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 10 May 2019

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Once again crows find themselves at the heart of controversy, in England at least.  The television naturalist, Chris Packham, has certainly ruffled a few feathers.  His new group, Wild Justice, has persuaded Natural England to stop the shooting not only of crows but rooks, magpies, jays, Canada geese, and a whole range of birds considered by many to be pests.

Natural England, the body that Government looks to for advice on wildlife announced that it was revoking licences that permit landowners to control sixteen species of birds in all.  Therefore, anyone wishing to control those birds would have to apply for individual licences to cull them.  As a result there has been a furore amongst farmers, gamekeepers and landowners.  Opinions on this and many other issues seem these days to be extremely polarised and now the Government has removed the issuing of such licenses from Natural England's remit!

Predictably, there was immediate retaliation presumably on the part of the pro-shooting lobby who hung the bodies of two dead crows to Mr Packham's front gate, the loch of which they also glued shut!  Thus, the extremist views that are infecting more and more aspects of daily life for us all, have arrived in the rural landscape creating conflict between those who own and work the land and those who want to conserve our natural resources.  Incidentally, these may, in many cases, be one and the same!

Conservationists can be well meaning but sometimes misguided.  However, those who shoot do sometimes seem to be a law unto themselves.  Recent reports for instance reveal that 300,000 hares are shot annually in Britain and that as a result, their numbers are falling alarmingly.  Both brown hares and mountain hares are protected in Scotland, there being a close season between February and September when hares breed.  Similar legislation is long overdue in England and Wales.  Perhaps it would be better if we admired and respected our wildlife rather than killing it!

Ironically, I also read a few days ago, that there are those in the south who have ralllied to the cause of grey squirrels, demanding that they should not be culled.  The opposited view, widely supported, wants grey squirrels to be exterminated on the grounds that they are an invasive species.  Indeed, there is a European Union edict that aims for the eradication, population control or containment of grey squirrels.  Apparently DEFRA is committed to maintain that position whether or not we leave the EU.

As most folk know, grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from America during the latter half of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century.  Being larger and more aggressive than our native red squirrels, the greys were soon out-competing the reds for food, taking over their territories and causing the demise of these smaller but more attractive native animals.  The alien greys also carry a pox virus, to which they are immune but which is fatal to reds.

Those who wage war on grey squirrels regard them as 'tree rats' that pose an existential threat to red squirrels and cause wide-scale damage to the timber industry.  However, there is an irony here for history tells us that the red squirrel had become so abundant in 1903, at a time when the introduction of grey squirrels was nearing itst peak , that the Highland Squirrel Club was formed as a means of controlling red squirrel numbers. Over the course of the next thirty years, some 85,000 red squirrels were killed!   Meanwhile, grey squirrels were being released willy-nilly all over Britain, including Scotland! Now thankfully there is a nation-wide drive to encourage red squirrels.

Indeed, most people therefore rejoice in the recent arrival of pine marten in many parts of Scotland and now in Englad, Wales and Ireland too. These arboreal predators have certainly made serious inroads into grey squirrel numbers, and the void created has been happily filled in many places by native red squirrels.  Tha surely is a case of nature working for nature in the best possible way, without direct interference from us....except of course that pine marten, once persecuted, are now protected!

The question might legitimately be asked, "What is a native species and what may be condidered to be 'introduced'"? The newly introduced generation of beavers, now officially accepted and indeed given the protection of the law, was truly native many centuries ago but is this new generation of them universally welcomed?   Not so it seems by farmers in parts of Perthshire where beavers have been pesent for a goodly number of years having been surreptitiously released into the wild there years ago.  Some farmers allege that the activities of beavers are causing grain-growing farmland to flood very much to the detriment of farm incomes.  More conflict!  So divergent views on the subject of re-introductions are exposed!

Of course, the release of sea eagles to parts of the Highlands in recent years has also become a setting for innumerable apocryphal tales of lamb losses.  However, if they were taking the numbers of lambs suggested, we would see these 'flying barn doors' incapable of achieving lift-off simply because, allegedly being full of lamb, they would be too heavy to fly!

However, although such apocryphal tales abound, with of course, foxes also being blamed for colossal lamb losses, these stories are often concocted as a means of promoting the war on the 'enemy' - the fox et-al.  Understandable perhaps, when you consider how precarious crofting and hill farming can be.  Lambs are very vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the weather, losses can be high and foxes are quick to exploit such resources.  Ironically, we keep killing foxes yet their numbers continue to rise.

The rabbit - a creature which has also been with us an awful long time whether brought by the Normans or even the Romans, as recently claimed - was responsible, before and during my lifetime, for crop damage amounting to millions of pounds annually, as their numbers soared.  What had perhaps been unforeseen was that whilst rabbit numbers had remained relatively low for centuries,  once the tide of the Agricultural Revolution had begun to run, the impact was enormous.  The rapid availability of mountains of more nutritious food had such an impact upon rabbits that they certainly went forth and multiplied way beyond anyone's imagination.

Then in mid-1950s came myxomatosis, a disease deadly to rabbits! The sight of emaciated, blind rabbits in their millions wandering about in obvious distress was too much for many people. The desease had been deliberately introduced in a desperate attempt to control a rabbit population which was then literally off the scale as far as numbers were concerned.

Now there are few rabbits to damage crops yet the sight of a field full of crows or rooks may be the cause of apoplexy in some farmers' minds. However, such a sight may not necessarily indicate that crops are being trashed as they were when there were so many rabbits. Indeed, we might pose the question as to whether the crows' liking for pests such as wireworms and leatherjackets makes them not pests but pest-controllers?

Weekly Nature Watch 3 May 2019

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One way or another, we all at some time in our lives, find ourselves part of a pecking order,  Indeed , the way things are right now, those who are our leaders, find themselves categorised in much the same way.  Allegedly, the President of the United States is said to be notionally the leading decision-maker in the World - at the top of that particular pecking order - the rest of the world's leaders relegated to subordinate roles! I'm not sure that Mr Putin or come to it, Kim Jong-un, see things that way! I'm not sure that I do either!

However, as said, we all inevitibly find ourselves in some kind of pecking order, whether we are at or near the top or closer to the bottom.  Pecking orders, as the very words suggest, are very much a part of avian society. When you see a mob of rooks feeding in a field,  you can be sure that the birds on the edge of the flock are very much the subordinates. Those at the top of the pecking order will be at the centre, which is where the best feeding is.

As the breeding season gets under way, the pecking order among birds becomes even more pronounced as cock birds try to establish their dominance, striving to achieve a place at the top of that pecking order in order to attract a mate.  There are many cases where cock birds, having been subdued by their peers and reduced to subordinate positions, accept their status meekly and actually more or less become the slaves of those more successful birds.

In some cases, they may become so dutiful that they help to feed a brooding hen bird that was once the apple of  their eye but who by the nature of things has chosen their 'boss' as a mate.  Mind you, when it comes to the ultimate pecking order, it is the hen bird that rules the roost.  It is she that makes all the key decisions, including exactly which of the nests the courting cock bird may have constructed, as is the case among wrens and of course, which cock bird she will select as a mate!

Like many folk, I gain a good deal of entertainment from watching the birds at my bird table.  For example, I am amused by the feistiness of the plethora of goldfinches which, despite being smaller than the chaffinches, greenfinches and sparrows, readily see them off if they dare to challenge them for a position at the sunflower heart feeders.  The siskins are similarly feisty and extremely reluctant to be dislodged.  It is equally amusing to see the great titis and bluetits vying with one another for prime position at the peanut feeder. However, there is one other tit currently present here, a single, miniscule coal tit.  He or she - the two sexes are identical - has to be a real opportunist to get any food at all.

Coal tits seem always to be way down the pecking order.  My resident coal tit therefore makes very brief journeys to the bird-table.  It nips in, grabs a nut and in a flash is gone before the other tits can bully it.  In places where there are marsh tits, willow tits and crested tits - the latter exclusively resident in the Speyside pine forest - plus the usual blue and great tit varieties, the coal tit is very much the subservient bird.  Indeed the poor old coal tit more often than not finds itself bullied by its titmouse cousins.  Thus it always ends up at the bottom of the titmouse pecking order - always 'trumped' by other titmice, dare I say!

The only exception to this rule seems to be the long-tailed tit, which sadly I never seem to be able to attract to my bird-table.  Long-tailed tits often seem to me to be birds with a very different character, disinclined to show much in the way of belligerance and always prepared to live a life free of antagonism.  However, whilst that is certainly the impression one gets, nevertheless there is at the heart of their very socialble way of life - long-tailed tits always live in closely bunched flocks - another side to the story.

When the weather is cold, long-tailed tits often roost in what can only be described as huddles. Indeed their survival during the winter months may sometimes depend upon being part of such a gathering for when the birds come together in a continued space, the radiation of their combined body heat being the key to their survival.  But here's the rub! The pecking order, that does exist after all, ensures that those at the top always command their places at the centre of the huddle where it is the warmest.  Thus, the birds further down the line are confined to the outer part where if it gets really cold, their very existence may well be threatened.

However, there is always a sense of co-operation amongst colonies of long-tailed tits. For instance. their community spirit is such that non-breeders happily join in with those with families and help them by feeding and if necessary brooding their young.  There is of course, a double indemnity in this kind of behaviour.  Adult birds are forced to take risks when their families come along and their search for food is critical.  They may therefore be more vulnerable to attacks by predators such as hawks.

All titmice spend the first two weeks of their chicks' lives frantically finding food and are therefore driven to take risks. As a result, these 'foster parents' among the flocks of long-tailed tits help the true parents in this, the most crucial period of their chicks' lives, ensure that if if a predator strikes, there is always back up for the successful rearing of that family.  To illustrate the hectic nature of their lives at this time, a pair of bluetits has amazingly been recorded making as many as a thousand visits each day to their nest during this vital period.  Minds are clearly focussed on family, not predators!

Long-tailed tits are charming little birds.  Apart from their obvious socialbility they are extremely attractive wee balls of fluff to which are attached exceptionally long tails, accounting for well over half of the bird's entire length.  Indeed, when a long-tailed tit is brooding eggs or young, the tail is often raised so that it covers the wee entrance hold to the nest, which in itself, is a real work of art.  Its construction is oval or bottle-shaped and comprises of feathers, sheep's wool, moss and lichens held together with spider's silk to form a kind of felt.  It is said that a long-tailed tit's nest might contain as many as two thousand feathers! I don't know who counted them but using so many feathers means that the tits must find places where other birds regularly roost and cast feathers or rely on dead birds as their source of this vital lining to their nest.

Unlike the tim'rous wee caol tit or indeed  the very sociable long-tailed tit, the one bird that always considers itself to be at the top of its pecking order, is of course, cock robin. This is why redbreasts are always prepared to go those extra yards to fight to maintain their territorial dominance together with their place at the top...sometimes, even to the death!



Weekly Nature Watch 12 April 2019

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Having just completed his three thousand mile trek from West Africa, he sits all on his own on top of the eyrie that has been his summer home for the past three years.  In between collecting branches to refurbish this untidy sprawl of a nest, he scans the skies for any sign of the mate he probably has not seen since their departure from here last September.

Although ospreys pair for life, he and his mate will have gone their own separate ways when they left for their African winter homes.  As spring slowly advances, they return to the eyrie which they built from scratch three years ago.  It is jammed in a fork near the top of a not-so-tall but nevertheless gnarled tree, not far from the loch that supplies him, his mate and I'm sure that he hopes eventually, this year's brood of young ospreys, with all the food they are likely to need.

The story of the restoration of ospreys to Britain as breeding birds is remarkable.  These superb raptors, often referred to as fish hawks, became extinct in the British Isles around 1916.  It was then that the last known breeding pair of ospreys in Britain was exterminated - shot on their Speyside eyrie by a so-called naturalist!  Their likely fate was to be consigned to a lifeless existence in a glass case decorating some grand hallway!  It was a time when taxidermy still flourished and a time of course when the war upon all raptors was still being waged.  Hunting, shooting and fishing were regarded in those dark days, as being more important by far than the conservation of what had by then had become extremely rare creatures.

However, the conflagration of the First World War sadly saw an almost entire generation of keepers wiped out.  As the war drifted to its end, change was to follow.  Ostensibly, the previously practiced wholesale slaughter of raptors now diminished but as far as ospreys were concerned, it was too late.  Of course, there are still too many instances of the persecution of our wildlife but happily it does not begin to compare with the killing years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It can be assumed that in previous times, ospreys had been relatively commonplace, especially here in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.  Yet, despite featuring in "The Song of Lincolnshire", written by one Michael Drayton way back in 1613, most ospreys doubtless opted to breed in Scotland.  The first line of the said poem, reads as follows-:"The ospreys oft here seen, though seldom here it breeds....' When ospreys make their yearly spring return to these shores, it is almost certain that their northward migratory journey has always taken them through the English Countryside, so when ospreys were plentiful, sightings in places like Lincolnshire might have been relatively commonplace during spring and autumn migrations.

In recent years of course, ospreys have been introduced to Rutland Water, not that far from Lincolnshire.  Their success is such that they are well reestablished in Scotland and now nest in Wales, Rutland of course and the English Lake District too.  From those small Speyside beginnings, they have certainly spread their wings!  The rise in the universally popular sport of angling, which has resulted in more stocking of waters, has undoubtedly played its part in the success story that is that of the returning ospreys.

Indeed, their return in the nineteen fifties after a period of almost forty years absence certainly proved to be a seminal moment in a universal and fast growing awareness across Britain of our wildlife.  Indeed, the return of those first ospreys was instrumental in spawning a rapid rise in an interest in birds especially.  Their subsequent success as more ospreys arrived was largely thanks to organisations such as the RSPB and The Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Together with countless volunteer enthusiasts recruited to keep watch over osprey eyries as more of them moved in, they were soon to become British breeding birds once more.  Just one pair initially settled outside Speyside, shortening their migratory journey and settlling in Central Scotland.  During these past sixty years or so, our osprey population has grown apace despite the nefarious activities of those who illegally collect wild bird's eggs.  Indeed, the initial return of a breeding pair of ospreys to Speyside ended in disaster with the theft of their eggs.  Thereafter, increasing numbers of enthusiasts mounted osprey watches in an effort to deter egg collectors.

It was thought that the first returning pair might have been en route to Scandinavia, using Britain and especially Scotland as a reasonably fish-rich 'stepping stone' on their migratory journey from West Africa.  However, they clearly found the fishing here was good and decided to stay!   As each year has rolled by, more ospreys have settled in Scotland and soon, known osprey locations such as Loch Garten in Speyside and Loch of the Lowes in Perthshire, attracted hordes of people.  The hides built at these locations attracted thousands of people, eager to get a glimpse of these now iconic birds.  Indeed they still attract thousands of people each year and are therefore a constant reminder of their worth in an era during which eco-tourism has become an increasingly valuable asset to rural communities in Scotland!

All raptors fascinate bird-watchers but ospreys do provide some of the most spectacular bird watching experiences, especially when they are hunting for fish.

I have enjoyed the privilege of being one of those volunteers and have thus watched hunting ospreys on many occasions.  It never ceases to thrill me when I see an osprey coursing above the loch, eyes scanning the water's surface for the movement of basking fish close to the surface.

Prey spotted, the bird now decelerates and hovers before slipping into a headlong dive.  As it nears the water, its legs come down and it hits the water feet first with a mightly splash.  It grapples with its slippery victim for what sometimes seems to be minutes although in truth it is merely seconds before its mighty wings begin to beat and llike the proverbial pheonix, it rises triumphantly, its prey grasped in those mighty talons.  It pauses about ten feet above the water to shake off excess water and secure its grip before heading either for a favoured eating perch or if there are  young to feed, for its eyrie.  Simply magnificent!

The first ospreys are back.  This is just the beginning of a saga of dynamic proportions, a drama that is about to unfold.  Ahead lies another season of spectacular bird watching....thanks to our ospreys.

Weekly Nature Watch 5 April 2019

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The news seems to get more depressing. No, I'm not talking about Brexit.  This news item is much more important!

Recent studies have revealed that wild bees and hover flies are in serious decline along with many other insects.  These reports provide yet another warning that we are heading towards an abyss of our own making.  Our very existence depends on these minuscule fragments of life for they are pollinators, the key elements that make the farming of the land viable.  To paraphrase a saying that has been used a lot of late, we cannot go on kicking this can down the road!

Perhaps, for too long we have manicured the landscape and over used chemicals in our drive to extract maximum production from the land.  For example. weeds are exterminated, land is drained and 'improved' without a thought for the long-term consequences.  Yet weeds, often described as 'unwanted plants' are a vital part of the pollinating process for they provide an important link for those pollinators, the bees, butterflies, flies and other insects to maintain the fertility of our crops.  We need insects and as it happens so do many of our birds.

It is estimated that there are at least three and a half thousand different species of wild bees in Britain. Together with the 'captive' honey-bees and the myriad of other pollinating insects, these are vital elements in maintaining the productive nature of the land.  In areas where arable farming dominates, vast prairies have become the norm. Whilst these large fields may be easier to manage, especially with regard to the large scale machinery now used in harvesting, as far as wildlife is concerned they are virtual deserts.  So it was interesting, during an interview on television a few days ago, to hear a farmer suggesting that by planting wild-flowers in strips across the otherwise barren acres, these fields could once more become a haven for these vital pollinators.

Hedgerows together with field margins can also play their part and so too could those otherwise disdainfully regarded weeds. More rather than fewer hedgerows together with the field margins that would accrue would add further to the benefits.  Indeed, these relatively small adjustments to how we farm the land could also benefit many other forms of wildlife. The falling population of farmland birds might well be halted or even reversed by this type of change.  Many of them depend upon the seeds of weeds and the wild-flowers of the fields and hedge bottoms, as sources of food.

The current status of some such birds is worrying.  I have yet to sight a yellow 'yite' this winter! Normally a bevy of them arrives here as spring emerges. The 'little bit of bread but no chee-ese' hallmark song of the yellowhammer is not to be heard in place these days where once it was utterly endemic. However, in recent days I have been hearing the prolonged 'wheezing' or reeling of a solitary greenfinch.  Not so long ago, greenfinches were among the commonest of garden birds hereabouts but in recent years they have all but disappeared.

Locally, this attractive little bird is known as the 'peasweep' a pseudonym derived from that strange wheezing call that I have been hearing. Its basic plumage colour is an apple green and it boasts yellow flashes on its wings and on the edges of its tail.  Its bill is much larger than the bills of most finches, blockier than those of the chaffinch and much heavier compared with the quite fine bills of the goldfinches.  This larger sized implement enables the bird to feed on a wider range of plants.

During the past few days the number of greenfinches visiting my bird-table has two! Because male and female are alike I cannot determine whether this newcomer is a female which has been attracted here by that wheezing call of the male or another male. It would be nice to think that this new visitor is a female and I'm sure that my wheezing cock bird would share that view! 

However, that may simply be the first part of the unfolding story of spring for some greenfinches are polygamous, some cock birds ambitious enough to attract two or three additional 'wives'. Such behaviour suggests that there will therefore be males, which are surplus to requirements.  These birds cast in the role of 'loners' thus find themselves having to settle for bachelor existence.  However, in such circumstances, they do have an eye for the future by feeding brooding females in the hope that by the time the next breeding season arrives some sort of bond may relieve them of their bachelor status!

There is a more familiar 'peasweep' of course, the lap-wing.  However, this too is a bird that is in some distress.  Again, the 'taming of the landscape' may well be the root cause of the decline of these once familiar birds, whose numbers have fallen considerably in recent years.  Lapwings. together with curlews, both recently identified as birds currently undergoing serious decline, were once common nesting birds in many parts of the lowland farming landscapes as well as the surrounding moorlands. Now they have become relative rarities in such places.

Both these birds may be described as 'iconic' and indeed, it is doubtful if any bird can quite match the exuberant displays that characterise the arrival of lapwings in these inland areas in springtime.  Lapwings yodel - that two-tone call is very much a trademark of these wonderfully agile flyers when the courtship bug infects them.  Indeed, many of the soubriquets by which these birds are known emanate from their wild spring vocalisations.  'Peewit, 'peasie' 'peaswheep', 'teuchit' and 'chewit' and many more, are all pseudonyms derived from the unique articulations of displaying lapwing.  Others, such as 'flopwing' derive from the noises made by their bat-like wings as they cavort like dancing dervishes, diving, twisting and soaring in their breathtaking displays.

And as the mood changes, as spring fever takes hold, slowly but surely fresh sounds will be heard.  As that momentum grows new songs will greet us.  Last weekend I heard at last the voice of one of the finest birds to complete its marathon journey from sub-Saharan Africa, a chiff-chaff.  Not that this migrant is a songster of great merit, albeit that I have no doubt that the repeated, metronomic, perhaps even monotonous two not utterance is sweet music on the ears of other chiff-chaffs!

New songs. new flowers, new faces as well as April showers - some of them uncomfortably wintry - animate this month during which millions of birds will be making their way towards us.  Just listen to the rising volume of music and know that spring is inexorably swinging into action.

Weekly Nature Watch 29 March 2019

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I often think that these days we are slaves to technology.  There are so many gadgets and gismos available to us that we are inclined to rely upon, that when they either don't work or when physical conditions differ from what may be regarded as the norm, they become useless. 

Satnav is one such gadget.  I have, for instance, heard stories of folk who, so focussed on the information provided by their navigational gismos, have ended up stuck in narrow dead ends or indeed, in fields!

We live in an area, which might be described by some as 'out in the sticks'.  Hence, our post code area is very large and instead of covering an area which might be measured in square yards is probably an area of square miles!  Thus we are often accidentally visited by people, dedicated to the prognosis provided by their Satnav devices, who are looking for addresses which might well be in the same postcode but which are not necessarily neighbouring or adjacent properties.  Whatever happened to map reading?

These thoughts began to occupy me when I contemplated the miracle that is bird migration, a phenomenon that is now very much under way.  The main impact of this quite amazing happening will come in the days and weeks to come but the first of our summer visitors are already arriving.  At first, it is a trickle, which in time will develop into a flood.  Nevertheless, the first ospreys have landed at Loch of the Lowes near Dunkeld after their three-thousand mile journey from West Africa.  There have been odd sightings of these spectacular fish hawks on our local loch but these may be birds destined for eyries situated well to the north of here.  As always, we wait with baited breath for those that nest in this airt to arrive!

If migratory birds do not have gismos such as Satnav, they do seem to have very efficient in-built magnetic compasses, a knowledge of the movement of the stars and the positioning of the sun.  Experimental work has discovered that whereas birds are not born with a map of the sky - the stars - engraved on their memory, they do have the ability to focus upon the centre of rotation of the stars and navigate accordingly.  Mind you, it isn't the stars that are rotating of course, but our planet!

The fact that the sun and the stars play a part in the bird's ability to navigate their way across thousands of miles tells us that many of them travel by both night and day.  Indeed, it is surprising how well many birds are able to navigate their way in the dark as exemplilfied by the flighting skeins of geese, so often heard here on winter evenings, making their way in pitch darkness to a watery roost on the loch.

However, birds also hold an advantage through their awareness of the circadian rhythms - the daily rhythms of nature.  Birds naturally have built into their physiology, two 'body clocks'.  It may come as a surprise to learn that we are also similarly equipped.  The other in-built rhythm is known as the circannual clock, giving them an awareness of yearly cycles and particularly of the fluctuations of the seasons and thus of the changing ratios of light and darkness.  Human beings, our basic instincts increasingly dulled, are, I suspect, becoming more and more detached from these natural pulses of life as most of us live largely in a world of our own creation as distinct from the natural world!

Officially this is spring.  Indeed on Thursday of last week, we reached the point of having equal hours of light and darkness, the spring equinox.  From here on in until midsummer, we will enjoy increasing hours of daylight, in itself one of the attractions which prompts birds to travel here from 'darkest Africa' to breed.  Those increasing hours of daylight, provide parent birds with extra hours during which they can forage for more food for their fast growing chicks, enabling them to give them that 'flying start' to their lives.

Ospreys are always amongst the first to arrive but we know they are particularly strong flyers.  It is when we consider the journeys of all those millions of small birds that the miraculous nature of migration begins to dawn.  For example, the very fact that the tiny warblers, weighing in at less that an ounce apiece, undertake their gargantuan odysseys from Sub-Saharan Africa to Scotland is in itself mind blowing.

Some of these smaller birds will prepare themselves for this mammoth adventure by almost doubling their weight.  The fat they lay down in preparation for their long treks is the fuel for that flight.  Migrating birds however, instinctively understand weather patterns.  They may for instance slow down or even halt their trek northwards should they sense hostile conditions ahead.

Sometimes they may be given early warnings of such conditions which are likely to reduce the availability of the insect food upon which so many of them rely.  Early avian travellers - mostly males seeking to establilsh territorial integrity as quickly as possible - may respond to poor weather conditions, by temporarily retracing their steps.  Providing they have enough of the necessary fuel left, they will try again when conditions improve.  Furthermore, when eventually the likes of swallows and martins return they will be home in on the exact nests they left behind last autumn without the use of Satnav.  They are that precise and clearly do not indulge in a postcode lottery!

Of the warbler clan, the chiff chaff is usually the first to make its presence felt - not I might say, because of its rich sounding voice.  This is perhaps the very antithesis of a sweet singing warbler, its signature tune, a monotonous and repetitive 'chiff-chaff' which underlines the nomenclature of the bird.  My earliest recording hereabouts of the arrival of this bird was on the 25th of March several years ago.

Easter this year is exceptionally late - another three weeks hence.  By then I anticipate the wheatears, also among the early birds, will have arrived.  These pretty little birds are most readily recognised by their prominent white rumps, a feature, which appropriately gave them the name 'white arse'.  However, our prudish Victorian ancestors viewed such a name as far too rude and changed it to the similarly sounding wheatear.  Although early ornithologists believed that wheatears got fat by eating ripening wheat, the fact is that they are exclusively insect-eating birds with a few snails and worms thrown in for good measure.

Locally, this attractive wee bird was always known as a 'dyke hopper', a fitting sobriquet for a bird which is often seen hopping along dry-stane dykes, which incidentally can sometime become their nesting sites too.  Although its song is sweet and in its beginning not unlike that of the skylark, its most familiar vocalisation is 'chacking', which resembles the knocking together of two stones.  Its pseudonym in Orkney, 'chack' or 'chacker', further reflects that sound.

So the tide is running.  As each day lengthens more and more long travelling birds will arrive.   That we have now officially entered the spring season, is a fact joyfully recognised and welcomed this week by my first singing chaffinches of the year! Soon we will be awash with millions of new voices.





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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods