Weekly Nature Watch
Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.
All the evidence tells of change. But then we live in a world that doesn’t ever stand still. Spring’s inexorable march is as inevitable as night following day albeit that when the moon briefly blocked out the sun a week ago, for a few moments, night seemed to be following night as the landscape was plunged into a curious half light. Someone once said that in the event of an eclipse, the birds would suddenly cease to sing and that was exactly what happened on that singular morning.
Because we live in an age in which we are constantly fed with information through the vast array of media we now have at our finger-tips, we have much easier access to what is happening in the world compared with any previous generation. Much of that information is of course delivered visually. The all-seeing eyes of television and the internet, through mobile phones and tablets, gives us instant access to a cornucopia of facts, mostly in pictorial form. Yet ironically, as a generation, we are nevertheless, much more shielded from the raw realities of life, living as we do in a concrete covered world and in our cosseting, centrally heated, triple glazed homes. Even when we are travelling, we are largely insulated from the real world in our air-conditioned vehicles. So we find ourselves somehow strangely remote and all too often, utterly removed from those realities.
So, when we step out of that closed environment, we should in theory, be so much more aware of the responses of nature to the changes that are happening all around us. But how many of you I wonder, are aware of the events now happening on a daily basis that further confirm the arrival of spring. Perhaps there remains sufficient civic pride around us to ensure that we are all able to enjoy and admire ‘hosts of golden daffodils’ and the sight of those graceful nodding flowers surely tells a certain story of advancing spring, a story which can hardly be missed.
The passage of a bevy of curlew the other day and the music of their lovely lilting voices, provided me with another of those markers, denoting the progress of the seasons, as did the mewing of soaring, spiralling buzzards, pronouncing majestically their welcome to the new season of re-birth. Yet much of the re-awakening that is happening, occurs so covertly that even the most observant of us are not witnesses to many of the events that chart spring’s progress.
I have of late for instance, observed the fast flight of a couple of male sparrowhawks, flying typically low alongside a hedgerow before flipping over it in the hope of flushing out a bird or two. However, I rarely see a kill made. But two piles of feathers in my own garden, told the story of success on the part of at least one of those marauders, an event unseen by me. That is of course, the nature of sparrowhawk living; wham, bam and the job is over and done with in a flash, often out of sight. They are covert raptors but very effective.
Evidence of creatures emerging from their winter’s sleep also came although it was I’m afraid, a grisly reminder! My first sighting of a hedgehog, no doubt newly emerged from its slumbers, after waking from its period of hibernation, was of an animal unwittingly but inevitably destined to become the victim of a very different kind of road hog! But of course, there is a world out there, which is utterly out of sight if not necessarily out of mind. Even down in the depths, away from prying eyes, advancing spring still generates new moods and ambitions. The tell-tale piles of earth appearing in fields and gardens, tell a story but a story of which we are for the most part, totally ignorant. I’m sure many people will go through life without ever seeing a live mole – a relative of the aforementioned hedgehog - despite the fact that they will almost certainly see plenty of evidence of their presence and indeed of their inordinate energy.
Moles are extremely energetic animals and especially so during this month when much conflict occurs as the males compete for females with which to mate. Indeed this may be the time of year when we are most likely to see them as the losing contestants are put to flight by the stronger and now more dominant males. I have for instance seen one such defeated animal frantically scrabbling about on the gravel outside my house in its almost manic efforts to escape its tormentors. And I once watched in amazement as a similar animal, also put to flight to such an extent that having failed to dig its way back underground by virtue of the toughness of the tarmac it was trying to excavate, fled across what was a busy main road. Miraculously it evaded the wheels of passing vehicles and somehow reached the other side unscathed, where it literally disappeared before my very eyes by instantly tunnelling into the soft verge.
Moles are of course, renowned for their digging prowess, equipped as they are, with JCB like front legs, their powerful front feet resembling great buckets. The evidence of increasing activity in recent days is there for all to see. The sudden appearance of masses of molehills making some fields look like some kind of moonscape, charting the constant expansion of the subterranean world of these natural miners, tells the story of the ceaseless energy of these strange little creatures. Famously of course, mole fur, unlike that of other mammals, does not lie in just one direction. It grows straight out and so can literally lie in any direction. Thus moles travel through their tunnels, too narrow for them to turn around, either backwards or forwards, without the discomfort of travelling against the grain of their fur.
This fact marked mole fur as being usefully different and so mole-skins became popular for instance, among hat makers. However, lead and mercury were substances used in the curing of mole-skins for this purpose and in the course of time, those engaged in the hat making industry, inevitably but unconsciously absorbed some of those heavy metals, very much to their detriment. Such elements enter the bloodstream through the skin but eventually find their way into brain cells. Hence, the well used phrase, "As mad as a hatter!" Thus if the moles, travelling as readily backwards or forwards along their networks of tunnels, don’t quite know where they are going, those who made hats from their skins in days long gone, were probably even more confused!
Moles generally live their anonymous life styles at a frantic pace. Thus they have a fantastically high metabolic rate and need a constant supply of worms to keep them going. Whilst many farmers and gardeners therefore regard the mole as an enemy and employ mole-catchers to control them, it may be the fact that overall, their impact on farming and gardening may be neutral, when their destruction of other underground dwelling pests like wire-worms is taken into account.
Spring fever therefore reaches those parts of our world that are hidden from us. The effect however, is exactly the same. The sap is rising!
"Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie," is a familiar line from an old nursery rhyme, a fanciful notion you might think, yet once upon a time, such a pie was indeed made. Those four and twenty blackbirds (and more!) currently seem to be inhabiting my garden, most of them hanging about my back door every morning in expectation of snatching a few tit bits when I feed scraps to my hens. And some of them are already enjoying the experience of parenthood for I have spotted a few of them gathering beaks full of worms and hurtling rapidly into hedges and shrubbery where they already have fast growing families, hidden somewhere among the bare branches, clearly clamouring for food. "When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing," the rhyme continues. The blackbirds are certainly singing but not from a pie!
Indeed, on a recent if fleeting visit to the west-coast, there was ample evidence that spring fever is beginning to become ever more contagious with the volume of bird sound definitely being cranked up. There was the usual echo of sea-pies from every part of that rugged coastline and as the light faded and evening advanced, the whaups serenaded me with their delightful bubbling; a lullaby perchance, inviting winter to retreat in order to allow spring to properly bloom? There were little glimpses too of gatherings of mergansers and of eider ducks too.
Eiders are of course very familiar west-coast birds, the largest of our ducks and incidentally, the fastest too. Eiders can travel at speeds of up to seventy miles an hour. I always think there is something distinctly ‘twenties’ about the males, with that strange, almost streamlined skull cap, black in coloration on the top of what is a large, blocky head, offset by the light green colouring around the nape of the neck. I hear that some conservationists have been voicing some concern about folks offering eiders, which can be very tame in human company, helpings of fish and chips. It doesn’t need me to say that such fare is not usually on the menu for eider ducks for they favour the consumption of shellfish such as mussels. The troubles emanating from those helpings of fish and chips is that such food lacks vital calcium, very necessary when these coastal ducks are in breeding mode.
Whereas the males are quite vividly handsome birds, the females are considerably less conspicuous with their duller brown and black plumage, a design feature which gives the female a degree of anonymity when she is brooding eggs. And they are of course pretty exclusively birds of the seaside, hardly ever seen away from the coast. My return to more familiar pastures was greeted by the sighting of my first great crested grebes of the year. Those eiders had hinted at courtship, the males throwing back their streamlined heads, a sure sign that the sap within them is rising. Thus far, I haven’t witnessed any hints of courtship among the grebes, yet they do get serious about such things, they offer plenty of entertainment.
Indeed, so fascinating were the courtship rituals performed by these denizens of fresh water lakes and lochs, that they were to cause a major stir among the more eminent thinkers of those same nineteen twenties. Most notably, Sir Julian Huxley became so fascinated by the behaviour of grebes during their courtship rituals that he spent a great deal of time studying them. Furthermore, he wrote a treatise on the subject which even today, nearly a hundred years on, is still regarded as an important and highly significant contribution to the science of animal behaviour.
These days, such events are brought to us in our living rooms through the adventures of a new generation of wondering cameramen and of course, by the all-seeing eye of television. Now we can watch grebes going a courting, diving to collect water-weed and rising to greet each other as they appear to almost walk on water. With much head shaking and coarse croaking, the ceremony, once rarely witnessed or indeed understood by human kind, is now commonplace as a feature of Nature programmes. Yet I confess, despite having witnessed the event on many occasions, I always find it utterly fascinating, a performance worth waiting for and one which is exclusive to Lowland waters. Great crested grebes are not, in essence, Highland birds.
All these events confirm the steady advance of spring, yet one sound, above all others, serves to confirm that fact most certainly. The cheap and cheerful voices of cock chaffinches are now being added to the chorus. They undoubtedly bring a different dimension to spring days and absolute confirmation, with that very familiar rhythm and tune, that spring has put down a real marker! If there is a bird, which fully deserves the description, ‘ubiquitous’ then surely that bird is the chaffinch. I would guess that there cannot be a garden in Britain, where birds are fed, in which there is not a population of chaffinches.
These cheerful and as far as the males are concerned, colourful little birds, resplendent in their gorgeous pink breasts, are simply everywhere, albeit that apparently, flocks of male and female chaffinches often winter in different locations. Mainly consumers of seeds, chaffinches have nevertheless learned to exploit a wide variety of foods and have even learned the art of clinging to baskets of nuts, not perhaps with the agility displayed by the likes of titmice, siskins and goldfinches but with growing confidence nonetheless.
Having travelled pretty extensively throughout the UK, I do have something of an ear for human dialects, yet, I am completely at a loss to describe the many different dialects used by singing chaffinches. The differences are so subtle but they are distinct. I guess a really experienced bird song recorder might be able to discern between the song of a chaffinch, say from Highland Scotland and that of one from for instance, deepest Kent! That their vocal offerings are distinctively different however, there is no doubt.
Many birds add phrases they hear uttered by other birds, to their own repertoires. Notorious improvisers in this way are great tits and indeed those other ubiquitous members of the avian chorus, the aforementioned blackbirds. So why not chaffinches too? And populations of these commonplace birds based in particular parts of the country, or indeed the rest of northern Europe where their natural range extends, inevitably develop subtle variations on a common theme. And it is a cheerful little ditty and it is cheap if only because it becomes so commonplace as spring burgeons.
Out there in parks and gardens or indeed, in the wilder, further flung places, even in really remote locations, chaffinches are at last, universally and boldly announcing the progress of spring and are cheerfully proclaiming its arrival in a way that only chaffinches seem able to do. That’s the chaffinch in full voice; cheap and cheerful!
Fame was once a rare commodity, often not sought but commonly bestowed upon heroes and heroines, stars of screen and stage and great political figures. These days however, increasing numbers of folk seek fame in ways, which just a few decades ago, would not have been possible. The all encompassing eye of the camera however, be it by television, these days by means of the internet, or indeed by the actions of those who have become known as the paparazzi, has changed all that. Indeed, in some respects, social media in its many forms, has turned such things utterly upside down. And, in addition, talent programmes seem to have become not only an easy way of filling two or more hours of TV programming but also an easy way for ordinary folk to seek and find exposure; to become famous, if for most of them, all too briefly!
So, suddenly a small, furry creature finds itself on front pages and beamed across the world via the internet, for hitching a lift on the colourful back of another, this time, feathered creature. The sharp-eyed photographer who snapped the weasel taking a ride on the back of a green woodpecker, has himself achieved sudden notoriety whilst unwittingly, the aviating weasel has also suddenly accomplished a totally unexpected level of fame. It was a remarkable example of opportunism on the part of the snapper and of course, on the part of the weasel too.
Green woodpeckers, despite their reputation as tree climbers, spend a high proportion of their time on terra firma, scavenging for the likes of ants. There was a time in this airt when the chuckling of these attractive red and green birds was a familiar sound. However, in recent times, green woodpeckers have been pushed out by increasing numbers of great spotted woodpeckers, which seem to more assertive by nature. There is, whenever I watch these black, white and red woodpeckers, always a sense of animosity towards all other birds. When such a woodpecker is on the nuts for instance, nothing else it seems, dares to venture there.
Therefore it must be assumed that the said woodpecker of front-page fame, was scouring the ground for ants when its path crossed with that of the weasel. Weasels are ambitious little creatures, the ‘mighty atoms’ of the natural world, always looking for feeding opportunities and never afraid to take on the role of David in confronting Goliath! Despite its minuscule size, a weasel will not hesitate to attack a fully-grown rabbit despite the fact that Brer Rabbit is several times the weasel’s size and weight. Thus I’m sure, the weasel saw in the woodpecker, a meal … of gargantuan proportions!
What the weasel clearly did not bargain for, was the flight of fancy it was about to take. I can only presume that its experience of flight was something of a shock and that it very soon decamped. Thus that first flying lesson would in all probability be brief and perhaps painfully learned. Perhaps it would be wise for any weasel with aeronautical ambitions in future, to ignore any impulse to repeat similar attacks!
Weasels – and stoats for that matter – are creatures that attract a variety of reactions. Our very language is of course, not very kind or complimentary towards them. A person described as being ‘weasely’ or ‘a stoat’ is generally perceived to be someone not to be trusted; a person of very doubtful pedigree and reputation. Indeed, such is the reputation of both weasels and stoats that stories abound of them launching attacks on people. Keepers certainly don’t like them and kill them at virtually every opportunity as part of the defence of their precious pheasants. And this despite the widely known fact that both stoats and weasels account for the destruction of many small rodents, widely regarded, especially by farmers, as pests!
However, like my farming friends I have a soft spot for these amazing wee creatures. Thus when a farmhouse dwelling friend asked me what she should do about a weasel she found in her house, I told her to leave it be. I had been aware that my friend had for long waged war against invading mice and suggested that she now had a key ally in her struggle to keep these small rodents at bay in the said weasel. Sure enough, the sound, so familiar to country living folk, of mice chewing at skirting boards or rustling about within the ancient walls of their houses, has in recent days, in this instance, gradually diminished. The weasel has not been seen again and I suspect it has done its job, consumed the mice or at least sent the majority of them into panic-stricken retreat and thus has since moved on to other rodent territories. Silence tells its own story.
Small rodents are the main food source of food for both weasels and stoats and with their exceptionally slender bodies and short little legs, they are able to access rodent runs and dens easily. Stoats are also extremely efficient rabbit hunters too. By reputation both are relentless in pursuit of their victims and that utter determination is communicated very quickly to those victims. Indeed such are the powers of a stoat for instance, in its pursuit of a rabbit, that its intended victim is eventually seized with such terror that it slowly grinds to a halt, ending up a quivering, stationary wreck, often screaming pathetically, as its inevitable fate approaches. Both stoats and weasels are relentless hunters, once on the trail of their victims, sticking inexorably to that scent until their target is reached.
Perhaps the victims become almost hypnotised? After all, both stoats and weasels are familiar practitioners of the ‘dark art’ of hypnosis. I have on many occasions been amazed by the gyrations of both of these exponents of a hunting skill, which seems to be their particular prerogative alone. Theirs is, as far as I know, a unique method of enticing potential victims to their deaths and of course, into the hungry jaws of the perpetrators. A weasel for instance, that conducted, before my very eyes, an intricate square dance which took it across a track down one hedgerowed side of it, back across the track and along the opposite hedge bottom … repeatedly! As the performance continued so the birds roosting in the hedges became more inquisitive and slipped their way down through the branches. One was persuaded to leave the safety of the hedge altogether and immediately became the weasel’s next meal as the performance came to an abrupt halt.
And a stoat which similarly began to perform a complex series of acrobatics, somersaulting, chasing it own tail until it was whirling round and round like a dancing dervish, putting on a real virtuoso performance. Like the aforementioned weasel, this performing stoat similarly so entranced the birds in the shrubs and trees around it, that they too let down their guards and came ever closer in order to get a better look at this extraordinary caper. One of course, came too close and instantly the curtain came down to close the act. Dinner was served!
Such antics are all part of the stoat and weasel armoury designed to satisfy what at times appears to be a ravenous appetite. However, the weasel propelled into the air on the back of a woodpecker had perhaps bitten off more than it could chew. Yet, for a moment it was famous!