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 22.2.17

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Defence mechanisms in the natural world, can be many and varied. Clearly, being particularly fleet footed, or in the avian world, capable of fast flight, offers a means of escape to the hunted, albeit that most predators succeed because they too are capable of rapid pursuit. Sparrowhawks for instance, can out-fly most of the birds they target, although I have also seen them out manoeuvred on occasions.

I once watched in amazement as such a hawk took off explosively in pursuit of a tree pipit only for it to be thwarted by the aerial gyrations of the said pipit which several times managed to dodge the pursuing raptor and evade its striking talons. Lacking a stomach or more accurately perhaps, the stamina for further aggression, the hawk peeled away, disconsolately returning to its perch.

I also have a clear memory of a pair of goldeneye which, similarly finding themselves being pursued by another such hawk, escaped by hitting the water of the loch and instantly plunging beneath its surface, leaving the hawk grasping at thin air! However, I suspect these were exceptions to the normal rule for I am sure that more often than not, sparrowhawks, like the legendary Canadian Mounties, 'always get their man'! Success is of course, not automatic and like spars, those other now well-known hunters of fish the ospreys, do not, as some would have it, succeed in grabbing a fish every time they dive.

However, there is much more to hunting than sheer speed. For instance, firstly the hunter must be able to see or hear its prey. Some predators even rely on their sense of touch as for instance in the case of an otter, which can sense the presence of prey through its whiskers. Thus, as a part of nature's defence mechanism, the remarkable process of evolution has equipped many insects, birds and animals with the most remarkable powers of obfuscation. In other words, they merge so perfectly with their background that they are to all intents and purposes, invisible. Through the work of dedicated and highly skilled cameramen and women through television programmes such as "Planet Earth", on a regular basis we see insects looking more like the twigs upon which they perch, rather than the twigs themselves!

There are many wonderful examples of camouflage throughout the natural world. Indeed, one of the most convincing is surely exhibited by ground roosting woodcock. I am sure that during strolls through woodland, I have many times, walked past roosting woodcock without even an inkling of their presence. Again, I have a clear memory of one occasion when I actually got so close as to put a previously unseen woodcock up from the well leaf-littered floor of an open piece of woodland. It flew no more than thirty feet before dropping back to the woodland floor where it disappeared again as it settled once more in the litter. It literally became immediately invisible again - before my very eyes!

On other occasions I have been lucky enough to spot such a bird, sometimes because the only feature giving away its presence was its glinting eye. The rest of it was, to all intents and purposes, so well integrated with its background that it was invisible. I wonder too how many of us have failed to identify a hare crouched in its form in a field which has been ploughed. As I usually have a dog with me on my walks, the presence of such a creature may not initially be obvious. There is however a distance at which what may look like s molehill realises that it is about to be discovered and transmogrifies into the running hare it really is!

Brown hares have had a chequered history in this airt in recent decades. Forty years ago they were numerous enough for the then local keeper to organise regular hare shoots. But over a number of years, populations declined quite seriously. However in recent times, there has been a recovery in their numbers and they are now much more readily seen. Some readers may be surprised to know that the brown hare does not seem to have been a long-term resident of these islands and indeed may have been introduced by our distant ancestors. Thus it is said that our only real native hare is the mountain or blue hare, now mostly a resident of Highland mountainsides. And this hare has a pretty good, if very different obfuscation trick up its sleeve. When winter descends, it enters a moult - one of four it undergoes each year - and adopts a white coat.

This is a transformation, which is of course, shared by two other creatures in the Scottish landscape, the ptarmigan and the stoat. Again, I have a clear memory from many winters ago, of seeing three stoats in close proximity of one another on a single day, each one in a different phase of coat change. One of them had not undergone its expected transformation to ermine at all, having remained stubbornly brown. Another had reached a halfway house and thus resembled a skewbald horse decorated by patches of brown and white and the third had undergone the full monty, so that with the exception of the tip of its tail which had as ever, remained black, it was otherwise completely white. This is a really clever move on nature's part but only providing there is sufficient snowfall to ensure that the animal or bird concerned is thus appropriately camouflaged in a snowy landscape.

However, the advent in recent years, of mild winters - including this one - has meant that this clever plan has in a sense, backfired. Our mountain hares have it seems, been made much more vulnerable by the chronic lack of snow on the mountains where they dwell. This lack of snow cover has meant that they literally do stand out like sore thumbs and must therefore be much more susceptible to predation by for instance, 'eagle-eyed' golden eagles.

Unfortunately for them, the warming climate is unlikely to trigger any change in the normal pattern of moulting as it is apparent that it is the shortening length of daylight hours in the autumn and early winter that triggers such change, not falling temperatures as was previously thought. A good few years ago now, there was a population of mountain hares present on the mosses close to here, which are by their nature, rarely snow-covered. Indeed, I can remember squelching my way across that green, soggy landscape when almost from under my feet a white hare got up from behind a tussock and ran off. It was a bizarre sight and the very opposite of obfuscation! Those white hares are no longer to be seen in this environment and I have long wondered how they got there in the first place. Methinks a human hand had been at work!

During these next few weeks, there will be plenty of hare activity to observe as the brown hares begin to abandon their otherwise shy dispositions and instead become, 'mad March hares'! They could well become 'mad February hares' with spring seemingly coming progressively earlier. Usually, the mountain hares in their mountainous fastnesses, wait a little longer before they too cast aside their natural coyness and yet there are already reports of signs of courtship among them. It seems likely therefore that they may well be cavorting about their hillsides even now and may be expected perhaps to be in full cry before March gives way to April, if not before. And like the more Lowland based brown hares, they will throw aside their normal singular nature and come together in what can only be described as a madcap mixture of leaping and even boxing!

Country View 15.2.17

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Fickle February! Just as we were beginning to believe that spring was on the march, a bitter wind, the origins of which were probably somewhere in Siberia, hurtled in from the east. Flurries of snow were a further reminder that this month is indeed a child of winter! And yet, the days are stretching and there are certain signs that, even if it doesn't feel like it, the influence of spring is beginning to percolate.

The chattering of my neighbourhood sparrows intensifies by the day - their typically quarrelsome and precocious behaviour is increasingly to the fore. And, there have been unusual snatches of sweet song, noticeably brief in their nature, for they emanate from a little posse of starlings, which have decided to encamp here. As starlings always do, they prattle - rattling away like spinning jennies. Yet in between, there have also been heard some short excerpts of remarkably sweet song. Clearly they have been listening ... and as starlings are wont to do, copying. However starlings appear to resemble second rate actors, constantly forgetting their lines, because they never seen able to properly complete what they start!

Starlings are of course renowned for their mimicry and frequently copy fragments of the songs of other birds. In this modern day and age, they also use their talents to become dab hands at imitating perfectly, the sounds of both land and mobile phones, causing consternation as a result, to the owners of such gadgets. But starlings of course, are not alone in demonstrating an ability to copy a wide range of sounds. Members of the crow clan too are adept at imitating all kinds of bizarre noises. Jays for instance, may copy the calls of raptors to warn all and sundry that such a bird is around and posing a threat. Jackdaws too are great mimics and in captivity, readily copy the human voice.

It will come as little surprise that ravens are also versatile impressionists and accordingly on a day to day basis, may be heard reproducing the most amazing range of calls. They are of course, highly intelligent birds, which clearly possess a keen sense of humour as well as a real eagerness to get into the breeding season each year as quickly as possible. In recent days I have seen plenty of evidence of courtship among the increasing population hereabouts, openly defying the sudden reversion to winter. Ravens, even though most of them these days choose to live largely among the mountains, are nevertheless always quick off the mark when it comes to breeding ambitions and indeed, may often be found incubating eggs during February.

Their mountain-based avian colleagues, the golden eagles, are also in a sense, quick off the mark albeit that for them, the breeding season is an extremely prolonged process, often beginning with the choice of the year's nesting site, a selection which may often be made as the New Year begins. The whole procedure of incubation, hatching and rearing eaglets to the point of fledging and eventual self-sufficiency, literally goes on and on and on until the first hints of autumn gold are with us!

In these Lowland locations, eagles are a rare sight indeed. However, we do find ourselves watching 'the tourist's eagles', better known as buzzards, on a daily basis and here again, I have been aware of early courtship activity. One pair in particular, has been drifting above a local woodland, typically proscribing graceful circles with the visibly smaller cock bird following eagerly in the wake of his larger prospective mate.

Buzzards, unjustly perhaps, do not generally receive a particularly good press. Because of their propensity to exploit carrion, they are probably, along with the new generation of red kites, the most common victims of the illegal practice of setting poisoned baits, still I'm afraid a problem in some parts of the country. Our vision of both these raptors is that they spend a good deal of their time simply circling in the sky. Indeed, some observers even suggest that these circling motions point to a degree of idleness on the part of these birds. Noting could be farther from the truth. Both buzzards and kites have remarkably good 'telephoto' vision and their assumed aimlessness is in fact quite the opposite, for from their aerial stations they are in fact carefully scouring every inch of the ground below for feeding opportunities.

Buzzards are noticeably bulkier than the more slender kites and thus are not quite as masterful in flight. That said, I must say that in my view, there is a certain majesty about a gliding buzzard. And of course, buzzards are regularly confused with eagles by folk who are not particularly familiar with largish birds of prey. Their habit of regularly perching on telegraph poles might perhaps be taken as a suggestion of laziness. Yet, this is perhaps an alternative and a less energy consuming means of searching for potential food sources! The relatively slow moving, 'lazy' flight pattern of the buzzard, like that of the kite, doubtless made them easier targets for those intent on their destruction when such practice was commonplace.

It is historic fact that the destruction of any bird with a hooked beak, not to mention animals with a taste for the flesh of game birds, was precisely what occurred with the sudden rise in the development of 'sporting estates' back in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the universal assault upon easily targeted buzzards and kites reached such devastating proportions that the kite became extinct as a breeding bird in both Scotland and England, to be re-introduced of course, in much more recent times.

Despite such widespread slaughter, the more common buzzard survived. In this airt, the persecution seems to have been severe to such an extent that around Callander there was a mass slaughter of hundreds of them. The more reasoned attitude towards birds of prey which began to be promoted in the wake of the First World War, was not however, necessarily adopted by all. Legislation to enforce the protection of some birds such as the great crested grebe which hitherto had faced extinction due to the demand for its feathers, had begun to appear late in the nineteenth century and gradually, during the twentieth century, more legislation appeared on the statute book

There were and indeed are those however, who are still so intent upon protecting game birds such as pheasants and on the moors, grouse, who continue to flout the law. Consequently in some areas buzzard numbers continue to decline. However, the intensification of farming and a resulting dearth of suitable prey may also be contributory factors in the east. But here at least, the evidence is currently pointing to a gradual recovery. Thus the recently observed signs of courtship suggest that despite the recent return of winter, preparations for the breeding season seem well in hand.

There was also a moment of further confirmation of the mood in the shape of a pair of carrion crows clearly canoodling, engaging in what could only be described as bonding behaviour, affectionately contacting each other, beak to beak. Notwithstanding those cold easterlies, the birds at least are signalling the inevitable fact that spring is actually springing!

Country View 8.2.17

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We have, as ground hogging human beings, always envied the ability of birds to fly. By our very nature, we are of course, terrestrial beings, physically 'anchored' to terra firma. Unlike our distant primate cousins, we maintain an upright posture and thus progress essentially by the movement of our legs. Yet whilst we may have mastered the art of swimming, down the millennia, we have it seems, constantly harboured the ambition to somehow emulate the birds and take to the air. Even in Greek mythology, this desire was clearly uppermost in the minds of the creators of those legendary tales, most pertinently perhaps in the shapes of Daedalus and his rather more famous son, Icarus.

The story tells us that having been imprisoned on the island of Crete by King Minos, this father and son duo fashioned two pairs of wings from wax and feathers and made good their escape. Daedalus, the story continues, managed to navigate his way from Crete to Naples, whilst Icarus famously is said to have been so exhilarated by his new found freedom that he flew too close to the sun, the heat melting the wax, whereupon he plunged into the sea. Incidentally, the sea into which he is said to have dropped is still to this day called the 'Icarian Sea'. Some story!

Of course, such tales are essentially mythical - more imaginary than factual. Yet in modern times, there are those who in a sense, have succeeded where even the figures of those remarkable Greek legends merely imagined that they had somehow conquered the air. Indeed, there are those intrepid souls who have gone part way towards achieving flight through the use of a variety of gadgets and vehicles although none of them as far as I can tell are able to achieve what might be described as proper, animated or self-powered flight.

I have personally enjoyed the thrill of flight in a glider, which was certainly an uplifting experience! But others by using a variety of devices, have gone further, gliding across the sky dressed in specially designed, 'winged' suits, albeit usually on a progressively downward spiral! As recently mentioned, we have read the remarkable story of the lady who flew three thousand miles with migrating swans in what to all intents and purposes, was a motor powered kite!

In modern times, many devices have been created using motors yet the plain truth is that the full power of flight without such paraphernalia is beyond us. We are not built for such adventures, nor do we have the advantages enjoyed by birds with their virtually hollow bones, which of course, means they are much lighter. Furthermore, birds come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, all of which have evolved into an amazing variety of aerodynamic forms, depending on each bird's particular requirements

Yet down the ages, many people have continued to dedicate themselves to the ambition of mastering flight. Famously, there was a certain Father John Damian, who was so confident in his ability to fly, that in 1507, he strapped on wings and jumped from the battlements of Stirling's castle, only to crash onto the rocks below. My own view is that we should perhaps accept our terrestrial fate and therefore continue to admire the skills the avian classes are able to achieve, skills which we should perhaps accept we will never ever come even close to emulating.

The other day, watching yet again the flying skills of a mixed flock of humble rooks and jackdaws utterly defying the vagaries of the weather, notably a blustery wind and accordingly throwing themselves about the sky with gay abandon, that message was massively underlined. But is it those amazing powers of flight in its many forms I wonder, which has encouraged so many folks to follow an interest in birds in the first place?

The countless variations on a theme, we may be lucky enough to witness, are remarkable. Indeed, those variations sometimes seem to be utterly infinite. Take for instance the amazing gyrations of those masses of starlings we call murmurations, in which these amazing flocks - often numbering many thousands - of birds, sketch out the most unbelievable patterns across the sky without even a hint of collisions. These fluid, mass movements are living works of art; breathtaking kaleidoscopic spectacles. Then there is the high, soaring flight of eagles or the fast direct aeronautics of swifts and swallows, let alone the almost unbelievable, global migratory flights covering thousands of miles undertaken often by the tiniest of birds.

I will never tire of watching the delicious hovering flight of a kestrel, every nerve, every sinew, every muscle and every feather somehow working in harmony to keep the bird's head utterly stationary, as it seeks out its prey hidden below in the vegetation. Sadly, the number of kestrels seems these days to be diminishing alarmingly. Nor indeed will I ever be bored when watching the sensational dive of an osprey, ending with that mighty splash as it hits the water and grapples for a hold on its slippery prey. All these activities and many more amply demonstrate those countless variations on a theme.

Yet, those of us who encourage the birds into our gardens, also find ourselves equally fascinated by the dextrous agility so many of our smaller birds demonstrate as they seek to take advantage of the nuts, seed and other sources of nourishment we provide. Typically, those great entertainers, the bluetits, are renowned for such artistry. Equally, a similar degree of agility is shown by the goldfinches I see here on a daily basis, whether swinging on the said food containers or indeed upon thistles as they show off their acrobatic skills in the process of adroitly extracting the nourishing seeds. And in recent days, a single siskin has joined these 'trapeze artists'. These minuscule little birds don't usually put in an appearance in my garden until March so I guess I have to conclude that, 'one siskin does not a springtime make'!

The siskin is, in essence, a bird of conifer forests, which of course have become an increasingly familiar feature of our landscape in recent times, hence, their increasing numbers. Marginally bigger than the extremely weel kent bluetit, this is an attractive little character. The male, distinctively green and yellow, is also notable for two prominent yellow wing bars on each wing, a little black cap and a black bib, the female a little plainer, her plumage streaky but always offering that hint of green.

Apart from the single bird currently taking advantage of my food offerings, I recently enjoyed a close encounter with a little flock of them literally swarming through the branches of an alder tree on the edge of a sports ground. Their acrobatics were amazing as they filtered through the branches and with their very fine little beaks, adroitly teased out seeds from the tiny cones. They freely hung upside down as they worked the seeds free and demonstrated an agility of which any bluetit would have been proud. Alder seeds are a vital source of food for them and usually, only when these supplies diminish do they become more evident in gardens

Siskins are unusual in that male birds may be observed offering other males gifts of seeds. In most other bird populations, such offerings usually see the male birds giving seeds to their mates as a means of strengthening pair bonding. Siskin males feeding each other however, seems to be an acknowledgement of the established pecking order in which the lesser birds accept their status, with the weaker birds keeping the peace by offering food to their stronger, more dominant rivals.

Siskin flight is usually an expression of their very sociable nature. That single siskin in my garden is unusual in its singularity. However, they don't congregate in large numbers, preferring to remain in tightly formed little family groups as they bound from tree to tree. Entertaining little birds in every way!

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!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods