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 5.12.17

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Perhaps corruption is part of the human psyche but every time I read of funds being collected for worthy causes, which somehow are filtered into the pockets of corrupt officials, I feel greatly saddened. Yet I suppose it is true that mankind has survived in this world by his opportunism. The gravy trains are approaching the station ... and there are plenty of people waiting to board them!

Mind you, we are not the only ones looking for that train. Take urban foxes. They survive by exploiting our profligacy. They live off the remains of take-aways, our cast-offs and whatever else they can find in their urban environment. Leave doors or even windows open on those sultry summer days and you cannot blame a fox for sneaking in and taking whatever it can find, from tables, work surfaces and so on. It makes no difference to the fox. And I've seen for myself, just how forward urban foxes can be ... scratching at French windows in their pleas to be fed!

I was amused a few weeks ago to read of the old Brock badger that barged its way through a cat flap, consumed a dog bowl full of food and then decided to have a nap in the absent pooch's bed. It took a very patient SSPCA Inspector some time to persuade it to wake up and return quietly to the great outdoors whence it had come.

I conclude that animals too therefore all have a sharp eye open for that gravy train, in whatever form it comes. As some readers will know to their cost, roe deer have an appetite for roses and can thus be very destructive of the green fingered labours of many a gardener. I remember years ago, searching an urban woodland in vain for roe deer kids, after their mother had been shot by an irate gardener, because she had entered his garden and consumed his roses. I expect the kids duly perished!

It is sometimes surprising how bold animals, whose nature may be described as timid, can sometimes be. Otters are quite hard to spot in any circumstances but some years ago I was made aware of a gentleman who had exploited a burn running through his garden, which lay on the edge of a village, to dig a large pond. He duly stocked his new pond with trout and liked nothing better than to saunter out into his garden and cast a line or two in order to enjoy trout for breakfast!

It was the perfect answer to the man's desire - until out of the blue, his hopes were suddenly dashed, his private fishery was discovered by a pair of otters! Soon, there were no fish left! Inland trout fisheries up and down the country are of course, familiar with the exploitation of their trout stocks by otters and indeed by herons too. Indeed, many a garden fish-pond has been emptied of its scaly occupants, by herons and there are a number of devices available to defend against such predation. In contrast a few days ago, I watched one of the world's greatest exploiters of stocked fish, arrive on the waters of our loch and immediately arc below the surface to begin its instant search for fish. It was of course, a cormorant, not the favourite bird of most fisher folk of my acquaintance!

However, an animal with which we are becoming increasingly familiar in these parts is the pine marten. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine went to live in such isolation that he was only able to reach 'civilisation' by either walking through several miles of forest or by taking his boat some distance down the sea-loch beside which he dwelt. His isolation enabled him to pen several books about the wildlife of his wild, west highland existence.

What intrigued many of his readers were his tales of the pine marten he regularly entertained in his kitchen, inducing them to throw off their normal shyness by proffering them strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwiches. It was all the more intriguing then because at that stage pine marten had not yet reached these parts. They remained quite rare animals of the western and northern highlands but had not yet spread their wings.

Pine marten are of course, extremely arboreal animals and during that period running up to the First World War, in an era in which the growth of the sporting estate really flourished, pine marten were cruelly pursued and persecuted. Parties of hunters would take up the chase, try and isolate the animals in patches of trees and then literally burn them out with blazing lumps of straw until the marten were forced to vacate the trees. And of course, waiting for them below, were packs of ravening dogs! Unsurprisingly at that time populations of pine marten consequently declined rapidly, with only a few surviving in remote glens. However the Wildlife Act of 1982 at last gave them the protection they badly needed.

Slowly but surely pine marten populations began to grown and as they grew, they expanded their territory southwards. Ardnamurchan was one of their strongholds and I well remember seeing them there. I also enjoyed good sightings of them in the Gairloch area. Then, to my amazement, I began seeing them in this airt. It is perhaps twenty years ago since I first started seeing them in this part of the world.

I heard that a pair had tried to set up home in the roof of a toilet block on a nearby caravan park. Then I was informed of a pine marten, which regularly made its way through a cat flap in the door of a fairly remote cottage, in order to steal the food put down for the household moggie. Thankfully the householder was reasonably tolerant to the marten invasion. And then a year or two ago, a pair of pine marten discovered a tiny gap through which they could climb in order to gain access to the roof space of an isolated house belonging to friends. Significantly, adjacent to the house was a lovely patch of forest with lots of Scots Pine.

Thereafter, we enjoyed some wonderful pine marten watching hours. The regular trek of the female marten was from the hole in the roof on to the roof of the conservatory, a trot along the said roof until the edge was reached, then down the support pole, up on to the picnic table. This was where our friend loaded the gravy train with ... peanut butter sandwiches, jam sandwiches and raw eggs in the shell.

If ever a pine marten had jumped upon a gravy train, this was it. And as her kits grew, so they too followed the same route and the same routine. Of course, all this benefaction gave them the very best start in life. They were well fed and doubtless at night tucked up nice and warm in that roof space. Eventually, as is their wont, mother pine marten took off with her kits, probably into the rather more natural environment of that nearby wood. Friends wisely had the hole sealed but that was for many of us, 'the pine marten summer'.

Incidentally, over the years, since I saw that first marten here, the grey squirrels that were once so dominant here, have gone - completely! Now our native reds reign supreme. That, I'm sure, too, is absolutely down to predation by those gravy train exploiting pine marten!

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.

Country View 22.11.17

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All of us instinctively learn much about the mind-sets of others through body language. We recognise instantly when, for instance, someone is feeling aggressive or conversely, when they are perhaps, feeling fearful. Friendship and partnerships, not to mention hostilities, are often built upon the automatic understanding of what a person's body language is telling us. However, it is probably also true that when it comes to understanding the body language of other creatures, we quite often don't get it right, or indeed, fail to understand the messages we are receiving, usually because of preconceived ideas.

I used to live in a farmhouse behind which stood a rabbit infested woodland. Every evening, the rabbits emerged from their warrens to graze the small field that lay between the house and the wood. And frequently, I would see a fox emerge from the same woodland. What baffled me was the difference in reaction on the part of the rabbits to the fox's appearance. Sometimes they would scatter in panic, many of them heading frantically for their warrens or at least to seek somewhere much less exposed. On other occasions, they literally sauntered away from the path the fox was following, now, compared with the panic stations previously exhibited, relatively calm and measured, just ensuring that there was reasonable distance between them and the trotting fox.

Frankly, I could never tell the difference between the demeanour of that fox from one occasion to the other. Yet somehow there must have been something in its body language which communicated the fact - pretty important to the wellbeing of the rabbits - as to whether he had recently dined or not.

Something communicated the fox's mood and presumably the fullness of its stomach, so that they knew whether or not the fox was therefore interested in them as a potential meal. In other words, was it dangerous or not? I've watched foxes for a lifetime and I'm darned if I can tell the difference between a hungry fox and one that has recently sated its appetite. I've seen foxes hunting of course and there can on such occasions be no mistaking the creatures' intent. But I have also observed foxes in such benign moods that I could imagine a rabbit hopping by and the fox completely ignoring it!

Of course, during the next few weeks we are about to find Christmas cards falling through our letter-boxes. Decorating those cards will doubtless be countless robins. Cock robin continues to be the festive bird and of course, may well be our idea of the epitome of sweetness and light as we hopefully enter a period of 'goodwill to all men ... animals and birds'! He, almost alone, entertains us with his sweet soliloquy of notes on the bleakest of winter days. Yet he is not what he may seem to be. At this time of the year many other small birds surrender their independence and join flocks, as a matter for the common good and a sense of shared survival. Such a submission is never, under any circumstances, made by Robin Redbreast.

Sweet his voice may be but sweet of nature he very definitely is not. We perhaps see in his cocky, cheeky and confiding nature, a friendly kind of bird, prepared to some degree, to fraternise with us. Yet in truth, apart from his human admirers, the robin really is pretty friendless and most certainly not prepared to make liaison with any male of his own kind. Indeed, his body language, which we may, in our innocence, interpret as assertive yet very definitely 'sweet', is nothing short of naked belligerence should another cock robin put in an appearance. 'Goodwill to all cock robins' is not on his agenda!

I often think, as I watch the birds at my bird-table, that whilst by and large, they go about their business in a mood of relative equanimity, there is nevertheless an underlying atmosphere of competitiveness. From time to time peace gives way to momentary eruptions as two or more males suddenly find the red mist descending, incidents, which are usually series specific. Generally however, the mood is relatively benign ... or at least it was here, until in a sudden explosion of energy, at least two dozen starlings burst upon the scene. Starlings do not do things in half measure. They always seem to fly at break-neck speed and their sudden 'crash-landing' here, was distinctly reminiscent of the arrival of a ravening horde. Their abrupt appearance certainly cleared the bird-table of all other visitors.

I regularly have a couple of visiting starlings, sometimes three or four but my observations of them always seem to confirm an in-built level of indiscipline, which means that they spend most of their time here squabbling with each other rather than feeding. The two dozen interlopers quickly descended into a melee of squawking flurries of feathers. I doubt if any of them secured more than half a beak-full of blood, before in as much disarray as they showed on their arrival, they were suddenly gone as quickly as they had come. I wondered whether they were a breakaway group from a small murmuration seen a few evenings earlier. Their body language definitely pointed towards a substantial lack of discipline.

Yet, it is during these winter evenings that starlings show the other side of their character when they get together in serious numbers and in the most extraordinarily disciplined way, perform the most beautiful aerial ballets anyone is ever likely to witness. Even small murmurations can have us gasping in amazement but when not dozens, not even hundreds but thousands and on occasions, millions of starlings get together and begin to career around the sky, we may witness what I regard as one of the wonders of the world. These amazing gyrations of great masses of starlings bring many new dimensions to any thoughts of body language!

The ever changing shapes of these huge flocks as they hurtle across our skies seem in a sense, to paint messages which as you might guess, scientists of late, have been eager to explore. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for the phenomenon which has these masses of birds constantly creating and re-creating new patterns in the sky, while they fly first in one direction, then in another, always at full speed. Furthermore the birds fly in such close ordered formation and travel at such high speed, that crashes seem inevitable, yet never seem to happen!

They say (the scientists) that each bird has its own very special space around it which, no matter what the shape they form and the speed at which they travel, each individual maintains. Scientists can apparently artificially replicate these extraordinary sky pictures on their computers and there are seemingly, no collisions on screen either! All very well and good say I. However, nothing will ever convince me that there is not something else at work which somehow gives those flocks some kind of spiritual connection, a mental synchronisation which all feed off and obey. Now that is what I call body language ... of an extraordinary degree!

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!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods