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 21 June 2019

on .

Against a backdrop of falling bird numbers and, perhaps more crucially, alarming declines in insect populations, the pollinators of course, we may assume that survival of the fittest and concentration on the production of the next generation, to be the main criteria which drives most creatures. You might think, therefore, that most birds and animals would not have much time to contemplate play and having fun. However, on examination, some creatures actually devote surprising amounts of time to enjoying themselves.

Indeed, there are time when some animals clearly go to considerable lengths to enjoy a romp.  Never is that observation more obvious than when badger clubs start to play.  In essence, play is a process whereby indulging in play fighting and rough and tumble, those cubs are actually learning the lessons that will stand them in good stead as they grow up.  And it really can be a real melee as each cub strives to become dominant.  They attack each other with gusto and roll around in mock combat, issuing plenty of noise in the process; the adults generally seem to let the cubs get on with it.

Fox cubs go through a similar routine, albeit that the vixen also plays a part in their rough and tumble, provoking play by sometimes flicking her tail to encourage them to pounce on it.  I have on one rare occasion, been privileged to watch badger and fox cubs play together.  Foxes had taken over a part of an ancient badger sett and once the cubs of both were confident enough to emerge in order to indulge in play, both fox and badger cubs joined the subsequent ruction with great glee.  I couldn't help but wonder if the parent badgers looked upon this combined play with some disdain for whilst badgers are by nature clean and tidy in their habits, foxes are the opposite, not so clean and pretty untidy!  For badgers, they are not the best of neighbours!

Play is also a natural instinct among some surprising animals.  I had always thought that roe deer kids lacked any impulse to play until many years ago I took responsibility for the rearing of a roe deer kid.  She was around three days old when she was 'found' by some children in a wood even though in reality she was not lost!  However, she had been so handled by the children that she must have fairly reeked of their scent, certainly enough for the doe to abandon her had she been returned to where she had been found.

Initially, she lived quite happily in a large cardboard box in our sitting room.  At the same time we had a collie pup and within days the two animals seemed to have established some sort of play routine. The roe kid soon discovered she could jump out of her box, which as the days passed, she frequently did. Then of course, she encountered the collie pup, which she would proceed to chase through the house.  Then the pup chased the kid back again.  This became a regular game between two animals, which apart from their youth had no other feature in common...except a desire to play!

There can however, be another, more practical aspect to play in animals.  I once watched a weasel perform a perfect square dance along a quiet country lane. It darted across the lane before running along the bottom of a hedge.  Then it crossed again and ran back along the opposite hedge bottom on the other side of the lane.  It repeated this little dance time and time again and as I watched I was aware that a considerable number of small birds were observing this strange behaviour and were becoming increasingly fascinated by it, moving closer and closer to action.  Then came the denouement as one bird got too close to the action and paid for its curiosity with its life.

In a similar incident, I watched a stoat in my own garden go through the most amazing routine of somersaults, chasing its own tail and a variety of amazing gyrations.  It also entranced a host of birds, almost hypnotising them, until one dunnock moved just too close to the action, again to pay for its fascination with its life.  The running weasel and the gyrating stoat were playing, but with a deadly purpose.

However, there are cases of birds for instance, quite deliberately indulging in bouts of what can only be described as play. On windy days, especially during the winter months, massed ranks of rooks and jackdaws can regularly be seen cavorting around the sky in mass displays of utter bedlam.  Often you will see members of the cavorting masses splitting off into pairs and chasing each other in furious games of tag.  At times, the sky seems to be full of birds flinging themselves around with absolute abandon, clearly having fun!

Such displays are by no means restricted to rooks and jackdaws for I have also seen ravens play with rare enthusiasm.  My first eye-opening experience of watching ravens express such a desire was off our west coast on the distant Treshnish Islands.  We had been invited to go for a week's sailing and we anchored off the islands overnight and then explored them during the following day.

Much to my astonishment,  a family party of ravens suddenly appeared.  Some were spiralling or corkscrewing through the air, some were even flying upside down.  Without any doubt, they were having fun.  The twentieth-century naturalist Frances Pitt wrote about her two tame ravens which, as far as I know, were free flying.  She described how the pair of them would collaborate in a game in which they would tease unmercifully one of Miss Pitt's cats, one of them distracting the cat whilst the other would sneak behind the animal and grab its tail.  Ravens clearly have an in-built instinct to play as well as a mischievous disposition.

The propensity to play may however, not be one of the essential attributes of wagtails, yet this can, most notably in the form of the pied wagtail, are to me naturally comedic birds in appearance, the 'Coco the Clowns' of the avian world.  That black eye on the white face of the bird paints a clownish picture whilst the very demeanour of the bird seems to me to spell comedy.  It struts, it runs until its legs are a blur, it springs into the air, where it pirouettes so brilliantly as it pursues insects.  And of course, it constantly flips its tail up and down, as opposed to wagging it.

This latter feature of wagtail life is the source of much speculation. Some conjecture that it is disturbing insects which it then catches.  However, as its tail is naturally at the rear of the bird and my observations reveal that it is always darting ahead on foot or on wing to snaffle them,  I hae ma doubts!  In my opinion, more is it a movement that mirrors the passage of water beside which we are most often likely to see the bird.  In other words it may be a means of obfuscation.  However, it may also be a constant signal that simply says 'I am here - this is my territory', a statement of integrity.  Whatever the reason for the constant tail movement, the one thing that is assured, is that wagtails somehow always bring a smile to one's lips, intentionally or otherwise!

The poet Montgomery wrote of the water wagtail:-

What art thou made of?  air or light or dew?

I have no time to tell you, if I knew.

My tail - ask that - perhaps may solve the matter;

I've missed three flies already by this clatter.

Weekly Nature Watch 14 June 2019

on .

There can be little doubt of the natural instinct of a hunting osprey to mercilessly slay fish.  Thus, it cruises menacingly over the loch, eyes down ready, primed, to launch its attack.  There follows a denouement, which is as dramatic as they come, as the bird enters its death-defying dive before hitting the water feet first with a mighty splash.  It may seem initially to momentarily struggle to lift its victim from the water but it is merely securing its grip on the slippery prey before rising in triumph, the fish slung below like some scaly torpedo.

Yet now, away from the loch, this accomplished killer is also to be seen in a very different light.  This is the other side of the coin as, oh so gently, she picks flesh from the bones of the latest scaly prey and tenderly offers it her chicks.  Suddenly, the image is not of a wanton killer but of a tender hearted parent devoted to the vital business of rearing her family.  The main purpose of her existence is the perpetuation of her kind as she tends her brood atop her eyrie.

This is a familiar story when it comes to raptors, all of which, with the possible exception of the kestrel, clearly project the fact that unhesitatingly they are killers.  It is the eyes that tell the story, for they always seem to glare with extreme hostility.  Ospreys certainly do not deviate from this image. for when seen close up, their eyes glow balefully yellow.  However, like all birds of prey, it is their ferocious looking talons that do the killing whilst the hooked beak is merely a tool to strip the meat from the bones.

That one possible exception to the rule, the kestrel, does portray a slightly less manacing image for its eyes are darker and less threatening.  Yet kestrels, of course, also survive largely by the slaughter of wee creatures such as mice and voles.  Perhaps that is why they are generally viewed more benignly, for as a rule they take the not-so-nice wee rodents rather than the 'nice' wee birds.

My choice of the kestrel as my favourite raptor may also have been influenced by experiences gleaned during boyhood days, when I would like on my back in a field and spend much of my prostrate time watching the majesty of kestrels hovering high above as only kestrels can.  There may also be influence in the fact that some years ago I derived so much pleasure from flying a captive kestrel from the wrist and thus set up a very intimate rapport with the bird.

However, other raptors can indeed look incredibly menacing.  The sparrowhawk, with its piercing yellow-eyed gaze, can never give the impression that it is anything other than an extremely efficient plunderer of small birds and in the case of the larger female, not so small birds, a raptor perhaps not viewed so benignly by garden bird watchers.  If the kestrel bewitches us with its magnificent hovering - it is often know as the 'wind hover' - the hawk's approach is perhaps more dynamic, reliant on cunning, stealth and bursts of sheer speed.

However, there is another woodland dweller, once virtually extinct as a British breeding bird but now reclaiming some of its lost territory and very much a presence in this airt.  The goshawk is arguably the most potent killer of them all and I'm sure that many readers will have had a feeling of discomfort when seeing shots of the goshawk on television's "Spring-Watch", the orange eyes of the male, especially, fairly simmering with hostility and menace.

This is indeed a bird which absolutely exudes hostility, leaving the viewer with the impression that it is not a bird to be messed with! Yet here again, we saw how tenderly the female goshawk attended to her young, once again demonstrating those two very different sides of the coin.  However, the best description of this super raptor is perhaps to say it is not unlike a scaled-up version of the sparrowhawk.  It explodes into action and then pounces with awesome speed and power,  It even attacks and kills other raptors such as kestrels.  I remember watching a kestrel hovering when in a flash, out of a clear blue sky erupted a goshawk. All that remained was a handful of feathers floating down to the ground!  The female at almost buzzard size, is a lethal hunter!

But it was for its slaughter of game birds that the goshawk was so vigorously persecuted.  I'm sure that they were very high on the list of those, who during the 'killing years' of the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century, deliberately set out to kill as many birds with hooked beaks as possible.  These birds represented the enemy to those charged with the responsibility of defending the precious game birds.

Such was the level of persecution that goshawks, due to their particularly fearsome reputation, were effectively sent into extinction.  However, the high status of the goshawk as a hunter also enhanced its reputation among falconers.  If the peregrine falcon was always regarded as the king of all falconry birds, which have escaped from their falconry masters and established themselves in the wild.  For many years now, like all other raptors, goshawks have enjoyed the protection of the law.  However, there are keepers of my ken who will simply not tolerate their presence!

The two-sided coin syndrome again struck me very forcibly this week but without, as it happens, any connection with raptors.  Several broods of starlings have emerged during recent days and I have been highly amused by their antics as they literally harass their parents for food......very vigorously.  What a rabble! It is in such situations that starlings reveal what can only be described as a total lack of discipline.  Indeed, there are times when starlings tend to rule the roost around bird-tables, clearly bullying other birds and at times utterly commanding the food supply.  At times. this rabble threatens to do just that - until the woodpeckers make their pitch, flying in directly and scattering the starlings to every point of the compass.  Wisely, not many birds are prepared to challenge woodpeckers!

This aspect of behaviour constrast utterly with the astonishing displays of starlings when they come together, sometimes in their thousands, during the winter months and fly in such a disciplined manner in their fantastic murmurations.  I also have a crow as a regular visitor.  We often think of crows as 'Jack the Lads', pretty fearless and highly intelligent, yet there are other traits, which are slightly more unexpected.

He comes in to peck away at the detritus below the bird-table but is exceptionally wary, ready at any second to take flight and make himself scarce.  So, beneath the brash exterior, there is clearly an extremely nervous disposition at work.. They are of course, sharp-witted and know only too well the antipathy of mankind towards them.  There are indeed two sides to every avian coin! As for goshawks, if looks could kill....!

 

 

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 31 May 2019

on .

They've made it again,

Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's

Still waking refreshed, our summer's

Still all to come.

 

So wrote the late Ted Hughes, in welcoming the swifts' return from their African winter sojourn.

"A bolas of three or four wire screams

Jockeying across each other

On their switchback wheel of death

They swat past, hard fletched,"

he concluded.

There is surely no better description of the sudden arrival of screaming swifts soaring spectacularly among the rooftops of many of our towns and villages.  The last of the migrants have at last pitched up, on time but perhaps fewer than usual in number.

Our swifts, like so many of our birds, are in serious decline.  The recent announcement by the nation's largest building company, Barratts Homes, that they are now putting specially designed bricks in all the houses they build up and down the country which will provide nesting opportunities for swifts is a step in the right direction.  This highlights the problem, namely an increasing lack of suitable nesting sites, which appears to have been a major factor in the decline of swifts.

The same problem it seems is shared by house sparrows, numbers of which have also been in serious decline in recent years.  I must say that in this airt, sparrows do not appear to be in decline.  However, there are few new build houses here, rather are most dwellings quite old and thus presumably more sparrow friendly.  In addition, farm buildings offer these argumentative little birds all sorts of nooks and crannies for them to nest in.  Unfortunately, they are also dab hands at taking over swallow nests, nipping in to claim them before their constructors have returned from their winter travels.

Swifts are much more likely to be present in towns and villages than in open countryside and generally prefer older buildings in which to nest.  Not that they are great nest builders, a few token fragments of straw and feathers, gleaned from the skies through which they constantly zoom, suffice.  Surely, no bird is more at home in the sky that the swift.  It eats, drinks, sleeps and mates in the air.  Indeed, those that do not breed here this summer, will not touch down at all during their stay.  And, when they fly off to Africa, they will still remain exclusively air-born, so some swifts may stay in the air for as long as three years without setting foot.  Terra Firm is definitely not their thing!

Mind you, during a day on the mountains, I well remember seeing swifts flying at almost three thousand feet, so they are most certainly high flyers too! I also remember being called to a house in one of our local town one mid-August day.  The householder had found an unidentified bird languishing on her lawn, apparently unable to fly which I immediately identified as a young swift.  I was aware that many of the local swifts were already embarking on their migratory exit from our northern skies.  To the horror of the householder, I threw it into the air.  Happily, it instantly flew away with great vigour and interestingly, in a southerly direction! Swifts do not spend much time with us.  They arrive in mid-May, produce one brood of chicks - seldom more than two chicks - before they leave us again in mid-August.

Swifts do in fact experience difficulty in getting back into the air if they are for any reason grounded.  They have puny little legs and excessively long wings.  The only way they can do so is to find a vertical surface up which, using their sharp claws, they can climb before literally re-launching themselves into the air.  Aristotle rather unkindly called the swift, 'footless' and indeed the Latin name, apus actually means, a - without, and pous - foot.

Another bird I do not usually expect to observe on the ground is the great spotted woodpecker.  Almost all sightings of these colourful birds are on the branches of trees, where they move with great speed and dexterity.  Currently, they are regular visitors here and indeed, I am almost certain that we are entertaining two separate pairs of them. They fly in at speed, utter their single piercing 'chip' note, hammer at either the fat slabs or the peanuts and depart as rapidly as they came.  Great-spotted woodpeckers are clearly on the up and during the past few years, they have inhabited my garden in numbers.  In recent days. both males - identified by the red flash on the nape of their necks - and females without the red, have been frequent visitors and I'm pretty certain therefore that somewhere not very far away thaty have broods of hungry youngsters to feed.

Both pairs have been gathering as much of the fat or nuts as possible and hurtling back to their nests.  When it is nuts that they take, they fly up into the trees and break them down assiduously with more violent pecking before flying off to their nests.  However, in their eagerness to collect as much food as possible they have also been collecting the spilt fragments of sunflower hearts and flakes of fat from the ground below the bird-table.  As a result, they give the distinct impression of being 'footless' because their legs, more often used like crampons to clamber rapidly up trees than travel on the ground, are so short.

When I first came to live here many years ago, there were woodpeckers which were much more familiarly seen on the ground and which incidentally were much more vocal too with their chortling laughs! They were, of course, green woodpeckers but these more ground-hogging birds have in recent years disappeared to be replaced by the great spotted woodpeckers.  I mentioned a few weeks ago the rat-tat-tat drumming of these woodpeckers.  They use the drumming in the same way that songbirds vocalise as a means of pronouncing territorial integrity and advertising for a mate.

I was scanning the pages of one of my older bird books the other day - it dates from the very early years of the twentieth century.  It stated...'the great spotted woodpecker's flight is short and undulating; the bird is seldom seen on the ground, and when there its movements are slow'.  Insects are the main source of food although another much more recent volume - published some hundred years or so later - went so far as to suggest that great spotted woodpeckers are 'birds of prey'.  This assertion is based upon the fact that, because they are equipped with lethal beaks with which they are able to enlarge the holes of tree-nesting birds such as tits, they thus sometimes take the young hatchlings of other birds.  They nest in tree holes but like swifts are not great nest builders, providing little or no lining.

The other asset thay have in their quest for insect prey is a long, almost prehensile tongue, which the bird can extend one and a half inches beyond the end of its beak in order to penetrate into all sorts of nooks and crannies, for example, in or under the bark.  It is also sharp enough to impale soft-bodied prey.  Interestingly, my older tome places these woodpeckers mainly in southern and central England.  However, in recent years, they have clearly headed north big time! Interestingly one of the pseudonyms attached to them is 'French'pie'!  I'm not sure where the French connection comes from but they are certainly striking birds with their pied plumage - black and white - and those flashes of bright red.

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Nature Watch 24 May 2019

on .

The production line is moving - faster and faster and faster! New life is emerging. 

A little family mob of starlings - you can seldom call families of starlings anything else - is currently extremely vocal when parents arrive with food.  But then starlings are always vocal.  And whereas when they descend on the bird-table, starlings seem ill-disciplined, not to say bullying by nature, when on winter days they take to the sky in their thousands they paint wondrous moving pictures of sheer theatre.  Their massed ranks show a level of discipline in flight that few other aviators can match.  Their murmurations are an absolute joy to watch and people travel miles to witness them.

Mind you, constant food-collecting travel is very much on the minds of countless birds for the sense of urgency that now seize them is absolutely overwhelming.  Furthermore, even before they have mated, birds that depend upon caterpillars as the main source of food for their young must be acutely aware of the breeding activity of the moths whose caterpillars will become that primary source of food for their young.  In other words, their close observations of the activities of moths in their feeding territory will determine the timing of their own breeding programmes.

The pair of great tits nesting in a hole in an old ash tree hard by the loch has obviously been watching the moths in the vicinity of their nest.  The emergence of the caterpillars is not a yearly constant.  Indeed, one of the effects of global warming has been to bring forward such events.  Thus, these great tits must also advance their own breeding season in order to be able to capitalise on this relatively short-lived food supply. 

At the same time they will be very much aware that there are plenty of other birds in the market for those same caterpillars.  Nearby bluetits and coal tits also have a desperate need for this source of food.  Especially this year, it seems that there is also a plethora of warblers in the nearby woodlands.  I have certainly heard chiff-chaffs, willow warblers and garden warblers and there may be others I haven't yet heard. And there are also such as the myriads of chaffinches, the mellow voiced blackbirds and the great spotted woodpeckers, which I have heard drilling their messages in those same woods, eager to find caterpillars for their young.

So we are not talking about small numbers of caterpillars in this context.  Grat tits are among the most studied of birds because as they readily use nest boxes, they are easy to observe.  Of course, clutch-size varies but generally speaking is dependent upon the availability of food.  For example, it has been recorded that a brood containing six chicks receives around three hundred and twenty five visits per day from the parent birds whereas a brood containing elevent chicks, was visited five hundred and ninety seven times! Get your calculations out and work out how many visits that adds up to over those vital three weeks of chick nurturing!

Of course, almost all such visits would be to feed their young.  Being a great tit parent is therefore, extremely demanding, albeit that the young do at least fledge after about three weeks.  Furthermore, the parent birds also know they must start with small caterpillars and only bring large ones towards the end of a frantic three weeks. When the chicks are nearing fledging, the parent birds are likely to slow down the process and will determine when their chicks fledge simply by encouraging them to emerge in order to claim food.

However, during those vital three weeks - and of course, beyond for young great tits still need feeding when they have left the nest and are not entirely self-sufficient for a couple of weeks at least - the parent birds work their wings to the bone.  As each day passes the demand for food increases as the chicks grow at a phenomenal rate! It is clear therefore, that great tit parents during these critical weeks are under pressures that we would find hard to understand.  It is very much a period during which 24/7 is their way of life for furthermore, the female bird broods her nestful of youngsters every night!  The recent suggestion that we may soon be urged to work  a four-day rather than a five-day week puts it all into perspective. These birds certainly do their share of overtime and have to work a seven-day week!

Little wonder then that great tit parents, once their youngsters are up and flying and at last self-sufficient, look somewhat tatty. At least they have time to recover but it is not surprising that, in general, great tits raise just one brood per year.  Not for them the stresses of going through it all over again or indeed come to think of it, in preparing themselves for mammoth migratory flights!  Some of the migrant birds however, seem to be suckers for punishment with perhaps a requirement for them to produce extra broods due to their hazardous journeys of thousands of miles both behind and ahead of them.

The likelihood is that some of their numbers will inevitably perish during their epic migratory journeys, so they must double their efforts and produce two and in some cases, three broods of youngsters during their summer stay here.  The risks they take are perhaps illustrated by the low numbers of house martins that seem to have made it to this part of the UK this spring.  Perhaps, either on their southwards migratory journey from the UK last autumn or on their journey here from Africa this spring, they have suffered heavy losses.  Three broods a year is undoubtedly designed to compensate for this.

The numerous willow warblers, having journeyed anything up to 3,000 to 4,000 miles, seem eager to make the most of things by producing two broods of young during their stay here, whereas the garden warblers also numerous for this year, stick at one. Mind you, willow warblers are known for bucking trends for they go through two moults every year rather than the usual one.  This unusual procedure makes sense if you consider that willow warblers nest on or close to the ground in thick vegetation.  With all the coming and going during breeding, they must end up in a pretty tatty state.

We all know how amazingly energetic house martins and especially swallows are.  Few birds seem to expand so much vitality, as especially martins nearly always go for broke with three families each year during their stay here, with swallows often matching them.  And that after a six-thousand mile migratory journey, followed in the autumn by another six-thousand mile trek back to Africa!

Right now, it is all about non-stop and seemingly frenetic activity, as young mouths demand to be filled.....againg and again and again. We are witnessing the start of an avian feeding frenzy but thankfully there always seems to be time available for the males to have a sing! Sweet song, yet life is becoming hectic!

Weekly Nature Watch 17 May 2019

on .

It wasn’t a rod, pole or perch, for those who are old enough to remember such measurements, it was a redpoll busily pecking away at the spilt crumbs of food below the bird-table, his red topknot, ablaze with bright crimson. I cannot recall having had such a visitor before although I have seen them in the vicinity on previous occasions. He or she – the two are alike – added its presence to the large population of similarly sized siskins, the red-faced goldfinches, the chaffinches, greenfinches (there were four here the other day feeding on the dandelion seeds), the dunnocks and the clamorous house sparrows!

A new bird for my list! There is also new life in the nearby plantations. Several times have I seen the bobbing white posteriors of roe does bounding away from me and quickly disappearing into the darkness of the massed ranks of conifers where their newly dropped kids lie.  Perhaps these new ‘Bambis’ lie cosseted in highly aromatic carpets of wild hyacinths – bluebells – for this year they are absolutely glorious. Without doubt, they are my favourite wild flowers, well remembered from childhood adventures in the woods in the spring. Here the woods are full of their charming aroma.

Whilst red deer, the Monarchs of the Glens, are the deer most people associate with Highland Scotland, roe deer are the more familiar deer to be seen in the Lowlands albeit that there are plenty of them in the Highland forests too. Indeed, there was concern for roe when their numbers plummeted during the nineteenth century at a time when our woodlands were being stripped at an alarming rate in order to fuel the expansion of ship-building, industry, railways and coal mining. Whilst red deer managed very successfully to adapt their lifestyles from woodland dwellers to residents of open moorland, roe were unable to make that transition.

Ironically, in recent years we have seen red deer returning to low ground and lowland forests and woods. Indeed, such has been their impact on lowland farmland, that locally there is a concerted effort to cull their numbers. Roe deer meanwhile, as new forests have sprung up to replace those felled during those destructive years, have also prospered and their numbers are in some places approaching pest proportions so they too are the subject of continual culling. Indeed, the ‘gentle roe’ as it is often called, can these days be seen even in our towns and cities where they often live their lives out among the silent tombstones of our larger cemeteries.

However, the merry month of May brings a new generation of roe into the world. At the same time, roebucks, rather than making up those nice cuddly family images so much the creation of Walt Disney, take no interest in the arrival of their progeny and instead are preparing themselves for battle. In May, the sap is beginning to rise as territorial integrity is sought and other roebuck become the avowed enemies. In such circumstances, the roe is far from gentle! Between now and August when mating occurs, roebuck certainly have fire in their bellies!

And as the roebuck’s dander is rising, that new generation of their kind is coming into the world, dutifully produced single–handedly and nurtured by the attentive does. The woodland origins of red deer are clearly betrayed by the white spots that cover the fawns’ bodies, a real indicator of that genesis. Roe kids too are similarly covered in white spots which, in that woodland setting where the sun dapples the ground, provide them with excellent camouflage. One other precaution used by roe is to ensure that their kids – usually twins but occasionally triplets – are located in different parts of woods.

There those tiny kids will remain for the first two weeks of their lives, their instinct, if discovered, to freeze rather than scamper away. After those first two weeks they will at last meet up with their siblings and begin to follow their mother. But, as this early phase of their lives is evolving, you may hear a medley of gruff barking emanating from nearby woods. This barking is the sound of competing bucks, arguing over those territorial rights. I well remember hearing such sounds from a nearby forest. Before long I was able to witness the panic-stricken passage of a buck which had definitely come second in such a competition. He cleared fences with ease and was clearly not waiting to see if his conqueror was pursuing him as he put as much distance between him and the triumphant rival as he could!

This month of May is very much a month of new life. The trees are almost all bursting with new green life save for the ash trees, many of which wait until June to become fully clothed with leaves. It is during this month that badger cubs begin for the first time to savour the great outdoors following a sojourn deep in the safety of their underground setts.

I well remember the moment when I witnessed the first timid ventures by the cubs above ground whose parents I had watched avidly over the course of several months. Their first adventure was conducted very nervously one May evening but within a week they were boldly playing a ‘King of the Castle’ game, each of the three of them, a young boar and his two young sow siblings, trying noisily to outdo one another. All such fun and mock fighting is part of the experience of growing up and learning about life.

On that occasion I also remember the sweet scent of bluebells, the cautious passage of a roe doe as she visited her youngsters one by one to suckle and clean them. There was the quizzical tawny owl, which always pitched up on a nearby tree, its large eyes peering at me trying to understand what was this curious, booted figure doing in a tree! There was too that medley of woodland bird song, the rich tones of a garden warbler, the downward spiralling tune of a willow warbler and the endless ebbing and flowing reeling of a grasshopper warbler.

May is a time of newly emerging flowers, badger cubs finding their way into the great outdoors, the silent, stealthy movement of roe does coming and going to tend to their kids, yet sometimes an explosive time when roebucks clashed over territories. And, new chicks are even now emerging from their eggs; the cuckoo’s comic call rings a death knell to some but to the poets at least, this is a very vocal harbinger of spring. And my local cock robin clearly has a mate incubating eggs nearby. He diligently picks away at the fallen sunflower hearts where I saw the redpoll feeding, to deliver them to his sitting mate.

The tide is running, hedgerows are beginning to brim with blossom, a new cycle of life is emerging. All seems well enough for now, despite the gloom produced by the latest prognostications of those who foretell tragedies that are to come because of climate change. Enjoy it for what it is, the year’s merriest month!  

 

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods