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 14.6.17

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There is something essentially balletic about the movement of many of our birds. Those remarkable murmurations of starlings are a superb example of the magical moments created sometimes by birds in their tens of thousands. Hereabouts, such ballets are in contrast, created by relatively small numbers of what are otherwise, generally regarded as very ordinary birds. That said, looked at as individuals, starlings, despite their commonness, are nevertheless quite striking birds whilst at the same time, in my eyes, they exude in their demeanour, more than a hint of comedy. Their speckled plumage, basically black, also reflects the spectrum of rainbow colours, to add an iridescent quality.

As frequent garden visitors, starlings might well be regarded by most folk as 'nuisance' birds, full of swagger and inclined to bully other visitors. Yet when masses of them get together during the winter months, they provide the most spectacular performances, sweeping across the sky in fluid, ever changing patterns. It cannot be denied that their 'dancing' is nothing short of breathtaking. As reported recently, scientists have deduced that such flocks comprise of groups of leaders on the one hand and followers on the other. Hence the ever-changing shapes they create in the sky! Much the same in ballet in some ways, I suppose, when the lead dancers lead their followers into one gracious movement after another!

There are several similar examples of large numbers of birds navigating their way across the sky in similar mode. Many of them are members of the wader clan and so show off their similarly spectacular formations in the marine environment. For instance, the likes of knot certainly take the breath away with their mass fly-pasts. And just as is the case in those tens of thousands of starlings, there is absolutely no evidence of collisions in spite of their remarkably close formations. Another similarity to the well-rehearsed world of ballet!

Other birds perhaps, whilst also in their everyday behaviour very much prone to dancing in one form or another, are less corporate and so perhaps more reminiscent of solo dancers as opposed to chorus members. For instance, I love watching dippers. They are effervescent birds, seldom still, bobbing up and down on what appear to be spring-loaded legs thus more like the dancing followers of modern pop music. And of course, they spend much of their time in an under water environment so perhaps they are not so much balletic as aquatic in their dancing or indeed swimming.

Strangely enough, dippers despite existing almost entirely in a watery world do not have webbed feet. However, they seem to manage fine without such swimming aids as they search the beds of rivers, burns and lochs for insect larva. In appearance, they resemble oversized wrens with their round, concavely-shaped bodies and short tails. However, they are wonderfully designed birds, their shape enabling them, when they lower their heads, to literally walk on the beds of such rivers and stay firmly ensconced there despite the rushing water which in fact because of their posture, actually presses them down, virtually anchoring them to the bed. When they want to return to the surface, they simply lift their heads and pop up to the surface like corks.

Wagtails are also birds of ceaseless movement. However, wagtails, despite their nomenclature, do not in fact wag their tails so much as flick them up and down. I well remember someone asking me why they wagged their tails. It could be that they are advertising their presence to other wagtails, perhaps as a means of establishing dominance or a pecking order.

Some suggest that the constant tail flicking is a gesture of sheer brazen defiance. In other words this constant movement indicates to potential predators, "Here I am, ever alert, so you are not going to catch me!" Another suggestion supposes that the constant tail flicking is designed to flush out insect prey. The frequency of pumping the tail up and down does seem to increase when the wagtails come together socially but surprisingly, the 'catch me if you can' signal to predators seems to find most favour among scientists. Maybe they are just naturally, extremely rhythmic birds! All three of our native wagtails, the familiar, clown faced pied wagtail, the grey wagtail with its muted yellow body colouring and the much rarer but vivid yellow wagtail, constantly flick their tails up and down like this.

There are a number of birds which bob up and down in their courtship dances and whilst enjoying my recent expedition to the marine environment, I was constantly aware of the presence of those excellently camouflaged birds, sandpipers, on nearby beaches. They were in general heard rather than seen, their almost plaintiff, whispering but quite high-pitched calling notes, 'twee-wee-wee' always evident. Closer inspection revealed their presence on quite stony beaches where their superbly camouflaged plumage enables them literally to melt beautifully into the background. From flickering and gliding flight out over and very close to the water. They land a few yards further on along the shore, to soon take off again and return from whence they came or move a few yards farther on.

These are of course, migrants, which usually arrive in April both on the seashores of the north and west and indeed on many an island riverbank and loch shore too. This, I believe, is proving to be an exceptional year for migrant birds in line with the previously mentioned extremely populous warblers of various kinds. Like most of the other summer visitors, sandpipers, travel here from Africa and it must be assumed that the weather conditions in transit have this time around, been extremely benign. And when they arrive, they too join the dancing classes! Sandpipers are habitually, quite low-flying birds but when they arrive in the spring, the male birds become more ambitious, establishing territorial integrity by performing a soaring aerial dance, which culminates on a descent on stiff but quivering wings.

The female will join him in this dance before he pursues her in a short, frantic chase. The pair augment their aerial dance with little trills of musical accompaniment, before he now begins a rhythmic little head bobbing display. Sandpipers are thus one of those 'bobbing dancers' and indeed also bob up and down when looking for food! They are definitely birds that 'bob up and down like this'! Sandpipers are about the size of starlings yet despite their lack of stature they certainly clock up huge mileages during their migratory journeys. They are exceptionally widely distributed, being found right round the globe, migrating from Australia to Asia, from South to North America and from Africa to Europe.

The sound and rhythms associated with sandpipers are reflected in a series of curious colloquial names, ranging from 'waterypleeps' in Orkney, 'killicleepsie' on Scotland's east coast and 'dickie-di-dee' down in Lancashire. In the Stirling area, it was popularly known as 'the skittery deacon'! Older readers may recall sandpipers of a different but very musical sort in the sixties. "Try to remember ..."!

Country View 30.5.17

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May's landscape was full of colour and June promises to continue that theme. In particular, the many shades of green indicating the new season's growth, gave the landscape that characteristically fresh-faced appearance. Golden gorse across our hillsides and beside many of our country lanes provided vivid, glowing contrast whilst the woodland carpets of bluebells added further delicate colour, not to mention fragrance too. The fields have been carpeted with yellow buttercups, whilst the centuries old pursuit of exotic plants from all over the world is evident in the bursting of the wild rhododendron - rhododendron ponticum. It may be unloved by many for its ability to invade landscape and choke out other flowering shrubs but nevertheless, it does add a further splash of vibrant colour to the countryside.

Yet, amid this vibrant pallet of colours there have been some very black and white moments. For instance, there are countless flecks of white blossoms dominating hedgerows, indeed the hawthorns this year are spectacular with cascades of flowers embellishing field boundaries and illuminating roadsides. Rowans too are bursting into flower and on roadside verges, ranks of flowering plants wave with the passing of every vehicle, called weeds perhaps yet all contributing to this seasonal floral tribute. In contrast black is partially provided by newly fledged and very noisy rooks, now fully-grown and following in the wake of their parents eagerly as the hunt for insect- life intensifies. Such protein rich food is what they need for further growth.

More often than not, rooks engender antipathy and even at times antagonism! They might be regarded by many as noisy, rather scruffy black birds. However, the mere fact that they are black is enough for some people, resurrecting fears which have their origins in a much more superstitious age. In some cases, such emotions remain a part of the human psyche.

Notwithstanding the existence of that peculiar human foible, the fact is that not only are rooks, like most of the crow clan, highly intelligent birds, they actually do an awful lot of good in ridding the fields of those crop consuming pests, leather-jackets and wire-worms. When farmers see hordes of rooks descending upon newly sown fields, there is a fear that they are after the precious seeds whereas the reality is that it is those pests they seek. I remember the late David Stephen telling me that he had examined the crops of rooks a neighbouring farmer had shot because of the aforesaid assumption, to find hardly a grain of seed in them ... just insects and larva of one kind or another.

However as said, rooks do not generally engender much enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of folks whereas another black and white bird, the pied wagtail, surely must raise at least a smile on most folks' lips. In recent days, I have been watching with some amusement the 'Chaplinesque' progress of these clownish little characters, as they pursue flying insects either on the ground or in the air. Currently, there appears to be a lot of white butterflies flitting about and one wagtail was observed to set off in pursuit of one of them. What followed was a remarkable passage of aerial combat in which no matter how the wagtail tried, it failed to lay a beak on the butterfly. The wagtail, although showing plenty of flying skill, was no match for the butterfly as it dodged each and every lunge the bird made. Eventually, the wagtail gave up and the butterfly flitted off safely!

I also took some pleasure in watching another wagtail in pursuit of an unidentified flying insect, this time on the ground. At times, the little bird ran so fast that its little legs became a blur ... ideal material for animated cartoon characters I thought! However, this time the wagtail obtained and devoured its quarry after zig-zagging in pursuit of the insect, plus the odd flutter or two into the air. That wagtail was both persistent and successful!

If not as amusing, there was more contact with black and white birds, with the sighting hereabouts, of a number of magpies. Whilst sadly, many of our most popular birds are in decline, the magpie is very definitely not! Indeed during my forty odd years here, from having no magpies present at all, in recent years they have arrived and indeed established themselves all too successfully. However, as far as I can tell magpies have not yet invaded Highland Scotland and I'm sure many will regard that as good news. They prey heavily upon the young of songbirds.

The other black and white bird that has been catching my attention has been the oyster-catcher. I am shortly to take a break, decamping for a few days to the western seaboard where I am sure to be welcomed by the strident and neurotic sounding 'sea-pies'. No marine environment seems quite right without the 'clip, clip, clipping' of these extremely vocal and striking birds. To be fair, whilst their plumage is indeed, black and white, they do sport bright colour in the form of their long, orange beaks and their pink legs and feet, not to mention those bright red eyes!

The natural association between oyster-catchers and the seaside are such that when folk spot them many miles from the sea in inland airts, they not only express surprise at their presence but even question what it is that they have been seeing. In fact, oyster-catchers first began to migrate inland in the spring, over a hundred years ago, when perhaps as a part of the war effort in those grim days a hundred years ago more and more land began to go under the plough. The very act of ploughing inevitably reveals a whole host of invertebrates and these are, of course, a welcome and easily sourced bonanza of food which naturally attracts a whole range of birds, including the aforementioned oyster-catchers.

It may be assumed that the first such sea-pies to begin the trek inland, were encouraged by new ploughing close to the marine environment and that having discovered such rich pickings, decided to explore further inland. However, whilst in recent days I have been hearing their frantic calling, I am aware that compared with say thirty years ago, their numbers in this part of the world have fallen considerably. Oyster-catchers, with their striking plumage and loud voices are easy to identify.

Those that still travel inland to sometimes choose the strangest places in which to nest. One pair, over the course of a number of years persisted in building their nest on the top of a dry stane dyke, less than a metre from a busy main road, with cars, lorries and buses hurtling by. Happily their young - upwardly mobile just hours after emerging from the egg - decamped on the field side of the dyke each and every year. Other incongruous sites, of which I was aware, included the top of a stone built gatepost, the gravel in a lay bye and the flat roof of a busy educational establishment. Why the numbers of these distinctive birds to be seen in this inland airt is reducing I am not entirely sure although it might be that the growing incidence of winter as opposed to spring cereal sewing, may be a factor.

Those that still persist in making that journey inland to pair, nest and produce young, nevertheless bring to these inland acres, an audio reminder of the sea, which let us remember, once penetrated surprisingly far inland and covered what is now some of the finest agricultural land in Scotland.

The final and bizarre episode was definitely black in the shape of a carrion crow which waddled up to the front of a car parked in a supermarket car park and proceeded to feast upon the dead insects on its grill. It then waddled off to the front of the store via the zebra crossing. He then returned using the same route! Very black and white!

Country View 24.5.17

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The past week has seen much frantic action and frenzied sound to go with it. Murmurations of starlings are usually a winter phenomenon but in recent days we have been watching something of a 'mini-murmuration' here. I must admit that our jet-propelled gathering has been on a small scale compared with the vast gatherings to be seen in some parts of the country, among them in the vicinity of Gretna. During these unbelievable displays, the sky becomes one massive artist's canvas of marvellous mobile design. Here we are talking merely in dozens as opposed to tens of thousands of flock members, seen in those great murmurations!

As dusk slowly begins to creep over the landscape, this intrepid little flotilla of starlings sets off on its nightly journey around the house and the surrounding fields. As ever, the flock as it zooms by is tight knit and amazingly disciplined, always maintaining that close formation. Direction change however, is completed in a trice and without a hint of a break in the speed at which these little exercises are conducted - headlong - not even featuring so much as a momentary pause. Close observation reveals that this dashing pell-mell, to and fro, is clearly not led by a single bird or indeed as far as I can tell, even by a number of them. Instead, the flock as it suddenly turns and hurtles off in another direction, now has entirely different birds spearheading it.

I read recently that some clever boffins have, after considerable analysis, come up with the idea that such a flock is comprised of birds that are natural leaders and thus lead, whilst the bulk of each flock are natural followers and thus they therefore follow! That seems a very plausible explanation for a spectacle which wen conducted by those tens of thousands of birds, always convinces me that there must somehow be a master choreographer at work, such is the sense of awe it creates!

My little murmuration may also take the form of a training exercise. During the past few weeks, the air here has been thick with the reeling whistling and whining of starlings, calling to their youngsters. The creche for local fledglings appeared to have been located in the extensive tangle of a large hawthorn, with over-spill roosting spreading to adjacent birches and damson trees. Although starlings can from time to time, produce remarkable passages of sweet music, generally it must be said 'cribbed' from other songsters, such bursts usually come to a comical end. It is as if the perpetrator has suddenly forgotten how it goes and accordingly descends into a series of unconnected scrapes, screeches, warbles, ticks and whistles.

However, it is clear that a bevy of young starlings has fledged and decided to roost in the aforesaid hawthorns, birches and damsons. The parent birds seem to be finding rich pickings of creepy crawlies in my paddock, which they are collecting and stuffing eagerly into very receptive and wide open beaks! Hence the constant reeling - sounding not unlike the reeling in or out of countless fishing lines! I have therefore conjectured that some of the newly fledged youngsters have been taken aboard by the adult birds and given their first experiences of riding the helter skelter! One such youngster recently found its way into the house and was observed flying or fluttering, panic stricken up and down the stair-well. Our ridiculously lazy cat sat there watching it, not even bothering to inspect it each time it fell exhausted to the floor! The bird was eventually caught and returned to a more suitable outdoor environment!

However, the starlings are by no means alone in expressing themselves in such an animated way because those other avian dancing dervishes have pitched up ... on time as usual in mid-May. As the late Ted Hughes so graphically wrote, "They've made it again, Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's Still waking refreshed, our summer's Still to come - ... " Yes, there they were, swifts once more hurtling across village roof-tops. Hughes continued; "And here they are, here they are again Erupting across yard stones Shrapnel-scatter terror, Frog-gapers, Speedway goggles, international mobsters ... " Nothing, absolutely nothing, announces their return to these shores as raucously, or screams so violently, as those returning swifts.

In two local villages on successive days, I watched and indeed listened to, those newly arrived black (as opposed to red) arrows, hurtling their way in between the chimney pots. Such is the velocity of their travel that I am almost persuaded to don a hard hat! And it isn't that they have been in any way physically constrained during their winter sojourn in Africa for these birds, even now crash diving around the tiles, will not have touched down since at least a year ago. Indeed, older birds if they did not breed last year, will have probably been exclusively air-born for a minimum of two years. The only moments of sleep enjoyed by swifts are cat-naps snatched at high altitude. And of course, they feed on the wing. Hence Hughes's reference to 'frog gapers' for they literally fly with their beaks wide open in order to catch flying insects.

A hard hat may have been required too when hundreds, perhaps thousands of starlings roosted on city buildings on mainly winter nights before the authorities devised methods of discouraging them. Drawn to such roosting places by the warmth generated by the vast array of electrical appliances and by that provided to the city lights, starlings are utterly unaware of the deposits they leave behind! The pavements below are perpetually 'showered' so rather than a hard hat, an umbrella might offer more protection!

It might easily be concluded that both starlings and swifts are more regarded as urban birds than residents of the rural landscape although they are of course also seen hereabouts. I have on visits to our cities on summer days, noted large number of swifts soaring high above both Edinburgh and Glasgow. While these two birds are very different in every conceivable way, they are, nevertheless, both dependent upon insect life for a living. Swifts as said, catch their insect prey on the wing whereas starlings, with their relatively long, narrow beaks, extract them from the ground. So if midges, the scourge of tourists, therefore fall victim to swifts, the likes of wireworms and leatherjackets, persistent crop pests, are very much on the starlings' hit list! Thus, both may be regarded as useful!

If both at times produce course and raucous vocalisations, both also fly absolutely wondrously, the swift, as its name implies, with fantastic speed and vigour, the starling corporately, weaving utterly magical, mystical patterns as if guided by some single-minded artistic Deity. Both are indeed, supreme aviators and for those skills alone, deserving of our admiration.

Country View 17.5.17

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Bluebells, or if you prefer it, wild hyacinths, are my favourite flowers. Indeed, I believe they form one of my very first memories of woodland life for as a child, my parents would often take me in spring-time through a wood which, at that time of the year, was magically carpeted in blue and smelt heavenly! That memory still lingers and indeed along roadside verges, of bluebells in their tens of thousands. Blue carpets abound and the sweet scent of those delicate blooms permeates the air. Meanwhile, new blooms of insect life add another dimension as the woods buzz with new and vital sounds. This is the stuff of life, as these vital pollinators busy themselves in that natural process of re-generating the very fabric of life itself.

Whilst every visitor to the woods at this time of year knows, not only is the air heavy with that delicious, heady scent but it is also alive with the sound of music. Indeed, myriads of birds seem determined to celebrate not only those blue woodland carpets but also the bursting of fresh foliage as new leaves unfold to curtain the landscape with greens of many hues. And already, the pace of life is quickening with a handful of the early birds even now feeding their young. During these next few weeks, as more and more woodland residents strive to fulfil their destinies, that pace will continue to rise until the woods might seem to resemble an avian rush hour. As the days pass parent birds will work themselves into an absolute lather to collect ever-increasing numbers of insects as they try to satisfy the demands of fast growing families!

And amid all this feverish activity, calmly, quietly and mostly concealed from our gaze, roe does are preparing themselves for the arrival of the next generation too. During forthcoming days, in quiet corners of the woods, perhaps among those bluebells, dewy-eyed kids will be carefully deposited - one, to or even, in some cases, three of them- by each doting doe. An instinctive understanding of security will persuade her not keep them together but to place each new-born kid in separate, secret locations. The old predators on roe, wolves and lynx, are long gone, although some would have them return. There are no eagles hereabouts and although it is not unknown for a fox to take a roe deer kid, it is rare. So, the biggest threat to these newly arrived kids is almost certainly provided by people and perhaps their dogs.

Roe are exceptionally good mothers. They will almost always choose secluded parts of woodland well away from paths in which to conceal their off-spring. But inevitably, there are times when people, unaware of the presence of these tiny 'Bambis', accidentally stumble across one. Roe deer kids are, just as Disney's film depicted them innocent, as said, dewy-eyed and, during the first few weeks of their lives, obeying in-built instinct, so that if discovered, they are impelled to freeze and stay utterly still. The one thing those instincts ensure is that they will not get up and attempt to flee. This makes them very vulnerable.

Inevitably, when confronted by such a sweet 'child of nature', there is a driving temptation to touch and perhaps stroke such a foundling. If any reader finds him or herself in that position there is one vital rule. Don't touch! Scent is a vital part of animal make-up and no scent is more alien to a roe doe than that of man. Even the merest touch will deposit on that kid the alien scent of human kind and as a result it is likely that the doe will be so disturbed by that odorous presence that she will reject the kid and it will subsequently starve to death

So for the present, her kids will obey instinct and lie still, waiting for occasional visits from their mother to suckle and clean them. Meanwhile, their father, far from being in attendance and contributing to the welfare of his off-spring, is in fact oblivious to their needs and indeed, even of their very presence. He now has other things on his mind. Most animals - and birds for that matter - establish well-defined territories and then make every effort to defend those territories from potential rivals. Ironically, just as their progeny are arriving, the thoughts of roebuck are becoming utterly focused not on them but on the need to repel boarders! For it is now that rising testosterone begins to infect bucks to prepare themselves for the defence of their realms.

Thus the very presence of other bucks, many of them 'up and coming' young, virile animals, prompts a rapid shortening of tempers. Far from being the 'gentle roe', a roebuck, aware that there are others in the vicinity and up for the challenge are the antithesis of gentle. Indeed the mere sight of a rival is enough to cause a red mist to descend.

I once had a young roe doe, which I had rescued from the cluthces of a group of children who had 'found' her. She was the epitome of the gentle roe and lived here for some ten years or so. But how glad I was that she was not a buck. I knew of one fellow who rescued a little buck, which was apparently very tame and confiding ... until its rising testosterone levels in May caused it to suddenly completely change character. Roe are of course quite small - usually just less than thirty inches high at the shoulder. And the bucks are equipped with prong-like antlers. The aforesaid gentleman was just about 'gralloched' by his now frenzied pet.

If you happen to hear a series of gruff little dog-like barks issuing from the woods, you are almost certainly listening to the vocal challenges of competing bucks. I once remember standing in my garden and hearing a veritable cacophony of such barking from a plantation to the east of here. Suddenly, from out of that dark wood sprang a panic stricken buck, hotly pursued by another. The pursuer was a master buck and soon stopped the pursuit to return in triumph to his woodland realm. Meanwhile the defeated buck continued its headlong flight, clearing field fences in the manner of a Grand National steed.

In fact, so terror struck was he that he just kept going across the fields long after the pursuing buck had called off his chase, until at last he reached the apparent safety of another plantation. Actually, I could have told him that there was another master buck installed in that wood as well! Thus, now out of my sight, he might well have found himself still running! If that rise of the roebuck sap begins to test the dander in May, 'bad temper' stays with them until at last the final focus for all these tantrums arrives and the first steps in the creation of next year's family happen as courtship reaches its peak in August. Roe employ a curious technique called 'delayed implantation', whereby whilst mating occurs in August, the growth of the young does not begin unti January.

Thus, the lives of roebucks and roe does in the so-called merry month of May, are so utterly contrasting, caring and loving on the one hand; belligerent and aggressive on the other!

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!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods