid them, adding to the non-stop mileage they must fly. Sometimes rather than fly round such weather systems, they may choose to fly over them.

Such decisions often take them to dizzying altitudes and airline pilots have recorded flocks of whooper swans travelling at heights of over thirty thousand feet! How those young birds are able to survive that sort of trauma is difficult to imagine. The familiar v-shaped formation helps in so far as each bird in the body of the flock, profits from the protection offered by those ahead of them and in terms of energy required the 'followers' get some 'lift' from those in front too.

The leadership of those flocks changes constantly and is shared by the senior, most experienced members of the swan community which of course, relies heavily on the navigational skills of those senior birds. The young birds are in much the same way as I was, simply 'squaddies' which do as they are told and obey orders! Whilst I certainly found the places we briefly docked at interesting, the voyage otherwise, was rather boring ... miles and miles of empty ocean. I doubt if the cygnets find their trek across the Atlantic boring - just a massive challenge!

Thus, the next chapter of their lives will be lived out in this green and pleasant land, where green grass will be their staple diet throughout the winter months. Meanwhile they will add a grace to our skies for compared with the more sedentary mute swans, occupants of many a loch and riverside, not to mention urban based park ponds and canals, whoopers are considerably lighter and more athletic. They are also considerably more musical, their passage often marked by a mellow fluting. They used to be winter residents on our local loch and so our days then often began with the wild 'rush hour' travels of shrill gabbling pink feet, followed by the more raucous clamour of rooks and jackdaws and finally the more musical belling of the whoopers.

Mute swans resident on our lochs often seem to see the whoopers as interlopers and I have many times witnessed attempts by belligerent Mute cobs to remove what they see as invading whoopers from their territory. The whoopers on every occasion, simply decamped - flew - from one end of the loch to the other, in the process clearly enraging the angry cob! Off he would go again, and back they would fly! He was not amused, although I was!

The whoopers are our truly wild swans and their presence somehow enhances winter's wildness!

Country View 1.11.17

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Suddenly our world seems a darker place. Yes, daylight hours are fading as we sink towards the winter solstice next month. But the fact that our clocks went back an hour last Saturday night, which meant that darkness began to invade us in the late afternoon rather than early evening, seemed somehow pivotal, as if at a stroke, winter had arrived! To emphasise that impression, under the pervading cover of that extra darkness, Jack Frost paid us a lightning visit to daub the landscape in white, perhaps for the first time this season.

There were many reasons for bringing in summer time and indeed over the years there have been several variations on a theme. The introduction of summer time was first made in 1916 and during the Second World War, Britain actually advanced the clock by two hours. Since then, there have also been other changes. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents maintains that we should keep summer time throughout the year. Their evidence suggests that extra light in the evenings would see accident rates fall. Others suggest that by not turning the clock back, considerable savings in fuel consumption would occur. In these next few weeks, schoolchildren, especially in rural areas where distances come into play, will be going home in darkness!

However, generally residents of Scotland and especially farmers are opposed to suggestions that we should remain in BST due to the fact that in the depths of winter, sunrise could be as late as ten in the morning. It could be argued that dairy farmers for instance need that extra hour of light in the mornings. However, the milking of cows has now become a much more mechanical process. Some cows do not ever leave the cavernous buildings in which they dwell. Rather than being led out to the fields to graze, the food is brought to them. And whereas when I was involved, many years ago, with dairy farming, a herd of forty or fifty milking cows might have been the norm, now size really matters. It is not unusual these days, to have several hundred cows under one roof all milked on revolving carousels, a process, which seems to go on all day! That truly is what might be called mechanised farming!

By coincidence, tomorrow there follows a full moon of some significance. By tradition, this will be day our wintering woodcock arrive, it was once believed, from the very moon itself! This is one of the more bizarre beliefs emanating apparently, from the sixteenth century but still widely believed in the eighteenth century. I understand the outlandish theory, was first promulgated by a Swedish writer and ecclesiastic by the name of Olaus Magnus. English academic Charles Morton, went even further, describing how the birds took two months to journey to the moon (and the same to get back) spending three summer months on the lunar surface!

Of course, they do not become resident on the lifeless moon but leave these shores in the spring to breed in northern Europe. Being birds, which rely for food upon invertebrate life prised with their long beaks from quite deep underground, as winter advances and frost begins to make the ground difficult to penetrate, they return to these shores. On many frosty winter evenings, I have seen woodcock lurking beside roads to feed in areas where the spreaders' salt-based material had softened those verges thus making the invertebrate life in it accessible.

Perhaps the belief that woodcock spend their summers on the moon emanated from a failure of folk to see them in their woodland setting during the summer months, because of their superb camouflage. This might otherwise be known as 'the invisible bird' for its unique ability to merge into its background and disappear before your very eyes is truly amazing! They are also believed to act as pilots to a variety of other birds migrating from those northern lands such as the tiny goldcrests and short-eared owls. As most folk will know only too well, these in-comers, mythically believed to arrive en-masse at the time of the full moon, augment an already considerable resident population of woodcock, goldcrests and short-ears.

Meanwhile, my wrens remain stubbornly tuneful, repeatedly belting out their astonishing volleys of territorial claims designed to send a strong message to rivals that a winter territory has been well and truly claimed. No message could be louder or more far-reaching and it emanates from one of our tiniest birds. Wrens largely feed on insect life of which, of course, there is a dearth during the winter months. I play host to a pair, which now regularly explore my log store where there are likely to be all sorts of creepy-crawlies and spiders seeking refuge.

Winter can be a tough time for jenny wren - historically, in more ways than you may think. Firstly, because of its minuscule size, a wren can lose body heat very quickly, so prolonged spells of really cold weather can literally be fatal to many of them. Sometimes, wrens will congregate together on cold winter nights as a means of survival. On such occasions, those nest boxes you have put out for the local titmice to use when spring comes, may instead become a means of survival for local wrens.

They can occupy such a box in amazing numbers, huddling together to generate corporate warmth. As many as sixty such wrens have been counted in such a situation, illustrating well that wrens are considerably more tolerant of each other than for instance, robins, which I'm sure would never surrender their individuality in even the coldest of conditions. Even more curious is the fact that such gatherings, which definitely require that surrender of individuality, sometimes exclude wrens not locally based. Often there appears to be a 'bouncer' controlling such gatherings, which may boot out any interlopers, suggesting that whilst territorial integrity is important, nevertheless, there are in existence, loose wren communities.

There used to be another factor, which made winter a difficult time for wrens. Many of you will I'm sure, be familiar with the old tale of how the tiny wren became king of the birds. The title was to be conferred upon the bird that was able to reach the highest altitude. Naturally the eagle was the favourite and duly soared up into the sky. However, unbeknown to the eagle, the wee wren had concealed itself in the eagle's plumage and when the eagle reached its zenith the wren calmly stepped out and flew those vital few inches higher!

All of this makes a nice but mythical story, which incidentally seems to be prevalent in many of the world's cultures in one form or another. However, this little tale apparently took real root in the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland. There are records of these events from England too, revealed most commonly in the form of wren hunts, mostly performed on St Stephen's Day, more popularly known these days as Boxing Day.

Whilst in some places a captured wren would have had decorations attached to its legs before being released, more widely the wren was killed to be subsequently paraded in great ceremony around the community and lauded - as the smallest of creatures - as king for the day. Sadly, as the dead king! In some instances, the wrens were shot, although you would need to have had a keen eye to accomplish that! There is also a wild variation of dates upon which these rituals would take place albeit that all were held during the winter months.

Alas, jenny wren, you were apparently cruelly persecuted! And yet, as the old saying goes, 'Malison, malisons, mair than tehn, Who harries the Queen of Heaven's wren!'

Country View 27.10.17

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In times past, superstitions were widespread, even endemic, especially in some rural areas. Yet if our mindset these days is generally much more pragmatic, next week will doubtless see many young folk especially, reverting to activities which may indeed be connected to long held superstitions...or even the occult! Children across the country will be tricking or treating; the 'pumpkin patch' has been overwhelmed as thousands of folk have tramped through the mud to pick their very own pumpkins in preparation for next Tuesday evening.

All Hallows Eve, more popularly known as Halloween, harks back to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, later to be embraced by the Christian church as All Saints. In pre-Christian times, this last day of October marked the end of summer and was the time when cattle began to be slaughtered rather than kept through the winter because of a lack of fodder. And of course, it was exclusively that on this night the ghosts of the dead returned to earth and when witches might make merry!

Indeed a day or two ago I thought I saw covens of witches soaring boldly into the sky on their broomsticks but it was only a little group of rooks, defying first the winds generated by storm Ophelia, and then again as the remnants of storm Brian blew. However, the resemblance seemed uncanny. And there I also saw a hare loping across the field below. Was it a witch too I wondered, for the ability of witches to turn themselves into hares was once a widespread belief. Rooks, of course, like nothing more than to flirt playfully with the strongest of winds. They not only defy the storms, they simply revel in the challenge the wind presents throwing themselves about like aerial dancing dervishes. The mood of Halloween suits them very well!

Rooks are not the only members of the corvid clan claiming connections with the mysterious history that is behind the rituals of Halloween. The loud 'kronking' of ravens is a familiar sound to those who dwell in Highland glens, yet here in the Lowlands, those sonorous tones can also often be heard. Do they foretell disaster? Our ancient forebears clearly thought so.

In his 'Scottish play' Shakesepare has the raven 'croaking the fatal entrance of Duncan'. The English bard also refers to the raven as it hovers over a doomed army in 'Julius Caesar'. In those days of bloody, very physical conflict, swords were the principal weapons of battle. Thus, where conflict occurred, countless bodies lay. Ravens accordingly, were a constant if gory presence.

But then crows, as an entire clan have also long been viewed with the deepest of suspicion. That they still are suggests, that despite today's less spiritual genre, in many minds there still lurks a natural fear and perhaps a superstition concerning black birds. Such fears also extend of course, to bats. They too are black and furthermore they are nocturnal and silent, which adds that extra aura of mystique to their presence. Bats are ubiquitous, their 'hanging' presence in dwellings often unknown to the human inhabitants. Occasionally a bat will accidentally make its way into a house, becoming the cause of considerable consternation, not to say fear, verging on terror!

And if I thought those rooks flying off to challenge the wind,, could well have been witches on their broomsticks, the cackling laughter of magpies, now a regular addition to the sounds of nature hereabouts, certainly sounded like another coven of witches preparing themselves for Halloween. Of course, magpies too have generated much in the way of lore and indeed there are many folk who still to this day, acknowledge some of the old magpie customs. There are those for instance who automatically touch their forelocks or caps, at the arrival of magpies in the vicinity and indeed also offer respectful greetings to the birds.

The magpie, often these days described as the bird most people love to hate (!), has given rise to many verses...'One's sorrow - two's mirth - Three's a wedding - four's death; Five's a blessing - six hell - Seven the deil's ain sel' is just one example. The magpie is of course, an enigma. If the black members of the crow clan may automatically be tagged with an aura of evil, then the apparently black and white magpie (there are of course, hints of iridescent green in the 'black') should in all conscience be part good - the white - and part bad - the black.

Palpably, there are few folk who take the former view. But that harsh, cackling laugh most surely gives the magpie a role in the traditions linked with Halloween! Yet magpies have another, perhaps more benign side to them and may even on occasions, hold funerals for a compatriot, dead magpies. They are known sometimes for instance, to foregather quietly round such a body and even lay bits of foliage or grass across the corpse. Maybe that is their white side?

The coming of Halloween certainly marks both beginnings and endings. Those much-feared bats should, by the end of October, have already opted for an ending to active life for a few months by hibernating but the mildness of autumn thus far has kept them flying for longer than usual. When I looked out from my window the other morning in bright sunlight. I was surprised at the number of wee flying beasties there still were - food of course, for bats. And if you are travelling around in the dark, you will I'm sure, notice how many moths your car headlights might pick out. Those moths may well encourage many of the bats to stay awake beyond Halloween.

And there have been monsters roaring from the deepest recesses of the nearby woods! If red deer are normally associated with Highland glens, increasing numbers of them are opting for life in Lowland woodlands. Here we have a substantial, mature conifer forest. It is dark dank and indeed disorientating, creating an atmosphere, which those of a nervous disposition might have nightmares about, especially as, during past days, those dark woods have echoed dramatically to the sonorous roars of invisible monsters - rutting red deer stags. At night it is indeed a frightening place, where monsters may loom out of the frequent mists and murk - Halloween monsters by the dozen - with massive sets of antlers to boot!

Those unearthly woods also echo to the screeches and hoots of tawny owls, noises which can quickly be the cause of the hairs on the back of necks to suddenly stand erect, especially if those weird sounds abruptly issue from such dark and mysterious recesses. It is perhaps too early for the blood curdling screams of courting vixens to be added to this Halloween chorus yet it is surely another of our owls which visually paints the most ghostly of images.

I had a glimpse of a barn owl the other evening. Nothing surely provides a more ghoulish apparition - one of those returning spirits perhaps - more silently and phantom-like than a white bodied barn own hunting over field and hedgerow in gathering dusk. Except that of course, this floating white apparition is not an apparition at all but one of our most beautiful creatures.

If ghosts are therefore in short supply on Tuesday evening, that maybe because sadly our barn owls are in serious decline. So, will it be a trick or will it be a treat? Be not afraid of the witches, just say 'Black luggie, lammer head, Rowan tree and red thread; Put the witches to their speed!' - whatever that means!

Country View 18.10.17

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These have not been prosperous times for savers with interest rates so low that savings grow only at a snail's pace. However, the concept of saving is probably entirely alien to those families struggling to survive on low incomes, but nature's savers do not have a choice. Indeed, the very raison d'etre for their assiduous hoarding at this time of the year is to survive the rigours of forthcoming winter. For instance, the squirrels discussed last week, busy themselves by collecting nature's harvest and stashing the fruits of the season away, burying vast quantities of food or secreting it away in cracks in the bark of trees.

Those squirrels are among the most assiduous of savers. However, there are many other animals that follow their example. Not surprisingly, foxes also develop caches of food - saving their hard won prey for that rainy day. The fox cub I reared from the tender age of three days old some years ago - she remained with us until she died, aged thirteen - was an inveterate saver. I suppose that anyway, compared with her wild cousins, she always lived a life of luxury, well fed with hardly a care in the world and of course, sublimely free from persecution.

Nevertheless, she obeyed her instincts and regularly buried surplus food. In particular, she loved hen eggs. It is incredible just how gentle foxes can be. She would accept the egg with much care so as not to crack it and then she would go off and find some soft soil in her run, dig a hole, place the egg in it and then cover it, using her nose to ensure a neat finish! She was, I suppose, a comparatively 'fat cat', compared with neighbouring wild foxes.

And, you may be surprised to know that moles are also obsessive savers too. Moles, of course, have voracious appetites, their main source of food worms, which they pursue with remarkable zeal. There was, during the nineteenth century, much argument about a theory that moles established worm banks by disabling and then storing them. Now it is acknowledged that that is exactly what moles do. They don't kill their victims but disable them by biting their heads off in order to isolate them from their primitive brains and thus paralysing them. It is their way of putting them in cold storage to ensure they don't go off!

This ensures that when the ground becomes frozen solid in exceptionally cold conditions, the moles still have access to fresh food supplies. Curiously enough, any worms that survive the winter can eventually re-grow their heads and thus their brains, before escaping! Wood mice also busy themselves at this time of the year gathering a harvest of food and storing it in shallow soil or underground, for instance in drains.

Surprisingly, there are birds, which also store food, stashing away surplus food for those shorter and life-threatening days of winter. Coal tits are perhaps one of the birds that are most vulnerable and susceptible in hard winters. Indeed, coal tits are amongst the birds that will sometimes roost together in confined places - old nest-boxes for instance - snuggling together for warmth. Although they do come to bird-tables they also resort to collecting and storing seeds when they are abundant, for later consumption when food is otherwise scarce.

I believe coal tits are the only small birds that make such provision but many readers will I'm sure not be surprised to know that the other birds that are clever enough to stash surplus food away for consumption during the harsher winter months are member sof the crow family. But as I have often remarked, the crow clan is surely the intelligentsia of the avian community. Magpies for instance, are shrewd enough to collect food when it is abundant and bury it as an insurance against shortages during winter.

However, the most unlikely saver is perhaps the colourful jay. The white flash of a jay's rump seen the other day reminded me that jays are indeed among our most colourful birds and in that respect are very different from other crows in which black is so dominant. Jays are, of course, notoriously disliked by gamekeepers, perhaps partially because they are indeed paid up members of that hated crow clan but also because in springtime they are apt to raid small bird nests for their young. However, jays are largely vegetarian and perhaps on analysis, they are in fact, not such pests after all but surprisingly, ardent conservationists.

The jays themselves seem to be well aware of their unpopularity for at the appearance of people, they are usually swift to beat a hasty retreat. Yet in retreat they are also discreet, seldom flying together but singly, one after the other, always a fair distance apart, thus making themselves more difficult targets. They are not necessarily so discreet vocally for their raucous screeching is certainly a familiar sound to woodland walkers! Indeed the Gaelic for jay, 'Schreachag choille', translates as 'screamer of the woods'! Their pink, black, brown, white and grey plumage, embellished with vivid flashes of azure blue on each wing, makes this one of our most colourful resident birds.

These blue flashes are presumably why in some parts of central Scotland they are known as 'blue jays'. They also rejoice in many parts of Scotland in the nickname of 'gae' perhaps a misspelling of their proper name, 'jay piet' and 'oak jackdaw'. The latter name I suspect, because of firstly, their relationship with other crows and secondly for their obsession with acorns.

And this is indeed why they may claim to be conservationists, for they are amongst the most assiduous of hoarders, collecting at this time of the year, vast numbers of acorns, which they bury. These are their means of surviving the shortages of food apparent during the winter months. However, although they seem to have exceptionally good memories for re-locating such riches, they bury far more than they are ever going to need and as a consequence, other creatures exploit these stores and the rest simply sprout! From little acorns come big oaks and it is said of jays that they are responsible for the expansion of many of our precious oak woodlands.

Such is the energy of jays during the autumn that some observers have estimated that each jay may collect and bury as many as five thousand acorns during the autumn. One student of jay-lifestyle went so far as to suggest that if every day, making up an estimated British population of 170,000 pairs, was so assiduous, the result might be that 1,700,000,000 acorns could be buried each and every year by jays alone! Extraordinary! Such planting zeal probably puts the likes of Forestry Commission in the shade!

Jays usually sound raucous but especially in the breeding season, they are known as skilled mimics, imitating for instance, the calls of buzzards and owls and when threatened, the alarm calls of other woodland dwellers such as blackbirds. Perhaps therefore, we should regard them as the true guardians of our wildlife-rich oak woodlands as well as earnest savers and conservationists?

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods