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 5.7.17

on .

There's no doubt about it, raptors engender much heated discussion. Most birdwatchers find them enthralling and some years ago, when holidaying on the island of Mull, I witnessed the fervour of visitors, craning their necks for the merest glimpse of a sea-eagle. There were dozens of them and these enthusiasts certainly add to the island's coffers in no uncertain terms ... to the tune of several millions of pounds annually. As you might imagine, I too joined in the voyeurism, training my telescope on an eyrie and enjoying some spectacular and very different wildlife watching.

But crofters up and down our rugged western seaboard are not quite so enthusiastic. Indeed, here there is also heated discussion and much speculation as to the damage being done by these 'flying barn doors' as they are sometimes known, notably in the form of lambs carried off by these huge birds of prey. Crofting is a hard way by which to earn a living and losing lambs to sea eagles, only makes life harder. However, there has to be a fairly large question mark set down about the numbers of live lambs taken that are claimed on the part of some crofters. Having in the past worked with sheep, I can confirm that lambs, especially hill lambs, seem capable of dying of more ailments than any other creatures, especially in the harsh conditions of the West Highlands! And dead or dying lambs are easy pickings for all sorts of predators, including sea eagles.

Historically, raptors a few hundred years ago were far more numerous than they are today. It's true that old folklore does sometimes tell us stories of eagles carrying off babies. However, as far as I can ascertain, these are indeed, tales of the imagination rather than of reality. But real conflict came as landowners began to develop their estates for hunting and shooting. Then hostilities between people and birds of prey really began in earnest. Desperate to offer the best bags, estates employed gamekeepers to control all predators. The carnage that followed, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw sea eagles and ospreys exterminated and kites nearly wiped out as British breeding birds. Red kites just hung on in mid-Wales but disappeared completely elsewhere.

Of the mammal predators, while polecats were also exterminated, pine marten just survived but only in a few remote Highland glens. As we well know, as the concept of conservation has taken hold in modern society, there is now a fast growing interest among our population, in protecting and even enlarging existing raptor populations. But there is now also an enthusiasm for what is called 're-wilding' in relation to predatory animals. This too, is bound to engender more heated discussion!

Those same 'old wives tales' that cast the shadow of suspicion on eagles, had, centuries ago, also been etched into the psyche of virtually all Scots in relation to wolves. By the time Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the Scottish throne, wolf numbers in Scotland had escalated. Successive monarchs had vigorously pursued a policy aimed at exterminating this feared and hated culture but apparently without much success. So by the time Mary succeeded more zealous efforts were employed to eliminate them. The final denouement for the wolf in Scotland was to come in the eighteenth century.

Spin the clock forward a few hundred years to the present century and there is as yet a small but nevertheless vociferous core of folk who enthuse about re-introducing wolves to the Scottish landscape, along with lynx and eventually, brown bears. Not surprisingly, there is a rather louder voice - that of the farming community - which equally vigorously opposes such re-introductions. I read that one of the proponents of the re-wilding of wolves claims that wolves would quickly reduce the deer population, now said to be at its highest level for a thousand years. He also claimed that the presence of wolves would also serve to reduce the population of foxes and badgers.

However, bear in mind that even the vilified fox doesn't attack and eat cattle whilst wolves surely would, not to mention adult sheep. Scotland, indeed Britain is a vastly changed landscape from the one in which wolves once dwelt - until around 1745 it is popularly thought. I suspect livestock farming itself would be driven along a route towards extinction, should wolves ever become once more part of our native fauna as some wish.

And isn't it ironic, that while one group of people is calling for such re-introductions, others are complaining that, for instance, there are 'too many' raptors. I recently read a lament about the fate of the noble sport of pigeon racing. The complaint is that high numbers of such pigeons are falling victim to hawks and falcons. These are birds, which can be worth considerable amounts of money. Recently one very special bird was bought by a Chinese businessman for $300,000! This may be an exception although others regularly sell for four figure sums. However, hawks and falcons will naturally quickly learn to exploit such artificial concentrations of food and thus come looking!

In essence the downward trend in the popularity of pigeon racing is therefore being blamed on raptors, which it is suggested should therefore be controlled. There was an interesting and immediate response from a pigeon fancier, who suggested such accusations were based more on anecdotal tradition rather than on hard evidence. He further countered the raptor argument suggesting that the downward trend was instead due to a lack of interest in the sport of pigeon racing among new generations which have little or no enthusiasm for the chores of cleaning, feeding, training and exercising these birds.

The two raptors traditionally seen as threats to the racing pigeon fraternity are sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons. Both fast moving birds, the peregrine perhaps the fastest of them all, reputed to be capable of reaching over 200mph in the stoop. Around eighty years ago peregrines were under official siege for these fast flying falcons are cliff-nesting birds by nature. As you might imagine homing pigeons had become a major means of transmitting messages from war zones across the English Channel during the days of conflict but only too many of them were being nobbled by the aforementioned peregrines as World War Two rumbled on. Thus the War Office launched a culling programme right along Britain's southern and eastern coasts.

When the war ended, normal service was resumed and the remaining peregrines began to recover their numbers, repopulating their former coastal realms. However, they were soon to be hit by another setback when DDT-based sprays were introduced into the agricultural industry. Of course grain crops are a food source for pigeons and so the grains from cereals treated with these chemicals, were consumed by pigeons, which were heavily preyed upon by the falcons. This allowed the lethal chemicals to enter the food chain to the serious detriment of the falcons. The birds' breeding capabilities were subsequently seriously affected. The chemicals were forthwith banned and the decline in peregrine numbers was happily reversed.

In their complaints against raptors, pigeon fanciers have suggested that peregrines are being deliberately introduced to urban areas where most racing pigeons are based. However, in this respect they are probably wrong for whilst peregrines are becoming more evident in our cities, they are merely responding to the increasing populations of feral pigeons in city streets which they see as a welcome and easily caught source of food. This is the reason for a growing urban presence of peregrines.

All of which seems to me to convey very mixed messages. Surely the notions of introducing wolves whilst at the same time culling raptors like peregrines, simply doesn't add up. Indeed, on all counts, these suggestions seem to me to contain nothing but minus factors! We can't and surely shouldn't want to control everything!

Country View 28.6.17

on .

One of the slightly unusual characteristics of this benign summer has been the constant presence of breezes. Indeed, one way or another, it has been a pretty windy summer. However, that has at least ensured that there has almost always been plenty of movement on the loch, especially last weekend when white horses were galloping across the restless waters before dashing themselves on to the stony shore. One of the benefits brought by the wind and waves has been the absence of deadly algae clogging up those waters. Thus it was that last weekend provided rare entertainment for those who enjoy watching birds, albeit that the strong wind ensured that some birds were made to work that bit harder for their suppers.

And there were those however, which showed a real appetite for using that same wind as a vehicle for fun. Ravens, rooks and crows, despite their perceived mundane appearance, not to mention the reputation they have as rather 'dark' birds, in more senses than one, are nevertheless superb aviators. And when they get the wind under their tails, they produce some really breathtaking displays. Carrion crows are not particularly sociable birds and so usually perform in pairs or family groups. Ravens too, whilst lacking the group mentality of rooks, are very capable of performing some amazing aerobatics, also often in family groups, corkscrewing through the air, flying now and again upside down and showing a real talent for some amazing aerial stunts.

Rooks, perhaps the scruffiest looking of the corvids, are, because of their preference for corporate life, entirely different. They often seem sufficiently inspired by the wind to come together in great swarms, to hurtle across the sky in what may seem to be confused disorder. In reality, these gatherings might instead, be described as anachronistically as ordered chaos! Their mass game-playing - games resembling tag and catch as catch can - which may include conducting headlong, seemingly suicidal dives, ending with dramatic, superbly timed recoveries and pivots. These many variations on an aerobatic theme are the hallmarks of these amazing performances. Suddenly the sky is full of dancing dervish rooks!

I always think much the same of gulls. They too seem to revel in defying the wind gloriously if not quite so corporately. All of us I'm sure will have marvelled at the sight of gulls zooming nonchalantly among and amazingly close to the foaming, pounding waves of our seas on the wildest of days, literally dodging the advancing rollers. They skim so close to the churning, boiling water that they seem to be in danger of being swallowed up and swamped by it. But they never seem to put a foot, or rather a wing, wrong. And, as there does not seem to be any practical reason for them to challenge the conditions so, one is forced to conclude that, as with the aerial antics of the rooks, they are performing these daring flights, simply for fun ... and maybe as a challenge to be met!

However, the heron I watched battling with the wind last weekend, certainly did not have fun on its mind as it was repeatedly buffeted by a strong westerly. It rose from the loch-side calmly enough but once it had cleared the shelter provided by the trees, it found itself unmercifully tossed to and fro like a piece of flotsam, finding progress at times rather more than a little difficult. Having spent a fruitless period at one station, it had clearly decided to try its luck elsewhere, only to find its journey punctuated by brisk gusts of wind, which seemed determined to halt its progress.

Herons are actually remarkably strong flyers due to having an extremely large wing surface in relation to an extraordinarily light body. When hawking was literally the 'sport of kings', herons were regarded very highly for being excellent quarriers for the hawks. Herons, in good conditions, because of those large wings and such a light body weight, are capable of gaining height very quickly thus providing excellent sport for the hawkers' peregrines which usually try to come at their prey from above. Herons offered a real challenge to this form of attack and consequently often managed to escape those onrushing, crushing talons. But when the wind blows, these advantages are turned into liabilities.

And of course, when the wind blows with such force, some birds of prey also find it difficult to employ their normal hunting tactics. For instance, kestrels find hovering a very tricky proposition in these conditions. Although other raptors such as the buzzard, the kite, the osprey and to some extent the barn owl also use the hover as a means of spotting prey, none perhaps show quite the expertise demonstrated by the kestrel.

I have in the past, compared the hovering of a kestrel, with the computer driven flight of a modern airliner. If you are in a window seat on such a flight you may be able to watch the wing flaps of your aeroplane and you will notice that they are constantly yet subtly moving up and down. This movement is in response to the on-board computer systems, which are constantly monitoring the plane's exact position in the sky, enabling it to make those minute adjustments to maintain its equilibrium.

In a sense, the kestrel's brain is performing the self-same task. If you are able to watch closely a hovering kestrel you will soon become aware of similar responses in the wings and tail of the bird always making those precise adjustments in response to the conditions. In fact I am sure that every sinew and every muscle of a kestrel seen this week, struggling to retain its position in the wind was, like the wing-flaps on the airliner, responding to the virtual computer that is the bird's brain! The result was poetry in motion. And naturally, if the wind is blowing hard, those responses have to be even more instant and precise. In such circumstances, they are indeed a wonder to behold.

The key for the hovering kestrel is that the head must be kept as still as possible in order that the bird can focus as it scans the ground below in detail for the movement of its prey. Kestrels depend heavily on small mammals such as voles and mice as their main source of food. This brings in to play the other vital component part of the kestrel's armoury, its eyes. If you were to compare the eyes of a human being with those of a kestrel, relative to the size of the skull, then we should have eyes the size of tennis balls.

The eyesight of a kestrel is thus so much better than our own but then it needs to be, for it has to seek out those minuscule creatures far below, well hidden by the vegetation. Voles make little runs through the grass, which they use regularly. They are like little covered walk-ways and that they hope makes them less conspicuous. The kestrel's eyesight however has to be sharp enough to see through that cover.

There is a special place in my heart for kestrels for when I was but a lad in short pants. I used to regularly lie on my back in 'my special field' watching larks soaring but more dynamically perhaps, having a worm's eye view of hunting kestrels hovering. I thought then, as I think now - is there a more magnificent sight in nature than this? I remain convinced there isn't! And when the wind blows, their command of that hover is even more amazing! Simply gyroscopic!

Country View 22.6.17

on .

These are days of rapid growth. Many birds emerge from the egg, bald, blind and thus utterly helpless. At this early stage in their lives, they are completely dependent upon their parents for food and warmth. Thus those parent birds are driven to search for and deliver a constant supply of food, most of it in the form of invertebrate life. The nature of the weather also plays its part and long periods of rain may shorten the odds on the continuity of that vitally regular supply of food and thus the survival of some or indeed all of the brood. Those 'hard working' parents must therefore take advantage of the long hours of daylight available in midsummer to continue to forage late into the evening and resume during the wee small hours.

The result of this dedication is a remarkable transformation, from those helpless, blind and bald chicks into little balls of feather, bright eyed if not perhaps bushy tailed, literally in a few short days. The wide-open beaks of young birds, with their brightly coloured inner mouths, stimulate the parent birds into ever more frantic searching for more and more food. Of all our native birds, the most startlingly colourful mouth belongs to a young cuckoo.

Furthermore, young cuckoos grow at the most remarkable rate, soon dwarfing their foster parents and thus reminiscent of Topsy, who, we were told, grew and grew and grew. Cuckoo parents, as we know, take absolutely no interest in the welfare of their off-spring, simply laying eggs in other bird's nests and relying utterly upon the unfortunate hosts to just get on with the arduous job of rearing what soon becomes the single, monster, alien chick! As early as next month the parent cuckoos will begin their journeys back to Africa, leaving the next generation to the tender mercies of foster parents and their offspring's eventual migratory journey literally to chance!

Perhaps cuckoos are the exception to the rule with dedication clearly not a primary instinct! The cuckoo egg of course hatches after just thirteen days of incubation, usually a day or so earlier than those of its foster parents. The young cuckoo also emerges blind and bald, yet instinctively, it immediately begins to expel as many of the 'natural' eggs of its foster parents from the nest as it can, manipulating them on to its concavely shaped back and heaving them overboard. And if any do manage to hatch, the resultant chicks quickly go the same way. Strangely, the foster parents seem almost hypnotised by their fast growing chick and indifferent to the tragic demise of their own young as they now focus entirely on this single, rapidly growing youngster.

That ever-wide open, gaping chasm of a beak that is a hallmark of that chick, simply impels them to find more and more caterpillars. Oddly enough, that brightly coloured gape sometimes mesmerises neighbouring birds too. I once watched in amazement, when a starling hurtling back towards its own nest with a beak full of insects, was so enchanted by that colourful interior that it found itself involuntarily making a diversion. Instead of feeding its own young, it found itself stuffing the contents of its beak into that extremely receptive, cavernous cuckoo beak.

All around us during June, are parent birds exploiting the rich variety of invertebrate life that is currently emerging at this productive time of the year. The growth rate of these newly hatched youngsters is remarkable, their transmogrification amazing. Yellowhammer chicks for example, are precocious enough to fly in less than two weeks after emerging from the egg. Warblers of various kinds too are quick out of the blocks, pretty much on a par with the yellow yites, with blackcap chicks even jumping the starter's gun and fledging within ten days!

These weeks of midsummer, if they represent make or break for so many of our birds, are also crucial for the future ambitions of our largest land mammals, red deer. During the spring of each year, usually during March, red deer stags cast their antlers. Immediately a new set begins to grow. If we marvel at the rapid growth of newly hatched birds, equally staggering is the rapid development of a new and in the case of master stags, very substantial set of antlers. When it comes to growth, the accoutrements, which make red deer stags so majestic and special to most folk, grow at an absolutely phenomenal rate. By August that growth is complete albeit that the new set of antlers is covered by velvet, a living material containing blood vessels. This velvet is rubbed off during September so that the antlers are 'clean' in preparation for that crucial annual autumn spectacle, the rut, when the size of those antlers really does matter. A master stag, therefore will grow a full set of antlers of say twelve or fourteen points in something like five months.

Such a rate of growth is not surprisingly, very demanding upon the physiology of the stags and during this period, these impressive animals, which are of course essentially vegetarians, can often be seen chewing on cast antlers. The reason for this is that they desperately need extra calcium as the new antlers grow. It is hardly surprising then, that in many parts of Scotland there are folk who go up into the mountains and glens in the spring: their quest to find those cast antlers. These they can fashion into all manner of mementoes such as handles for walking sticks, crooks and sgian dhus.

I have a friend who has gathered quite a collection of antlers but he didn't have to go off to the Highlands to find them. Instead he picked them up in a nearby Lowland conifer forest which has not been managed for several years and which now supports a fascinating spectrum of wildlife. Among its residents are some interesting raptors and even wild boar, not to mention red squirrels and pine marten but in particular, there is also a very healthy and increasingly large herd of red deer.

Indeed, during these past days, I have been reminded of the growing presence of red deer in this Lowland airt, when I spotted a red deer stag in a field in which down the years, I have often seen roe deer but never before red. This fellow has clearly been enjoying the shelter afforded by a nearby patch of mixed woodland. Unlike the aforementioned coniferous forest, this delightful little wood is instead, dominated by deciduous trees. As I have said many times before, whereas generally red habitat is not in fact treeless and exposed hillsides but woodland. Indeed red deer living out their lives in such environments are, because of the more sheltered environment, are generally much larger and heavier than Highland deer.

This month, many red deer hinds will be dropping their calves, which are of course at birth, generously spotted. This form of pelage betrays that woodland origin of red deer. In that kind of environment the spots are an extremely effective form of camouflage with the sun filtering through the ever moving canopy causing a dappling effect which allows the calves to merge beautifully with their background. It therefore comes as little surprise that when they get the opportunity, red deer will gladly revert to type and return to the woodland environment.

Hence the surprise sighting and the clear evidence to be seen of an adornment of newly-sprouting antlers. By August that stag will surely be transformed and once he has rubbed off the velvet in September, perhaps he will be revealed not so much as the Monarch of the Glen but perhaps as the Monarch of the Vale!

Country View 14.6.17

on .

There is something essentially balletic about the movement of many of our birds. Those remarkable murmurations of starlings are a superb example of the magical moments created sometimes by birds in their tens of thousands. Hereabouts, such ballets are in contrast, created by relatively small numbers of what are otherwise, generally regarded as very ordinary birds. That said, looked at as individuals, starlings, despite their commonness, are nevertheless quite striking birds whilst at the same time, in my eyes, they exude in their demeanour, more than a hint of comedy. Their speckled plumage, basically black, also reflects the spectrum of rainbow colours, to add an iridescent quality.

As frequent garden visitors, starlings might well be regarded by most folk as 'nuisance' birds, full of swagger and inclined to bully other visitors. Yet when masses of them get together during the winter months, they provide the most spectacular performances, sweeping across the sky in fluid, ever changing patterns. It cannot be denied that their 'dancing' is nothing short of breathtaking. As reported recently, scientists have deduced that such flocks comprise of groups of leaders on the one hand and followers on the other. Hence the ever-changing shapes they create in the sky! Much the same in ballet in some ways, I suppose, when the lead dancers lead their followers into one gracious movement after another!

There are several similar examples of large numbers of birds navigating their way across the sky in similar mode. Many of them are members of the wader clan and so show off their similarly spectacular formations in the marine environment. For instance, the likes of knot certainly take the breath away with their mass fly-pasts. And just as is the case in those tens of thousands of starlings, there is absolutely no evidence of collisions in spite of their remarkably close formations. Another similarity to the well-rehearsed world of ballet!

Other birds perhaps, whilst also in their everyday behaviour very much prone to dancing in one form or another, are less corporate and so perhaps more reminiscent of solo dancers as opposed to chorus members. For instance, I love watching dippers. They are effervescent birds, seldom still, bobbing up and down on what appear to be spring-loaded legs thus more like the dancing followers of modern pop music. And of course, they spend much of their time in an under water environment so perhaps they are not so much balletic as aquatic in their dancing or indeed swimming.

Strangely enough, dippers despite existing almost entirely in a watery world do not have webbed feet. However, they seem to manage fine without such swimming aids as they search the beds of rivers, burns and lochs for insect larva. In appearance, they resemble oversized wrens with their round, concavely-shaped bodies and short tails. However, they are wonderfully designed birds, their shape enabling them, when they lower their heads, to literally walk on the beds of such rivers and stay firmly ensconced there despite the rushing water which in fact because of their posture, actually presses them down, virtually anchoring them to the bed. When they want to return to the surface, they simply lift their heads and pop up to the surface like corks.

Wagtails are also birds of ceaseless movement. However, wagtails, despite their nomenclature, do not in fact wag their tails so much as flick them up and down. I well remember someone asking me why they wagged their tails. It could be that they are advertising their presence to other wagtails, perhaps as a means of establishing dominance or a pecking order.

Some suggest that the constant tail flicking is a gesture of sheer brazen defiance. In other words this constant movement indicates to potential predators, "Here I am, ever alert, so you are not going to catch me!" Another suggestion supposes that the constant tail flicking is designed to flush out insect prey. The frequency of pumping the tail up and down does seem to increase when the wagtails come together socially but surprisingly, the 'catch me if you can' signal to predators seems to find most favour among scientists. Maybe they are just naturally, extremely rhythmic birds! All three of our native wagtails, the familiar, clown faced pied wagtail, the grey wagtail with its muted yellow body colouring and the much rarer but vivid yellow wagtail, constantly flick their tails up and down like this.

There are a number of birds which bob up and down in their courtship dances and whilst enjoying my recent expedition to the marine environment, I was constantly aware of the presence of those excellently camouflaged birds, sandpipers, on nearby beaches. They were in general heard rather than seen, their almost plaintiff, whispering but quite high-pitched calling notes, 'twee-wee-wee' always evident. Closer inspection revealed their presence on quite stony beaches where their superbly camouflaged plumage enables them literally to melt beautifully into the background. From flickering and gliding flight out over and very close to the water. They land a few yards further on along the shore, to soon take off again and return from whence they came or move a few yards farther on.

These are of course, migrants, which usually arrive in April both on the seashores of the north and west and indeed on many an island riverbank and loch shore too. This, I believe, is proving to be an exceptional year for migrant birds in line with the previously mentioned extremely populous warblers of various kinds. Like most of the other summer visitors, sandpipers, travel here from Africa and it must be assumed that the weather conditions in transit have this time around, been extremely benign. And when they arrive, they too join the dancing classes! Sandpipers are habitually, quite low-flying birds but when they arrive in the spring, the male birds become more ambitious, establishing territorial integrity by performing a soaring aerial dance, which culminates on a descent on stiff but quivering wings.

The female will join him in this dance before he pursues her in a short, frantic chase. The pair augment their aerial dance with little trills of musical accompaniment, before he now begins a rhythmic little head bobbing display. Sandpipers are thus one of those 'bobbing dancers' and indeed also bob up and down when looking for food! They are definitely birds that 'bob up and down like this'! Sandpipers are about the size of starlings yet despite their lack of stature they certainly clock up huge mileages during their migratory journeys. They are exceptionally widely distributed, being found right round the globe, migrating from Australia to Asia, from South to North America and from Africa to Europe.

The sound and rhythms associated with sandpipers are reflected in a series of curious colloquial names, ranging from 'waterypleeps' in Orkney, 'killicleepsie' on Scotland's east coast and 'dickie-di-dee' down in Lancashire. In the Stirling area, it was popularly known as 'the skittery deacon'! Older readers may recall sandpipers of a different but very musical sort in the sixties. "Try to remember ..."!

Country View 30.5.17

on .

May's landscape was full of colour and June promises to continue that theme. In particular, the many shades of green indicating the new season's growth, gave the landscape that characteristically fresh-faced appearance. Golden gorse across our hillsides and beside many of our country lanes provided vivid, glowing contrast whilst the woodland carpets of bluebells added further delicate colour, not to mention fragrance too. The fields have been carpeted with yellow buttercups, whilst the centuries old pursuit of exotic plants from all over the world is evident in the bursting of the wild rhododendron - rhododendron ponticum. It may be unloved by many for its ability to invade landscape and choke out other flowering shrubs but nevertheless, it does add a further splash of vibrant colour to the countryside.

Yet, amid this vibrant pallet of colours there have been some very black and white moments. For instance, there are countless flecks of white blossoms dominating hedgerows, indeed the hawthorns this year are spectacular with cascades of flowers embellishing field boundaries and illuminating roadsides. Rowans too are bursting into flower and on roadside verges, ranks of flowering plants wave with the passing of every vehicle, called weeds perhaps yet all contributing to this seasonal floral tribute. In contrast black is partially provided by newly fledged and very noisy rooks, now fully-grown and following in the wake of their parents eagerly as the hunt for insect- life intensifies. Such protein rich food is what they need for further growth.

More often than not, rooks engender antipathy and even at times antagonism! They might be regarded by many as noisy, rather scruffy black birds. However, the mere fact that they are black is enough for some people, resurrecting fears which have their origins in a much more superstitious age. In some cases, such emotions remain a part of the human psyche.

Notwithstanding the existence of that peculiar human foible, the fact is that not only are rooks, like most of the crow clan, highly intelligent birds, they actually do an awful lot of good in ridding the fields of those crop consuming pests, leather-jackets and wire-worms. When farmers see hordes of rooks descending upon newly sown fields, there is a fear that they are after the precious seeds whereas the reality is that it is those pests they seek. I remember the late David Stephen telling me that he had examined the crops of rooks a neighbouring farmer had shot because of the aforesaid assumption, to find hardly a grain of seed in them ... just insects and larva of one kind or another.

However as said, rooks do not generally engender much enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of folks whereas another black and white bird, the pied wagtail, surely must raise at least a smile on most folks' lips. In recent days, I have been watching with some amusement the 'Chaplinesque' progress of these clownish little characters, as they pursue flying insects either on the ground or in the air. Currently, there appears to be a lot of white butterflies flitting about and one wagtail was observed to set off in pursuit of one of them. What followed was a remarkable passage of aerial combat in which no matter how the wagtail tried, it failed to lay a beak on the butterfly. The wagtail, although showing plenty of flying skill, was no match for the butterfly as it dodged each and every lunge the bird made. Eventually, the wagtail gave up and the butterfly flitted off safely!

I also took some pleasure in watching another wagtail in pursuit of an unidentified flying insect, this time on the ground. At times, the little bird ran so fast that its little legs became a blur ... ideal material for animated cartoon characters I thought! However, this time the wagtail obtained and devoured its quarry after zig-zagging in pursuit of the insect, plus the odd flutter or two into the air. That wagtail was both persistent and successful!

If not as amusing, there was more contact with black and white birds, with the sighting hereabouts, of a number of magpies. Whilst sadly, many of our most popular birds are in decline, the magpie is very definitely not! Indeed during my forty odd years here, from having no magpies present at all, in recent years they have arrived and indeed established themselves all too successfully. However, as far as I can tell magpies have not yet invaded Highland Scotland and I'm sure many will regard that as good news. They prey heavily upon the young of songbirds.

The other black and white bird that has been catching my attention has been the oyster-catcher. I am shortly to take a break, decamping for a few days to the western seaboard where I am sure to be welcomed by the strident and neurotic sounding 'sea-pies'. No marine environment seems quite right without the 'clip, clip, clipping' of these extremely vocal and striking birds. To be fair, whilst their plumage is indeed, black and white, they do sport bright colour in the form of their long, orange beaks and their pink legs and feet, not to mention those bright red eyes!

The natural association between oyster-catchers and the seaside are such that when folk spot them many miles from the sea in inland airts, they not only express surprise at their presence but even question what it is that they have been seeing. In fact, oyster-catchers first began to migrate inland in the spring, over a hundred years ago, when perhaps as a part of the war effort in those grim days a hundred years ago more and more land began to go under the plough. The very act of ploughing inevitably reveals a whole host of invertebrates and these are, of course, a welcome and easily sourced bonanza of food which naturally attracts a whole range of birds, including the aforementioned oyster-catchers.

It may be assumed that the first such sea-pies to begin the trek inland, were encouraged by new ploughing close to the marine environment and that having discovered such rich pickings, decided to explore further inland. However, whilst in recent days I have been hearing their frantic calling, I am aware that compared with say thirty years ago, their numbers in this part of the world have fallen considerably. Oyster-catchers, with their striking plumage and loud voices are easy to identify.

Those that still travel inland to sometimes choose the strangest places in which to nest. One pair, over the course of a number of years persisted in building their nest on the top of a dry stane dyke, less than a metre from a busy main road, with cars, lorries and buses hurtling by. Happily their young - upwardly mobile just hours after emerging from the egg - decamped on the field side of the dyke each and every year. Other incongruous sites, of which I was aware, included the top of a stone built gatepost, the gravel in a lay bye and the flat roof of a busy educational establishment. Why the numbers of these distinctive birds to be seen in this inland airt is reducing I am not entirely sure although it might be that the growing incidence of winter as opposed to spring cereal sewing, may be a factor.

Those that still persist in making that journey inland to pair, nest and produce young, nevertheless bring to these inland acres, an audio reminder of the sea, which let us remember, once penetrated surprisingly far inland and covered what is now some of the finest agricultural land in Scotland.

The final and bizarre episode was definitely black in the shape of a carrion crow which waddled up to the front of a car parked in a supermarket car park and proceeded to feast upon the dead insects on its grill. It then waddled off to the front of the store via the zebra crossing. He then returned using the same route! Very black and white!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods