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 1.11.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country View 27.10.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country View 18.10.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country View 13.10.17

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This week, I have been seeing red! However, the red I have been seeing is not reflecting any sense of anger but is currently being clearly manifested in the trees, birds and animals which are certainly now very much in autumnal mood. As the year plunges towards its end, the landscape is transformed. This green and pleasant landscape now draws a breath. The leaves surrender to the inevitable passage of time and fall, yet they provide the nutrients for next spring. In death, they breathe new life.

Red has been especially noticeable lately in the blazing, dying foliage of the horse chestnuts And with advancing autumn days bathing the landscape with a golden sheen, the colours are accordingly strengthening, so that yellow, gold and red and rapidly taking over from green. Indeed, I have even been conscious of vague hints of forthcoming winter beginning to pervade the air. If the swallows are gone, there is plenty of evidence of new winter arrivals.

Belatedly perhaps, massed ranks of pink-feet have finally arrived, their loose skeins at times stretching far and wide across our skies and the haunting sound of their voices echoing across the vale. That cacophony of high pitched gabbling is a stark reminder that even if Mr Frost has yet to put in a serious appearance, he may indeed soon respond to the voices of those thousands of geese and come a-visiting! As we wander towards November, those hints will gradually take more definite shape!

And, from suggestions of pink to more full-blown red or russet, when I encountered a lone red kite patrolling nearby fields, dancing, pirouetting and floating on the air as only kites can. It prescribed wide circles as its incredibly sharp eyes focussed on the ground below in its search for a meal. Within minutes I found myself able to strike an almost instant comparison between the delicate flight of the kite and that of a buzzard which typically prescribed rather more contained circles over an adjacent field on the other side of the track.

Whilst I have always been an admirer of buzzards - their tuneful mewing during these autumn months seems somehow to compliment the gabbling of the geese - there can be absolutely no doubt whatsoever, that in comparison with the lissom kite, the buzzard suddenly seemed bulky and almost clumsy. Of course, the kite is so much more slender, a physical feature which somehow seems to accentuate its size especially in flight when the voluminous wings are at full stretch. There is, unquestionably, something so much more graceful about the more buoyant flight of the kite.

The circling kite has become an increasingly familiar sight all over Britain in recent years and although there are those - a minority I guess - who seem to find its presence not to their liking, I suspect most welcome it as a natural enhancement to our landscape. There are even those in the south, who now actively feed kites in their gardens. Yet despite the attributes of kites there are also people who do not like them simply because they have hooked beaks!

For some such folk, a bird possessed of a hooked beak is anathema and the cause of such hatred that is I suppose, inherent. The claim that kites - and buzzards for that matter - are apt to take young game birds when the opportunity arises is not, I often think, justification for killing these truly beautiful birds, especially when you consider that every year some fifty million pheasants are released into the British countryside. Surely the impact of kites and buzzards, both mainly scavengers, is infinitesimal!

For the sheer beauty they display I personally roundly applaud the decision to restore red kites to our landscape. Over a hundred years ago, previous generations of kites might well have over-flown those self-same fields. But when all raptors suddenly became the 'enemy', along with a number of carnivores too, and war was waged against anything that threatened game, the kite, an easy target because of the slow and graceful nature of flight, was quickly driven to extinction in both Scotland and England. They managed somehow to hold on in mid-Wales but only in minimal numbers.

Thus, when the decision was made to re-introduce them, the young birds needed to re-establish them here had to be brought in from Eastern Europe, where they are plentiful. And my, how they have prospered. In several places in the UK there are sites now set up, where kites can be viewed from hides by the general public. One such viewing place has of course, been established locally on the Argaty estate. Anyone who is interested in wildlife and wants to see kites at their best really should take the opportunity to visit Argaty. The sight of dozens of kites coming in to feed is truly spectacular and breathtaking.

There was another flash of russet red, albeit a few weeks ago, when I delighted in watching a single, grey headed male kestrel flaunting his fantastic hovering skills high above a field margin. It is a matter of great sadness to me that these days, such a sighting is a rarity compared with the situation just a few years ago. In a sense, I was brought out on kestrels. For instance, I could occasionally watching one from my childhood bedroom window and even better, if I went down to 'my secret field' I could lay on my back and watch them endlessly. What has happened to our kestrels? I long to see that shade of red on a more regular basis again.

And then, a day or two ago, another flash of red excited me when a red squirrel scampered across the road in front of me, disappearing through a hedge into a neighbourhood garden. Twenty years ago the colour of any squirrel sighted there would have been grey, not red. The transformation over recent years has been remarkable. The spread of pine marten, hitherto restricted to remote parts of the Highlands, has had a remarkable impact on grey squirrel numbers in many parts of Scotland. Happily, the vacuum created by marten predation upon these aliens, is slowly being filled by red squirrels.

I daresay that the decision to introduce grey squirrels to the British landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an act perpetrated by both private landowners and local authorities, would have been made without any concept of the consequences their actions might have on our native red squirrels. In short, the aggressive nature of the larger grey squirrels in competing for food, has, over a period of just over a hundred years, seen red squirrel populations plummet, their places taken by the greys.

The progress made by pine marten as they have broken out from the Highlands and extended their range into Lowland Scotland, has seen them target the greys which, because they are heavier and thus far less agile than reds, are consequently much easier to catch. In recent times, there have also been campaigns launched to cull grey squirrels, so thanks to this but more especially due to marten activity, the balance is slowly changing in favour of the reds.

However, there is an irony here because red squirrels have enjoyed very mixed fortunes down the years. They were thought to have become extinct during the early nineteenth century and were subsequently re-introduced to Perthshire from Scandinavia. The irony was compounded when the rising population of red squirrels was such that squirrel clubs were formed in order to control their numbers because of the damage they were causing to trees in the new forests of the time! Now, in direct contrast, everything is being done to restore them to areas where once they were common. Seeing red more often as is the case now, is therefore really good news!

Country View 5.10.17

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Territorial integrity is fundamental, not just to animals and birds but indeed to us too. Whether in relation to a multi-roomed mansion or castle or a one-roomed flat perhaps more reminiscent of a shoe-box than a house, we psychologically need the security such a dwelling provides "An Englishman's home is his castle," is a well-worn phrase. A Scotsman's, perhaps, is his bothy! It perhaps boils down to our need to belong ... somewhere!

Animals and birds have precisely the same needs, albeit that territory for them, serves more than one purpose; on the one hand, a breeding territory. However, many of the small birds, which are especially vulnerable to attacks by predators, surrender their territorial sovereignty when they are unencumbered by the drive to procreate and their lifestyles are changed by the shortening days of winter.

Indeed, as winter approaches, territorial integrity as a means to a breeding end, ceases to be such a driving force for most birds. Instead, the mentality now switches more vitally to the harsh reality of survival and that goal is more readily achieved by surrendering all such notions and individual status to come together in flocks. Thus, during the next few weeks many small birds in particular will cast aside their individuality - not absolutely perhaps but to a substantial degree - and instead become members of a community of fellow birds.

I'm sure that those of you, who derive pleasure from feeding birds during the autumn and winter months, will have noticed that occasionally, the cock birds taking advantage of your generosity, do have little spats with one another. I suppose that the spirit of competition still lurks deeply within the breasts of many males of various species. However, for the duration of the winter they try their best to suppress their antagonism to other rival males, in the rather more important pursuit of food.

Yet things are not always as we may expect them to be. Much to my surprise the other day, I was suddenly aware of a cock great tit, suddenly bursting into song. His, strident 'tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher' proclamation is not something I would normally expect to hear until January at least. I therefore wondered if this solitary songster had been inspired by the resident robins and wrens here, which as mentioned a week or two ago, remain in musical mood throughout the winter months, as they put down their vocal markers in establishing winter feeding territories.

They, the redbreasts and jenny wrens, are perhaps egotistical enough to resist the temptation to adopt corporate life and instead fiercely resist any notion of togetherness. But, that said, wrens can sometimes surrender their individuality too, in especially cold weather, coming together for the warmth generated in a communal roost. Often dozens of them will squeeze themselves into small spaces such as nesting boxes, where they generate sufficient heat to get them through the night.

Located in my garden, there are four cock robins, each occupying and prepared to defend a distinct and separate territory. For robins it seems that winter territory is just as important as breeding territory in the springtime ... and as intensely defended, although that defence is more often than not reflected in song - each occupant responding to the challenge and songs of the others. For me, the result is extremely pleasant for their vocal proclamations of territorial integrity provide a remarkable oasis of sweet song against a background, save for the rattling wrens and that lone great tit, of relative silence.

Nevertheless, as autumn advances and natural foods begin to dwindle, most other small birds will indeed ditch that singularity and come together in large communities. It is all about improving their chances of surviving those harsh winter months. Corporately, so many pairs of eyes will be better able to source food and also, they are similarly useful in spotting and warding off predators. For instance, the likes of sparrowhawks are literally repelled by a swirling mass of birds, put off and confused by them and prevented from selecting single birds as victims. All those raptors can hope for is to pick off stragglers - usually birds which are not perhaps as fit as they should be.

And, if recent reports from the British Trust for Ornithology are universally correct, some of those flocks might just be that much bigger this winter. Research shows that most small birds have had a very bountiful year. Indeed, figures suggest that 2017 has been their most productive breeding year since 1992. These figures, therefore, point towards a short-term reversal to the trend, which in recent years has suggested an alarming decline in many small bird populations.

Cock great tits can be very assertive but as garden bird feeders will be well aware, they do, during the winter months, tolerate (more or less) the corporate presence of other great tits, male and female. And whilst that surprising and strident little burst of song is typical of these feisty little birds, more often heard perhaps in the spring, great tits are more versatile than you may have cause to think. Experts tell me that a male great tit may have as many as forty different songs in his repertoire.

Such a range of songs is of course a substantial advantage when, next spring, it comes to the selection of a mate. Although the male may seem to be the one that leads that process, in reality, the choice of mate is definitely made by the female. However, as with many other small birds, there is a coming together for the common good during the winter months, but the greater his range of song, the better his chances of being selected as a mate.

The origin of these flocks may well have their beginnings during the late summer, when juvenile birds, having ceased to be reliant upon their parents, first face the need to learn the art of survival. Again, the reason for this togetherness is entirely pragmatic for these newcomers will have a much better chance of survival as a group than as individuals. And as autumn and then winter comes along and food becomes harder to find, other tits may join these wandering bands. Again, it is all about self-interest!

As observers will know only too well, great tits are not only versatile vocalists they are also very omnivorous when it comes to choices of food. This is perhaps why they are relatively successful. Close observation has for instance, identified that great tits consume invertebrates from an astonishing range of up to 135 different species, ranging from months and butterflies to beetles, bugs, flies, wasps and spiders.

Clearly such things become very scarce in the winter, hence the eager presence of great tits at garden bird-tables and their liking for peanuts and fat. However, beech-mast and other tree sees are important sources of food during the winter months. But, there is entertainment of a highly visual quality provided by all those birds, especially those great tits, when they flock to our bird-tables during these shorter days of winter. And while robin and wren may regularly break the silence, you might just hear the odd great tit too! Feeding time approaches, which means here are rich rewards and much entertainment to be enjoyed.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods