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 12.5.17

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The hedgerows and the hills are aglow with a golden haze of gorse. Hawthorn blossom and the rapidly greening trees, add to the romance of the month of May, enhanced even further by the settled weather we have been enjoying during the past few weeks. Uncharacteristically, the cry now is for rain, desperately needed by gardeners and farmers alike. However, rain or dry, romance, in so far as nature is ever stricken by that very human emotion, is in the air. Presently, all our feathered friends are compelled by one driving force. They respond each spring and summer, to the need to reproduce.

Thus, if perhaps romance is not an emotion of which the birds currently filling our ears with music are aware, they are nevertheless driven, sometimes frenetically, by the importance of establishing or renewing bonds and partnerships. The ultimate goal will eventually result in a permanent, in many cases just for a single season, partnership and the subsequent production of a family, in some cases not just one but two or even three families. If it isn't what we might define as romance, it certainly is about sex appeal. Yet that too is a sensation, which in that avian world, comes in many different forms. Music is perhaps the most obvious, whilst the colours or indeed, the patterns of plumage can also have a major impact as well as the behaviour patterns between courting or indeed, rival birds.

And of course, there will most likely be extensive posturing, even dancing, more often than not, used by males to impress and attract females. In some cases, however, roles may be partially reversed with posturing displays sometimes employed by female birds as a means of attracting males. In recent weeks I have often referred to the amazing vocal volume generated by tiny 'jenny' wrens. Indeed, the volume of that rat-a-tat song apparently does influence female wrens to determine which of the competing males they will pair up with, the louder the better. So as I say in my garden at the weekend, it became increasingly clear that male great tits also deem it necessary to employ volume if they are to succeed in attracting a mate. Remember, in the majority of cases in avian society, most of the decision making, including the selection of a mate, is very much the prerogative of the female!

I have in the past used 'teach-er', 'teach-er' to describe the chanting of cock great tits. Having say literally just below one such little fellow for some time the other day, I now interpret that oft repeated, two-note pronouncement as 'tis me', 'tis me', 'tis me' ... ad infinitum. It wasn't just that his strident, incessantly repetitive message, was issued with such volume but also I thought at times, it was even verging on desperation! Comparing his extremely assertive chanting with the songs of countless newly arrived willow warblers - their numbers seem particularly high this year - provided an extraordinary contrast. The warblers' sweet voices, also all around me, seem to me to convey a feeling of wistful contemplation rather than urgency.

Female great tits actually listen for that vibrancy but they also look at a potential mate's plumage for certain indicators of his vigour. In particular it seems the bold black vertical stripe down the cock great tit's chest and stretching right down his body is a sure sign of his virility. It has to be solid, wide and prominent for him to be considered as a suitable partner! One other factor will be prominent in the female's thoughts. That loud, chanting cock bird will have selected a number of potential nest sites within the territory he now commands. Any female considering him as a possible partner, will also judge him on that selection and, perhaps even more crucially, on the quantity and indeed the quality of food likely to be available within that territory!

The increasing influence of global warming, even if Mr Trump regards it as a hoax, is another factor, which must be taken into account. The survival and prosperity of a family will depend utterly on a good supply of caterpillars, mostly those of moths. Thus as these preliminary courtship rituals are conducted, she will be weighing up that particular issue. Global warming is encouraging the moths to lay their eggs earlier and earlier so the great tits have to be aware of this and thus time their own egg laying so that the hatching of their young will coincide with the emergence of those caterpillars.

That vigorous singing is therefore merely the preliminary phase of a protracted process which, depending ultimately on the perspicacity of each pair of great tits will result in the rearing of large numbers of their kind, or, should they get their timing wrong, disaster. Great tits may, during other times of the year, have a relatively varied diet, which can include seeds and of course, nuts and beech mast. But when it comes to the feeding of youngsters, those caterpillars are essential, providing an instant and very digestible form of protein, which is the means of rapid growth.

One other voice - in fact a whole conglomerate of them - is, when compared with the melodies of the willow warblers and blackbirds for instance, definitely not very musical, but it is also loud. There is resident here one little black-bibbed, grey-pated and grey-cheeked cock sparrow, which has a particularly loud chirp. His declaration is loud enough to be heard from inside the house, even when the television is on, 'chirp, chirp, chirp'! We have a healthy little bevy of house sparrows here. It is not a quiet presence; it is atpically a rudely argumentative presence, characteristic of course, of sparrows. Sparrows have always existed in close proximity to people. Indeed I cannot but believe that they probably followed and chose to reside beside the earliest hunter-gatherer people, for sparrows above all, are opportunists, living very happily off whatever scraps they can pick up.

Sparrows are probably regarded by most folk as archetypically urban and suburban birds, yet I am far removed from such an environment. But, in recent times, their numbers have tumbled alarmingly. It is my understanding that modern methods of house building with little or nothing in the way of eaves to facilitate nesting, are at the heart of the problem. But pollution caused by traffic may also be a significant hazard, reducing the sparrows' ability to breed. Yet, when it comes to the breeding season, sparrows are by nature, eager competitors and prolific breeders. Indeed, historically, sparrow's eggs were regarded as something of an aphrodisiac and were accordingly consumed by some with appropriate enthusiasm ... and perhaps optimism!

However, sparrows have also sometimes enjoyed a dubious reputation as shown in last week's Stirling Observer, when an article reproduced from the days of the First World War, dubbed sparrows as 'wicked'! The anonymous wartime correspondent even went so far as to declare ... that 'people who toil early and late in the cultivation of gardens or allotments are disposed to regard all birds as vermin.' He (or she) went on to suggest that the sparrow in particular deserved no mercy. I doubt if the anti-sparrow brigade has in any way been responsible for the declining status of house sparrows in recent years. Although perhaps regarded by many as being the most numerous of our birds - there are in fact more chaffinches and more wrens in Britain - sparrow populations have declined by a staggering seventy per cent in England over the past forty years or so.

In direct contrast, in Scotland and indeed in Ireland too, sparrows in recent times seem to be prospering, their numbers growing. So those anti sparrow sentiments voiced during the Great War, don't seem to have made a difference. Sparrows may not be sweet songsters; they're certainly not rare and indeed may be objects of disdain on the part of some. Yet somehow, I believe the world would be a poorer if rather quieter place without the cheeky, often churlish but always cheerful wee cock speugs of this world!

Country View 5.5.17

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A visit to my favourite bit of woodland - an old policy wood which long since became a place of wonderful, wild, untamed, sylvan solitude - rewarded me with a dazzling chorus of bird-song. Furthermore, this explosion of music was led by an absolute cornucopia of warbler music. There has clearly been a real influx of summer migrants during the past week for willow warblers are suddenly ten-a-penny, their sweet voices evident almost wherever I have been. Theirs is a simple song which, after an early moment of hesitation, drifts gently down the scale so sweetly ending with a little flourish. Hearing that gentle refrain confirmed that slowly, the spring and summer seasons are beginning to embrace us.

Inevitably the less musical, metronomic chantings of the humble chiff chaffs were to be heard. More pleasing on the ear however, were the mellifluous melodies of garden warblers, their songs mellow and many faceted, rich, warm and musical. There was somewhere too, deep among the trees, the trilling of a wood warbler. This tuneful chorale also inspired a bevy of robins to increase the volume of their bell-like challenges. Among those ancient trees, territories to which we are oblivious are nevertheless as clearly charted for the rival redbreasts, as if barricades had been erected. We may not be able to define exactly which landmarks are crucial in these assertions of sovereignty but the cock robins know them to the millimetre - as if they were clearly marked by white lines! And they know the consequences if they set a single feather across those lines!

The different rhythms of what seemed like a thousand voices, rang out as if what, during the winter, had seemed a dank, dark and silent place, now literally found itself suddenly full of abundant, new vibrant life. The emphatic, two-tone pronouncements of great tits seemed especially resonant, while the reedier, yet equally assertive calls of blue tits came tumbling through the lichen covered branches. As I listened, transfixed, one particular soloist suddenly piped up almost to drown out the other songsters, a wren, one of the smallest but also, without doubt, the loudest member of the choir!

The robins and the wrens are sedentary birds, so too are the titmice but those other songsters have literally just arrived after completing their journeys from Africa, most of them from just south of the vast Sahara Desert. I must confess that I still find the story of bird migration simply amazing. These warblers in general are typical little brownish birds weighing in at less than half an ounce each and their journeys, I might dare to suggest, all 3,000 miles of them, puts even those hardy souls soon to be competing on local roads in the marathon, into the shadows. But of course, the raison d'etre for this feathered invasion is straightforward. It is about the vital production of the next generation, pure and simple.

Despite all that sylvan music, the most pleasing sound of the week as far as I am concerned, has been the throaty twittering of newly arrived swallows. They are perhaps rather more robust than the sweet singing warblers, altogether more brawny in demeanour. And of course, they fly further - six thousand miles or so - for their wintering grounds are generally in the southern part of Africa. Indeed, I well remember alighting from an aircraft in Cape Town one early winter's day a good few years ago, and immediately having my attention drawn to the masses of swallows in the sky, also, like me newly arrived from Europe.

If the willow warbler's little melody confirms in my mind the certainty of spring, the swallow's twittering, assures me of summer to come, for this surely is our true 'summer bird'. If swifts, due here perhaps in the next ten days or so, technically live up to their names by being among the quickest of our birds, the swallows are very evidently the true athletes of our skies, swooping and soaring, jetting and jinking magnificently. It seems to me that in their own way, they are also very confiding. They nest almost exclusively on man-made structures and so are very willing neighbours for us. That charming, twittering song, a curious mixture of really mellow notes interspersed with some scratchy variations, is reminiscent of a cheery little confiding conversation. However, these talkative cock birds are not of course, speaking to us but to their mates or potential mates. This is the conversation of avian love.

Most of us probably associate the swallow with the house martin. Indeed, throughout human history the swallow and the martin have even been regarded literally as mates. In tradition, we are told that 'the martin and the swallow are God Almighty's birds to hallow'. Like swallows, martins too are confiding and neighbourly, choosing, like their cousins to nest almost exclusively on man-made structures. I hold martins very dear for as I have said many times before, these were the birds that lit the flame within the spirit of a seven year old boy eons ago, a flame that still burns brightly in my breast many, many years on!

But, whilst swallows are currently piling in by the day, there is an alarming absence of house martins. I usually find myself watching them skimming low over the loch, feasting upon insects before I have sighted my first swallow. If not quite as athletic as the swallows, martins are nevertheless superb aviators, recognised most easily perhaps by their flashing white rumps. But where are they? The winter whereabouts of house martins has actually been something of a mystery for many years. Whilst swallows, we know fly all the way to South Africa, martins just simply disappear from the radar. Fragmented evidence suggests a presence in West Africa but East Africa too seems to be a possible destination. The severe drought conditions in that part of the Dark Continent may well account for recent declines in house martin numbers

It is also thought that martins may spend much of the winter-time roaming high in the insect filled skies above the great rain forests of Africa. These areas are of course largely uninhabited and in any case, such is the density of the vegetation that what is happening high in the sky above them is unlikely to be seen by anyone. We know that swifts spend their time in Africa exclusively in the air without touching down and it is suggested that martins may behave similarly, eating, drinking and cat-napping on the wing. However such has been the decline of house martins during the past fifty or sixty years that the British Trust for Ornithology has accordingly launched a major research initiative. It will try to determine the range of problems, which might be having deleterious impacts upon these extremely attractive and agile birds.

There may be a simpler explanation of course for it is known that some particularly house-proud people do take action against martins, destroying their nests, even when it is known they have chicks, in an attempt to get rid of the inevitable mess that nesting martians cause. However, with these 'bluebirds' now perhaps in serious trouble, the BTO and several other organisations are appealing to people not to interfere with these nests, an act, which is by the way, an offence. I might add that there is also a conflict between martins and sparrows. The latter show a great liking for old martin nests, especially during the time when the martins are absent during early spring, occupying them and indeed defending them stoutly, to the disadvantage of the martins which year in year out return to their original nests.

So the universal plea goes out, "Please help our disappearing house martins." They are well worth protecting.

Country View 27.4.17

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According to biblical tradition, Noah took the animals in to his Ark, two by two. Perhaps Noah was therefore the very first conservationist? However, in the light of our knowledge of the absolutely enormous variety of life that has evolved on earth, the preservation of every species and accommodating them seems increasingly unlikely. That Ark must have been some size! Yet 'two by two' is exactly the driving force of nature right now, as preparations for the forthcoming breeding season continue to be made. Or is it?

There is at least one exception in tradition to the philosophy of two by two. The Jill hare for instance, was reputed to have been lost overboard the Ark. Hence the curious myth that the Jack was thereafter given the ability of giving birth himself as compensation for the loss of his mate. We know that such a story is indeed a myth. However, we also know that Jull hares are actually capable of carrying two successive litters of young at the same time. In other words they can become pregnant despite already being pregnant!

The first wave of pairing has already happened of course. Mad March hares were observed performing their madcap antics several weeks ago. Their leaping and especially their boxing are familiar sights at that particular time of the year, more obvious perhaps because in March there is little or no vegetation to conceal them. What's more, when passion seizes them, hares seem to throw off their customary shyness. However that is certainly not the end of things as far as hares are concerned for they will probably go on to repeat the process three or four times later in the year albeit that there is perhaps rather less cavorting than earlier in the year. Hence the phenomenon of Jill hares finding themselves, as it were, twice pregnant!

Nor is their fidelity necessarily constant. Indeed, there are a number of the pairing shortly to be manifested, which are not necessarily constant either. I recently wrote about the strange courtship rituals of dunnocks. Dunnocks certainly give the impression of being one of nature's peripheral characters, exclusively ground feeders, which never seem to be the centre of attention, almost subservient to other birds taking advantage of our generosity. A dunnock seldom seems to lose its temper, an altogether meek and mild bird and the epitome of the little plain brown bird, albeit that it is very attractively streaked. This is a rather anonymous little fellow, yet I cannot help but like it!

Yet when it comes to courtship music, the dunnock is indeed a sweet singer, delivering a rapid series of erratic, high-pitched notes. They are perhaps one of the exceptions to the rule that dictates that song is more often than not produced only by the male. In the case of dunnocks, it is usually the female that begins calling the vocal shots and only when she has caught the attention of a suitable male, does she shut up and the male takes over the singing stakes. And it is the female that takes the initiative when it comes to nest building, producing a wee cup structure in the depths of a low bush. And if that role reversal seems unusual, what follows blows our image of natural life out of the water. Males may mate with several females and conversely, females too may have a number of partners. Dunnocks it seems are extremely dedicated to ensure that there are to be future generations!

Not exactly the image so long ago created by Walt Disney. Bambi I recall, according to the great cartoonist, was carefully nurtured by both a motherly doe and an extremely fatherly stag. The natural truth is that red deer stags and roebucks, take nothing whatsoever to do with the rearing of their progeny, not even acknowledging their existence. Roebuck indeed, have other things on their minds - the defending of their territory from rival bucks. Such nurturing duties, due in the case of roe to begin during the next few weeks have always been the entire prerogative of the females. Disney's romantic notions were nothing more or less than fiction. Nature, whilst remarkable in its devotion to future generations, is very definitely not romantic, just extremely pragmatic. Nevertheless, there are both birds and animals, which are constant. Golden eagles pair for life as do mute swans. Even migratory ospreys generally choose the same mates year in, year out despite the fact that when they migrate to Africa at the end of our summer, they do so entirely separately, although when they go they may perhaps, have in their minds Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again...". They do however know where and when! Yet it seems they seldom if ever meet up during their sojourn in the Dark Continent. However, when they return in the spring, the cock birds often face competition from fitter, perhaps younger rivals. Thus partnerships are sometimes broken.

One feature of raptor life in the spring is reflected in the courtship rituals they perform, usually expressed in spectacular soaring flight. The most visible demonstration of this displaying, is often provided by buzzards, sometimes to be seen when several of them spiral deliciously upwards in a kind of rising, circling column. One of the most fantastic courtship dances however, is provided by the hen harriers. Two courting birds will soar, the grey male rising higher than his 'ring-tailed' mate, carrying a gift, perhaps even in the form of food, which he drops. The female now flips over on her side - sometimes she may even be upside down - and dextrously catches the gift in her talons, with the adroitness of a cricket slip-fielder!

The process of establishing a relationship however, is manifold. Sometimes there is conflict between males as witness the 'lecking' of black grouse, one of nature's most remarkable performances in which male birds assemble at the 'lists' and indulge in what can only be described as mock battles. Yet despite all the apparent aggression in which very little physical contact actually occurs and all the 'huffing and puffing' that ensues, it is the females which eventually have the advantage of selecting the cock bird they wish to bond with.

One of our tiniest, yet loudest garden birds is of course the wren. His strategy includes half building several nests - as many as ten built by a single male have been recorded. Everyone knows that the cock wren, although small in stature, has the most strident and far-carrying of voices. Indeed, the mild winter has, I assume, been good for wrens. Everywhere I wander, I am hearing that loud rattle of a song. The purity and volume of it is what he uses to attract a female, which he tries to impress by showing her the nests he has partially built. She only has to enter one of them to confirm their pairing and then together they complete the job.

Meanwhile, he continues to belt out the music in an attempt to attract another female. After all he doesn't want his half-built nests to go to waste! So it isn't his supper he's singing for!

Country View 19.4.17

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Some people long to catch the merest glimpse of them, some travel many miles to see them whilst others are bent on culling them severely. Deer provoke many different emotions. I've even heard of folk buying lion dung from Safari Parks to try and deter deer from eating their roses! Yet deer are perhaps now more numerous than ever before. Nevertheless, to those who dwell within our now extremely urbanised towns and cities, seeing deer still represents something of a thrill. Indeed, the hope and perhaps expectation of many of today's burgeoning numbers of tourists to wild Scotland, is to see in particular, herds of red deer roaming across fine Highland landscapes.

Yet despite that craving, there are those who are currently calling for the restoration to these isles, of the likes of lynx and wolves as a means of controlling the ever growing populations of deer. There are also conservationists, so eager to protect our woodland areas and indeed to expand them who also wish to see deer numbers seriously reduced. Some say that the effect of over grazing by deer is seriously reducing cover for ground nesting birds and that the hunting of deer to produce venison should therefore be encouraged.

Deer then, create something of a dilemma in different folks' minds. They are seen in both good and bad lights, depending upon these different points of view. Some conservationists want them to be protected as important members of our native fauna, others want stricter culling levels and many foresters side with those who espouse more severe control than is currently practised. The erection of deer proof fences to protect young trees from browsing deer is said to represent a dangerous obstacle to our dwindling populations of capercaillie. However, we are told that those responsible for the management of deer are failing to keep numbers under control to such a degree that many deer themselves - especially our red deer - are suffering from malnutrition, due to excessive competition for diminishing food resources.

Those red deer, the Monarchs of the Glen, are our largest land mammals. In most people's minds, these days they are regarded as animals of the wild Highlands and uplands in England such as Exmoor. Yet in truth and by origin, they are really forest animals. However in recent centuries, the rapid advance of industry and the demands of successive wars stripped our landscape almost bare of its natural tree cover. Thus our red deer found their natural habitat shrinking so quickly that they had to adapt to a different and harsher lifestyle, forced to seek a living in the hills and the wilder glens and moors of the 'new' treeless landscape. But times change and there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that many red deer are finding their way back into the new Lowland forests.

Meanwhile, as natural woodland was rapidly disappearing, landowners, some of whom had been enriched by the exploitation of such resources, strove to develop their fine, manicured parklands and embellish them with herds of virtually tame deer. Whilst in some respects we might regard these parkland herds perhaps as not truly wild, more as a decoration to please the opulent eye, I'm sure they did also provide good eating when required. But by and large, these deer were and still are cosseted, living a relatively comfortable life and when facing inclement weather, freely provided with supplementary feeding. The herds of red deer in places such as London's Richmond Park are a prime example of 'not very wild' red deer, albeit that when the rut comes along, the stags quickly re-discover plenty of deep seated and wild ire and passion!

The disappearance of so much of the woodland cover of Britain, came quite close to causing the extinction of that other truly native, the smaller and very woodland orientated roe deer, which had been unable to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions. Indeed, the creation of the Forestry Commission immediately after the cessation of hostilities in 1919, probably rescued the graceful roe, from such a fate by coincidentally planting new and extensive coniferous forests which turned out to be excellent habitat for them. The recovery of the roe has since been nothing short of remarkable for these days, roe are so commonplace in certain areas to have become 'urban deer'! Locations such as cemeteries have been eagerly colonised by fast expanding communities of roe, in some cases surprisingly close to busy city centres.

Many long centuries ago reindeer were also apparently native to these shores. Certainly there are traditions in both Scotland and England which tell us of reindeer hunts. And since just after the Second World War, reindeer have been restored as Scottish animals although they are not free ranging and may perhaps therefore be regarded as domestic animals, as indeed they are across many parts of northern Europe

It also seems that a long way back in our history, recorded through the discovery of fossils rather than by tradition, giant fallow deer were once native here. However, the fallow deer now resident in various parts of Britain and most notably here in Scotland in such remarkably diverse locations as Loch Lomond side, Perthshire and the Isle of Mull, probably owe their presence here firstly to the Romans. Later, those mad keen hunt enthusiasts, the Normans also imported fallow. In addition, early in the seventeenth century, James 1 (James V1 of Scotland) imported darker coloured fallow from the Continent. Like those parkland red deer, many of our fallow deer herds might perhaps be regarded as embellishments to estate lands rather than truly wild inhabitants.

Hence, there are several variations on a spotted theme among the fallow deer to be found in Britain these days. Some are almost white, others tan and yet others of a distinctly chestnut colour. Fallow bucks are also notable for their palmate antlers, as distinct perhaps, from the more familiar adornments boasted by red deer. Not surprisingly, fallow, are nowhere near as hardy as red deer and often require extra feed in winter. It might be argued that fallow deer have been with us for long enough for them now to be classified as native animals, like for instance the rabbit.

In modern times, the dubious 'fashion' for the importation to the British landscape of what might be regarded as exotic species of animals, has resulted in the presence in these islands, of other types of deer. For instance, here in Scotland there are sika deer the origins of which are Far Eastern, from China and Japan. These animals, quite similar too but smaller than our red deer, are to be found in Argyll where, because of their close genetic relationship they are able to interbreed with red deer, thus diluting the purity of our native red deer.

If grey squirrels and American mink are rather better known animal importations, which in their own particular ways, have had a distinctly deleterious impact on our landscape, in southern Britain, two other imported deer are making something of an impact too. Chinese water deer and in particular, the tiny muntjac, originally native to China and India, are now well established with the muntjac recently widening its territorial ambitions across the Border into southern Scotland. However, it is the fast growing populations of our truly native deer, the red and the roe, that are of the greatest concern. Venison, a meat that contains relatively little fat, is perhaps more regularly finding its way on to the shelves of our supermarkets now, yet we still export most of it, even in this health conscious age!

Country View 12.4.17

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It was almost as if we had passed from the sublime to the ridiculous. A week or so ago, I was celebrating a sighting of my first osprey of the year - and you surely can't get more exotic than that - and now I have heard my first visiting summer songster. Only the word 'songster' does seem on reflection, to be rather generous. What I heard was the monosyllabic chanting of a newly arrived chiff-chaff. Hardly a song to my ears but doubtless very much music to the ears of another chiff-chaff, especially if it is of the feminine gender! And if there is in the osprey a sense of splendour, that too is missing in the chiff-chaff. Its song is plain in the extreme ... and so is its appearance.

This is the very epitome of 'the anonymous little brown bird' albeit that it does have a tinge of green about it and a nice little eye stripe. Furthermore, it is indeed anonymous in every way, shy and retiring, not easy to spot even if it is easy to identify vocally. Indeed, over the past few days, I have heard a good many chiff-chaffs, even if I have actually yet to lay eyes on any of them! Yet most of these relatively tiny birds have just completed a pretty spectacular journey from somewhere deep in Africa's Sahel region, south - perhaps inclining to the south-west of the massive Sahara desert, a voyage of some three thousand miles plus!

The chiff-chaff is always among the very first of the smaller birds to arrive in the spring. Its almost identical cousin the willow warbler, the possessor of a considerably more musical voice, I anticipate will arrive in a couple of week's time. Its lyrical, sweet, down the scale song I have always regarded as the true voice of spring. Apart from the obvious vocal difference, the only certain way I know of discriminating between these two birds is the colour of the legs, black in the case of the chiff-chaff, flesh coloured in the case of the sweeter singing willow warbler. One other difference is that the willow warbler tends to nest on the ground, whereas chiff-chaffs prefer a little more elevation, usually in a low bush. However they do climb up into the canopy to give voice.

In a sense, the chiff-chaffs represent the vanguard of the millions of birds we can expect to flood into our landscape over forthcoming weeks. The spring migration is a spectacular and indeed a global event, surely one of the great wonders of the natural world, an event about which there is still so much to learn. It is not that long ago - no more than a couple of centuries - that even eminent naturalists such as the famed Gilbert White, had little or no concept of bird migration. Many such experts believed that like bats and hedgehogs, birds actually hibernated during the winter.

Swallows in particular were said to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of ponds. The evidence, they said, was provided by the spectacle of migrating swallows being seen roosting in reed beds overnight by disappearing by first light. They were of course continuing their migratory flight and definitely not diving into ponds to hibernate! Another theory conjectured that some even hibernated on the sea-bed, a conclusion reached after fishermen had brought up the bodies of swallows in their nets. The reality was that sadly these rafts of swallows had been downed into the sea by adverse weather and were consequently very dead rather than asleep!

If I have heard but not seen those elusive chiff-chaffs, I have seen but not heard my first wheatear. This too is an early traveller from similar regions to the chiff-chaff and during this Easter weekend, when tradtionally hill walkers come out of their hibernation to explore our hills and glens, I'm sure there will be many sightings of this little bird. It is an unmistakable fellow and relatively bold, often flitting away from almost under one's feet, its most identifiable feature, that bold white flash just above its tail. At one time that flash gave the bird its original name, 'white-arse', not apparently appropriate as far as our prudish Victorian ancestors were concerned, who accordingly re-named it 'wheatear'. It was a curious name to pick for as exclusively an insect eater, it has no connection whatsoever with wheat. Nor does it have noticeable ears! I suppose it just sounded similar!

Mind you, those same Victorian folk used to like wheatears ... to eat! If ever there was an era of contradictions, the second half of the nineteenth century was surely it. It was a time when 'Nature Study' was becoming all the rage in Victorian schools; yet it was also a time when thousands upon thousands of birds were annually trapped to be kept in cages for the amusement and indeed profit of their captors. And this was also a time when a universal interest in all things natural was blooming and books on natural history were being printed in their thousands. At the same time, folks along the South Coast of England trapped and ate wheatears as a delicacy. No wonder wheatears have declined in Lowland Britain and mainly survive nowadays in the uplands of the North and West!

This month is a time when the inner clocks that govern the lives of migratory birds, begin to tick that little bit faster, when the urge to fly northwards seizes literally millions of birds to respond to their instincts to leave Africa and head for the lands of their birth. I have already and unusually early, seen my first swallow but during the next few weeks we will see these supremely athletic birds returning to the nests that in some cases many generations of swallows will have used down the years. But first will come the martins, the relatively anonymous and perhaps less glamorous sand martins, followed by the altogether cuter house martins.

Usually my first sightings of these joyous birds are to be seen as they skim low over the loch, scooping up beaks full of flying insects. If the willow warbler's sweet song is the audible confirmation that spring is indeed with us, then the sight of some white-rumped house martins flying low over the loch is the visible confirmation. What the chiff-chaffs and wheatears started develops into a feathered avalanche as more and more migrants make landfall after their incredible journeys.

You might well wonder why these birds take their lives in their hands and undertake such monstrous journeys, braving stormy tropical rain forests, enduring long desert crossings, navigating their way across seas, oceans and high mountain ranges. It is an in-built part of their psyche, pure instinct, a journey their ancestors begin to make as the Ice retreated thousand of years ago. And the advantages of heading north? Our lengthening hours of daylight which as they begin to nurture the next generations of their kind, afford them the opportunity to feed them long into the evening and from early in the wee sma' hours.

There are those that delay their travels. It will be mid-May before the screaming of swifts begins to echo around village rooftops and May before the comic chanting of cuckoos may be heard. The swifts will hang around long enough - until August - to produce one generation, whereas the cuckoos will linger merely into July, leaving nursery chores to others. They are the undedicated exceptions that defy the strict rule all other birds follow - to dedicate their summer lives to the task of producing and nurturing those next generations.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods