The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 19.7.17

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Nature never stands still. As the year ticks along, changes are always in the air. Sometimes the changes are subtle and thus hardly noticeable. At other times, when seasons change for instance, they are more radical and thus easier to see and appreciate. Right now there is change which is more obvious to the ear than the eye. Furthermore, this is a subtle change, for we have now entered the season of silence!

Now, it is indeed the sound of silence that suddenly descends on our landscape, as most birds cease to exercise their vocal chords. You may well ask, "Where are all the birds?" After what has seemed to me to be an especially tuneful year, with in my estimation at least, many more migratory birds present than usual, there is now a deafening silence. A week or ten days or so ago, I heard a couple of quite muted whispers of willow warbler music. It was as if these two individuals at least, were having a rather half-hearted vocal fling, before submitting to the truth that they have entered the moult and that for the time being, it is not a good idea to advertise one's presence!

For most birds, the breeding season is now over, so the next phase in their lives is to begin their annual moult, a process which for most, occurs during July and August. And in the case of those that are migratory birds, one factor is key. It is vital that by the time they are impelled to answer the call of instinct and begin to prepare for their forthcoming epic journeys, their new sets of feathers are in first-class condition. Hence, the process of moulting and replacing feathers is completed in double quick time, in some cases in no more than three weeks, for those birds destined in September and October, to head off for a winter in the Dark Continent.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If there has been generally a very noticeable muffling of song, the bubbling twittering of two male swallows in recent days, sounding especially loud against that background of silence, indicates that they at least are not yet done with their breeding season. For them and indeed for the house martins seen and very much heard on a visit to a friend's house, there is still work to be done. With a third brood of youngsters recently hatched, the martins' summer is far from over. Thus the otherwise still air was filled with their celebratory and delicious mellow twittering.

There has also been in recent days a rather less melodious sound here, emanating from this year's crop of young magpies. Theirs is a difficult sound to describe. A cackling screeching probably comes nearest! Meanwhile, there are other birds with work to do such as the local ospreys, now feeding youngsters, which will probably not leave the eyries that have been their nurseries, for a few weeks yet. Soon however, they will be climbing out of the depths to perch on the edge where they will begin to exercise their wings in preparation for their very first experience of flight at seven or eight weeks old.

From then on those chicks will be in the race of their lives, with time their greatest enemy. One day towards the end of next month, the parents that have so carefully nurtured them, will up sticks and go, abruptly starting their journey to Africa without so much as a 'by your leave' or even a 'good-bye'! It is therefore imperative that those youngsters will have to become self sufficient enough to catch their own food before they too must answer the call of navigational instinct and depart on an epic journey of three thousand miles or so. When they also finally leave, theirs will truly be a flight into the unknown! If they have not learned well the techniques of catching fish, their migratory journeys are bound to end in disaster.

For much of her time here, the female osprey is quite sedentary. She undertakes most of the incubation duties, a process that lasts some thirty-five days or so. She undertakes most of the incubation duties, a process that lasts some thirty-five days or so. She too takes on much of the responsibility for brooding her youngsters and so during that long spell of enforced idleness she sensibly undergoes the moult. Her mate however, with a summer-long responsibility for obtaining food for both his mate and his progeny, waits until he is back in Africa before he goes through the process.

In general, however, there is a distinct difference between the rate of feather shedding and renewal for sedentary birds as compared with those that spend their winters overseas. As said, migratory birds need to complete the process quickly in order to be in the best possible condition for their long journeys. In contrast, bullfinches, which remain here throughout the year, take their time, beginning to shed feathers during these July days but not acquiring an entirely new set until late October. Ravens however, take even longer, beginning their moult early in the year during the breeding season and not completing it until around 150 days later! Female sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons also go through the moult during the breeding season.

For migratory birds, as the process clearly has to be completed in time for them to set out on their journeys, means that the rapid loss of feathers badly affects their capability to fly. Thus, they tend to skulk and stay well hidden. It follows, that for much the same reason they also choose to stop vocalising. So they are accordingly harder to see while obviously it is also impossible to identify them from their songs, as they fall silent! Their main aim is to remain well concealed at a time when they are particularly vulnerable to attack by predators, especially at this time of the year. Now of course, there are even more raptors to contend with, in the shape of newly fledging generations of hawks and falcons!

However, several of the more sedentary birds also take their time to complete the process. Many of our waterfowl are so debilitated that they cannot fly at all during parts of their moult. They mostly take refuge in places such as marshes but others undertake short migratory journeys. For instance, many shelduck resident in Scotland gather in their thousands off the Aberdeenshire coast. Large numbers of Canada geese, now so much of a presence across the UK, travel to the Beauly Firth to moult.

One of the birds, which during this summer, as I've often said, has been heard in just about every airt, seems however, to buck the trend by undergoing two moults each year. Willow warblers, whose voices seemed to provide me with a prelude to the 'season of silence', like many of their warbler cousins and many other migratory birds, undergo a moult here once their breeding season has been completed. But they also go through another moult during the winter months once they have reached their winter quarters. Furthermore that moult seems to last a long time, continuing almost until they are ready to begin their return back to the lands of their birth.

It is presumed that they undergo these two moults because they tend to dwell in thick undergrowth and therefore need to renew 'tatty' plumage more urgently than most. Yet there are plenty of other birds, which spend their lives in similar conditions. And they moult just once a year. So it might just be the case that willow warblers have taken the process to a different level?

And then, just as I was beginning to think that silence was, after all, golden, up piped the most vociferous of them all ... jenny wren. The vow of silence taken by most of the avian classes was soon broken again, this time by a tuneful goldfinch. A snatched moment of pure gold to break the silence!

Country View 13.7.17

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It was an Englishman by the name of John Ray who coined the phrase, "The early bird catcheth the worm," in his collection of English proverbs, published way back in the 1670's. Well it isn't just the early birds; all kinds of creatures great and small spend a surprising proportion of their lives seeking out, catching and consuming worms. A few days ago, after a short, sharp shower, dozens of blackbirds and thrushes descended upon my lawn in the hope of satisfying their craving for worms, which had clearly been encouraged to the surface by the rain.

As far as I can see song thrushes have enjoyed a prosperous year. There was ample evidence in the early spring of their pretty universal presence. Indeed both locally and during my brief sojourn on the west-coast, that repetitive song so beloved of poets and composers of music, was to be heard from almost every airt and on occasions, well into the evening. Further confirmation of their success comes with the presence of so many young throstles plundering the worms here. I find their approach to 'worming' mildly amusing. You will often see a thrush cocking its head on one side as it listens for the sound of a worm emerging from its unseen underground world. Then it is all action as the bird rushes forward, seizes its victim and vigorously tugs it from the ground.

Blackbirds approach the task a little less feverishly but just as effectively and many other garden birds are as eager as the thrushes and blackbirds to supplement their diet with fat, juicy worms. The ever-confident robin will happily join anyone digging in their garden, eager to exploit the worms duly exposed by spade or fork. Indeed, redbreast is bold enough to use such implements as a perch from which to peruse the surrounding ground in anticipation of snaffling a beak-watering prize!

And of course, worms, in their trillions, are everywhere thank goodness, for they are vital to farmers, growers and gardeners alike consuming vast quantities of organic material - an earthworm is known to consume it own weight daily in such material - and aerating the ground to keep it healthy. Furthermore, they are a vital dietary element for countless varieties of the aforementioned creatures. Indeed it might be easier to count the number of birds, animals and reptiles that don't at some time or another, feast on them, than those that do! It is therefore, a good job that they are so widely available.

Curiously enough whilst some people find worms rather odious, simply because they are slimy, wriggly and perhaps snake-like, others worship at the altar of worms. There is even an organisation, 'The Earthworm Society of Britain' which was launched in 2009 and surveys and diligently records earthworm density and populations - there is a surprising variety of species in the UK alone. The Society has a strong membership, offers training courses, guidance for recorders and produces extensive data. However, I understand only humans are allowed to join!

Among the creatures that show a liking for worms, gulls are high on the list. Indeed, the ability of gulls to exploit all manner of feeding opportunities is well known and they do seem at times to have a remarkable communication system. There may not appear to be a gull to be seen anywhere in the vicinity one minute, but as soon as the steel blades of the plough make the first inroads, suddenly, hundreds of them arrive from every airt. They literally swarm in the wake of the plough to plunder every fragment of invertebrate life they can get their beaks on, and in particular, worms.

Crows and their relatives are equally enthusiastic about worms but seldom follow the plough in the manner of gulls. In similar manner, the likes of curlew, lapwing and oyster-catchers spend much time exploring the ground in search of worms. Each of these familiar birds shops at different levels, as dictated by the length of their bills. Hence the curlew is able to dig deepest to reach the basement, the sea-pie shops in 'mid store' whilst finally the peewit seeks sustenance on or near the surface.

Again, there can be amusing moments when gulls of the black-headed, lesser black-backed and common varieties may descend on a field en masse and proceed to mark time, like parading soldiers. The gulls beat their feet on the ground to simulate falling rain-drops, a ploy which apparently fools the worms into believing it is raining thus inducing them to come to the surface, where of course, they are eagerly consumed! I wonder how the gulls worked that ploy out? But, as I've said before, gulls are extremely clever birds!

During the winter months, invading Scandinavian thrushes, fieldfares and redwings, are eager travellers to our shores where they too are keen to feast upon worms. Because our climate is generally temperate, worms are available throughout most of the winter months. In general then, our feathered friends find worms to be an essential part of their diets. Even raptors may resort to hunting for worms if other prey is scarce.

Kestrels and tawny owls are not averse to them and even kites and buzzards will seek them out too. Indeed the sight of a buzzard hunting for worms can raise a smile. Buzzards are majestic on the wing, drifting in circles on outstretched wings but on the ground when hunting worms, they are positively ungainly, reminiscent of some old-time, long shorted soccer player, shuffling down the wing, before reaching out with a taloned food to snatch a quick snack.

But worms do not just appeal to our feathered friends. Grass snakes and some lizards may include them on the menu as well as toads. Tiny shrews often gorge on them, while moles of course, virtually depend upon as their main food source. Ineed 'the little gentlemen in the velvet suits' even disable worms and hoard them in their underground labyrinths saving them for those days when even worms are scarce.

But plenty of larger mammals also indulge themselves on worms. Badgers eat considerable numbers of them along with other invertebrates, whilst the burgeoning population of pine marten will also take them when other suitable food sources are hard to find. But foxes are probably the most enthusiastic consumers of worms among our mammals. Indeed, fox expert David Macdonald in his detailed examinations of fox diets in a wide variety of locations, found that as much as a third of what foxes eat in Lowland situations could be made up of worms. That figure drops considerably in hill country, where worm density is probably at its lowest.

It certainly strikes me that there can be few creatures that play such an important role in sustaining so many of our birds, such a surprising number of our wild animals and of course, indirectly our farmers and gardeners. Indeed, it seems to me that worms are an utterly integral part of the fabric of life itself. "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures." Charles Darwin, 1881.

Country View 5.7.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country View 28.6.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Country View 22.6.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods