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 1.2.17

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How I enjoyed a letter recently published in the Stirling Observer but written originally a hundred years ago by a "Mr and Mrs Blackbird". Even during the dark days of that 'war to end all wars', sentiments were clearly being expressed about the desirability of remembering the welfare of our garden brids. However, I think Mr and Mrs Blackbird should perhaps have had a chat with their dietician if such a person existed in those far off days. Such an expert would surely have advised that not any old crumbs would do. White bread scraps are awfully bad for birds.

The trouble is that once eaten, such materials swell, thus filling the birds' stomachs and restricting the amount of other food they can ingest. And, all birds must beware of the harder times to be expected during the treacherous month of February and remember that days, while just beginning to lenghten, are still short on hours of the daylight, during which the blackbirds of this world are able to forage. Moving on a century, this is why it remains vital to ensure that in order to survive during the coldest of nights, all birds need to pack in as much good food as possible ...of the right sort. It is incidentally vital to ensure they also have access to a supply of fresh, clean water!

I surely do not need to remind folk I'm sure, that keeping their little bodies warm on cold and frosty nights saps the energy of birds remarkably rapidly. They will use so much of it just to keep warm for wild birds of course, do not have the luxury of central heating. Mind you, few humans enjoyed that luxury a hundred years ago either! Furthermore remember that birds must find somewhere to bed down, which is by the very nature of their wild existence, exposed to what ever the weather may bring, hail rain or snow, especially as at this time of the year there isn't even shelter offered by the leaves. However, blackbirds do have the advantage of enjoying an omnivorous diet. So I would have encouraged Mr and Mrs Blackbird's new found human friends a hundred years ago, to put out not that white bread but maybe some containers containing hard fat, and lard for they would have provided maximum energy with which to fight off the cold.

However, if the blackbirds in our gardens are lucky and the frost stays away, they can continue to feast upon worms and other invertebrates. Mr and Mrs Blackbird's descendants, some located in my neck of the woods, are enjoying these avian dietary delights, especially on my lawn. But equally, and especially if the frost returns with a vengeance as it is wont to do in February, that source of food may be denied to them. So, those who these days so enthusiastically feed the birds should perhaps provide some fat balls, seeds, scraps of grated cheese, crushed peanuts and even sunflower hearts. We put out an old Christmas pudding and the birds love it!

If, as is the fashion these days, the gardens that today's blackbirds patrol, contain decorative berry bearing shrubs and trees and they haven't been got at by either their fellow thrushes, the visiting waxwings or hungry starlings, they can be a big dietary bonus. Again, this illustrates the omnivorous nature of our blackbirds.

I'm afraid however that any goodies enthusiasts may provide will have to be made accessible, perhaps on or close to the ground. I am well aware that unlike titmice, goldfinches, other finches and even common or garden sparrows, the blackbird clan has not yet mastered the art of clinging on to suspended baskets. As blackbirds obtain most of their food from terra firma, that's where it should be placed for them.

Of course, I am sure that whatever the weather, blackbirds will also be exploring the local woods, using their beaks to turn over the carpets of dead leaves in the hope of finding the odd juicy morsel. Mind you, that activity is extremely energy sapping. Blackbirds very vocally vent their displeasure at the ill-timed arrival in their patch, of wood-walking humans. On such occasions they will follow a deeply ingrained instinct and remove themselves loudly with those familiar proclamations of indignity - 'tick, tick, tick' - the merle's very own unique and very vocal alarm system.

And they may indeed use the same noisy protestation should they feel threatened by a predator such as a roosting owl or perhaps a hawk, not to mention a patrolling fox. Often this obvious outcry is also a warning to other birds and animals that danger may be at hand. Blackbirds, always alert, thus often provide a very special early warning system that all creatures great and small can heed.

And had I been around a hundred years ago this January or February, my advice to Mr and Mrs Blackbird would have been not to be lulled by mild conditions into building a nest just yet. Some precocious blackbirds do get carried away and even lay eggs before January is out. Such ventures more often than not fail, for Mr Blackbird, upon whom his partner would have relied for food whilst incubating eggs, may not have been able to find enough at that time of the year. So Mrs Blackbird may have found herself having to go and find her own, during which expeditions her eggs would have chilled and come to nought.

However, Mr Blackbird was and is the one that sings, a process which is all about trying to encourage a Mrs Blackbird to join him and indeed to establish and maintain a prime, food filled territory of which she too can be proud. Happily, that music also entertains us humans. Thus would I have encouraged Mr Blackbird to do some of his singing where people too can hear it. There are and always have been plenty of folk who have and still do rejoice in the mellow voices and the flowing melodies produced by these delightful garden birds. Indeed there are those among us who rate his as the finest of all voices in the avian choir. I also know that some serenading blackbirds are inclined to break into song especially early in the year, so many of us do keep our ears open in the hope of hearing those first assertive musical offerings.

However, suburban blackbirds, of which there are these days many, must beware of gardens where cats roam. I have a cat but he is far too lazy to bother chasing about after birds but there are plenty of cats which by their very nature can be a real threat to blackbird survival. So, it is vital that they must always keep a very wary eye open for that crafty moggy. Even the most cosseted cat can be very cunning, very elusive, stealthy and lethal. Vigilance is the key and that rattling, peppering volley that is so much a part of that early warning system of the blackbird will also alert other birds to a cat's presence and keep them out of harm's way.

I do admire the blackbird's bustling flight. They never seem to go anywhere slowly. There always seems to be about them, a sense of urgency. They breast the air, cleaving it in the same way as a yacht in full sail, parts the waves. I also admire Mr Blackbird's beautiful crocus-coloured beak and those lovely golden rings around his eyes. And although Mrs Blackbird is less well endowed in this way, perhaps that illustrates how well Mother Nature has worked things out, for she needs to be less conspicuous, especially when eventually being ensconced for weeks on end in the nest incubating her eggs. Anonymity then is one of the keys to her survival.

But as Mr and Mrs Blackbird wrote a hundred years ago, those avian conscious human benefactors should be encouraged to put out plenty of food albeit without that white bread please. February days can be tricky. But all birds must ignore weight watching and eat as heartily as possible! That's the way to survive. So I say good luck to the blackbirds of this world, the descendants of those remarkable correspondents of a hundred years ago, Mr and Mrs Blackbird!

Country View 26.1.17

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These winter days are extremely rewarding for those of us interested in birds. In a sense, it is a time, when instead of having to go out in order to seek glimpses of the birds of our moors, fields and woods we can sit comfortably at our windows and watch the birds literally come to us. Indeed, as the number of people habitually feeding the birds in their gardens continues to grow, so too have many birds resorted to a winter life largely spent taking advantage of the food provided in those gardens, whether they be in town or country. Wherever they are, there is daily entertainment to be observed.

Thus, I am playing host to a very healthy avian community. There are as usual many chaffinches, a bevy of house sparrows, a scattering of shy dunnocks, lots of colourful goldfinches, some starlings and as usual, the odd greenfinch, a goodly number of blackbirds, a thrush occasionally bursting into fragments of song and a solitary pair of collared doves. Of course, a host of titmice are present, chief among them, the famously agile bluetits and the more aggressive great tits. There are one or two coal tits and out in the hedgerows, long tailed tits but although they can be seen in this vicinity, I have never managed to attract them to my bird-table.

A cocky little redbreast is a regular visitor, albeit that he is totally unable to match the acrobatics of the tits and picks away on the ground at what scraps the other birds scatter from above. And whilst they don't seem to use the bird-table and the various hanging baskets, there are also present, the robins' traditional companions, wrens, which typically always covertly keep themselves to themselves. Every now and then, the male bursts into that amazing, rattling little song, comfortably in volume, absolutely the top of the pops among the avian classes!

And, a couple of weeks ago, in mid-January mark you, there were some, which were already beginning to contemplate the forthcoming approach of spring, inspired perhaps by the emerging snowdrops. There was for instance, an enthusiastic cock great tit expressing its optimism with a resounding 'tea-cher, teac-cher, tea-cher'. Almost as prominent was the argumentative chatter from a group of house sparrows, as they filtered energetically through the branches of a straggling privet bush. No wonder the collective word for house sparrows is a 'quarrel'! Furthermore, my regular and precocious pair of collared doves was also showing an inclination towards spring behaviour with the cock bird's soft 'cuck-cuck-coo' very evident.

Apart from the ubiquitous chaffinches, it is the titmice that currently catch the eye with their extraordinary agility. As said, it is the bluetits especially, which exhibit their ability to easily cling to the nut containers, often upside down. The great tits, not quite as versatile, spend a little more of their time on the ground, as is their wont in their natural woodland habitat.

And, amazingly I have had several reports of rooks collecting twigs, presumably with the intention of a bit of nest refurbishment, or indeed, re-building. Early birds, perhaps, when you consider that the traditional date upon which rooks are supposed to begin such activity is St David's Day - March 1, still over a month away. Mr Trump please note - global warming is a fact of life, not a rumour perpetrated by the Chinese! The opinion of most scientists is that we are now witnessing the effects of our long-term profligate use of fossil fuels, which of course, we are still pumping into the atmosphere. I suppose, however it could be a more natural phenomenon, for our earth has gone through many moods - hot and cold, dry and wet - over the course of recent centuries. But something is spurring on the rooks to look to house-building uncommonly early!

Also very noticeable, is the extra activity of moles. These are animals of which we see so little, yet the evidence of their presence, perhaps under our very feet as they scuttle about in their subterranean world, is plain to see in the shape of molehills. Moles of course, are inveterate miners, constantly digging new tunnels and thus as they need to get rid of the excavated soil, creating molehills. The lack of hard frosts so far this winter had made the digging easier and probably further energised what are anyway, enormously energetic animals.

Farmers have long waged war on moles and the local mole-catchers are in great demand and always have been. The importance of such men was confirmed by the story in a recent "Stirling Observer" in which a mole-catcher was given a month's respite to complete his vital work before being called up for service in World War1. Over fifty landowners and farmers who had signed a petition claiming his work was vital.

The poet John Clare recounts the activities of these long established artisans thus:-

"With spuds (spades) and traps and horsehair string supplied,

He potters out to seek each fresh-made hill;

Pricking the greensward where they love to hide,

He sets his treacherous snares, resolved to kill: ...."

A number of years ago, my wife and I ventured into Austria for a holiday. During a stroll in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, we came across a farmer who, far from setting traps for moles, was busy instead, clearing the molehills with a cane and in so doing spreading the black soil that had been brought to the surface, across his field. He explained that it was such rich soil that it would be good for growing crops and indeed, for growing grass on which to feed his cattle.

When you consider that moles, although they eat the worms which aerate the soil, thus naturally improving it for farming, earthworms are surely so numerous that this is hardly likely to even put even a dent in their numbers. The old name for mole, 'mouldiwarp', has ancient origins and is a name derived from the language used by the ancient Saxons. 'Molde' means earth and 'werten' means to throw. In addition, moles also consume large numbers of pests such as wire-worms which seriously damage crops. Their real net impact on farming may therefore be entirely neutral.

The outstanding feature of the mole is its enormous front feet, which may be compared to JCB diggers! And, as hyper-active animals, they not only spend much time digging tunnels, they also spend plenty of time looking for something to eat! I have been amused to see a number of molehills sited on verges within but a few centimetres of the tarmac surface of roads. Even moles can't get through tarmac albeit that I once watched a mole try! It had scuttled from the verge on to the road but as traffic approached it frantically tried to burrow its way through the tar ... unsuccessfully of course. Much to my amazement it thereafter went streaking across the road at a remarkable speed, somehow avoiding all traffic! When it reached soft earth at the road edge, it dug so effectively that it had disappeared underground in no time!

Great tits calling, thrushes hinting at singing, rooks already providing evidence of house-building and moles frantically mining and we're not out of January yet! However, should February live up to its wintry reputation, who knows, maybe there will be a sudden lull in all this spring activity. Clocks have been turned back before!

Country View 18.1.17

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During the next few days, right across the world glasses will be lifted and toasts drunk, to the haggis and of course, to the immortal memory of the life of a humble ploughman, who turned out to be the most gifted of Scottish poets. Amazingly, outside Scotland, the greatest number of Burns Night celebrations will occur in Russia. In Moscow, between this coming Sunday and next Wednesday - the poet's birthday - there will be much celebration, much quaffing of the 'barley-bree' and in general, much admiration shown for everything Scottish.

Of course, we have, with the Russians, a shared patron saint in St Andrew. But the connection with Burns is even stronger, to the extent that his works, which of course, have been translated and are studied widely in their schools. How they translated some of his poems into Russian begs an interesting question, not least, what they made of,

"Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,

Oh what a panic's in thy breastie!

Thou need na' start awa' sae hasty

Wi' bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,

Wi' murdering pattle!"

I cannot imagine how that translates into Russian but Burns' egalitarian philosophy, possibly appealed greatly to a post revolutionary Russia, hence his continuing popularity.

Of course, Burns night will be celebrated in many countries, especially with a strong Scottish heritage such as Canada and of course, the United States. However what president Donald Trump, not I suspect an advocate of egalitarianism, (his inauguration is happening on this very Friday) might make of it, goodness knows.

However, the genius of Burns was manifold. He did advocate egalitarianism and indeed he didn't write exclusively in the Scots' tongue, for many of his more serious poems are written in English. This is perhaps a tribute to an education which in the eighteenth century might have been regarded as inadequate. He wrote as a patriot, as a romantic and as a man who loved the landscape and its wildlife.

I may wonder what the Russians make of "Wee sleekit, cow'ring, tim'rous beastie ...." and the rest of that epic poem. Not only does it represent the language of eighteenth century Ayrshire, it also gives us a glimpse into the character of the Bard, clearly a man who was at one with nature. Throughout his poems, especially those of a romantic nature, he fashions a tapestry that gives us more manicured landscape of the twenty first century. Life for Burns in that landscape must have been uncommonly hard. How can we compare today's tractor driver with the ploughman, walking behind a horse-drawn plough, in hail, rain or snow. That was hard work and perhaps was at the root of his early death!

And yet despite his labours, somehow Burns still made the time to observe the creatures of that relatively wild Ayrshire countryside and so often include them in his writings. His use of a whole raft of the Scots' colloquial names is interesting. Some of these names still resonate today. 'Gled' for instance is the old name for a red kite. The buzzard he called the 'buzzard gled' and the cuckoo of course, 'the gowk', a soubriquet still used in modern day language. Interestingly, he also makes reference to 'the craik' which I presume translates as the corncrake then it may safely be assumed considerably more commonplace than it is now, confined as it is, largely to the islands off the west coast.

He also refers to 'the foumart', better known as the polecat, now of course extinct in Scotland. And 'the gor cock' which translates into 'moor-cock', alias the red grouse, which during his time, before the sport of grouse shooting on heather moors had become popular, would have been less common than it is nowadays. Another bird which, like the corncrake, these days is a rare sighting indeed, 'the pailtrick' or partridge - the native grey partridge, not the imported red legged partridge now so commonly released into the Scottish countryside - is frequently featured.

But he definitely had his favourites, which were mostly song-birds. There is no doubt in my mind, that his romantic approach to life, for which he was of course, renowned, was accentuated by the romantic melodies provided by the birds he listened to and included in so many of his works. Chiefly, it was the 'laverock' or skylark, now sadly also becoming something of a rarity in many parts of Scotland that so often moved him. The 'mavis' too appears regularly and was probably more common in his day than is the case nowadays, albeit that in my experience, the song thrush seemed last year to enjoy something of a revival. But predominant throughout his verses, is the 'merle', our still extremely common blackbird, and as sweet a singer as you will hear. Time and again, Burns uses the merle as an adjunct to some real or perhaps, imagined liaison.

The pictures thus painted by him in word, tell us of a much wilder, less tamed and manicured landscape than it is these days. Nor was it of course, anything like as intensively farmed. Burns and his contemporaries in the farming world lived at a considerably slower pace compared with today's mechanised tillers of the land. Perhaps, without modern accoutrements, without gismos such as satellite precision sowing and chemicals, it is little wonder that he was never able to make a decent living from his farming labours.

However, it may well be that the landscape in which he laboured, was then so much richer in terms of its wildlife, than are today's intensively farmed hectares! One of the most serious consequences of the perpetual modernisation of agriculture is indeed the loss of so many of our farmland birds. Comparisons with the seventeenth century farming landscape might well reveal a much wider range of wild birds and animals then ... if the constant references to such a diversity of creatures in the poems of Robert Burns, is anything to go by.

Hereabouts, during the past few decades, there have been many very noticeable casualties. There was a time for instance, when I could hardly look across the neighbouring fields without catching glimpses of brown hares - Burns 'maukin or poussie'. There have been in recent years, been signs of the local hare population experiencing something of a revival, yet compared with say forty years ago, they still represent no more than a rump of their numbers then. In those days the regular hare shoots, then unfortunately so popular with the shooters, seemed more like the start of World War 3!

It will come as no surprise then that I regard one of the most sympathetic of Burns' verses is that to which he surely gave, the longest title of all his poems, "On seeing a wounded hare limp by me which a fellow had just shot at". Its first verse reads thus,

"Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb'rous art,

And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;

May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,

Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart!"

Several years ago, I shared the sentiments expressed by Burns in that verse when I came across a hare, which like the one seen by the poet, had indeed been shot at! The poor creature, which, of course I had to put out of its misery, had three broken legs and was accordingly utterly immobilised, condemned otherwise to a slow and agonising death. Yes, I thought, inhuman man! Happily however, most of Burns' wild creature references are entirely benign. Indeed, most of them are seen as intrinsic parts of his landscape backdrops, which were the essence of his romantic poems. Slainte!

Country View 12.1.17

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Don Roberto always said that this airt was in his mind, a shadowy place, so often made all the more mysterious by the almost supernatural presence of a slow moving, creeping banks of mist. And indeed, like some gigantic, amorphous, creeping fungus advancing insidiously and silently across the landscape, during recent days those mists have repeatedly hidden the true nature of the landscape from us.

Once upon a time of course, in much the same way, it wasn't mist but the sea that advanced as stealthily to drown the valley, obliterating everything in its path. If Cunninghame Graham had still been around as 2017 emerged, his description would indeed have been confirmed. In the last few days, right across the low ground of his beloved Carse, has hung an all-pervading, all embracing, massive white sheet of seemingly impenetrable mist, ephemeral yet visually, to all intents and purposes, surprisingly solid!

Its cloying mass blotted out the grey green fields, the livestock picking away at the sparse winter vegetation, the drystane walls, the post and wire fences, what is left of the once proudly manicured mosaic of hedgerows and the now leafless trees. It completely obscured the white-washed farmhouses and even the usually obvious old red or green tin roofs of many a farm building, iron sheets which once upon a time were a vital construction material not just for farming man but for people in far flung foreign lands. Corrugated iron was one of those inventions and exports that somehow transformed living conditions right across the world. Maybe it still does in places such as South Africa's shanty towns!

In truth, this slow moving leviathan monster seemed somehow to have a life of its own. Although it hung heavy and still across the low ground, at each side of the valley, where it encountered rising ground, it seemed somehow to be making a real attempt to absorb and consume that too. At its frayed edges, strands of mist broke free from the main body as if attempting to colonise those higher places, which stood above the cloying white mass like floating, isolated islands. Yet somehow, those islands seemed to resist any notion of take-over. Those wandering wisps - like craftily creeping outriders - advanced upwards only to be eliminated, evaporating and disappearing into nothing, as they unsuccessfully reached for the sky.

More distantly, where the Highland mountains rose to the north, pockets of mist - like allies of the main force - lingered in hollows as if waiting to join the main army in order to promote further advancement and perhaps take over the whole landscape. They waited in vain, unused, ultimately unlinked, isolated and seemingly unwanted, dormant in their hidden pockets. But if that giant cloud gave the impression that its very presence was, like a death knell, exterminating life within and beneath its all-pervading cloak, I was wrong. Suddenly and without warning, there echoed from somewhere deep within its veiled skirts, the sound of gabbling geese, muffled at first but slowly growing in volume as its perpetrators clearly took to the air, unseen but increasingly filling the otherwise still and silent air with their clamour.

Pink-footed geese are seldom silent. They come from their Arctic homelands to this part of Scotland to pick away at the stubble and to graze the farmer's fields during the winter months. But in such mode, all heads do not go down. Some remain upright, scorning the chance to eat. There are always those sentinel gees, which take responsibility for the flock's security and so remain constantly alert, ready to give loud and instant warning of impending danger or threat. In this manner, grazing geese are always restless - ever ready to take to the wing and decamp.

Furthermore, they seem to have a sixth sense, which enables them to navigate safely, even when it is dark or indeed when the mist obscures their surroundings. I often hear them flying over me, en route to their watery night-time roost. I can even hear the sound of their beating wings, usually without being able to see a single feather of them. Do geese I wonder, therefore enjoy exceptionally good night-time vision or is it that sixth sense at work?

And whilst geese, especially when they take to the air, do so with much noise and clamour, which may perhaps give rise to the notion that they are something of a rabble, the truth is that compared with other avian communities, they are surprisingly well organised and disciplined. At this time of the year, they may often pattern the skies with their massive skeins, some of them, seemingly stretching over vast areas of sky. But these large skeins are an almalgam of many individual family skeins. Geese live by a strict family code. As I've commented many times before, wintering geese, with their constant banter, do somehow bring us a sonic flavour of those wild Arctic regions.

But from elsewhere behind that great, cloying curtain, now issued more sounds of geese. This was not however, the high pitched clamour of wild pink-footed geese but the deeper, more sonorous sound of the increasing legions of Canada geese which, over the past few decades, have become endemic here ... much, I must say, to many folks' displeasure. Theirs is an altogether less attractive sound. Indeed a brief sighting of a skein of these more lumbering, low flying geese, as they flitted into and then out of vision, ploughing ghoulishly out of the murk and then back into it, was a stark reminder that these are not so much wild as feral geese.

Canada geese, considerably larger birds than our wild northern, wintering geese and consequently accused by the farming community of trashing winter grazing, owe their origins in Britain to the design ambitions of the likes of Capability Brown and many other landscape designers. These were the creators of the 'new look' great estates of England and to a lesser degree perhaps, Scotland which, fuelled by the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution, landscaped - at considerable expense - so many of the ancient landed estates. These designers were sticklers for detail and deliberately imported Canada geese to make them a living part of the planning process as embellishments upon the lakes they created, along with a variety of exotic ducks. Inevitably, in time, these decorative populations grew and over-spilled into the surrounding countryside so that a tenuous presence soon became permanent. As I have said, they are feral rather than wild.

There was a time, as the Second World War broke out, when the shooting of Canada geese was encouraged. The idea was that they might provide both a supposed much needed source of extra meat and at the same time offer a much-needed means of control. But with their low, ponderous flight, they offered very inferior sport. Canada geese are not and never have been popular quarries which are perhaps the reason for their continuing prosperity?

So, we are stuck with these aliens! Those roaming, amorphous blankets of mist may temporarily conceal them, just as they hide the truly wild pink-feet but once the mists clear, those large, black and white aliens with a well-earned reputation as bullies are there, sailing the waters of the loch like some foreign armada! They may be handsome birds but they are, I'm afraid, largely unloved!

Country View 4.1.17

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Another year has slipped away into the pages of history. As to whether it will come to be regarded as momentous or indeed, a year of tribulations will I guess, be decreed at some future time. Is that light I see at the end of the tunnel ... or a train heading in our direction? That there is already a tad more light during the mornings and evenings however, confirms that the year has turned. The winter solstice is behind us and although we know only too well, that the worst of the winter's weather may yet be to come, we are nevertheless heading inexorably towards spring. Yes, believe it or not, there will be a new awakening - perhaps sometime soon?

Although the New Year opened on a cheerier note with plenty of sunshine, the old year had departed in melancholy mood. However, before the sun's appearance, the local flock of jackdaws had celebrated the presence of brisk breezes to which they responded by hurling themselves around the sky in a truly joyous display. Grey skies or not, they were going to make the very best of times out of the very worst of times.

Their exuberant antics are somehow reminiscent of play-time at some schools I remember. The bell goes, the doors fly open and there are kids running every which way; some chasing, some being chased, involuntary games of 'tig' sending some dodging the attentions of others. That's exactly what those mischievous jackdaws seemed to be doing, grey, melancholy day or not! For them, it was fun time, whatever the weather.

I thought I heard a little snatch of music a day or two prior to Christmas. It wouldn't be the first time I've found myself being serenaded during the Festive Season, for the bright lights of many a town or city and the extra heat provided by the Christmas lights can play tricks upon some avian carollers. I well remember taking a last-minute shopping trip to the capital city one Christmas Eve. As you may imagine, carols were blurting forth from various loud speakers, the lights were twinkling, and the traffic roaring, yet above all that din rang out the unmistakable song of a cock blackbird. His music seemed to emanate from the well-lit trees in the gardens and by the sound of it, he really was warming to the task and imagining that spring was on its way!

And indeed, it was the sound of a sudden snatch of blackbird carolling that attracted my attention a few days ago. Blackbirds are, of course, exceptionally adaptable birds, as familiar a sight perhaps here out in the sticks as they are in many a town or city garden or park. They are especially evident on my lawn where a whole host of them patrol in their constant search for worms. Innumerable numbers of them also spend hours beneath the bird-table picking up scraps dropped by the more adventurous and agile members of my avian community.

Of course, blackbirds are extremely omnivorous, delighting equally in pulling worms from the soil or indeed feasting of the likes of bird seed, scraps of cheese and at this time of year, the delicious remains of Christmas pudding, cake or indeed mince pies! In other words, they can survive on almost anything, which is probably why they are prospering hereabouts and in general. Especially noticeable among the many 'merles' as Burns dubbed them, currently occupying these quarters, are the yellowed-billed - crocus billed as one poet put it - cock birds. In the current grey conditions these colourful accoutrements stand out like 'high vis' waistcoats, a feature which will doubtless have been noted by the plainer females.

Such bold coloration is a sign of good health and vigour and accordingly it registers a very big plus point, in so far as the females are concerned, an important element perhaps when they come to the selection of their mates ... the females' prerogative of course! A vigorous male is exactly what they want as the father of their off-spring. However, brightly coloured bills can come and go depending upon the food available and prevailing conditions. A cock bird with a veritable beacon of an orange bill, can within days, go a little 'off colour' should the quality of food deteriorate. So it is easy to see why they seem to be such avaricious feeders!

It may seem premature to be talking of such things yet down the years, I have come across some surprisingly precocious blackbirds. Indeed, I have on more than one occasion, come across blackbird nests, not only complete in structure but also with a new clutch of eggs in situ before the end of January! Often such early clutches fail due to the sudden arrival of wintry weather or indeed due to food shortages which cause both cock and hen to temporarily abandon the incubation process in order to find food, the eggs quickly chilling in their absence and thus failing. Undeterred by such false dawns, a pair of blackbirds is soon at it again and producing further clutches.

However, as much as blackbirds enjoy feasting on worms and other creepy crawlies, they are also avid consumers of berries. Every year I watch with some amusement, the starlings and the blackbirds vying for their places at the 'rowan berry table'! And each year, in their efforts to be at the front of the queue, the blackbirds descend upon my annual crop of rowans earlier and earlier. They clearly keep a very watchful eye on them albeit that these days they seem hardly to wait for them to fully ripen before consuming them en masse.

However, as the years roll by our local blackbirrds must be quite miffed when from out of nowhere and utterly unpredictably, they find their winter berry reserves plundered almost overnight. It doesn't happen every year for the culprits guilty of this heinous crime only come here occasionally. Those eager berry consumers which, by contrast with the 'all-black merles', provide us with a real splash of exotic colour when they arrive usually in mid-winter, are of course waxwings.

Every now and then we suddenly find ourselves playing host to large numbers of these Scandinavian birds which literally descend upon the remains of the berry crop like ravening hordes and thus temporarily overwhelm the blackbirds and indeed any other consumers of berries by their sheer weight of numbers. These waxwing visitations are known as 'irruptions' and usually occur in years when these Arctic based birds have on the one hand, enjoyed a productive year but are then frustrated when the Scandinavian berry crop fails.

When they come - and there are numbers hereabout this winter - they more often than not descend upon the suburban and even urban areas where the 'amenity' planting of berry-bearing trees and shrubs gives them a first-class opportunity to demonstrate their utter avarice. Waxwings don't sit around idly. They feed with an enthusiasm that would put Jack Spratt's wife to shame! For instance a daily intake of a thousand berries by an individual waxwing is by no means unusual.

When I see waxwings, I always think they really should come, not from the frozen Arctic but from somewhere in the tropics. They are so exotic looking with their prominent head crests, basic pinkish body plumage, striking black face masks and chins, flashing black, white and yellow wings, yellow tipped tails and otherwise, hints of grey and chestnut about them. The final embellishments are of course those brilliant red spots at the elbows of their wings, resembling drops of wax, which of course give them their name.

These visiting exotic hordes are worth looking out for and if you're lucky enough to see them, just watch those berries disappear ... like snow off a dyke! And then, when the berries are stripped, they simply move on leaving the blackbirds to ponder the empty branches.

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods