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 18 January 2019

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The traffic at my bird-table has been busy enough of late with no surprises to speak of.  So far I have had no sightings of anything unusual, no nuthatches for instance although I know they are about and only rare visits from great spotted woodpeckers.  In recent years these colourful characters have been regular visitors but not so this winter.  So I presume that with few really hard frosts to speak of to make access to the wee beasties upon which they by choice feed difficult, they must be finding enough natural food. 

Thus the offerings I provide are being seized upon by the regular cast of feathered entertainers. There are the usual great tits, bluetits, a solitary coal tit, the inevitable and always argumentative house sparrows, red faced goldfinches, and a pair of collared doves, one of which now regularly manages to perch on on of the feeders in order to get at the sunflower hearts.  There are also a couple of smartly speckled strarlings which have mastered the art of clinging on to the fat holder in order to peck briskly away at the slab of fat despite being upside down!

A solitary greenfinch is a regular visitor. There used to be a plethora of them but they seem to have gone the way of so many farmland birds.  However, if greenfinch numbers have plummeted, the one finch that appears to be comfortably holding its own is the chaffinch, for the ground below the bird-table is usually seething with them.  They join the cheeky sparrows and the unobtrusive dunnocks below the bird-table, mopping up the scraps that descend from above from the more adventurous birds that clamber onto the feeders. The unassuming dunnocks are always typically at pains to avoid the melee on the ground, content to just quietly peck away at the scraps on the periphery.

I would guess that of all the birds that are regular visitors to bird-tables up and down the country - it is estimated that around 65 per cent of all British households actively feed birds in their gardens - the chaffinch is universally the most common.  The word I used last week to describe mallards, ubiquitous, may perhaps equally be applied to chaffinches.  So why are they so successful when so many other farmland birds are in declline?

In fact, chaffinches are perhaps rather more catholic when it comes to diet, compared at least to other finches and buntings, for whilst most finches are extremely dependent on seeds as their main source of food, chaffinches have a much wider range that includes a surprising degree of insect life.  In spring and summer especially, chaffinches feed extensively upon insect life and most particularly, they rely upon insects during the breeding season to a much greater degree that other finch-like birds.

Furthermore, longer wings and a longer tail, compared to other finch-like birds, enhance the flying ability of chaiffinches to such an extent that they are even quite adapt at catching insects in mid-air.  In other words, they are that bit more athletic and versatile.  It is not by accident that there is also a plethora of blackbirds, currently apparent, another testament to the virtues of a more varied, omnivorous diet.  Clearly, the chaffinch shares with the blackbird the benefits from such dietary versatility.  These have become survivors wherease perhaps others have become over reliant on dwindling food resources.

One crocus-billed cock blackbird regularly takes up station among the teeming chaffinches, sparrows and dunnocks beneath my bird-table, snaffling as many of the scraps that descend as possible. He reminds me of Gulliver among swarms of Lilliputians! There is also plenty of blackbird activity on my lawn as I witness the amount of worm hunting being conducted. They are testament to the ability of blackbirds to switch effortlessly between meat and veg!

Chaffinches also seem to adopt different tactics compared to other finches. Because they are more reliant upon insects than other finches and buntings.  Their summer territories are much more clearly defined.  This is simply because their more omnivorous feeding requirements means that large territories are unnecesary so are generally smaller than those needed by other finches.  Relying more hevily on seed, most finches and buntings generally nest in what may be described s loose colonies simply because they must feed over a wider area.  Therefore, they need to be more tolerant of one another and in a sense must share resources.

This tighter territorial integrity of the chaffinch is also reflected in the more positive nature of the chaffinch song.  That song, when finally it rings out, is one of the most familiar in both town and country.  It may bot be one of the first we hear, for the likes of great tits especially are among the earliest of songsters.  However, chaffinches are often to be heard quite early partially because with competition for good nesting sites likely to be very keen, they need to be thinking of claiming good potential locations as soon as possible each spring.

Indeed, that competitive edge is further demonstrated by the fact that when winter descends, and chaffinches surrender their individuality and come together in flocks, they mostly do so on a single-sex basis.  Furthermore, the birds you are currently feeding in your garden are unlikely to be the birds you will hear when singing in earnest begins in the spring.  Chaffinches do migrate albeit usually only over short distances.  Meanwhile, the hen chaffinches coming together in their spinster flocks are rather more relaxed, delaying their return to their native heaths in the spring because they are not driven by the need to establish territories.

The chaffinch is as unquestionably one of our commonest birds.  And of course, the cock birds are extremely attractive with their prominent pink cheeks and breast, grey merging with rich brown on their backs, wings flecked with attractive yellow bars and attractive slate grey caps reaching round to the napes of their necks. Their songs are cheery in the extreme, initially faltering as if they are not absolutely sure what follows the first phase - a clearing of the throat perhaps - before that final assertive flourish.  Surprisingly, that cheerful little ditty however does not come naturally to maturing cock chaffinches for it is not a built-in part of their genetic make-up.

In other words, young chaffinches have to listen to the voices of other chaffinches and learn to copy them in order to become fully throated youngsters.  And the fact tha they have to learn to sing means that up and down the country there are many variations on a theme with different dialects emerging wherever you go - just as is the case with human vocalisation.  There are therefore fascinating variations, which reflect the dialects that persist in different places, rather like our 'fit like' in Aberdeenshire or 'ee bah gum' in Northern England!

Chaffinches survive because, like blackbirds, they are able to exist on whatever foods are available.  They congregate around bird-tables in order to maximise food choice and they have also very successfully adapted their lifestyles in order to care out a good living from the human environment. They are extremely colourful additions to our gardens and wheny they start to sing as spring advances, they bring that extra element of pleasure with their cheery little ditties.







Country View Article 21 December 2018

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The modern day Christmas is an increasingly colourful occasion. Coloured lights and baubles decorate Christmas Trees across the world not to mention the twinkling light displays which adorn towns, cities, offices, public places and homes up and down this country.

Red perhaps dominates, most noticeably in the uniform worn by Santa as he zips across the skies propelled by his team of reindeer, one of which, Rudolf, has his own little symbol of red! There is red too on the breast of our little Christmas bird, Robin Redbreast. Down the years, great flocks of robins have hopped across our mantle-pieces for he is surely the most persistent of Christmas card images. And yet, in reality this cheeky little fellow is hardly the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas. He may seem willing to live cheek by jowl with us, his breast fairly glowing, those warm brown eyes confiding and his voice, often the only one we hear at Christmas, sweet. Yet in reality, he is a bundle of belligerent energy when it comes to his relationship with other cock robins, all too ready to fight for his territorial rights … to the death if necessary!

Yet, there he is ever since the first Christmas cards dropped through letterboxes back in 1843, still one of the most popular images gracing these seasonal greetings. Of course, there are also those Dickensian images of lurching, heavily laden horse-drawn coaches drawing up outside well-lit wayside inns. Their top hatted and crinoline-wearing occupants are ever eager to alight and enter the spirit of the Festive Season. There are those sacred scenes too that remember the birth of the Christ child - shepherds watching their flocks, that guiding star, white doves of peace and many more.

There is also red in the bright holly berries that add extra colour to the Christmas decorations. Again a belief that holly offered protection from asthma, dropsy, gout, rheumatism and measles harks back to pagan times but has spilled over into the Christian era in much the same way as the presence of lots of greenery has made the same journey. Yew trees, which adorn many a churchyard, were often planted as a means of warding-off all sorts of evil spirits, whilst wearing a sprig of ivy in your hair was thought to prevent baldness. Mistletoe was said to protect against witches, black magic, epilepsy and St Vitus’ dance! The kiss under it seems to be a recent fad!

Even the Christmas tree has its pagan associations! Apparently, the origins of the Christmas tree go back to a time during the eighth century when a certain St Boniface was carrying out missionary work in what is now Germany. He came across a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree and about to sacrifice a small child. The saint sprung into action, rescued the child and chopped the oak down. He noticed however, a tiny spruce sapling growing among the oak roots and took it to mean a symbol of new life.

Thus, the tradition of the Christmas tree took root! And in time, the tradition was transplanted in Britain by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert. Therefore, what began as a royal fashion became universal until nowadays there are few British households which do not erect a Christmas tree as part of their seasonal celebrations.

And yet, whilst colour dominates our modern day celebrations of Christmas, some really do dream of a White Christmas. I well remember watching a pure brown stoat – except of course for the black tip to its tail and its white chest - making its way through a rabbit warren. At the time, there were still plenty of rabbits around although now they seem to have all but disappeared from this vicinity. In and out of the burrows the stoat snaked but clearly there were no rabbits at home. Later the same day I came across a stoat which had partly changed its coat to winter white but not completely. It was to all intents and purposes, skewbald! Later still, I had an encounter with a pure ermine – completely white except for that black tip to its tail – all of them within about a few square miles of each other!

There are three of our native creatures that adopt this winter tactic. The stoat, the ptarmigan, a curious chameleon of a bird, which inhabits only the high places of the Scottish Highlands and the mountain hare, are the only British creatures that change their plumage or pelage to white during the winter months. Elsewhere in Northern Europe, the weasel also changes its fur colour to white but British based weasels do not.

Of course, the ptarmigan and the mountain hare are high on the list of prey for golden eagles. And because they live at high altitudes where snow is likely to lie for prolonged periods through the winter, the change to white plumage in the case of the ptarmigan and white fur in the case of the hare provides them with a very useful form of defence. Even the sharp-eyed eagle finds them difficult to detect with their white camouflage.

Presumably the change to white helps the ermine to conceal itself as it seeks out suitable prey. However, like the mountain hare, the change occurs as winter advances and reverts to normal pelage as spring returns. The ptarmigan, however, goes through four separate phases of plumage throughout the year and during the summer they have grey to tawny plumage with mottled white wings. Ptarmigan are certainly the hardiest of birds living out their lives entirely above the tree-line, exposed to the worst that winter can throw at them.

As for the mountain hare, this too is a hardy beast, like the ptarmigan, spending much of its life in what would seem to us, the harshest of conditions. In recent times, mountain hares have been at the centre of controversy. Culls have taken place and as a result, it is feared that their numbers may be in serious decline. Mountain hares carry a tick, which infects red grouse and causes reductions in their populations. The culls are therefore organised in such a way as to reduce the risk to the precious grouse, despite the fact that they are eventually destined to be shot!

In truth, the mountain hare is the only native hare in Britain for the brown hare, much more generally distributed across the country, is an import from Continental Europe, possibly first brought here by Neolithic man. The invading Romans wrote quite extensively about the way in which hares were kept by British folk.

The change in pelage undergone by mountain hares and stoats and the change in plumage of the ptarmigan were once thought to be triggered by lowering temperatures. But now the general con-census is, that as winter advances, the shortening daylight hours are the stimulus for the change whilst in springtime the increasing hours of daylight stimulate the return to normal or what, in the case of the hare, is commonly called ‘blue’ pelage.

Thus, if colour may be dominant in our celebrations of the birth of the Christ Child, others much prefer a ‘White Christmas’. Of course, their very whiteness provides them with a better chance of longer life. And the winter solstice today brings good news, which means that from now onwards, days will imperceptibly get that little bit longer. So rejoice … and have a very Happy Christmas if not necessarily a white one!

Country View 10/8/18

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So, where is that ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’? There was a time when every hedgerow in this airt seemed to echo to the once familiar little ditty of the yellowhammer, especially at this time of the year. When most other birds had fallen silent, those lone voices rang out continuing to pronounce territorial integrity and perhaps the hatching of late broods of youngsters.


Yellowhammers always seemed to extend their breeding season well into those weeks when most other birds had curtailed their breeding ambitions. Whilst during the winter months I was occasionally visited by a handful of yellowhammers, there has been no evidence of their presence at all in this vicinity during spring and summer. So where have they gone? For some reason, yellowhammers hereabouts seem to be among the worst affected of the farmland birds, which, in general, are struggling for survival.

Over recent years, there has been a catastrophic decline in all farmland birds, to such an extent that Rachel Carson’s predictions in her famous tome, “Silent Spring” all those years ago, seem ominously close at hand. Poor old yellow yite or yorling as the yellowhammer has been variously known in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. But then some yellowhammers have always been under pressure, not from farmers or indeed from events like climate change. The spurious contention that the yellowhammer consumes a drop of the ‘de’il’s blood’ every May Day morning, prompted a universal dislike of the wee bird in some quarters of the Highlands to such an extent that young boys were encouraged to take and destroy the yite’s eggs. Curiously enough, a similar ‘devil’s blood’ tradition lingered in the region of Prague in the Czech Republic. Superstition, wherever it was prevalent, has not dealt kindly with the yellowhammer!

The Highland interpretation of the bird’s call, ‘Whittle te, whittle te, whee! Harry my nest and the De’il tak ye’ added further malaise with the suggestion that the bird actually sounded like the devil! Indeed, the bird’s dubious reputation was exacerbated further by more superstitions related to the weird markings on the yellowhammer’s eggs, a curious red scribble-like scrawl which it was claimed could be described presumably ominously, as ‘writings’. These, it was claimed by some soothsayers, might disclose the initials of a future lover! To make matters even worse, folklore decreed that when Christ languished on the cross, a yellowhammer flew close by and stained itself with the blood of Christ. Thereafter, the myth went on to suggest this as the reason why the bird’s eggs bear an irregular, blood-like scrawl.

Curiously enough, there are similar tales in which both the robin and the swallow are by contrast lauded and admired for bearing the blood of Christ on their plumage. The robin’s red breast and the swallow’s copper coloured throat led to the old saw, ‘The robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen, The martin and the swallow are God Almighty’s birds to hallow.’ Thus, in tradition we admire the robin and the wren as well as the martin and the swallow, whereas the poor old yellowhammer was routinely persecuted. All this legend flies in the face of the fact that the yellowhammer is a very striking bird, the male in its full breeding plumage, the possessor of the brightest of yellow heads, fully justifying another of its Scottish pseudonyms. ‘Scotch canary’. The female is a little less flamboyant, its yellow head markings being rather more diffuse and broken but attractive nonetheless. Both male and female possess attractively streaked russet plumage on the back and prominent chestnut coloured rumps.

The yellowhammer, as its blocky little beak indicates, is a seed-eater, albeit that it supplements its youngsters’ diet with a selection of invertebrates too. However, the adult birds feed extensively on stubble fields in the winter and upon the seeds of weeds at other times of the year. And this may be the problem. Modern, more intensive farming ensures that the landscape is a good deal tidier than it used to be, hence a scarcity of the said weeds, one of the yellow yite’s favourite sources of food. Herbicides eliminate weeds and those farmers choosing to shun the use of chemicals and farm organically, especially in lowland areas, clearly avoid damaging the environment through the use of chemicals. Highland farms, which seldom grow much in the way of crops, are as a result largely chemical free save for sheep dips. Where arable farming predominates, herbicides and pesticides are widely used. Scrub, a favoured nesting site for many birds such as the yellowhammer, is removed, as are hedgerows. In such regions, there is also a declining population of raptors such as sparrowhawks which are the most likely predators on yellowhammers. Indeed, hereabouts where mixed farming dominates, there is certainly no sign at all of an alleged proliferation of raptors with few hawks and sadly, no kestrels at all. I’m afraid the ‘too many’ brigade, who blame raptors for the decrease in farmland birds, are barking up the wrong tree! One other facet of modern farming also legislates against seed eating birds, the sowing of winter rather than spring crops. Hence, the lack of stubble removes an important source of winter food. Indeed, a survey conducted this year by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust involving 1,000 farmers across the UK and covering very nearly a million acres of farmland, revealed that among the most commonly seen 25 birds, was but one raptor, the buzzard. The most commonly seen birds were the blackbird and the wood-pigeon.

The yellowhammer, once so commonplace, was seen by only thirty per cent of the farmers surveyed. Regular surveys show that farmland birds in Britain have declined by some fifty six per cent since 1970 but this is not a problem confined to Britain. It is estimated that since 1980, across Europe the population of farmland birds has plummeted by some 300 million, whilst in Canada and the USA, the decline is put at 74 per cent over a similar period. As for the yellowhammer, its numbers have fallen by fifty per cent during just the last twenty-five years in Britain. It is now a ‘red listed’ bird, recognised as being under real threat. I am well aware that farm incomes are under pressure. I do not blame farmers for modernising in their efforts to stay afloat. I have a long-standing association with farming myself. But the facts are staring us in the face. If the problem is raptors, the sky would soon be empty of them as prey species decline. Meanwhile, I mourn the absence of that little bit of bread and no cheese! The one spark of light at the end of what seems to be a very long and dark tunnel, is that future financial rewards to farmers may well be paid for safeguarding and improving habitats for wildlife! Good for farmers; good for wildlife.

Country View 18.4.18

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At last the smiling face of spring is emerging from winter's final east-wind fling. Rising temperatures convey a new message and so now, the dancing can begin as birds seize the mood and begin their courtship rituals. When you see those displays it is easy to understand why man has always envied the birds for their powers of flight.

Indeed, every year on England's south coast, intrepid souls equipped with various designs of wings still try to fly by leaping off a pier and generally, very quickly plunging into the sea. However, most of them seem to enjoy marginally more success than Father John Damian who, in the year 1507 and watched by King James IV and his court, leapt from the walls of Stirling Castle only to crash-land on the rocks below.

Many of our birds will respond to the rising temperatures by beginning their courtship dancing, the manner of which must have turned people like Father Damian green with envy. I expect migrant birds to flood in during these genuinely spring days. Already short distance migrants such as lapwings are arriving, unfortunately not in the numbers that we used to see, for their populations, like those of the curlew, have dropped dramatically in recent years.

Indeed, as yet this spring I have only heard a single whaup and only seen meagre flocks of lapwing. Once upon a time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lapwing eggs were considered to be a rare delicacy and were therefore eagerly sought, resulting in a decline in numbers of these lovely birds.

Some of the older farming folk will tell you that in the more recent past, the first clutches of lapwing eggs would be harvested in the knowledge that the birds would lay another clutch. However, in those early days, greed overtook reason and until legislation was passed in parliament in 1926 to curb such excesses, lapwing populations continued to fall because of the theft of their eggs.

By the nineteen sixties, lapwing populations appeared to have stabilised but in recent decades, there have been further alarming reductions which, I'm afraid, seem to emanate from the changes in the way we farm the land. Increases in the amount of land now turned over to arable crops are thought to be one of the negative factors effecting lapwings, especially in recent times with the switch to autumn rather than spring-sewn crops which denies them good nesting sites.

And as ever, the heavy use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides seems increasingly to be a major contributory factor. Lapwings feed primarily on invertebrates which also seem to be in serious decline. Ironically lapwings, when they abandon their coastal and estuarine winter homes and head inland in the spring, feast extensively upon two of farming's greatest pests, wireworms and leatherjackets.

Indeed, whether lapwings have learned to dance for their supper from gulls, or is it the other way round, the spectacle of these dainty birds marking time, as a means of encouraging worms to the surface by simulating falling rain, is an example of their ingenuity. Those gulls are also familiar performers of what might be described as a 'rain dance'!

The arrival of lapwings to familiar inland-beats initially takes the form of tightly knit flocks, some of which used to be large enough to 'blacken the sky'. These days those flocks generally appear to be considerably smaller but as they settle in their new inland realms, the flocks begin to split up and as the weather warms, courtship begins and what a spectacle that provides! That admiration for the flying skills of birds which must have been the inspiration so long ago for Father Damian can more easily be understood when the courtship of lapwings is at its height.

Now, those 'bat-shaped' wings, which seem so well controlled as they fly in their orderly flocks, are fully exercised as the male birds swoop and swerve, duck and dive, like dancing dervishes. They absolutely tumble about the sky in ecstatic displays, their wings audibly throbbing, their voices crying 'pee-wit' wildly. They sometimes give the impression of being utterly out of control, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Theirs is a dance of exuberance and utter control, one that should surely encourage all of us to simply watch in sheer admiration.

Such wonderful demonstrations of flying skills however, are as said not as common as they used to be and there may be many factors at play. These days, the 'blame game' seems to be one of humanity's traits. Someone or something is always to blame! Perhaps, in this case we blame those who farm the land but ignore the advice that is constantly being flung at farmers, including that from official sources, to increase productivity by fair means or foul! It is true that the tempo of farming practices has been ramped up considerably in recent times. I suppose that modern man always wants to do things faster and faster. It is the modern way of doing things.

Old Watty used to tell of the times in spring when, if he was ploughing and found in his path a lapwing nest, he would scoop up the eggs and move them, and then move them back when he ploughed the next furrows. He always made the time to do such things. He, I might suggest, was more in touch with the soil he farmed and the wildlife he was always at pains to protect, than many of today's more modern minded family folk.

Today's tractors are so much more powerful and speedy, besides which they are all singing and dancing, insulated against the elements, and therefore, isolating the drivers from the world outside. Thus, the connection between driver and any wildlife is to all intents and purpose broken. And, as I've said on previous occasions, it is my belief that by encouraging the freedom to use the aforesaid herbicides and pesticides with abandon, government indirectly, is putting at risk our very future. We are, according to all the evidence, killing off the vital pollinators of our crops - the insects upon which also so many farmland birds rely.

Lapwings, curlews and skylarks are always in my mind as April progresses for they were the birds I most remember from youthful days when I ventured out to the moors on early hiking expeditions. Few birds enjoy such a list of pseudonyms as the lapwing. Pee-wit, tee-wit, tee-whup, pessie-wheep, teuchit, chewit, flop-wing and bizarrely, 'tieves nacket from Shetland, are among the many curious local names commonly in use in various parts of the country.

Even when they disperse to breed, you will still find a corporate spirit alive in the lapwing population. When youngsters hatch, even though they are upwardly mobile from the word go, they are kept under quite close scrutiny in a kind of creche manned when parent birds are always seeking food for their young, by other members of what is in reality a loose colony.

And isn't that lilting 'pee-wit', together with the romantic whistling of the whaup, so much the real sound of spring?

Country View 28.3.18

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The 'Beast from the East' certainly put the proverbial cat among the pigeons and the brakes upon bird migration. Indeed, there are concerns that some migrants may already be arriving, only to find their quest for the insects upon which they depend, drawing a blank. Yet when at last, there were a few days of spring sunshine last week I noted that there was a sudden emergence of insect life. Thus, hope is not entirely lost. However, Met Office experts were forecasting a 'White Easter' a few days ago!

Recent conditions have certainly had a profound effect on our east coast colonies of sea-birds, most notably upon guillemots, for over the course of a couple of weeks, considerable numbers of these essentially marine and sea cliff dwelling birds were literally falling from the sky in inland locations. This time, I only had a single bird to deal with - a quick call to the RSPCA and it was picked up and taken to the Fishcross Centre. Elsewhere, some disorientated guillemots were landing on motorways and that is where many of their lives came to a grisly end. Others took up residence on our local freshwater loch, whilst more were found scattered around on farmland.

Many years ago, during the nineteen eighties, I became all too deeply involved in what was then an avalanche of guillemots, many of which were being picked up in local forests, not exactly a suitable habitat for these fish-eating birds! At one time I was feeding fish daily to up to fifty of these penguin-like birds. Then, although there were strong easterly winds blowing, it was believed that the over-fishing of sand eels was the cause of that particular coastal exodus. Sand eels represent the main source of food for guillemots and a drastic shortage could have been the reason for hundreds of these birds attempting to fly in a westerly direction, presumably in the hope they might reach the west coast, where perhaps there might be more food available.

Global warming is said to be responsible for many of our sea-birds experiencing food shortages as warming seas push their main sources of food, like sand eels, further and further north. Inevitably, the result is declining numbers of young birds being produced making the future of these very important populations here in Britain, questionable. This threat inevitably poses the question that is on so many scientists' minds - how can we counter the dangers posed by global warming which is said to be largely down to the use of fossil fuels over the course of many years. Perhaps we are now reaping a harvest sown by those who were responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent development of heavy industry?

The other factor, which we could surely do something to curb if the political-will really was there, is the world-wide felling of the world's forests. The great forests of the Amazon region, Asia and Africa are under constant threat, mostly from illegal loggers. Neither governments nor world leaders seem to be willing or able to halt this devastation. These forests absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide and are the 'lungs' of the planet, thus as they are felled this vital process is constantly being lessened, and the phenomenon of global warming is accelerated. So threatening is this activity that as sea levels rise due to the melting of polar ice, many communities around the world will simply have to abandon their homes and move elsewhere to higher ground.

And yet, mankind's constant pursuit of more and more wealth is such that we are now having a profound effect upon so many aspects of life that we are, assuredly, if perhaps sometimes, unconsciously threatening our own survival. I am a born optimist, yet further news that bird-life in France is in rapid decline with as many as a third of some species having been lost during the course of the last fifteen years, is alarming news. Furthermore, it is concluded that the increasing use of pesticides by French farmers has wiped out 80 per cent of the flying insects which are absolutely vital to the welfare of so many of those birds. Such figures are also a cause of further alarm for those insects are the vital pollinators, which play a pivotal role in the very fabric of life.

It occurs to me that many of the migrant birds we are currently expecting to arrive during the forthcoming days and weeks, actually travel through France. Thus the findings of French ecologists, who have produced these rather alarming figures, may indeed have an impact upon British migrants returning from Africa. As yet, apart from that short burst of blackcap music heard a week or two ago, I have not thus far either seen or heard any sign of incoming migrants, although I understand a handful of ospreys has arrived. So far, there has been no sign of them here.

What with the hostile weather conditions so far causing the arrival of spring to be extremely fitful, as well as these concerns about the effects of the use in agriculture of pesticides and repeated warnings about global warming, it is easy to feel deep concern. Nevertheless, there are reasons to feel some optimism. Each succeeding day bears witness to the growing chorus of bird-song, chaffinches are in full voice, chuntering away with increasing enthusiasm and in particular I am hearing plenty of the repeating lyrics of song thrushes.

Not so many years ago, song thrushes had become most noticeable at least in this airt by their vocal absence and their numbers were in decline pretty universally. I would have thought that the recent snows might have had a deleterious effect on numbers and indeed, song thrushes often respond to such hostile conditions by undertaking temporary migrations to France for instance. However, during the past couple of years, there has clearly been a resurgence of the song thrush, which has always been a favourite with poets. Robert Burns in particular referred to the 'mavis' many times in his writings.

Despite the nature of the weather in this so-called spring, the tuneful melodies of song thrushes are ringing out loud and clear. There is a flute-like quality about the mavis' voice as he sings sequences of phrases, each phrase repeated four, five or even six times. Each songster has his own favourite passages but these are augmented by occasional bursts of mimicry of the calls of other birds, together with excerpts copied from other thrushes.

Their resilience and that of blackbirds, any number of which are currently to be seen patrolling my lawn as well as the surrounding fields and woods, does at least give some cause for optimism. And this is despite the off-course guillemots, the decline of farmland birds and the problems relating to global warming, not to mention the activities of those more concerned about the profits they are accumulating as opposed to the future of this planet.

But hope springs eternal! Sing on sweet singing thrush!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods